Demands for more government surveillance in response to the Paris terror attacks are crass, opportunistic and pointless
It’s very rare for this blog to agree with a Guardian editorial, but the newspaper’s stance on the proper response to the latest terrorist atrocity in Paris contains a lot of sense*.
For a start, there is none of the Western self-flagellation that grips too much of the Corbynite Left, and the absence of this equivocation is refreshing in itself (but then ever since their decision to back Yvette Cooper over Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election, the Guardian’s left wing idealism has seemed more affected than deeply held).
And on the need to avoid using the Paris attacks as permission to ratchet up the surveillance state, the Guardian is absolutely correct:
In Britain, there will be some who see Theresa May’s new investigatory powers bill in a more urgent light after Paris. But unless and until the evidence shows that bulk surveillance would have made a difference in that dreadful scenario, the argument remains where it was. And our starting point is still that mass surveillance of all of us is neither necessary nor effective.
When the intelligence agencies are looking for a needle in a haystack, they shouldn’t be adding more hay. When they need to spy on an individual or group, they should seek – and they will usually get – the legal warrant to do so. And, in case it needs repeating, European societies do not defend their values when they turn on their Muslim fellow citizens – on the contrary, they violate those values.
This is exactly right, and a welcome counternote to the blind panic currently spilling from the keyboards of other commentators such as Dan Hodges. While one can understand individuals – particularly those actually caught up in the attacks – being led by emotion and willingly sacrificing everything for the false promise of greater security, those people who make public policy or influence public opinion should be more careful with their thoughts and words.
As the Guardian rightly points out, it is for the intelligence services (and their willing cheerleaders in the media) to conclusively prove that harvesting more bulk data would have prevented the Paris attacks from happening. If they really want to shift the status quo and treat every citizen as guilty until proving innocent by keeping a record of their communications, they must prove that the lack of this data is what allowed the eight attackers to slip through the net. And they can prove no such thing, because even if some of their communications were swept up in bulk collection along with everyone else’s, they cannot prove – or even plausibly claim – that they would have known to look for that data in the giant haystack of data.
The problem with our current national security state is not that it lacks sufficient powers over us, but that we lack sufficient power over it. Citing “national security concerns” now seems to be enough to win the argument for more surveillance on its own, and the intelligence services have grown both lazy and entitled, expecting governments to grant their every request even when they fail to construct a convincing case for them. Just as President Eisenhower presciently warned of the military-industrial complex, so we must be wary of the national security state – which has now become so big that it has taken on a life of its own, with priorities and ambitions that go beyond their original, limited remit.
This would be bad enough if it worked, but the awkward truth is that we will never achieve the perfectly secure state. Realising this, we must understand that responding to every new barbaric terrorist attack by ratcheting up the same surveillance state which failed to prevent it represents a colossal failure of imagination on our part. Glenn Greenwald likes to make the comparison with road safety – we do not insist on draconian new road safety legislation such as a 20mph speed limit every time we see a road fatality, because we accept that a degree of risk comes with the freedom to drive.
As this blog commented after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, warning of the dangers of government overreaction:
The harms that would be inflicted in order to achieve absolute safety are the very same harms that David Cameron intends to inflict upon Britain in his panicked, servile submission to the demands of the national security and intelligence chiefs. The only way to achieve absolute safety is through absolute surveillance – and zero privacy. Stepping out onto a London street totally certain in the knowledge that you will come to no harm would require us to become North Korea.
Ultimately, the only way to make us safer is to reduce the number of people living among us or dwelling overseas who wish to rain death and destruction upon us. That does not – repeat, does not – mean appeasing them, admitting that they have a point, or accepting the legitimacy of their sick and evil ideology. But it does mean accepting some fundamental truths that we prefer to overlook in our righteous fury, as I pointed out after Charlie Hebdo.
Those who think that the way to prevent the next attack is by granting government yet more power to spy on our actions and regulate what we say would apparently be content to live in a society where a small, nihilistic minority hate us and wish us harm, but whose attempts to kill us are always thwarted by an omnipotent security and intelligence apparatus. I do not wish to live in such a state, and nor do I think that such a scenario should be our highest aspiration. We can do better than that.
In the shocked aftermath of these reprehensible terrorist attacks in Paris, some would have the authorities start to construct their very own North Korea right here in England’s green and pleasant land. They are motivated by an understandable fear, but our country will not be best served by acting on their gut instinct. Even when the advocates of the surveillance state mean well, we must oppose them.
* That’s not to say that the Guardian gets everything right. Determined to push their pro-EU agenda at all times, the article keeps banging on about “European values” as though our common revulsion at the killing and maiming of innocent people in Paris somehow means that the national cultures of Britain, France, Portugal, Greece and Poland are more or less identical, and ripe for further political integration. This much is nonsense, but does not detract from the overall thrust of the piece.
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