Monday, 9 September 2013

Freedom of Drowning

The Skiatook Lake is a short drive away from where I stay, and it was upon a friend's advice that we rented a car and headed over for what promised to be an adrenaline-filled afternoon. Soon, keeping with the American themes of total freedom and "only you are responsible for yourself", four novices were in possession of a powerboat, fully fueled and ready-to-go.

"How does it work?" I asked the sleepy looking moustached man.
He promptly showed me the controls - forward, neutral, reverse and steering. There was an array of other buttons which he didn't care to talk about.
"What about life-jackets?" I queried.
"Ya want 'em, eh?" he asked nonchalantly.
I nodded vigorously. I'm not proud of my swimming prowess, and I certainly didn't want to test them in the unfathomable depths of America's deep blue lakes.
"Alright," he said, checking a box on a sheet he held in his hand. "They're under tha seat rai' here. Please sign this paper sir."

And then he read out an entire list of instructions at breakneck pace. There was something about getting into the water, something about wakes, smoking on the boat, drinking while driving, so on and so forth. These were all instructions, probably critical, which people routinely overlooked.

Fast forward half an hour: one of my friends was in the water. He certainly didn't know how to swim. Another fellow jumped in. This guy was a better swimmer, but clearly pulling someone out of the water was beyond him. We threw ropes into the water, and inflated rubbers, tubes and anything else we could find that floats. There was much splashing and shouting. In the distance, motorboats cut through the water with fluid ease. No one knew or cared about what was happening with us.

We turned the boat around. Herculean efforts and more hyperventilation: finally they were back on board. As they coughed-up all the water they had swallowed, there were only two things on my mind: how deep the lake was, and how stupid the laws were.

I understand the importance of freedom, and the fact that people must be allowed to do what they want to as long as they don't infringe upon the rights of others. But we must remember that such absolute freedom can be realized successfully only in an ideal society where everyone is fully aware of their abilities, strengths and limitations; where they are fully aware of the worst consequences their action or inaction might elicit. Not to have boards warning you about how deep the water is, not to have a coastguard in sight, and handing out speedboats without proper instructions is hardly a very smart thing to do.

All this only brings me to a much bigger debate - one which I'm currently not fully equipped to debate: To what extent, if at all, is the State responsible for its citizens' safety? Should people be allowed to do dangerous, and often stupid, things just because they signed a piece of paper, which exonerates one particular party from all blame?

I think not. People can be allowed to have fun. But sometimes, they die.