Tuesday, 17 May 2011 02:30
By Dr. Isaac Newton
The overwhelming rise in criminal activity is making us afraid of our own shadows. There is so much suffering, sadness, loss of life, and sheer brutality, that we must redouble our commitment to address their root causes.
How, then, do governments all over the world tackle a more sophisticated criminal mind, especially in an age of terrorism and high-tech crimes?
Minister of National Security Dr Errol Cort recently gave his blessings to wiretapping after Deputy Police Commissioner Neal Parker suggested that this technology is necessary to fight crime in the Caribbean. Two weekends ago, Antigua hosted the regional police commissioners' conference under the theme: "Harnessing Technology for the Advancement of Law Enforcement.” Dr Cort is considering legislation to help law enforcement implement wiretapping.
I do not believe that the introduction of wiretapping eavesdropping will increase national security or lead to peace and security in Antigua & Barbuda. Most fundamentally, wiretapping should not be the prerogative of the state. Politicians’ tendencies for subtle gamesmanship and power-hoarding have caused too many wrongdoings, all committed in the name of national security.
Until our cultural norm of political immaturity evolves into an objective mindscape of what’s good for all of us, and until we begin to take seriously the kind of education necessary for critical consciousness, debating the whys of wiretapping does not reveal the real motive of the government or its capacity to violate the rights of the people, even with legal safeguards.
Wiretapping by itself cannot melt our tough questions: Should we give up some of our freedom to be safer at home? Under what conditions would the quest for safety turn into a war for our civil liberties? Are there limits to freedom and safety within our democracy?
How do we encourage integrity and more transparency in leadership?
Like so many in the Caribbean region, Antiguans & Barbudans are deeply suspicious of that carbon copy, imported method of surveillance governance, which could be used unjustifiably to intrude. On the superiority of things foreign, too many of us go out on a limb while climbing up the wrong tree. But there aren’t any exceptional safety circumstances that warrant the troubling of our rights with curbing crimes. And the bonus of our small size, where criminals can drive from one end of the country to the next in 30 minutes, makes the case for wiretapping superbly ineffective.
Yet, from the perspectives of different political orientations, most of us don’t really believe that listening to John Doe’s and Denise Den’s telephone conversations would reduce our statistics on murder rate, property crimes, organised drug trafficking, opportunistic crimes, money-laundering, and the prevalence of corruption and illicit behaviours in high places.
That does not mean that we don’t care to protect the freedom we value. Most of us want to support law enforcement in finding and punishing criminals. But we have little confidence in the politics of interference that often prevents the police from effectively deterring crimes, disrupting crimes in progress, responding to violent crimes on time, and locking up dishonest government officials.
In the tradeoff between freedom and safety, can we honestly trust our politicians to protect the freedom we enjoy, and bring them into harmony with our demands for safety? Perhaps we may have to settle this debate with the recognition that our quest to be safer is so fundamentally at war with our values to remain free, that compromising one for the other will jeopardize both. Whereas our freedom guarantees our safety, it does not follow that our safety protects our freedom.
In this light, one of the functions of government is to ensure that a free people live within a safe country. Usually, governments that are able to achieve this balance operate in societies with long traditions of checks and balances, and with social values that reflect reasonable, not perfect, political maturity and objectivity toward their people in the exercise of authority.
I grant that the United Progressive Party government needs to find proper tools to penetrate the criminal mind in Antigua & Barbuda. But I do not think that wire-tapping is the bridge we must crossover to get to the summit of security. Moreover, let’s keep in mind the highly problematic issue of moral guidance hidden in this project.
Our demonstrated political immaturity dispenses state-owned resources in partial ways. This social malaise will tempt officials to eavesdrop for political gains. Not only is wiretapping less likely to purge society from the surge of crimes, it also has the potential to incrementally decrease our freedom.
Once we give the government the right to wiretap our phones, it will demand access to our social network communications, search our bags, and read our email and text messages. Some have argued that even if we happily agree to downsize our civil liberties, there is no way to know that the government will not violate the safeguards built into wiretapping laws.
No amount of goodwill conversations with the public could determine which parts of our politicians’ jobs appeal more to them an obsession with power or a commitment to our rights to privacy. Worst still, most Antiguans and Barbudans have not yet found the collective resolve to resist political abuse of power.
To press the matter home so that I don’t ignore the undercurrents of conspiracy theory; which politician in government can you trust to follow the rules of wire-tapping surveillance without violating your rights? Remember that most politicians support the public good as long as they are in opposition.
We don’t know when wiretapping eavesdropping is really geared at national security or at legitimate political resistance. But the government could always find smart ways to justify political harassment, and such behaviours could very well appear as coincidences in a number of cases.
Regardless of the righteous outrage we feel against terrorism, Antigua & Barbuda is not under any immediate terrorist threat. Reduced liberties may lead to the worst brand of terrorism we can imagine, and screaming patriotism will do nothing to identify cases of extraordinary exceptionalism that justifies wiretapping.
Further, as much as we believe that the government must promote order and equality, Antigua & Barbuda is too small (less than 200 square miles) for criminals to be deterred by telephone eavesdropping. Criminals can easily choose face-to-face communication to overcome long distance. Let’s ask ourselves, what if the government has reliable intelligence that a particular citizen is planning a crime against the state, while at the same time, opposition parties are planning a protest march against the government.
Consider what would prevent our politicians from eavesdropping on the criminal while leaving the politicians alone. Let’s make the case even more interesting: Do opposition politicians have a reasonable expectation of privacy for organised protest? Would opposition politicians conveniently become the bad guys when the government’s power is threatened?
The bottom line is that we can’t know how the government will implement wiretapping eavesdropping. We can infer based on experience of broken promises that the government may circumvent wiretapping laws to hide embarrassment, manipulate opponents, and maintain power. In most cases, we trust law enforcement; it is the political immature attitudes of most politicians that we don't trust.
Wiretapping is an encroachment on our civil liberties. It won’t automatically lessen crimes. If we mindlessly strengthen the censorial hands of our politicians, they will discover creative means around judicial push back for expedient ends.
I can envision new beginnings in our political culture. Presumably, the forces that will shift our values from petty politics to socially responsible governance will emerge from within our villages in the near future. If you accept that wiretapping is too dangerous to put our freedom at risk, we are on the same wavelength. Legalizing wiretapping surveillance will sidestep the paradox of democracy for the counterfeit of tyranny.
Dr. Isaac Newton is an International Leadership and Change Management Consultant and Political Adviser. He specializes in Government and Business Relations, and Sustainable Development Projects. Dr. Newton works extensively, in West Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America and is a graduate of Oakwood College, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. He has published several books on personal development and written many articles on economics, education, leadership, political, social, and faith based issues.