The Current Emergency Justifies a Shifting of the Balance Essay Sample
- Pages: 4
- Word count: 1,023
- Rewriting Possibility: 99% (excellent)
- Category: philosophy
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George Bush correctly called the attack on America “an attack on freedom.” It was also, to some extent, an “attack through freedom.” The terrorists were able to strike at the world’s most open society partly by exploiting its openness. Now, as western governments rush to block these loopholes, many fear that they will inadvertently finish what the terrorists began – and curtail the very freedoms which they are fighting to
fighting to protect.
In America, Mr. Bush, who came to power hoping to reduce the reach of government, is overseeing an increase in its powers. Some of that is planned through new programmes and activities, but some has reflected immediate action by the FBI and police: more than 350 people have already been arrested under emergency rules. In Britain, the debate about introducing national identity cards has gained new vigour. In many countries, leaders are looking at tougher “anti-terrorism” laws ranging from surveillance and powers of arrest to financial disclosure and racial profiling. As one headline has it, “thousands, dead, millions deprived of civil liberties.” Politicians acidly reply that theoretical liberties were not of much use to the dead in the World Trade Centre.
Amid all this sound and fury, both sides need to consider the fundamental question: in light of the attack, where must the balancing point between security and liberty be set? Civil libertarians should begin by admitting that, contrary to much of their rhetoric, some sort of a balance has always had to be struck. Even fundamental freedoms – for instance, that of speech – are not absolute. People who shout fire in a crowded theatre can expect to be arrested. Defence is the area in which freedoms are most often restricted. Most democracies already grant some discretion to their policemen over whom they investigate, and offer broad protections for secrecy. Many require their citizens to carry identity cards.
Next, libertarians need to accept that, from a security point of view, September 11th was genuinely a day when the world changed. To be sure, that change was most dramatic in America, a country which has had relatively few terrorist attacks of any sort. But even for western countries that have been exposed to bombs and bullets for longer, the bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon unveiled a new level of threat. The scale of the outrage (the death toll was ten times larger than any comparable tragedy), the use of suicide bombers, the lack of warning, the conversion of aircraft into flying missiles, all should serve as prompts to re-examine old procedures and question established liberties – be they “the freedom” to carry and buy knives at airports r “the freedom” to stash your money in a numbered account in Liechtenstein.
However, if libertarians must accept that something changed on September 11th, authoritarians need to accept that not everything did. Many of the failures of security were not connected to unrestrained liberty, and some measures currently being floated are only tangentially linked to the disaster. Most Britons would not worry too much about carrying identity cards, since they already carry many bits of plastic that serve to identify them; the main objection would be to being charged with a crime, or held on suspicion, simply if they have left their card at home. Nevertheless, supporters of identity cards have overlooked the fact that the hijackers did produce identity papers of one sort or another at the airport. Several were travelling under stolen passports. Identify theft is a growing crime in America – and presumably would be even worse in Britain, where records are appalling.
On the whole, the security lapses in America had less to do with liberty than inefficiency. Security was found wanting, partly because it had to deal with what once seemed an unimaginable threat and partly because, on the evidence available, it did not work well. In particular, America’s lavishly funded intelligence services failed to spot that dozens of cohorts of the country’s “public enemy number one” had entered the United States, were taking flying lessons and loitering around airports. Much of the failure can be ascribed to an old-fashioned lack of informants and poor collation of existing information, though restrictive laws on wiretapping and other surveillance methods cannot have helped.
The Emergency v the Longer Term
The most important distinction that will need to be drawn is between those measures that are necessary because of a current emergency and those that are desirable for the longer term. With military action likely to prompt further atrocities from terrorist groups, the case for greater emergency powers of surveillance and arrest is strong in any country in which retaliation could occur. Such powers should, however, be granted only with sunset clauses attached so that they need to be reconsidered in a democratic forum before they can be reinstated. Such powers should also remain subject to case-by-case judicial approval – when practical, in advance, but if necessary, in retrospect – in order both to avoid their misuse and to maintain public confidence.
The longer term will pose tougher issues, for even then the security will be needed not against a visible enemy such as another country but against an invisible, potential enemy which September 11th showed could come from many quarters. Efficient security, whether at airports or in any other public place, is itself a challenge to liberty for it steals away time, involves intrusive searches, and restricts freedoms of movement and behaviour. The likelihood must be that, as long as it is done in a way that is non-discriminatory and subject to legal controls, people in democratic countries will choose to accept such security in their own interests. But as this campaign proceeds and as the debate develops, they will have to be given that choice, either directly or through their elected representatives. Democracy is, after all, another of the values that the terrorists have sought to challenge.
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