Here Comes the Fear

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Please don't panic, but we're in the middle of an emergency.

Actually, we may be (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) at the beginning of the end of an emergency; or more likely the end of the beginning. The point is we don't know - because the state of emergency declared by the British government more than three years ago is indefinite and ongoing.

The fact that the attacks that prompted this happened on an entirely different continent is irrelevant. We are now in the age of the 'war on terror', that ludicrously defined battle against an abstract noun, in which the primary method of mobilising public support - or at least acquiescence - is the production of... well, of terror.

Terror that Algerians are developing ricin with which to poison us all; that a dirty bomb attack is planned for the London Underground; that Old Trafford football stadium and Canary Wharf are next in line.

The lurid headlines have always been followed by little-noticed retractions. The 'ricin' was domestic detergent; the tube was never under threat. The Daily Mail and ITV's 'evidence' of the mooted Canary Wharf attack was the word of a government hack. And the compelling proof that Old Trafford was in the terrorists' sights was the possession of an old Manchester United ticket by a Manchester United fan. Even a City fan wouldn't send them down for that.

And there was the deployment of tanks outside London airports in the run-up to the 15 February 2003 anti-war demonstration. Former home secretary David Blunkett recently claimed that this was done against his wishes, on the initiative of the police. And it is this admission that should set alarm bells ringing.

Because the 'war on terror' has been used to legitimise a swathe of arbitrary and extra-judicial procedures. These include the indefinite detention without trial of foreign nationals at top security prisons in Britain, denied legal advice and the chance to defend themselves. 'The real threat to the life of the nation,' remarked Lord Hoffman as part of a Law Lords' ruling condemning the measures,'... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.'

The barbarous Guantanamo Bay and Bagram detention facilities have not just inspired their abusive conditions of internment but have also provided alleged 'evidence' of detainees' terrorist links. A letter from Moazzam Begg - a Guantanamo internee - suggests how little store we should put in such confessions: 'I was subjected to pernicious threats of torture, actual vindictive torture and death threats - among other coercively employed interrogation techniques... interviews were conducted in an environment of fear, resonant with terrifying screams of fellow detainees facing similar methods.

'In this atmosphere of severe antipathy towards detainees was the compounded use of racially and religiously prejudiced taunts. This culminated, in my opinion, with the deaths of two fellow detainees, at the hands of US military personnel.' The five Britons released from Guantanamo have made similar testimonies of torture and forced confessions during their state-sanctioned kidnappings.

The maxim that what is perpetrated against marginal groups today can be extended tomorrow is being borne out. Anti-terror legislation is now being used to target young Arab and Asian men for stop and search and to justify violent police raids.

The right to demonstrate is also being undermined. On 17 January a trial is due to begin of nine Palestinian Solidarity Campaign supporters. They were arrested under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act for protesting against the sale of bulldozers to Israel outside Caterpillar's financial offices. Their bail conditions ban them from going within 500 metres of the offices. As civil liberties newsletter Statewatch concludes, 'The prosecution argued that had these conditions not been in place the campaigners would be capable of resuming their protests, implying that the act of protesting itself is illegal... [at their trial] the government hopes to successfully establish a precedent for the use of anti-social behaviour legislation in this field.'

We are supposedly all equal under the law - this is the source of its ideological power. In fact the law has always contained a profound bias towards the preservation of wealth and privilege - as the lenient treatment granted to most corporate criminals when compared to petty thieves testifies. But this underlying support for existing institutions has only been credible because it is expressed in a form that, for all the class characteristics of its practitioners, appears autonomous in its legal reasoning.

This credibility is being rapidly undermined in the neoliberal era. The liberal vision of a participative legal system with a jury of your peers - epitomised by the classic film Twelve Angry Men - is deemed troublesome at best. The rhetoric that 'the legal system needs to be balanced in favour of the victim, not the criminal', parroted by Tory and Labour alike, repudiates a basic legal tenet - that the defendant is not viewed as a criminal, but an innocent party unless proved otherwise beyond reasonable doubt. The extension of the use of the 'balance of probabilities' beyond civil disputes and the move to reveal previous convictions (and thus try people on their pasts, not the offence in question) are further examples.

And though burglary rates continue to fall we are told we urgently need to strengthen the law that allows the use of 'reasonable force' against trespassers, which logically means allowing unreasonable force.

Iraqis - who have the right under international law to use force against their own, much more dangerous trespassers - have not found our government so sympathetic. And when the gap between international law and reality becomes as embarrassing as it has over the occupation, we now find the UN compliantly planning to reform itself to consecrate imperial invasions of the future.

New Labour is packed full of lawyers, Tony Blair and former home secretary Jack Straw among them. Secretary of State Patricia Hewitt even wrote a book defending civil liberties called The Abuse of Power once. Perhaps she and her colleagues should be forced to reread it.

But I fear the battle will not be won so easily. They are caught in the vice of imperial carnage and domestic dissent. Their appeal to fear is a sign of desperation. But they can do great damage in their desperation - if we allow them to.