Can Europe Make It?

How generalised suspicion destroys society

Generalised suspicion is the ultimate destroyer of the social fabric: it thrives on betrayal, and fosters mutual distrust and demoralisation. And nowadays, it is impossible for anyone to be beyond suspicion.

Emmanuel-Pierre Guittet
7 January 2015
Flickr/OliBac. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/OliBac. Some rights reserved.

A suspicion that something exists is more than idle speculation whether something exists or not; it is a positive feeling of actual apprehension or mistrust but without sufficient evidence. As such, suspicion is closely aligned with any modern scientific endeavour. It is an invitation to look further, to explore with a sense of curiosity what seems to be peculiar or abnormal. The problem is not suspicion per se but the extent and consequences of such a culture of suspicion in our puzzling violent world, leading to a craving for new and efficient intelligence and the deployment of programmes of mass surveillance.

When does a suspected terrorist cease to be a suspected terrorist?

What happens to former suspected terrorists?

Is it possible to shake off the social stigma of being once a terrorist suspect and lead a respectable life?

The line between suspicious and undesirable people is particularly thin. Suspicion allows for the arrest and detention of people for possessing putatively subversive literature. An individual suspected of being affiliated with someone who might be in contact with someone else from an infamous group will see his freedom restricted in the name of prevention and the fight against terrorism. When intelligence services gather more intrusive information than they can cope with, when suspicion is presented as a virtue, it is itself not only suspicious but extremely dangerous. Suspicion is the territory of police and intelligence services, and a constitutive feature of their professional identities.

Since the revelations of Edward Snowden in June 2013, no one can ignore the alarming extent of mass surveillance. We know that the American National Security Agency (NSA) and the British security services are routinely collecting, processing and storing huge quantities of digital communications. The British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) mass-surveillance system “Tempora” has been recently declared perfectly legal. Yet its legitimacy and modus operandi are still highly dubious - and ultimately dangerous especially when members of the executive do not understand the process and its technicalities. These surveillance programmes are enabled by a culture of fear and suspicion, which mutually reinforce each other. Surveillance fosters suspicion and suspicion in return supports the logic of maximisation of surveillance. These practices of surveillance and the underlying logic of anticipation have turned suspicion into legitimate, “actionable” intelligence[1].

If you see something, say something

Worse perhaps, are the government anti-terrorist campaigns urging every single citizen to be part of this disreputable game and report any suspicious people and objects they encounter. Since the beginning of the 2000s, the number of “be alert”, “see something, say something” or “report suspicious activity” campaigns has grown exponentially[2].

Even the peaceful and green county of Wiltshire in South-West England, a paradise for people who enjoy walking, cycling and boating along the lanes, byways and canals has succumbed to this paranoia. The Wiltshire police website invites people to

“Be aware of what is happening around them and think about anything or anybody that have struck them as unusual in their day-to-day lives. We would ask people to think carefully about anyone they know whose behaviour has changed suddenly. What has changed - could it be significant? What about the people they associate with? Have you noticed activity where you live which is not normal? We want people to have the confidence to trust their instincts. If you suspect it, report it”.

So let’s all be part-time snoops?

To involve every member of a community in a peer-to-peer surveillance mechanism is now part of the British culture. Watching for strangers in our neighbourhoods and being the eyes of the local police are now well established practices. The problem is not one of a transformation of our western societies into police states where everyone might be an informant but much more the fact that these campaigns beget a vexing attitude towards the meaning of daily life and citizenship. They deny that there is such a thing as a normal situation - for it is always only a seemingly normal one. We are all watchers and suspects at the same time[3].

According to the American Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which was established in 2008 as a way for federal agencies, law enforcement, and the public to report in and share potential terrorism-related information, “demonstrating unusual interest in facilities, buildings, or infrastructure beyond mere casual or professional interest” is suspicious. This is bad luck for the train spotter or the enthusiast photographer of metro architecture. Are you nervous when your plane is taking off or landing? Odds are that you are just being suspicious.

We are all suspects now

That particular negative anthropological view of human beings where everyone is always a potential suspect is certainly reinforced by our reliance on automated forms of identification and verification and by the monitoring surveillance technologies we use nowadays.

The more incidents of distrust one might witness through the lens of computing suspicion and patterns of deviance, the more it begets a generalised perception of natural human dishonesty. A general mistrust perhaps, such that even “regular” behaviour could come to be seen as too suspicious to be true. There is no limit to suspicion. Everything and everyone can logically be part of it. In this view, the realm of surveillance ought to extend to a class of putative suspects so large that, in order to monitor and pre-empt their possible future violations, it becomes necessary to survey and scrutinise everyone.

The preventive logic of “far better to prevent terrorism before it happens than to investigate and prosecute after a tragedy” is largely shared. But excessive and forceful governmental reactions to real and alleged terrorist activity have very often resulted in the miscarriage of justice. From Northern Ireland to Guantanamo, we cannot ignore what happens when governments circumvent the fetters of criminal prosecutions and use military law to detain and deport individuals suspected of terrorist activities.

In too many cases we have witnessed how presumption of innocence has been transformed into a presumption of guilt.

People registered on “suspected terrorist lists” will inevitably struggle to prove their innocence because apart from the extremely complex jurisdictional matters at stake, at the very core of these listings of suspicion lies the classic double problem of inductive principle and probabilistic reasoning. In calling attention to the possibility that the future could be different from the past and present in unforeseeable ways, it raises doubts about the very possibility of definitive refutations of grounds for suspicion.

We might have been wrong that time but who knows actually what that particular individual might have done or, what he might do in the future? Generalised suspicion might be the ultimate destroyer of the social fabric as it thrives on betrayal and fosters mutual distrust and demoralisation. In effect, one might say that the possibility of being beyond suspicion has been forsaken.

Read more from our 'Closely observed citizens' series here.


[1]. Gandy Jr, Oscar H. "Statistical surveillance." Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies (2012): 125.

[2].Andrejevic, Mark. "The work of watching one another: Lateral surveillance, risk, and governance." Surveillance & Society 2.4 (2002) Chan, Janet. "The new lateral surveillance and a culture of suspicion." Sociology of Crime Law and Deviance 10 (2008): 223-239.

[3]. Ericson, Richard Victor. Crime in an insecure world. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.

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