“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one,” wrote Benjamin Franklin.
In common with most pronouncements by Enlightenment thinkers, this is a pithy, epigrammatic phrase. There’s only one problem. It’s not true.
Moreover, it’s rather the opposite of truth, and was so even at the time it was uttered. These days, when an unobtrusively toted suitcase can wipe out a major city, it takes a poor observer indeed not to see that sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice a little freedom for a lot of security.
Overall freedom, or rather liberty, which in this context is a more accurate term, may be broken down into its various fragments, and every one of them will at some point clash with security.
Take, for example, the freedom of religious worship, which in America is enshrined in the Bill of Rights and is taken for granted throughout the Western world.
Back in the 1960s there were 60 mosques in Britain. Now there are 1,600, which fact is often mentioned by some as a confirmation of religious freedom.
Yet most of the same people admit that many of these houses of worship are hotbeds of anti-Western, and specifically anti-British, propaganda and brainwashing.
Young people imbibe the words of hate-spewing imams and go to Iraq to fight for Isis, sometimes having first gone to a London university.
Some of them gleefully blow themselves up together with dozens of passengers on public transport, with both the terrorists and their victims being British subjects.
Yet in spite of this obvious security threat, not a single mainstream politician has to my knowledge proposed to close down, say, a thousand mosques. Such a step, we are told, would be incompatible with religious freedom.
However, it could be plausibly argued that not taking this step is incompatible with security.
Religious or any other liberty isn’t a suicide pact. What if one such brainwashed youngster detonates a nuclear suitcase bomb in, say, Kensington, killing 100,000 people in the process?
Suffice it to say for now that a conflict between liberty and security can’t easily be swept under the carpet.
Security is also often incompatible with freedom from discrimination. For no police force in the world can function effectively if it has to keep an eye on every citizen indiscriminately, eschewing any bias based on experience.
For police officers and security personnel to do their job well they have to have the licence to discriminate against groups that are statistically more likely to pose a threat to security.
It’s no use trying to pretend at airports that an 80-year-old granny, who sounds like a nice cup of tea would sound if it could talk, is as much of a security risk as a muscular Muslim chap, even one who has attended the University of Westminster.
By the same token, our police for all intents and purposes have been stripped of stop-and-search powers, since these are bound to be discriminatory against groups most likely to commit crimes.
Yet our police have been told, perhaps not in so many words, that if they stop and search a young Rasta in Brixton, they must also stop a search, say, an aging tweedy gentleman in Chelsea. And if they can’t do that – and no police force can possibly have the personnel to be indiscriminate – then they can’t stop anyone.
Historically even Anglophone countries used to realise that some liberty must sometimes be sacrificed for some security.
Hence over a 1,000 refugees from Germany and Austria were interred on the Isle of Man for the duration of the Second World War. Among them were many Jews who on balance would have been unlikely Nazi spies.
Americans went even further by interning in 1942 110,000 people of Japanese origin, 62 per cent of whom were US citizens.
It has to be said that both Britain and the USA were in those days a lot freer than they are now. And yet they didn’t shy away from the occasional conflict between liberty and security.
It’s in this context that privacy must be viewed.
The right to privacy is an essential concept of the Anglophone world. In fact, neither Russian nor French, my other two languages, even has a word for it.
Yet Britain boasts a CCTV camera for every 12 of Her Majesty’s subjects, making surveillance one of the few areas in which we lead the world. Communist China, for example, has fewer cameras even in absolute terms, never mind per capita.
Numerous scandals have been brought to light, involving various government agencies intercepting people’s e-mails, listening in to their phone conversations or reading their letters before they themselves do.
If this isn’t a violation of privacy, I don’t know what is. Yet I’m sure that even the loudest critics of such practices wouldn’t object too vociferously if reading a man’s e-mail illegally would stop him from taking the aforementioned suitcase to the centre of London.
However, there is a problem with this line of thought. It’s the nature of modern government.
All modern governments are power-hungry, and all are hell-bent on expanding their power ad infinitum.
And they routinely hold up security concerns as justification for acting on their powerlust.
It goes without saying that certain civil liberties have to be curtailed or even suppressed at wartime. Yet observing modern politicians in action, one notices that some of the wartime measures don’t disappear once the war ends.
First the state beats ploughshares into swords and then, once they have vanquished, the weapons can be recast into the strongest chains binding the individual hand and foot.
One can see how dramatically state power has increased in Britain after both world wars, and it is still growing. Neither does America circa 2015 boast all the same liberties taken for granted before the First World War.
A suspicion has to be strong that, given greater powers of curtailing our liberties and invading our privacy, the state is likely to use such leeway not for increasing our security but for its own self-aggrandisement.
Hence we have a problem. How do we protect our nation without enslaving it? How do we keep our privacy private without making life easy for those who want to kill us?
Where, in other words, do we draw the line? Where do we find a workable balance between security and liberty, with all its sub-divisions?
It’s reasonably clear that a dogmatic, all-or-nothing approach, whichever side of the argument is allowed to take it, will tip the balance unduly one way or the other.
This is one instance of principles having to be weighed against practicalities, making sure that neither end deviates too far from the fulcrum.
For there are no hard and fast rules, nor can there be. Prevailing in each case must be common sense and sound judgement.
Do we need one surveillance camera for every 12 Brits? Do we need to gather so much video information that we’ll only ever be able to process a small portion of it?
Perhaps we do. It’s more likely, however, that our security would be much better served if surveillance, be it video, audio or any other, were concentrated in places where security threats are more likely to come from – such as every one of the 1,600 mosques.
Now can we rely on our government to have enough common sense to come up with sound judgement? I’m afraid we can’t. This faculty was expunged from Westminster a long time ago, and there’s no immediate prospect of it ever coming back.
That’s why we must all exercise vigilance, making sure the government doesn’t overstep the limit beyond which a legitimate concern for our security ends and tyranny starts.
But an unbending, doctrinaire libertarian position is I believe a recipe for disaster.