Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Poacher turned gamekeeper


Question: what does one do when a former Chief Executive of Tate & Lyle says that people are eating far too much sugar? If it doesn't make you pause just a second before that second lump, maybe you need to think about it. So when Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain's security service, says the Government is overegging the terrorist pudding to the extent that basic civil liberties are under threat should we listen? For the last seven and a half years we have been told we are at war. A war that has lasted longer than the second world war and has claimed fewer civilian casualties in the UK than the second world war did in an average day and a half. A war against an idea, with our national adversaries allegedly led by a shadowy figure who may not even be alive.

And in this "war", which has cost billions of pounds and has no end in sight, for the enemy cannot surrender and victory cannot be claimed, it has been thought necessary for our leaders to lie about risk, to conceal evidence of torture connived at by British citizens, and to promulgate a series of restrictions on the freedoms of ordinary people which were not even thought necessary when our country faced imminent invasion and daily bombardment.

The Rule of Law is an essential ingredient of a state which deserves the respect of its citizens. It is a more important value even than democracy. And yet even this has been set aside by ministers who have subverted and maligned the courts who have interpreted the complex and sometimes contradictory web of legislation enacted in order to "counter the threat of terrorists".

The vast sums of money spent to create this apparatus of intolerance and "counter-terror" has been diverted from more worthwhile projects. How many people have died and will die through lack of NHS research funds or road safety schemes? Far more than have been killed by terrorists.

In the process of this, a substantial section of the population has been alienated. Racism has been encouraged by the perpetuation of the idea that terrorists threats are ubiquitous and a constant and present danger. This racism, and the actions of Government, are the best possible incubator for the very small number of extremists who are actuated by hatred and intolerance.

The truth is that those involved in terrorism are generally amateurs, some even weak-minded, with unclear ideas about how to carry out their terrorist acts. There is a significant chance that some at least of them have been egged on by agents provocateurs. Compared with the threat posed by the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s, which did not seem to require the same clampdown on civil liberties, they are a mere bagatelle. There will always be some people who take their causes beyond the limits of acceptability. Animal Rights Activists don't always stop at placards.

The question is what to do about it. The message that we are at risk is being spread daily by the tabloid press and by officialdom. By contradicting this gloomy and distortive message and putting the small risk into perspective, we can each do a little.

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