"If this new wave of house raids had resulted in a haul of evidence of terrorism, then perhaps the responsible citizen might shrug and accept the inconvenience to the occasional innocent family as regrettable but necessary. But the staggering statistic is that less than 1 per cent of all raids result in an arrest, and even fewer of these lead to a charge. To make matters worse, the Home Office concedes that the majority of arrests were not even in connection with terrorism. To put it another way, 99.5 per cent of all raids on Muslim families under the Prevention of Terrorism Act produced no link at all to terrorism. Had we wanted to alienate innocent citizens from the fight against terrorism, we could not have found a more effective way than treating them as if they were terrorists."
The Independent (UK)
March 12, 2004
WE MUST NOT ALLOW TERRORISM TO STAMPEDE US INTO CURBING OUR DEMOCRATIC FREEDOM
It is the sudden, arbitrary nature of death by terrorist bomb that inspires universal apprehension. The innocent victims on the commuter trains in Madrid had done nothing to provoke their murder. Nor was there anything they could consciously have done to save themselves.
The scale of the carnage is appalling. However, its resonance around Europe does not come from the arithmetic of casualties, but from our identification with the very ordinariness of the activity of the victims at the moment they were struck down. Like millions of people across the continent at the very same hour, they were carrying out their routine, daily trek to their place of work, with no possible reason to suspect that it would be their last. Terrorism is frightening precisely because of the unpredictable, random selection of its victims from among the general public.
And at the same time, it appals us because of the senselessness of its waste and the profound grief which it leaves in its wake. Families have lost their fathers. Children have lost their mothers. For decades after the rest of us have forgotten the Madrid train bombs, some people in Spain will still live with the trauma of the unexpected loss of the most important person in their life, and others will still carry the scars of their injuries.
At the time of writing, there is no certainty as to which covert organisation plotted this latest outrage. But one disturbing conclusion is clear. If al-Qa'ida did not themselves carry out this operation, they have set the standard to which all other terrorist organisations now aspire. Eta has, by and large, focused it murderous energy on specific political targets and in recent years has wound down the scale and intensity of its terrorist operations. If either Eta, or some new youth wing of the group, has indeed adopted the al-Qa'ida hallmark tactic of simultaneous, spectacular attacks, then we are witnessing an alarming escalation in terrorist violence. The wilful contempt of al-Qa'ida for human life and their adoption of numbers of fatalities as the perverse measure of success would appear to have infected other terrorist groups.
Confronted with such incomprehensible but deliberate violence, rational people ask "Why?", not really expecting there can be an answer. At least we can answer the question "Why now?". The bombings in Madrid come only days before the general election in Spain and were plainly intended to disrupt it. But this leaves even more perplexing the attempt to understand what possible gain the bombers could realistically hope to achieve from such mass murder. The most probable outcome is that there will be an even bigger turnout of outraged electors, determined not to let the terrorists undermine the democracy that was only won from the fascists within the lifetime of most Spaniards.
The real threat of terrorism to democracy is not that it will deter us from participating in elections, but that it will stampede us into curbing the freedoms and legal rights that are inseparable from democracy. The struggle between an open society and its enemies is longstanding enough for us to understand by now the risks of winning the battle by measures that lose us the very freedoms we are trying to protect.
The insidious whisper of authoritarianism throughout history is that democratic procedures are inefficient and a luxury we cannot afford in the face of violence. In reality, democratic societies have proved stronger, not weaker, in the face of threats because of the shared determination to succeed in a common cause. It is instructive that in the struggle with Hitler, Britain achieved a higher level of mobilisation of its population through parliamentary process than Nazi Germany secured by totalitarianism.
No sane citizen could object in present circumstances to an intensive effort by our security agencies to obtain the intelligence that could foil a terrorist attack nor the vigorous action by our police to apprehend those genuinely contemplating mass murder. But we need to guard against responding to terrorism in ways which fracture the cohesion of our society and alienate any of its members from the common cause. In Britain, there is one authoritarian response to the terrorist threat that is in danger of convincing a large section of our society that they are the objects of the fight against terrorism rather than partners in it.
Since 11 September, the number of searches under the Prevention of Terrorism Act has increased fivefold to over 30,000 a year. Overwhelmingly, the increase has been in raids on Muslim families who have found their homes turned upside down and ransacked for evidence of their alleged terrorism. It is unavoidably in the nature of police searches that they cannot be conducted by patiently ringing the doorbell and politely enquiring if this would be a good time to search for explosives. Doors are smashed in and male residents are manhandled as suspected terrorists.
If this new wave of house raids had resulted in a haul of evidence of terrorism, then perhaps the responsible citizen might shrug and accept the inconvenience to the occasional innocent family as regrettable but necessary. But the staggering statistic is that less than 1 per cent of all raids result in an arrest, and even fewer of these lead to a charge. To make matters worse, the Home Office concedes that the majority of arrests were not even in connection with terrorism. To put it another way, 99.5 per cent of all raids on Muslim families under the Prevention of Terrorism Act produced no link at all to terrorism. Had we wanted to alienate innocent citizens from the fight against terrorism, we could not have found a more effective way than treating them as if they were terrorists.
The repatriation of the Guantanamo detainees illustrated the dangers of allowing vigilance, which could be unifying, to turn into repression, which is divisive. Nobody either in Britain or America has been able to come up with a convincing justification for keeping them locked away in degrading circumstances for two years, only to discover that no charges are to be brought against them. It reveals a contempt for due process that is in flat conflict with George Bush's continual pretensions to claim the moral high ground in the "War on Terrorism".
That high ground looks even more questionable given the backlash against his use of images of 11 September in the TV commercials for his re-election. The exposure of the supposed fireman carrying a coffin at ground zero as professional actors has deepened public revulsion at the attempt to manipulate human tragedy for party political capital. No wonder both widows and the representatives of New York firemen have denounced this attempt to exploit their grief. The attack on the Twin Towers forged a powerful national unity in America. It is a measure of the crassness of the present US administration that they should hope to gain by capturing it for a divisive political campaign.
Yesterday's deaths in Madrid remind us of the need for unity against the terrorists. We can neither afford to alienate any part of our society from that fight by breaching their democratic rights, nor divide our effort by trying to turn terrorism to party advantage.