Fortress Britain: A Lesson for the World

Monday, November 26, 2007

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Written by Tristan Dineen

Fortress Britain: A Lesson for the World

By Tristan Dineen

On Wednesday, November 14 the British government unveiled what amounted to plans for a full-scale fortification of the UK. With the terrorist threat as their rationale, the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown will proceed to introduce a number of ramped up security measures based on the recommendations of their “terrorism minister” Alan West: build blast barriers at airports and train stations, strictly limit public vehicle access, isolate Islamic preachers considered to be extremist in orientation while neutralizing their message, employ Internet providers to stop the online distribution of extremist literature, ensure that extremist literature is not circulated in public libraries and on university campuses, advise thousands of movie theatres, shopping malls, hospitals and schools on how to protect against bomb attacks, introduce new baggage checks at rail terminals and airports, as well as plans for building new public buildings such as stadiums and concert arenas to reduce the impact of explosions and shrapnel. Combine this with the previously announced expansion of electronic surveillance to include cameras in police helmets and additions to the already vast network of public surveillance cameras on streets and in public buildings across the UK, Britain is certainly beginning to look like a society under siege.

When I heard about this I became very concerned. While some of you may brush off this example as something “across the pond” with no application to us, it is worth noting the precedent that such measures set in a world still feeling the aftermath of the September 11 attacks of 2001. Security and protection against terrorism has become the main pre-occupation of governments around the world and six years on it is still too early to tell what the ultimate impact of 9/11 will be.

It is noteworthy that these declarations of increased security measures in Britain come on the heels of two failed bomb attacks there earlier this year. “Failed” attacks is the correct way of putting it since the UK foiled those attacks using its pre-existing security arrangements but nevertheless the British government now feels the need to go even further despite its evident success in protecting its people.

Clearly, in Britain, the terrorists have won – they have spurred the British public to accept a society under a permanent state of lockdown and it can hardly be considered courageous or prudent to lockdown an entire society for the sake of a handful of extremists and their threats. Indeed, the reason that the United States has not followed suit on this matter is likely because of the strong libertarian backlash such blatant security measures would incite – so they must be content with an extensive wiretapping campaign instead. Either way, the continuous surveillance of public streets and private homes only brings on a sense of paranoia that is not suitable for a secure community. When the individual is continually being watched and monitored the result is insecurity, not a greater sense of security.

Terrorism literally is a gift that keeps on giving: since 2001 is has allowed governments to adopt blatantly authoritarian (or even totalitarian) measures while maintaining a democratic veneer and claiming to be defending the “open society” and “freedom and democracy” even as they trample on such concepts continually. The fear of terrorism has been exploited to the utmost by governments around the world and of all types to the point where fear has become a legitimizing force for almost any policy and religious and secular extremists alike bask in the light of the trembling masses. The just society cannot survive and dignity cannot be defended in a state of fear.

The question for us in Canada and around the world is this: will we let the terrorists win as Britain has and as the United States largely has as well? By the looks of things Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to be taking an all too different line from Bush when it comes to terrorism, security measures, and foreign wars. It is as if there is a syndrome among global leaders these days and it doesn’t seem to matter what party they are from: Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were from the Labour Party, which is about as left-wing as you get in British mainstream politics, and yet they enthusiastically support the War on Terror and have imposed a system of public surveillance and security which overshadows anything any British Conservative government has ever done.

For all the talk these days about “defending democracy,” and “defending freedom,” or defending the “open society,” from extremists, the security measures, restrictions and controls just keep increasing. The increasing extremism of anti-terror measures around the world indicate a siege mentality and the dominance of leaders who are more comfortable hiding behind blast barriers, police cordons and bullet proof glass than they are mixing with and speaking to the people they claim to lead. These men and women increasingly rely on fear to give them legitimacy and seem to enjoy ruling over a mass of paranoid, fearful, and jaded people who bend to their will with every terror attack, do not care, or complain ineffectually. Just look at the way international summits resemble armed camps these days and how Britain is beginning to resemble one of those armed camps. Brown has simply taken the War on Terror to its logical extension and if this is going to be a “thirty year battle” against extremism as Alan West claims, Brown’s Britain may be setting the precedent for others to follow.

This is what happens when two-fisted cowards rule the world: they shape the world in their image. It is impossible to be free and dignified and consumed by fear at the same time: courage is the best defense against extremism, whether it is extremism advocated by governments, by terrorist groups, or anyone else seeking to exploit us. Courage is something we need now more than ever.

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  1. Posted by: Richard Nixon on Dec 11, 2007 @ 11:08am

    Well written Tristan, in the spirit of the holidays, terrorism is truly the gift that keeps on giving. One might be tempted to say the kind of human rights breaches both the UK and the US have taken against their own people, in the name of 'security', would encounter stronger resistance here in Canada; I fear they would not. Although the Administration of both these Nations would want it's people to believe the security measures are for them, the obsessive surveillance and fortification has been turned, if we look carefully, against the people. What these nations should do is address the needs of the people and to follow their will (although 'will' is so easy to manipulate). And if the government of the US and UK took into account their responsibilities to the international community, and their own people - we should consider the UK's history as a major colonial power that ravished and destroyed countless people, resources and cultures, and the US, the dominant hegemony and colonial power today that arguably instigated, supported and outright fought so many wars, I'm not sure where to start counting - then I think it would be clear where the surveillance should be pointed to: the government.

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