By CAGE editors
In one of the final Parliamentary sessions of the 1990s, Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw introduced to the House of Commons a new anti-terror bill with the following warning: “However, we will have handed the terrorists the victory that they seek if, in combating their threats and violence, we descend to their level and undermine the essential freedoms and rule of law that are the bedrock of our democracy.”
Within a mere 7 months, that Bill had become law; the Terrorism Act 2000 (TACT).
A sprawling piece of legislation, the Terrorism Act 2000 still provides the legal backbone to the many so-called ‘counter-terrorism’ laws that been forced through Parliament on an almost biannual basis ever since.
Twenty years later, Jack Straw’s initial warning about defending freedoms and the rule of law sounds farcical – almost naively so – in their disconnect from reality.
His law, alongside the countless others instituted by his government and its successors in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’, have grown into the most wide-ranging and sophisticated surveillance apparatus in British history.
Suffocating British civil society
They have suffocated British civil society and ushered in a new normal for Muslims: one defined by constant Schedule 7 stops, shadowy security service informants and a permanent suspect status.
Powers granted under the Terrorism Act and successive laws have vastly expanded the scope of ‘pre-crime’ offences that have nothing to do with violence, allowed for widespread political policing and upended central principles of justice – such as the notion of innocent-before-proven-guilty.
And at a societal level, counter-terror policies have legitimised Islamophobia, racial and religious profiling and laid the groundwork for the march towards the militarisation of ‘normal’ policing in Britain.
Despite the comparatively low number of convictions under counter-terror laws – 557 as of June 2020 – the impact they have had on the structure and culture of British society runs deep.
The ‘counter-terror’ surveillance state
But it would be too easy, and too narrow, to reduce the discontent between Straw’s words and his actions to mere ‘hypocrisy’. The growth of the ‘counter-terror’ surveillance state cannot be boiled down to individual character faults, but is symptomatic of long-term structural processes.
These are process that has been driven by network of government ministers, thinktanks and shady private interests – and has been laundered by mainstream media, which have for the most part uncritically echoed government talking points on the need to ‘combat terrorism’.
But despite being an era-defining issue, mainstream critiques of British counter-terror policies have been comparatively restrained. Criticism is often limited to the Prevent policy, or to the Islamophobic effects of counter-terrorism, or their impact on civil liberties – often taken in isolation.
As regular assaults continue to be made by this government on civil liberties in the name of ‘security’ – as we have seen with recent bills giving undercover informants a blank cheque to break the law – there is a dire need to go beyond a simple defence of the present.
Revoke, Repair and Re-evaluate
If repressive counter-terror policies form part of a coherent vision for society on the part on the powerful, we must respond with an equally broad-ranging vision for a different society.
CAGE’s recent report, 20 Years of TACT: Justice under Threat, systematically analyses the impact of the Terrorism Act after two decades, and present a wide-ranging set of recommendations to broaden this very conversation.
Our call to action is based on three pillars: Revoking the legislative and institutional architecture of counter-terrorism in Britain;
Repairing the harm caused to impacted communities by twenty years of modern counter-terrorism; and Re-evaluating the needs of British society – and allowing society itself an opportunity to shape those needs.
Image courtesy of Unsplash/@lianhao
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