Non-violent protest, state security, and the ‘supernatural’ case of Helen Duncan

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A piece I wrote in response to the recent ‘Independent’ article written by Caroline Lucas MP, regarding the case of activists charged with terrorism laws today.


Caroline Lucas MP, the co-leader of the UK Green Party, recently wrote an article for The Independent (posted online) – regarding what she suggests is a worrying precedent.

“Activists are being charged under terrorism laws for the first time in Britain – this sets a dangerous precedent”

As Lucas notes, the legislation used by the CPS in this case is the Aviation and Maritime Security Act, legislation originally intended to address the ‘threat’ or risk of destruction to airports and seaports by international terrorists. Indeed, it was created in light of the Lockerbie Bombing.

As the summary of the legislation states:

“The overall objective is to increase the resilience of the maritime network by creating a more consistent security culture across the world.

The UK played a leading role in the adoption, in October 2005, of the protocol to the 1988 convention for the suppression of unlawful acts against the safety of maritime navigation. This protocol requires parties to criminalise the use of a ship as part of a terrorist act, establishes and international legal basis to counter the proliferation and trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and related materials on the high seas. Once this protocol enters into force, it will improve the effectiveness of international cooperation to combat terrorist acts at sea in compliance with international law.

An international strategy for maritime security is being developed to increase the resilience of the maritime network by embedding a security culture at all levels in maritime operations. It will increase security awareness, develop skills and capabilities through practical training and, where appropriate, the provision of equipment. The strategy will depend on working collaboratively with other countries by sharing and encouraging the implementation of best practice. It will also seek to deliver the UK’s counter piracy initiatives.

The strategy will build upon on-going consultations with other government departments, identifying and prioritising the countries and regions of interest with particular reference to:

  • countries within which terrorist activity poses a direct threat or developing threat
  • geographical locations that are of strategic importance to UK trade and shipping patterns
  • countries which give cause for concern as evidenced by a poor record of compliance with the international ship and port facility security code
  • countries where the conditions are conducive to receiving such assistance”

As for what may be considered a threat:

An assessment of the threat to British interests from international terrorism is provided by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC). The security levels set by DfT are determined in consultation with JTAC. The JTAC threat levels purely relate to the terrorist threat. In translating the threat level to a security level DfT has to consider other factors which affect the risk of a serious attack at sea. This can include an evaluation and verification of the measures that are in place to mitigate the risk of an attack at a particular location. Information on the security situation provided by embassy based Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials can be taken into account in this evaluation.

As someone who has previously attended Conference at the Gates, a CAAT supported day of non-violent protest, similar to this protest and protester methods – and as a critical scholar who has researched and reviewed terrorism literature and counter-terror approaches; I struggle to see how non-violent protest and blocking a site and practice of unlawful extradition may be viewed as comparable and similar to acts of political violence, such as the Lockerbie attack. In my view, it is only possible if viewed from the perspective of a capitalist, ‘realist’ state concerned with maximising state security and economic prosperity, over personal security and liberty of the individual. I’ve highlighted peace economics in another post on this blog, which explores this.

Non-violent protest comes from a rationale of peace, pacifism, and resistance of oppression. Human rights are a central concern. Political violence, and acts which have, post-9/11 particularly, been referred to as ‘terrorism’ – are motivated by anger and a desire for violent revenge or retribution, to account for a perceived wrong. In this context, harm caused to others in pursuit of this aim is considered necessary collateral. As such, human rights, particularly the rights of others, are ignored or sacrificed. Whilst both types of action are technically interested in ‘change’ of some kind – the methods and motivations are very different, as is the philosophical approach taken. The intended ‘targets’ of the act are also very different. It is very problematic to conflate the two, and to further complicate matters by broadening an already muddled and varied collection of definitions for terrorism.

a single definition of terrorism is invariably broad owing to the need to accommodate the lowest common denominator. This is damaging to the ‘principle of legality’ as recognized in British public law and the ECHR. Moreover, this problem is further exacerbated by the increasing application of counterterrorism legislation to non-international armed conflicts. This article therefore suggests an alternative solution: multiple definitions of terrorism whose breadth is dependent upon the specific circumstances for which they are designed. Fears that such an approach may amount to an ‘expression of inconsistency’ will be addressed by arguing that law’s capacity to shape and frame public and political debate on the concept of terrorism is over-exaggerated. Legal definitions of terrorism therefore should remain primarily concerned with the legal rather than political function of defining terrorism.

Indeed, an Independent Report to government by Lord Carlile of Berriew Q.C. came to similar conclusions in 2007.

That being said, given my PhD research, I believe this report by Lucas and am unsurprised that the UK government would attempt to broaden the definition of ‘terrorist’ in this way. They are not the only one’s who have. The ability of states to do this is no doubt a result also of a lack of understanding about ‘dissent‘ and it’s place in a democracy.

Furthermore, I would suggest Lucas may be mistaken about the establishment of a precedent, in regards to this matter. Whilst it may be the first time this legislation was used in this way, it is not the first time the UK Government has used obscure legislation to charge someone as a potential national threat, in a time of global insecurity.

Is this further militarization and inclusion of spaces into a securitized view of social spaces?

Securitization theory: “Securitisation theory shows us that national security policy is not a natural given, but carefully designated by politicians and decision-makers. According to securitisation theory, political issues are constituted as extreme security issues to be dealt with urgently when they have been labelled as ‘dangerous’, ‘menacing’, ‘threatening’, ‘alarming’ and so on by a ‘securitising actor’ who has the social and institutional power to move the issue ‘beyond politics’. So, security issues are not simply ‘out there’ but rather must be articulated as problems by securitising actors. Calling immigration a ‘threat to national security’, for instance, shifts immigration from a low priority political concern to a high priority issue that requires action, such as securing borders. Securitisation theory challenges traditional approaches to security in IR and asserts that issues are not essentially threatening in themselves; rather, it is by referring to them as ‘security’ issues that they become security problems.

Consider the case of Helen Duncan, a Scottish Clairvoyant.


“In September 1944, Helen Duncan was jailed under the Witchcraft Act on the grounds that she had claimed to summon spirits. Her followers often contend that her imprisonment was in fact at the behest of superstitious military intelligence officers, who feared that she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day. She came to the attention of the authorities after supposedly contacting the spirit of a sailor of the HMS Barham, whose sinking was hidden from the general public at the time. After being caught faking a spiritual manifestation, she was arrested during a seance and indicted with seven punishable counts: two of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, two of obtaining money by false pretences, and three of public mischief (a common law offence). She spent nine months in prison. Duncan has been frequently described as the last person to be convicted under the Act.

The last person convicted under the Act was Jane Rebecca Yorke of Forest Gate in east London. On 26 September 1944 at the Central Criminal Court, Yorke was convicted on seven counts of “pretending…to cause the spirits of deceased persons to be present” and bound over.[6][7]

The last threatened use of the Act against a medium was in 1950.”

What is clear from this is, in times of insecurity or where there appears an outside threat to national security (and often economic security), one may see such militarization and securitization domestically. This may result in the use of obscure legislation in pursuit of state interests. Unfortunately, as we have been warned in much critical scholarship, this is enabling an erosion of civil liberties and the incorporation of dissent and non-violent protest into the definition of terrorism. As the youth are increasingly turning to protest to promote change – we must be cautious about legitimizing an approach which would criminalise and alienate the young further. In securing the state, we must not neglect the security and liberty of the individual.

Note: I wouldn’t usually cite Wikipedia in this way – but given the nature of this blog, the improvements in recent years to the way it is populated with material, and limited time – I did cite it for the historical context here.

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