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The terrorists' legacy - how we are ruled by fear

HISTORY is full of examples of the use of a perceived emergency to generate fear, and for fear to destroy the restraints that protect democratic societies from totalitarian remedies. The fact that fear makes populations tolerant of extreme remedies provides opportunities for the unscrupulous to create "emergencies", so as to allow them access to "emergency powers".

The Third Reich began as a democratic response to an "emergency" facing the German nation. Thereafter, whenever Adolf Hitler required more power he created emergencies, real or imagined, so as to justify the democratic suspension of democratic safeguards. Military coups in Africa and Latin America were all mounted on the basis of a "national emergency", and to the extent that they received popular support, they were based on disillusionment with a democratic politics that had descended into chaos and the fear that things could only get worse.

While it is evident that Western democracies are built on substantial foundations, it is equally clear that 9/11 represents a real and major escalation in the threats to such societies. The lesson following the terrorist attacks on Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 is that the threat of terrorism is continuous and ongoing.

The first responsibility of any government is to safeguard the lives of its own citizens. Nonetheless, if the 20th century is full of examples of such seizures of power, there is no doubt that the current century is already producing, under the guise of the "war on terror", a series of reductions in civil liberties.

The language of "protecting the rights of the law-abiding majority" and of "rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the victim" has wide appeal. Just as the purported threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction led to the waging of a war, so the increase of fear creates a population ready to accept the accretion of powers to the state.

A tally of the new statutes that have found their way to the statute book since 9/11 and those anti-terrorist measures that look likely to be introduced to Parliament following the terrorist attacks on London in July 2005 testify to the power of fear to direct government policy and secure popular consent to a new "balance", favouring security over civil liberty. A change in the balance might be right, but continued vigilance is required to ensure that such a balance does not lead to a diminution in civil liberties.

None of this happens without protest. Each proposed erosion of civil liberties has been greeted by a negative response from lawyers and civil liberties groups. These protests have, in turn, produced concessions. The protest that greeted the proposal to oust the courts from reviewing asylum appeals produced a solution which, while less draconian, still reduced the capacity of asylum-applicants to appeal against deportation. The proposal to imprison without trial foreign citizens suspected of terrorist connections was modified in the light of a Law Lords' judgment so as to allow house arrest of British and foreign subjects - and that in turn has produced protests which will no doubt produce modifications.

However, the process by which measures are proposed so as to meet what are perceived to be popular fears, and then modified in the light of protests, still engenders a steady erosion of liberties and an increase in the powers of the state. This is dangerous. It is also potentially counterproductive, in the manner in which it sustains a breeding ground that supports a victim leading to martyrdom mentality amongst many terrorists and their sympathisers.

One argument perhaps insufficiently brought out during the recent debates over the British Government's counter-terrorism legislation was that there is a danger of contaminating the criminal-justice system itself, if legislators stretch it beyond what it can bear. The attempt to give judicial respectability to what are executive actions can be misplaced.

There are circumstances in which it is better for the separation of powers and the integrity of the justice system to allow executive detention to stand or fall on its own merits for a limited period, testing the argument that the nation faces a wholly abnormal threat.

Such developments as these are the inevitable by-products of the politics of fear, and the creation of a war mentality, in which we are prepared for more and more "tough" remedies against the danger which it is claimed that we are facing.

Into such an environment the most repeated of all the biblical injunctions comes with undiminished vigour: "Fear not." That command is not an inhuman requirement that we lose our fearful reactions when confronted with danger or shirk the taking of necessary precautions; rather it is an injunction not to act out of fear, but to let the power of love work its way with our fears. The history of Israel in the Bible is a history of prophets warning against false alliances and false divinities whose hold over the people was based on fear. We should warn our generation also that fear makes a bad basis for the ruling of a society.

This is an extract from Countering Terrorism: Power, violence and democracy post-9/11, available in full on .

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