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World: Can West Fight Terror And Still Maintain Civil Liberties? (Part 3)

  • Andrew Tully --> Britain's initial response to the bombings was to flood central London with police It has been a little more than four years since the war on terror began in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the United States. In that time, the war has seen governments step up attempts to root out terrorist groups, sometimes through military coalitions but more often through police work. Yet the efforts have also raised questions, among them how to balance societies’ need for security against their desire to maintain civil liberties. The issue is particularly keenly debated in the West, where the United States, Britain, France, and Spain have all passed new laws broadening the powers of law-enforcement agencies. In this third part of our four-part series on the war on terror, we look at whether the new security measures are stripping liberal democracies of one of their most valued assets -- freedom.

Washington, 7 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Not long after the London bombings of 7 July, Britain decided it had to make the country less vulnerable. Within a month (5 August), Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a series of new laws. One of them rules that Britain will not tolerate publicly advocating politically motivated violence.

"Coming to Britain is not a right, and even when people have come here, staying here carries with it a duty," Blair said. "That duty is to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life. Those that break that duty and try to incite hatred or engage in violence against our country and its people, have no place here."

This reaction troubles John Hulsman, who studies European security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington, told RFE/RL that he grew up in Britain and has long admired the country's tolerance. But he said he believes Britain's response verges on overreaction. And he said that was perhaps made possible because Britain has no formal, overarching constitution, merely statutes and precedents.

"One of the problems of not having a written constitution and a guaranteed bill of rights is that it's easy to swing that balance the other way," Hulsman said. "For instance, some of the new British laws in the wake of the July bombing -- that incitement to terrorism, including speech, is somehow a criminal offense -- is somewhat worrying. We're nearing the line where if you're critical of the government or support radicals throughout the world, you're in trouble."

Hulsman said he believes the United States has been more restrained in its efforts to tighten security.

Shortly after the 11 September attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act giving law enforcement broader investigatory powers. The Patriot Act was passed largely in the form proposed by the U.S. Justice Department. But Hulsman said that during the past few months, legislators have repealed some of the more intrusive elements of the law.

"They [Congress] took some various parts that they found egregious, forced the Justice Department to reinterpret them," he said. "I think so far actually our body politic has held together quite well. Certainly there are bits of the Patriot Act I'm not thrilled about, but given the extent of what's happened here [the 11 September attacks], I think there hasn't been as much of an overreaction as I might have thought."
"It's not as though those countries [such as France and Britain] have more civil liberties [than Spain], but they have struggled with the same balance and, I think, generally managed to do so without overreacting, for the most part." -- analyst

Such restraint is part of the American ethos, according to Thomas Carothers, the co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank. He told RFE/RL that the United States was born in rebellion, and Americans still chafe at the idea of a too-meddlesome government.

Carothers said the same is not true in the democracies of Western Europe, which grew out of absolute monarchies. He said that makes Europeans historically less resistant than Americans to restrictive laws, even for the sake of security. France, for example, has long permitted broad use of wiretapping in criminal investigations. That is a practice that is restricted and controversial in the United States.

European countries with an experience with terrorism –such as Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain -- have each had to find their own balance between security and civil liberties. Since the Madrid bombings of March 2003, Spain in particular has tightened security compared to the others. Carothers said it remains to be seen how Spain’s struggle for balance turns out.

"It's not as though those countries [such as France and Britain] have more civil liberties [than Spain], but they have struggled with the same balance and, I think, generally managed to do so without overreacting, for the most part," he said.

But Americans likely would not accept such laws, according to Carothers -- at least as far as their own freedoms are concerned. He said that despite many complaints about the Patriot Act, the legislation is, in his opinion, fairly tame by European standards.

The real problem, Carothers continued, is the way new U.S. regulations often victimize immigrants. "The Patriot Act's gotten a lot of publicity, and some of it is worrisome, but it does not constitute a widespread or broad-scale serious abridgement of rights," he said. "I think what's been more troubling is the way the U.S. has treated immigrants, particularly the deportation procedures that have been asserted against a lot of people for, really, fairly minor causes."

Treating immigrants as fairly as U.S. citizens -- Carothers said that is the balance Americans have to achieve.

See also:

World: Four Years Later, No Clear Winners In War On Terror (Part 1)

World: Who Is The Enemy -- And How Is It Changing? (Part 2)

World: Can West Fight Terror And Still Maintain Civil Liberties? (Part 3)

World: Global War On Terror Faces Government With Unique Enemy (Part 4)

For all of RFE/RL's coverage on the global fight against terrorism, visit our War On Terror website.