Thursday, June 12, 2008

42 Days Later

42 days. But only 37 rebels. And nine crucial votes from the hard right DUP. Without the support of Peter Robinson and his dour, petit-bourgeois party of Orange ascendancy, the government could not have won this vote today. They say the DUP has been bought - no doubt, but how much would you have to give these fuming reactionaries to get them to back extended internment? And though the government won the vote, I have not yet detected a coherent argument for a 42 day detention limit. Bear in mind the obvious harms that result from detention without trial already. One example emerged very recently when Rizwan Sabir and Hicham Yezza were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. Sabir spent six awful days in custody over a piddling issue that ought to have been resolved without any police involvement. With the promulgation of spying on campuses and in workplaces, it is almost certain to be the case that innocent people are banged up. And incidentally, even those who aren't innocent don't need to be detained without trial. The main argument of New Labour has been that this is what the police want. In truth, not not all senior police officers agree with the policy. And at any rate, it is not unknown for the police to want to expand their powers: it doesn't necessarily follow that they should get what they want. One argument, offered by an RUSI commentator, goes roughly like this: the police need 42 days to build a case, otherwise they will have to bring it to prosecution before all the facts are assembled, and then a guilty person may walk free. This is frankly insulting to one's intelligence. The police should already have substantial evidence before they arrest someone, and it isn't good enough to say 'we couldn't let them continue with their plans and place people at risk'. If there are known plans, the police and intelligence services can clearly act on it when the threat becomes obvious. There is also a subsidiary argument, presented as the main one, which is that the current arrangements are a shambles because they lack accountability - quite, but that doesn't make the argument for lengthening the duration of detention without trial.

We, of course, are at a decided disadvantage. We are not privy to the minute details of policing, or counter-terrorism operations. Consequently, we are encouraged to take the police's word for it on such matters, and this is why New Labour is insistent on citing police opinion. Nonetheless, we have ample evidence to go on. Internment is not only harmful to those it targets - it doesn't work. The vast majority of those arrested are never tried for anything, and most of those who do face trial are brought to court for non-terrorist offenses. This was the case when it was used against the IRA in the 1970s, and it is the case today. When internment was introduced in Northern Ireland, it was actually against the advice of Whitehall advisers and the head of the army in the occupied territory - not because they had moral qualms, they just knew it wouldn't work. The government pressed ahead, regardless, and produced what is now widely regarded as one of the worst policies of the - oh god save us all - 'Troubles' (like, kneecappings and bombings just left us all a bit troubled by the experience).

And let us not forget the global 'security' matrix into which this policy slots. The government has co-operated with torture flights, and has permitted extradition even where it is known that someone might end up in Guantanamo or some other hellhole. I read recently that the US was using a system of floating prisons, so that they can 'fuck' the prisoners - ie torture them - without anyone being around to hear the screams. The Tory opposition, of course, rests on an appeal to nationalism and on English traditions of liberty, a rhetorical tic that goes back to the 'Glorious Revolution'. And they are entirely opportunistic in their position, having spent years backing the government's worst measures. This is, however, a much deeper problem. The 'war on terror' has been resisted and opposed, sometimes quite effectively, but its assumptions are regnant in the political class, and it is as part of opposition to that war that we ought to defend civil liberties. The opposition parties say they expect the House of Lords to send the law back, but parliament will force it through. The only possible basis for beating this organisationally is within the milieu of the antiwar movement, not in any of the houses of parliament.