Not only is terrorism a complex and reviled phenomenon, due to the darkness and bloodiness of its crimes, it also poses a host of other serious and sometimes embarrassing problems for those societies affected by it. One of the first victims of terrorism, aside from the peace and security of the afflicted society, are those of personal freedoms, civil liberties, and human rights.
Invariably, the fight against terror forces any country, even if it has a long and proud history of democracy, to curb such freedoms in order to tighten its grip on the terrorists. Perhaps the first example of this was in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. At the time, the George W. Bush administration heavily tarnished the relationship of the citizen with the US state as it cracked down on such freedoms as part of its “War on Terror.” Many in the country considered the measures, which included, among others, hacking individuals’ phone lines and monitoring their bank accounts, an attack not only on personal freedoms, but on the concept of democracy itself. All the while, the state maintained it was doing this to track down those who belonged to terrorist groups as well as those who supported and financed them.
Whenever you find terror, or the specter of it, taking up major headline space, you will also find the repercussions of this cat-and-mouse game between the state and the terrorists, represented mainly in a crackdown on personal freedoms in the name of “national security”—with the main excuse here being that such freedoms must play second fiddle to the safety of the nation state, since the former cannot in any case exist in the absence of the latter.
This situation which sees personal freedoms curbed as a result of the specter of terrorist activity is actually more acutely felt in countries new to the democratic experience, whose citizens are still basking in the glory of the newly found freedoms they have recently acquired. Their sadness at the loss of these hard-won fruits of their struggle is both palpable and highly moving.
We have an ongoing example of this with Tunisia, the country whose revolution lit the spark which kick-started the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011, and is rightly proud of its new constitution, which was drafted in the spirit of the “Jasmine Revolution” and contains several articles protecting and promoting personal freedoms. It is for this reason that the recent announcement of a new draft bill aiming to protect the country’s armed forces in the face of a recent string of terror attacks targeting them, and which includes provisions which threaten the freedom of the press in Tunisia, met with such heated debate and consternation. Many in the country have called for the law to be repealed, dismayed that it could be proposed by a Tunisian cabinet that includes so many ministers who were involved in decades-long battles to bring to the country the very freedoms which this new bill now seeks to throttle.
Members of the press in Tunisia, still jealous of their newly found legroom, are adamant these freedoms should not be curbed, and have been joined by many from other professions, including lawyers, law experts, and others working in the media. All agree the law represents a worrying precedent and an omen perhaps foretelling the return of a dictatorial police state that for decades allowed its security arm a wide berth to repress and subjugate, all in the name of “national security.”
The reason I have mentioned this example from Tunisia is to bolster the aforementioned contention that it is terrorism that is the number one, and most ferocious, enemy of personal freedoms and civil liberties—in any society. The state is, naturally, by virtue of the power it wields, able to swallow up these freedoms in the face of the terrorist threat. In the Tunisia example, fear of terror has forced the state to renege on the gains of the revolution and even throttle freedoms as well as projects aiming to improve the human rights situation in the country.
We must also note, however, how terrorism and extremism utilize such freedoms and human rights provisions to pursue their activities and spread their corrosive ideology, with the use of technology and social media networks to recruit young people a prominent example here. Moreover, given the respective natures of the participants in this cat-and-mouse game, terror and extremism always win against any legislated freedoms—even against those that have been curbed following the numerous “Wars on Terror” we see declared in many of the countries afflicted by this phenomenon.
In truth, what is sorely needed given the current threat of terrorism around the world is for us to remain vigilant against this disastrous threat which it, and the subsequent wars declared on it, pose toward our basic freedoms. This is especially true for Arab and Islamic countries, which unlike the democracies of the West, who possess historical and cultural buffers against any regression in freedoms, have experienced countless bloody and destructive battles waged against the very concept of freedom, both in their recent and not-so-recent histories
In this context, and given the aforementioned historical considerations, it becomes necessary to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game which terrorism and freedom are currently involved in. Perhaps making room for enacting temporary measures in light of a terrorist threat, which could then be repealed as soon as that threat is contained, could bolster a general, and informed, anti-terror policy which can at the same time protect constitutions drafted in a spirit completely at odds with the sentiments behind such recent legislation as the one proposed in Tunisia.