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A Pyrrhic victory

By Mark Christensen - posted Monday, 4 September 2006

Few things in life are unambiguously good or bad. And so it is with those would-be plane assassins caught recently in the UK.

While it’s obviously positive people may have been spared death and destruction, the diligence of the British security network also has a subtle downside. It warms us to a dangerously limited definition of success.

Many will consider the arrests as a kind of victory, when in reality we have done nothing to resolve the problem. Some lives may have been saved, but have we given up something more precious in the process?


As Churchill, Orwell and many others realised, propaganda is a key weapon in conflict situations. It locks people into a certain way of thinking, often without the truth.

In the case of terrorism, the rhetoric is focused on emotive terms such as freedom and values. Compelling language coupled with passionate gesticulation gloss over the contradictions that typify our ineffective responses to those who are clearly in a desperate state of mind.

For example, how can invasive intelligence gathering, plastic cutlery on aircraft and dob-in a dodgey campaigns be about liberty when they take away freedoms we once had?

It’s therefore untrue to say our freedoms are being protected, as so many politicians and law enforcers do. Air travel regulations and various other measures in the “war on terror” are about saving lives - not freedom.

Yes, it may be true that survival is necessary before one can find freedom, but there is a vital distinction between them. This important detail is often overlooked by the likes of George W. Bush.

Counter-terrorist efforts are actually being traded off against our liberties. They are not necessarily complimentary as often implied.


As with all compromises, there is a balance to be struck. At some point, it may not be worth compromising our freedom in order to simply stay alive. This equilibrium can be hard to find and maintain, especially if those leading us deny the true relationship between the two.

People consistently value freedom above mere existence. In fact, it’s the source of the confounding irony that comes with war and violence.

War grants soldiers, freedom fighters and insurgents with the opportunity to pay the “ultimate” sacrifice and, in doing so, confirm their belief in a higher purpose. That’s why the West has been so ineffective in preventing suicide bombers. It’s hard to control someone who considers death of secondary significance.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on August 23, 2006.

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About the Author

Mark is a social and political commentator, with a background in economics. He also has an abiding interest in philosophy and theology, and is trying to write a book on the nature of reality. He blogs here.

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