Sun, 01 Jun 2003

Left out in the cold as protesters come to town

If you are scheduled to visit Geneva this weekend, then it's a case of bad timing.

Demonstrations against the G-8 Summit, to take place in neighboring Evian from Sunday through Tuesday, have begun to cause their own reverberations. This quiet, tiny city (yes, everything here is small, except for the numbers on the bills) has turned into one of those ghost towns that you see in movies.

Out of fear that demonstrators will also come for a "visit" and go on the rampage, many shops, restaurants and other establishments have closed or been boarded up.

And Geneva residents have taken flight rather than face the consequences if the protests get out of hand.

Roads leading out of the city are jammed, and orders for taxis (you must phone for them here) will not be processed unless they are placed at least 30 minutes before the pickup time.

What about those who stay in town this weekend?

They still see the town as a pleasant, safe place, I suppose.

But how different is life in this now dead-quiet town from the fate of someone who is quarantined with a suspected case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)?

It's not unreasonable to say that the demonstrations will curtail the freedom of residents of Evian and surrounding areas.

It's like someone who runs into a building full of people and screams "fire" when there is no fire at all. The former may argue that it is his right to do so, an expression of freedom of speech, even though it causes unnecessary panic among the building's residents.

If you think about it, the "benefits" of the demonstrations -- such as the number of demonstrators who will be pleased at getting a chance to express themselves -- do not seem to justify the "costs", especially in the loss of freedom of movement of city residents and, if the protests do turn violent, the damage to public facilities.

English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham said that actions were right if they tended to "produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people". He wrote that 200 years ago, but it's still relevant today.

The demonstrations this weekend are only making the demonstrators happy.

Democracy is like a coin: There are two sides to it, one nice and one ugly. The same goes for freedom of speech.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against democracy and all the civil liberties that it affords people.

What disturbs me is the fact that freedom of speech is abused by the "anarchists".

Instead of demonstrating peacefully, which is a right to which every individual should be entitled, the anarchists become destructive and damage public facilities, which are for the public good, or private property, the protection of which is a right the owners are entitled to.

Look closer at the antiglobalization protesters and their activities, and you will probably start to question the real motives behind their demonstrations.

How many are demonstrating for what they think is wrong in the world today, or are they just taking the opportunity to travel the world, let out some aggression, party a bit and get their face on a CNN or BBC report?

And who is going to pay for all the damage caused by these professional protesters?

Thus far, the Geneva authorities are said to have deployed 10,000 soldiers and police officers around the city and its many border checkpoints with France, which is ringing up a huge bill.

It remains to be seen if the city will end up paying for any damage done to shops and private property, but the insurance companies must be biting their nails.

The world has enough problems as it is. If we cannot help make it a better place, that's fine, but it does not mean that we have to be a burden on our own societies and communities.

So, if you are not a participant in the summit, I advise you to keep your distance. But if you do insist on coming to this neck of the woods, and think you will be in for an interesting time, then I have a piece of advice for you.

Try spelling the name of the summit host city backwards.

-- T. D. Nguyen