You can’t be civilised and risk-averse

16 July 2008

I thought that the war on terror was being waged against those who are intent on destroying our civilisation.

I thought that a war on terror was being promoted to protect the values which deliver the freedom which we have won and celebrated from Magna Carta, through to reformation, revolution and two world wars.

I thought that it was a war being waged to defend the way in which we champion the weak, how we protect the freedom of the individual to speak and think, how we ensure that the rights of the individual are safeguarded against the abuse of the powerful and to reinforce our determination that all should live equally under the rule of law.  Yet the sickening sight of 16-year-old Omar Khadr being interrogated at Guantanamo Bay asks searching questions about the the nature of our civilisation and our willingness to live with the risks which come with allowing people to live in freedom.

Once we allow ends to justify means, then we are on a slippery slope to behaving exactly in the same way as those who we claim to be a threat to our way of life.  Guantanamo Bay, ‘extraordinary rendition‘ and ‘waterboarding‘ are examples of how quickly the values of a society can be set aside to achieve the end of safety.  In our own country we witness rights before the law, which have taken centuries to become a feature of our version of civilisation, being set aside on the premise that we will be safer and that we should trust those in power. The film Taking Liberties suggests how our basic liberties have been eroded since the war on terror began.

There continues to be popular support for many of the incursions into our basic values from a public which wants to be safe – and in many ways I am in tune with that desire, especially when I am travelling on the London tube etc.  But lurking in the back of my mind is the question – can you be civilised and free of risk?  Isn’t a free society one where we make ourselves vulnerable because we give other people the same rights as we expect?

Western civilisation has the Christian story deep within its foundations.  The story of a God who comes to us full of risk and vulnerability as we encounter him in the man Jesus.  If we take risk and vulnerability out of our attitude to freedom and out of our way of life – then we become a very different society, for into the vacuum created by the absence of risk and vulnerability comes power and control (“because we know what’s best for you etc.”).

Those who feed on the risk-averse nature of our culture to justify their actions are in danger of usurping the very civilisation they claim to be defending.


28 or 42 days – living within the tension

11 June 2008

As the House of Commons prepares for its vote on the extension of how long terrorist suspects can be held without charge it is encouraging to see some MPs in moral anguish about which way to vote. Liberty and freedom are ill served by MPs who blithely support the government regardless of concience or regard to the bigger picture of freedom and rights.

When we give power to governments through the ballot box, the first duty of the elected government is to protect the people from abuse of the power which they have been given. It is often portrayed that the government’s first duty is to protect the people from external threat, but history suggests that the biggest threat to the individual comes not from a foreign power but from their own government and its agents abusing their power. We are too quick to forget the Matrix Churchill affair where it was clear that the Government was more concerned about its public face than the freedom and rights of the individual. The Scott report revealed that the government of the day was prepared to sacrifice the freedom of the company directors by putting them on trial, rather than lose face (see The Scott Report).

We have already seen the anti-terror laws used in ways they were not intended, e.g. to prosecute individuals such as Milan and Maya for expressing their freedom of speech. More and more laws, give more and more opportunities for agents of the government to abuse the power they have been given.

If freedom is a God-given aspect of being human and a symptom in each of us having a God-given dignity, then we need to resist every attempt to interfere with that freedom, unless we are convinced that the gift of freedom has been abused. We need to set a high standard for removing or restricting the freedom of others, for we are each the focus of God’s loving attention. There has to be a balance between this belief and the safety of the community – the real question for MPs tonight asks how far we are prepared to live within that tension.