Tensions of Terrorism

By Norman, Jesse | The World Today, August/September 2005 | Go to article overview

Tensions of Terrorism


Norman, Jesse, The World Today


As the London bombings in July have cruelly reminded us, global terrorism sets or exacerbates a number of political dilemmas for any democratic state. How should government act to ensure public awareness of terrorism, while denying terrorists the publicity they seek? What line should be drawn between freedom of information and preservation of necessary state secrets? To what extent if any should legal rights be abridged in the name of national security?

THESE GENUINE DILEMMAS REVEAL choices with costs and benefits; and, as a rule, all spring from incommensurable values. There is no common metric, no single ruler or measuring rod, on which the values of civil liberty and national security can be directly compared.

The security-conscious may declare that, without security, there would be no civil liberties to enjoy; to which the libertarian may respond that civil liberties embody, and perhaps are, precisely the values we, as a democracy, seek to defend.

The lack of comparability does not, of course, mean rational deliberation on these questions is impossible. But it does leave us casting around for a more general picture so as to understand better the changing nature of the state, and the changing relationship(s) between state and individual. And we can find such a picture by returning to a rather neglected distinction between two rival conceptions of the state, a distinction first fully articulated by the philosopher, Michael Oakeshott.

The first conception might be called the civil state. This sees the state as an association of citizens; that is, of individuals who are formally equal in their rights before the law. They are united, not in any common purpose or plan, but in their recognition of a system of rules, and of a single civil authority behind it.

We can compare this to the state conceived as an enterprise in and of itself - not merely as capitalist, or business-friendly, but a project in its own right. In this case, individuals are not viewed as citizens. Rather, they are seen as contributors to a common undertaking, who come together to promote a recognised set of substantive goals - such as national prosperity, productivity, or cultural or religious unity. Some may do better, some worse.

Each state will have rules governing its activities, but the nature of the rules is radically different in each case. In a civil state, the rules will tend to be procedural, universal and categorical.

The function of government is, on this view, not to do anything as such, it is just to govern. It has no goals or projects of its own, over and above those required to govern. Rather, it exists to devise, promulgate and enforce laws by which the people may go about their business; and these laws will themselves be enabling and non-instrumental rather than oriented towards specific social or political ends.

Ambitious Government

In an enterprise state, government exists to achieve certain social or political objectives - it is, as it were, ambitious. It can never be content merely to govern. So the rules in such a state will tend to be more purpose-led, managerial, specific and instrumental in character.

Government in an enterprise state can never rest easy, for nothing is ever as good as it could be, and so there will always appear to be scope for government action to improve it. If poverty, or economic underperformance, or crime exists, it is a short step for government to be allotted the task of improving the situation.

These two conceptions are idealised. Neither is, nor could ever be, exemplified in its pure form. And they are distinct: one is organised under the category of procedure, the other under purpose. As such, they are formally exclusive of each other. They are rivals, struggling over the soul of a given state, forever pulling it in the directions of ambition or restraint as each gains and loses the upper hand, in an essential tension.

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