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Life And Limited Liberty

This column was written by Emanuele Ottolenghi.
The death of Jean Charles de Menezes last Friday is a tragedy.

One day after the second spate of terror attacks hit London and with four terrorists still at large, Menezes was mistaken by the metropolitan police as a terrorist and, upon failing to obey orders to halt he was shot five times at close range as he entered a crowded train at a metro station. Bad policing maybe, but what if he had been the right guy? What if he were a terrorist and were about to detonate an explosive belt to kill scores of innocent bystanders? No tears would be shed and those policemen who shot him would be heroes now. The difference between a successful counterterrorism operation and a tragic blunder was, in the final analysis, predicated upon bad intelligence and a split-second decision, something that the war on terrorism will continue to experience. And the context and circumstances of the event suggest that the police acted reasonably. Still, an innocent man is dead and with terrorists still at large democracies owe themselves a moment of reflection. What price must democracy pay to defeat terrorism?

Americans have apparently understood the nature of the terrorist threat. They know they are at war. Despite bombings in London and Madrid and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Europe seems to believe terrorism can be fought with the same means used for ordinary crime. But fighting crime and fighting a war are two different businesses indeed. That is why when Menezes was killed in broad daylight by plainclothes policemen in the midst of a terrified crowd many disapproved even before they knew he was innocent. Even if he had been a terrorist, arrest would have been preferable.

As in the case of Israel's policy of targeted killings, even those who understand the plight of the Jewish state often demand that terrorists be apprehended and brought to justice, decrying the action as "extra-judicial killings." Better a terrorist apprehended alive of course, for a host of reasons. Is this feasible though, especially in the age of suicide bombers, or is this enunciation of principle just a recipe for inaction?

One can sympathize with the opinion that no freedom should be sacrificed on the altar of security, but unless this is qualified, in the post-9/11 world this view is neither serious nor realistic.

It is not serious, because liberalism has always postulated the possibility of a temporary suspension of freedoms to confront national emergencies. States of emergencies are regulated in liberal democracies so as not to allow disproportionate measures: the extent of restrictions must be correlated to the nature of the threat. In war and catastrophe, democracies accept limits on freedom of the press, movement, immigration, expression and assembly, rationing and curfews, military courts and anti-sedition laws.


It is not realistic, because terrorism exploits the openness of free societies to pursue its deadly designs. Our strength -- a robust civil society that keeps Big Brother at permanent arm's length -- has become our weakness when confronted with terrorists in our midst. Tolerant immigration laws, due process, and a host of mechanisms expressing confidence in the freedom we cherish and the desire of all human beings to enjoy its gift have made it easier for terrorists, who loath freedom and exalt death, to strike. Introducing restrictions on our freedoms and giving broader -- and at times deadlier -- discretion to our security forces might be the price democracies must pay for their own defense.

Nevertheless, liberals have a point: If the knee-jerk reaction that postulates no limits is silly, this does not mean that anything goes. The shoot-to-kill policy tragically applied last Friday in London was meant to save innocent lives: a balance had to be struck between a suspected terrorist and his right to life and the right to life of innocent bystanders. But that balance is frail and fraught with moral dilemmas, as the death of Menezes proves. This tragic outcome highlighted both the dilemmas and the challenges a democracy must face if it wants to defeat terrorism and still be true to its moral higher grounds.

Still, in real-life situations, the ideal may prove impossible to achieve.

To maintain the same level of individual freedoms under the new threat of terrorism might therefore prove to be a principled but untenable stance, which one can hope to hold only at the price of giving in to terror's blackmail. But make no mistakes: Ultimately, terror's goal is not just to influence a change in policy among Western societies, as many in Europe claim. Terror's ultimate target is the Western way of life itself, which is built on freedom. Old principles will not work this time. To save freedom and fight terror at the same time a new doctrine is needed. To what extent are Western societies prepared to limit civil liberties in order to effectively countenance the terrorist threat? The answer cannot be a dogmatic refusal to ponder the dilemma. The only right answer is to find a balance between the call of liberty and the imperative of security. To engage this debate, rather than shun it, is the only way to ensure that freedom is protected in the long term.

Governments' primary duty is to protect their citizens from outside (and internal) enemies. If there can be no pursuit of happiness without liberty, there is no liberty (or liberty would be meaningless), surely, unless life is first protected.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony's College, Oxford University.

By Emanuele Ottolenghi
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online