1984 in 2015: Counter Terrorism & Security Bill
A new piece of legislation currently being rushed through Parliament called the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill carries serious implications for communities across the UK. In particular, the Muslim community is brought under particular scrutiny as Part 5 of the Bill seeks to make reporting on those on pathway to terrorism (through ‘extremist’ actions, beliefs of statements) a statutory requirement. This means that nursery teachers, university lecturers, doctors, nurses and even opticians, will all be under a mandatory duty to inform to Prevent police if they feel one of their students, patients of even colleagues are at risk of becoming terrorists.
The potential impact of such legislation is limitless, as those who are placed in positions of reporting will have to base their concerns over their own subjective assumptions. With the government’s definition of extremism including those who do not respect British values, how will a doctor or teacher assess that an individual is not doing so, particularly where no definition of what constitutes British values is provided.
In George Orwell’s 1984, it is through the character Parsons, that Orwell makes his point about the way in which reporting/informing on others within a climate of fear, can lead to manifest abuses. Ultimately, that is the greatest danger behind such legislation, that while some may be happy with the prospect that Muslims will come under increased scrutiny, ultimately it is every community that will suffer.
“Parsons was Winston’s fellow-employee at the Ministry of Truth. He was a fattish but active man of paralysing stupidity, a mass of imbecile enthusiasms–one of those completely unquestioning, devoted drudges on whom, more even than on the Thought Police, the stability of the Party depended. At thirty-five he had just been unwillingly evicted from the Youth League, and before graduating into the Youth League he had managed to stay on in the Spies for a year beyond the statutory age. At the Ministry he was employed in some subordinate post for which intelligence was not required, but on the other hand he was a leading figure on the Sports Committee and all the other committees engaged in organizing community hikes, spontaneous demonstrations, savings campaigns, and voluntary activities generally.”
Parsons represents an unknowing and unseeing class of citizen, who sleepwalk their way through oppressive policies, constantly unaware of the impact that such policies can have on them. Like with the current iteration of the Prevent strategy, so much of its ‘effectiveness’ lies within its ability to keep communities in fear of non-compliance, despite it lack of power.
With debates emerging about the way in which the CTS Bill will impact within environments such as those with child minders and nursery workers, it is in fact Parsons’ children who represent the greatest danger of over reporting and the serious impacts it can have, albeit from a different perspective. The children are presented as having grown up in the national security paradigm that makes them obsessed with rooting out the ‘bad guys’ or the arch-enemy to the 1984 world in the form of ‘Goldstein’.
“There was a trampling of boots and another blast on the comb as the children charged into the living-room. Mrs Parsons brought the spanner. Winston let out the water and disgustedly removed the clot of human hair that had blocked up the pipe. He cleaned his fingers as best he could in the cold water from the tap and went back into the other room.
‘Up with your hands!’ yelled a savage voice.
A handsome, tough-looking boy of nine had popped up from behind the table and was menacing him with a toy automatic pistol, while his small sister, about two years younger, made the same gesture with a fragment of wood. Both of them were dressed in the blue shorts, grey shirts, and red neckerchiefs which were the uniform of the Spies. Winston raised his hands above his head, but with an uneasy feeling, so vicious was the boy’s demeanour, that it was not altogether a game.
‘You’re a traitor!’ yelled the boy. ‘You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!’
Suddenly they were both leaping round him, shouting ‘Traitor!’ and ‘Thought-criminal!’ the little girl imitating her brother in every movement. It was somehow slightly frightening, like the gambolling of tiger cubs which will soon grow up into man-eaters. There was a sort of calculating ferocity in the boy’s eye, a quite evident desire to hit or kick Winston and a consciousness of being very nearly big enough to do so. It was a good job it was not a real pistol he was holding, Winston thought.”
In this scene, Mrs Parsons apologises to the protagonist Winston, that the children are upset, as their father is not able to take them to the public execution of a spy. As Winston begins to leave their home after assisting with some plumbing, he is shot in the back of his head by the boy with a catapult with the accusation that he is ‘Goldstein’. Later Parsons approaches Winston at work to apologise for his son’s behaviour, although he fails to place danger of his son’s beliefs within a wider context. He becomes particular proud as he explains how his daughter denounced a stranger to the Thought Police – although this makes Winston uncomfortable, he is forced to accept that this was the right thing to do due to the prevailing narrative of threats and also the fear of not being seen to comply.
“’By the way, old boy,’ he said. ‘I hear that little beggar of mine let fly at you with his catapult yesterday. I gave him a good dressing-down for it. In fact I told him I’d take the catapult away if he does it again.’
‘I think he was a little upset at not going to the execution,’ said Winston.
‘Ah, well–what I mean to say, shows the right spirit, doesn’t it? Mischievous little beggars they are, both of them, but talk about keenness! All they think about is the Spies, and the war, of course. D’you know what that little girl of mine did last Saturday, when her troop was on a hike out Berkhamsted way? She got two other girls to go with her, slipped off from the hike, and spent the whole afternoon following a strange man. They kept on his tail for two hours, right through the woods, and then, when they got into Amersham, handed him over to the patrols.’
‘What did they do that for?’ said Winston, somewhat taken aback. Parsons went on triumphantly:
‘My kid made sure he was some kind of enemy agent–might have been dropped by parachute, for instance. But here’s the point, old boy. What do you think put her on to him in the first place? She spotted he was wearing a funny kind of shoes–said she’d never seen anyone wearing shoes like that before. So the chances were he was a foreigner. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh?’
‘What happened to the man?’ said Winston.
‘Ah, that I couldn’t say, of course. But I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if—-‘ Parsons made the motion of aiming a rifle, and clicked his tongue for the explosion.
‘Good,’ said Syme abstractedly, without looking up from his strip of paper.
‘Of course we can’t afford to take chances,’ agreed Winston dutifully.
‘What I mean to say, there is a war on,’ said Parsons.”
For some reason Winston suddenly found himself thinking of Mrs Parsons, with her wispy hair and the dust in the creases of her face. Within two years those children would be denouncing her to the Thought Police. Mrs Parsons would be vaporized. Syme would be vaporized. Winston would be vaporized. O’Brien would be vaporized. Parsons, on the other hand, would never be vaporized. The eyeless creature with the quacking voice would never be vaporized.”
Winston’s belief that is was only men like Parsons who would escape the Thought Police due to the way in which such men propped up the system ultimately turns out to be untrue. The narrative of security eventually impacts on all, even those who believe in the prevailing discourse with completely certainty. For Parsons though, his lack of understanding of the world around him results in his disbelief that he would ever be harmed, and despite his predicament, continues to maintain that he is a loyal subject, rather waking to the idea that it is the system that is broken.
“Parsons walked into the cell. He was wearing khaki shorts and a sports-shirt.
This time Winston was startled into self-forgetfulness.
‘YOU here!’ he said.
Parsons gave Winston a glance in which there was neither interest nor surprise, but only misery. He began walking jerkily up and down, evidently unable to keep still. Each time he straightened his pudgy knees it was apparent that they were trembling. His eyes had a wide-open, staring look, as though he could not prevent himself from gazing at something in the middle distance.
‘What are you in for?’ said Winston.
‘Thoughtcrime!’ said Parsons, almost blubbering. The tone of his voice implied at once a complete admission of his guilt and a sort of incredulous horror that such a word could be applied to himself. He paused opposite Winston and began eagerly appealing to him: ‘You don’t think they’ll shoot me, do you, old chap? They don’t shoot you if you haven’t actually done anything–only thoughts, which you can’t help? I know they give you a fair hearing. Oh, I trust them for that! They’ll know my record, won’t they? YOU know what kind of chap I was. Not a bad chap in my way. Not brainy, of course, but keen. I tried to do my best for the Party, didn’t I? I’ll get off with five years, don’t you think? Or even ten years? A chap like me could make himself pretty useful in a labour-camp. They wouldn’t shoot me for going off the rails just once?’
‘Are you guilty?’ said Winston.
‘Of course I’m guilty!’ cried Parsons with a servile glance at the telescreen. ‘You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?’ His frog-like face grew calmer, and even took on a slightly sanctimonious expression. ‘Thoughtcrime is a dreadful thing, old man,’ he said sententiously. ‘It’s insidious. It can get hold of you without your even knowing it. Do you know how it got hold of me? In my sleep! Yes, that’s a fact. There I was, working away, trying to do my bit–never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all. And then I started talking in my sleep. Do you know what they heard me saying?’
He sank his voice, like someone who is obliged for medical reasons to utter an obscenity.
‘”Down with Big Brother!” Yes, I said that! Said it over and over again, it seems. Between you and me, old man, I’m glad they got me before it went any further. Do you know what I’m going to say to them when I go up before the tribunal? “Thank you,” I’m going to say, “thank you for saving me before it was too late.”‘
‘Who denounced you?’ said Winston.
‘It was my little daughter,’ said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. ‘She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh? I don’t bear her any grudge for it. In fact I’m proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway.’”
In a world where ideas, thoughts and beliefs are being criminalised on a statutory basis, we would do well to remember Orwell’s prophetic novel. In it we see reflected a world that will come to be, should we not arrest the current trajectory on which this government basis its ideas. The notion that a man, woman or child should be reported to counter-terrorism police for expressing thoughts and opinions places us within the very world that Orwell tried to warn against.