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Home > Politics

Glorification: You Can't Legislate for Weirdness

18 February 2006

Any proposal to outlaw the 'glorification' of terrorism is a gift to anyone who wants to make a point.

To use an analogy: say you really, really hate Vernon Kay. All you need to do is make a placard saying 'LET'S BLOW UP GRINNING SIMPLETON VERNON KAY.' You'll soon find yourself arrested and your comments being reported by the media. When you go to trial, you'll be given the oxygen of publicity all over again. Outside the courtroom, people will be saying 'Well, I don't agree with his methods, but I do hate Vernon Kay.' Chances are some legal technicality will enable you to go free, and who knows, there might even be a 'Barry Bulsara' out there oiling a revolver and doing a Google search for "vernon kay t4 home address".

We can't see how the reality is going to be much different. The proposals are superficially straightforward: anyone claiming that terrorist attacks like September 11, or the London or Madrid bombings were a good thing faces prosecution. Unless the law genuinely is an ass, no one is going to be arrested for saying they admire Nelson Mandela (as has been suggested, somewhat ridiculously, in the press). Nor, presumably, will Belfast City Council have to paint over the entire Shankhill and Falls Road areas.

But as is all too familiar with New Labour, the proposals seem rushed. Opponents of the glorification clause say laws against incitement to murder or hatred cover many potential problems anyway. That said, the problems really begin when you start to analyse what 'glorification' (defined as 'praising or celebrating' terrorism) means. And this is something that the police, the CPS and courts will have to do should the legislation be used.

A placard saying 'Blow up a tube train today!' is pretty unambiguous; one saying 'Al Qaeda heroes!' less so. Any court case that tries to address such semantic trickiness could go on for years, in which case we must really get our acts together and sign up for a law conversion course.

As mentioned, the proposals guarantee publicity to anyone charged with 'glorification', a bit self-defeating since the idea is to shut them up in the first case. And any Muslim extremist charged with glorifying terrorism can turn around and say that their faith demands that Muslims protect their lands, or that it calls for those who offend the prophet or Allah to be punished. Fair 'nuff, madsters.

But the main problem with fringe groups of all flavours is that it's extremely difficult to distinguish between rhetoric and reality. We shouldn't be too blasé about what extremists are prepared to do, but there's a big difference between saying something and acting upon it. Let's go back a few years...

Class War, the comedy anarchist group, was fond of the slogan 'The Royal debate - hanging or shooting?', which, in sticker form, graced many a pub toilet, student union, anarchist café and lamppost. It's a joke, but taken literally means: 'We support the violent removal of the Royal family.' Class War types no doubt saw a bit of action during various riots, hunt sab outings and animal rights intimidation nastiness, but to our knowledge, none has ever attempted the overthrow or assassination of the Royals.

The same confusion applies to most extremist groups, whether it's neo-Nazis or animal rights extremists or whoever. In the case of the young Muslims carrying placards calling for the beheading of people who insult Islam, you have to ask what's real and what's not. It's one thing to have a good shout at a demo and put your point across in the most blood-curdling terms, but another to act upon it. (And let's not forget that beheading is a traditional punishment under Islamic law in the same way that hanging was the traditional death sentence in Britain. Even today, you'll occasionally find tabloid columnists calling for 'traitors' to be
strung up.)

Clamping down on 'glorification' of terrorism raises a wider issue. Some say it's freedom of speech, but we're more inclined to think it's the fact that a lot of people hold fucking strange views. It might well be right to outlaw weird and offensive views, but they're so widespread it would be a Herculean task to do so.

Take racism. There are laws against promoting race hatred, although the law is patchy. (Jews and Sikhs are defined as races, Muslims are not. But that's a different article.) If we look at 'straightforward' racism of the BNP variety, it's usually based on views that are simply wrong: society's problems are the fault of ethnic minorities, people of other races present a threat (usually unspecified), there's a connection between race and behaviour (e.g. criminality) that doesn't exist, and so on.

It's crap, but there's a basic prejudiced logic to it. However, delve a little deeper and you quickly find views that are not merely offensive, but truly, deeply *mad*. Popular among serious racists is good old ZOG, the Jewish conspiracy controlling the world and keeping whitey down. Given the total lack of evidence for this theory, it smacks of paranoia and quite possibly mental illness. But weird views are hardly the preserve of neo-Nazis. The Islamic world has its own nuttiness, a famous example being that September 11 was a Mossad conspiracy. Such theories in general are laughable, but even the most ridiculous toss occasionally has horrific consequences, e.g. the Oklahoma

Odd views are so widespread that trying to legislate against them is near impossible. OK, you might say, people believe all sorts of rubbish, but when they talk about terrorism, surely there's a tangible threat there? Well, no. Unfortunately it's often hard to tell where woolly, stupid, misguided, prejudiced, melodramatic, histrionic or just plain bonkers views end and a real threat begins.

In the case of the protestors carrying placards demanding the beheading of those who offend Mohammed, it would have been interesting if they'd been confronted by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard (by some extremely unlikely turn of events). Would they really have grabbed knives from the nearest Pizza Express and started hacking away at the crap cartoonist's throat? We can't help but feel that at worst they'd have been paralysed by the enormity of actually carrying out their threats, and at best (depending on your point of view, obviously) would have given him a bit of a kicking.

Either way, it's probably wise to treat hysterical threats with healthy cynicism rather than legislation. And it's likely that if you're seriously engaged in recruiting Islamic terrorists, you're going to be a bit careful about the whole business, fearing undercover cops, blabbermouths and Donal McIntyre in a burkah. You're probably not going to be parading up and down Whitehall carrying a placard saying 'HEY! WESTMINSTER TUBE STATION IS JUST OVER THERE! LET'S BLOW IT UP!'

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