We Are all Protestors Now

UK policy makers responsible for securing the 2012 Olympics may well be looking at the chaos surrounding the current Torch relay and wondering what lessons, if any, might be learned in the preparations for the London Games.

By Anthony McGee

Olympic Relay Tibet ProtestFor critics, the award of the Games to Beijing crystallised all too clearly China’s continued ascent to superpower status and the international community’s growing willingness to accommodate the country regardless of its lack of democratisation and poor human rights record. The international legitimacy that China will derive from the Games has appalled a range of actors to such an extent that the protests now seem destined to follow the Torch on its journey around the world. Further, it seems impossible that protests and direct action will not be central themes of the Olympics themselves this summer.

Even the most pessimistic libertarians do not envisage the UK being subject to the types of criticisms which are prompting the current protests. So, on one level, the current situation is quite unique. However, on other levels the torch debacle may well be instructive, not least because of the way it has highlighted the new risks that countries incur as a result of globalisation and networked communications.

In one of its most interesting passages, the new National Security Strategy observes that the distinction between foreign and domestic policy is now unhelpful in a globalised world. Among the Olympic protestors there will undoubtedly be contingents of Tibetans and dissident Chinese who are motivated by direct experience and have a material stake in events. However, the majority of the crowds that have gathered to protest at the passage of the torch have never suffered Chinese oppression and have been motivated purely on the basis of what they have read and seen via the internet and twenty-four hour media. While the phenomenon of people being moved to act by events from which they are geographically removed is not a new one, what has changed is the speed and level of organisation with which groups of affected individuals can be mobilised.

By the time the Olympic Torch reaches Beijing, thousands of individuals will have protested at its journey. The vast majority will have been moved to act without regard for the many national boundaries that separate them from China and Tibet. In support of people and principles that have roused their interest, they will gather and systematically challenge the security arrangements of domestic police forces in numerous cities around the world. What better example of the diminishing gap between the foreign and the domestic could one ask for? With improved communications technology, wider access to that technology and more sophisticated utilisation, it seems inevitably that moves toward a so-called ‘global community’ will only quicken.

Added to these dynamics is the apparently growing trend of ‘protest tourism’. Cheap transport and fewer restrictions on movement mean that individuals can now not only sympathise with injustice elsewhere, they can travel to the injustice. Or, travel to be with liked minded people opposing the injustice at some strategically or symbolically important location.

The result of all this? It may well be a markedly more complex security environment. How can disorder and crises be effectively predicted as we move toward societies so closely interconnected that an injustice anywhere on the globe can potentially spark popular opinion and manifest itself in London as civil disobedience, direct protest or worse?

The wording of the National Security Strategy represents an important recognition of such developments. However, recognising developments and responding to them are quite separate. The challenge for those planning London’s Games in 2012 is a huge one. In a world which is becoming rapidly more complicated, they must look four years into the future and plan for a security environment they cannot predict. After the scenes in London and Paris, similarly fervent protests are certainly planned in Australia and the US. London’s security planners might be wise to view the relay of the Torch as symbolic not of ‘the light of sprit knowledge and life’, but rather as symbolic of a world that is becoming inextricably interwoven. A world where everything is apparently connected to everything, in which dependencies and ramifications are hugely difficult to map.

A failure to comprehend the global mood and attempts to police it in domestic isolation has left the ambitious relay of the Torch a disastrous farce. If future international, high profile events are to be spared the same fate, it is important that the provision of security reflects the changing global context in which they will take place.

Anthony McGee
Head of Risk and Resilience, Homeland Security and Resilience Department


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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