How do you choose between probable death and civil liberties?

Suppose there are four individuals and one of them is a terrorist. Let it make it a bit more complicated. One of them, you think, is a terrorist. What do you do as a police officer? Do you let all the four go because you are not sure and you wouldn’t like to infringe upon the civil liberties of the remaining three or would you arrest all of them to make sure the terrorist does not escape taking advantage of the civil liberties enjoyed by the remaining three? What is more important to you? Protecting the civil liberties of the remaining three or getting the terrorist?

These are the sort of questions directly and indirectly being raised by this New York Times article:

After the Paris attacks, a state of emergency has been imposed which means the police can break into people’s homes, take them into custody and interrogate them and in most of the cases, without warrants. People who are not at the receiving end don’t mind the sort of excesses by the law enforcement agencies. But there are many who are asking, what about civil liberties? And such questions are raised in every civilised society. “Are we ready to give up our civil liberties in the name of avoiding terrorist attacks?” many intellectuals and public figures often ask this.

Whether you want to give up your civil liberties in the name of avoiding terrorist attacks or not, depends on which side of the debate you stand and how objective and sincere your analysis of the situation is. It also depends on whether you are at the receiving end of the anti-terror measures being taken by the State or not.

Fear and panic are natural after a terrorist attack. People in the government are also humans. They want to be seen taking appropriate steps to instill some sense of confidence among the people. Terrorists attacking your own people in the heart of your own city can be a big psychological blow. They want to show that yes, searches are being carried out, people are being arrested and interrogated and sleeper cells are being dismantled.

Many ask that what’s the use of raiding your own citizens and trampling their civil liberties when the problem lies outside of your country? The problem also lies, they say, in the manner communities that harbour terrorists are treated by indigenous societies and governments. You don’t take care of your foreign policy and then after a single terrorist attack, you get an excuse to raid people’s houses, arrest them, violate human rights and impose a state of emergency on your own people.

These are valid arguments actually. Governments often do use these excuses to quash civil liberties and take undue advantage of the situation for the benefit of a few. There are many acts of government that are committed in the garb of fighting terrorism that can be questioned and there is nothing wrong in questioning dubious tactics and yes, many of these tactics can be counter-productive and encourage more people to jump the fence and get radicalised. As a Sikh I fully understand how it feels to be at the receiving end of a community being targeted for the act of a few. But sometimes answers are not as easy and simple as they seem.

Remember that terrorist attacks are not possible without local networks. Whether it’s ISIS, Al Qaeda or even India’s neighbour the ISI, they cannot carry out massive terrorist attacks without local support. So in order to neutralise prospective attacks, the first thing the law enforcement agencies want to do is, destroy the local support system as much as possible. A big problem with local support is that it doesn’t manifest in the form of terrorist camps. It is difficult to know if your innocent-looking neighbour who often has a friendly chat with you every morning acts as liaison between different local terror operatives, providing them logistic support, finance and data. The problem is, you never know.

So in such a situation, are you ready to take chance? What if you don’t want your neighbour to be interrogated and then the next week, with the help of your neighbour, a bomb is detonated inside the local mall and one of your family members or one of your friends gets killed or gets mutilated or what if your entire family is killed? Will you be bothered much about the civil liberties of your neighbour then?

I perfectly understand that this is a difficult situation and your answer may depend on which side of the fence you’re sitting. There are no clear answers but there is one thing I’m sure of. I would rather that my family and I live to see the next day than worry about abstract civil liberties being violated. Even if as an individual I would rather die than get my civil liberties being violated, how can I make such a decision for my child who isn’t even aware of my decision and then one day has to bear the brunt of my decision? This is a very difficult choice.

I don’t care much about being politically correct. Things are just right or wrong and yes, sometimes there are grey areas in this is why we write, don’t we?

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