The Economist bravely explains why we must fight terrorism with one hand tied behind our backs


Over in the Economist, a detailed three-part series on terrorism and civil liberties has just come to a close –- and very impressive it is, too. It began with an editorial pointing out that “the past six years have seen a steady erosion of civil liberties even in countries that regard themselves as liberty’s champions. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention without trial, ‘rendition,’ suspension of habeas corpus, even torture –- who would have thought such things possible? Governments argue that desperate times demand such remedies. They face a murderous new enemy who lurks in the shadows, will stop at nothing and seeks chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. This renders the old rules and freedoms out of date. Besides, does not international humanitarian law provide for the suspension of certain liberties ‘in times of a public emergency that threatens the life of the nation’?”

The article continues, “There is great force in this argument. There is, alas, always force in such arguments. This is how governments through the ages have justified grabbing repressive new powers.” After briefly commenting on procedures undertaken in World War II –- when “the democracies spied on their own citizens, imposed censorship and used torture to extract information,” and the US “interned its entire Japanese-American population,” which is described as “a decision now seen to have been a cruel mistake” –- the article proceeds to point out:

There are those who see the fight against al-Qaeda as a war like the second world war or the cold war. But the first analogy is wrong and the moral of the second is not the one intended.

A hot, total war like the second world war could not last for decades, so the curtailment of domestic liberties was short-lived. But because nobody knew whether the cold war would ever end (it lasted some 40 years), the democracies chose by and large not to let it change the sort of societies they wanted to be. This was a wise choice not only because of the freedom it bestowed on people in the West during those decades, but also because the West’s freedoms became one of the most potent weapons in its struggle against its totalitarian foes.

If the war against terrorism is a war at all, it is like the cold war –- one that will last for decades. Although a real threat exists, to let security trump liberty in every case would corrode the civilized world’s sense of what it is and wants to be.

There then follows the most extraordinary defense of what the decision not to let security always trump liberty actually means. Initially, this appears confusing. The article states, “When liberals put the case for civil liberties, they sometimes claim that obnoxious measures do not help the fight against terrorism anyway. The Economist is liberal but disagrees. We accept that letting secret policemen spy on citizens, detain them without trial and use torture to extract information makes it easier to foil terrorist plots.”

When I first read this passage, I assumed that it was leading to the kind of authoritarian nonsense that many former “liberals” –- ageing malignantly, and bizarrely attempting to equate the “War on Terror” with the Nazis –- come up with, but in fact the Economist was taking a completely different viewpoint, accepting that “obnoxious measures” might well help to foil terrorism, but, crucially, refusing to endorse them because they are morally self-defeating, tending, as described above, to “corrode the civilized world’s sense of what it is and what it wants to be.” Here’s the key passage: “To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that –- with one hand tied behind their back –- is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.”

I read on, wondering if I had misinterpreted this radical conclusion, but there followed a suitably scathing dismissal of the “ticking time-bomb” rationale for torture: “A famous thought experiment asks what you would do with a terrorist who knew the location of a ticking nuclear bomb. Logic says you would torture one man to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and so you would. But this is a fictional dilemma. In the real world, policemen are seldom sure whether the many (not one) suspects they want to torture know of any plot, or how many lives might be at stake. All that is certain is that the logic of the ticking bomb leads down a slippery slope where the state is licensed in the name of the greater good to trample on the hard-won rights of any one and therefore all of its citizens.”

A slippery slope? I had read it correctly, and now awaited the final reiteration of the Economist’s advocacy of inviolable legal and moral principles, which went even further than I had anticipated. Here’s the final paragraph: “Human rights are part of what it means to be civilized. Locking up suspected terrorists –- and why not potential murderers, rapists and paedophiles, too? –- before they commit crimes would probably make society safer. Dozens of plots may have been foiled and thousands of lives saved as a result of some of the unsavoury practices now being employed in the name of fighting terrorism. Dropping such practices in order to preserve freedom may cost many lives. So be it.”

Yes, you read it correctly. The conduct of the “War on Terror” –- with “arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention without trial, ‘rendition,’ suspension of habeas corpus, [and] even torture” –- is so harmful that, if we are not to lose our values, which, as in the cold war, are what distinguishes us from our enemies, then we must work within the law, and not jettison rights that took 800 years to develop.

This is, I believe, an incredibly bold stance to take, and the Economist’s writers are clearly aware of its impact, choosing to refer to the possible loss of “thousands of lives,” as a risk worth taking –- or even a price worth paying –- to ensure that we do not sink to the level of the tyrants and terrorists whom we profess to despise. Bravely, it takes the argument against torture, “extraordinary rendition,” and indefinite detention without charge or trial to its armchair supporters, forcing them to confront the dark truth that underpins their casually repressive claims that all means are justified in the attempt to eradicate terrorism. Without even touching on the failure of fighting terror with terror –- and creating, as in Iraq, recruiting grounds for would-be terrorists that are far more fertile now than they were before 9/11 –- the Economist has asserted the supremacy of decency over fear, and is to be congratulated for saying out loud what few dare even to acknowledge privately.

Detainees on one of the first flights to Guantanamo

The cost of misplaced zeal in the “War on Terror”: detainees on one of the first flights to Guantánamo.

[Note: See here, here and here for the Economist’s three-part series. The first looks at torture, the second at the surveillance society, and the third at the judges and parliamentarians who are “restraining the zeal of governments who want a free hand to fight terror.” All are well worth reading].

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on American Torture.

One Response

  1. Miscellania « Transitionland says...

    […] opponents in the American media– the Economist assumed torture to be very effective, and argued against it anyway. Liberal democracy allows human beings to live free of state repression, it stated. Maintaining […]

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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