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Terror of 'war against terror'

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Identifying terrorists: A detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: AFP
Identifying terrorists: A detainee at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: AFP

SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN

Is there room within this rapid "securitisation" of life for individual freedoms and civic concerns to assert themselves?

IN "Minority Report", - Steven Spielberg's dystopian vision of the year 2054 - potential criminals are hunted down by the Department of Precrime and paralysed ("haloed") before being locked away forever in a vast, filing cabinet-like prison. When the film came out in 2002, the "Global War on Terrorism" was just getting off the ground, Iraq had yet to be invaded and Guantanamo was assumed by most Americans to be a way station on a bumpy road that would lead, eventually, to justice.

Metaphor for current events

Today, the film could not be a better metaphor for what is rapidly emerging as the most sinister dimension of the Bush administration's "Global War on Terrorism": its policy of identifying potential terrorists through high-tech acts of "data mining", surveillance or good old-fashioned torture and then incarcerating suspects indefinitely without hope of judicial review or oversight.In Spielberg's film, the precriminals were identified by acts of "precognition". In real life, the National Security Agency relies on nothing more oracular than the most extraordinary concentration of computing power and communication intercepting technology known to humankind. Whether through clairvoyance or computing, however, the core idea remains the search for "predictive" power. Stung by the intelligence failure which preceded the tragedy of 9/11, the Bush administration hopes to identify the next batch of terrorists by analysing existing patterns of behaviour and communication of potential suspects. Not surprisingly, the task of fighting precrime requires the elimination of 200 years of due process, the ban on torture and the notion of habeas corpus. Laws like USA Patriot allow Federal agents to monitor who is borrowing what kind of books from the local library.And indefinite detention and torture is the reality for tens of hundreds of men suspected of wanting to wage war against the U.S.

Change is possible

Is there room within this rapid "securitisation" of life for individual freedoms and civic concerns to assert themselves? The Indian electorate showed the way in 2004 by being the first voters in the world to declare that they wanted the State to fight terrorism without the toxic crutch of black laws. In Britain, the Law Lords have taken a courageous stand against the excesses of the Blair regime. It is a measure of the depths to which the world's "oldest" democracy has sunk that the country's highest court felt obliged recently to reiterate something which generations of Britons took for granted - that evidence procured through torture would not be admissible in a trial. In the U.S., an appeals judge has finally stepped in to pull the plug on the Bush administration's blatant attempt to prevent Jose Padilla - a U.S. citizen held without charge for three years - from challenging the illegal nature of his detention. But on the whole, U.S. courts are still too indulgent in the face of "national security interests".If the tide is to turn - and turn it must, sooner rather than later - the media also has to play its role despite the pressures. In Britain, Tony Blair threatened to jail editors if they published extracts of an incriminating official memo detailing a conversation he had with Mr. Bush.In Australia, new anti-terrorism laws ban journalists - on pain of five years imprisonment - from even reporting the facts about the detention of terror suspects. In the U.S., newspapers that went along with "their" government's drumbeats in Iraq have finally begun to adopt a more adversarial role. The New York Times sat on a story about how the NSA had begun snooping inside the U.S. for more than a year, but finally decided to publish it last month. President Bush tried a last-minute attempt to kill the story by summoning the editor and publisher of the NYT to his office, to no avail. The hyperpower is turning inward and people in the U.S. - who found themselves on the frontlines of terror on 9/11 - are discovering what it's like to be on the frontlines of the "war on terror" as well.

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