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Defend liberty – especially now

As the world debates how to combat terrorism, we should not allow our own leaders to erode freedom, in our name.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘Civil liberties are a vital part of our country, and of our world’, UK prime minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons on Friday 14 September. ‘But the most basic liberty of all is the right of the ordinary citizen to go about their business free from fear or terror.’

Home secretary David Blunkett picked up the chorus, with suggestions that identity cards may be introduced. The government would need to consider ‘how far anyone should expect to go in a democracy in being able to identify, being able to cooperate in terms of surveillance’. These, he claimed, were ‘very difficult issues but they are ones we are going to have to address if we are going to protect the most basic freedom of all, which is to live in peace without fear’.

Last week’s attack on the USA has brought about exceptional circumstances. But there is nothing exceptional – even new – about the contempt in which Blair and Blunkett hold civil liberties. The idea that, when held up against the more pressing priorities of safety and order, civil liberties are disposable, has been a central plank of New Labour thinking since the party’s creation.

As we reel from the shock of last week’s events, we should not allow ourselves to accept, as common sense, the kind of restrictions on our liberties that we would otherwise question.

Protecting our ‘right’ to ‘freedom from fear’ is a well-worn formulation. Anti-crime measures? They may impact on civil liberties, but the priority should be to keep the majority ‘free from fear’. Freedom of speech? The government agrees with it – so long as that speech does not cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. Changes in the judicial process, from re-examining the right to trial by jury to changing the law in relation to double jeopardy? All discussed in the name of protecting our safety, our ‘freedom from fear’.

Way before the 11 September, the UK government was at pains to stress that it took civil liberties, and defendants’ rights, very seriously. But what is a greater priority – the civil liberties that criminals are apt to abuse, or the safety of the majority: aka our ‘freedom from fear’? ‘We all know the sort of Britain we want to live in – a Britain where we can walk the streets safely and know our children are safe’, intoned New Labour’s 2001 general election manifesto, as it introduced a raft of new criminal justice measures. The message was clear: safety is paramount, all else is negotiable.

Now, of course, the sources of ‘fear’ that the government has previously pinpointed seem rather petty by comparison. The bogeymen – muggers, drug dealers, child pornographers, even sex offenders or homicidal maniacs – who have been wheeled on as examples of people who abuse their civil liberties and threaten our safety, are nothing compared to those who caused such terror in New York and Washington.

Yet in promoting measures to combat international terrorists, the New Labour government is using the same language, and similar measures, as it has done against its rag-bag of domestic criminals. And our response to these arguments should essentially be little different than it would have been a week ago.

Everybody knows, deep down, that you could surrender every liberty available and there would still be muggers, drug dealers, child pornographers, sex offenders and homicidal maniacs. Giving up our freedoms does not stop those who act outside the law from doing terrible things. And we should all know, deep down, that whatever anti-terrorist measures are taken in response to events in the USA, no amount of security could necessarily have prevented an attack on such a scale, by those with no regard for their own lives or for the lives of others, armed only with the most basic weaponry and with suicidal zeal.

We should also know that, while there is no guarantee that restricting our liberties will keep us safe, there is no doubt that the loss of liberty tends to make us even more scared. As Mick Hume writes in The Times (London) today, before 11 September we already lived in a society dominated by a culture of fear (1). Increased security measures, whatever forms they may take, are bound to increase our suspicion of others, and the trepidation with which we go about our daily lives. Is liberty a price worth paying, for a security that will only fuel our feelings of insecurity?

As I write, the exact measures that are likely to be taken in response to the USA attack are unclear. Home secretary David Blunkett has talked about ‘voluntary’ (read: quasi-compulsory) identity cards – an initiative upon which the decaying Tory administration was forced to back down a decade ago. The Prevention of Terrorism Act had already been made more stringent – we can expect that more use will be made of it than might previously have been expected.

But we do not need to second-guess future legislation to see what the everyday impact on liberties is likely to be. You can see it last week, on TV.

On Saturday 15 September Greg Dyke, director general of the BBC, issued an unprecedented public apology for the live Question Time programme broadcast on Thursday 13 September, in which members of the audience verbally attacked US foreign policy. The programme has been roundly castigated by everybody from the print press to the small-minded consumer-views show Points of View for being offensive and inappropriate – arguments endorsed by Greg Dyke’s apology.

Most people hold no truck with the views expressed by those audience members. But should that be to argue that such views, themselves, are dangerous? Should critical voices, however wrong, be silenced because they are seen as inappropriate or insensitive? Should we view with suspicion all those who deviate from the Blair/Bush position on the causes and consequences of this terrorist attack, on the grounds that their views or actions may jeopardise our safety? Is this the only response – or the right one?

In responding to the terror in the USA, political leaders have made great mileage out of the argument that this was an attack on the ‘civilised world’. ‘We believe in reason, democracy and tolerance’, Blair told the Commons on Friday 14 September. But if freedom is not the hallmark of a civilised world just as much as are reason, democracy and tolerance, what is a civilised world?

As the world debates how to combat terrorism, we should not allow our own leaders to corrode our freedoms, in our name. That way gains us nothing and loses a great deal.

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Topics Politics

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