Western governments are handing Islamist terrorists a victory by sacrificing liberty in the name of defending security
You do not defend liberty by undermining it. Yet, faced with the Islamist terror threat, this is exactly what the US and British governments are now doing. Instead of using liberty to fight tyranny, they are increasingly fighting tyranny with tyranny. Phone-tapping, email interception, detention without trial, control orders, torture and military tribunals. These are the arbitrary, secretive and authoritarian methods the “great democracies” now sanction on the grounds that they are defending our democratic way of life. This is, of course, no defence of democracy at all, but its stealthy, dangerous subversion.
Hard-won liberties are under attack on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War – partly from the mass murderers of al-Qaida and its off-shoots, and increasingly from our own democratic leaders and legislatures.
If truth is the first casualty of war, then liberty is the second. The “war on terror” has become, albeit often inadvertently, a war on liberty. Faced with the threat of mass terror attacks like 7/7, our government has concluded that maintaining both security and freedom is too complicated, difficult and costly. Liberty has to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Labour has opted for a quick fix – a plethora of menacing measures that invade our privacy, control public spaces and limit the legal rights of terror suspects. They can now be held by the police for up to 28-days without charge, which is the equivalent of a two month prison sentence.
Ostensibly for our own protection, the state puts millions of us under daily CCTV surveillance; requires ID checks and police permissions to access buildings, take photos, request information and hold protests; and it compiles data bases with vast quantities of personal information, including nearly 4 million DNA samples – many from people who have never been convicted of any criminal offence.
While these measures are, thus far, mostly benign, they create an infrastructure that could, at some point in the future, under a more authoritarian government, be manipulated for the malevolent purpose of state snooping and suppression.
I have first hand experience of the abuse of anti-terror powers, as have a growing number of peaceful protesters. In April 2005, I was seized by the police and detained under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. My crime? Displaying a placard calling for an end to the ban on same-sex marriage in Windsor High Street during the nearby wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. The placard read: “Charles can marry twice, gays can’t marry once.” According to the forces of law and order, my presence with this placard was a “potential” terrorist risk.
The threat to liberty is the theme of Professor A C Grayling’s masterful new book, Towards the Light – The story of the struggles for liberty and rights that made the modern West (Bloomsbury), which is published today, on the eve of the 9/11 terror attacks.
An inspiring defence of liberty, secularism, democracy and pluralism, it charts four centuries of progressive thought and popular struggles, which have led to the expansion of knowledge, rationality, humanitarianism and freedom. Although not without bloody, tragic reverses, such as imperialist subjugation and the Holocaust, the long-term historical trend in western nations since the Enlightenment has been to replace authoritarian clerical and monarchical rule with more representative, democratic and accountable forms of governance, together with greater political and religious toleration.
These changes paved the way – in the West – for the abolition of slavery and child labour; the securing of the right to protest and of freedom of expression and the press; the extension of the franchise, first to working class men and later to women; and the liberation of colonial peoples from imperial rule. These advances, in turn, gave birth to the ideas of universal human rights and international humanitarian law.
Grayling highlights five seminal documents in the struggle for liberty: The Bill of Rights (England,1689), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (France,1789), the Bill of Rights (United States,1791), the People’s Charter (Britain, 1837), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948).
Perhaps he should have also included the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples 1960. It has been the moral and legal basis for the liberation of hundreds of millions of people from the tyranny and exploitation of western colonial rule. In global terms, this right to national self-determination has been a truly major and profound extension of liberty.
Grayling’s concluding thesis is that in the name of safeguarding us from terrorism, governments increasingly put security before liberty. They sacrifice freedom in ways that are subtly and steadily undermining the precious human rights that have been accumulated through centuries of sacrifice and struggle against the totalitarianism of absolute monarchies, ecclesiastical autocracy and corrupt parliaments.
The war on terror has led the United States, a supposed democracy, to sanction the abuses of Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary renditions. Legal traditions dating back to the foundation of the republic are being eroded: due process and the rule of law, independent judicial oversight, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to trial by jury, access to legal representation and the public’s right to know details of the hundreds of people who are incarcerated in US jails on suspicion of terrorism.
The way the war on terror is being fought is eroding our freedom. George Bush and Gordon Brown are subverting democratic values in the name of defending them. They may defeat al-Qaida, but in the process our governments – not the terrorists – will have diminished many hard-won, cherished liberties.