When does collective safety overrule individual rights? Now!

A society must have the authority to take away the rights of the few when those rights endanger the many.

We live in a world where, over the past few centuries, individual rights have risen to the fore.

Where once it was the privileges and perks of the few which mattered and the hoi polloi simply were irrelevant, we now have documents such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (now 70 years old!).

I cannot imagine anyone looking on this development as a negative one, except of course for autocrats, dictators and the leaders of terrorist groups. After millennia of civilisation we have finally arrived at a point where we all – aforementioned autocrats, dictators and the leaders of terrorist groups notwithstanding – agree that perhaps the human species can ascend to new heights.

Joseph Stalin | Atomic Heritage Foundation
Da! I am all for human rights – MY rights as a human: screw the rest of you! (Photo: public domain)

And yet there are times when collective rights and freedoms are more important than individual ones. These occasions must be carefully chosen and managed of course as unscrupulous leaders do have a tendency to start with ’emergency measures’ only to extend those into the new norm.

The novel coronavirus is one such time.

The need to protect the many, up to and including the prevention of death, trumps the rights of the few. This is especially salient when we talk of the COVID-19 (and vaccination) deniers who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass that their ‘theories’ and convictions are putting many others at risk. This is why we are witnessing what would in other eras be considered draconian measures (crackdowns on public gatherings, fines for disobeying rules, etc.). The danger that COVID-19 represents, particularly to certain portions of the overall population, i.e. the elderly, simply justifies these actions.

There have been several incidents of late that have caught my eye in this vein. Not surprisingly, as I am a writer on all things national security and public safety related (especially terrorism), there are indeed links to violent extremism, at least in principle. Allow me to try to explain.

Indonesian officials have been dealing of late with the return to their land of a very troublesome preacher, Rizieq Shihab, who was in ‘exile’ in Saudi Arabia. Shihab is an Islamist extremist, albeit perhaps not a violent one, and his triumphant arrival has attracted very large crowds. VERY large ones (tens of thousands). Authorities are extremely concerned that these events will undo everything they have put in place so far to stop the spread of COVID. On the other hand, given the superstar status of Shihab amongst his ‘fans’, attempts to block such gatherings can, and most probably will, lead to religious violence.

Here are just some of the things Shihab spouts:

  • he founded the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and played a key role in the arrest and conviction of Jakarta’s then governor on charges of blasphemy in 2017;
  • the FPI has vandalised bars, persecuted rival sects and attacked gay and lesbian events;
  • Shihab has called for a renewed “moral revolution” to push Indonesia toward a more conservative vision of Islam;
  • he also believes that Muslims are the overwhelming majority, they should have the power to set rules for minority groups and enforce Shariah law.

Not exactly a ‘rights for all’ kinda guy, is he? Gee, maybe taking away some of his could send a message.

The other development I have been following is the insistence by some Jewish Ultra-Orthodox communities, not just in Israel but also in New York, to organise mass religious gatherings, the coronavirus be damned. Such events serve as super-spreaders and authorities in Israel and the US have their utmost to prevent these. In a significant setback, the US Supreme Court recently overturned New York’s regulations, calling them a violation of First Amendment rights of religious exercise. Cue the next wave of illness and death in those communities.

For the record, I am NOT equating religious ceremonies with terrorism.

I have, on the other hand, consistently called it religious extremism as that is exactly what it is: religious belief that is extreme. Adherents are so convinced that their version of ‘god’ is superior to that of anyone else and that their interpretation must prevail. The unfortunate fact that a worldwide pandemic is raging is irrelevant. This perspective seems in a way to echo what a Christian Crusader said way back in 1209: “Kill them all – let God sort them out”.

Many seek solace in faith in times like these. I am not one of them, but neither do I dismiss how important these creeds are for many. If praying and worshiping helps you get through these tough months, then great. Fill your boots. But you have NO right to endanger me or others by your injudicious public acts of devotion. Engage your deity on your own, by yourself or in small groups that maintain proven health protocols. Not by amassing in the hundreds or thousands.

I am sure God/Allah/Jehovah will understand.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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