To Deter Acts of Pointlessness

By Chris McCarthy

Yesterday, at precisely 10:15am, I was stopped by a uniformed officer outside the Houses of Parliament under Section 44 of the Counter Terrorism Act. I can provide such specificity of timing because I was kindly issued with a receipt detailing the date, time, location and purpose of my stop; to deter acts of terrorism. After a brief call to some unidentified support-worker to ascertain my level of criminality, my pristine past rewarded me with Outcome Code 1: No Further Action.

While I stood there, mildly embarrassed as hoards of commuters alighted from Westminster Tube Station, I could  already hear the nascent formulation of my latest piece. Clause (3) of the Terrorism Act 2000 stipulates:

“An authorisation under subsection (1) or (2) (the authority to stop and search people and/or cars) may be given only if the person giving it considers it expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism.”

My mum suspects that my stop was a product of racist undertones or part of a broader trend of erosion of our civil liberties. I doubt that my slightly olive skin classes me as a minority but it is true that if you are black or Asian you are around four times more likely to be stopped than if you are white. The civil liberties issue is a pressing one but it’s not where I want to focus my attentions. I am intrigued by this statement that my random stop was expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism.

Ministry of Justice figures show that in 2008 there was a three fold increase in the use of the powers but fewer than 0.1% of those stopped were arrested for terrorism offences. I am no less deterred to commit an act of terrorism now than I was prior to my stop,  – which, I should hasten to add in the slim possibility my choice of words has set-off an automated computer alarm bell in some bunkered MI5 building, was always non-existent.

What does this power achieve other than feelings of embarrassment and intimidation, irrespective of the courteousness with which the power was exercised? For the policeman was indeed courteous. He executed his task with civility and offered me repeated reassurances that there was nothing to worry about – I can only assume I looked perpetually worried. Yet could his time (or his equivalent resource) not have been better spent on other tasks more worthwhile in identifying individuals engaged in nefarious activities, or preparing to?

It makes bad business sense for an organisation to invest so much resource into a strategy that yields such poor returns. For a government so consumed by a target-setting culture they are quite laissez-faire in their primary duty to the British people. If the desired outcome is to prevent terrorist activities, I fail to see how Section 44 is accomplishing that.

I am reminded of a time when I arrived at passport control at the George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas. Amidst the stifling heat and processional shuffling a short female security guard sporadically barked at tired passengers, asking them their name. Nothing more. The stumbled responses belied the sense of intimidation as opposed to any attempt to cover up a name on the FBI’s Most Wanted List but fueled the security guard’s crusade nonetheless.

I was left to ponder how effective a technique this guard thought her approach was. Would Osama Bin Laden, after years of shuffling between caves, be felled in his Jihadist quest by a zealous policewoman at passport control? I have my reservations.

I don’t begrudge the policeman who stopped me today. He doesn’t legislate or decide policing strategy – he implements. Whether I feel any safer knowing the police have these powers is an irrelevance. Knowing that I am safer is the empirical safety-blanket I would like.

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