August 7, 2015
Oh look, another liberal rant about the decay of personal freedoms. Well, no. Or rather, yes. I suppose you could phrase it like that. I won’t leave you in suspense: I don’t approve of anti-terror legislation, by and large. It is like the Americans used to say: if we give into our fear, the terrorists win. That sounds odd, but considering the ultimate aim of terrorists is to instil terror (hence the name), that giving in to our fear is exactly that: giving into their aims.
I’m not going to lecture anyone about the harms and evils of omni-present state surveillance. Europe should know all about this, considering the Stasi of East Germany existed not too long ago. I want to reflect on this phenomenon sweeping many western countries (and some not-so-western countries), which seems to be the thought that it’s okay if we do it.
I will start with an anecdote about Canada, because that’s my shtick. Canada, as you may or may not know, has one of the most powerful democratic executives in the world: perhaps the most powerful executive in the world because it’s democratic. There are very little checks against the power of the Canadian premiership. The 1982 Constitution emasculated all other political competition for the Parliament and in Parliament, party politics are king. The Prime Minister, in a majority government, barring an unlikely party rebellion is, more or less, free to exercise the power of the government. The senate technically can challenge him, but it doesn’t out of tradition. The governor-general technically can challenge him, but they don’t out of tradition. Besides, both are appointed at the Prime Minister’s recommendations, because checks and balances are for Americans.
If Prime Ministerial power is such a problem, why haven’t Canadians risen up against this gross injustice? Well, we trust the government to govern fairly. Surely a Prime Minister who governs selfishly would be a Prime Minister who would be ejected from office quickly. As Sir Humphrey Appleby used to say “Yes… and no, Minister.”
My mother hates the Prime Minster of Canada. She really hates him. However, she has said that she feels afraid talking out about Stephen Harper because she feels it would hurt my chances at landing a position with the Federal Government. Every week she fumes about something else he has done and how he is destroying Canada (and to a degree, as someone who bought into Trudeau’s Canada, she is right.) She cries about his alleged abuses of power, which isn’t a completely illegitimate complaint considering his tactics against the Liberal party seem to be right out of Singapore’s People’s Action Party by using anti-defamation suits to stop Liberal ads, while being notoriously famous for (effective) attack ads. Despite all of this, she has no problem with the state having such power, believing that a democratic state would never use its power irresponsibly despite all evidence (in her mind) to the contrary. There is nothing wrong with the office, only with the man who holds the office.
The argument of Canadians specifically, and increasingly Westerners in general, is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear (from the democratic state). However, down this road lies the idea of democratic absolutism, which is a radical departure from constitutionalism.
If we do something, it has to be okay. We’d never do anything wrong, we tell ourselves. We’d never abuse our power. We’re Canadians, after all. We have a moral quality that others lack, right? Well, good intentions only take you so far. I’m sure many people start marriage with the thought that infidelity is impossible, yet it happens. We all assume governments won’t overstep their bounds, yet it happens. We’re so afraid of bogeymen that we give the government wide-reaching powers to save us from invisible threats, because it’s necessary.
Canada’s Bill C-51, the Patriot Act, France’s new anti-terrorism legislation are all broadly seen as, despite limited outrage, as necessary. I don’t know how effective they are because that information is a state secret. These laws often violate some of the oldest constitutional principles (at least in Anglo-law), but because it is for the good of the country by circumventing the courts with warrantless arrests (No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.)
And we’re okay with that as a society, because we assume it’s effective. We assume that little bits of liberty we give up, that we didn’t use every day anyhow, are making the country safer. We assume that the omni-present CCTV cameras make us secure. We assume that these powers will never be used against innocent people or against us, because we’re the good guys. However, what’s the difference between our government watching everything we do and the security offices being set up in ISPs in China? Is Chinese law less valid? It surely claims to represent the people, after all, it is the People’s Republic. What gives us moral superiority to know that we can watch our citizens for potential terrorist activity and arrest those who may be plotting terrorist crimes? If they don’t need to reveal their sources and justify their arrests, what stops the authorities from arresting other “enemies of the state” under the guise that they are terrorists? If it’s only moral superiority of our system, then if it’s all the same, I’ll take the constitutional limitations to government power over the politics of fear.C. Shannon