When I heard the Home Secretary Charles Clarke's proposals to make British citizens liable to house arrest without trial, I immediately thought about those who sacrificed their lives in two world wars to preserve our liberties. That is the fundamental issue which now arises. Are we prepared to maintain our freedoms by dying for them if necessary.
In its contemporary form the question is whether we wish to keep inviolate, say, the right to be brought before a judge or into court if arrested by the state even if it means that the risk of being killed in a terrorist incident is a little higher than it might otherwise have been.
Are we willing, to take another example, to allow our fellow citizens to be incarcerated in their homes without knowing the charges against them or the evidence, their families searched as they enter and leave the house, in return for a reduced chance of being blown up as we go about our daily lives?
Given the enormity of what Mr Clarke proposes, one would expect that he would provide detailed arguments for his proposals. He does not. He states that "the threats that we are talking about, whether a twin towers- style disaster or an attack on an underground system or something else, are catastrophic". He has been frightened by "the things I have been told since I became Home Secretary". He tells us "there are serious people and serious organisations trying to destroy our society". Nothing has happened recently that "diminishes the threat".
In the circumstances, this is a surprisingly threadbare explanation. And it relies upon the work of intelligence agencies whose expertise has recently been shown to be inadequate. Nor does Mr Clarke's justification deal with the statement last February of his predecessor, David Blunkett, that to seek powers to detain (without trial) British citizens would be "a very grave step. The Government believes such draconian powers would be difficult to justify".
It is worth looking more closely at one of the Home Secretary's phrases - "there are serious people and serious organisations trying to destroy our society" As a matter of fact, terrorists cannot destroy our society. They can do all sorts of other dreadful things. They can blow up the Houses of Parliament, they can assassinate Government ministers, they can burn down St Paul's Cathedral, they can shoot judges, they can set fire to oil refineries, they can poison our water supplies. But none of this in itself can overturn the rule of law. …