While the Internet is a highly valuable tool for commerce, information and the exchange of knowledge, its dark side has grown to the point where it threatens to negate its benefits to both individuals and society.
Computer users now face the pervasive presence of computer viruses – malicious computer code designed to interfere with the working of computers – spread through email.
Additionally, there is a rising tide of unsolicited email (spam), often pornographic, or sent by criminals intent on defrauding susceptible users.
The proliferation of pornographic web sites is making the Internet an intellectual, if not moral, sewer. There has also been a proliferation of on-line casinos, some of which are legal, but others operate beyond the laws of any country and therefore open the door to new forms of money laundering.
Beyond all this, there is an even darker side. “Chat rooms”, where users can communicate with others on-line, have been widely used by sexual predators to arrange encounters with young boys and girls.
And as a current court case in Germany proves, it has also provided the means through which deviants can meet others of the same kind.
This case, involving a 42-year-old German computer analyst, Armin Meiweis, who had a psychiatric obsession with cannibalism, and was part of an Internet circle of people who fed one another’s obsession either to kill people and eat their bodies, or be killed by them.
Through the Internet, Meiweis met a Berlin engineer who agreed to let Meiweis kill him and eat him. Meiweis is now facing a charge of murder; but he has pleaded not guilty, on the basis that the victim gave his informed consent.
In my view, this act of depravity cannot be separated from two other important elements of contemporary culture: the pervasive influence of the media, in particular, the visual media of film and television; and the collapse of moral absolutes, particularly of human life.
About ten years ago, the film, The Silence of the Lambs, was released around the world amidst enormous controversy, and subsequently has been shown on television in Australia. It was a Hollywood blockbuster about an FBI agent, Clarice Starling, who enlisted the help of Dr Hannibal Lecter, a notorious cannibal in a prison for the criminally insane, to track down another serial-killing cannibal.
At the end of the film, Lecter escaped to the Caribbean, and in the sequel (Hannibal), Stirling tracked him down to his villa in Tuscany, where his murderous rampage had continued.
The Silence of the Lambs popularised this particular perversion, to the point where commentators on the German case have frequently drawn parallels with the films which preceded it.
But the Merweis case also raises starkly the question of what value society puts on human life. Conventional morality, influenced by 2000 years of Christianity, holds that human life is sacred, and that murder and consensual killing (euthanasia) are wrong in principle.
The new morality argues that there are no moral absolutes, that “I have the right to do with my body whatever I like”, and that the State (or society) has no business intervening in private consensual conduct, of any kind. Prominent public figures, such as Professor Peter Singer, have argued this way.
The Merweis case shows what happens when this philosophy is put into practice.
The experience of euthanasia in contemporary Holland, 1930s Germany and elsewhere also shows that when consensual (mercy) killing is accepted in principle, it eventually degenerates into murder, sanctioned either by the State – which is unwilling to support those who, in the words of one public figure, are “beyond their use-by date” – or by the medical profession.
It is easy to say that the law should protect human life, but this will only happen to the extent that there is a widely-held public view that human life is precious, particularly when it is most vulnerable.
Similarly, the problems on the Internet arise from the unwillingness of contemporary society to accept any restraint, which is condemned as “censorship”. But in fact, we all accept that there must be limits. The only question is where those limits should be drawn.
In relation to the media, the permissive Film Censorship Guidelines, which facilitated the release of atrocious films such as The Silence of the Lambs, should be revoked, and the plain meaning of the law should guide film releases.
As far as the Internet is concerned, it has been virtually impossible to get the communications companies and Internet Service Providers interested in effective legislation to control abuses of the Internet.
But the problems caused by the misuse of this technology have become so costly to the industry that it may be possible to bring about a consensus to deal with the problems, while protecting the legitimate and beneficial uses of the Internet.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council.