By Thaqib Mahmood
‘What’s in a name?’ Apparently a great deal, that is, when you’re referring to the recently announced ‘Protection of Freedom’ Bill. For Nick Clegg, it is an accomplishment that signals a swing, away from disproportionate Blairite security measures to more proportionate ones that strike a better balance between security and liberty. Striking this balance has become a subjective exercise, inviting very different suggestions from human rights organisations and politicians. However, in this highly contested debate, it is the public at large that must have the final say. For it is in the name of their security, that highly illiberal measures are usually ushered onto the statute books. And yet we, the public, are guilty of cowardice.
It is a telling exercise to walk through the City of London and identify the statues that have been erected to commemorate the dead: the Duke of Wellington, Martin Luther King and soldiers that fought and died in the two World Wars, to name but a few. Children in the United States are still told the heroic stories of the Founding Fathers and we cannot help but have a deep-seated respect for people that live and die by the principles that they believe in. And yet, it is a curious fact that whilst we honour the people that put their lives at risk in fighting for the principles that we hold so dear, we, the public, are unwilling to risk any threat to our safety for the preservation of those very same principles.
The threat of terrorism is miniscule; we are far more likely to die in road traffic accidents, or in aeroplane crashes for that matter, than from acts of terrorism. Our collective response to government measures that attempt to curtail our freedom for the sake of our security should nevertheless be a heroic one, consistent with the virtues we so overtly cherish. If we are willing to allow governments to pry into every facet of our lives, then we may legitimately blame them for failing to stop every act of terrorism. However, if this price is too dear, then we must come to terms with a salient fact, that a liberal society should find itself susceptible to acts that kill tens or hundreds of people. A terrorist that slips through the net should not necessarily be an indication of the weakness of our intelligence or legal apparatus, but may rather bizarrely be an indication that we are doing something right.
I am not suggesting a laissez-faire attitude to security, but rather that robust security measures should always be consistent with principles such as the presumption of innocence, the prohibition of torture and the right to a fair trial. Control orders, diplomatic assurances with states known to practice torture and special immigration appeals commissions, all retained under the Protection of Freedom Bill, are manifestly not. The British public should understand the risks and opt to run with them. The alternative is to opt for measures that change British life in such a way so as to give very little moral ascendency above any identifiable enemy. A government’s obligation to ensure the liberty and security of its people need not be a balancing act. People that we admire thought that it was sometimes worth their own lives to die for certain principles. We, the British public, may choose in a small way to participate in that heroism.
Thaqib Mahmood is a King’s College London graduate in Philosophy and a qualified barrister. He currently works for a pro bono legal advice centre in London’s East End and will be commencing his practice in commercial law at Clifford Chance early next year.
Photograph by: http://www.flickr.com/unnamed/
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