The freedom paradox

From The Economist print edition (Aug 31st 2006)

Liberty has been the first victim of the war fought in its name

“WE HAVE entered a new type of war. It’s a war against people who

hate freedom,” said George Bush a few days after September 11th 2001.

“We’re fighting for liberty and freedom.” But this new kind of war

seemed to need a new kind of response, one that has actually reduced


“We will change the rules,” said Donald Rumsfeld, America’s defence

secretary. “Let no one be in any doubt, the rules of the game are

changing,” echoed Tony Blair after the bombings in London last year.

“Civil-liberty arguments”, his home secretary, John Reid, added

recently, “are not so much wrong as just made for another age.”

Since 2001 many countries have pushed through repressive laws in the

name of the war on terror-but few as eagerly as America and Britain.

America first rushed through the Patriot Act. The authorities’ powers

to snoop on American citizens were vastly increased. Agents armed with

a court warrant could now eavesdrop on private telephone calls, read

e-mails, pry into library records, bank statements, medical records and suchlike without needing to show “reasonable suspicion”. At the

same time, in an apparent breach of the law, George Bush secretly

authorised his own warrantless domestic surveillance programme. He was, he said, acting in his constitutional capacity as wartime


Hundreds of foreigners, most of them Muslims, were rounded up after

September 11th and held without charge, sometimes for months. Tens of

thousands more were called in for questioning and finger-printing. Not

a single terrorist was found. Then came the creation of a detainment

camp in an American naval base in Guant’namo Bay in Cuba, which Mr

Bush argued was beyond the reach of the American courts. There hundreds more suspected terrorists, captured abroad, were interned in a legal limbo, without charge, without access to lawyers or conventional courts, and without prospect of release in a never-ending war. Others have experienced “extraordinary rendition”, that is, they have been spirited away by the CIA for harsh interrogation in secret prisons in third countries where even the International Red Cross has no access.

America has been lambasted for its record on human rights since

September 11th. So has Britain. It has introduced a slew of draconian

anti-terrorist measures over the past five years, and is planning more.

The mere “glorification” or “indirect incitement” of terrorism

is now a crime. Suspected terrorists can be held for up to 28 days

without charge-longer than in any other democratic country-a period

the government now wants to double. (In America suspected terrorists

whom Mr Bush deems to be “enemy combatants” may be held “for the

duration of hostilities”.) Those unable to be tried in court (usually

for want of evidence) may now be subjected to “control orders”,

ranging from electronic tagging to little short of house arrest,

imposed on the simple say-so of the home secretary for indefinitely

renewable periods of 12 months.

Britain’s judges have now ruled in favour of some suspected terrorists, detained pending deportation. And America’s Supreme Court has granted Guant’namo’s inmates certain protections, including the right to challenge their detention in court, the right to be treated humanely under the Geneva Conventions and, for the few that have been charged, the right to a fair trial.

The looming police state

Yet the critics remain unhappy. By abandoning the very values they are

seeking to protect, America and its allies are in danger of winning a

pyrrhic victory, civil libertarians protest. “It is the response to

terrorism, rather than terrorism itself, that does democracy most

harm,” Michael Ignatieff, a former head of Harvard’s centre for human

rights, argues. Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law at Yale, castigates

Britain in his new book, “Before the Next Attack”, for its “tragic slide to a police state”. He accuses America of moving “one step at a time toward a presidential tyranny”. But others,like John Podhoretz, a columnist for the New York Post, maintain the opposite. “What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point

where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have

achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any

really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?” he asks.

For the moment those who would restrict freedom appear to have the

public on their side. Recent polls in Britain and America suggest that

most people still feel their governments are not doing enough to

counter terrorism.