OPINION

If security fails, there is always a scapegoat: freedom

ANDREW POTTER September 11 2006
OPINION

If security fails, there is always a scapegoat: freedom

ANDREW POTTER September 11 2006

If security fails, there is always a scapegoat: freedom

OPINION

ANDREW POTTER

The early response last month to the foiled Heathrow bomb plot had the virtue of raising hopes for a new genre of film: the airline terror-comedy, in which incompetent

hijackers dentally assault passengers with tubes of Crest or torment them with a thousand paper cuts using pages torn from Clive Cussler novels.

It also raised, yet again, the perennial question of how much freedom we should trade for our security. Following the attacks of 9/11, many governments in the West moved to implement a suite of anti-terrorism measures. The most notorious was the U.S. Patriot Act, but Canada’s hastily conceived Bill C-36 was actually more draconian, proposing a number of distinctly illiberal measures such as preventive arrest and forced testimony. The general feeling was that we had too much “freedom” and not enough “security,” and that the new normal would involve more or less permanently curtailing civil liberties in the name of increased security.

Over the past half-decade, there has been considerable public debate over how to strike the appropriate balance between the two, with hawks demanding more security and doves holding out for freedom. But neither side has really questioned the underlying assumption, that the relationship between freedom and security is essentially a see-saw: as one goes up, the other must go down. This is unfortunate, because the idea that freedom and security are values in conflict threatens to lead us to political disaster.

The confusion started with Thomas Hobbes. According to Hobbes, in the state of nature— the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state moved in to assert its monopoly over the use of force—humans had maximum freedom, in that we all had the right to do anything we wanted. But what this means is that if I have the right to bonk you on the head

and steal your supper, you have the right to do likewise to me. As a result of total freedom, everyone lives in a condition of constant fear and total insecurity, what Hobbes famously called “the war of all against all.” Hobbes’s solution was the security state, to which we hand over some of our natural freedom for the sake of increased security.

When it comes to dealing with terrorism, we are all Hobbesians. Faced with a new terrorist plot, successful or not, we instinctively blame it on a surfeit of freedom. Were the

Were the terrorists radicalized at a mosque in London? Too much freedom of religion.

terrorists radicalized at a mosque in northeast London? There must be too much freedom of religion. Did they try to smuggle a bomb onto a plane by hiding it in a water bottle? Too much freedom of carry-on luggage.

The truth is, many of the holes in our security net are the result not of too much “freedom,” but of poorly designed institutions and infrastructure. For example, before 9/11, airport security in the U.S. was operated by private companies who were employed by either the airlines or the airport operator. For obvious reasons, there were powerful incentives for them to do it as cheaply and unobtrusively as possible, and after the attacks many people were surprised to discover that millions of lives and billions of dollars worth of equipment were being protected by poorly educated and trained security personnel earning something close to minimum wage.

At the level of infrastructure, the most important improvements in public security

have built on the British idea of removing garbage cans from subway platforms (to minimize potential hiding places for bombs). We have variously put air marshals on highrisk flights, provided better training for flight attendants, and strengthened cockpit doors. All of this has had a tremendous impact on security without affecting civil liberties in the least.

Of course there are limits to how effective these sorts of steps can be. A great deal of what passes for security in our society is sym-

bolic, a device for convincing the public that it is okay to go to a hockey game take a trip to see relatives. At a certain point, though, useful symbolism degenerates into a theatre of the absurd. The public seems to recognize this, if the hostile reaction to the new rules about carry-on luggage any indication.

The argument is not that we have done all we can terms of public security. We should keep our eyes open for weak points, holes that can be plugged. What have to guard against is the line where security measures stop providing reassurance and start fuelling paranoia. If there is anything genuinely frightening about terrorism, it is that it will spark

an immune response in which we look inward in search of enemies and seek to purge anything that looks remotely threatening. The decision to ban toothpaste and duty-free booze from airplanes is an early sign of that response. If that sounds absurd, you haven't been paying attention. Over the past few weeks, there have been countless stories of planes being diverted because air crews were worried by passengers who acted suspicious, or of brown-skinned people being hounded off planes by hysterical fellow travellers.

When it comes to improving security, it is not always necessary to sacrifice some of our freedom. And if in trying to trade freedom for security we end up repudiating our fundamental liberal values, then perhaps we shouldn’t try to do it all. M

ON THE WEB: For more Andrew Potter, visit his new blog at www.macleans. ca/ andrewpotter