Equal treatment under the law only really works when not everybody counts as human. The classical Athenians enjoyed their freedom behind a franchise firewall that kept most people out; the parliamentarians of John Locke’s time accorded each other equal respect but contrived to notice no one else. The truths held to be self-evident by the founding ‘fathers’ of the United States a couple of generations later only applied to rich white men.
During the 19th century, British labour activists and Irish nationalists found the law to be good at protecting the Salvation Army and anti-nationalist rabbles, but not so good (entirely absent actually) where their own activities were concerned. In 1925, the home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, defended an egregious prosecution of Communists by explaining that they had not been engaged in the ‘right kind of freedom of speech’. Fascists could march but protests by unemployed workers were brutally broken up.
Double standards have long been used by unequal societies to receive and tame ideas which are potentially challenging to power, turning ethical principles into means of supporting rather than subverting inequality. The human rights era has made little difference.
‘Human rights’ is a term turned on and off by the executive to suit its needs. The foreign secretary tells the world to adopt human rights while the prime minister promises to abolish them at home. Bolivian cat-owners must be thrown out of the country and Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan sent to face potential life imprisonment in US jails, as Theresa May proudly reminded the House of Commons on Tuesday, but Gary McKinnon’s illness elicited from the home secretary a solicitude bordering on the sentimental – and, incidentally, unwarranted by human rights law, as the judges had already found. (It won’t happen again: ‘Matters such as representations on human rights grounds,’ May said, ‘should, in future, be considered by the high court rather than the home secretary.’)
The difference in treatment is partly about where we are from but also about who we are, whether we really are ‘citizens’ or just ‘pseudo-citizens’, fraudulent interlopers. The names are usually enough: Gary McKinnon as opposed to, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen killed by US forces in Yemen in September 2011, or Osama Awadallah, another American who was held and brutally treated by the US authorities for over ten weeks after 11 September 2001. Everyone subject to a UK control order at the time the regime came to an end was British, and though their names have not been released we can be pretty sure they were not a bunch of John Smiths. (Though John Smiths occasionally get into trouble too: Brandon Mayfield was held by the FBI on wrongful suspicion of having been involved in the 2004 Madrid bombings. His conversion to Islam must have confused the authorities, but at least he got $2 million compensation, the benefit, perhaps, of having once been a real American.)
Double standards are what make our neo-democratic world tick. We design a system of apparently universal standards which we then ensure is partially applied – but usually in a way that we can hide from ourselves, and so preserve our egalitarian ethic as well as our privilege. It is a virtue of the current home secretary’s approach to politics that she makes the hypocrisy briefly unmistakable.