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Here In the aftermath of Thursday’s London atrocities in London, no one has the monopoly on grief or condemnation at of the ruthless, pointless cowardice of the murderers and any apologists for them. As a proud and life-long Londoner, however, I am also able to observe that calm, dignity and resilience seem in even greater supply.
Londoners, like their great city’s financial markets, absorbed the shock and then rallied. People on the streets may clasp mobile telephones walk with furrowed brows but streets, schools and places of work are far from deserted. I am, perhaps, the least likely cheerleader for senior politicians or police officers but, up to now the time of writing at least, they have demonstrated the leadership that we bothneed and deserve.
Charles Clarke, the home secretary, has so far risen to this challenge with particular authority. Refusing to seek short-term political dividends from the terrorist outrage, he readily admitted his doubt that identity cards would have made a difference. Smaller men would have responded differently. Further, and under considerable pressure, he refused to conflate the preaching of inflammatory sermons with acts of attempted and actual mass murder. His approach has been balanced and statesmanlike. If he continues to resist similar othernatural instincts and temptations,from inside and outside the government, he has a real chance of sitting on treading the fine and precious line between freedom and safety. as well as anyone can.
In discussions about Britain’s future, there are always a range ofharbingers of doom and they love the microphone and word processor. In the emotional ferment of recent hours, some have predicted or even promoted the death of our fundamental rights and freedoms, and the death of racial and cultural diversity. In my view, They are as foolish and out of synch with our underlying desires, traditions and common decency as they would be for heralding the death of personal relationships or business activities.
A backbench MP suggested to me that my opposition to identity cards and internment without trial was now “coming home to roost”. His understandable but emotional response constituted blank-cheque support for any authoritarian measure – whether effective or not –which that might be suggested in response to terrorism. Some of coursewill now feel a greater appetite for such measures, in particular identity cards. Others, I hope an equal or greater number, will consider how the billions of pounds in question might be better spent more effectively and directlyon operational intelligence and policing.
Ultimately, I fully expect each proposal to be considered on its merits with rationality, equal treatment and proportionality as the key watchwords. For just as there is no monopoly on grief and condemnation, the preservation of rights, freedoms and precious human life are shared concerns as well. The Home Secretary Mr Clarke may not even have realised itwhat he was doing,, but in his moment of greatest challenge, he has adopted much of the language and analysis of a champion of human rights.
In the difficult days ahead there will of course be differences of opinion on particular policies and operations, but there is every hope of consensus around underlying values and the avoidance of knee-jerk responses from all sides of the discussion – including mine.
As a Londoner, I am already used to respectful and routine outer-body and bag searches when I when I seek to enter key target institutions (airports, courts, government buildings and so on). More of that kind of security will, of course, slow life down, at times it may even irritate, but I envisage few complaints as long as we see the sense and fair execution of such practices.
This contrasts sharply contrasted with some of the blanket and over-broad powers which that have been delivered to the government and the police by a less-than-fully rigorous parliament over the past few years(and even before September 11th). When the police are allowed to conduct “stop and search” operations across vast areas using the Terrorism Act powers, without an ounce of suspicion using under Terrorism Act powers, there is of courseno imaginable possibility of searching everyone on any street. In the absence of the discipline of reasonable suspicion, peace protesters and minority ethnic communities bear the brunt of arbitrary power. Some are already actively suggesting that this might be a small price to pay for greater security. They should realise that such a o simple trade-off is not possible. The Home Secretary Mr Clarke has rightly described the present search for the Thursday’s mass-murderers as one for “needles in a haystack”. Such an enterprise is only possible with greater unity and confidence on the part of everyone in our diverse society.
Visible injustice and irresponsible rhetoric will make it less rather than more likely that people feel able toreport their fears and suspicions to the authorities. We cannot legislate our way to safety but we can better unite to defend the democracy that some are hell-bent on destroying.
The writer is director of Liberty
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