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A police state

by: Rabbi Jermey Rosen - Last updated: 2004-01-16

Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Exodus 1. Egypt, the bible's version of a police State.

Police States control the lives of their citizens. What is dangerous is not so much the information or the control itself, as the use to which it is all put. Like Nuclear Fission, it can be used for good or evil.

The debate about State control has been heightened both by anti terrorist legislation in the United States and by two murderers in England. This week Harold Shipman committed suicide in prison. He had taken advantage of a system that trusted doctors and was reluctant to pry. As a result he was able to get away for years with murder and probably killed some three hundred people.

Last month Ian Huntley was found guilty of murdering two young girls, it transpired that he had a record that included four allegations of molesting under age children, three of rape, one of indecent assault and one of burglary. Yet the headmaster who appointed him as caretaker of his school knew none of this. The East-Anglian police force did not have information available in Grimsby. Records had been deleted because of anxiety that there are too many personal records on file.

Solutions the press offered pussy footed around the real issue. Instead they included such suggestions as the return of mandatory personal references. Anyone who has been in education knows full well that references are totally unreliable. I soon found out that the more glowing a reference the more I needed to double check. Head teachers were and are reluctant to say anything too negative and even though once upon a time it was common practice to praise a dud teacher in the hopes that some other sucker would employ him or her and take him or her off ones hands.

Over time head teachers stopped that for fear of being found out. Code phrases would appear 'X is a wonderful teacher and I should be happy to answer any questions you may have in about his her work' or ' I recommend Z to you and will be delighted to tell you more about his or her qualities over the phone.' Of course if the person concerned had already been offered a position it was simple protocol not to say anything significant at all, because it was too late. For whatever reasons, written references in education were completely unreliable and I discovered over time that the same applied pretty universally. The truth is that there is no substitute for full and complete records of a person's career and history.

But the hue and cry against the invasion of privacy is forcing government agencies to avoid doing things most of us agree are essential to the well being of our society. The suggestion put forward by the Home Secretary David Blunkett that we should carry identity cards to combat crime and welfare fraud, is coming under tremendous assault from the so-called champions of freedom. The quality papers have been full of articles by agitated journalists complaining that we are in danger of living in a
society where everyone is suspected of being a paedophile.

Why I wonder? Have they got something to hide? Belgium has identity cards and I'm not aware that they have greater restrictions than we do. Indeed their police seem even less capable than ours in tracking down sex offenders. Is it simply a question of wanting to limit the power of government, to prevent Big Brother controlling out lives? We live in societies, which insist constitutionally on all sorts of rights. If rights
are protected is not this the safeguard we need?

Video cameras in city centres cut down crime. But so-called freedom lovers object to being caught on tape. Why? If they have nothing to hide what are they frightened of? Britain has, apparently, more cameras observing its citizens than any other country. Where there are cameras, crime has been drastically reduced. So I ask you, would you rather live in a 'controlling' videoing British society or under a camera less dictatorship?

It is part of our religious poetry to imagine that Someone is always watching us and we should consider this a positive thing. "Know that what is above you, an eye that sees, an ear that hears and all your actions are recorded.' 'Even your most private conversation is known to God.'  Are we any less freedom loving or free because of this? If our rights are protected by law then only breaking the law will get us into trouble. So why are freedom lovers so scared? Are they not paying their taxes?

Shabbat Shalom