by Gus Hosein
We have been busy being blind, deaf and mute. With few exceptions, Governments around the world passed laws in response to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. Without exception, these laws endowed Governments with greater powers to combat this significant threat. Since then, every Government has extended its powers and mandates and created new ones. Few notice that the links to combatting terrorism are now few and far between and even then, tenuous at best. Few notice these policy changes at all. Hardly anyone has spoken out.
Being oblivious to these changes has its advantages. We do not have to watch ourselves unlearn prior lessons. We do not have to question the rhetoric promoting the 'greatest civil liberty of all', to be protected from fear, to be made safe. We do not have to doubt the promises that, in investing our Governments with great powers, these powers will be used guardedly. Instead, we fall in line with other proletarians and chant the insidious claim that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
These changes have been radical. Most recently, the power of house arrest was introduced in the United Kingdom, abandoning the right to fair trial that existed for hundreds of years. The Government justified this power saying that it is more important to protect the human rights of everyone else over the rights of suspected terrorists. The American Government began fingerprinting and photographing all visitors, storing this information for our lifetimes and beyond: the US Government justified this practice saying that it was necessary in order to help protect our privacy. Governments are giving new meaning to 'liberal interpretation'.
Governments weakened safeguards on communications surveillance, despite protestations from judges that previous warrant regimes were continually abused. Countries without identity cards are now introducing them. Countries with ID cards are now moving into the modern age with fingerprint databases, real-time surveillance and omniscient record-keeping. DNA databases are growing to include the innocent, just in case they or their family members step out of line in the future. Definitions of 'terrorist activity' are expanding and new crimes are created, including 'acts preparatory to terrorism' and 'material support to terrorists', housing and feeding terrorists and funding charities with tenuous links to terrorist causes.
Every new and surprising power is justified on the most reasonable grounds, as we all fear sounding unreasonable in our objections. Governments claim that those who oppose these policies are aiding the terrorists. They also claim that the few who do oppose the policies are ignorant of the fact that we live in a new age, under a severe threat.
Other Governments are watching one another to see how to successfully expand State powers, and are eager to apply for their own licences. Malaysia was about to abandon its own powers of detention without trial until it saw the actions of Western governments. Copying the US, the European Union, Japan, Russia and the UK are working on their own fingerprinting and iris-scanning programmes. International treaties are being devised to ensure that all States have equivalent surveillance capabilities. And the broadening of laws continues: laws passed to combat terror are now justified as necessary to control immigration, to reduce fraud and to better enforce all other laws. Now, every move we make is registered and noted: what we watch or download, who we communicate with, our choice of travel and the route we pursue, our every purchase, our selection of foods, our medical diagnoses and prescriptions, our tastes in reading material.
Previously we considered this information as sacrosanct. Our memberships in organizations, our communications, our health records, our political beliefs and our religious faiths were matters that were private, to be guarded from the hands of those who have power over us. We were taught so by history. We believed that granting our Governments access to this information would lead to abuse. We believed that knowledge of the actions and intentions of the citizenry reduces our ability to organize, to oppose a Government's arguments and question its rule.
We also considered the right to a fair trial as inviolable. We learned that lesson after many travesties of justice. We used to see it as an injustice if individuals were detained without trial or found guilty without knowing the evidence used against them. Yet we appear to have erased all these lessons from our textbooks - or perhaps we are just poor students of history.
While we are caught in the drama of our times, we forget that we are removing long-established protections. We have now abandoned old concepts such as habeus corpus, the right to be brought before a court when detained. Another latin expression may be an appropriate description of our times: 'inter arma silent leges' - in times of war the law is silent. Governments cannot be restrained by civil liberties when our safety is at stake, or so the argument goes.
We created these rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the right to be let alone, the right to free expression and other essential rights, because they protect values. We valued the right of the individual to speak their mind because it enriches our society. We valued their right to a fair trial because we believe that everyone is created equal, and this is what separates us from more barbarous societies. We valued their right to privacy because we understand that it is the foundation to human dignity. We stood by protections against their torture because we understood that it lessens us all.
Now we just stand by as these rights are neglected, and the values that established them are forgotten. When asked, most do not believe in the right to free expression. When asked, most believe that the right of society to be free from crime justifies blanket surveillance and extraordinary punishments. When asked, many believe that torture is justified in some circumstances, and national identity databases in all.
Modern democratic systems are founded upon another latin expression: 'vox populi, vox Dei' - the voice of the people is the voice of God. Indeed, we have a fearful God. Rights require the consent of the people. In American law, society must deem an individuals' claim of privacy as 'reasonable' to warrant constitutional protection. In European law, intrusions must be 'proportionate' to the Government's aims. Other rights are protected unless there is a 'national emergency'. The meanings of these terms are subject to the judiciary's interpretation of the mood of society. These rights cannot stand alone against the torrents of public opinion.
These changes, the new laws and policies, come to pass because we are silent. When we do speak, we voice our fear. Our representatives in parliaments, congresses and diets pass these laws with minimal discussion and dissent.
Our silence is to blame for this state of affairs. It is not some military-industrial complex that has destroyed our rights; it is not just some over-reaching presidents and prime ministers, executives, parliaments or the civil service who are to blame. Sure, they could have made better choices, but we have let ourselves come to this.
We call for greater protection; we want safety, security, and efficient government; we want crime to be stopped, at whatever cost; we want terrorism eradicated. We want our Governments to provide us with safety, and in return we promise our silence, and refrain from asking difficult questions about rights and liberties. Big Brother is not merely watching us, we are asking him to. We are not obeying Big Brother, we are making him.
Big Brother may be beneficient, not the oppressive State that Orwell wrote of. In fact, I worry very little about Big Brother; I worry more about the society that allows such a system of government to arise, and then believes its lies. Winston kept waiting for the 'proles' to rise up, but he failed to recognize that the proles had already submitted their consent.
We have come to believe that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear. We have no fear of great powers of coercion and surveillance because we believe they will never be applied to us. We are, after all, the law-abiding, we are the innocent. We are not the ones that are of interest to the State.
This is the most insidious of all logics. This is what destroyed Winston in the end, as he called for the torture of another, resulting in his loss of individuality, his resignation and his defeat. If this has become the predominant mode of reasoning, I relish in being unreasonable.
When Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen was deported by the Americans to Syria, on grounds that he was a terrorist, based on evidence provided by Canadian intelligence agencies, so that Syrian officials could torture him and eventually send him home when it was discovered that he was not a terrorist, Arar's dignity was not the only causalty. Should we say that he clearly had something to hide, and this is why the Canadian Intelligence agency had him on file, and the Americans deported him clearly because he was guilty? Should we say that he had nothing to fear unless he had done wrong? Perhaps he deserved it because of his profile or the way he dressed and looked. Perhaps a computer analysed all the information that Governments held on him and the algorithm put him in the category of deportation. Apparently, we have no need for trials anymore.
When Brandon Mayfield was detained in solitary confinement because the Americans incorrectly matched his fingerprints - on file because he had once served in the US armed forces - with fingerprints lifted from the Madrid Bombings, did he have nothing to fear or something to hide? In fact, he did have something to hide: it just so happens that he is a lawyer who defends suspected terrorists. In this travesty of science and justice, his dignity was a casualty, indeed, but I would imagine so was ours.
We have failed to remember that the very purpose of rights and liberty is to protect the dignity of the individual. The Protection of dignity is a communal, social and national goal. It used to be our mission statement for the open society.
Our laws are now ignoring this goal. Torture not only undignifies the individual, but it leaves us all without dignity. When we peer into the life of an individual, we are peering into an area that we know is wrong. We are reducing people to animals, to known registrable facts. When we look at registration numbers etched on peoples' skin, when we perform mass fingerprinting and registration or detain them without trial, a part of us must recognize that we have done something undignified.
Or perhaps we now fail to notice. In this sense these practices are corrosive to a society. When we let our Governments reduce the dignity of others, we have become complicit. Worse, however, is that we ourselves begin to change. As we continue to devalue rights, we erode our conceptions of what is reasonable and proportionate. When we accept that there is a Room 101 and telescreens, we consent to an entire political system that relies upon these mechanisms of control.
We no longer expect that human dignity will be preserved. I think we've actually resigned ourselves to our fates. Often, I hear people question what's wrong with ID cards - after all Governments already know everything about us anyway. This resignation to defeat is a sign that our societies have corroded, our values are corrupted.
Rights are not only there to protect us from our Governments, they are there because, at one time, we valued them greatly and considered such values timeless. Time has moved on, apparently, our memories faded and our values dissipated. And without these values, and without these expectations, we have the same form of society that Orwell envisioned. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not just about Big Brother. It is about the aspects of the human condition that accept coercive control, that consent to surveillance, that fail to question our Guardians.
As long as a zone of autonomy exists around each and every individual, the opportunities for abuse and oppression are lessened. Religion and morality previously promoted this sanctity of the individual. Now the ends justify the means, a few eggs are cracked to make the perfect omelette of a society, and the needs of the many overrule the needs of the few. Liberties were enshrined in law so as to protect against abuse, but the greatest challenge for such laws is that they continue to rely on the consent of the people. This new world of ours with this new value system, with this new morality, is being developed as the proletariat continues in silence. And as it was once said, silence is consent.
Dr Gus Hosein is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE. He is a Senior Fellow at Privacy International, where he directs the 'Terrorism and the Open Society' programme. He is an adviser and consultant to a number of non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and UNESCO. For more information see http://personal.lse.ac.uk/hosein/ and www.privacyinternational.org