Wednesday, July 20, 2005
"In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it"
This quote was originally attributed to an American general in Vietnam. Figuratively, it also sums up the mentality of Charles Clarke and New Labour's cavalier attitude to our fundamental freedoms.
Following the London bombings, New Labour is once again suggesting that, to protect us from more terrorist attacks, we must sacrifice our civil liberties. This argument is widely accepted without question yet it is based on a false premise, that security and liberty exist in inverse proportion to one another. False it may be, but it is a clever piece of 'framing' that needs challenging.
Fortunately, there was a good quote in Charles Kennedy's speech on Monday (which the press did not report):
We have a responsibility to demonstrate how the correct balance is struck between liberty and security.The first duty of any government is to keep the peace but that does not entitle it to remove people's basic liberties. These liberties, such as free speech, habeas corpus and trial by jury, are not expendable privileges granted by the good grace of the government.
We need to show that it is not an either/or - but that we can achieve both in a Liberal Britain.
Charles Clarke clearly thinks otherwise. He returned from an emergency meeting in Brussels the other day, brandishing an agreement that phone companies and e-mail providers should be obliged to keep records of all calls. This is pure gesture politics. It would not take much ingenuity on the part of any terrorist to evade such surveillance - encryption and anonymising technology are easily available to anyone. In any case, there has been no suggestion that mobile phones or e-mails played any significant role in the London bombings.
More fundamentally, has it been demonstrated that the London bombings were caused by civil liberties? Correct me if I'm wrong, but mass murder has already been illegal for many centuries, so we should not assume that each fresh atrocity necessarily calls for another raft of fresh legislation.
One part of the legislative package agreed at the cross-party meeting on Monday is a proposal to ban "indirect incitement of terrorism". As I understand it, this means I could write a post on this blog calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, then a few days later some terrorists could attack London citing such a withdrawal as their goal, and I could then be prosecuted.
This attempt to govern free expression carries similar risks to the government's religious hatred bill. According to the Guardian, Liberal Democrat spokesman Mark Oaten
... said there were some concerns about the "looseness of the language" in the new offence of indirect incitement to terrorism but Mr Clarke had promised to clarify the situation.I bet he did. Let's hope Oaten's critical faculties are in better shape than they were during the control orders controversy earlier this year.
Rowan Atkinson hit the nail on the head in a letter in Tuesday's Guardian:
The bomb attacks in London and their aftermath seem to have rendered the religious hatred bill passing through parliament almost an irrelevance. The recent eloquent and vehement condemnation by the British Muslim community of the extremist factions within its midst has successfully disabled much of the irrational criticism from far-right groups which this bill was intended to address.New Labour is not above exploiting terrorist incidents to embarrass its opponents into acquiescing to its authoritarian agenda. We must keep our wits about us and not lose sight of the fact that our democracy is what we should be protecting from terrorists, not sacrificing for them.
It is invariably counter-productive to suppress the expression of unpalatable ideas with legislation. I would oppose equally the gagging of radical Muslim clerics. The more openly arguments are aired, the more easily they can be ridiculed, as long as those counter-arguing can display the kind of courage exhibited this week by moderate British Muslims. Arguments must be won, not suppressed, and yet suppression is a clear intent of the bill.
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