Human rights

Anti-terror: Take our rights — we probably don't need those

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(Tweet from @kemal_atlay Dec 15)

Our leaders chant repeatedly that terrorism is a dangerous existential threat. They argue terrorists want to take our freedoms while simultaneously passing measures to do just that. Terrorism is a danger, but so is falling off ladders and tyrannical authorities, writes Rachel Poole.

IT IS SAID that if a frog is thrown into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out as soon as it feels the heat. However if the frog sits in the pot as the heat is steadily raised, it will slowly boil alive.

Humans retain many animal instincts. Most are ruled by fear, often unable to accept rational argument over the innate urge to survive and be safe from threats. This exploitation of fear has allowed governments worldwide to slowly boil their amphibian citizens, removing rights and protections and promising safety in exchange for freedom. So far, fear is the victor over rationality.

The U.K. PM David Cameron recently expressed an opinion that ought to be carefully noticed by those who consider themselves free:

‘For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This Government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.’

This quote contradicts a long held but apparently incorrect assumption that the state’s role is to create a framework of rules to which all citizens are subject but otherwise free to pursue their life choices. Cameron suggests it is not enough to simply follow the law. Perhaps it should be obeyed with more enthusiasm? 

The British government wants to fast-track new “anti-terror” legislation, describing the reforms with a series of vague statements about wanting to maintain “British values” by somehow defining the societal norms of 64 million diverse citizens in a piece of legislation.

Similarly, Canada has just adopted the new C-51 anti-terror laws. This legislation expands the power of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) without providing any independent oversight of its additional powers, which includes arresting and detaining individuals without charge.

Suspects may be detained for seven days based on an officer’s mere suspicion that a terrorist activity may be carried out and that the arrest is likely to prevent it. The law broadly criminalises the “promotion of terrorism” and can capture speech made for innocent purposes. The CSIS can also apply in secret to a judge to “take measures” to contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, undermining the constitution with no public accountability. While the C-51 Bill has been controversial, several polls show most Canadians support its passage.

In France too, the Parliament recently passed new anti-terror laws expanding state surveillance in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Items include an increase in Internet and social media monitoring and allowing intelligence agents to read documents of individuals under surveillance.

Australia has also recently introduced controversial metadata legislation, giving agencies extra power including accessing information without a warrant and forcing Internet providers to retain all metadata for 2 years. This is despite the fact that current metadata laws have been rarely used by agencies and similar schemes overseas have seen little reduction in criminal activity.

In fact more Australians die from falling off ladders than from terrorism, the Attorney- General George Brandis famously doesn’t know what metadata is and recently some 112 intelligence officers accessed files of celebrities, out of “professional interest”. Nevertheless the government chorused the magical refrain that new laws will provide more safety and the people are satisfied.

Politics in the Pub: The Meaning of Metadata Q&A, 5 January 2015.

The above reforms reflect the bastion of free democracy, the USA. After 9/11, state surveillance was expanded through the Patriot Act, a gulag (inflicting torture and murder) opened at Guantanamo and the NSA spying programme flourished — targeting civilians. This is also a nation where police regularly murder unarmed citizens. The Patriot Act and NSA face little public opposition even after studies and the FBI itself admit the surveillance program is not effective in fighting terrorism.

Our leaders chant repeatedly that terrorism is a dangerous existential threat. They argue terrorists want to take our freedoms while simultaneously passing measures to do just that. Terrorism is a danger, but so is falling off ladders and so are tyrannical authorities.

At some point in the 1930s, the Germans realised their leaders had removed too many citizen rights. The collective nation had sacrificed too many freedoms, passively allowed too many injustices to occur and it was now too late to protest.

Humans have learned little from history, where the sacking of BBC presenters now sparks more outrage than any infraction on privacy, freedom of speech or movement. The safeguards and rights of citizens and corresponding responsibility and accountability of those in power were instituted for a reason.

When the social contract was negotiated, the people knew such protections were important. However, well-placed triggers of our survival instinct have convinced humans we no longer need them.

At some point, there will be more than just an angry minority demanding rights to be returned — but it is always easier to negate rights than to acquire them. The hope is that by the time people realise this, it is not too late to ask for them back. 

You can follow Rachel on Twitter @the_rvj or check out her blog

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