Friday, October 21, 2005

Rhetoric vs Debate: A Truly Public Strategy

Richard Veryard looks at the information sharing aspects of the MI5 statement on the sources of information as reported by Channel 4 News. The original PDF is here, and the BBC have a report following it up, too.

The context is that, as the BBC put it, the Law Lords "are examining whether the UK government should have to check whether intelligence it uses has been obtained by torture." The document is the statement by MI5 chief Dame Manningham-Buller with respect to this, and I suggest taking a look at Richard's summary linked to above for a good account of what it contains. Lord Falconer also had some stuff to say on this a few weeks ago.

There are naturally many facets to this - the balance between revealing information and revealing sources, as Richard points out, and the ethical legitimacy of information-obtained-under-duress, which is what the Law Lords are looking at. As such, I'm not going to harp on about what decision the Lords should come to. I'm sure they have more time to look into it than me.

Instead, I'm merely going to draw some parallels amongst the arguments being raised here and the state that we find ourselves in, in order to bring attention to the rhetoric used and hopefully raise some interesting questions to answer later. In some ways, this is part of the remit of the Lords, but in others it considers broader implications that they probably aren't touching on.

There are 2 main reasons put forth by Dame Manningham-Buller in favour of not worrying about the source of information, even when it is "apparent to the Agencies that the intelligence has been obtained from individuals in detention". That is, when there is reasonable suspicion of the involvement of torture. Compare this to the "trend" in anti-terrorist legislation to define 'knowledge, belief or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing' (or, indeed, intent of wrongdoing) as being the tipping point for a third party being implicated in the guilt as well. Should we, as public, not also have the ability to make decisions based on our suspicions? Apparently not. Anyway, to those arguments...

Life, Liberty, Happiness

The first is that "where the reporting is threat-related, the desire for context will usually be subservient to the need to take action to establish the facts, in order to protect life." (My emphasis.) This is a line we see consistently repeated - indeed it may well be the line to take, established as it has been by the PM himself on various occasions:

" can I responsibly refuse to something that will actually protect ... the most basic civil liberty which is the right to life?"

This is certainly something that needs looking at, and thinking further about, for it's clearly a sentiment designed to invoke strong emotion, polarise people's instincts, and segragate those who argue against "life". In this sense, then, the statement mirrored by both parties can be seen as a form of "non-national" patriotism, and only barbarians would argue otherwise. The difference between the two, of course, is that the role of MI5 does not extend to casting judgement over a whole nation. The important thing to remember, though, is that Mr Blair continues to prove that he is in the arms - mutually, of course - of the Police and of the Intelligence services. This can probably be traced back to the fact that populations do tend to quite like a feeling of security. (Whether they actually get given such a feeling is another matter.) Anyway, this is a powerful argument - but powerful arguments are often used to justify a large array of otherwise-questionable practices.

The question that we, as the beneficiaries of Blair and Co.'s altruistic powers, should be asking to both Whitehall and ourselves is: How far will we go to defend ourselves? Unless we are able to at least say that we do have some limit - whether it be personally and individually, or on a social basis as a whole - then we face an ever-increasing slide into becoming a nation that is willing to do anything so long as we sets out, at some point along its journey, to preserve our own life. The fact that this may involve killing members of our own population, or any other such "side-effect", becomes less and less important under this banner, and eventually a SAD (Self-Attained Destruction) State results. This is very much the direction we are headed in.

In other words, this is not as black-and-white as the politicians, the intelligence agencies and the afraid public would like it to be. The practice of using preservation of life is a dangerous justification if not backed up by concern, debate, accountability and a desire to determine what ill effects such a policy is having. Unless we have all these, and an attitude that takes human rights seriously in the face of "attack", then we leave ourselves wide open for many, many miscarriages of justice to go by completely unnoticed and unrecorded. This is a heavy burden to bear, no matter what their argument.

Diplomatic Doublethink

The second argument for ignoring suspicion of the use of torture is the "importance of co-operation between States in countering the threat from international terrorism." Furthermore, "...material [shared under this] ... includes detainee reporting which has proved to be very valuable in disrupting terrorist activity." (Note here that of the 2 cases presented in the statement, 1 - the latter - clearly starts off by demonstrating just how wrong and misleading "vidence" obtained under duress can be.)

As with the sacrifice of liberty in the name of life, above, here we again see the ceremonial parading of a "worthy goal" to undermine efforts for justice elsewhere. Again, this argument is parroted by Tony B, as he sweeps aside one wrong in order to justify another. Perhaps on this front he's been carefully learning from tactics used all over the world - for instance, per the US support for Uzbekistan.

The point here is again not to argue against the (perhaps laudable) aim undertaken by our leaders, but to highlight the balance that is often lost when one becomes fixated on a particular target. The image of a plate-spinner, juggling a dozen ceramic dishes on poles comes to mind - by tending to one potential disaster, eleven others are lining up, ready to bring destruction. The difference between the analogy and reality, though, is that our government have settled into a mode of thought in which only the one plate matters, and it is thought that it will be fine to leave the others until we have got this single, lone dish perfectly balanced, spinning forever. I hear a lot of crashing going on.

So this reveals the hypocrisy inherent in a single-focus campaign against a vague entity such as "terror". The wool to have been pulled over our eyes is to have defined "terrorism" as the evil in the world - to create the illusion that, because it can happen to us, all other injustice is of a secondary nature to this central threat to world peace. Perhaps ex-dictators can mock the Western-induced court process because they are aware of just how hypocritical this campaign is - many years of meting out injustice, and having it acknowledged - and let slide - put a very different perspective on world affairs to that presented by the spin machine.

Moreso, it is our lack of courage in admitting our international tensions that is the most telling. To uphold the image of saintliness, and to admit the realities only internally, behind the scenes, is even more damaging than acknowledging the state of global affairs as it really is. And, I feel, it is this that most disappoints the British public, and discourages them from caring, or from even questioning. The human mind is relatively good at knowing when it's being lied to. All it needs to do now is to express this in real terms.

I would like to think that the result of this is not that we should be asking tough questions of the Cabinet, or of our MPs, but that we should in fact be asking tough questions of - and demanding tough answers from - ourselves. Despite ten-a-penny authoritarian claims, public opinion is still the deciding factor in the fate of many policies. And as such, public debate and public consciousness need to be a driving framework in what kind of nation will we be in 5 or 10 years. By demonstrating that we have a grip on these subjects, as well as an opinion, the ears of those who currently feel that they have the run of the house may just be opened a little.

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