Invisible Solutions: Embracing uncertainty to prevent violence

Despite a consensus that preventing violence is better and cheaper than trying to cure or contain it, almost all governments persist in vastly over-resourcing coercive responses. Ashley Macmillan argues for proactive and inclusive peace and security policies to be as normal as preventive measures in public health.

We all know in principle that prevention is better than cure. If no-one ever became a terrorist, we would all be more secure[1]  than if everyone who perpetrated a terrorist attack  was arrested. But prevention faces a big challenge. You can’t take a photo of it.

Any ‘cure’ to a problem (be it a vaccine, a successful surgery in hospital or the dramatic arrest of a criminal) is visible and tangible. It makes the headlines. It is easy to talk about, and it is easy to know our ‘cure’ actions were successful.

Prevention on the other hand, is invisible in its success. We don’t really notice the bad things that don’t happen. Further still, there is usually a level of uncertainty around whether our preventive actions have been successful. We are usually left wondering how things would have turned out if preventative actions had not been taken. In short, prevention requires a level of comfort and trust in the face of uncertainty, and these aren’t traits that come easily to politics.

Taking security seriously

So despite the desirability of prevention, discussions about security tend to focus on ‘cure’ actions, which are responding to insecurity, such as arrests, deportations, etc. Of course, insecurity does need to be responded to, but it seems that prevention rarely even gets a look in. And to a certain extent, I get it. Prevention isn’t sexy. It’s hard to quantify and uncertain. We don’t read about it in the tabloids and it doesn’t trend on Twitter. But governments need to be held to a higher standard than Instagram and tabloids. Their responses are not just opinion pieces, but come with money and legislative reform. Any serious approach to security would work through the challenges that prevention presents. A failure to do this should be called out as a failure to take the security of their nation seriously.

If anyone doubts the possibility for governments to overcome preventions challenges, then it is worthwhile remembering that in other policy areas, governments overcome prevention’s uncertainty and invisibility all the time. For example, yes we have hospitals, but so too do we have sewers and safe drinking water. We know that having these things prevents cholera. And as always, this prevention is invisible in its success. In most of the world, no-one wakes up in the morning, glad that they don’t have cholera yet again. No-one writes newspaper articles about the continued success of the government’s cholera prevention efforts. In the case of cholera, the prevention is so ubiquitously successful, that it is completely invisible to us. But it is successful none-the-less. And because we take health seriously that is all we care about.

And what’s more, this still holds true, even though we can never say that a Cholera outbreak would have occurred on a particular date without a sewerage system. We have enough trust in our knowledge about cholera prevention and sewerage systems, to know that it probably has been effective. Moreover, we would consider it unacceptable for our government to fail to maintain our sewerage system and to build cholera hospitals instead, on the basis that they could never be ‘sure’ that sewerage systems had prevented a cholera outbreak. We would consider the government to be both incompetent and negligent for not using preventative actions. Certainly, we would never believe that a government that ignored a preventative approach was taking health seriously.

Prevention is better than cure. So if we are able to overcome prevention’s challenges when it comes to health, then why not when it comes to security?

The challenge of uncertainty

I spend quite a bit of my time thinking about prevention at the moment, because my PhD. research focuses on war prevention. Like security and insecurity, war and peace tend to avoid looking at prevention. My PhD. aims to help move through preventions challenges by focusing on how communities engage in Proactive Peace Work . This refers to the actions that address local conflict risk-factors  before any violence starts. But it has become apparent that there is a second part to this uncertainty challenge, that even though war prevention appears to be happening all the time, we don’t usually acknowledge it . Of course, security and insecurity are different ideas to war and peace, but they overlap. If prevention is better than cure, then we need to start talking about what prevention looks like, and the only way to do this is to overcome our reluctance to talk about the success of the preventative actions that we do take.

And again, we already do this in other areas. We claim to have prevented lung cancer through anti-smoking campaigns, teenage pregnancy through sex education, and traffic accidents through appropriate speed limits. We claim these things despite not having certainty that if we hadn’t acted, a particular person would have developed lung cancer, become pregnant, or crashed their car. And this is because we recognise that prevention is a bigger idea than prediction is. We act preventatively by addressing risk-factors, not by fortune telling. We recognise that an anti-smoking campaign is a form of lung-cancer prevention because we recognise that smoking is a risk-factor for lung cancer. If we can claim the success of prevention when it comes to cancer, pregnancy and traffic accidents, then why not when it comes to peace and security too?

The heart of security

The importance of all this can be seen in the last month’s stabbing at the Lynn Mall in Auckland, New Zealand. Questions aside of whether this was in fact an act of terrorism or not, acts of public violence are certainly a threat to security. The government was in a rush to assure people that they had done ‘everything in their power’, to try and prevent this. But when it came down to it, what ‘everything’ meant was surveillance, and arrest and deportation attempts. What became apparent was that they had not done everything in their power to address the reason that the attacker was drawn to violence in the first place, through options such as de-radicalisation and building community connections and support.

We need to stop seeing these kinds of preventative actions as ‘humanitarian concerns’, or ‘nice to haves’, and start recognising that prevention is how we create security in the first place. Of course, doing these things well is never smooth sailing. There will always be challenges and barriers—but they are not insurmountable, certainly not when we start to see prevention as the heart of security. We cannot hope merely to surveille and deport anyone who might commit violence. We must start taking seriously the task of preventing people from ever seeing violence as a good idea. And funding, legislation, research and policy needs to reflect this priority.

If prevention has been thrown in the too-hard basket, then no matter how ‘tough’ the responses to insecurity are, the claim to be taking security seriously will be meaningless.

We are not secure from violence when all perpetrators are caught. We are secure from violence when no-one ever has the desire to engage in violence in the first place. Maybe this work is less ‘glamorous’ and less photogenic. And maybe we won’t get as much attention or praise for doing it. But at the end of the day, if we’re only doing it for the credit, we were never taking security seriously in the first place.


[1] Security here is taken in the narrow sense to mean ‘security from violence’, on the basis that this is often what ‘security’ means in the media and government when it is not written with any clarifying prefix (such as ‘housing security, or financial security)


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Teo Georgiev.

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