Letters: Protest ban

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Protest ban makes spontaneous politics impossible

Sir: Henry Porter is right to stress the erosion of our right to have a political life (article, 29 June).

When Margaret Thatcher resigned, I was living in London. My instinct, at this historic and joyful moment, was to go to Downing Street to see what was happening. There I found a glorious impromptu party, mostly SWP supporters, happily chanting, "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, gone, gone, gone!"

Later, when I awoke to the sound of bombardment on the radio and learned that the first Gulf War had started, my instinct, again, was to go down to Whitehall, to try to bear witness in some kind of a way against the war. There I found a solitary like-minded woman with a placard. We stayed there all day, others joined us, and a continuous vigil against the war started.

All this would now be criminal offences under the legislation banning demonstrations within a kilometre of Parliament. Worse, it would be impossible. The ability to find and join with others in this kind of spontaneous, civic communal celebration, witness or protest has been removed.

Where is one to go, when the symbolic and historic focus for us as citizens is out of bounds? How is one to distinguish like-minded people when it is a criminal offence to carry a placard, wear a T-shirt with a "subversive" slogan, or utter the wrong words?



Sir: John Denham's rant against the judiciary (opinion, 30 June) would be more acceptable if we had a parliamentary system which more nearly reflected the views of the electorate.

As it is we have a political party able to secure a large majority in the House of Commons with the support of only about one in five of the people eligible to vote and a whipping system that then allows the Government to bully through any measure it wants. Were this not the case our forces would not be in Iraq and our foreign policies would be less subservient to the wishes of the present American government.

For about eight hundred years the courts have been the last defence of the common man against the power of kings and overbearing, arrogant prime ministers who know they are always right. Long may that continue to be the case.



'Good guys' claim a right to use torture

Sir: Alan Dershowitz puts a legalistic veneer on his advocacy of barbarism ("Should we fight terror with torture?", 3 July).

The profuse use of the undefined terms "terrorist" and "democratic state" are key to his deceptive arguments. The US and Israel, states which Dershowitz assumes we will accept unquestioningly as "democratic", are the foremost supporters in the world today of what can objectively be called terror; that is, terrorising civilians with death and bodily harm. The term, as Dershowitz uses it, is to be understood to mean not "terrorists" per se but "terrorists who are our enemies".

His claim to be a moderate between two extremes is fatuous. He says, yes we need laws, but laws that allow us to torture anyone and invade any country we think may threaten us. What real difference is there between his position and the "hard right" advocating no law?

All of his fancy talk seems to boil down to one point: we are the good guys, so we should be free to deal with the bad guys in any way we see fit.



Sir: Alan Dershowitz is right to oppose the vast "black hole" in the law represented by Guantanamo Bay, CIA "rendition" flights and detentions in secret locations around the world, but his call for new laws is unnecessary.

Human rights laws are not the hindrance in terms of protecting civilians from terrorists that he would have us believe them to be. States have at their disposal numerous means of intercepting and preventing attacks - up to and including lawful killings of those poised to unleash violence in various settings. None of this is necessarily at odds with human rights.

However, where suspects can be arrested and fairly tried they should be. If instead suspects are deliberately killed without them posing an immediate threat, then we are right to talk about illegal actions.

Meanwhile, holding Guantanamo prisoners without charge or the prospect of a fair trial is already a breach of multiple legal provisions - in both US and international law. That, in essence, is what the Supreme Court ruled last week. Likewise, CIA "rendition" flights currently constitute kidnap and unlawful transfer, while sleep deprivation, death threats and partial drowning are all infringements of existing human rights laws.

Though Professor Dershowitz implies the contrary, there's nothing unclear about any of this and nothing anachronistic about either due process or the international ban on torture.



Sir: Alan Dershowitz writes that the period since the end of the Second World War has seen profound changes in the nature of warfare, stating: "Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of suicide terrorists with no fear of death and no home address have rendered useless the deterrent threat of massive retaliation."

Fortunately he is wrong. There has never yet been an attack by terrorists with no home address using weapons of mass destruction. It is an uncomfortable fact that the only state that has used both chemical and nuclear weapons against civilians is the USA (in South-east Asia and Japan). Also, since the end of the Second World War the USA has attacked and bombed over 20 different countries on four continents for a variety of reasons, using approximately 10,000 times as much high explosive as all terrorist attacks put together.

It is not surprising that people throughout the world are more frightened of an attack by the USA than by people the USA describes as terrorists. I think that America's "leading liberal lawyer" would do better to concentrate his efforts closer to home.



Sir: While urging us to abandon the "blind imitation of the past", Alan Dershowitz blindly persists in believing that torture works, an idea discredited at least since the 18th century.

No need to make a case against it on moral or libertarian grounds. Many have died under torture without revealing what they were supposed to know. Many more have "confessed" only what their torturers wanted to hear. Worse, the reliance on torture prevents investigators from using more dependable and comprehensive detection techniques capable of yielding really useful intelligence.

In fact the main use of torture is as a state instrument of punishment, repression and terror. Torture is counterproductive, since it is one of the causes of revenge terrorism. It is surprising to see an allegedly "liberal lawyer" using the flawed and misleading metaphor of the "war against terror" without for a moment trying to understand its reasons (I do not mean justifications).

It is even more surprising to see Dershowitz and other US theorists embrace the pre-emptive strike doctrine: perhaps they could tell us what they think of the 1941 Japanese pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbour.



We need to grow food, not motor fuel

Sir: There may well be some merit in producing ethanol from sugar cane in sunny tropical countries such as Brazil (The Big Question, 29 June). However there is a large amount of evidence that the net energy gain over the fossil fuels used in agricultural machinery, fertilisers, pesticides, processing and transport is so small that the production of ethanol from grain in temperate climates such as ours is simply an inefficient means of turning dwindling reserves of oil and natural gas into so-called biofuels with little or no overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Bearing in mind that the world's population is forecast to increase by three billion later this century, how can anyone justify using our planet's priceless croplands for such nonsense?



Sir: The sad thing is that there is nothing in your lead article about energy-saving light bulbs (3 July) that was not known 15 years ago. Tony Blair has put climate change at the top of his agenda but has not done nearly enough to address the problem of the woeful amount of energy that we waste in the UK.

For instance, only 30 per cent of houses that could have cavity-wall insulation actually have it. If the Government were to put a real effort into energy efficiency measures it would not need to go down the nuclear power route.

You report that Tony Blair has put a low-energy bulb above the door of Number 10. The real question is how many he has installed inside.



Politically correct bar on little girls

Sir: David Lister shouldn't be surprised at the Hodder/Enid Blyton editing lunacy (The Week in Arts, 1 July). In 1996 Hodder wanted to publish my children's novel, The Grave-Digger. I asked for assurance that editing would be minimal. I was told that it would be.

When I received the galley proofs eighty changes had been proposed. Six of these were valid; the remainder were motivated by political correctness. One outstanding crazy notion was that my heroine, a child of about eight, should not be referred to as "a little girl" but as "a young girl". Don't ask me why.



A small effort can help to save wildlife

Sir: I was pleased to see the plight of plants and insects attracting the attention it deserves (24 June). One of the main challenges facing conservationists is getting over the message that it is actually you and me driving the destruction of the natural world and not just somebody else. It is up to us to make that small effort to switch from the more damaging products and practices.

Those of us with gardens can let an area "go wild" to encourage insects - cutting grass just once a year in the autumn; we can increase the proportion of nectar-rich "wild-type" garden flowers and pile up any dead wood instead of burning it.

We can lessen our impact on habitats by buying recycled stationery and kitchen paper. We can also increase the proportion of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) timber, hardboard and charcoal that we use. Buying products with the FSC logo ensures that the product comes from a sustainably managed woodland, which allows the habitat to recover again after timber extraction.

We only need to increase these practices by a fraction to start having a positive effect.



English football hampered by myths

Sir: As Welshmen living in England we would like to say "Congratulations" to Beckham and his team. You qualified for the world cup, beat three teams while you were there, and reached the quarter finals where you defended stoically with 10 men. So, why all the negative headlines?

The problem seems to be that the press and the pundits build an ordinary team up into world-beaters. They need to get real and accept that their national team are an average side with potential.

In four years time as advertisers and agents lick their lips the poor English public will again be subjected to weeks of torture by boredom, consuming pages of hyperbole perpetuating the myth that England are without equal.




Sir: May I suggest an answer to the problem posed in your leading article (3 July), bemoaning the problem of what to do now with millions of England flags that won't naturally decompose. Perhaps The Independent could publish a series of cartoons deemed offensive to some segments of the Middle East, thus creating a mass market for English flags to serve the demand for flag-burning. Denmark operated a similar policy as soon as their team had failed to qualify for the World Cup finals.



Forbidden fruit

Sir: Asking how to inculcate a love of reading in schoolchildren, Ben Whitworth (Letters, 4 July), notes that "official lists of prescribed books have failed". Would an official list of proscribed books be more efficacious?



Lesson of Iraq

Sir: Charles Clarke reckons that failure to find WMD in Iraq undermined public confidence in Britain's intelligence services (report, 4 July). That had never occurred to me before. I thought that failure to find WMD led the public to conclude that Tony Blair would stop at nothing to rally support for President Bush's war.



Singled out

Sir: Mark Holt (letter, 3 July) claims that any other country which acts as Israel does would be threatened with sanctions and decried in the media. The international community has largely ignored offences far worse from Russia in Chechnya, and from China in Tibet. Israel has often conducted itself in a disgraceful way, and its treatment of the Palestinians ranges from bad to deplorable, but the world and the media seem to have an Israel fixation. Should we not judge all countries by the same standards?



Evening spoiled

Sir: My, isn't Roger Clarke funny? Just because he doesn't enjoy a film (Reeker), he thinks that it is perfectly acceptable - clever even - to spoil the ending for anyone (myself included) who fancies going to see it (The Information, 1 July). Please can he just stick to reviewing films, and not ruining everyone else's enjoyment?



End of an era

Sir: The Government's new proposals on raising the age of smoking to 18 appear to be the final nail in the failed attempt at joined-up government. Should this be enacted, one will be able to have sexual intercourse at 16 but not to enjoy the customary cigarette at the end.