Security discourses are getting mixed

Submitted on Mon, 04/24/2017 - 10:11
Sirpa Virta/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
“There are no easy answers to security questions. If there were, we would already have them,” Professor Sirpa Virta says. Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Professor Sirpa Virta estimates that societal peace in Finland is not as solid as people are accustomed to thinking

The way people talk about security has revealed political and ideological differences. Professor Sirpa Virta estimates that societal peace in Finland is not as solid as people are accustomed to thinking.

Virta, who is professor of security governance at the University of Tampere, has noticed that two discourses are getting mixed especially between the Government and opposition.

“Since my background is in political science, I see weak signals that societal peace and the related social issues are no longer on as high a level as we are used to in Finland. There have been protests which luckily have not been very violent,” Virta says.

The security realpolitik represented by the Government with cutbacks to education is increasing inequality and social exclusion. At the same time, the Government is also talking about counterterrorism and hybrid threats. The opposition is concerned about asylum seekers and integration.

“We have a Government that very closely follows the EU’s counterterrorism policies, but we also have a strong and strengthening movement of people who think that safety and security belong to all human beings equally. I call this security solidarity,” Virta says.

Are the policies undermining the Government’s own counterterrorism goals?

“Yes, but on the other hand I also have much sympathy for the government and especially the authorities because we do not have easy solutions. Security is not one indivisible entity; it means entirely different things to different people and groups,” Virta continues.

No country is safe

In the past weeks, international terrorism has come close to Finland because of the suicide bomber in St. Petersburg’s underground and the hijacked lorry, which a terrorist drove into the crowd in a busy street in Stockholm. Norway also raised its terrorist threat level after a bomb was discovered in Oslo. Could such an attack happen in Finland?

“This is the question journalists always pose, but it is the wrong question to be asked of the authorities,” Virta answers.

According to Minister of the Interior Paula Risikko, the threat of terrorism has also increased in Finland. However, Virta prefers the answer given by Director Antti Pelttari from the Finnish Security Intelligence Service who turned the question into a matter of counterterrorism.

Virta says that in the same week as the attack in Stockholm, there was a terrorist attack in Egypt killing about fifty people and wounding a hundred. That made small news in Finland.

“Nobody seemed to be very interested in the events in Egypt even though people were killed on a much larger scale. To put it bluntly: if the attack in Stockholm had happened in the Middle East, it would not have made news here at all,” Virta says.

Virta asks whether human life has a different price in different countries. She also says that one of the first questions asked about the Stockholm attack in Finland was whether there were any Finns among the victims.

“The Finns apparently want to have some sort of reassurance that we are particularly safe from such tragic events,” Virta explains and says that the Nordic countries are not any safer from terrorist propaganda than other countries.

Security threats have changed

Compared to school shootings and family killings that Finland is notorious for, international terrorism is a completely new threat. However, it is not always clear whether the perpetrators have a connection to international networks and whether terrorism is the most critical motive.

The terrorist who attacked in Stockholm was a refugee who had stayed in Sweden illegally after being denied asylum.

“A disillusioned person may think that they are letting their conscience off the hook when they do such a horrendous act and gain publicity and attention. For them, it is also a game,” Virta says.

Asylum seeking means that a refugee enters the social system of the new country. In extreme cases, a negative asylum decision may lead to a solution where the violent act is the new magic word to enable moving forward in the system.

Are terrorist acts and school killings fundamentally about the same thing, social exclusion?

“That explanation is too easy because it puts the blame on some other party and mitigates the seriousness of the crime,” Virta answers.

Finnish security governance is in good shape

Single terrorist attacks gain much attention but at the same time, people are unaware that the authorities are preventing a large number of attacks because they are never made public.

“Especially schools keep receiving threats which the police investigate. Security goverenance, the cooperation of authorities and everything related to that are in a good shape in Finland,” Virta says.

Virta says that she has used an imaginary example in her lectures where the authorities must decide what to do in the event of a gas attack, a deadly virus or another biological weapon in the London underground. The alternatives are to seal all exits, in which case a million people would be trapped and killed. The other alternative is to endanger the lives of all people in London.

“That is an extreme example, but such things must be considered in counterterrorism. The preparedness of authorities is confidential and secret in order to prevent the terrorists from finding out. If these things were generally known, it would also diminish people’s feelings of security. Ignorance is bliss,” Virta explains.

In the Finnish version, the authorities have to decide whether to shoot down a hijacked airplane bringing home vacationers from Tenerife if the plane is flying to a critical target, such as a nuclear power plant.

“These are very difficult questions which cannot be asked of the citizens; if your own family members are on the plane, you will say no, but if there were nobody you know on the plane, you would give permission to shoot down the plane. These are fundamental moral issues related to our conception of people and humanity, which is why they are so difficult,” Virta explains.

Forced removals are political decisions

The security realpolitik recently collided with security solidarity when the forced removal of refugees who had been denied asylum aroused protests in Finland. The demonstrators blamed the police and even stopped a police car on its way to an emergency.

Virta says that the police were the wrong target for the protests because police work is based on political decisions.

“The police are criticised for not giving prior warning about the flights taking the refugees away. Journalists pose obnoxious questions that make the police look ridiculous. Police cannot reveal questions related to their tactics because that would endanger the whole endeavour,” Virta says.

The aim of the authorities’ communications is to provide sufficient information without jeopardising the task at hand.

“Questioning the actions of the police is quite all right; I do it myself all the time even though I teach police officers. It is the best way to make them use better arguments,” Virta says.

Professor Virta is a member of the Nordic Centre of Excellence NordSteva (Nordic Centre for Security Technologies and Societal Values) that is investigating political violence, cybercrime, pandemics and economic crises. In 2014, this network of researchers in six universities received a grant of EUR 2.4 million from NordForsk’s Societal Security Programme.

Virta is also the director of the UniSecurity project investigating the new kind of threats targeted at Finnish universities, such as armed attacks or other violence, hate mail received by researchers and teachers, threatening behaviour and harassment.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli