In parliament chambers and Cabinet rooms around the globe, the fears and suspicions of a world on edge are fast translating into the cold legal language of police power.
In London, New Delhi and beyond, these stern new anti-terrorism laws have now themselves become, for some, a cause for worry.
“First it was communism. Now it’s terrorism,” said Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, complaining that his city-state’s government has always found justifications for stifling civil liberties.
In Russia, Spain, India and elsewhere, some foresee the anti-terror offensive being turned into a campaign against political dissent.
Government leaders counter that if they are to head off terror attacks, they have no choice but to equip police and intelligence agencies with new authority to eavesdrop, to dip into private files, to lock away people on mere suspicions.
French President Jacques Chirac, for one, says the times require extraordinary measures, “in proportion to the gravity of the risks, the scale of which was revealed by the mass crimes perpetrated September 11 in the United States.”
Britain’s home secretary, David Blunkett, trying to cool a fiery debate last month in the House of Lords, defended his government’s counterterrorism proposals as “a proportionate and necessary response to the tragic events of September 11.”
In the aftermath of that historic day, Washington led the way in expanding state security powers. Through legislation and presidential order, the U.S. government has resorted to secret detentions of hundreds of people, to loosened rules on wiretapping, to listening in on lawyer-client conversations, to contemplating military tribunals for terrorism suspects.
Other governments have followed suit. The British, Australians and Indians have adopted or will soon approve laws enabling intelligence and enforcement agents to detain terrorism suspects without trial, keeping them off the streets while searching for evidence against them.
Some human-rights advocates are alarmed, including Terry O’Gorman in Australia, where the government plans to allow its intelligence agency to hold people for questioning for 48 hours without legal representation. Such powers are an invitation to mistreatment, said Mr. O’Gorman, president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties.
“Any system that keeps lawyers out of police stations or detention centers where powers can be abused is fraught with dangers,” he said.
Australia’s government also proposes giving intelligence the authority to intercept e-mail, one example of moves worldwide, including in Canada, India and Italy, to authorize more extensive tapping of private communications.
Italy’s parliament also put a new crime on the books, association for the purpose of international terrorism, recalling the use of “criminal association” charges to round up Italian mobsters.
Europe’s noisiest debate over eroding liberties played out in London’s Parliament chambers.
The ruling Laborites pushed through a package allowing the government to detain foreigners indefinitely without trial on suspicion of terrorism, and giving police more power to sift through personal financial and tax records. But in the upper, unelected House of Lords, the legislation ran into a wall of protest, with Conservative leader Lord Strathclyde saying it encompassed “the most far-reaching powers ever seen in peacetime.”
He objected that police would be empowered “to commandeer private and personal information on the merest suspicion of a criminal offense quite unrelated to terrorism.”
In their final form, approved after midnight early Dec. 14, the government scaled back the intrusions on privacy and agreed to judicial review of open-ended detentions.
In Berlin, the debate was muted as the German Parliament gave police authority to seek information on individuals from financial institutions, telecommunications companies and airlines all previously prohibited.
The government also gained the power to outlaw religious organizations for promoting ideals that could be linked to terrorism. In a land long a haven for Middle Eastern exiles, the first group banned was an Islamic organization called Caliphate State.
The European Union itself took the significant step of adopting a common arrest warrant, effective in 2004, by which a suspect wanted in one country will be tracked in all 15 EU nations and turned over without lengthy extradition procedures.
The EU also approved a comprehensive anti-terrorism package on Dec. 28 that established a common definition of terrorism and published a list of groups branded as terrorist.
Negotiations over that blacklist spilled over into the gray areas of European politics.
The Basque ETA separatists, who have claimed more than 800 killings in Spain over 33 years, were listed as a terrorist organization. But the Spanish government had also tried to blacklist the Batasuna party, ETA’s political wing, a move seen by some as an attempt to crush Basque nationalism. The EU refused to go along.
A world away in Singapore, angry opposition leaders accused that government, too, of turning terrorism fears to its political advantage by canceling voting at its embassies in the Nov. 3 election, citing security concerns. The overseas vote had been expected to help the opposition.
The Singapore government says its fears are well founded. In December it detained 14 Singaporeans and a Malaysian on suspicion of plotting bombings of U.S. targets in the city-state, and of links to the al Qaeda network.
India has suffered its own terrorist bloodshed for years, but sweeping new police powers including communications intercepts and detention without charge trouble many in that turbulent democracy. They fear the new law could be turned against political dissenters.
Similar concerns unsettle liberal lawmakers in Moscow, where the government is advocating a ban on use of the media to oppose “counterterrorist” operations. Such a law could stifle criticism of Russian military actions in breakaway Chechnya or elsewhere, say critics of the measure.
“They wrote an anti-terrorism bill but aimed it against freedom of speech,” wrote commentator Otto Latsis in the daily Novye Izvestia.
Fresh memories of state repression are slowing the rush to legislate in some places in Prague, for example, where the Czech Senate refused to broaden the scope of police surveillance. But fear and suspicion elsewhere are giving open societies a sterner look.
In Denmark, the justice minister declared that whoever it was who waved a Palestinian flag in Copenhagen after the September 11 attacks could have been locked up under a proposed new anti-terror law.
This erosion of traditional rights to due process and open trials, privacy and free speech drew a rare joint statement from 17 independent experts who work with the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.