Friday, July 07, 2006

Time: Security v. Liberty

I picked up a Time (Canada) the other day. With no paper and no Maclean's, I'm feeling bereft of something newsy to read over breakfast. Although, to me, Time feels lightweight and cheap, its design didn't leap up, grab my eyeballs, and spin them til I didn't know what word meant what. So I grabbed it.

The editorial was a balanced analysis of the current tension between the White House and the American press. Even though, it seems to us that the press down south is pretty docile and has not stood in the way of freedoms being oppressed, the Editor (Richard Stengel) painted a different picture. What struck me was that he has a sense -- and I suspect one shared by many American editors, hence our perception of their docility -- that the press needs to answer the question -- "Does the potential harm to public security outweigh the likely benefit to the public interest?" -- before publishing.

As he admits, that's a tough question to answer. I don't believe the press can answer it for any issue in the space of a news cycle. An intrepid investigative reporter, allowed sufficient time, may be able to posit an answer, but even she could not fully know if publishing could harm national security as only a very few individuals with the right security clearance will ever know the full story. Understanding is a different thing altogether.

Instead, I believe, they need to ask themselves: is any infringement on civil liberties and human rights OK? Is any action taken counter to the Geneva Convention OK?

We are not fighting the usual kind of war. WWII may have been close in the sense that one group of people wanted to exterminate another group of people, carry out experiments on other groups of people, and dominate the rest of the planet. In that regard, the terrorist/Muslim extremists/militants/ whatever you wish to call them are similar. They want to wipe out the west and push Israel into the sea. (Of course the hypocrisy of those who live in the west while promulgating these views takes my breath away.) There are many ways to wipe out a civilization. Not all involve killing every man, woman, and child. One effective way, used by multinationals in spreading American culture, is to change the society itself. Any time our governments eat away at one of our civil liberties or justify contravening the Geneva Convention, they change our society away from a free and open one towards the oppressive, authoritarian one preferred by the terrorists. ID cards were the tools of the Communists, once our great enemy. Torture or degrading treatment is the tool of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes everywhere. The viewing of every citizen as a potential threat (else why spy on their bank accounts?) is the hallmark of totalitarian governments.

The terrorists don't have to fire another missile, fly another plane into a skyscraper, to change our society to one they like better. Of course, it goes without saying, they truly won't like it until women are in burkas and Islam is the legal system of the day. Still, every step we take towards their ways and away from ours, is a victory for them and a defeat of us, our ways, and our imagination.

Mahatma Ghandi won independence for India, Martin Luther King, Jr. created the snowball of gaining full African-American emancipation. Neither of them needed to use violence, spy on their enemies nor on their friends, to turn the tide towards independence and emancipation. In fact, they were spied upon and attacked, and still they won and won handily.

The White House, and to a lesser extent the Canadian government, have not learnt the lessons taught by these divinely inspired men and are showing a distinct lack of imagination in combatting terrorism while retaining the essence of what makes our societies so desirable to live in.

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