Here is a modest proposal to eliminate crime. The Government should be in favour of it since, as the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill wends its way through Parliament, ministers are consistently strong on the rhetoric of "crime reduction". They will not flinch, they say, from taking all "necessary" measures.
In fact, there are ways, if not to abolish crime, at least to reduce its occurrence to almost zero. Consider these measures, which could be usefully implemented: compulsory DNA testing at birth, compulsory fingerprinting, and the compulsory wearing of ID cards. All are simple, painless procedures that involve minimal inconvenience. The results would provide a national genetic index, and enable the police to establish the identity of all individuals beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, compulsory electronic tagging would remove all doubt.
In addition, surveillance could become standard in all public places - not just in lavatories, or shopping centres, but entire cities. There is no reason why every street, as well as every car park, should not be monitored. And, once that principle has been conceded (as it effectively has been), there can be no satisfactory rationale for exempting so-called "private space" as well. All housing should be required to facilitate "in-house" surveillance. Such a measure might eliminate serious crime, like domestic violence or child abuse.
Moreover, control of communications - already well advanced under successive governments - could be vigorously expanded. All communications - letters, phone calls, e-mails - should be routinely scrutinised. Many are already, of course, and in an electronic age such interceptions are comparatively simple to execute. All uses of the internet should be nationally monitored. Only the guilty have something to hide, after all.
And, then, we come to the justice system itself. With genetic intelligence, near-total surveillance and individual tagging, we shall know who the villains are without much doubt. Therefore, routine (and costly) investigations could be streamlined, and old-fashioned courts jettisoned. Since cameras cannot lie and electronic monitoring ensures accuracy, juries will become redundant.
Criminals could be rounded up on a daily basis, summarily sentenced, and dispatched to prison. Already we have acquired so much information about "suspects" and "likely criminals" that it is a waste of public funds to indulge them any further. As the Prime Minister rightly averred civil liberties are just that - for civil life. Why should we tolerate criminals any longer?
Some might consider these proposals far-fetched. In fact, we are already progressing down this road. Consider: DNA sampling is now routine, trial by jury is under threat, electronic tagging is increasing, no detainment without trial - once a hallowed tenet of British law - has been curtailed, surveillance by government and other bodies is commonplace, the double-jeopardy rule is being abandoned, and ID cards are in the offing. It's a salami process, driven by "the ends justify the means" utilitarianism.
The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, tells us that there must be a "balance" between freedom and governance. I do not deny it. But what are the barriers he wouldn't overturn, or what are the principles he wouldn't jettison, in order to create a crime-free society? This is a question to which we deserve an answer. Blunkett jokes that "the idea of any of us in political life being described as 'great philosophers' would probably finish our political careers", but the balancing act in which he is engaged requires no little philosophical sophistication. The doctrine that everything that could be done to abolish crime should be done leads inexorably to the police state.
Theologians have wrestled with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called the "divine character of government". Echoing St Paul's words about the God-given nature of authority, he accepts that government has the right to demand obedience "for conscience sake", also interpreted "for the Lord's sake" (Romans xiii,5). But, by the same token, he acknowledges that there are limits. If government, Bonhoeffer warns,
violates or exceeds its commission at any point, for example, by making itself master over the belief of the congregation, then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for conscience sake, for the Lord's sake.
Bonhoeffer embodied that resistance by conspiring to assassinate Hitler, for which he was duly executed.
Bonhoeffer's case - in retrospect - was easy. Unquestionably, the government of his day pursued malign goals, but what are we to say of modern-day governments that have moral ones - such as "crime reduction"? A theological corrective is essential. No government should become our absolute "master", or claim, or adopt God-like power. Even democratic governments can possess an irresistible tendency to abolutise themselves and regard themselves as infallible. There is truth in the old anarchist saying, "The problem is, whoever you vote for - the Government always gets in."
In short: we need a new sense of the fallibility of government based on the old Christian notion of fallenness. Human beings, as well as their collectivities, are not naturally good. We are flawed, limited, and partial beings. It is as foolish to leave one's door unlocked at night - and so trust to the goodness of human nature - as it is to believe that even good government will never abuse its power.
Andrew Linzey is co-editor of the Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society published by Routledge