Critics have it pegged as Minority Report, but Prevent isn’t really that exciting

Will Baldet Blogs 13/03/2017

Last week, it was revealed that security services have thwarted 13 potential terror attacks since June 2013 – preventing countless deaths and injuries. I think you would hard-pressed to find many people who would disagree with any efforts to prevent such attacks. However, when it comes to the efforts of reducing people’s susceptibility to terrorist ideologies in the first place, it can often be met with derision, conspiracy theories and plain ‘fake news’.

Far from being a massive conspiracy, Prevent is coordinated and implemented from within communities and through grassroots organisations, not in a secret underground bunker or in cyber space. Prevent is about safeguarding vulnerable individuals from radicalisation, preventing them from harm and from harming others.

Much effort goes into raising awareness with front line workers on how to recognise these signs of harm; hairdressers are taught to spot signs of domestic abuse, taxi drivers learn the warning signs of child sexual exploitation, youth workers are trained to identify risk factors for those on the cusp of offending and teachers receive guidance on a range of risks to children including physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental ill health, bullying, female genital mutilation, self-harm and eating disorders.

Identifying risk factors and vulnerability have been fundamental to safeguarding for decades, yet when Prevent adopts this same approach to reduce the risk of radicalisation, its critics label it “Orwellian”. Most people will agree that helping prevent young people falling into the criminal justice system is common sense and that preventing sexual exploitation or recruitment by violent gangs is basic safeguarding; yet when that harm is radicalisation then accusations of ‘thought police’ are bandied about as are ridiculous comparisons to the Tom Cruise blockbuster Minority Report. It seems that when we safeguard vulnerable people from grooming, exploitation and recruitment by terrorists, (and their advocates) we face a barrage of conspiracy theories and criticisms steeped in the language of science-fiction.

Fundamentally there seems to be a failure by some, perhaps willfully, to recognise that radicalisation can lead to real physically harm. Take the teenager I worked with who harbored fantasies of travelling to Syria, if he went what would have happened to him? Harm to him was likely; after all we know that over 100 Britons who have travelled to Syria have died there. Harm to others was also a possibility. This was a young man with no father to guide him and a mother who suffered from significant mental ill health. I helped him find charity work so he could be part of the humanitarian cause without putting himself in harm’s way and I challenged conspiracy theories he was receiving online, narratives that were designed to turn him against the UK and all of us living here, including his fellow Muslims. But mostly I listened to his concerns and offered help where I could and guided him to others for support where appropriate.

If all this sounds uncannily like the work of traditional harm reduction and social care, that’s because it is. I make no apology that Prevent mirrors the same approach used so successfully by other types of safeguarding, and contrary to the sensationalised image its critics try to cultivate, Prevent is not terribly exciting.

We look at factors such as isolation, alienation and the psychological fractures that create vulnerability. In some instances, we offer one-to-one mentoring to help make sense of a confusing world, such as we did for 10-year old Haroun in London who had been immersed in violent terrorist propaganda online. Or the young 16-year old who felt an outsider in school, his paranoia fed by neo-Nazi websites; we offered him a complex combination of social support, mentoring and life skills to build his resilience.

It suits our critics that Prevent is misunderstood, that it is often portrayed as existing in the shadows. Those that oppose Prevent routinely draw attention to a phrase the police use called the ‘pre-criminal space’, whereby the police divide the world into two distinct categories: those in the criminal space (those who have committed crimes) and those in the pre-criminal space (the rest of us, who haven’t). For me it is an awkward and clunky definition, but it warrants no more attention than a paragraph. When critics suggest this is a form of clairvoyance, their arguments are profoundly frail and perhaps their true motives warrant scrutiny.

As someone who has worked in this field for nearly a decade, this portrayal of Prevent is incredibly frustrating, because it makes people fearful of something designed to reduce harm. While hardened critics may continue their bombastic science-fiction claims, we will continue to tread the far less sensational but well-worn path of safeguarding: education, intervention, mentoring and support.

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