John McCarthy: Take it from a hostage - do not give in to fear


When I ask, "Why am I here?" and "How long will I be held?", there is no answer. Then the door clangs shut and I take in the blank walls of the small cell. I don't belong here so naturally I go to the door. But there is no handle and the horrible realisation sinks in that there is no way out. I am powerless.

When I ask, "Why am I here?" and "How long will I be held?", there is no answer. Then the door clangs shut and I take in the blank walls of the small cell. I don't belong here so naturally I go to the door. But there is no handle and the horrible realisation sinks in that there is no way out. I am powerless.

For five years I was kept in various small rooms around Lebanon asking, "Why is this happening?" There was nothing I could do to regain my liberty.

All that I could do was to hang on, and endeavour to maintain my sense of self, look to the core of my being and try to act in keeping with my belief system. No great philosopher, theologian or political theorist, I stuck to the values of the society I'd grown up in. Values based on mutual responsibility, openness, honesty and justice.

Being held incognito, indefinitely and without trial was fundamentally at odds with one absolute cornerstone of my country's legal - even moral - system, habeas corpus. One never thought that anything like that could happen at home.

And yet that seems to be where we have come to with the Government's Prevention of Terrorism Bill. And I find myself asking that old question again: "Why is this happening?"

Of course there is a danger of terrorist attacks. There always has been and always will be. Terrorists can cause great suffering, killing hundreds, even thousands of people. No matter how many they murder, they can certainly disrupt our lives. With a "dirty" nuclear bomb they could close, for example, the City of London for months.

But however much they might hurt and disturb us physically, we should never let their dark attitudes pollute our ideals and beliefs. The civil liberties we cherish are what define us. They are worth fighting for and many have given their lives doing that at a time when there really was threat to our way of life, from Nazi Germany. It would be a tragedy now to throw away those core beliefs through fear of an enemy whose very aim is the destruction of the free society based on those beliefs.

In pushing to have the Prevention of Terrorism Bill passed into law, Mr Blair and Mr Clarke are not brave leaders seeking, as the Prime Minister puts it, "a proper balance between civil liberties and the necessary national security". For me they are weak men promoting bad policies that threaten to sacrifice ancient and important rights in a way that will jeopardise rather than enhance our security.

No one is arguing that laws to deal with the terrorist threat should not be reviewed. Maybe they need amending. But in the face of opposition from nearly all quarters the Prime Minister continues to insist that the threat is so great that only radical changes to our legal system will contain it.

I'm afraid that Mr Blair's repeated warnings of clear and present dangers to our society don't cut much ice with me any more. We know there was no substance to claims that Saddam Hussein and his WMD posed a threat to us, with which he justified the invasion of Iraq.

And last week he continued to add to a climate of fear with his claims on Radio 4's Woman's Hour that the proposed "control orders" were necessary to deal with "several hundred" people who posed a real threat. Subsequently a senior security source told The Times that Blair's figures were wrong and that the number was in fact somewhere between 25 and 30.

Why is the Prime Minister doing this? Why the need for muddling intelligence to scare us into accepting his new proposals? How strong a leader is he if he is ready to cast out key legal principles because there may be 30 people who might - not that we have evidence that could be used in court, mind - wish us harm?

We are losing our way. Poor intelligence inappropriately used in the face of massive opposition allowed Mr Blair to have his way over the war in Iraq. Many commentators argue that action put us, for the first time, on the al-Qa'ida hit-list. There are too many instances where we seem to be treating Muslims, Asians and asylum-seekers as one mass of unwanted and potentially dangerous aliens. How do we think people react when we claim to want to give them freedom and democracy yet act so badly?

Think of the recent record. British soldiers have been found guilty of abusing civilian prisoners in Iraq. British citizens, all Muslim, were detained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Suspected of having connections with al-Qa'ida, they were shipped around the world to Guantanamo, held without trial for up to three years and tortured by our American allies. The Government failed to protect them.

Just last week there were allegations of racism and bullying at an immigration reception centre in England and the Home Office minister Hazel Blears said Muslims should accept that they are more likely to be stopped and searched in the fight against extremism.

The current debate is just the latest in a string of events that I fear can only make us less secure by turning people against us and feeding the propaganda of Osama bin Laden and his kind. The Government's tactics won't win the so-called "war on terror". They will fan its flames and recruit more enemy combatants.

We should resist very strenuously the efforts to frogmarch new anti-terror laws through Parliament, laws which would see people losing their liberty for an indefinite periods without being told why. I worry that there may be more to come, further erosions of our civil liberties. Where will this effacing of centuries of human rights end? First we lock them up. What next? Torture them? Disappear them? Will there be weekly demonstrations of the mothers of the disappeared outside Parliament as there were in Santiago during the Pinochet years in Chile?

That's crazy, stupid talk isn't it? But what about the stories of CIA jets flying detainees around the world and leaving them in the hands of regimes who routinely torture prisoners? And what about the stories that some of the "intelligence" behind the need for "control orders" has been extracted under torture?

We must resist the efforts of politicians to create a climate of fear where we are panicked into sacrificing more and more of the rights and liberties we hold dear. We do not want to turn around one day and find that there is no handle on our side of the door.

John McCarthy was taken hostage in Lebanon in 1986. He is now a writer and broadcaster

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