Post Paris attacks… Why wholesale surveillance is still a spectacularly bad idea.

We’re all reeling following the attacks on Paris today, and the bloodbath that has occurred at the Bataclan Concert Hall. Once again the terrorists killed in the raid that followed the attacks have been described as ‘very young’. This is a story that is coming up again and again; young people being seduced into an act of martyrdom by older role models who promise greatness in an apocryphal ‘afterlife’.

This radicalisation of young people is about the worst form of evil blighting our existence. Not only are these ideologues spreading discontent and intolerance, they are robbing children of their futures. That’s the most profoundly evil thing that I think anyone could ever do.

And to combat such evil it might seem logical to have ever more tightened security and surveillance to prevent acts of terrorism. But this is far from the best response.

This isn’t about security, it’s about freedom. As humans, our autonomy is what has led to our development as sentient beings. It’s been the basis of advanced societies; it has preserved our lives, improved treatment for disease, provided the basis for innovation and exploration, and it has given us the chance to ask questions, to think critically and to create.

Yes, we do need security in the streets, we need laws, we need governance, because we need to maximise our safety and opportunities, as well as coordinate our welfare in our millions. But when every conversation, every action, every idea we consume is surveilled, we lose that autonomy. We are subjugated; compelled to act in a manner that limits our curiosity, and limits our opportunity to explore and to learn. We fail to act in a manner that supports natural humanitarianism, generosity, and tolerance. Instead we are subdued. We learn obedience, not philanthropy.

The irony of surveillance being used as a tool to prevent radical acts is that it is precisely the same kind of doctrine of omnipresent surveillance of one life that is supposedly being used as an entrance examination for another, speculative afterlife. The same subjugation of freedom and creativity is being used supposedly to moderate behaviour, but actually to cultivate resentment.

We should not be surveilled in order to ensure we behave appropriately. We are human because we are not automatons. We should be good because we can be. It’s in our interests. And it is fundamentally human to be generous and creative. And we can only be truly human where our autonomy and freedom is upheld.

It’s certainly true that adoption of a religious, political or social dictum is also a product of freedom. And people can choose to live in accordance with the strict guidelines developed within those communities. But above those rules, the freedom to choose must be sacrosanct. And the preservation of conscious, autonomous life should always be our highest priority. The chances of life on earth, in our star system, in our galaxy and indeed in this universe are so profoundly against the odds, we have a responsibility to facilitate human development. Any act that prioritises an afterlife, a time to come, a future that we do not currently live, should be severely limited.

Parents, community members, governing officials and religious leaders need to emphasise that it is THIS time and THIS life that provides an opportunity for growth and for generosity. This is the life and the freedom we need to preserve for the betterment of humanity. Surveillance of our every word, act and idea, isn’t going to support that. But freedom to learn and to create just might result in the kind of society that will be worth experiencing, not as a utopian afterlife, but as a practical and hopeful present.

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