Two laws, one result?

One law makes it a criminal offence to disseminate, prepare or possess literary materials which appeal for the overthrow, subversion or weakening of the political and social system. The sentence ranges from 6 months up to 7 years imprisonment. This is article 58 of Section 10 of the Soviet Penal Code introduced in 1927 and used to fill the Gulag labour camps with millions of political dissidents.

Section 58 of the UK Terrorism Act 2000 states that a person commits an offence if he collects, possesses or makes a record (including taking photographs) of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. The penalty is up to ten years in prison.

Our terror laws exist against a background where fear is being whipped up to a frenzied level, where people are actively urged to spy on one another, even to suspect your neighbour is a terrorist. The recent radio ad and poster campaign by the Metropolitan police has a photograph of families in a shopping street with a CCTV camera in the background. The words read: “A bomb won’t go off here because weeks before a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras.” Another ad shows the bulging lid of a suburban wheelie bin brimming with plastic chemical containers: “These chemicals won’t be used in a bomb because a neighbour reported the dumped containers.”

The Soviet law was the key statute used to deal with anti-Soviet agitation. These laws allowed a quarter of the population of Lenningrad to be shipped to the Gulags. This prison system, described by Solzenhistyn in The Gulag Archipelago, was a network of labour camps spread throughout the Soviet Union. Most inmates were given ‘tenners’ or ten year sentences for their crimes. With many children imprisoned as well; the age of criminal responsibility was twelve . The Soviets went as far as convicting people for social parasitism, notably the future Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky who in 1962 was convicted for being nothing more than a poet.

Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, enacted in the UK before the attacks of September 11th 2001, allows as a defence for a person to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession. That is, if charged, once your trial comes round. The main difference rests on the interpretation of terrorism.

Shouldn’t we be worried when a democracy starts to be run by fear mongers who seek to intimidate? The next stage will be the arrest of people for failing to report or denounce someone the state has defined as a terrorist. If you don’t denounce a neighbour or colleague the suspicion will be directed towards you…

Collectively, we hope that the batch of anti terror laws now on the statute books will be interpreted reasonably. We hope that a Stalin, Mao or Hitler won’t come along and use them to repress people. But anti terror laws have been used to detain people reading out names of war dead at the cenotaph, walking on a cycle path or shouting ‘nonsense’ at Jack Straw.

Perhaps you can dismiss these actions as the result of over zealous cops misusing the law. But it shows you how quickly society could disintegrate if the law enforcers are given quotas for arrest and told to go out and do it just as they were in Russia. Look at the London G20 protests for an example of how easy it is for ordinary policemen to become storm troopers once they have been tooled up like Robocop and pointed towards the public who they think are ‘up for it’. Thankfully, they weren’t armed with Taser electroshock guns.

Fortunately, the recently revised Mental Health Act didn’t make it onto the books in a form that would have made if possible for the UK to emulate the Soviet’s use of ‘punitive psychiatry’. The Soviets used psychiatry as a weapon against hundreds of dissidents who were incarcerated and subjected to drug and electroshock therapies because they were diagnosed as suffering from ‘politically defined madness’ or ‘sluggishly progressing schizophrenia’ (“ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure”).

Recently, our government wanted to update the Mental Health Act to allow people to be detained against their will even if there was no evidence that treatment would be shown to benefit their condition. Fortunately, the House of Lords stopped the draft bill that would have used cultural or religious beliefs as grounds for diagnosing a mental disorder. So, at least the state cannot detain you in a mental institution because you have aberrant political beliefs.

It does leave the door open for drug companies to bring out a pill that treats ‘social opposition disorder’ making it easier to lock up dissidents once a convenient cure becomes available. (Imagine people like the psychotherapist Derek Draper queuing up to drug you into compliance.)

We all need to be very concerned about the laws in place when the definitions of terrorism seem to be getting ever more general. Incrementalism is very dangerous to freedom, as is being governed by surprise. One day you wake up and realise that the freedoms you thought you had aren’t enshrined in law any more.

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