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Anti-Terrorism Acts and Liberal Democracy


by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law


The new Anti-Terrorism Act in the UK raises concerns over the balance between state police actions and treasured liberal democratic concepts. This balance must be considered in the light of the severity of the threat. When the threat to our society presents a threat to our freedoms and liberties, our society -- and we -- have the right, with protections and safeguards, to use tools essential for our survival as that liberal democracy.


The UK Parliament just passed a new Anti-Terrorism Act after an extraordinary conflict between the Blair Government in the Commons, and the Conservative Peers in the Lords. The Lords repeatedly sent the Bill back to the Commons because the Bill impacted the rights of the individual. The Blair government, in reply, said that they were protecting the UK from terrorist threats that have no respect for liberal democratic niceties. The Lords insisted as well on a Sunset Clause for the Bill, calling for a replacement in short order.


Hanging over this political drama was a legal reality. This Bill replaces the previous Anti-Terrorism Act passed after 9-11 – an Act rejected by the Courts because it violated the rights of the accused.


The clock was also ticking for another reason – due to the rejection of the previous Act, the release of several individuals deemed threats to public security was imminent.


The resolution of the issue between the Commons and the Lords was as follows. The Bill as presented became law – but there would be a revised Bill introduced in a year’s time to reflect the situation at the time. In other words, the Blair government conceded a Sunset Clause, without that Clause stated in the Act specifically.


The issues surrounding this Act cut right to the heart of our liberal democracy. What takes precedence – the rights of the individual, or the rights of the state and society?


The issue is not new.


John Locke, in Two Treatises of Government, advocated the rights of the individual. Even when the individual cedes rights to the State, the individual retains the right to reclaim those rights against the State, even to the point of changing the State.


Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, takes the opposing view. The State, says Hobbes, has the right to protect its rights, even against the individual.


Much of the Locke-Hobbes discussion is basis on their view of natural law, which is the state of the world prior to political organisation.


Who is right? Is there a clear right or wrong in this discussion?


First, political philosophy in the West is based on Western European political history and realities. The philosophical underpinnings justifying the growth of democratic institutions came after the creation or evolution of these institutions. These philosophies viewed the individual as someone adhering to Western European concepts, particular those concepts in ascendance after the Renaissance. Hence, a person living in the Western European countries supported the basic democratic philosophies of the society. They may oppose the government and its actions, but they supported democracy.


There is a definite correlation between the decline of religion and the rise of the age of reason and liberal democracy. Religions, by their nature, demanded adherence to a set of beliefs and rituals; liberal democracy promoted the free rights of the individual. Science, also in conflict with religion, likewise promoted the rights of the individual to question and investigate their world.


Of course, not always did the society and the individual adhere to these democratic concepts. One of the most advanced societies, Germany, degenerated into Nazi Fascism – even electing the anti-democratic Nazis in a democratic election. The eventual reaction to this abhorrent philosophy was the fight by nations and individuals against it. The continuation of the anti-democratic Nazis was not tolerable.


In a similar vein, the anti-democratic Communists were in philosophical conflict with the Western democracies. The Cold War, which lasted almost fifty years, resulted in the triumph of democracy over the tyranny of Communism.


Today, there is a new challenge to the Democratic countries of the world, including the United Kingdom. That challenge, of course, is that of religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism comes in many forms – but all of those forms want to eliminate liberal democracy and turn the society and State to their tyrannical ideology.


In the United Kingdom, Christian fundamentalists attempt to intimidate the BBC over the broadcast of the hit Jerry Springer theatrical musical. These groups call for the United Kingdom to be ruled by Christian fundamentalism, not democracy. Similarly, Moslem fundamentalists plan terrorist attacks both in the United Kingdom and in the world at large. Mosques call for an Islamic Fundamentalist state in the United Kingdom, and groups are arrested in possession of biological warfare tools such as Ricin.


We see the threat to democracy elsewhere. In the Netherlands, Moslem fundamentalists murder a prominent filmmaker because they did not approve of his stance on their treatment of women.


Now, I am not against religion or religious beliefs. Religions have helped people in distress, and have promoted a code of living and ethics essential for our lives.


However, there is in our liberal democratic society a clear rule that your religious beliefs are separate from your rights as a citizen. You can believe in Allah, you can believe in Jesus – or Buddha or Krishna or the revelation at Sinai. However, you do not have the right in our society to impose your beliefs on others.


There are other signs of religious interference in the political sphere. In Canada, the Church threatens the Prime Minister, who happens to be Roman Catholic, with refusal of Communion and even Excommunication. Why is the Church threatening this action? The Prime Minister, Mr. Paul Martin, and his Liberal Party have not adhered to Catholic philosophy.


In the United States, the website of the National Governor’s Council finds it necessary to list the religion of each governor. American citizens, it seems, are not interested in the Governor’s views on taxes, or the American budgetary and trade deficits – only their religion. In fact, on my recent visit to the United States, I heard these very sentiments expressed more than once.


The threat of religious fundamentalism in our society is the reason for the new Anti-Terrorist Act. Liberal democracy is based on the adherence of citizens to its basic concepts. The concept of adherence is not in contradiction with the concept of liberty. With apologies to the anarchists, we cannot live in a society without rules. If those rules give us latitude to think, explore and express our views, then the compromise is acceptable.


However, we face people and groups with ideologies that seek to impose their views on others and eliminate the basis of our freedom and liberty. Moreover, we face individuals who would manipulate our liberal democracy for these goals.


Hence the need for the Anti-Terrorism Act. We are in a state of war, and that is a reality.


Similar actions have been taken by liberal democracies in war. American President Abraham Lincoln is famous for freeing the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.


Yet in the face of the Civil War, he became the only President to suspend Habeas Corpus.


Of course, the Lords have a valid point. If we cease to value liberal democratic values, then we have become the same as our enemy. Hence, the rights of the individual are important. These rights need to be protected. Tribunals overseeing the administration of this Act are an option. However, as we all know, Tribunals tend to become bureaucratic, impersonal nightmares – and in this case, yet another forum to be manipulated by the enemies of liberal democracy, such as the religious fundamentalists, for their purposes.


The concept of review within one year is, then, a reasonable compromise in the circumstances.


In truth, I am not comfortable with many aspects of the Anti-Terrorism Bill. It runs against many of the liberal democratic ideals we hold dear.


However, when a society is threatened, it has the right to defend itself.


That is what we must remember – we need the strong tools to defend our freedoms and liberty, but we also need safeguards so that the freedoms and liberties of decent citizens are protected.


It is true that we are striking an uneasy balance. Yet we are not the first in defence of liberal democracy to face this challenge. 



Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law


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