Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The meaning of freedom

Amanda Brooks, over here, posted an interesting story back in April. Briefly she was stopped and harassed by the cops in east Texas and she felt angry and violated by it (my words not hers).
I'm not going to second guess Amanda, she clearly had a rough time and nobody deserves that. But without commenting directly on Amanda's experience I want to use it as the stepping off point to discuss freedom.
In the late 18th and early 19th century Britain convicted massive numbers of people, mainly for petty property crime, they were either hung or transported. That's how Australia got going - transported convicts. The response was disproportionate to the crime, the punishments excessive and the outcomes for the poor bastards that were convicted were awful.
The key point about British society at that time was the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots". The gap was large and the "haves" acted aggressively to ensure that there was nothing and nobody that would threaten their position. I would argue that many western countries and particularly the United States find themselves in a similar position right now. That situation is further exacerbated by the creation of wars on faceless things: the War on Drugs, The War on Terror.
The problem branches into two parts from there. The first is the thing that many of us find so confronting, so gobsmacking and so hard to stomach: the line from being one of the people protected by the law to one of the people victimised by the law is razor thin. The journey from one side to the other takes a mere breath. So as we advocate judicial murder, long imprisonment, zero tolerance, three strikes and you're out...none of us think it might be us. Yet all too easily we can slip from privilege to prejudice. It can be us and it can be us really simply and quickly.
Worse if we are poor, black, poorly educated it is more likely to be us. We are the "have nots". We don't have money, education, the right friends or political influence. If we had those things we wouldn't find ourselves in the noose and even if we did, those things would extricate us from the noose.
Circling further, the key thing that removes our personal freedoms is us - it's our fear. We are scared that somebody might bomb us, we are scared that somebody might rob us, knife us, shoot us or otherwise harm us. So we conspire with the politicians to allow increasingly punitive laws and sentencing guidelines; we conspire with politicians to send our loved ones to far off lands to die in the name of freedom; we conspire with politicians and bureaucrats to make us stand in long queues and remove our belts and shoes before we can board an aircraft, to make us leave our bottles of water at home...endlessly in a downward spiral.
Our fears mean that we allow "them" to take our freedoms from us, because until the very moment we realise that we aren't them but us, we think we are safe, we are of them and they are doing these things to make the haves safe. Of course we are a have...until just the point that we realise we are not.
As for the terrorist: his intent is to cause damage to others. The greater damage (beyond the death of the innocent) is the economic damage that we inflict on ourselves by layering "security" of every sort upon the whole population. The cost to the economy, the cost to the individual, the slowing of activity and the curtailment of sensible and reasonable activity, all in the name of security, is simply aiding those who would seek to commit terrorist atrocities upon us.
As I read Amanda's post I wondered whether that was the seat of what affected her so profoundly about this very unpleasant experience. She had suddenly, as any of us might, found herself across the line and realised that this chant of freedom is illusory.

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