LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett (who resigned last week) have been doing their utmost to alert the British people to the terrorist threat. This is seen by some as a cynical attempt to divert criticism of government support for the Americans in Iraq and to justify both men’s attempts to promote an image as defenders of law and order.
They also want to obtain popular support for strong-arm policies to tackle crime to try to pre-empt the Conservative Party’s claim as the party of law and order, and to counter Conservative allegations that the Labour Party is soft on crime.
Unfortunately, after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the way in which intelligence was manipulated to justify the attack on Iraq, Blair’s credibility with the electorate is low and his motives are suspect. However, the commissioner of police in London and the head of MI5, the British security service, have both warned the public to expect attempts by terrorists to cause serious incidents in London and other population centers. The Madrid bombings last March were a reminder that the threat is a real one. The British public cannot afford to ignore these warnings despite their lack of trust in the prime minister.
Some of the government’s proposals to tackle terrorism are sensible. It is wise to warn people to be alert and to take precautions such as keeping a small stock of food and water. But it is difficult to persuade people to prepare for an emergency whose shape cannot be anticipated without resorting to what some consider scaremongering. If politicians cry “wolf” too often, they will not be listened to, and when the danger is even greater than it is now, the public may have become complacent. A difficult balance must be achieved with the emphasis on common sense.
Many of the government’s other proposals look like copies of measures taken by the U.S. government’s Department of Homeland Security. The British government already faces criticism both at home and abroad for imprisoning without trial a small number of foreign extremists who cannot be returned to their home countries for fear that they would be persecuted.
An appeal to the highest court in Britain is pending, as is an appeal to the European Court of Justice, on the grounds that the detainees have been denied their right to a fair trial. The government now wishes to extend their powers to detain extremists and to arrange for terrorist suspects to be tried by a judge without a jury. Wiretapping evidence would be allowed and witnesses would be forced to answer questions. These proposals, which are contrary to long standing principles of British justice, have been criticized not only by human-rights activists but also by the government’s own prosecution service.
Blunkett has publicly criticized Lord Woolf, the lord chief justice, for his “liberal” views on crime and punishment. Woolf, noting the overcrowding in British prisons and the failure of the British penal system to educate and reform criminals, has sensibly urged that imprisonment should be primarily used to detain criminals who pose a real threat to society and not used indiscriminately. Blunkett is seen by his critics as illiberal and authoritarian.
The British public, if the media are to be believed, is greatly exercised by the growth in crime and antisocial behavior. It is difficult to get accurate crime statistics. Many crimes were not recorded in the past. The media give particular prominence to violent crimes. Reports of drug-related crimes have increased to the extent that, in some areas, people are reluctant to go out. Antisocial-behavior orders are one way in which rowdy youths are being controlled. More community support officers on the streets help.
Many lawyers argue that there is no need to modify the basis of British justice to deal with ordinary criminals. Terrorists are different and special measures may be needed, but if basic principles of justice are set aside in an attempt to protect the public, we are playing into the hands of the terrorists. One of the terrorists’ main objectives is to subvert the system of democratic government.
The government replies that whatever it does, or doesn’t do, will be criticized. The public should trust it to maintain a balance between security and freedom. Unfortunately the necessary trust is missing. Moreover, history has shown that when basic freedoms are undermined to deal with emergencies it is very difficult to get them reinstated when the threat is over. No government likes to give up powers it has acquired, and there are always those who will argue that we must be prepared for the threat to return.
The government is proposing that all British residents in the future hold identity cards with photographs and biometric data. It will also become an offense not to report a change of address. The government argues that identity cards will help to cut fraud and prevent abuse of the social security and health systems. It also argues that it will help the police keep track of potential terrorists.
Opponents of the proposals point out that the Spanish system of identity cards was ineffective against the Madrid bombings. They argue that no agreement has yet been reached on what biometric data to include and question how accurate the results will be. They point to the huge costs of the proposed system and note the failure of so many of the government’s ambitious info-technology projects. Critics also point out that the bureaucratic rules requiring proof of identity before the approval of financial transactions such as opening a bank account have done little to prevent fraud and money laundering, and have merely complicated life for law-abiding citizens and organizations.
Before introducing Draconian measures limiting freedoms, all governments need to think carefully about whether the measures are necessary and whether they will be effective in meeting the objectives. The media need to question the motives and the methods of the authorities. Good ends do not justify bad means.