I remember where I was on September 11th 2001 – driving to the Midland Gliding Club, on the high plains of the Long Mynd, deep in the heart of Shropshire. My phone rang. It was Simon Milner, from my Parliamentary office in London. “I thought I should let you know, one of the Twin Towers in New York is on fire. There was an explosion. Maybe an aeroplane hit it.” Minutes later Simon called again. “Now there’s been an explosion in the other one. It’s on fire. They don’t know who is responsible.” It wasn’t much longer till the third phone call came. “Lembit, the first one has collapsed. I think the other one is going to collapse as well. A lot of people are dead.” I looked west, across the miles of rolling countryside, and wondered if World War Three was about to begin.
In fact, it was the beginning of quite a few wars. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. On terror. And, though I didn’t realise it then, on Liberalism. The global hunt for terrorists meant that, within two years, Big Brother would have his eye on us as never before.
Insecure people and organisations tend to respond aggressively to a perceived threat. They crave security by acquiring total knowledge of other people’s activities. Where more balanced people try to establish dialogue, to understand motives and needs of others around them, the insecure generate a culture of blame and intrusion by seeking certainty and safety without attempting to create the sort of social contracts necessary to achieve it.
Since 9/11, the British and American governments have displayed the hallmarks of insecurity. While liberal-minded governments work on the assumption that human nature is basically good, insecure governments seek to control society to stop the bad things occurring. Liberal policy-makers underpin their work on the basis of trust and good faith. Illiberal ones seek to close off opportunities for bad behaviour. Liberal politicians look for causes, not symptoms, and find solutions which neutralise the motive to offend, while illiberal politicians tend to simply suppress the opportunities to offend. In essence, liberals work in partnership with human nature. Authoritarians seek to control human behaviour.
One reason we see a shift away from liberalism in times of trouble is because liberalism takes longer, and can cost more in the short term. Take the relationship between education and crime. We know a better education tends to reduce the likelihood of a criminal life, except in the case of one or two former Conservative peers and MPs. So, rather than build more prisons – we should build more schools, to educate youth at risk before they end up in court. But it’s quicker and easier to just imprison offenders and jack up the sentences. An immediate improvement to the crime figures, at least in theory.
Such thinking is writ large in the West’s response to the 9/11 attack. George W. Bush declared war on the “Bad Men.” He responded to violence with violence – as if, all we need do to stop terrorism, is catch the bad guys. He actually seems to think this is achievable. American foreign policy fails to consider the motives of those terrorists. It’s almost taboo to ask “why did 9/11 happen?”
The war on terrorism is not winnable if it ignores the question of motive. As we know from Northern Ireland, killing and imprisoning the terrorists does not kill the cause. The people will be replaced as long as the cause is regarded as worth fighting for. In fact, the State’s efforts to oppress trouble are met with ‘heroic’ defiance, by the IRA or by Al Qaeda, and a stream of supporters willing to step into the breach. Since the American President uses the terminology of war, he has turbocharged the perception that America itself is an enemy.
Wives and husbands rarely achieve harmony by shouting at each other and declaring war. So also, the strong arm tactics are basically doomed to escalate the problem. But the State can’t lose. It backs itself into an increasingly desperate corner, where winning at any cost becomes a psychological necessity. Little wonder then, that three central tenets of a liberal society have all been compromised – Truth, Good Faith, and Civil Liberty.
Firstly, Truth. It is said “truth is the first casualty of war.” It’s pretty obvious the Prime Minister did mislead the House of Commons, and the country, about Iraq’s ability to deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. The only real question is whether he misled the country knowingly, or whether he himself was misled. Either way, truth was compromised. Liberalism can’t thrive when one partner – the Government – has lost the trust of the other partner – the public. Citizens question the Government’s intentions and motives. Government responds emphatically, by demanding that it is doing the right thing, and we’ll thank them for it later.
Liberalism cannot exist in an environment where one party is forcing the other party to do what it wants, and is willing to abuse information to achieve that. Sooner or later the other party wants to leave. But how do you divorce a Government? At a General Election I suppose. But there’s no guarantee of a separation even then. Once people use bad information to justify something as big as a war, what’s going to stop them doing it again to save themselves?
The second casualty of war is Good Faith. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ended with no clear winner. The Taliban and Al Qaeda certainly didn’t win on the ground. But it remains to be seen how they respond in the years ahead. Blair and Bush know this. So they are trying to stop the backlash. And, since there’s never been a serious effort to address the motives of the terrorists, the only way they can win now is to find everyone who might commit a terrorist offence before they act, and stop them.
But to find the terrorists amongst the citizens, you need a hell of a lot of access to information about everyone. We’re all potential terrorists. That’s why Parliament finds itself debating legislation each month, to close every possible circumstance through which the Evil Citizen can evade detection. Since 2001, I have personally voted against dozens of new laws extending the reach of the state into our lives.
Everything from surveillance to arrest powers have changed. They’ve even banned some weapons to make it harder for the bad guys to get a weapon of minor destruction. But despite the ‘total ban’ on hand guns, crime involving hand guns has more than doubled. Prohibition has failed to reduce the risk posed by these weapons. Same goes for burning the poppy fields of Afghanistan. That can alter the price of heroin, but it does little to affect usage in such a demand-led industry. Once you’re hooked you’ll find the money. A progressive – Liberal – policy, such as prescription of hard drugs to registered addicts, will do more to reduce drug usage and the motive to deal than any crackdown on the dealers in the streets. Yet this just isn’t the mood music in Westminster or Washington. Getting the drug barons is the fighting talk, and part of the War.
So, just as the school bully keeps power through intimidation, an authoritarian regime keeps control by extending the methods of control – surveillance, physical prevention of certain activities, confiscation of property, and increases in punishment. That’s the Home Office in the UK for you, and it’s all happening to you right now.
I recently had cause to open a new bank account in my existing bank. I’ve been banking with NatWest for 20 years, and going to my local branch for over half a decade. As the local MP, I happen to attend events where I see the staff, or meet them socially. But I couldn’t open a new account, because I needed to provide two different bits of identification, which I didn’t have. The woman said, “I’m sorry, Lembit, but we have to see those two forms of ID. I can’t open this account without them.” She was telling me that, according to Government mandate, I couldn’t prove who I was. And all the while, she was calling me by my first name. I ask you, if Osama Bin Laden wanted to open an account in NatWest, is there not a possibility that he might be able to get some false documents? For all we know, he’s living under a new identity in a council house in Battersea. We wouldn’t know. But his neighbours can’t get a bank account if they can’t find their passport, even if they’ve known the bank manager all their lives.
The third casualty of war is Civil Liberty. Once a government has entered the path of authoritarianism, it finds it almost impossible to deviate from it. Eventually, it becomes possible for the Government to justify to itself almost any restriction on civil liberties in the name of the public good. Each step feels necessary, and on its own doesn’t look like a grand plan to take our privacy and freedom away. But collectively, it’s all very bad news. People who introduce such powers invariably regard themselves as benign, and assure us the State is acting in good faith and claim there’s nothing to worry about. This is naive. Reducing our civil liberties and increasing the reach of the State into our lives are real hostages to fortune. Where a liberal government seeks a dialogue with motivations, authoritarians supply a monologue of threats. They cannot see that, unless the motivations are addressed, the threat remains.
Worse still, there’s the further danger of corruption within the system itself. What about Lord Archer, a Big Player in a former Government of the UK? What about police collusion with paramilitaries in Northern Ireland? People in the province aren’t any different to the rest of us. Corruption plus surveillance may actually do more harm to society than the dangers used to justify the surveillance in the first place.
But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So let’s go all the way. Let’s tag those people most likely to harm society or destabilise the world order through violence and weapons. Let’s tag the Prime Minister, his underlings and certainly George W. Bush – who collectively have certainly been responsible for more death than a small time crook in East London who’s being watched and bugged in some sting operation.
If the Cabinet had been tagged and bugged, we’d clear up the WMD fiasco in no time. But that just goes to underline the point. Authoritarians don’t trust the public to know what’s best, because authoritarians think they themselves know best. They want the freedom to do as they please, but fear giving the same freedom to others. That’s the classic hallmark of embryonic totalitarian political systems. It’s worth remembering that the Soviet Union was born out of the good intentions of its architects.
Lembit Opik is the Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire.