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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2001 / 5 Kislev, 5762

Barbara Amiel

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"Anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian Nights' "open sesame" -- TEN weeks after September 11 and the site in New York City is getting cleaned up. It looks like a huge construction site really, except for the smell. People who work in the area say they can't eat the food in local restaurants because it smells of something not quite acrid, not quite smoky, something. The wreckage of the World Trade Centre looks like a deconstructed de Chirico painting.

Beside it are skyscrapers, still intact, some 60 or 70 stories high, covered completely with orange or brown nets. Orange means the buildings have "twisted" and windows may pop out. Dark brown means structural problems that can only be solved by demolition.

The buildings wait in silence to die, but no one is quite sure how to kill them. Underneath, the fire burns. There are no tourists here. Last week the crews discovered a lift, intact. They peeled off the skin. Inside, it was filled with bodies.

This is the aftermath of terrorism. It is real and terrible. I have now read anti-terrorism legislation in three countries --- the United States, Canada and Britain. One consistent thread runs through all of them which, if left unacknowledged, is also a threat. The phrase "anti-terrorism" has become the Western world's equivalent of the Arabian nights' "open sesame". Utter the mantra "anti-terrorism" and, presto, under cover of fighting bin Laden & Co, you can pass measures that have little to do with terrorism and everything with extending the control of the state over our lives.

Britain is far from alone in this. In America, President Bush's new military courts can be convened to try aliens if the president "has reason to believe" they are members of terrorist organisations. These tribunals can condemn a non-citizen to death after a hearing in which evidence may be kept secret and a third of the officers sitting in judgment may dissent. There is no review by any civilian court. Canada has its anti-terrorism legislation, which relies on definitions of terrorist activity so broad that the Canadian courts will probably strike them down. In England, we have Mr Blunkett's Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

The Bill's measures can be divided into three. What I call "Safe Rules" are new regulations that counter terrorism with no significant reduction of civil liberties or significant extension of state power. "Mixed Rules" are also designed to counter terrorism but involve some enhancement of state power and reduction of civil liberties: reasonable people can disagree over whether the price is worth paying. Then there are "Dead Wrong" measures. They do virtually nothing to counteract terrorism while reducing civil liberties in sometimes very significant ways. All three of these abound in Mr Blunkett's new Bill. Here are some examples.

Safe Rules: the Security of Pathogens and Toxins section requires the managers of laboratories and other premises holding stocks of lethal diseases and toxins to give the police information on the people working in such a facility. The Home Secretary is also given the power to prohibit a named individual from working there. This is perfectly sensible. If you work in a laboratory that has anthrax or smallpox strains, the authorities should be aware of your identity, just as they are if we drive a bus and apply for a licence. Similarly, the Immigration and Asylum recommendations allow the state to retain fingerprints for 10 years in asylum and certain immigration cases. This could help prevent applicants who have been turned down once from re-applying and creating multiple identities - which terrorists have done.

For Mixed Rules, take the Bill's regulations on bribery and corruption. The new Act will supersede the 1916 Act, which had local jurisdiction only. A British court can now interfere internationally in business methods. This might have some application to the fight against terrorism, but I suspect that in many cases the use of this section will simply give the state another handle in private and business transactions. British companies or businessmen who have to deal with local "customs" in business - including the provision of certain "perks" for clients - may now find themselves under the malicious, uncomprehending or ideological scrutiny of London bureaucrats.

A similar example of Mixed Rules is the whole Race and Religion section (part five). This section is intended to stop religious groups fomenting hatred for other groups. But it uses the terrible language introduced by the Left in the old racial offences legislation. The phrase "behaviour intended or likely" is insidious. "Intended" requires a guilty mind. "Likely" requires a subjective judgment. The only practical use of this section against terrorism will be to prevent the establishment of schools akin to the Pakistani madrassas, which encourage suicide bombers.

But this use is dwarfed by other uses to which the measure could be put by the authorities. Our present Government seems committed to ecumenism and uncomfortable with religious orthodoxy. We might use this section against those who say that people who don't believe in God will burn in hell. Or any Sunday school teacher who is not sufficiently ecumenical. The maximum penalty for this is seven years, which is certainly better than the penalty Salman Rushdie faced, but this section is in essence the fatwa of the ayatollahs of liberalism.

One example of "Dead Wrong" is in the section on disclosure. Getting around disclosure rules has been an aim of statists for years. They want a big clearing house for information gathered by various government agencies. All that stands in the way of Orwell's Oceania is that certain rules prevent Big Brother having complete files on us. Until now, whether it is Statistics, the Census, Inland Revenue or the National Health Service, information collected by the government comes with an assurance that it will be used for the specific purpose for which it is collected and none other. These assurances are predicated on a recognition that freedom and the values associated with it presuppose an area of privacy that ought to be as inviolate as a person's home.

In this section, the Government actually abandons the pretence that this Bill is simply about preventing terrorism. The "explanatory notes" on disclosure state that these new expanded disclosure rules will "ensure that public authorities can disclose certain types of otherwise confidential information where this is necessary for the purposes of fighting terrorism and other crimes" (my italics). The Bill itself goes even further: this disclosure will cover investigations including "tribunals of any description". The Government's various revenue departments will have "no obligation of secrecy imposed by statute or otherwise" for any investigative purpose.

This proposed Act blithely sweeps away all assurances we have had that when we report information to the Government under an official promise of confidentiality, that information cannot be used by another branch of the Government without, minimally, a court order showing cause. In this section "anti-terrorism" is a battering ram to break down all restraints and considerations of privacy.

One might concede that in certain cases, disclosure will help the fight against terrorism. But I cannot readily see how extension of disclosure to the Cereal Marketing Act (1965), the Diseases of Fishes Act (1983), the Schedule to the Property Misdescriptions Act (1991) and the dozens of other acts named as recipients of the extended disclosure rules will do so.

The detention provisions for asylum seekers and refugees have attracted much comment and those sections are clearly unhappy developments for those of us concerned with civil liberties. I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that if we had not been such super liberals signing on to the European Human Rights Conventions, we would not have had this problem. Super-liberalism will give you sub-liberal consequences. Our officials can't use the normal discretion in admitting people that would have prevented much of this problem.

Ultimately, the key question with this proposed legislation is: what aspects of it would have helped prevent the September 11 catastrophe? It would be a tragedy indeed if we compromised our freedoms without making a dent in evil and only accentuated the 21st-century's march towards statism. The balance is difficult: nothing is more injurious to civil liberties than terrorism and terrorists and what they would do if they were able to make our laws. Short though the debate allowed on this Bill is, if its intended targets ruled us, there would be no debate at all.

JWR contributor Barbara Amiel is a columnist with London's Daily Telegraph, where this column originated. Comment by clicking here.

11/06/01: We must rediscover a war mentality that persists through vicissitudes
10/31/01: The West is fighting to rescue Islam, not destroy it

© 2001, Barbara Amiel