Allan Massie: Taking advantage of terrorism fear

Julian Assange, left, yesterday with philosopher Noam Chomsky at the Ecuadorian embassy. Picture: PA
Julian Assange, left, yesterday with philosopher Noam Chomsky at the Ecuadorian embassy. Picture: PA
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Threat is real but so, too, is the danger of governments invading our privacy under the guise of protecting us, writes Allan Massie

The threat from terrorism is real. No-one of sense can doubt this. It is also useful. It enables governments to exercise more control over us and to invade our privacy. In the USA, government now monitors what used to be legally protected communications between spouses, lawyers and their clients, even doctors and their patients. Thousands of government employees and private contractors listen to citizens’ telephone calls and read their e-mails. The American government violates laws it has sworn to uphold, and acts in ways contrary to the Constitution. This is why a number of journalists, many of them experienced foreign correspondents, and other defenders of civil liberties are celebrating the work of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, all of whom, at risk to themselves, have exposed the activities of the secret state.

Many, of course, disapprove of what they have done. Many, even among the defenders of liberty, have doubts about whether some of the information they have released should properly have been kept secret. Yet at a time when governments are, year by year, extending their powers of surveillance and intrusion, and carrying out targeted assassinations in foreign countries in our name and the name of national security, it is surely right that we should know what they are doing.

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Now, here in the United Kingdom, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, is introducing yet another anti-terrorism bill, to supplement those enacted by the Labour governments after 9/11, the Iraq war and the London Tube bombings of July 2007. It is necessary, she says, because of the increasing risk of terrorism sparked by the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The threat to the UK is “perhaps greater than it has ever been”. Since 2010, the security services have, she reports, prevented 40 terrorist plots, 753 people have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism-related activities, 212 people have been charged with terrorist plots, 148 convicted and 138 imprisoned. The only known failure resulted in the brutal murder of Lee Rigby, the off-duty Fusilier.

Now, assuming everything Mrs May says is true, it would seem that the Security Service (formerly MI5) and the police have been doing their job efficiently with the powers already at their disposal. The report on the Rigby murder was published yesterday and, while it made criticisms of the security services, concluded there was no security slip-up which made the attack possible. No other terrorist plot has succeeded. So it is reasonable to ask whether new powers are needed.

Mrs May intends to impose a legal requirement on schools, universities, councils and prisons to put in place policies and programmes to help deter “radicalisation”, thus preventing potential extremists from being drawn into terrorism. But who will judge what constitutes radicalisation, what sort of speech will promote it, is left vague. Opposition to the Iraq war was, for instance, eloquently expressed. Might that, in today’s context, be construed as an example of potential radicalisation?

The Home Secretary’s bill will include a provision to permit the relocation of terrorist suspects across the country. The extent of this is unclear. But one thing is evident. People who have committed no offence with which they can be charged but who are merely suspected of having an intention to commit an offence sometime in the future, may be removed from their homes and transported elsewhere. Some of them will be innocent. Some will undoubtedly believe they are victims of injustice and are likely to be “radicalised” in consequence.

During both the World Wars of the 20th century, governments assumed dictatorial powers (though they did so by acts of Parliament). Foreign-born nationals were interned. People suspected of sympathy with the enemy were imprisoned without trial under Regulation 18B of Emergency Powers legislation. In the circumstances of wartime most people accepted and even approved of such measures.

But we are not at war now. Even the term “War on Terror” has dropped out of use. We are dealing with criminals, whether you call them jihadists or not. Throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland and their spillover into mainland Britain, governments were careful not to speak of us being engaged in a war against the IRA. Their outrages were treated as crimes.

Governments have a duty to defend us, arguably their first duty. But they also have a duty to respect our inherited liberties. Getting the balance right is difficult, and governments are always tempted to extend their powers at the expense of these liberties.

As so often, I turn back to Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is what he wrote about the revolutionary and dictatorial government there: “Every counsel, in proportion as it is daring, and violent, and perfidious, is taken for the mark of superior genius. Humanity and compassion are ridiculed as the fruits of superstition and ignorance. Tenderness to individuals is considered as treason. Liberty is always to be estimated perfect as property is rendered insecure.”

Liberty is our inherited property, and is subject to ever closer restriction – in the name of security. We are none of us now free from state surveillance – always, we are told, in a good and necessary cause. But the result is the extension of the power of the state over private life. If we accept that it is enough for people to be suspected of disaffection for them to be “relocated”, what next? If free speech is curtailed in the name of security, what new intrusion on personal freedoms will follow? There may be an enemy without, but the state assuming new powers over private life year by year is ever more oppressive. It is on the way to being the enemy within – all in our name, of course.

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