17th November 2015
In the aftermath of the Paris atrocities there are demands for action: dropping bombs and air-strikes, shoot-to-kill policies, more use of special interrogation techniques (ie, torture), less freedom of movement, more intrusion and less privacy, more powers for the security services, and so on.
What seems to be a feature of many of these demands is that there is no attempt to explain the supposed cause-and-effect. It is almost as if the merit of the proposals is self-evident, a sign of virility: something bad has happened, and so something must be done in return.
But each such demand raises two issues: one of practicality, and one of principle. That is: would the proposal actually help, and does the proposal conflict with the supposed principles, and way of life, we are presumably seeking to defend.
In terms of practice: just doing “something” does not mean you are doing the right thing. It may make no difference, or it may make things worse. In terms of dealing with terrorism, one false move can cause problems for a generation. The history of dealing with the terrorist problems in Northern Ireland is packed with examples of things being “done” which just caused greater difficulties later on.
This is not to suggest doing nothing; just that what needs to be done needs to be thought-through.
So: will what is being called for actually work and, if so, how?
In terms of principle: there appears to be a genuine risk that we could end up undermining – even subverting – the very principles of personal autonomy, the rule of law and freedom of expression which the West can and should be defending and asserting.
These liberal principles are not absolute, and they can be interfered with for reasons of the greater good; but they should not be discarded casually either. The point is whether any serious thought is being put into the required balancing exercise.
So: how will what is being called for interfere with the fundamental values of civilization we are seeking to protect and, if so, has the right balance really been struck?
It sometimes seems that some of those wanting to drop bombs and order air-strikes, to deploy shoot-to-kill policies and to use more torture, to limit freedom of movement, and to intrude more and to give more powers for the security services, do not need a reason for their demands, and still less do they require any evidence as to the efficacy of what they propose; they just want a pretext.
Asking about whether a proposed action is really practical, and about whether a proposed action needlessly interferes with civilized values, is not a check to things being “done”. It is not an excuse for doing nothing.
Answering such questions instead will tend to mean that the right things are done: things that work, and things which mean liberal values are being taken seriously.
In essence: “something can be done” is always better than “something must be done”.
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