The proposed anti-terror laws raise questions about the authorities'
reliability, says Paul Vallely
I remember being told as a schoolboy that, during the Second World War,
those who professed themselves to be conscientious objectors were asked a
simple question. "If a Nazi burst through that door with a gun, and was about
to shoot your mother and sister dead, would you pick up this gun and shoot to
I don't know whether such a question was really asked, but you can see the
force of it. It confronts us with the reality of our political principles. My
response would be that I would shoot, if I had the presence of mind, and wasn't
paralysed by the horror of the situation.
So let's take honesty a step further. "If you were utterly convinced that a
man in custody was plotting some terrorist outrage, but at that moment were
unable to prove it, would you lock him up until you could get that proof?"
Again, I have to admit that I would. But the devil - or perhaps in this case
the caveat is more angelic - is in the detail.
"Until you could get that proof. . . " How long should we be prepared to
extend that "until" - for a set number of days? If so, we are setting aside
principle for pragmatism; and whether that period is 90, 60, 45, 28, 14, or
even a single day becomes arbitrary in one sense. Or should the period be
extended until the certainty of the detainer's inner conviction - and his
ability to continue to convince a judge - begins to wane? And what is a judge
to make of an application that says: "We have 60,000 phone transcripts to go
through, and we're only halfway"? When, should the judge's patience begin to
run out, and why?
The issue does not turn, I suspect, on principle, but on the level of trust
we have in those who make such decisions. This is where the Government is on
such shaky ground. It is interesting that some politicians who were initially
sceptical conceded that the police, in their private in-depth briefings, have
made a good case why changing times and changing crimes mean they need to hold
suspects for longer before being able to charge them. But the key question is
not "Is there a case?" so much as "Can we trust the authorities to use this
After a decade in office, it is perhaps an inevitable dynamic in our
political process that trust in any prime minister will diminish. But there
have been particular blows to trust on the issue of security. The whole
business of going to war in Iraq has been the most significant, with its dodgy
dossiers and non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The publication this
week of the memoirs of the former British ambassador to Washington is only the
latest reminder of all that, with its mixed portrait of Tony Blair as clever
with the global politics, but too detached from the policy detail.
The questions about trust go well beyond Mr Blair. The shooting dead of an
innocent Brazilian at Stockwell tube station by police hunting suicide bombers
was far more than a tragedy for the dead man's family. It struck a blow at
public confidence in police competence. But it may well be something apparently
trivial that is the most damaging thing here. Remember Walter Wolfgang, the
82-year-old thrown out of the Labour conference for shouting "Rubbish!" at the
Foreign Secretary? To stop him re-entering the hall, he was arrested - under
the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
In the end, the key question may prove not to be "Are these powers
necessary?" but "Can we rely on their not being abused?" The public's answer to
that question, unfortunately perhaps, is likely to be a resounding no.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.