Stop trying to balance liberty with security
Exaggerated fear of terrorism should not be allowed to water down our most fundamental freedoms.
From the countless amendments and additions to the Counter Terrorism Act to the ever-expanding Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, there’s no doubting that British anti-terrorist legislation since 9/11 now constitutes a mightily oppressive edifice.
Under the powers granted to the state over the past 10 years, we can be imprisoned on the basis of so-called inciteful speech, we can be detained without charge for days upon end, we can be held under de facto house arrest, we can be stopped and searched at will… on and on the liberty-squeezing measures go. All under the guise of protecting us from the potential terror in our midst.
Last week, however, the state issued what looks like a mea culpa. ‘I think we saw some powers, some laws, enacted which did go too far.’ Coming from Lord Macdonald, the man overseeing the Lib-Con government’s review of counterterrorism legislation, this is quite an admission. Though the actual reforms to existing legislation are yet to be announced, they are expected to include the curtailment of random stop and searches, the replacement of house-arrest style control orders with a system of monitoring, and no recommendation for the extension of detention without charge beyond its existing 14-day limit.
So, a victory for liberty, right? Well, not quite.
Through all the half-baked support and half-arsed criticism, what has been remarkable about the debate around counterterrorism legislation is just how cowardly it has been. No one seems capable of mounting a defence of what this draconian morass, this testament to New Labourite authoritarianism, has actually undermined over the past 10 years – namely, our liberty. Instead, both sides seem intent on battling over the caveats, on drawing the line that shows where liberty ends and security concerns begin. In the words of the fence-sitting Economist magazine, the proposed reforms strike ‘a reasonable balance between undoing [the then New Labour government’s] most illiberal measures and the requirements of public safety’.
Over and over again, this same freedom-versus-safety dilemma is repeated: ‘It is a sign of a healthy democracy’, ran a Telegraph editorial, ‘that we continue to agonise over the proper balance between civil liberties and their infringement by counter-terrorist laws that no reasonable person wishes to see but which are necessitated by the nature of the threat we face’. Lord Macdonald was similarly equivocal: ‘We want to protect our constitution, we need to protect our way of life, and we need to get this balance [between security and liberty] right, and I think that is what the review has been trying to achieve.’ Lord Carlile, a fellow reviewer of Britain’s anti-terror laws, was keen to point out just how difficult it is to calibrate freedom and protection. ‘It’s art, not science’, he said. ‘This is a vital day for the balance between civil liberties and national security.’
If those charged by the Lib-Cons with reviewing existing legislation were predictably cautious, then those wheeled out to defend liberty fared little better. It’s not that they don’t want to declare that freedom from the state is a good thing – it’s just that, well, there are lots of risks out there. Hence even Cerie Bullivant, someone who endured a control order between 2006 and 2008, was only able to attack existing legislation in terms of the extent to which it threatens our security – that is, by apparently ‘feeding into the future radicalisation of young people within our own communities’.
Liberty, it seems, is just too lonely and vulnerable by itself. Everywhere it is advocated, its cloying partner security is dragged along, too. The existential threats are too great and the risks too large for freedom to be defended without adding a qualifying clause about the dangers just waiting in the wings. Even campaign group Liberty feels the need to mention the demands of security, insisting that its activists have ‘never been naive to or unconcerned with threats from terrorism’. Liberty vs security: it’s the conundrum that bewitches both sides.
Yet to defend liberty properly, to champion freedom loudly, all talk of security must be dropped. Because when security is invoked, as if it is a necessary caveat to our liberty, then it robs liberty of its virtues and attributes. For if liberty means to be at liberty to exercise control over our lives, then security means to be secured from doing precisely that. It means to be secured against our worst selves. That is, given full freedom, the freedom to speak our minds, the freedom to associate with whom we choose, the freedom to exercise our own moral judgement regarding our lives, we will prove incapable of exercising it wisely apparently. That is why, under the watchful gaze of the state, we the not-to-be-trusted must be secured against our own freedom. Because we just might, given our fecklessness, do something terroristic. The ever-expanding volume of blather about security is really an index of the extent to which the state thinks we are incapable of being free.
What the state too often portrays as a balancing act between two separate and opposing things, freedom and security, really boils down to one single thing: the suspicion of the autonomous individual. This is key. For what has undermined the sense of unadulterated liberty, what has corroded this notion of freedom, is a fear of other people. Or better still, a fear of other people’s autonomy, a fear that other people, if left to their own moral devices, will commit an atrocity. Hence the state must be allowed to survey people, to snoop on and search us. Over and over again, this suspicion has eaten into the debate about civil liberties. And until it is ejected, the debate around what the state can and can’t do to prevent terrorism will remain a cowardly one.
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