Presumed guilty in the war on terror
May 6, 2005
In the debates about how to tackle the threat of terrorism in the UK and US, one phrase has become the norm to describe those who attract police interest: “terrorist suspects”. It is used freely both by those who defend detention without trial, and those who argue for the conservation of civil liberties. It has appeared several times recently in prominent articles in the Guardian. But the choice of this phrase subtly poisons the argument, and contributes to a climate of fear.
What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s easy to see if you substitute the alleged crime. To call somebody not yet convicted of any offence a “rapist suspect” or a “murderer suspect” is already to assume the guilt of the person in question, to attach to them the descriptive label reserved for those whose crimes have been proven in court. In the same way, to use the phrase “terrorist suspect” commits a pre-emptive essentialism: the person is first defined as a terrorist, and only then is it grudgingly acknowledged that the basis for such a categorisation is as yet untested.
You might still think it desirable that anyone accused of a crime in Britain should be assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The widespread usage of the phrase “terrorist suspects”, on the contrary, presumes guilt. It derives from, and feeds back into, an alarming assumption that the lamentably old-fashioned ideal of presumed innocence is no longer appropriate to modern times. It is at one with the fine contemporary tradition of contempt for the courts evinced by Labour home secretaries. After the four co-defendants of Kamal Bourgass in the “ricin plot” trial were unanimously acquitted, and a further prosecution collapsed, Charles Clarke said: “We will obviously keep a very close eye on the eight men being freed today, and consider exactly what to do in the light of this decision.” Once you are a “terrorist suspect”, it seems, not even a not-guilty verdict will help you. You may no longer be a suspect, but you are still, by definition, a terrorist . . .
A search of the archives reveals only 11 instances of the phrase “terrorist suspects” in the Guardian and Observer in the whole of the year 2000. There follows an implacable crescendo: 79 uses in 2001, growing to 127 in 2004, and 132 so far this year alone. Its prevalence thus follows the overall growth of “war on terror” rhetoric in recent years. The phrase is currently most likely to crop up in the public debates, in the US and the UK, about how best to balance security with civil liberties in the face of the undisputed threat from Islamist terrorism. But it is those very debates which it prejudices.
The assumption contained within the phrase “terrorist suspects” obviously makes it more comfortable to order torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial, or to export victims to regimes where it is known they will be tortured, a practice known in the US by the bland euphemism “rendition” and condemned last month by Human Rights Watch. After all, if we already know they’re guilty, then we don’t feel so morally squeamish about applying any possible sanction. “Terrorist suspects” can easily come to mean just “terrorists”, with the second word added as a verbal sop to bleeding-heart liberals but not taken seriously in a judicial process.
It is not as though there are not more accurate descriptions available to politicians and reporters: to say “suspected terrorist” or “terrorism suspect”, or even the headline-friendly “terror suspect”, does not carry the same prejudicial charge. But “terrorist suspect” sounds sexier, more arresting; it gets the buzzword “terrorist” into the mind first, and has a more pleasing rhythm to the eye and ear. It may have been encouraged from the top down – it has been regularly used in official White House news releases since September 11, 2001, for example, and appears in the UK’s Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act of December 2001 – but that is no excuse for the media’s widespread adoption of it.
To resist the use of this kind of irresponsible language does not imply that one does not also recognise the real difficulties of the issue. Clearly, you cannot wait until a terrorist kills hundreds of people before taking any action at all. But to accept the sly assumption of the phrase “terrorist suspects” is to assume the infallibility of police and intelligence services, in the face of notorious recent evidence that they can be very fallible indeed. Journalists have a responsibility to recognise prejudicial language for what it is. Any notion of fair and accurate reporting should require that the phrase “terrorist suspects” be erased from our lexicon.