With more soldiers killed this year in Irish Republican Army terrorist attacks than any time in the past 10 years, Britain's grim determination to take some action is understandable. But doing away with a 300-year-old civil right would be the wrong approach to take.
A proposed law to eliminate an arrested suspect's right to remain silent when questioned by police has been introduced in the House of Commons by Margaret Thatcher's government. And with the large Conservative majority, it is expected to pass.But such a law raises questions about the wisdom of protecting a nation by destroying its civil liberties. It is particularly troublesome since the proposed law would affect not only IRA terrorists, but everybody arrested for any crime.
A suspect could refuse to answer questions, but that silence could be used against him. Under the proposed legislation, British courts would be allowed to "attach whatever weight they think proper to the fact that someone remained quiet when questioned."
Britain does not have a "Bill of Rights," as such, but its civil liberties are entrenched in common law and court decisions. The right to remain silent dates back to 1640 and was adopted in response to inquisitorial methods of justice at the time, including the use of torture. That same idea was adopted by the former colonies in America, but was formally included as a written Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
Doing away with the right to remain silent won't automatically bring back torture as a means of questioning, but it does undercut the basic idea that the accuser must prove the guilt of the accused. In effect, it could make silence tantamount to confession, and that is plain wrong.
The frustration of dealing with terrorist organizations can be great. But that frustration must not be allowed to become justification for limiting ancient and necessary liberties.
If that does happen, then the terrorists will have won.