The police protect us, but occasionally we also need to be protected from them
Opinion: What happened to David Miranda shows what could happen to any of us
Glenn Greenwald (left) embraces his partner, David Miranda, upon his arrival at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport on August 19th. He had been detained and questioned at length by British police at Heathrow airport on the previous day.
Who will guard us against our guardians, who will secure us against our security services? That age-old question is raised in a vivid way by the incident at Heathrow airport last Sunday.
The police at Heathrow detained David Miranda for nine hours, questioned him in his own words about his “whole life”, and raided his computer, his thumb drives and his mobile phone. And they did this, apparently, in full compliance with schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
The authorities have made a number of suggestions as to why we ought not to be disturbed by this episode. None of them is persuasive, none reassuring.
One storyline has been that there is no reason for concern because this was normal police procedure, not a politically motivated decision. As a home office spokesperson explained: “It is for the police to decide when it is necessary and proportionate to use these powers.”
The idea mooted here is presumably that we should not be concerned about police conduct when it is taken at the discretion of the officers involved and not under pressure from on high. But that’s hardly a source of consolation. It still conveys the message that each of us passes through Heathrow, or any international transit point in Britain, at peril of being subjected to similar treatment.
Another suggestion has been that we ought not be concerned about Sunday’s episode, since the police did what they did in the cause of fighting crime and terrorism. A statement from London’s Metropolitan Police argued in this vein that “holding and properly using intelligence gained from such stops is a key part of fighting crime, pursuing offenders and protecting the public”.
Protection from police protection
This justification should hardly console us either. As the principle cited at the beginning implies, not only do we need to be protected by the police; we also need to be protected from the police. The experience of Miranda at Heathrow suggests that Britain’s legislators ignored this insight in their design of schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act.
If it is possible for the police, at their own judgment, to detain and interrogate someone without any apparent connection to terrorism, then it is possible for the police to treat any one of us in the same way. After all, there appears to have been no ground for detaining Miranda other than the fact he was associated with a journalist who had exposed the United States to adverse publicity. It is ironic, of course, that that publicity related to the sort of invasive abuse exemplified by the police action itself.
A final suggestion as to why we ought not be unduly concerned has been that the police action was an atypical exercise of the police’s power under schedule 7, and not indicative of their general conduct.