Johann on Assault on Civil Liberties, UK

A well-researched, well-argued piece by Johann Hari about the totalitarian policies of Home Secretary David Blunkett, and Britain’s failure to learn from the miscarriages of justice that came to light in the 1990s:

Twelve Muslim men are being held indefinitely in Belmarsh Prison. They are boxed into small cells for 22 hours a day. Their offence? They don’t know, and nor do you. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000, even their lawyers have no right to be told why they are being detained. After two years, there are no plans to charge them with any crime.

This is not punishment, it is judicial kidnapping. The canon of Western law – built upon habeas corpus – was designed to prevent precisely this arbitrary exercise of power. Blunkett sneers that only residents of NW3 would worry about such trivia.

The Home Secretary seems to have genuinely missed the point of civil liberties. By ensuring that the police and politicians are not just rounding up the usual suspects, proper judicial process actually makes everyone safer. When the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were jailed, it wasn’t only their lives that were ruined; real terrorists were left free to carry on murdering – and there are graveyards full of innocent people who can vouch for it. Blunkett’s plan for constricting civil liberties is based on a trade-off – liberty for security – that does not work in reality.

(emphasis mine)

More from my personal Johann Hari Echo Chamber in a later post.

11 replies on “Johann on Assault on Civil Liberties, UK”

  1. People would do well to remember this quote from Benjamin Franklin, first uttered in 1759: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    Of course, they might counter with this little tidbit from Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

  2. Essentially, there can be no liberty without justice — and it cuts both ways. You can’t have liberty when authority oversteps its bounds; but similarly, you can’t have liberty if authority is restricted from *protecting* it for the rest of us. Liberty is not free, and doesn’t just happen naturally because a people with a song in their hearts wish it to be. I am sure that Ben Franklin would be the first to tell you this, if he was still around. Independence for the US was not a cakewalk.

    The situation Reinder posts about is not justice. However, here in the US, our domestic left is so enraged by law enforcement that anything short of evisceration of same is the moral equivalent of a fascist, totalitarian regime.

    It didn’t get nearly enough play in the media, but one of the unwelcome findings of our 9/11 commission (except for those of us who were already aware that this was a problem) was that the mistakes that led to “allowing” 9/11 to happen occurred because of beaurocratic walls raised purposefully by the preceding administration… walls that prevented our law enforcement agencies from sharing information, for instance.

    The US Patriot Act’s major focus was to remove unreasonable obstacles from law enforcement — like allowing investigators to simply read the same public internet that the rest of us read. Yet to listen to our domestic left, you would think that the Patriot Act establishes a fascist regime.

    Britain needs to clean up their policies in light of the current situation. No doubt the US needs to fine tune things, as well. But it would be fantastically naive to eviscerate law enforcement again and just ask the terrorists to pretty please stop cutting people’s heads off.

  3. Carson Fire wrote:

    “However, here in the US, our domestic left is so enraged by law enforcement that anything short of evisceration of same is the moral equivalent of a fascist, totalitarian regime.”

    Observed from over here, it looks like your domestic right is of the same opinion. One of the better reasoned comments from that viewpoint that I’ve stumbled upon, is perhaps


    “Yet to listen to our domestic left, you would think that the Patriot Act establishes a fascist regime.”

    A law hardly establishes a fascist regime, but a hard learned lesson by all countries that was occupied by Nazi Germany is that it may put in place an apparatus that will make the work of a FUTURE fascist state oh so much easier.

  4. Cars:

    Now I’m confused. Suspending habeas corpus in the US prevents beheadings in Iraq?
    As for the gist of your argument, I’m going to refer back to the part of Hari’s report that I highlighted in bold, and reiterate that draconian anti-terrorist measures were tried in the UK during the Northern Irish troubles, and didn’t work. They put innocent people in jail for a long, long time while the real terrorists were free to bomb another day.

    And don’t, please don’t, change the subject. We were talking about habeas corpus, not bureaucratic obstacles. I would hope that these two concepts are not identical to you.

  5. Trpeal: I don’t think those two quotes are opposed to one another at all. Except that extremism in the cause of liberty is what caused Heinlein to write all those god-awful fat novels in his dotage, which indicates that it at least leads to vice.

  6. Geir: When are you going to make a real post on Waffle? If you find more interesting tidbits on blogs that I can’t be counted on to read (I’ll bookmark Pournelle’s. It looks rather interesting), why not make a note of them in this venue?

  7. Oh, dear, Reinder, don’t accuse me of changing the subject just because I interject a related thought. 🙂

    You’re perfectly right to decry this abuse of human rights, but that was my point: there’s a wave of chatter from the left about how John Ashcroft is Evil because he puts drapes over nude statues (the same nude statues his predecessors draped), about how it’s Orwellian for the FBI to be allowed to actually do things to aid them in their investigations; and it gets so tiresome, that we begin to ignore it. And then something like this comes to light, and it takes a minute before we take it seriously, because everybody’s been crying wolf so much.

    It may seem like an unrelated thought, but it’s an insight that you prompted from posting this information. I’m not asking anyone to agree with my insight, but, sniff, it is my own. 😉

    And Geir, the story by Pournelle you linked reminds me that we’ve been getting totalitarianism in the US for years at the hands of our left. Let me explain.

    In 1940-something, W.C. Fields made a movie where he played a bank “dick”. A moment that I’m sure was funny once upon a time was when Fields wrestles a toy gun out of the hands of a child.

    There is no longer any humor in that moment, because strident “zero tolerance” policies have empowered teachers to suspend students for water pistols, plastic knives, and even spitwads. We are now subjected daily to wild abuses of this policy, much of it far more ludicrous than Fields’ valiant struggle with the little cowboy in his bank.

    In public places, there have been a rise in laws banning smoking cigarettes from just about everywhere. Some communities are working on bills to outlaw cigarette smoking in apartments and private homes. Don’t get me wrong — this I love! I hate cigarette smoke. But the fact that it pleases me doesn’t make it not repressive and totalitarian.

    Finally, best of all, we now have what Orwell called ThoughtCrime in the form of “Hate Laws” that seek to punish criminals further for having the wrong thoughts in their mind while committing a crime. This is the kind of thing that led to the absurd questioning of George W Bush during the 2000 debates, where he was grilled relentlessly on why a particular death row inmate wasn’t going to be subject to further punishment with yet another Hate Law statute that was vetoed because, I believe, there were already similar measures on the books. I forget Bush’s exact words, but he pointed out plaintively that the man was getting the death penalty, and there really wasn’t anything further that a Hate Crime statute could do, anyway. Murder is murder.

    This, in fact, was another one of the left’s examples of Evil; they ran lots of commercials that accused Bush of murdering the black victim all over again by not vigorously supporting the superfluous Orwellian measure. And it got better than simply mocking him for not supporting ThoughtCrime! They also were outraged that this showed that he supported the death penalty — and so, because he was an Evil Republican, they lampooned him for not supporting worse punishment and not supporting weaker punishment for the same man *at the same time*.

    And — oh, jeez… I almost don’t even want to get started on the judicial system here right now. The left has packed our benches nicely, and we have a lot of philosopher kings who operate as if they are a branch of government superior to all others. We have had a few instances of judges actually ruling that legislatures MUST take certain actions, whether they like it or not — legislatures whose laws they are supposed to be upholding. Seriously, our courts are regularly used to install policies that citizens would never support in an open election, or allow their elected officials to enact. “Screw you” is the official motto of many courts.

    None of this is major totalitarianism, I guess; little bits here and there, but enough to, as you say, Geir, “make the work of a FUTURE fascist state oh so much easier.”

    Problem is, when we divide things by political parties or ideologies, we like to pretend that *ours* has a monopoly on freedom. But when you get right down to it, people in government have a natural proclivity towards controlling people. And there is at least a difference in motive to take into account; we are more tolerant of the outrageous abuses of the left because most of it is supposed to be for our own good.

    We just have to fight it off when we see it; and we don’t pretend that the US and Britain is somehow worse than Islamic fascism, simply because of these scandals. My point about chopping heads off is to the point: the human rights abuses in Britain were wrong, but probably done for the right reasons (protecting the public — but as said before, the wrong way to go about it nonetheless); the terrorists chopping off heads are simply trying to terrorize populaces so that they can get power and control.

    There is a difference. And we’d really like to see the left show a little more understanding of what those differences are.

  8. Carson, I’m not sure if you read Pournelle’s article to the end? I thought he made the point of the anecdote about the stupid girl who shouted “wolf” quite clear. The issue is not about the wisdom of prohibiting stupidity (or anything else) by law.

    It’s this: [quote] “Arbitrary and discretionary power to the police and prosecutors is the essence of tyranny: it’s the definition of an authoritarian society.” [unquote]

    The US Patriot Act is not about prohibiting terrorism: Any civilliced country already have adequate laws for that. It’s main aim is not to coordinate law-enforcement(only one or two sections deal with this issue). The IMO revoutionary parts are about new powers to carry out surveillance, prosecution against and take into custody citizens without trial or indeed without having to prove due cause for suspicion.

    Since 2001, the US has seemingly implemented it throughout its state bureaucracy.

    Britain and several other European countries has passed “emergency acts” going down the same road.

    Now, I may be unduly pessimistic. But I _do_ believe that any country, and organization, CAN turn totalitarian given time and opportunity. Even the US of A or the European democracies.

    And once you start down the path of giving law enforcement officials arbitary powers, you have upped the “opportunity” part quite a bit.

    I don’t know the curriculum thaugt by Bin Laden in his windy Afghan camps, but I’m sure it must have included some choice bits from Andreas Baader. “We’re doing it to ourselves”, as Pournelle puts it.

  9. Carson: to prevent you and me talking at cross-purposes, it probably helps to realise that I’m *not* part of the American left, and what people there do or don’t do has nothing to do with me. The distinction is important because your comments here do not argue in any substantial way against the points made in my blog entry or my own comments, they argue against the American left. That may be done more efficiently elsewhere. (more influential left-leaning-but-not-rabid blogs like Harry’s Place, Brad DeLong’s blog or Crooked Timber come to mind)

    However, I do think the additional thoughts you brought in served to confuse the issue at hand. Just because parts of the Patriot Act are benign and non-controversial, that doesn’t make the whole of it benign and non-controversial. Letting the FBI read the public Internet isn’t something that will get people in arms; tapping individuals’ private traffic to gather intel on their reading habits is somewhat more controversial (acceptable in some circumstances, but that introduces the question of who will be the judge of that), and arbitrary arrest is a disgrace to any justice system worthy of the name, and counterproductive.

    Geir is quite right to warn that democracy isn’t forever. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the collapse of one large and powerful empire that was briefly turned into a nearly functional democracy, and then settled into being a deeply disfunctional one. There is no reason to presuppose that changes on that scale, but in the opposite direction wouldn’t happen in the United States just because it seems pretty stable now.
    In the Netherlands, when democratic government was temporarily displaced by a malign outside force between 1940 and 1945, the sheer amount of information about people’s ethnic and religious affiliation allowed that malign force to persecute Jewish citizens more effectively than anywhere else in the region. That’s a danger that should be taken into account when you give governments sweeping powers of surveillance and registration.

    As for “hate crimes”, I have no strong *political* opinions on that issue. However, I should point out that “murder is murder”, regardless of intent or motive, is not what the law actually said before these statutes were introduced. The law made quite a few finely-tuned distinctions between various conditions in which one person could take another person’s life, and intent has always factored in those distinctions: it makes a difference whether you kill a person through negligence, accident, in self-defense, deliberately but with mitigating circumstances, or deliberately with aggravating circumstances. Torturing a helpless person to death for pleasure or gain is typically regarded more sternly than stabbing an abusive spouse. It’s also been pointed out (can’t remember where) that even a dog knows the difference between someone treading on it by accident and someone kicking it with malice. I’d like to think that the legal systems we live are at least as capable of moral distinction as a dog.
    Not that *that* has anything to do with arbitrary imprisonment. Although I suppose arbitrary imprisonment would be a bit of a clue to that last question.

  10. I didn’t mean for it to come across like that… God I’m bad at this, ain’t I?
    I don’t find your comments or your presence here disruptive. I just think you could make better use of your own considerable fervour if you directed it towards those you actually have an argument with, instead of someone who is at a solid arm’s length’s remove from American political culture and quite happy to stay there.

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