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Paris Attacks Could Cramp Belgian Civil Liberties

Nov 22, 2015
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brussels continues to be on the highest state of alert as security forces there warn of a, quote, "serious and imminent threat." The subway system is closed. Residents have been warned to avoid places where crowds could gather. Last week, Belgium's prime minister proposed sweeping new measures to eavesdrop, tighten borders and deploy the military in the fight against terrorism. As a manhunt for one of the Paris attackers continues, NPR's Peter Kenyon has been finding out whether Belgians think the time has come to recalibrate the balance between civil liberties and security.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: I asked Claude Moniquet, a former Belgian intelligence official who's now an analyst, whether anxiety over the Paris attacks would suppress the traditional European demand for civil liberties and clear limits on police powers.

CLAUDE MONIQUET: I think so. I must say I hope so. As a former professional in intelligence, I think we need it - not anything, of course, and not for a very long time. But for certain part of time, we need certain legal measures.

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PRIME MINISTER CHARLES MICHEL: (Speaking French).

KENYON: Belgian lawmakers are pondering a raft of new proposals, expanding the use of wiretapping, warrantless searches, tighter border controls, expulsion of those guilty of hate speech and more.

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MICHEL: (Speaking French).

KENYON: The new measures are confronting a population long used to tolerance and open borders with a painful choice, giving up liberties in the name of security. On a rainy afternoon in Brussels, well-known Schuman roundabout, surrounded by EU institutions, Mihaela Bularca says it's a difficult question. She moved here from Romania eight years ago and says she wouldn't like to think that all her phone conversations were being listened to. But then she looks down at her 1-year-old daughter, Maria, and says, maybe tougher measures are needed.

MIHAELA BULARCA: Well, it is the thought that goes through my mind because especially in this - in Paris, there were one couple - a Romanian couple - that was killed. And they had a daughter 18 months. So I couldn't help but, you know, feeling, OK, that would have been me and my husband. I don't want to have my daughter, you know, growing all alone without - without her parents.

KENYON: Even as she says it, though, it's clear that she's wrestling with the implications.

BULARCA: Like I said, it's hard to draw the line. I wouldn't want my daughter either to grow in a kind of a world where she cannot even go to the toilet without somebody watching her.

KENYON: At a recent peace rally in the main square in the troubled suburb of Molenbeek, I put the question to Sophia Court-Royal, who came to Brussels 23 years ago from Portugal. She predicted that security hawks in several countries will be using the Paris attacks and the ensuing public anxiety as shown by the Brussels lockdown to try to increase the government's reach into the lives of its citizens.

SOPHIA COURT-ROYAL: Of course, these situations are the dream for all the governments to put laws that we would never accept in other contexts. Here it's an emergency context, and blah, blah, blah, there are lots of laws going out that we would never accept in another context.

KENYON: Security expert Claude Moniquet sees just the opposite problem, that new measures may be recommended now but then dropped once the panic of the moment passes, as has happened in the past.

MONIQUET: Remember last January, after Charlie Hebdo, people saying, we want a strong war against terror. Two months later, when the law on intelligence was discussed in the French Parliament, people say, oh, no, this is an attack against my liberty. This is a kind of schizophrenia. And the society wants to be protected. But it doesn't accept to put a price on this protection.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.