Parallels between UK and US big-brotherism

As we celebrate the 793rd anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta today there are two news items that relate to to habeas corpus, the basic guarantee against arbitrary unlawful imprisonment– one in the UK and the other in the US.

In the UK we see Tory MP David Davis resigning over the Counter-Terrorism Bill that Labor PM Brown rammed through Parliament. This law allows detention for up to 42 days (six weeks) of British citizens without charges being brought and without any habeas corpus hearing being required. Davis noted that this is just the latest step in what he calls the “Big Brother” state and that it went a step too far infringing on the historical freedoms of British citizens. These liberties, he pointed out, can be traced back almost eight hundred years to the Magna Carta, which guaranteed the right of habeas corpus.

What most Americans don’t realize is that David Davis was not just an ordinary backbencher but the Shadow Home Secretary and in a new Tory government would be charged with enforcing the Counter-Terrorism Bill. With the latest polls showing a likely Tory victory at the next electoral opportunity, Davis was faced not only with a law with which he profoundly disagreed but also the looming task of administering that law as the government Minister in charge.

Some of the concerns cited by Davis demonstrate that UK is ahead of the US in the development of Big Brother government, but perhaps not as much as we in the United States would like to think.

“And we will have shortly the most intrusive identity card system in the world. A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens, a DNA database bigger than any dictatorship has, with thousands of innocent children and millions of innocent citizens on it.

“We have witnessed an assault on jury trials, a bolt against bad law and its arbitrary use by the state. And short cuts with our justice system, which will make our system neither firm nor fair and a creation of a database state opening up our private lives to the prying eyes of official snoopers and exposing our personal data to careless civil servants and criminal hackers. The state has security powers to clamp down on peaceful protest and so-called hate laws to stifle legitimate debate, whilst those who incite violence get off scot-free.”

If these measures sound like initiatives that have been either proposed or implemented in the U.S. in the name of fighting the so-called Gliobal War on Terror (GWOT) it is because there’s been some cross-fertilization across the pond.

One of the reasons why the UK may further down the road to big-brotherism is that nation’s experience in Northern Ireland, which has been aptly described as Britain’s oldest colony.

In Northern Ireland, the resistance from the indigenous Catholic population to British rule can be seen as similar in many ways to the resistance by the so-called insurgents in Iraq. Car-bombings, shootings and other acts of violence directed mainly at the civilian population in Northern Ireland led to a strong response from the British government. This British reaction included detention camps where suspected Irish insurgents were rounded up and kept for long periods without trial and without charges being brought.

If this sounds like the situation in Guantanamo and other detention centers currently being operated by the U.S. government, it is because the U.S. military seems to have adopted Northern Ireland as its model for how to respond to insurgency by a local population.

Today McClatchy published a long investigative piece telling the stories of scores of men who were swept up in Afghanistan or Iraq and hauled off to Guantanamo. There they were held for years without any charges being brought. They were subject to torture, beatings and other abuse while in U.S. custody. Eventually they were freed and allowed to continue with their lives.

Their stories are hauntingly like that of Gerry Conlon, who was twenty when he got caught up in the net of the British campaign against IRA violence. In Conlon’s case a trumped-up case and a desire for revenge against Irish IRA pub-bombers led to the trial and imprisonment not only of Gerry Conlon himself but several relatives, including his father, who died in prison. Conlon finally walked free from a British prison at age 34 cleared of all charges. Conlon’s story is told in an autobiographical account of his experiences in British custody entitled In the Name of the Father, which was made into a movie of the same name starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

The pattern is similar for the British in Northern Ireland and for the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. For both the U.S. and the UK the path that leads to lawless detention and/or conviction based on flimsy or non-existent evidence starts with an invading colonial power facing violent resistance from the local population. All members of the local population are suspect. Lacking good intelligence about the perpetrators of the bombings, the invaders round up suspects, often at random. The suspects are put in detention centers without the formality of bringing charges or holding trials and detainees face coercive interrogation, random beatings and degrading conditions.

Some detainees eventually face a travesty of a trial using dubious evidence. In Gerry Conlon’s case he got a trial based on a paid informant’s false evidence. Conlon’s trial and conviction is little better than the proceedings that are now taking place at Guantanamo since the evidence being used is often obtained under torture (aka coercive interrogation techniques.)

There are troubling parallels between the actions of the British government vis-a-vis suspected IRA bombers and the kangaroo courts being conducted by the U.S. military at Guantanamo.

However, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Boumediene v Bush offers some ray of hope that the United States will not proceed as far down the road to big-brotherism as the UK has. The next steps will take place in the lower courts and hopefully will lead to the release of the 200 or so Guantanamo detainees that are affected by this ruling. Then it is to be hoped that the U.S. Congress will hold firm against giving telecoms immunity for unconstitutional eavesdropping without warrant and will not compromise American liberties in the course of revising FISA.

The Boumediene decision can be seen as but a skirmish in the struggle to protect liberty under law. The fight must and will continue.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Book: In the Name of the Father, Boumediene v Bush, British Tories, David Davis resignation, eavesdropping, Gerry Conlon, Guantanamo, habeas corpus, Iraq, Iraq occupation, Military Commissions Act, Movie: In the Name of the Father, Surveillance society, U.S. Constitution, U.S. Supreme Court, UK Parliament, Uncategorized

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