On Being Burgled

On December 30 1999, my suburban Adelaide home was burgled. Thieves broke in through a locked window and stole a VCR; 101 CDs; $110 in cash (from my childrens' piggy banks); a cricket bag; and a school bag. The last two items were used to carry the other goods. The thieves also 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 working on an out-of-town contract (I am the very model of the modern flexible worker).

There are several pluses to all this, however. 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 criminally under-staffed.

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 further suggested that the goods had already been sold on. The chances of us seeing the stolen goods again are somewhere between Buckley's and none and the chances of the burglars being caught appear to be the same.

This is not to attack the three pleasant and professional officers who arrived promptly on 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. When the officers were leaving, however, 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 of them commensurate with the actual harm done. Which is worrying since a drug addict's life is 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 anymore.

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 pay-back 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 ten-year-old son's voice.

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

One more beneficial side-effect of this rage: politicians and demagogues who push cold-blooded revenge fantasies masquerading as 'law-and-order' will be easy to ignore. I'll just file their names in my mental 'beneath contempt' drawer along with the burglars.

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 oversight regarding costs. So cocaine, which is cheaper to produce than booze, 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 like heroin and live an otherwise normal life. And don't try blaming this burglary on the thieves being stoned. This crime was committed by stone-cold sober people. If they had adequate drug supply they'd be doped up somewhere, not tearing my house apart looking for quick cash.

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.

Nonetheless, if someone chooses to use a mind-altering substance, their choice, in and of itself, doesn't harm anyone. So long as a drug user doesn't drive a car, operate other machinery or otherwise put themselves in a position of responsibility whilst under the drug's influence they won't hurt me or my kin.

The vast majority of 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 current prohibitionist policies thrust my children into the heart of the problem. Made them victims just as thoroughly as if they'd 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 they 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.

Three life-lessons in one night. A personal record. It's almost a wonder I don't feel fulfilled and re-born.

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