Last month 130 people, mostly young, were murdered in Paris – many times the number of victims in the attacks in the city last January. Recently there have been fatal attacks in Tunisia, Sinai and Mali, adding to a list of terrorist attacks in recent years by so-called Islamists. Attacks have occurred at ever-decreasing intervals.
Also last month, the chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, was reported as saying that “antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible – similar to global warming”. But for antibiotics, and the excellent French health and emergency services, the death toll from the Paris attacks would have been much higher than it was. Of the 350 wounded, just
one had died at the time of writing.
It is impossible to say whether it is the increase in terrorist murders or the loss of effective antibiotics that will have more impact on our lives and liberties in the coming years. The effects of both may be great.
The immediate result of the latest Paris attack was the declaration of a state of emergency in France. This means that, for at least three months, people in France may be put under house arrest, their freedom of movement and freedom of assembly may be curtailed, and their homes and other premises may be searched at any time of the day or night.
Freedom of movement and assembly are not abstract principles. They include going to work and to school, as well as concerts and school outings. And emergency measures may be authorised by a minister or other official, without the supervision of any judicial authority.
Liberty is the first principle of the French republic. Of course; but there can be no liberty without life. So no one can criticise the French government for interfering with liberty. Restrictions are necessary to protect from threats of extreme violence the lives, the safety and the property of people in France. This year alone, between the attacks in January and November, there have been another four. Two people were murdered in these incidents.
If such restrictions on liberty were harmless, they would be imposed more often than they have been (in the last 50 years they have been imposed once before in France, in 2005, to control widespread rioting). They are not harmless. They carry great risks. Even with judicial supervision, measures taken against terrorists have led to the worst miscarriages of justice in recent English history, as we know from the Birmingham Six and other cases.
Without the judicial supervision normally required in all democratic states, more innocent people are likely to suffer from loss of freedom and livelihood. It is one thing to let a person you suspect of a common form of violent crime, or even of a single murder, go free. It is more difficult to take the risk of letting go a person if, honestly but mistakenly, you suspect him of mass murder.
In the worst cases, police officers, rightly fearful for their own lives, may make mistakes. That led to the tragic death of Jean Charles de Menezes.
The evil that the dead terrorists have done lives after them: what they have done will continue to endanger the lives, security and property of innocent people for long into the future.
Most of us born since the mid-1940s into the most favoured parts of Western Europe have enjoyed up to 70 years of peace and health. That is not yet as long as the extraordinary 100 years of peace most British people enjoyed between the defeat of Napoleon and the First World War.
But unlike our 19th-century forebears, we are the first generation to live our entire lives in the expectation that infections, which were often fatal, even from a small scratch, would become easily treatable. That is one reason why so many of us are still alive today. If antibiotics lose their effectiveness, none of the advances in surgery and other treatments will continue to save as many lives as they now do.
The young people murdered in Paris were not taking risks. But if people understand antibiotics, and are rational, we will become more risk-averse than we are now. We will limit our risky activities, or more of us will die younger. But risky activities, including the many worthwhile ones such as some foreign travel, are often the most rewarding or pleasurable.
It may not be right to mark 2015 as the end of an exceptional era of peace and good health. But no trend in world affairs has ever continued indefinitely. If what has happened this November does not signify the end of an era, it is a reminder. Sooner or later, even in our privileged part of the world, there must be some reversion towards the historical mean in peace and in health.
Sir Michael Tugendhat is a retired High Court judge
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