I was at work the other day listening to the BBC News Hour, and I heard a story about how great it is living in Singapore. It's an incredibly international place, with myriad Asian and Indian populations, and attracts businessmen and ex-pats from all over the world. It's clean, prosperous, cultured, crime-free, and its citizens are happy with their wonderful quality of life.
But it has these rules. Rules about things like spitting and littering and vandalism that get American teenagers caned, yes. But rules also about things like saying what you want to say about the government. According to this story--which I haven't found yet, google your heart out--speaking out against government leadership can get you publicly ostracized and economically blackballed by the government and anyone else who wants to save their skin and protect their interests. Not only can the government fine and/or imprison you, but anyone you know has to turn their backs on you. What baffled this reporter (and me too) is that so many of the citizens in Singapore seem just fine with this kind of censorship. The prevalent attitude seemed to be, "Yeah, okay, so we don't have your 'free speech' or whatever, but who needs it? We're clean and well-fed, we're educated and employed: our needs are met. What do we really have to complain about?"
Now there is a small community of people who believe this system of government is out of line, who are resisting this willful ignorance and are fighting for their right to speak their minds. But it is small, and what they're doing is dangerous.
What scares me about it so much is that it seems to be happening in so many places.
I've been hearing lots of stories on NPR about Chinese citizens who leave their villages and go to county seats, or even to the capital, Beijing, to complain about corruption, deceit, and destitution perpetrated by the local government on its citizens. These people, who complain, are imprisoned without any trial or cause. They lock their own citizens up in hotels that double as prisons, torturing them, barely feeding them. For months, even years. One girl, a twelve year old, is living on the streets; she went to Beijing with her mother, who was taken away for filing a complaint. She didn't want to stay home in her village. If she were still home, though, she could have been in school; now she's homeless, without any family. There are hundreds of these people, being denied their own humanity, because they are speaking out against their own government.
I'm not so naive as to believe that this kind of thing hasn't, or doesn't still, happen in our country. I know about people who lost their jobs in the Fifties because of one man's paranoia that he couched as vigilance against Communism. And I'm sure that I'd be sickened by the things my government does to its citizens in the name of protecting American Democracy. But are we so gripped by fear that we're willing to allow our basic human rights to be taken from us, just so we can live more comfortably?
This weekend an Ohioan raised a ruckus because she was allegedly violated by a TSA agent in a pat-down while flying. Someone wrote in to comment on the story and said, "if you don't like it, don't fly. I feel safer knowing my fellow passengers have been searched." This person's in good company, too. But I'm not sure: I'm not willing to let some security agent stick a latex-fingered glove between my legs just so that I know that everyone else on the plane has been subjected to as much scrutiny. When does good security cross the line and become sexual assault? Can we ensure the safety of our citizens without debasing them by subjecting them to such intimate and harsh scrutiny? And don't we have the right to protest if we feel we're being taken advantage of in the name of security?
My husband and I are getting on a plane in a few weeks. I don't know what to expect, I don't know who's going to touch me where, and I don't know what profile they're going to use when they look at me. But I know I can feel the temperature rising. And I don't like it.