Abu Hamza: the trouble with believing in freedom

Hmmm, not sure how I feel about Hooky Hamza being extradited to the USA.

An appalling little toad defined by hatred and bigotry? Yes; his “sermons” have turned many young British muslims into jihadist scum. A failure as a man? Yes – five of his wastrel sons are convicted fraudsters. A workshy shirker? Yes – his huge family lives on benefits. A costly nuisance? Yes – he’s cost the British taxpayer about £3m.

But… all his crimes so far (for which he’s been held in prison for years) are for what he says or thinks or reads… not acts of violence he’s actually committed. (If there’s a case for these extraditable crimes of actual terrorist involvement, why isn’t he being prosecuted in the UK?) Being an unpleasant little fucker isn’t a crime; if it was, we could empty a fair few buildings in my neighbourhood into the nearest jail.

What it comes down to is this: in the mother of all Parliaments, the cradle of law and human rights, we are arbitrarily detaining someone without trial for … holding unpleasant opinions. If we truly value freedom of speech, we must be prepared to defend it at its least savoury edges. (For this reason, “incitement” shouldn’t even be a crime. “I did it because he told me too” isn’t a mitigating defence; Nuremberg established I was only following orders isn’t an excuse, even under compulsion.)

Sometimes, believing in freedom of speech leaves a very bitter taste.

Let’s look at what he’s spent years in jail for. Owning a “terrorist manual” – i.e. a book. “Preaching prejudice” – i.e. speaking freely about his beliefs. “Inciting hatred” – i.e. talking to a willing audience.

There’s a case for saying we shouldn’t extend tolerance to those who are themselves intolerant, and treating this guy humanely is perhaps not the way natural justice would have it. (Many men in Britain would enjoy ten minutes in a locked room with this beardie weirdie.) But if we believe in democracy and the rule of law – that we subsume some of our gut feelings to a system evolved over centuries, a system that tries to treat everyone as having equal rights – it’s legally very troubling.

Not that I’ll be queueing up outside Belmarsh crying miscarriage of justice – he’s stolen enough from the UK taxpayer to deserve a life in the American prison system, and good riddance. (Extradition fully concords with my personal sense of justice, but that’s not the point I’m making here.) But ultimately, being civilised requires us to think carefully about these things.

Otherwise, all we have is what the muslim world suffers from – the rule of a thuggish mob too feeble-minded to negotiate the modern world. And I believe we are better than that.

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