Blunkett jumps the gun
The laughable logistics of pre-empting terrorism.
UK home secretary David Blunkett says he wants to see a debate over introducing new anti-terrorism legislation to make it easier to convict British terror suspects (1).
No doubt this is an attempt to address the fact that since 9/11 there have been over 500 arrests under British anti-terrorism laws, but only a handful of convictions. Blunkett’s proposals include lowering the standard of proof to find guilt, from the current ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to one based ‘on the balance of probabilities’; he also wants to introduce pre-emptive action to arrest potential suicide bombers.
Leaving aside the civil rights implications of further augmenting some of the most draconian anti-terrorist legislation in the world – which already allows indefinite arrest for being in possession of information that may prove of use to a terrorist (like a tube map perhaps?) – the logistics of his precautionary approach are laughable.
That ‘prevention is better than cure’ (the mantra of the precautionary environmental lobby) is only true if your predictions are entirely accurate. Imagine a profiling system capable of predicting potential terrorists with an accuracy of 99 per cent. Needless to say, such a percentage is nowhere near realisable – but now imagine trying to identify the 19 perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks from among an American population of some 300million. You would end up having to incarcerate three million innocent civilians while a 20 per cent chance would remain that one of the terrorists would slip through your net (2).
Still, what else are we to expect from a home secretary who had to withdraw a document predicting gas attacks on the London Underground and who got himself into trouble in autumn 2003 for suggesting that a young Asian arrested in Gloucester was guilty before he had even been charged.
To coin a phrase, it’s not a matter of if Blunkett will blunder again, but when.
Bill Durodié is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
‘Balancing’ liberty and security, by David Chandler
spiked-issue: War on terror
(1) See Blunkett plans tougher terror law, 2 February 2004
(2) Example taken from The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age, by Jeffrey Rosen, Random House, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
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