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Change, Danger, and Complexity: Interwoven

Accelerating change, danger, and complexity do not function alone. They are deeply intermeshed, interactive, and transforming.

Consider the problem of solid waste management. This problem involves every level of government, every department: from energy to water quality, to planning, to revenues, to public health. Without a cooperative venture, without bridging territorial domains, without overcoming the implicit adversarial process within which we currently operate, the responsible parties at each tier of government cannot even begin to solve these problems. When they do communicate, they often speak from a position of vested interest, less concerned with public good than in furthering a self-serving agenda.

Consider the issues of depletion of the ozone layer, world hunger, over-population, and AIDS. Without the intellectual ability to reason through these complex problems, without being able to analyze the layers within them, without knowing how to identify and pursue the information we need to solve them, we are adrift in a sea of confusion. Without a grasp of the political realities, economic pressures, and scientific data (on the physical environment and its changes)—all of which are simultaneously changing as well—we cannot reverse the trend of deterioration of the quality of life for all who share the earth.

Consider, finally, the problem of terrorism and its link to the problem of ever-diminishing freedom. Predictable and unpredictable “enemies” threaten increasing numbers of innocent people. Though the root causes of terrorism almost always stem from complex issues, terrorism itself is often treated simplistically. We routinely, and uncritically, accept our national media’s portrayal of world affairs, though national media in every country typically distort why their nation’s “enemies” think and act as they do. Similarly, we readily accept our government’s portrayal of world issues. When our own country, or its allies, attack and kill civilians, such actions are defined by the national governments (and their symbiotic media) as “defensive” in nature. Unethical practices by our own government are covered up, played down, or defended as a last recourse. Similar practices on the part of our enemy are highlighted and trumpeted, often fomenting national outrage. Mob action, national vendettas, and witch hunts commonly result. The words “good” and “evil” are freely used to justify violence and terror inflicted on enemies—whether “real” or imagined.

But the problem of terrorism is inseparable from the problem of preserving essential human rights and freedoms. In “solving” one problem, we can easily create another. Consider just a small part of the overwhelming evidence supporting this point. Statewatch (www.statewatch.org/news), a European public interest watchdog group, reports on a letter from President Bush proposing a “lengthy list of more than 40 demands to the European Union for cooperation on anti-terrorism measures,” many of which indiscriminately cover “criminal investigations, data surveillance, border controls, and immigration policies.” Yet Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments: “Many of the demands have nothing to do with combating terrorism....” At the same time, the UK parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, composed of Ministers and Lords, has issued a report that is highly critical of the British government’s proposed Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. The report claims that the bill violates the European Convention on Human Rights and questions both the definition of “terrorist activity” and the extension of police powers inherent in the bill.

The fact is that governments worldwide seem prepared to abandon traditional citizen rights and protections to accommodate sweeping extensions of police and government power—in the pursuit of those labeled “terrorists.” The New York Times reports (November 22, 2001): “As Americans debate how ruthless a war to wage against terrorism, India’s leaders have seized on the Sept. 11 attack to push a draconian new anti-terror law that has stirred furious opposition....” The new ordinance allows authorities “to tap telephones, monitor e-mail, detain people without charge for up to six months, conduct secret trials in jails, and keep the identity of witnesses secret.” According to the Times, under a similar previous Indian law, “...more than 75,000 people were arrested, but only 1% convicted...[while] many of the accused languished in jail for years” without hope of bail.

It is, of course, not uncommon for governments touting themselves as democratic to abuse freedom and deny basic liberties. Those concerned with human rights remind us that it is restraints on the government that separate a free society from a police state. We stand in need of the best legal thinking to provide for appropriate police and governmental power while yet preserving the restraints that are the bedrock of essential human freedoms.

This is a glimpse (and very partial analysis) of the world our children and we now face.

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