UK Politics

Fueling grievances

Peter Clarke, who was head of Scotland Yard’s counter terrorism command, makes a plea for the politics to be taken out of the anti-terrorism bill debate. I would suggest people to read the whole thing, but this part struck a chord:

Comparisons with foreign jurisdictions are regularly rolled out, but as often as not they are looking at apples and pears. The assertions are often simplistic, selective and at times plain wrong. In this country, a suspect must be produced before a court within 48 hours of arrest. Whatever the fate of the Government’s 42-day proposal, this will not change. To suggest, as some do, that what is being proposed amounts to internment or the suspension of habeus corpus is extraordinary and misleading.

The police have been accused of exaggerating the terrorist threat, supposedly for political purposes. The fact that this is untrue doesn’t matter – it creates a perception that resonates with some in the Muslim communities. In fact, the sheer weight of convictions and guilty pleas in terrorist cases has actually opened the door to a more useful discussion than was previously possible with those who were sceptical about the scale of terrorism in the UK. Will extending pre-charge detention put that at risk? My experience is that, as long as police actions are explained as soon as possible and result in convictions in due course, they receive the overwhelming support of all communities. I firmly believe the risk to community relations is overplayed.

Indeed, it is hardly rational to suggest the UK state is involved in victimisation of the Muslim Community given the recent actions of the West Midlands Police and the new proposals to start a non-custodial de-programming scheme for extremists. However, there is a danger that some of the hyperbole over the anti-terror legislation could be doing the terrorists’ propaganda job for them.

It was one of Al Qaeda’s tactical views that they could provoke the West into indiscriminate acts of oppression, in order to increase their support and obtain recruits. Hence the wide-spread use of the shameful photographs of Abu Ghraib, and the claiming of the orange jumpsuits meme, in their propaganda. This is la politique du pire. As Michael Ignatieff put it in The Lesser Evil:

If terrorists can provoke the state into atrocity, this will begin to erode the willingness of a democratic public to continue the fight. Democracies may have the stomach for the occasional atrocity, but over the long term a policy of atrocity is unsustainable. It is important for liberal democracies not to succumb to this provocation, not to allow attack to become the pretext for abandoning law altogether.

The trick for the state is to control the upward spiral, while the terrorists attempt to cause the system to escalate the measures taken against the population. Ignatieff gives the example of the Russian Nihilists in the 19th century, who specifically targeted reformers of the czarist sytem in order to push it into a more reactionary form that would lose the support of the people.

So we need to guard against abandoning the rule of law and state oppression. But does the proposed anti-terror legislation come vaguely close to this? Of course not. And for that reason, opponents should be careful with the language they use. Take David Davis, for example, responding to the counseling for terrorists programme:

Shadow home secretary David Davis said of today’s publication: ‘This is pointless when the Government is fuelling the problem it is seeking to solve with its draconian approach to 42 days.’

Draconian is a strong word, and the bill is no longer asking for 42 days, but the ability for 42 days to be obtained in specific circumstances. Michael Burleigh [longer version here] is of the opinion that David Cameron is best able to fight the UK’s war on terror:

The one British politician who grasps the need to be as frank as our American cousins about the threat from terrorists who are actively plotting indiscriminate slaughter is not the prime minister, who appears to be locked into the globalising vapidities that thrill Davos seminars, but David Cameron. The leader of the opposition understands the existential threat from jihadism and has comprehensive ideas about how to combat it that will link foreign, defence and security policies. He is fully conscious of the need to balance ancient liberties with the right to stay alive.

Well, it might just help if opponents of the anti-terror legislations, including Cameron’s team, didn’t fuel grievances about supposed state persecution, when the bill is not a disproportionate response to a threat that threatens the safety of all communities in the UK.