Lee Jarvis reflects on academic responsibility after events such as in Manchester
Since news broke of Monday’s awful attack at the Manchester arena, I’ve received lots of invitations for interviews from media outlets. Given that I work on terrorism and counter-terrorism, this isn’t particularly unusual. Events such as this are clearly newsworthy, and raise lots of questions for publics and policymakers alike.
Usually I say yes to such requests. There is – I think – a responsibility on those of us fortunate to spend our time writing and teaching to try to communicate our thoughts beyond the university; perhaps especially when that topic has immediate public interest. There are also, of course, professional reasons – or motivations – for reaching out to as wide an audience as possible. And – if I’m being honest – it’s also flattering to get asked to do these things, even if deep down I know the media has to fill airtime somehow.
Yet, while I usually say yes, I also tend to end up a little disappointed with my efforts.
Often this is because I’m invited to speak about something ill-understood, or still unfolding; I remember, clearly, being pressed on al Qaeda in the aftermath of Anders Breivik’s 2011 attack in Norway. More than this, though, the types of question I tend to get asked are often not those I’m best placed to answer. This might be because my knowledge is limited: although I write on terrorism, I don’t really work on issues around intelligence gathering, policing, or related topics which recur after such events. Or, because I have no relevant training to draw on: how can I attempt to say anything worthwhile to those upset by witnessing such events, much less to victims or families caught up in them? Or, sometimes it is because I’m sceptical about the premises behind particular questions – for instance when I am asked about the ‘radicalisation’ of terrorist suspects.
What I tend to do as a starting point, then, is attempt to build three arguments into my answers, almost whatever the event. First, let’s be patient and find out a little more before rushing to judge an event ‘terrorist’, much less ‘Islamist’, ‘evil’, or the work of a specific organisation. Second, let’s not over-react and meet harm and violence with more harm and violence – military, communal, or discursive. And, third, although it’s really difficult to do, it’s important that we try to keep the threat of terrorism (at least in the UK) in context.
When I do manage this – and I have had some great discussions with some really interesting journalists – my disappointment tends to make way for something closer to (but not as strong as) worry. It’s easy to see how my stock answer is a long way from the platitudes that swamp social and broadcast media after an attack – many of which are obviously well-meaning. And, it’s not difficult, either, to see how my starting point could be seen as insensitive, unsympathetic, irreverent, apologetic, unpatriotic, disloyal, a distraction, or worse. (Although I’m far more concerned about appearing disrespectful than unpatriotic).
So, when news broke about Monday’s attack, I decided to respond by writing something initially, and see where that took me. This would give me space to articulate my thoughts more clearly, and to respond on terrain I’d set myself. I therefore wrote a short piece on the immediate response to the attack which focused on the suspension of electoral campaigning and inevitable appeals for political and public unity. The argument I tried to make was that these responses worked to reinforce a particular opposition between terrorism and the political, imagining the latter as a space of non-violent, consensual activity (in fact, looking back, I didn’t make the argument quite as concisely as this!). This is not a stunningly original
argument, but it is important, I think, to explore how events are given meaning and to consider the work that such meaning-making practices do.
And yet, the thing is, after doing this – I felt worse than normal!
The more I followed subsequent coverage of the events, the more it felt as though I’d got my terrain wrong. Perhaps it was too soon to try to think through such questions. And perhaps my response did indeed trivialise – despite my caveats – the targeting and death of, amongst others, children in what would be a devastating event for many families. So, I didn’t do anything to publicise my blog, and I fell back to just following unfolding events on my computer.
And, that’s where I’m at now, really.
I do think it’s important that the news vacuum after attacks such as in Manchester isn’t simply filled with (what are often disparagingly called) ‘terrorism experts’ speculating on strategy, intelligence, terrorism threat levels, and the shoring up of national security. In fact, I think the invisibility of other types of scholar and other types of scholarship at such moments works to re-produce the especial importance of particular research agendas and their connections to ineffective, indeed often harmful, forms of politics and policy.
Perhaps more controversially, I also think it can be important to do something other, or more, than express sympathy for the victims of such attacks, however well-meaning such expressions might be. (Although, I’m aware, of course, that this piece might itself seem a self-absorbed distraction).
I’m sure I’ll say yes, again, in the future. In fact, I have things I’d like to say now about the UK’s response to the attack, not least with the raising of threat levels and militarisation of Britain’s streets (although my concerns about appearing irreverent would no doubt resurface). I guess, in the meantime, I’m really only left with questions (none of which, again, are startlingly original): Who gets to decide what can and can’t be discussed after horrific events? Whose interests are served by such discursive rules and constraints? When is it appropriate to pursue different sorts of question, or to move beyond expressions of grief or sympathy? What responsibility do different types of research(er) have after such events? And, how might I experience such constraints (which I have – let’s be clear – only, really, assumed) should I want to speak from a position less privileged than my own?
Lee Jarvis, is a Reader at the University of East Anglia