"You 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.
Much 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.
The 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.
According 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.
So 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.
But 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 civil liberties.
In 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.
The 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.
Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2005. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 25 February 2005.