Ben Franklin, George Orwell… Meet Henry Porter

December 30, 2009

Although the US gets all the bad press for its “Big Brother” attitude since 9/11/2001, “the colonies” are still a libertarian’s dream compared to the United Kingdom. Consider this: 1) there are more closed circuit television cameras in the UK than in the rest of Europe put together; 2) road journeys are now monitored by cameras adapted to read car number plates and the data from every trip is kept for five years; 3) Special Police teams are deployed to protest events with the sole purpose of filming innocent protestors and storing their data; 4) the genetic profiles of hundreds of thousands of innocent people are now illegally held on police DNA databases. This sobering data is lifted verbatim from the afterword of Henry Porter’s chilling novel of governmental abuse of power in the Age of Terror, The Bell Ringers (Atlantic Monthly Press; ISBN 9780802119315; 416pp; $24.00), set for release in February 2010. Porter goes on to describe a little known piece of legislation, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which allows the Prime Minister and/or a few well placed others to suspend the rule of law, dismantle democracy, restrict travel, sieze property, and arbitrarily arrest and detain anyone at any time for any reason. Scary? Let’s just say that George Orwell is likely looking down from above, waggling an admonitory finger, and saying “I told you so.” Porter’s book is set in the near future, although he stresses that all of the laws referenced therein are in fact on the books now, ready and waiting for the almost inevitable wave of governmental paranoia to set the wheels in motion.

The Bell Ringers chronicles the last days of David Eyam, a one-time bright light in the ruling administration, now cast out for his anachronistic views on personal freedom versus national security. He possesses some potentially damaging information about the incumbent Prime Minister; the government in turn desperately wants to neutralize him, and by whatever means necessary. People close to him begin dropping off like flies, often under dubious circumstances; his computer has been compromised with child pornography by person or persons unknown, and details of his supposed proclivities leaked to the press; his bank accounts have been frozen. So, he does what any right thinking person might do under the circumstances: he beats a hasty retreat to someplace warm and tropical (and a long long way from England), in this case Colombia, where, to all appearances, he has the misfortune to get blown up by a terrorist bomb. Problem is, somehow he manages to make a phone call a week after his “death”, so it seems a good possibility that he may have faked his untimely demise. The powers that be hold one premise paramount: Eyam, if he is indeed alive, must be prevented from delivering his evidence to the Parliament; no cost is too high, and no excuses will be brooked.

The Bell Ringers crossed my threshold a bit too late to be covered in the February issue of BookPage (www.bookpage.com), so I wanted to make a special point of devoting space to it here in Mysterious Orientations. To my mind, it is easily one of the most important and timely novels of post-9/11 governmental excess, flat-out guaranteed to set off heated and lengthy debates in reading groups worldwide.

One parting thought, in case there are lingering doubts as to where my sympathies lie: Benjamin Franklin once famously said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” This has been oft-repeated, usually with slight variations, my favorite of which remains: “People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither, and will lose both.”

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