“The real threat the the life of the nation”

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2004

From Lord Hoffmann’s remarks in the judgement by the House of Lords (PDF, 102 pages) that the British government is wrong to detain foreign terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial :

This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community….
[S]uch a power in any form is not compatible with our constitution. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.

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{ 25 comments }

1

Simstim 12.17.04 at 12:49 pm

The vox pop on this at the BBC is predictably depressing in the main. Sample quote:

To be honest, I am getting bored of the left doing everything it can to stop us protecting our country. If you really dislike our country, which gives you a platform for your moronic views, then emigrate!
Graeme Phillips, Guildford, UK

2

Jason Kuznicki 12.17.04 at 1:21 pm

Of course, you can’t say this in the United States. If you do, then you aren’t taking the threat seriously enough. You’re living with a pre-9/11 worldview and are therefore unfit for office.

3

Liadnan 12.17.04 at 1:39 pm

4

armando 12.17.04 at 2:55 pm

I am getting bored of the left doing everything it can to stop us protecting our country

When did the Law Lords become the “left”? Did I miss a memo? Maybe from that neo-Marxist agitator, the Queen.

5

Matt McGrattan 12.17.04 at 3:17 pm

Law Lords, on occasion, just rock…

6

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.17.04 at 6:16 pm

Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community….

[S]uch a power in any form is not compatible with our constitution. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.

This is a classic case of overestimating the influence of the government. Terrorism can indeed threaten the existance of our civil community–and it can do so even if the civil rights laws never change. It can threaten the enormous levels of trust which are required in a successful open society. If the people close that down on a day-to-day basis, our society is in deep trouble even if the government takes no action to ‘clamp down’ on civil rights.

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.17.04 at 6:50 pm

But to clarify, I’m not a proponent of holding terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial.

8

stuart 12.17.04 at 6:56 pm

Wait a second, wasn’t it the ‘left’ that put these dodgy laws on the books in the first place – so surely it would be the ‘right’ (which matches up to the law lords historical conservatism better anyway) that are ‘stopping us protect our country’, in this morons parlance.

9

Luka 12.17.04 at 8:00 pm

It seems to me that terrorists CAN threaten the “life” of countries such as England or America. Or rather, it seems that they very well might be able to in the not-too-distant future. I would think a few nuclear devices being detonated in different major cities in either of those countries (with the threat of more detonations to come) would effectively threaten the “lives” of these countries.

That doesn’t mean that these laws are justified, of course.

10

stew 12.17.04 at 9:26 pm

Take any two cities you like, this would not destroy America as long as Americans wish to live free.

11

aj 12.18.04 at 12:58 am

It also depends on what you mean by the life of a country.

Since it’s emergence as a nation-state, Japan has never ceased to exist, but it nevertheless was a very different place after August 1945.

Incidentally, what countries have disappeared in the last 50 years? I can think of federations disintegrating and empires falling, but can’t seem to come up with more conventionally defined nation-states disappearing (certainly not in the sense that Poland disappeared for the 19th century).

Even when it lacked any sort of governemnt, Afghanistan was still Afghanistan.

12

aj 12.18.04 at 1:07 am

I should add, along these lines: the greatest threat to a country’s existence (in absolute terms) seems to me to be not so much a drastic change in domestic policy, but the devaluation of sovereignty in the international community. A number of countries could have been wiped off the globe as a result of wars past, but nations have generally found it to be in their interest to keep alive the idea of sovereign nationhood. Just in case they end up on the losing side in the future, of course.

13

Dan Simon 12.18.04 at 7:47 am

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.

As a purely historical matter, this is a load of steaming bovine excrement. The United Kingdom has a very, very long tradition of enacting laws far more draconian than these to deal with foreign threats. The woolly-minded internationalist civil libertarianism the Lords are invoking is essentially a postwar American import, with a dash of Continental radicalism thrown in. And until very recently, the idea of enshrining such views in parliamentary tradition–let alone declaring them some kind of vital part of the British national character–wouldn’t have passed the giggle test.

What the Lords really mean, of course, when they talk about “a threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its….political values”, is the threat to their sense of a people living in accordance with the Lords’ own current political values. And as citizens of the United Kingdom, they have every right to vote and speak out in favor of their own preferred (and undoubtedly tiny minority) vision of the ideal British society. Fortunately, though, another grand British tradition–a sovereign, democratic parliament–will consign the Lords’ fatuous pomposity to well-deserved irrelevance.

14

Idiot/Savant 12.18.04 at 11:57 am

In light of the British government’s insistence on continuing to hold the men until the law is reviewed, Lord Hoffman is looking righter by the minute. But his government has gone beyond sacrificing human rights for safety to sacrificing the rule of law itself. The dangers of this were pointed out in the famous exchange between Sir Thomas More and William Roper in A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Where will the British government hide, once they have finished cutting England’s laws flat?

15

David B 12.18.04 at 1:31 pm

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for Lord Hoffman (a South African) to lecture the British on their national interests. Some may recall that Hoffman was also the judge who screwed up the first decision on the Pinochet extradition by forgetting to mention that his (Hoffman’s) wife was a big cheese in Amnesty International.

16

Nabakov 12.18.04 at 5:49 pm

I think Dan S that you may be confusing a Law Lord with the Law Lords with the House of Lords. They are all related but not quite all the same thing.

“And until very recently, the idea of enshrining such views in parliamentary tradition—let alone declaring them some kind of vital part of the British national character—wouldn’t have passed the giggle test.”

Start with the Putney Debates and work forward. Centuries of refutable fun there.

17

Matt McGrattan 12.18.04 at 8:37 pm

Dan:

I’d like instances of legislation enacted by Parliament in the past which allows for detention without trial. Preferrably outside of war-time.

Further, it seems to me that you are utterly wrong with respect to the absence of a legal and philosophical tradition in the UK which supports the right of a man to be free from the risk of imprisonment except after facing trial.

Today’s Independent newspaper helpfully provides a list of quotes:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights [etc. etc.] except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land” – Habeas Corpus Act, 1679

“No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned.. except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land” – Magna Carta, 1215

“Every court of criminal justice must have the power of correcting the greatest and most dangerous of all abuses of the forms of law — that of the protracted imprisonment of the accused, untried, perhaps not ever intended to be tried, nay, it may be, not informed of the nature of the charge against him, or the name of accuser”, David Hume, 1797

They supply a dozen or so more similar quotes. Covering the whole of the period from 1215 to the 1970s at the height of the IRA mainland terror campaign.

The right to freedom from imprisonment without trial is an ancient one indeed, and it’s certainly not an import from the USA or continental Europe.

18

Dan Simon 12.18.04 at 10:44 pm

I’d like instances of legislation enacted by Parliament in the past which allows for detention without trial. Preferrably outside of war-time.

You mean, because the abrogation of Habeas Corpus in wartime, particularly with respect to foreign detainees–say, prisoners of war–is so common in British (and world) history as to be completely routine?

Further, it seems to me that you are utterly wrong with respect to the absence of a legal and philosophical tradition in the UK which supports the right of a man to be free from the risk of imprisonment except after facing trial.

The principal of Habeas Corpus certainly has a long, esteemed tradition in Great Britain. The breadth of its application, however, has evolved over time–note, for example, the use of the term “free man” or “freeman” in the quotations you provided. The notion that foreigners suspected of terrorism might fall under its purview is a very recent one indeed.

19

Matt McGrattan 12.18.04 at 11:06 pm

Yes, Dan, but the whole point is that this is not war-time. Unless you think of the erroneously named ‘War on Terror’ as bearing any kind of structural similarity with the past wars under which Habeas Corpus was suspended and also think, erroneously, that the actions (whether alleged or genuine) of the men detained at Belmarsh in any way resemble the actions of combatants in a war.

20

Carol 12.19.04 at 2:51 am

Well, I don’t know about you but I can’t wait until this war on tourism is over. A very foolish idea in the first place, if you ask me.

21

Pete 12.19.04 at 6:46 am

They are absolutely right. What, exactly, are people afraid that these terrorists might do?

Bomb central London? Already been done, by the IRA; hence the “Ring of Steel” security there.

Put communities into a state of war? Already been done, by the IRA and the UVF, the former using American weapons bought with American money.

Blow up the Cabinet? Already been tried; the Brighton Hotel bombing had miraculously few casualties despite demolishing the building.

Flatten a major city? Already been done, by the Nazis.

Compared to what the country has withstood, a few angry militants are just another matter for the police.

22

bob mcmanus 12.19.04 at 5:36 pm

“And as citizens of the United Kingdom, they have every right to vote and speak out in favor of their own preferred (and undoubtedly tiny minority) vision of the ideal British society. Fortunately, though, another grand British tradition—a sovereign, democratic parliament—will consign the Lords’ fatuous pomposity to well-deserved irrelevance.”

Indeed. Germany was still Germany, under Bismarck, under Hitler, and under Adenauer. Much ado about nothing.

23

Paul in LA 12.20.04 at 1:57 am

“Indeed. Germany was still Germany, under Bismarck, under Hitler, and under Adenauer. Much ado about nothing.”

Hilarious. Germany was still Germany under Hitler?

Germany, like any free state, is only Germany when free. Enslavement under Hitler was not freedom. Had Hitler enslaved Britain, Britain would have ceased to be, until restored to freedom.

Confusing culture for free states is a major error — the failure to understand that our freedoms are NOT given us by government or law, not taken away by terrorists, or traitors, and not found in the rule of any majority.

They are innate.

24

Paul in LA 12.20.04 at 1:58 am

“Indeed. Germany was still Germany, under Bismarck, under Hitler, and under Adenauer. Much ado about nothing.”

Hilarious. Germany was still Germany under Hitler?

Germany, like any free state, is only Germany when free. Enslavement under Hitler was not freedom. Had Hitler enslaved Britain, Britain would have ceased to be, until restored to freedom.

Confusing culture for free states is a major error — the failure to understand that our freedoms are NOT given us by government or law, not taken away by terrorists, or traitors, and not found in the rule of any majority.

They are innate.

25

chris 12.20.04 at 12:14 pm

Incidentally, what countries have disappeared in the last 50 years?

By assimilation: Tibet, Sikkim, Zanzibar, Western (Spanish) Sahara, South Yemen, temporarily East Timor, Kuwait.

By disintegration: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia.

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