When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

25 June 2006

Balancing security and liberty

After 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and the London subway bombings, it is clear that Western societies need to consider, and re-consider, and discuss and then reconsider some more, the ways in which we deal with a whole host of issues related to internal security.

To reduce to a short but hopefully fair summary a long, nuanced, and complex discussion that I had the other night with a friend who is in the national security business (so to speak):
  • The people responsible for protecting us want to ensure that everything possible is being done to identify and neutralize the bad guys, even if that means bending or breaking some of the rules (and/or interpretations of the rules) about the rights of citizens. This has always been done in wartime, they argue, and in what condition are we now, if not war?
  • Civil libertarians, like myself, worry about extending the power and influence of government and the military over the lives of ordinary citizens, even for the worthiest of reasons; we know that power granted to government today is subject to abuse tomorrow, even if it's granted for a good reason. We are fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin: "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security."
To reduce it even further, to bumper-sticker level, the security-conscious want to protect America at all costs; the liberty-conscious want to ensure, at all costs, that it's still "America" (land of the free, home of the brave) that we're protecting.

So. Along those lines...

There's a fascinating story ("After Londonistan") in today's New York Times magazine about how one Western country, Great Britain, is dealing with the problem of being a free and open society with enemies very much in its midst.
Today, Britain has more than a million and a half Muslims. A million live in London, where they make up an eighth of the population. They are not just the refugees and tempest-tossed laborers of the developing world, large though those groups may be. London's West End is full of Saudi princes and financiers, and journalists and politicians from around the Arab world; its East End is home to erudite theologians from the Indian subcontinent, along with some unhinged ones. In the 1980's and 90's, a hands-off government allowed London to become a haven for radicals and a center for calls to jihad. Culturally and politically (and theologically and gastronomically), London ranks among the capitals of the Muslim world and is certainly its chief point of contact with the United States and the rest of the West. Since last July 7, when four young British Muslims used backpack bombs to take their own lives and those of 52 others on London's public-transport system, getting information out of the city's various Muslim communities has become a desperate preoccupation of British law enforcement.


What is a moderate Muslim? It could mean someone who's not very serious about his religion or someone who's quite serious about his religion but not very political about it. What of the common formulation that terrorism is "not Islam"? This could be a politically correct dodge or a hardheaded diagnosis that something more unholy is at work. The mainstream Islamic organizations, which unite Muslims around political grievances, are certainly a useful route into the British political system, but maybe they are whipping up those grievances in the first place. And nonbelievers are so numerous among people of immigrant background that dealing with religious leaders may be a wrongheaded strategy in the first place. Britain is working out its answers to these questions by trial and error.

Potential terrorists now in Britain — those worthy of being kept under careful watch — may number in the several hundreds, as Blair said last year, or in the thousands, as a police official told me this spring. Britain's approach — tightening up law enforcement for all its citizens, while trying to ensure that Muslims feel represented in every step of the process — differs from that of both the United States, which has focused on border control and electronic eavesdropping, and France, which relies on infiltration and an aggressive investigative judiciary. But its basic problem in fighting terrorism is the same one that all Western countries face. Britain is trying to clamp down on its Muslim communities and empower them at the same time. Clamp down too hard, and you alienate the people you want to win over. Empower communities indiscriminately, and you give free rein to people it is foolish to trust.

"After Londonistan," New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2006

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