The state must fight terrorism from a high moral standpoint

Imprisonment on the unsupported word of a police officer may be wrongly imposed
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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE WHO are attacked want to retaliate. That is as true of those who restrain themselves as it is of those who take action. It is part of the human condition. Anyone who is attacked by terrorists is attacked by an unseen and unidentified enemy. That leaves our anger all dressed up with nowhere to go. Anger fed by that frustration tends to redouble.

I have felt this too. I remember the first day that we allowed our younger son to go out in London by himself. He was on the way into Regent's Park when the IRA blew up the park bandstand, and I spent the whole morning waiting to hear what had happened to him. I would not have trusted my political judgement that morning.

It has always been like this. In November 1605, when news that the king had survived the Gunpowder Plot reached Bishop Auckland, the inhabitants lit bonfires in celebration. One woman was out shopping when she heard that her children had lit a bonfire inside the house. She rushed home and put it out. Unfortunately, she was a Roman Catholic. Her neighbours, looking for an outlet for their anger, informed on her on the grounds that she had refused to have a bonfire to celebrate the king's deliverance. The court did not believe her story, and she died a year later in prison. Retaliation against an invisible enemy is still a risk to visible innocents.

Retaliation against an invisible enemy tends to be directed against groups. In this case, it was directed against "the Papists". Some 90 per cent or more of English Roman Catholics had no sympathy with the Gunpowder Plot, yet the official prayer of thanksgiving described Roman Catholics as "those whose faith is faction and whose religion is rebellion". Sixty years later, it was widely believed that "the Papists" had started the Great Fire of London. The evil done by that attitude is still with us. The spirit of Drumcree was born on 5 November, 1605.

The group identified as the enemy is, of course, always far wider than the group actually to blame. This must be especially so when the identity of the terrorist group is known only in the most general terms. After the Birmingham bombing, there was a firebomb attack on an Irish pub in Ealing. Whether it is "Papists", "prods", "Communists" or "Islam", there is always a risk that this reaction may force the attacked group to identify with, and even seek defence from, the terrorist group with which it previously had no sympathy. It may give terrorists a base in a community that previously did not support them. It may of course go the other way. Among the Irish community, it went irreversibly the other way some time ago.

The urge to assert that "we are respectable people", if it is capable of being believed, can also be very strong indeed. Mercifully, it looks as if the first reactions to the Omagh bombing have gone along the route of revulsion followed by the London Irish. This may be too strong a change to be reversed, but why gamble on it by introducing measures that must, at the very least, carry some risk of reversing it? Are we in danger of repeating the same mistake which was made in Bishop Auckland in 1605?

During my lifetime, there has been a major change in the military balance in favour of terrorism. The sophistication of portable bombs, car bombs, nerve gas bombs and other new weapons makes it far easier for terrorists to be unseen than it ever was for Guy Fawkes and his 36 barrels of gunpowder. Of 82 wars in progress in March 1996, 79 were not wars between states. The state is losing not only the power to control its currency but also its other main mark of sovereignty - the power of war and peace. Defence of monopoly had always stirred an extra dimension of anger, and that is now added to the reflex of anger at an unseen attacker. The state is defending its own power. So it should, but it must accept that, if it is fighting to win, it needs the Fabian skills of delay. "Don't shoot unless you can see the whites of their eyes" is a hard military rule when the enemy is unseen, but it is no less true.

Terrorists, if they are to remain unseen, desperately need a friendly civilian population into which they can vanish. The skill of defeating them is to isolate them from that civilian base. Until that can be done, the war against terrorism is a political contest more than a military one. It is a struggle not to alienate the floating voters. This means that the state's need to show that it stands for higher standards than the terrorists is not just a peacetime luxury: it is an indispensable condition of victory. Anyone who wants to win a war against terrorism, and not just to express his outrage, needs not just the patience of Fabius but the patience of Job. That does not come easily to angry people.

This is why the state risks defeat every time it abandons its claim to the high moral ground of legality. If the state, by its retaliation, creates as much outrage as the terrorists, it will lose. If it magnifies its opponents by martyrdom, instead of deflating them by its non-reaction, it is their biggest ally. Every parent knows how hard that sort of patience is, but it is no less necessary for that. Imprisonment on the unsupported word of a police officer may be wrongly imposed. It creates martyrs and turns the force of anger against the state instead of the terrorists. It weakens the state's claim to legality. Imprisonment on the word of a police officer risks violating article six of the European Convention of Human Rights. Anthony Lester, the Government advocate in one of the main cases, advises me that the state's power to claim a derogation from the convention is limited, under Article 15, to a state of "emergency threatening the nation". It would have to satisfy the court, and not just itself, that such a state exists and that the proposed measures are "strictly necessary" to meet it. If it cannot do this, terrorists have won the same victory as an advocate who leads his opponent to lose his temper in court.

The risk to legality is clearer in the proposed power to round up overseas terrorist suspects. It is a very blunt instrument. Who is to be the judge of what is a terrorist organisation? It will be difficult for a British court to assess the internal politics of Burma or Nigeria and even more difficult for it to take the unsupported word of such regimes. If Saddam Hussein's opponents are to be handed over to him to be dealt with, are we conferring on him a divine right to rule until he dies in his bed? Can Parliament really think through these difficulties in two days in September when all amendments are being discouraged? Is that what we have a parliament for?