‘If you’ve got nothing to fear then you’ve got nothing to hide’ is what we’re told by governments and politicians looking to justify ever-increasing constraints on free speech, privacy and civil liberties, all in the name of fighting the nebulous ‘War on Terror’. With fresh revelations about activities of GCHQ and the NSA arriving nearly every other day, AC Grayling’s polemical Liberty in the Age of Terror, now five years old, is even more relevant today than at the time of its publication.
In part one, Grayling outlines just why privacy and the most fundamental right of all, freedom of speech, matter, and how, in their eagerness to be seen to be doing something, politicians are quick to put in place laws and legislation that infringe on these rights and create more problems, both practical and ethical, than they solve. Biometric ID cards, blanket CCTV coverage, the tracking emails and telephone calls, and blasphemy laws are just a some of the examples Grayling uses to eloquently argue the case that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in the relationship between the citizen and the state, a relationship in which individuals are becoming suspects first, essentially guilty until proven innocent.
That ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ (a quote commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson) is a central theme of the book. In willingly, or passively, allowing your freedoms to be eroded because you feel you have ‘nothing to hide’, Grayling says your complacency requires that you believe:
The proposed Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Disorder (IPNA) civil order to replace (Antisocial Behavioural Orders (ASBOs), which would permit injunctions against anyone aged over 10 who "has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person" (my emphasis), is a recent example of the UK government (which is the focus of Liberty in the Age of Terror) demonstrating exactly why that trust is not justified.
Being deemed a 'nuisance' or 'annoying', nebulous terms that are ripe for misunderstanding and abuse, are deemed things the police can potentially take action against you for. Thankfully, the House of Lords saw sense and required that the bill be ammended.
Lord Dear (a former chief constable of West Midlands) has this to say about IPNAs:
Lady Mallalieu, a QC and Labour peer:
Unfortunately, it looks as though the amendments appear to be in wording only. ‘Nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’ will be replaced with ‘harassment, alarm or distress’, the terms used in the ASBO legislation. One set of nebulous words are to be replaced with another, with the principle of the legislation - and its liberty reducing nature - remaining the same.
More recent still, there was the proposal which could see terror suspects (suspects mind, not people who have actually been convicted of anything) stripped of their citizenship and left stateless. How any sensible government can think this is a good idea is beyond me.
Grayling does concede that in the case of a real threat from terrorism, some curbs to freedom may need to be enacted, drawing on the Second World War as an example. Curfews and ID cards were in place at a time of genuine existential threat but these were strictly time-limited. Once the threat was over, freedoms and rights were restored. Grayling suggests that all laws which impinge on civil liberties should have ‘sunset clauses’, which strictly stipulate when the law must be reviewed in order for it to continue to stand or be repealed. What we have at the moment, particularly in the UK and the US, are non-specific, non-time-limited acts, which once in place are hard to remove and only pave the way for things to get worse.
In Part 2 of the book, Debates, Grayling discusses the works and arguments of other prominent philosophers, including Isaiah Berlin, John Gray, Slavoj Zizek (whom he really takes to the sword), John Ralston and Tzveten Todorov. Here, the arguments are dense, but also more varied. Where Part 1 was focused largely on the principles of freedom of speech and civil liberties, here we get digressions on the value of humanism (in his evisceration of John Gray’s contrary pessimism) and a staunch defense of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights against short-sighted critics who deride it for not immediately solving the world’s, and moral relativists who see is an imposition by ‘the West’. The debates section is perhaps one that needs to be read twice, if at all in fact. Whilst it’s a lesson in combative philosophical debate, the wider arguments set out in Part 1 can get lost and it’s occasionally very heavy going.
Both appendices are, however, well worth your time. The first is a precise of the UDHR a wonderful and valuable tool and stepping stone on the way to a fairer, open and just peaceable world. The second is a history of the tsunami of legislation introduced by Labour government the Bush administration that has eroded civil liberties post 9/11 and come close to running contra to many of the principles laid out in the UDHR. The number of illiberal, ill-thought-out laws and acts brought introduced by to the UK by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments is astounding and the potted history of the NSA since 2000, and its relationship with both the US government and the private sector, also makes for gruesome reading. You wonder why ‘if you’ve got nothing to fear then you’ve got nothing to hide’ governments and organisations like GCHQ and NSA try so hard to keep secrets.
As a collection of Grayling’s previous writings brought together in book form, Liberty in the Age of Terror can occasionally feel repetitive, but I don’t see this as a wholly negative, as much of what he says is important enough to bear repeating. This book makes for sobering frightening reading, but is also a call to arms for those who do not wish to relinquish their hard-won freedoms and rights.
Ben Franklin’s “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” appears several times throughout Liberty in the Age of Terror ; e would do well to keep that in mind if we are not to end up in world where Room 101 becomes a reality.