Libraries and the War on Terror: The Power of Nightmares – by John Pateman

Libraries and the War on Terror: The Power of Nightmares


John Pateman

The War on Terror poses three main threats to public libraries: (1) Government money is being diverted from UK public services, including libraries, to fund illegal invasions of sovereign nations; (2) the fear and scaremongering engendered by the War on Terror is allowing the government to erode the civil liberties and democratic values which underpin our library services. The freedoms of information and expression have been reduced and undermined; censorship and surveillance are on the increase; (3) The threat to our communities is that the War on Terror is creating tensions and divisions. The Muslim population has been alienated and many young Muslims radicalised. Asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers (all lumped together by the tabloid press) are viewed with suspicion and hostility. The BNP has never been so strong. The threats to diversity and community cohesion are clear.

The Threat to Civil Liberties

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act has transformed the powers of the police, allowing them to make arrests for minor offences such as dropping litter, or for protesting against the government. Once held, they can fingerprint, photograph and take DNA evidence from you – by force, if necessary – and hold it in a national database for ever, whether or not you are charged. The Prevention of Terrorism Act gives the police the power to carry out searches which do not have to be founded on reasonable suspicion. Control orders are a form of house arrest under which the liberty of the recipient is severely restricted upon an order made by the Home Secretary. The Campaign Against Criminalising Communities has claimed this is a ‘grave warning that no one is safe from punishment without trial and the government is moving further towards a police state.’
Government scaremongering, assisted by the tabloid media, has resulted in a majority of people being willing to give up their civil liberties to combat terrorism. Nearly a quarter of the people surveyed for the British Social attitudes study believed that torturing terror suspects would be a ‘price worth paying’ to combat the threat. And a staggering 50% found it acceptable to deny them a jury trial. 70% backed compulsory identity cards for all adults, while an astonishing 80% said that they would accept phone tapping and the electronic tagging of terrorist subjects. 35% even backed a ban on peaceful protests.

In its 2007 World Report Human Rights Watch warned that the War on Terrorism poses a growing threat to free expression. ‘Counter terrorism has given new vigour to some old forms of censorship, and created new ones’. In 2004 only three European countries had laws criminalising the glorification of terrorism. By 2006, thirty six countries had passed such laws, including the UK. Another post 9/11 legacy took place on 30 March 2007 when the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that violated international standards on freedom of expression. This resolution stated that freedom of expression may be restricted ‘to ensure respect for religions and convictions’.

The Threat To Community Cohesion The biggest British victims of The War on Terror have been the Muslim community which, prior to the hysteria created by 9/11, had lived relatively peacefully in the UK for many years. Our Muslim communities now live in fear – not of terrorism but of the state and its brands of state terrorism. The Archbishop of York has warned that Britain is in danger of ‘coming close to a police state’ in the wake of the arrest of suspected terrorists in Birmingham. He criticised 90 day detention, likening it to Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin. The Birmingham Central Mosque chairperson accused the government of ‘picking on’ Muslims in the wake of these ‘terror arrests’ He described the arrests as a ‘persecuting course of action’ which the government had taken to justify its terror laws. ‘They have invented this perception of a threat. To justify that, they have to maintain incidents to prove something is going on.’

An even more sinister suggestion is that university staff should snoop on students suspected of ‘extremism’. The government has described what it considers to be a serious threat posed by radical Muslims and has issued guidance to colleges and universities calling on them to monitor student activity. These plans were condemned by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) which backed a motion at its congress calling on members to ‘resist attempts by government to engage colleges and universities in activities which amount to increased surveillance of Muslim or other minority students and to the use of members of staff for such witch hunts.’ UCU general secretary Sally Hunt commented: ‘Delegates have made it clear that they will oppose government attempts to restrict academic freedom or free speech on campus. Universities must remain safe spaces for lecturers and students to discuss and debate all sorts of ideas, including those that some people may consider challenging, offensive and even extreme.’ The union expressed outrage at the ‘continuing demonisation of Muslim and other minority communities’.

The Threat to Libraries

These latest proposals to spy on students would include the reporting to police of student’s research activities, internet use and reading habits. If this sounds somewhat fanciful, we should remind ourselves of the current situation in the US, the home of the brave and the land of the free. The PATRIOT Act makes it illegal for librarians to refuse any police request to see what anyone is reading. Librarians can go to jail if they even contact a lawyer for advice. Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to access records, including library records, without a warrant – or even telling anyone. There is no obligation on the authorities to show a reason to believe that the subject of the surveillance order is engaged in criminal activity. The FBI can obtain a user’s reading and web browsing documents without probable cause. There is a criminal ban on librarians revealing the use of Section 215 orders to their readers. In 2004 Congress voted not to amend the PATRIOT Act because the Justice Department claimed that ‘a suspected terrorist had used e-mail services at a public library.’

In November 2006 a student of Iranian origin, was working in the library at the University of California when security guards asked to see his university identity card. When he failed to produce his ID card they ordered him to leave the library, but he refused, arguing that he was studying and he had to continue his research. The guards called the LA police which sent a patrol squad, armed with Tasers. In a video broadcast on the internet, you can see and hear how the police fired their laser stun gun several times at the student, who is screaming in pain and vehemently protesting. ‘Here is your PATRIOT ACT, here is your abuse of power’ cried the student in front of several classmates, powerless witnesses to the aggression.

In April 2007 a US librarian claimed that the PATRIOT Act invades privacy. In prepared testimony for a Senate panel he said the government uses the Act and other laws to learn, without proper judicial oversight or any after the fact review, what citizens are researching in libraries. The American Library Association and some library services have also challenged the Act. If anyone thinks that such an infringement of civil liberties could not happen in the UK, cast your minds back to the Poll Tax when enabling legislation was passed allowing authorised access to library records to locate Poll Tax defaulters. The Poll Tax was defeated but the enabling legislation remains.

Also, next time you do a Google search, remember that a record is kept of your computer’s IP address and the browser that you used, along with details of the search itself. If you use Google Mail, then every message that you send and receive will have been automatically scanned in order to work out which adverts the website should show you. Google keeps data on that, along with records of which ads you clicked on and generic information such as how often and when you log in. Search data and email messages are kept on servers in the US where Google can be forced to hand them over to the government when it comes looking for personal data in the name of the War on Terror.

The money spent on destroying Iraqi infrastructure (including libraries) could have been spent on public services (including libraries) in the UK. We are constantly told that, despite being one of the world’s richest countries, we cannot afford to sustain our existing level of public services. At the same time that we are being asked to tighten our belts in the NHS and local government, the official cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have surged massively. Britain’s involvement in these conflicts cost

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