Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Overreaction in Paris Curtails Basic Liberties

The series of events taking place in Paris right now is entirely predictable, but it is still frightening. In response to the coordinated attacks on Paris a week and a half ago, the French government has declared a temporary state of emergency and suspended many basic liberties. This write-up at Yahoo news offers a good summary of the situation so far:

Few Dissenting Voices as France Curbs Rights After Massacre

The French government has essentially assumed very broad policing powers. The net result appears to be that they can seize property and restrict freedom based on mere suspicion rather than proof. Additionally, the evidentiary standard for conducting searches appears to have been reduced considerably. Some of the highlights of the anti-terror activity so far include the following:

  • Raiding 793 residences and arresting 90 people
  • Placing 164 people under house arrest
  • Seizing weapons, money, and drugs from some of the above suspects
Asking what drugs have to do with combating terrorism is an obvious question. And the most likely answer is that these extraordinary additional powers are already being used for general law enforcement activities. But perhaps more important, is the virtual certainty that some of the people targeted by these raids and/or placed under house arrest are innocent. Either France is swarming with terrorists, or this is a frantic crackdown that is casting a broad net out of fear. The latter is clearly more likely. But of course, this is why we have standards and due process before depriving people of their liberty, to avoid unduly affecting innocent people. But under a state of emergency, such considerations are null and void.

Perhaps most alarming of all is that French officials are citing their equivalent of the bill of rights--namely the Declaration of the Rights of Man--to justify depriving people of those very rights. In the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, "Security is the first of all freedoms." And it therefore would appear to follow that actions done to protect that alleged first freedom, and inherently justified. The French government is suspending the people's rights to save them. How very noble.

As for what this looks like in practice, French police recently violently suppressed a pro-refugee protest. The State of Emergency instituted a suspension on freedom of assembly, and the police were enforcing it.

The crackdown on civil liberties in France is a real world example of the age-old debate between liberty and security. Most of the French people and the French government certainly seem willing to make the trade for increased security. But the long-term consequences are unclear. If you prevent people from going about their daily life, as occurred recently in Brussels, you can probably prevent them from experiencing a terror attack. But would that mean that we should stay in our homes at all time. What is the appropriate trade-off and who should decide that balance? These are the questions raised by the Paris attacks. And the trend so far appears to have a significant bias towards security.

Ultimately, ISIS is not nearly strong enough to pose a meaningful threat to the French people. They may be able to inspire one-off atrocities, but that is it. A few murderous people on a rampage cannot possibly destroy a society. But a government that is completely willing to suspend the most basic liberties in response, well, that is a threat that merits far more attention.

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