Three weeks after Paris attacks, Europe is still in shock. 130 civilians are dead, sending a very clear message not only to French citizens, but to every European: ‘you are not safe at home’. For 70 years, no war has broken out in the EU’s territory and Europeans naturally want to keep this secure and peaceful environment. With this aim, almost all European governments have reinforced security measures, but is this really the way to guarantee security?
It does not seem so. The security measures mean the suppression or limitation of certain civil rights and liberties, weakening the foundations of democracy and easing the path for attempts to destroy it. Although the authorities’ empowerment seems, at first sight, the quickest way to chase terrorists, in fact it encourages anxiety, suspicion, distrust, separation and rejection amid society. And this is precisely the social environment that nourishes radicalisation and insurgence. So these exception measures we allow to be implemented, moved by immediate fear and need of protection, will actually result in more terror in the long run. For these reasons, terrorism cannot be tackled by empowering authorities, but by encouraging the very values terrorists have endangered: liberté, egalité, fraternité.
For the moment, this has not been the reaction of Western countries after the attacks. On the contrary, democratic rights have been weakened. In France, after the declaration of the state of emergency, security services and police were empowered to act without judicial oversight. In case there is a threat to security, authorities can place suspects under house arrest, dissolve groups “troubling public order”, carry out searches without warrants or block websites. The extension of these measures was backed by a vast majority of the National Assembly and the government plans to introduce other measures, such as allowing the French police to carry their weapons permanently, even when off-duty; revoking the citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism; and creating “de-radicalisation centres” for youths. Likewise, the Belgian government has also introduced new security measures, such as imprisoning Belgians who have gone to fight in Syria and returned or tagging anyone deemed to be a threat because of their radicalisation with an electronic bracelet.
Despite this extraordinary restraint of freedoms, it comes as no surprise that 84% of French population is ready to accept more controls and a certain limitation of their liberties in the name of security. How can this be possible? Exception measures come naturally when the nation’s integrity is under threat. They are justified as a way to ensure the constitutional governmental authorities have the means to fulfil their duties within the shortest possible time. In addition, the sacrifice doesn’t seem so unbearable, since the measures are presented as “relative”. They are scheduled and supervised by French law, authorities do not enjoy impunity and at no point they have the right to violate human rights. Presented like this, there is no apparent threat to civil rights and democracy, people only have to cope with an unremarkable restriction of liberties, and terrorists can be captured and a sense of security restored.
However, is this true? Is the democratic process free of risks? No, it’s not. We have already witnessed the exception measures affect citizenship rights. Let’s take the example of the ban of public gatherings: initially intended to avoid large crowds and divert security forces towards priority missions, it has resulted in the baning of the public march for the climate on Sunday 20 November, and the arrest of around 280 environmental activists.
And, is any suppression of liberties, however small it is, acceptable? No, it’s not. The powers given to the police and administrative authorities mean, in this case, “that judicial oversight, the protector of fundamental liberties, is pushed into the background”. These are the words of the Green MP Noël Mamère, who voted against extending the national state of emergency for three months. There is not only a restriction of liberties, but also an offense towards the fundaments of democracy and the separation of powers principle, which have been conceived to guarantee equality and protect all citizens’ rights.
Accordingly, the deprivation of rights brings us, finally, to inequality, the root cause of radicalisation and violence. Keep in mind that the terrorists involved both in the 13N and Charlie Hebdo attacks were born, raised and radicalised in Paris. The suburbs of this city, as well as the Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels, Belgium, have been pointed out as the breeding ground of radicalisation. Exclusion, marginalization, discrimination, low-income, high-unemployment and inequality affect people living in these areas and breed violence and extremism. In light of this situation, reinforcing security measures does not seem the right antidote. Fixing social problems is the only solution.
In 2011, Norway suffered a bombing and a mass shooting, killing 77 people. The country answered to terrorism with more democracy and greater political engagement. They chose openness, tolerance and humanity. Although the circumstances where different, I believe the Norwegian reaction is more effective in terms of guarantying security. Let’s follow their example and reject the anti-immigrant rhetoric. Let’s invest in social measures, in education, in dialogue, in employment. Let’s empower people, and not authorities, in the democratic process and let’s give them a voice in politics. Let’s fight the causes of terrorism, not the terrorists alone. Let’s strengthen civil liberties, and we will strengthen security.