The False Trade-Off Between Security and Liberty


On Thursday, October 22, David Frum participated in a discussion on liberty and security at the Oxford Union, the famous English debating society, where he spoke in opposition to the resolution: “This House believes the U.K. has surrendered too much liberty in pursuit of greater security.” His remarks follow.

This past June, a British Nobel laureate, Sir Tim Hunt, was compelled to resign his positions at University College London and the Royal Society because of a joke he told at a lunch in South Korea.

Only a very few months ago, at this very university—at this very society—a mob of protesters violently attempted to prevent a speech by a leading contender for the French presidency, Marine Le Pen. In fairness to Oxford, the Le Pen event did eventually proceed. Not so at Essex University, where an Israeli diplomat had to be evacuated from a planned speech in 2013 because university authorities would not guarantee his safety from attack.

In January of this year, two gunmen forced their way into the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 journalists and staff. They wounded 11 others in the building. The attackers sought to punish the paper for its satirical cartoons about radical Islam. A little more than a month later, a BBC poll of British Muslims found that one in four agreed that violence was justified against those who published images of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Abuse of Satire


We are gathered here today to discuss the state of liberty in the United Kingdom—and the purported threat to those liberties from measures to promote the nation’s security, especially against terrorism.

Yet if people in the United Kingdom hesitate to speak or write freely—if British universities are less open than formerly to novel or dissenting ideas; if British thinkers, writers, and artists dread economic reprisal and even physical violence more than they did two or three decades ago—the security measures adopted by the British government to protect this country against terrorism rank very, very low among the things they have to fear.

And if we consider other liberties also cherished by free people—the right to buy and sell, to employ and be employed; the right to enjoy property; the right of a nation’s citizens to be free of punishment by their nation except in accordance with positive law applied with due process—then the whole topic of counterterrorism tumbles even lower, far behind, for example, anti-discrimination or environmental protection.

This resolution derives its emotional force from a broad sentiment among British people that they are more monitored and controlled than were their parents and grandparents, more harried and bullied. These feelings are amply justified. Not since the age of the village stocks and the ducking stool have people been as surveilled by their neighbors—or as exposed to public humiliation. A woman with a few dozen Twitter followers texts a cynical comment before her plane lifts off; she lands to discover herself an international pariah.

So, yes—there are good reasons to feel exposed and vulnerable. Troublingly, however, this resolution exploits those feelings, rather than responding to them.

It’s not the State that is our Panopticon. It’s Facebook.

Suppose British society were to unravel the security measures condemned by this resolution. Would people be freer to tell jokes? Would they be better protected against mobs seeking to impose their definition of social justice by force? Would cartoonists and writers be one degree safer from the threat of censorship by murder?

The answer in every case is: actually, even less so. It’s precisely to protect the rights of cartoonists like those at Charlie Hebdo that governments across the Western world deploy surveillance against potential terrorist attackers.

The proponents of this resolution have impressed us all with their passion and principle. Their good faith is manifest. Yet this resolution itself is a trick. There are exceptions, but it’s a reliable general rule that those in British society most hostile to counterterrorism policing are most sympathetic to—or at least indulgent of—those other forms of policing that most immediately and dangerously invade traditional British freedoms. In some cases, in fact, those who object to counterterrorism policing object precisely because the counterterrorists are working to prevent them from attacking the rights of others: the right to speak freely, the right to deny religious dogma, even the mundane right to sell a bowl of breakfast cereal without having one’s restaurant trashed.

By contrast, the security measures adopted by the British government to protect its people from terrorism are reasonable, minimally intrusive, and appropriate to the scale of the threat. They are not sacrifices of liberty. They are bulwarks for liberty—bulwarks against the would-be totalitarians of our time.

There’s an inherent asymmetry in discussing counterterrorism. It becomes tragically obvious when you do too little: bombs explode, people die. But when you are doing it right, your very success opens doubts about whether your efforts were ever necessary in the first place.

One dramatic example makes the point: Between 1996 and 1997, U.S. Vice President Al Gore chaired a commission on improving aviation safety. Among the recommendations: harden cockpit doors. That advice went unheeded. Airlines complained about its cost, and Congress declined to adopt it.

What if Congress had accepted the recommendation? Hardened cockpits would have made impossible the 9/11 attacks in the form they took. If so, instead of being grateful to the Gore commission, we today might well mock hardened cockpit doors as a classic example of government waste—of looking in the wrong directions for threats that never came. The better security works, the less we appreciate the need for it. The more effectively we are protected against harm, the less gratitude we feel to our protectors.

Today, the Western world faces a new form of terror threat. A decade ago, terror networks executed elaborate plots like those of 9/11 and 7/7. Better electronic surveillance has severely degraded the globe-spanning networks that coordinated these large-scale attacks. The risk faced by Britain now is less-coordinated individuals or small groups of friends, radicalized and recruited in the United Kingdom, sometimes enticed to travel to Syria, sometimes inspired to seize a weapon and hack a randomly selected soldier to death in the street.

As the interval from flash to bang shrinks, public safety requires a new approach. As the terrorists become more opportunistic, there is no longer time for months-long police operations like those that foiled the 2006 scheme in which more than a dozen persons intended to down as many as eight transatlantic flights on the same day.

British governments—both Labour and Conservative—have devoted more and more attention to preventing terrorist recruitment before the decision to kill. They are focusing their energies on the recruiter as much as the recruited, in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s famous question: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts—while I must not touch a hair of the wily agitator who induces him to desert?” Many of today’s terrorists are not hardened cases. Often they are extremely young—and if they can be stopped before they strike, there is good hope that they can be redeemed for their families and society. That’s the foundational concept of the Cameron government’s “Prevent” program. It’s early to pronounce the program a success. But it’s an effort worth applauding.

In the immediate circumstances, liberty and security can require trade-offs. But from any longer perspective, security is the basis and foundation of liberty—a truth eloquently stated by another American president, Franklin Roosevelt, when he inscribed freedom from fear alongside freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from want in his great “Four Freedoms” speech of January 1941.

Roosevelt warned then: “We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.” In our time, it is not the selfish who should concern us so much as the hyper-ideological and the naïve, who would misdirect this House and this nation from the real, dangerous, and urgent threats to freedom from extremists and terrorists—and to a false, theoretical, and hypothetical threat from the dedicated police and intelligence professionals who defend that freedom from its true enemies.