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Wednesday, January 24, 2007 

War against bullshit gains a new convert.

There couldn't be more of a contrast between the Director of Public Prosecution, Ken Macdonald's excellent speech last night to the Criminal Bar Association than with the attitudes apparently held by the British public on civil liberties, according to a survey by the British Social Attitudes survey.

According to Macdonald:

"It is critical that we understand that this new form of terrorism carries another more subtle, perhaps equally pernicious, risk. Because it might encourage a fear-driven and inappropriate response. By that I mean it can tempt us to abandon our values. I think it important to understand that this is one of its primary

It might? Talk of 30 plots, of the "sky being dark", constant demands for 90 day detention without trial, of deporting "terrorist suspects" to their country of origin where they might be tortured, detention without charge? Macdonald is entirely right, yet this fear-driven and inappropriate response has happened and is continuing. A plot in which there was no ricin, in which the recipe for making it was taken from an online source which was phony, and in which there was no link to al-Qaida was turned by the police and politicians into a scare-story designed to make the public even more fearful.

"London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered on July 7 2005 were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, 'soldiers'. They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists. We need to be very clear about this. On the streets of London, there is no such thing as a 'war on terror', just as there can be no such thing as a 'war on drugs'.

"The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement."

How could Blair and Reid present themselves as the saviours of the public if they did this though? The whole "war on terror" nonsense has always fallen into the trap of giving too much credit to those responsible for what is mass-murder. What has always been apparent is that there are men and women out there who wish to harm those who they don't know purely because of their twisted, fanatical beliefs. It's not a new threat, but it does require different methods due to changes in their own. What it does not require is knee-jerk changes to periods that those arrested under the terrorism acts can be held without charge, nor does it require abandoning the traditional procedure of arrest, charge, prosecution, imprisonment, for those guilty of serious offences.

It's therefore depressing to find that the government appears to be winning its war for hearts and minds on diluting civil liberties:

The report said support for civil liberties in Britain peaked in 1990, before going into a steep decline. In 1990, 9% of adults thought the police should be allowed to question suspects for up to a week without letting them see a solicitor. In the latest interviews, this nearly trebled to 25%.

And this is without the government or media suggesting that such a change could be necessary in order to fight crime and/or terrorism. It also shows how quickly either we've forgotten the miscarriages of justice of the 70s, which were often due to those arrested being denied access to lawyers and having confessions being scared out of them, or how the current generation is simply not being educated about them. Whether this is down to the increasing prevalence of the media to treat those arrested and not yet charged as though they're fair game both for smearing and "revelation" after revalation or through the belief that the police, now backed up by forensic science, are close to infallible is unclear. Either way, it shows something is/has going/gone wrong.

You do have to wonder about the potentially leading nature of some of the questions, though:

The survey found seven in every 10 people think compulsory identity cards for all adults would be "a price worth paying" to reduce the threat of terrorism. Eight in 10 say the authorities should be able to tap the phones of people suspected of involvement in terrorism, open their mail and impose electronic tagging or home curfews.

Put like that, there's always going to be a majority believe that almost anything is worth it if it reduces terrorism. If you instead made clear that the cost of ID cards is going to be at least £93, that this government's record of creating and managing databases is execrable (even though it's now decided not to create a new one for the scheme), that they've abandoned the idea of storing a scan of the iris on the card because they weren't good enough at establishing identity and that the fact that those responsible for the Madrid bombings had ID cards, then it's likely that seven in ten would considerably drop. The latter part of the paragraph isn't potentially too troubling; it shows that there is public support for wire-taping to made admissible in court, which the security services are still arrogantly telling the government to reject.

Less than a quarter of the population said torturing terror suspects would be "a price worth paying" and only 35% would accept a ban on peaceful protests and demonstrations.

That word only doesn't make that 35% figure any more reassuring. That anyone would almost ever accept any ban on peaceful protests shows something isn't working properly. Gordon is desperately thrashing around for things that define Britishness; what could be more British than complaining and demonstrating peacefully?

But the nation is almost equally divided on whether people charged with terrorism-related crime should be denied a jury trial - with 50% finding that acceptable and 45% unacceptable.

Thankfully, this is something which you know that MPs would never accept were it to be put to a vote. It's worth remembering that capital punishment was abolished and abortion made legal despite public opposition to both at the time. Even so, we can't rely on our representatives to always be so principled; an attack on the scale of 9/11 here could change everything. It's also not acceptable to refer, as some do on the CiF thread here, as sheep or otherwise. This survey, leading questions or not, shows that those of us who are concerned about this government's attacks on civil liberties need to raise our own game. Conor Gearty's own suggestions for doing so are worth noting:

(i) do not take civil liberties for granted; work out why they are important without assuming anything;

(ii) in doing this, be pragmatic up to a point - recognise that sometimes the state is right to restrict our freedom, that in a democratic society, the state is us - in other words, beware of drifting into an anarchic libertarianism, because if you do, the general public will stop listening to you;

(iii) keep a sense of proportion: liberty is by no means dead in Britain; we are not living in a police state; the executive remains accountable to parliament and the courts and does not always get its own way;

(iv) take a leaf out of the book of radical political and devoted Christian communities: having worked out what you believe in, stand up for it - talk among your friends and work colleagues; attend meetings of the like-minded; proselytise;

(v) do not simply reject all politicians and those who have power in our society simply because they are powerful and/or political: praise as well as condemn; government is not homogeneous, there are different voices: people like our courageous Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken McDonald, deserve support.
The fifth point is especially worth taking into consideration. The Tories have of late rediscovered their libertarian bent, opposing 90 days, forcing the government to compromise over control orders, etc. Much as some of us on the left are loath to do so, they deserve praise for their stand, made in the face of the jibes of Labour and insults of the Sun. The Liberal Democrats' recommendations to scrap mandatory life sentences, in effect keeping life sentences only for those who will spend the rest of their lives behind bars, and to abolish entirely short-term, meaningless and ineffective sentences were a much needed dose of common sense and reality. That they were hardly reported and dismissed by both the Tories and Labour was an injustice.

In short, we shouldn't entirely despair. Instead we ought to be building on what we have already achieved, and make a major effort to both show this government up for encouraging and relying on the politics of a fear, while also making clear that the current response to acts of terror has rather than made them less likely instead done little to thwart the threat, while also removing rights which until recently were held as sacrosanct.

Update: Macdonald's speech is available here in full.

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