Friday, November 21, 2008

If We Don’t Have Each Other, We Have Nothing.

The respected and widely admired self-made billionaire Gerry Harvey has been quoted making some confronting remarks about charity. Interviewed for a book called “Master CEOs”, Mr. Harvey was asked about the role that he and his company, Harvey Norman, have played in community service activities. His response is shocking.

He said: “You could go out and give a million dollars to a charity tomorrow to help the homeless. You could argue that it is just wasted. They are not putting anything back into the community. It might be a callous way of putting it but what are they doing? You are helping a whole heap of no-hopers to survive for no good reason. They are just a drag on the whole community. So did that million you gave them help? It helped to keep them alive but did it help society? No. Society might have been better off without them but we are supposed to look after the disadvantaged and so we do it. But it doesn’t help the society.”

Now to be fair, that is not everything he said and he went on to talk about the value of helping people to reach their potential, and the fact that he and his company have made significant contributions to community and charity work, including for the homeless. But the stark nature of his initial remarks is shocking. So is he right? Is donating to charity a waste of time if it only serves to keep social parasites alive?

The truth is that there is no way to know just who might eventually go on to make a positive contribution to society. And it doesn’t have to be anything huge like a cure for cancer either. Even a smile or a kind word has the power and the possibility to cause change in the world by its impact on the person who receives it. Every single human has the capacity to do something good, no matter how small, but there is no way to know just who will make a difference in the world.

More importantly, doesn’t the salvation of even one individual provide sufficient return on investment for any charitable work? That million dollars for the homeless that Mr. Harvey spoke about might keep thousands of so called no-hopers alive, but if even one of them goes on to lead a powerful and fulfilling life which contributes meaningfully to the community, isn’t that a worthwhile result? And it is all random, so you can’t know just who and how many might take that opportunity and turn it into such an outcome.

In fact, the very process of charity itself makes the community and the world a better place. It offers hope to the hopeless, shelter to the vulnerable, kindness to the suffering, and opportunity for the lost to be found. More than that, it allows all of us as humans to be better humans, and the comfort of knowing that should we ever be in need of such support it will be there for us because we belong to a compassionate and caring community.

Isn’t that what being alive is all about? If we don’t have each other, we have nothing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Less Than Lethal

The New South Wales Ombudsman has issued a report calling for a two year moratorium on the roll out of Taser stun guns for the Police Force, pending a further review of their safety. The report refers to an incident in May 2002 in which a mentally ill man, Gary Pearce, died about two weeks after police used a Taser against him. Mr. Pearce was behaving violently, and was threatening police with a frying pan. After being subdued, he was treated in hospital for his mental illness as well as physical injuries. After being discharged, he suffered a heart attack and died.

It must be recognized that Mr. Pearce suffered from long term heart disease, Hepatitus C, and a thyroid condition, as well as being a heavy smoker. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the heart attack was linked to the Taser attack. But of course the question remains; did the Taser attack contribute to his death? That’s a question which has not yet been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

While it may well be reasonable to investigate Taser safety more thoroughly, Police are reported to be incensed by the report, pointing out the benefits of Tasers as a “less than lethal” alternative to using a gun. Police are concerned that their own safety is at risk when they are placed in a situation where they must defend themselves. When given the option of firing a gun or firing a Taser, it would seem to be a simple choice.

At present, every New South Wales Police officer is issued with a gun. But to access a Taser, a request has to be sent to the appropriate senior officer, and then the Taser must be sent to where it is needed. Hardly a split second response to a life threatening situation. Police maintain that under these circumstances more people are likely to die needlessly, when they could have been temporarily disabled by the Taser.

The concern that must be addressed is the perception of the Taser as “less than lethal”. As such it is easy to envisage officers resorting to their use much more readily and frequently than they would a gun. This has serious civil rights implications, and also safety implications. Even if there is a small risk of death from the use of a Taser, it is misleading to consider the weapon to be “less than lethal”.

Under such circumstances, perhaps a better phrase would be “potentially harmful” or even “potentially lethal”, and appropriate protocols can be devised for the use of Tasers. As such, a Taser should be used only as a substitute for a pistol, in similar to circumstances as those which would require a pistol.

Even so, the controversial stun gun is still vastly less likely to be lethal than the alternative. For that reason, it does seem almost insane to withhold Tasers from frontline police and deny them the option of keeping their service pistol in its holster.