Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Freedom vs. Safety

The above photograph, which appeared on the front page of today's Times newspaper, was taken yesterday by Jeff Moore when David Cameron was walking from 10 Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament, seemingly unnoticed by the people walking around him. To be fair to the Westminster crowds, you wouldn't expect to see the Prime Minister walking alone down a busy street.

It's hard to imagine the President of the United States being allowed to do something like that, America's 'right to bear arms' makes life a bit more dangerous for public figures in the US, which leads to the US Secret Service being very strict with any overly adventurous commanders-in-chief. This wasn't always the case, President Harry S. Truman used to walk unaccompanied from Blair House, up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House every morning when the presidential mansion was being renovated.

Of course, four US Presidents have been assassinated, there have also been many more assassination attempts, and most of that was before the threat of Islamic terror was realised. It is something of an irony that the self proclaimed 'leader of the free world' cannot freely walk down the street unaccompanied by at least a dozen well armed Secret Service agents.

In democratic societies, political leaders have always had difficulties balancing keeping safe and remaining free, and I'm not just talking about the personal safety of the politicians. Yesterday, Abid Naseer won his appeal against deportation to Pakistan. Naseer is suspected by the Security Service to be an al-Qaeda operative, but crucially he has never been found guilty in a court of law. As a result, Home Secretary Theresa May is believed to have issued Naseer with a control order which would significantly restrict his rights. With a control order, Naseer would lose his right to use a mobile phone and the internet, he'd be tagged, his movements would be closely monitored and he wouldn't be able to go any great distance from his home without first checking with the police. Of course, if he wanted, he could go back to his home country of Pakistan, where he'd probably be tortured for being linked to al-Qaeda.

Harry S. Truman's direct predecessor as President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his 1941 State of the Union address, listed freedom from fear as a right as fundamental as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The question is, in modern times, is it possible to free people of their fear of extremism without making them fearful of the state.

One of the main tests for any government, and especially a coalition, is how it can keep the people free and at the same time fulfil the first duty of every government – to keep the people safe. In opposition, both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives condemned the Labour government and its policies that seemed to undermine civil liberties, like detention without charge and ID cards.

Now they are the ones in government, faced with ensuring national security, it will be interesting to see if the coalition still believes loss of civil liberties is not a price worth paying for defending the realm.

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