Monday, February 28, 2005

UK Government's special terrorist measures

On the balance of probabilities, detention without trial might reduce the ability of some terrorists to commit a major attack. Rather less happily, it might also mistakenly curtail the freedoms of others, thereby sowing the seeds of dissent and increasing the likelihood of a terrorist finding a sympathetic ear. Incarceration without a defence has been a great recruiter for subversives throughout the world over centuries. America revolted in large part due to heavy-handed disrespectful treatment.

The world, and its population, are large compared to me. It's highly unlikely I'll be blown up, or locked up by the British government by mistake. What is certain, however, is that the proposed measures will change the environment in which I live irrevocably and for the worse. I will spend every minute of every day living in a state in which I might be detained without knowledge of my alleged misdemeanor or the right of representation.

Some argue that the present system needs to be changed because it needs to reduce the likelihood of failing to stop an act of terrorism. Whether these measures pass or fail, I am quite sure the government, ministers and the judiciary will continue to miss-classify the guilty as innocent and the innocent as guilty, as happens from time to time. As recently as last month our Prime Minister apologised for a particularly egregious miscarriage of justice. Unfortunate as these events are, they are inevitable. A critical component of our acceptance of them, however, is the opportunity we are given to have a hand in the game. We must be given the right of reply.

The right approach to new terrorist threats is not to replace or circumvent the judicial process but to consider and debate new laws as required.

The Government claims that it needs special powers to detain suspects with evidence that cannot be shared with the courts. Even were this to be correct in principle, in practice this government in particular has a wholly inadequate track record in the administration of terrorist intelligence. It is an appalling travesty that we should have gone to war on a false pretext, and for the leader of the government to simply say that while he was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, he acted nevertheless in "good faith". Not good enough. For us to be asked to trust this same government, or a future one, with ever more draconian powers beggars belief. I heard the Prime Minister today making the same arguments for breaking our legal process as he used to fight a war in Iraq. He has a terrible record of assessing intelligence.

Governments cannot be trusted to act in our best interests, never mind act competently. What is lacking here is the realisation that a presumption of innocence is not a blind faith in the character of the subject, but an invaluable protection against the ability of power to corrupt.

The government is blinded by the need to apprehend the criminal before she commits her crime, as though this is a special consideration that has never before required our attention. Nonsense. Every speeding fine is to avoid the ultimate problem of an accident. We have invented a rule, speeding, that in itself is not actually bad but because it often leads to a bad outcome has become a line in the sand that the law deems we must not cross. So it must be with terrorism.

The government needs to find a way of creating better laws that would mitigate the terrorist threat, laws that can be tested in court, a process that can act as a better test of paranoia on behalf of the government than a BBC breakfast current affairs wireless programme.

I am very concerned that the greatest threat to the British way of life appears to be not the Soviet army, the IRA or religious terrorism, but the British government and its lack of opposition.