“I think it’s important to understand that you can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
This line of thinking is sadly prevalent in contemporary times where the validity of civil liberties is seen as being relative to the obscure methods that governments the world over feel the need to use in order to “protect” their citizens. Anybody who opposes Obama’s way of thinking is accused of being guilty of the slippery slope fallacy. But is the slippery slope really a fallacy at all?
Now, what’s important in discussions about the civil liberties of innocent individuals and how they are trampled in favour of the greater good by the state, is that we must not forego nuance in favour of making an ideological or ethical point. Yes, paternalistic governments have done things which proved to be a utilitarian good for society at large, however, they’ve also committed countless atrocities. And whether we’re referring to civil leaders such as Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, or communist dictators like Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, one thing stands out: all of them justify their respective policies with the same line of thinking, that is, it’s for the greater good.
In order not to make myself guilty of a false equivalency, I must point out that the policies of leaders who are polar opposites can indeed be distinguished from one another and categorised as effectively beneficial or effectively detrimental to society. I’m not disputing this. My aim is to remind people of the inherent dangers of allowing the government to take paternalistic control with the justification of the greater good.
The tragedy that occurred on 11 September 2001 and the political aftermath that followed is a clichéd but apt example of pragmatic security measures going too far. It perfectly illustrates the dangers of the slope. We all know how nearly 3,000 innocent people were massacred by Islamists (not to be conflated with Muslims) across the Eastern United States on that day. What a lot of people don’t know is how the subsequent domestic security measures implemented by the George W Bush administration and taken over (and even expanded on) by the Barack Obama administration took a metaphorical dump on civil liberties and by extension the presumption of innocence.
After 9/11, the Bush administration was obviously very concerned about the security threats posed to the US, and rightly so. It would’ve been asinine not to have been worried. Putting aside the fact that they invaded the wrong damn country in retribution for the attacks, the Bush administration put in place legislation which served to expand the US government’s powers of surveillance. Seem legit? Well, not exactly.
Twelve years after 9/11, an analyst contractor for the US government named Edward Joseph Snowden had to flee to Hong Kong in order to meet up with journalists from The Guardian to expose how the US government was illegally spying on its own citizens and, in the (undue) process, infringing on their right to privacy. Snowden revealed that Obama carried on with illegal surveillance programs like PRISM. Snowden is currently hiding in Russia from US authorities after Obama failed to pardon him (this is the ex-president who apparently had zero scandals). Obviously, the US government tried to circumvent the fact that their surveillance acts were illegal by creating the FISA courts; “secret” courts (their procedural activities were closed to the public) which gave authorities like the CIA and the NSA permission to spy on citizens. The concepts “secret” and “court” are not mutually inclusive, but who cares about principles anyway?
All this followed three years after former US Army soldier Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning leaked documents and footage via Wikileaks of atrocities committed by US military personnel abroad, including but not limited to crew members of an Apache helicopter massacring two Reuters journalists as well as Iraqi citizens and wounding two children.
Both Snowden and Manning were persecuted by their governments for rightfully exposing unjust infringements of civil liberty by the very institutions who were given a finger and grabbed the whole arm. Manning was imprisoned for seven years before Obama commuted her sentence in 2017. Granted, Obama let her off, but only after she was punished for doing the right thing.
What’s clear as daylight here is that the US government started out with the whole charade of “serving and protecting” and ended up harming the freedom of innocent citizens. A popular yet very nonsensical argument that flows from the Obama reasoning quoted at the beginning goes something along the lines of “only criminals need to worry about state spying”. What matters here are principles. The principles of living in a free society where you are free from unlawful search and seizure and where the presumption of innocence actually means something are principles worth fighting tooth and nail for. Arguing that innocent people needn’t be worried by the fact that their freedoms are being torn apart is tantamount to throwing slick down the slope. It is completely and utterly anathema to liberty.
Principles and due legal process matter. For everyone. Always.