Does the ‘war on terror’ require that we chose between protecting either national security or individual civil liberties

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Civil liberties are rights that form the foundation of healthy democracies around the world. They can be either natural rights or citizen’s rights. Natural rights are those which it is believed each person is born with and are written in important historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence ” We hold these truths … that all men are created equal … with certain inalienable rights … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ” Citizen rights are usually set out by an institution or rule, such as the Data Protection Act (1998).

By definition, national security refers to the requirement to maintain the survival of the nation-state through the use of economic, military and political power and the exercise of diplomacy(). The issue of national security is usually raised after threats or acts of terrorism, which have been prevalent globally during the ‘war on terror’. This essay will argue in favour of civil liberties over national security. The protection of civil liberties involves limiting the role of the state, however governments will always act in a ‘utilitarian’ way, usually policy change affecting society as a whole, as opposed to the needs of the individual.

This became more apparent after September 11, 2001 attacks, when legislation was passed in both the USA and UK as a preventative measure. Such legislation also includes the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 in the UK and the Patriot Act in the USA. Fenwick (2007, p. 129) gives a brief explanation of these pre-emptive measures in terms of our rights ” attention has turned to targeting possible terrorist suspects and curtailing their liberty in order to prevent terrorist activity before it can occur. ‘ Legislation such as the Patriot Act is an example of this preventive legislation, which increases surveillance of the American inhabitants. However these types of policies have done nothing but induce a sense of fear and unrest in the minds of citizens and migrants. One important member of the campaign group Liberty commented that ” Over the past seven years we’ve been told ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ but a stream of data bungles and abuses of power suggest that even the innocent have a lot to fear”(Charkrabarti, 2009). Limits on the legislation should be made to ensure that there is not an abuse of power.

It is a fact that we now live in a society with ‘enhanced’ surveillance, this was recently covered by BBC news reports. CCTV cameras are being strategically placed in areas where migrant inhabitants are predominant. Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras are an example of covert surveillance. The problematic with these types of organisations (that deal with CCTV cameras and all other types surveillance) resides in the fact that they lack accountability and therefore the individual must be reassured that the capacity to invade his privacy is never abused (Foster, 2006, p. 136).

Newspaper articles challenging the legitimacy of government actions due to distrust have been widely published. Davis and Silver(2004) argue that the lower people’s trust in government the less willing they are to trade off civil liberties for security, regardless of the level of threat. An abuse of power, such as the use of covert cameras to catch petty criminals, is an unwanted side effect of increased national security. Hiding behind the Regulation, local authorities in the UK have been ” accused of abusing the power to carry out surveillance on residents such as those putting their rubbish out on the wrong day” (Whitehead, 2008).

This abuse of power undermines the Government’s initial intention when passing such legislation. The right to a fair trial is itself and will always be not just an important human and civil right, but a sign of a civilized community. However the Bush administration acted very aggressively one year after the 9/11 events and asserted that detainees in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp were not entitled to any of the protection of the Geneva conventions.

Moreover they are not subject to normal due process safeguards, and therefore miscarriages of justice are more likely to occur”(Fenwick, 2007, p. 139). It is not just ironic, but also sad that the values that the US is trying to instil abroad are being undermined by the actions of its Government at home. Sandra Day O’Connor(2004) stated that ” during our most challenging and uncertain moments that our Nation commitment to Due Process is most severely tested , and it is those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad. ‘ The right to a fair trial should apply to all, and the US Government should not have the right to declare certain groups exempt as this undermines the Constitution. David and Silver(2004) argue that fear has eroded US citizens desire to remain free, shown by an American survey following 9/11, the greater people sense of threat, the lower their support for civil liberties will be and more likely to give away some of their rights. National security becomes a paramount of importance due to people’s emotional response to the deaths of innocent citizens.

Different approaches employed by the governments are therefore seen as justified if they are to ensure public safety. The sense of threat and urgency has been somewhat diminished by the media. The topic of liberties is very pessimistic, according to Waddington (2005) ” Civil libertarian accounts of the perilous state of civil liberties are partial and unduly pessimistic, suggesting that the inevitable future of civil liberties can only be erosion.

This pessimism, exposed by the interest groups trough the use of media, may be unduly intensifying the public sense of threat. However the majority of laws passed by governments are done in society’s best interest. The action of governments may be defended by the social contract, In which the state sovereignty is given power by the people to govern them, and their liberties are ceded for the sake of protection by the state. One of the most influential enlightenment thinkers, John Locke (1690, p. 4) explains the state’s duty to protect citizens:” where there is no law, there is no freedom: for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others” based on these, it could be argued that anti-terror legislation is designed to remove the threat of violence to the population and therefore to make its people less restricted. Regardless the obvious fact that the so called: ‘war on terror’ strengthened existing legislation, there have also been limits put in place to ensure that infringements to liberties are kept to minimum.

The Data Protection Act attempts to ensure such restrictions in regards to the CCTV operators collection and storage of personal data. By placing limits on the duration images can be held for, and restricting the number of civil servants able to view them, the Act limits privacy intrusion (Taylor, 2002). To conclude with, we have seen that governments acted rashly in front of threats, and passed legislation disregarding the side effect and the response the general public might have. There is sense of a ‘trade off’ in favour of national security as opposing to civil liberties.

Governments around the world should aim for a ‘healthy’ balance, even though this might seem fairly utopian, considering the ‘dangerous ‘global environment we currently live in. However recent events such as the killing of the architect of 9/11 terrorism acts: Osama bin Laden signifies an important defining achievement in the ‘fight against terror’ and maybe the end of the global war on terror. Nevertheless the radical effect the terrorist acts and threats had upon policies in different countries will most definitely not ‘fade away’ in the years to come, even with this threat almost eliminated.

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