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Gary Younge
War against the weak

Not because he has discovered a sudden urge to do the decent thing. But because he is a wealthy man who can afford a good lawyer, a satellite dish, and a long-wave radio. And after a few weeks watching CNN and listening to the World Service, he believes he stands a better chance in court than he does against a cruise missile or the SAS.

To give himself up, he realises, would throw his enemy into confusion. First of all it would force the western intelligence services to provide the evidence they have against him. So far what they have made public has been nothing more than tenuous and circumstantial. They had a better case against OJ Simpson and look what happened to him. They claim, of course, that there is more proof they can't show us because it is too sensitive. They might even be telling the truth. But their case would be far stronger if they had not admitted that they had no idea the attacks were going to happen, only to declare Bin Laden the prime suspect within 24 hours.

They identified the guilty party first and then came up with evidence that is either inconclusive, unconvincing or unavailable for reasons of state security. Welcome to the new, global fight against terrorism: a battle that will be principally built on assumption, presumption, prejudice, profiling, secrecy and political expediency.

This is not an argument for Bin Laden's innocence. He has already been indicted for the murderous bombing of the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, where there is far greater proof. His advocacy of terror to achieve political ends is both abhorrent and well-established - so well-established in fact that one must question the sagacity of the CIA in swelling both his coffers and his arsenal during the cold war. It is an argument against the global stop and search that promises to use the same methodology to catch the world's most wanted as it will to criminalise minorities and political dissidents at home and the poor in developing countries.

Only a fool would oppose a genuine, global battle against terrorism. A campaign that sought to protect innocent civilians, whether they lived in New York or Nicaragua, Washington or the West Bank, from acts of violence perpetrated either by organisations, their own governments or foreign powers, would mark significant progress towards international peace.

But this is not it. The brunt of the proposed measures will bear most heavily on immigrants. The Bush administration wants to introduce the right to indefinitely detain immigrants suspected of ties to terrorist groups without trial. In Britain, the Home Office is seeking to gain similar powers to detain asylum seekers, to impose compulsory identity cards to access schools and hospitals, and to curtail the number of judicial reviews available to someone charged with offences abroad before extradition.

If this were really a trade-off between civil liberty and public security then the government would have a case. But it isn't. These measures will certainly deny basic legal rights and access to public services to some of the most vulnerable while strengthening the western fortress against the tide of economic and political migration that is largely of its own making. But they would certainly not have helped prevent the attacks on the World Trade Centre, which were carried out by men who were not asylum seekers, did not use schools and could afford private hospitals.

The few who were already suspected of terrorism were allowed into America because the US immigration service did not act on the information it already had or use the powers it already had. What you are left with is more arbitrary powers given to agencies that have proved themselves to be incompetent or irresponsible with the powers they already have.

We in Britain know this better than most because our own spectacularly unsuccessful war on terrorism was conducted in exactly the same way. According to Home Office statistics, 97% of those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act - a series of draconian measures supposed to thwart the IRA - between 1974 and 1988 were released without charge. Only 1% were convicted and imprisoned.

It was used instead as an information-gathering exercise for the British security forces. "It was a measure of social control," says Penny Green, a professor of law and criminology at Westminster University. "It was used to repress political activity. A fishing expedition used for scanning information on a whole community."

Given that during the same period we saw the bombing of Harrods, Enniskillen and the Grand Hotel in Brighton, we can safely say that the one thing it did not do was stop, stem or in any way combat terrorism. What did isolate terrorism was the political will of Republicans, the British government and the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Omagh showed us that this could not extinguish terrorism completely because a few dedicated people can cause enormous havoc. And recent events in Northern Ireland further show that when political will is lacking the door is opened for further acts of terror and violence.

And it is in politics that the latest global war on terrorism is flawed in both its conception and inception. First, it is a war of the strong against the weak. It is the most powerful nations that will get to define what terrorism is and how it should be fought. Haiti, for example, would be hard pushed to get together a coalition to bomb France for allegedly harbouring Baby Doc Duvalier - not because their case against him or his hosts is weak, but because the odds of military success would be negligible.

Second, the war on terrorism is being led by nations that have at least as distinguished a track record in perpetrating terrorism as in combating it. If Gerry Adams vowed to lead the campaign against terrorism, most in Britain would flash a bemused grin. When America pledges the same, much of Central America, South America, South-east Asia and parts of Africa split their sides.

I have no more desire than anyone else to be slain in a random act of violence, whether it is instigated by a fanatic or the politically committed. But the legislation proposed will not minimise that possibility at all, but maximise the likelihood of my spending two nights in a holding cell unable to contact a lawyer or my family because an unreconstructed immigration officer thinks I've stolen my passport. Like most others, I understand that in the current climate, it is better safe than sorry. The question the current plans raise is who will really be safe, and who will just be sorry.

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