Stanley Cohen, in his seminal study Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1964), says that societies ‘appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic’.
Cohen said that:
‘A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerge to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved.’
Although Cohen was commenting on a different era, nevertheless his observations still retain contemporary resonance. John Macionis and Ken Plummer pointed out in 2002 that, since Cohen’s study in 1964, many such ‘folk devils’ and moral panics have been identified.
In the contemporary climate the moral panic has been identified as Islamic fundamentalists, radicalised Muslim youth and the ‘home-grown’ terrorist; as such these groups appear to most regularly make the media headlines. Building on Cohen’s assertion – and in the British context – one such moral panic is the fear of the increased threat of violence on British streets emanating from the identified modern ‘folk devils’ – the returning British-born jihadist.
This has been exacerbated by the wave of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheadings of Western hostages sending shockwaves throughout the world. The fact that those Western hostages executed were innocent people, going about their work in either delivering aid or simply reporting to the world the unfolding tragedy in that region, compounded the sense of revulsion and moral outrage as well as raising the uncomfortable question as to how to deal with this new and seemingly untouchable ‘force of evil’.
Furthermore, the fact that the US and UK intelligence community identified the chief executioner as a British subject – known in the media as ‘Jihadi John’ – sent tremors through-out the West.
The subsequent blanket broadcast media coverage that followed each of the executions was equalled by the British newspapers. Collectively, it could be argued that the British media succeeded in stimulating a new moral panic to which the then Coalition government had to respond.
The new moral panic lay not so much in the rise of ISIS, but rather the realisation that young British Muslims had joined their ranks, and were prepared to share with the social media savvy and other politically disillusioned young Muslim people in the UK the results of their ‘work’.
Part of this moral panic derived from the fact that despite the increased, and some might say draconian, measures put in place in the aftermath of the London bombings and Glasgow Airport attack in 2007, these appeared to be ineffectual. Measures such as increased surveillance of young Muslims, stop-and-search and the implementation of de-radicalisation projects including the PREVENT strategy, whilst designed to keep the public safe from terrorism appeared to only add to the radicalisation of a minority of young ‘hard to reach’ Muslims.
The ability to access ISIS propaganda via social media and the relative ease by which many could travel to Syria also served to heighten the sense of moral panic in the UK.
The enemy within
It was the identification of ‘Jihadi John’ (later identified as Mohammed Emwazi from London) as a British citizen that fuelled the panic. The fear of returning jihadists bringing violence to the streets of Britain, especially in the aftermath of the brutal killing of soldier Lee Rigby in broad daylight in Woolwich, London, served to heighten the sense of security in relatively secure Britain. The notion of the ‘home grown’ jihadist, or the ‘enemy within’, increased the calls for more security measures and government intervention.
‘Jihadi John’ hit the headlines with his chilling message: ‘I’m back and I’ll kill a Brit’ (Daily Mirror, September 3 2014); ‘A Briton will be next’ (Daily Mail, September 3 2014); ‘You’re next, Briton told’ (The Times, September 3 2014). The media headlines relating to ‘Jihadi John’ added to the call for tighter security, community surveillance and new legislation which resulted in David Cameron telling MPs:
‘It is abhorrent that people who declare their allegiance elsewhere can return to the United Kingdom and pose a threat to our national se- curity. We are clear in the principle that what we need is a targeted, discretionary power to allow us to exclude British nationals from the UK.’
However, according to the Guardian, this ‘clear statement of intent was not backed by any proposals to match the rhetoric’. The moral panic, following the initial outrage of the atrocities carried out by ‘Jihadi John’, was now giving way to the new reality – a growing number of young radicalised Britons were travelling to Syria and the prospect of jihadists bringing the fight to Britain’s streets.
The increasing political disagreement within the coalition government in terms of the best way to counter such threats mirrored the increasing anxiety. In attempting to bring a sense of leadership to this new reality, divisions within the government merely served to bring about a further sense of moral panic based on a perceived crisis of leadership.
Paddy Ashdown of the Liberal Democrats warned David Cameron and the government against the implementation of ill-thought out measures. Under a headline in the Observer (August 31 2014) ‘Ashdown slams ‘knee-jerk’ Tory response to jihadi terror threat’, the Lib Dem accused the Prime Minister of ‘stoking fear in the minds of the British people’.
With the security threat in the UK being raised to the level of ‘severe’, the debate regarding the measures needed to combat such threats was again, inadvertently, having the opposite effect. With continuing disagreement came continuing public disquiet at the uncertainty at the highest levels of government.
Apart from the uncertainty regarding the measures suggested – seizing of passports by the police, names being put on ‘no fly lists’, as well as the power to prevent suspected terrorists returning from abroad – the lack of legal certainty was also highlighted and, in particular, the latter measure likely to be challenged by human rights lawyers.
The Guardian pointed out that the government was wary of the testing of such issues in the high court and claimed that any legislation in the future would be drafted ‘to overturn any future ruling that strikes down the operation of these powers’ (September 2 2014). In relation to the seizing of passports, the former solicitor general Edward Garnier pointed out ‘this could be illegal as Britain is a signatory to at least two UN conventions preventing states making their citizens stateless’.
It might be argued that, while new legislation has been implemented, there remains a societal perception and sense of confusion generated by a seemingly uncertain government in how to deal with the new and uncomfortable reality and threat posed by returning jihadists. This uncertainty has perhaps brought with it a new moral panic, one that has replaced that generated by the gruesome executions of Britons by a Briton, ‘Jihadi John’.
This article appears in the first issue of Proof magazine (Justice in a time of moral panic) here
Alan is a senior lecturer in criminology at Winchester University