Saturday, February 28, 2009

Today's speech on liberties

Hello, I've just rushed here from up the road where the Convention on Modern Liberty is taking place and would like to thank you for inviting me here today to speak. I've been asked to talk on 'Why did we lose the argument on liberty versus security?'

This is pretty defeatist stiff, isn't it? We are having the argument, we have lost much but we have not lost everything yet. The very fact that there are two ram-packed events about liberty, freedom and justice going on a few miles from each other is a good sign. Despite the at-times overwhelming sense of impending doom, it has at least never been easier to find out about the loss of our freedoms, to speak out, stand up, push back and mobilise for change. We live in an interconnected world linked together by a web that transmits words and images at the speed of thought, from Gaza to Guantanamo. Now a million pairs of eyes can scrutinse truth and lies. There is no such thing as a good day to bury bad news anymore.

But in a world overloaded with information, we have a thousand claims on our attention. Perhaps that is why is has been easy to whittle our freedom away: we have been too easily distracted, too beguilingly entertained, letting the good times roll. Perhaps our attention span is too short and our aspirations too greedy and selfish to care for things when they do not directly impact us.

We have been told that 'the rules of the game have changed'. Like the metaphorical frog in the saucepan of slowly-heating water, our complacency has seriously endangered our chances of a healthy future.

Only cheats try to change the rules of the game. And unpacking the language shows how dangerous that phrase by Tony Blair, the smiling salesman of a 'war on terror' really was.

By 'rules', he meant the rule of law, the rights that enshrine our freedoms.The right not to be detained without reason, the right not to be tortured or degraded, the right to a fair trial. The right to freedom of thought, conscience or religion, the right to respect for privacy, family life and the home. The right to freedom of speech, protest and association, and to protection of property, including your most intimate data.

Those were the rights, the basic, human rights that we signed up to after a world war that left millions dead, injured, dispossessed, countries in economic ruin, beggared by a fight against a fascist ideology that killed and tortured on an industrial scale. After such trauma, such horror, that human rights were needed was a truth that was self-evident.

These are our birthright human rights that our government is so keen to take away, in the name of our current security. To get away with this, it relies on our apathy, and our fear of terrorism, anti-social behaviour and crime. Now human rights are presented to us by the very government minister who introduced the act as some kind of criminal -cuddling charter. The collection of smooth-talking political salesman waiting in the wings tell us we don't need the human rights of the human rights act. We need a British Bill of Rights, for British people.

For God's sake.

Human rights are the rights of all humans. They are not British rights, they are not to be re-cut to re-fit the latest body politic by the designers of the latest fashionable election strategy.

The battered and broken men who are slowly coming out of Guantanamo show us that the unspeakable evil of torture has been sanctioned and outsourced at the highest levels. If we will stoop to this, we will sink to anything. We are not only in danger of losing our human rights, we are in danger of losing our common humanity, our right to call ourselves human.

Yet there is hope. Those who are bent on wickedness always go too far and show their hand, drop their mask. Boiling frogs can jump out of saucepans, and stupefied people can wake up and demand change, hold their leaders to account. They are more afraid of us than they let on, you know. We should trust ourselves, and each other more.

When the world goes dark, when horror and fear and shock are overwhelming, that is when you find out the truth about people. This is what I have learned: when terrorists bomb a crowded train, those left alive do not fight and attack each other to survive. They call out for calm. They grab each other's hands. I've seen that people are better and braver and stronger than the government give us credit for. This truth is bigger than any lie they can tell.

We are not sleepwalking prisoners of our own nightmares. We are awake. We can see what they are doing. We are the guardians of each other's liberties and lives. This is the time; we are late, there is much to do and we are greatly needed to defend our ancient liberties and future freedoms.

It is not over yet, and we are better than this. Now is the time to show it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What self-serving emotive nonsense.

Are you Shami (Shame of) Chakrabarti clones calling for the Freedom of Speech of Geert wilders?

Not a chance.

You are evidently happy to lose Free Speech for ALL of us. You can always blame it on Mr Blair, after all.

March 01, 2009 2:22 am  
Blogger Philip said...

Well done. I hope they clapped good and loud.

Word Verification: koust, the delicately flavoured sauce which remains when your once-boiling frog has regained its liberty.

March 01, 2009 5:17 am  
Blogger Rachel said...

Ta Philip.
BlairPm Person, fyi I don't think Wilders should have been banned; the publicity was exactly what he wanted - which was why i didn't write or comment on him - and nor did Liberty.

But I can see why you are drawn to his obnoxious message of bigotry and intolerance, rudeness and troublemaking.


March 01, 2009 9:57 am  
Blogger Martin Budden said...

I'm saddened that you were asked the question: 'Why did we lose the argument on liberty versus security?'. Whoever asked such a question presumably believes that there is a trade-off between liberty and security. I'm also a bit saddened that you elected to answer the question, rather than reject the premise behind the question.

Security and liberty are not opposite ends of a seesaw: you don't have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Obama recognized this in his inaugural speech: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Bruce Schneier argues in a similar vein:
"If you set up the false dichotomy, of course people will choose security over privacy -- especially if you scare them first. But it's still a false dichotomy. There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy".

Benjamin Franklin stated: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Much of our security is in fact derived from our liberty. It's no coincidence that the countries whose citizens are most secure are the same countries that have enshrined their citizens rights. We need to stand up for our liberties not just for idealistic reasons, but also for pragmatic reasons - more liberty means more security.

March 01, 2009 11:01 am  
Blogger Rachel said...

That is a very good point Martin.

I wish I had made it yesterday.

I will make it next week at the Amnesty conference instead, and credit you.

March 01, 2009 12:38 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Rachel, I love the images of hope you had in this speech - especially the boiling frogs jumping out of the saucepan! It can indeed get all too easy to despair, so reminding ourselves of grounds for optimism are a necessary relief and incentive to do more.

Liked the description of Blair as 'smiling salesman' as well!

March 30, 2009 11:46 pm  

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