Devil's Advocate: ID cards won't stop terrorists

Haven't we learned this already?

Haven't we learned this already?

As with the war on drugs, the government has apparently made little progress in stopping terrorist attacks thus far. The latest remedy, ID cards, will not change this state of affairs, says Martin Brampton.

The government still thinks that ID cards will stop terrorists. Perhaps on the application form, there will be a box to tick if you are a terrorist. The sad fact is that our world is full of violence and there is little likelihood of ending it unless we can think of an entirely new approach.

In the meantime, governments trot out remedies that have more to do with avoiding ridicule by the tabloids than with achieving any particular result. The Home Secretary concedes that ID cards would not stop actual incidents but argues that it would damage the financial and organisational networks behind terrorists.

This is, of course, wildly inconsistent with another theme that constantly runs through the reaction to the threat of violence. The bombers are characterised as madmen, beyond the bounds of ordinary humanity. Yet they are simultaneously believed to be capable of sophisticated financial and logistical organisation - and of creating schemes that could only be disrupted by subjecting us all to an eavesdropping, supervising and interfering society.

To see whether this kind of thing would be likely to succeed, we could turn away from terrorism and consider another, only slightly less emotive topic. Governments have become fond of waging wars of all kinds, despite the unhealthy echoes of Orwell's novel 1984. The war on drugs has been one of the most prominent for some years now.

If they expect to be believed, one might have thought members of the government would refer us to their successful track record in the war on drugs. But of course they cannot do so. The results have been risibly negligible as sections of the nation seemingly become ever more in the grip of drug taking.

Enormous publicity is given to seizures of drugs and their so-called street value is always proclaimed to the press. Naturally, this is about as meaningful as grabbing a sack of coffee beans at the docks and proclaiming what its 'street value' will be after it turned up on the supermarket shelf as a jar of instant coffee.

In fact, government concedes that seizures are only a small proportion of the flow of drugs, and as likely to stop drug taking as the tax on alcohol is likely to stop drinking. Indeed, the drinks industry would doubtless be delighted to hand over a percentage of its production in exchange for being relieved of tax, putting it on a more level footing with the drugs business.

Naturally, the fact that some drugs are lost to seizures is a factor in the calculations of drug dealers, as is the loss of personnel to lengthy prison sentences. None of these things stop the business, though, if anything they simply help to push up prices and profits.

Now drug dealers are merely in it for the money, and that produces enough violence and determined law evasion to ensure a continuing flow of drugs to those that want them. Government schemes have made it impossible for little old ladies to open bank accounts, because they have neither driving licences nor passports. But there is no evidence that law enforcement have impeded the flow of drug money.

And if the government cannot seriously impede people who are only in it for the money, how much less chance does it stand against those who believe themselves to be on a mission of the utmost importance? So important to some of them that they are perfectly willing to die for the cause?

It is clear enough that increasing interference with ordinary life can have a deleterious effect on the life of the generally law abiding citizen. There is scant evidence that ID cards or other controls on the individual will make a significant difference to our safety against the threat of bombs and such like.