Terrorising liberty

The last time a UK government declared 'war on terrorism', the first casualty was liberty.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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After the attacks on America, UK prime minister Tony Blair declared ‘war on terrorism’ – not only overseas, but here in Britain too.

The day after the attacks, foreign secretary Jack Straw invoked the Terrorism Act 2000 as playing a ‘major role’ in tackling terrorist bases and support in the UK, and already arrests have been made at Heathrow Airport under anti-terrorism legislation. ‘Britain’s counter-terrorist laws are crucial’, said home secretary David Blunkett. ‘We were right to keep them.’

Yet if the legislation’s previous incarnation is anything to go by, the laws will do little to ‘prevent terrorism’ – but a lot to erode liberties.

New Labour’s Terrorism Act came into force in February 2001, superseding both the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 (PTA) and the Northern Ireland Emergency Provisions Act 1973. The original PTA was passed in November 1974 – the last time a British government declared ‘war on terrorism’ – in response to the IRA’s Birmingham pub bombings that left 21 people dead. But despite its stated aims, the Act was less about ‘preventing terrorism’ than about harassing Irish people and undermining their civil liberties.

The PTA allowed the authorities to detain suspects for up to seven days without charge. It gave the home secretary powers to exclude people from Britain to Northern Ireland – internal exile within the UK – if he ‘reasonably believed’ them to be involved in terrorism, without needing to go to court or offer any evidence. It allowed the police to cordon off entire areas, to stop and search people they ‘reasonably suspected’ might be terrorists, and to confiscate any items they suspected could be used for ‘terrorist purposes’ (including, in some instances, black gloves, rope, building equipment and even A-Z maps).

Of the 7052 (mostly Irish) people detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act between 1974 and 1991, only 14 percent had charges brought against them (1). Many of the other 6097 (86 percent) were held for days at a time, denied access to a solicitor, interrogated (without the safeguards that suspects today are promised in police custody), and then released again – left with the stigma of being an Irish person arrested on suspicion of being involved in terrorism.

And of the 350 people excluded from the UK to Northern Ireland or the Irish Republic under the PTA from 1974 to 1992, the vast majority were just ordinary Irish people suspected of being terrorists – with fewer than 30 of them being charged with ‘terrorist acts’ once they arrived back in Ireland. A study carried out by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1993 found that 60 percent of Irish people surveyed in Britain had been stopped and questioned under the PTA (2).

That so many Irish people were conveyor-belted under anti-terrorism legislation and only small numbers of them charged showed that the PTA was more about harassing the Irish community than about hunting for terrorists. Far from being one-off miscarriages of justice, the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six – framed for the IRA pub bombings of 1974 and then released after being found innocent in 1989 and 1991 respectively – were part of a climate of hysteria fostered by anti-terrorist legislation that effectively criminalised the Irish community.

Following the IRA ceasefire of 1994, the then Tory government was put under pressure to rethink anti-terrorist legislation, while Labour promised an overhaul if it got into power. So what did the New Labour government do? It passed the new and improved Terrorism Act in 2001, which includes much of what was bad about the PTA – and then some.

The Terrorism Act defines terrorism as ‘the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public’, which ‘involves serious violence against a person’, ‘serious damage to property’, ‘endangers a person’s life’, ‘creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public’, or ‘is designed seriously to interfere with an electronic system’. As some have pointed out, such a broad definition of terrorism not only covers aeroplanes crashing into buildings, but also rowdy political protests and hacking into internet systems. According to Guardian columnist George Monbiot, the Terrorism Act criminalises protest: ‘You can become a terrorist without having to harm a living being – provided you believe in something.’ (3)

If the police ‘reasonably suspect’ that acts of terrorism are likely to be carried out, they can seek an ‘authorisation’ to declare an area an ‘emergency zone’ for up to 28 days. And within the emergency zone, rights go out the window. A police officer can ‘arrest without a warrant a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist’, ‘may stop and search a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist’, and ‘can stop a vehicle, and may search the vehicle, the driver of the vehicle, any passenger in the vehicle, anything in or on the vehicle or carried by the driver or passenger’.

In short, the Terrorism Act allows the authorities to create mini states of emergency where you can forget your rights – as long as there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a terrorist act is about to be carried out. But given that airline passengers at UK airports are now having everything from razor blades to nail scissors to tennis rackets confiscated, the line between reasonable suspicion and unreasonable panic seems a thin one indeed.

Under the Terrorism Act it is also a crime to ‘fail to disclose’ information that might lead to the arrest of a terrorist. Under the PTA, a similar subsection led to journalists being arrested – including the makers of a documentary on Northern Ireland for the Channel 4 Dispatches series – for failing to disclose their sources. And the Terrorism Act makes it an offence, not only to be a member of a list of proscribed organisations (14 Irish ones plus new, mostly Islamic ones), but also to support them financially or to be present at a meeting of three or more people if one of those people is a member of a proscribed organisation. As some journalists have pointed out, such measures can only undermine free speech and journalistic integrity.

In Tony Blair’s new ‘war on terrorism’, we might find once again that the first casualty is liberty.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Defend liberty – especially now, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issues: Attack on USA

(1) See Suspect Community: People’s Experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain, Paddy Hillyard, Pluto Press, 1993

(2) See The Irish Community: Diversity, Disadvantage and Discrimination, by Bronwen Walter, Runnymede Trust

(3) ‘Wearing a t-shirt makes you a terrorist’, George Monbiot, Guardian, 22 February 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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