The London Security Spectacle

More than a billion pounds will be spent on security for the Games. Will it make anybody safer?
By: /
July 30, 2012
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London will soon be the stage for what is widely referred to as the largest domestic security operation in Britain since WWII. Indeed, the scope of the security effort for the Olympic Games is impressive. Up to 12,000 police, 13,200 private security personnel, and 13,500 military troops are expected to protect the Games. To put this in context, approximately 9,500 British troops were on the ground in Afghanistan at any given time over the past five years.

Almost all of MI5’s 3,800 intelligence agents have been re-tasked to monitor threats to the Games. Remote-operated aerial surveillance drones will cruise high above Britain 24 hours a day, and four Typhoon fighter jets and three Sea King helicopters will be on alert to protect the Games from hijacked aircrafts. The HMS Ocean, the U.K.’s largest warship, will be docked in Greenwich for much of July and August. Controversially, ground-to-air Rapier and Starstreak missiles have been set up at six sites around London, including atop a residential block adjacent to the Olympic stadium.

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This massive show of force is underpinned by a security budget of £558 million for “inside the fence” security, a dramatic increase from the initial estimate of £282 million, further bolstered by £600 million for the wider security shield. The cost of security alone will top £1 billion, with the entire Games costing taxpayers up to £11 billion. All this occurs during a time of deep cuts to government services, with public resentment towards the corporate and financial elite bunkered in the City, and in an increasingly polarized global city still reeling from the riots of last summer.

Driving this unprecedented security apparatus is the spectre of terrorism. Of obvious prominence in the U.K. context are the 7/7 bombings, which occurred less than 24 hours after London was awarded the Games and ensured that security would be the overriding concern for Olympic organizers. Subsequent international events have reinforced this prominence. Notable here are the mass shootings perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Oslo and Mohamed Mareh in Toulouse, which focused attention on the problem of self-radicalizing individuals intent on inflicting violence against the public. Concerns about similar attacks in London have accelerated police crackdowns on suspected terrorists and fostered widespread jitters about the vulnerability of the Games as the opening ceremonies draw closer. Both were on full display on July 5 when authorities arrested six individuals in east London on terrorism charges while simultaneously responding to what turned out to be a false alarm on a London-bound coach after an electronic cigarette was thought to be a bomb, leading to chaos for thousands of motorists when the M6 was closed for several hours.

Recent developments have done little to allay these jitters. Only a dozen or so days before the Games, reports emerged that newly recruited border agents may have waved through unknown numbers of blacklisted travellers at Heathrow Airport without following proper security and notification procedures. More troubling have been the revelations that G4S, the largest private security firm in the world, which has a £284-million contract to provide private security officers for the Games, was going to fall short of the 13,500 private security guards needed for the Games and forced the government to cover the shortfall with 3,500 extra troops. Though G4S expects to lose £50 million in penalties, this may only be a minor loss next to what it has at stake in the emerging market of privatized policing services in the U.K. Earlier this year, G4S was contracted to design, build, and run a police station in Lincolnshire over the next decade in a deal worth £200 million, and the company is currently in the running to manage a range of support and logistical services on behalf of West Midlands and Surrey police in deals worth up to £1.5 billion. Botching the Olympic job could hardly come at a worse time for a firm angling to capitalize on this lucrative market.

Naturally, the tenor of U.K. officials remains brimming with confidence that the Games will be safe from any and all threats. Home Secretary Theresa May, for example, made a statement addressing London’s last-minute security worries:

The Government’s over-riding priority is to use all resources necessary to deliver a safe and secure Olympic Games. That is what the public and the House would expect. The security operation has been meticulously planned. It will be the largest and most complex security operation in this country since the Second World War.

Statements such as May’s highlight how projecting confidence in the security establishment’s capabilities to deliver on the promise of maximum security is a central motif in the wider official discourse surrounding the Games. While the same officials will acknowledge that fully eliminating all risks is impossible, saying and showing that authorities are capable of countering all threats has become an unmistakable part of preparing to host the world’s largest sporting events. Indeed, the simulation of security in words and deeds has almost become as important as security itself – much like justice or punishment, security must now be seen to be done if unmanageable dangers are to be reconstituted as manageable risks.

The security and emergency-management exercises that now precede the Games are the clearest articulation of this need to reassure and protect. Staged primarily for training and assessment purposes, authorities also recognize the communicative value of these occasions for demonstrating readiness and reassuring a global audience that all risks are manageable. U.K. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond made this point in relation to the military exercise Olympic Guardian, held in May, stating, “The majority of this exercise will be played out in full view of the public and I hope it will have a secondary effect of reassuring the British people that everything possible is being done to ensure this will be a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games.” While not new to the Olympics, exercises such as Olympic Guardian have evolved into security meta-rituals that signify the creation of a symbolically – and hopefully materially – safe space for the primary spectacle of the Games to unfold. These high-profile rituals are accompanied by a host of small demonstrations of readiness such as the opportunistic positioning of military equipment or armed guards that collectively constitute massive spectacles of total security.

The emphasis on the spectacle of security in order to deter, certainly, but also to reassure, has important cultural effects. Primarily, the increasing dramatization of security may well serve to amplify cultural narratives regarding the imminence and catastrophic nature of terrorism today and the appropriateness of militarized and pre-emptive response. This, in turn, offers ready-made legitimation for extreme courses of action on the basis that they are necessary and proportionate to the risks at hand, while simultaneously minimizing arguments to the contrary. The deployment of missile launchers on the roof of a residential building in east London, for instance, was justified in terms of the need to “plan for the worst” and contrary to the wishes of local inhabitants.

The constant reiteration of the need for perpetual vigilance in everyday life also erodes the mutual trust required for open and democratic societies to function. The aforementioned false alarm on the M6 demonstrates the consequences of the loss of trust. More broadly, the Games have become a globally prominent and recurring platform where the “new realities” of post-9/11 are played out in increasingly dramatized ways through which tactics such as surveillance drones and missile launchers become familiar, or at least less unfamiliar, elements of domestic security.

This is not an argument against security. It is, rather, a perspective that foregrounds the cultural dynamics that enable the creeping and occasionally surging securitization of everyday life. The Olympics are at the forefront of this process, as one of the leading edges of our habituation to living in increasingly monitored and securitized societies. From this perspective, the Games provide some disturbing insights into the not-so-distant future of an increasingly urbanized world.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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