Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Your number's up

As soon as I saw this article about soccer hooligans using mobile phones as weapons, my mind started to second-guess the legislative repercussions in the near future.

Would they ban mobile phones at stadiums? At large gatherings? Would one have to be over a certain age to own a mobile phone? Would one have to obtain a government license to own or use a mobile device? Would people with criminal records be banned from owning a handset? Would mobile phone companies be forced to engineer phones in a certain way to get rid of sharp edges or aerials?

Ludicrous? Perhaps not so much in today's Western societies.

In the example of the mobile-phone-as-projectile above, the logical answer is simply to treat the assault of one person by another using a mobile in the same way as you would treat that assault were it inflicted with a baton, a cricket bat, a hammer, a fist or a stuffed badger. The medium doesn't matter, the law deals with the results - and the results are physical injury.

The focus, though, will undoubtedly be on the mobile phones themselves and I think it's because we're preoccupied with preventing crimes rather than solving them or punishing criminals. We 'prevent' crimes by creating a whole new category of crime - the crime of the precursor.

Under the dubous logic of precursor to crime laws, a perfectly legal action is suddenly rendered illegal because of it's statistical correlation to the initiation of a particular type of legitimate crime.

Thus handguns are illegal in the UK and Australia because of their association with violent death, knives are illegal to carry in public because of their association with gangs and street violence, shuriken are illegal because they're...sharp and knife-like, drugs are illegal because drug addicts are associated with theft and so on down the line until you have patently silly things like hooded tops being illegal in some London suburbs because chavs choose them as a fashion accessory.

What these laws blatantly ignore is the fact that none of these precursors is actually a real crime in and of itself. Owning and carrying a gun doesn't kill someone - choosing to use it in a certain way does. Drug use is self-harm, the decision to mug someone for more money to feed the habit stands alone as a separate action. Wearing a hooded top does not constitute any kind of force against another human being.

Yet participating in a precursor to a crime (a presumed precursor, actually, as the ties aren't always made in a statistically rigorous manner) nets you the same kind of criminal record as perpetrating a crime against another human would. Clearly, this isn't the correct function of the law.

The increasing problem with precursor to crime laws is that new precursors are guessed at constantly. Once-normal actions suddenly become illegal in a desparate and misguided bid to 'rid' society of crime - as if that is actually an attainable goal.

So my guess at the kinds of legislation that might be attached to mobile phones really aren't that absurd when placed in this light. A mobile phone is a potential weapon, owning and carrying one could be the precursor to some violent act. By the logic of banning or controlling the precursor, we should ban or regulate the ownership of mobile phones.

What is obvious after a little thought is that the extent of these laws has no limit. Their encroachment on civil liberties is done under the auspices of protecting us from legitimate crime - so they effectively have a carte blanche to multiply and grow, building into whole new lists of permissible and not permissible behavior.

When you take the reach of these laws to their natural conclusion, you eventually see the possibility for absurd legislation.

Take, for example, the 'fact' that owning and carrying a weapon is a natural precursor to an assault.

Let me list all the things that can be used as weapons and that you'll likely find on your person any given day:

A pen
An umbrella/walking stick
A bunch of keys
A book
A handbag/briefcase
A necklace
A tie
A hair stick
A ring that isn't flush to the fingers
A hot drink
A rolled up magazine
A can of deodorant under pressure
A mirror that can be broken into shards
A pair of sunglasses
A stilletto or fairly thin heel

This list is by no means exhaustive, it's just what I could quickly think of when considering the things I carry around and I know Matthew has on his person in public. It doesn't include any of the multitude of things that you can pick up from your environment and use.

How can these everyday things harm anyone?

Quite simply - a weapon is only an extension of the human body, something that gives leverage to an attack. Someone who has rudimentary skills in objects more traditionally considered to be weapons will be quick to spot the same properties in everyday objects.

Should we then ban those everyday objects listed? Should we not allow any person in our society to walk around with any sharp, pointed, heavy, edged or solid object? Should we also outlaw the training and learning of martial arts so that ordinary objects aren't viewed as potential weapons?

No, absolutely not. That would be completely absurd and the fact that it could conceivably be actioned under current legislative logic shows the underlying fault in the very logic behind a lot of legislation.

Weapons can (and I think, should) be carried for personal protection. Laws designed to disarm criminals only result in disarming the law-abiding poulace who genuinely fear a criminal record. Your average violent criminal, posessed of a record started in his early teens isn't going to be overly concerned about a charge for posessing an illegal weapon in public. He knows how to work the system, the charge isn't going to add much to an already blotchy record and he's unlikely to be employed or employable in the first place - one of the reasons that most of us don't want to have any run-ins with the law to our name.

Owning and carrying a weapon is not a legitimate crime. Using it in anything other than reasonable self defense is.

It's quite obvious that we need to repeal the current crop of precursor crimes and severely strengthen another area of law. We need to have zero tolerance for theft, assault, rape, murder - anything that is the actual manifestation of somone's initiation of force or fraud.

We also need to ensure that people can defend their person and property from criminal action without fearing legal repercussions either from the state or from criminals suing for injuries and damages.

Then it won't matter what kind of tool someone uses to perpetrate the crime - only the actual crime committed will matter - if a crime is committed at all, given that the populace will be armed and ready to defend themselves.

So looking back at the article on soccer hooligans using mobile phones - we can see that the use of handsets is only a curious bit of trivia in a piece of news about basic assault. It shows, more than anything else, the amazing pace of technology in that a device that was once prohibitively expensive and fragile is now expendable enough to lob at someone you don't like.

M

(Cross posted to A Western Heart)

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