Europe Insight
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31.07.2016

Drift from freedom

The fight against terrorism requires a new type of response if the state is not to devolve into dictatorship

At the basis of practically every dystopian novel lies the idea that the state adopts ever increasingly draconian laws for the sake of its citizens’ security. In the end a dictatorship is established in the country under pretenses of concern for the people. And the citizens no longer fear a hidden enemy but their own political leaders.

Many of us, under the impression of these works of fiction, have asked ourselves where that thin line lies – the one keeping real concern for people’s safety from becoming an all-powerful state.

But the real truth is that this thin line scarcely exists in the modern world.

It is rare when a dictator directly announces his intentions to strengthen autocratic power.

Much more frequently, the changes take place quietly and appear the logical response to current challenges. The only problem is that such responses multiply and accumulate until the number of restrictions, severity of punishments and total control one day fail to outweigh concern for quality of life – until the cumulative effect of the changes makes people start worrying not about their level of prosperity but their lives.

The last twenty years show that it is precisely this line of logic along which the struggle against terrorism is developing.

75467546745746In late July, the Dutch web platform Datagraver, using data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), prepared a visual presentation of the statistics on acts of terror in Western Europe starting from 1970 down through today. It is clear from the graph that deaths reached their peak between the early 1970s and early 1990s.

However, separate anti-terror legislation began to appear in several of the leading countries of Western Europe only towards the end or even after this period. For instance, the first specific anti-terrorism legislation was adopted in France in 1986 and in the United Kingdom in 2000.

Although terrorism had existed as a phenomenon for thousands of years, it is in in these years specifically that it began to be seen as an inherent part of life. Hundreds of pages of laws transformed it from an emergency and exceptional incident into a routine.

And terrorism has also become something struggled against on a daily basis. If, before, counterterrorism legislation was predominantly temporary and restricted to certain contexts, then at the turn of the 21st century, it acquired its own unique form while greatly expanding its sphere of application. It has already long impacted not only terrorists but also ordinary citizens – whether they notice it or not.

“The French legislator reacted to each terrorist wave with the enactment of new laws,” matter-of-factly reports the OSCE site. According to the calculations of Euronews, France changed its anti-terror laws 14 times between 1986 and early 2015. It is the same in other countries.

In the 2000s, after attacks in the USA, United Kingdom and Spain, a series of new anti-terror laws were adopted in all of the European countries. In addition, the restrictions they placed on citizens and the powers allotted to law-enforcement organs and intelligence agencies have never been completely rescinded. The regime can get tougher but it never relents. Now, it is no longer important whether or not there is on any given sunny day any real threat to the lives and health of citizens – the vigilant eye never ceases to monitor, prohibit and punish.

Take for example the fact that a colour scale reflecting the current level of the terror threat is now being used in many countries. But there is no level of “total and complete calm”. The state is on constant alert. Moreover, in this sense the example of the USA is indicative; in 2009 it was recommended to remove the lowest terror threat levels from the scale of 2002 since they were never actually used.

The situation is the same in Europe. Despite extended periods of relative calm, the thought has not occurred to anyone to soften or repeal the laws. Thus, the Europol report for 2013 yet again named religious terrorism as the main threat to the European Union despite that year there being only one murder registered which fell under its criteria – and just barely.

The latest peak of collective renewal of anti-terror legislation in European countries occurred in 2015. And in 2016 it was once again evident that the adoption of these measures does not ensure total security and that even declaring a state of emergency in a country cannot stop terrorists.

It can be said with certainty that the many attacks by terrorists in July will lead to new, even tougher and more prohibitive rules. And these will not be softened or repealed either.

If the current approach is not changed, this trend will continue until such time as the state-dictatorship of fantasy books and films becomes real.

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