Control in the Name of Freedom
Last weekend, members of the British parliament sat through a marathon debate involving both houses.
They were debating new anti-terrorism laws which give significant powers to the Home Secretary, the Minister responsible for internal security.
The new laws should provide pause for thought for freedom-loving people in Britain and across Europe.
The legislation is the government's response to a decision taken by Britain's law lords on December 16. By an overwhelming majority of 8-1, the law lords ruled that a section of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2001 breaches the European Convention on Human Rights because it applies only to people who are not British citizens and is therefore discriminatory.
Faced with the imminent release of several terror suspects whom it sees as a threat to public safety, the government moved to give the Home Secretary sweeping new powers. Under the bill first put before Parliament, the Minister would be able to act largely without the oversight of the judiciary, detaining prisoners for lengthy periods without trial. The men suspected of involvement in terrorism had been detained in Belmarsh prison without trial since December 2001.
When the proposed law was first introduced to the House of Commons, opposition parties rejected it outright. It passed using the government's majority. It then moved to the upper house, the House of Lords, where it was rejected by a large margin and sent back.
A compromise was eventually reached just before the deadline beyond which the prisoners would have been released. The final bill still increases the powers of the Minister, who is able to make control orders against people suspected of involvement in terrorism.
These orders may restrict freedom by regulating where people can live and work and with whom they can associate and communicate. They may even go so far as imposing house arrest.
Opponents of the new bill, even in its compromise form, see in it a major threat to Magna Carta, the historic statement about basic rights which forms the basis of much English law. One commentator, writing for The Times, called the legislation: 'the most ill-conceived expansion of executive power to have been proposed by this or any other recent government.'
Aspects of the bill should cause concern, not only in Britain but throughout Europe. We need to be vigilant against terrorism, without doubt, but we also need to watch that governments do not take opportunity to increase their powers beyond reasonable democratic limits.
Travelling around the USA last week, I was reminded of the changes the terror attacks of September 11 2001 have brought in the area of security. Once upon a time, not so long ago, moving through America's airports was a relatively low-key and relaxed affair. Now, though, security is rigorous even in the smallest airports.
While the increase in security is overall a very good thing, and not before time, it is sometimes overdone and obstructive, allowing privately employed bureaucrats in security uniforms to flex a little muscle and basically get in people's way.
At every level, from government down, security must be exercised within carefully defined parameters and must not focus on the 'evil-doers' alone, but on the people it is meant to protect. Otherwise, we will find ourselves living in a world where the reach of our freedom is defined by the likes of Osama Bin Laden.
If we're going to have a safe and lawful society, we will need to compromise some of our privacy. That's a price most people are willing to pay. But governments by their very nature evolve, they grow. When a government has reached the limit of the geographical area it can control, it must grow in another direction. There's only way one for that to happen: the government must increase its control over the people it already has.
Democracies need surveillance if they are to function as free societies. Recently, though, there's been a shift in many countries from limited surveillance to mass surveillance of whole populations. Modern technologies like 'smart' ID cards, advanced CCTV, computer intercept systems and biometrics have made this even easier for governments to do.
The Christian faith has much wisdom to offer in this debate on privacy.
First of all, Christianity says that human rights come from God. They are not granted us by some human agency or state so they cannot be revoked by any government.
God gave us our rights: including the right to make independent, personal and private choices.
With God-given rights come God-given responsibilities. Moral choices carry moral consequences, for good or for bad. Whether we like it or not, we do live in a moral universe that's established upon moral principles.
If we break a natural law of the universe, we expect to suffer a natural, or physical, consequence. If we jump off a tall building, we know that gravity will kick in. It's the same with basic moral laws: there will be repercussions if we break them.
Privacy is a fundamental human right because it affects our ability to make choices. As human beings, we don't react to circumstances through instinct alone. We respond by making rational and moral choices. You and I are not just products of our environment, or our genes. We're products of our decisions. Our choices help to shape our lives. We can't make good decisions, though, if our freedom is being eroded by people who want control.
The New Testament of the Bible says that God allows secular powers to operate so that we have law and order.
But no leader or human agency must ever try to take the place of God, demanding ultimate control over the destinies of others.
If God will not revoke a person's right to choose -- even when they're in danger of making a wrong choice -- who are we to do it to one another?
If you look at the life of Jesus, you see that he didn't allow himself to get carried away with the adulation of the crowd -- even when thousands of people were hanging on his every word. One gospel writer says that this was because he knew what is in the hearts of men.
Jesus knew that human beings simply can't be trusted with control of others. Think about all the major crimes that people commit against each other: murder, rape, burglary and so on, they're all motivated by a desire to control.
If, as Christianity teaches, we're living in a fallen world, part of every one of us has been twisted away from God. Because of the spiritual flaw within us, not one of us can be trusted to exercise power in a totally unselfish way.
'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' History has shown us the truth of that statement time and time again.
Privacy is a measure of freedom. It needs to be protected, so that no one person ever has too much power.
Keywords: anti-terrorism | terrorism | terror | laws | freedom | privacy | European Convention on Human Rights | human rights | Magna Carta | House of Commons | House of Lords | Belmarsh prison | control | absolute power | comment | social comment
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