This week, Paris has seen the threat to free speech and freedom of expression realised in its most appalling, extreme form. We must not allow the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine to be used as a pretext for enhancing the powers of the state to spy on us all.
France is (even) further down the road to being a surveillance state than we are. The French have systematically collected and stored material from computers and telephones – both within France, and from exchanges between France and those outside it – for years, seizing emails, texts, phone records and social media interactions. (The country’s intelligence service also hoovers up metadata, which shows who, where and how we communicate). These sweeping security powers did nothing to stop this tragedy happening.
So given that some of the most intrusive surveillance laws existing in any country did not stop the attacks in Paris, proposals to further boost the powers of our own securocrats because of them should be examined very carefully.
The Sun advanced such a suggestion in an editorial backing the snooping powers of the intelligence services. Its position looks odd when adopted the day after it cogently argued that the Metropolitan Police should be investigated over its seizure of journalist Tom Newton Dunn’s phone records. But it’s not just The Sun, of course; the kneejerk authoritarian instinct in the face of any threat is a widespread part of modern British life. If you think that this is an exaggeration, or that I’m overly concerned about the prospects of excessive state powers coming about, then consider the precedent set a generation ago.
During the height of the IRA’s activity, we did not allow our way of life to be changed in many real senses. When we did allow their terror to make us change ourselves – from removing litter bins on Oxford Street to Diplock courts – it was wrong (and those changes were both smaller and more robustly debated than presently).
Compare the reaction to the IRA with the enormous changes wrongly wrought post-9-11, when our political class mandated 28 day detention without charge (having initially sought 90 days); attempted yet again to institute ID cards; legislated using the power of criminal sanctions to curtail free speech within a mile of Parliament; created Control Orders, which imprisoned innocent people in their homes for years at a time; introduced random stop and search, used on hundreds of thousands of people a year without ever giving rise to a single suggested allegation of terrorism being detected; and multiple variations on the Interception Modernisation Programme (recording details of all telephone calls, emails, texts and the like), each new version of it re-emerging from the bureaucracy when the last was voted down in the democratic system.
None of it makes us safer, but we still rush headlong to surrender ever more freedoms to the state in the face of any real or perceived threat. Modern Western society is so self-loathing that we seek to find fault in ourselves rather than others when awful things happen. We seem to think that, rather than the intruder being at fault, we’re to blame for not having a strong enough gate, that if one just makes the gate stronger, then the person pounding on it will go away. While we all rightly praise Charlie Hebdo for its vigorous embodiment of free speech and expression, many are now calling for limitations on freedom, for the expression of which these journalists and cartoonists died.
The murderous strain of barbarism we saw in Paris kills people for their thoughts. It kills us for our values and our way of life and our freedoms. Giving up those freedoms lets them win. The fallen deserve better epitaphs than that.