Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Freedom means nothing without security

The most disquieting aspect of today's insecurity is the diversity of its sources -- from fears about terrorism to global warming and social changes

By Ralf Dahrendorf


I have often wondered why Karl Popper ended the dramatic peroration of the first volume of his Open Society and Its Enemies with the sentence: "We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we have to plan for both security and freedom." Is not freedom enough? Why put security on the same level as that supreme value?

Then one remembers that Popper was writing in the final years of World War II. Looking around the world in 2004, you begin to understand Popper's motive: Freedom always means living with risk, but without security, risk means only threats, not opportunities.

Examples abound. Things in Iraq may not be as bad as the daily news of bomb attacks make events there sound; but it is clear that there will be no lasting progress towards a liberal order in that country without basic security. Afghanistan's story is even more complex, though the same is true there. But who provides security, and how?

In Europe and the West, there is the string of terrorist acts -- from those on the US in 2001 to the pre-election bombings in Madrid -- to think about. London's mayor and police chief have jointly warned that terrorist attacks in the city are "inevitable." Almost every day there are new warnings, with heavily armed policemen in the streets, concrete barriers appearing in front of embassies and public buildings, stricter controls at airports and elsewhere -- each a daily reminder of the insecurity that surrounds us.

Nor is it only bombs that add to life's general uncertainties. Gradually, awareness is setting in that global warming is not just a gloom and doom fantasy. Social changes add to such insecurities. All at once we seem to hear two demographic time-bombs ticking: The continuing population explosion in parts of the third world, and the astonishing rate of aging in the first world. What will this mean for social policy? How will mass migration affect countries' cultural heritage?

There is also a widespread sense of economic insecurity. No sooner is an upturn announced than it falters. At any rate, employment seems to have become decoupled from growth. Millions worry about their jobs -- and thus the quality of their lives -- in addition to fearing for their personal security.

Such examples serve to show that the most disquieting aspect of today's insecurity may well be the diversity of its sources, and that there are no clear explanations and simple solutions. Even a formula like "war on terror" simplifies a more complex phenomenon.

So what should we do? Perhaps we should look at Popper again and remember his advice: To use what reason we have to tackle our insecurities.

In many cases this requires drastic measures, particularly insofar as our physical security is concerned. But while it is hard to deny that such measures are necessary, it is no less necessary to remember the other half of the phrase: "Security and freedom."

Checks on security measures that curtail the freedoms that give our lives dignity are as imperative as protection. Such checks can take many forms. One is to make all such measures temporary by giving these new laws and regulations "sunset clauses" that limit their duration. Security must not become a pretext for the suspending and destroying the liberal order.

A second requirement is that we look ahead more effectively. It is not necessary for us to wait for great catastrophes to occur if we can see them coming. Holland does not have to sink into the North Sea before we do something about the world's climate; pensions do not have to decline to near-zero before social policies are adjusted.

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