Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Will Olympic security measures go too far?
Would you like anti-aircraft missiles stationed on the roof of your home? How about finding them just lying around outside your front door? As this map of East London’s Olympic missile bases shows, this is a reality now facing Londoners, some of whom are fighting British army plans to use residential buildings as locations for gun turrets during the Games.
Intended to guard London’s skies against the threat of aerial attack, these proposed turrets have been the most contested issue faced by London’s Olympics security program so far. Last weekend, residents demonstrated against this proposed anti-terrorist "Ring of Steel" around the Olympic Park, while locals are also fighting the decision in the courts, afraid that the rockets could accidentally explode or even make their homes into terrorist targets. Not everyone is actively fighting the plans, it should be admitted – this weekend’s demonstrators numbered in their hundreds, not their thousands. But the army’s ham-fisted management of the issue – they left dummy missiles lying around outside an apartment building during an exercise, for example – has done little to assure residents that their concerns are paramount.
The measures are part of a military mobilization the likes of which London hasn’t seen since WWII. Along with two missile bases on East London apartment buildings, the army will also have anti-aircraft hardware stationed in parks, plus fighter jet and helicopter bases at either end of the city and robot drones patrolling a no fly zone over the Olympic Park.
In total, 13,500 troops will be deployed across the city (more British soldiers than are currently stationed in Afghanistan) and the aircraft carrier H.M.S Ocean will moor in the Thames, while temporary army camps are already being set up on the city’s Eastern fringe. With around 23,500 private security guards also on London’s streets, it’s not just major military threats that Olympic security is concerning itself with. Security staff will also have the option of using a sonic weapon to drive back rioting crowds (a not implausible prospect in unruly London) while an electrified fence around the Park will keep out intruders. Even runners on the round-Britain torch relay have been given three security guards apiece, perhaps not such a bad thing considering these schoolboys’ recent brazen attempts to steal the torch.
It’s hard to tell at this stage whether the scope of the measures represents overkill or not. What security plans do create, however, is an atmosphere of tension where normally ordinary sights like young Muslims paddling along in a dinghy become suspect and potentially frightening to a public over-sensitized to risk. A part of Londoners' fear (beyond that of having their roofs blown off) may be substantially due to the images this military mobilization conjures up. No one likes being forced to imagine their own street being transformed into something resembling bad Hollywood disaster movie CGI. If such a nightmare scenario were to actually come about, however, it’s unlikely anyone would protest the army’s presence.