Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The 42 Day War

I’ve spoken before about the needs of the many outweighing those of the few. Specifically, is it acceptable to infringe the liberty of individuals in order to make the lives of the greater public better, or safer? Last time I was talking about restrictions on underage drinkers on our streets. This time I’d like to comment on something altogether more serious – detention without charge for suspected terrorists.

There is a running debate in the corridors and chambers of Westminster and across the pages of our newspapers, about the Government’s proposals to extend the powers of the police to detain suspects for a longer period of time before charging them. Currently a suspect can be held for 28 days, but the plan is to increase this to 42 days. Note that this is in cases of suspected involvement with terrorism only; the limit for all other offences is 4 days.

The increase is being touted on the basis that Police need, and have asked for, more time to properly investigate such cases. They argue that in circumstances where, potentially, suspects may have contacts overseas or links to international terrorist groups, where computers need to be searched or multiple locations visited and witnesses sought, the 28 day limit imposes a risk that they are forced to release the suspect before their searches are completed.

Gordon Brown is reportedly preparing to make concessions in response to unrest among Labour MPs and opposition hostility to the 42-day proposals. But I find myself backing Gordon this time. As the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, said last week, “Al Qaeda would not hesitate to blow away a city. That’s why we need 42-day detention”.

Those opposing the 42-day limit claim civil liberties and human rights violations will ensue, and that imposing such rules would leave us with detention laws more onerous than those of other European countries. Some state that the extended time limit is unnecessary anyway, as most investigations conducted under the 28-day system have needed far less than that amount of time. Others fear that the extension might be perceived as a racist move targeted at the Muslim population.

These are weak objections. Let’s suppose a terrorist suspect is detained, and the Police find on day 28 that they need more time, but according to the law the suspect has to be released.

Suppose he is innocent, and not a danger. If he had been held for a further 14 days before that decision was reached then, regrettably, he would have lost two weeks’ liberty. One person, two weeks of unpleasantness.

Suppose he is guilty, and a clear and present danger. And suppose further that on his release, fearful that his plans for a terror attack might be thwarted, he flees the country or worse, accelerates his plans. Conjecture, I know. But if such a man is another 9/11 or 7/7 attacker-in-waiting then we are no longer talking about a loss of liberty for one. We are talking about a possible loss of life and limb for many.

I’m sorry, I truly am, that innocent people might temporarily have their lives turned upside down. But it is a small price to pay for society as a whole to be safer, and we should face the issue head on. No one will forgive us for making civil liberties excuses when people lie dead on our streets, the victims of a terrorist who could have been stopped.

In extremis for the sake of emphasis, but NOT an unthinkable scenario. If the Police want 42 days, give it to them, and if you want to talk about human rights then remember those of the potential victims of terrorist atrocities.

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