By Laura Schwartz
How much are we prepared to sacrifice in order to ensure our safety? This question has been fiercely debated in the weeks since the London bombings by politicians, journalists, senior members of the police force and civil liberties campaigners. Blair’s government, supported by the majority of the Tory party, seem to think that the answer should be: “Rather a lot.”
The latest Terrorism Bill by far exceeds in both reach and severity any previous terrorist legislation, including that used by Thatcher against the IRA. The Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act, which was rushed through parliament in 2001 as a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 was in itself a significant departure, in particular for allowing for foreign nationals to be detained indefinitely without trial. When the Lords declared this contrary to the Human Rights Act, a new Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed in March 2005, which substituted control orders for indefinite detention under which both foreign and British nationals could be severely restricted in their movements, subjected to a form of house arrest and forced to wear electronic tags.
You might imagine, then, that the government and the police were more than equipped to combat terrorism. Yet the new proposed Terrorist Bill would further extend their powers, including extending the length of time for which a suspect can be detained without charge to three months, and creating a whole host of new offences, such as “encouraging” or “glorifying” terrorism.
The threat which the creation of these new offences poses to free-speech and civil liberties is considerable. The legal definition of “encouragement” to terrorism is very different from that of incitement, which is already illegal. The accused of this does not have to be guilty of “intending” their audience to commit a crime, nor is there any need for those under their influence to actually commit any crime. All that is necessary for prosecution is if the person making the statement has reasonable grounds to believe that the public might take it as “encouragement”, whatever that might mean. The proposed offence of “glorifying” terrorism is in effect to criminalise opinion. It could, in theory, be used to prosecute those who express support for national liberation movements in, say, Kashmir or Chechnya.
It is questionable whether the proposed attacks on civil liberties would actually achieve what they set out to do, that is, combat terrorism. The old argument in favour of free speech — that in silencing dangerous opinions you merely force them underground and make martyrs of their exponents — is a powerful one. The particularly vicious brand of political Islam which inspired the London bombers will surely fair far better in a society where it cannot be openly expressed and then, just as publicly, attacked and dismantled.
It should also not be forgotten that extended police powers and a policy of detainment without trial will fall disproportionately hard on Britain’s Muslims, or rather, anyone with brown enough skin to match the police’ s image of an “ Islamic terrorist” . An ethnic community which feels itself to be under attack by the state is more likely to lend a sympathetic ear to those whom that same state has sought to silence.
Tony Blair likes to remind us that the world has changed since 9/11, and particularly since the London bombings. It has changed for the left too, in that we now face a double task. We have to fight against escalating attacks on our civil liberties, whilst simultaneously denouncing the anti-democratic and reactionary ideology which lay behind the terrorist attacks in London and New York.
This is a difficult line to tread, and sections of the left have so far failed to do so successfully. The SWP have rightly been criticised for their soft attitude towards political Islam, yet revulsion for the politics of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun should not compromise our opposition to proposed state bans against them.
Moreover, we on the left may well become the next victims of the government crackdown on freedom of expression. Alongside anti-terror legislation, the government has introduced restrictions on the right to protest. “Extremism” has become a term used to brand and dismiss any opinions which might conflict with the Blairite status quo. Undemocratic attacks on out civil liberties, even when directed against enemies of democracy, can only lead to further limitations on our democratic rights.