Tracing Treason: Between Civil Liberties and Collective Security


It was the golden age of Athenian civilisation when Socrates was called to trial by a polis facing political reformulation following defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Under charges of moral corruption and impiety, the great philosopher faced his jury.  For crimes against the city-state of Athens he was found guilty, and sentenced to death. Faithful to his teachings of respect for the rule of law, he drank the contents of his ascribed poison as if a draught of sweet wine.  

For some, the trial represented the disparity between democratic ideals and popular rule in practice. For others, his sentence was a reasonable defence of a democracy at peril and its steadfast principles. For Plato, the execution - of whom he called the wisest and most just of all men - inspired a body of work that marked the culmination of ancient Greek philosophical thought and laid the foundations for the Occidental philosophical tradition.

Beyond the polis of Athens, the court room has acted as a theatre for reflection on the relationship between the citizen subject and the society to which they belong. Within the binary constraints of the law, judgements are passed. The drama of the court room provides for negotiations on the relationship between individual identity and the authority of the state, as collective identities are forged through the narrative of public trial. With a protagonist accused and a captive audience, a stage for moral lesson is built.


Moving forward to the foremost horror of the twentieth century, it was not until the 1960s - when the trial of Adolf Eichmann demonstrated the banality of an evil wholly obedient to authority - that the Holocaust gained its metaphysical and cultural symbolism. 

But in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the Holocaust was not recognised by the international community as the systematic extermination of 6 million Jews. Rather, it was seen as one aspect of the atrocities committed by the Nazi fascists in their war of aggression. It was as an active participant in this violent nationalism that William Joyce would be tried by the British government for the crime of treason. 

Joyce, whose fascist career had begun under the guidance of Sir Oswald Mosley, was drawn towards the world of Adolf Hitler. Shortly before war was declared, he fled the British authorities to a place where his views did not elicit the prospect of arrest. In Germany, he was quickly employed to issue broadcasts and write scripts on an English language radio station. At the peak of his popularity, the rhetoric he had perfected as a young fascist activist was used to deliver German propagandist messages to 18 million British listeners – inciting subversion against the Allied war effort.

His career lasted the war, but in 1945 Joyce was brought to the Old Bailey under charges of high treason. Pleading not guilty, he offered himself as a case for a prominent public trial by a nation reeling from the material and emotional toil of war. For his prosecutors, this was a chance to affirm the collective identity of a British front that had won military success. 

It was the particularity of his association with the Nazi regime whilst in possession of a British passport that served as the key indicator of Joyce’s guilt. For his jury, the failure to uphold allegiance to the Crown in favour of the fervent nationalism of the German fascists was an offence that demanded his life. William Joyce went defiant to his noose, the last person to be executed for treason in Britain.


But with that special capacity of time to alter any idea, the nature of treason is shifting. Just as it was the multipolar order of the Second World War system that generated that particular brand of fascist treachery, it was the bipolar order of a new world system that shaped the path of those called to conspire in the Cold War.  

In the climate of Cold War intrigue, treachery could be achieved through the weakening of the ties that formed an ideological front. The Soviet Union willed the identification of its agents amongst the internal workings of Western ally states as a way to sow distrust and generate imbalance between the various atoms of its enemies. As the tactics of conceit changed, so too did the means by which its actors faced judgement.

The trial of Klaus Emil Fuchs on 1 March 1950, for his role in sharing atomic secrets with the Soviet enemy, judged his espionage as an act of treason. His defence held that he was acting in principled protest against government demands for secrecy that violated his commitment to truth as a member of the global scientific community. The conduct of his trial highlighted the changed nature of the world order. Unlike that of Joyce and his fellow fascists, whose trials were intended as a moral lesson for a nation, Fuchs was tried quickly, quietly, and without spectacle. He was handed the maximum sentence available under the Official Secrets Act. 

Such patterns of communist conspiracy were repeated, replicated in action and then in art, forming a body of work that gave immortality to the workings of this secret global society. Then, with the peculiar dramatism that remains the preserve of history, this world too crumbled. Its people rose, its walls fell, and a seemingly deep rooted ideological grip sank into the earth from which it aspired to build. 

The collapse of the bipolar world order was taken by some to represent the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism over alternative world visions - the end of history in a post-ideological age. Globalisation - taken to mean the state of complete transnational integration, encompassing all the people of the world within a single network of economic and cultural connections informed by a common consciousness - became the byword of the millennia, believed by both optimists and pessimists to represent the potential of a new age.


Since then, this imagined condition has become the latest utopia to collapse before our eyes. The implications of the contemporary ‘globalised’ world - neoliberal market hegemony, the homogenisation of mass consumerism against the sharpened heterogeneity of cultural relativism, mass migration in a world of hyper information, and the ubiquitous spectre of environmental destruction - have raised a host of new and challenging questions to contend with.

In this transnational age, the nature of nationalism, and its counterpart treason, takes on new meaning. The social contract that dictates a state provides protection in return for citizen obedience has broken its national boundaries, subject to treachery on a universal scale. 

US citizen Edward Snowden took the decision in 2013 to blow the whistle on human rights abuses by the United States National Security Agency. His revelation outed the extent of global mass surveillance, showing how governments without consent are scooping up the private communications of individuals. He chose to share this information because he believed that the citizens of his country and the world needed to confront the truth of this mass violation of civil liberties. His betrayal of state information in favour of public interest means he now faces decades in prison under charges of espionage outdated and ill-suited to deal with the nature of his crime. His treason was not in support of a contained enemy ideology, but as a transcendent universal aim for the protection of individual freedoms to which all nations must be accountable.

But the apparent goodwill that inspired Snowden’s revelations is not a consistent thread in contemporary acts of treason. Terrorism committed by citizens of a state willing to murder their compatriots in the name of ideology is a gross breakdown of a social contract that demands some collective duty of society. 

In Britain, the 2015 murder of left-wing politician Jo Cox by a far right extremist and the 2017 fatal attack on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster are tragic examples of how perceptions of difference in a globalised world breed a fatal brand of treason at home.

Jo Cox’s murderer was locked away swiftly; Thomas Mair chose to enter no plea and gave no defence at his trial. But his murderous cries of “Britain First!” rang out through the courtroom as evidence of the extreme nationalism that inspired his act. Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker, was shot in his tracks as he tried to inflict more death on an innocent public. Despite the speed with which the radical terrorist organisation Islamic State claimed him as one of their own, the exact motivations that took Masood over that bridge remain subject to speculation. 

Beyond the media headlines and the commemorative processions, true justice for the victims of such criminal acts will come from achieving solutions that ensure innocent civilians are not killed in the street by those who feel that is a legitimate way to express dissatisfaction with their society. 

But, so often, in the climate of fear that follows an attack on the values of a state, citizens are willing to grant their government extraordinary powers in the name of protection. After 11 September 2001, the community of nations took the opportunity to combat terrorist activities by cracking down on domestic political opponents. In democracies and authoritarianisms alike, the war on terror has been extended to restrict civil liberties in the name of national security.

France, following the 2015 Islamic State terror attack that killed 130 people in Paris, has recently entered its longest uninterrupted state of emergency since the Algerian War in the 1960s, accompanied by the restriction of civil liberties that this entails. In the vying for political power, the provision of security is central to the promises of leaders in a nation whose children have died by the guns of an enemy ideology. But with the insistent recurrence of such violence, the impossibility of absolute security becomes painfully clear, begging the question how much freedom is one willing to give up for the sake of collective safety, and at what cost.

In contemporary Turkey there is evidence of the dangers of this security narrative to the values of democracy. The presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seen the harassment, arrest and imprisonment of intellectuals, teachers and artists whose commitment to rights of expression puts them in opposition to his entrenching regime. Dissenters condemned as traitors, the act of treason is used as a reason for the extension of power, in violation of civil liberties that should transcend the nation. 


Socrates, when drinking his sweet poisoned wine, believed that reason could dictate a conscientious disobedience to the state, while agreeing that he had to accept the legal sanctions of his polis. But with no natural correlation between law and justice, an individual must walk this line between respecting the democratic rule of law, and fighting for those values whose intangible nature pulls more at the human heart than those of decrees or documents. 

As it was seen in Eichmann, it is with absolute obedience to the orders of authority that the banal nature of human evil is given space to prosper. The memory of such obedience practiced en masse should provide the guidance to our contemporary treasons. 

The accompanying balance between civil liberties and collective security is for the social contract as the Odysseyan passage between Scylla and Charybdis, respectively.

Odysseus and his ship faced an ocean passage between the Charybdis whirlpool and the cave dwelling, man-eating monster Scylla. One route, Charybdis, presents the possibility that the entire ship will be swallowed by the sea, taking with it all men on board to certain death. The other, Scylla, guarantees the loss of some men to the hungry monster, but ensures that the ship will pass intact. A terrible choice, but pragmatism and idealism alike demand that the mouth of the monster is chanced. The potential to lose all men aboard to the depths of the ocean, the ship and all its previous achievement sinking into oblivion, is too high a risk to take when the journey ahead will promises so much for the vessel and its crew.