It's not cricket

Posted: Dec 03, 2001 12:00 AM
LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair is having a tougher time getting Parliament to pass his anti-terror bill than President George W. Bush had to get Congress to pass his anti-terrorism bill. Blair has had to deal with pols such as House of Commons Leader Charles Kennedy, a Liberal Democrat, who complained to the London Independent that if Brits "allow ourselves to get into a situation where in fact we are suppressing our own individual rights, actually the terrorist begins to win." (Sure -- the terrorists win if the Brits pass laws making it harder for terrorists to cook up a plan to kill civilians.) Kennedy wants a bill that "recognizes the proper rights of the citizen." Nice try, old chap, but Blair's bill would allow for detention without trial only for "foreign nationals" -- that is, non-citizens -- believed to have conspired in plots to kill people or commit an act of terror. Also, detention without trial would be limited to bad actors who can't be deported to their country of origin because they might be killed or tortured. Indeed, a provision would allow detained foreign citizens to leave if they wanted to go to some no-taste country that agreed to take them. That ought to be the provision against which critics rail -- it's an escape clause for would-be terrorists. It's not as if Team Blair cooked up the idea out of xenophobia. The fact is, the Brits have been so lax in dealing with Arab and Muslim terrorists that a French government report charged the United Kingdom with being a "haven" for terrorist money-laundering. London papers are filled with stories of known terrorists who have been allowed to live here without fear of extradition. Jordan convicted Osama bin Laden money man Abu Qatada of financing a recent, foiled terrorist attempt to bomb millennium festivities in Jordan. But the Brits have no extradition treaty with Jordan, so Abu Qatada hasn't had to worry about jail anywhere. That's why wags call this town Londonistan. That's why Blair has been forced to find a way to deter would-be killers, who operate freely in their adopted land, thanks to well-intended laws. Some Labor Party members of Parliament also took issue with a provision in the bill, pushed by Home Secretary David Blunkett, that would create a new crime -- incitement of religious hatred. Any civil libertarian, of course, would bristle at that notion. Comedian Rowan Atkinson wrote a letter to the Times of London complaining that such a law could hinder free speech. I'm sure it would -- and critics are right to object. What doesn't square is that these critics are against free speech for people who say racist things, but oddly concerned about the civil rights of people who aid terrorists and abet murderers. (The home secretary's office explained there have been some 40 prosecutions under the 1986 law prohibiting incitement of racial hatred in the past five years.) The Times editorialized on Tuesday that the law against inciting racial hatred enjoys "broad public support," while the Blunkett religion measure is bad because, I guess, outlawing incitement of religious hatred isn't popular. Thus, while the House of Commons eventually passed the provision, the House of Lords is expected to fight harder against it. It's too like home. Activists are willing to go to great lengths to curb law-abiding citizens' rights and livelihoods for negligible threats. Gun-control laws curb the rights of lawful gun owners to stave off an unlikely attack by a well-armed stranger. Good people support draconian environmental regulations for unproven environmental threats. It's acceptable if working stiffs lose, say, their jobs, if it's for a good cause. The Brits go one further in their willingness to outlaw racist speech. Then, the worst threat looms and oddly they develop scruples for the civil rights of people with mass murder on their minds. It is so important to some people that they appear even-handed that they can't recognize the threat posed by those who would kill thousands of civilians.