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Following the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid and London, state agencies have been bound up with the problem of how to effectively communicate the risk of terrorism to the general public. This article charts the UK government's attempts to engage in this process and illustrates how the communication of the terrorist risk meshes into broader cultural formations of crime and (in)security. Our analytical framework utilizes the risk society as the scene in which governmental strategies are parcelled up and unpacked. It is posited that the framing of the terrorist problem through the political discourse of ‘new terrorism’ has built upon and escalated a cultural climate of fear and uncertainty. At the level of political communication, it will be elucidated that media representations of the terrorist threat have served to further embed discourses of responsibilization. In our view such processes not only articulate a reduced notion of safety, they also pave the way for the simplistic construction of a non-white ‘terroristic other’ that has negative consequences for ethnic minority groups in the UK.
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Crime, Media, Culture
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DOI: 10.1177/1741659006065399
2006 2: 123Crime Media Culture
Gabe Mythen and Sandra Walklate
Communicating the terrorist risk: Harnessing a culture of fear?
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Communicating the terrorist risk: Harnessing a
culture of fear?
GABE MYTHEN, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
SANDRA WALKLATE, University of Liverpool, UK
Abstract
Following the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid and London, state
agencies have been bound up with the problem of how to effectively communicate the
risk of terrorism to the general public. This article charts the UK government’s attempts
to engage in this process and illustrates how the communication of the terrorist risk
meshes into broader cultural formations of crime and (in)security. Our analytical frame-
work utilizes the risk society as the scene in which governmental strategies are parcelled
up and unpacked. It is posited that the framing of the terrorist problem through the politi-
cal discourse of ‘new terrorism’ has built upon and escalated a cultural climate of fear
and uncertainty. At the level of political communication, it will be elucidated that media
representations of the terrorist threat have served to further embed discourses of respon-
sibilization. In our view such processes not only articulate a reduced notion of safety, they
also pave the way for the simplistic construction of a non-white ‘terroristic other’ that
has negative consequences for ethnic minority groups in the UK.
Key words
new terrorism; politics of fear; responsibilization; risk
INTRODUCTION
In this article, we examine some of the key problems and issues that have emerged around
the communication of the terrorist risk in the UK since 2001. We wish to explore two
fundamental and interconnected questions. First of all, how is the political debate about
terrorism being constructed? Second, which wider conceptual questions does the politi-
cization of terrorism raise about the way in which the state communicates with the
public?
1
In order to explore these questions, we begin by locating our discussion within
the wider ambit of the risk society thesis. From here, we situate dominant discourses
CRIME MEDIA CULTURE © 2006 SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi,
www.sagepublications.com, ISSN 1741-6590, Vol 2(2): 123–142 [DOI: 10.1177/1741659006065399]
ARTICLE
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around the constitution and effects of new terrorism within the current cultural and politi-
cal climate, focusing upon the way in which ‘new terrorism’ has been socially shaped by
the state and (re)presented within the mass media. Tracking government communications
about the terrorist threat, we go on to evaluate the veracity and efficacy of the infor-
mation offered to the public. It is our contention that – be it inadvertent or purposive –
distinct understandings about the nature of ‘new terrorism’ have been created, and these
understandings have themselves impacted upon both public opinion and the formation
of domestic and international security policy. Drawing upon particular examples, we posit
that communication of the terrorist threat has been ambiguous, patchy and ill conceived.
Further, we contend that government communications have served to individualize the
risk of attack, focusing on the functions and responsibilities of citizens rather than the
security duties of the state. Utilizing the concept of responsibilization we argue that these
processes have exacerbated the general climate of uncertainty recognized by Bauman
(2005) and made more repressive legal responses a socially acceptable possibility.
RISK, SECURITY AND NEW TERRORISM
Much has been made of the cultural ubiquity of risk within contemporary society and the
ways in which risk pervades the lived experience of individuals in western cultures. Within
the literature, it has been noted that risk filters through a range of cultural practices and
experiences in contemporary society, including work, relationships, food consumption,
leisure activities, security and personal health (see Beck, 1992; Culpitt, 1999; Caplan,
2000; Denney, 2005; Mythen, 2005a). The surge of interest in risk has led to the concept
becoming a key term of reference for academic debate. Indeed, mimicking the rotation
towards culture in the 1980s, it would not be stretching the imagination to talk about
the ‘risk turn’ within the social sciences. In perhaps the best-known contribution to risk
theory, Beck (1992) emphasizes both the destructive impacts of risk on the lived environ-
ment and the transformatory potential of risk within the public sphere. In a nutshell, the
risk society thesis suggests that the axis of social distribution within capitalist societies is
rotating away from positive problems of acquiring ‘goods’ (e.g. income, health care,
education, housing) towards negative issues of avoiding ‘bads’ (e.g. crime, environmental
pollution, AIDS and terrorism). Whereas the distribution of goods may be sectoral – some
win, some lose – the distribution of bads has universal effects. In short, everybody loses.
Accordingly, Beck (1992) holds the view that the pervasiveness of risk – both at the level
of harm and cognisance – has facilitated a shift from the acquisition of social goods to
the avoidance of social bads. This ideational transformation is encouraged by the inten-
sification of media interest in risk conflicts. For Beck the media serve to ‘socially explode’
risk issues which would otherwise be secreted from the public. What is more, these fluc-
tuations in media and political discourse have important ramifications for modes of
communication between institutions and individuals. Instead of appealing to collective
desires for the good life, the language of politics increasingly taps into individualized inse-
curities and fears. As Rigakos and Hadden (2002) note:
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high capitalism once regarded subjects as class members and thus had capital and
profit, i.e. class interest, as its aim and foundation, whereas in post-industrial, frag-
mented, risk societies, institutions now engage in risk communication formats to avoid
bads rather than acquire goods, thus bringing daily reckoning and planning down to
an individual as opposed to a class level. (p. 63)
At a surface level, this argument has some appeal. It is certainly true to say that the bads
recited by Beck (1992) have arrested the attention of politicians, the public and the media
in recent years, raising public sensitivity to risk. However, what remains to be explored in
detail is the impact the turn towards risk as a means of interpreting and organizing experi-
ence has had on individuals. Although several commentators have refuted the sugges-
tions of a material shift in risk distribution in western cultures, few would dispute that
the idea of risk has become an increasingly important driver of policy for the state, private
businesses and NGOs (see Scott, 2000; Mythen, 2004).
Nowhere is the ‘risk turn’ more apparent than in the current raft of policy initiatives
designed to combat terrorism. In the climate of uncertainty in the UK since the July 2005
suicide bombings it is easy to see why terrorism has featured as an academic and politi-
cal football. This said, it is worth recognizing that, prior to these events, several theorists
had heralded 9/11 as a historical watershed that ushered in a new phase of political
struggle, legislative change and military conflict (see Kellner, 2002; McLaren and Martin,
2004; Welch, 2003). Since this time, terrorism has climbed sharply up the political agenda
(see Curtis, 2004; Furedi, 2005; Rothe and Muzzatti, 2005). A string of high profile
incidents around the globe, including the Madrid train bombings, attacks in Bali and the
school siege in Beslan have catapulted terrorism forward as a crucial issue. At the same
time, entrenched conflicts in the Middle East – most notably the Arab–Israeli conflict in
Palestine and the ‘insurgency’ in Iraq – have been sucked into the broader question of
how nation states can best manage ‘new terrorism’. A variety of commentators have
been keen to mark off the activities of radical Islamic networks as fundamentally distinct
from the operations of traditional terrorist groups. In the aftermath of 9/11, politicians,
political journalists, academics and security experts began to talk excitedly about the
emergence of a new form of terrorism.
Although academic debates about the formation of ‘new’ or ‘post-modern’ forms of
terrorism predate the events of 9/11 (see Lesser et al., 1999; Lacquer, 2000), from this
point forth the expression ‘new terrorism’ began to be used as a popular currency among
journalists and politicians seeking to distinguish between the activities of Islamic groups
such as Al Qaeda and those of traditional terrorist organizations such as ETA, the IRA and
the UVF. A cluster of factors are said to differentiate new from traditional forms of terror-
ism. Due to a combination of global reach, fluid formation and extensive weapons capa-
bility we are told that groups such as Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah are practising
radically different and dangerous types of terrorism (Waugh, 2004). While organizations
located in Ireland, Spain (Barbaret, 2005) and Italy (Melossi and Selmini, 2001) have
historically operated locally under united ideological objectives and strict hierarchies, new
terrorist groups are defined by their amorphous aims, disparate organizational structure
and capacity to strike across different continents (Morgan, 2004). Rather than being
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locally self-financed, new terrorist groups are funded by a diverse range of sympathetic
sources around the globe, including private financiers, charities and NGOs (Commission
Report, 2004: 57). What is more, the new terrorism is said to be more threatening to
human life, with active terrorist cells seeking to launch unannounced and spectacular
‘high-lethality acts’ which directly target civilians (see Lesser et al., 1999: 42; Field, 2005).
These debates within security studies are highly significant given that both international
military strategy and domestic political legislation recently enacted in the UK assume and
presume that the nature of the terrorist threat has changed markedly in the last decade.
In response to the debate about new terrorism, some academics have been stirred to
argue that the 2001 attacks on America serve as a break point in social and political
relations. In this oeuvre, Beck (2002b: 9) has talked of living in a ‘terroristic world risk
society’, characterized by political disorientation, and perpetual uncertainty: ‘there is a
sinister perspective for the world after September 11th. It is that uncontrollable risk is now
irredeemable and deeply engineered into all the processes that sustain life in advanced
societies’ (Beck, 2002a: 46). Indeed, the view that there is something unique and histori-
cally significant about the events of 9/11 has been echoed in public opinion findings, with
over 75 per cent of British people believing that ‘the world has changed forever’ as a
result of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington (Worcester, 2001: 7). As Jenks
(2003) posits, these events appear to have constituted some form of universal trans-
gression. This said, other thinkers have been more circumspect about the historical signifi-
cance of 9/11, resisting the temptation to see this incident as a critical interregnum. Furedi
(2002), for example, points out that, despite the spectacular quality of the strikes on the
United States, terrorism is a culturally ubiquitous phenomenon. Further, amidst fears about
sophisticated terrorist attacks involving chemical, biological or radiological weapons, it
needs to be remembered that the 9/11 attacks were ‘in many ways an old fashioned act
of terror, executed with low-tech facilities by a small number of zealots driven by un-
restrained hatred’ (p. 17). Contra Beck, Furedi believes that the current preoccupation with
terrorism is symptomatic of a broader trend of focusing on the negative and destructive
features of the modern age. A burgeoning ‘culture of fear’ has taken root in western
cultures, promoted by state institutions and exacerbated by those working within the
media and security industries. At the very least in the context of the discussion here – and
this clearly chimes more with Furedi than Beck – it needs to be acknowledged that terror-
ism is a historically embedded entity, regardless of whether it is prefixed as ‘new’.
Putting aside the different perspectives on the wider social significance of ‘new terror-
ism’, as far as political rhetoric is concerned we can identify a clear directive to ‘think
security’ in the years that have passed since 9/11 (de Lint and Virta, 2004: 466). The
British Prime Minister has gone as far as stating that the threat of new terrorism is com-
parable with that presented by Nazism in the mid-20th century (Waugh, 2004: 5). Mean-
while, representatives of security forces involved in counterterrorism, including the police
and security experts, have stressed the everyday geography of the terrorist threat (see
Cowan, 2004: 3). As Beck (2001) muses, ‘what is politically crucial is ultimately not the
risk itself but the perception of the risk. What men fear to be real is real in its conse-
quences – fear creates its own reality’. In the UK, there has been a heightened state of
security alert since the events of 9/11 with the space between ‘what is’ and ‘what might
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be’ seemingly narrowing. It is important to stress that the command to think security
extends way beyond the ideological and symbolic. The prevailing discourse of (in)security
has been used to justify a number of political decisions that have produced – and are
reproducing – material effects. At an economic level, the British government was stung
into action by the attacks on America, increasing spending on national security, beefing
up security measures, passing through anti-terrorist legislation and orchestrating a
campaign to inform the public about the terrorist threat.
2
Since 9/11 the methods and
means of domestic security have become a focal subject of political debate and contes-
tation (see de Lint and Virta, 2004; McLaren and Martin, 2004). Following on from the
attacks on London transport networks, security concerns have become paramount for
nervy politicians – witness the heated debates about the controversial 2005 Terrorism Bill.
The British state’s capacity to not just think but act security is embedded in the rejected
proposal to detain terrorist suspects for up to 90 days and to close down mosques that
incite racial hatred. If we add to this the findings reported by Field (2005) that 6 per cent
of Muslims in this country in the UK believe that the bombing attacks on 7 July 2005
were justified – and a further 23 per cent registered either ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’ of sympathy
with the feelings and motives of those who carried out the attacks – there appear to be
a set of thorny and as yet unresolved issues around social inequalities, cultural integra-
tion and citizenship that need attending to at a political level. These issues mean that
processes of communication are ever more crucial for a government committed to
‘thinking security’. We shall now turn to consider the ways in which the UK government
has set about communicating the terrorist threat.
COMMUNICATING RISK: MAKING UP THE ‘WAR
AGAINST TERRORISM’
Communicating risk to the public is increasingly central to the everyday functioning of
the state (see Culpitt, 1999; Kemshall, 2002). Historically, a number of cases of poor
governmental communications in the UK have led to strained relations between poli-
ticians and the public, resulting in a general culture of distrust (see Allan, 2002; Mythen,
2002; Wales and Mythen, 2002). In response to this trust deficit, over the last few years
the UK government has sought to emphasize the value of effective communications in
reassuring the public and winning back trust. The Strategy Unit Report (2002: 3) – a
document prepared in response to public demands for the government to be more open
about risk issues – urges that state agencies become more open and transparent and
engage in dialogue with stakeholder groups in order to earn and maintain public trust.
This message has been reinforced in recent times with direct reference to communications
about terrorism: ‘ever since 9/11, the Government has made it a priority to be open and
honest with the public about the level and nature of the threat we face’.
3
Of course, the range and depth of information made available to the public will in
part be dictated by security concerns. Quite legitimately, the state and its associated
agencies will not wish to impart information that could be helpful to terrorist groups
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wishing to threaten national security. Yet, even factoring this caveat into the communi-
cative equation, there is a critical disjuncture between the principle of transparency and
the present flow of information about terrorism. The Strategy Unit Report (2002) clearly
flags up the need for government, in times of uncertainty, to provide the public with
information that can be relied upon to be open and trustworthy. Nevertheless, alongside
the front-stage dissemination of information about terrorism, there have been a number
of instances of national security issues being leaked back-stage. The process of leaking
by government sources has been particularly notable in relation to possible strikes on the
British mainland, with the media reporting a series of plots hatched by fundamentalist
Islamic networks. These foiled plans allegedly include the crashing of a plane into Canary
Wharf Tower, the launching of surface-to-air missiles at Heathrow, explosive strikes on
the Houses of Parliament and the detonation of a bomb at Old Trafford football stadium.
It remains unclear how accurate the intelligence that generated these claims was, nor
indeed is it clear how, where or why this information was passed on to journalists by the
government or security services. Nevertheless, it is probable that each revelation of a
foiled plot – be it based on credible information or otherwise – has potentially served to
ratchet up levels of public concern about ‘new terrorism’. What is more, the leaking of
such information to the media – or, at the least, state intransigence in dismissing inac-
curate media representations – gives cause for concern about the contradictions within
government strategy. Given that Cabinet has the power to issue D-notes to pull the plug
on information that presents a threat to national security, such leaks contradict the
espoused policy of reassuring the public about the terrorist threat. As we shall see, it is
probable that the UK government’s inaction in countering erroneous information about
the terrorist threat has served to amplify rather than attenuate public anxiety.
In some respects, the dissemination of information about possible attacks may be seen
as an opportunity for government to demonstrate that its intelligence agencies are oper-
ating efficiently and that an appropriate level of preparedness is in place in the event of
a terrorist incident. Indeed, this was doubtless the case in relation to the drafting in of
soldiers bearing heavy artillery at Heathrow Airport. However, a lack of clarity and
precision about the veracity of media reports resulted in confusion and undue public
concern. In this regard the Old Trafford imbroglio is even more telling. On 19 April 2004,
over 400 police officers raided a number of houses and businesses in the Manchester
area, arresting ten people who were interrogated for several days and subsequently
released without charge. During the time in which the suspects were detained the Sun
newspaper ran with the front-page headline ‘Man U Suicide Bomb’. The inside story titled
‘Exclusive: Man United Suicide Blasts Foiled’ gave information about how two bombers
had planned to sit in separate parts of the ground to detonate their bombs in order to
maximize casualties (see Oborne, 2006a: 2). As the story gathered pace, Greater Manches-
ter Police called a press conference in which it stated the following: ‘We are confident
that the steps that we have taken to date have significantly reduced any potential threat
in the Greater Manchester area . . . Greater Manchester Police and Manchester United
Football Club have put in place extra security measures to reassure the public of the safety
of both matches’ (p. 3). It later transpired that the Old Trafford bomb plot was a total
fabrication leaked by unofficial police sources to the press (p. 3). Greater Manchester
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Police had found two used ticket stubs for different parts of the football ground kept by
one of the Kurdish suspects detained – himself a Manchester United fan – as a souvenir.
It was this finding which fantastically mushroomed out into the apparent unveiling of a
major terrorist conspiracy. In the Old Trafford case, the government resolutely refused to
confirm or deny the accuracy of intelligence suggesting that the stadium was the subject
of a terrorist plot. The danger with such an ambivalent communicative strategy is that all
too easily risk rumours begin to attach to a rolling narrative that gains cultural
momentum. Again, in the Old Trafford case, the local media were quick to speculate
about the possibility that Manchester Airport and the Trafford Centre may also be prime
targets for terrorist groups. In so far as it is easy to select specific examples of poor
communicative practice, the question remains as to how communications about the
terrorist threat have been converted into meaningful understandings by members of the
public. Although this is indisputably an issue requiring empirical investigation, one
possible way of framing the key conceptual questions at stake is to examine the ways in
which fear has been harnessed as political capital.
Having aligned itself with the US – both in terms of international military policy and
domestic counter-terrorist strategy – the UK government has sought to gain public
support for international military excursions and the tightening-up of national law and
order measures. In an attempt to gain consent for such practices, politicians and senior
civil servants have established and drawn upon the discourse of ‘new terrorism’. This
discourse is ingrained in the language used by government officials and the political ideals
expressed through crime, security and immigration policy. In the words of Tony Blair: ‘the
rules of the game have changed’ (cited in Oborne, 2006b: v). Post-9/11 a new language
of global (in)security has been adopted by senior politicians, security experts and news
journalists. The lexicon of the ‘war against terrorism’ depicts a titanic battle between good
and evil waged against ‘terror networks’ and ‘rogue states’ (Mythen, 2005b). The ‘war
against terrorism’ is indubitably a battle for hearts and minds as well as a struggle against
a determined enemy. To this end, what is surprising is the indeterminacy of the phras-
eology and the carelessness with which it has been applied. The very expression ‘war
against terrorism’ is something of a misnomer, suggesting as it does the launching of
hostilities against an abstract noun rather than an identifiable nation or nations. Despite
this, the vocabulary of ‘new terrorism’ has been prolific and has drawn heavily on stock
wartime metaphors: ‘even when the war is not a war . . . the same mechanisms of
mobilization are used: a situation of national emergency, a common enemy, recourse to
community/patriarchy and warrior/masculinity, mandatory inclusion of all irrespective of
interest positions’ (Steinert, 2003: 281). In our eyes, the ‘war against terrorism’ seems
not to consist of a coherent and precise set of achievable objectives. Rather, it relates to
a potentially disparate collection of ideas, about – among other things – foreign policy,
national security, warfare, electronic systems of monitoring and crime prevention. Thus,
in the UK the ‘war against terrorism’ metaphor is not simply extending into national
policies about immigration, detention, identity cards, policing and surveillance; it actually
appears to be driving them (see Mythen and Walklate, 2005). As Steinert (2003: 266)
reasons, it is not far fetched to suggest that regulating the consequences of crime and
fighting an enemy have become one and the same thing.
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It is to be expected that discourses of risk will not only be based on quantitative ration-
ality, but also framed by ethical values and choices. Indeed, the criminological canon has
sought to elucidate the ways in which risk rationalities embedded within the criminal
justice system are the by-products of dominant political values and historically specific
ideologies (Garland, 1990; Walklate, 1999; Sparks, 2001: 169; Hudson, 2003). Neverthe-
less, as we will argue shortly, there is a real need for the social sciences to rally against
the snap judgements, unnecessary stereotyping and military vengeance that are vectored
through the ‘war against terrorism’ discourse. Thinking more broadly, there is an ongoing
need to guard against the introduction of legislation that falls below the standard of the
liberties and freedoms that formally elected democratic governments purport to protect.
At an international level, the stitching together of states and groups classified as aberrant
is fuelling a generalized climate of fear and hostility. It is both illogical and ideologically
dangerous to lump together states with distinct cultures and histories into a single villain-
ous ‘axis of evil’. In so far as the atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalist groups
in the United States, Bali and Madrid need to be condemned, it is specious to equate the
actions of a tiny minority with the motivations of huge nation states, or the proclivities
of different religious faiths. As Barnaby (2003: 11) reasons, public fears about terrorism
are likely to be exacerbated by pronouncements by American and British leaders, connect-
ing the ‘rogue states’ that form an ‘axis of evil’ (i.e. Iraq, Iran and North Korea) with inter-
national terrorist groups. Again, the discourse is fluid and stretchy, with ‘rogue states’
metamorphosing into ‘outposts of tyranny’. Similarly, the nations targeted are subject to
change, with the usual suspects recently having been joined by Cuba, Belarus and
Zimbabwe. In the admixture that is the ‘war against terrorism’, connections and mutual
interests are being suggested between nations and groups without recourse to publicly
presented evidence. Suffice it to say, this runs sharply against the grain of the espoused
philosophy of openness and transparency. Moreover, the ‘if-you-had-seen-what-we-have-
seen’ appeal, erroneously employed around Iraq’s supposed stockpiling of WMD, is
unlikely to find favour with a sceptical public with low levels of trust in government.
It is clear that the media play an important role in influencing and shaping public
perceptions of crime risks (Banks, 2005; Chadee and Ditton, 2005). As Furedi (2002)
argues: ‘the media . . . have become increasingly interested in the subject, and terms like
“risk society” and “risk perception” now regularly feature in newspaper columns’ (p. 5).
The promotion and/or amplification of certain issues by the media can help set the agenda
on a given issue and hence amplify or attenuate a sense of danger (Schlesinger et al.,
1991; Kasperson and Kasperson, 1996; Philo, 1999). The news media are dependent
upon eye-catching and sensational events, and often report on crises that appeal to both
base instincts and a shared sense of morality. As Cottle (2005) posits, in certain instances
national media outlets can serve to conduct a moral charge that ripples outwards to stake-
holder groups in society. Although different media forms will convey messages in differ-
ent ways, we would argue that there is a visible moral dimension at play in dominant
(re)presentations of the terrorist risk. It is likely that the narrative framing of the terrorist
threat has acted as a conduit for establishing what Peelo and Soothill (2000: 136) call
‘mass endorsement of morality’. While this strategy is arguably more rooted in the news
values embedded within the media production process than any ideological conspiracy,
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the danger is that the representation of the terrorist threat becomes misaligned with the
potential degree of harm: ‘hardly a week goes by without a new initiative or exercise
designed to prepare us for, or defend us against, an attack by Al Qaeda or the like . . .
with every incremental reaction by the police or government, so our fear levels creep up
another notch’ (Duffy, 2003: 1). In both the UK and the USA, government officials have
worked hard to keep terrorism high on the political and media agendas, particularly in
times of relative calm. A good example of this is George Bush’s revelation that Al Qaeda
had intended to fly a plane into the tallest building on the west coast, the 73-storey
Library Tower in Los Angeles. This planned attack, to be executed by members of Jemaah
Islamiyah, was uncovered by intelligence services in 2002. Four years later, in February
2006, President Bush reported the terrorist plot in a press conference, prompting the
Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, to complain that this was the first he had
heard about it (Webb, 2006).
Of course, the ways in which people respond to terrorist attacks such as 7/7 are only
partly determined by the incident itself and/or the scale of the disaster. Acts of terrorism
are accorded different meanings in line with what they culturally signify and represent.
Although the effects of what Cohen (2002) has called ‘meta-images of chaos’ are yet to
be fully understood, it is clear that terrorist attacks are given meaning through cultural,
political, economic and social processes. Culturally proximate events – such as 9/11, 3/11
and 7/7 – become longstanding points of media and political reference, while others
such as the Beslan seige in Northern Ossetia fade fast. Public responses to terrorism are
shaped not solely by the nature of the emergency but also by pre-existing assumptions,
underlying cultural values and political attitudes. The capacity of the mass media to
cohere emotions and to appeal to moral notions of what a decent society should look
like should not be understated (Cottle, 2005: 50). It does not take a seasoned social
scientist to locate the politically loaded discursive construction of a Terrorist Other,
pictured and framed through the lens of Anglo-American political elites. It is worth
pointing out that, prior to 9/11, relatively little attention was given to the activities of Al
Qaeda. Since this time, the Al Qaeda network and its frightening cluster of terrorist cells
have received almost permanent political and media exposure. There is more than a
sneaking suspicion that the vacuum left by the evaporation of the Cold War enemy has
been eagerly filled by the new terrorist (see Curtis, 2004). The enhanced ‘visibility’ of Al
Qaeda echoes Joffe’s (1999) sentiments about shifting conceptions of the Other: ‘in
periods of crisis, when anxiety is raised, the out-group moves from being represented as
mildly threatening, a challenge to the core values of the society, to being seen as the
purveyor of chaos’ (p. 23). Following the political line, dominant media representations
of radical Islam have de-humanized and demonised in equal measure, encouraging the
public to accept a separation between rational western citizens and a monstrous terror-
istic Other. This reductivist separation between good and evil is at the heart of George
Bush Jr.’s appeal to the American public. In the 2006 State of the Union address, the
president called for ‘the end of tyranny’, urging ‘the enemies of freedom’ to cease
purveying ‘an ideology of terror and death’ (Bush, 2006). It is axiomatic to state that
such either–or reasoning has knock-on consequences for attitudes towards human rights
and civil responsibilities:
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The balancing of rights has gone: the only rights that matter for most people are the
safety rights of selves and loved ones. The sense of shared risk, shared responsibility
has also gone: we cope with risk by a constant scanning of all with whom we come
into contact to see whether or not they pose a threat to our security, and the only
way we can operate this scanning is by adopting stereotypes of safe and risky kinds
of people. (Hudson, 2003: 74)
As Hudson reasons, terrorism is an inherently complex and polymorphous phenomenon
that should not be reduced to base-level political rhetoric. The Hobson’s choice the public
have been offered – ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ – is, in reality,
a non-choice, given that there is no real possibility of thinking in-between or out of kilter
with the dominant position (Goh, 2004: 4). Naturally, the accentuation of difference
leaves little room for rational attempts to understand the values, objectives and/or griev-
ances of terrorists and instead reduces the terrorist to an inhuman object of hate. The
presentation of the terrorist as abject and ultra-deviant meshes into a wider framework
through which moral judgements are decided upon and retributive consequences dished
out. Media and political construction of the non-white terroristic Other cannot be disas-
sociated from misguided and unsavoury racist reprisals such as the six-fold increase in
religious hate crimes in the three weeks following 7 July 2005.
4
Following Garland (1996), Hudson (2003) notes that ‘the range of harms responded
to within the framework of the self has shrunk and the range of those responded to
within the framework of criminologies of the other has expanded’ (p. 203). Relating this
general observation back to the functions of government, we can see how criminologies
of the Other find their place within what Beck (2002a) has called the ‘surveillance state’,
a body politically dominated by military and security concerns. The surveillance state is
one which follows strict immigration procedures, polices its borders zealously and does
not discourage xenophobia. While it would be stretching the imagination to claim that
these descriptors perfectly apply to the British state, it is clear that current surveillance
procedures have incongruent effects. The uneven regulatory impacts of strategies of regu-
lation and surveillance is writ large through the seven-fold increase in the number of
Asian people stopped and searched by the British Transport Police following the July 7th
bombings (Dodd, 2005).
Having grounded our discussion within the wider framework of the risk society and
outlined the key factors at play in the discursive formation of the ‘war against terrorism’
it is now necessary to explore the association between the language of terrorism and
current government policy in the UK. Following on from this analysis, we go on to
speculate on the cumulative impacts of these processes on public understandings of risk
and everyday security strategies. In the conclusion, we consider the potential efficacy of
government incursions and the more fundamental conceptual questions that the issues
we have raised invite.
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THE STATE, RESPONSIBILIZATION AND THE POLITICS OF
FEAR
In addition to vindicating potentially repressive forms of legislation, it is also possible to
discern how the ideology of ‘new terrorism’ demands that citizens are not only fearful
of the terrorist Other, but also take on responsibility for managing their safety in the ever
presence of this terrorist Other. Pertinent here is Garland’s (2001) notion of an emergent
‘culture of control’ typified by the restructuring of criminal justice policy in the UK and
the USA. By using the culture of control paradigm Garland conveys an understanding of
the way in which the state has adapted to its failure to solve the problem of crime and
in so doing has become centrally occupied with controlling crime, an issue that requires
quite a different frame of reference. This process of adaptation has three strands to it:
denial, acting-out, and responsibilization. In this article we have already considered some
aspects of the first two of these strands. Aspects of denial and acting-out are self-evident
in the calls for tightening of the laws in relation to terrorism on the one hand and the
emotive language used to denounce terrorist activities and reassure the public on the
other. However, strategies of responsibilization arguably have a far more subtle edge.
Garland develops this idea as a way of depicting the kinds of policies that encourage
citizens into ‘victimization avoidance’ (Karmen, 1990) and thus invite them to work in
partnership with crime-control agencies to ensure their safekeeping. As we shall see, it
is possible to discern such a strategy of responsibilization being used in efforts to harness
a culture of fear, minimally associated with the criminal socially excluded Other, maxi-
mally the new terrorist (Hughes, 2004; Greer and Jewkes, 2005).
Not only does the reductivist thinking associated with the ‘war against terrorism’
harness our fears, it also invites us to be involved in managing the terrorist risk as a logical
step towards ensuring our own safe keeping. In order to fully understand the likely nature
of public anxiety generated by the exchanges delineated above it is important to recog-
nize that fears about terrorism are pieced together via cultural and linguistic interactions
as well as becoming real through physiological and psychological processes. As Tudor
(2003) points out, fear is a macro and a micro response, determined by everyday habitat,
cultural practices and social structures on the one hand, and bodies, personalities and
social subjects on the other. It follows that, in order to properly grasp fears about terror-
ism, we need to attend to the cultural networks through which such fears are constructed
and actualized. Fear is not free floating. Rather, it is indexed to self-resources, individual
experiences and the formation of coping strategies (Lee, 2001; Salecl, 2004). Further, as
with crime in general, fears about terrorism will be related to locale and bound up with
understandings of place (Banks, 2005; Chadee and Ditton, 2005). The complex dynamics
that constitute ‘fear’ mean that managing it is likely to be a messy process, as Burkitt’s
(2005) analysis of emotional public responses post the Madrid bombings shows. This said,
articulations of anxiety that extend – and are reinforced – over long periods of time are
likely to both condition and increase levels of fear among the public. As Welch (2003)
persuasively argues, in the USA and the UK, the ‘war on/against terror/ism’ has deployed
a range of discursive techniques. The discourse of ‘new terrorism’ invites fear at many
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different levels; from for example, constructions of risky objects and activities (e.g.
airplanes, the underground, shopping, travel) through to the categorization of danger-
ous classes, creeds and countries. In the latter case, sections of the UK media have
bundled together ‘asylum seekers’, ‘economic migrants’, and ‘illegal immigrants’, indi-
cating the potential for any or all of these groups to be inclusive of, or the breeding
ground for, terrorists (see Hughes, 2004). But how do these different techniques of
harnessing fear join up with the process of responsibilization?
As Garland (2001: 126) suggests ‘the state’s new strategy is not to command and
control but rather to persuade and align, to organise, to ensure that other actors play
their part’, and key to this encouragement ‘are publicity campaigns targeted at the public
as a whole’ (p. 125). In the case of the UK, it is important to note that such notions of
‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’ are firmly entrenched within New Labour ideology. More
precisely, the New Labour view of the active citizen as an independent agent, contrasts
sharply with the undesirable dependent subject reliant on the state (see Clarke, 2005:
450). One good example of responsibilization in action is the 2004 emergency advice
campaign implemented to educate citizens about what to do in the event of a chemical,
biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) terrorist attack. As part of a drive to inform the
public about how to respond to emergency situations the UK government launched a
national campaign to prepare the public for major incidents. A 22-page emergency advice
booklet was launched by government in association with safety pressure groups and the
Association of Chief Police Officers. The booklet was delivered to 25 million households
at an estimated cost of £8 million, made available on the internet and supplemented by
advertisements on radio and television. The booklet provides first aid advice, tips on
stocking up with provisions and emergency contact numbers. From a governmental
perspective, the dissemination of the booklet was driven by the desire to inform citizens
of effective measures for self-protection and to reassure the public about the steps being
taken to protect against terrorism.
5
Figure 1 is extracted from the government advice
leaflet ‘Preparing for Emergencies: What You Need to Know’ (2004).
We would argue that the balance of information in the emergency advice booklet is
skewed towards the individual – ‘what you can do to protect yourself and your
community against risk’ – and away from the state – ‘what we are doing to protect you’.
The advice leaflet is decidedly mute about the mobilization and organization of emer-
gency services, information about which agencies would be responsible for which types
of incident and the range of equipment and resources available to attend to emergency
situations. Moreover, there are several areas in which positive and reassuring information
might have been communicated. For example, the public have heard very little about the
government’s overall counterterrorist strategy, headway made in the so-called ‘war
against terrorism’ or advice about different types of terrorist threat. Instead, the advice
offered tends to individualize emergency situations, to responsibilize people for their own
risk management rather than clearly laying out institutional security strategies.
It is important to emphasize that the process of responsibilization is connected not
only to changes in political strategy, but also forms part of a broader macro-social shift
in the relationship between the individual and the state. Commenting on wider changes
in public policy, Young (1999) has traced a move from the inclusive to the exclusive
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society, heightened in recent years by what he refers to as ‘vindictiveness’ (see Young,
2003 about the rise in religious hate crimes referenced earlier). This shift provides the
space in which intolerance can breed and fear of the Other (vindictiveness) can manifest
itself. This shift has resonance not only for the character of criminal justice, but also for
the balance of responsibility for risk between citizens and institutions. Responsibilization
MYTHEN & WALKLATE COMMUNICATING THE TERRORIST RISK 135
FIGURE 1 Government advice leaflet
© Crown Copyright 2004
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then is not confined to crime and crime prevention. It reflects and taps into the ongoing,
and changing relationship between the citizen and the state that is ingrained within the
shift from liberal to neo-liberal democracy. As Jessop (2002) has convincingly argued, this
kind of movement reflects a move from the determined state to the hegemonic state,
typified by the predominance of ‘hegemonic projects that seek to reconcile the particu-
lar and the universal by linking the nature and purposes of the state into a broader – but
always selective – political, intellectual, and moral vision of the public interest, the good
society, the commonweal, or some analogous principle of societalisation’ (p. 42). As Hunt
(2003) points out:
Responsibilization is always double sided. It lays down a norm against which indi-
viduals, groups, or individuals may evaluate their own conduct. But is also opens up
the possibility of moralisation in so far as others may seek to hold individuals to that
standard, regardless of whether or not they have accepted the responsibility. In this
sense responsibilization always involves moralisation. (p. 183)
It is within this moral vision of the good society or the commonwealth – and the ideo-
logical processes of moralization (who is and who is not Other) that underpin this – that
various forms of responsibilization bid us to do a portion of the state’s safety work not
only in keeping ourselves safe but also in evaluating the conduct of others (Clarke, 2005:
452). As Hudson (2003: 65) reasons, suspect individuals and groups do not have to perpe-
trate crimes to be identified as criminal. In the same way, respectable citizens do not have
to encounter crime to identify themselves as victims. In encouraging ‘us’ to notice and
report the unusual in ‘them’, the socially acceptable targeting of ‘them’ becomes vindi-
cated. If we are in agreement that such strategies contribute to this effect then their
potential links with the coercive powers of the state become clearer.
The coercive tendencies of the state have been well documented within the social
sciences, with a range of theorists pulling out the ideological strategies of the state and
its capacity to use a mix of legislation, surveillance and direct force to maintain social
order (see Hillyard and Percy-Smith, 1984; Offe, 1984; Biglino, 2002; Hillyard, 2002;
Coleman, 2005). Tilly (1985) once waspishly described the role of the state as a protec-
tion racket whose legitimacy in this capacity has been sustained by its ability to coerce
order as well as having access to the means of maintaining order. In the West, the coercive
energies of the state have been directed towards dangerous classes in dangerous places
(Coleman, 2005: 142; Hall and Winlow, 2005: 44), but, as Chevigny (2003: 91) has
observed, ‘even more basic to that work seems to have been a promise of safety, to the
poor as much as to everyone else’. Moreover, as Loader and Walker (2004) state:
The state continues to have ultimate authority over who may resort to coercion, if not
to other non-coercive ‘disposals’. Equally, while there are many examples of non-state
security provision and even self regulation, generally speaking the state, even if it
chooses not to exercise this capacity, still retains an in-the-final-instance authority to
decide on, supervise or license (i.e. decide who decides) the other spheres of regu-
lations and provision. That is to say, at least in its own terms – and of course its reach
may be greater that its grasp – the state structures the security network both in its
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presence and its absence, both in its explicit directions and in its implicit permissions.
(p. 224)
This promise of safety for us all lies at the root of the state’s ability to turn increasingly
compromising liberal understandings of freedom into neo-liberal notions of surveillance
that Innes (2001) has dubbed ‘control creep’. This process has been commented on in
the Australian context in relation to the aftermath of the Madrid bombings (Head, 2004).
Such ‘control creep’ manifests itself in a number of different ways, from the extension of
legislative powers through to the discourses deployed to render such measures thinkable.
We would argue that these processes have been, and are, clearly discernable in the UK
in the way in which ‘new terrorism’ has been constructed, the feelings that representa-
tions of terrorism may unlock, and the way in which such feelings are tapped into and
harnessed for political purposes. It is within these processes that we can discern exactly
who or what society is to be kept safe from and what the role of individual citizens might
be in contributing towards a secure environment. The ways in which the terrorist threat
has been communicated and the processes that these mechanisms tap into are a clear
example of how responsibility, risk and control have become embedded in our under-
standings of fear and security.
CONCLUSION
To be clear, we would not suggest that the discursive construction of ‘new terrorism’ is
an unproblematic linear activity, less still that the ‘war against terrorism’ is a body of politi-
cally mediated ideas passively and uncritically accepted by a homogeneous ‘public’. It is
to be expected that the localized and routine cultural practices that shape personal fears
about crime (Walklate, 1998; Banks, 2005: 170) will be similarly operative in relation to
perceptions of the terrorist risk. Further, the regulatory processes set in chain to mitigate
the terrorist risk are not irresistible or non-retractable. As Hudson (2003: 224) comments,
perhaps we do not need to engage in ‘wasting time deliberating the constitutionality of
torture or killing’. What we need to spend time engaged in is a discourse that ensures
that the price we pay for security is not our liberty in every sense of the word. If we are
to come to an informed understanding of the intricacies of the processes to which we
are party, it is necessary to try to grasp some of the inherent complexities highlighted
here. In particular, we need to think hard and critically not only about political policy and
forms of legislation, but also about methods of risk communication. This includes the
cultural, political and social context in which risk communications are constructed, the
ways in which individuals make sense of such communications, and how information may
or may not be absorbed and transformed into public or private anxieties.
This article has outlined some of the ways in which the UK government has sought to
communicate the risk of new terrorism to the public. We have sought to ground the process
of communication within the broader context and culture of the risk society, examining the
social construction of the terrorist threat through an analysis of contemporary political and
media discourses. In our view, the snowballing discourse of ‘new terrorism’ is amiss both
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in terms of the messages conveyed and the levels at which it attempts to engage with the
public. Our central proposition has been that government appeals made through the
discourse of terrorism have sought to harness public anxieties and fears for political ends
in diffuse ways, from the construction of the terrorist Other and its elision with other groups
defined as problematic, to the way in which the processes of responsibilization have been
extended to increase the range of risks requiring individual strategies of management. We
would argue that the issues surrounding human security need to be theorized and
researched outside of an alarmist paradigm which accepts ‘new terrorism’ as a cataclysmic
force and/or an irreversible process. It is vital that criminologists have meaningful and critical
things to say about ‘new terrorism’, and that the prickly issues which surround the ‘war
against terrorism’ are not seen to be outside the ambit of the discipline. A more sophisti-
cated perspective might seek to revisit some of the key concepts that have historically been
used in debates about terrorism and safety as a means of challenging taken-for-granted
assumptions about human security. In short, we may need to take a steadying step back-
wards in order to place a firmer foot forward. In such a retrospective mode, we might
profitably begin by unravelling and interrogating the concept of fear.
Fear, like risk, burns in many different degrees and greater attention needs to be paid
to the different strata which make up the generic experience of fear (Chadee and Ditton,
2005: 330). It may also be theoretically useful to disassemble the associated concepts of
safety and protection. We ought perhaps to be asking more dangerous and oppositional
questions, such as whom we are seeking safety/protection from, when and under what
circumstances (see Walklate, 2004). In this regard, it is an empirically important question
as to whether or not there is a ‘culture of fear’ or ‘cultures of fear’. Moreover, we might
go on to investigate how safety-seeking behaviour is mediated by age, place, ethnicity,
gender, class and broader conceptualizations and understandings of nationhood on the
one hand or personal identity on the other (see Hall and Winlow, 2005: 44; Kearon et
al., forthcoming).
To return to our central thesis, the content and the accuracy of communications about
the terrorist threat has wider significance for the constitution of liberal democracy. The
very quality of democracy depends upon public access to a free and undistorted range
of information. Without unbiased information it is difficult for people to make informed
choices about cultural, political and economic issues. Of course, when governments are
dealing with terrorism, security considerations will dictate that it is not always possible to
pass on all available knowledge to the public. Yet there is more than a suspicion that this
constraint has been expedient for the UK government in that it has given them carte
blanche to pick and choose which information to pass on to the public and which to
withhold. To this end, we would concur that the communication of the terrorist risk has
been expanded and shrunk to fit with New Labour’s wider political project (see Chu,
2006: 1). Arguably, this has not led to an instructive and balanced range of information
being provided and may have fostered public mistrust and a growing atmosphere of sus-
picion. The ‘leaks’ alluded to earlier have done little to reduce public anxiety – indeed
they are likely to have had the opposite effect. Making sense of reactions to risk communi-
cations requires that we endeavour to unravel the ways in which public anxiety is presently
constituted. In order to do this, a number of difficult and prescient questions still need
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to be asked about how different publics might be making sense of the terrorist threat in
relation to dominant political constructions of insecurity. Here we have asked just one: is
the politicization of fear a constructive way to keep people on your side?
Notes
1 For the purposes of this article we use the term ‘public’ generally, while recognizing that ‘the
public’ is constituted by a range of different stakeholders with diverse interests.
2 In the UK, the government has pledged that the amount spent on national security will rise from
£1 to £2.1 billion per year between 2004 and 2008.
3 See http://www.ukresilience.info/ctkeyfacts.htm.
4 Reported on BBC1 Evening News on 4 August 2005.
5 See http://www.ukresilience.info/ctkeyfacts.html.
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GABE MYTHEN, Principal Lecturer in Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.
SANDRA WALKLATE, Professor of Sociology, University of Liverpool, UK.
Email: SnWalklate@aol.com
CRIME MEDIA CULTURE 2(2)142
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... Anderson (2007: 159) has noted how "fear, dread and anxiety, accompany the emergence of anticipatory logics of governance is now widely claimed or asserted". This builds on and creates a culture of fear, which can be clearly seen in the post-9/11 era (Mythen and Walklate, 2006), where resilience has been used as a means to reassure the public that they are safe from harm (Coaffee and Wood, 2006;MacKinnon and Derickson, 2013). ...
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... Indeed, such a course of action is not totally novel for state authorities trying to infl uence or win the information war with terrorists. It is what Mythen and Walklate (2006) referred to as 'responsibilisation', a situation where state authorities try to persuade or command the media to become part of the counterinsurgency eff ort through a state-centric narrative or reporting. Such a strategy may become counterproductive. ...
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On September 11, 2001, terrorists seized control of an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles and crashed it into the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York City, followed by a second hijacking and collision into the other WTC tower minutes later. During the same hour, a third commandeered jetliner hit the Pentagon, while a fourth hijacked plane, possibly destined for the White House, went down in Pennsylvania, perhaps crashed out of harm's way by passengers who had learned of the earlier terrorist crimes and were trying to prevent another calamity. Copyright © 2006 by The University Press of Kentucky. All rights reserved.