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.