Playing host to the security Olympics
The real scandal is not the incompetence of G4S, it’s the belief that London 2012 needs an army to protect it.
It’s the ‘Olympic security fiasco’ according to one newspaper. Another called it the ‘Olympic shambles’. Yet another referred to it as ‘the great G4S cock-up’. In fact, the British media and assorted politicians have been falling over themselves to snipe about the failings of official Olympics security contractor G4S.
And on the face of it, the criticism is deserved. Having agreed to provide and/or train over 10,000 guards for London 2012, security firm G4S was forced to admit last week that only 4,000 were ready. Yes, several thousand more security guards were in the pipeline, it said, but it was going to need help. Enter the British Army, which will be making up a 3,500 shortfall.
Yet amid all the handwringing and moaning, few have asked the rather simple question: why do we need so many security guards?
It is not as if it is even clear to London 2012 organisers LOCOG how many are necessary. As recently as March 2011, when G4S was announced as the official security contractor, the total figure being bandied about was 10,000, with G4S providing 2,000 and training and managing the rest. How that was calculated is unclear. Then, in December, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport revised the figure somewhat. To keep everyone safe would no longer require 10,000 security personnel; it would require 23,500, with G4S providing 10,400. The rest would be made up of a mixture of the police and the military, plus some unarmed volunteers.
So what changed? Why, in a matter of months, did the security requirement suddenly but massively increase? Did the terrorist/troublemaker threat likewise suddenly but massively increase? It seems unlikely. No, the drive ‘to deliver a safe and secure Games’, as UK security minister James Brokenshire put it early this year, is not a response to some clear and present danger, some palpable threat out there. Rather, it comes from in ‘here’, from within the government and its various Olympic-related quangos. In fact, making a display of just how ‘safe and secure’ the Games will be has become nothing less than a source of official pride: this, after all, will be the most secure Olympics ever. This is why the anti-terrorist arrangements have been so ostentatious, complete with militarised rooftops and more troops deployed (estimated to be about 17,000) than are currently engaged in an actual armed conflict over in Afghanistan. As one Guardian columnist pointed out, not even the Chinese state thought it was a good idea to advertise the People’s Army at the Olympic gateway.
Informing the official obsession with security is that staple of contemporary life, the culture of fear. This is why the prospect of staging the Olympic Games has, for an angst-ridden elite, become an invitation to imagine the worst. Last month, for instance, Jonathan Evans, head of the UK domestic-security agency MI5, helpfully mused that the Games offer ‘an attractive target for our enemies’. The solution to which then appears obvious: be safe, be very safe. In the words of UK home secretary Theresa May earlier this year: ‘Our Olympic security plan has been developed against the assumption that the terrorist threat level will be severe.’
So fostering fears with one statement, the UK authorities have sought to manage them with the next. Hence the massive security spectacle now being staged, it seems, as part of London 2012. Yet, far from questioning the fearful, state-backed speculations that underpin and justify the presence of thousands upon thousands of Olympics guards, commentators and politicians – as the response to the G4S furore shows – have seemingly embraced them. The dubious premises of staging a security Olympics are blithely accepted, it’s just the organisation that’s criticised. ‘Given the importance of security in these Games’, assumed one broadsheet editorial, ‘G4S should never have allowed this situation to develop, least of all so late in the day’.
Elsewhere the focus has been on the folly of the state employing a private contractor to do the state’s jobs. It’s privatisation run amok, goes the cry. In the words of the Evening Standard, ‘[the G4S scandal] should make us think carefully about our increasing reliance on private security contractors’. Or as another commentator put it: ‘The biggest question that needs to be asked though is, if the Army does do a fantastic job in providing security, and the Games go off without a hitch, why weren’t they more involved in the process right from the beginning?’
Now there is certainly something concerning about the state’s willingness to outsource the historical basis of its power, its ‘means of coercion’, to private contractors. It signifies both a profound abdication of responsibility, a reluctance to wield authority, and it chucks basic standards of accountability out of the window. But that is not what is being criticised in the case of G4S. Instead it is seen as either yet another example of a cost-cutting coalition government, or simply gross incompetence. And in that range of responses, the idea that the greatest sporting event on Earth (well, after the football World Cup) is little more than an invitation to terrorists is accepted.
For the majority of us, the Olympics will be evidence once more of ‘swifter, higher, stronger’. But for the authorities and their critics, it is more a case of ‘swifter, higher, safer’. Which is no fun at all.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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