Wednesday 02 March 2016

How safe are we?

Published as ‘Fears surrendering our freedoms’, Geelong Advertiser, Saturday, 5 May 2007, p. 33

Watch television, read the news or listen to the shock jocks on the radio and you could be forgiven for thinking we are living in the most violent of times and places?

Yet Australia is one of the safest places on earth, despite our fellow human beings and our magnificent collection of dangerous spiders, snakes and sharks.

And we are living in the safest of times in this part of the world.

Interpersonal violence has declined steadily and consistently over the years, though there are always lurid and spectacular examples of intolerable behaviour by one or more human beings to another to cause us to shudder and be afraid that it could happen to us.

Some politicians play on these fears and invite us to join in a war on terror giving us fridge magnets and inviting us to ring a hotline if we see anything out of the ordinary.

At other times security forces have used socially sanctioned campaigns against demonised groups in our society to introduce new laws and surveillance equipment which otherwise would be anathema to virtually all democrats, not just the most extreme civil libertarians.

Some of the most draconian civil penalties in the United Kingdom and associated control systems were the product of campaigns in the 1980s against football hooliganism and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Luckily the courts in the United Kingdom tempered the worst excesses of these campaigns.

The more recent war on terror has spawned a new set of abridgements of what were previously considered the rights of the citizen.

More people die from preventable disease and road accidents and from incidents (I hesitate to call them accidents) in the home and workplace than from interpersonal violence.

Now my argument is not that no threats to our comfortable existence occur, but rather that we should be very careful not to take at face value the claims of those who argue that our society is in danger and we as individuals are threatened by imminent catastrophe unless we give up some more of the freedoms generations of our ancestors fought to establish and then preserve.

It is that freedom which the vast majority of Australians value and respect which gives us the kind of society we enjoy today.

Having said that, many years ago we agreed to give our government a stable monopoly of force in our society.

So unlike citizens of the United States we do not have a right to bear arms enshrined in our constitution, and the benefits of that are considerable.

Yet we expect our government to protect us at home and when we travel abroad.

The question is how much freedom should we give up to allow our government to discharge that obligation.

A well reasoned and challengeable case for change in our laws is one thing, but some of the more recent so-called anti-terrorist provisions seem to me to be beyond reason and actually counter-productive.

It was an American, Wendell Phillips, who said the price of liberty was eternal vigilance.

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