17 October 2008

Hoon Mines the Moron Meme

One of Tony Blair's stupider statements was the following:

"The biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist."

Let's call this the Moron Meme: it assumes that people are stupid enough to confuse basic rights to life with others rights to liberty, when in fact they are two quite distinct dimensions. And having made this false comparison, Blair was then able to use false logic to demand a trade-off: if you don't want to be killed by terrorists, then you must give up some/many of your civil liberties.

What this glosses over is the real possibility that you can have *both* by bringing a mature and calm intelligence to bear on the situation, instead of respondingly disproportionately out of abject, unthinking fear ("Terrorists! Terrorists! Everybody panic!")

It was stupid when Blair said it, and it's just as stupid now Geoff Hoon is parroting it:

[Julia Goldsworthy] asked: "How much more control can they have? How far is he prepared to go to undermine civil liberties?"

Mr Hoon interjected: "To stop terrorists killing people in our society, quite a long way actually.

He added: "The biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist."

This exchange contains another extraordinarily stupid statement:

"If they are going to use the internet to communicate with each other and we don't have the power to deal with that, then you are giving a licence to terrorists to kill people."

- As if the Internet were some magic pixie dust that, when sprinkled on terrorist activies, makes them murderously efficacious.

And yet today, without those powers, the British secret services seem to be doing a pretty good job at stopping misguided idiots attempting to spread mayhem and murder (not least thanks to the latter's enormous incompetence): seen any good terrorist attacks recently? No, nor me.

The only possible reason for bringing in more snooping powers is because it gives the Government even more control over everything - its current obsession.


Anonymous said...

The Moron Meme you say "assumes that people are stupid enough to confuse basic rights to life with others rights to liberty, when in fact they are two quite distinct dimensions."

Ok I agree with the distinction you make. However this does seem to me an avoidence of the reasonable enough argument that underlies what Blair and Hoon are saying: That there is a case for some curtailment of liberty when there are physical threats to our community, such as that posed by terrorists. The government is doubtless influenced in its thinking by its fear that some attrocity will get by the security systems and that they - the government - will then suffer a back lash from the public in general for their failure to implement the necessary draconian measures which would have prevented this.

I am not persuaded however that it is the natural inclination of this government to seek a curtailment of liberty. Nevertheless, there is an argument, which has some sense to it, that some curtailment of liberty can reduce the threat from terrorists. Of course there is what many people would say is a more persuasive argument to the contrary - that curtailment of liberty actually increases the threat, and is in any case a victory of sorts for the terrorists. This argument appeals to intellectuals but is less easily sold to the readers (and writers) of the Sun newspaper. Of course ridiculing them for their conservatism will not work for they will simply bounce back with more bullish and ill-considered nonsense and pour scorn on the bleeding heart liberals who they think are the real threat to our great traditions etc. etc.. Yet this is the constituency which must be engaged with the case for a liberal society, though I would suggest that this engagement can only make progress if the contrary arguments in favour of some curtailment of liberty are given some degree of respect. If the Sun newspaper comes round to the idea the Government will not be far behind. Of course when the Sun newspaper starts to support the decriminalisation of drugs and the right of a young person paralysed from the neck down to be assisted in taking taking their own life, the Government will not be far behind in these cases either.

Glyn Moody said...

I think the Government is simply worried by the risk that the Conservatives will start pushing for more “security” if they don't: in other words, it's a purely political decision that has nothing to do with the realities of our situation.

As you note, taking away civil liberties in the name of security means the terrorists have won – we would literally be “terrorised” to the extend that we throw away that which makes us different from those who would destroy our society.

What really sticks in my craw is the fact that the government simply ignores the advice of people who understand this stuff – Bruce Schneier, for example – and who could help make anti-terrorist activity *really* effective. By coincidence this came out today:


Instead, it works on the principle that the more society is locked down, the easier it will be to “defeat” the terrorists – ignoring my point above.

I'm a little baffled why you write: “I am not persuaded however that it is the natural inclination of this government to seek a curtailment of liberty.” When you look at ID cards – which not only will not work for *any* of the purposes that have been touted (terrorism, ID theft, immigration etc.) but will actually create an unparalleled honeypot of data that will attract and empower the very people it is supposed to defend us from – the child contact database, the NHS Connecting for Health, and now the new intercept database that will record data about every phone call, email and Web page of everyone in the country (and remember, for Web pages, the URL is enough to find out exactly what the contents refer to), you have authoritarianism gone made.

Quite simply, the current government does not have any solution other than more and more surveillance. Whether the Conservatives would be any better in practice is another matter (I'm pessimistic, long-term). But at the very least, they have pledged to kill the ID cards and child contact database, so that's got to be a start....

Glyn Moody said...

Oh, and I see it's not just me that thinks along these lines. Here's a rather more authoritative view: