Special Powers

The French government has passed emergency legislation in a bid to halt the days of rioting that have raging - much to the delight of Fox News. Included in the package is the right to impose and enforce curfews, and the right to search suspect's homes without a warrant.

There's a great saying: Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. So what does history say about situations like this?

Well, first, there's the trend that "emergency powers" passed to handle a certain problem or situation are rarely inspired by that single situation. In the wake of 9/11, both Britain and the USA passed legislation (in both cases it was mostly strengthening and widening existing laws), ostensibly to combat terrorism. Yet in both cases, the powers granted were powers that had been sought by the respective law enforcement organisations for many years, and such powers had been denied in the past. This is not to say, of course, that the powers weren't useful in combating terrorism, but one should not buy the notion that the idea sprung into being on that day. How long have French law enforcement organisations been asking for these powers?

Secondly, there's the trend that such powers will be misused. To clarify: in this sense, "misuse" constitutes an act which would not have been legal without the new legislation, but which is outside of the stated reasons for the new legislation. For example, the Labour party used anti-terrorism laws to eject and detain an old man who protested the government's justifications for the war in Iraq, and the USA PATRIOT act was used to investigate businessmen in Las Vegas who had absolutely no connection to any terrorism, not even causing Tony Blair to get a bit upset. Police chiefs in France probably reacted to the news about warrantless searches by immediately reaching for the files marked "Scumbags We Don't Have Enough Evidence To Get Behind Bars". Many searches will probably be carried out on "suspected" rioters houses.

Finally, and probably most worryingly, such powers are very difficult to withdraw once issued. Britons fought long and hard to end the laws requiring ID cards after WWII, and the war isn't over, they're still at it. When the situation in Northern Ireland seemed to be calming down, moves to reduce the scope of the Anti-Terrorism Acts were blocked repeatedly, and 9/11 simply gave the excuse needed to shore them up beyond any assault. The USA PATRIOT act hasn't been allowed to expire, and they're even talking about widening it further.

As with the examples above, there can be no doubt that the new laws in France will do the job they're touted to do - help police quell the riots, making the streets safe(er) for law-abiding citizens (and, thus, doing the job they're paid for) - but laws don't exist in a vacuum. Even if the laws are issued with the best of intentions, they will be misused, they will be stretched, they will be clung to long after their usefulness has gone.

France has allowed itself to fall into the trap of passing knee-jerk legislation to solve a problem that shouldn't have been allowed to exist in the first place.

That's called "papering over the cracks" and it doesn't work any better for government than it does for decorating.

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