Dissent Becomes Terrorism

Merrick, 10th February 2002ce

As an environmental campaigner I have been accused of only being concerned with mere ‘single-issue’ politics. Apart from the fact that something like, say, a new road is concerned with conservation, health, town planning, economics, pollution and transport, such comments beg a bigger question: Why does nobody ever level this accusation at party politicians?

Party politics has clearly become single-issue politics. The single issue is acquiring power.

How else can we explain why politicians say they want to ‘listen to the people’ and make their policies fit whatever is popular? Surely they should say whatever they believe in and then see if they can get us to agree. This, however, may leave them unelected, so they embark on a devotedly blinkered path toward whatever will make them popular, irrespective of their actual beliefs.

But even then, once the top position of power is achieved, this is not enough. The acquiring of further power is habitual. Hence staggering U-turns by every Home Secretary in memory, all of them becoming standard bearers for paranoid repression as soon as they take office.

The UK’s present Home Secretary David Blunkett, advocating indefinite detention without charge for unconvicted people, dismissing the ideas of those of us who question it as ‘airy fairy’.

His new laws are so draconian that he has had to declare a national State of Emergency in order to use a get-out clause in the European Convention of Human Rights. Do you feel that we are living in a real national state of emergency? That there’s such a clear likelihood of such monstrous damage to our whole country’s wellbeing that human rights should be suspended?

Check how real any of these threats have become. David Blunkett himself confirmed there is still no intelligence of a specific threat to the UK. We’re under the charge of a man enacting semi-fascist legislation. I do realise what an emotive word ‘fascist’ is, but can you think of a better one for someone who, for its own sake, places state power above basic human rights?

If you’re undecided about the need for a State of Emergency, consider exactly what he’s tried to do, who these laws are being applied to. The emergency "anti-terrorist" legislation proposed not only gives unprecedented powers of surveillance but is intended to allow information gathered to be used against any crime, not just terrorism.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act makes it possible for law enforcement officers to access ‘traffic data’ (any phone, email, fax or web stuff) without a court order for ‘the purposes of detecting crime and disorder, protecting public health and safety, and for collecting tax, as well as for cases of national security’.

National security is one thing. ‘Disorder’ and ‘protecting public safety’ are something far less deserving of repressive laws. ‘Disorder’ and ‘protecting public safety’ pretty much translates as ‘what we don't like’. Trashing a GM crop? Having a loud party? Picketing? You’re covered.

Not only are the new laws covering people who are clearly not terrorists, but do we actually need new laws for people who really are terrorists? I mean, if you fly a plane into a building, blow up a barracks or shoot a politician you are already seriously breaking the law. If you help or encourage such people, you are already breaking the law. There is no need for any new legislation on this stuff, so we should be automatically suspicious of new ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation.

And be sure, these rights are easy to lose and hard to regain. Roy Jenkins was the Home Secretary who brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the 70s. As Lord Jenkins he has opposed the new laws on the grounds that the temporary and limited laws he enacted have become wide-ranging and permanent. Once they have taken it, governments do not readily return power of any kind.

Then Jack Straw, in the great tradition of politicians going McCarthyite upon becoming Home Secretary, brought in the Terrorism Act 2000. With an Orwellian, Blade Runner-esque name like that it was likely to be a nightmare. And it was.

Passing into law in the UK with barely a murmur of discontent, this Act reversed the presumption of innocence. If the police accuse you of thinking of encouraging people to give money to a terrorist group, you have to prove that you never thought any such thing. If you cannot prove this beyond reasonable doubt you go to jail.

If you wear a T-shirt or a badge that may 'reasonably make someone suspect' that you support a terrorist group, you can also get six months in jail. Really.

The groups must be listed by the Home Office. At the moment there are less than 20, mostly middle-eastern Islamic groups. But the definition of terrorism is so wide ranging that it perfectly describes groups such as Greenpeace, Earth First! and CND.

The frightening and yet unquestioned assumption is that no government of the United Kingdom is or could ever be capable of doing anything that might require direct action.

If you believe this could be so, consider what the Suffragettes would have achieved if they'd just written to their MPs. Consider how long the Vietnam War would've continued without major protests at American Embassies. How apartheid could still be with us were it not for major demonstrations against the elected sovereign government of South Africa. Consider how much of our countryside would have been concreted were it not for the tree camps of the 90s. Consider how much further genetic modification of food would have come if crops hadn't been uprooted. All this can now be charged as terrorism under TA2000.

Since there is already power to deal with real terrorism, the purpose of the Terrorism Act 2000 and the new raft of ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation can only be to make the extremes of anti-terrorism laws apply to ordinary criminal law.

TA2000 lets police to cordon off an area in which direct action is likely to take place, and arrest anyone refusing to leave it. Anyone believed to be plotting an action can be stopped and searched, and the protest materials she or he is carrying confiscated. Or, if they prefer, the police can seize people who may be about to commit an offence and hold them incommunicado for up to seven days.

A police state is not a state in which everyone lives in fear of severe treatment by unaccountable police using draconian laws. It is a state in which anyone who does something the government disapproves of lives in such fear. Dramatic and terrifying as it sounds, this is the state we see developing around us. The events of September 11th have been used as an excuse to help a violently right-wing agenda.

I’d like to be generous to Western politicians and mass media and say that the random spinning of their moral compasses is entirely due to the uncertainties in the new political landscape. But I can’t do it. Their explanations are so obviously flawed, the results of their proposals so obviously not what they claim that it cannot be mere confusion and/or stupidity.

Right now they have a once in a generation chance to push through political plans that would usually be rubbished. If they can hang the words ‘anti-terrorist’ on to the proposal then anyone opposing it is, by implication, pro-terrorist. And so George W Bush pushes ahead with the massive giveaway of American public funds called the Missile Defence Shield (or Star Wars) because, hey, it’s a dangerous world and we need protection. Like having the largest arsenal in history – costing a third of the global military budget - isn’t a deterrent to ‘rogue states’.

Regarding the threat of real attacks, the Missile Defence Shield will not protect American air space from its own domestic passenger planes getting hijacked. Lasers in space will not be able to zap an envelope full of anthrax in a sorting office.

The time when our leaders are killing on our behalf and taking away our liberties is precisely the time when they should face their toughest questioning. Not to do so is journalistically lazy and socially dangerous.

Still, dissent in the media is becoming rarer too. Journalists have consistently avoided picking politicians up on these glaring holes in their thought. And yet they get applauded for it, for ‘standing up against terrorism’.

It's not the media's job to be a press agency for one opinion, or rally behind leaders. It's the media's job to keep us informed so we can rally behind leaders, or not, as we choose.

Those journalists who do speak up are rabidly decried. The Guardian’s George Monbiot has been compared to Hitler, Goebbels and Beelzebub for his anti-repressive stance.

In the Czech Republic, a new law permits the prosecution of people expressing sympathy for the attacks on New York, or even of those sympathising with the sympathisers! Already one Czech journalist, Tomas Pecina, has been arrested and charged for criticising the use of the law, on the grounds that this makes him, too, a supporter of terrorism.

All professional politicians are engaged in this single-issue politics of acquiring power, and yet there are still people who think the parliamentary system can work. As an anarchist I get called a hopeless idealist for believing that people can organise themselves, that people should be directly affecting the things that directly affect them, and should have the minimum of power over things that don't affect them. Yet the ultimate hopeless political faith is that which believes that tiny concentrations of vast power can ever deliver justice, that such power will do anything other than corrupt those who wield it.

As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote two millennia ago, ‘the more corrupt the society, the greater the number of laws’.