By now you have no doubt had a chance to digest the news of the terror attacks in Paris. They were shocking in both scope and audacity, and are worthy of the world’s condemnation. What is troubling, though, is how the pundits are queueing up to hijack the event in order to buttress their positions on the thorny subject of terrorism – or more correctly, how it relates to privacy. This is in no way is meant to diminish the clear and present danger that terrorism presents, but merely underscores the importance of taking the long view when protecting our hard earned freedoms.
François Hollande, who was, as expected, among the first to react to the news, denouncing as the attacks an “act of war” that must be countered “mercilessly”. But if the first casualty of war is the truth then, in this battle, the balance between privacy and security will be second, and will be sorely tested and threatened. Politicians and columnists alike are scrambling to capitalize on the conflagration.
Predictably, the first knee-jerk reactions are from the pro-gun advocates who lament Parisians not packing enough personal firepower that might have thwarted the attempt or mitigated the carnage. Not to be outdone, the anti-immigration crowd has weighed in with their righteous indignation, feeling vindicated for their position on the issue of the alarming flow of refugees into Europe.
While those arguments merit airing, make no mistake about the other major issue on the table – government surveillance of private citizens. One faction will decry the terrorist’s brazenness and impertinence, using the attacks as a clarion call for stronger surveillance measures (read: less privacy). The pro-privacy cabal will point out that, despite the bloated, overzealous surveillance apparatus that exists today, the planning and execution of the assault went undetected. They will argue that better use of the information already collected is the culprit, rather than gathering more information. Both assessments merit thought and intelligent debate before being dismissed willy-nilly.
Lurking not too far from the periphery of this controversy are those who beat the drums of greater military intervention, and who will seize the moment to justify more military might, while systematically dismissing the decades of futility, and the cost in men and material such debacles as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria are responsible for. Remember that greater surveillance and loss of liberties go hand-in-glove with military build-up and intervention. The danger is that this argument may be over-amplified and exaggerated in the political polemic playing out in the capitals of Europe, as well as in the US presidential primary politics.
In all these situations, privacy is likely to get short-shrift, and what momentum has been achieved might be slowed, if not reversed, unless we are measured in our response to the madness emanating from the Middle East, and spreading to distant shores. We need to step back and assess our priorities, to ensure the pendulum of privacy keeps swinging in the right direction, and is not trampled in the stampede for swift retribution for the attacks.