Friday, 14 June 2013

Freedom versus Security

The price of freedom, it was once explained to me, is "eternal vigilance". Fair enough - I have lived most of my adult life under some form of "threat" whether from the IRA, Islamic extremists or just from the low-life that exists in any city. One develops a kind of "personal radar" asnd one knows who is around you and one is simply aware of where important possessions are and the environment.

On a bigger scale, the safety and security of citizens is perceived to be the responsibility of Government but the constant dilemma is how to gurantee that safety while preserving the freedoms that we are trying to defend. There was a time famously when if one was wealthy it was possible to have almost no contact with the State.

AJP Taylor described how it was possible before 1914 to travel without a passport and to basically live a life (assuming one could afford it) almost entirely outside the confines of the State (subject of course to the laws). There were no real taxes to pay or obligations to Government and one could move about without any kind of notification.

The First World War changed that and since 1914 the State has played an ever-larger part in our lives though many key freedoms remain including freedom of expression. Yes one cannot libel or slander and rightly so but until recently most other communication was free from supervision apart from in time of war.

The coming of the Internet has changed the balance once again. As a tool for finding information and granting the freedom of expression to a mass audience, the Internet is as radical a development as the first newspapers but of course within the ocean of self-expression there is the possibility of unpleasant or downright hateful comment and opinion.

Within the context of the ongoing "war" on terror and especially in the light of the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby at Woolwich last month, there are those who argue that the Government in the UK, as happens in other countries, should monitor the Internet to say where and from whom the messages of hate are coming and to see how and in what way individuals or groups are manifesting this hate to a wider audience.

There are limitations to Freedom of Speech through the laws of libel and slander but an individual is free to be critical about the Government of the day (and rightly so). There are those who argue that anyone calling for the killing of British soldiers should be prosecuted but I find that more difficult. Those who volunteer for the Armed Forces do so in the expectation that one day they might have to fight and, if necessary, die for their country.

We may be personally disgusted and repulsed by what someone is saying but we should be a strong enough and coherent enough society to reject and ignore the hate. A society which feels the need to suppress negative speech is much weaker than it believes and in that respect the hate-mongers have already won.

The former Home Secretaries arguing for supervision of the Internet have, in my view, forgotten the basic freedoms that exist in our society and why they exist. It's easy to sit in the Home Office and be told by all manner of advisers that societal collapse is at hand and the only way to guarantee protection and freedom is to have a robust and strongly-resourced regime of control and supervision but I don't want to live in a Police state where my every utterance is scrutinised and where is an armed Policeman on every street corner no matter how "safe" I might feel.

In the aftermath of Lee Rigby's murder, as there is after any and every such atrocity, those who believe that order and control are the antidote of the chaos of terrorism are able to put forward their notions of the changes needed to society in order to preserve the notion of freedom. I believe such siren calls have to be resisted.

Of course, we can be repulsed by the ideological rantings of Qatada and Choudry just as we can be appalled by the antics of the EDL and the BNP but their right to speak is fundamental. If we can abrogate their right to speak then it's only a matter of time before other opinions are suppressed as being prejudicial to the public good. The logical extent of this policy is that even those opposed to the Government will be persecuted. In order to preserve the freedom of expression for all, we have to accept and tolerate that freedom for those who say the things we don't like or want to hear.

In the same way, expression via the Internet can't be suppressed simply because it says or exhorts things which we find disgusting or repulsive. Laws already exist when it comes to sexual content though of course there's little that can be done when the material originates outside the UK. In the same way, extreme political websites are often created abroad and are accessible in the UK.

In any case, by what right does the Government wish to check on the sites we visit? Visiting a website doesn't imply anything beyond curiousity and no Government should have the right to control our curiousity.

Nick Clegg is to be applauded for taking a firm stand in defence of civil liberties against the creeping authoritarianism of both Conservative and Labour parties. The arguments for the so-called "snooper's charter£ are couched in the usual language of fear and order. A civilised mature society needs to move beyond its own paranoia and accept that there may be voices preaching hate and anger and there may be places extolling those emotions and there may even be people weak enough to be drawn into that world but by trying to stifle and suppress opinion we show ourselves to be weak and vulnerable.

Hate needs to be challenged, dragged into the light and exposed. Once exposed, it is always shown for the chimera that it is - shoving it further into the dark only makes it stronger. There are times when the efforts of the misguided to make us safer serve only to make us more vulnerable. A free society, in which all opinions exist, is strong enough and will certainly endure.

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