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Monday, August 01, 2005

I prefer freedom

Officially, Britain doesn't negotiate with terrorists, and in the case of the Islamic militants following in the footsteps of Osama Bin Laden it is unlikely we will see them clutching leather-bound zip folders and strolling into Acas. At the risk of stating the obvious, suicide bombers rarely have a compromise position. Even if they did, no sane person would sit in a room with them, especially if they heard the words: "Come on, we need a decision. The clock is ticking!"

So Britain would not officially, and could not, in this instance, negotiate with terrorists. However, under Charles Clarke's proposed anti-terror laws Britain would negotiate with torturers. The official line, then, is: negotiate with terrorists - no, negotiate with torturers - yes. Ah, the Third Way strikes again. And we got to this position like this...

After the 7 July bombings Tony Blair tried to shut down any debate on the connections between the atrocities in London and Britain's role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. His conclusion as to why London had been targeted was that the terrorists were "evil" - thus he boldly declared mass murderers to be bad people. Who knows what his next pronouncements on murderers' personality faults may be? "Charles

Manson unpleasant at family gatherings",

perhaps, or "Fred West ill-mannered". His only other pronouncements spun around the theme of "they hate our way of life", in which case the bombers should have targeted Ikea.

Having taken foreign policy and its implications out of the picture, it is left to Clarke to put together a response to the big question, "How do we stop it occurring?"

Clarke's proposed anti-terror laws would make it a criminal offence to attend "terror training camps", which seems relatively sensible, as there is no benign reason for learning how to make bombs and kill people with cheese-wire - unless you count male bonding and team-building. But if people really want that they can go paintballing like the rest of us, or read Iron John, get naked and bang drums in the woods.

A second measure would deport "preachers of hate" to their country of origin, but only after our Home Secretary had obtained assurances from that country that the deportee would not be tortured or killed. For this to be a realistic proposition, Clarke has to believe that torturers might be barbaric thugs at times, but deep down they are men of honour. He might even negotiate a code of conduct with them, who knows?

There would have to be safeguards. Clarke would have to check that the torturers didn't cross their fingers. He would have to check that the promises were being kept, perhaps by cold-calling people in Jordanian prison cells at odd hours, like a gas sales rep, and politely inquiring, "Are you happy with the current torture policy?"

On top of this, as Blair found out in 1999 in the case of Hani Youssef, allegedly a member of Islamic Jihad, negotiating with a torturing state isn't easy. Egypt, the country to which Youssef was to be deported, took a very dim view of being lectured by the British Foreign Office as it tried to negotiate a fair trial in Egypt and assurances that he would not be physically harmed.

The third part of Clarke's proposals is perhaps the most bizarre - the introduction of an offence of "indirect incitement to acts of terrorism", which is so loosely worded that if you said the Tube needed upgrading, it would probably lead to your arrest. What about support for the Palestinian cause? Would that be indirectly inciting terror? What implications does this have for us?

Remember, the legal definition of a terrorist is basically someone who commits (or threatens) violence (or damage to property) for religious, political or ideological reasons. So if a nun, in chaining herself to the fence of a nuclear base, damages it, she is technically a terrorist. And under Clarke's proposals anyone who publicly supported her would also be breaking the law.

The legal definition is so all-encompassing that it places GM crop protesters, who damage property for political reasons, on a par with bombers. And no matter how many assurances the government may give us that this law won't be used against peace activists or environmentalists, we should know from experience not to trust such promises.

Limiting our freedoms won't stop terrorism. Whatever law is passed, you will not eradicate the message of the jihadists. You can't net-nanny the entire state. You can't stop tapes being sent from abroad - unless they are porn, in which case I am led to believe Customs will make an effort. More importantly, without Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the invasion of Iraq et al, the jihadists would be seen for what they are: a bunch of bigots railing from a crate in Hyde Park and offering nothing but servitude to a death cult. Speed the day we see that.