By Trevor Busch
There is always been a battle raging in Western democracies between what is considered necessary for the maintenance of peace and security, and the preservation of individual rights and freedoms.
It is an ancient battle, one that has existed in our various societies since long before the advent of modern democracy, between common people struggling against tyranny and absolutism and those small but powerful minorities of individuals that consistently maintain the belief that they know better than us, what is best for us.
Even the most lacklustre student of history should hopefully discern that individuals and groups that have commanded the heights of power in their respective societies — that have ruled arbitrarily in the name of the people — have almost always come to abuse the power they have been vested. Monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, military juntas — there is a reason why these types of regimes carry with them a negative connotation, and it isn’t simply that the English language fails to describe them appropriately.
They have come to be viewed negatively because humanity has generally learned (we aren’t always very good at that) that when these kinds of regimes claim suzerainty over a given society, the outcome in the end is usually violence, oppression, and even genocide.
It was this realization that eventually promoted the very idea of modern democracy, that saw societies like the American colonies cast off the economic strangulation of Mother England in 1776, and caused downtrodden peasants and new-found cosmopolitans to cast off the absolutist establishment of French monarchism in 1789.
Most people, in short, were no longer willing to accept the limited value of tyrannical leadership when they were presented with an idea that allowed the common man — without titles, property, or even wealth — to make his own decisions about the destiny of his society.
It was a radical concept then, and it remains so even today. In the late 18th century, it appeared the triumph of individual rights over some of the most powerful aspects of a modern state was at hand. Protections enshrined in constitutions, declarations of the “rights of man”, bills of rights — had become a shield against government’s overzealous use of power to force individuals to conform to questionable laws, codes of conduct, or one group’s limited view of morality.
There is no question that modern democracies — no matter how utopian they seemed at their inception — are hardly the solution to the world’s problems they might have appeared at the dawn of their conception.
They can be prone to corruption, infighting, paralysis of action, and any number of other ailments which tend to plague the most draconian regimes along with the most liberal. However, they still offer people the one thing that none of the others do — the freedom to choose, and to live one’s life largely free from the arbitrary interference of the we-know-what’s-best-for-you crowd. Just how radical that concept remains is becoming increasingly clear in the 21st century.
The advent of technological revolution has already eroded many of the privacy rights that might have existed even two decades before. It is a relentless electrical juggernaut that is unlikely to be forced back into the proverbial bottle, and with good reason. For every negative erosion of privacy rights, there are corresponding benefits in almost every field of human endeavour.
This includes, of course, military applications and the rise of surveillance technologies that are so far-reaching in their scope and implications that the circumvention of traditional rights and freedoms in the name of national security has become as easy as the click of a mouse.
We have already seen this — the U.S. National Security Agency, better known as the NSA, was recently exposed in the Snowdon whistle-blowing affair as having the ability to insert its insidious electronic tentacles into the home of virtually any American, and others abroad.
Americans have perhaps more to be paranoid about than anyone. How many nations, for instance, can boast so many intelligence-related organizations and still maintain the idea in the eyes of the public that it is all for their own good and that of the nation? Selling the lemon that the FBI, NSA, CIA, ATF, DHS, DEA, and the Secret Service are not in some way involved in monitoring the actions and opinions of American citizens is a little hard to take for some.
Today, our democracies are toying with ways to make increasingly questionable laws and powers handed to our covert intelligence community palatable to the public.
The Harper government’s new anti-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51, which was recently passed in the House of Commons has been attacked as an Orwellian treatise by far more notable personages than this humble observer.
Handing out police-like powers to “disrupt” emerging terror threats at home and abroad to our civilian spy agency, CSIS, the service can now disrupt communications, visit targets to deter criminal action, lower evidentiary thresholds for police to obtain terrorism peace bonds, put people under recognizanze, criminalize the promotion of terrorism, and obtain judicial authorization for any measures they believe necessary to protect national security — even circumventing civil rights or domestic laws.
It is hard not to sound cynical when considering handing a set of sweeping new powers to our intelligence community. Governments have a legitimate right and need to keep some secrets, and they do indeed need a monopoly of coercion and a set of tools to confront challenges to their authority. There is an important place for knowing the minds and plans of our enemies. But there is a difference between preparedness and necessary vigilance, and when those powers begin to infringe on the very ideas such institutions were created to help protect.
If we discard what we nominally believe in as the fundamental and founding principles of our democracies in an effort to preserve peace and order at all cost, what does that say about our belief in those principles? If our laws do not apply to everyone equally in a just and free society, then they mean nothing. Hypocrisy is the inevitable outcome of believing that anything is justified in the name of freedom.
There is a fine line to be walked between safeguarding the rights of the individual and protecting society at large from internal and external threats. Although far easier said than achieved, finding the right balance is necessary to the progressive evolution of our societies. Letting the pendulum swing too far in either direction often results in disastrous consequences — either a society too strongly ruled by the whims of its people, or a society so ridgidly controlled that freedom has become memory.
Creating an Orwellian nightmare is probably not the immediate goal of Ottawa policymakers. Most Canadians probably still believe that no matter what their faults, our elected representives are still believers in democracy and freedom.
But the intent of legislation, and how it eventually gets implemented or used as a tool against others, are too very different things.
To use an extreme example, the policy makers who drafted post-WWI Germany’s Weimar Republic probably never considered that the passage of an “Enabling Act” in 1933 would lead to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Legislation is only as good as the checks and balances that exist to prevent its abuse.
With the advent of 9/11 and the rise of a global terrorist threat — one which tragically touched Ottawa and the House of Commons in 2014 — such legislation seems not only sensible, but in the best interests of all Canadians. Preventing terrorism on our soil and abroad is a noble and necessary goal. It’s the implementation that needs work.
Fear of an external or internal enemy — in this case terrorism — is the most powerful tool any government can marshall when faced with the task of sidestepping individual rights. Those who question can be labelled sympathizers, and ostracized or discredited. Arguing for our rights and freedoms somehow seems philosophical and nebulous in the face of real and present danger.
In defense of Bill C-51, the prime minister recently stated, “We do not believe the argument that every time you protect Canadians, you take away their liberties.”
While he may believe that, there are other Canadians who aren’t so sure. We always have to remember that our rights and freedoms — so often hard-fought and hard-won by our progenitors — can be stricken out of existence with one stroke of a pen. And once they are gone, they will not be handed back to us so easily.
Adding asterisks to the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are supposed to make Canadians feel more safe. If they really wanted to make people feel more safe, they’d be adding increased safeguards to preserve freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press — not honing in on how best to make end runs around them.