Thursday, 29 January 2015

Can a piece of tape make us safe from terrorism?

Last week I arrived at work (a university outside Paris) to discover I couldn't enter the door. It was chained and had tape wrapped around it. I tried another door, and other. Three sides of the building had hastily printed signs saying the doors were 'condemned'. It was the same in the other campus buildings. There was only one entry/exit door per building. These are buildings of 4-6 levels. It was pouring with rain and I was carrying almost 20 kgs of equipment and documents so I was a bit perturbed. It was also ironic as I was told by the photocopying office that they were unable to print teaching materials for students as they were out of paper.

As I trudged around the campus looking for ways in, I noticed that there were metal barriers wrapped around with red and white plastic tape outside the uni. It looked like a crime scene. All parking outside had been eliminated.  It was still the case this week so I asked reception what was going on? The nice man replied that it was by order of the Prefecture, not even the president of the university had done this; a consequence of the Vigipirate - the French level of security alert. Hmm. I felt damned uncomfortable but I didn't feel menaced by terrorists. I felt scared because of the reaction.

President Holland had publicly stated that 'we would not be afraid... we would never give in to terrorists...' but haven't we just done that, emotionally? I'm all for keeping folks safe (including my students and me), but it needs to be carefully thought out and implemented properly. France knew about the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher supermarket terrorists before it happened but failed to act to prevent the massacre. Here we were with no identifiable threat but we were blocking the doors and turning the place into a shrine to fear.

So let's look at this logically. If they want to control entry they need to have it under surveillance. There are very amateurish and extremely recent computer-printed signs suggesting the entry is under surveillance. Really? I could see no sign of a camera. Having a camera wouldn't be very useful; you need an armed person checking everyone's ID and bags in order to keep us safe. There is no-one. Why? No money, my students told me.

Then I remember President Hollande had suddenly found the resources in this indebted country to increase security personnel around France by an extra 50,000 which seems to have automatically increased his appalling popularity rating from barely two figures to a whopping 40% in just a week. Bad news is good news/ the sheeple have clearly thought this through. But my uni is obviously too far out from Paris to be considered important enough by the politicians and tacticians to protect in truly practical terms. Here are the various levels of the vigipirate...

I asked the nice man at reception how long the doors would be blocked. As long as we have the terror alert, he informed me. Well, I don't know what it will take to suddenly have the world a safer place so we can lower the vigipirate. Prime Minister Valls was reported in the media last week as saying that students would have to get used to living their lives indefinitely now under a threat of terrorism. OKayyy!

I wondered what my students thought so I asked them. Discussions on the serious situation facing France is encouraged in primary schools, to help people cope,  so listening to students was interesting for me because this sort of situation is not yet the norm in New Zealand (though the NZ Prime Minister is probably taking actions to ensure it becomes so, one day).

The general feeling was the splendid show of unity in the post-Charlie march in Paris hadn't achieved anything of lasting value. One student said a bomb launched into a uni building would mean no-one would get out via one small door. How quickly would campus security get the doors open again in a different emergency? The order to shut the buildings' doors, effectively keeping people from getting out in a hurry, and the threat to search bags (never happens) was symbolic, they told me, as without true monitoring of doors anyone can enter; it changes safety not a wit, in a positive sense.

Don't worry, my students said, eventually they'll have to lower the alert level otherwise they won't have a level left to raise it to if something else happens. They can't keep it like that but they must be seen to be doing something. Sure, I agree but couldn't they do something logical, realistic, effective? Do I have to continue indefinitely to operate in such a negative environment, in the middle of a crime scene, only there's no crime? There has been nothing but silence from the uni's communication department. I can't find any mention of any of this on the uni website news page.

Humans are adaptable so my students and I will all get used to reduced rights and a negative atmosphere. It's actually easier to deal with this than the fact that it's impossible to buy a drink on campus. I'm on campus from 8.30am-8pm on Mondays, for example. My health is more under threat from dehydration and urinary tract infections caused by lack of any drink vending machines than radicalised students or outsiders.
I applaud the sentiments that brought people out in Paris and got them talking about free speech but day-to-day life is not showing any positive changes for the better and I don't feel safer. The local armed military personnel are only evident in the Paris area of Ile de France. We chuckled ironically, shook our heads and shrugged our shoulders, my students and I, as our way of trying to deal with the changed situation and the craziness of it all. After all, what can any of us do, caught between terrorists and politicians.

Well done to all the boots-on-the-ground personnel dedicated to helping some of us stay safe, but where to from here?


Anonymous said...

I'm currently giving lessons in some Catholic primary schools. I was informed that it would now be more difficult to enter/leave the schools with the red alert - like I'd have to buzz to get in. Umm... as long as it's lunch or the end of the day, the doors are wide open for the parents (or anybody) to walk right in just like before. I don't get it....


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