Worst-Case Scenario?: Governance, Mediation and the Security Regime

Worst-Case Scenario?: Governance, Mediation and the Security Regime

by Stuart Price


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Worst-Case Scenario?: Governance, Mediation and the Security Regime by Stuart Price

Using a wide range of official sources and case studies, the thesis of the book is that references to industrial disorder, insurgency, natural catastrophe, and terrorist assault, together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848135307
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 07/05/2011
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Stuart Price is Principal Lecturer in Media, Film and Journalism at De Montfort University, Leicester.

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Worst-Case Scenario?

Governance, Mediation & the Security Regime

By Stuart Price

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Stuart Price
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-530-7


Myths of security

Officials outlined two 'catastrophic' scenarios, the overcoming of 'electro-mechanical arming devices' by terrorists to produce a 'nuclear yield' or explosion, and the use of conventional explosives to blow up the plutonium core of a bomb.

C. Milmo, 'Shoot to Kill, Britain's Answer to Massacre at Munich Olympics' (Independent, 9 June 2009: 17)

In the worst-case scenario, staff and students could be killed or injured, and the premises destroyed or damaged in a 'no warning', multiple and coordinated terrorist attack.

Association of Chief Police Officers, Counter Terrorism Protective Security Advice for Higher and Further Education (NaCTSO, 2009b)

Project ARGUS: spreading the word

Project ARGUS – which stands for Area Reinforcement Gained Using Scenarios – is a training exercise initiated by the UK's National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO). Established in 2002 to provide 'expert security advice' to government agencies and the corporate sector, NaCTSO went on to create a network of more than 250 Counter-Terrorism Security Advisers (CTSAs) around the UK, including seventy staff who were recruited between 2008 and 2009 to 'support the delivery of the Government's crowded places programme' (NaCTSO, 2009a: 107). Within a period of just over two years, beginning in January 2007, these CTSAs had 'run over 700 scenario-based training events' for city and town centre businesses, to help them identify measures they could take to 'protect themselves and their customers' from 'a terrorist attack' (107). As the central component of these events, ARGUS, which encompasses Retail, Professional, Hotels and 'Night-Time Economy' subdivisions (Pindoria, 10 June 2010), is predicated on the assumption that the response of the managerial class to a simulated incident will help it acquire skills that can be used in a real situation.

The proliferation of organisations, networks and professional roles dedicated to the promotion of security is not simply the consequence of an increased awareness of public hazards. It also represents the creation of a parallel structure of authority, one that has not been sanctioned by any form of popular mandate. So, for example, the formation in the UK of the Media Emergency Forum, an 'ad hoc grouping of senior media editors, government representatives, emergency planners, emergency services and other interested bodies' (Cabinet Office, 2004: 107), allows the composition of an authoritative narrative about security, before this same perspective is disseminated throughout the mainstream media. The question of power and agency, therefore, is analysed throughout this book, but the immediate concern must be to examine the concept of the scenario itself.

The scenario

The original and still principal meaning of the term 'scenario' is an outline or textual framework for a play or operatic libretto. This definition has been supplemented in recent years to include the kind of synopsis used to set out the projected content of a film or other creative project. Accordingly, the concept is meant to indicate a postulated development, not an actual sequence of events that can be described after they have taken place. Nonetheless, 'scenario' is often employed as a substitute for 'situation', which would suggest that it is sometimes thought to refer to a verifiable set of circumstances, and therefore a physical condition that can be experienced and then related to an audience.

This semantic mutation has meant that scenario is sometimes associated with the notion of having to face a dilemma, a meaning reproduced in a Microsoft news article entitled 'RAF pilots given "suicide scenario'" (Microsoft News UK, 3 April 2007). In this piece, Air Vice-Marshal David Walker is cited as having asked pilots if they would 'think it reasonable if I ordered you to fly your aircraft into the ground in order to destroy a vehicle carrying a Taliban or al-Qaeda commander?' (Microsoft News UK, 3 April 2007). From this example, it is possible to discern the existence of an underlying rationale, one that is often obscured by the standard model of emergency. Whereas Project ARGUS is used to imagine a security dilemma that is created by the malicious actions of an enemy, and is therefore seen as a defensive response, the 'suicide scenario' presented to the RAF pilots is actually an assessment of their willingness to carry out an aggressive strike against a target, the designation of which they must take on trust. Although disguised as a test of character and the readiness of the individual to carry out an act of self-sacrifice, this particular version of the 'worst-case' scenario is meant to discover just how far a subordinate is prepared to go in order to attain a specific goal. The underlying purpose is therefore to find out who will accept unpalatable orders in general, including instructions that might involve the use of extreme or illicit force.

Depending on the circumstance posited by the authority concerned, this could include actions that are clearly immoral: once the principle of obedience has been established, then the action itself can be produced in a situation that is quite different to the original scenario. When it was revealed that, after the Munich Olympics massacre of 1972, British military commanders 'gave soldiers carte blanche to shoot hostages should nuclear weapons be the target of terrorists' (Milmo, 9 June 2009: 17), it is the creation of a new practice, together with its concomitant training regime, that is significant, not the general proposition about the inherent severity of particular kinds of risk. The seizure of nuclear weapons is one of those 'worst-cases' that is used to establish principles that can be applied in any situation that pits the authorities against a determined opponent. In the example given here, civilians became 'lower-value pawns', the presence of which should not 'deter the taking of decisive, prompt and effective action' (17).

'Worst-case scenario': communication and training

Another drawback associated with trying to describe the worst possible outcome is that it can of course always be supplanted by an even more uncomfortable account of contemporary hazards, so that there comes a point at which an extreme projection might begin to appear ridiculous. The circulation of the worst-case depends on exaggerating some quite reasonable assumptions about the uncertainty of everyday life, making the idea that caution should be exercised in unfamiliar situations into a more grandiose edifice of pre-emptive behaviour. When applied to conduct in the everyday world, such an attitude – the anticipation of possible developments – seems no more than common sense. The transition from this point of view, to the more extreme proposition that it is essential to prepare for the worst eventuality, is one of the features of contemporary institutional existence, and can be explained as an attempt to protect the material and immaterial assets that constitute either the market value of the capitalist enterprise, or the structural integrity of the modern state.

In other words, while references to the human scale of any disaster may feature in propaganda designed to persuade the general populace that here is 'a serious and sustained threat from international terrorism to the UK and UK interests overseas' (www.nactso.gov.uk/threat, n.d.), the main concern appears to be the resilience of the security infrastructure, the reputation of the state, and the financial losses that might be incurred by an attack. The secret Ministry of Defence memo written after Munich may have described the lives that could be lost if a stolen nuclear weapon were to be detonated by terrorists, but it also mentioned the costs of a clean-up operation that could amount to 'hundreds of millions of pounds' (Milmo, 9 June 2009: 17).

Since the amorphous mass known as 'the public' is perceived to be the immediate target of the terrorist assault, through which the malefactor strikes at the authorities, any such disruption to 'normal life' (where the disturbance is conceived as the production of social and not just physical chaos), can be interpreted as a threat to the hierarchical order and thus to the state itself. The population in general is therefore regarded by the security professional as no more than a significant variable in the equation of risk.

The public is also seen as essentially passive and more than a little fearful: in advice issued to 'first responders' under the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004, section 7.31 of 'Communicating with the public' noted that 'research suggests that people look to the authorities to 'do something', and that they will be relieved and reassured to see that plans are in place' (Cabinet Office, 2004: 97). The promotion of 'scenario training' is, meanwhile, a means of assimilating existing civic and corporate structures into the lower and more informal levels of the security state. In a period when the ruling political elite seems to find it difficult to motivate citizens through the provision of a clear 'ideological' rationale for their behaviour, practical training provides a reliable and less controversial method of aligning individuals with their goals, which extend much further than the reproduction of public safety.

The narrative composition of Project ARGUS

Project ARGUS, introduced as a scenario-based and thus an essentially 'live' procedure, also encompassed the production of video material, which focused – as mentioned above – on the security challenges encountered in crowded places, such as shopping centres and university campuses. What is remarkable about these narratives is the far from sober approach they choose to adopt. It is as though the progenitors of the Project were caught between two conflicting impulses: the need to present a realistic and credible assessment of projected risks, and the desire to dramatise the notion that – in the words of the main character who appears in these video dramas – 'the threat posed by terrorism in the UK is real' (NaCTSO, Department for Innovation, Business and Skills, www.communityforum.org, 2009; original emphasis).

When, however, an audience feels that a danger has been exaggerated, or that the authorities have not been entirely candid about their own shortcomings, it is possible that the whole premise of an emergency exercise will meet resistance. A major problem of this type occurred when the PR company Ogilvy, running a 'Topoff' anti-terrorism exercise for the US Department of Homeland Security, found it difficult to overcome the belief held by many of its intended audience – senior administrators and managers – that their own government had been complicit in the events of '9/11' (see Price, 2010: 129–30).

The production of any public address is therefore founded on the belief that either there will be some resistance to the message promoted by the security apparatus, or that it will in certain cases be greeted with a measure of indifference. This is why the obligations of the target group, described in one document as 'Shopping Centre managers, Store managers, Loss Prevention managers, Security managers, Building-Facilities managers, Health and Safety managers' and 'anyone in a supervisory role of both staff and public' (www.liverpoolchamberblog. org, 28 August 2009; my emphasis), are often emphasised as a legal 'duty of care'. In most cases, attempts are made to tailor the content of any communicative act to the perceived requirements of particular constituencies or 'stakeholders'.

The intention behind Project ARGUS was first, in common with all official schemes, to identify and assemble a captive audience, and then to subject this collective to a series of propositions about the nature of the real. The challenge, in the case of terrorism, is to materialise a condition that is not always immediately apparent. The impression that 'terror' constitutes a substantial threat has, therefore, constantly to be renewed. For most people it is an experience that is only known through its mediated form, a circumstance that is exploited in one of the three Project ARGUS videos currently available. Knowing that the practices of news media attest to the existence of a social reality beyond the realm of immediate experience, the ARGUS storyline incorporates a television 'report' into its imaginary account of an attack on a city centre. A fictional newsreader declares that

It has been confirmed that the three explosions in the central entertainment district were bomb blasts. Police have said that it is still too early to say whether these were the work of any particular terrorist group, or indeed if they were, as has been speculated, suicide bombings. While it is impossible to ascertain the precise number of casualties at present, it has been estimated that no less than forty and as many as ninety people have died. (NaCTSO Crowded Places video, www.mefeedia.com, 11 February 2009)

In another of its productions, aimed at managers in higher education, exactly this kind of concept – the substantiation of a specific threat – is dramatised in a section that warns of the risks posed by terrorist attacks on (once again) crowded places. The action is set in what appears to be a university precinct, surrounded by a number of faculty buildings that seem to belong to the architectural tendency sometimes known as 'brutalist'. In the midst of this grey, deserted concrete environment, the protagonist, a middle-aged man in a suit – who appears as the paternalistic authority figure in all three productions – is seen describing the malicious intentions of the would-be terrorist bomber:

We know that crowded places are attractive to those who want to make an impact – if they can find a place that is contained, and busy, a place where they can expect a pattern, or predict a routine – that is a place where they can pass undetected. (NaCTSO Higher Education video, www. continuityforum.org, 2009)

If the routine reproduction of the inclusive, first-person-plural 'we' is the hallmark of the rhetorical address (Atkinson, 1984), then the next noticeable device is the use of an assertion that it is 'crowded places' that are 'attractive to those who want to make an impact'. The problem with the ARGUS video is that the large space seems to be occupied only by the speaker. No one else is in sight. This empty and depressing vista is supposed, nonetheless, to represent the epicentre of an imminent threat. Of course, it may have been the case that, from a practical point of view, the film's producers thought it easier to control the message if the viewer had only one figure upon which to fix his or her attention (or else the film-makers were not allowed access to the institutional space when it was in regular use). Whatever the explanation, there is a clear contradiction between what is claimed in the script and what is shown on the screen. The next sequence presents an even greater contrast between the actual scene and the 'scenario' described by the presenter.

At the moment when the speaker is uttering the warning that terrorists look for 'a place where they can pass undetected', a motorcycle engine begins to rev up, although no bike is visible. What follows is a series of reaction shots, as our host responds to an invisible threat. As the soundtrack gets louder, and as the presenter looks more alarmed, the audience is meant to assume that some terrible event will ensue: in one shot he is observed from the perspective of an imaginary rider as the non-existent motorbike bears down upon him. Just as the unfortunate victim warns that, having found a target, 'it wouldn't take much to make a big bang', a rather minor crash is heard, followed by a vigorous puff of wind. The man dusts himself down, before delivering the less than stirring line, 'your institution may not be a primary target, but believe me it's an opportunity' (NaCTSO Higher Education video, www. continuityforum.org, 2009). In this video, university managers have been told that they may face a major catastrophe, but this cautionary tale is undermined by the appearance of that strange representational category – the 'non-event' (see Chapter 4). The ARGUS videos fail at many levels, but one inadvertent effect is to make masculine authority appear ridiculous.


Excerpted from Worst-Case Scenario? by Stuart Price. Copyright © 2011 Stuart Price. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Preparing for the worst?
• Myths of security
• Governance, technology and the state
• The Security Regime: state, governance and contingency
• The Scenario: Imagining events
• The Security Event: Exercise, emergency and 'real world' crises *  The Mediated Event
• 'Real world' security: Neglect, incompetence, and the overproduction of force
• Pre-emption and perception management
• Conclusion: Threat and social discipline

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