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Goodbye freedom

Last updated on 13 Sep 2011

Ten years ago tomorrow tonight I was watching an episode of West Wing, and, as I do, channel surfing during the ads. One channel showed a fire in the World Trade Centre, which less than a month earlier I had stood at the base of looking up like the Australian tourist I was. I watched, and as I watched, I saw a second plane hit it, and I thought that we were now in a terrorist event.

My then wife woke up at 4am (it hit around 10pm our time, as I recall) and came out asking “What are you doing? You have work tomorrow!” Unable to answer, I gestured wordlessly at the television, and she and I stayed up until 9am watching the disaster unfold.

That morning I went to work, a medical research institute with many foreign researchers. I met an American woman in the lift, a strong personality who everyone regarded as a rock. I said to her, “I’m sorry…” and she burst into tears. I understood and although we never mentioned that again, I felt a bond with her.

That day, everyone was American. Even the muslim researchers from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia expressed their sorrow. But they, like me, surely worried what the outcome would be for the society of rule of law and democratic freedoms in which they found themselves.

And if they were, they were right to be worried. Anyone who has read any history would understand why.

In BCE 48, a member of the ruling Triumvirate was given special powers and appointed as Dictator of Rome for an emergency (civil war). He promised to lay down these powers at the end of the emergency. 500 years later, those who called themselves after him – Caesars – were finally unable to rule a unified Rome.

Now Republican Rome wasn’t quite a bastion of freedom except for the equestrian class, but whenever freedoms existed, it takes very little reason for people to lay them down in the face of emergencies. And it is very hard to both acquire freedoms in the first place, and to restore them when they are laid aside.

We spent much time, blood and effort getting to a state of the rule of law. Prior to this, law was applied differently and unequally to different classes (the poor, Jews, Irish, non-Europeans). We suffered through the Star Chambers, the Bloody Assizes, the hanging judges and lynches, and the lack of civil rights, and fought against the privileges of power. And guess what? There always has been terrorism (The Guy Fawkes plot, anarchists of the late 19th century, the IRA, and so forth) and we got and held our rights and freedoms despite all that. In fact, as I will argue below, we got them in order to deal with terrorism.

Power hates being encroached upon by mere people, and politicians will tend over time to concentrate power in their own hands and the hands of those who fund them. The United States, a beacon in the 1960s and 1970s of democratic freedoms and rule of law (remember the Supreme Court striking down bussing?), has had for a long time a countervailing wind of oligarchy and authoritarian conformism, since the robber barons of the Gilded Age. And at the moment, they are taking full advantage of the “emergency” we call the “War on Terror” (not a war, and not really about terror) to ensure they have an active industry making and running a number of military adventures no matter whether or not it serves the interests of the US itself, the countries being invaded, or the security of individuals.

Likewise, the US’s Homeland Security, with its echoes of fascist Europe (I like to call it the Heimatssicherheitsdienst) and the abuses of the Transport Security Authority’s invasion of privacy, for no apparent increase in security, and warrantless wiretapping, and so forth – all these are liberties hard won that will never be voluntarily restored by those in power. And for what?

I saw an interesting documentary by 20/20 recently that suggested that there is a multi-billion, if not multi-trillion, dollar industry now of private secret security analysis of the illicitly obtained information about individual Americans. Nobody knows how much money or people or which companies are being employed, or what lines of authority or accountability, and yet it seems that nothing much has been achieved. We do not even know whether there are terrorist plots that have been foiled, only that the authorities assert this (and then ask for more money).

Take a lesson from Prohibition: trying to control the behaviour of adult free people led to a massive increase in crime and a massive bureaucracy that led to the ATF, the DEA, the FBI and eventually the NSA. And now trillions are spent on a “war on drugs” (the phoney war that preceded the phoney war on terror) that have no effect except to make things worse, and nobody cares, because we are being “seen to be doing something” even when we’re not.

We got our freedoms by responding intelligently to attempts to hinder or remove them, by governments and radical fundamentalisms alike. Religions, ideologies and nationalisms all tried to take them away, and yet we produced the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Jurisdictions of Common Law took rights assigned to royalty and the aristocracy and gave them to common people. Police were constrained and regulated by law, not by the powerful. Until around 1980, when all this started to roll back under the reaction of conservative forces (I mean by this, the forces of the status quo, not always political conservatives – often the so-called “progressive” wing of politics is as conservative and authoritarian and statist as the conservatives). Since then we have seen, unlike the recent “Arab” (or more accurately, Berber) Spring, a steady decline in individual liberties in the west, as the tactics used so dramatically by the fascists are employed more subtly by the modern plutocracy.

What would I have us do? This is always where we fall down, we “advocates for freedom”, right? Well, I think we could do worse that look at the fundamentals:

1. Learn to live with risks. A risk free world is impossible. In fact, the risks from terror are much smaller than risks we take for granted (from the Scientific American article by Katherine Harmon):

For the more than $1 trillion the U.S. has spent on domestic security in the past decade to be justified in terms of lives saved, counterterrorism efforts would need to “have successfully deterred, derailed, disrupted, or protected against attacks that would otherwise have resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people in the country every year, equivalent to experiencing attacks as devastating as those on 9/11 at least once a year or 18 Oklahoma City bombings every year,” the researchers wrote in the August issue of Homeland Security Affairs.

“Even if all of the terrorist plots exposed since 9/11 in the United States had been successfully carried out, their likely consequences would have been much lower,” John Mueller, chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University, and Mark Stewart, director of the Center for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability at The University of Newcastle in Australia, noted in their analysis. Although much security work is secretive, thus some thwarted attacks might remain undisclosed, based on public information, the “enhanced expenditures have been excessive…[even though] there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue,” they concluded.

You can find out what the causes of US deaths are at the National Centre for Injury Prevention and Control website. Heart disease is number 1 with unintentional injury being number 5. Terrorism has caused less than 10,000 deaths in the US (in Afghanistan and Pakistan and India that might be a lot higher, although still low per capita), while diabetes alone causes around 75,000 annually. The US spends $1 trillion on counterterrorism that we know of. It spends between $220 and $340 billion on diabetes.

So we should learn to act rationally about risks. We should spend accordingly. And we should not lay down our freedoms in order to prevent a potential threat that might affect less than 1/100,000 every year, less than those who die from infectious diarrhoea in the US. Here are some things that are more likely to kill you than a terrorist attack. Death by cop is eight times more likely in the US, apparently.

2. Use the law, don’t circumvent it. Every successful prevention of an attack, and every successful prosecution of those involved, were done legally through good police methods. And the use of the law is something that applies when there is a crime in progress or one having been committed. It won’t prevent crimes, except by deterrence, and nothing stops fanatics anyway.

But if you circumvent the law for good reasons, no matter how noble they are they set up a machinery, an institution or practice that can and will be used for bad reasons, often within a few minutes. And then it sets up a bureaucracy of those who have a vested interest in controlling those means, as happened with the drug case.

This is independent of questions of the use of torture by erstwhile civilised nations. Start doing that, and soon you are torturing your own citizens and those of your allies. And then other can torture your citizens, and in particular your fighters.

3. Don’t prohibit something because there’s a chance someone might use it badly. At some point we stopped allowing kids to take risks, but it has also become common not to allow adults to take risks because some idiots hurt themselves or others. Politicians have little to no control over events, but where they can, they will always exercise their ability by prohibiting more and more behaviours through legislation, regulation and enforcement. Now I am not saying that we shouldn’t legislate, regulate and prohibit some things (especially those things like food production and building standards that have a massive effect on public safety, although oddly these are things the hawks tend not to want regulated), but only that we should always take this to be a temporary thing to be tested.

So we should set a mandatory sunset clause on every piece of freedom-reduction legislation and regulation, and always have a mandatory test of the efficacy of the controls before signing them up for another few years. If a politician wants to remove rights to do something, let’s make sure this is for good reason. And if it isn’t, or can’t be shown to be, then it would be removed. Health inspections of restaurants can easily be shown to be worthwhile; can banning video games? I doubt that it can, and if not, drop it. Now. The costs are high, and the benefits are low, if they exist at all.

4. Presume always that people have an established right, not that they do not or must demonstrate they do. For example, too many cops and statutory authorities have been arresting people for taking photos in public spaces, or for doing something like protesting peacefully. People react badly when this occurs, and I suspect it has led to the subversion of peaceful protest by agitators by making the rightful protestors less inclined to regulate themselves. My net friend Ed Brayton documents the common abuses of power by police on a regular basis; subscribe to his blog to be shocked.

If we have to demonstrate that we have a legal right, rather than it being the default, it is all too easy for the powerful and vested to game the system so that we can’t do this. The right to free speech, for example, has always been under threat even when, like the US and unlike Australia, that right is written into a legal charter. I recently watched a John Wayne pot boiler (Big Jim McLain) in which he decries the existence of the right to not self-incriminate for those accused by the House Unamerican Activities Committee of being communists. But if the rest of us are to have that right, they have to as well, or nobody does.

As we watch the sunset of our rights and freedoms, we do a great disservice to the memory of those who died for them, including the 9/11 victims. And I doubt that we will recover them in the near future, as we slide into what looks for all the world like a fascism, imposed by those who fear the Muslims, hate the poor and the middle class, and want to make as much as they can from the rest of us. We are all Americans now in quite another sense from how I felt on 9 September 2001. The rest of the west are watching the gap between wealthy and poor increase daily and dramatically, and we are following along in the loss of liberty that America is leading the west into.

Late note: See the NYT Reckoning page for more information.


  1. Soraya L. Valles Soraya L. Valles

    Well in New York we can see the horror of the war. But we need to never forget that other wars are in the world but obviosly they are not mediatic wars, only black people death and without sonds, so in the anyversary of world tride center or zona 0, we need to speak about that. Journalist speak about war in the 3th world but the people never see impact images like we see in 2001. We were in a congres in Spain with all AAA in Valencia. We feel stupids, we see american people criying and american girls shooting, but after a few minuts. We think about people in the world and the consecuencies of all that in the world. Remember we pass for years of oscurity with conservative americans in the power and with many stupid things. Now american people now the war in the hearth and they can unthertand very well african population. African death at 40 years old, in our century. We need to think about that. and we do not forget other people never again.

  2. I was expecting the President (Bush) to say, in effect “Let’s pick up the piece, but live free and proud.” Instead, he said what amounted to “Let’s be terrified.” It took a while for me to realize that he actually meant that.

    The terrorists had won, not because of what they did but because of how we reacted.

  3. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    One small sign of how these vital rights have been eroded is emerging in the various police/intelligence/forensic science procedural TV shows. Quite often now, when interviewing an uncooperative witness or suspect, the heroes find ways of suggesting that the case has terrorist ramifications. This means that the suspect can be intimidated by the threat of losing any ‘Miranda’ rights and being transfered to “Gitmo” or some other ‘rendition’ facility where, it is implied, they will be subjected to unnamed horrors. And this is usually presented as a good thing.

    Only one show, that I have seen, had the courage to show the other side of the coin when one of the secondary characters was detained incommunicado for several days by Homeland Security on suspicion of being a terrorist. What was really alarming was how powerless even the police and forensic science officers were when trying to find information about what had happened to their colleague. The DHS was portrayed as behaving much more like the KGB of old than a defender of democratic rights and freedoms.

    The problem is that the politicians, intelligence apparatus and police forces must be seen to be doing something when the most effective counter-terrorist operations are best conducted far from the limelight. What works is careful, patient intelligence-gathering and police work, what the public wants to see is SWAT and special forces teams abseiling down buildings to “take out” the “bad guys” in a blaze of automatic weapons fire and stun grenades. James Bond may be glamorous and dramatic but George Smiley is much more effective in the long run.

  4. 9/11 was more an occasion than a cause. The emergency gave the powers that be a convenient excuse for accelerating authoritarian trends that go back a long way now and have less to do with international terrorism than with the increase in economic inequality that began in the U.S. in the early 70s. Great disparities of wealth and power absolutely demand a drastic strengthening of the means of coercion and judges will always find convenient ways of getting around clumsy legacies like the Bill of Rights.

    • I think you are right – this has always been sitting in the background of western society (or else the fascists would not have been successful in the 30s). But I think 9/11 was a useful turning point for that agenda. Before that, we could generally prevent it from taking over, even despite the encroaching militarism and nationalism since WW2.

  5. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    We saw U2 in November that year. Bono had a big American flag and said, “We are all Americans”.

    We had a chance to do something right and we fracked it up. Well, not me.

    I remember watching CNN the day not we went into Iraq; it was the first hours and the idiots were saying how well the war was going. I said to the TV (I do that, don’t you?) Morons, this is not the war, this is on the way to the war.

  6. jeb jeb

    With regard to the cultural and ethnic games we repeatedly return to, as we know them so well and understand how effective they are. I always find myself going old school and returning to Latin and the etymology of monster

    Monstrum ‘that which teaches’, monstratre to show, both derived from monere I admonish, I warn, I advise and its relationship with memini, I remember, I am mindful of. demonstratre I point to, I indicate, I prove. The thread that runs through them I teach, I guide and in the end I give a sense of order to mens (mind)

    “I am a little world made cunningly” and rigidly ordered

  7. Ribozyme Ribozyme

    Wow, John, this post is magnificent. Even in a time of darkness like this, it gives one a feeling of hope to find someone who sees things so clearly and is capable not only of telling us what went wrong, but how we now must proceed to fix it.

    In 9-11 I was very worried thinking that WWI took just the murder of two people to get started (and Austria acted in many of the stupid ways that have characterized the US reaction). Ten years later, we haven’t had WWIII, but I wonder if that’s not a small consolation. Here in Mexico we are seeing the government use the excuse of fighting the drug cartels with a very similar purpose: bending the law and gaining more power. I’m a bit puzzled seeing that the strategy has backfired and that the party currently in the presidency is almost certain to lose it in the next election, next year. The problem, as in the USA, is that the other party options aren’t much better, if at all.

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