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Shawcross unlikely to be able to judge extremism

What do you do with a neocon who thinks Islam is a ‘terrifying problem’ in Europe and wrote a book to justify torturing terror suspects? Make him the ‘independent reviewer’ for Prevent. SOLOMON HUGHES reports

WILLIAM SHAWCROSS, the “independent reviewer” of the government’s “counter-extremism” policy Prevent, is worried that people who object to what they call his “track record of hostility to Islam and Muslims” are twisting his words.

So I want to do him the favour of quoting his words directly. Though frankly they sound to me like an authoritarian extremist, justifying torture.

Under Prevent, teachers, doctors and social workers must refer people they think are influenced by “extremism” to the police. In practice this means mostly Islamist extremism with some small attention to far-right extremism.

Civil liberties group Liberty says: “The definition of extremism under Prevent is so wide that thousands of people are being swept up by it — including children engaging in innocuous conduct, people protesting [against] climate change and a nurse who began wearing a hijab.”

Like other civil liberties groups it argues that Prevent “embeds discrimination in public services,” creating mistrust among British Muslims who feel spied on and should be less catch-all.

When the Guardian reported on objections to Shawcross’s appointment because of his record of justifying torture and apparent hostility to Muslims, he wrote the paper a letter, which was also published on the government’s website:

“I have attempted to deal head-on with the thorny moral and legal issues that emerged as the West responded to the threat of Islamist terrorism after 9/11. This has led to some of my views being misrepresented or misinterpreted.”

Shawcross is a journalist who travelled the path from being a liberal youth to a right-wing royalist in his old age. He got very keen on the War On Terror, writing Justice and the Enemy — a 2011 book on prosecuting terrorists.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the CIA used new interrogation techniques against suspects, including “waterboarding.” Shawcross now claims his book dealt with “thorny moral” issues. But in the book he says it is hard to be clear about “the difficult frontier between illegal torture and legitimate interrogation.”

According to Shawcross “the enhanced interrogation techniques” used after September 11 were OK because they “required numerous levels of authorisation prior to use and were put into effect under carefully controlled circumstances including medical supervision. Some of them were undoubtedly painful, but none of them was intended to inflict intense pain — like, say, the pulling out of fingernails — or to cause lasting physical damage.”

“Not as bad as pulling out fingernails” sounds like a grim excuse for torture — but the real story makes it worse. As far back as 2005 Human Rights Watch was able to point to prisoners killed by “black site” interrogation: at least one died of hypothermia after the “enhanced” technique of being doused with cold water and kept in a freezing cell.

Two more were killed by being chained and beaten. If Shawcross could not see that being killed was “lasting physical damage” in 2011, it’s hard to imagine him worrying about Prevent being too authoritarian in 2021.

Shawcross argued that we should look at “careful, nuanced observations” on torture rather than listen to “angry critics of the US government.”

He quotes one academic giving what he thinks is making a “careful” argument, saying: “What’s so wrong with verbal threats, sleep deprivation or even waterboarding? Can’t these, too, be administered without sadistic pleasure or malice.”

The academic continues: “I imagine they can. In which case their proper name is ‘aggressive interrogation’ rather than ‘torture’.”

To me — and even to friendly reviewers of his book when it was released — that looks like Shawcross promoting an apology for torture, not a “nuanced observation.”

Shawcross also offered arguments that torture could still be morally justified as a “lesser evil,” than faced with a mythical “ticking time-bomb scenario” we should remember that “although torture is hideous, it can work and is widely practised.” The “independent reviewer” role was created to make sure Prevent does not go too far, but it is hard to imagine Shawcross offering any restraint.

Shawcross also served as a director of the neocon-ish think tank the Henry Jackson Society — backed by Michael Gove and became a Tory favourite from that point. As a 2012 Henry Jackson Society director, Shawcross said: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.” This also suggests he won’t be too worried about any prejudice in Prevent.

If we do look at Shawross’s actual words — the ones I have put inside quotation marks above, then appointing him as “independent reviewer” of the government’s “counter-extremism” policy Prevent looks like a two-fingered salute to civil liberty groups worried about authoritarianism and prejudice in government.


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