Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, August 27, 2006

When we need to be frightened,

... and when we do not

Ministers must not be allowed to scare us into accepting new terror laws

New Statesman Leader (August 28 2006)

Britain is experiencing probably the most sustained period of severe threat since the Second World War. With the disruption of the liquid bomb plot, we narrowly escaped mass murder on an unimaginable scale and the security services are currently investigating no fewer than 24 more plots, potentially involving more than a thousand extremists. There is a threat to every individual in every section of British society. The threat is here, it is deadly and it is enduring.

This - every word of it - is the message of our government, and it is hard to see how it could be more alarming. The security threat level may have shifted down from critical to severe, but we are still warned that bloodshed and destruction on a scale to rival or even exceed the attacks on the World Trade Center remain more than possible, even likely. There can be no doubt about it: ministers and senior police officers want to frighten us, and they keep saying they are frightened themselves. But we have to ask, what can all this fear achieve?

It can do good. We can be roused to vigilance, to an awareness of the unattended package, the suspicious car, the peculiar comings and goings in the house down the road. We can be patient when we are delayed by extra security. And we can be less shocked and more competent if and when the blow falls. But the fear message also carries risks: the widely reported cases of Muslims unjustifiably removed from planes are unpleasant enough in themselves, but there is a danger that they are just the visible symptoms of something wider. Experience tells us that abuse and violence towards Muslims increases at these times, so we must remember to balance the need for alertness with the need for tolerance and civilised behaviour.

In general, the government has reason to be content with the effects of its message. The public has accepted that it must be careful, has accepted the inconveniences and no doubt is being careful. But there is a line to be drawn here, and it is as well to draw it now. The government's next step, and this is no secret, will be to exploit this mood of fear as a pretext for another attack on our rights and liberties. The hints and briefings leave no room for doubt. Ninety-day detention before charge is back on the agenda, as is the threat to suspend parts of the Human Rights Act. Ministers also want to shackle the judiciary so that it cannot obstruct them, and they want to extend the power of house arrest without trial and make deportations easier. They may even try again to make torture-based evidence admissible in British courts.

It may come in days or it may not see daylight for two or three months, but this Labour government, with four anti-terror acts already under its belt, is hell-bent on a fifth. It must be resisted. We have rejected such measures before and they have not suddenly become acceptable. The government must not be allowed to scare us into accepting them.

Are we, as ministers assert, more exposed to terror attack because the government is currently denied these powers? The question is a false one. Better to ask: Do we believe this government knows how to make us safer from terrorism? If giving home secretaries more powers could do the trick we would already have terror on the run, but that is not the case. Nor is money an issue, as John Reid says we are now spending well over GBP 2 billion a year on security, and everything MI5 wants, it gets. Nor, for that matter, does the government have a foreign policy capable of any form of success against terrorism; on the contrary, we are throwing petrol on the flames, fighting a never-ending "war" in alliance with a man who invites terrorists to "bring it on".

The terror threat is here and overcoming it will not be easy, but too many of this government's policies are the wrong ones. Powers of the kind it seeks belong under the sort of heavy-handed, undemocratic regime that Labour governments, Labour members and most British people historically abhor. And exploiting a mood of fear to justify them is also a tactic of such regimes.

In a speech a month ago in America, Tony Blair declared: "This war can't be won in a conventional way. It can only be won by showing that our values are stronger, better and more just, more fair than the alternative." We believe in those words; we only wish that he did.

Rose oil, yoghurt and flowers in even numbers

Romanians and Bulgarians are in the news, and indeed, some of them may soon be on our doorstep, but what do we know about them and their countries? For many of us the answer will be "not much", and most of what we are now being told is not designed to flatter. As an antidote, therefore, the New Statesman offers you ten reasons to feel positive about our next EU partners.

Bulgaria is the country of yoghurt, the food of centenarians, and, as the world's biggest producer of rose oil, it contributes greatly to the fragrance of nations. Many Bulgarians (something to note) shake their heads for "yes" and nod them to indicate "no". They are also a people who show proper respect for journalists, having built a shrine to the Times correspondent James Bourchier (1850-1920). And though Bulgaria was allied to Germany in the Second World War, its people refused to co-operate with the Final Solution and the 50,000-strong Jewish minority was saved.

Romania, like England, was visited in the distant past by the Romans and the Saxons. Its people are known for their hospitality, as they believe guests bring good fortune, but guests must remember to bring flowers in odd numbers - even numbers are for the dead. Bucharest (which means "village of joy") is home to one of Europe's most innovative film industries. And unusually, Romania allows the female half of its population a public holiday on International Women's Day (8 March).

Copyright (c) New Statesman 1913 - 2006

Bill Totten


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