Message From the UK
George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law at the end of October. The acronym stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.
But will it unite and strengthen? Intercept and obstruct? Have any impact on terrorism? The recent news from Northern Ireland held some clues to those and other questions, but D.C. lawmakers played deaf.
Just four days before Bush put pen to paper to sign a most Draconian anti-terror law, the Irish Republican Army announced it had begun to get rid of its weapons. In response to the IRA move, British forces began tearing down the hilltop forts that for years have spied on Catholic communities in the name of stopping terror. Was the breakthrough in Ireland the result of get-tough legislation? The pay off for years of civil liberties "sacrifice?" Britain, in particular Northern Ireland, has had plenty of experience of both of those.
Occupation, Special Powers, Emergency Provisions, the Prevention of Terrorism Act; internment without trial, mass surveillance, search and seizure; denial of the right to travel, to privacy, a broadcast ban; arrest on suspicion, conviction by "supergrass" or forced confession, juryless Diplock courts, an always-denied British forces policy of "shoot to kill"...UK history is rich in tools to "intercept and obstruct" terrorism. Their effect? Almost without exception, in the British experience, emergency legislation "to defend democracy" only served to undermine people's rights.
To take one example, consider the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act. Passed in the wake of two IRA bomb blasts in Birmingham, England, the PTA was rushed through Parliament within 48 hours by a Labor government. Originally supposed to have lasted for six months, sixteen years later it was still in place and was only abolished by the introduction of the equally draconian Terrorism Act of 2000.
Did it intercept and obstruct? According to Home Office statistics, 97 percent of those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act between 1974 and 1988 were released without charge. Only 1 percent were convicted and imprisoned.
Anti-terror law was used instead as an information-gathering exercise for the British security forces, a tool to intimidate dissent, to criminalize political activity. Demonized Irish people were only the first victims. Soon enough, the same laws were used against members of the British Black Power movement, and those engaged in the struggle against police brutality or for immigrants' rights.
In the 1980s, working class white families found themselves on the receiving end of the same police tactics that had been honed in the "war on terror" in Ireland when hordes of London cops and MI5 intelligence operatives invaded rural coal mining communities and infiltrated the labor unions during the decisive miners' strike in 1984. "I'm seeing another side of the story now," one miner's wife told a reporter then. But she was seeing it far too late.
Did get-tough law obstruct terror? During the period of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the UK saw the bombings of Harrods, Enniskillen and the Grand Hotel in Brighton. "One thing it did not do was stop, stem or in any way combat terrorism," wrote the Guardian newspaper's Washington reporter on October 1. The deadly bomb attack on the Irish town of Omagh, wrote the Guardian, "showed us that [these methods] could not extinguish terrorism completely because a few dedicated people can cause enormous havoc..."
Did anti-terror law erode support for the IRA -- whose members fight for the re-unification of an independent Ireland -- or the myriad of Unionist terror groups who fight to keep the Irish colony under British control? Not half as much as political will did. In Northern Ireland, where the street violence and political hostility remain, it was not the Prevention of Terrorism Act which isolated the street fighters and bombers, but the Good Friday Agreement which started the talks about a political settlement.
A majority of people in Ireland, North and South, cast their vote for the Good Friday Agreement because at last it offered a concrete plan to build justice for all by uprooting centuries of discrimination, deprivation and the denial of political, social and cultural rights.
Could UK history tell US people something? Only if those people care to listen.
Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting." Her Spin Doctor Laura columns appear daily on WorkingForChange. You can contact her at email@example.com