Should a British man serve up to life in prison for telling a crowd of protesters to “Bomb, bomb the USA, Bomb, bomb Denmark”? A British jury thinks so. This week Umran Javed of Birmingham, England was found guilty of “soliciting murder” for telling a crowd outside the Danish Embassy in London to bomb Denmark because one of its newspapers printed unflattering cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. And to bomb the U.S., becauseâ€¦well because it is the U.S.
Mr. Javed, who will be sentenced in April, freely admitted making the statements. After his arrest, however, he told police that he was only joking. As a humorist this guy makes John Kerry look like Jay Leno’s chief gagwriter. Actually Javed did not regard his remarks as humor as such — what he told the jury at the Old Bailey was that his call to bomb America and Denmark were “just slogans, sound bites.” He said he really “did not want to see Denmark and the USA being bombed.”
The “I did not mean it” defense is, of course, probably the worst argument a defendant can offer. Imagine a similar defense from Richard Nixon: “When I said ‘cover it up,'” it was just, you know, a sound bite. A bit of sloganeering. I didn’t really mean it.” As Tim Footman wrote in the Guardian, giving this defense credence would have thrown the whole legal system and its notion of slander and libel into utter confusion. But apparently Javed’s defense team decided that undermining of all laws associated with soliciting an illegal act, false advertising, etc., was their only hope. A defense centered on the right of free expression was not an option since no one has a right to solicit murder.
Certainly Umran Javed is not the kind of person you want soliciting murder on the London streets. He has links to at least one terrorist group — Al Muhajiroun. Before it was banned in 2004, the group held academic conferences like the one called “The Magnificent 19,” devoted to the memory of the hijackers who attacked America on 9/11. After the organization was banned it simply took another name and regrouped and awaited its chance. Its chance came with the Danish cartoon flap.
Radical Muslims love this about the West, the gray areas that blur and fog the borders of free speech. In theory they are opposed to free expression, but when it can be used to further fundamentalist Islamic goals it falls into that category of necessary evil, like suicide bombings and honor killings. Hey, nobody wants to kill his sister for getting raped, but what are you going to do?
As a slogan, “Bomb America” enjoys great popularity among young, fanatical Muslims. It is heard rather frequently on the streets of Tehran, the Gaza Strip, and Syria. Interestingly the word “slogan” comes from a Scottish Gaelic word meaning “battle-cry,” which is doubtless what it was, a call to arms. This is quite different from a soundbite, which is a “short phrase or sentence that deftly captures the essence of what the speaker is trying to say.” An example of the latter is Bush pere’s infamous “Read my lips, no new taxes.” (Also an example of a broken promise.) But should a British citizen — regardless of how vile and despicable his person — be deprived of liberty for emitting a battle-cry against a foreign government?
IT IS A TOUGH CALL. I have heard the very same folks who sniff over European laws criminalizing Holocaust denial insist that the Brits were right to lock up Javed, as though the two issues were miles apart. The question boils down to whether Javed was indeed soliciting murder or just being an obnoxious, Koran-thumbing loudmouth. The Crown’s case was that Javed explicitly and directly encouraged those present “to commit acts of murder against the Dutch and Americans.” Presumably had he said “Down with America,” his speech would have been protected. The phrase “Bomb America,” however, was not. The difference could mean a maximum of life in prison.
Worse, Javed was also convicted of a hate crime, for “stirring up racial hatred,” which is patently silly. Whatever one thinks about so-called hate crimes, it must be obvious that “American” and “Danish” are not races, but nationalities. Perhaps there needs to be yet another law outlawing “stirring up nationalist hatred, or hatred toward the people of a particular nation,” with a minimum two years in solitary for criticizing the French.
As more than one commentator has noted, it used to be a badge of honor that we in the West might not agree with what you say, but will defend your right to say it. Today if we do not like what you say we toss you in the hoosegow. Personally I find that to be potentially as dangerous as any bomb.
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