More thoughts on freedom and the post 11 September world, so if you’re bored of it, stop reading now.

Isaiah Berlin, one of the great European liberal thinkers and philosophers of the 20th century was passionate about liberty, and fond of drawing a distinction between “freedom from…” (which he called negative liberty) and “freedom to…” (which he called postive liberty). His thought was notoriously eclectic and even sometimes contradictory, but he eventually came to believe that there was something fundamental about “Freedom from…”, whereas “freedom to…” was less of a necessity and more of a nice-to-have. His overall definition of liberty was summarised as “the right to freely shape one’s life… the only barrier is the need to protect others”.

Although Berlin’s thinking was philosophical and thus is hard to translate immediately into real situations, apply these two concepts of liberty in the context of the comments I posted on 11 November. Clearly we must have the “freedom from” terror and indiscriminate acts of criminal behaviour such as happened on New York, Bali and wherever the next attack will come. As such, pursuit of the criminals responsible under agreed international law is absolutely essential. But think about Bryan Appleyard’s comment – “Americans don’t want to be free to be anything, they want to be free to be Americans with all that that implies.” The issue with “freedom to…”s like this is that they easily trip over into impinging on the liberty of others. In the immediate post-9/11 aftermath, there seemed to be the beginings of a genuine reappraisal of how we all (as individuals) apply our “freedom to…”s, although this was quickly subsumed by the rhetoric of the “war on terrorism” and the “assault on Afghanistan”. The result was the beginnings of another set of new laws aimed at protecting the community at the expense of individual freedom. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, we will all need to think about these questions more deeply, particularly as the various anti-terrorism laws that have been passed in the US, the UK and elsewhere have started to call into question the idea of the “inalienable” rights (or “freedom to”s?) of the individual again.


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