Editorial: Terrorism's double toll on freedom

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The damage from terrorist attacks on and since September 11, 2001, cannot be measured solely in lives lost and blighted. To varying degrees there has also been a toll on Western nations' laws and values, most notably in civil liberties. Societies, abruptly confronted by a new and intimidating vulnerability, have had to accept security measures that would previously have been resisted. Critical to this process has been the striking of a balance between the need for enhanced protection and the preservation of deep-seated notions of liberty, thereby ensuring rights are not needlessly trampled.

The potential for matters to go awry is, for reasons not all connected with acts of terrorism, considerable. Panic can replace rational analysis, or politicians can exaggerate the threat for their own purposes. In that context, Australia's treatment of a terror suspect and the British Government's renewed attempt to introduce extreme anti-terrorism laws give cause for considerable unease.

The Law Council of Australia said the case of Mohamed Haneef had an Alice in Wonderland quality. That is true of the way in which the evidence against the Gold Coast doctor, accused of giving "reckless support" to terrorists involved in last month's failed bomb attacks in London and Glasgow, disintegrated in farcical fashion. But the description hardly encompasses the dire way in which natural justice fell victim to political expediency.

After being held in custody for two weeks without being charged, Dr Haneef was granted bail by a magistrate, who could find no grounds for his continued detention under Australia's anti-terrorism laws. This provided its own comment on the inconsistencies in the police case. It did not, however, deter the Government from cancelling Dr Haneef's work visa on "character grounds".

The justice system was not allowed to do its work. The Government's leaking of information to newspapers in an attempt to balance the revelations of police bungles only added to the sense that basic rights were being sacrificed. And all, it seems, because Prime Minister John Howard saw a strong stand on security as crucial to his dwindling re-election hopes. Legal precedent and the trampling of civil liberties had little or no role in this equation.

Britain's new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is also keen to impose himself. The attacks in London and Glasgow, no matter how abysmally orchestrated, have given him the opportunity. Already, Britain's anti-terrorism law effectively bans demonstrations within 1km of Parliament. Now Mr Brown wants to double to 56 days the period that the police can hold terror suspects without charge. His predecessor, Tony Blair, suffered a humiliating defeat when seeking 90 days' detention. But Mr Brown is pressing ahead despite this and the fact that, earlier this year, the then-Home Secretary said he had not seen police information to show an extension was necessary.

Equally disturbing is the pressure being applied to the Conservative Party and other critics of Mr Brown's plan. Downing St says talk of the threat to civil liberties is not in the "national interest". It may be, as the Government says, that extremist plots are becoming more complex, but in any debate on a rational response, crude recourse to patriotism has no place.

Terrorism may now be taking its most significant toll. Traditional laws and values are being skewed to an unreasonable extent, more out of cynical politicking and panic than to meet the threat. Heightened vigilance is required, and not only to tackle terrorists.

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