New Zealand and the West's dangerous dance with civil liberties

The willingness to respect the freedoms of violent extremists has cost lives

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster during a news conference in Wellington earlier in the week. Getty Images
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The stabbing attack in a West Auckland supermarket last Friday jolted New Zealanders, and understandably so – it was the first ISIS-inspired terror incident to take place in their country. But more shocking still is the fact that the perpetrator, Ahamed Samsudeen, was well known to the highest authorities. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been briefed about him, and her government had been trying to deport the Sri Lankan national for years.

They knew that he wanted to commit an act of terrorism. He had been under 24-hour surveillance for nearly two months by 30 police officers. And yet, legally Samsudeen was free to wander and plot as he pleased, until the moment he struck, wounding six, of whom three are in a critical condition. “Agencies used every tool available to protect innocent people from this individual,” Ms Ardern said. “Every legal avenue was tried.”

To be fair to Ms Arden, she is moving swiftly to close this hole in the law by criminalising planning such an attack, but there have been too many cases in western countries of people who are on the security services’ radar being left at liberty, until they try to end the lives and liberties of others. In Britain, they knew all about Sudesh Amman, who stabbed two people in south London in February 2020; he had previously been jailed for possessing and disseminating terrorist material and pledged allegiance to ISIS while in prison. Two days before his attack, arresting him was considered, but rejected – because “no offences were identified”. Three men linked to the 2015 Paris attack on the Bataclan theatre, in which 90 people died, were on a Belgian terror list.

The aftermath of the shooting outside the Bataclan theatre in Paris in 2015. AP Photo

This situation is so widespread that in 2018, Dr Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University, wrote that he and his colleagues had “looked at 76 [extremist] attacks in Western Europe and North America in recent years. We found that more than half [of them] involved perpetrators who had been on a security service watch list". Dr Vidino pointed to the near-impossibility of monitoring the thousands of people who are known extremists, even with clear murderous intent, but seemed to wring his hands, concluding: “There are limits to how much a democracy can do to fight terrorism.”

With all due respect to Dr Vidino, oh no there aren’t. It is all a matter of political will and what a society wishes to prioritise. From the perspective of a country such as Malaysia, where I live, the willingness of western countries to respect the freedoms of those who would violently deny others theirs seems like a form of madness. Here we have the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which became law in 2015 under the then prime minister, Najib Razak.

Some criticised its provisions, which allow for detention of suspects for up to 60 days while investigations are carried out. But Najib was resolute, telling a conference that year: “It is right to talk about striking a balance between civil liberties and national security. But let me tell you this: there are no civil liberties under [ISIS], and they are no shield against those who are set on committing acts of terrorism. The best way to uphold civil liberties is to ensure the safety of the nation. I make no apology for taking every step to preserve that safety. We will not wait for an outrage to take place before putting all measures necessary in place.”

People walk outside a corner restaurant serving Lebanese and Turkish cuisine in the Arab Street district of Singapore in July. AFP

Preventative laws have proved crucial in many countries. In neighbouring Singapore, they enabled the arrest of a 16 year old who planned to kill Muslims in two mosques and livestream his attacks earlier this year. Preventative strikes by special units in Indonesia have gathered up hundreds of militants, and in all three countries – all democracies, by the way – such moves have stopped many deadly attacks.

It is true that such laws could potentially be misused; but ensuring oversight and that checks and balances are in place should keep their scope clearly demarcated. What this division in approach shows, though, is that the concept of the individual’s liberty appears to have been fetishised to a ridiculous degree in many western countries.

You aspire to the liberty of living in a city that is not defined by its most disorderly elements
Tharman Shanmugaratnam

The Singaporean intellectual Kishore Mahbubani once noted that when visiting the central districts of New York, Washington and Los Angeles, “if you ventured out at night and strayed a few hundred yards off course, you would be putting your life in jeopardy". He concluded: “Danger from habitual crime is considered an acceptable price to pay for no reduction in liberty.” In Singapore, by contrast, he said “you could wander out at night in any direction” since habitual offenders were locked up, “often for long spells … the interests of the majority in having safe city streets is put ahead”.

It is a good point, elaborated on by the city-state’s then deputy prime minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in 2015. Pointing out that there are many kinds of liberties, he said: “You do aspire to a liberty of being able to walk the streets freely, particularly if you’re a woman or a child, at any time of the night; you aspire to the liberty of living in a city that is not defined by its most disorderly elements.”

He could have added that we all aspire to the liberty of being free from the future actions of extremists in our midst, even if they have not yet technically committed an offence. The rule of law is paramount, yes; but the law is an ass if it allows the likes of Samsudeen the same freedoms as those exercised by responsible members of the community.

Otherwise, the great cry of the American revolutionary Patrick Henry – “Give me liberty, or give me death!” – can translate into the liberty of misguided or evil individuals to inflict death on others. And that, for the victims of terror, would be a grotesque consequence of the idea that “freedom” must come above all else.

Published: September 08, 2021, 9:00 AM