A polygraph machine. Photo: Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images
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Suzanne Moore: I felt confident about taking a lie detector test. Then I remembered my Robin Hood past

“I just want to explain about the ham,” I said.

When I tell people that I have taken a lie detector test, they always seem to assume I’ve been involved in some major fraud. Or been on Jeremy Kyle. I am not a great liar but I’d always thought that . . . you know, I could front stuff out. Yet, when I found myself on the 35th floor of a Manhattan office block and was shown into a very small waiting room, I began to wonder about my ability to tell the truth.

All of this was happening because I’d applied for a job in a record shop. It sent me for a lie detector test, which it said was standard. Everyone knows that such tests are rubbish. I mean, what’s the science behind them? As I wasn’t a criminal mastermind, it would be no bother but waiting in an airless room made me anxious.

A very large man came out and called me in and said we would talk through “the procedure”.

“No need,” I said breezily. “I have seen it in films.”

“No. It’s important you understand what is about to happen.”

He explained where I would sit, how I would be wired up, how sensors would pick up my heartbeat. “And pulses and perspiration.”

Suddenly I felt very hot. Also, faint.

Then he read out the list of questions he was going to ask me. And I realised I was not prepared for this at all.

“Have you ever stolen anything from a workplace – by ‘anything’, it could be a pen, a drawing pin – or made a phone call for free?”

Jesus. Of course I had.

What about the Saturday job I had at a supermarket, in which I passed stuff through the till for some customers without ringing it up, as I felt that old people should not really have to pay? My personal redistribution of wealth started at 14. When they put me on the deli counter, I decided that anyone who looked a bit poor should get free ham. It never entered my head that this was actual stealing.

Should I say something now, or when I was wired up?

“I will also be asking you several questions about substance abuse. When I say ‘substance’, I am, of course, including alcohol.”

Anticipating your own lies makes you sweat.

He took me to the chair and put stuff around my head, my heart, my fingers.

“I gave out ham. I was really young,” I blurted out.

“Please stay silent and simply answer the questions.”

“It wasn’t ordinary stealing. It was for other people.”

“I have asked you to be quiet.”

“I just want to explain about the ham.”

“Do you understand anything about what is happening now?”

He was very annoyed.

“Yes, that’s why I am trying to be honest. It’s not like I have done an armed robbery.”

At this, the needles on the polygraph went berserk. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.