11th December 2009: Is This the Kind of World You Want to Live In?

One of the things that’s making me angry about the Peter Watts thing, beyond the fact that it’s happened at all, is the way so many people in comments at BoingBoing and at Whatever and all over are saying that it must be his fault, that he must have done something to provoke it, that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d been polite and done what he was told and if he had, in effect, cringed more.

This may well be the case.

But is that the world you want to live in?

When I was growing up, in the Cold War, we talked about the Free World. In the Free World you didn’t have to present papers endlessly, you didn’t have to cringe before authority, everyone was equal before the law, people didn’t disappear. The Free World was better than the Soviet world that was the enemy in those days. Not fearing the police and the army and the border guards is part of that freedom. They are public servants, they are people doing a potentially dangerous job and they deserve respect, and so do we deserve respectful treatment from them. There might be circumstances in which they have to kill people, in which that’s appropriate behaviour, but it should never be appropriate for them to behave as if they have arbitrary power and expect reactions of fear and cringing.

The thing about terrorism is that it makes you afraid. The thing about giving up liberty for security is that you can’t get security that way. And once you’ve gone down that road it’s hard to get back. It’s possible to get back — look at Spain, recovered step by uphill step from thirty years of fascism. Look at Eastern Europe, trying hard even now. But you’ve got to fight your way back, you’ve got to struggle to get it back, and you’ve got to face where you are and keep fighting for liberty all the time, for other people’s liberty. It’s so easy to go along with things, to get on with your life while awful things continue to happen in your name, because of course your life is your priority.

You know the good thing about this Peter Watts thing? They did it to the wrong person, they did it to somebody who knows people who can get the word out, and we are getting the word and we are appalled. Do you think he’s the first person this happened to this year? Great comment at the end of Patrick’s generally great post on all this at Making Light We should fight for justice in general—and we should have our friends’ back. So, he’s our friend, or our friend’s friend and we’re hearing this and we’re horrified. Being horrified is good, taking action is good — give money, write to your representatives, object, stand up. Anything can happen, you can’t stop awful things happening, what matters is how we all react when they do. If we roll our eyes and say cynically that what could be expected, this is where we are opening the door to evil, because once we accept that this is what happens, this is the new normal, and what happens next is worse.

Most of the people saying “he should have cringed more” are saying “It’s his fault. He did something wrong. I wouldn’t do that. It wouldn’t happen to me.” They’re wrong. It can happen to them, to you, to me, to any of us randomly at a border or even (in the US) for up to fifty miles from a border at a checkpoint. They want to feel safe, even if that’s an illusion. But some of those people are saying “Wise up, this is the way things are,” and that is another step downwards on a road most of the rest of us are trying to climb away from, a road that has Maher Arar on it, and Guantanamo, and good people doing nothing.

I may go to Boskone anyway. The US is too big to boycott, and I shouldn’t let them make me afraid — and it does make me afraid. This isn’t only an American problem, it’s a creeping trend.

Posted in Human culture