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December 11, 2001

Across the Pond Scum
The UK and the EU make John Ashcroft look like a civil libertarian

To listen to European papers tell it, the jackbooted thugs long predicted by Americaís political fringes have finally taken over, Muslims are being rounded up like Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and anyone who speaks a discouraging word has bought himself a one-way ticket to a gulag in Alaska. Yet the bureaucratic power grabs being made in Washington in the name of terrorism pale in comparison to whatís going on both in Britain and the rest of Europe, often with far less justification than the threat of madmen looking to crash planes into office buildings.

Englandís common law is one of its great gifts to Western civilization, and the traditions of trials by jury set down in the Magna Carta in 1297 have created, wherever installed, some of the fairest and most effective judicial systems in the world. Yet something as fusty and musty as the Magna Carta, with its Old English phrasings and talk of lords, knights, barons and earls just doesnít have a place in Tony Blairís modern "Cool Brittania." According to a report in the New Statesman, Britain is about to throw away much of this proud and important legal heritage by eliminating almost two-thirds of all jury trials, allowing a wide range of offenses (including any crime with a maximum sentence of less than two years) to be tried solely by a judge employed by Her Majesty. To make the situation scarier, much of this change is being implemented by bureaucratic stealth and with as little public comment as possible -- an audacious move that not even Bill Clinton, who never met an executive order he wouldnít sign, would be jealous of. As the New Statesmanís Nick Cohen put it, "In America, Australia or any other common-law democracy, it would need a coup d'etat to implement the government's programme."

Part of the reason Blairís government has been able to get away with its scheme is the British publicís absolute outrage at a crime wave that has had shocked Britons gasping, as one did in a CBS News report last May, that "London is more dangerous these days than New York." (The fact that the U.K. has embarked on an aggressive campaign to disarm its citizenry -- going so far as to prosecute a farmer for murder after he shot and killed a burglar on his property -- is surely not unrelated to this phenomenon). Add to that the alleged cost-saving aspect, and itís easy to see why bureaucrats in London are willing to sell out 700 years of heritage for a few pieces of Pounds Sterling.

But thereís another aspect, even more worrisome, behind the proposal: the Blair administrationís long love affair with the European continent and the Prime Ministerís desire to drag his recalcitrant, unreconstructed populace into the supra-national organization. Over on the other side of the Channel, in Brussels, EU legislators are pushing a definition of terrorism (which would have to be incorporated into all member statesí law books) which includes "offenses intentionally committed by an individual or a group against one or more countries, their institutions or people, with the aim of intimidating them and seriously altering or destroying the political, economic, or social structures of a country." While any thinking human being is rightfully outraged by terrorism, whether at the World Trade Center, on a Belfast shopping street, or in an Israeli nightclub, itís plain to see how this definition goes too far. No one particularly likes having their city shut down by patchouli-reeking globalization protesters for a few days, but itís also probably not a good idea to include the majority of them in terrorist databases, as the EU proposal would do.

It is interesting to look at the European definition of terrorism in the context of the Blair governmentís attempt to toss out history. After all, by getting rid of jury trials and tossing aside the Magna Carta -- which guarantees freedom and accountability that much of the worldís citizens would happily risk their lives to live under -- the Home Office is not just putting its citizens in jeopardy, it is blowing up Englandís cultural heritage. Or, as they might put it in Brussels, "seriously altering or destroying the political, economic, or social structures of a country." It may not be as dramatic as, say, the Taliban destroying the giant Buddha at Bamiyan, but the impulse is the same: powerful people donít always want the past intruding on their power, to say nothing of individual citizens.

James Morrow is a freelance writer based in New York City and Sydney, Australia.