Five years ago I wrote a blog post about the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court coming to Cambridge to give the Sir David Williams lecture. I was filled with hope, because he said that the Bill of Rights belongs to everyone. The truths our founders held to be self-evident were self-evident not only in North America, but in all the world.
But tonight I am filled with even more hope. Tonight Conor Gearty, an LSE professor of law and a human rights barrister gave the Sir David Williams lecture. Sir David Williams was my father-in-law. He wrote a book in the late sixties called Not In The Public Interest which was about balancing the public interests of transparent government and national security. Gearty looked at what is happening in Britain now - Snowden, the GCHQ, the assistance provided on the US drone attacks - and asked what David Williams would have thought. And he said we were in a period of "ethical abeyance" - that the UK had deluded itself into thinking it was a country fundamentally faithful to the rule of law, but in fact the actions of the government proved otherwise. He spoke of how we have moved into an "intelligence" state, where the state prioritizes gathering intelligence - regardless of two things. Regardless of the reliability of the intelligence as evidence and regardless of the rights of the people from whom the intelligence is taken.
Thus the ethical abeyance.
And this crowd - I can't even tell you, the crowd at this affair are the judges, the Supreme Court Judges, the Lords, the law professors - the people he was addressing four hours ago - they all agreed. They stood up to ask their questions and they started off by saying that they agreed with the premise of the talk . The premise that Sir David Williams had warned against state security overwhelming civil liberties and that his warning was right, and we had run afoul of it, and we were in ethical abeyance.
It may be that I'm just a big law geek, but the fact that the lawmakers and legal scholars and intellectuals of our age were standing in a lecture hall and agreeing with him seems significant to me. Like, really significant. Like I am on antibiotics right now and would like nothing better than to crawl into bed but I feel like I owe the universe - in my quest to reflect reality - I owe the universe a press release on the wonderful events of this evening.
In the question and answer period, one judge got up and questioned the premise. He said that torture is quite often worthwhile on utilitarian grounds, to save the lives of many at the expense of the rights of a few.
This kind of bullshit I blame on Keifer Sutherland. The problem is the TV show 24 was just too good. I mean, I love Breaking Bad as much as the next middle-class intelligent American but 24 was Breaking Bad times twenty. And people started to really think the moral choice to torture was as clear as the writers on 24 could make it. But of course it is not. It is never right to torture.
So Gearty listens to the pro-torture question with considerably less eye-rolling than me. (Me spraining my eye sockets) (Sitting in a place of hono(u)r in the front row)(the closest I will ever get to being Kate Middleton).
Gearty says that in that situation, a jury trial would surely vindicate the valid torturer. That evidence shown in the light of day under the rule of law should be the litmus test of torture, rather than the secret courts and secret tribunals that currently validated this ethical abeyance.
He spared little time on his talk for the civil liberties issue concerning me - domestic protest - but he was focusing on torture and drone attacks - otherwise known as murders that are international crimes. I can only concur with his priorities.
It was so great to have someone in a position of authority like that speak the truth. The only other time I had heard him speak was on an Occupy London livestream, and the laptop was way in the back. But in hono(u)r of Occupy - which is the movement that calls attention to this ethical abeyance -- when he finished his talks, I gave him the jazz hands. They are now called twinkles.
So I twinkled him. Because if the academics all agree that ethics have been set aside and the rule of law is an illusion, then we have made progress, and there is hope.
I think in the UK a consensus that a period of ethical abeyance is upon us is the predecessor of great change. This is the kind of conclusion they came to at Putney, and Bury St. Edmunds, and at St. Paul's Cathedral. And Runymede. The rule of law can be salvaged and justice is possible.