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Civil Liberties are Timeless

Lorne Gunter

National Post

11 September 2006

Last month, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, even before the plot to blow up 10 airliners over the Atlantic was uncovered, declared in a speech that the war on global terrorism "means traditional civil liberty arguments are not so much wrong as just made for another age."

A week later, John Reid, his Home Secretary, said civil libertarians "just don't get it." Terrorism has changed the world since 9/11. The right to privacy, Mr. Reid insinuated, to have our mail unopened without a judicial warrant, to go unsurveilled in public places, to have our e-mails, phone conversations and bank records considered sacrosanct unless we have given police and intelligence agencies probable cause to suspect us, is no longer relevant.

Let's hope not.

If Messrs. Blair and Reid are right, then the terrorists have won. If we must consent to being spied on, if we must grant the prying eyes of government full access to the details of our lives in return for security against terrorism, give me insecurity.

Benjamin Franklin once said "Those that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Perfect safety is an illusion. We can give up our freedoms -- freedoms that have taken centuries and countless sacrifices to obtain -- in the quest for safety. Yet even then, we will not be entirely safe.

I hesitate to stand up for civil liberties, lest I leave the impression that I stand with the radicals, carpers and cause-pleaders who have perverted the concept in recent decades.

Modern civil libertarians believe the state is the best guarantor of rights, because what they mean by rights are really just political outcomes. Human rights commissions, courts and special interest lobbies view rights seeking as a zero-sum game: In order for some groups to obtain their rights, others must have their liberties curtailed. This requires state force, ergo governments are great defenders of rights.

The old concept of civil liberties -- my concept -- was that the state's only role in rights adjudication was in keeping each citizen from intruding on his neighbours' rights, and vice versa. And keeping the intrusive power of the state at bay for all.

Now civil libertarians prefer picking winners and losers, which means they are only truly interested in the rights of the causes they agree with. When, for instance, the rights of preachers, landlords, entrepreneurs and land owners come in conflict with those of feminist, gays, aboriginals, ethnic minorities or environmentalists, modern rights defenders are only too happy to elevate one side's rights over another's.

The power of the state is needed to enforce this winners-versus-loser imbalance, therefore, the modern civil libertarian does not fear government. Rather, he fears only those governments whose platforms do not agree with his list of which groups deserve to have their rights protected, and which do not.

The modern civil libertarian sounds like his traditional counterpart. He claims devotion to freedom of speech, belief, thought and association, but he really only favours those rights for people who agree with him on such matters.

If Messrs. Blair and Reid meant the age of that concept of civil liberties was over and we must now return to the older, more robust concept of civil liberties, I would applaud them.

But what I fear is that being modernists themselves -- believers in the benevolence of big government -- the British PM and Home Secretary (and their counterparts in most Western democracies) have no concept of traditional liberties. What the pair are arguing instead is that the enormous apparatus of the state that modern civil libertarians agitated for in the naive belief that government would protect us will now be turned to the task of making us safe.

And it will be no better at making us safe than it was at making us free.

Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz argued on these pages last Thursday that striking the right balance between safety and liberty "would be easier if our government had earned more of our trust over the years. But most governments -- even most liberal democracies -- have tended to abuse extraordinary powers given to them during emergencies."

I'll admit that living under a big, hulking liberal-democratic state with all its prying, spying apparatuses and its politically correct concept of liberty is preferable to having to exist under the Islamic theocracy the terrorists dream of.

But it will be sad, if the legacy of 9/11 is to make us less free than we were, but only marginally safer.


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