42 Days

By Shami Chakrabarti

Time is a strange thing. There is no doubt that I have felt its passage speed up, slow down and resume normal service at various times in my 38 years. Increasingly, I remember notable events from my own childhood more vividly than those of yesterday and wonder with increasing concern which memories of five-year-old life will provide the cabin luggage for my son’s thirties.

There are many arguments in favour of our evolved notions of justice, but simple human fallibility has long been my favourite. Individual frailty that becomes systemic imperfection and that requires prompt charges, defence lawyers, presumed innocence and reasonable doubt to redress it. In England these essentials are older than running water and should be undeniable. But the fear of terrorism has been more about effect than effectiveness.

Now they say that 28 days is too short a period between arresting a terror suspect and charging him with a criminal offence. They say that the instinct for protection and revenge is stronger and simpler than the instinct for justice, so ripping up Magna Carta ought to play well with the public. I turn to my very own five-year-old focus group, my son, and try the question on him. I ask him how he would feel if people thought he had committed a terrible crime and arrested him for 42 days without telling him exactly what he had done. He replied that this would be unfair. I asked him why. “Because they didn’t give you the chance to really say anything and what if you didn’t even do it?”

Not exactly a controlled experiment when a human-rights’ campaigner talks to her son this way. He’s a smart kid who might well have predicted the right answer for his niche audience. The comment has the ring of poignant truth about it nonetheless. Six weeks is a very long time indeed to my little boy—too many meals, sleeps and stories even to contemplate. But how much shorter would it really be to the small child, elderly parent or impatient employer of a suspect from Bradford who might, in the end, turn out to be the wrong Mr Khan? Would it be any shorter to the extremists and recruiters who would surely make hay from the umpteen injustices that such modernised medievalism would bring? Time is a strange thing.