It is not only on the battlefield where preserving liberty may have to cost many lives
“THEY hate our freedoms.” So said George Bush in a speech to the American Congress shortly after the attacks on America in September 2001. But how well, at home, have America and the other Western democracies defended those precious freedoms during the “war on terror”?
As we intend to show in a series of articles starting this week (see article), the past six years have seen a steady erosion of civil liberties even in countries that regard themselves as liberty’s champions. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention without trial, “rendition”, suspension of habeas corpus, even torture—who would have thought such things possible?Governments argue that desperate times demand such remedies. They face a murderous new enemy who lurks in the shadows, will stop at nothing and seeks chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. This renders the old rules and freedoms out of date. Besides, does not international humanitarian law provide for the suspension of certain liberties “in times of a public emergency that threatens the life of the nation”?
There is great force in this argument. There is, alas, always force in such arguments. This is how governments through the ages have justified grabbing repressive new powers. During the second world war the democracies spied on their own citizens, imposed censorship and used torture to extract information. America interned its entire Japanese-American population—a decision now seen to have been a cruel mistake.
There are those who see the fight against al-Qaeda as a war like the second world war or the cold war. But the first analogy is wrong and the moral of the second is not the one intended.
A hot, total war like the second world war could not last for decades, so the curtailment of domestic liberties was short-lived. But because nobody knew whether the cold war would ever end (it lasted some 40 years), the democracies chose by and large not to let it change the sort of societies they wanted to be. This was a wise choice not only because of the freedom it bestowed on people in the West during those decades, but also because the West’s freedoms became one of the most potent weapons in its struggle against its totalitarian foes.
If the war against terrorism is a war at all, it is like the cold war—one that will last for decades. Although a real threat exists, to let security trump liberty in every case would corrode the civilised world’s sense of what it is and wants to be.
When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots. To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that—with one hand tied behind their back—is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.
Take torture, arguably the hardest case (and the subject of the first article in our series). A famous thought experiment asks what you would do with a terrorist who knew the location of a ticking nuclear bomb. Logic says you would torture one man to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and so you would. But this a fictional dilemma. In the real world, policemen are seldom sure whether the many (not one) suspects they want to torture know of any plot, or how many lives might be at stake. All that is certain is that the logic of the ticking bomb leads down a slippery slope where the state is licensed in the name of the greater good to trample on the hard-won rights of any one and therefore all of its citizens.
Human rights are part of what it means to be civilised. Locking up suspected terrorists—and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too?—before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.
Sep 20th 2007
From The Economist print edition