This book is about the undermining of civil liberties in the West. In the guise of War on Terror the British and US governments are working fast to restrict these hard-won rights. From Grayling's viewpoint the misnamed War on Terror should more appropriately be called a War on Civil Liberties. Consequently, he talks about a purposeful destruction of civil liberties. In "Towards the Light" from 2007, Grayling provides the historical background for the struggle between the forces of Enlightenment and its foes, between liberalism and conservatism. He warns us not to be complacent and take our civil liberties for granted. In the UK there isn't even a written constitution guaranteeing basic liberties. It is now for example legal to detain anyone for 28 days without charges. Gordon Brown recently proposed to expand this to 42 days. The Magna Carta from 1215 allows for no more than 48 HOURS. Think about it.
Grayling presents his arguments with seeming ease and simplicity. He keeps his philosophical learning in the background which makes "Liberty in the Age of Terror" eminently readable without sounding superficial. Part I, which takes up more than half of the book, deals mainly with the assault on civil liberties and human rights in the light of terror and immigration, while Part II consists of "debates" with contemporary commentators. Taking the Enlightenment as starting point, he then moves from Isaiah Berlin and Ronald Dworkin to Tzvetan Todorov. He turns a critical eye towards Roger Scruton, Slavoj Zizek, John Ralston Saul, and John Gray. The latter merits a particularly sharp dissection, causing his whole cardboard construction to come tumbling down. The clear-eyed dismantling of Gray's anti-humanist views makes one wonder how on earth anyone could have taken them seriously in the first place. Grayling also takes note of the fashionable rejection of the idea of progress and anything utopian. It's a cheap point to assert that it's hopeless to strive for a perfect society. Admittedly, there are those "blue-print utopians" (Jacoby) who envisage such an airtight world, but seeking a social life with more justice, emancipation, and equity doesn't mean you harbour totalitarian ideas. There is a clear distinction between meliorism and utopianism, between improvement and perfectibility. This line of thought has also been pursued recently by among others Susan Neiman, Tzvetan Todorov, and Russel Jacoby.
No believer of the Clash of Civilizations, Grayling rather seeks a solution to the threat of terrorism in a dialogue with the majority of moderates both in the West and East. According to him the most important matter in the end is that terrorism happened in part because people "perceive themselves as ignored, contemned, slighted and unjustly treated" (95). But by curbing people's civil liberties instead of encouraging an open discussion - including dissent as a vital part of any real democracy - governments are putting the cart in front of the horse. By creating a society of insecurity and suspicion we in fact do the work for the terrorists. As Benjamin Franklin said: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither" (109).
In the appendixes Grayling reprints the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (also included in "Towards the Light"), the European Convention of Human Rights, the Human Rights Act, plus laws and measurements that have reduced liberties in the UK and US in recent years. Here the reader is presented with a bird's-eye view of the impairment of the civil liberties we take, or perhaps rather took, for granted.