SRI LANKA: If Tocqueville was to read our proposed Anti-Terrorism Act

By Basil Fernando

Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville is the famous author of the book Democracy in America. It is one of the world’s best known writings which have been appreciated by many philosophers, writers, thinkers and also people in many countries. It has also been translated into many languages. 

Tocqueville was a French magistrate, a young man of 30, who, with another friend, visited the United States in 1831. His whole idea was to understand what democracy is by looking into the experience of the United States. He knew about the disclosure on democracy in France as he belonged to a generation which came after the French Revolution. He was also aware of democracy in other European countries. 

His way of trying to understand American democracy was to visit and talk to various persons of various ranks and mostly ordinary people in the United States. In fact, even the phrase ‘ordinary people’ was inappropriate to be used in America during that time because everyone was considered ordinary. The remarkable feature of the American way of life was the lack of an idea of social ranks and status as that we found in the European countries as much as in many other countries in the world. Therein, in the United States then, everyone was another citizen and that is how people behaved towards each other. 

The Mayor of New York himself lived in a hotel room. And, there were no pomp or pageantry exercised regarding his movements as it very often happened then in European countries. He was just another man doing another job and was treated by others in the same manner. 

What is important for this article is about what he would have thought if he were to read the Anti-Terrorism Law that is being proposed in Sri Lanka and which is being pursed despite massive protest from many quarters.

What Tocqueville will find most difficult to understand is how any country which in some way claims to be a democracy goes all the way to attack the freedom of expression and freedom of publication. For Tocqueville, the essence of the American democracy as he saw it then was the freedom of expression. People made newspapers, discussed almost anything freely and that helped to keep a lively discussion on almost anything that was happening in their country. The writer did not have to feel inhibited about what he/she would think and what he/she would write. What was called decency among the writers was the same as the decency that was observed in every other area of life. But, the important issue was that everything could be discussed and was in fact discussed. 

It was these discussions that gave life to other areas of life which Tocqueville described so graphically in his work. Whether it was the work of people engaged in building their businesses, or cutting down the trees and preparing the ground for their living as well as for agricultural and all other things. About the way they held their public meetings and public speaking and about for an example, the place of women in their societies and the manner in which they moved about as every woman was considered a lady unlike in old Europe where the ladies and ordinary women were clearly distinguished from their ways speech, ways of behaviour, ways of dress and everything else. So it is that everywhere there was freedom for expression. Thus, the freedom of expression was not confined to merely the press. Press freedom was an expression of the sort of freedom that existed within the society as a whole. In expressing opinions, agreeing and disagreeing with people, and expressing their taste in various ways, people expressed not only their minds but also their souls. Thus, the freedom of expression was at the very heart of life. To interfere with the freedom of expression in fact amounted to interference into life itself. 

Our so called Anti-Terrorism Law he would have found was something that could come from some kind of abnormal mindset of people who do not understand what society is, what life is, and what it means to be living.

Tocqueville speaks about how everybody in the United States at the time was engaged in making their own livelihoods. Everyone had an opportunity to begin whatever activity they wanted and the society would very much appreciate initiatives that people take, and that was what was expected of everyone. This brings us closer to the problem that is discussed mostly in Sri Lanka why we are going through such a severe economic crisis and facing all these enormous hardships in the country. 

Is it because the people are not willing to work? Or, is it because the systems of governance that have been developed in the county have been unable to create the environment within which everybody could pursue one or other way of life in order that on the one hand, to find their livelihoods and on the other, to find their enjoyment. A society that creates restrictions everywhere can in no way contribute to a dynamic approach to the development of the economic forces. 

The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act in fact is working very deliberately against economic development. Economic development requires the possibility of the exercise of initiative by everybody. It means that a small shop owner in some remote village is able to run his small shop or “kopi kade” and make his own living and somebody else who is engaged in some other activity could also freely do so. What makes people free or not free is the presence of fear. If people are afraid to begin a small business because they are afraid that the society is unable to protect their business, thieves will come and steal from him/her, that he/she may have to pay all sort of bribes, and that he/she may even have to end up going to police stations and other places, merely because some rival makes a false claim, such a society cannot create the necessary atmosphere for economic growth.

Tocqueville speaks about the aristocracy of money in a metaphorical sense, comparing it  against the kind of aristocracy that existed in the old Europe because of birth, because of all kinds of titles, and because of all kinds of ways by which people were classified and confined to their own areas. Whereas, what he saw in the United States at the time was the freedom to choose whatever one wanted to do, the right to move wherever they wanted to move and the right to say whatever they wished to say. 

That creates a kind of security that is needed for economic enterprise. What is lacking in Sri Lanka is a sense of security for people who want to do anything or get engaged in one or the other activity to try their capacities to see what they can achieve. Laws like the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act is meant to create a culture of fear and the culture of fear kills the possibility of the country developing the kind of talents and people to do various kinds of engagements in order to keep the total economy going. 

When laws are made purely for the purpose of repression. That in itself is a conspiracy against the nation’s economy. The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act should be seen as a serious conspiracy against the county’s economy. Anyone with an open mind who has seen experience in other countries like Tocqueville did would naturally wonder what kind of stupidity that is involved with these kinds of laws.