Sunday, December 14, 2008

Democracy’s enemy

Despots the world over suppress dissent as a matter of policy, but Western democracies have undertaken it in well-intentioned, but ultimately ill-advised, attempts to protect their democracies. For example, in the US, during the Vietnam War there were infamous scandals involving police infiltration and disruption of peaceful protest groups. Many countries are still doing this as part of the “war on terrorism”. Like many Western democracies, New Zealand is partway down that slope.

An article in the Sunday Star-Times detailed how special police had spied on legitimate and peaceful protest groups—like Greenpeace—“and used a paid informer to gather information not just about planned protests but the personal lives and sexual relationships of group members.” By itself, this isn’t particularly surprising: Give police the power to spy along with a noble-seeming purpose and this sort of thing happens. And let’s bet clear: New Zealand’s over-zealous spying on peaceful, legitimate protest groups is still mild and pretty banal compared to countries like the US.

Still, it’s that proverbial “slippery slope” from unwarranted snooping to deliberate disruption and on to suppression of peaceful dissent. In a democracy, we need to keep a sharp eye on how those special police powers are used. That’s exactly what the Star-Times article is doing.

What’s alarming about the story, however, is the attitude of the new National-led government’s Police Minister, Judith Collins. The article quotes her as saying: "This government wants to ensure [the police] have the tools and the support they need to keep the public safe.” I was thinking that that was possibly not as ominous as it sounded, but then she went on: “I think most New Zealanders would find it reassuring that the police are out there keeping a watch on the whole community. That's what they're there for” (emphasis added). Well, no, Judith, I don’t find that reassuring. I don’t want police wasting time and resources finding out about the sex lives of activists when there are potentially real, serious threats.

Maybe Collins didn’t mean to suggest support for unwarranted spying and snooping, nor for draconian police powers. But when we start surrendering liberty in the hope of achieving safety, we become demonstrably less free. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The US has learned this lesson over the past 8 years; New Zealand doesn’t need to repeat those mistakes.

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