I love the concept of having a police force provided by the taxpayer. It’s supposed to protect our basic rights and liberties when those are threatened by others. Once again, the state would step in and protect us ‘through the thick and thin’, tremendous commitment, isn’t it? All this may be fine… But what if there is a possibility that your privacy may be overridden by the very people who guarantee you protection against such infringement? That’s the pot calling the kettle black you may say, especially in western democracies!
Under the current French anti-terrorist alert scheme (‘plan vigipirate’), any breach of the right of privacy becomes possible. The plan is permanently in force since January 2007 and security measures have been strengthened from August this year onwards. In the aim to reinforce ‘public security’, the District Attorney of Paris has allowed the police to proceed to identity checks and body searches in strategic public areas (e.g. main metro stations). It simply means that whenever you’re asked, policemen are entitled to search on any random people if they feel the need. The fear of terrorist attacks has brought about a threat on our civil liberties.
Let me illustrate this by the following sob story: my friend and I were walking down one of the biggest metro stations in Paris, transferring from a train to another, when three policemen randomly stopped us, asked for our ID cards and searched us. Our first reaction was obviously to get stroppy at them and to wonder loudly where does this come from -they would then show you a piece of paper stating in which circumstances they are entitled to do so. With hindsight, this was probably wrong as they got nervous, especially when I joked I was carrying a knife. Jest aside, I sure did not know that walking down in a station was an outlawry behavior. We nonetheless stupidly abide by the law.
The story shows how self-contradictory protection provided by a government is. On the one hand, the government has the duty to ensured its citizens from not being harmed by others (being citizens or not). On the other hand, it imposes an obligation on its citizens that, in some circumstances (in our case, it lasts since January 2007, remember), it would allow the state to breach the law which is protecting us from such abuses. This defeats the purpose of being protected by it. How can then the government be legitimate? Whether the threat of terrorist attacks being substantial or not, I am in my very own right to not showing my ID and to refuse of being searched. Fear should not be a justification for tyranny.
Back in the 19th century, Herbert Spencer argued that governments are essentially immoral, for endogenously breaching the basic principle of ‘equal freedom’. Governments existence is only based upon the fact that it maintains power by subjugating evil by the use of violence, which is wielded to fight against criminality. In our case above, the law of ‘equal freedom’ has been breached by the state. And as Spencer wrote in ‘Social Statics’: “But if great violations of it (law of ‘equal freedom’) are wrong, so also are smaller ones. (…). So that, however insignificant the minority, and however trifling the proposed trespass against their rights, no such trespass is permissible.” In the same chapter, Spencer legitimized and pleaded for the right of individuals “to ignore the state”. I would suggest here to have a smarter reaction that I had, and refuse to comply with the law. Worse case scenario, you’d go to the police station for couple of hours. At least, you’d get to know what you pay for…
But more importantly, the question is, how much freedom would you give up to feel secure, protected? Would you allow the state to trespass your privacy any time it sees fit? I made my choice and I’m not ready to accept such measures. To paraphrase Ryan Stiles, The Drew Carey Show, ‘If the love of liberty is a crime, arrest me’!
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.