Stand firm against terror—and the latest snooping wheezeby Martha Spurrier / April 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
The attack on parliament was not only sad but also senseless. Violence sows fear, division and intolerance. It will do so all the more effectively if it is talked up as being part of some general threat hanging over day-to-day life in this country, rather than a mercifully rare but terrible crime.
Hearteningly, our leaders did not immediately elevate this into an existential threat that might necessitate sacrificing core values. Theresa May powerfully stated that free speech, liberty, human rights and the rule of law would prevail. But since 9/11, the post-attack pattern has been for politicians to start by speaking up bravely for democratic values, before—only a little later—cooking up crude policies. And, sure enough, a few days after the homilies to democratic values, the Home Secretary was demanding an end to encryption on social media sites such as WhatsApp—an eye-catching move designed to show that she is doing something. But it’s an idea that’s unworkable in practice, exposes all of our data to hackers and hostile spies and risks driving extremists into obscure corners of the dark web.
The attacker Khalid Masood may have posted on WhatsApp, but when he was already on watchlists, and when furthermore the provisional view from the police is that he acted in isolation, it’s not at all clear how extra powers to pry could have prevented the tragedy.
We should always be suspicious of policy by catchphrase in such circumstances. When “the innocent have nothing to fear” is used to support suspicionless surveillance, alarm bells ring. If there’s one big lie that characterises the post-9/11 response to terrorism, it’s the false dichotomy of “liberty vs security”—the insistence that we cannot be both safe and free. Tony Blair exploited fear to try to detain suspects for 90 days without charge—the kind of unchecked power that belongs in authoritarian regimes, not Westminster Palace. Control orders put people who hadn’t been charged with any crime under house arrest for 16 hours a day, and the coalition’s secret courts surrendered all the traditional guarantees of open justice.
More recently, the government was pushing a counter-extremism law based on chillingly vague definitions of “extreme” and “British values,” even as they sold that proudest of British values—free speech—down the river. May now seems to have shelved these plans on lawyers’ advice, under pressure from…