Security or liberty?

Article published on July 11, 2005
Article published on July 11, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Since the London bombings, the same doubts have been brought to the surface in all major European capitals. Should we fight against terrorism by giving up our civil liberties? Does the end justify the means?

In his first public appearance following the terrorist attack, Tony Blair declared: “they want to change our values, but our values shall prevail and theirs shall not”; a speech which contrasted with the activation of the highest levels of alert of antiterrorist programmes across half of Europe.

Immediate reactions

In the United Kingdom, the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, convened an emergency first meeting of the ‘Cobra Committee’ on the night of the 7 July, whose objective was to decide on a strategy in order to find the perpetrators of the massacre.

On the other side of the Channel, the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, implemented the ‘Vigipirate Plan’, insisting on the need to deploy “more patrols, more police officers, more soldiers” in order to secure “more action and more control”, since “the only thing that works in the fight against terror is a firm hand”. The French government has since announced the temporary suspension of the Schengen agreements, which allow free movement within signatory countries. Meanwhile, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, justified the state of alert to his citizens by arguing that “terrorism is the cancer that we must all stand up against without a hint of cowardice”. Afraid of being the next target, the Italian executive had planned a series of legislative reforms which would allow “rapid expulsions” and give "extraordinary powers of information” to the police. These measures are supposedly dedicated to preventing another possible attack, which was citied by the Corriere de la Sera as scheduled for February or March 2006.

Should such provisional security measures become routine in the long term? For the British daily newspaper The Daily Mail there is no doubt: “Britain will almost certainly have to sacrifice some of our ancient legal rights if we wish to protect our citizens.” But to what extent are the British, who have fought hard for their civil liberties, willing to make this sacrifice? In the past few months, the British government has faced controversy over its proposed introduction of identity cards and its Prevention of Terrorism Act, which became law in March. The latter was only passed after the government abated fears by promising a review of the legislation in a year’s time, but several NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Statewatch have warned that this may not be enough and that civil rights are at risk.

After the London bombings, Tony Blair has, according to the Spanish newspaper El País, a second opportunity “to reinforce [these] controversial measures” and to reopen the “debate over what is the best way to fight against terrorism: ‘the firm hand’ or a longer and more complex path which would tackle the political causes of terrorism,” in other words, the fight against poverty.

Alternative responses

On this subject, La Vanguardia of Barcelona stresses that “the 21st century will not see peace or prosperity if the problems of Africa are not resolved”. Other European newspapers, such as Libre Belgique, point to a streamlining of antiterrorist policy. “Now is the time to implement a new antiterrorist policy, even if it leads to paranoia”. “Politicians must realise that their citizens want security”, states the German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung, but “individual liberties are too precious a privilege” to risk losing. Along these lines, the editorial of Le Monde makes it clear that “in the long term, the strength of democratic societies will consist of an effective struggle against terrorism and respect for their basic principles”. Something that is not always easy to achieve.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, the future remains unclear. How will the attack on London influence the approach of the British presidency of the European Union? Will we witness a toughening up of European policies against terrorism? Will Europe continue to insist upon the struggle against poverty as a priority in the war against terror? These are the principal doubts of an immediate future in which Europe will have to definitively clarify a new model for the ‘War on Teror’.