The state and federal governments of Australia all agreed on new “security” measures to address what they call terrorist threats.
These measures, adopted a few weeks ago, sit in a long line of actions taken since September 2001, which have actually undermined the very freedoms they claim to defend. In reality, terror has undermined our human rights and freedoms.
The new measures are truly astonishing. It has been decided that uniformly, in all jurisdictions, it is now to be permitted that authorities can arrest a person and detain them for up to 14 days without charge. These provisions apply to someone as young as 10 years old.
Of course, we say, this can only happen if they have good reason to do so. Who decides what is good reason?
And then comes the next amazing provision: Governments have all agreed to make available to the federal authorities the photo ID of every single person in the country who has a driving license.
So, with this database of images, it is envisaged that they can scan crowds and pick out someone they think might be of interest, a suspect – who looks like the person they think they want to detain.
Therein lies the real problem. We have, in fact, been overwhelmed not just by the possibility of terrorism. Terror has already overtaken us.
Our leadership and our people are terrified – a situation that seems to be mirrored in many nations.
The word “terror” comes from the same root as stone, the ground (hence, territory), and to be terrified means to be effectively turned to stone. Those overwhelmed by terror can no longer move, act or feel.
That is what has happened to us. We have been overwhelmed by the fear constantly set before us by our so-called leaders that we have lost touch with the reality of our situation.
They want us to be afraid, so that they can manage things for their own political purposes (usually to do with business opportunities and wealth creation for the few), while sidelining and controlling any opposition. Terror has already won.
I do not deny that real threats exist. I have been in situations where bombs were going off and peoples’ homes were being burned. I don’t pretend that there are no such realities.
But we never seem to learn that the way to deal with them is not by adding more bombs and killings to the already tragic lists.
These things always arise from situations of injustice and oppression – even if centuries ago. These things have to be dealt with, and they are never dealt with by oppression, suppression, bombings and fear.
They require talk. Respect. Honest acknowledgement that a problem must be addressed and worked through. That is the only way that peace was ever created.
If necessary, then, they require constructive measures to make justice, to distribute justice, to make reparations and so forth – and a commitment to live together.
The term “human rights” is all too easily dismissed because too often we define these rights or name them in highly individualistic terms.
We speak of the rights of the individual. That, indeed, was the strong emphasis of liberalism as a philosophy. And there is much to be said for it.
But it is precisely at this point that the concept is weak as well. Western cultures place too much value on the individual over against family and community.
Human rights are not only individual. Human rights pertain also to every person within the society or community, as a member of society.
They are personal, and a person is never only an individual. Every person is someone’s child, someone’s sibling, partner, parent and so forth.
As persons, we are bound up in relationships. To be is to belong. To be human is to be part of a community, and human rights belong to the community, to society, and not just to individuals.
It is, therefore, of immense social consequence if someone’s liberty and personal dignity is or is not upheld. This is where, in fact, human rights are undermined by the “live and let live” idea of tolerance and freedom.
Human rights are social, not just individual. They are personal rights. Human rights are communal, even if they are about allowing people to differ from the rest of society.
It is society that has to maintain them, even the rights of individuals who for a time or in some way willingly cheapen their own worth or degrade their quality of life by the choices they make.
Nonetheless, we all have an interest in maintaining the freedom and responsibility of every person.
Every person has dignity, freedom and potential. These fundamental rights and realities have to be believed, valued and preserved.
Some of us will say these are God-given. Others will speak of them as inherent in simply being a person. They are inherently human.
To maintain this perspective on our fundamental being as humans is the reason Australia needs a Bill of Rights (along with any other nation that does not have similar protections).
It is a collective affirmation, against which we can evaluate the proposed laws and provisions put forward by governments and regulators. And it also provides the clear basis on which we can condemn acts of violence of all forms.
Violation of the person is a matter of social and not merely individual consequence. Our life as a community is at stake.
It is on this same basis that we can then reject the overreach of governments and the “justifications” they offer for torturing people. Yes, we are complicit in this too, in this new age of the “war on terror.”
The inhumanity of our treatment of asylum seekers would not be possible if we realized that it is our own humanity, our collective dignity as fellow humans that has been so undermined, along with the suffering of those specific people.
Human rights need to be reclaimed from the horrible cheapening of Western individualism and the indifference we have developed.
Human rights as a creative, communal concept of the worth, dignity and potential of every person have been undermined by our state of terror.
We must stand up and reclaim our freedom: that is, the freedom and dignity of all of us.
Frank Rees is a Baptist pastor in Melbourne, Australia, and an associate professor at the University of Divinity. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, To Be Frank, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @frankrees.