Today’s Democracies with Respect to Individual Liberties 

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Surveillance

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Today, democracy is associated with terms such as human rights, respect, safety, and freedom of many sort. Let’s put aside the profound knowledge that the political scientists have and focus on the simple features of democracy. My aim is not to use a minimalist definition of democracy, but to operationalize the concept of democracy to an extent that a person not interested in political designs could easily make sense of what this article talks about. Even if one does not know much about the politics, the very first thing that comes to mind is that democracy means individual liberty. It is famous with the liberties it grants to the citizens. Apart from competitive elections, democracy stems form the idea that the people should exert control on the decisions taken by the government. After all, why would an ordinary citizen insist on the democracy as a preference?

9/11 was a turning point for the national security in all countries that faced the threat of terrorism. It is the only and last time that U.S has been attacked on its own soil. This is a really big issue in the history. This catastrophe tremendously changed both the domestic and the international American politics. We are in a new era, where non-state actors entered the international arena, and started to pose a big threat to many countries. Therefore, it obliged extra security measures to prevent such an attack from happening again.

Apart from the States, in the last two years, Europe, including Turkey, has suffered a lot from terrorism as well. In November 2015, following the terrorist attacks, France declared state of emergency—still not lifted.  In the name of security of its citizens, France limited some individual freedoms granted by the constitution such as manifestation and so forth. A curious coincidence, despite a strong opposition by the population, “socialist” French government tried to pass a law to liberalize its economy during the state of emergency, and could finally implement it. The cradle of democracy did not listen to its citizens. What can we conclude from this manipulation? In the name of security of its citizens, despite the citizens… Let’s stay optimistic and say “Bad example is not an example at all”.

There are many critics concerning the reactions of people to the terrorist attacks : when it happens in the West, we condemn it; when it happens out of the West, we do not show the same solidarity. Well, this is true to a certain point. The reason why people are shaken this much when it happens in the West is not because of the hypocrisy as it is put forward by many. The modern state is a western phenomenon, and according to it, one of the sine qua non conditions of the modern state is that the use of physical constraint is monopolized in the hand of the state. Any violence exercised by other unrecognized actors is considered to be illegitimate. This is well recognized in the West. We do not witness the presence of non-state actors in the West. Hence, we do not have any doubts whether the state is capable of protecting its citizens or not. On the other hand, this monopoly of physical constraint seems not to be exclusive when it comes to the states in Middle East, as we see many armed groups (non-state actors) rebelling against the « legitimate » monopoly of the violence. These states do not prove themselves to be the only actors within the defined territory as much as the Western states do. Consequently, it is obvious why people get frustrated when such attacks happen in Western states, where the monopoly of violence is merely exclusive to the states. In other words, when it happens in a capable and strong state, people feel desperate because if it can happen in such a state, then nobody is safe faced with terrorism.

The United States of America: Are the individual liberties at risk in the democratic heart of the world?

With the revelations of Edward Snowden—a former CIA employee— we learnt that NSA was unconstitutionally spying over its citizens in the name of national security. This evidently started with the presidential order of President Bush in 2002 that allowed NSA to spy both internal and external call phones, e-mails and messages. According to the revealed documents, even Angela Merkel is said to be tapped.

However, the privacy of the American citizens were well protected by the constitution,which indicated clearly that Americans’ privacy may not be invaded without a warrant based on probable cause. Well, apparently the president, as the head of the executive, is there to make sure that what is going on is constitutional, and he is not exempt from this law of order thanks to the strict separation of powers granted by a consolidated democracy. However, contrary to the concept of democracy, mister Bush thought that he had the power to call on this spying program without the consent of its people.

What’s more scary is that, according to Snowden revelations, Obama administration expanded warrantless surveillance of its citizens’ internet searches etc (Berenson 2015).

Most of the people are okay with this under Obama administration as he seems trustworthy, but what happens if a populist president like Donald Trump takes the Oval? He has already mentioned to expand the surveillance program. What if he looks up to Erdogan, takes a turn to authoritarianism, and uses this power to eliminate the opposition ?

What happened to Edward Snowden? Russia granted him asylum. The U.S.A charged him with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property. President elect Donald Trump considers him a traitor and he already implied executing him.

Edward Snowden explains why he leaked the documents by saying : « My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them »

George Orwell once wrote “In a time of deceit, telling truth is a revolutionary act.”

The point is : Leaking confidential governmental documents is absolutely a crime. However, the action that the most democratic government spying illegally on its own citizens is also a crime.

The United Kingdom : One of the oldest democracies and its extreme surveillance program

On November 29, the parliament passed the Investigatory Power Act that grants the intelligence agencies and governmental institutions the strongest surveillance power that no other western democracies have.

Let’s look at what powers this bill gives the authorities: Basically one has no privacy.

Collecting and having at disposal individual’s personal information, which includes hacking computers and mobile phones and accessing to everything one has on them (MacAskill 2016). Access to internet history means accessing to everything one looks at, reads etc.  What’s more, it can now be done without a court order or warrant. This reminds us of the idea that one could really be watched via computer’s or phone’s camera. Result: George Orwell had reason when he wrote “Big Brother is watching you”.

One’s data is constantly collected, even if he or she is not considered a threat to the national security. It brings to mind the concept of human nature that we have with Thomas Hobbes : Men can be dangerous if there is not a central authority. With the extreme surveillance, we see this pessimistic view of human nature according to which men are considered dangerous even if they have not proved it yet. To put it simple, it is not different from saying “You are not dangerous now, but you can be in future. We do not trust you; therefore, we collect all the data on you just in case”

This becomes really surprising when it is one of the oldest democracies in the world that passes this law. The term democracy becomes very questionable, as the law gives the government extreme authority of violating the personal life of its citizens. Well, this looks like the bill goes better with the term authoritarianism than the democracy. It is the beginning of the era of imposing fear to the citizens. When one knows being watched, he or she conforms to it. One becomes afraid of even reading the opposing articles that the government does not like or considers dangerous for its well-being. Auto-censure is worse then the censure imposed by the government. Well, where is democracy in that?

 

References

Berenson Tessa, 2015, “New Snowden Documents Reveal Obama Administration Expanded NSA Spying” www.time.com Visited 3 December 2016 online http://time.com/3909293/edward-snowden-obama-nsa-spying/

MacAskill Ewan , 2016 “Extreme surveillance becomes UK law with barely a whimper” The Guardian Visited 4 December 2016 online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/19/extreme-surveillance-becomes-uk-law-with-barely-a-whimper