As I sat last night in my messy, dreary Vauxhall room news reports came in that my local tube station had been shut down due to an ‘incident’, following the police responses in London Bridge and Borough Market.
Immediately, the nightmare of reality struck. I had only minutes before been watching social media videos of people in a bar I frequent, being told to duck under tables by armed police in London Bridge. Now it seemed like the terror was on my doortsep.
Vauxhall is a vibrant gay area. More gay, actually, than Soho. The clubs and bars are filled nearly 24 hours with proud, ostentatious revellers delighting in their sexual freedom. It’s always an adventure coming home at night to dodge the crowds of half-naked ravers. Even as late as 10am in the morning I have run into emaciated drag queens with their make-up smeared and their tights laddering as they meander sexlessly home after a night of drugs and drink.
All of this makes me love Vauxhall. Since the attacks in Orlando, however, I’ve been increasingly conscious of the possibilities of this vivacious, liberal and joyful district of London nightlife getting its own taste of the horrors of barbarian slaughter.
So there I sat, quivering with fear and numb with disbelief that a routine, uneventful day had turned into a hellish bad dream.
For the best part of an hour there was no news about the events in Vauxhall, other than that police were dealing with a third incident in the area. The only piece of news I had to go on was that some attackers were thought to be at large, and that police were searching for gunmen.
These turned out to be rumours, but as the helicopters circled above me, and the sirens whined with a discordant, orchestral regularity through the nearby streets, I was tense with fear.
I had images of the streets around my square and its wider area being stalked by balaclavad gunmen. I studied the reports coming in from London Bridge, as policemen unflinchingly confronted the attackers and news of the brutal knife slashings became more detailed.
I now realise just how brave the servicemen and women really are who treat the victims, and the impossible resolve and commitment security officers have to confront these bloody attacks. Cowering in my poet’s garret I was forced to admit that such people are ten times the citizen that I am, and that I owe them daily for my liberty.
That’s to say nothing of the ordinary people caught up in such attacks, who refuse to flee for their own safety, but charge towards the tragedy in order to ensure the injured can be saved. More than a few times today I have wept at the simplicity and innocence of the courage shown by bystanders swept up in the horrors at London Bridge.
On LBC radio today Colonel Richard Kemp called for greater powers of internment and deportation in counter-terrorism operations. For years I have angrily objected to such measures. Since Tony Blair’s silly, totalitarian proposals for extended detention and the Bush-era ‘extraordinary rendition’ practices of the CIA, I have scoffed at any suggestions that seem to resemble these ill-considered responses.
I’m a John Stuart Mill liberal – to the core. I do not believe that we should mess around with the rights and liberties that took centuries to pry from the hands of established power. The right to trial and free speech are both threatened by many of the hardline proposals jingo-istically called for by right wing commentators.
However, as John Locke, the grandfather of modern liberty, teaches us, the integrity of a right can only be measured by its limitations. Rights that are never subject to review or sensible restrictions under unusual circumstances, are not in fact rights, they are just excuses for license.
Speaking to LBC’s Andrew Pierce, Col. Kemp said: ‘I’m not suggesting that we should turn this country into a police state, or simply go rounding people up without good cause. But I think, there are some people, that we know are involved involved in terrorism, and these three may turn out to be just such people.’
Col. Kemp called for vigorous powers of ‘detainment, deportation and exclusion’, and said that often the only reason known jihadis cannot be tried is due to intelligence being so sensitive it can’t be used in court.
Col. Kemp is former Commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan, and also the former Head of Counter Terrorism Intelligence in the Cabinet Office.
In short, he’s not some blathering Farage-type. He knows what he is talking about, and is concerned that our security services are faced with an impossible task if they cannot take decisive action, simply because that action may be deemed politically incorrect.
Taking into consideration Col. Kemp’s commentary, I think it is time Britain introduced a new Defence Of The Realm Act. The Manchester and London Bridge attacks, while not being classic acts of war, do establish a war-like threat to our security that renders ordinary liberty subject to review.
The act will give the government and security services powers of arrest and conviction that are not subject to the typical transparency of legal scrutiny. It will also allow the government to revoke citizenship in cases of established threat, and to deport or intern individuals deemed to be dangerous.
These are terrifying powers in themselves, and easily abused. However, if properly implemented they will help those who guard us while we sleep to the finish the job they have started.
I advocate these powers, only on the grounds that a Defence Of The Realm Act will not hand over open-ended powers to undemocratic state actors. In order to prevent abuse, I also recommend the following in-built checks on new powers:
- Decisions made by private courts be reported on to parliament in as much detail as possible
- Those making such decisions are taken from across the political spectrum
- Decision-makers are reshuffled every three months, so that power is retained in the office, not the office-bearer
- Extend powers are explicitly understood to be temporary
- Six-monthly reviews of these powers are conducted under the full scrutiny of parliament
- A monitoring body is set up independently to scrutinise ongoing investigations that use these powers
There may be many more review-conditions for such legislation, and many far more accomplished people able to decide on what those checks and balances should be. The point is simply that amendments to liberty and justice can be made without our services falling victim to corruption, abuse of power and the compromise of the constitution.
None of these kinds of laws fill me with joy. I am a libertarian by nature, but in war, tolerance becomes a liability. We need to act, and we need to let our enemies know that we mean business, and I fully believe we can do that without eroding the liberties and privileges of citizenship of which we are rightly proud.