TERRORISM AND LIBERTY

Discussion held on 25 March 2004.

A background to current concerns about terrorism was first considered. Writers have predicted a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. Recently, US policy towards Iraq and Israel has been held by some to provoke such a clash. It is observed that if force is used to impose a Western-style ‘democracy’, terrorism and consequent limitations on civil liberties will result. Press reports indicate that Iraqis believe that links made by the US government between ‘9/11’ and ‘WMD’ in Iraq were invalid and that the subsequent invasion was not sanctioned by the UN. While European governments generally support co-ordination of policy against terrorism, they differ in their degree of support for US policy. Britain’s Foreign Minister favours the US proposal of a ‘road map’ to settle the Palestine/Israel conflict, but sees the integration of a stable democratic Turkey into the EU as a significant inspiration for the Islamic world. US support for the recent murder of Yassim (the Hamas leader) however, was seen as a setback for any settlement.

Reactions to the post-9/11 declaration by President Bush of a ‘war on terror’ were also noted. These include the Guantanemo detentions and British anti-terrorism laws in 2001, which have allowed indefinite periods of detention for foreign terrorist suspects without charge or trial. In Britain one appeal was allowed by judges, who reported ‘misleading and inaccurate statements’ and ‘wholly unreliable evidence’ from the Crown. The police have admitted that in the absence of effective checks they do not know how many al-Qaeda members may come and go in and out of Britain. Security chiefs warn of global terrorist links and of many domestic, economic and public service targets. The 15 million European Muslims have been urged to condemn any terrorism proclaimed in their name.

In the subsequent discussion it was suggested that ‘poverty and unemployment’ cited as causes of terrorism by Jack Straw were inadequate. While the term ‘terrorism’ might be used for activities beyond borders, within them ‘freedom fighters’ against ‘occupiers’ could be seen as valid. One comment was that activists either fight for something, such as country, land, religion, etc. or against something- often ‘injustices’. Al-Qaeda was seen as exploiting grievances of many groups for its own ends, which are less clear. Consequently, if those proclaimed injustices are seriously tackled support for al-Qaeda would be weakened. While terrorist activities are global, a Middle East compromise settlement would certainly weaken al-Qaeda.

In the Middle East religious differences and conflict have a history stretching back to the pre-Christian era, but many Palestinians now look back on a recent history of failed attempts at settlement with despair and feel obliged to support militants. Many react against family punishments, destroyed homes and their own hopelessness, while some seek a martyr’s rewards. As in Northern Ireland, some use history in order to avoid compromise. In one contributor’s view ‘simple, straightforward solutions’ have been offered, but ‘realpolitik’ dominates- recently evident in the Gadafy rapprochement and the ‘double standards’ used in both Palestine and Iraq situations by the US.

An Iraqi expatriate gave his views of the developments in Iraq. Secular Iraq was a promising westernized country, and while Iran and Saudi Arabia were essentially theocracies, most other Middle Eastern countries were not, although dictatorships are common. He believes that ‘some people’ wished to foment a Christian/Islam conflict and sees the Iran/Iraq war as evidence. Moreover, because the US wanted Saddam Hussein to remain in power, the coup by officers to oust Saddam in 1993 was revealed prematurely, which enabled him to execute them. In his view, control of oil and defence of Israel dominate US policy. If the officers had succeeded, a prosperous oil-rich westernized and secular Iraq would have re-emerged, but subsequent events now show otherwise. After the first Gulf war, civil services were quickly restored, but now relative chaos reigns. Over 70% of the working population was rendered unemployed, drugs are prolific where there was none before, rape is commonplace where it was previously not known and women , who once enjoyed the highest graduate numbers in the Middle East, are fearful of leaving their houses. The Shia/Sunni differences are relatively minor and there are many factions, but US policy is now pushing the country towards a theocracy. Before that can emerge, a civil war is likely, since self-government cannot be created peacefully or quickly in those circumstances.

The discussion turned to the degree to which personal liberty may be threatened by the observed need to defend against global terrorism. One contributor thought that people should be ‘pragmatic’ – if attacks get worse, more sacrifices will become necessary. In his view flight inspections and delays, phone tapping and identity cards are prices well worth paying at the present level of terrorist activity. To the charge that use of the internet for global terrorist organization makes the dangers greater, he replied that fire must be fought with fire – intelligence services must match that sophistication. These arguments are thus based upon a reactive philosophy and their value must depend upon the efficacy of defence capabilities.

Those capabilities were questioned. As with the Falklands situation, failure to predict threats throws doubts upon the efficacy of intelligence services. Moreover, politics may affect security policy. It was claimed that Western governments have ‘manipulated’ intelligence reports for political ends, as for example, when links were alleged between terrorists and the Iraqi regime before the invasion. Government secrecy behind ‘security’ laws was questioned. ‘Corruption’, rather than ‘liberty’, was seen as a principal concern by one person, who argued that ‘openness of information prevents corruption’. He presented as a model for study the Swedish system, where contractual relationships are enshrined by constitution to ensure freedom of information and which ensures that all except really vital security information is publicly accessible. He was skeptical of nominally similar arrangements in the US and elsewhere in Europe.

If some inefficiencies in the determination of degrees of threat are inevitable, there are implications for civil liberties. ‘Mistakes’ over minor matters may have to be tolerated, however undesirable they may be, but there are serious issues to be addressed. Although it can be argued that national security implies the impossibility of complete openness, questions on the authority of ‘intelligence’ reports have been raised. Detention without either charge, access to lawyers or trial prevents any public appraisal of guilt and there should be some ‘legal’ way of redressing any ‘mistakes’ which may be shown to have occurred. Although difficult to achieve in such situations, some form of ‘corroboration’ was suggested as a vital need when security threats are identified.

Geoffrey Catchpole