9/11: how MPs overreacted and threw away our basic liberties
If you read the accounts of people remembering what they thought when they first heard about the terrible attacks on 11 September 2001, the main response tends to be: shock and incomprehension. Then a dawning realisation that “things had changed forever”.
I too thought: oh my god, this is terrible. More death and destruction – as if the world didn’t already have enough of this. And yes, I could see that when those planes slammed into the Twin Towers the world had been jolted on its axis.
What would happen next? More attacks? Possibly. A big reaction from the US? Again, possibly. What I didn’t expect was two huge military interventions in foreign countries – Afghanistan and Iraq – and a series of ever more shameful actions – laws that trashed basic civil liberties, Guantánamo, rendition, waterboarding, lies and cover-ups.
Initially the horror of this appalling crime against humanity – one that killed over 2,700 people of 70 different nationalities – took time to sink in. But within days politicians were talking about a “war on terror” and within a few weeks the then Home Secretary David Blunkett was proposing legislation to reintroduce internment in the UK for the first time since it was used in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
By December, as Afghanistan fell to the US and the Taleban were chased from power, the UK had enacted the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, allowing foreign nationals in Britain to be jailed without charge, trial, or even seeing the evidence against them. Within days people were rounded up and after a secret process were effectively “interned” at Belmarsh top security prison in south London. Some of them would remain there for years.
Worse was to come. The following month, in January 2002, the world got its first glimpse of an obscure US naval base in Cuba called Guantánamo Bay. Shackled, cowering detainees in orange boiler-suits, ear-muffs and goggles. This was bizarre but also deadly real, with Donald Rumsfeld justifying holding hundreds of unnamed people out of the reach of family, the law and the world’s press.
Within a few months of 9/11 we seemed to have spun out of control. During this period I increasingly found myself cautioning against the politician’s cardinal mistake: overreaction. Terrorists like Osama bin Laden are weak compared to entire nations but their main hope is that countries will lash out, suspend civil liberties, start to undo the fabric of their own constitutions and democratic systems. This is exactly where the UK – along with many other countries – went wrong.
During 2002-3 senior politicians often sought to justify what was happening at Guantánamo (the criticisms would only come later). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the UK’s intelligence agencies were involved in the CIA’s “rendition” operations, where people were kidnapped, secretly imprisoned and tortured. Indeed, according to documents recently discovered in Libya, our secret services may have organised their own rendition operations.
By 2005 the rendition story was starting to come out – despite the best efforts of UK ministers to keep a lid on it – yet by then politicians seemed to think if someone was labelled a “suspected terrorist” they were fair game and our normal legal processes could be suspended. After the Belmarsh internments were struck down by the courts the government tried house arrest instead. Without charges or trials people were placed under “control orders”, meaning they were prisoners in their own homes: tagged, risking arrest if they left during “curfews”, unable to use the internet, mobiles, or speak to friends. Remember, this was happening in our name, in democratic, freedom-loving Britain. It’s still happening now – only control orders are being slightly tweaked and re-branded as Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, a cheap make-over that doesn’t alter their fundamental unfairness – might I almost say un-Britishness?
Britain wasn’t the only country to tear away at the fabric of its basic laws and principles after 9/11, but – shockingly – it was sometimes at the forefront of those willing to do so. From 2005 Tony Blair’s government sought to strike deals with repressive countries in the Middle East and North Africa that would see Britain deporting people even when there was a real risk of torture and arbitrary detention. These countries included Gaddafi’s Libya and Mubarak’s Egypt.
After our own terrible terrorist atrocity on 7/7 Tony Blair famously said the “rules of the game have changed”, but the so-called “game” of securing the protection of the population whilst guarding against a capitulation to lawlessness, torture and unchecked secret power was already being lost.
After 9/11, Tony Blair said: “We, the democracies of this world, are going to have to come together to fight it and eradicate this evil completely from our world.” Stirring words perhaps, but I strongly believe the reality is different. You can’t totally eradicate the threat of terrorism. You can only take sensible precautions, bolstering the police and security forces, whilst ensuring that things don’t descend into torture and illegality.
Ten years on from that horrific day the 9/11 human rights legacy is close to disastrous. Osama bin Laden is dead but we’ve had unspeakable torture at Abu Ghraib and in the Baha Mousa case. Long after President Obama vowed to close it, 171 people still languish without charge or trial at Guantánamo. After years of denial Britain is finally holding an inquiry into the involvement of UK officials in “war on terror” torture, but much will be behind closed doors and subject to tight Downing Street control.
Al-Qai’da’s despicable killing spree had to be stopped, but we could have done it within the law and without abandoning our principles. And the tragedy is that by overreacting and throwing away basic civil liberties, our politicians have failed to do justice to the victims of 9/11 or honour their memory.Tagged in: 9/11
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