Monday, November 19, 2007

Losing the fight

Anas Altikriti

November 16, 2007


The prime minister's statement [last] Wednesday that terrorists could strike anywhere, at any time, hardly provides any useful information, let alone induces confidence in the government or security agencies actually knowing what threat they claim to be facing or capable of successfully overcoming.

It was similar to the recent MI5 report which left one wondering what was expected of ordinary citizens if not to go into a state of frenzy, panic, fear and suspicion.

More than six years after the declaration of the revamped and replenished "war on terror", this leads us to a very important question: has the world become any safer or more secure over those years? And if not, why not?

To put this in basic terms, the balance sheet does not look good. Actually, it looks extremely bad on all fronts. Even "our way of life" which was Tony Blair's favourite chorus line, seems to have changed for ever. Reports that intensive security measures at UK airports are to be stepped up will bring a sense of dread to millions of people travelling into and out of the UK every year. Anyone travelling out of Heathrow over the past 16 months would have realised that "our way of life" has changed, and quite profoundly at that, whether we like it or not and as a direct result of our reaction to alleged terror threats, rather than to the attacks themselves.

Travelling across more than four continents in the past three months, I couldn't help but wonder why it was that Sydney, Cape Town, Vienna and Amman airport security staff don't feel the need to impose similar draconian and often un-dignifying security searches upon their travellers. Don't terrorists know the way to Australia? Don't they think that striking in South Africa is of any particular use? Or do they approve of the "way of life" that Austrians lead?

Yet travel is merely one strand of life, and while frequent flyers like myself may feel the brunt more than most, one can argue that it isn't the most important or pressing issue within this whole argument. What is important, however, is the issue of human rights.

It is a terrible travesty of a nation that has come so far in winning the right for people to express themselves, to have an opinion, to choose their governors and hold them accountable, to worship, to move freely and to enjoy their basic freedoms without any threat of those being violated under any circumstance, that we have long been defeated by the absurd argument that it is all right to violate the rights of a few in order to preserve the rights of the many.

As the MI5 report along with the prime minister's statement on terrorism both nicely coincide with the re-opening of the debate on extending detention periods for terror suspects well beyond 28 days, one would expect an open, transparent and clear debate on whether the line we are pursuing, as a point of principle, is actually working or not. However, the problem is that it has become beyond contempt to even suggest that upping security, in the way that we have in recent years, may be leading to increased insecurity.

Security of a nation is only achieved when all parties, particularly its citizens, work together for that ultimate aim and objective. It is when a culture of driving safely becomes the norm that we prevent or lower the fatalities on our roads. It is through the embedded culture of keeping one's street and city tidy that we successfully overcome littering and it is by the unshakeable mentality of respecting other people's property and sanctities that we manage to fight theft and robbery. We can employ as many police as we think necessary, but if that embedded culture or mentality is lacking, individuals will break the law on the given fact that there simply isn't someone watching everywhere all the time.

In recent years, anti-terror legislation, coupled with a multi-fold increase in stop-and-search rates, hundreds of false raids and detentions, control orders that are based on flimsy evidence and inconsistent judicial sentences have created a sense of suspicion, fear, intimidation, distrust and possibly even hatred throughout society. And not only within the Muslim community for whom these measures seem to have been designed, but throughout society as a whole.

Imagine how a businessman or someone going on holiday would feel if they were made to go through such intrusive measures when travelling out of or into the UK, only then to hear that there are possibly 2,000 youngsters groomed to blow themselves up throughout the country over the next 10 years or so. How would a person feel if they saw their street cordoned off at dawn by the anti-terror squad who then move to blast into their neighbour's house and drag one or two people out handcuffed and blindfolded? Would it even matter if that person was released after 28 days or more, with no explanation as to what happened or why.

How should we view Atif Siddique, charged with possessing material (downloadable from the internet) being handed an eight-year prison sentence when Robert Cottage, formerly of the BNP and found with what was described as the largest haul of chemical explosives, a rocket launcher and a nuclear biological suit, was jailed for quarter of that term?

What of Samina Malik, or the "lyrical terrorist" who wrote silly and childish poems glorifying terrorism on the back of WH Smith receipts and who now expects to be handed a prison sentence following a media frenzy, and is seen and described in the same light as the DVLA bomber, Miles Cooper?

The UK already has the longest pre-charge detention period in the western world and, by all accounts, it doesn't seem to be working. What is required is a new and creative line of thinking as to what mistakes have been committed and how new approaches can be adopted so that the fight for our collective security, safety and prosperity, can become a common ambition of everyone who lives in this country. That would be a way of life worth fighting for.

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