Thieves take last bit of compassion

Friday 14 January 2000

ON 30 December my suburban Adelaide home was burgled. Thieves broke in through a locked window and stole a video recorder, 101 CDs, $110 in cash from my children's piggy banks, a cricket bag and a school bag. The thieves left a mess more upsetting than the property loss. My family was out, buying uniforms for my daughter's first year at high school. I was, and still am, in Melbourne, working on an out-of-town contract.

But there are several pluses to all this. No one was hurt and none of the stolen goods had real emotional value. I've also learnt three important lessons:

1. The police are seriously understaffed.

There were obvious signs of intrusion, including muddy footprints in the kitchen and damage to a kitchen window and back door. Despite this, no specialist evidence-gathering was done. The police believe the burglary was the work of drug addicts and suggested the goods had already been sold. This is not to attack the three pleasant and professional officers who arrived promptly after my wife's call. In the end, however, they were little more than sympathetic visitors. My wife was initially asked that the house be left as it was. But when the officers were leaving, she was encouraged to "begin tidying up". No further investigation of the scene would take place.

2. Victims of crime are not fit to judge perpetrators.

Since the burglary, I've entertained several revenge fantasies, some of them horribly brutal and none commensurate with the actual harm done. This is worrying, since drug addicts' lives are already awful. For them, joy and love and the hope of a better future have disappeared into a constant need for something that doesn't even make them feel good any more.

This doesn't temper my anger. I'm incapable of overcoming my heart's desire to make these low-lifes hurt and hurt and hurt again, knowing all the while that each blow is payback for the helplessness I hear in my wife's voice, for the fear I hear in my daughter's voice, for the appalling effort to be the "man of the house" I hear in my 10-year-old son's voice.

My cold hatred for these unknown people makes me unwilling to render fair judgment on them. It also makes me grateful for a formal judicial system that attempts (however imperfectly) to render justice rather than revenge.

3. Making drug use illegal is stupid, counter-productive and morally indefensible.

The burglary occurred because the substance these thieves are addicted to is illegal. This illegality means there is no government control of costs. So cocaine, which is cheaper to produce than alcohol, ends up more expensive because it is supplied by organised crime, which takes greater risks and demands higher profits than legitimate business.

Illegality also increases the risks to end-users. With no surety of supply and no quality control, it is difficult for people to use even cheap drugs such as heroin and live an otherwise normal life.

I'm not advocating drug use. My only drug is caffeine (taken orally as a carbonated, highly sweetened cola, especially when deadlines loom) and a few habits of self-discipline would make even this unnecessary.

Most adults use drugs, and most of them do so without causing harm to others. So why put useless barriers in the way of those who want to use drugs other than alcohol, nicotine and caffeine?

Making other mind-altering substances illegal doesn't protect us from the consequences of drug use. In fact our present prohibitionist policies thrust my children into the heart of the problem; made them victims just as thoroughly as if they had been using the drugs themselves.

Making other mind-altering substances illegal doesn't make it easier for the police to investigate and solve crime. Instead it increases the number of offences until there are so many that the police aren't equipped to properly deal with any of them.

Making other mind-altering substances illegal doesn't improve anyone's moral character. Instead it leaves me with a withering hatred for people I don't even know. People I should, by all rights, be wanting to help are now the targets of a most uncharitable enmity that does me no credit and them no good.

Brian Forte is an Adelaide writer.E-mail: