Letters from Green Island

September 16 2006

Freedom causes terrorism?!? I don't think so ...

Editor, MacLeans (letters@macleans.ca, jandrewpotter@rogers)

Re the latest Potter column, If security fails, there is always a scapegoat: freedom, Sept 12/06 (original story also copied at the end of this letter):

Although Mr Potter comes to a good conclusion -

"...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..." -

- I must disagree rather strongly with one of his earlier statements. He says as part of his intro that ".... Faced with a new terrorist plot, successful or not, we instinctively blame it on a surfeit of freedom. Were the 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 cause of what is labelled as 'terrorism' is NOT 'too much freedom', and I don't know of too many people who actually think that. The Bush-Harper gang, for instance, have stated repeatedly that 'terrorism' is simply a 'blind ideology of hatred' (check Harper's 911 speech), and a 'hatred of western values and freedoms and democracy', etc. - utter nonsense, of course, but quite obviously NOT referring to 'these terrorists' actions are caused by too much freedom in our countries' (although their response is, of course, to start hacking away at our 'freedoms' such as they are, which may have been what Mr Potter meant to say).

But closer to reality, many people understand Muslim 'terrorism' for what it is - not a result of too much freedom here or anywhere else (one wonders what country could be accused of having 'too much freedom', actually), but in reality a response of an oppressed people to the oppression they face - the very reverse of 'too much freedom', actually. Surely the evidently widely read Mr Potter is familiar with the recent Robert Pape book, Dying to Win, which examines all of the known suicide terrorist incidents of the last 25 years or so. A quote from an interview with Mr Pape: "...The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. ...".

So actually, it would seem quite evident that, quite contrary to Mr Potter's assertion that terrorist attacks are the result of too much freedom, it is just the opposite - if we return freedom to the people in these oppressed countries, they will stop the terrorist attacks. (Admittedly returning that freedom will not be a simple thing to do, after decades of occupation and war the invaders have more or less completely destroyed the (pre-US-puppet) governments that existed in those places and chaos and civil wars rage everywhere, but it should clearly indicate that the solution to the problems caused by invasions and bombing and killing is NOT more of the same - it is an old but very true saying that democracy does not, has not, and never will issue from the barrel of a gun imposed by outsiders. But that is a discussion for another time - I simply wished to point out that insofar as 'terrorism' is related at all to 'freedom', it is not caused by too much of that precious state, as Mr Potter indicates, but too little.)

(One might, however, actually make an argument for 'too much freedom' in a somewhat different sense in our western 'democracies' - over the years, we have granted far, far, far too much freedom to our leaders to go off adventuring and invading around the world, and this unchecked 'freedom' has now led to a situation where many, many people around the world are quite incensed at the things that have been done by our countries to their countries, and are starting to take some action to try and get rid of 'us' - and lacking great modern military machines, they are turning to ways they can afford and implement which we seem to find horrific - although bombs dropped from 30,000 feet, or cruise missiles launched from hundreds of miles away, or shells fired from great modern tanks, etc and etc, are surely at least as horrific to the innocent civilians killed and maimed thereby - and one might note there have been orders of magnitude more such civilians killed by modern western militaries than the scant few thousands killed by all of the 'terrorist' acts ever directed against western countries.)


(A note - I have noticed lately that MacLean's seems in general to be distancing itself a bit from the neo-con fundamentalists who dominate most Canadian mainstream media these days - I actually agreed with something Barbara Amiel wrote a few weeks ago, which shocked me greatly, and carrying the Alexandre Trudeau columns shows some courage and integrity on your part, and now Mr Potter saying in a national journal that perhaps we ought to slow down this fear-mongering most of the national media has been enthusiastically engaged in for the last several years. A cautious 'well done'. Perhaps some day can we expect a bit of sanity on the economics front as well - fair trade rather than free trade, for instance??)

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If security fails, there is always a scapegoat: freedom
Why the relationship between freedom and security doesn't have to be see-saw
ANDREW POTTER, MacLeans Magazine, September 12, 2006

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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 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 high-risk 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 symbolic, a device for convincing the public that it is okay to go to a hockey game or 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 is any indication.

The argument is not that we have done all we can in terms of public security. We should keep our eyes open for weak points, holes that can be plugged. What we 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.


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