The US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t end Islamic terrorism against the West. Toppling Libyan dictator Muamar Gaddafi didn’t create a stable, democratic Libya. And the current aerial assaults against ISIS in Syria probably won’t impede future Islamist terror attacks in North American and European cities.
As Rod Liddle writes in the Spectator, the West’s new war in Syria “facilitates the delusion that these attacks are imposed upon us all by an isolated external agency, when this is not remotely the case.” Rather, Syria is a mere “magnet” that attracts young men born, raised, and radicalized in some of Europe’s richest cities.
But the war on terror not only leaves its wreckage behind in the Asian and African countries that are the targets of futile invasions. When Islamic terrorism gives politicians of all stripes a seemingly perfect excuse to subvert civil liberties in their own countries, the Western way of life itself comes under danger.
After 9/11, it was the conservative George W. Bush who introduced the Patriot Act, which claimed to “protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America….” In theory, this would be achieved with “only modest, incremental changes in the law.”
In practice, however, the Patriot Act rashly led to an enormous increase in the federal security agencies’ powers of surveillance. To cite but one Patriot Act critic, law professor Jeffrey Rosen explains in the New York Times that the law “allows the government to seize ‘any tangible thing’ without a warrant, from e-mails to browsing histories to library records.” The Patriot Act also gives authorities the power to seize a suspect’s information without having to previously demonstrate his links with terrorism.
Rosen adds that the “Justice Department found ‘widespread and serious abuse’ of authority by the F.B.I. under the Patriot Act. Many of those F.B.I. cases involved people with no clear connection to terrorism.”
But the US government is far from alone in shattering civil liberties in its anti-terrorist offensive. Nor is undermining personal freedom part of a “right-wing” conspiracy.
After last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, French President François Hollande, a socialist, declared a three-month state of emergency. As Le Monde and France24 report, this gives the state’s security forces exceptional powers, allowing them to limit people’s movement, impose curfews, and control the press. The state of emergency also grants the state the power to search homes, detain suspects, and confiscate legally held weapons without judicial approval.
None of this, however, was enough for Hollande, who declared before the entire French Parliament that the new war against Islamic terrorists requires “a new constitutional regime.” The current legal structure, he explained, “is not appropriate” for the struggle at hand.
Hollande therefore announced a constitutional reform that will grant the government “an appropriate tool” to take “exceptional measures during certain time periods.” This will be done “without having to resort to a state of emergency.”
He added that this reform will be achieved “without compromising the exercise of public liberties.” Nonetheless, it is evident that Hollande wants to create the faculties that will allow him to circumvent, at his whim, those legal mechanisms which, by means of checks and balances, protect basic civil liberties.
It’s true that a large majority of French citizens support such measures at the moment. It’s also likely, however, that many will regret not exercising proper scrutiny and giving away their freedom in the heated aftermath of a massacre that, however barbarous, could have been prevented under the current constitutional arrangement.
The war on terror also weakens freedom in the West since it presents politicians of any party with the irresistible temptation to create new bureaucracy. The Department of Homeland Security arose from the ashes of 9/11. It now counts with a budget of US$61 billion and employs over 240,000 officials.
For their part, French Socialists have announced that the recent attacks justify the creation of 8,500 new officials for the security services and the judicial branch.
These measures not only increase the state’s costs of operation; they also transfer power from the individual citizen to the state, particularly the executive branch and the security apparatus.
This danger reveals itself only gradually, but it is real nonetheless. As Lord Acton wrote, “liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in the concentration of power.”