Friday, 10 October 2008

Gordon and the Icelandic terrorists

I saw an Icelandic politician gasping for air on television today as he tried to express the depth of his outrage that the UK government has frozen various Icelandic assets in the UK in reliance on a piece of legislation which has the word "Terrorism" in its title. We have had quite a few Acts of Parliament using that word during the currency of the present government and I do not understand how use of the term could add anything substantive to the law.

Conventionally, criminal offences are defined by reference to acts and intentions. The one we all learn in our first year studying law is the definition of theft: "dishonestly appropriating property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it" (if my memory is correct). The definition can be broken down into a series of acts and states of mind: (i) you must act dishonestly, (ii) you must appropriate, (iii) the thing you appropriate must be property, (iv) that property must belong to someone else, (v) your intention must be to deprive that person of his property permanently. Each element has a technical definition and the combination of all elements constitutes theft.

What is there about acts of "terrorism" that requires "terrorism" to be included in the definition of the wrongdoing? I can't see it. In ordinary usage "terrorism" is an overarching description of a number of criminal acts which are done with the intention of causing mass terror. The substantive harm is in the acts themselves not the fright they might or might not engender. A bomb which destroys a block of flats does exactly the same damage whether the intention of the bomber is to kill one person inside, kill all people inside, damage the building or bring attention to a political cause. That is not to say that intention is irrelevant, there is a substantive difference between blowing up a block of flats with the intention to kill and doing so with the intention to damage the property only. The law recognises this by making the first situation one of murder and the second, if it causes death, manslaughter. Although the mandatory penalty for murder is a sentence of life imprisonment, an intention to kill many people is likely to result in a longer period having to be served before parole is considered (if it is considered at all) compared to the murderer who intended to kill one person only.

The law is quite capable of recognising such nuances without resort to unnecessarily emotive terms.

Introducing "terrorism" into the titles of Acts of Parliament has two problems. First, many of the things covered by the Act will have nothing to do with what any sensible person would describe as "terrorism", this is an inevitable consequence of the inability of Parliament to pass simple laws these days. We now have so much statutory law that almost every new Act has to amend various old Acts, thereby infecting the old Act with the "terrorism" tag; and the government is so keen to pass laws about everything that Acts are used as a repository for things they want to bring into law but have nowhere else to put. Secondly, it really doesn't add anything; the prohibited activity must be defined and to give it a general definition of "terrorism" is just political grandstanding.

We have seen a fine example of the problems such grandstanding can cause. Iceland is, surprise surprise, deeply offended that having a failed bank should be classified by the UK government as something worthy of a response based on "terrorism" legislation. It is simply absurd. An unemotive term such as "National Interest" would serve the same purpose and never give rise to diplomatic incidents. But that is not all.

Once a government has labelled something sufficiently important as to be categorised as "terrorism" how does it back down? Poor Gordon was interviewed on the BBC and the Icelandic reaction was put to him. Any sensible adult would say: "I know the power we used is contained in legislation aimed at terrorism, but we are not suggesting Iceland is engaged in terrorism, the legislation covers a lot of things which are not in that league at all. We had no intention to offend Iceland and I have made that clear to the Ambassador." But no, the response was the usual tunnel-visioned egomania: "time of deep concern ... hard working families ... global problem ... getting on with the job ... doing whatever has to be done ..." In a mind like his there is only black and white, if the legislation says "terrorism" then "terrorism" it is and he cannot resile from that.

It was yet another example of poor Gordon's utter unsuitability to be Prime Minister, but that is a by-line this time. The more important point is that including "terrorism" in either the title of an Act of Parliament or in ministerial reasons for new powers being given to government adds nothing of substance yet it stores up a wealth of possible problems. We have seen local authorities spying on people's refuse disposal habits under legislation ministers said was necessary to combat terrorism and now a diplomatic incident has arisen. Such problems will continue to occur until Parliament has the good sense to define laws by reference to acts and intentions and leaves political buzz words to the orators.

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