The Charlie Hebdo attack and liberty-liberty tradeoffs

Terrorist attacks generate a familiar pattern in public debate. First, conservatives (and often middle-of-the-road types) argue that the government’s failure to stop the terrorist attack shows that counterterrorism policy is too weak. Then, liberals (and often other middle-of-the-road types) argue that we should not strengthen counterterrorism measures if doing so will sacrifice our civil liberties to security. This sets up a debate about security versus liberty. Typically, civil libertarians argue that there really is no tradeoff (an argument I have never understood), or (more plausibly but I think wrongly) that the government will inevitably put too much weight on security and not enough on liberty. An important subtheme, one that resonates with American historical experience and mythology, is that the people who put more weight on security are cowards who sell our liberties too cheaply.

Thus, the rhetoric. In truth, there is liberty on both sides of the equation. People who fear terrorist attacks lose some of their liberty as they avoid airplanes and public places; and the people who die in those attacks lose their liberty along with their lives. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the civil libertarian position is understood to place greater weight on due process than on security, and that position has very powerful resonance in our society, perhaps because of distrust of the government.

The Charlie Hebdo attack has not followed this pattern for an interesting reason. The attack, both by design and in effect, was targeted at a liberty–freedom of expression. In this respect, the attack is unique among all the terrorist attacks since 9/11, none of which singled out freedom of expression as a target among all the western vices. The planned French crackdown on civil liberties thus sets up a clearer, harder-to-deny, liberty-liberty tradeoff: liberty from surveillance, arbitrary detention, and the like, versus liberty to speak one’s mind. It’s harder for a civil libertarian to argue that “mere” security is at stake, that principled people must oppose stricter counterterrorism measures.

This tradeoff has not yet received much attention, though it is implicit in the debate about whether Charlie Hebdo’s speech was really worth defending. Civil libertarians should ask themselves: if greater censorship in France made the French safer, with the result that they don’t need to give police greater surveillance and detention powers, would they be better off or worse off?

This is the most important policy question that has emerged from the attack. Why has no one asked it?