Is Liberty the First War Casualty?
by Iain Macwhirter
The Herald, Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 23, 2001
(World Press Review, December 2001)
Compare and contrast these propositions: "They that can
give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety
deserve neither liberty nor safety," Benjamin Franklin, 1759;
"One test of a nation's determination to fight serious threats
is the willingness to accept infringements of liberty with good
grace," The Daily Telegraph, 2001.
This is the moment when moral philosophy comes out of the
universities and onto the streets-literally, if, as many believe,
we will all shortly be carrying ID cards. Now that a hot war is
certain in the Middle East, a cold war will begin in the Western
democracies. In this "war for freedom," liberty itself
is on the front line.
Don't think of this conflict as being just about mad mullahs
in caves in the Hindu Kush. Bin Laden used a bank in Notting Hill
to hold funds, and his organization worked for a time out of a
dreary house in north London. Terrorists have been using Western
freedoms, economic systems, and information networks to attack
the societies that created them. These freedoms and networks are
likely to be among the collateral damage of this 21st-century
Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown put it like this
in The Times last week: "Our real difficulty will not be
how we deal with Bin Laden, if we find him, but how we deal with
the subversive network operating from a news agent's in Ealing....The
question for us will be not just what military weapons we used,
but what civil liberties we are prepared to compromise."
America has already decided, more or less. Congress is about
to pass emergency legislation that will allow detention and deportation
of terrorist suspects without evidence. This resembles the policy
of internment without trial that Britain deployed disastrously
in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. But America rarely does
things by halves. During the second world war, many states rounded
up anyone who looked Japanese and put them in concentration camps-sorry,
"detention centers." If they'd done nothing wrong, they
were told, they had nothing to fear.
In Britain, Home Secretary David Blunkett ordered a crackdown
on illegal immigration last week. Asylum seekers and many people
of Middle Eastern origin will almost certainly have to carry means
of identification. It will be argued that if people with brown
faces have to carry proof of identity, then in all fairness, white
people should too.
Like most people of my age and background, I find the idea
of ID cards unattractive. They conjure up images of Nazi Germany
and the pass laws of apartheid in South Africa. But with a wallet
already bulging with identity cards-for Parliament, banks, the
BBC, etc.-it will be difficult to refuse to carry them.
Americans see privacy as a constitutional right. It astonishes
them that we Brits tolerate 500,000 CCTV cameras on our streets,
watching our every move. Well, they'd better get used to it because
they-and we-can expect more cameras, with sharper vision, to be
examining us. I asked a Labor supporting colleague how he felt
about CCTV. He said that those who have nothing to hide have nothing
In the coming months I suspect more liberties will be lost.
Few will object to ending the anonymity rules of offshore tax
havens or Swiss banks, used by terrorist organizations to launder
money. Stockbrokers will be required to open their books. There
will be few tears over restrictions on confidentiality that hit
speculators and wealthy tax avoiders.
Nor will the Internet be allowed to carry on as usual. There
will be moves to ban "strong" encryption codes used
by anti-U.S. organizations to communicate secretly.
It gets harder. The rules of evidence, presumption of innocence,
freedom of speech, right to privacy, and legal aid will all come
under scrutiny. Many will say these are luxuries we cannot afford
Already the government is signaling changes to human rights
legislation. The European Court of Human Rights is being used
by terrorist suspects to challenge deportation orders. Two individuals-Abu
Hamza al-Masri and Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed-are wanted in connection
with terrorist activity. They remain at large in London, in receipt
of legal aid. This will change. Not many will mind if a few Islamic
fanatics get sent to face trial in the United States.
Most of us will accept these changes, especially if British
soldiers start dying on foreign battlefields. Freedom, not truth,
is the first casualty in wartime, and we will all get used to
losing it. Some will feel more secure as the state strengthens
its control over our lives. Others will feel fear. Most will have
little patience with middle-class intellectuals who complain that
we are abandoning essential freedoms. Intellectuals, perhaps,
like Benjamin Franklin-one of the founding fathers of the American