Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Watching the Defectives

Up until yesterday, I'd always thought that Neighbourhood Watch schemes were a good idea; they allow public-spirited citizens to help the police to maintain law and order, and perhaps regain a sense of lost community involvement and interaction that seems to be so lacking in modern life. There's nothing like an "Us and Them" mentality to foster camaraderie - Us, in this case, being the actual and prospective victims of crime, and Them being the villains - and I'm certain than the harmless-but-useful activities hitherto undertaken by Neighbourhood Watches all over the country must, until yesterday, have been the starting point of many friendships.

And then I read this article on the front page of yesterday's Daily Mail. For those of you too lazy to follow a link, the article begins, "Teams of Neighbourhood Watch members are to be asked to do jobs previously left to the police. The civilian groups could spy on villains, patrol crime-hit estates at night and even check car tax discs. In some cases they would form secret groups to gather intelligence. "

At first glance this seemed so unlikely that I assumed the Mail had, once again, got hold of completely the wrong end of the stick. But then I read much the same story at the BBC, so I assume it must be at least partly true. And, frankly, I am appalled!

For one thing, in my experience, the vast majority of Neighbourhood Watch members are elderly or infirm. They are willing to donate their time and experience for the good of their community, and are to be commended for it. But can we really expect them to patrol our streets for us as well? What happens when they encounter a few armed, drunken thugs intent on mayhem, as they inevitably will in today's Britain? Can we expect pensioners, no matter how brave, to lay about machete wielding murderers with nothing but a walking stick and Dunkirk spirit? And, if they do, can we be sure they won't be charged with assault for their efforts?

Then again, there are always one or two members of the Neighbourhood Watch who take their duties far too seriously. You know the type - officious amateur Adolphs, who were probably hated at school and feared at work, people who, once given even a hint of authority will exert it at every opportunity. They're the ones who turn up to Watch meetings in cammo gear. Do we really want these folks to think they're in charge of anything whatsoever?

In the Neighbourhood Watch as it largely is today, they do no harm. In fact, they're an unwitting figure of fun. But would you want these folks creeping around in "secret groups" intended to "gather intelligence"? That kind of power just begs to be abused, and it surely won't be long before "denunciations" are running at levels unseen since the Gestapo held Nazi Germany in its iron grip.

For, although the Gestapo had a fearsome reputation (which it no doubt worked hard to achieve) of being all-knowing, the truth is that most of its information came from ordinary Germans who were only too happy to grass up their fellow citizens for one reason or another. Jealousy, petty disputes and love intrigues probably provided far more reasons to report a neighbour to the Gestapo than genuine threats to the Nazi regime ever did, and you can bet it will be the same here if this crazy proposal is taken up.

At present, the Neighbourhood Watch is, more or less, respected by the community, even if most people can't be bothered to join it. They do no harm beyond the odd twitched curtain, and they sometimes do a lot of good. But if the more than 75% of folks who AREN'T members of a Neighbourhood Watch scheme start to see them as a threat to their privacy (for these purposes I discount the inevitable argument that only villains will dislike the NW - they must dislike them already!) there WILL be trouble.

Citizens who have, up to now, merely scoffed at old ladies lurking behind net curtains with binoculars and notebook, may start to see them in a totally different light. There will be tension and unrest in communities where there has never been any hint of it before, simply because our already diminished privacy will become virtually non-existent. Try an experiment if you don't believe me - pretend that, although you have done nothing wrong, your neighbour is snooping on your every move for the Notional Watch. Try to keep out of their sight. Make it impossible for them to know what you're doing, at what time and with whom. Hard to hide effectively from your neighbour ALL THE TIME, isn't it?

And, for some people, it will be impossible. Terraced rows or blocks of flats will be particularly vulnerable to the Greater Domestic Snooper, and before long some otherwise-law-abiding citizen will become so very annoyed at being spied on - for that is what it amounts to - that there will be a "scene". As if it isn't enough that the government we pay for and supposedly employ is both obsessed with spying on us and incapable of holding on to the information it obtains, we now have to contend with our friends and neighbours forming secret societies to spy on us and "inform" on us.

I suppose that could even be justified in cases where the victim (note the contrast with Us and Them, above) is a genuine villain. But, in my experience, Joe Public is not all that bright. That's not a problem when he's not in any position of authority, real or imagined, but when he thinks he's got an "official" job to do it might become a very serious problem indeed. For example, don't you, very naturally, become "suspicious" when someone does something "odd"? And, if you're in the Notional Watch, isn't it your duty to make your "suspicions" known? Wouldn't it be better if "someone checked"?

And thus, many a dawn raid on perfectly innocent citizens will be launched because some nosey bugger thought they'd seen something "odd". The trouble is, most folks are inclined to leap to conclusions without wondering if there might be some logical, rational, INNOCENT reason for what they have seen - indeed, many of them are incapable of the thought required to discount the possibility, or to even see that there might be such a possibility. Is it really wise to give these over-zealous, under-bright monkeys the key to the banana plantation of our remaining (and sadly diminished) privcay?

I think not. It seems to me that a far more useful thing would be a Parliamentary Watch, in which each and every MP, including Gordon Brown-Trousers, should be subjected to public scrutiny 24 hours a day. Never mind keeping the John Lewis List quiet, and not letting on about how much they spend on sundry bits and mistresses. When politicians are both open and SEEN to be open, to the point of indecency and beyond, that is the time when they can start to impose yet more surveillance on this very long-suffering population - and not before.

Billy Seggars.

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