We seem to be busily building the world’s first popular police state.
Opinion polls show high levels of support for identity cards, surveillance cameras, detention without trial – and now a national DNA database covering every individual, including those who have never had any dealings with the police.
Given the growing fear of crime, such attitudes are not surprising. Events in the past week have encouraged them further. Both Suffolk serial killer Steve Wright and Mark Dixie, murderer of Sally Anne Bowman, were caught largely through DNA samples. Police officers and victims’ relatives want the change. The case seems open and shut.
Britain already has the world’s largest DNA database. Anyone arrested in England and Wales is compelled to submit to a DNA swab and the record is kept whether he is convicted or not. In Scotland this rule is restricted to violent and sex offenders, and then for only three years unless an extension is applied for.
But the operation of the scheme south of the Border has led to the beginning of serious doubts. As so often with measures aimed at greater security, people are far less enthusiastic when they are affected personally.
Many entirely innocent citizens have been disturbed by the way they or their children have been registered – for life – as potential criminals. There have also been suggestions that police have abused their arrest powers to collect DNA samples.
The European Human Rights Court has been asked to rule next week on the case of two men from Sheffield who were arrested but not charged, and want their DNA records expunged.
But just because this annoying liberal court has poked its nose into our affairs, we should not necessarily dismiss these concerns.
Some types of DNA evidence have been questioned, particularly after the recent Omagh bombing trial.
Meanwhile, professional criminals are increasingly expert at destroying their own DNA traces or polluting crime scenes with false DNA trails.
It is not the magic bullet it first appeared to be.
There is another point. As the criminal justice system increasingly fails to deal with the low-level disorder that worries most people, it trumpets its rare successes in headline-making cases, such as those involving Wright and Dixie.
Yet it can be argued that old-fashioned close-to-the-ground police work might have caught these two just as quickly, if not sooner.
And – while it is essential that justice is done on such killers – the main job of the police is to prevent crime in the first place, and no DNA database can do that half as effectively as patrolling constables on foot.
Home Office Minister Tony McNulty is right to be cautious before treating the entire population as suspects.
He and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith should take the same view of equally worrying plans for ID cards, and for intrusive surveillance on travellers to Europe.
We are not all guilty, and we will lose much more than we gain if we submit ourselves to Big Brother.