Sunday, September 23, 2007

Civil Liberties and the GWOT

I read The Economist every week, because I like their journalism; besides, they occasionally use words that even I don't know, so I learn something. One of their leader essays this week (Sept. 15 issue) ended with a statement about civil liberties and the "global war on terror" that cuts so close to the bone that I'm just going to quote the whole thing here:

When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots. To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that—with one hand tied behind their back—is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.

Take torture, arguably the hardest case (and the subject of the first article in our series). A famous thought experiment asks what you would do with a terrorist who knew the location of a ticking nuclear bomb. Logic says you would torture one man to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and so you would. But this a fictional dilemma. In the real world, policemen are seldom sure whether the many (not one) suspects they want to torture know of any plot, or how many lives might be at stake. All that is certain is that the logic of the ticking bomb leads down a slippery slope where the state is licensed in the name of the greater good to trample on the hard-won rights of any one and therefore all of its citizens.

Human rights are part of what it means to be civilised. Locking up suspected terrorists—and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too?—before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.

I couldn't have said it better myself.


  1. I think the distinction is more complex than that.

    In time of war, many things are done on the battlefield. The Ken Burns WWII documentary--currently running this week on PBS--illustrates with many examples what warring nations (and armies) do to each other in the name of victory, and the expedient of winning.

    There's no question, however, of our using "interrogation techniques" on the prisoners in Cuba--whatever they've been going to tell us wouldn't have much value now, years after the fact. Best either to try them as criminals, or export them back to their native countries. Holding them longer seems a completely stupid waste of time and resources. They wouldn't have known--in any case--what their bosses were planning months and years down the road. The whole Guantanamo thing was bungled.

    Bottom line: Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you. If you torture their guys, they'll torture yours. Tit for tat. Not an equation we want to keep using in international affairs.

  2. Curtis, your "bottom line" is spot on. The issue The Economist was raising, however, doesn't related to battlefield techniques. The battlefield is not a regulated place, and never will be: if we can get people on the battlefield to remember that the Geneva Conventions exist, that's as good as we can expect.

    The issue is the erosion of civil liberties against the U.S. (and the U.K.) civilian population, in the name of "security". I'll repeat this again: there is no security against a man who is willing to die in order to kill you. Also, Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety, whether Benjamin Franklin actually said that or merely repeated it.