It is a dirty yet utterly predictable paradox that the terrorist attacks in Paris, which saw so many people flock to the banner of free speech, are even now being exploited by conniving politicians to crack down on our other, equally cherished civil liberties such as the right to privacy.
Once you have seen enough television news reports and read enough commentary to confirm and reinforce your entirely appropriate horror and outrage at the terrorist atrocities in Paris this week, therefore, it is well worth taking some more time out of your schedule to watch at least some of the video above.
Attempting to start a meaningful conversation about the root causes of Islamist terrorism is, apparently, highly unseemly and inappropriate so soon after an attack. And yet those who make this claim never explain why talking about the root causes of Islamist terrorism in its immediate aftermath is opportunistic and wrong, while conveniently it happens to be the perfect time for governments to demand sweeping, draconian new powers. And yet that is exactly what we now see.
As this blog recently noted:
Political leaders in Britain and elsewhere have wasted absolutely no time at all in opportunistically capitalising on our fear, shock and uncertainty in the wake of terrorist action to breathe new life into draconian, civil liberties-busting legislation, based on the automatic but unproven assumption that increasing the surveillance state yet further (as opposed to say, making better use of information and partnerships that already existed) would have done anything at all to prevent the horrific massacres at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and the kosher market in Paris.
The first ominous warning signs came only days before world leaders joined the President and people of France in a Unity march through Paris that would have set a very positive tone, were it not for the sound of the national security industrial complex whirring up to speed in order to fight another political campaign to be allowed to operate with even greater autonomy and with even less oversight.
First out of the gate was the rarely-spoken Director General of MI5 himself, Andrew Parker, who was only too happy to capitalise on the terror and bloodshed in Paris to quickly press his case for further powers. He was aided in this effort by Fraser Nelson at The Spectator magazine, who (shame on that publication) helpfully recapped Parker’s points in a handy list, so as to serve as the most effective possible piece of propaganda.
Not content with letting the Director General’s persuasive rhetoric stand for itself, Nelson elected to add some additional commentary to help nudge the reader along to the correct conclusion:
Translation: MI5 can do with more co-operation from tech giants and proper powers from Parliament to keep an eye on the bad guys. So let’s remember that next time there’s a furore about the surveillance state.
He also rejects as false the choice between security and privacy.
Well, if the Director General of MI5 says that there is no tradeoff between security and privacy, and that we can have maximum, total security at no cost to our own liberties, we can all be very greatly reassured.
(Of course, to a large extent many of these plays by the security services are what can be termed “Ass Covering Exercises” – if a future attack takes place and security chiefs have previously gone on the record demanding extravagant new powers and resources, they have created a form of defence behind which they can shelter if anyone later questions their strategy or level of preparedness).
Quick to come out in support of Andrew Parker’s speech – in what was surely an orchestrated play – were David Cameron and George Osborne, who swiftly pledged to provide the security services with whatever they needed, a promise which would almost certainly involve riding roughshod over the current wishes of MPs, particularly the Conservative’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. As The Guardian reported:
No 10 spoke out after George Osborne pledged to give MI5 and MI6 whatever resources they need to allow them to maintain their “heroic job” in protecting the British people from terrorist threats at home and abroad. The chancellor endorsed the view of the MI5 director general in a speech on Thursday night that the fight against Islamist extremism is Britain’s main national priority.
Osborne told BBC Breakfast on Friday: “My commitment is very clear. This is the national priority. We will put the resources in. Whatever the security services need they will get because they do a heroic job on our behalf.”
George Osborne strayed even further from his brief as Chancellor of the Exchequer to also hint that this would not be a matter of mere financial resources, but legislative powers too, including the possible revival of the Communications Data Bill, or “Snoopers Charter”.
Osborne was supported in this by Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who rather than providing oversight to the security services preferred to serve as their mouthpiece within Parliament. The Telegraph reports:
“I think it gives added weight to the point that in a realistic world if you are dealing with international terrorism, how do international terrorists communicate with each other?” Sir Malcolm said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“In the modern world they communicate through the Internet, through email, through social messaging and all the technical ways that we are aware of. So, our intelligence agencies, acting under law, acting on good reasonable grounds with authority, have to the power to intercept particularly international communications that might be relevant to preventing terrorist attacks.”
If the Edward Snowden relevations showed nothing else, they revealed that GCHQ and the other “Five Eyes” member organisations already collect and share an immense amount of data, and have done so without the general public consent, yet alone the approval of the peoples’ elected representatives in Parliament. Oversight was and is lacking absolutely over the powers that the security services already possess, making the case for granting yet further powers very weak indeed.
To make matters worse, the potential future quality of oversight over the security services is even more lacklustre than it is at present. Were Ed Miliband and the Labour Party to win the next general election, of course, they would bring with them their instinctive love of big government and an authoritarianism that only grew deeper under the Blair/Brown years. Consequently, they would hardly be likely to roll back any draconian new measures dreamed up and implemented by David Cameron and Theresa May over the next four months.
But worse still is the unpalatable menace on the right flank, and the recent noises that current Mayor of London Boris Johnson has been making with regard to his stance on civil liberties and privacy. The Telegraph reports today:
Speaking on Sky News, Mr Johnson said: “In many ways the guys who did this kind of thing are very often at the fringes of criminality, lured into terrorism by very cynical and clever idealogues. In many ways they are vulnerable to all sorts of criminality.
“You have got to have a very tough security solution, to be absolutely determined to monitor these people, know where they are, know who they’re talking to.
“I’m not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people’s emails and mobile phone conversations. If they are a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.”
“Not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff.” This buffoon, this fundamentally unserious man is a strong contender to become the next Conservative Party leader and potential future Prime Minister should David Cameron lose the election on 7 May.
The potential threat to our hard-won civil liberties and freedoms if such a character were to effectively control and oversee security services empowered even more comprehensively than they are today hardly bears thinking about. Under a dystopian future Boris Johnson administration we would be caught in a pincer movement with Boris water cannons advancing from one side and Boris’s friendly Web Monitors from the other.
Amid all of this noise that constitutes our political response to acts of terror, we never consider the obvious alternative: do nothing. Or to be more precise: calmly take stock of precisely where intelligence services and other security organisations have failed, and work to resolve those organisational and human-based issues well before resorting to more serious, legislative means. At the present time, our politicians are falling over themselves to grant more and more powers and resources to national security organisations who are clearly failing to make proper, effective use of the powers that they already have.
And this is where the video comes in. The video clip at the top of this article shows a speech given by journalist and civil liberties campaigner Glenn Greenwald in Canada, in the immediate aftermath of the terrible shootings in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Tempers and emotions in Canada were understandably running high at the time, and yet this made the perfect environment for Greenwald’s impassioned argument against the further empowerment of the security state.
The whole video is well worth watching, particularly for those unfamiliar with Greenwald or the basic arguments against the insatiable growth of our national security industries. But one particular passage stands out, in which Greenwald contrasts the way that we might react if we were to witness a road traffic accident with the way we often instinctively respond to acts of terrorism (50 mins onwards):
The mere existence of a successful attack is not evidence that government policy was flawed. The mere existence of a terrorist attack doesn’t show that the government should change its policy. You could have the most perfect government policy, the perfect calibration of privacy and security, or freedom and security, and still have terrorist attacks. You can not have a society in which absolute safety is the goal, it isn’t achievable and trying to achieve it will create so many worse harms than the failure to have it in the first place.
We allow that all the time. If we see a fatal car accident we don’t start immediately demanding that our government lower the speed limit or change it’s policies; we accept that in exchange for the benefits of having automobiles we’re going to have the risk of death, and sometimes people are going to die, it’s intrinsic to the process, it’s unavoidable and it can’t be solved. We don’t demand that the speed limit be reduced to three miles per hour in order to avoid fatalities. We should be thinking the same way about terrorism.
It should be noted that this passage has been taken out of the context given by Greenwald’s whole speech, but is there not a frightening resemblance to what Greenwald said only last year in Canada and what is already starting to happen now, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks?
It should worry us all that in the event of admittedly shocking and traumatic national events, our leaders are essentially behaving like terrified young children, insisting that their parents drive the car at a snails pace for fear of a further incident. Of all the panicky responses, this opportunistic seizing of new governmental power is the least effective way to fight – let alone defeat – international jihadist terrorism.
After such savage attacks as those recently seen in Ottawa and Paris, the correct way for us to respond is to patiently and thoroughly review our existing rigorous processes and organisations, to see where they may have failed and be in need of redesigning, restaffing – or even reducing.
Beyond that calm and rational approach, we should err strongly on the side of resilience and restraint by making no new laws, imposing no new restrictions on our lives, and above all, by demonstrating through our resolute unwillingness to change our lives or the character of our country that now, at last, we are finally going to stop letting the terrorists win.