A new civic duty - giving a sample of DNA to the fuzz

on the claims of citizenship
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ONE NIGHT in August 1992 a fifteen year old girl, Helen Gorrie, was attacked and killed in the grounds of a community centre in the Hampshire village of Horndean. I remember the re-enactment from an edition of Crimewatch when, after several months, her killer had still not been found. And I also recall thinking then, that to lose a daughter or a sister in this way must be dreadful enough, but for no one to be brought to account for it must be unbearable. Then, over the last two days, two men in their late twenties have been arrested in connection with the six year old crime, as a result - police have said - of "developments in DNA testing". At the time of writing they have not been charged.

Yesterday's meeting between Home Office ministers and Peter Gammon, president of the Police Superintendent's Association, to discuss the latter's call for the establishment of a national DNA database was completely coincidental. Almost any week brings a crop of DNA stories, as the wonder technology sorts out some old mystery, or brings some vicious criminal to book. And Superintendent Gammon (what a reassuring name for a top cop. Is there, by any chance, a sidekick called Sergeant Spinnidge?) was not demanding immediate compulsory testing for all citizens just yet, but merely asking that we now discuss voluntary testing. So that's all right.

Or maybe it's not. The trouble for civil libertarians is that the police are - quite understandably - always after some new thing that would enhance their own powers and, by implication, reduce ours. They've just gotta have new sprays, longer batons and greater freedom to kick down the doors of malefactors. Who wants national identity cards? Why, they do. Who wants to get their hands on our DNA? They do.

Thus the unwillingness of the civil rights organisation Liberty to digest even the smallest piece of Gammon. "This proposal," they thundered (in the nicest possible way), "represents part of a drift towards policing by coercion and away from our long tradition of policing by consent. A proposal like this is unbalanced, misguided and wrong."

And for why? Argument one is the classic "thin end of the wedge". A voluntary scheme could not work, Liberty says, because not enough people would take part. Its existence and failure would therefore be likely to create pressure for a compulsory one. We would end up being prosecuted for failing to give the local bobby an on-the-spot DNA sample.

Secondly, because - compulsory or voluntary - the use of such a database somehow implicates thousands of innocent people in a crime, simply because of their physical proximity to its occurrence. Though there is nothing to connect us to any wrongdoing, our most vital statistics will be given the once-over by eager policepersons, just in case. This is held to invert the natural law of investigation, where you are given the once-over because there is some reason to suspect you.

Liberty might have added two more objections: the risk of "planted" evidence, and the limitations of DNA testing in settling complex issues of detection. An example of the latter occurred at the weekend, when a skull - discovered in 1972 under some Berlin ruins - was proved to be that of Hitler's charmless deputy, Martin Bormann. This proof was supposed to put to rest persistent (if tedious) rumours of the horrible man's survival after the war.

But no. Conspiracists merely incorporated the new finding into their existing theory, which was that Bormann was spirited out of Germany alive in 1945, that his signature was used to get at Hitler's private Swiss bank account, and that the odious little man then spent ten years in Reigate (he deserved at least thirty), before being allowed to go to Paraguay, where he eventually died. So now they believe that his skull was later dug up, brought back and "planted" in Berlin by some intelligence johnnies, so as to cover their nasty tracks. Case not closed.

Well, what do we think of these reasons? Myself, I don't buy the thin edge stuff. Whereas I can quite easily see why a national voluntary ID card would soon effectively become compulsory - as more and more companies and agencies required its use for their own purposes - the same can hardly be true of DNA tests. There just aren't that many situations where a DNA profile is particularly useful: you can even get into the Canary Wharf Tower without one. So, if and when Mr Gammon's successors argue for a statutory scheme, then that's the time to raise the standard and fight.

Which brings me to my second problem with the libertarian argument. It may be a failure of imagination on my part, but why should it bother me being automatically screened for crimes that have taken place in my neighbourhood? Were a terrible murder to be committed down the road, and the police were to ask for local men to be tested, I would, of course, volunteer at once. Wouldn't you? All a database would do is to circumvent a whole lot of pleading by the local fuzz, and save a lot of time. And, sure, there is the danger of forensic fraud, but the scope for that is surely no greater than it is now, under the current arrangements. Oh, and there'll always be conspiracists.

To me it's a bit like other aspects of citizenship. There are, of course, those who want not to vote, not to attend school concerts, not to buy the Big Issue, not to claim social security - who value their not-ness above everything. That is their right, and I don't have an argument with them. But, for most of us, it isn't like that. We willingly carry donor cards, give blood and run tombola stalls. And if we could, in any way, spare families like that of Helen Gorrie as much as one more day's suffering, then we would. And think that the minuscule risk to our own freedoms was well worth taking.