1st The problem
2nd Conflict between security and freedom
3rd Threat to both goals differs again and again
4th The uncertainty character of decisions
5th The role of learning
1st The problem
Politicians repeatedly emphasize that there could be no absolute security, that even if all possible precautions have been taken to ward off terrorist attacks, terrorist acts can still take place.
But whenever terrorist attacks have actually occurred, the first thing people do is to look for the guilty authorities who did not prevent this attack and they loudly proclaim that security precautions must be improved. After these attacks, it is then repeatedly insinuated that this act could have been prevented if only the responsible authorities had done their duty.
In reality, however, this attitude does not correspond to the conditions. A sober analysis should very often have come to the conclusion that the current legislation would be quite sufficient to ward off terrorist acts in the best possible way, that there are furthermore precisely such cases in which terrorist acts can nevertheless take place and succeed despite careful and correct procedures by the responsible authorities, or that often the contexts underlying these attacks have developed in such a way that one must first develop new concepts for defence against terrorist acts.
However, in a first act, this requires a fundamental analysis of the causes and this takes time, a lot of time. It does not lead us to a better result if we think that the additional necessary measures must be taken immediately after a terrorist act, actionism remains mostly unsuccessful on the one side and reduces the civil liberties of citizens unnecessarily strongly on the other.
Basically, there is a conflict between the goals of personal freedom of citizens and security in the sense that the closer you get to one goal, the further you move away from the other. Thus, there is always a need for compromise, it is by no means the case that moving closer to one of these two goals always represents progress. The macroeconomic benefit that arises from the realisation of one goal is always bought by the fact that this increase in benefit for one goal almost always corresponds to a decrease in benefit, i.e. damage, for the other goal.
And since it cannot be assumed that the optimum between the two goals always lies in the same place, but rather requires a different compromise depending on the initial situation, it will be important that a review takes place again and again in relatively short periods of time in order to determine which compromise currently achieves the optimum.
The threat of terrorism is certainly one of the most important and dangerous threats to security today, but it is important to draw attention to the fact that the security of individuals can also be threatened due to completely different circumstances.
Thus, the accident at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima also posed a threat to the safety of citizens, just as traffic in general poses a decisive threat to the safety of citizens every year. UN statistics show that even today, several million people worldwide are killed in traffic accidents every year. Thus, it is not only terrorist acts that threaten human lives; security is a very central, widespread issue in the society of today.
In essence, insecurity is always a consequence of the freedom of the individual. Being free means being able to determine one's own activities to a large extent, and everyone who can exercise this freedom also has the possibility to go against the generally applicable laws. Without freedom, there would be a significantly lower threat to security, but the quality of life of each individual would also be enormously restricted if the omnipotent state were to decree all the activities of individuals.
2nd Conflict between security and freedom
Let us first take a closer look at the relationship between the goal of freedom and the goal of security. The goal of freedom is that individuals can determine their own personal affairs, that no one else, not even the state, determines these goals, even if the state acts with meritorious intent and mistakenly assumes that the decisions of individuals are mostly wrong.
However, granting freedom does not mean that no limitations of any kind may be imposed on the actions of the individual. The very concept of freedom for everybody results in necessary limitations, since there is always the danger that the individual, in the pursuit of his or her goals of freedom, will cause harm to another and restrict the freedom of the other. If one understands the demand for individual freedom as freedom for all and not only for the stronger in each case, freedom always finds its limitation where it hinders the freedom of another.
This means that the freedom of the individual must be limited wherever there is a danger that precisely in the exercise of individual freedom, the freedom of others will be threatened. But a limitation has a completely different character, depending on whether limits are given to individual actions only because they would otherwise unjustifiably restrict the freedom of another, or whether the individual is denied the right to determine for himself what is good or less good for him. Only in the latter case freedom would be threatened in an essential way.
What means the second goal to be addressed here, the goal of security? Reasonable action presupposes that the individual - before he makes his decision - is clear about what goal he is pursuing and by what means he can realise this goal in the best possible way, i.e. within the given possibilities.
In order to be able to answer this question, the individual has to start from a hypothesis that determines the way in which a certain goal can be achieved. Now, our knowledge of empirical relationships is never complete and this means that we can never be sure whether the theoretically assumed connection has actually been correctly recognised and this further means that we can never know whether we are therefore actually approaching our goal.
We therefore observe with our senses that a certain event x is always followed by a certain other event y, and with the help of our mind we form the hypothesis that y would be caused by x.
However, the empirical correlations are almost never such simple that a certain event x triggers another event y in every case. Most of the time, the correlations are somewhat more complicated, namely that x only causes y if further conditions are fulfilled on one side and if, under certain circumstances, another set of circumstances is just not present on the other side.
Now, we can never be sure whether we have really recognised all these additional conditions already; there is no flawless method to clearly determine whether all additional conditions have already been recognised. We can only recognise, more or less purely by chance, by empirically testing a hypothesis again and again, that the correlation we are investigating also depends on one or more further additional conditions.
In reality, it happens time and again that a hypothesis was initially assumed to be confirmed and that it then had to be recognised much later that this correlation does not apply generally at all, as initially assumed, but only if further conditions are present.
Furthermore, we have to take into account that we do not live in a closed world, but in an open one, and this means that new variables always appear from the outside, which can have the consequence that the previously assumed correlations do not apply any longer. This applies to social changes, which can occur, for example, because our own economy has entered into relations with other economies.
On the other hand, our Earth is also changing due to cosmic changes in the universe, e.g. crops are being destroyed more frequently than before due to the destruction of the ozone layer.
This means that here on earth, with all our decisions, we can never be absolutely sure that the intended effects will always actually occur (question of the efficiency of our actions) and that additional undesirable and previously unknown side effects (question of the secondary effects of our actions) will occur.
Security is thus a very general, recurring problem of all our actions, it does not only occur when our lives are threatened by terrorists. The danger that arises, for example, in the event of a nuclear power plant meltdown or the danger of being injured in traffic or at work are equally uncertainties to which we are exposed on a daily basis.
The extent of this risk can vary in two ways. On the one hand, the damage can be enormous if this event occurs, but on the other hand it is also a question of how often such an unexpected event occurs. A nuclear power plant accident, for example, is certainly a relatively rare event, at least if all known safety precautions had been taken, but if an accident does occur, which can never be completely avoided, the damage is enormous.
The uncertainties that arise in traffic, on the other hand, are characterised by the fact that they occur very frequently; the UN report speaks of several million deaths a year due to road traffic worldwide. Seen for the whole, it is even relatively certain that we have to expect this large number of fatalities in traffic, only for the individual road user this event is very uncertain.
What is decisive in our context is that the extent of the uncertainty that always arises depends decisively on how much freedom is left to the individual. If we allow each individual not only to determine for himself how he uses his income, but also give him the right to correct his decisions at any time, then this necessarily leads to the fact that the supplier of the individual goods can never be completely sure how many goods he can also sell.
It may be true that in a numerically large group of customers the individual decisions can balance each other out to a large extent. If one person may suddenly limit the consumption of a certain good, there may be another who demands more of this good. Nevertheless, there is always the danger that in certain periods the demand will fall decisively short of the supply of an entrepreneur.
Quite different would be the security situation if a state administrative authority were to determine which goods the individual citizens should receive. Here, the state is both consumer and producer in one. As a consumer, it determines which goods are demanded; as a producer, it decides which goods are produced. If it makes rational decisions, it cannot be surprised by arbitrary changes in consumption, since it is the state itself that determines demand.
Even if the state is by no means in a position to eliminate all uncertainties - even in a state planned economy there are still technically induced production losses - one can nevertheless say that in a state planned economy the level of uncertainty is significantly lower than in a market economy.
However, this reduction in uncertainty in a state planned economy comes at a high price. It reduces the freedom of citizens and, since individuals differ in which consumer goods bring them the greatest possible benefit for a given income, the reduction in the degree of freedom also results in a reduction in the welfare of citizens.
The terrorist danger also has to do with the degree of freedom of citizens. Of course, it can be assumed that if citizens are under total surveillance, the danger of terrorist actions will be somewhat lower. Thus, here too, there is a conflict between the freedom of the individual and the security that is to be realised. But it would be wrong to think that a state of absolute security could ever be achieved by means of more surveillance.
3rd Threat to both goals differs again and again
Let us now take a closer look at the conflict of goals between freedom and security. Since both goals, individual freedom and the need for security, are essential goals without which no satisfactory overall result can be achieved, it is always necessary to aim for a compromise between these two goals; it can never be the goal to realise one of these two goals as far as possible.
Where exactly this compromise lies, i.e. to what extent a certain degree of uncertainty must remain in order to preserve individual freedom and to what extent, on the other hand, a certain restriction of individual freedom is indispensable in order to safeguard people, is now not at all a foregone conclusion; above all, it is true that a compromise that was found in the past and was considered quite fair at the time is by no means still desirable today to the same extent and in every case.
The threat posed by terrorists, for example, is not always given; there are peaceful times and also peaceful areas in which there is almost no threat at all from terrorists, and there are other times and geographical areas in which terrorist acts are committed on a large scale almost every day, or at least must be feared.
Since every decision in favour of general pacification means at the same time a renouncement of the realisation of individual freedom, a correction of the respective bundle of measures is always indispensable over and over again. It cannot be justified that a particularly high restriction of individual freedom rights, which may have been deemed necessary in the immediate past, is now - in case the extent of the terrorist threat has diminished - maintained.
Now it must be realised that the enforcement of this generally valid and actually self-evident principle causes great difficulties in reality. Laws and regulations are enacted in a very lengthy and demanding process and their effect is based precisely on the fact that they apply for a longer period of time.
Normally, they do not expire by themselves one day and it is therefore not to be expected that these laws and regulations will disappear again by themselves when the danger, for the sake of which they were introduced in the past, has passed or at least is significantly reduced.
This demand, that laws- restricting individual freedom- only remain valid as long as there is a manifest threat to individual security, can only be fulfilled if these laws are limited in time already when they are passed, or if they are reviewed at regular intervals for their continued justification. Such a procedure is necessary because no one can know in advance how long a concrete threat from terrorists will last.
But what about technically induced uncertainties? Here, too, we have to assume that we can never know the technical correlations by 100 per cent. We make observations with our senses and draw conclusions from these observations with the help of our intellect.
However, as shown above, these relationships are almost never such simple as that a certain event x is followed by another event y. Rather, a set of further conditions is required for this event to occur also and there is no scientifically impeccable procedure that tells us whether we already know all of these secondary conditions.
Even if we succeeded in knowing all the constraints that are valid today, we would always have to fear that new constraints will appear in the future, since we do not live in a closed but in an open world in which we must always reckon with new variables appearing from outside that change the correlation between two variables.
Thus, also here, it must always be reckoned with the fact that the conflict between liberty rights and the preservation of security described above changes in such a way that an optimum is reached with a different compromise.
If, for example, suddenly a not disarmed time detonator from the Second World War is found in the vicinity of a heavily populated district, it is necessary to evacuate the residents, as safety in this district can no longer be guaranteed. But here again, safety is restored after the bomb has been defused and of course the restrictions can and must then again be removed.
4th The uncertainty character of decisions
Let us now turn to the problem of insecurity in terrorist attacks in particular. Irrespective of the fact that almost every attempt to increase security entails a restriction of individual freedom, additional insecurity arises in connection with the defence against terrorist acts.
In a concrete individual case, we can in fact never assume that we or the security authorities (above all the police and the secret services) are aware of the concrete danger in all its details. There are several reasons for this.
The security authorities learn about imminent terrorist acts through information from domestic and foreign intelligence services, possibly also from private individuals. It is by no means certain that all threats are known to these authorities or that the data known to the foreign authorities is also passed on correctly. Nobody is perfect, so that even with the good will of the relevant authorities, the data to be passed on is by no means always recognised correctly or completely.
In the case of hints from security services of states that are hostile to our state, it must even be feared that false information is deliberately passed on in order to harm our country.
Even more important, however, is the fact that terrorist acts are planned by people who have free will and can therefore decide at any time not to carry out the planned terrorist act or to carry it out at a different time or place.
In this context, there is even the danger that the terrorists also deliberately disseminate false information in order to put the security services on the wrong track and thus increase the probability of success of their own actions.
But precisely this fact has the consequence that one cannot assume that the terrorist danger would be averted, as long as only everyone from the security authorities would fulfil their task correctly and that therefore, even with completely correct behaviour on the part of the public servants, every danger could be recognised in time and therefore also be prevented.
Such a view is wrong already from the outset for a variety of reasons. Firstly, we had already pointed out that at the time before the terrorist act, the information - reaching the security authorities - is uncertain, the truth of this information is unknown for the reasons mentioned above.
The number of information is still so large that it is not even possible to follow up all the clues for capacity reasons, one has to select and there is no criterion as to which of this information is correct and which is false.
It also corresponds to human nature that no human being always does one hundred percent of what he or she should actually do. Take the example of traffic again. If all road users did the right thing every second and if, in addition, clear right-of-way guidelines were issued by the state, no accidents should actually occur.
The reason why there are still accidents again and again is that no human being does what he or she should do every second. A car driver may observe the road ahead 99.99% of the time and therefore be ready to meet a danger that arises, but one second of inattention can be enough for the car driver to fail to recognise in time, for example, a deer suddenly bursting out of the forest, and this in turn can result in him neither being able to brake in time nor being able to swerve in such a way as to avoid an accident.
Whether the security authorities will be successful in warding off the terrorists depends not only on how capable they themselves are and what information they have received, but also on the skills of the individual terrorists.
If you like, you can compare the relations between terrorists and security agencies to a game, of course not a harmless one, but a highly bloody one, and this means that the question of which of the two groups emerges victorious is always a question of the relative skills of both groups.
No matter how competent the individual security officials may be and how conscientiously they perform their duties, if the terrorists are even more competent than the security officials in the technical sense of the word, then the terrorists will still win this game.
It would be completely wrong and naive to think that the distribution of technical abilities is regulated in such a way that the most able people are located with the state authorities and the least able with the criminals. If we only pick out one arbitrarily created group of people, then we must always assume that among this group there are also - in the technical sense - people who are less talented.
Of course, the state can try to attract the most talented people. But since we live in a free society, the state is dependent on these best people also being willing to work for the state. And since this willingness also depends on the rewards that are offered, one must fear that the terrorist groups often have the better rewards at their disposal.
However, it is not only the superiority in these technical skills that determines the success of the terrorists; the moral level of both groups often plays an even greater role. Those who act more ruthlessly and recognise fewer moral limitations clearly have the better cards here.
Actually, one must assume that state officials are always at a disadvantage, since they are required to strictly observe the law, while the terrorists distinguish themselves by recognising almost no moral boundaries.
For example, it is known that terrorists often deliberately entrench themselves in hospitals and residential areas, counting on the state authorities to avoid an immediate attack on these areas, since they are required to spare the sick staying in hospitals and the residents, especially women and children.
The aim of the terrorists, at least nowadays, is also to deliberately attack the population, especially the weakest, namely women and children. In complete contrast to this, the Bader-Meinhof gang usually directed their attacks against the representatives of this state, e.g. against the Federal Prosecutor General Siegfried Buback or against the President of the Employers' Association Hanns Martin Schleyer.
The aim of the terrorists acting today, on the other hand, is not so much to hit the powerful of this society, but the population, in order to spread fear and insecurity among the population in this way and thus force the politicians to restrict the freedom of the citizens more and more and thus to give up the free state.
And since we thus cannot assume that the state authorities are in every case superior to the opponents of a free society, it must unfortunately be expected that terrorist acts will always succeed because of the superiority of these groups, even when the officials of the security authorities do everything conceivable to avert the terrorist dangers.
But if this is the case, it is also wrong to attack the officials of these authorities in general for their failure. In this context, it is often forgotten that the assessment of a terrorist act after it has been committed can be completely different from the assessment before the act.
It should be emphasised once again that state officials often neither have sufficient information nor are they aware of the truthfulness of this information. Often, due to the lack of resources, the officials cannot take all the necessary measures, they have to choose and due to the general uncertainty about the success of the individual measures, they sometimes take measures that in retrospect, after the truth of the individual information is known, prove to be wrong.
Finally, it is also true for civil servants that no human being is perfect, that it is in the nature of humans to make mistakes and this means that these enumerated shortcomings must of course be taken into account when assessing civil servants.
Indeed, if one bases the assessment after the act on the information that is known only then, there is a danger that the acting officials will not only be unjustly attacked, but that the civil service will be weakened in the long run, firstly because the most capable candidates for these posts will turn to other professional fields, leaving the less capable. On the other hand, the unjustly attacked civil servants will naturally try to avoid these accusations and it is then not surprising if one or the other of these civil servants tries to conceal the true events.
This situation does not mean, of course, that for these reasons the behaviour of the authorities following the thwarting terrorist acts should not be critically examined and that misconduct by state actors should not be denounced and, if necessary, prosecuted, but only that this assessment should be factual and that only actual, grossly negligent misconduct should be denounced.
Here, there is less danger of wrong judgements being made on a formal level, i.e. in courts and in parliamentary committees of enquiry, but there is very much a danger in public, especially in social media, but also in some public media, that unjustified prejudgements take place.
5th The role of learning
The success of surveillance measures is often questionable for another reason. We do not live in a stationary but in a dynamic world and this means that measures that were considered efficient at a certain point in time are no longer successful in the future due to the social changes that have occurred in the meantime, so that a large part of the measures introduced only improve the security situation for a short period of time.
And the terrorists also learn from their mistakes, and also the terrorists can continue to develop and try out new technologies which once again improve the success of their actions. We compared the relations between state security agencies and terrorists to a game, and in a game the move of one partner can indeed get the other partner into trouble. However, the latter will look for new, previously unknown ways out, so that his situation is sometimes worsened only temporarily.
Let us take an example. Let us assume that the government passes a law allowing state security agencies to wiretap mobile phones. Surely one can assume that immediately afterwards activities of terrorists can be tracked better, that under certain circumstances suspicious actions and agreements among terrorists become known and that also when certain persons are to be checked, the habits of these persons are known to the state security authorities and that therefore these suspicious persons can also be confronted and arrested more quickly.
However, these are only the short-term consequences. They occur because the terrorists are surprised by these state measures. Of course, there are other ways for the terrorists to communicate with each other, they don't have to use the mobile phone, they can also switch off the mobile phone whenever they go to other places, so that the location of the persons concerned can no longer be tracked.
Certainly, terrorists will explore new ways to escape surveillance. While the state, when it learns of these new ways, can control them, too. But the crucial thing is that it takes time for the state authorities to learn of these new ways in the first place, it further takes time for appropriate defensive measures to be researched, and it finally takes time then for a law to be passed that allows this new kind of surveillance to the state.
This means that the state will always lag behind developments, so that there will always be a certain amount of time left for terrorists to be spared from these prosecutions. The conditions for terrorist activities do indeed become somewhat more difficult, they have to incur more costs overall and keep inventing new methods in order to be able to carry out their attacks with success.
The chances of success of the terrorists are then primarily a question of what financial resources the terrorists have at their disposal and this also indicates the way in which a strategy to fight the terrorists can be successful: First and foremost, care must be taken to deprive the terrorists of their financial resources.
There is also the danger that the terrorists will use the surveillance methods initiated by the state as an opportunity to steer the surveillance in the wrong direction, e.g. by deliberately taking the mobile phones of the persons under surveillance to areas where precisely no activities are planned or will take place. In this case, state resources are increasingly used for inappropriate routes of investigation and the state may under certain circumstances even be weakened in the fight against terrorists.
Furthermore, there is a danger that a further centralisation of terrorist actions will take place. This is because the surveillance measures described above weaken the individual terrorist cells to varying degrees. There are also very different power relations within the terrorist cells. Extensive interception particularly affects the smaller cells, which have fewer possibilities to escape interception. The success of the terrorist groups can then only be ensured if the terrorists also move together and act in concert.
But not only the long-term success of further wiretapping measures is questionable. We must also assume that the leeway of citizens will be further restricted in this way. It is easy to assume that only terrorists and general criminals are affected by the surveillance measures and that citizens who are not guilty of anything remain untouched.
This idea is only partially correct. A blameless citizen who is not guilty of anything and has nothing to do with the terrorists in particular, can very well come under the attention of state investigators only because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thus, for example, investigators may become aware that a random citizen visits an acquaintance who lives in the same house where the conspiratorial meeting takes place, but has nothing to do with the terrorists and may not even be aware that terrorists have also taken up residence in the same house, at the very house and time when a conspiratorial meeting of some terrorists took place.
The fact that some people nevertheless come into the field of vision of the investigators and have to undergo initial prosecution is due to the manner in which the state authorities can only investigate in the first place. In a first step, all persons in the environment of a suspected person who had the opportunity to come into contact with the presumed criminal are checked; furthermore, it is checked which persons may have had a motive to help the terrorists due to their previous life history.
It is clear that with this (only possible) approach, a large number of people are initially wrongly targeted by the investigators, and only at the end of this process will a few people remain for whom the suspicion has been substantiated.
Of course, as a rule, innocent people are not likely to be convicted in this way; they usually fall outside the grid long before they are charged, or if they are unjustly charged, they are acquitted for lack of evidence.
Nevertheless, these individuals have suffered non-material damage due to the initial investigation. The fact that an individual is visited by the police and the accused is taken away does not go unnoticed by the public and even if this person is eventually acquitted, negative accusations remain in the neighbourhood and in public according to the motto 'where there's smoke, there's fire', which can cause immense damage in everyday life as well as especially in one's profession.
Thus, let us keep in mind: we can neither assume that it will ever be possible to guarantee absolute security nor will any increase in surveillance always lead to an improved security situation. Whether an increase in surveillance is desirable in an individual case always depends on the extent of the damage caused by the impairment of individual freedom.