France and Belgium Engage in Classic Debate: Security or Liberty?

The US has, in the decade and more since 11 September 2011, grudgingly moved, though often as a melting glacier, away from draconian security measures, and in the direction of personal liberties – the last nudge provided by Edward Snowden’s revelations. France, Belgium, and other European countries, however,seem to be charting the opposite course in the aftermath of the latest terrorist incident in Paris.

Stunned and appalled at the massacre at the hands of ISIS terrorists, this week France and Belgium moved swiftly to staunch public fears by pronouncing stern security measures, thus reviving the debate on security versus liberty. At the moment, if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t be betting on liberty. Nothing can be more damaging to politicians than to be seen as being indifferent to citizens’ safety.Jann Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, a research organization based in Brussels, notes that,

The home front is the field of political activity now; it will all be about homeland security. There is a sense that the authorities are no longer in control, and it’s a clear attempt by authorities to regain some trust.

Unfortunately, in these times, the public is too cowed and too compliant, despite outward displays of defiance that has seen them flocking back to bistros and cafés in Paris. President Hollande of France has publicly proclaimed his outrage, and has affirmed war as the recommended course of action.

In Belgium, Prime Minister Charles Michel said that he would champion changes to make it easier to capture, try, and punish suspected terrorists operating there. He also said that he would seek constitutional changes to extend the length of time suspects can be held by the police without the filing of charges to 72 hours, from 24.

These moves, though understandable to liberty and privacy advocates, still rankle, and have prompted cries of government overreaching. Letta Tayler, a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch commented that,

Like every nation, Belgium has a responsibility to protect its people from attacks, but it should not trample basic rights in the process. Whenever a country is attacked or threatened, there is a danger that governments will overreact in an effort to make people secure.

Meanwhile, skeptics of harsh measures would reluctantly go along with them if they had some “sunset” provision – an end game. France’s Prime Minister said,

The state of emergency, it’s true, justifies certain temporary restrictions on liberties. But resorting to this, it’s to give us every chance to fully restore these liberties.”

In the US, where retreat from the drastic post 9/11 laws has been painfully slow, civil libertarians are less sanguine about prospects that restrictive laws will be repealed anytime soon. We know all too well the cautionary tale of “mission creep.”

One lesson to be learned from the US experience post 9/11 is that finding the right balance between individual rights and antiterrorism measures has grown more complex in the 14 years since the United States was struck by Al Qaeda. This is in part because the web and electronic media have advanced at a speed at which the government can’t keep up with.

This is coupled with public fatigue over restrictions, and a craving for more civil liberty. But in the days after the Paris attacks there has been relatively little reflection about the trade-offs, as the nations most affected (France and Belgium) rush to put new security measures in place and alter their legal and constitutional structures to give government more flexibility in dealing with threats. How long these will remain is anyone’s guess.

History is rife with overreaction to untoward incidents. As far back as the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, where Japanese residents were rounded up and incarcerated, even as their sons and daughters enlisted for service in the US armed forces, is one stark example. There have been other contemporary cases too numerous to mention. In every situation, innocent citizens were snagged in the dragnet. Let us hope that France, Belgium and the rest of the world, take note…

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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