Security and liberty — the aftermath of the Boston bombings

An abbre­vi­ated ver­sion of this art­icle was pub­lished by RT Op-Edge yes­ter­day.

News of the two bombs in Boston, in which 3 people have so far died and more than 100 have been injured, has rico­cheted around the world.  Bey­ond the grim stat­ist­ics, there is little con­crete evid­ence about the who and the why, and nor will there be pos­sibly for days or even weeks.  This con­fu­sion is inev­it­able in the wake of such an attack, as the intel­li­gence agen­cies and police play frantic catch-up to identi­fy the per­pet­rat­ors and, we hope, bring them to justice — although of course in post-Pat­ri­ot Act, post-NDAA Amer­ica, the per­pet­rat­ors are more likely to find their names on the CIA’s pres­id­en­tially-approved kill list.

In the absence of facts, the media fills its air­waves with spec­u­la­tion and repe­ti­tion, thereby inad­vert­ently whip­ping up yet more fear and uncer­tainty.  The fall-out from this is an erup­tion of pre­ju­dice in the social media, with desk bound her­oes jump­ing to con­clu­sions and advoc­at­ing viol­ent repris­als against whole swathes of the Middle East.  And this fear and hate plays straight into the hands of the “enemy-indus­tri­al com­plex” so aptly described by Tom Engel­hardt recently.

With that in mind, let’s take a moment to pay our respects to those who died in ter­ror­ist attacks on Monday. Even a quick surf through the inter­net pro­duces a grim and no doubt incom­plete tally: Iraq (55); Afgh­anistan (7); Somalia (30); Syr­ia (18); Pakistan (4); USA (3). All these num­bers rep­res­ent someone’s child, moth­er, friend, broth­er, loved one, and all will be mourned.

Alas, not all of these vic­tims will receive as much air-time as the unfor­tu­nates caught up in the Boston attacks. And this is espe­cially the case where attacks are car­ried out by the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary against sus­pec­ted “insur­gents” across the Middle East.

Indeed, on the same day The Tele­graph repor­ted that the UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on counter-ter­ror­ism and human rights, fam­ous Brit­ish bar­ris­ter Ben Emmer­son (Queen’s Coun­sel), had stated that drone strikes across the Middle East were illeg­al under inter­na­tion­al law. Their con­tin­ued use only served to legit­im­ise Al Qaeda attacks against the US mil­it­ary and its infra­struc­ture in the region.

bradley_manningAs we saw in 2010 when Wikileaks released the video, “Col­lat­er­al Murder”, such atro­cit­ies are covered up for years, denied by the gov­ern­ment, nor will the per­pet­rat­ors be held to account — they are prob­ably still serving in the mil­it­ary. Instead the whis­tleblower who exposed this crime, Brad­ley Man­ning, lan­guishes in pris­on facing a court mar­tial, and the pub­lish­er of the mater­i­al, Wikileaks, faces glob­al repres­sion and a secret fed­er­al grand jury indict­ment.

With its end­less, spec­u­lat­ive scare­mon­ger­ing about the Boston attacks, the US media plays a diabol­ic­al role in fur­ther­ing the work of the attack­ers — ie ter­ror­ising the pop­u­la­tion, indu­cing them to live in a state of abject fear.  Of course, once suit­ably ter­ror­ised, the US people will be even more will­ing to give away what remains of their his­tor­ic freedoms, all in the name of increas­ing their secur­ity.  Well, we know the views of one late, great Amer­ic­an on this sub­ject, Ben­jamin Frank­lin: “those who would give up essen­tial liberty to pur­chase a little tem­por­ary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.

Indeed, the abrog­a­tion of liberty in the USA has pat­ently not res­ul­ted in great­er secur­ity, as Boston has so bru­tally demon­strated. No soci­ety can pro­tect itself abso­lutely against ter­ror­ism.

In a demo­cracy, just as rights come with respons­ib­il­it­ies, so freedoms come with risk. And we need to remem­ber that those freedoms were hard-won by our ancest­ors and will be equally dif­fi­cult to win back if we heed­lessly throw them away now, while the risks remain stat­ist­ic­ally neg­li­gible.

Guantanamo_BaySuc­cess­ive US gov­ern­ments have already decim­ated the basic rights of the US people in the post‑9/11 secur­ity pan­ic. At the sharp end, people, both glob­ally and now also in Amer­ica, can be extraordin­ar­ily rendered (kid­napped) to black pris­on sites and tor­tured for years on the word of anonym­ous intel­li­gence officers, they can be denied due leg­al pro­cess, and they can be killed on pres­id­en­tial decree by drone strikes — a real-world ver­sion of the snuff video.

Addi­tion­ally, the US has des­cen­ded into a pan­op­tic­an sur­veil­lance state, with endem­ic data-min­ing of com­mu­nic­a­tions, air­borne drone spy­ing, and the cat­egor­isa­tion of pro­test­ers as “domest­ic extrem­ists” or even “ter­ror­ists” who are then beaten up by mil­it­ar­ised police forces. This oti­ose secur­ity theatre con­stantly reminds US cit­izens to be afraid, be very afraid, of the enemy with­in.

Ter­ror­ist atro­cit­ies are crim­in­al acts, they are not a sep­ar­ate form of “evil­tude”, to use George Bush-era ter­min­o­logy.  As such, the crim­in­als behind such attacks should be invest­ig­ated, evid­ence gathered, and they should be tried in front of a jury of their peers, where justice can be done and be seen to be done. So it is troub­ling that the Boston FBI bur­eau chief, Richard Des­Laur­i­ers, is today quoted in the New York Times as say­ing he is work­ing on “a crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tion that is a poten­tial ter­ror­ist invest­ig­a­tion”. The pre­cise dif­fer­ence being?

Like­wise, ter­ror­ist attacks are not an exist­en­tial threat to the fab­ric of the nation, even events on the scale of 9/11.  How­ever, I would sug­gest that the response of the secur­ity-indus­tri­al com­plex poses a great­er exist­en­tial threat to the future well-being of the USA. The post‑9/11 secur­ity crack­down in the USA has eroded core demo­crat­ic val­ues, while the mil­it­ary response across the Middle East has bank­rup­ted Amer­ica and cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion of poten­tial enemies.

But it does­n’t have to be this way. Com­pare and con­trast the response of the Nor­we­gi­an people in the after­math of the ter­ror­ist attacks and murder of 77 people by Anders Breivik. As a coun­try, there was a need to see justice done, but not to allow such an appalling attack to com­prom­ise the val­ues of the soci­ety and des­troy a cher­ished way of life for all.  And this the Nor­we­gi­an people achieved.

BishopsgateSim­il­arly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s the UK endured Lock­er­bie, Omagh, Bish­opsgate, Canary Wharf, and Manchester, to name but a few major atro­cit­ies.  A good sum­mary of the ter­ror­ist attacks against Lon­don alone over the last 150 years can be found here, with the first Tube bomb­ing occur­ring in 1885.  A pilot, Patrick Smith, also recently wrote a great art­icle about air­craft secur­ity and the sheer scale of the ter­ror­ist threat to the West in the 1980s — and asks a very per­tin­ent ques­tion: just how would we col­lect­ively react to such a stream of atro­cit­ies now?

Dur­ing the 1990s, at the height of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA’s bomb­ing cam­paign on main­land Bri­tain, I lived in cent­ral Lon­don and worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK’s domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice (MI5). Put­ting aside my pro­fes­sion­al life, I have per­sonal memor­ies of what it was like to live under the shad­ow of ter­ror­ism.  I remem­ber mak­ing my way to work in 1991 and com­mut­ing through Vic­toria train sta­tion in Lon­don 10 minutes before a bomb, planted in a rub­bish bin, exploded on the sta­tion con­course.  One per­son was killed, and many sus­tained severe injur­ies.  One per­son had their foot blown off — the image haunted me for a long time.

I also vividly remem­ber, two years later, sit­ting at my desk in MI5’s May­fair office, and hear­ing a dull thud in the back­ground — this turned out to be a bomb explod­ing out­side Har­rods depart­ment store in Knights­bridge.  And let’s not for­get the almost daily dis­rup­tion to the tube and rail net­works dur­ing the 1990s because of secur­ity alerts.  Every Lon­doner was exhor­ted to watch out for, and report, any sus­pi­cious pack­ages left at sta­tions or on streets.

Lon­don­ers grew used to such incon­veni­ence; they grumbled a bit about the dis­rup­tion and then got on with their lives — echoes of the “keep calm and carry on” men­tal­ity that evolved dur­ing the Blitz years.  In the 1990s the only notice­able change to London’s diurn­al rhythm was that there were few­er US tour­ists clog­ging up the streets — an early indic­a­tion of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate, para­noid US reac­tion to a per­ceived ter­ror­ist threat.

In con­trast to the post‑9/11 years, the UK did not then react by shred­ding the basic freedoms of its people.  There were cer­tainly con­tro­ver­sial cases and heated debates about how long you could hold a ter­ror­ist sus­pect without charge, but the way of life con­tin­ued much as before. Now, twelve years after 9/11 — an attack on a dif­fer­ent con­tin­ent — the UK has all the laws in place to enact a de facto police state with­in days.

Life and liberty are both pre­cious. It is always tra­gic when lives are be lost in the name of some twis­ted or arcane polit­ic­al cause; it is even more tra­gic when the liberty of all is also lost as a res­ult.

Statue_of_Liberty_7My heart goes out to those who were injured and to the friends and fam­il­ies who have lost loved ones in the Boston attacks, in the same way it goes out to all those who were killed and maimed across the Middle East yes­ter­day.

How­ever, I do urge cau­tion in the US response; evid­ence needs to be gathered and justice seen to be done. Anoth­er secur­ity crack­down on a fear­ful US pop­u­la­tion will hurt Amer­ic­ans much more than two bombs in Boston ever could, while yet more remotely-con­trolled revenge killings across the Middle East will kill, maim and dis­place many more thou­sands.

I shall leave you with a quote from anoth­er great Amer­ic­an, Thomas Jef­fer­son:

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the acci­dent­al opin­ion of the day; but a series of oppres­sions, begun at a dis­tin­guished peri­od, and pur­sued unal­ter­ably through every change of min­is­ters too plainly proves a delib­er­ate, sys­tem­at­ic plan of redu­cing us to slavery.