Suppose We Won The War
But Lost Our Freedom

By Robert Harris
The Telegraph - London

One evening in August 1942, as Adolf Hitler took dinner with his staff, his thoughts turned to the likely shape of the world after a German victory.
Could this empire of his actually endure? He was confident it would: "People sometimes say to me: 'Be careful! You will have 20 years of guerrilla warfare on your hands!' I am delighted at the prospect! . . . Germany will remain in a state of perpetual alertness."
This remark, contained in Hitler's Table Talk, made a great impression on me when I first read it 15 years ago (I used it as an epigraph to my novel Fatherland) and it has acquired still greater resonance since September 11.
At the moment, Western leaders are talking about a campaign against terror that might last 50 years; Hitler guessed that the Third Reich's struggle to suppress terrorism would last even longer: "We may have a hundred years of struggle before us; if so, all the better - it will prevent us from going to sleep!"
Obviously, there isn't much comparison between Hitler's definition of terrorism and ours. He was envisaging a threat emerging from those nations that he had conquered in the East and subsequently filled with German settlers. And his police methods would have been immensely more brutal than those of America: the Luftwaffe wouldn't exactly have been dropping peanut butter and chocolate bars over its target zones, and Ribbentrop certainly wouldn't have been working night and day to restore a democratic government.
Nevertheless, there is a slight sense - how can one put it delicately? - that the Führer was on to something. All governments, be they elected or imposed, strive ceaselessly to maximise their power, and never is this more easily done than during wartime. In Britain, as A J P Taylor observed in English History 1914-1945, this process began during the First World War, when "the state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the Second World War was again to increase".
Terrorist wars are, if anything, even more insidious, for there is never any definite victory after which pre-war conditions can once again prevail. The conflict is endless: populations, in Hitler's lip-smacking phrase, must always "remain in a state of perpetual alertness". If the Government's proposed new powers of arrest and detention, interception and suppression are pushed through, we may take it as absolutely certain that the rights that are being taken away will never be restored. That is the lesson not only of 1914 and 1939, but of 1911 (the Official Secrets Act) and 1974 (the Prevention of Terrorism Act).
All this comes at what may be a turning-point in human history. One of the most successful weapons of the Afghan war is something called a Predator UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), operated not by the American military but by the CIA. This missile-armed, pilotless spy plane flies quietly and slowly through enemy airspace and transmits pictures back to US Central Command in Florida and to the CIA headquarters in Virginia.
It was a Predator that, on the first night of the war, took a photograph of Mullah Omar's car fleeing Kabul (a photograph of the numberplate was later dropped over Taliban positions as part of America's psychological warfare operations). It was also a Predator, we are told, that last week followed Osama bin Laden's deputy, Muhammed Atef, to a hotel where he met the senior leadership of al-Qa'eda. CIA officials watched the pictures, waited until everyone was inside, and then called up three F-15s to destroy the hotel.
The point here is not the destruction of Mr Atef and his chums, for whom few need shed a tear, but the sophistication of American technology, of which the Predator is but one example. Total surveillance cover, the ability to intercept every satellite phone call (and, in the West, every cell phone conversation, too), infra-red imaging, computerised voice- and image-recognition, near-instantaneous data retrieval - whatever is going on in Afghanistan, it is certainly not the sort of war we are used to. Every commentator on this conflict - and I write as one who supports it - seems to have got it wrong. What's frightening isn't the prospect of the Americans becoming bogged down, as in Vietnam; what's frightening is the almost contemptuous ease with which they are winning it.
And what can be done on the battlefield can be done with equal efficiency on the home front. I do not mean that David Blunkett intends to have Predators cruising up and down above British motorways (although I wouldn't put it past him), but rather that the new technologies have the potential to destroy human privacy, and the Government now means to exploit the situation under cover of fighting terrorism.
For example, the proposed emergency regulations will oblige Internet service providers to keep details of all their customers' Internet traffic and email messages and pass them to the police, for criminal as well as terrorist investigations. At the same time, confidential records collected by one branch of government will now be made available to other investigators.
Minor matters, you might think. But add this to all the other Orwellian manifestations of modern life (DNA testing, surveillance cameras, computerised credit card transactions: the list is at once trivial and overwhelming), add it to the erosion of individual liberty that has been the pattern of the past 87 years, and add it, finally, to the prevailing atmosphere of war hysteria, and one has a recipe for a kind of technological totalitarianism.
It would be a peculiar paradox if, supposedly in defence of the supreme Western ideal of personal freedom, we allowed the creation of a society in which personal freedom was permitted only under Home Office licence. Yet such may be the price of our "state of perpetual alertness".


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