FritzlOnly a few weeks ago no-one knew who Josef Fritzl was, except, obviously, his friends, family and neighbours. But now we all know Josef Fritzl, or least we all know he is an Austrian who locked his daughter up for years and fathered 6 or 7 kids by her without even his own wife getting suspicious about all those secret trips to a locked basement or his returning with a sick smile on his face.

The trouble is most commentators I’ve read think they know Josef Fritzl better than they actually do. I even managed to read an article which irritatingly referred to him as ‘Joe’ Fritzl, as if the author was on familiar terms with him, maybe having enjoyed some strong belly-busting Austrian beer with “Joe” on his regular trips to Austria. (Or perhaps the author was just plain thick and somehow managed to get the name of the most notorious Austrian since Adolf Hitler wrong). But there is no end to the psychoanalysis of Fritzl: the chattering classes have all turned into wannabe Freuds in their rush to give us their pet theories and explanations as to why Fritzl acted as he did.

But it isn’t this aspect of the world of commentary that makes me want to poke my own eyes out with a Sharpie.

Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme ran a feature on the case last week and the first question asked by presenter William Crawley to a member of the studio panel was, “What does this tell us about modern day Austria?” Crawley is a highly intelligent and skilled presenter so I seriously doubt if it was his idea to ask what must be one of the most stupid questions I’ve ever heard since someone asked the Dalai Lama whether he was a Protestant buddhist or a Roman Catholic buddhist. Why might an isolated case tell us anything whatsoever about modern day Austria? You might see the point of the question if every other Austrian man had a secret daughter locked up in his basement for sexual fun and frolics. As it is the case of Fritzl tells us no more about modern day Austria than Jeffrey Dahmer tells us about life in the US.

Fritzl has claimed that he became addicted to abusing his daughter, and his defence team are taking things a bit further by claiming that he was simply suffering from a mental illness. Judging from the reactions to the Fritzl case I suspect he isn’t the only one. After all, it’s nothing short of mentally retarded to use the actions of one disturbed individual to draw sweeping conclusions about an entire country, and even worse: humanity in general. Brow-beating and guilt-ridden some commentators have been effectively crying “woe to me a wicked human, look what we’re capable of.”

“What does this say about us?” Short answer: fuck all squared. It tells you nothing about “humanity in general.” I’m an individual and I don’t identify one iota with the actions of Fritzl, and nor do any human beings I know. His actions don’t dictate what I’m capable of, nor do they dictate what most of us are capable of. History testifies to some fairly rotten human individuals: Vlad the Impaler got kicks and giggles from shoving a spike up the assholes and out the mouths of other people and would leave them, often still alive, hanging in public until they died. Nero would tar Christians, set them on fire and use them as make-shift street lamps at night time. Needs must, eh? And we all know what the terribly naughty regime of Adolf Hitler got up to. But their actions don’t tell us anything about “humanity in general.” They tell us a lot about the people who do these things and we judge them accordingly: so you’re not going to let Ian Huntley mind your children, and you certainly wouldn’t have wanted to get naked in the presence of Jeffrey Dahmer. But humanity isn’t something we share. It’s not like there’s some big metaphysical bucket of stuff labelled “human nature” which gets contaminated every time an individual commits a nasty deed, tarnishing the lives and moral compass of us all. Our basic biological “stuff” might be the same, but that’s where the similarities end.

What it boils down to is a secular doctrine of original sin. Christianity teaches that Adam and Eve were running around the Garden of Eden buck-naked and as happy as Larry, but then they sinned and that sin infects all of us. In other words we’re guilty and sinful from birth by virtue that Adam is our great-great-great-great-etc-grandfather. Some secular commentators seemingly have their own myth of original sin: we’re all guilty by virtue of being human. But at least Christians only call us to repent; modern day adherents to the secular doctrine of original sin demand a whole lot more.

One popular television presenter called for the Austrian police to arm themselves “with pickaxes, torches and strong stomachs” and “[search] every single cellar in [Austria].” And others have called for “privacy busting” measures in order to make sure that these incidences aren’t more widespread. “Too much privacy” is the problem according to one analyst. Anytime a government or a pressure group calls for greater encroachment into our private lives one argument always raises it’s ugly head: “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.” What a load of intellectually-addled, morally clumsy pig swill. Firstly, I have lots of things to hide. I refer to these things by what is fast becoming a rather quaint notion: “my private life.” None of it is illegal but it’s private nonetheless and I have everything to fear by violations of my privacy. My life is not public property and much of what happens in private behind the closed doors of my house is none of anyone else’s business. Let’s say our government decided to spot check people at random, enter their home, and search it from top to bottom – should we benignly go along with it just because “I’ve nothing to hide?” I hardly think so. Might installing CCTV in every house of the country be the answer? After all, “if you’ve nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.” It’s highly dangerous to risk something as important as our own privacy on the back of an ignorant, irrational, morally vacuous, juvenile, ham-fisted, pathetic excuse for an argument.

The truth is: I do have things to hide, and a lot to fear about government infringements on my privacy. And so do you. And so does everyone else. Our privacy is of utmost importance and without it life would be so much worse. It’s certainly much too special to sacrifice on the alter of extreme incidents which are few and far between. And yet it amazes me how easily some people would surrender one of their most precious possessions. No society could call itself civilised that infringed our right to privacy in the flagrant ways some have proposed.

When authoritarian governments try to scare us into surrendering our privacy, and when its paranoid supporters manically scream warnings at us about the consequences or not obeying there’s really only one option: to slam the doors of our private lives firmly in their fat, arrogant, interfering faces.