Terrorism contigency posters have been distributed across the University, including at University libraries, Merton, St Catherine’s, Christ Church, and the History Faculty buildings.
The posters encourage students to evacuate or hide in the event of an “incident”, before going on to mention terrorism explicitly. One section reads, “Staff and students should remain alert to the danger of terrorism but should not let the fear of terrorism stop them from going about their day-to-day life as normal.”
The University has been keen to reassure anxious students, including one passage on the poster’s design reading, “the purpose of this guidance is to alert and not to alarm – it is not being provided in response to any specific information.”
The posters were recently circulated in an email, to all students in the History Faculty, which referred to the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month. The notice stated, “In light of events in Paris over the weekend all University departments have been asked to circulate the attached information sheet. Colleges have been similarly advised. Thames Valley Police advises that people should continue to go about their business as normal but remain vigilant.”
The History Faculty’s Head of Administration and Finance, David Hyland, who sent the original email, said that he decided “that it would also be helpful to circulate it now by email to all students, in light of recent events in Paris and elsewhere.” He added, “Not all History students come into the main Faculty building all that often and so several students might not have read the notice.”
In a separate statement, a University spokesperson underlined the University’s commitment to the government’s anti-terror ‘Prevent’ programme and that the alerts were purely precautionary. The statement read, “In the light of a number of armed attacks around the world recently, the University’s Security Sub-committee, in consultation with OUSU, has developed an information sheet for staff and students on what to do in the event of such an attack.
“It is important to note that this information is not being provided in response to a specific threat to the University, and staff and students should not be unnecessarily alarmed by it. However, the University believes that, given recent events around the world, it is sensible and appropriate to provide guidance on this issue, as it routinely does on other health and safety matters.”
OUSU’s BME Students Officer, Nikhil Venkatesh, told Cherwell, “It is of course important that the University and colleges take the security of students seriously, and the attacks in Paris show that we cannot assume we are always safe from terrorism. However, we need to be aware that increased fears about terrorism can be particularly harmful to Muslim students.
“They are now more likely to face Islamophobic attacks, or feel that people are scared of them, when the vast majority of Muslims have nothing to do with terrorism. In fact, there are more racist attacks by white supremacists in Britain than there are terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists. The security of everyone is best served when we stand together, regardless of religion or background.”
Venkatesh continued, “This all ties into our concerns about the University’s implementation of ‘Prevent’: this legislation requires that staff monitor student events, our web usage and political views, and refer those who they think are at risk of ‘radicalisation’ to the police. We know that Muslim and BME students are more likely to be suspects in this regard, particularly as Prevent defines ‘extremism’ as holding views incompatible with ‘traditional British values’, whatever they are. There was a case of a student at another university who was arrested after a librarian saw him reading a book on terrorism. He was writing a thesis about terrorism and how to fight against it, but because he was Muslim he was immediately suspected.”
Analysis: Keep calm and stay vigilant: the need for doublethink (Freddie Hopkinson)
I must admit that, last Friday, when I first received an email from the History Faculty “in light of events in Paris over the weekend”, I was a little surprised. Even with attacks as close to home as those in Paris, it is always hard to envisage something like that ever happening to you. Looking again at the email made me realise that, as much as I would personally like to carry on as if nothing has happened, something about the events of two weeks ago has made people’s behaviour change. On one level or another, this year’s wave of terror attacks has found its way deep into the public’s subconscious.
The leaflet makes it clear that we should be “alert and not alarmed”, that we must not let fear of terrorism stop us from going about our day-to-day lives as normal, that, in the words of Thames Valley Police, we should remain “vigilant”. In all of these statements there is a strange paradox between the desire to ignore and defy the message of terror attacks and the need to be alert. It is almost as if the university authorities are afraid to admit that they are paranoid about the dangers of an attack.
If you bother to read the leaflet, you’ll find that it is mainly common sense. It seems to have been written long before any specific attack and screams the obvious: if you see an armed man or woman on campus, for God’s sake, call the police and get away.
What is more interesting about its circulation in some colleges and in my faculty is that people feel they have to say something now. Taking either perspective, this overreaction, or understatement, of the threat that could possibly face us represents a localised reaction to what is going on all over the world.
The wave of terror attacks that has devastated France, Kenya, and countless other places this year has, for the first time since 9/11, really forced people all over the world to reconsider their role in the global conflicts fundamentalists are trying to instigate. Sadly, this leaflet is yet another example of us being reluctantly drawn into a game of fear with our potential attackers. In universities all over the place, the depressing state of affairs that means students are being reminded to stay vigilant is a sign that the times have changed – we can no longer naturally assume safety on our own campuses.
Perhaps one day there will be an attack like the one described in the leaflet here in Oxford, and perhaps the instructions on this leaflet will save someone’s life – I can only hope and pray that there isn’t. In the meantime, we need to take the leaflet’s advice and not be too alarmed by the possibility of an attack.
In a global context, our continuation of our studies, our interests and our social lives is the most significant thing that we can do to defy those that want to intimidate us. Only by carrying on as normal will we show up the warped logic behind terrorism.