Since the terrorist attack in 2001 on Manhattan’s iconic twin towers, the world has been at a relentless war against terror, led by the United States. This has been a war that has been adopted by democratic and authoritarian states alike. In both cases, there has been a steady erosion of the rights of citizens, communities and other social groups, while the coercive powers of the state have multiplied. This has been justified with the argument that it will not be possible to safeguard the people’s right to life and property unless the state has additional capabilities and expanded authority to intervene in the lives of its citizens.
There is little doubt that international terrorism and its violent predilections require an effective response, and that the state needs to be empowered to deal with this menacing challenge, which has now assumed global dimensions. However, the empowerment of the state in a democratic society cannot be allowed to subvert the very nature of a democratic state and the respect for the rights of individuals and social groups.
The nature of any state is inherently predatory. In a democracy, its predatory instincts are kept in check by constitutional and legal safeguards and, above all, by an alert and vigilant civil society.
The “war on terror” has weakened both categories of checks on the state. This has happened through the cynical exploitation of fear among citizens of terrorist violence. They have acquiesced in the adoption of laws that enhance the powers of the state vis-a-vis the people. The people, in most cases, have become complicit in the limitation of their own rights and freedoms in the mistaken belief that this is necessary to ensure their own security. In other cases, the state and its political leadership have used the label of terrorism to conveniently abdicate responsibility to deal with widespread ethnic, tribal, and social and economic grievances through democratic political processes, thereby exacerbating already severe social and even regional fragmentation.
We see this clearly in the manner in which the Indian state has sometimes handled insurgencies or violence born out of desperation and deprivation among some of our communities. Those who protest against such depredations of the state are condemned as being accomplices of such “terrorists” and civil society is often rendered mute.
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated by the Snowden affair, which brought to light the global surveillance infrastructure, named Prism, which the U.S. has put into place. Its intrusiveness into the lives of ordinary citizens of that country, and of virtually all other countries of the world, is truly breathtaking. This has been justified, of course, by the need to keep the homeland safe from terrorism. It is claimed that there are legal safeguards for protecting the rights of U.S. citizens (but not of non-U.S. citizens), but these safeguards are secret. The very essence of democratic jurisprudence is for the affected party to have a hearing of his side of the case. Here, only the state needs to make its case.
The U.S. case shocks because of its pervasiveness. But many other states, which profess democracy, follow the same example, limited only by resources and technological capability, rarely by intent. The point is this: If you hand over instruments of immense power to a state, it is likely to use them against citizens at home and against other competing states, precisely because the constraints against the exercise of power have diminished.
The big worry is that the American example may become a template for our own Indian state.
The unprecedented, powerful, and globally comprehensive surveillance infrastructure that the U.S. has established will only grow in strength, given that country’s technological lead. Cyber space, in its entirety, which is the target of such surveillance, is dominated by U.S.-based corporations, by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter. These are internet-based, which in turn is governed by a supposedly neutral non-governmental institution known as the ICANN or Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This operates under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Therefore, it is only nominally stakeholder-based. In reality, it is under the authority of the U.S. government. The U.S. has long resisted legitimate demands on the part of other states to have a say in internet governance, on grounds that this will restrict freedom of expression and content on the internet. The disclosures made by Snowden make clear that such claims are specious. All the service providers are compelled by law – which remains confidential – to give the U.S. government agencies unlimited access to data passing through their systems. This includes data relating to foreign governments, entities and citizens. Any state possessed of such power is unlikely to be able to resist the temptation to exploit it, if national interests, however defined, are believed to be under threat. This puts other nations at grave risk.
If information is power, this is power with a vengeance in our cyber age.
The internet has also been a powerful instrument for empowering the individual and in bringing together peoples within countries and across borders. In one sense, it has enhanced individual freedoms, unleashed individual creativity, and given voice to those who would otherwise have been forced to remain mute. This has put constraints on the abuse of power by the state, mobilising the power of public opinion to discipline the state. It is visible most clearly in authoritarian states like China.
What this tells us is that, like most technological achievements, the internet and cyber space in general, can be put to positive use – but also spawn negative consequences. The war on terror threatens to undermine the positives and enhance the negatives. This is particularly so when the state uses instruments such as email postings and Twitter feeds on a bulk scale, to create its preferred “public opinion.” This is a common practice in China. It could become an accepted means of shaping or managing public perceptions in democratic societies as well.
The war on terror has coincided, more or less, with the global financial and economic crisis, which is still ongoing. The crisis in capitalism and economic depression is often contrasted with the rapid GDP growth and apparent economic health on display in China, an authoritarian state, which has embraced market principles. When the Cold War ended, the West, led by the U.S., declared victory in the ideological war between democracy and communism, and between the logic of free markets and command economies.
In fact, a further equivalence was sought to be established between democracy and free markets, between development and free markets; it was held that the adoption of free-market principles would inevitably lead to political democracy. It was on this basis that it was argued that in helping China to grow as an economy increasingly based on free-market principles, western nations were nudging China towards becoming a democracy like their own.
The global financial and economic crisis has become a political and ideological crisis precisely because of the breakdown of the post-Cold War equivalence referred to above. If free markets had failed and generated an unprecedented crisis, then its political equivalent, democracy, must also be suspect. If China has continued to flourish economically without a change in its authoritarian character, then perhaps it has found an answer that merits reflection. In developing countries, in particular, the lure of the Beijing Consensus as contrasted with the now discredited Washington Consensus, is increasing. However, even in developed economies, the role of the State in the economic life of its citizens and in the affairs of its corporates, is at an unprecedented level precisely because state intervention was indispensable to dealing with the crisis.
In a strange confluence therefore, the war on terror and the global financial and economic crisis, have together tilted the balance of authority heavily on the side of the state, which the liberating and organising forces of cyber space have only partially counteracted.
If George Orwell were alive, he may not have been surprised at this seeming convergence between democratic societies and authoritarian states. In both his prescient novels, Animal Farm and 1984, he envisaged precisely the kind of convergence which seems to be the trend in our world today.
Can we prevent this, so that the forces of empowerment and liberalisation that our modern world offers, can prevail over the forces of incipient oppression?
The answer may lie in the ordinary citizen and his refusal to surrender more of his precious freedoms to fear. There has to be a citizenry that is fiercely protective of its hard-won fundamental rights and the right of every human being to respect and dignity. The greatest danger lies in our becoming complicit in our own enslavement because of fear. I think it was Huxley who said that what is worse than a society where books are not allowed, is a society where people themselves no longer want to read books. That would be the ultimate historical and human tragedy.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, National Security Advisory Board; Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS).
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