(The cartoon on the left is by a Chilean named Francisco J. Olea. The caption at the top reads “Grab Your Weapons mates.”)
There are times when I despair at the behaviour of human beings and this week was one of them. The appalling events in Paris, where the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked by fundamentalists with automatic weapons have created shockwaves around the world.
It was sickening, frightening and a reminder that there are people amongst us who do not recognise the normal rules of civilisation. This site will be launching its politics magazine this month, and I wrote a lengthy piece for it, on Islam and the West, a piece where I argue that we have to review the way we deal with that religion so as to limit the support for the people on its fringes.
But I make it clear – as I want to make it clear here – that there is no negotiating with, or understanding, those who’s warped ideas and evil ideology believes that mass murder is justified in the name of Allah. They are an abhorrence.
The people who carried this attack out are a danger to us all, and as such they have to be rooted out and they have to be stopped, by whatever means necessary. The barbarity with which they murdered a dozen people is but one manifestation of the twisted way in which they view the world, and their defeat is a moral imperative.
My heart goes out to the people who’ve lost loved ones, and to the city of Paris, which must be reeling today as my own city was just a few weeks ago.
Yet amidst the recognition that these people are murderers and fanatics who need to be dealt with, there is the usual outpouring of hyperbole and dangerous nonsense we’ve come to expect in the aftermath of these atrocities.
None of it takes us one step forward in terms of our understanding of these events, or in the way in which we combat the forces that have been unleashed. All it does is lead to confusion and misunderstanding, and this takes us further down a dark road.
The people who carried out this attack were trained, disciplined and dedicated. They were men on a mission, and that mission was carried out in a manner which, in cold language, we have to describe as “professional”.
They weren’t angry young men who simply got up one morning and decided to carry out an assault on a publication they didn’t like. These guys were the real deal, the face of terror we know only through TV footage from far flung corners of the world most of us couldn’t find on a map.
I have the awed respect for the guys who worked at that magazine that is shared by writers across the world, but I recognise this for what it was; an attack targeting a publication which had deliberately, and consistently, jabbed a wild beast with a sharp stick.
Every one of its writers had already been threatened a hundred times or more, and they carried on regardless. Their offices had been firebombed, and they were not deterred. The police officers who died were there because the magazine has been under constant police protection for a while now, in response to a very credible level of threat.
Let me be brutally honest about what I think of those cartoons; I think they were racist and tantamount to incitement to religious hatred. Some have labelled it “satire” and that’s all well and good, but similar claims have been made throughout the years by low-ball degenerates on the far-right, such as those who sent anti-fascist campaigner Nick Lowles a series of disgusting photographs of “his relatives” from Auschwitz; half buried chicken bones and a pair of broken glasses, or the writer of the appalling racist hit song “Barbecue in Rostock”, which ran with the lyrics “there’s a barbecue in Rostock, would you like to come? How do you like Turks? Do you like them well done?”
One of the harsh truths we have to face is this; these cartoons are defended by so many because they are the work of those on the secular, liberal left, instead of on the lunatic flanks of the right.
Had these, or similar cartoons, run on the cover of Spearhead some of the people who, today have sought to lionise the authors, would have been united in outrage against them, and that is a fact, and one we would do well to acknowledge.
We can stand, aghast and appalled, at what the bastards with the rifles did and condemn it as the act of psychopaths, and we can mourn the victims and feel sick for their families and friends without necessarily agreeing with the views expressed by those who died.
Let no-one dare suggest I am attempting a justification for this outrageous act of murder either. I know which the greater sin here is and the content of those cartoons in no way justifies a death sentence or any other act of violence … but let’s not fuck around, shall we?
Free speech might as well not exist if it isn’t used for telling hard truths.
I worship the right of free speech, and in my own way I do lionise the team at Charlie Hebdo. No matter what I think of their views, and the way they were expressed, these guys weren’t pretending to be something they were not, and they weren’t hiding under a bushel. They understood that the platform is most effective when used to its greatest extent, and they weren’t cowed by anyone or anything. Their determination to publish quickly in the face of the massacre speaks volumes.
These guys had the courage of all their convictions and they faced down constant threats, and not only from the extremists. The French government had tried to tell them what to publish on several occasions and they ignored them as they ignored the calls and letters and messages from the fringes of sanity which must have poured in every day.
It is telling that not one British newspaper, and very few in the Western world, has reprinted any of the covers on their own front page, although virtually every editorial is screaming about how the satirists should keep on doing what they do, knowing the world is behind them.
The Independent attempted to grasp the nettle, with an editorial explaining the decision not to, over the “gut instincts” of the editor, who says he thought they should. The Guardian laid out an even more cogent case for not publishing them, but stopped short of being critical of the cartoons themselves.
The editorial teams on both, and elsewhere, are clearly worried that some will see this as a cowardly reaction, but I disagree and I think those calling them such need to get a grip. Yet I think it would have been a stronger – and more honest – argument if they had said, as I am certain a number of editors recognise, that those cartoons cross a line and don’t belong on the cover of a national newspaper in a multi-cultural country, and that re-printing them would have been wrong.
For all that, I believe the right to free speech should be unrestricted, with all the dangers that brings, because I believe that society is strongest when the free-flow of ideas and debate is not restrained, however repellent some of those ideas might be, but that is not to say that because people have a right to publish such things that they should.
Rights come with responsibilities. The publication of anti-Islamic cartoons in a Danish publication sparked riots around the world, and those who re-published them were reckless at best.
When the French government asked Charlie Hebdo to show restraint, and to desist from publishing those same cartoons, the publication refused, and the French government had to close embassies in a half dozen countries.
I don’t object to a publication which isn’t afraid of giving offence. I can be shocked, though, at one that paid such total disregard to the health and safety of other people.
As I said earlier, that is not an argument for censorship. I don’t believe any restrictions should exist, only that people ought to be more restrained, and show some sense of perspective. But I will have no truck with those who say that those who can’t, or won’t, tone it down ought to be subject to criminal action, far less public execution, for it.
See, a surprising number of those who claim to support free speech “to the death” actually don’t believe in anything of the sort, and I am loathe to say this but many of them can be found on the left.
The press in this fair land is happy to wrongly quote Voltaire (it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, his biographer who said) “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” as they like, but in truth, their publications have printed editorials beyond count which contradict that in the most blatant way, calling for gagging orders, the silencing of bloggers and the ghouls of Twitter and Facebook and many others.
It’s sad, but true, that the left has a long and undistinguished history of defending “free speech” only up to a point, said point being the moment when they feel offended or threatened by it.
I remember speaking out against the NUS No Platform policy whilst a trade union youth activist, and being looked at as if I was a madman. That was back in the early 90’s, when the only organisation on their proscribed list was the BNP. Now it encompasses any number of organisations, from Islamic societies to the EDL, and the number of individuals who have, for one reason or another, been “No Platformed” is in the dozens and continues to climb.
I once also sat, in disbelief (but not silence), during one meeting of the Stirling University Students Association where the entertainments officer was being flayed because he had booked a band called Kunt, which some on the committee thought was offensive to women.
The motion to cancel the gig – at great financial cost, seeing the deposit had already been paid – was passed with a resounding majority, leaving a small number of us, who, foolishly, believed the only criteria for booking a band was “are they any good?” scratching our heads at the insanity of it all.
This is the puerile, politically correct nonsense some on the left get up to, and it undermines completely any claim they have to being in favour of the right to free speech.
See, I think the No Platform policy is but one example of moral and political cowardice masquerading as a principled, progressive stance.
How can silencing people because you don’t agree with, or like, their views be principled? How can stifling debate and allowing horrible ideas to gain some underground credibility by virtue of their being silenced be progressive?
I laughed when I read of how George Galloway stormed out of a university debate at Oxford because his opponent was an Israeli. It was a contemptible response from a man who, himself, is on the NUS proscribed list for his abhorrent comments on rape.
(Oxford is not affiliated to NUS, and has hosted a number of debates with people who wouldn’t get a hearing from them).
This is not just about defending Galloway’s right to continue making an arse of himself. A guy like that should be allowed to debate issues he feels passionately about, because the minute he’s up on the rostrum it’s open season on him and all the idiotic ideas he espouses.
In short, his views on rape shouldn’t see him banned from any public forum but should be the reason to get him up there in the first place, so they can be explored, and exposed, and subject to the forensic scrutiny and resultant contempt they most certainly deserve. Let him spit the dummy out and storm to the door. Show him up for the embarrassment he is. Banning him is counterproductive in this regard.
Likewise, you can’t have watched the YouTube footage of the half-witted Tommy Robinson being filleted by Paxman without realising that these people are about as convincing in debate as Dawn French would be in ballerina shoes.
The notion that their ridiculously stupid views are somehow too dangerous to be aired makes those of us who believe in a progressive society squirm with embarrassment. We want these people crushed by ridicule as their empty headed concepts and ideas are shown up for the bullshit they are.
Besides that, there’s something fundamentally dangerous, and undemocratic, about restricting free speech, and none of the arguments for why we should do it stack up.
The notion that some ideas are too dangerous to be expressed is ridiculous in a mass communication age where there are few secrets anymore and no way to restrict what someone can read, or hear, or even see. Those who want to spread messages of hate have more tools than ever at their disposal, and so silencing them is a non-starter anyway.
Besides, nothing gives more underground “legitimacy” to the hate-monger and his message more than when the state lends him the patina of martyrdom by silencing his views. Most of these people preach a message that is profoundly anti-government, and anti-state, and so when you restrict their ability to promote their views you give them the perfect cloak behind which to hide.
The simple fact is that in defending the rights of the Holocaust denier to have his say, we are standing up for society, because if you protect his rights that assures we live in a place where we can call him a liar who’s twisting the truth and distorting facts to appeal to an idiot audience motivated by hate, and that destroys his arguments more effectively than those who would try to shut him up.
For myself, I am perfectly capable of promoting any number of barmy solutions to social problems, but no government would lend credence to my views by banning them, so why should those promoting the “white’s only homeland” be afforded such attention?
People will doubtless point out that what we’re really talking about here are those who promote violence, or the most extreme forms of hate, but I would stipulate that those kind of views do not need to be heard on street corners to find an audience; those who seek them out will find them regardless, and those of us who would reject them will not be swayed either way.
Always – and, without exception – restrictions on free speech have been justified by the argument that they offer society some protection, when, in fact, what they do is narrow the scope of our national discussion by having certain people decide what viewpoints are acceptable and which are not. The second a government or a society starts down that slippery slope it loses a little of its claim to be open and free, for no institution that ever put in place restrictions on free expression finds itself rolling them back again.
Instead, they are extended and grow alarmingly, until they threaten all debate but that which those in authority want.
Whilst it is true to say that any number of dictators have risen to power on the back of free speech – Hitler was but one example – it is instructive to note that of all the freedoms they limited upon taking office, the right to free expression was always the first to go.
There’s a reason for that; nothing weakens those in power more than the ability to scrutinise it, question it and expose its worst excesses and frauds.
When you guarantee the rights of David Irving you are guaranteeing the freedoms of Noam Chomsky. When you stand up to defend the gutter rhetoric of Tommy Robinson, you are protecting the soaring intellectual arguments of Owen Jones. You cannot legislate to restrict what one says without posing a threat to the integrity of the other.
Here, in Scotland, there’s been a debate for the last couple of years over the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, a piece of appalling legislative over-reach which was supposedly passed to tackle sectarianism but has, instead, done little more than restrict political expression in song and make criminals out of young men who otherwise would never have been in the justice system.
There are a lot of misconceptions about this law. As it is a clear assault on free speech, I want to go over some of those in detail.
First, the law is a shambles, making illegal before, during and after football matches that which would be perfectly legal in any other setting. Amongst the many ridiculous scenarios thrown up by this law is one where a guy sitting alone, singing certain songs in front of the match on his own TV, in his own living room, could be charged with a criminal offence because his neighbours heard him through the walls … whereas if he were doing the same thing during Question Time he would probably not even have to face action for breach of the peace.
Nor does the law tackle sectarianism. It criminalises football supporters. It does not target the hard-core bigots but those who sing certain songs at games.
During the Justice Committee hearings before it was passed one member unashamedly spoke of the need for this law to “equalise” the ratio between those arrested for anti-Irish racist offences and those who sing Irish Republican songs. It is hard not to conclude that the law is, in effect, designed to do little more than target those who support the Republican cause.
That makes it an explicitly political law, and regardless of what your views are on the cause those songs espouse, you have to agree that creating a legal framework to limit political expression is absolutely inconsistent not only with free speech but democracy itself.
Another member of the committee went even further than this, and in comments so ludicrous they make the mind reel, there was a suggestion that the law could be used to tackle the “crime” of “aggressive blessing” … not an unbelievable concept in a country where the former Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc had been the victim of press and public opprobrium, and received a police caution, for making the Sign of the Cross during matches.
Boruc is a Roman Catholic from Poland, the country where the then Holy Father hailed from, a country where those of all religious faiths had been persecuted.
The Pope in question, John Paul II, had campaigned tirelessly both before and during his tenure in the Vatican for freedom of religion in his own nation and beyond, making Boruc’s gesture as much a matter of politics as it was a matter of faith.
Yet, he was not only slammed for it, but he was the victim of police action, because it had “offended” others, many of them howling bigots who thought nothing of singing songs about being “up to their knees in fenian blood”, and who stated, without contradiction, that the sight of this man making a sign of religious faith had made them want to riot.
Outside of a small number of people in Scotland, the world was stunned and appalled by what happened. Here, the media and our justice system, in a perversion of the law and decency, made the victim of an abhorrent display of intolerance into a criminal.
It’s not only Boruc but religion itself which fell victim to this lunatic affair, and it casts into question whether the framers care about sectarianism at all. Sectarianism is based on intolerance. There has scarcely been a more intolerant law than this.
Many of those who defend the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act do so from the point of view that it tackles religious bigotry, without actually having the first clue as to what they are talking about. In truth, it does nothing of the kind and it was never intended to.
In fact, this bill is nothing but social engineering, intended and designed to eradicate political opinions which fall outside of the mainstream, and which discriminates between football supporters and other members of society for whom these views are presumably not so taboo.
Its authors claim it aims to ban certain songs, but the fact it does not do so in all surroundings and circumstances gives lie to that idea and no-one has yet explained why banning them only in the context of football has any material effect on society.
What the Act does try to restrict is the singing of songs about the conflict that scarred the Six Counties over a period of decades, with roots going back hundreds of years. This conflict is little different to the one that has raged across the West Bank and Gaza for the last 30 years, except that it is even more misunderstood.
Let me say what a lot of people for some reason or another don’t understand or don’t wish to acknowledge; the war in the Six Counties was never expressly about religion, and so to call songs about it “sectarian” demonstrates a failure to grasp its realities and the goals of the opposing sides in it.
On the Republican side, there was only one period in IRA history where they set out to target Protestant’s on account of their faith, and that was abandoned completely when the Marxist radicals formed the Provisionals in the modern phase of the campaign.
Their “war aim” was clearly defined; the unification of Ireland. There was no religious motivation involved. Indeed, many of the founding figures of Republicanism were, themselves, Protestant.
On the Loyalist side, things were less cut and dried but no less clear; their objective was to keep the North within the UK and to cede nothing to the South.
Loyalism had its roots in Protestantism, but religion was little more than a convenient flag for a community which simply wanted to maintain its own power, and position within the Empire. They targeted Catholics for one principle reason; the Catholic community provided the bulk of support for the Republican cause, and they wanted to instil enough terror in their ranks to force their surrender.
Furthermore, neither side was averse to killing “its own” to make a point, or in the course of fighting the war. When, for example, the IRA targeted the security forces it made no effort to identify the religious persuasion of those in its gun sights.
In that conflict, religion was simply a crude means of identifying those on the other side of what was, like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, primarily a geopolitical struggle. Referring to it as a “religious war” is a gross simplification, and it is not a surprise that those who promote it are those most likely to fall into the trap of viewing the Glasgow derby as a clash of the same.
Some sections of our society might object to these songs, but those songs are not sectarian. Silencing them is an assault on free expression, which is all the more egregious because they are of a political nature.
Those who say they glorify murder are being equally ridiculous. I would ask them to point to even one song frequently heard at Ibrox or Celtic Park which celebrates the killing of a single enemy combatant, far less civilians. Not even The Billy Boys, with its lyric of being “up to their knees in fenian blood”, is heard these days, and it’s been a long while since it was, and those who know their history will be well aware that the song is not a reference to the war in Ireland anyway.
These songs do not even qualify as hate speech, as most of them pay tribute to those who fought, and died, on either side of the conflict. It is ridiculous.
The most commonly heard Republican songs, those for which dozens have appeared in court, are The Roll of Honour, which pays tribute to the 10 hunger strikers who are held in high esteem in other countries the world over and The Boys of The Old Brigade, which is about the 1916 Easter Uprising and pays tribute to the Irish men who fought in it.
In terms of their lyrics, the first is little different from songs about Nelson Mandela and the second comes from the same viewpoint as songs like The Flower of Scotland.
The law itself is, therefore, discriminatory, and should be flushed down the toilet on free speech grounds alone.
The final argument – that these songs need to be banned because they would offend a “reasonable person” or incite that person to violence – well, it doesn’t stack up either. There is no legal protection against being offended in this country and nor should there be. Labour Party propaganda offends me, by supposing that I am an idiot. I wouldn’t demand that it be banned.
As to “inciting” violence, I would suggest that if a song makes you want to hurt someone then you are no longer, if you ever were, a reasonable person, and you are the one with the problem, not the song itself. Society, and the courts, would do better to focus on that and put you where you clearly belong, which is far away from the rest of us.
Speaking for myself, I don’t believe these songs belong inside a football stadium, but I think legislation to criminalise them is dangerous and I would rather hear something I don’t like than live in a country which bans the expression of unconventional ideas or opinions.
This act is a standout example of what happens when politicians think they have the right to pick and choose which views and beliefs we should be allowed to put forward. They have no such right, and nor should they, any more than the jihadists do.
The right to unrestricted free speech is the right that protects all the others. Any restriction on it is a threat to our way of life. The bastards who murdered all those people cannot be allowed to win, and they would love it if our reaction was to limit what we can say in chat rooms or in publications or out on the streets. Already the security forces are making a power grab. Politicians are debating whether or not to pass new anti-terror laws, and these always include limits on our free expression.
The response to this atrocity has, in some quarters, been predictable, and depressing.
Already, the gutter scum are grabbing their own moment. At the head of the lynch mob are Rupert Murdoch, who went out of his way to suggest we hold all Muslim’s responsible for the actions of a degenerate and dangerous few, and Nigel Farage who never misses an opportunity to demonstrate his crass ignorance and utter lack of scruples.
He is already out there, front and centre, blaming the attacks on Europe’s embrace of multi-culturalism, betraying his own breath-taking lack of any clue as to what he’s talking about.
There’s one final issue that arises from this, and it’s the way many in our culture view religion, and it does not matter whether it’s Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other. The arrogance and intolerance of some people in this country towards those who practice religion is astounding, and they are all over the pulpit right now, decrying everyone of faith and, as has become their trademark, calling out all religious expression as dangerous.
It is no coincidence that when the dictators have put an end to free speech the next thing they restrict is freedom of worship, because since the dawn of time the churches have been active in calling out the excesses of those in power, and yes I say that knowing full well that for a long time the churches themselves held enormous amounts of it.
Those who say that religion promotes hate ignore the basic fact that the central tenant of every religion on Earth can be summed up as “love thy neighbour.” That people have twisted the teachings of the church – of every church – has been held against all those of faith in a way that we would deem repellent if it were applied to any other social group.
Criticising and even laughing at religion is the right of the self-absorbed atheist, but when they preach about how it’s faith itself that is responsible for this massacre they ought to know that the volume of their contempt now sounds like the screeching of an insane asylum and that it has fed in to the hatred that gave birth to these people in the first place.
I sometimes hear that more people have died because of religion than for any other reason in history; that religious wars have killed uncounted millions … it is nonsense.
The greatest military clash in history – the Eastern Front of World War II – was between two fanatical, despotic regimes, led by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, who, between them, murdered over 70 million people. Mao Zedong killed over 30 million of his own citizens. Pol Pot, Charles Taylor, Kim Il-Sung, Jean Kambanda and Idi Amin murdered millions more, and the dead in all those cases included countless religious followers … all murdered at the hands of atheist regimes who saw the followers of God as a profound threat to their power.
They make ISIS and the fanatics of Al Qaeda look like amateurs.
As a writer, my reverence for free speech is total. The bastards in the ski-masks and armed with AK-47’s who committed mass murder in Paris this week struck out with their guns because that is all they had, and it’s all they’ll ever have. Their ideology is built on ignorance and hate, and they only win if our society follows them down into that morass.
Those who say these people were counting on our outrage give these people more credit than they are due; their lashing out was an act of desperation and impotence, as the beheading of hostages is, after we refuse to give them what they want. The world will not bend to their shape, no matter how hard they try, or how many they kill, because in the end they’ll have to kill us all.
Free speech, unrestrained, will prove that the pen really is mightier than the sword. I only wish that the media would take it more seriously, and challenge power rather than suck up to it, and expose wrongdoing instead of trying to hide it. I also wish others would learn to use it with more respect, and therefore restraint.
Comments, like that from Slate’s editor in chief Jacob Weisberg, that the “best response” to the killings is to “escalate blasphemous satire” is ridiculous at best and dangerous in the extreme, paying no heed to the social consequences or to the fact that it offends millions who did absolutely nothing to deserve that contempt and intolerance. That’s not defending free expression; that’s self-indulgence to a fare-thee-well, regardless of the price others have to pay.
Yet a world without free speech would not be one in which I would feel comfortable or want to live. Charb, the editor of the magazine where so many died, said, in 2012, that “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” This may well be the only time in which he spoke for us all – the collective whole, who believe in free speech as an article of our own personal faith – and I would contend that those words make a better front page than any of his cartoons ever would.
It was George Washington who said “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Fuck the gunmen and all those who believe they were right. Fuck those who think terror will succeed in forcing our silence. Fuck the fundamentalists of every shade who believe their own opinions and their own views are all that matter, and who would silence the rest of us out of ignorance or fear. If the last week has proved anything at all it’s that this is a war they can’t win.
Indeed, they lost it already, on the day it began and no number of guns or the will to use them will change that simple fact.
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