The Paris Atrocities: The Most Probable and Bankrupt Response of Our Own Government (2015), by Sean Gabb
The Paris Atrocities:
The Most Probable and Bankrupt Response
of our Own Government
by Sean Gabb
14th November 2015
Because Keir Martland has already commented with great brilliance, and even a certain nobility of tone, I will make no comment directly on the Paris Atrocities or their probable causes. I will instead deal with our own Government’s most likely response to them. This will be a new Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. It will require Internet and telephone companies to store all communication data for a year, and to make this available to the police and security agencies.
The stated reason for this will be that we are in danger, and in particular danger from Moslem terrorists. What happened yesterday in Paris was only the latest episode in a campaign of terror that began with the American Bombings in September 2001, and proceeded through the Madrid Bombings, and the London Bombings, and the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, and the Charlie Hebdo killings. How long before a coordinated terror attack in planned again for London? We are at war, and war calls for a deviation from the normal course of government.
I will not deny that the latest atrocities are shocking, both in their effect and in the careful planning that they show. I will not deny that mass-immigration from the Third World into Europe was always at least a mistake, and that the latest wave of immigration inspired by Angela Merkel is an existential threat to the civilisation of which we are a part. I will not argue against the proposition that further immigration should be prevented, and even that some of the immigration we have so far experienced might usefully be reversed.
For the avoidance of doubt, I will also agree with the general proposition that there are times when what is undesirable becomes essential. There are times when insisting on the traditional proprieties will undermine the order within which those proprieties have meaning. But where something like universal surveillance is concerned, the whole burden of proof must be on those projecting it. Allowing the authorities to monitor all electronic communications brings obvious dangers. It will complete the loss of privacy that began with the money laundering laws. It will enable the full growth of a police state based on high technology. Bearing these considerations in mind, I suggest that the British Government’s likely response will be disproportionate, and will almost certainly do nothing to make us safer.
I begin with the disproportionality of universal surveillance. Between 1969 and 2001, the Sinn Fein/IRA insurrection produced 3,500 deaths. The purpose behind this insurrection was to fragment the United Kingdom, and to subject Ulster to the same religious persecution and ethnic cleansing as Southern Ireland saw in the 1920s. The main response by the authorities was to disrupt the terrorist gangs, and wait for them to run out of energy. I wish they had done more. But, until the Blair Government decided to surrender for ideological reasons, this was a reasonably effective response. Our main inconvenience, outside Ulster, was the removal of rubbish bins from railway stations.
There have been large Moslem communities in this country since the 1960s. In this time, fewer than a hundred people have died in specifically Islamic terrorist attacks. I know that I am ignoring the death toll in New York and Madrid and Paris. But I am discussing my own country, and, even if there is a large attack in London, it will not compare in its nature with the Sinn Fein/IRA insurrection.
Doubtless, the large number of Moslems settled here brings other problems. But they have no territorial demands against us. They remain attached to their countries of origin. Many retire to these countries. They often see their stay in this country as temporary. Their religious leaders are more forthright in condemning terrorism than the Irish Catholic hierarchy ever was. Most of them do not want to kill us. Those who want to convert us believe they are doing us a favour. By the standards of our own recent past, the Moslem threat – so far as it really exists – is trivial.
I turn to the likely success of universal surveillance. I fail to see how the surveillance currently possible will make us measurably safer. Terrorists do not plan their attacks by sending each other e-mails in through BTInternet. Instead, they meet each other face to face, or speak using foreign or pay-as-you go mobile telephones. Rather than harvesting and trying to sift through the two billion e-mails sent every day in the United Kingdom, the authorities should remember how they dealt with the terrorists of Sinn Fein/IRA. That means identifying suspect groups, and infiltrating them, and finding out and exploiting their personal and ideological motivations. It will involve targeted surveillance, for which the law is already adequate. It does not require universal surveillance.
Or, if a greater problem emerges than we seem actually to face, there are other approaches. Sinn Fein/IRA was a movement of white Europeans. It drew support in England from communities so long established, and often so completely integrated, that it had to be treated as a domestic problem. For all we might wish we could rerun the past seven hundred years of our joint history, England and Ireland are effectively Siamese twins. As said, the Moslems in this country are an alien presence. A few changes to our immigration and citizenship laws, and a new spirit in the administration of the law, would be sufficient to deal with their misbehaviour – if, and only if, it were to become necessary.
In at least the short term, the approach the authorities wish to take will fail. They will heap up masses of unuseable data. After a few scandals and rigged public enquiries, they will try to deal with this by developing better data mining software. They will then find the data insufficient. The logical next step from here will be to require access to the content of e-mails and telephone calls. After this, they will lay hands on the content of all other public and private databases – particularly anything that lets them see how where we are and how we are spending our money. Indeed, without waiting for the powers already taken to fail, the authorities are already looking to expand the scope of surveillance. On the 21st October 2015, a new Bill was announced, to give the security services the right to hack into computers and mobile telephones, to look at text messages and photographs, and even to plant software to allow live surveillance.
Whether or not this Bill is likely to become law in the form announced, we are moving rapidly into a society where nothing is private from the authorities – where any one of us may find himself under surveillance, even when not under actual suspicion.
I return to my point about the completion of a police state. I say again that there are circumstances in which what is undesirable becomes essential. Since universal surveillance is neither necessary for the purpose stated, nor likely to achieve that purpose, it remains for me to mention some of the costs.
I have sometimes been called an alarmist when I speak of Britain as a police state. The reason for this is that a police state is commonly defined by its extreme manifestations. We have no obvious secret police in this country, nor any counterpart of the Soviet and national socialist concentration camps. The media are not openly censored. Children are not given medals for informing on their parents, and we can make jokes about our rulers.
Bad things do happen here. In 2011, for example, Mark Duggan was dragged by the police from a taxi in London and shot to death. In general, the police are increasingly partial to killing members of the public – sometimes at random. Or there has been the arrest and prosecution of Emma West, for being rude to the other passengers on a South London tram. But these events are still exceptional. If you want to define a police state by South American or East European practice, Britain is not a police state.
However, a police state should be seen as less a matter of enforcement than of control. There are many reasons why a police state comes into being. The most common are that a ruling class wants to rob and oppress beyond what is customary, or when it has utopian fantasies to impose on an unwilling population. Whether either of these cases fits our present situation I will leave to one side. What I will say instead is that, once a police state is desired, its modes of enforcement depend on circumstances.
Sadists and outright lunatics are a rarity in government. Perhaps they have a greater representation there than among the people at large. But torture and censorship and concentration camps are generally modes of enforcement used only when there are no others conveniently to hand. Most Jacobins and Bolsheviks, I am sure, would rather not have relied on terror to get their way. Terror was an embarrassment to their ideologies of universal freedom and love. It needed to be hidden away or explained away. It was expensive. The overall reason they censored and tortured and murdered was because they had no other way to scare people into obedience.
The East German and Czechoslovak Communists were not notably better men than their Soviet counterparts. But they were much gentler. They murdered on a smaller scale because they came to power in states with a more developed bureaucracy of inspection than the Czars had constructed. Even so, they kept their secret police secret, and looked round for convincing euphemisms for censorship.
Modern technology means that our own authorities can be gentler still while having their way. If people can be made to obey without being clubbed to death in a police cell, why bother with violence? If they can be stopped from speaking their minds without overt censorship, why bother with overt censorship. There is no British Gestapo or KGB or Stasi, because our own police state rests on a foundation of changes of investigatory and criminal procedure and of increasingly surveillance. When people know that they are being watched in all that they do, and when they know that stepping over some invisible line will put them to great inconvenience and expense, they will change their behaviour and their attitudes to authority.
To put it bluntly, to be watched is to be controlled. In police states where people cannot be efficiently watched, control needs to rest on threats of murder. In other police states, control may rest on a combination of surveillance and threats. In modern Britain, and in most other parts of the modern West, surveillance is already omnipresent enough for threats of violence to be kept in the background.
It is not illegal in England to buy most kinds of pornography. It is not illegal to buy a bottle of whisky every day, or two hundred cigarettes a week. It is not illegal to join a group that works for the mass-conversion of the white population to Islam, or to join the Traditional Britain Group. But how many people will decide not to do these things if the details are being logged against their names in a central database? After all, being a known consumer of pornography may bring the police to the door when a child goes missing from down the road. Smoking and drinking may compromise the right to NHS treatment, or to adopt children, or even to continue looking after their own without supervision and preaching by the authorities. Membership of disapproved organisations may bring all manner of quiet persecutions. The Government’s promise of Extremism Disruption Orders for “non-violent extremists” is only part of the arsenal of threats. They may not really be necessary.
When watched in this way, people will be more inclined to conform to whatever may be the current preferences of those in authority. Moreover, many will be inclined to show cheerfully willing – after all, a state able to persecute is also able to reward. Perhaps, when it has become enough of a habit, cheerful obedience will even ripen to love of the authorities. After all, resistance to oppression has always been less common than loyalty to the oppressors. When Stalin died, it was not only from prudence that millions in Russia broke down and wept in public. Possibly much of the grief when Kim Jong Il died a few years ago was also genuine. Show most people a stick, and beat them with it, and their response will eventually be to kiss it.
Modern technology, plus the desire to make it a window into our souls, is already producing a new kind of person in this country. The New Model Briton is a man who keeps his head down and looks after his own affairs. He expresses no opinions. He possibly has no opinions. Opinions of any kind are a luxury. What may be tolerated or approved today may not be so tomorrow. He makes no jokes. These can be dangerous. The wrong sort of joke nowadays can get you the sack. He looks the other way when bad things happen to others. He breaks into a sweat if someone in authority over him raises a disapproving eyebrow. In short, without the hint of a concentration camp, or of a bullet through the back of his head, or of pre-publication or post-publication censorship, he behaves like a citizen of East Germany.
I am no particular fan of Lord Hoffman. He really should have resigned in disgrace after his judicial conduct in one of the Pinochet hearings. But his comment in the case of A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department –  UKHL 56, at para. 97 – is worth bearing in mind:
“The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve.”
The best monument we can raise up to the slaughtered innocents in Paris is the preservation of what liberal democracy remains in this country. It will not be nodding through the creation of a police state that will only make us safer after it has created a people who do not deserve to be safe.