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 conflict.

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 to fear.

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 in wartime.

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 Constitution.

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