Sunday, 19 October 2008

Dropping the 42 Days Detention Without Charge

I was pleased to read that finally the UK government has shelved its plans for people to be able to be held without being charged, the so-called 'pre-charge detention' which seemed so much like 'protective custody' of the Nazi regime. Of course people can still be held for 28 days without being charged which seems wrong (as Monica Ali has noted, the next closest to us is Australia with only 12 days detention without charge), but at least we have not taken another step to indefinite imprisonment without charge. Neither fortunately have we simply returned to anything like the policy of internment used by British forces in Northern Ireland August 1971 - December 1975 under which 1,981 people, predominantly Catholic (only 107 Protestants were held and none before 1973) were detained without trial on suspicion of being associated with terrorists. Often the wrong person would be arrested; 104 were released immediately when they were found out not to be the suspects. All those interneed received harsh treatment such as beatings. The reaction in terms of strikes and protests by the Catholic population forced the abandonment. The British had a record of internment going back to The Boer War (1899-1902) during which they interned the families of Boer guerilla fighters in concentration camps to put pressure on them to end the war.

The UK has these examples from its own history of imprisonment without charge, even if it is not well known by many people especially outside Northern Ireland. It is one of those files of 'secret history'. Why did the government think that moving towards such a policy in the UK again would not radicalise Muslims and other people in the country in just the way they hoped to combat. The USA blunders on in its policies on terrorism but the British who have dealt with terrorist groups from Malaysia to India to Palestine to Kenya to Ireland over the past sixty years should be better equipped. Either the collective memory of the state suffers from Alzheimer's disease, or, I imagine, many in office like the power over the lives of individuals that such legislation gives them. It might be targeted at activists but it also cows the general population. The inheritors of the Blair legacy like a compliant, obsequious population and get irritated when we are insufficiently humble. Interestingly Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said that the 42 days would be introduced in future 'if needed'. Does that mean, when the British interrogators prove to be 3.5 times less effective than Australian ones rather than 2.3 times less effective as at present? More likely it means when the government wants to look tough and aggressive or prove it is a friend, to say, a President McCain led USA. It is interesting that since the credit crunch fear of terrorism on the part of the government seems to have evaporated on both sides of the Atlantic as the economic problems have provided a different way to show how robust the government is.

'The Guardian' yesterday carried an interview with Stella Rimington, Director General of MI5 (Britain's Security Service dealing with internal threats) 1991-6 and her comments have appeared across British newspapers. I was glad that she spoke out in the way she did, though, unsurprisingly she is still a supporter of the British Establishment and its confidentiality, she does have a somewhat liberal tone (going beyond the simple libertarianism found in some British Conservatives) which one can see as the basis of Dame Judi Dench's portrayal of the character of M, head of MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service dealing with external threats), in the James Bond movies since 1995.

I can imagine many British people were glad when she said that the USA's response to the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 were a 'huge overreaction'. The USA behaved as if no-one had suffered terrorist attacks before or that somehow these ones were more evil than any other. As Rimington (1935-) noted she had been living in a country experiencing terrorist attacks for decades. You could argue that the British response in Northern Ireland, notably internment and shoot-to-kill policy of the British Army in 1982 bear similarities to what the USA is doing in Iraq. However, the British could or would not sustain an invasion of another country. The more I write this, the more I see in fact, there is less difference between the British policy in Northern Ireland and the post-2001 US policy in its 'war on terror'. I think it is basically that we see a difference because the British did not publicise it so widely nor adopt that moral tone which the Americans have forced not only on the people they are attacking but also on their allies and on neutral states. The UK is constantly being asked to prove that it is committed to the war on terror, for example, through adaptations to our passports and backing off when the USA detains British citizens at Guantanamo Bay.

You want to say to the USA 'get over it'. It is clear that the Bush administration was in fact waiting for an incident of the kind that happened on 11th September 2001 to introduce harsh legislation and larger funding for the security service. By adopting a very high moral tone it allowed the administration to excuse anything on that ground. This is why they keep re-emphasising the issue of the attacks even seven years later as that is what has allowed them to introduce torture as a method in the US legal system and to invade Iraq in order to secure its oil and keep it out of the hands of the Chinese. If 11th September events had not happened then the USA would have found something similar in order to give this legitimacy to their own actions, which even they knew were morally dubious so had to be trumped by something that they at least could suggest was some kind of ultimate evil.

Whilst the Bush administration used the 11th September attacks in this moral way, they have also commodified the attacks. This is partly as the viewing public of the World, especially the USA has no time to absorb complex messages and forgets them quickly. I always think it debases the deaths of the people in the Second World War to reduce it to 'WW2' and in the same way, if people really respected the victims, from many different nations who were killed on the 11th September 2001 they would not simply term it '9/11' which sounds like a lot number in a auction or simply an address in a building or just like the term '24/7'. It is a quick term which seems to be a key to unlock any form of policy behaviour however widespread and violating of civil liberties it is. Of course, the USA now as in previous decades sees itself as special as having the so-called 'manifest destiny'. I have mentioned the desire to exempt US soldiers from war crimes charges as if what they do will always be 'right'. This harks back to the medieval concept of 'holy' war (both from the Christian and Muslim perspectives) and that carrying it out in fact rather than leading to punishment in the afterlife as other violence would, improves what the warrior will receive when they arrive there. The US soldier who tortures, in George W. Bush's view of the World, as long as he does it to the 'bad' people, is to live forever in the glory of the 'Heaven' of a Conservative USA.

The use of the 11th September attacks to legitimate extreme policies, I feel, is Rimington's key concern. She believes it actually worsened the terrorist threat in the UK by alienating intelligent Muslim men from British society as we can see in the failed attacks on Glasgow airport carried out by doctors. I get angered by how the USA has behaved, its horribly self-righteous, patronising and myopic view (it paid no concern to what other people across the World have suffered, at times at the hands of the USA, just asked the Vietnamese) and how the UK has followed so closely in its footsteps to bring widespread suffering to so many more people. However, I am not a young man filled with anger at life anyway, and not believing in the afterlife I can only see the potential to suffer in detention by MI5. Others will have viewpoints which will give them the courage to discard those concerns for a chance to make their anger heard. If Rimington is not surprised that this is happening in the UK, why should the rest of us think it unusual that it is occurring, and not to see, like her, that the war on terror policy is worsening rather than improving things.

The other particularly UK issue that Rimington raises is the playground behaviour that the war on terror has brought to UK politics especially in parliament. Each party and many MPs try to outdo each other in how tough they are in responding to terrorism, pushing for harsher measures. Though Rimington does not develop this theme to the full, this kind of behaviour is very characteristic of what happened under the Nazi regime in Germany with different agencies in that regime seeking to outdo each other in how successful they were in killing Jews. This is apparent if you see reconstructions of the Wannsee Conference of 1942 where agency heads reported how many Jews they had eliminated (see 'Die Wansseekonferenz' (1984) a real time reconstruction, I saw the German version but it is also available in the UK under the title 'The Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference' and in the USA as 'Hitler's Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference'; see also 'Conspiracy' (2001) with British and American rather than German actors, I have not seen this one). This conference is what led to the extermination camps for not only Jews but also Roma, Poles and Russians.

I am not suggesting that the UK is leading to a policy of concentration camps, what I am warning, as Rimington has done, is that when politicians try to outbid each other in terms of showing how tough they are, especially when it comes to 'security' issues, it can lead to the most extreme policies and move a country down a path into areas of behaviour which up until then would have been seen as unacceptable. The 'norm' is shifted even faster by such outbidding, than even the initial extreme reactions would have done. This is because to say, 'I can go one better' tacitly accepts what has already established, without analysing it, and then says, 'well, this is not strong enough'. In fact, of course, the policy already in place may be too strong, but to say that gains no credit for the politican. Though the UK political system is a millions miles away from that of Nazi Germany, many of the same mechanics are in place in any political system whether it is democratic or not. The rhetoric of outbidding has not disappeared, but fortunately (!) the economic crisis has provided a new arena for it to be carried out, and one that impacts less on civil liberties.

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