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“…but that would never happen here!”

How many times have you heard a sensible observation dismissed with that smug phrase?

It’s certainly one I’ve heard far too many times, whether in relation to the draconian Tasmanian Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill that is currently under the scrutiny of a parliamentary committee or the brutal conflict in the former Yugoslavia.  The complacency is all the more galling when the opportunity to ensure that it never does “happen here” is sabotaged by those who agree in principle but don’t like to make a fuss.

As I write, many Croatians are celebrating their country’s accession to the European Union.  It is, admittedly, a notable achievement for a country whose citizens twenty years ago were under incessant bombardment from the enemy, had one-third of their territory occupied, and were singing somewhat forlornly:

We want to share the European dream.

We want democracy and peace.

Let Croatia be one of Europe’s stars.

Europe, you can stop the war.

Of course, Europe didn’t stop the war.  Croatia did, largely thanks to the leadership of President Tudjman and General Gotovina, but that didn’t lessen Croatia’s desire to be part of ‘Team Europe’.

However, as more and more European countries succumb to spiralling debt and high unemployment, and others like the United Kingdom seem intent on sacrificing national sovereignty on the European altar of euphemistic tolerance, the European stars appear to be nearing the end of their life cycle.  It remains to be seen whether Croatia and its twenty-seven counterparts will survive as white dwarves or collapse into black holes.  Either way, the voluntary accession to the European Union after such a desperate and costly fight for secession from the Yugoslav federation strikes me as heedless.

Just as Sarajevans in 1991 watched the beautiful city of Vukovar being annihilated on their television screens and said “that would never happen here”, Croatians today look at the European restrictions on its member states and blithely shrug their shoulders, assuring themselves that it will “never happen here”.  Never mind that the UK cannot deport foreign criminals and terrorists because of new-fangled human rights such as the “right to family life”.  And never mind that best-selling author Robert Spencer has been banned from Britain thanks to the European phobia of free speech – apparently, his visit to lay a wreath at a memorial for Drummer Lee Rigby (who was beheaded on a public street in the heart of London by radical Islamists) would not be “conducive to the public good”.

On the other side of the Atlantic, tens of thousands have gathered for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  A pivotal battle in the United States’ own war of secession, in which almost as many Americans died as in the entire Vietnam War, it is a poignant reminder of how “it” can happen even in the ‘land of the free’.  Such sacrifices of life are wasted, though, if they are for naught.  As General Robert E. Lee said of the battle: “We must expect reverses, even defeats. They are sent to teach us wisdom and prudence, to call forth greater energies, and to prevent our falling into greater disasters.”

Meanwhile, in wintry Tasmania, some of the most repressive laws in the democratic world are under consideration by a committee of the state’s upper house.  Even though the legislation would allow for the detention, search, and arrest without warrant of those exercising their democratic right to protest against the slaughter of unborn children, many are content to trust that “it would never happen here”.  Even though doctors and counsellors will face an unthinkable choice of abandoning their careers and livelihoods or breaking the law, many will allow this state of affairs simply so as to avoid upsetting women as they convey their offspring to the executioners.

But if we have so much trust that our laws will not be taken literally and only implemented in the spirit in which we naively assume they were intended, then why bother having laws at all?  What is the point of legislation if it isn’t going to be put into practice?  And what sort of freedom do we have if it depends on the whims of the constabulary and judiciary and runs counter to the legislature?

Precedent, whether legal or historical – the two are often indistinguishable – is the basis for much of what is permitted or prohibited in the democratic Western world.  And there is, alas, no lack of precedent for the use of such laws against peaceable citizens.  Just last year, Queenslander Graham Preston was gaoled for eight months for a peaceful demonstration at an abortion clinic.

The provisions of the Tasmanian abortion bill are particularly troubling when viewed in light of recent events in France.  The legislation demands that protesters provide their name and address to police and punishes them if they refuse to do so or give information that the police believe to be false.  It defines protesting as “prohibited behaviour” if within a 300-metre-wide access zone of an (unmarked) abortion clinic.  Compare this to France, where a pro-family protester has been arrested, roughed up and placed in solitary confinement, and sentenced to a minimum of two months’ gaol for participating in an unauthorised demonstration and signing his name as Berns instead of the unabbreviated Bernard-Buss.

This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.  Nicolas Bernard-Buss is only one of 350 arrested at the end of May.  And it’s not just those with a bee in their bonnet whose freedom is at risk.  In the UK, a coalition of church leaders has claimed the same-sex ‘marriage’ bill will deter Christians from entering the teaching or medical professions.  This follows on a letter from five hundred imams accusing the government of attacking “the cornerstone of family life”.  Closer to home, the Australian and US armed forces are implementing policies that persecute Christians, while the Moslem community’s struggle to combat home-grown extremism goes largely ignored.  These are just a few examples that spring to mind.

Whatever your views on these topics, whether or not you believe a future government would abuse badly-drafted laws, surely we can all agree that civil liberties must not discriminate.  If, in the pursuit of lofty ideals, we merely swap one discriminated group for another we betray the very principles we claim to be fighting for.  There is no integrity, no honour, and no justice in exalting the chimera of tolerance if it means entrenching intolerance in the laws of the land.  And there is no dignity or practical purpose in abandoning the field of battle, leaving veteran warriors to be slaughtered by the enemy while the bulk of their comrades-in-arms watch on from the sidelines. 

If we fail to safeguard our freedom by exercising our democratic rights, we must not be surprised if one day we find those rights trampled upon, whether by force or unjust law.  We must stop taking refuge in the lie that “it would never happen here”.  The boat has already embarked.