Democracy and Security: A Realistic Balance?

Democracy and Security: A Realistic Balance?

Rachel CohenMonday,16 November 2015

It just feels wrong to snark on the inanities that are playing out in our electoral circus in the wake of Friday’s events in France. The fact that daily violence is a reality for far too many people in this world was highlighted in those frightening few hours in the city of love, and yet again the world finds itself faced with the need for some kind of action.

With over a hundred dead and hundreds more injured, the attack in Paris – the city with one of the most celebrated counter-terror forces – highlights in some ways how our modern intelligence systems fail us.

From the moment the attacks started being reported, pundits and politicians alike questioned ties to ISIS. Now that the organization is claiming responsibility, it seems that those earlier suspicions were right. But how much information was actually known leading up to the attacks?

In the reports coming out of Paris we heard that an attack was expected, and that the idea was that it would be along the lines of Mumbai’s attacks in 2008. It appears that an arrest in August led to intelligence that concert halls were potential targets.

Now, it comes out that one of the attackers was already known to police and suspected of extremist activity, and people are starting to question the effectiveness of French counterterrorism intelligence, despite quite a few thwarted plots in the last couple of years.

U.S. officials are saying that they will now look back through records to see if they missed any indication that attacks were being planned, in full support of France’s efforts.

It seems like the question for intelligence processes is what can you do with information that you get?

The concept of democracy and freedom is intrinsically tied to limitations within intelligence communities, no matter which region across the world. We saw it happen clearly in the U.S. after 9/11, then with the NSA, etc. When the process of gathering information is so nebulous – should you spy on citizens for the greater good? – how is it possible to act on that information?

I don’t even pretend to know. I do know that building a wall won’t help, pumping money into large defense contractors won’t help, and spying on our own people extensively seems like a non-starter – so could any approach actually work?

Are we, as citizens of the Western world, ready to hand over our trust and liberties to national government operatives in the name of increased security? Or, is our reality one where we have to endure these attacks, and we have to take them as opportunities to band together as united free citizens, no matter how devastating they continue to be?

Idealistically, you can bandy about a number of ideas and theories, some of which might actually work, but the realities of politics, election cycles, and visceral reactions to terrifying acts will likely keep us on the same path. Intelligence will gather as much info as they can, and will stop many of the planned attacks. However, they will never be able to catch all of them while operating in a democracy, so we will experience terror like this again. It’s a little bit of offense, a lot of defense, and only a matter of time before something slips through the irreparable cracks.

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