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net.wars: The new normal

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 July 2008


 The (only) good thing about a war is you can tell when it's over.

Wendy M Grossman

The problem with the "War on Terror" is that terrorism is always with us, as Liberty's director, Shami Chakrabarti, said yesterday at the Homeland and Border Security 08 conference. "I do think the threat is very serious. But I don't think it can be addressed by a war." Because, "We, the people, will not be able to verify a discernible end."  

The idea that "we are at war" has justified so much post 9/11 legislation, from the ID card (in the UK) and Real ID (US) to the continued expansion of police powers. So you have to ask: "How long can you live in a state of emergency before emergency becomes the new normal? If there is no end, when do you withdraw the latitude wartime gives a government?"

Several of yesterday's speakers talked about preserving "our way of life" while countering the threat with better security. But "our way of life" is a moving target.  

For example, Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, the shadow security minister, talked about the importance of controlling the UK's borders. "Perimeter security is absolutely basic." Her example: you can't go into a building without having your identity checked. But it's not so long ago – within the 18 years I've been living in London – that you could do exactly that, even sometimes in central London. In New York, of course, until 9/11, everything was wide open; these days midtown Manhattan makes you wait in front of barriers while you're photographed, checked, and treated with great suspicion if the person you're visiting doesn't answer the phone.

Only seven years ago, flying did not involve two hours of standing in line. Until January, tourists do not have to register three days before flying to the US for pre-screening.

It's not clear how much would change with a Conservative government. "There is a very great deal by this government we would continue," said Neville-Jones. But, she said, besides trackling threats, whether motivated (terrorists) or not (floods, earthquakes, "we are also at any given moment in the game of deciding what kind of society we want to have and what values we want to preserve." She wants "sustainable security, predicated on protecting people's freedom and ensuring they have more, not less, control over their lives." And, she said, "While we need protective mechanisms, the surveillance society is not the route down which we should go. It is absolutely fundamental that security and freedom lie together as an objective."

To be sure, Neville-Jones took issue with some of the present government's plans – the Conservatives would not, she said, go ahead with the National Identity Register, and they favour "a more coherent and wide-ranging border security force". The latter would mean bringing together many currently disparate agencies to create a single border strategy. The Conservatives also favour establishing a small "homeland command for the armed forces" within the UK because, "The qualities of the military and the resources they can bring to complex situations are important and useful." At the moment, she said, "We have to make do with whoever happens to be in the country."

OK. So take the four core elements of the national security strategy according to Admiral Lord Alan West, a Parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Home Office: pursue, protect, prepare, and prevent. "Prevent" is the one that all this is about. If we are in wartime, and we know that any measure that's brought in is only temporary, our tolerance for measures that violate the normal principles of democracy is higher.

Are the Olympics wartime? Security is already in the planning stages, although, as Tarique Ghaffur pointed out, the Games are one of several big events in 2012. And some events like sailing and Olympic football will be outside London, as will 600 training camps. Add in the torch relay, and it's national security.

And in that case, we should be watching very closely what gets brought in for the Olympics, because alongside the physical infrastructure that the Games always leave behind – the stadia and transport – may be a security infrastructure that we wouldn't necessarily have chosen for daily life.

As if the proposals in front of us aren't bad enough. Take for example, the clause of the counterterrorism bill (due for its second reading in the Lords next week) that would allow the authorities to detain suspects for up to 42 days without charge. Chakrabarti lamented the debate over this, which has turned into big media politics.

"The big frustration," she said, "is that alternatives created by sensible, proportionate means of early intervention are being ignored." Instead, she suggested, make the data legally collected by surveillance and interception admissible in fair criminal trials. Charge people with precursor terror offenses so they are properly remanded in custody and continue the investigation for the more serious plot. "That is a way of complying with ancient principles that you should know what you are accused of before being banged up, but it gives the police the time and powers they need."

Not being at war gives us the time to think. We should take it.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).