These dangerous times. The danger comes not only from terrorism or from the risks of military action, although the latter are real enough and more frightening than in conflicts – from Kosovo to Sierra Leone – in which British forces have lately been engaged. The historical precedents for any land war in Afghanistan are discouraging, and the consequences for the nuclear-armed rivalry between Pakistan and India remain unforeseeable.
These are dangerous times. The danger comes not only from terrorism or from the risks of military action, although the latter are real enough and more frightening than in conflicts – from Kosovo to Sierra Leone – in which British forces have lately been engaged. The historical precedents for any land war in Afghanistan are discouraging, and the consequences for the nuclear-armed rivalry between Pakistan and India remain unforeseeable.
However, other – more insidious – dangers lurk, which need to be guarded against. The ravening fury of public opinion after terrorist outrages has all too often prompted legislators to make bad laws. Internment without trial, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the legislation rushed through after the Omagh bomb in 1998: all proved at best irrelevant, at worst counter-productive in the fight against terrorism.
Many parts of the conservative press in Britain are engaged in the systematic and irresponsible distortion of public opinion in order to put pressure on the Home Secretary to rush through authoritarian legislation. Of course, there is a new willingness to fight terrorism by all available means, but the response to the attack on the World Trade Centre has provided an excuse for many to exercise their illiberal prejudices. Civil liberties – and the Human Rights Act in particular – have especially been focused upon; while even more reprehensibly in evidence in some outpourings of the right-wing press is outright xenophobia.
Human rights and xenophobia are linked by the theme of being "soft" on unfounded claims for refugee status. A picture is painted of Britain, in its generous liberalism, foolishly providing a sanctuary for extremists, West-haters and terrorist supporters. This is a travesty, and leads some to the illogical position of complaining about refugees from Afghanistan as if they were potential terrorists, when these are people fleeing the Taliban theocracy which is harbouring the prime terror suspect, Osama bin Laden.
Oliver Letwin, making a disappointing start as shadow Home Secretary, seems to think that respecting the human rights of asylum-seekers "compromises" national security because it makes it difficult to deport those suspected of involvement with terrorism. This is illogical as well as illiberal. If there is any evidence of terrorist activity, deportation is the wrong response; it simply shifts the problem elsewhere.
Meanwhile, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to his credit, is showing himself well aware of the dangers of responses driven by hot emotion rather than cool thought. At the meeting of European interior ministers yesterday, he repeatedly emphasised respect for human rights law. Apart from his pledge to consider identity cards (he should consider the idea and reject it), he seemed to recognise that the need is not for new laws but for speedier enforcement of existing ones.
Chris Patten, the European commissioner, should also be commended for his pre-emptive strike against the inevitable American pressure for the extradition of terrorist suspects. The European Union should maintain its principled opposition to the death penalty. Whatever their crime, people should not be extradited to be executed.
None of this is to argue for a purist or impossible defence of civil liberties. It may be necessary to limit some of the freedoms which people would hope to enjoy in an ideal world. In particular, effective defence against terrorism requires some restriction on freedom of movement and intrusive searching of persons and luggage.
Equally, freedom of speech is not absolute. Some of the more ridiculous pronouncements teased out of various London-based political extremists of a self-styled "Islamic" ideology cross the boundary of incitements to violence or racial hatred. Mr Blunkett is right to say that prosecution should be considered. The only issue is whether it is better to ignore such insignificant figures or to offer them more credibility through imprisonment.
So far, despite their belligerent rhetoric, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have acted with restraint. Tony Blair has been careful to insist that Islam as a religion is not responsible for terrorism, while Mr Blunkett is robust on human rights. But dangerous signs of ignorance and intolerance are feeding a backlash against Muslims around the country, just as they are on a greater scale in the United States. For anyone complacent about the depth of ignorance in the US, where Sikhs have been mistaken for Muslims, we should recall that in this country a mob has mistaken a paediatrician for a paedophile.
The pressure, artificially inflated by a right-wing press, for draconian laws that would allow anyone suspected of complicity in terrorism without evidence to be locked up, must be resisted. Giving in will not help to fight terrorism. Giving in will facilitate the oppression of ethnic minorities, those who hold Arab names or unpopular opinions, and genuine refugees. Giving in will undermine the values in whose name the fight against terrorism must be carried on.Reuse content