“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!” Gerald stared at the words on the screen as if, somehow, he could make them blink first.
“What’s up?” Gerald’s co-worker, Elise, swivelled towards him, eyebrows raised interrogatively. Gerald was usually such a quiet and studious worker, she found his angry outburst just a little bit shocking.
“See for yourself”, Gerald replied, turning his screen towards Elise.
“Hmmmm.” Elise settled back in her chair with a thoughtful expression. “That is certainly an unusual brief. Not the Boss’s style at all. What do you suppose has led her to issue such an odd assignment?
“I don’t have to suppose anything, Elise, I know what inspired this. It’s the second of those national anti-terrorism seminars. The first one was a complete waste of time, and the second has been a complete waste of time multiplied by ten. Why doesn’t the Boss just tell the Prime Minister to leave national security to the professionals?”
“Because Directors don’t get to tell Prime Ministers what to do, Gerald – as you well know. The PM has immersed herself in this misinformation, disinformation, bad actors stuff, to the point where she can no longer think rationally about national security matters.”
“No, she can’t. What Prime Minister in her right mind would ask her security chief to prepare a ‘How To Tell If Your Neighbour’s A Violent Extremist’ handbook? Dear God! Putting to one side the utterly appalling anti-democratic ramifications of the idea, why would a national security agency provide an actual or potential violent extremist with a helpful list of all the behavioural tells to avoid? How wise is it, do you think, to warn these characters what to keep hidden from their friends and family? Surely the PM can be made to see that putting out something like this only makes the bad guys’ work easier?”
“The problem, Gerald, is that she’s been persuaded that we, and all the other national security agencies, are either incompetent, or racist, or both. She probably thinks that, with the right sort of surveillance, violent extremism can be stopped in its tracks.”
“Yep. And the animosities stirred up by the Pandemic have only made things worse.”
“True, but whose fault is that? Who went from being the Good Fairy, trusted protector of the people; to full-on Maleficent, imposing vaccination mandates with a cackle? Who allowed the Speaker to go on whacking that Hornets’ Nest in Parliament Grounds until its occupants erupted in fury and started stinging all-and-sundry? Who made it clear how pleased she was with the sort of journalism that portrayed the country as brimming over with white supremacists and fascists?”
“I know, I know, Gerald. Nor does she appear to understand that the moment a political leader indicates an explanatory preference, that is the only explanation she will receive.”
“Hence, the Boss’s instruction to write this bloody handbook. I’m supposed to go through all our own files, along with the relevant files of our allies, and identify all the tell-tale signs that someone’s undergone radicalisation, and is on the verge of organising and/or engaging in an act of deadly violence. But, that’s not all. I’m also supposed to set up a special number for people to call if they suspect their next-door-neighbours are preparing to ram-raid their Petunias. I’m going to suggest 0-800-STASI.”
“If you’re thinking Stasi, you should talk to Dieter – he used to be a Colonel in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the Ministry of State Security, back in the days of the German Democratic Republic.”
“Yep. He moved here to be with his children and grandchildren after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He works for us from time to time. On contract, presumably. Come to think of it, Dieter’s been around the building quite a bit lately.”
“Do you think the Boss would contract him to give me a hand with this assignment? I mean, who is better qualified to write a handbook on identifying real and/or potential enemies of the state than a former Stasi colonel?”
“I don’t see why not. Gosh, Gerald, this is actually getting quite exciting. Have you been watching Kleo – that Netflix series about a GDR assassin?”
“I keep meaning to, but I haven’t yet, no.”
“Oh, but you must, it’s a hoot. Kleo worked for the HVA, the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance – the external arm of the Stasi responsible for espionage, propaganda, sabotage, and assassination. Believe me, Gerald, that girl is dangerous!”
“Hey, do you think, Dieter might have been in the HVA? I mean, espionage, propaganda, sabotage, and assassination – he’d know all about that stuff!”
“Jeez, Gerald, we’re not at that point – surely? All we’re being asked to do is alert people to the tell-tale signs of violent extremism. That hardly makes us the Stasi.”
“Actually, Elise, that’s exactly what it makes us. In the early years of the GDR there really were thousands of former Nazis to identify and punish for the crimes of 1933-45. By the 1980s, though, the Stasi were keeping tabs on just about everybody. Neighbours were asked to spy upon neighbours – and they dared not refuse. A word in the right ear, and your worst enemy could lose her job, or you could be thrown into prison. When thoughts become crimes, Elise, everybody is a potential criminal.”
“And what better incentive could there be for committing an act of violent extremism than being punished for thinking about one?”
This short story was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 4 November 2022.