I haven’t had a rant/sermon in a while.
My parents’ generation went through the second world war, fighting tyrants and ideologies that sought to control our everyday lives; for which reason they are sometimes called “the best generation”. Their parents’ generation fought world war one and went through the Depression. The generation I am the tail end of, the Baby Boomers, fought in Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. Despite all this threat and challenge, liberty increased – by the early 1970s, there was an assumption that one had the right to behave in any way that didn’t harm another person, and that the law would eventually catch up. The right to free speech in countries that didn’t have it was increasingly taken, not asked for, and in countries that did, it was applied in ways that broke the comfortable conventions of the past.
What happened? In the past 30 years we have watched rights disappear under fear – fear of communism, fear of “moral decay”, fear of drugs, and now fear of terrorism. Our ersatz wars against these fearsome things has slowly eroded our rights – we are surveilled everywhere we go, we are prohibited from certain kinds of speech, and we are now inhibited in our movement across borders. In effect, as the old Soviet republics have become more open, the open world has become more Soviet. “Think of the children” justifies any restriction that makes the effects of these fears look trivial by comparison.
It’s about time we manned up. If our forebears can cope with risk and danger, and still be free, why can’t we? One in a hundred million are harmed by terrorist attacks, and we do exactly what the terrorists would like, and retreat from the modernism of free society and religious and political and economic choice across the board. Now we have democratic societies with warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention without charge or legal redress, and my own country is about to implement censorship of the internet, without any oversight by judicial or public scrutiny! And both major parties accept this!
It seems to me that we are in a similar situation to the Roman Republic. Under threat emergency laws were passed that made the tribune Julius Caesar dictator (the term meant one who rules by dictate, and accrued its later sense in virtue of what dictators did with those powers). Julius, of course, said that he would lay these powers aside when the emergency was over. Five hundred years later the Roman Empire, still with these powers intact, slowly collapsed from external causes. The emergency never was over, and in the meantime, citizens suffered through what amounted to a very long fascist state.
Is it that we can no longer evaluate risk? People worry more about air travel because of crashes when just getting into a car to go to the shops is more dangerous than a year’s air travel. But with the experience of a minuscule amount of terror events, relative to our air travel, we have given up on rapid and efficient transport. We can’t take fluids on an aircraft in case someone figures out how to cause an explosion with fluids that so far we have not seen any evidence of terrorists having. We now take three hours to get on a plane, and if somebody shouts at an air attendant – which is to say, if someone is a dick, and there are a proportion of dicks in any large sample of humans – planes will be diverted at great cost and confusion.
In short, we are cowards, and as cowards often do, we are giving up our best assets and rights. The terrorists don’t need to win; we can lose all by ourselves.
Look, there has always been something like terror in the world; anarchists, liberationists of various stripes, revolutionaries, and of course just plain criminals, like the ones that explode bombs among the general population because they have some grievance with the world. And yet, we had liberties for a while, which we gained while terror was around. How did we deal with it? We used the law, and good old police work. You cannot stop terror from occurring all the time, but you can reduce it to the level of danger one gets playing football.
Instead, we have adopted useless ineffective and costly measures that only look good, so we can deal with out fears. We can feel comfortable knowing that the national intelligence services are listening to those terrorists, while pretending not to know that they are going instead to listen in on you if you have any kind of view the authorities do not like. Warrantless wiretaps by the FBI and other agencies after 9/11 went rogue immediately, and that’s only what we do know. In Australia, moves to make the internet self-censor under law according to an undisclosed, unsupervised, list drawn up by public servants at the behest of the government of the day stands to make Australian access to information something that happens at the whim of the politicians. Now where has that worked well in the past, I wonder?
The thing about cowards is that by being scared to risk anything, they risk everything at the hands of those who are less scrupulous and apprehensive. As the old rhyme had it:
The rain it falls on the just and unjust feller
But chiefly on the just because
The unjust stole the just’s umbrella
Substitute “cowardly” for “just” and “ruthless” for unjust, and you see how things will go.
What to do? Well there is only one way to prevent this – stand up for freedoms against the unrelenting desire of the bureaucracy and politicians to take control. Allow rights to those you do not like so that you may have rights too. And when something, like child pornography or terror, threatens the civil order, use legal and effective policing methods to halt it and reverse it. And realise that you cannot have a risk-free world.