The Uses of Innocence: Terror, Surveillance and the Manchester Attack

by Clare Hymer and Eleanor Penny

29 May 2017


The morning after the bombing that killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester last Monday, Katie Hopkins – never one to miss a shot at stoking racial hatred – took to Twitter in a fit of anti-Islamic rage. Along with a tweet in which she called for a “final solution” to the problem of Islamic extremism, Hopkins also addressed “Western men” directly: “[…] These are your wives. Your daughters. Your sons. Stand up. Rise up. Demand action. Do not carry on as normal. Cowed.”

It’s clear as day what Hopkins was doing here: drawing dividing lines between East and West, and calling on “western men” to defend their territory. This is, by now, is a familiar story trotted out each time terror attacks strike on western soil. In the aftermath of the Manchester atrocity, the Metro headline ran “Now they kill our little girls” – and to anyone reading, the “they” is clearly intelligible: it points to a non-western, Muslim menace. It recycles tired tropes of two embattled and irreconcilable civilisations, their differences essential, immovable, flint-hard. This is a battle typically couched in political and cultural terms: between the defenders of enlightened liberal democracy, and a cabal of tooth-gnashing ‘other’ reactionaries who seek at any cost to undermine it. But in coverage of the Manchester attacks, something seems to have shifted. Hopkins and the Metro – and indeed the Mirror, the Guardian and the BBC – don’t invoke anything as highfalutin as ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’. They focus on something more primal, more intimate, and less explicitly political. The bombing has been been framed as an attack not only on “wives and daughters”, but more narrowly as “an attack on innocence” – an attack on childhood itself.

Bubblegum-pink and high-ponytailed, Nickelodeon child star turned pop princess Ariana Grande is both gloriously adolescent and unapologetically feminine. Crooning about heartbreak and declaring herself a ‘dangerous woman’, it’s little wonder young girls flock to her shows. Both feminine and infantile, you could hardly ask for an audience – and, tragically, a set of victims – that better embodies the innocence of youth. Though adults were among the victims of the attack, this is the abiding image of the attacks lingering in the terrified imaginary of the British public. At their most excruciatingly effective, acts of terrorism are perfectly disorientating. They rupture the smooth skin of the ordinary, spilling confusion. We search around for explanations, but in that moment of pain, nothing seems adequate. One Manchester resident expressed his shock to BBC Newsnight: “This isn’t something that happens in the Middle East. This isn’t something that happens in America. This happened at Manchester Arena. Our children.” The broadsheets and broadcasters have provided a clear heuristic for making sense of this directionless pain, for crafting it into a common political understanding. The following day, the Yorkshire Post condemned the attack not simply for its disgusting contempt for human life, but because the lives it claimed were those of “innocent defenceless children and young people.”

In an ordinary sense, of course, these victims are innocent. There’s nothing anyone could do to deserve being cut down so brutally, and so early in life. But there’s a sense in which their ‘innocence’ has been used to resuscitate zombie tropes about the need of white, western men to protect their women and children from the vicissitudes of black and brown masculinity. Neutral appeals for togetherness or calm are rapidly hounded down by a chorus of lurid macho-fantasies of autocratic control – that any threat to innocence must be met by a copper on every corner, a soldier on every street. According to Brendan O’Neill, “the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.” Where the spectral menace of the ‘them’ haunts the lives of our women and children, the only possible response is not namby-pamby passivity, but a capitulation to totalising state power. By centring innocence as the key shibboleth in this supposed civilisational war – rather than democracy or ‘British values’ – these responses appeal to something seemingly essential and incontrovertible. You can argue the toss about what British values are and whether they are worth defending; you can question the extent to which the UK represents a genuine democracy; you can cast some (much-needed) doubt on the idea of the ‘clash of civilisations’. But the demands of a pre-political or apolitical ‘innocence’ leapfrog over such concerns. The need to protect of the innocence of women and children cuts across political dimensions, with even the most ostensibly left wing and anti-authoritarian political commentators eschewing suggestions that troops on our streets are anything but the most reasonable response. Consensus coalesces around the need to protect innocence: an unquestionable imperative that must be pursued by any means necessary. Similarly, attempts to return the question to the political sphere by examining the possible political factors conducive to terrorism are treated as a blasphemous infraction of this common sense. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech highlighting the effects of British foreign policy in aggravating such violence was met with outrage and scorn not simply because it proposed the wrong kind of politics, but because it treated the question as political in the first place.

The atrocities committed in Manchester have been leapt upon as an excuse to further extend police powers. Soldiers are being drafted in to support regular officers, and politicians have stated the need to expand the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and crack down on end-to-end encryption on platforms such as WhatsApp, Gmail and iCloud. This is a well-travelled path in the annals of twenty-first century lawmaking: an act of terror is hastily followed by a raft of new legislation that expands surveillance and policing powers, all of which surely and steadily chip away at our civil liberties. Police can now indefinitely detain people without charge, and summarily strip them of citizenship. They can force suspects to hand over their passports and passwords to sensitive information, or ‘pre-arrest’ people on the suspicion that they may at some point commit a crime. This year, Amnesty International called the UK’s anti-terrorism legislation “dangerously disproportionate” and “among the most draconian in the EU”. Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, whenever there is a threat of terrorism, the government can make emergency regulations that could temporarily override almost all other legislation, turfing all due process out the window. This is more than a little alarming given how vague the rubric is for defining terrorism. Terrorism – or its less dogwhistle cousin, ‘domestic extremism’ – can be any “‘political, religious, racial or ideological’ cause designed to influence the government of any country or international organisation or to intimidate any member of the public anywhere in the world.” The campaign group Liberty have expressed concerns that “[m]uch recent counter-terrorism legislation is dangerously over-broad and has affected vast numbers of people, in particular peaceful protesters and ethnic minority groups, thereby undermining civil liberties and fundamental human rights.”

Such manoeuvres may shore up state power, but as the family of Jean Charles de Menezes could testify, protecting the state is not the same as protecting citizens. According to Liberty: “The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 plays into the hands of terrorists, by allowing them to shape our laws in a way that undermines our principles.” But a quick glance at the current government’s legislative priorities reveals a dogged fixation on the need to increase police and state powers to surveil, police, detain and deport its citizens – irrespective of the current ‘threat levels’. In light of this less-than-illustrious history, the latest surge of police onto the streets doesn’t seem like terrorists forcing a government to begrudgingly adopt hardline policies. Rather, it smacks of a cynical attempt to weaponise the ‘innocence’ of the victims as an excuse for further girding the architecture of the autocracy – Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ nation.

This tactic is nothing new. As Cynthia Enloe observed back in the 1990s in the lead up to the Gulf War, warfare was legitimised through casting suffering populations as vulnerable and mute “womenandchildren” – innocent and powerless populations in need of state protection. The suffering of these “womenandchildren” provided the moral basis for wars that consolidated UK power in the Middle East. This is the lifeblood of paternalist nation-building: perceived innocence becomes a narrative used to legitimise state violence. The crushing, possessing grip of the disciplinarian or the kleptocrat is glossed as the loving embrace of the father.

It remains unclear how the innocence of youth will actually be protected by increased state surveillance on our streets when the sights of police officers are so reliably trained on the young. In the aftermath of the Manchester attacks, stop-and-searches on young black and Asian men skyrocketed – from numbers that were already vastly disproportionate to the rest of the population. ‘Prevent’ legislation aimed at tackling radicalisation singles out school children and young people, treating them not as innocents in need of protection, but as incubator threats to society that we must take pains to neutralise. Immigration, surveillance and deportation tear children from their families. Anti-terrorism legislation is used to deport people to countries where they face torture or death – in contravention of international refugee law. And the wars waged in the name of combatting terror have chewed up the lives of countless millions of children and young people. But these children and young people whose lives are of less concern have one thing in common: they’re not white.

Where policies putatively mobilised to protect children end up harming children of colour, one thing becomes clear: people of colour are excluded from innocence. Young people of colour – and young Muslims in particular – are far more likely to be on the sharp end of the law. Indeed, innocence itself is far from a neutral category: people of colour aren’t framed as innocent because innocence is itself raced as white. “Ever since innocence was entangled with childhood,” Robin Bernstein writes, “it has always been raced.” Where white childhood is sinless, black childhood is portrayed as guilty – a cultural myth that has underpinned the history of black childhood from the whiteness of innocence in representations of children in nineteenth century literature, to the labelling of African American teenagers, particularly adolescent boys, as ‘superpredators’ in the 1990s. And from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, black children have consistently been treated as old beyond their years, effectively exempted from childhood. Both black and male, these boys were twice excluded from quotidien cultural understandings of what innocence entails. Since they could not possibly be innocent, they were automatically considered a threat. Innocence, and the protections it affords, is a privilege that children of colour simply don’t get.

This kind of innocence seems far removed from basic humanist principles: that people deserve compassion, that no one should suffer such unspeakable violence as was suffered by last week’s victims and their families. When understood in these terms, innocence can perhaps be mobilised as a call to empathy: a reminder that those fleeing ISIS violence in Syria are as worthy of protection as those who suffer its effects on British shores. But when people of colour are neatly excised from its definition, the need to ‘defend innocence’ becomes a founding mythology for a terrifying reactionary fever-dream of perfect nationhood: one that is consummately policed, entirely surveilled, and perfectly white.

The irony is that the young girls targeted in the Manchester attack have shown far greater compassion and insight than those so heavily invested in their ‘innocence’. Some have waded into the debate to decry the Islamophobic narratives reliably peddled by right – that terrorism is a pathological problem endemic to Muslims, a cultural force which must be stamped out. Though we might usually dismiss these innocents as silly, as frivolous, as naively incapable of political insight, we’d do well to listen to them. If we did, we might learn that terror attacks are not the end goal of a monolithic Islam. That surveillance and heavy policing which target communities of colour only deepen disaffection, aggravating the divisions at the heart of such violence. “Out of the mouths of babes…”

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