View Full Version : Liberty is our defence

08-25-2005, 07:41 AM
Tuesday August 23, 2005
The Guardian

There has been a poignancy in the individual tributes to the 52 people murdered on July 7 in Britain's worst terrorist outrage that underlines the enormity of the loss of each life. It is hardly surprising that the Guardian poll yesterday showed that nearly three-quarters of us believe some sacrifice of individual liberty is worth it in the hope that it will stop such an outrage being repeated. Governments, faced with failure in their fundamental role of protecting their citizens, also react predictably. They cast about for new and better weapons with which to defeat the perpetrators of outrage. "The rules of the game have changed," Tony Blair said earlier this month, presaging a further package of measures that could lead to the redrafting of the Human Rights Act. It is difficult to think of an example of a government, faced with the threat of terror, that did not reach for the weapons of state repression, rather than declaring that it already had enough in its armoury, but had failed to use them adequately. And is there any example of a government admitting that however assiduous and intelligent the anti-terror operation, it cannot always be possible to avert an attack?

Terror has a history older than democratic government. Britain (sometimes only England) felt threatened by papists in the 16th century, Jacobins in the 18th century, anarchists and Fenians in the 19th century, communists and trade unionists, it was believed even by a Liberal government, in the 20th. The Emergency Powers Act, which would be the basis for a state of emergency, was passed by Lloyd George in 1920 to tackle the threat of a Soviet-backed insurrection that was somehow to be mounted by the few thousand members of the newly-formed British Communist party.
The weapon that worked against all the above was the idea of a benign state, a sense of nationhood which the overwhelming majority of citizens endorsed. It was invoked in the aftermath of July 7: a democratic Britain, stoical in the face of attack, tolerant not vindictive. Politicians are haunted by a very particular nightmare, a preventable outrage. Yet extending the reach of the state in a way that appears to undermine justice will not make such an outrage less likely. Democratic government can all too easily become terror's victim; defence of the liberties on which it depends is our best weapon. It is a sad indictment of the courage of the other main parties, both of which purport to support individual freedom against other far more defensible intrusions by this government, that they have failed so far to pursue it.