Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bring out the gimp

There were two extraordinary examples of British justice this week – both involving Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

The first concerned computer hacker Gary McKinnon, whose fate has seemingly been sealed by the government’s granting of extradition to the United States. He faces a potential 60-70 years in prison (estimates vary) if convicted by an American court. The claims that this punishment was disproportionate, that he was simply being made a whipping boy by a humiliated US government and that he should be tried in the UK – partly because he also suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome – fell on deaf ears at the Home Office, who seemingly are under a different kind of lash.

Alan Johnson has claimed that he had no choice but to grant extradition based on the legal advice he was given, and that he in fact had no power to prevent it. Several senior lawyers have since stated that this is not the case. When the Daily Mail requested to see that legal advice for themselves – as they are entitled to do under the freedom of information act – their request was blocked, sparking speculation that it directly contradicted Mr Johnson’s claims. Yesterday (Wednesday 9 September 2009) a cross-party group of MPs campaigning for McKinnon’s right to be tried in the UK, including David Davis, Chris Huhne and Michael Meacher, put their case to the Home Secretary. Johnson did not budge.

We cannot call Mr Johnson a liar without evidence, of course. But one cannot help but wonder why he would withhold evidence that supports his decision and demonstrates his honesty. If those senior lawyers are correct and he is able to prevent extradition but unwilling to do so, then we must ask ourselves why. Why would he mislead us, and whose interests would he be serving?

For some reason, this reminded me of a something I overheard in a recently gentrified seaside town that I visited not long ago. It was in an overpriced antique-cum-gift shop – the type that features stripped pine chests and sculptures made of driftwood with rusty nail banged in. As we were shuffling round, looking at things we were never going to buy, the shop’s proprietor was having a telephone conversation with a customer about a set of antique chairs. The scenario soon became clear: the customer on the phone had recently seen the chairs and asked for them to be reserved, but in the meantime another – who was standing by her desk expectantly, and rather uncomfortably – had come and offered more money. The proprietor was now trying to explain to the original customer why she ‘had’ to let the chairs go. ‘My hands are tied’ she said, apologetically, as she explained why the assurance she had previously given them was now worthless. Of course, her hands weren’t tied – at least, not in the sense of her having no say in the matter. As proprietor of the shop she could do whatever she liked, selling or not selling to whoever she pleased. She had simply been offered more money, and had dropped her original customer like a stone. If her hands were tied, then it was consensual bondage – for which she was being paid.

The truth of the situation was not lost on those in attendance. As we caught the eye of another browsing customer, he muttered under his breath ‘Bitch!’

The question is, whose bitch is Mr Johnson?

The second incident this week was the conviction of three men who had plotted to destroy commercial airliners with makeshift bombs, potentially killing hundreds of innocent travellers.

Given the rarity of such clear-cut moments of triumph for this government – and for Mr Johnson – one might expect the opportunity to have elicited a defiant, Churchillian response emphasising the hopelessness of the terrorists’ ambitions. Something that boosted the morale of the public, affirming that life goes on as usual in spite of the plots of a small number of malcontents, that we will not be defeated or downcast, that our police will inevitably foil them and that their efforts to intimidate us are futile.

So what did we actually get? While he did state that the police, security services and CPS had done an excellent job, he chose to begin his statement by saying: ‘This case reaffirms that we face a real and serious threat from terrorism’.

It may seem a subtle point of language, but significant events can hinge on such subtleties – what we are told, and the way in which we are told it (or, in the case of Gary McKinnon, what we are not told). Mr Johnson’s message could have been a positive one – instead it was telling us not merely to remain vigilant, but to remain afraid. Later, he even referred to the ‘complex and daring plot’. (Are we actually admiring terrorists now?)

Why on earth would Alan Johnson, our own Home Secretary, the man responsible for our security, wish us to be afraid? This, surely, is exactly what the terrorists want – for us to be too terrified to go about our normal business; to accept harsh measures that restrict our freedom and undermine our society. But what does our government want? To perpetuate fear via a phoney war, in order to make society more malleable, more accepting of controlling measures that would normally seem unacceptable, as in Orwell’s 1984? To have us stop questioning anything, including the extradition – or rendition – of UK subjects to the United States?

The Paperback Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as: ‘A person who uses violence and intimidation in an attempt to achieve political aims’. If our government is indeed using intimidation to achieve political aims, then that not only puts them in league with terrorists – it makes them terrorists.

But this is all rather extreme, isn’t it? Surely, the idea that our own government would intimidate us, that it has an interest in us remaining afraid, that it would deliberately mislead us in order to achieve political aims, is preposterous?

‘Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked... He is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also.’
Tony Blair, 10 April 2002, House of Commons

‘It [the intelligence service] concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population; and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability...’
Tony Blair, 24 September 2002, House of Commons

The question is, whose bitch are we?

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