What Price Security?

Thursday, January 30, 2003

So now we all live in Washington. A lone terrorist can pick you off outside Safeway or as you wait for the bus. And if he doesn’t get you at the Safeway, he’ll kill your daughter at a nightclub in Bali or on holiday in Kenya.

In the Cold War, the enemy was the Red Army. Now it’s the Professor in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, stalking the streets of London with his right hand always clasped around the india rubber ball in his trouser pocket, the detonator of a suicide bomb: “He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on, unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.”

Or, as George W. Bush puts it—in the less memorable prose of the U.S. new security doctrine—now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Meanwhile, British prime minister Tony Blair tells us the war against international terrorism is like World War II.

There is an atmosphere emerging here, an atmosphere of menace that the media help transport and magnify. And don’t we know it already from a hundred bad movies? The hard question now is whether the conduct of the “war against terrorism,” in this atmosphere of menace, might not end up being as much a threat to our own freedoms as terrorism itself.

Of course, the horrors of Bali, Washington, and the Twin Towers were not movies, even if they resembled them. New technologies give terrorists extraordinary new chances to do evil. Conrad’s Professor was mortified by the thought that it would take a full 20 seconds between his squeezing the india rubber ball and the suicide bomb exploding—and then he would only take a few people with him.

No such problem with the military C4 explosive found at the nightclub in Bali—more than 180 innocent people at a strike. Poison gas was pumped into the subways of Tokyo. A suitcase nuclear bomb is a technical possibility.

The obvious fact about the modern counterpart of the Professor is that he is incredibly difficult to find. It was much easier to stop the whole Red Army. You can’t help feeling that one reason the Bush administration’s “war against terror” has ended up focusing on Saddam’s Iraq is that this would be a conventional war that one has a reasonable chance of winning. It is very frustrating for a giant to be bitten by mosquitoes that he can’t catch. So the giant ends up threatening the nasty butcher down the road, whose shop—he says—is breeding the mosquitoes.

Blair tells us we need to fight a war on two fronts: against Iraq and against international terrorism. But the front line with international terrorism is what Stasi spymasters used to call “the invisible front”(scouts on the invisible front, they boyishly called their spies). One of Britain’s own former spy chiefs, Stella Rimington, has said this war will be impossible to win unless we address the underlying causes of terrorism.

That’s plainly true. Some IRA bombings in mainland Britain were foiled by covert counterterrorism, but what ended them altogether was the peace process in Northern Ireland. The way to stop Palestinian suicide bombers wreaking terror on innocent Israelis is to give the Palestinians a viable state.

Equally, the long-term cure for Islamist extremism is a modernization of the Islamic world. But with the best Middle East policy in the world, that will be a long time coming. In the meantime, we have the terrorists. Even if the main mosquito swamps were drained, there would still be violent loners, unable to tolerate life in a peaceful world. So we do need to be tough on terrorism as well as tough on the causes of terrorism.

But how do you get tough on an invisible front? In Washington and London, the governments’ answer is increased covert intelligence and the skilled deployment of military and police force. The British and American intelligence communities are presumably having a field day. At the end of the Cold War, our spies had a crisis of identity: What would be the need for more Smileys if there were no more Karlas to spy against? Ah, they said, you need us to counter “the new threats”—international crime, drugs, terrorism.

Back then, the answer seemed a little forced. But now, after September 11, after Bali, who can doubt it? Blair grandstands the role of intelligence in the wars on both fronts. The transatlantic intelligence community must be one of the biggest winners in the post–September 11 world.

The question then becomes, How much surveillance and eavesdropping and general Big Brothering do you need to have a reasonable chance of catching the scattered terrorist cells and Professors of today?

A great deal, it would seem. The danger of an overmighty secret state, justified by the threat of terrorism, is exacerbated by the very same factor that so much helps terrorists: advances in technology. For the technical possibilities of surveillance today are ones of which the Stasi could only dream. Technically, Orwell’s 1984 has only been possible since about 1994. Eavesdropping systems like the American-British Echelon really can pick up all your conversations. If it has the legal authority, the domestic security service can read all your e-mails. Orwell’s telescreen is now there in your home—on your desktop computer.

They can do it, if we let them. So it’s up to us, the voters, to decide what balance we want to strike between liberty and security. There is always a trade-off between the two. Even in the technological bronze age of the Cold War, we sometimes got the balance wrong. The last epiphany of John Le Carre’s spymaster George Smiley was this: “We’ve given up far too many freedoms in order to be free.” Now, because of technological advances, the risks of getting it wrong are larger either way.

In the “war against terrorism” we should err on the side of liberty. The best resistance we can offer to the agents of unfreedom is to go on having free, vibrant, open societies. Even comprehensive covert invasions of our privacy, in the name of fighting terrorism, would not stop those shadowy networks striking in places such as Bali. Nor could they eliminate the risk of the lone bomber in the United States.

But it also seems to me true, without giving in to complacency, that the actual danger to most of us from international terrorism is still relatively small. To make this choice is to accept a risk: more liberty, less security. But the balance in this case is clear. Erring on the other side, we would sacrifice too much liberty for too little added security. Put it like this: I would rather take a 1 in 10,000 chance of being blown up by a terrorist than a 1 in 10 chance of having my e-mails read by a spook.