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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 21-May-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 876

Locked into a losing war, we’re as safe as houses


The guy’s standing there, half out of it, watching us, pretending not to. He’s dressed for housebreaking (sneakers, backpack) but this hardly registers. Our rear lane, heritage-listed, has its peak and its off-peak. But the junkies are always there, supplicant at the gate of the local heroin dynasty, and most of them dress for work. Occasionally, when the congregation gets too, too obvious, the dynastic matriarch waves her broom, shooing them off like a bunch of chooks, whereupon they, disappointed, disperse to look for sources of income. Us, for example.

It’s Sunday arvo and we take our time, loading the car – which, as it happens, is new – with kids and dog, a ball for throwing, bags for collecting pine cones. It’s bin night, so we put the wheelie bin in the back lane while we’re at it. “See you around the front,” I say, oblivious to extraneous ears, then withdraw through the house, locking back gate, back door, front door, in that order. Our 19-year-old is home, simulating study, but we lock up anyway, because what kind of reality can compete with TV, iTunes and Facebook in parallel?

Two hours later, we arrive home and said teen is downstairs cooking something nourishing like carrot consomme. She is noticeably underdressed for winter, especially considering the back door is wide open. “See what someone did to the door?” she mutters into the potage, scarcely interested. “It’s broken.” Her tone says the children have been destructive, again.

We inspect, mystified since the glass is clearly intact, find the bolt wrenched and gaping. Yet more sinister, unsheathed on the outside table lies a 30-centimetre bone-handled hunting knife that lives inside. Sixty seconds on we know the ghastly truth.

Someone has vaulted from the wheelie bin over the back fence, jemmied the door and, in relaxed and methodical manner, ransacked the entire downstairs, escaping with tens of thousands of dollars in professional camera and computer equipment; photos, business records, software, bank details, the lot. Also gone are the spare car keys, with remote – and we know he knows which car.

Scarier still, he clearly heard someone upstairs (she’s had a long bath, apparently, though the police, for reasons of their own, decline to note this detail) and picked up the knife, just in case.

So we spend hours with the cops; more hours hiding the car from the dodgy-looking character who buzzed in from nowhere and hangs around it like a fly on roadkill, even with the police right there; then successive days with forensics, insurers, assessors, bankers and replacers. Everyone is solicitous but no one, it is clear, really expects to see our stuff again, much less the culprit. We consider trawling the local pawn shops but deep down we know. It’s all on a truck to Brisbane by now.

It’s hardly unusual. Most people, including the insurance hotline chap, have their own, similar tales. But what’s interesting are the emotional, moral and political conflicts that arise.

Razor wire is your first response. Uzis on the bloody parapets, and let them be bloody, though whether as deterrent or DNA extractor it’s hard to say. Let the bleeder bleed. Bugger the carpet. You feel violated in your sense of home.

Then, the marginally subtler options: CCTV, back-to-base alarm, steel grilles, steel spikes, sharpened. Poisoned, possibly. Dobermans, many and various, of the cruelly unfed persuasion. Burglar beware.

But you rapidly see that, in houses as in bikie laws, the more effective the means, the nastier the side-effects. And how imprisoned are you prepared to be, exactly, simply to feel safe?

Anyone can design legislation that, like our new Crimes Act, gives hand-picked judges blanket powers to ban groups at will, no reasons asked or given. Anyone can design a burglar-proof house. That’s easy.

What’s difficult is doing these things and preserving the freedoms we call civilisation; banning bikie thugs without creating discretion to ban, say, Greenpeace. Foiling burglars without ending in the bunker.

The next realisation is that feeling safe matters more than being safe, not least because the latter is unachievable. If someone really wants in to your house, they’ll find a way. Nothing could be easier. And let’s be honest, by the time an alarm brings any response, the bloke’ll be gone and the kid’ll be in a pool of blood on the floor.

So the home security battle – like the war on drugs, and on bikies – is as much perceptual as real. Not just your own perceptions, either, but also the burglar’s. It’s a message thing. “Don’t burgle us,” you want your house to declare, just as Howard wanted Christmas Island to tell the teeming oceans; “Don’t try us, try the neighbours. Softer target.”

Eighty per cent of Americans believe the war on drugs is failing. That my back-lane poppy-sellers still flourish, after two decades of police familiarity, suggests they’re right. So the question becomes: how many freedoms will we sacrifice? First the right to free assembly, then the right to bathe without razor wire. Eventually, our choice is stark: we go police state, or we legalise heroin.


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