This week was the twentieth anniversary of the crashing of the Berlin Wall. It was also Armistice Day where at my office half the staff ignored the call to reflect for just a few moments on World War I, its casualties and ultimate consequences.
I find it deeply disturbing that so many of our generation know little of the political context and military history that surrounds the history of our grandparents and great-grandparents era. We are full of virtuous statements such as “never again” and “lest we forget”, but we know little of the naïve sacrifice and failings of policies of appeasement and military strategy that led to the loss of so much life. We take the basic values of freedom for granted, and care little for the legacy that we have been gifted by our armed forces. I guarantee that if you ask even the young members of our Jewish community to describe the charge of our ANZAC’s, the Light Horse Brigades, on the Turkish battalions, and the defining impact this had on the Allied victory, they would struggle to relay either the history or the lessons of history from this great moment in Australian history.
Our existence in the global information age creates an ironic distance between ourselves and our history, even though we have instant access to it.
We also have very indifferent and abusive attitudes towards our history. Sometimes we are too sensitive to confront it, other times we selectively quote (or misquote) to serve our agenda of the moment. Other times we abandon it completely. Take for example the incredulous level of sympathy that the press has expressed regarding Charles Zentai, effectively suggesting he should be exempted from the system of justice due to his age.
Another local political storm has erupted this week due to what I would describe as a disingenuous choice of words by State Politician Peter Abetz. In the process of debating new legislation that would allow police to randomly search people for weapons and drugs in dangerous areas like Northbridge, Mr Abetz invoked a Nazi analogy. Specifically, he stated that Hitler gained support because he provided people security in a time of anarchy.
When I first heard Mark McGowan on 6PR radio milking Mr Abetz’ comments for all they were worth, I was unsure what to make of it all. I suspect that it was a throw away line that has been sensationalised and taken out of context for politically expedient purposes. Then again, I also think it was very disingenuous of Mr Abetz to bring this angle into his opposition of the proposed legislation, despite what were no doubt the best of intentions. This is particularly because I am aware that the great uncle of Mr Abetz was a high ranking Nazi (Otto Abetz was Adolf Hitler’s ambassador in occupied France and was later convicted as a Nazi war criminal for deporting French Jews to the death camps.)
It needs to be put on record that Peter Abetz has been a diligent parliamentarian, who has generally well balanced debating skills, and who has been a visible supporter of the Perth Jewish community. I have no doubt that no malicious intent or lack of sensitivity was meant by Mr Abetz’ remarks to Parliament, and that he was simply drawing on his own upbringing and experience to emphasise a point. Any accusations of sympathetic Nazi sentiments within his analogy are completely unfounded and do little towards refocus constructive attention onto the main topic of debate.
On that matter, the point that Mr Abetz was trying to emphasise was, in his own words, “When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom.” On this, I have a view. WA has not reached anywhere near a stage of social depravation that would require us, from a regulatory or enforcement point of view, to choose between either end of a spectrum on this matter. The two are not mutually exclusive – we can actually have both our freedom and our safety. Some would go as far as to say that this is the Australian way. I do not believe this is under threat.
The situation in Northbridge is not about the loss of liberty, it is about civil order. Our police do need the power and authority to do their job, and the role of the State Government regulator is to ensure that this balance of power is appropriately extended and used in an appropriate manner. From the citizen’s perspective, if they stay within the bounds of a reasonably set law, they have nothing to fear. I am therefore in favour of police having enhanced search powers, as the intent of providing this is to maintain law and order. There is no valid analogy or comparison with the regime of the Third Reich. Firstly, the Nazi’s stated aim of removing civil liberties was for the purpose of racial discrimination and persecution. Secondly, the extent of their Nuremberg legislation was far beyond the empowerment of a police force. From a sociological point of view, it may have been the lure of security and prosperity that contributed to the democratic election of a tyrannical regime (perhaps the point Mr Abetz wanted to make), however it was the fear of resistance, some years on, that led to the calamity that was to blight history forever.
Jewish people are often over sensitive to Nazi analogies, not without good reason. Often the sheer extent of the depravation of humanity is watered down and demeaned by the unfounded use of comparisons to Hitler and his regime. Unfortunately this is one of those occasions.
This “storm in a teacup” will quickly pass. The principled issues of whether our police have too much or too little power will continue to be debated. The important thing to bear in mind is that they will be debated within a democratic and free parliament, with complete freedom of expression. That includes the opportunity to make the occasional slip up, and to mistakenly overstep the mark while thinking on your feet. The fact that we have such political freedom is no mere matter to be complacent about. It is due to those who fought and secured the democracy we now enjoy.
It does not disturb me in the slightest that Mr Abetz made a political faux-pas. It does not disturb me at all that our police will be extended greater search power to maintain law and order. However it does disturb me that misplaced comparisons to Nazi Germany do little to support constructive debate. It disturbs me even more that most of the people debating the important issues of the day have little or no regard toward the history and sacrifice of their forbears that won them the liberty to be able to say what they would like in a free and open market of ideas. It is a gift that comes with great responsibility.
There is a bigger issue here. The western world, given its treatment of Israel, and led by the Goldstone’s of the intelligentsia, are rapidly beginning to demonstrate that we are not deserving of our free speech. We do not use it wisely, and often abuse the privilege. How was it that Hitler come to power? He abused the balance of a fragile democratic system, he victimised an innocent party, and he instilled fear into a defenceless society. How much of that do we really understand and truly relate to when we make casual references to the Nazi’s, or even when we stand and reflect on the wartime sacrifice of our Armed forces?