Thursday, 8 November 2007


A pointless attack on liberty that fuels the terror threat

Ministers set on locking people up without charge should
listen to the Muslim mainstream, not the neocon fringe

Seumas Milne
Thursday November 8, 2007
The Guardian

The man has gone but his spirit lives on. Tony Blair's
determination to turn the war on terror into a permanent
undeclared state of emergency in Britain, where the "rules
of the game have changed", ended in defeat two years ago
when he failed to raise the limit on detention of terrorist
suspects without charge from 14 to 90 days. With a
parliamentary compromise of 28 days in the bag - already
far longer than any other state in the western world - it
might have been expected that his successor would be
content to leave well alone. Not a bit of it. Gordon Brown
is back for more, pressing the case this week for the right
to imprison people without charge for 56 days, or however
close to that figure he can manage.

What started a generation ago as a two-day limit on
detention without charge, as exists for American citizens
in the US, was fixed at seven days in 2000; ratcheted up to
14 in 2003; raised again to 28 in 2006; and is now heading
for two months of effective internment. The arbitrariness
of this ratcheting-up is obvious: in spite of the fact that
we're talking about the country's most basic civil
liberties, it has clearly been a matter of think of a
number and double it.

Perhaps that's not so surprising, as nobody has been able
to offer any evidence whatever that police investigations
have been undermined by having to release or charge a
suspect within four weeks. Indeed, despite much talk of the
growing complexity of terror cases, the home secretary,
Jacqui Smith, has now conceded that no circumstance had yet
arisen where "it has been necessary up to this point to go
beyond 28 days". To all intents and purposes, the police
and government case is simply that it might be a useful
precaution for the future - or even a helpful "disruptive
mechanism" when there is no real chance of a charge. And
now that the human rights organisation Liberty and the
opposition parties have offered an alternative of
post-charge questioning (which carries its own dangers),
ministers have pocketed the concession and pressed on
regardless with their longer detention plans.

Most shamefully, it's widely acknowledged in Westminster
that a key motivation for this latest assault on
long-established rights and freedoms is Brown's
determination to wrong-foot the Tories tactically and
portray them as soft on terror. Given the trauma endured by
Muslim prisoners - because of course that's who we're
talking about, at least for now - locked up for weeks and
then released without charge, it might seem to be a bit of
rather costly political point-scoring. But then it follows
the chaotic and counterproductive saga of prisoners locked
up indefinitely without charge in Belmarsh in the same
spirit, and the draconian control orders that the law lords
last week called to be marginally watered down: the regime
of 18-hour curfews, bans on phone, internet and personal
contacts imposed on suspects without charge, or access to
any evidence against them.

This week's Queen's speech proposal to press ahead with yet
another extension of the power to lock people up without
charge came hard on the heels of the lurid warm-up act from
the new MI5 director general, Jonathan Evans, whose
organisation will have doubled in size by 2011. In an
inflammatory and highly ideological speech, he warned that
15-year-olds were being "groomed" for terror and that the
number "we are seeing involved in terrorist-related
activity" was now 2,000 - followed by the bizarre rider
that "there are as many again that we don't yet know of".

Both figures should probably be taken with a pinch of salt,
in the light of the British security and intelligence
agencies' erratic record with intelligence over the years.
Of course, there are underground jihadist elements prepared
to stage violent attacks in Britain, as has already been
brutally demonstrated. But the real surprise is how few
attempts there have been since Blair joined George Bush's
war on terror: one serious atrocity, two bungled outrages,
and a series of unsuccessful plots of varying credibility
does not even begin to match the scale of the IRA campaign
of the previous three decades. Naturally the security
services would like to claim credit for that, but given how
easy it is to get hold of guns in Britain or bomb soft
civilian or political targets, it is obvious that the
numbers seriously committed to launching such attacks are
fewer than Evans's figures suggest.

What is clear is that the assault on basic liberties
represented by repeated extensions of pre-charge detention
and control orders is out of all proportion to the reality
of what is actually taking place. It also makes a mockery
of the government's claim to be defending our freedom and
way of life against al-Qaida, when in fact it is trading
away another bit of freedom for every bomb attack or terror
scare. The danger is not only that we lose valuable
liberties, but that we create more terrorists in the
process, by further alienating Muslim youth already
radicalised by British and American aggression in the
Muslim world. That was the message of last week's highly
effective Channel 4 drama Britz, denounced by a government
spokesman for ignoring the views of "moderate Muslims".

In fact, as polling shows, the kind of concerns expressed
in Peter Kosminsky's film - about the impact of anti-terror
laws and western foreign policy - do reflect mainstream
British Muslim opinion, and it is the government which is
failing to face up to that. In an increasingly Islamophobic
climate, the support given by some ministers to those in
the media and rightwing thinktanks arguing against
engagement with representative organisations like the
Muslim Council of Britain and non-violent Islamist groups
is bound to backfire. Last week, for example, the Blairite
cabinet minister Hazel Blears championed the former
Islamist Ed Husain - who follows the neocon line on
"Islamofascism" and criticises MI5's boss for "pussyfooting
around" - as a "new voice" who "understands what needs to
be done".

Picking people who are off the map of Muslim opinion to
speak on British Muslims' behalf is a dangerous game that
will do nothing to increase public safety. The biggest
contribution this government could make to reduce the
threat of jihadist terror attacks in Britain would be to
withdraw occupation troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and
end its support for dictatorships in the Muslim world. In
the meantime, it could make a start by letting Muslims
speak for themselves, instead of locking more of them up
for longer without charge.

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