Britain, 1984

It seems Orwell may have been off by 20 years. Britain has the highest density of closed-circuit surveilance cameras. They are introducing ID cards which must be carried at all times. Now we all know the British have their fair share of louts, but new laws do an end run around centuries of justice.

This is how it works. You and your friends like to spend Saturday nights have a barbeque in the park. On this particular evening there is an argument, voices are raised, and an old lady trying to get some sleep calls the police. So far so good. But the police decide to hit you with an “anti-social behaviour order”, or ASBO. On the balance of probabilities a judge agrees that you were behaving loutishly, and bans you from associating with those people or spending time in that park. The next weekend when you show up together, the lady sees you and calls the cops again. This time the charges are criminal and hence must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, but the police don’t have to prove much: only that you violated the ASBO, which is a cinch since they found you in the park and you’re not allowed to be there. You’re thrown in jail for six months.

A policeman in the July 24 Economist article where I read about this says, “I never thought I would live in a country where the police would have these powers.”

2004-07-30

Good Men Do Nothing

Five people died when their fishing boat capsized last year near Vancouver. The divers from the rescue hovercraft which arrived on the scene recently testified at a hearing into the tragedy. One of them broke down in tears, because although they were allowed into the water to look for the victims, federal regulations strictly forbade them from entering the boat to see whether there might be any survivors in air pockets.

Now these divers are cursed with the agony of wondering whether, if they had gone inside that boat, they could have saved the adults and children who drowned. The horror is that we have people who are willing to risk their lives but not to violate regulations.

What has happened to us? Because this isn’t a problem with the divers. I doubt I would have the courage to break the rules either. They are probably better men than me, or than most of us. This is a problem with our society. We are so hidebound that we can’t imagine breaking the rules. Damn it, there’s a time for rules and there’s a time for standing up as human beings and making our own decisions. That’s the essence of morality. If someone is willing to take the risk and justify it, we should be grateful, because they are the ones who are going out there and saving our lives.

And you know what? Sometimes it will all go wrong. Sometimes the expert on the scene will make the wrong call and make a bad situation worse. And there won’t be any paper trail and there won’t be any rulebook to justify it and the victims’ families will scream bloody murder and sue. But just as we are doing now, we are intelligent enough to sit down and analyze the situation and figure out what went wrong and try to make it right next time, and we’re human enough to understand that people make mistakes.

Because we’re a hell of a lot better off if it’s people making the mistakes. When the system makes the mistakes, more people die and those of us who are left are less human for it. And right now we are less human. We have made our rules, and the rules say that good men must stand by and do nothing.

2004-05-18
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