Making the case for retaining our civil liberties, Bruce Sinclair points to other countries where restricting such liberties has not had the desired effect…


The delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift.

So said PM Tony Abbott last week after 800 officers raided addresses across Sydney in the wake of the terrorism threat level being raised from medium to high. The stabbing of two police officers by an 18-year-old “known terrorist suspect” on Tuesday seems to add weight to Abbott’s view as politicians discuss new legislation to increase the powers of the Australian security forces.

While on the face of it the trade-off might seem reasonable and the logic beguiling (we agree to have some of our democratic freedoms curtailed for an increase in our safety), it is not as straightforward as it seems, and indeed, may be counter-productive.

Consider this.

Typically when democratic freedoms are discussed, this refers to civil liberties such as freedom of speech, movement and association. If curtailing these decreases the threat of terrorist attacks then this assumes these freedoms, as they normally operate, facilitate terrorist organisations. However, these same freedoms also allow grievances to be aired and collective action to be organised in combating them. Reducing the potential to express such grievances increases the potential for their expression in other forms, including violence and extremism.

These freedoms also create one of the conduits for actively combating extremism; the flow of intelligence. One of the reasons that Abdul Numan Haider came to the attention of the security forces was because he was expressing his views in public and concerned members of the community reported this. Though it affects all of us, as legislation aiming to combat terror will inevitably be implemented most fervently in such communities, it runs the risk of alienating them and reducing the flow of intelligence.

The use of such legislation in the UK provides a case in point. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was introduced to combat the IRA, took away some civil rights. It operated to create the Irish as a “suspect community”, alienating them and increasing IRA recruitment. More recently, a similar process has occurred in the British Muslim community, with the flow of information to the police on Al Qaeda being reduced.

One of the reasons governments enact legislation that reduces civil rights is because of the need to be seen to act by citizens who feel vulnerable. While this is understandable it needs to be considered and publicly discussed in conjunction with the possibility that enacting repressive legislation is exactly what the extremists hoped to provoke. By doing this they can portray such governments as guilty of the type of unreasonable behaviour they accused them of in the first place and can mobilise recruitment to their cause.

Perhaps the acid test for such arguments is to consider the relationship between civil rights and rates of terrorism in countries that have drastically less civil liberties than in the liberal democracies, for if it is true that reducing civil liberties increases our safety by allowing the security forces greater powers to crack down, then non-democratic countries with regimes little bothered by civil liberties ought to be the safest. There is little evidence this is the case, with excessive repression provoking more grievance, extremism and violence.

Finally, if, as PM Tony Abbott has said, all that is required to carry out an attack in Australia is a determined individual, a knife and an iPhone, then it is not clear to me how legislation reducing civil liberties can be used effectively against such a scenario in the way that the conduits to information on such individuals might be.

It is to be hoped that somewhere in the Abbott government there are voices pushing for a wider, nuanced presentation of these issues that deals openly and honestly with the type of issues outlined here.

If this does not go beyond the assumption of either/or then, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”


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