The Enemy Within

Our society’s safety may be at risk, but the threat is not from outside our borders.

We have had time now to absorb the “Fortress Australia” Budget. But does anyone out there actually feel the slightest bit better protected? Or safer?
I, for one, feel less safe, knowing that critical decisions about what actually supports and develops a safe society are being made by people apparently so out of touch with reality and basic commonsense.

The notion that threats to safety come primarily from the outside would be laughable if it were not so serious. Of course it is possible that a September 11 disaster could happen here. But such rare and extreme acts are not what undermine people’s lives on a daily basis. Most violence happens between people who know each other. Or is enacted by people against themselves: through hopelessness, shame or despair. Or is carried out by a small minority of people whose inward feelings of emptiness and disconnection make them extraordinarily dangerous to others.

Writing about such people, psychologist Alfred Adler said: “It is the individual who is not interested in his fellow human beings who has the greatest difficulties in life and causes the greatest difficulties to others.”

And how does such disinterest develop? Analyst Harry Guntrip says it powerfully: “If human infants are not surrounded by genuine love from birth, radiating outward into a truly caring family and social environment, then we pay for our failure towards the next generation by having to live in a world torn with fear and hate”.

We could add to that: if all human beings are not treated with tolerance and respect, we will live in a world torn with fear and hate.
It seems to me gravely deluded to imagine we can protect our national security best by “guarding” our vast physical borders. Even if we had the smallest country in the world, that still goes no way towards addressing the primary threats to a safe society.
A safe society has also to be just. Without an explicit commitment to social equity – valuing all lives equally – we can never be safe. And why not?
Because we are failing to create the circumstances under which the greatest possible number of people can grow up feeling at least somewhat self-accepting and at least somewhat interested in the wellbeing of others. Treat people as dangerous, contemptible, “other”, divide them on the basis of race or economic “Utility” and you are guaranteed an increasingly unsafe society.

Poverty threatens any notion of a safe society. But it’s not the only issue. What matters most is the breadth of difference between rich and poor and on what basis people are valued. The United States is the richest nation on earth, with the highest spending per capita on law enforcement, prisons and armaments, yet its major cities remain frighteningly unsafe. Life is most dangerous where there is least social justice.

A glance at the world’s hot spots, war zones and disputed territories is testament to that. If we cared about safety, we would focus far less on the enemies without than on the enemies within.

Social injustice, racial ignorance and prejudice, an almost total lack of parent education and support, indifference to suffering and an absence of commitment to social equity – these are real threats, undermining our safety right now.

People are “safe”, and keep others safe, when they feel useful, connected and valued. They need paid work for self-respect as well as income. They need adequate services to support them in times of crisis. Yet chronic, systemic unemployment continues; at every level from preschool to tertiary, our education system is going hungry; and community, child protection and mental health resources in every state and territory of Australia are starving.

Let’s talk about safety. Let’s care deeply about it. But let’s also understand what safety is, what gives rise to it and to whom it belongs


Stephanie Dowrick, Sydney Morning Herald