How panic threatens civil liberties

This government has been widely criticised for being careless of civil liberties, and rightly so. Its proposals to monitor e-mails and internet use; its attempts to do away with long-standing safeguards for defendants in court; its proposals for a new extradition bill to shift suspects to other EU countries after a brief hearing; its most recent legislation on terrorism, which could well have locked up Nelson Mandela's supporters if it had existed during the anti-apartheid era - all these are cause enough for concern. But as John Kampfner's report on page 18 shows, we live in a world that has become very unfriendly to civil liberties. We may think that our government is hardline; others abroad see it as deplorably soft on terrorism, even though no other western country has introduced anything as draconian as the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. Why, foreigners ask, has Britain sentenced nobody on international terrorism charges in the past 15 months? And why has it not been the target of a single, verifiable al-Qaeda attack, even an aborted or unsuccessful one? It is suggested that the first explains the second. But cause and effect may work just as plausibly the other way round: no criminal acts, therefore no arrests.

Civil libertarians and anti-racists should stay on their guard. The Americans particularly make a song and dance about their own traditions of free speech. But the US attitude is that although you can say what you like (you won't be locked up), you shouldn't be allowed to hold a position that gives you any public influence, even indirectly, if you have "un-American" opinions. This explains why Senator Joe McCarthy, at the height of the cold war, could in effect deprive Hollywood actors and film directors of their livelihoods while, in Britain at that time, an outspokenly red dean remained unmolested at the heart of the Church of England in Canterbury. Britons should be proud of that tradition; they should extend it to the most eccentric Muslim clerics and, at the risk of sounding like Tory blimps, tell foreigners to get lost. To restrict free speech, to put Muslims and Arabs under special surveillance, to lock up suspects without trial would be to play the game on al-Qaeda's terms. Not only would it damage the liberties we are supposedly trying to protect, it would also drive groups underground, create martyrs and add to the grievances that Muslim fundamentalists try to exploit. It would also follow the foolish view of the US administration that we are at war - the American political classes have always got themselves overwrought about these things, as they did about the threat from the Soviet Union.

Not that British opinion-formers are immune from panic. Before the Second World War, Stanley Baldwin warned that "the bomber will always get through"; when the IRA campaign started in the 1970s, the British government responded by introducing internment. But, albeit with heavy casualties, Britain survived Hitler's bombs and survived the IRA. Even the use of smallpox as a weapon of biological warfare is nothing new, since infected prisoners were often sent deliberately into enemy territory during medieval wars.

We should remember these things as our leaders issue warnings almost weekly of smallpox attacks, gas on the Tube, nuclear bombs in suitcases, anthrax under the bed, and so on. They have been warning us in such terms now for 15 months. What are we all supposed to do? Stay at home, keep our children away from school, dial the emergency services every time we see an Arab, search the streets for white powder? In this sense, too, our rulers - fearful, above all, of anybody being able to blame them when an attack actually happens - do the terrorists' job for them, and succeed only in stoking xenophobia and paranoia. The public already has a confused view of risk - the chances of dying in a road accident are many times greater than the chances of dying in a terrorist attack - and it does no service to make them still more confused.

It is frequently observed that modern societies, dependent on sophisticated technology and communications, are delicate organisms that can easily be disrupted by strikes at a few central targets or supplies. This may be true, but, again, it is nothing new: 19th-century Ireland was sufficiently delicate an organism as to be virtually destroyed by disease in a single crop. What is true is that western society is vulnerable to mass panic; its nervous system, not its physical system, is the vulnerable part.

Under the pressures from abroad, it is all too likely that the resolve of Tony Blair and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, to protect civil liberties will waver. It will need stiffening, and Labour MPs should be ready to stiffen as necessary.

Feed them to the lawyers!

It is wholly characteristic of new Labour that it tries to solve a problem by establishing a registrar, a tribunal and a series of tests. So it is with hunting. Faced with the very non-abstract realities of hounds tearing foxes to pieces, Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, offers the abstractions of "balance, fairness, clear principles, transparency . . . a process . . . utility". But this solution is cleverer than it looks. The fox-hunting and animal rights lobbies have nothing in common except sentimentality (one for a non-existent rural idyll, the other for soft, furry things) and fanaticism. They cannot believe that other people do not share their passions, and are tired of their noisy quarrels. Tribunals and tests will render their arguments obscure and legalistic; sooner or later, both sides will run out of money and patience. Do not criticise the bill for anomalies or complications: the more the better, because they will keep the rival armies harmlessly occupied.