Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

But seriously folks...

.... what purpose could legislation like that possibly serve, even for those who don't give a damn about free speech, democracy or any of that sissy civil liberties stuff? I think the official police line is that it's to deal with extremism, but I really don't see how it helps. People aren't going to be any less extreme just because they aren't allowed to protest about it in public, and I can't believe that mass protest is the biggest recruitment tool available to terrorists. Why anyone should possibly care about flag burning in a way that wasn't already covered by criminal damage or arson laws is also something of a mystery.

A more apparently practical idea is to make it illegal for people to conceal their faces when protesting. From a civil liberties point of view there is at least a sensible debate to be had about the freedom to speak anonymously. While I tend to agree that, in a perfect world, people would all be able to stand proudly by their opinions, the fact is that in the world we're stuck with, there are many perfectly legitimate reasons why someone might want to go anonymously to a protest. Given their divisiveness, the Mohamed cartoon protests seem to me to be a case in point: if you're a conservative but upwardly mobile young muslim, it's easy to imagine that you might want to protest, but be a little concerned about what potential employers would make of seeing your picture plastered all over next day's papers next to some nutter with a "Slay the Infidel Dogs" t-shirt.

The police claim they need to be able to see the faces of radical protestors for intelligence purposes, which, if you take that suggestion seriously, seems to me to suggest a quite terrifying level of stupidity on the part of the guardians of our security: the guys who go on marches dressed as suicide bombers aren't real suicide bombers guys, and if they are - you really should have caught them already. I fail to believe anyone seriously connected with a real terrorist plot would decide to take time from off from his jihad for a spot of group flag-burning. I'm doubly sure he wouldn't do it without covering his face, so if your idea of intelligence gathering is to follow leads on anyone holding threatening placards, probably best to let them keep the masks on.

I hasten to add that this is only a proposal, but it seems to me that if it came into law it'd represent an all-new civil-liberties low, particularly from the point of view of free speech, which some might find a little ironic in light of where this whole thing started. As a method of combatting terrorism, it's actually worse than having John Reid stick his fingers in his ears and yell, "You can't hurt me if I can't see you." I'm fairly sure I've heard the idea put forward in a different context that we were meant to be encouraging people to express themselves through political processes (like protests) rather than explosions. I'd like to think that Lord Goldsmith couldn't entertain the thing seriously for more than ten seconds without throwing it out, but I'm not optimistic...


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