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Friday, September 16, 2005

Limiting our freedoms

Personally, I have grave reservations about a number of the measures being proposed by the Home Secretary to tackle terrorism.

As Simon Titley said in a recent post, there is a fallacy parroted endlessly by New Labour's ministers that "public security and civil liberties exist in inverse proportion and that, if we want to protect one, we must sacrifice the other. As I said in an earlier posting, this notion of a trade-off recalls that infamous declaration, "In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it.

"There are two other fallacies at work; that our basic liberties are the gift of the government, to be granted or withdrawn at will, and that whenever terrorists attack, the first thing we need is more laws. The usual motive behind such demands for new repressive legislation is either administrative convenience or a desire to create a bogus impression of action, and often both.

No-one has made a convincing case that our existing liberties make us more vulnerable or that "eroding" them will solve the problem of terrorism. All that such eroding would do is hand victory to the terrorists on a plate. Our civil liberties are not some expendable ornament bolted-on to our society; they are our society."

The proposal to introduce a new offence of encouraging and glorifying terrorism falls into this trap. It involves two offences both carrying a jail sentence of up to seven years and covers published statements, including internet ones, which amount to the "direct or indirect encouragement" of terrorist acts or those which "glorify, exalt, or celebrate" such acts. It does not cover statements on events of more than 20 years ago. Some events are absent from the limit, 9/11 is "listed", the 1916 Easter Rising is not.

This one exception underlines how absurd the new law is. In its time the 1916 Easter Rising was considered to be a major act of terrorism, so much so that 14 of the 16 ring-leaders were executed. Now, the British state has caught up with the Irish view that it was an historic act that directly led to the setting up of the modern Irish State. History is full of examples of terrorists that have since been accepted as mainstream politicians by the establishment. As Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, says the offence of "glorification" is so broad it means the Home Secretary is now acquiring powers to determine which historical figures are terrorists and which freedom fighters.

Although, I cannot forsee a time when 9/11 or the London bombings of 7 July will ever be considered in the same way as the Easter rising, they will inevitably form part of history courses at some time in the future. Will the objective discussion of them (if such a thing is possible) be hampered by this proposed legislation? More to the point, should democratic Governments legislate to restrict thought and the freedom to express it?

Nobody wants to see terrorist acts glorified or encouraged, however the way that this offence is defined is crucial. It can be pretty wide-ranging and certainly open to wide interpretation. It could be used to restrict legitimate dissent. For example, the Government may seek to imprison or deport people whose views it believes are unacceptable, but who have no direct or apparent connection with terrorism or that sort of extremism whatsoever. Would a demonstration (no matter how small or misguided) in support of those people fall foul of this law? Will opposition to some anti-terrorism measures be an offence? And how exactly do they propose to police the internet?

In responding to terrorism by restricting our liberties the government is handing victory to the terrorists. They are allowing terrorist acts to define the sort of society we live in. In such circumstances surely the Home Secretary should be prosecuted under his own legislation.
Of course, when Charles Clarke was Education Secretary, he revealed his contempt for historians. Perhaps the two are linked?
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