Sniff of suspicion:2

In her analysis of ‘Stasiland’, Anna Funder reports visiting one room in the Stasi museum in Leipzig and seeing a cabinet containing glass jars. The woman who ran the museum explained that the jars were ‘smell samples’. The Stasi had developed a quasi-scientific method, ‘smell sampling’, as a way to find criminals. The theory was that we all have our own identifying odour, which we leave on everything we touch. These smells can be captured and, with the help of trained sniffer dogs, compared to find a match . . . Mark Neocleous, professor of the critique of political economy, Brunel University, discusses ‘The Smell of Power: a contribution to the critique of the Sniffer Dog’ in Radical Philosophy.

The Stasi might break into someone’s apartment and take a piece of clothing worn close to the skin, often underwear. Alternately, a ‘suspect’ would be brought in under some pretext for questioning, and the vinyl seat he or she had sat on would be wiped afterward with a cloth. The pieces of stolen clothing, or the cloth, would then be placed in a sealed jar. The containers looked like jam bottling jars. A label read ‘Name: Herr [Name]. Time: 1 hour. Object: Worker’s Underpants’.

Funder adds that the number of jars suggests that the Leipzig Stasi had smell samples of the entire political opposition in the area. The jars disappeared soon after the 1989 revolution, but then turned up in the office of the Leipzig police, who thought they might still be of use after the revolution and thus kept them in a ‘smell pantry’. So the collection of scent traces of political activists by German police may well be an ‘unsavoury’ reminder that German security agencies are ‘using methods that the Stasi once practiced’, as Hans-Christian Stroebelle, a Greens leader, put it.

But what if it can’t be explained away as a relic of the Stasi period in German history? What if something else is at stake, something far more telling about liberal democratic regimes? What if the liberal state is more interested in smell than we realize?

Dogs sniff the air, the person and their bags, and the police officer reacts accordingly. If it is the case that ‘what smells good is good’ and, conversely, that ‘what smells bad is bad’, then from the police perspective what smells suspicious is suspicious. Yet it is also the case that anything appearing to the police officer to be ‘suspicious behaviour’ is grounds for a suspect to be stopped and searched, including trying to avoid the dogs or even looking like one might be trying to avoid them. Once this occurs the police have ‘reasonable grounds’ to engage in a stop-and-search routine. Thus one can be stopped without knowing whether one is caught up in the war on drugs, war on crime or war on terror at that precise moment in time.

The standard civil liberties approach to this question is to point to the fact that sniffer dogs have been found to be wrong in their ‘judgement’ somewhere in as many as three out of five searches, or that the dogs can be influenced by the way their handlers hold their leads, and that the dogs are often overly trusted by handlers who think the dog is never wrong (an assumption reinforced by a wider such belief among the public). But such arguments fail to address the ways in which the dog is, in effect, a technology of state power.

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