"Those who give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither safety nor liberty."
Benjamin Franklin wrote these words in 1775, and they remain startlingly relevant today. We live in a counter-terrorism world, where the pursuit of public security has led to the erosion of civil liberties, seemingly acceptable to a complaisant population. It seems that there is no distinction being made any more between real and imagined fears, and Islamic terrorism is still being invoked to justify egregious abuses of justice. A credulous public, an undiscriminating media and populist politicians have created some dangerous changes to established laws which have been for centuries the essential foundation to democracy in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
It is deeply disturbing to think back over successive World Wars which were fought so tragically and with such great loss of life in the name of freedom, the same freedom that is being treated in so cavalier a fashion now. It is a bitter irony that there were more Hindus and Muslims in the British Army than white soldiers at one stage, and they fought alongside each other against nationalism, fascism and Stalinism. So much blood was lost in the name of freedom, yet here we are several generations later, fearful of Islamic terrorism and blandly accepting the serious erosion of our civil liberties with barely a murmur of dissent.
One measure of the need for heightened public security is obviously the loss of lives. Clearly some lives seem more valuable than others. A death of an innocent bystander when the attack is made by a foreigner appears to have more significance say, than a domestic murder victim. Over 4,000 lives were lost on 9/11 and 56 in London with the 7/7 transport bombs. Yet every year, relentlessly, 75,000 Americans and about 15,000 Britons lose their lives to alcohol abuse. That is 25 times more than the loss of life to terrorism, repeated every year, yet where is the war on alcohol, where the moral outrage, where the passionate and self-righteous speeches in Congress and Parliament? In fact, more people die every year due to having the incorrect air pressure in their tires (79 deaths each year) than by terrorists, yet this does not lead to draconian laws to protect the innocent public.
Democratic countries should be embarrassed by their overreaction to the exaggerated threat of Islamic terrorism. Disgraceful miscarriages of justices have taken place in the UK following the new powers given to the Metropolitan Police anti-terror group, including the imprisonment for seven years without a charge or trial for a Muslim computer programmer named Babar Ahmad. Fighting extradition to the U.S., he is the longest detained British citizen being held without a conviction, remaining in a legal limbo with no chance for a fair trial.
Other recent and bizarre abuses in Britain in the name of the Anti-Terrorism Act have been the brief arrest of an 82 year-old man who was thrown out of a Labour Party Conference and the taking control of an Icelandic bank's funds on the grounds that the bank's collapse might hurt the UK economy. The Counter Terrorism Bill of 2008 has extended the time the police may hold detainees without charging them to 42 days -- so much for Habeas Corpus, considered since 1301 to be the guarantee of personal liberty, now regularly suspended by governments in times of national emergency.
Entrapment of suspected terrorists in the United States is another serious concern, where law enforcement relies on preventive stings as part of its strategy. The government has become an agency which offers inducements to possible activists and then arrests them for agreeing to commit acts of terrorism -- a world of difference between law enforcement keeping us safe from real terrorists. The danger is that it compromises the public's understanding of a real threat and certainly compromises the carriage of justice.
The fear of Islamic terrorism is totally disproportionate to the facts. A European report of 300 terrorist incidents in 2009 reveals that there was just one-act committed by a Muslim -- the rest were anarchists, European separatist groups and leftists. The actual danger needs to be put in perspective and the risk of misusing laws to curtail human rights must be recognized as even more of a danger. The defense authorization bill that has just been passed by the U.S. Congress contains a very controversial provision allowing for indefinite detention without trial for U.S. citizens. Civil rights advocates are appalled and deeply disappointed that the president should sign this "flagrant subversion of the constitutionally guaranteed right to due process of law," and by assuming ''a permanent war against terrorism, extends the battlefield to our own homeland."
Senator Al Franken was outspoken against the bill in a statement made public on Dec 17, 2011, saying it was reminiscent of a dark period in American history when the government interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans during the war. For the first time in 60 years, Congress will now be able to authorize the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without charge or trial, a decision which he says "denigrates the very foundations of this country." He went on to say, "Our Founders were fearful of the military and they purposely created a system of checks and balances to ensure we did not become a country under military rule."
The future for frightened democracies is no longer assured if freedom is going to be bartered for security. I only hope that the fact of Habeas Corpus will not be just a footnote in the history books for my children and their children, and that Britain and the U.S. will pull back from their authoritarian stance and see terrorism for what it is -- international criminality, not international war.
With the Iraq War officially over, perhaps the new year will bring a new opportunity for freedom to regain some momentum again.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale.
More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com