John Kampfner: It is easier to diminish our freedoms than to root out the terrorist threat

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The Independent Online

On Friday, four weeks and a day after terrorism had truly come home, Tony Blair declared: "The rules of the game are changing." They have changed already. For many Britons, the unsuccessful bombings of 21 July were more significant than the carnage of 7 July. People realised that this was not, as it was for other countries so far targeted, a one-off. Fear will now be part of our lives and those of our children to a degree that we have not known before. Each journey requires a risk assessment.

I have long argued that the war in Iraq was one of the great calamities of foreign policy of the past 50 years. It has failed on virtually every count, not least - as is proven beyond all reasonable doubt - in making us or any other part of the world any safer. That it was a major cause of 7/7, but in no respect a justification for it, seems to be so obvious that it barely needs stating. Even ministers are beginning to admit publicly what they have long thought privately.

Although in some respects interlinked, the political and security agenda have to be assessed separately. Blair, at the political level, is dealing with the same dilemma as police chiefs and officers are at theirs. Overreact, and stand accused of driving more Muslims into anger and extremism. Or underreact and clear up the mess after another bomb has gone off.

There are many reasons to suspect the motivation behind Blair's battery of anti-terrorist measures. Perhaps he was overcompensating for the complacency of present and former governments. Perhaps he was overcompensating for his very personal and catastrophic decision to invade Iraq. Most definitely he had read the tabloids.

Even if any or all of the above is true, this does not necessarily mean that Blair's proposed measures are misguided. Anyone from any position in the political spectrum who fears for the individual against the might of the state, anyone who cherishes our civil liberties, has every right to be fearful. It is in the nature of societies that, while the principles are entrenched, in practice freedoms are balanced and traded according to circumstance. To coin a Blairite phrase, we should be guided by "what works". In its broadest sense, this translates as: what measures provide us with the greatest freedom and the greatest safety?

Some of the proposals seem to me uncontroversial. It is a manifest flouting of the spirit of international relations to delay giving France (yes, we are talking about France, not Saudi Arabia) custody of one of its most wanted men. It is clearly sensible to strike deals with countries that have, to put it politely, a less developed commitment to democracy, to ensure that anyone extradited is not tortured or killed. There can be no guarantees, self-evidently, but agreements can always be revoked. The right to refuse asylum for those convicted of terrorism is more complicated - the old adage "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" comes to mind - but again definitions can be made. Improving integration is surely a given. Creating a list of foreign preachers to be banned is something other Western countries do, so why not the UK?

Some measures, however, are far more problematic. On the practical side, how on earth can Islamic bookshops and cultural centres be closed without further inflaming passions? In any case, how many police can speak Arabic well enough to differentiate one book from another? We know from pre-9/11 and pre-7/7 that our intelligence penetration is not what it might be. Websites are one thing, but a shop? One can already picture riot police breaking down doors. As for deportations of those "fostering hatred or advocating and justifying violence", how do you define them? Did not Cherie Blair herself try to explain in a speech why some Palestinians felt the need to blow themselves up? Explain? Justify? Good luck to the parliamentary draughtsmen and the judges.

In any case, does the banning of an organisation not play into the hands of those who use it for extremist ends? For that reason, as well as for free speech, the British National Party has not been outlawed. Move Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun underground and it might be even harder to keep track of their most dangerous elements.

In the long term, the most significant change signalled by Blair was his plan to amend human rights legislation. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law was one of the first and most cheering acts of the 1997 Labour government. How different those times were.

We can clutch a few straws out of the horrors of the past month. Charles Clarke and his Home Office team have refused to use the terror attacks to justify the introduction of identity cards. Indeed, his junior minister, Tony McNulty, was brave in admitting that the Government had been guilty of "overselling" the case. There is little evidence to show that such cards would have done anything to deter the bombers.

Britain is awash with CCTV cameras - four million at the last count. Shoot-to-kill seems to have become accepted practice for the police, without any public debate. In our present, vulnerable condition, we are submitting ourselves to the state, in the vain hope of protection.

We find ourselves in our current predicament through complacency at home during the 1990s and an excess of zeal abroad over the past few years. Measures are needed, and each must be assessed on its merits. But we should remember that it will be easier for the state to diminish our freedoms than it will be to root out the terrorist threat.

John Kampfner is editor of the 'New Statesman'. John Rentoul is away

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