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Britain’s On Again, Off Again War on Terror

The UK can't make up its mind between fighting extremists and coddling them.

by
Mike McNally

Bio

March 2, 2009 - 12:27 am

A number of recent developments have illustrated the problems facing the British government as it struggles to combat Islamic terrorism. Most significantly, Britain’s highest court of appeal, the Law Lords, ruled that Abu Qatada, the extremist preacher who has been described as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, can be deported to Jordan, where he faces jail for terrorist offenses.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the back of Qatada just yet. His lawyers are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, meaning Qatada could remain in Britain for another year or more. And ominously, the very next day, that same European court awarded Qatada and several other terror suspects thousands of pounds in compensation, after ruling that their detention without trial breached their human rights.

Meanwhile, the International Commission of Jurists claimed that British and American actions designed to combat terrorism had undermined international law, and Stella Rimington — who as the head of MI5 in the 1990s was charged with protecting Britain from terrorists attacks, but these days prefers to endear herself to the chattering classes and boost her book sales with attacks on the UK and U.S. anti-terror policies — accused the British government of exploiting the public’s fear of terrorism to curtail civil liberties.

In other news, a think tank revealed how pupils at some Muslim schools in Britain are being exposed to material that attacks “anti-Islamic” culture and rejects integration (one website likened a child who plays chess to “one who dips his hands in the blood of swine”); librarians were told to move the Bible and other religious books to top shelves, along with the Koran, after Muslims demanded their holy book be placed above other books; and education chiefs decreed that pupils should talk about the July 2005 terror attacks which killed 52 people in London “from the perspective of the bombers” — a move guaranteed to launch a thousand essays that go something like “alienation, yadda yadda yadda … British and American foreign policy, yadda yadda yadda.”

In other words, it’s been a typical couple of weeks in Britain’s half-hearted, half-baked war on terror. Many of the government’s problems are self-inflicted. On one hand, the security services struggle to combat the immediate threat posed by extremists. On the other hand, ministers signal that they will tolerate a certain degree of extremism with craven acts such as the banning of Geert Wilders, while civil servants and NGOs roll out a steady stream of initiatives which reassure Muslims that, while their integration into British society is desirable, they can pretty much dictate the terms.

And when, as in the case of Qatada, the government does get it right, they face a sustained assault by human rights lawyers and civil liberties groups who, cheered on by left-wing media commentators and assorted celebrities (anyone remember Julie Christie ?), fight tooth and nail to prevent hateful and violent men — who are often living in the UK illegally — from being removed from the country.

The Law Lords’ ruling on Qatada was significant because it rejected the argument that a person shouldn’t be deported from Britain — even if, like Qatada, they’ve been convicted of crimes in another country, and despite assurances they won’t be tortured — because evidence against them might have been extracted under torture. The Lords rightly decided this was one hypothetical too far, ruling that evidence of torture in another country “does not require this state, the United Kingdom, to retain in this country, to the detriment of national security, a terrorist suspect.”

This was a severe blow to the human rights lobby, for whom hypotheticals are everything. These, after all, are people who inhabit a pink-skied wonderland in which actions have no consequences, and in which no difficult choices ever have to be made. They see nothing incongruous in debating to the nth degree the legal status and “rights” of men who saw off the heads of captives live on the internet and plot murder on an industrial scale.

The rights of innocent people killed by terrorists — who in many cases will have been inspired by men like Qatada — don’t feature in their thinking; they are not, as a lawyer might say, “germane” to the principles being debated. These lofty idealists will, of course, never have to pick body parts out of the remains of a subway carriage, or break the news to a husband that his wife won’t be coming home because she got on the wrong plane at the wrong time.

Those suspected, but not convicted, of terrorist offenses are entitled to protection. But while the UK and U.S. governments err on the side of keeping innocent people safe, the human rights absolutists are prepared to accept a few casualties — such as the victims of those released from Guantanamo to kill again — as a small price to pay for securing the moral high ground. These people like to claim they’re acting out of principle, and some — however naively — certainly are. Others, however, are simply using the human rights debate as a smokescreen under which to further their leftist agendas.

Anyone who doubts that this is the case should note the deafening silence from British civil rights groups in response to the government’s ban on Wilders. Organizations such as Liberty (the British equivalent of the ACLU), whose mouthy director Shami Chakrabarti is omnipresent in media debates about the treatment of terror suspects, have said nothing about the Wilders ban and its implications for free speech — proving that, unlike Voltaire, they will defend your right to say what you want, just so long as they agree with you.

The hardcore element of the human rights lobby does not speak for the majority of the British people, but their ideas are rarely challenged, because they have become orthodoxy among the cultural and political elite — and because that elite dominates the media, the arts, and the legal profession they’re able to exert a disproportionate influence on public opinion and government policy.

The government is right to resist the attempts of a tiny band of vocal activists to undermine its anti-terror policies, but it also needs to get its own house in order and formulate a coherent strategy that combines a robust approach to fighting terrorism with the unconditional rejection of Islamic extremism in all its forms. It should, with immediate effect, opt out of the jurisdiction of the European Court, as Alasdair Palmer argues in the Telegraph. But it should also abandon attempts to appease Islamic extremists and their enablers. Deporting Qatada and every last terror suspect from Britain will achieve nothing as long as we continue to nurture the next generation of radicals by moving library books and asking our children to empathize with terrorists.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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