Since Tony Blair presented his proposals for banning incitement to terrorism, many self-consciously clever critics have waxed indignant at his indifference to free speech. Here is Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) in The Guardian this week:
Mr Blair also promised to criminalise the "condoning, glorifying or justification" of terrorism anywhere in the world - a shockingly broad speech offence that the home secretary had previously tried to narrow down to the still broad concept of "indirect incitement to terrorism". Such a law could criminalise all kinds of debates that have nothing to do with direct incitement. Readers of this newspaper may have to be more careful at dinner parties. Writers of this newspaper ... it doesn't bear thinking about.
She has a point, though not the one she thinks. Condoning terrorism is a broad offence; on a strict interpretation it might catch people who do not directly incite violence. Those who support the government’s proposals should recognise this, and turn the charge back on those who make it. The offence is “shockingly broad” in the proposal because so it is in real life. The distinction between directly inciting terrorism and legitimate if debatable opinions about how to counter terrorism does not necessarily conform to the convenience of Guardian columnists. Some expressions of opinion in that newspaper and elsewhere fall between the two.
The type of speech I’m thinking of does nothing so crude as justifying or glorifying violence. But it legitimates violence. Should that be an offence? It depends on the context. I do not rule it out in principle, and designating some sentiments as incitement to crime may have a bracing influence on public debate. Ms Chakrabarti’s concern that Guardian readers may have to be more careful in what they say at dinner parties is grandiloquent absurdity, but if incidentally Guardian readers become more careful in what they say then I cannot consider this a loss either to the quality of public life or to them.
A couple of months ago the Independent columnist Johann Hari compiled 15 pertinent questions to put to a supporter of George Galloway MP. These included:
Do you believe Tony Blair is "waging war on Muslims both at home and abroad", that he is " a crusader", and "he will burn in the hellfires for all eternity"? If so, would you say so in areas of extreme racial tension to audiences of young and angry Muslim men?
The qualifier in Johann’s question is crucial. Sentiments expressed in, say, an opinion piece in a small-circulation periodical such as The New Statesman, however eccentric, are unlikely to lead anyone to do anything. The identical sentiments expressed in an environment where they are certain to be inflammatory and likely to precipitate violence are different matter. Spot the weasel word in Ms Chakrabarti’s sentence: ‘Such a law could criminalise all kinds of debates that have nothing to do with direct incitement.’
'Tony Blair will burn in the hellfires for all eternity' is not direct incitement. For all I know it may be a recurring theme in pamphlets of the Protestant Truth Society. But it may still, in certain contexts implied by Johann’s question, constitute incitement to crime, and there is every good reason for a liberal society that is the target of religious extremists indoctrinated into terrorism to interpret incitement in precisely the broad way that Ms Chakrabarti fears.
Here are a couple of examples of the type of thing I mean (a third, by Noam Chomsky, and which I alluded to in my post last week, is such a beauty that I am going to devote a separate post to it rather than discuss it here). Neither is direct incitement: both might have that effect, and the authors of those sentiments ought to feel under the contingent threat of prosecution depending on where they speak and write. The obvious recent case is George Galloway (again) in a television interview. David Aaronovitch in The Times recounts them and raises the obvious question:
Speaking on Syrian TV on July 31, in the way one does, Galloway addressed the Arabs of the world with the observation that: “Two of your beautiful daughters are in the hands of foreigners — Jerusalem and Baghdad. The foreigners are doing to your daughters as they will.” The foreigners in Jerusalem are, presumably, Israeli Jews and I imagine that the metaphorical “doing as they will” attached to the helpless but alluring female cities, does not refer to them being plied with scones and Earl Grey tea.
Of course Galloway has — unlike the silly sheikhs — condemned the bombings as “a crime in any language, in any religion”. He may even mean it. But it isn’t hard to imagine self-styled Mujahidin listening to George and concluding that a strike at the heart of the daughter-rapist’s capital city is a fair return. So was this, in effect, incitement?
It may be.
The second example is an op-ed from today’s Guardian, by the venerable radical historian Howard Zinn. An indication of its thoughtfulness is Zinn’s insistence that:
The Bush administration, unable to capture the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, invaded Afghanistan, killing thousands of people and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. Yet it still does not know where the criminals are.
Actually the Bush administration knows exactly where the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks are. They’re dead in the wreckage of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a crash site in Pennsylvania. That’s what happens to successful suicide terrorists. Professor Zinn can check this in contemporary newspaper accounts. And, by the way, so far from driving thousands from their homes, the war in Afghanistan allowed, according to the UNHCR, the biggest repatriation of refugees to their homes in 30 years. Since the Taliban’s fall, more than 3.5 million refugees have chosen to return to Afghanistan, anticipating a better life for themselves.
Trying to reason with Professor Zinn is a near-textbook case of futility, and in any event I want to make only one substantive comment about his argument. His article is entitled, “It is not only Iraq that is occupied. America is too.” Unlike many exercises in subeditorial interpretation, the title exactly reflects the argument of the piece. Zinn says:
But more ominous, perhaps, than the occupation of Iraq is the occupation of the US. I wake up in the morning, read the newspaper, and feel that we are an occupied country, that some alien group has taken over. I wake up thinking: the US is in the grip of a president surrounded by thugs in suits who care nothing about human life abroad or here, who care nothing about freedom abroad or here, who care nothing about what happens to the earth, the water or the air, or what kind of world will be inherited by our children and grandchildren.
Whether or not Zinn is aware of it, the language he uses here is a close copy of the far-Right aversion to the constitutional character of US democracy. On this view, the US not only has a President whose policies Zinn disapproves of: it is in thrall to illegitimate and alien forces. If the nation is occupied by such forces, then political violence is not criminal, but an act of liberation in obedience to a higher law.
If there is anyone in recent American history who exemplifies this belief, it is one who acted upon it: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who imagined the US was controlled by what white supremacists term ‘ZOG’, or Zionist Occupation Government. I have no doubt that Zinn would reject any such analogy between his arguments and those of far-Right ‘survivalists’, and I know he would sincerely be outraged at the massacre of innocents in Oklahoma's Federal building by a neo-Nazi. Any white supremacist who happened to read his argument in The Guardian would be unlikely to appreciate that distinction, however. The parallel between the conspiracist paranoid ravings of the far-Right and the far-Left is not a malign invention on my part to discredit those on the ‘Left’ whose views I oppose: it is a demonstrable feature of recent political debate. The novelist Gore Vidal has written a long polemic (published in The Observer in 2002) alleging that the Bush ‘junta’ allowed the terrorist strikes on 9/11 to happen in order to advance its nefarious plans for world domination. The similarity of this worldview to that of Timothy McVeigh is explicitly acknowledged by Vidal: he describes McVeigh as a "Kipling hero" with an "overdeveloped sense of justice", comparable to Paul Revere.
Is Zinn guilty of incitement to crime? Is Vidal? Not in The Guardian and The Observer or at the Edinburgh Book Festival, where these preposterous notions have been propounded. Elsewhere, they may be. If they and others like them have to start worrying about the legal implications of their remarks if made in the UK, then public debate itself will benefit through the associated clarification of ideas. The legitimation of political violence is not just a matter of opinion; those who hear it should be clear on what it represents; those who indulge in it should be aware of the costs of free speech. If the government is seriously going to press for expansive legislation cracking down on incitement to terrorism, then it should strive manfully to resist the temptation to be cautious.