Beware the new form of McCarthyism in the West

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The Independent Online

The key to the success of the next phase of the campaign against terrorism is the now-forgotten concept of "patient justice" expounded by President George Bush in his address to the joint houses of Congress on 20 September. Unless the members of the coalition against terrorism adhere to this principle, the terrorists will have gained.

Although the uncertainty over the whereabouts of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden has rendered the question temporarily theoretical, the issue of how they and their associates will be tried ought to be decided quickly. It is important that it should not be seen as a purely US affair, but one endorsed by the international community.

What matters most, however, is that the mode of trial is both fair and seen to be fair by the widest possible range of opinion across the world – and the cavalier way in which the Bush administration has treated the principles of civil liberty on which the US was founded sets a depressing precedent.

The plan to bring in military courts to try and sentence alleged terrorists in secret would be intolerable even to American public opinion at its most McCarthyite, except that it applies only to those who are not US nationals.

Such judicial xenophobia ought to be abhorrent to any civilised nation. This is no "naive" concern for civil liberties, as David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, dismissed similar criticisms of his own – less offensive but still unacceptable – anti-terrorism measures.

There are two practical objections to the panic measures proposed by the US and British governments. One is that they will not work. Reducing the burden of proof will not convict more terrorists; it will only produce more miscarriages of justice.

The other is that it will give insecure democracies scope to define the right to a fair trial, just as the rhetoric of the "war against terrorism" has given licence to authoritarian rulers the world over to define their own dissidents as terrorists. Thus Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin and, above all, Ariel Sharon have excuses for their own repression.

A new form of oppressive McCarthyism is sweeping not just America but the whole world. It is not "naïve" to point out the real and present danger from this phenomenon.