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Keep Britain civilised

When busy fighting wars against insurgents in faraway lands, western leaders are quick to place freedom on a pedestal. Then, when threats gather closer to home, they’re the first to kick it off. Surely, they suggest, it is better to give up some civil liberties in order to protect the public from a terrorist attack. This is what happened during World War II, after all.

The Economist flips the argument on its head: Surely it is better to risk the loss of life in order to safeguard our rights. A potential al qaida attack, the newspaper argues, is not worth legalising torture and incarcerating innocents. Furthermore, the World War II analogy cannot hold, for this was a short war that called for temporary measures. Yet the poorly labelled war on terror is expected to last a generation, and any alterations to the fundamentals underpinning democracy will thus become permanent. During the cold war, trial by jury and avoidance of torture were lauded by the US and Britain as evidence of superior Western values. Couldn’t the same approach be used in the current struggle against Jihadists, after, of course, Guantanamo is closed?

While The Economist’s take on these matters is intriguing, it is still presenting a false choice, albeit a different one from that offered by Bush and Brown. Safety and civil liberties can co-exist.

Take the terror attacks on London’s underground, for example. While abominable, they caused fewer than 60 deaths. Ten times as many inmates die in British prisons each year, a figure that is increasing due to overcrowded jails and the resulting poor treatment given to the mentally ill. If the government has its way, the legacy of 7/7 will be the extension of detention without trial to 90 days. With all the further increases in the prison population that this will entail, it stands to reason that more innocent people will die by curbing civil liberties than through preserving them.

Nice is not enough

A tryst with tyranny