Tuesday 2 March 2010

Nothing to hide, plenty to fear

Do you sometimes wonder whether the human rights of the transsexual community might be commanding a disproportionate amount of our legislators’ attention?

Already this year there have been suggestions that it might be in breach of transsexual rights for skirts to form part of school uniforms, and for full body scanners to be installed at airports.

My problem with working up to a full-blooded rant about the latter is that frankly any excuse will do if it puts a spoke in the revolting plan to subject every air traveller to a “virtual strip search” before they are allowed on a plane.

Ah, the objection will come, so you’d rather be blown up mid-flight by some loon with half a pound of Semtex sewn into his undercrackers? Obviously not, but the fanatics have already progressed to smuggling explosives internally, so where do you stop? X-rays and CAT scans for every traveller, complementing those smart new ticket gates at the Central Station?

As I recall I was still at primary school when I was introduced to the traditional question put to would-be conscientious objectors during the world wars: how would you react if you found a group of German soldiers about to rape your sister?

I won no marks for my smart response: with considerable surprise, since so far as I know I haven’t got a sister.

Last week I was fortunate to attend a dinner at which the charming Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, attempted to deal with the 2010 equivalent: how would she respond if terrorists had planted a ticking nuclear bomb and torture might help to persuade a suspect to reveal its location?

With great honesty, she concluded that she could not say exactly how she would react if she found herself charged with that grave but vanishingly unlikely responsibility. But since it is vanishingly unlikely, how can it possibly be right to frame public policy on the off-chance that it might arise?

The whole apparatus of extraordinary rendition, torture and extra-judicial killing simply erases the difference between us good guys and the baddies we are supposed to be combating. And quite apart from this moral case, there is the simple practical one that it stirs up resentment in a way perfectly calculated to win more recruits to the terrorist cause.

In all the arguments about CCTV surveillance, identity cards, DNA testing and ever-tighter security, you will hear the siren voice proclaiming “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” Few things have shocked me more over the years than attending functions full of well-fed, middle class people at which politicians and law enforcers have assured us that planned inroads into traditional liberties are not intended to affect People Like Us.

Dear me, no. Of course cracking down on yobboes swilling lager in the streets will not prevent you enjoying a civilised bottle of champagne with your picnic at Glyndebourne. Except, of course, that the universal law of unintended consequences usually means that each small erosion of someone else’s freedom tends to have knock-on effects that no-one thought through.

Every premature death is sad, whether it results from terrorism, dodgy street furniture, careless driving, inadequate parenting, the employment of a homicidal maniac or excessive consumption of lard, fags and ale. But the reaction to each such fatality is now the demand that “something must be done”, resulting in a culture of legislation, monitoring and preaching that is ultimately depriving us of our dignity as a free people as surely as being inspected naked on an airport scanner.

The control society steadily encroaching upon us will ultimately fail by alienating vast numbers of naturally law-abiding people to the point where they take a stand and say “No more”. With politicians allegedly in listening mode before the General Election, let 2010 be the year we begin to recover a sense of proportion.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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