Wednesday, 5 August 2009

McKinnon, MacShane and the shame of it all

Some people are an inspiration. They make you proud to be a part of the community to which you belong, whether it be a neighbourhood, social group or nation. A few go further still, making you feel glad to be human. Their achievements dispel cynicism and instead fill you with hope for the future of us all – because if a determined individual can achieve such things as they have, what, you begin to wonder, might we achieve together?

Denis MacShane is not one of these people.

You may never to have heard of him. But I think it’s important that you do.

Labour MP for Rotherham and a former journalist, MacShane was Minister for Europe 2002-2005 and is author of the book Globalising Hatred: the New Anti-Semitism. The independent website reveals that he voted strongly for student top-up fees and Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, and very strongly for ID cards, foundation hospitals, and the war in Iraq. He also voted moderately against a transparent parliament, and very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.

If you’ve heard of him recently, however, it’s very likely in connection with the case of Gary McKinnon, whose final appeal against extradition was rejected on 31 July 2009. In short, MacShane is one of those we can thank for protecting our freedom by helping to ensure that such a dangerous individual now faces a potential lifetime in a US prison.

McKinnon, you will recall, was the amateur British computer hacker who regularly broke into Pentagon and NASA computers over several years, apparently searching for evidence that the truth about captured extraterrestrial technology was being kept from the public. Inevitably, perhaps, he was caught.

The whole case revealed some of the very real dangers lurking unregarded right beneath our noses – but not, perhaps, in the way you might think.

Clearly embarrassed and angered over the woefully inadequate levels of computer security that McKinnon’s case had revealed (McKinnon didn’t even ‘hack’, he simply found machines that hadn’t had their passwords set and logged in) – and, perhaps, nervous at what he may have seen on his virtual travels – the US government invoked recent fast-track extradition laws so they could deal with him under their own legal system.

These laws – the result of the UK government’s 2003 Extradition Act and, more specifically, the US-UK Extradition Treaty – were intended for suspected terrorists post 9/11. But the UK and US are not entirely equal partners in this deal. As the BBC website explains, to extradite an American from the US, Britain must prove ‘probable cause’, while the US need only prove ‘reasonable suspicion’ for extradition of a British citizen. In other words, there is no requirement on the part of the US to present prima facie evidence – while British authorities still have the burden of proof. According to the BBC, since 2004 US courts have granted about 70% of UK extradition requests, while nearly 90% of US requests have been granted. (Don’t blame the US for this, by the way; it’s a situation our own government – the government that is supposed to protect us – put us in.)

This is not the only disparity. McKinnon’s sentence, were he to face prosecution in the UK, has been estimated at 1-2 years. In the US he faces up to 70 years in prison if found guilty. This is a man who has no connection with any act of terror, who revealed no military secrets, and who claimed to have done no damage (the US authorities dispute this – though it's worth mentioning that a minimum of $5,000 damage is required for the extradition request to stand). He was also diagnosed a year ago as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition within the autism spectrum, which typically involves a lack of empathy in the sufferer and can lead to limited awareness of the consequences of one's actions.

And this is where MacShane re-enters the story.

In response to the obvious inequities, Tory MPs recently spearheaded a Commons debate calling for an urgent review of the treaty. Despite the serious concerns raised, the proposal was defeated. Denis MacShane was one of those who spoke out firmly in support of the government, of extradition and of the treaty. One of the ways he chose to do this, however, was telling. Speaking of McKinnon, he said:

‘I was slightly alarmed when I heard that the gentleman—who is not mentioned in the motion but about whom we are talking and the Daily Mail is campaigning—was diagnosed with his distressing condition only last year. One gets a slight hint of the famous Ernest Saunders defence: he said that he was suffering from Alzheimer's to get off a criminal prosecution, but the moment that he was out of court, he somehow skipped off and his memory came back with marvellous vigour.’

In the heat of debate, these comments went almost unnoticed, with only Dominic Grieve picking up on them as ‘cheap and revolting statements’. But no doubt it helped to sow seeds of doubt among those about to vote.

For anyone to imply, based on no evidence whatsoever, that an individual is a liar and a fraud is indeed a ‘cheap and revolting’ act. To use innuendo to suggest that the life and liberty of a vulnerable, threatened individual are somehow irrelevant, worse still. But to do it whilst seeming to stand for the rights of individuals to be treated fairly under the law, as a representative of the people whose rights you are sworn to uphold, is the very worst thing of all. It is shameful. But perhaps it does at least help to explain MacShane’s apparent support for extradition without evidence.

It’s an old politician’s trick, of course, to undermine the individual rather than their arguments, and it isn’t the only time MacShane has used the tactic. He also recently caused a minor furore on The Guardian website when his piece on the European elections suggested that Norman Tebbit was supporting the BNP by advising voters to go against the main parties in the European elections – even though Tebbit himself had specifically advised against voting BNP (on the grounds that it was ‘Labour with racism’) and had suggested, amongst others, voting for the Green Party. Of course, the whole idea neatly fitted the thesis of MacShane’s new book – that fascism is again on the rise – whilst simultaneously, by sleight of hand, casting an old political adversary in the role of chief racist. Those posting on the site immediately saw through it. But once again the seeds of doubt – or perhaps one should say paranoia – had been sown among those about to vote.

Racism is clearly a key issue for MacShane. How odd, then, that he should be so dismissive of McKinnon based on preconceived ideas, rather than established fact. Isn’t this the very basis of racism, and a thousand other shades of bigotry? What is worse is that he should get away with it in open debate in the House of Commons – the heart (or, at least, conscience – such as it is) of our democratically elected government. Can we put this down to ignorance? Or arrogance? Neither would have served as any kind of defence for McKinnon – but if I had the power to choose who, between McKinnon and Macshane, was causing more costly damage to this country, it wouldn’t be McKinnon packing his bags.

Denis Macshane is just one man, of course – merely a symptom, perhaps, of a greater malaise. But they do work for us. More than that, they represent us. So, is this how we wish to be represented? If not, it falls to us to shout – and I do mean shout – every time such a sour note is struck. I sincerely doubt such people will be easily shamed into silence or apology, but the more it is allowed, the more it becomes the accepted norm. Only when we lose that ability to feel shame ourselves are we truly lost. Do not ignore it. Do not accept it.

And, since personal attacks are all the rage, let me add my own – based on fact, this time. A few years ago, I interviewed Denis MacShane in his capacity as Minister for Europe, which he then was, on the current state of European cinema. He gave some general views on the subject, then, when the interview was over and the tape switched off, the conversation turned to the hot topic of subtitling v dubbing. He expressed a strong preference for subtitling, then added, by way of justification: 'After all, if I'm watching Olivier's Henry V, I don't want to hear some frog reciting Shakespeare...' (his emphasis).

This was the voice of a campaigner against racism, and the UK’s representative in Europe. Our representative. Your representative. I believe what this truly represents is a new kind of hypocrisy in government – one grown so arrogant, it no longer even bothers to hide.

Why should it? This is a government that attacks all prejudices but its own, that watches and suspects its people instead of standing up for them, that sells them out for the sake of an ill-defined ‘special relationship’ and lies to them to expedite a war – that ultimately makes us ashamed to belong to the nation and the people that they supposedly represent. That is a crime far in excess, far more deeply damaging, than anything perpetrated by Gary McKinnon.

McKinnon now faces extradition and up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all charges by a US court. He is supposed to have done ‘damage’ to US government computer systems. But what might that damage have been, had he been truly malicious – a member of a terrorist group, for example, rather than a UFO fanatic with Asperger’s? And had this resulted in wholesale destruction and loss of life – as, in other hands, it clearly could – what then would have been a proportionally harsher penalty than 70 years? A thousand? A million?

The obvious answer, at least to some, is ‘death’. Yet – and this is the cruellest irony of all – the UK maintains a stance of refusing extradition in cases where the individual may face the death penalty. In other words, McKinnon’s crime was not harsh enough to avoid extradition; had he brought about mass murder, he would not have been sent to the United States, because we deem the death penalty unfair and unacceptable. As David Blunkett said when the treaty and laws were being drawn up: ‘I don't believe in the death penalty. I don't believe we should have any truck with it.’ So, we trust the US judicial system – except when we don’t.

In reality, the Pentagon should be thanking their lucky stars that the end result was mere embarrassment – and thanking McKinnon for highlighting their potentially disastrous shortcomings. In a further irony, it was the 1980s US movie movie Wargames – in which a kid hacks into military computers and nearly triggers a nuclear war – that inspired McKinnon to go hacking in the first place. At the end of that film, the kid averts disaster and is hailed as a hero (in the original script, he’s even offered a job at NORAD). Such an outcome seems unlikely for McKinnon. Yet this is a message sent by the society that is now set to crucify him.

Double standards seem to be the running theme in this story. Although less likely to grab headlines, such mean hypocrisies perpetrated by governments day after day do far more harm than McKinnon ever did. It’s Orwellian doublethink, blinding us to the contradictions – to the very idea of contradiction. Blinding us, in fact, to the difference between right and wrong, and disconnecting us from our own sense of shame. Where we can, while we can, it’s time we identified those doing the real damage, and installed something better.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An excellent article.
Of course there is no shaming MacShane - he is a politician. Once that position in society was due great respect, for me the likes of Michael Foot, a man committed to using his great intelligence for the public good. They broke the mould years ago.
No matter how deranged Thatcher was, at least she seemed to believe in something. MacShane is a man committed to political expedience, no matter the real human cost.
Crikey, comparing a 'Labour' politician unfavourably with Thatcher - that's how far they've sunk.