Guardian newspaper, editorial, 19.9.01
Anti-terrorist laws can threaten liberty
In the US, rightwing commentators are calling for easier surveillance of emails, more lenient telephone tapping procedures, new draconian powers to hold suspect terrorists and the reintroduction of assassination as a legitimate CIA tool against terrorists and political leaders who harbour them. In Europe, home affairs and justice ministers meet in Brussels tomorrow to discuss emergency measures for combating terrorism. A new European capture order, as well as abolition of formal extradition procedures are on the agenda. In the UK, ministers are talking of reintroducing identity cards that were abolished by Winston Churchill's government in 1952.
It is not just the west's generals who need cool heads, but ministers too. Defenders of civil rights need to mount a vigilant guard. History suggests emergency legislation passed in the aftermath of a terrorist attack only serves to undermine the very rights that legislators purport to be protecting. Look no further than the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act, passed in the wake of two IRA terrorist bombs in Birmingham. Rushed through parliament within 48 hours by a Labour government, the PTA was originally supposed to have lasted for six months. Sixteen years later it was still in place and was only abolished by the introduction of the equally draconian Terrorism Act of 2000. The European court of human rights did force the UK to amend two oppressive PTA clauses - detention without judicial authority for seven days and exclusion orders-but the main framework remained in place. One reason why the demands for extra surveillance powers in the US are not being made here, is that they already exist through the Terrorism Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. They allow the police, security services and customs and excise to monitor phone calls, intercept emails and read faxes without adequate judicial authority.
Ministers on both sides of the Atlantic need to keep three lessons in mind. First, that anti-terrorist laws can pollute criminal justice systems more generally. Second, that such laws can encourage criminal justice agencies to bend the rules to ensure convictions; remember the succession of Irish convictions quashed because of bent police evidence. Third, that they can create a two-tier system of justice which bears most heavily on racial minorities. Such systems have no place in a democratic society.
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