The announcement this week of Britain’s first secret trial, has led to an outcry from various section of the country. The trial to be held entirely in secret for the first time in British history will see two men, known only as AB and CD, have been charged with terrorism; and will go into the dock at the Old Bailey in weeks. Journalists were forbidden from disclosing their identities as well as details of their alleged crimes.
However this assault is now just the latest in a long line of actions whether in Europe or across the Atlantic where values (that were sacrificed for security, we are constantly told) have been abandoned in the face of an ideological struggle. Since 9-11, democracy has slaughtered so many sacred cows, plunged to ever-deeper moral lows and increasingly become what it was, theoretically, supposed to oppose: corrupt paranoid and tyrannical.
Since 9/11 such changes have altered the balance of security vs. liberty, as well as the ideological fabric of a liberal society. The suspension of the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, the separation of powers and the right to be aware of the evidence that is being used to imprison you, are not mere footnotes of political life to be altered at will; they were rather supposed to be the bedrock of Western political tradition.
When Western politicians claim that the greatest civil liberties are the right to life and for the nation to be secure, this in effect relegates other much fought over key values to the political dustbin. If the right to life was really the most important right, nations would never have gone to war to defend fundamental values, risking their sons and daughters in brutal conflicts. If the Second World War was about merely protecting life, then Churchill would have accepted Hitler’s offer to surrender, thus sparing thousands of soldiers the horrors of battle and Britain’s cities from brutal bombing.
The rationale of protecting the nation’s security is the perennial argument used by dictators and tyrants throughout the ages and is used constantly by regimes from Pyongyang to Harare to defend their draconian policies. However these regimes don’t pretend to be something that they are not and nor do they seek to promote their values abroad. It is the active promotion of secular democracy abroad while simultaneously abandoning it at home that is the brazen hypocrisy. In rolling back
Justice at home, the West has lost its moral leadership to preach to countries abroad, seriously undermining the pro-democracy activists abroad it claims to support.
Events since 9/11 are not the first time that Western values have failed the credibility test when faced with stringent pressure. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln, considered by many as the greatest President of the United States, suspended civil law in certain territories and arrogated to the presidency all powers not delegated to him in the constitution. In 1862 he suspended habeas corpus and under military law imprisoned 13,000 members of the ‘Copperhead Democrats’, a group that
opposed the war and who sought a new constitutional convention to frame an amendment to protect states’ rights. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declared Lincoln’s actions unconstitutional. Instead of observing the rule of law, the cornerstone of Western tradition, Lincoln issued an arrest warrant for the 84- year-old Chief Justice.
Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, the Patriot Act, anti-terrorism legislation of all guises, stop and search, internment, torture, sexual humiliation, executive ordered arrests, detention without trial, rendition of suspects to despotic regimes, brutal interrogations and illegal and imperialistic wars are now officially examples of modern day democracy. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are now the Western commitment to Universal Human Rights,
In Britain this government’s Justice and Security Act, passed last year, allows for the extension of secret courts, or “closed material procedures.” Instead of judges, ministers will be given powers over evidence in court. When Margaret Thatcher introduced the Public Order Act in 1986, it was that criminalised words or behavior causing “harassment, alarm or distress” was used against Christian street preachers. When the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was passed, it was used against activists protesting outside US intelligence bases or Oxfordshire villagers protesting about turning a lake into a dump for fly ash.
The revelations by former US CIA agent Edward Snowden about Western surveillance and complete disregard for privacy all have proven, if there was any doubt that these secret trials are really being used to keep dirty state secrets away from victims and the public.