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9/11 memories: Shami Chakrabarti

We asked the director of Liberty: where were you on 9/11?

It was my second day at Liberty. Hot from the Home Office, I was supposed to help inject strategic thinking. I wondered what our focus should be for the next few years. The answer soon became all too obvious.

On returning from lunch, I caught a glimpse of the first plane hitting a tower on a screen in the press office. Then the horror of the second plane, collapsing buildings and the haunting sight of poor souls diving from skyscrapers rather than perish in the flames. No tragic accident, this was premeditated mass murder, and most of the next decade would be defined by the response to that day's atrocities.

I was surrounded by virtual strangers, confused, shocked and worried about friends, family and former colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic. In truth, I spent hours, even days, thinking I might have made a mistake: that my recent career change might be the worst timing in the world. Was this the moment to move from the world of security to campaign for liberty and the rule of law?

Any doubts were soon dispelled by actions and rhetoric from Messrs Bush and Blair. Democracies - the US in particular - quite rightly had the solidarity of most of the world that day, but these gentlemen had the reverse Midas touch when it came to uniting people around universal values. I could not predict the sheer extent of the folly they called the "war on terror" - Guantanamo, Belmarsh, control orders, blanket stop-and-search and mass surveillance. I did not anticipate open societies doctoring intelligence and making illegal war soaked in lies. Worst of all, given the crimes perpetrated that September morning, I did not imagine the shame and horror of democrats choosing kidnap, torture and murder in reply.

I became a mother the following spring and Liberty's director within two years of 9/11. I saw the best in humanity as well as the worst. We worked with lawyers, journalists and politicians to defeat internment and repudiate torture, and to watch public opinion turn away from authoritarian madness. Time and again, the Human Rights Act proved vital in the struggle. No wonder many in high places are keen to "replace it" with something more convenient and malleable. So now we must defend the act itself and show that we are not beaten. Our values of dignity, equal treatment and fairness survive.

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A Barrister by background, Shami Chakrabarti has been Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) since September 2003. She has been recently appointed a Governor of the London School of Economics and the British Film Institute and a Master of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11