Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to American Bar Association ("we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend")

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Albert Hall, South Kensington, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments: 1438-c1515.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2901
Themes: British Constitution (general discussions), Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (International organizations), Foreign policy (USA), Law & order, Media, Northern Ireland, Terrorism, Voluntary sector & charity, Famous statements by MT

I am delighted to have this opportunity to welcome on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, and as a member myself of the Bar of England and Wales, this great Meeting of the American Bar Association. I hope that your time in the United Kingdom will not be all work and no play. Perhaps you will make a pilgrimage of professional piety to St. Ives in Cornwall, named after the Patron Saint of Advocates. He was renowned for espousing the causes of the poor and the oppressed. In his native Brittany his anniversary is celebrated by a High Mass, at which it is customary to sing this eulogy: [end p1]

“Advocatus quo non latro Res miranda populo”

A popular translation runs as follows—

“An advocate but not a thief, A thing well nigh beyond belief”.

Mr. President, no profession is more sadly misunderstood by the public than that of the advocate—unless it be that of the politician. We lead not so much with the chin as with the mouth: volenti non fit injuria would be a complete defence to any complaint that any of us might make. [end p2]

But the theme of your meeting—justice for a generation—is a fit subject for lawyers and for politicians. We both have a special responsibility to see that our generation gets justice.

What do we understand by Justice?

For justice to prevail the most basic requirement is the rule of law.

It was your Felix Frankfurter who said:

“Limited as law is, it is all that we have standing between us and the tyranny of mere [end p3] will and the cruelty of unbridled feeling”.

How those words ring out today across a world that is wracked by terrorism, hijacking, mob violence and intimidation. How thin is the crust of order over the fires of human appetite and the lust for naked power.

The rule of law has only prevailed for comparatively short periods of history. It exists today in only a small part of the world, of which your country and mine are the Centre. [end p4] We share the Magna Carta. We share the Bill of Rights. We share Habeas Corpus. We share the Common Law. You have enshrined all that we hold dear in that most splendid statement of liberty, the Declaration of Independence.

But the rule of law of itself does not guarantee justice. As Edmund Burke, a most ardent advocate for your cause, put it: “It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do: but what humanity, reason and justice tell me I ought to do”. [end p5] That is why the law needs to be fashioned and administered with an awareness of the contemporary concerns of the world outside the court. The law cannot stand separate from the society of which it is part.

Law and Politics

This indeed is the frontier on which the politician and the lawyer meet and mingle.

The desire for justice imposes very firm requirements on the politician. First a recognition that he can never be above the law. [end p6] Second, his unstinting support for the courts which administer the law and for the police who enforce it.

And third, in constructing legislation, his duty to give an honest account of what is practicable and not merely a rhetorical account of what is desirable.

Justice also requires those in public life to repudiate a number of fashionable heresies. The first hersy is that if only a determined minority gather together in large enough numbers to bully or to intimidate others the law either will not, or cannot be enforced [end p7] against them. The inference is not only that there is safety in numbers but that this brings with it some kind of collective immunity from legal process. It does not. And it must not. No matter whether those numbers are mobilised by football hooligans, political agitators or industrial pickets: crime is no less crime just because it is committed en masse.

A second fashionable heresy is that, if you feel sufficiently strongly about some particular issue, be it nuclear weapons, racial [end p8] discrimination or animal liberation, you are entitled to claim superiority to the law and are therefore absolved. This is arrogant nonsense and deserves to be treated as such.

It brings me to a third heresy, namely that the law can be obeyed selectively. Those groups who would pick and choose among our laws, obeying some and breaking others, imperial liberty itself. The law must stand as a whole and be obeyed as a whole. “Liberty is the right to do anything which the law permits” wrote Montesquieu in [end p9] 1745, “and if a citizen were able to do what the law forbids he would no longer have liberty, since all other citizens would have the same ability”.

Justice and Democracy

Mr. President, I passionately believe that there is a further pre-requisite for justice, and that is democracy. Order we need, but not arbitrary order. This year Britain and the United States celebrate together the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Third Reich. It called itself the New Order: order there certainly was, a despotic order with no [end p10] system of justice independent of the ruling party. In our own day we can gaze across the brutal Berlin wall in the direction of those vast land masses where there is order but no liberty, where there are people's courts but no justice for people. You cannot have justice unless you have the right to challenge the Government in the courts. Nor can you have it without the right to change a Government and the laws by constitutional means if the majority so desire. [end p11]

But there is more to democracy than one man, one vote.

What good is it to vote unless you are offered a real choice? A choice of views as well as a choice of candidate? After all, Soviet Communism gives everyone the vote. There is no tyranny on earth today which does not make some ritual bow in the direction of universal suffrage.

The foundation of these two great principles, democracy and the rule of law, is not only the rule of the majority; it is a recognition and [end p12] acceptance that everyone has a basic right to freedom and to justice, a right which is God-given not state-given, a right so fundamental that no mere government is entitled to take it away.

Protection against Crime

If we are to obtain the justice for our generation which is the theme of your meeting we must find more effective ways of protecting our citizens from crime. This is not just a matter of giving the police more men and equipment, important as [end p13] that is. The police cannot do the job on their own. They deserve—and need—our active support. Those who refuse to speak up for them when their support is needed are little better than the carping critics whose voice is so often heard today. Every one of us has to accept our responsibility as a citizen. No-one can opt out.

Mr. President, the ease with which we sometimes say “better 99 guilty men go free than one [end p14] innocent man be convicted” may make us forget how essential it is to the preservation of ordered and civilised society that the guilty should be convicted and adequately punished. Our systems are rightly weighted in favour of the accused. But this should not blind us to the fact that the arsquouittal of a guilty person constitutes a miscarriage of justice just as much as the conviction of the innocent. It also exposes law-abiding citizens and the police to more danger—and as always it is the weak who suffer most. [end p15] The feeling is also growing in our country—and elsewhere—that some of the sentences which have been passed have not measured up to the enormity of the crimes. This Government therefore recently brought before Parliament a Bill including a clause which would have enabled the Court of Appeal to review the appropriateness of a sentence passed in the Lower Court.

Decisions would not affect the sentence in the case in question. But it would give a guide to the kind of sentence which might be expected in similar cases in the future. [end p16]

The procedure was to be used only sparingly.

Sadly the Bill did not get through.

I say sadly, because those who so strenuously opposed the Bill appeared to ignore the very real anxiety of ordinary people that too many sentences do not fit the crime.

This issue is not closed. Our constituents are constantly reminding us of the depth and strength of public feeling and we shall bring the matter back before Parliament so that this concern can be met. [end p17]


Mr. President, for our generation, particularly for our younger generation, there is one further threat to justice which is insidious, dangerous and international. It is the evil of drug addiction and abuse. We can tackle this only if we work together.

I recently raised it at the meeting of the seven Economic Summit countries in Bonn and found that all other leaders, particularly President Reagan shared my deep concern. We must act: [end p18]

Against the grower and producer. Through crop eradication.

Against the trafficker and the pusher. Through the unremitting efforts of customs and police. Through tougher sentences, including stripping traffickers of their profits from the sale of drugs. You already have a law to that effect. We shall introduce one in the next session of Parliament. Together we must attack every link in the chain. And all the time we must never cease to tell [end p19] young people of the dangers. And help those who have succumbed to climb back to normal life again.

We should bring home the simple moving message of one young girl, 18 years old, addicted to heroin, cocaine and anything she could lay her hands on. She was crippled from her addiction. She'd lost her home, her friends and almost her life. She said: “It was all such a waste”.

How different from the sight and sound of those [end p20] marvellous young people of Live Aid in both Wembley and Philadelphia on Saturday who flashed their message of help and hope across the world. That was humanity in action. That was the young people of Britain and America moved by the plight of others thousands of miles away, using the magic of technology to restate in the language of pop the age-old brotherhood of man. We thank and congratulate them for the marvellous lead they gave. [end p21]


That was the good news.

The bad news is that the same satellites that carried this message had brought home to us only a few days before the savage threat of terrorism. President Reagan made a powerful speech on this issue before your Association last week. Here in the United Kingdom we bear its scars and live with its threats every day. The terrorists uses force because he knows he will never get his way by democratic means. [end p22]

In the last fifteen years or so some 2,500 of our people have been murdered by terrorists in the United Kingdom. We are grateful for the firm stand which your President and Congress have taken against contributions of money and arms to the IRA. We are also most appreciative of the action of your Administration in inviting Congress to ratify speedily an extradition treaty which will help us bring before the courts those who commit these terrible crimes. That would indeed be justice for this generation.

The terrorist uses force because he knows he will never [end p23] get his way by democratic means.

Through calculated savagery, his aim is to induce fear in the hearts of people. And weariness towards resistance.

In this evil strategy, the actions of the media are all important. For newspapers and television, acts of terrorism inevitably make good copy and compelling viewing. The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity: without it, their activities and their influence are sharply curtailed. There is a fearful progression, which the [end p24] terrorists exploit to the full. They see how acts of violence and horror dominate the newspaper columns and television screens of the free world. They see how that coverage creates a natural wave of sympathy for the victims and pressure to end their plight no matter what the consequence. And the terrorists exploit it. Violence and atrocity command attention. We must not play into their hands.

Mr. President, let us make no mistake: the threat from terrorism is growing constantly. The terrorist has access to ever more money. He operates across national boundaries. [end p25] Modern technology makes the terrorists job easier and that of the security forces more difficult.

Now there is a new dimension, brought home to us in the horrific hijacking of your TWA aircraft a few weeks ago: not only an aircraft but an airport were in the hands of hijackers.

Increasingly we see evidence of links between the terrorist groups of different countries. They share funds, training, intelligence and weapons—and a total ruthlessness. [end p26]

Could anything more clearly point up the need for the Governments and security services of all civilised nations to work together against such people? For a victory for terrorism anywhere is a victory for terrorism everywhere.

Nor is terrorism confined to countries where lawlessness and anarchy prevail. Its followers abuse the very freedom of open societies to do their evil work. Where they cannot get their way by the ballot box they use the bomb. They intimidate or they eliminate those who stand in their way. [end p27]

The more open our society, the more we must be on our guard. Civilised societies cannot use the weapons of terrorism to fight the terrorist. But we must take every possible precaution to protect ourselves: sustained security measures for our aircraft and our airports: constant checking of people and luggage however irksome: combined action to penalise countries which harbour and assist terrorists: and above all the closest possible cooperation on pre-emptive intelligence. Too often in the past our countries have [end p28] begun well but then slackened and grown complacent, making ourselves easier targets.

We have behind us many fine declarations and communiques of good intent. We need action; action to which all countries are committed until the terrorist knows that he has no haven, no escape. Alas that is far from true today.

And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in [end p29] censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists' morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?

Most vital of all, we must have the will power never to give in to the terrorist. Your Government and ours are at one on this.

Therefore, let me say: we in Britain will not accede to the terrorists' demands. The law will be applied to them as to all [end p30] other criminals. Prisoners will not be released. Statements in support of the terrorists' cause will not be made. If hijacked aircraft land here, they will not be allowed to take off. For in conceding terrorist demands the long term risks are even greater than the immediate dangers.

In Benjamin Franklin 's words: “Those who would give up essential liberty to preserve a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”. That is the message when dealing with [end p31] open societies face. And the need to control and eliminate them underlines the importance of strengthening international law.

It is now 40 years since the United Nations Charter was launched with such high hopes. Yet in that time we have not seen the emergence of an effective and enforceable body of public international law. In relations between countries, justice is still a remote ideal. All too often might not right prevails. I recall the sombre words of the classical historian who described our world as one [end p32] where the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.

In a nuclear world, therefore, it is all the more important that countries stand by the Treaties and commitments which they have undertaken.

Particularly important are those treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union which govern their strategic relations: the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreements and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These agreements provide the foundation for our present structure of deterrence on [end p33] which rest our hopes for peace.

They are the framework within which negotiations to reduce nuclear weapons are taking place in Geneva. That is why I was delighted when President Reagan recently announced his decision that the United States would continue to abide by the SALT TWO constraints; and would negotiate on the deployment of any defensive system which may emerge from the SDI research programme in accordance with the terms of the ABM Treaty.

One other treaty deserves special mention, [end p34] the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty whose Review Conference is held this year. Our two countries were among its principal architects. Signed by nearly 130 countries, four-fifths of the membership of the UN, it has checked the spread of nuclear weapons and helped to make safe the trade in nuclear materials and equipment. You may recall that in the Sixties it was widely predicted that by 1985 there would be up to 20 more nuclear weapon states. In fact only one state—not a party to the Treaty—has in that time demonstrated a capacity to detonate a nuclear device. [end p35] It is vital to our generation that this treaty be preserved and extended to other nations who have not yet signed it. This is the security we seek and only the law can provide it. For the law is the condition not only of the survival of nations but for the maintenance of liberty and justice within nations.

Conclusion: The Law as a creative and liberalising force

For nationally and internationally the law is not only a negative and restraining force, it is a [end p36] creative and liberating force. It enables the individual, within the framework of order, to exercise his talents freely, in the sure knowledge that the just rewards of those talents will be secure.

As so often Rudyard Kipling has the last word: Keep ye the Law—be swift in all obedience—Clear the land of evil, drive the road and bridge the ford. Make ye sure to each his own That he reap where he hath sown; By the peace among our peoples let men know we serve the Lord.