|War against the weak
Draconian laws are more likely to deny basic rights to the vulnerable than
to catch any terrorists.
Special report: human rights in the UK
Gary Younge in Washington
Monday October 1, 2001
In Through the Looking Glass, the Queen tells Alice, "I've believed as many
as six impossible things before breakfast." In a political period where
suddenly almost anything seems possible, let us imagine just one impossible
occurrence: that Osama bin Laden wakes up this morning and decides to leave
whatever cave he is hiding in and turn himself in to the nearest
Not because he has discovered a sudden urge to do the decent thing. But
because he is a wealthy man who can afford a good lawyer, a satellite dish,
and a long-wave radio. And after a few weeks watching CNN and listening to
the World Service, he believes he stands a better chance in court than he
does against a cruise missile or the SAS.
To give himself up, he realises, would throw his enemy into confusion.
First of all it would force the western intelligence services to provide
the evidence they have against him. So far what they have made public has
been nothing more than tenuous and circumstantial. They had a better case
against OJ Simpson and look what happened to him. They claim, of course,
that there is more proof they can't show us because it is too sensitive.
They might even be telling the truth. But their case would be far stronger
if they had not admitted that they had no idea the attacks were going to
happen, only to declare Bin Laden the prime suspect within 24 hours.
They identified the guilty party first and then came up with evidence that
is either inconclusive, unconvincing or unavailable for reasons of state
security. Welcome to the new, global fight against terrorism: a battle that
will be principally built on assumption, presumption, prejudice, profiling,
secrecy and political expediency.
This is not an argument for Bin Laden's innocence. He has already been
indicted for the murderous bombing of the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya,
where there is far greater proof. His advocacy of terror to achieve
political ends is both abhorrent and well-established - so well-established
in fact that one must question the sagacity of the CIA in swelling both his
coffers and his arsenal during the cold war. It is an argument against the
global stop and search that promises to use the same methodology to catch
the world's most wanted as it will to criminalise minorities and political
dissidents at home and the poor in developing countries.
Only a fool would oppose a genuine, global battle against terrorism. A
campaign that sought to protect innocent civilians, whether they lived in
New York or Nicaragua, Washington or the West Bank, from acts of violence
perpetrated either by organisations, their own governments or foreign
powers, would mark significant progress towards international peace.
But this is not it. The brunt of the proposed measures will bear most
heavily on immigrants. The Bush administration wants to introduce the right
to indefinitely detain immigrants suspected of ties to terrorist groups
without trial. In Britain, the Home Office is seeking to gain similar
powers to detain asylum seekers, to impose compulsory identity cards to
access schools and hospitals, and to curtail the number of judicial reviews
available to someone charged with offences abroad before extradition.
If this were really a trade-off between civil liberty and public security
then the government would have a case. But it isn't. These measures will
certainly deny basic legal rights and access to public services to some of
the most vulnerable while strengthening the western fortress against the
tide of economic and political migration that is largely of its own making.
But they would certainly not have helped prevent the attacks on the World
Trade Centre, which were carried out by men who were not asylum seekers,
did not use schools and could afford private hospitals.
The few who were already suspected of terrorism were allowed into America
because the US immigration service did not act on the information it
already had or use the powers it already had. What you are left with is
more arbitrary powers given to agencies that have proved themselves to be
incompetent or irresponsible with the powers they already have.
We in Britain know this better than most because our own spectacularly
unsuccessful war on terrorism was conducted in exactly the same way.
According to Home Office statistics, 97% of those arrested under the
Prevention of Terrorism Act - a series of draconian measures supposed to
thwart the IRA - between 1974 and 1988 were released without charge. Only
1% were convicted and imprisoned.
It was used instead as an information-gathering exercise for the British
security forces. "It was a measure of social control," says Penny Green, a
professor of law and criminology at Westminster University. "It was used to
repress political activity. A fishing expedition used for scanning
information on a whole community."
Given that during the same period we saw the bombing of Harrods,
Enniskillen and the Grand Hotel in Brighton, we can safely say that the one
thing it did not do was stop, stem or in any way combat terrorism. What did
isolate terrorism was the political will of Republicans, the British
government and the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Omagh showed us
that this could not extinguish terrorism completely because a few dedicated
people can cause enormous havoc. And recent events in Northern Ireland
further show that when political will is lacking the door is opened for
further acts of terror and violence.
And it is in politics that the latest global war on terrorism is flawed in
both its conception and inception. First, it is a war of the strong against
the weak. It is the most powerful nations that will get to define what
terrorism is and how it should be fought. Haiti, for example, would be hard
pushed to get together a coalition to bomb France for allegedly harbouring
Baby Doc Duvalier - not because their case against him or his hosts is
weak, but because the odds of military success would be negligible.
Second, the war on terrorism is being led by nations that have at least as
distinguished a track record in perpetrating terrorism as in combating it.
If Gerry Adams vowed to lead the campaign against terrorism, most in
Britain would flash a bemused grin. When America pledges the same, much of
Central America, South America, South-east Asia and parts of Africa split
I have no more desire than anyone else to be slain in a random act of
violence, whether it is instigated by a fanatic or the politically
committed. But the legislation proposed will not minimise that possibility
at all, but maximise the likelihood of my spending two nights in a holding
cell unable to contact a lawyer or my family because an unreconstructed
immigration officer thinks I've stolen my passport. Like most others, I
understand that in the current climate, it is better safe than sorry. The
question the current plans raise is who will really be safe, and who will
just be sorry.