Today’s History Lesson: On Greenwald, the UK, and the Left’s Myopia
News over the weekend that Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours at London’s Heathrow Airport set off a predictable wave of outrage on the American left, but it’s their peculiar desire to pin the matter on the Obama Administration that exposes the left’s frustrating myopia: Only my pet issue matters, and if you aren’t sufficiently outraged by the thing that outrages me, to the exclusion of everything else, you’re a traitor to the cause. And so a history lesson is in order.
The partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist for The Guardian who has been publishing information leaked by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, was detained for nine hours by the British authorities under a counterterrorism law while on a stop in London’s Heathrow Airport during a trip from Germany to Brazil, Mr. Greenwald said Sunday.
Mr. Greenwald’s partner, David Michael Miranda, 28, is a citizen of Brazil. He had spent the previous week in Berlin visiting Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker who has also been helping to disseminate Mr. Snowden’s leaks, to assist Mr. Greenwald. The Guardian had paid for the trip, Mr. Greenwald said, and Mr. Miranda was on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.
Civil liberties activists are rightly concerned by Miranda’s detention, not because of his connection with Greenwald but because the law under which he was detained, Britain’s Terrorism Act, disregards the most basic standards of due process. Stop-Watch.org, which tracks search-and-seizure abuses in the UK, explains that “Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 provides powers for ‘examining officers’ at ports and airports, to stop, question and/or detain people they believe they are engaged in acts of terrorism, without the need for any reasonable suspicion.” (.pdf file; emphasis in original.) Stop-Watch also notes that Black people and Asians are far more likely to be detained under Schedule 7 than whites, and for longer periods of time.
The knee-jerk reaction on the American left was to blame Miranda’s detention on the Obama Administration, which has issued a warrant for Edward Snowden’s arrest. Within hours of the story breaking, Marcy Wheeler, @emptywheel on Twitter, suggested that the UK acted “at our behest”; while Crooks and Liars mused, “the ‘trust me’ defense of the NSA surveillance . . . just doesn’t have a lot of credibility in the face of” Miranda’s detention. Apparently, to liberals in America, the UK is our puppet.
In fact, though, the UK has its own interest in Snowden and Greenwald, Snowden’s principal booster, because Snowden and Greenwald purport to have information on Britain’s surveillance programs, too. As if to prove that point, shortly after Miranda’s release, Greenwald issued this threat:
“I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I am going to publish many more documents. I am going to publish things on England too. I have many documents on England’s spy system. I think they will be sorry for what they did,” Greenwald, speaking in Portuguese, told reporters at Rio’s airport where he met Miranda upon his return to Brazil.
But the implicit assumption that if the UK violated Miranda’s civil liberties it must be America’s fault reveals more than a misunderstanding of Britain’s own interests in the matter. It reveals a stunning ignorance of England’s own checkered past when it comes to violating civil liberties, and, in particular, its historical penchant for using accusations of “terrorism” as a means of oppression.
As it happens, the UK and other countries were way ahead of America in that regard. Going back at least to the 1970s, the UK, Israel, and Apartheid-era South Africa, were notorious for applying the “terrorist” label to anyone even loosely affiliated with national liberation movements, even though, in those days, the term was devoid of any legal meaning. The primary reason they did this was to avoid acknowledging that groups like the IRA’s Sinn Fein, the PLO, and the African National Congress were, in fact, acting as representatives of oppressed people. Using the “terrorist” label delegitimized the underlying movements. Using the “terrorist” label also enabled those governments to strike fear in the hearts of their citizens, which made it easier to justify continued oppression.
In England, the classic example of this was the case of the Birmingham Six, a group of Irish Catholics falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned in connection with an IRA bomb attack that killed 21 people. They spent sixteen years in prison, from 1975 to 1991, before the Court of Appeal finally overturned their convictions:
For 16 years every other aspect of the case was disregarded; that the men were, in Paddy Hill’s words, “tortured and framed” on arrest, beaten, subjected to mock executions, threatened with being thrown from a high building or a car on the motorway, and burnt with cigarettes; that their torturers were the infamous West Midlands serious crime squad, or that the scientist called to Heysham was the incompetent Dr Skuse. They were failed by everyone. Cut and visibly bruised when they were taken from the police station to the magistrates’ court, the solicitors who saw them first succeeded in getting legal aid forms signed, but failed to log their injuries.
Within an hour they were in Winson Green prison, where they ran the gauntlet of a lynch mob of prison officers; by the end the teeth of two of the men and the blood of all covered the reception area; the evidence essential to establish in the future that the “confessions” in police custody had been beaten out of them had been obliterated.
So, to a student of history, the passage of the UK’s Terrorism Act comes as no surprise. The nine-hour detention of David Miranda comes as no surprise. Indeed, the UK’s general lack of regard for due process and civil liberties should come as no surprise, independent of any pressure from, or desire to cooperate with, the United States.
In fact, the real lesson of the post-9/11 world is that the United States is becoming more like the United Kingdom, not the other way around. We’re adopting strategies that the British perfected decades ago, albeit with a modern technological twist. But when you focus all your outrage on the present Administration and a narrow set of political issues, you not only miss that important historical lesson, you disregard the suffering of anyone and everyone who falls outside your narrow worldview. Which, quite frankly, isn’t very liberal.
Image Caption: The release of the Birmingham Six at the Old Bailey in London in 1991. Photograph: The Daily Mirror
David von Ebers
Latest posts by David von Ebers (see all)
- Embracing the Revolutionary Mandela - December 9, 2013
- Illinois Prosecutor Faces Discipline for Racist Remarks - December 5, 2013
- RIP Junior Murvin: A Reggae Legend Passes On - December 5, 2013