Hasan Suroor

Governments, especially western liberal democracies with their supposedly more enlightened "values," are expected to get the balance between national security and individual liberties right. But is the `war on terror' descending into a form of state terror?

IN ARTHUR Miller's classic play The Crucible, currently showing in London's West End, a pompous official dealing with the Salem witch trials a parable for the political witch-hunt of the McCarthy era thunders at his critics that there can be no half-way measures: you are either with the court or against it. And in the war against the Devil, rights of individuals be damned.

That was in 17th century America in the grip of religious fundamentalism. But close your eyes and you can hear, in those lines, the voice of the U.S. President George W. Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair railing against the critics of the so-called `war on terror,' which is increasingly assuming a disturbingly religious fervour.

When, in the wake of 9/11, President Bush declared that there could be no halfway measures and the world was either with America or against it in its campaign against terrorism he got a lot of flak for it. But less than five years later, the idea that any criticism of anti-terror laws or tactics amounts, ipso facto, to covert support for extremists has seeped into the conventional discourse. There is a growing liberal consensus at least in the West that fighting terrorism takes priority over ethical or moral sensitivities about the means by which it is done.

I do not belong to the Amnesty school of human rights. I accept that there are situations in which rights of an individual may be compromised in the process of protecting the security of the nation and the society as a whole. I also concede that where there is a consistent pattern of terrorists/extremists coming from a particular ethnic group or religious community that group or community will inevitably come under greater scrutiny than others.

In other words, the anti-terror campaign is a necessary evil and, like it or not, there will be "collateral" damage to human rights and, occasionally, innocent people will get hurt.

Having said that, governments, especially western liberal democracies with their supposedly more enlightened "values," are expected to get the balance between national security and individual liberties right while pursuing terrorists. Unfortunately, it is hard to escape the sense that this is not happening and there is a widespread sense that the `war on terror' is in danger of descending into a form of state terror.

There is a catalogue of events, ranging from the conduct of British and American troops in Iraq to incidents involving security agencies at home, which suggests that the anti-terror strategy is going out of control. Add to this a plethora of harsh laws that most governments, notably Britain and America, have brought in to fight terrorism not to mention the climate of fear and suspicion all this had generated and it would seem as though they are at war with their own citizens.

In Britain, Mr. Blair has picked up a fight with judges for not rubber-stamping his Government's counter-terror agenda. There have been a series of judgments in which the courts have declared key provisions of the anti-terror legislation to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights to which Britain is a signatory. But Mr. Blair insists that they are needed and has accused the courts of being out of touch with reality. Indeed, there has been talk of restricting judges' powers to interpret human rights decisions and to opt out of the more "inconvenient" parts of the European human rights regime. Even Establishment figures such as Lord Lloyd, a former law lord, have started to call into question the need for some the anti-terror laws rushed through in the wake of 9/11.

Big Brother

The pace at which governments are acquiring increasingly intrusive powers, such as covert phone-tapping of millions of ordinary Americans ordered by President Bush, threatens the very notion of individual privacy. Big Brother is already here eavesdropping on your private phone calls and prying into your private emails and is getting more threatening with every new law.

The argument is that the state needs "emergency" powers to tackle the unprecedented threat from terrorists as modern methods of communications such as mobile phones and the Internet have become a key to planning attacks. Granted. But people need to be assured that the data that governments collect by spying on the citizens' private lives will not be abused. There is concern that when there is an information overload and security agencies are under pressure to deliver, the risk of abuse is always there. Indeed, human rights groups alleged that this is already happening. The risk of abuse is more when hard intelligence on the ground is as thin or as unreliable as evidently is the case at the moment.

Given the "clues" security services look for in the absence of good intelligence all it takes for someone to come under the security scanner is to be found making a few telephone calls to countries regarded as sources of terror or downloading sites on terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

A typical intelligence profile of a potential terrorist focusses on ethnicity, religion and physical appearance. It is such a broad sweep that anyone from a certain ethnic or religious group or answering to the description of "Middle Eastern" or "Asian" appearance is likely to fit the profile. Inevitably, this has led to innocent people being mistaken for terrorists. In one case, a U.S.-bound flight from Britain was forced to land midway because a passenger had the same name as that of a terror suspect. That was, though, small change compared to the scandal of three young British Pakistanis who were arrested by American forces in Afghanistan and incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay where they were allegedly tortured. After spending several months in the most humiliating conditions there, they were released under pressure from the British Government so that they could be tried in Britain. When they returned home, the police set them free within hours without any charge.

Take a more recent case involving a Bangladeshi family in East London. At 4 a.m. on June 2, Britain's anti-terror squad raided their home in Forest Gate a predominantly immigrant neighbourhood claiming that they had "specific intelligence" that the property was being used as a "bomb factory" and a plot was afoot to launch a terror attack. The threat, they claimed, was so serious that they could not afford to lose any time. It was reported that the police informant had "seen" a "chemical vest" in the house for it to be used to trigger a gas attack in a crowded place like the attack in a Tokyo subway more than ten years ago.

During the raid, described at the time as the most "significant" anti-terror operation since the July 7 London bombings last year, one member of the family Abdul Kahar Kalam (23) was shot at and wounded, and later arrested on suspicion of "commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism." His younger brother, Abdul Koyair Kalam (20), was also arrested.

A full week after the dramatic raid, conducted by men in gasmasks and toting guns and in the full glare of television cameras, police failed to find any evidence that the house was the hub of terror activity. No chemicals. No weapons. No "chemical vest." And no terror plans.

Last Friday, police were forced to apologise for the raid but refused to admit that they might have got it wrong and warned that the public must get used to this sort of operations because the alternative to not acting on intelligence could be disastrous.

This happened less than a year after police shot dead an innocent Brazilian youth, Jean Charles de Menezes, at a north London tube station on suspicion of carrying a bomb. As in the Forest Gate case, it was claimed that police had "intelligence" that he was part of a terror plot and had they not acted as they did he may have blown himself up like the July 7 suicide bombers.

Mistakes will, of course, be made but when mistaken shootings, and bungled raids begin to affect the credibility of security services and threaten to alienate the very people whose support is critical in winning the battle against extremists, it is time to ask some hard questions both about the quality of intelligence and police tactics.

More, crucially, the question that needs to be asked is: where is the `war on terror' going? That a 17th century dark tale of hysteria and intolerance should still be seen to have resonance for our times is not, exactly, a happy sign.