Who is watching the watchers?

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Who is watching the watchers?” from the Latin phrase “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, is a preoccupation for modern democracies. Can we trust the people we appoint to protect us?

I wrote here recently that nothing drove me crazier than people telling me my Berlin thriller Blood Summit wasn’t realistic (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site).

An unrealistic plot?

“It’s a terrific thriller,” one reader said. “I couldn’t put it down. But Pimm doesn’t know much about security. The central premise of a terrorist attack penetrating the Reichstag is unrealistic.”

I know about security

Dear people: I know something about security, and summits. Blood Summit is a thriller about a terrorist attack on an international summit in the Berlin Reichstag. The attack (no spoilers) has immense impact. Many people die.

Because I write under a pseudonym, I don’t talk much about my life and experience. But I have fired a Heckler & Koch and seen and and heard explosives detonated on several occasions, including during the 1991 IRA mortar bomb attack on No.10 Downing Street in 1991. I have taken part in responses to live terrorist incidents.

The Berlin Reichstag
The Berlin Reichstag: impregnable?

Life imitating art

Let’s look at some real-life events:

  • 6 October 1981: Egyptian troops kill President Anwar Sadat in Cairo;
  • 31 October 1984: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is killed by her Sikh bodyguards;
  • August 2020: right-wing rioters come close to entering the Reichstag building during a Covid-19 denial protest;
  • December 2020: Katrin Bennhold, the New York Times Berlin Bureau Chief, publishes a terrific story entitled “The Double Life of Franco A.” (subscription may be required). Franco A is a lieutenant in the German Army. He is accused of planning terrorist acts and of having passed himself off as a Syrian refugee;
  • January 2021: supporters of US President Donald Trump storm the Capitol building in Washington DC during a session due to confirm President-elect Joe Biden;
  • 18 January 2021: The Guardian reports that the FBI is vetting all 25,000 national guard troops arriving in Washington for the inauguration of President elect Joe Biden because they fear an insider attack.

No weapon on earth is more powerful than an idea.

The biggest threat to democracy?

All these cases have one thing in common. People hold strong, or even fanatical, views spread by internet conspiracy theorists. Some of those people may be in positions of trust, eg German soldiers, or members of the National Guard.

I have argued before that misinformation and the proliferation of conspiracy theories spread by the Internet are one of the greatest threats to modern democracy. The real business of running a country is so dull that normal folk would rather tear their own heads off than tune in. Which of you has been following with bated breath the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, or the Online Harms Reduction Regulator (Report) Bill, both coming before Parliament in the UK this week?

Conspiracy theories, by contrast, are simple and thrilling. Who doesn’t want to uncover secrets? If they are secrets the Establishment is trying to hide from us, even better. The greater the absence of evidence for the existence of a conspiracy, the more certain those who believe in it become that it exists.  

Have you seen any evidence that Satan-worshipping paedophiles run the US establishment? Or that the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, but a carefully orchestrated murder? Nope? That doesn’t stop millions of people believing both.

The Welsh Secret Service

This logic explains why the Welsh Secret Service is the most powerful intelligence agency on earth. No-one has ever managed to find any evidence that it exists. How do the Welsh keep such a global, professional intelligence agency secret? Their tradecraft must make Mossad, MI6, the CIA and the KGB look like amateurs.

If enough people circulate enough lurid and appealing ideas for long enough, eventually even rational people may start to believe them. Here in Austria I have been stunned by how many sensible friends of mine are anxious about getting vaccinated against Covid 19.

When crazy ideas take hold inside the heads of influential people on whom we depend to keep our society safe, bad things may happen.

David Robert Grimes

Since writing this I have seen one of the best pieces about conspiracy theories I have yet read, by science writer David Robert Grimes, in the Financial Times of 5 February (subscription may be required). Key points he makes include:

  • conspiracy theorists are not extreme or “other” – they can be any of us;
  • such theories thrive amidst uncertainty and anxiety. None of us likes to think the world is essentially hazardous and unpredictable, so easy-to-grasp explanations attributing blame to someone attract us;
  • conspiracy theories lead to real-world problems, eg a fall in uptake of critical vaccinations, or the storm of the Capitol;
  • the (new to me) concept of the “illusory truth effect“, defined by Wikipedia as “the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure”. This strikes me as a particular problem with on-line aggregation of interest groups where many people – some or many of whom may in fact be bots – seem all to be expressing some view. See also my piece on The Overton Window, noting how Twitterstorms can lead politicians and others to make bad decisions;
  • our tendency “to give vivid and easily recalled anecdotes more weight than more sober-headed data”;
  • conspiracy theorists are attracted by the sense that they know more than others. This makes it fruitless to present counter-arguments or evidence;
  • a Socratic approach, asking and answering questions, is a more fruitful approach, deploying empathy rather than ridicule or dismissal.

I recommend David Grimes’ article.

Who is watching the watchers?

I explore some of these ideas about information manipulation, and is impact on those we trust, in Blood Summit. The terrorists who attack the Reichstag are not only ruthless. They are also social media-savvy. Their list of demands brings crowds onto the streets in support of their actions. They stream every killing live.

Most of all, the thriller considers: who can we trust to protect us against the forces of evil? Who is watching the watchers?

You can find Blood Summit here:

Blood Summit cover

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3 Responses

  1. I couldn’t help thinking about Blood Summit when I watched the appalling events unfolding on Jan. 6. For the average reader any amount of gory descriptions are unreal, luckily most of us will never have to come into contact with that much violence, blood and death. And I certainly share your skepticism about the justifications that people give for the amount of time spent ingesting really whacky stuff on so-called internet newsfeeds. Nothing brought this home more drastically than the constant Trumpian abuse of information and dissemination of truly fake news (ie lies). Please don’t stop the flow of observations from your own experiences, even to the silent reader across the road…

  2. Another brilliant post – you have indeed visionary talents!!
    Reality imitates vision, just worrisome that it’s happening in the worst possible way!

  3. ad QUIS CUSTODIET IPSOS CUSTODES (Wer wird die Wächter bewachen?) Dass dieses Juvenal-Dictum inzwischen (s)einen Platz im Demokratie-Diskurs gefunden hat, trifft zu. Das Wortspiel mit Subjekt-Objekt-Wechsel und Umkehr-Dynamik (Betrachter vs Betrachtetes) funktioniert ja auch beinah zweitausend Jahre nach Juvenal noch sehr gut, z.B. in Amanda Gormans Inaugurationsrede. Der Vollständigkeit halber sei jedoch angemerkt, dass das Juvenal-Zitat aus der Satura 6 stammt: Mann setzt Wächter über weibliche Keuschheit ein und muss no na erleben, dass Frau den Wächter verführt. Und weil Juvenal da üble Geschlechter-Klischees bedient, und es immerhin sein kann, dass das nicht jedes Gegenüber lustig findet, ist bei der Verwendung des Zitats doch Vorsicht anzuraten.

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