Sunday, March 29, 2009

Safeguarding the majority includes civil liberties and means much more than safeguarding the physical safety of a majority of people

My letter to the editor of The Independent about a letter from Mark Manson.


Dear Independent,

Mark Manson in his 25 March 2009 letter “Better to lose civil liberties than suffer a terror attack” made a very reasonable argument for how he feels government needs to objectively put the majority first.

Permit me to add: if safeguarding the physical safety of citizens is the most important goal for government, it would seem to make sense for the government take steps to gauge which religious or socio-economic movement represents the greatest threat to our physical safety and align itself with that movement. If politically-motivated or poverty-fuelled religious fundamentalists are the potential terrorists (perhaps for the U.K. it was Catholicism a few centuries ago, Islam today, etc.) why shouldn’t the state officially adopt the religion in question, mandate conversion and make whatever redistribution of wealth is required to placate terrorists?

Fortunately (I hope) the majority of people will find this a ridiculous idea, as they value freedom to choose a way of life (which may be at odds with whoever threatens us) more than physical safety.

This freedom to choose was built on and is inextricably linked with our civil liberties. I hope the government will objectively and pragmatically assess that while terrorist threats are very real, they steal much more of our attention than some other very mundane threats to the safety of our families which are statistically more likely to affect each of us.

Safeguarding the majority includes civil liberties and means much more than safeguarding the physical safety of a majority of people.

Michael Maguire

Below, the text of the original letter I was responding to:

Better to lose civil liberties than suffer a terror attack

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

I have read with great interest over the past months the numerous articles and editorials in your paper that report on policies that show a worrying trend towards an erosion of civil liberties. There have been articles on surveillance, legislation, ID cards, CCTV, internet and e-mail monitoring etc. There have not been many articles that support, explain or justify the actions of the government and its reasons for trying to implement such policies.

Whatever the civil-liberty campaigners or the conspiracy theorists may say about government intent, the bottom line is that security forces are trying to solve crimes that have, as yet, not been committed. There is no forensic evidence to be gathered at the crime scene or witnesses to interview, indeed, no physical crime to investigate until it's all too late. It would be reassuring to think that the security forces have psychics guiding them, as in the film Minority Report, but they probably don't.

Therefore the only weapon the authorities have to prevent terrifying atrocities being committed on UK soil is "information". Because the potential terrorists are not likely to volunteer this information the only way to obtain it would be through surveillance and the monitoring of their communication systems and/or pressure through questioning.

I appreciate that if it was a member of my family or indeed myself being subject to such harassment than my stance would be different. But there is a genuine threat and in such a situation the government needs to be objective and pragmatic and be able to take the necessary steps to safeguard the majority. As unpalatable as this may be, it is preferable to forego certain liberties to safeguard us against, for example, the explosion of a "dirty bomb" or the poisoning of a reservoir.

Mark Manson

Gosport, Hampshire

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