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Pass the Fish and Chips... Oh, And A Little Respect for Civil Liberties Please

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
ACLU
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October 16, 2008

As an international politics major at Penn State, some of my favorite classes where those dealing with the study of comparative politics. I always found it interesting to explore the similarities and points of difference between governments and political systems around the world. Yes, I know, I’m a dork.

The same goes for exploring the civil rights and civil liberties traditions of different countries now that I am at the ACLU. So imagine my civil libertarian delight to read the other day that the British House of Lords had defeated, by an overwhelming majority, an extremely disturbing proposal that would have given the government the ability to hold citizen terror suspects for an astounding 42 days without charge or judicial recourse. By way of comparison, the maximum amount of time a citizen can be held without charge under federal law in the U.S. is 48-hours (unless you have the misfortune to be labeled an “illegal enemy combatant” … cough, cough).

The fact that this proposal was resoundingly defeated and opposed by individuals from across the political spectrum got me thinking. If in England, why not here? Why is it that the UK’s House of Lords can stand up to abuses of power that trample fundamental liberties, but our own Congress rolled over and approved the Bush administration’s program of illegal, unconstitutional wiretapping and has tolerated the indefinite, years’ long detention of terror suspects without charge.

It seems to me that our own far-too-timid elected representatives and senators could learn a lesson from this victory for liberty. Sadly, however, it seems that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government is seeking to have this victory overturned. Despite the defeat of the 42-day legal black hole, Brown and company have redrafted the proposal and appear to be waiting for a terrorist attack in England to drop it on Parliament once more, knowing that it is a lot easier to push through noxious attacks on civil liberties in a climate permeated by fear and uncertainty. (Patriot Act passage anyone?)

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