Review: Liberty in the Age of Terror

Grayling, A.C. (2009). Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defense of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values. London: Bloomsbury

In his 2009 book, Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defense of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values, British philosopher AC Grayling sets out to do just what the subtitle suggests. He presents a case for civil libertarianism in a post-September 11th world, at a time when the political establishments in both his home country and the US were pushing for increased surveillance of the population.

In many ways this book feels quaint due to its coming out prior to the vast majority of Barack Obama’s presidency and the following backlash now characterized by Donald Trump’s presidency. It was written prior to Edward Snowden’s leaks, which revealed the extent to which the US government and its allies were engaged in bulk data collection of civilians. It also predates Benghazi, ISIS, and the Syrian refugee crisis. Additionally, when this book was written, today’s culture war flash-points — rhetoric about “fake news,” alt-rightism, and the related panics about safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses — were scarcely in their infancy.

Liberty in the Age of Terror is the product of a time when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney still loomed large in the collective consciousness. Public opinion had only recently turned against the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wave of fear-driven patriotism that flourished following the events of September 11th had diminished as it became apparent the resulting wars were becoming costly quagmires with no end in sight.

The backlash against U.S.-led wars created an environment friendly to criticism of militarism, and led many mainstream commentators to question the value of mass surveillance. Critical analysis of the surveillance state was now marketable to mainstream audiences, including criticism of the signature post-9/11 legislation: the USA PATRIOT Act. This act authorized indefinite detention of immigrants, and permitted the FBI to search a person’s telephone, email, and financial records without a court order. Similarly, it expanded the power of law enforcement to search private property without the owner’s consent or knowledge.

The Patriot Act has since been replaced with the US Freedom Act, and while much of the names and details have changed in the years since, mass surveillance is still pervasive. Liberty in the Age of Terror reminds us how we got here, though enough has changed to leave the book feeling inadequate for addressing Trump-era discourse concerning such threats as border walls and travel bans.

Part of the problem is that this book is a surprisingly light and easy read. Readers looking for an advanced treatise on civil liberties will not find that here, as this is largely an entry level book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself, as introducing civil liberties discourse in an accessible way is a laudable goal, but it leaves more well-versed readers wanting something more.

One gets the impression that Grayling’s purpose was to write a book that would do the much-needed job of convincing burgeoning surveillance statists, with only minimal knowledge of the civil liberties discourse, to reconsider their position. To that extent Grayling succeeds, he definitely makes the case that civil liberties are important, though I have to question his ability to change the minds of anyone who does not already have a pro-civil liberties bias.

While Grayling is able to write eloquently and with a great deal of passion for the topic of civil liberties, he is no libertarian. To his credit he is quite up front about this early in the book. However, he falls into the trap of mischaracterizing libertarians as licentious right-wingers, whose goal is to pursue their own ends without consideration of anyone else. He also characterizes libertarianism as “not especially friendly to ideas of rights,” claiming libertarians see rights as obstructions to their true aims.

In reality, libertarians tend to be deeply committed to the rights we see as legitimate, but question some conceptions of rights put forward by others. Grayling’s analysis also overlooks the existence the libertarian left, as well as anyone who favors libertarian conceptions of rights, not out of self-interest, but out of the belief that such a system would maximize the well-being of those who live under it. While Graying is wrong on this point, his wrongness here does not actually undermine the correct points he makes in the vast majority of the book.

Grayling identifies himself as being part of the “Liberal Left” in the European sense, which he associates with a commitment to social justice. Again this reflects the datedness of this book, as “social justice” had yet to become the snarl word among the right that it is today.

The author is also very much a globalist in the sense that he is highly supportive of international institutions. He devotes a chapter in the later half of this book to arguments in favor of the International Criminal Court, and includes as an appendix a copy of United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His trust in such super-states comes off as problematic, since the primary focus of his critique is the overly-concentrated power of the constituent states of these institutions. Furthermore these portions of the book, seem to exist for their own sake, and do not compliment the main thesis as much as Grayling seems to believe.

Grayling alternates between the threats to personal freedom posed by a United States government and a British government that has become increasingly intrusive. He blames the tough-on-crime posturing of the 1990s for the ultimate development of a CCTV system that has public spaces throughout the United Kingdom under constant surveillance. He discusses the Orwellian prospect of the CCTV cameras being augmented with microphones, essentially ending the existence of private conversations. He notes that politicians attempting to out-do each other on toughness towards crime are an ongoing threat to civil liberties. By extension, Grayling rightly rejects the line of reasoning that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, as it wrongly assumes that the authorities are benevolent and likely to remain so.

Grayling argues that states can easily tend toward abusive behavior if their power is not kept in check by the people, and he considers a right to privacy essential for a free society.  He expresses opposition to a parliamentary act which would require subjects of the United Kingdom to carry biometric ID cards — IDs that can allow any law enforcement officer to access one’s personal information. This legislation was passed but subsequently repealed in 2010.

As the book progresses, Grayling spends more time exploring some of the complexities of freedom. For example: the requirement that a free society must at least legally tolerate the free expression of those wishing to abolish its freedom. In the case of Muslim immigrants to the UK and elsewhere, he considers any threats such immigrant populations pose to be outweighed by the threats to liberty associated with trying to stop them. He notes that censorship of offensive speech, or imposing limitations on speech to promote social cohesion, are not acceptable actions when done by governments, and furthermore that self-censorship for these purposes can be comparably problematic to government censorship.

The book is structured with the basic arguments presented in the first 150 pages. These chapters make for a good introduction to discourse on civil liberties. In the following section he responds to counter-arguments put forward by series of specific adversaries. He covers each of these in a matter of a few pages each.

Common themes in this second section portion of the book include the tensions associated with pluralism, the relationship between civil libertarianism and secularism, and freedom vs. rigid traditionalism. Among the individuals addressed are British conservative Roger Scruton, the anti-managerialist John Ralston Saul, and the left-wing philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

Of these adversaries, Zizek has arguably risen to the greatest level of viability since the book’s release. Grayling presents Zizek as arguing that the supposed rights granted in capitalist societies largely mask the underlying exploitation such societies are built upon. Grayling on the other hand sees the rights granted in the capitalist west as hard-won, if not perfect.

As noted above, this book deals with some fairly complex ideas, but does so at a level appropriate for readers unfamiliar with the subject. The topics presented are not discussed much deeper than an introductory level. The writing is eloquent, and the book reads easily. Its biggest short-coming is that it is now a bit dated, but it is adequate for someone wanting a quick brush-up on civil libertarian discourse in the years following the second Bush presidency.

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