Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Government and Terror

A characteristic irony of western democracies is that elected leaders often end up despising democracy and fearing public opinion. Having stepped over the threshold of the White House or Number Ten or the Elysée Palace, they find their ability to act circumscribed by the same forces that enabled them to achieve power in the first place: the checks and balances and safeguards - congress, parliament, the separation of powers - developed over time to prevent any of them from running off with the rule book. And they respond, invariably it seems, with efforts to undermine the system they are in office to defend.

Terrorizing the population with stark warnings about - well, terrorism - has emerged as a tactic of choice. Hence, the UK government's fascination with the idea of detaining people without charge for lengthy periods - a common recourse of dictatorial regimes but not one expected of what we like to think of as a "mature" democracy. Voted down more than once, it will doubtless be re-introduced at the first available opportunity, perhaps in the wake of a starkly-worded warning from a favored government soothsayer.

Omnibus legislation - the parceling up of vast amounts of legislation into one bundle in which repressive clauses lie buried in a thicket of innocuous ones - has also become a useful anti-democratic weapon. It should come as no surprise that the government found it could use the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill not only to forbid public demonstrations - aka "criticism of the government" - within a mile of parliament or anywhere else that took their fancy, but also to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK. Neither of these initiatives has anything to do with terrorism, but that is not, fundamentally, why the legislation exists. Its purpose - its sole purpose - is to provide legal cover for the government to seize, suppress, prevent, restrict, coerce, and subdue; in other words to do whatever it wants whenever it wants.

That includes invading our privacy. Walk through the centre of any significant UK city and you will be followed by a succession of cameras charting your progress. Car journeys are scrutinized no less assiduously. If the government gets its way, your details (how many details we don't yet know) will be etched onto an ID card so that they are available to whatever callow bureaucrat demands them.

The reason for all this surveillance? To make sure we aren't terrorists - the one piece of information that won't, of course, show up on camera or find its way into the card's electronic coding.

One of the shibboleths of democracy is that those in power work for the people. It's time we stopped believing in this nonsense. Politicians - most of them at any rate - work primarily for themselves; and they don't much like interference from the rest of us. Nor do they want our opinions. Once we have exercised our quinquennial vote (quadrennial in the US, sexennial in Mexico etc.), our role is to put up and shut up. They are the bosses; and we work for them - or rather we do their bidding. We have become - to abuse a wonderful phrase of Wittgenstein's - flies in the fly-bottle.

If we are ever to take back our democracy, we will have to reacquire our right not to be scrutinized at the whim of ministers. And we will have to reverse our relationship with those who govern in our name. It is they who should be in the bottle while we, the public, remain on the outside looking in at them and making sure they never again get a chance to run off with our freedoms.

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