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TOPIC GUIDE: Civil Liberties and Terrorism

"Protecting the public from terrorism should come before civil liberties"

PUBLISHED: 01 Feb 2010

AUTHOR: Helen Birtwistle

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The 9/11 attacks of 2001 led to a new era of a ‘war on terror’ declared by then US President George Bush and strongly supported by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since then the terrorist threat has remained high on the political agenda in many countries. Like the American government, the UK government has introduced a raft of measures and legislation to provide the police and other bodies with greater powers of surveillance and detention to combat the threat of terrorism. This, though, has lead to significant and vocal concerns being raised about the erosion of civil liberties in both the US and UK. The case of failed Christmas day ‘jet bomber’, 23 year Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was born in Nigeria but latterly educated and allegedly ‘radicalised’ in the UK, has again brought the issue in to sharp focus, with commentary about the rights and wrongs of full-body scanning’ in airports and targeted ‘profiling’ being only the most recent manifestation of this long-running debate [Ref: BBC News]. The banning of radical Islamic group Islam4UK under anti-terrorism legislation just two weeks later , and the groups claim that the move was an ‘evident failure for democracy and freedom’ prompted some to question the efficacy of the government’s action [Ref: BBC News]. How should we respond to the threat of terrorism today? Are civil liberties simply a fringe concern, distracting us from the dangers our societies face? Or are we overreacting in our response to terrorism? Do we risk undermining the very freedoms that we are seeking to defend? And should we be wary of governments invoking protection from terrorism as the basis on which to introduce measures that restrict individual freedoms?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The terrorist threat
Prior to the recent Real IRA shooting of two soldiers in Northern Ireland in March, no successful terrorist attacks have been carried out in Britain since the 7/7 London bombings of 2005, which claimed 52 lives. However, the thwarted Easter bomb plot in Liverpool in 2009 [Ref: The Times], the unsuccessful car bomb attacks in London and at Glasgow airport in June 2007, alongside high profile media coverage of the unsuccessful attempts to prosecute individuals accused of aiding the London suicide bombers [Ref: Guardian] and the controversial passage of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 through Parliament, have kept the issue of terrorism high on the public agenda. But defenders of the governments’ counter terrorism strategy have suggested that the lack of successful terror attacks is evidence that the balance struck between liberty and security by government is the right one.

What are civil liberties?
Civil liberties place limits on the power of the state over the individual and guarantee a private sphere of autonomy where individuals are free to act so long as they do not harm others. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, for example, protect the rights of citizens to criticise and protest against the government, and longstanding protections have sought to guarantee the right to a fair trial. At the centre of this debate is whether civil liberties are non-negotiable absolutes, or whether liberty must be continually balanced against the need to ensure security.

What anti-terrorism measures have been introduced?
After 9/11, terrorist suspects in the UK were held without trial at Belmarsh prison. In 2004 the Law Lords ruled that this breached human rights law [Ref: BBC News], forcing the government to introduce new legislation in the form of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Most controversially, this allowed the Home Secretary to impose control orders on terrorist suspects, placing them under effective house arrest without trial. In November 2005 the government suffered an embarrassing defeat over proposals to increase the time that suspects can be held without charge from 14 to 90 days [Ref: BBC News]. The final legislation, the Terrorism Act 2006, included a compromise figure of 28 days. The act also introduced laws against indirect incitement and ‘glorification’ of terrorism and an offence of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’. In 2008 the government courted further controversy with the Counter-Terrorism Bill through which it again attempted to extend the period suspects can be held without charge, this time to 42 days. This provision of the Bill was heavily defeated in the House of Lords and was removed from the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 [Ref: Guardian].

Is an exaggerated sense of fear being used to undermine civil liberties?
In the UK, in the face of so many new anti-terror measures, increasingly vociferous concerns have been expressed in many quarters about the erosion of civil liberties. Fears have been raised that the law against ‘glorifying terrorism’ threatens freedom of speech and blurs the distinction between words and deeds. Criticisms have also been launched at the government’s determination to introduce ID cards; the massive increase in the use of police stop-and-search powers; and the increasing police harassment of innocent people taking photographs [Ref: Guardian].  Even Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has responded to the current situation warning that the fear of terrorism is being exploited by the government to erode civil liberties and risks creating a police state [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. But whilst some were heartened by the defeat of the government’s proposals for 42 days detention, others warn that arguments about 28 or 42 days are by the by, both are draconian attacks on our liberties [Ref: The Times].

Are the dangers to civil liberties being overplayed?
The UK government argues it’s wrong to talk about ‘creeping authoritarianism’: freedom requires security and the most important civil liberty is freedom from terrorism. Supporters of the government think that civil libertarians fail to appreciate the new threats we face. For example, the claim by British police to have prevented ‘mass murder on an unprecedented scale’ by uncovering a plot to blow up UK flights to the US in 2006 is seen by some as a vindication of government policy [Ref: Guardian]. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith defends the UK government’s approach arguing that ‘people’s fundamental civil liberty is that they are kept safe from terrorism and serious crime’ [Ref: Daily Telegraph] and data from the British Social Attitudes survey indicates public support for the current level of emphasis on security even if it means giving up some civil liberties [Ref: Guardian]. Others, however, have linked the ‘War on Terror’ to a state of moral confusion in the West, where a heightened sense of vulnerability makes people feel easily terrorized [Ref: spiked], and make the case for greater resilience to undermine the impact of terrorism on society [Ref: THE].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Balancing liberty with security

Paul Reynolds BBC News 23 October 2009

Britain’s liberties: The great debate

Henry Porter & Tony Blair Observer 23 April 2006


The police are right not to remain silent on civil liberties

Sir Ian Blair Guardian 8 December 2009

‘I know where balance lies with civil liberties and security’

Jacqui Smith Daily Telegraph 27 March 2009

42-day detention; a fair solution

Gordon Brown The Times 2 June 2008


Is the Islam4UK ban a blow against democracy?

Deborah Orr Guardian 14 January 2010

Spying on us doesn’t protect democracy. It undermines it

Seamus Milne Guardian 28 December 2009

Slash 42 days to 24 hours

Brendan O’Neill spiked 17 June 2009

42-day detention: the threat to our liberty

John Major The Times 6 June 2008


Stopping terrorism is not ‘criminalising dissent’

Shiraz Maher Standpoint 13 January 2010

Security v liberty

Hugh Rosemont Guardian Comment is free 5 May 2009

Out of bounds

Kenan Malik Index on Censorship 2008

Counter terrorism and public trust

Jonathan Evans The Times 5 November 2007


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Al-Qaeda threat: Britain worst in western world

Con Coughlin Daily Telegraph 15 January 2010

A decade of unfreedom

Tim Black spiked 22 December 2009

Al-Qaeda and a decade of terror

Michael Burleigh Daily Telegraph 7 December 2009

Liberal values have never been more important – or less popular

John Kampfner Independent 21 September 2009

Explainer: Terrorism legislation

Guardian 22 January 2009

Dilemmas of terror

Conor Gearty Prospect Manager October 2007


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Terrorist threat level raised to severe

The Times 22 January 2010

Manchester launch for ID cards

BBC News 6 May 2009

Trio cleared over 7/7 attacks

BBC News 28 April 2009

Losing the ‘war on terror’

Los Angeles Times 8 April 2009

Spy chief: We risk a police state

Daily Telegraph 17 February 2009

Peers throw out 42-day detention

BBC News 13 October 2008



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