The terrorists killed over a hundred innocent people yesterday. This wasn’t an act that took place in some distant part of the world. It happened in a city I care about, one that I have spent four summers in and where many of my friends live or have family. The attack was astounding in its scope and daring — no suicide bombers this time around but machine gun wielding militants taking hostages in posh hotels. The country is outraged and for good reason.
Yet, and yet. This is just a small thing compared to what could and looks likely to happen now. There are calls for much tougher anti-terrorism laws, possibly more draconian than what the US introduced after 9/11. In a poll conducted today by an Indian newspaper, 95% supported such measures. If laws like these are passed, the Indian police will relish in using them. Thousands of people will be rounded up on mere suspicion, many of those unrelated to terror. Some will be locked up for months, perhaps years. Phones will be tapped, due process suspended. You are thinking, all of that won’t happen to me. And you may be right, but rest assured that it will happen to many people just like you. It is when this atmosphere of panic and police-statism takes over our nation that the terrorists will have truly won this one.
The easiest reaction in a situation like this is to call for tougher laws, all of which aim to circumvent the adherence to due process. Due process anyway gets short shrift here in India, and do we really want to legitimise that? [...]Shouldn’t better investigation, more co-ordination and better training be looked at first, instead of giving the police arbitrary powers to harass citizens? [...] I am just terrified by the knowledge that by bringing in such laws, we have pretty much capitulated to terrorism – their objective of destroying the civil and democratic fabric of India will have been achieved. And contrary to what people feel, these won’t be effective deterrents. Simply because, in my mind, they do not address the root of the problems plaguing our law-enforcement esablishments.
He is right. The Indian police and intelligence agencies suffer from severe deficiencies. They need to be revamped. There needs to be better training, coordination and other changes. But these will have to smart changes. We don’t need knee-jerk reactions here. The deterrence value of laws that suspend due process is small and costs to essential freedoms huge. The Indian establishment could do much worse than read Bruce Shneier’s excellent blog on security measures to get some pointers.
A heavy handed law that curtails civil liberties will be a tragedy far greater than any terror attack. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We should keep this in mind and fight to preserve the intangible things that are truly valuable, even as we take measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again.