42 days: ‘just in case’ rhetoric echoes anti-abortion tactics

e-politix has a good (short) summation of today’s media coverage of tonight’s vote on whether to extend the pre-charge detention period from 28 (already the longest in Europe, see Liberty’s campaign) to 42 days. In reading the review, I was struck, yet again, by how much of the rhetoric on the proposals is fighting to sound rational, just like the anti-abortion calls last month were.

In this situation, the defenders of 42 days are working to an idea of ‘just in case’ to bolster their defence. For example, according to e-politix,

Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington said the police needed to have the power “in their back pocket” for exceptional circumstances.

Meanwhile Andrew Dismore, the chair of the joint committee on human rights,

has described the definition of a terrorist threat under which the power would be triggered as “extraordinarily broad”.

The BBC reported last week that Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, has similarly stated that “safeguards would ensure it was used only in exceptional circumstances.”

The underlying argument is that:

  • the government can prove it is being suitably responsible about the proposals because
  • it is indicating that the powers would only be used in extreme cases
  • cases that are extreme need exceptional responses
  • we could all be at risk if these powers weren’t available for these extreme cases
  • we therefore need the powers to be available just in case the authorities face such an extreme case

The framing of the argument by the government as one of ‘necessary need in exceptional cases’ in this way echoes the anti-abortion tactics of last month. In that case, ‘science’ (or rather the idea of science) was used as a reasonableness test, masking an anti-women’s rights agenda. Now, the government is using ‘security need’ as the reasonableness test for justifying a breach of human rights.

As the pro-choice campaigners did, it is very important for human rights campaigners to be vigilant against a slippery slope. The 42 days proposals are problematic in and of themselves. Debates about the how of implementing them are not about rationality – they are a deliberate distraction.

Photo by stephentrepreneur, shared under a Creative Commons license