Is the ‘War on Turr’ winnable?

by Stephen Tall on March 6, 2005

Is it possible to be a decent, liberal Home Secretary, a staunch defender of civil liberties, and also protect your country from all possible security threats? Let’s be honest now: probably not.

It’s a conclusion from which too many liberals too often shrink. The public can see our squeamish eyes, wringing hands, and conchie souls struggling to grapple with issues of indefinite detention and house arrest. We endeavour to sound tough, to act firm, to be resolute – but really we’re all dying to say, “Listen up everyone, can’t we just all agree to make nice?”

But, being a liberal, I can also imagine how the land might lie from the other side of the fence I’m straddling. So I ask myself: is it possible to be a rampantly authoritarian Home Secretary, an enemy of anything tolerant and cuddly, and also protect your country from all possible security threats?

Equally clearly, the answer is no.

President George W. Bush himself acknowledged this back in August, 2004, in a pre-recorded television interview. When asked if the USA could win his self-proclaimed ‘War on Turr’, Mr Bush said: “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the – those who use terror as a tool are – less acceptable in parts of the world.” (My, his rhetoric is practically Churchillian. Why the Kerry campaign didn’t replay that clip ad nauseum perhaps helps explain Mr Bush’s 3% margin of victory. It’s not hard to reckon how the ‘flip-flopping’ Senator for Massachusetts would have been crucified by GOP spinners for such a gaffe.) Though the President later ‘clarified’ his remarks – for which read ‘reversed’ – his original statement was the more truthful, an unforgivable error in an election campaign.

We all know Charles Clarke’s own ‘turr’: Madrid Mark II. That a terrorist atrocity committed during the imminent election campaign will lead Britons to repudiate the Government that failed to protect them, and whose shoulder-to-shoulder comradeship with the Republican Neo-Cons has left this country more nakedly exposed to fundamentalist bombing outrages. (Of course, the comparison could not be more unapt: Spanish voters chose to reject a right-wing government that lied to them about Iraq’s WMD, whereas in Britain… )

The last fortnight’s manoeuvres have been an explicitly pre-emptive counter-strike by Mr Clarke against the potency of such a critique. It’s a depressing symptom of our retardedly macho ‘Presidential Politics’ that the Home Secretary should paranoiacly fear being held culpable for murders committed by Al-Qaeda’s kamikaze bombers. But it is an understandable fear, and one which liberals need to address seriously.

And just as it is over-simplistic for authoritarians to claim ends can justify means (that a dozen suspects under lock and key is better than 10,000 being killed by a ‘dirty bomb’) – for that way a police state lies – so is it also missing the point for liberals to cling to Magna Carta as a talisman of immutable human rights (rather than a thirteenth-century monarchical bargain to buy off baronial rebels).

Of course Messrs Blair and Clarke are pleading special circumstances, and of course they are resorting to ‘if you knew what I knew you’d be worried too’ defences of their authoritarian tendencies. But you don’t need to be a right-wing nut job to appreciate the potential scale and impact of terrorist activity today exceeds anything previously known.

We are not talking about an IRA bomb, complete with warning phone calls to alert the police to clear the area, killing a couple of dozen people in a shopping centre. (The IRA – as their recent alleged involvement in the £26m Northern Bank raid illustrated – has long been as much about organised crime funding a way of life, as it has been about fighting for freedom from ‘colonial’ British rule.) No, today’s attacks are about fundamentalists flying planes into skyscrapers, detonating bombs on trains, blowing up nightclubs, and killing hundreds or thousands. Indiscriminate, bloody, random attacks on innocent civilians whose sole offence is to represent the ‘Infidel/American’ way of life. How do you deal with such an unquantifiable, unknowable threat?

I find the Government’s proposals to give the Home Secretary powers of indefinite detention odious. That they have chosen to make this a major plank of the ‘Phoney Election War’ is reprehensible. Every bone in my body aches at the evisceration of civil liberties which Labour appears to revel in, as they squeeze the juice out of ‘turr’ until our liberal pips squeak.

And yet, and yet… As John Rentoul lucidly notes in today’s Independent on Sunday:

‘… this week’s issue comes down to whether the Government should or should not have a reserve power of house arrest without trial. … I envy those who are absolutely sure that such a power can never be justified. … Anyone who says “absolutely not, on principle” had better be on very sure ground. Much surer than most of the opponents of the legislation seem to be so far.’

This is our ‘Hobson’s Choice’:

  • accept that there will always be those who seek to bring down governments and ways of life alien to their own, and that some will engage in ruthless slaughter to further their aims; recognise that democratic governments cannot protect us absolutely from such threats; and that our individual liberties should be firewalled even if this means some terrorists having greater freedom to ply their execrable trade.
  • accept that, though the ‘War on Turr’ may be unwinnable, it is a fight in which we must be pro-active to defend our society’s rights; recognise that we look to our government to protect us from such threats, and that we hold them accountable for their success or failure in doing so; and that we will, therefore, accept some erosion of our individual liberties in order to safeguard the greater public good.
  • My view? They’re both right, they’re both wrong. See, I’m a typical bloody liberal. Now run along and play nice.