Friday, 4 November 2016

War on terror exhibition at Imperial War Museum provides timely reminder, as to how the security state has come out into the open

Edmund Clark’s exhibition at the Imperial War Museum touches on some of the most disturbing elements of the so called War on Terror.

The conditions that hundreds of people were held under at Guantanamo Bay for many years juxtaposed next to Britain’s own internal security model - the control order, which turned houses into prisons, with individuals being held in true Kafakaesque style never told  of what they were accused.

The images are haunting – the shackles from Guantanamo that were used to hold people down and restrict movement. The matter a fact regulations from the Home Office about the restrictions applied to an individual held under held control order conditions. Some of the correspondence from detainees held in Guantanamo but now released.

The exhibition brings home the vivid reality as to what happens when the most basic liberties are sacrificed on the altar of security. Someone asked me why I was going to the exhibition as I must know what it would be about. To an extent that was true. Having covered the cases of some  those put under control order detention in this country, much of the exhibition was eerily familiar.

Take the case of a man known only as G, who was first incarcerated after being picked up in the post 9/11 hysteria under the Anti-terror crime and security Act (rushed onto the statute book in December 2001). He was later released to restrictive control order style detention. His hell had been going on for six years when I interviewed him across his doorway in 2007.

G lived with wife and family in a cramped flat. He sat in a wheelchair, tagged, needing to report into the monitoring company several times a day. He had attempted suicide when in prison. The interview was published in the Guardian and elsewhere.

G continued though to be detained for many more years. The Home Office were determined to get him and a number of other –mainly Algerians – deported on the basis of being threats to national security.

Many of the individuals were represented by solicitor Gareth Peirce, who was constantly present at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) arguing their cases. The SIAC operated under immigration law, thereby enabling the men concerned to be held seemingly indefinitely, without there ever being made aware of what they were accused.

This whole process went on for years, with these individuals portrayed in the media as threats to national security that the government wanted to get rid of but could not due to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The men and their families were effectively kept under a variety of forms of detention. Then quietly, on 18 April 2016, the SIAC ruled that six of the men considered to be threats to national security for so long could not be deported to Algeria on the basis of diplomatic assurances relating to their safety. The Home Office did not appeal the decision, so the men were free to stay.
There were 52 people subjected to control order style detention, according to Clark in the exhibition. The process of such detention still remains available under different forms when required.

What this whole process of detention of “terror suspects” over the years showed was the build up of a security state operating pretty much in the shadows. Almost anything could be done to the individuals concerned, yet the evidence of the threat they represented remained secret. The police, the security services and private security companies all came to play a part in the panalopy of a fledgling police state operating in the shadows.

The media rarely touched on the issue beyond demonising the men concerned or decrying the European Convention for Human Rights for stopping the British government kicking people out of the country. The fact that most of the men accused would have probably faced certain death had they returned to their country of origin, escaped most commentators. Cost was another media favourite, regularly referring to the amount of money it was costing to keep these individuals under surveillance.

What this shameful episode in British and American history reveals is a drift toward authoritarianism that continues to this day. The control orders may have gone but the security state has most certainly come out of the shadows.

Asylum seekers are routinely detained in huge numbers in this country. Those living in the community often fearfully await the knock at the door, with the Border Agency ready to haul people off at a moments notice.

The explosion of xenophobia that followed the EU referendum vote has provided an opening for many operating in the shadowy world of the security state to come out into the open. Today, individuals are almost being defined as no-people on the basis of their status.

In the meantime, the drumbeat of rhetoric about the war on terror continues in the background – feeding the feelings of insecurity in the population at large. The fear of the other that turns neighbour against neighbour, poisoning communities continues unabated.

Edmund Clark’s exhibition provides a timely reminder of the extremes that Western democracies will go to when they feel threatened. The pity though must be that the exhibition did not appear 10 years ago at the height of the abuses going on across the world from Guantanamo to Belmarsh. The world could have done with being reminded about what was going on then behind the curtains of the secret state.

The exhibition today together with accounts of what has gone on over the past couple of decades in the name of fighting terrorism serve as timely reminders of where we could be heading, namely toward an authoritarian state where basically anyone considered an enemy for whatever reason can have their rights taken away in the name of security and freedom

*War on terror exhibition runs at the Imperial War Museum until August 2017

* For more articles on secret evidence/detention see -

 Independent - 27/4/2009

New Statesman - 17/4/2008

 Guardian -28/3/2007

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