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'Society on steroids' —Stephen Graham on Olympic security

Decca Muldowney13 March 2012

More troops - 13,500 - will be deployed to cover the London Olympics than are currently stationed in Afghanistan. This frightening statistic opens Stephen Graham's powerful and harrowing piece on Olympic 2012 security for the Guardian. Arguing that the London Games will see the largest mobilisation of military and security forces since the second world war, Graham, author of Cities Under Siege, warns that the effects "will linger long after the athletes and VIPs have left."

As estimates of the Games' immediate security costs double (from £282m to £553m) Graham highlights the hypocrisy of spending on this scale,

All this in a city convulsed by massive welfare, housing benefit and legal aid cuts, spiralling unemployment and rising social protests. It is darkly ironic, indeed, that large swaths of London and the UK are being thrown into ever deeper insecurity while being asked to pay for a massive security operation, of unprecedented scale, largely to protect wealthy and powerful people and corporations.

Graham points out that the total security force could number anything between 24,00o and 49,00o. He writes in disturbing detail of the intricate security arrangements underway,

During the Games an aircraft carrier will dock on the Thames. Surface-to-air missile systems will scan the skies. Unmanned drones, thankfully without lethal missiles, will loiter above the gleaming stadiums and opening and closing ceremonies. RAF Typhoon Eurofighters will fly from RAF Northolt. A thousand armed US diplomatic and FBI agents and 55 dog teams will patrol an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11-mile, £80m, 5,000-volt electric fence.

Linking these heightened security precautions to growing "homeland security" industries, Graham argues that "the post 9/11 paradigm is being diffused around the world," and, "the UK, long an exemplar 'surveillance society' is especially attractive to these industries." Thus, as Graham puts it, "ramping up surveillance is now as much a part of economic policy as a response to purported threats." There is lot of money to be made in policing the Olympics, which have now become, "the ultimate global shop windows through which states and corporations can advertise their latest high-tec wares to burgeoning global markets while making massive profits."

Even more disturbingly, Graham argues, is the concept of "asymmetric war" which is fuelling the homeland and Olympic security boom, and providing a key security idea for nation states, militaries and corporations. "Here," he writes, "rather than war with other states, the main challenge for states is deemed to be mobilising more or less permanently against vague non-state or civilian threats that lurk within their own cities and the infrastructures that connect them."

This ideological shift of focus from external to internal threat is perhaps the most worrying of all for post-Olympic London and its inhabitants. As Graham argues,

In practice, such a shift has massive and troubling implications. As we have seen with the so-called war on terror, it works to dramatically blur longstanding legal, political and ethical lines demarcating war and war-like acts from peace and criminal acts. It also fuses policing, military operations and the intelligence services much more closely as all three seek to build bigger and bigger surveillance operations to try to predict threats, especially those within the vulnerable labyrinths of big cities.

What will the real legacy of the London 2012 Olympics be? Graham offers a dystopic yet horribly believable view that suggests the worst long-term effects may not be immediately obvious,

 The security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested - especially in democracies. These often work to "purify" or "cleanse" diverse and messy realities of city life and portray existing places as "waste" or "derelict" spaces to be transformed by mysterious "trickle-down effects". The scale and nature of evictions and the clearance of streets of those deemed not to befit such events can seem like systematic ethnic or social cleansing. To make way for the Beijing Games, 1.5 million were evicted; clearances of local businesses and residents in London, though more stealthy, have been marked.

Stephen Graham's powerful analysis, and predictions of a "society on steroids", provides a necessary antidote to the constant, sycophantic media coverage of the Olympic build-up.


Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

Filed under: london2012olympics