Thursday, 15 January 2015

France and Britain: defending our freedoms. Aren't they?

Now that the first outburst of grief and solidarity’s past, we’re beginning to see what the longer-term impact of the terrorist action against Charlie Hebdo is going to be.

Make no mistake: they may be dead, the magazine may be publishing five million copies, the cartoons may be travelling round the world, but the terrorists haven’t failed completely. And sadly the measure of victory they’ll have gained will be through our self-inflicted defeat.

First of all, France that has proclaimed most loudly its passionate determination to defend free speech against this attack, has arrested 54 people and summarily jailed several of them, for voicing support for its enemies or merely criticism of the nation and its principles. It seems, for instance, that three men have been jailed in Toulouse, for shouting obscenities at the police, including in one case the sentiment that the Kouachi brothers (the Charlie Hebdo murderers) were “just the start.”

The police protect precisely those freedoms
governments feel we should be allowed
It’s a vile sentiment, and also a vacuous one – this is by no means the first terrorist attack the West has suffered, so it certainly isn’t the start, and if he was saying that there would be others, he was teaching us nothing we didn’t already know: we surely all realise there will be more attacks, and our jobs is to learn to resist and to face with fortitude whatever they throw at us. In any case, vile though the statement may be, we’ve rightly been loud in proclaiming that there is no right not to be offended, and indeed that the right to be offensive is essential to freedom of speech.

We should be above taking offence at such inept comments. But, above all, even if allow them to offend us, we should be asking ourselves about what right we have to jail anyone for voicing them.

This is part of a pattern. It was only last November that France tightened the law on what could be posted on the internet. In common with a number of other nations, it also has a law against Holocaust denial, a particularly bizarre limitation on freedom of speech: to deny the Holocaust is massively stupid but, taking my cue from A Few Good Men, being a moron isn’t against the law. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

In Britain, in the meantime, the security services have been quick to demand additional powers, “to protect us.” The government is calling for an end to encryption on the internet (which as well as being an unwarranted intrusion into our privacy, would destroy e-commerce that depends on passing encrypted credit card details). All this to ensure that the spooks can collect even more information about us all.

This is despite the fact that the French authorities knew about all three the terrorists, just as the British agencies knew the men who literally butchered Fusilier Lee Rigby, with knives and a cleaver. It isn’t that they have insufficient information, it’s that they haven’t found a way yet to identify the information that really matters from the mass at their disposal – or rather, not to identify it each and every time: a great many plots are foiled, but it seems impossible to stop them all.

Meanwhile the British government is calling on the British people to acquiesce in further erosion of its rights, on the grounds that this is the way to make them safer. While the French government, no doubt with popular support, sets out to mark its commitment to free expression by jailing men for expressing views it dislikes.

The fact that neither I not the vast majority of my compatriots on either side of the Channel (I’m a citizen of both countries) don’t like the views either, doesn’t make their repression any less of a blow against free speech.

Be careful. The terrorists will have won if we go along with our governments’ instinctive reaction to such an attack, which is to limit freedoms further. Now that the dust has settled, it’s our job to resist not just the terrorists, but government overreach too.

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