On the eve of the invasion of Poland in 1939, German generals warned their men to be on guard against “acts of terror”. That these “terrorists” were Poles defending their homeland against desperate odds mattered little to the soldiers of the Third Reich as they put the last restraints of international law behind them. We used to think one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter. No longer, according to the British government: it knows for sure who the terrorists are. Unfortunately, its moral certainty is matched only by the lethal vagueness of its proposed new terrorism bill. Fortunately, the House of Lords has again voted down its proposal to create a new crime of glorifying terrorism. The assumptions behind this idea in particular are flawed and need a rethink.

Why a fourth new anti-terrorism bill in six years when the UK managed with fewer than that for most of the 20th century? After all, the government accepts that its current definition of terrorism is so poorly drafted that it will have to be reviewed. The reason seems to be that it has, as have other governments, decided terrorism is fanned by irresponsible imams and inflammatory videos. While many inter­war states happily jailed teachers and journalists for infecting the young with communist ideas, the postwar era’s human rights culture raised the bar on thought crime, frustrating politicians and police. Definitions of incitement currently require proof of intent; the proposed legislation aims to relax this to make prosecution easier.

Let us allow there is a need for a concept of indirect incitement and discount the fact that existing law already covers much of it; such an innovation would have to be introduced with greater precision than the Blair government offers. The new bill relies on a concept of terrorism so broad it criminalises virtually any act of political violence, anywhere – against people (whether soldiers, state officials or civilians) or against property. As a result of the London suicide bombings last July, the British are being asked to turn their backs on a centuries’ old willingness to shelter those who resist tyranny. To any who ask about Nelson Mandela or Tom Paine, the answer lies with Charles Clarke, UK home secretary: in the old days, things were different and it was obviously right to support anti-Nazis, anti-communists or those fighting colonial oppression. But the world has changed and since the end of the cold war, democracy has spread so far there is no longer any excuse for advocating political violence. What is more, according to Mr Clarke, it does not work.

Whether it works or not seems scarcely the point – although the IRA, Hamas and al-Qaeda might beg to differ. Can Mr Clarke seriously mean it is wrong, for instance, for Sudanese opposition groups to fight their own murderous government – so wrong that prosecution should await them in Britain? Mr Clarke’s view leads to status quo legitimism on a scale Prince Klemens Metternich never dreamed of; even the Austrian statesman ended up supporting the Greek revolutionaries against the Ottoman sultan. Why should such matters trouble the British courts and lead the country to reject what is left of its noble tradition as a safe haven for political dissidents?

Glorification of terrorism is a charge so broad and vague that, while it will facilitate the conviction of a few imams, video-owners, graffiti artists and librarians, it will chill debate much more widely. If I wish to describe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as a colonial project to which armed resistance is justified, should I be put in fear of the legal consequences? Should I be deterred from making comparisons between Iraqi insurgents and the partisans in Hitler’s Europe?

Nothing in the proposed bill rules such examples out of its purview. As it is, the war against terror has already inhibited intellectual inquiry internationally and in the US respectable research bodies now face litigation if their donations are found to have been channelled into what an equally vague law refers to as terrorist organisations. The Ford Foundation was not known in the past for its support of terrorism but today we can be sure its hands are clean. If the Blair government gets its way, the British public will be similarly protected. Which is to say, not protected at all from real threats but confronted with the further erosion of its civil liberties and of the open-mindedness we need more than ever if we are to hope to understand our increasingly fragmented world.

The writer is professor of history at Columbia University. His book Salonica, City of Ghosts (HarperCollins) won the 2004 Duff Cooper Prize

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