22 February, 2005: In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it

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So, that locking people up for no reason whenever the Home Secretary says so, eh? You won't be surprised to hear that, given my opinions of recent Home Secretaries, I'm not in favour of them giving themselves the power to put people in prison or under `control orders' (house arrest) purely on their own say-so; but of course in a civilised society nobody ought to have that power anyway.

Now, the usual way that we're supposed to deal with people planning criminal acts is:

  1. find out what they're planning;
  2. arrest them;
  3. try them; and, if they are found guilty beyond reasonable doubt,
  4. send them to prison.

Charles Clarke and his predecessor are very keen to skip step 3, which as you can imagine can be time-consuming and doesn't always work. Sure, it means abandoning habeas corpus, the right to a fair trial, etc. etc., but think how much easier life for the security services would be without having to try the people they catch. The time saved could be spent rounding up more suspects, thus allowing them to meet their targets more efficiently and fill out more of those all-important forms.

One argument against trying terrorist suspects such as those who are currently being held in Belmarsh is that the evidence against them chiefly comes from `sophisticated electronic surveillance techniques' or some other similar formula. If a trial were allowed, then these suspects would come to know something about these techniques (as well as other inconvenient secrets such as what they're being accused of). This is, bluntly, a silly argument. At the risk of offering aid and comfort to any of THE TERRORISTS who are to be found among my half-dozen readers, here is a quick guide to some of the sophisticated techniques the security services can use against you:

  1. they can listen to your phone calls;
  2. they can read your email; and
  3. they can follow you around and watch what you do.

So, now I've revealed that, there are no remaining reasons not to use surveillance evidence in terrorism trials. No secrets about surveillance will be revealed, the alleged terrorists in Belmarsh can be tried in a court of law; and we can abandon all this banana-republic nonsense of locking people up on the Home Secretary's whim. As a final act, Tony Blair can give me a knighthood for solving the problem of justice for terrorism suspects while preserving some of what's left of our civil liberties.

(Obviously that last bit was a joke. Tony Blair couldn't give a toss about our civil liberties.)

A cynic -- as never to be found on these pages, but humour me for a moment -- might suggest that the real reason that the government are not prepared to permit the use of surveillance evidence in trials of these terrorism suspects is that... the evidence is, in fact, rubbish. But what are the chances that the government would use dodgy intelligence evidence to support some improbable stunt in the ``war on terror''?

One might also interject here that, if these surveillance techniques were so good and so secret, revealing something about them might act as a deterrent to wrongdoers. For instance, if you knew that MI5 might be listening to your phone calls, you might be reluctant to call up Uncle Osama and ask him what he'd like you to blow up. And, indeed, the proposed `Control Orders' will give the Home Secretary the power to prohibit anyone he likes from using telephones or the internet. Of course, if THE TERRORISTS aren't ever on the phone to al Qaeda, we presumably won't ever be able to gather any evidence on what they're planning, but leave that aside for the moment. Indeed, for ever, probably, since I don't think this Government will answer that point.

To be fair, Charlie the Safety Elephant also argued on Today this morning that his job as Home Secretary is to ensure that the country remains safe, whereas the job of the courts is something tedious to do with enforcing justice and upholding people's rights and whatnot. And who could wish for better guardians of the safety of our country than these? I leave you with the words of Lord Hoffman:

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.