En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tony Blair Dances with Words for Stop-and-Question Law

As has been well-reported, outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pushing for a new bill that would allow police to stop and question people without needing any grounds for doing so. This would be a first in the U.K., which does allow searches on "reasonable grounds for suspicion," according to this story in the Trinity Mirror. In defending his proposal, Blair wrote the following in a piece in the Sunday London Times:
But at the heart of these new proposals will lie the same debate: the balance between protecting the safety of the public and the rights of the individual suspected of being involved with terrorism. ...

We have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first.

I happen to believe this is misguided and wrong. If a foreign national comes here, and may be at risk in his own country, we should treat him well. But if he then abuses our hospitality and threatens us, I feel he should take his chance back in his own home country.
But Mr. Blair isn't being accurate. The problem with a stop-and-question law is not protecting the civil liberties of an actual terrorism suspect, where there is a body of evidence suggesting a tie between the individual and such an activity, but protecting the rights of whomever the police decide to stop.

The reason British and US law has such regard for the rights of the suspect is the underlying concept of someone being innocent until proven guilty. Society regards the rights of the suspect because there is a good chance that the suspect is innocent, and if the innocent person can face such restraint of rights, then it could be only a matter of time before anyone else is in the position of being a suspect and of losing rights.

But there is also a meaning of suspect that isn't tied to that philosophical underpinning - one that is more simply a person who is the target of suspicion. Mr. Blair is essentially pulling a semantic bait-and-switch. He uses the single word used in both contexts and then uses the second meaning, pretending that the first doesn't exist. He then decries the "dangerous misjudgment" of prizing civil liberties above chasing terrorism. Ironically, his own act of linguistic deception - whether intentional or accidental - offers good reason for keeping the emphasis where it is.

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