can kill burglars, screamed the UK tabloids. Such headlines
were promoted by a comment by Sir John Stevens, the outgoing police
commissioner, that the public should be allowed to use whatever
force is necessary against intruders in their home. His statement
was swiftly followed by a pamphlet produced by the Association of
Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service reaffirming
that reasonable force can be used against burglars.
public debate then ensued about what householders can and cannot
do if someone breaks into their home. Radio talk shows ran tiresome
debates about the acceptability of belting someone over the head
with a baseball bat when they make off with your television.
frenzy about it hardly matches the degree to which it is a major
social problem in the UK. What is fascinating about this issue in
the UK context is how it has even made it into the news. In the
past 15 years there have been eleven householders prosecuted for
excessive use of violence against intruders. Of these only five
were prosecuted for using violence not deemed self-defence. One
of these prosecutions included a man who set a trap for a burglar,
captured him, beat him to death and then set him alight.
to the British Crime Survey, the total number of domestic burglaries
in England and Wales in 2002/3 was around 974 000. This means in
the UK the average homeowner has a roughly one in a million chance
of ending up in court associated with the use of excessive violence
against an intruder.
what is going on?
On one level the hysteria is closely linked with the UK elections
that will take place in May. The focus on this issue is another
dimension of the growing politics of fear that pervades the West.
Highlighting the rights of citizens helps convince the electorate
that the government is on their side and will allow them to enforce
their individual rights at any cost.
on another level something more sinister is afoot. While the public
debate what their rights are in a fair fight with a burglar, the
British government is busy whittling away at their more substantive
the wake of the September 11 attacks the Anti-Terrorism Crime and
Security Act 2001 was quickly cobbled together by the British government.
This new law meant that foreign nationals could effectively be detained
without trial at the discretion of the Home Secretary. Twelve individuals
have been detained on this basis since December 2001. But last month
the House of Lords ruled that such practices were not consistent
with European human rights law. The response from the British government
was astounding. Since they can no longer detain people without trial
in prisons, the government decided to seek legislation that will
put terror suspects under house arrest using control orders.
Such orders would entail suspects not being able to leave their
homes, banning them from the use of phones or the Internet, electronic
tagging and the enforcement of curfews. Under these proposed plans
both British citizens and foreigners suspected of international
or domestic terrorism could be detained as a preventive
measure without charge or trials potentially indefinitely. In other
words, while the debate rages about what rights people have in their
home, the British government is drafting legislation which will
erode rights and turn houses into prisons.
Now if there is one thing South Africans can teach the British about
it is prisons, and specifically the vagaries of detention without
trial. In the 1980s in South Africa over 80 000 people were detained
without trial, some for up to two-and-a-half years. Although it
may be argued by some that the practice temporarily removed some
alleged threats, in the long run it served as a tool to create anger
and animosity, and fuelled cycles of violence. The practice left
a generation who had little respect for the law because they had
only ever experienced it as partial and inconsistent. Is Britain
heading the same way? Only time will tell what the full impact of
the control order and associated proposals will be, but right now,
the message is loud and clear. The law is there to be manipulated
by government and European human rights laws disrespected.
youth, in this case mainly young Muslim men who are the most likely
victims of the proposed laws, will grow up seeing the law as a weapon
to be used against them. As a consequence the law will be resented
and not respected. Treat people with respect and the chance of them
respecting you is all the more likely. Treat them as terrorists
without a fair trial and more terror will be the result. Instead
of creating a safer world through laws that promise more security,
greater levels of global insecurity will prevail.
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
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