Notes for Michael

Congratulations, dear brother of mine, on your recent ‘swearing in’ as a Police Constable. You are now officially an agent of the state, and we have given you power over us so you may act as our protector, an enforcer of our laws.

It is natural that you will wish to do the job with which you have been tasked in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Without doubt, it is this noble sentiment that has led some of your colleagues to call for more powers: To detain suspects for longer without charge; and to retain our DNA on a database. It must be frustrating when we prevaricate over such requests.

Remember that there are two kinds of freedom that we strive for. The first of these is freedom from the harrassment of other individuals. By enforcing laws and catching crimminals, you are ideally placed to offer protection against the people who would do me harm and steal my laptop. However, we also require freedom from harassment from the machinery of state, a machinery of which you are now a part. It is therefore much more difficult for you to protect us against this threat, and you may only be able to do so through inaction, rather than the more proactive approach that you will be trained in.

In the week that you take up your duties, you might find it offensive for me to talk about state harassment and abuse of powers. Please remember that when we make laws, set bench-marks and draw moral lines on the pavement, we must do so for all time, and all situations, for all citizens. I know I can trust you, and I hope I can trust the men and women you will be working with next week. But we already know that not all those who join your service are worthy of that trust… and to trust all politicians would be foolhardy!

Read Matthew Parris on ID Cards:

I just don’t want to give government — any government — that much control … I oppose them because evasion, deceit, even crime, and the irregular organisation of one’s own affairs, are part of a citizen’s weaponry of last resort against State oppression. They are weapons I may never need, but I need to know they are there.

Read David Eastman on Anonymity:

Its when computers talk to other computers that liberty disappears. Because a computer can correlate countless bits of data and create new records that would take many humans exponentially longer to do. And that gap, or grace period, is actually where anonymity lies, or did.

… or, for that matter, on civil liberties:

The outgoing Mr Blair bemoans how hard it is for the authorities to fight terrorism and maintain civil liberties. That to me seems a reasonable balance. Terrorism and road accidents are comparable; they are bad and sometimes preventable, but are a result of modern urban life.

Civil liberties on the other hand are the glue that allows trust between those who govern and everybody else. Without that trust, modern life is impossible. There is little point in being protected from one set of arbitrary beliefs only to be subject to another.

I’m afraid the obstacles we place in your way, and the high-standards of proof we set, are all necessary. Yes – it is a problem that the two types of freedom, the two types of protection, are often antagonistic. It is a paradox that giving you more powers to protect us in one way, will actually end up harming us in another. It is a paradox that your occasional failures might demonstrate the success of our system. In striking the balance between the two, we are in effect asking you to do a job, and then willfully hampering you in your efforts! Its a devil of a task… which is precisely why we respect you for taking on the challenge.

Religious Belief and the Age of Consent

You may recall a case from a few weeks ago, in which a girl named Lydia Playfoot took her school to the High Court. The school had not allowed her to wear a chastity ring, which she argued was a representation of her religion. Over at the Ministry of Truth, the prolific Unity has pointed out that the girl’s father, and the people who assisted in her Human Rights claim, also run the UK franchise of the Silver Ring Thing (via DK). The court case doubles as a fantastic publicity campaign for the chastity course, which makes money selling the rings and merchandise to those who take the pledge.

This revelation chimes in with the unease many people felt over the Playfoot case, as with the Shabina Begum case two years ago. The idea persists that Lydia was “put up to it” by her father, just as the influence of the hard-line Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir was cited in the Begum case. Personally, I don’t think such “influence” captures the full story in either case – both Lydia Playfoot and Shabina Begum clearly hold strong beliefs and do not seem to be anyone’s puppet.

Nevertheless, I think both cases grate on the consciousness for the same reason, which is that the symbols (ring and Jilbab) evoke a religious imposition of chastity. This in turn is linked to ideas of male ownership of women, and the use of religion to impose control over women. As Mark Morford writes in his discussion of ‘Purity Balls’, this is a distasteful concept in itself, but also one that leads to a “wanton sexual stupidity” that is dangerous and miserable (via Tygerland).

This concern was not the basis on which both Playfoot and Begum eventually lost their cases. Instead, the cases centred around how the expression of their faith impacted on other people. The rights and wrongs of their personal convictions were not questioned, nor was the sincerity of their convictions. Perhaps they should…

Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish has been running a discussion on the genital mutilation of children for religious reasons. While FGM is obviously much worse, Sullivan points out that MGM is still a ‘scarring’ to which the child cannot possibly consent. ‘Consent’ is an interesting word here, since it unites sex and religion once more.

Many countries around the world, including the UK, have an Age of Consent law. By stipulating the age at which one can legally be said to have given consent to sexual relations, it effectively says that children under that age are not capable of making such an important decision for themselves. However, I do not believe such laws exist for the adoption of a religion. This is in many ways odd. Choosing a faith (or none) is arguably a more important decision for a person, than whether to have sex or not. Most religious people cite their faith as the most important thing about them. They would surely be the first to agree that it outweighs the very human choice over whether to indulge in intercourse or not on any given evening.

Its a conundrum for the religionists, who are happy to use the language of choice, responsibility and rights when it comes to promoting their faith, yet deny similar choices can exist for sex and sexuality. I say that if a fourteen year old is old enough to make a decision about their God, then they are also ready to make a decision about sex! Alternatively, if a fourteen year old cannot make a responsible decision about sex, then they cannot possibly make a responsible decision about God. Note how children like Lydia Playfoot are only deemed capbable of making a responsible choice when they choose chastity. In that case, is it any kind of choice at all? Should it be respected in human rights law?

My suggestion is to broaden the definition of the ‘Age of Consent’ to include a consent to religion too. By this rationale, children could still, of course, wear religious symbols in school… but below the age of consent, they would not be deemed, in a legal context, to have chosen to wear those things for themselves. Rather, they have been dressed by their parents. If religionists wish to assimilate young members into their Church, and use their ‘choices’ as the basis of a campaign… then they have to allow those young members the choice to have sex too. Alternatively, if they cannot stomach such a permissive idea, then the religious choices of school-children can no longer be the basis of a Rights campaign in the courts.

Either way, The ‘Age of Consent’ will remain a law designed to protect youngsters from the predatory influence of adults.

Taking Liberties

I’ve just been to see Taking Liberties, The Movie (featuring, among others, Rachel North). The Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh now has Wifi, and since I’m One Of Those Guys With a Mac who carries his laptop everywhere like its a sixth limb, I’m able to provide a still-fresh-in-my-mind response.

The film focuses on the culpability of Tony Blair and his administration, in their ironic response to the post 9/11 terrorist threat, that is, the curbing of civil liberties in order to ‘protect’ our freedom. The myriad ways in which this has occurred has been well chronicled online. Indeed, I have asked before (can’t find the link at present) whether the popularity in blogging is linked in some fashion to the frustration at such incursions.

As we saw the slighty desaturated footage from protesters who had filmed the police, and from the police who had filmed the protesters, I found it very difficult not to consider the role of the ordinary policeman, and hard not to feel sorry for him. They are faced with the unenviable task of implementing the ill-considered laws that are handed down by governments. In one-heart breaking scene outside the Menwith Hill facility in Yorkshire, a young and amicable officer finds himself slipping into the illiberal misuse of the Terrorism Act. He is, of course, only following orders (mein Herr), only doing his job, sir, and the film-makers make him look faintly ridiculous – a lackey, a patsy, an automaton. In a similar scene, a couple of fresh young police-constables recieve similar treatment, when they are forced to hand out leaflets warning of the illegality of a protest on Parliament Square.

In a sense, these boys in blue are as much a victim as the protesters who we see suffer harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention. Because in most case, it is not that the ordinary policeman is going beyond the law, or that he is involved in any kind of ideological collusion with a would-be oppressor (although that charge is levelled against some officers in Brighton). It is that the laws are framed in such a way as to invite ridiculous, counter-productive outcomes. Campaigners such as Mark Thomas have become very proficient at designing their protest in such a way as to provoke these outcomes.

Rachel, from North London

Ghost Prisoners Named

A group of Human Rights organisations, led by Amnesty International, have published a list of 39 ‘ghost prisoners’ that have been detained by the US Government as part of its War On Terror.

The US has the duty to detain and bring to justice anyone responsible for crimes but it must do so in a manner that respects human rights and the rule of law.

A few months ago, I saw Clive Stafford-Smith from Reprieve talk very eloquently about this issue. You can read my account here.

Instant ASBOs

It seems a couple of rather illiberal policies seem to have found their way into the Scottish Labour Party campaign.

The first, which is part of the manifesto, is to “retain the DNA samples of all crime suspects“.

A common argument from civil liberties campaigners is that such a policy effectively makes people into permenant crimminal suspects. However, I am not so sure that this would blight your outlook, in the same way that young ‘hoodies’ become demoralised by the feeling that they are always under suspicion. Or does the hidden nature of the suspicion make it more sinister? Either way, more worrying is the possibility that the DNA database could be comprimised: either accidentally, in which case a ‘false positive’ result could convict an innocent person of a crime they did not commit; or on purpose, with a person being framed for monetary or political gain.

One reason why our laws have been structured as they are, is to protect innocent people from mistakes, maladministration and malign intent. The careful procedures for the collection (and then destruction) of bodily fluids and DNA samples are in place precisely so that the chain of evidence remains intact, and therefore beyond question. Weakening this chain weakens the justice system.

The second policy is the Instant ASBO:

Scottish Labour this week revealed plans to create new ‘instant ASBOs’ to allow the police to take immediate action against the small minority who disrespect and undermine our communities, without having to go through the normal court process. The tough new measure will be available to use by new community policing teams and will stay in place until the offender can convince a court that they have changed and will not offend again.

This is a 180 degree reversal of the “innocent until proven guilty” principle. It is true that methods for establishing law and order could be made more efficient, but eliminating the very principles of law upon which our system is founded is the wrong solution to the problem. Its like being asked to solve a mathematical equation, and simply changing the answer to fit your workings out.

Laws with integrity, which everyone perceives to be fair and just, form bonds that keep communities together. What is so tragic about these proposals is that they will undoubtedly be subjected to their first test in those poor and ethnic minority and communities that (the politicians keep telling us) need a little more social cohesion. The first instant ASBO will not be issued on the red granite streets of leafy Newington, but on the grey concrete schemes of Sighthill. These policies will experience their first malfunction among the under-privileged youths that Labour is so eager to help. They will breed indignation and a sense of injustice long before anyone feels safe, free, or empowered.


Its nice to see a spike in my stats last week, half due to a link from the Guardian website, and half due to a few very welcome pointers from other blogs. In honour of that, here’s an extra nugget from the Clive Stafford-Smith lecture, which I didn’t work into Thursday’s report:

Apparently, it is a British company, Hiatt Corporation of Birmingham, which manufactures the leg-irons used at Guantànamo Bay. The same company used to make shackles for slaves (the front page of the Hiatt website proudly delcares that the company’s first slogan was Prisoners Handcuffs to the Trade). This was back in the days when men and women and children were taken by force from their homeland by foreign colonial powers, with the active compliance of their neighbours, transported to a foreign country, and detained indefinitely. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen any more, eh?

More information on Hiatt can be found via Indymedia Birmingham.

Hiatt handcuffs

Ghost Prisoners at Guantànamo

Racism in the Big Brother house is of course important. It is admirable that 20,000 people have complained about the alleged bullying, that the Indian Government has expressed concern, and that Labour MP Keith Vaz has raised the issue in the House of Commons. We can only hope that the £300,000 appearance fee Shilpa Shetty has received goes some way to cushioning the hard times she has endured.

Big Brother is an illusion. The contestants could click their fingers, and the nightmare will end. This is not so for the housemates at Guantànamo Bay, who wake each morning to a genuine Orwellian nightmare. They have no plush chairs in the diary room in which to relax. Their only solace is the blissful ignorance of sleep, or a final release through suicide.

“It is not ‘suicide’ anymore,” says Clive Stafford-Smith. “It is called ‘manipulative injurious behaviour’ now. That way, the politicians and military men can claim that there are no suicide attempts at Guantanamo.”

Stafford-Smith is speaking at the offices of Clifford Chance at Canary Wharf, on behalf of the Mary Ward Legal Centre. The title of his talk is Secret Prisons and Ghost Prisoners, about the 14,000 people detained without lawyers or a trial in the name of the ‘War on Terror’. There is apparently a certain chauvinism in the military, and it is assumed that women are not militant. Stafford-Smith only knows of three female detainees, but there may be more. Most of those imprisoned remain unidentified, beyond the reach of the media, legal aid, and the rule of law. Guantànamo is the tip of a sinister iceberg.
Continue reading “Ghost Prisoners at Guantànamo”

Free Alaa – Egyptian blogger detained

While MK posts on the benefits of the small-web (more on that another time), we find a good example of the ‘large web’ we have all come to know. Demoblogger posts G-B4A as a Test Case in Web 2.0 Activism, highlighting the 21st century methods being employed to hasten the release of Alaa Abd El-Fatah, who has been imprisoned for his part in a peaceful, pro-democracy protest.

The web can raise awareness of these issues, but we must still focus on more traditional channels in order to effect change in this particular issue. Pickled Politics suggests that Google-bombing might not be successful, and in any case should not be an end itself.

[The] free-Alaa campaign needs to become more prominent with mentions in the national papers. But surprise surprise the press has largely ignored the story … My suggestion is: organise or join a demonstration outside the Egyptian embassy or send emails to your newspaper or broadcaster of choice and ask why haven’t they yet written about this story.

Or, of course, can allow you to make your MP aware of the issue. The new Foreign Secretary might be prompted to take up the issue of free speech with the Egyptian government.