Monday, 2 April 2012

Not an April fool

Someone I know  phoned me yesterday, and the conversation turned to April Fool's day broadcasts and "news" stories. 'The one I really laughed at,' she said to me, 'was the story about the Government wishing to monitor all emails, texts and mobile phone calls. Who would possibly believe that?'
If only.
We all know that the modern State has the technology at its disposal to place each of its citizens under close surveillance from dawn to dusk and the hours of darkness thrown in. If we were so monitored there is no doubt that crime and terrorism and all kinds of bad behaviour would be significantly reduced. It's also true that those who have nothing to hide and have done nothing wrong  would, in an ideal world governed by the consistently wise and benevolent representatives of the people, have nothing to fear.
But at what cost to human freedom? There is always a balance to be struck between the necessary protection of the public and the legitimate right of  individuals not to be spied upon, or have their lives intruded upon arbitrarily.
It would seem that those who have governed us and, under their influence, those who have policed us, over the last decade or so have little clue as to where that balance should be struck and what should be the philosophical and practical limits of the power of the State. Our politicians, with some honourable exceptions, have conspicuously failed in their duty to practice eternal vigilance in relation to our freedoms. We should never assume the benevolence of those in power; the checks and balances of even an unwritten constitution are designed to rein in the natural propensity of officialdom to accumulate any powers beyond those absolutely necessary.
As we know, customs and mores change, public consciousness shifts. What may be perfectly legal and unexceptional in terms both of private conduct and the public expression of views in one generation, may be become socially frowned upon or even criminalised in the next.
We seem now to have an obsessive and increasing faith in the power of law to change human nature and to enforce those patterns of thought acceptable to contemporary society. Strangely, we arrest and jail the repugnantly racist for expressing their moronic views on Facebook or Twitter, while on weekend nights our urban public spaces are awash with vomit and darkened with the threat of violence, and some worry about their future ability to proclaim robustly and live the Gospel authentically in a society where sensibilities sometimes appear so tender and easily threatened.
But do we really want to hand to the State a blank cheque in terms of the power to observe us and regulate us? Powers are usually handed over to governments for the best possible reasons; they are very seldom, if ever, given up even when conditions change.
 As has been said, the proposals likely to be included in the Queen's Speech, if the weekend's reports are true, represent a seismic shift in the relationship between the individual and the State. [Report here]
We are already  in grave danger of  trying to create windows into men's souls and, it would seem, not that far away.from the Orwellian nightmare of a CCTV screen in every room.
No, not an April Fool.

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