18 October 2012

What price freedom?

In this post I raise what I consider to be a real problem for those of us who are lovers of freedom: how far do we restrict other people's freedom to protect ourselves?

I'm very much aware of this argument. Indeed, I've got into trouble with good friends by arguing that, if we're not careful, we'll protect ourselves so much by restricting other people's freedom that what's left won't be worth protecting. That is, our freedom-hating opponents will have won because we'll have done their job for them in restricting the freedoms they hate and we cherish.

So, what's brought this on? An article on the UK's United Synagogue's Community Security Trust (CST) website. It's title is "Online radicalisation. 'Lone wolves' of all stripes". It tells the story of a Moslem couple in Manchester who radicalised themselves via the internet, and how they were caught by sheer accident.

The author, Mark Gardner, notes how anti-social behaviour, whether, literally, social or political, doesn't need the internet. Indeed, he cites the example of the Turner diaries (a fiction, in the strict sense of the word), published (in hard copy form) in 1978, which was responsible for the spread of white racist "survivalism" in the USA. However, given current technology, he argues that "...the furthest extremes of far right and Jihadist ideology unite not only in their choice of targets [Jews], but increasingly in their electronic modes of propaganda, indoctrination and incitement. The far right have long operated in this manner out of necessity: but the Internet facilitates their hatreds in ways unimaginable to the mad, sad and bad Nazi grouplets of earlier decades; and now Al Qaeda is fast heading in the same direction."

At one level, of course, Gardner's right: look hard enough on the net, and one can find the anarchists', or Al Qaeda's, cookbook, on bomb making. But, come on, any half aware extremist could make their way to a large University bookshop in the nearest large city and do the same, paying cash to avoid being traced, without access to the net. Or self-educate themselves on all sorts of political doctrines, extremist or otherwise. Still, as Michael Moynihan says, in The Tablet of 15 October "It’s time to admit that banning Mein Kampf while allowing anti-Islam cartoons is a double-standard".

We really can't have it both ways. While acknowledging, as I've said numerous times on different sites, that my freedom to wave my fist around ends where your nose begins, my freedom to upset you with my views or my ability to view what you see as objectionable or dangerous material on the net is very different. Provided that I'm not breaking a very necessary law to protect other's freedoms, I should be allowed to say what I want. That is, I still want to protect the vulnerable, such as children, but my right, in general terms, to upset you should be sacrosanct.

And the 20th Century's greatest mass-murderer (or equal greatest with Stalin - I'm not inclined to split Jesuitical hairs on this one), one Adolf Hitler, needed only a prison cell and unlimited supplies of paper to write the century's most notorious call for genocide.

But I defend Mark Gardner's right to disagree with me, should he read this!

By Brian Goldfarb.