Nov 10, 2005

Liberty v. security

Eve Garrard reviews The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror by Michael Ignatieff.
Liberal democracy, as Ignatieff points out, is much broader than the majoritarianism which is its most obvious feature; broader even than the checks and balances which are so essential a part of it. Along with these features is another, core, element: the idea of rights. Rights act as a constraint on the demands of the general good: there are some things which, in a democracy, the executive power must not do to people, even if it would enhance the welfare of the majority to do them. Rights protect each individual from certain kinds of harm and restriction, regardless of the consequences of this protection. Furthermore, rights are not to be construed just as a useful device to ensure that executive power is not abused; their role is far more ethically significant than that. Rights are fundamentally an expression of the profound liberal democratic conviction that each individual matters intrinsically, is intrinsically worthy of respect, is not to be used just as a cog in the wheel of the production of good for others, even if the others are the majority. But in the face of a terrorist threat, these rights – typically, various kinds of liberty - may have to be infringed or abrogated if security for the majority is to be preserved. Our right to free speech, sometimes our right to freedom of movement, may have to be limited and constrained as part of the effort to prevent terrorist attacks and thereby protect our security. Which is most important, security or rights?

Ignatieff takes the view that curbing rights in favor of security is an evil, but a necessary evil. Garrard suggests that his view of looking at security measures and rights as trade-offs--necessary evils--doesn't tell the whole story.
The rights which are immediately threatened by increased security measures are liberties of various kinds, and liberty and security needn't be seen as entirely different kinds of things. After all, security protects people's liberty to exercise their rights, and indeed can be regarded as a necessary precondition of that exercise. So the trade-off between the two on which Ignatieff places so much weight may be better seen as a choice between different ways of promoting rights and liberties. If that is so, then there is no profound conflict here, and no tragic dilemma of the kind which might prompt thoughts about lesser evil.

I'm simplifying and condensing and I suggest you read the piece to decide for yourself. I'm more inclined to Garrard's view than Ignatieff's myself, though I think it's an important discussion.

People of good faith can disagree whether security measures are necessarily evil but necessary in the age of terror, though the "perfectionist" view described here as
any failure to respect rights, particularly at the level of policy, is morally unacceptable, and will probably take us down a slippery slope to unrestrained tyranny
strikes me as suicidal with regard to the war on terror.

But what if the people with whom you're having the discussion don't agree that there's a problem?

That seems to be the view of some Patriot Act absolutists. That also seems to be the problem Tony Blair is facing in Parliament. Blair suffered a major defeat yesterday when the House of Commons rejected a provision of his anti-terror policy that would have allowed authorities to hold terror suspects for 90 days without being charged.
Speaking forcefully, grimly and with an almost messianic air of conviction, Mr. Blair had earlier told members of Parliament that they had a "duty" to vote for the proposal. Facing a new type of terrorist whose goal is to cause maximum casualties, the police are obliged to make arrests earlier than they would with conventional criminals, he said. They then need the extra time, he argued, to comb through labor-intensive evidence like closed-circuit television footage and encrypted messages.

To jeers and heckling from his opponents, one of whom shouted out, "We aren't a police state!" Mr. Blair made it clear he believed that extreme times called for extreme measures.

"We are not living in a police state, but we are living in a country that faces a real and serious threat of terrorism - terrorism that wants to destroy our way of life, terrorism that wants to inflict casualties on us without limit," he said.

Reasonable people can agree to disagree about where or whether to limit rights in favor of increased security. Or which interrogation methods are permissible during the war.

But if we can't even agree that we face a threat, what then?

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