by Anne Archist
A cyclist has been tackled to the ground by the Olympic ‘Torch Security Team’ (TST to those of us who prefer letters to real words). This follows an old Italian woman trying to touch the torch to bring Italy luck in Euro 2012, two young boys grabbing the torch in Coventry, water-bombs being thrown at the convoy and a protester trying to throw a bucket of water over the torch and more.
In some of these incidents the response of the torch’s minders was fairly reasonable and restrained, while in other cases they and the police massively over-reacted. The response to the cyclist getting too close to the torch is just one example of this; the Leeds bucket protester was arrested and accepted a caution (most likely under threats and intimidation from the police) for an offence under Section 4(presumably 4A) of the Public Order Act as well. For those that don’t know, 4A defines an offence as follows:
A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.
Presumably the ‘disorderly behaviour’ of throwing a bucket of water over the torch was considered to cause people ‘alarm or distress’ – in which case one wonders how they leave the house in the morning.
I think the handling of the security around the Olympic torch tells us a lot about socially-endemic attitudes towards freedom, the rule of law, protest, and so forth. Particularly, the behaviour of the police (of which the current TST is a part) – and the (lack of) response to that behaviour by authorities such as the Greater London Authority, the British Olympic Association and senior police – illustrates the way that power is wielded in our society.
There will, of course, be endless political-philosophical debates in any modern democratic culture about the appropriate balance between freedom and security, between the rights of the individual to do as they wish and the rights of others not to be adversely affected (or ‘harmed’ in J. S. Mill’s terminology) by them, etc. This is something that even the most strong-minded of us have to accept as a fact of life; we may think that our society is too permissive or too authoritarian, but there is at least an ongoing discursive recognition that this is something that is disputed and over which political battles are, and will continue to be, fought.
What interests me about our attitudes towards freedom and security, however, is illuminated brilliantly by the Olympic torch (if you’ll pardon the pun) – it’s the way in which this discourse of ‘security’ can be misappropriated as an abstraction which is then used repressively by those with power. I should be clear that I’m not talking here about the debate about whether in a particular instance it’s reasonable to view a particular individual or action as a threat to a notion of security that we hold in common , such as how much we should worry about terrorist attacks; whether or not we think that there is a realistic threat of terrorist attack, and whatever we think should or shouldn’t be interpreted as the indicators of such a threat (such as the debate around racial profiling for anti-terrorist purposes), we do at least all roughly acknowledge that should a terrorist bombing of civilians take place, that would be a violation of a type of ‘security’ to which we are all entitled.
What I’m talking about are questions which have nothing to do with risk of death or injury, of integrity of the private home from intruders, etc. These questions can be re-framed as questions of ‘security’, bringing them under one of the most powerful and guarded political categories and lending them the kind of seriousness and concern with which we debate terrorism or armed robbery. Often in political-philosophical debates, categories are constructed, the appropriate reactions and attitudes towards them are determined, and then people try to sneak things which fall outside of a category into it in order to shield it with the legitimacy of real members of that category, and that’s often what happens with the Olympic Games and similar events in general, but the torch is a particularly good and clear example of this.
The TST are “tasked with ensuring the continuity of the Olympic flame”, in the words of the BBC; one member of the team stated that ”If anyone of any age threatens the security of the flame or torchbearer, we need to move that threat away quickly”. Note the interesting language in “security of the flame” – what does it mean for a flame to be ‘secure’ or not? The concern is not even stated as being the security of the torch, which one might construe as protecting it from damage theft, perhaps – rather than the more natural ‘torch or torchbearer’, we get the presumably intentional ‘flame or torchbearer’; not only this, but the same police team “protect a mother flame in a lantern during the day, while officers take turns to sleep with it in their rooms overnight”. The concern here is clearly with the continuity of the actual flame, which is considered to have symbolic (political?) importance.
We should really ask ourselves as a society whether we think it is appropriate to employ agents of the state en masse to guard the symbolic continuity of a torch flame, at cost to society, in order to foil attempts to touch, steal or even (God forbid) extinguish the torch. We should consider whether legally backed and endorsed ‘flame bodyguards’ should be able to push, manhandle, tackle and arrest people who threaten the continuity of the flame (particularly considering the bloody thing goes out all the time anyway). What kind of a society are we that we think young people should be tackled from bikes and pinned to the ground for cycling too close to something that they have been taught by their elders to believe is a historic event that they should bear witness to?
Similarly, where do we think the line should be drawn when it comes to the police interfering in our lives? The vast majority of the populace, however cynical or jaded they may (justifiably) feel towards the police force, recognise that some of its functions are necessary or helpful and that some of its employees do their best to serve the community. It is a fact of social life in the UK that the police have the power, in pursuit of these ends (if also in pursuit of less admirable ones or through problematic means) to arrest, to detain, to question, to search, etc; quite rightly, these police powers have limits and conditions governing their use.
Yet we live in a society which is so lax towards its heritage of ‘liberal’ thinking that nobody bats an eyelid when a man is stopped and questioned by police just for wearing a Batman costume and the officers ‘suggest’ that the man should cease his work for the day due to the policing operation surrounding the Olympic torch relay. Surely there comes a point where even the most conformist among us begins to feel that the police have an attitude of casual superiority and consider civilians merely as objects of power to be managed according to a schema convenient for political and policing purposes? This low-level contempt for, and condescension towards, the public is widespread – as those of us who more regularly have contact with the police as objects to be managed (such as urban youth, political campaigners, etc) know all too well. In 2009, officers tasked with torch security caused hospitalising head injuries to a journalist in Vancouver.
This attitude isn’t limited to the police but is displayed at times by others who hold power or work in a disciplinary capacity, such as teachers or politicians. It is often at its worst when dissenters are seen as trying to ‘ruin’ something or as a ‘nuisance’ to other citizens, even in the absence of any real illegality or danger. In 2006, the Italian Interior Minister said that “Law enforcement officials are doing all they can so that [protesters including anti-globalisation groups] can’t provoke more serious damage to the image of our country”. The Prime Minister (which was Berlusconi at the time) declared “zero tolerance” for protesters, stating that the government “may take drastic measures” to prevent the country’s ‘image’ being affected.
Similarly, the theoretical legal relationships that are intended to protect us from abuses are frequently overlooked or circumvented in these kinds of situations. In 2008, Chinese “torch minders” were left to their own devices to bully and harass torchbearers, manhandle and detain members of the public, and generally act like they owned the place – not only in China but also when they toured the world accompanying the torch to other countries (including in London). Various bodies and agencies, including the Greater London Authority and the British Olympic Association, who could have overseen and taken responsibility for their actions simply disavowed any connection to them, and the police left them free to do as they wished despite their complete lack of legal powers outside of their own country.
In every case, “security” is given by way of excuse and explanation. But ‘security’ is a word we associate with bodily safety, with the protection of rights, with freedom from harassment – not a word that we would generally use to refer to stopping a torch from going out or being touched by an Italian restaurateur. When those embedded in systems of power like politicians and police officers tell us that young people must be pushed from bikes and pinned to the floor for the sake of security, what they fear is harm to ‘image’ or ‘message’, not bodies or communities. This shows through in their more candid moments – despite attempts to position the Olympic torch behind a phalanx of vague concerns about security, conjuring up images of Islamic terrorism in this day and age, it should be evident that the supposed symbolism of a shoddy metal torch should not be allowed to substitute for the freedom to get on with our daily business, to take part in the spectacle, or even to protest.
The ‘security’ of the Olympic torch symbolises everything that is wrong with the Olympic Games, not their positive potential. The continuity of the flame should remind us of the attitudes adopted and measures taken to guarantee that continuity – the Olympic torch most closely resembles the torch of the Witchfinder General.