Panic in the face of fanatics is making Britain dangerousSIMON JENKINS
We are still here. We still live, work and play. We can vote. We can travel where we want, meet whom we choose, say what we like. We still enjoy due process of law. The only absurdity is that in the eighth year of the government of Tony Blair we need to remark on these facts.
I do so not because some fanatics have bombed London. We have, most of us, been there before. I do so because in the three weeks since the attacks began a howling mob has clambered aboard the terrorists’ bandwagon and claimed right of passage. They are taking the opportunity to beat their political pectorals, roar abuse at all and sundry and cloak prejudice in the dogma of necessity. Whatever their motives, the objective is the same as that of the terrorist. It is to multiply fear, restrict liberty and sow seeds of hatred.
Urban terrorism can only be treated as a crime. Conspiring to explode devices in public places endangers life, destroys property and causes public nuisance. Like all criminal effects it has causes. A sensible democracy addresses those causes. But since ordinary citizens and even the police can do little about them in the short term, they rightly concentrate on the crime itself. The streets of London are alive with like dangers, with people who shoot, kill and maim dozens of people a year. We fight them all, whatever their proffered and spurious justification.
So what purpose was served last week by police crying, “They’re still out there and trying to get you”? What good are daily briefings on “the inevitability” of another attack? Street killings are inevitable, too. Apart from the gratuitous damage to public confidence and business, why stoke the very fears, hatreds and antagonisms that the bombers want stoked? Just get on and find the bombers, without publicising their allegedly awesome power to deflect blame from any deficiencies in public safety. Half the British Establishment seems to have signed up to the League of Friends of Terrorism.
That some London passengers were sadly killed earlier this month does not put the security of the British state at risk. I have a higher respect for that security than most people seem to have. Britain is not at war just because some Arab says so. No amount of tabloid hysteria — or tabloid government — should make it otherwise. No city can be immune to bombs but that does not subvert democracy and engender a state of emergency. Anyone who pretends otherwise is an accessory to the terrorism itself.
After 9/11 the Americans, with characteristic rigour, revealed that the catastrophe was a result not of some lack of federal power but chiefly executive incompetence. I trust Britain will ask the same questions. Given the resources poured into Britain’s police and security services — more than any other country in Europe — Britons are entitled to ask how this month’s disaster occurred.
Could it be that recent home secretaries have preferred to set the police easier priorities, such as catching drug users and speeding motorists? Why have they devoted half of all police time to bureaucracy and so little to walking the streets in ethnic minority areas, getting their ears to the ground and penetrating possibly dissident groups? If there were a similar collapse in the health or education service, ministers would never be allowed the claim that it was absolutely nothing to do with them.
Last week’s reaction to the Stockwell shooting was likewise a national disgrace. The police claimed the right to follow a suspect across town and kill him in cold blood. Rather than instantly admit a terrible mistake, it demanded and got the instant, cringing and unqualified support of all “right-thinking people”. What would such people say if the police used their machineguns to mow down an entire group of dark-skinned people “thinking they might be engaged in terrorism”? Terrorism is turning Britain into a banana republic. It is centuries since we cheered a public lynching. If terrorists want evidence of how easy it is to reduce Britain to a crude police state, they need only study the Stockwell shooting.
The truth is that those who want to subvert freedom can always rely on “useful idiots”, a phrase Lenin is said to have used of liberal apologists for extremists (but never did). Modern terrorism neatly inverts this attribution. It relies on “useful idiots” of the right to exploit any terrorist incident to foment xenophobia, suspend civil liberties and seek revenge from any ethnic group vaguely linked to the incident.
Terrorism’s “useful idiots” have had a field day this past fortnight. They have jumped from “nothing can justify the bombing” (true) to “nothing can explain the bombing” (absurd). They have jumped from “Britain’s war in Iraq is no excuse for killing innocent Londoners” (true) to “Britain’s war in Iraq has nothing to do with the bombing” (palpably absurd). They jump from “we must not be driven to alter our way of life” (true) to demanding that we do just that. The “useful idiots” demand new powers, new restrictions and new measures against the Muslim community. Above all they declare “war on terror”, turn murderers into warriors and incite Islam to proclaim jihad in response.
In 1998 the Blair government signed up to the European convention on human rights. It did so against the views of many, including myself, who felt that Britain should not need lessons in such rights from outside. Since then I have come round to the 1998 act, in particular its use against the more authoritarian tendencies of the nanny state. But I never thought that its most determined foe would be Blair himself.
In 2001 he suspended habeas corpus and introduced unlimited detention without trial. When told by the law lords, by eight votes to one, last December that this transgressed the human rights convention, he declared that he would defy them and pass new legislation to prove it.
The law lords pointed out that Britain could renege on its human rights commitment, in Lord Bingham’s words, only in “an emergency threatening the life of the nation”. For Blair to suggest that the London bombs threaten the nation’s life (as opposed to British lives) is plausible only if he accepts the fantasies of the bombers themselves. Yet he is offering the bombers just this ludicrous accolade, currently to justify detention without trial, restrictions on free speech and publishing censorship.
On Tuesday Blair abused the judiciary in terms that would do credit to his friend Vladimir Putin. He implied that he would continue to defy the law lords and the human rights convention on the grounds of national emergency, which he claims the exclusive right to define. Last December Lord Hoffmann remarked that Blair’s attacks on human rights were a greater threat to freedom than terrorism itself. Blair wonders menacingly “whether those words would be uttered now”. I sincerely hope they would.
The prime minister is undoubtedly impressive when speaking for the nation in moments of pain. He is unimpressive in articulating what should be its response.
Not so Blair’s wife. Also last Tuesday Cherie Booth went out of her way (a long way, to Malaysia) to support the abused judges. At moments like this, she said, “it is all too easy to respond in a way that undermines commitment to our most deeply held values”. She disagreed with her husband’s view that judges should change their minds when public opinion was in a state of shock. It is when terror and division reign, she said, that judicial independence “is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of the modern democratic state”.
The government has not even begun to prove that the London bombs resulted from legislative impotence rather than from its own incompetence or some unavoidable evil. Even if British freedom were in some degree “to blame”, democracy has always known that sometimes it must fight its fights, as Booth said, “with one hand tied behind its back” and yet it wins. It has no need of the wimpish special powers and kangaroo courts of terrorism’s “useful idiots ”. But if politicians dare not defend this principle, then judges must do so. They must not let government “cheapen our right to call ourselves a civilised nation”.
Who can guess the pillow talk at Chequers this weekend? For the time being I can only report the words of the prime minister’s, rightly so-called, better half.