It would not be an exaggeration to say that the very definition of terrorism is broad and misunderstood generally. According to Oxford English Dictionary, terrorism means “the use of violent action in order to achieve political aims or to force a government to act”. Encyclopedia Britannica states it as “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.” Needless to say, it covers a wide range of possibilities. Although the general term dates back from the Reign of Terror from the French Revolutions (1793-94), for time and time it has been associated with such names as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and others. The fact that ‘legitimate’ governments and individual groups both can be termed as terrorists shows the relativity of the term. Both parties at conflict often accuse each other for terrorism (Palestine-Israel) and often the terrorists become the sovereign (African National Congress). So where do we draw the line?
Perhaps it would be helpful to include the word ‘civilian’ or ‘public’ some where into the definition. Although some Acts of Parliament does so, they also included a number of other provisions which further blur the basic nature of terrorism. In my view, we might correctly conclude that any act of violence directed against innocent and unprotected civilians is an act of terrorism. Terrorism is not new, terrorists are not new but the context is new and requires new ways of handling the matter. With the change of time and place, the force behind the terrorists changes, their faces change but what remains the same is the ‘act’. Such levels of suicide bombing were never seen before, nor was society required to deal with ‘terrorists’ within its very heart. How deep can we operate on ourselves before we kill ourselves? It requires sensible and wise judgment.
The delicate balance between civil liberty and submission to law had always been a fine one and is even more complex when it relates to such sensitive issues like terrorism. The arm of the law is long but whether it should be made longer depends on the sole question- would it be able to solve the problem it purports to solve keeping harmony in the society? If the cure becomes a disease of its own, then perhaps alternatives should be sought.
The bombings in London probably have shown more than just lack of security and law in the United Kingdom. The bombers were British citizens, not foreign groups. This shows the amount of resentment and sense of isolation within the society. This doesn’t come from lack of proper legal measures. Nor is it possible to purge them by enforcing law alone. The measures proposed in the new anti-terrorism policies are most likely aimed to stop the effect, not cure the cause. Apparently, too much emphasis is put on the Law which should have been directed else where, on long term policy issues.
A person should be held as innocent until proven guilty. A suspect held under custody is still a ‘suspect’, not a convict. The possibility of a person being held for such a long period of time does not coincide with the basic principle of innocence. Further more, isn’t it true that the very nature of electronic evidence and high tech security measures mean that it should actually take less time to find substantial evidence to charge a person? A UK version of Guantanamo is beyond comprehension.
The government’s reason for the ninety day detention time is that in such cases the complexity of electronic and other evidence requires longer than the current permissible fourteen days. This essentially means that the government could retain a suspect for up to three months, while they search for evidence to charge him successfully in court. Indeed this contradicts some fundamental concepts of law and liberty in the United Kingdom. In the hand of the police, there is a good probability that it could become a tool for oppression. France has a lengthy detention period for such suspects. But it’s legal system is way too different to follow.
The legislation proposes to outlaw the glorification and encouragement of terrorism. One doesn’t need to delve further into law to understand that this is a very broad concept. The matter is further complicate by the fact that ‘terrorism’ itself is not lucid enough. Such vague and subjective provision can be used to arbitrarily restrict human rights, specially the freedom of speech. Under such provisions, for example, those supporting the overthrow of suppressive governments would be found guilty. Even supporters of animal extremists could very well become a victim. There have been cases where anti-terror legislative instruments were used against peaceful protesters. None of these are acceptable in a civilized society.
Any kind of terrorism is a serious crime and should remain so. Law should be taken as far as it should go, to define the border of society’s behavior. Legal provisions should be sensible. If there is a genuine need for extended detention period, it should be done without going to the extreme. Proposed ninety day period is too long a jump and the government should settle with some thing less dramatic. As mentioned, provisions like outlawing glorification of terrorism are too vague and oppressive to take place in Law. Current legislation is adequate to deal with such issues. History teaches us that suppressing voices with brute force usually never yields successful results. They only cause more antipathy. If extremist preaching does pose a threat, then changes may be brought in the immigration regulations rather than tightening legal grip within the country.
The fundamentals of human rights were built on the foundations of hundreds of years of experience with different civilizations, man’s common wisdom and religion. They are absolute and must remain so, applicable to any one who is by definition a ‘human’. We need to maintain an absolute scale; otherwise our measurement of values would shift and leave us astray.