Hugh McLachlan: Extremists have right to expression

Supporters of the far-right English Defence League. Picture: Getty
Supporters of the far-right English Defence League. Picture: Getty
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Political response to terrorism poses more of a threat to British way of life than any murder, writes Hugh McLachlan

In his response to the wicked murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, David Cameron said some sensible things. However, his comments about “extremism” were misdirected. The appropriate target of governmental policy in this context is murder, assault and enticement and conspiracy to commit such crimes. He was wrong to say that “extremism is a job for us all”.

Whether or not people hold “extreme” views is no business of the state, as long as they obey the law. Furthermore, policies that are directed towards thwarting “extremism” – however this might be defined – are likely to be counterproductive. Some views become more, rather than less, attractive to some when attacked by the state as being beyond the pale.

We should not confuse opposition to terrorism with opposition to extremism. Mr Cameron said: “[T]his country will be absolutely resolute in its stand against violent extremism and terror … we will defeat violent extremism by standing together, by backing our police and security services and, above all, by challenging the poisonous narrative of extremism on which this violence feeds.”

We should oppose violence and terrorism whether or not they are related to extremism and extreme views. On the other hand, non-violent extremism and extremists need not alarm us. Extreme arguments that are bad ones should be exposed as bad arguments rather then criticised for being extreme. Extreme arguments that are good ones should be accepted as good arguments.

Aristotle argued that a virtue is a mean between two extremes. This notion works with regard to some matters, but not others. It is not a reliable general formula for the rational evaluation of behaviour, beliefs or attitudes. For instance, to adopt a temperate position between total abstinence from alcohol and wanton drunkenness might be wise. However, where, say, tobacco or crack cocaine is concerned, an extreme position of total abstinence might be more sensible than consumption in moderation.

Similarly, with regard to Scotland, an extreme position of either, say, complete independence from the UK or, say, the maintenance of the Union and the abolition of devolution might be no less rational than devo-max.

Extremists are not necessarily fanatical or violent. Similarly, people who are fanatical or violent are not necessarily extremists.

Most unusually, we have in the case of this terrible Woolwich murder a declaration immediately after the act of what seems to have been the motivation for the killing made by someone who would appear to be one of the killers. He said: “The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers, and this British soldier is one, is an eye for a eye and a tooth for a tooth. By Allah, we swear by the Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.”

What he says gives no legal or moral justification for his action. Whether or not the views he expresses are otherwise “extreme” or not is irrelevant. He is blameworthy, legally and morally for having acted as he did upon the views he held. He is not similarly blameworthy for holding the views, however irrational they might be thought to be. Other people could hold these views quite innocently without choosing to murder someone. If he had killed a pedestrian at random, say, his actions would have been no less morally and legally heinous. Whether or not they would have been more or less “extreme” is irrelevant.

We should be wary of the proposal that “hate preachers” in general, or in particular, should be banned or that the broadcasting of their speeches should not be permitted. Apart from anything else, such bans can be counterproductive. They can have the effect of creating a demand to hear the forbidden diatribes. They also provide some of those who harbour grievances against the state with what appears to be a justification of them.

It is a characteristic feature of a democracy that people should be allowed to say things that the rest of us do not agree with. People, too, should be allowed to read and to hear such views even when they are expressions of dislike or disapproval of our institutions, our deeply-held moral beliefs and, even, of ourselves. That some people might be provoked to violence by exposure to such views is not in itself a sufficient reason for banning the expression of them.

Some people might be provoked into committing violent acts by hearing particular chants and songs at football matches. Such people – but not necessarily the chants and songs – are a problem.

We should not ban particular chants and the singing of particular songs at football matches merely because of the manner in which some particular “vulnerable” people choose to react to them.

Similarly, we should not ban the expression of particular views or particular preachers merely because some people react to hearing them by choosing to commit crimes.

Some sorts of terroristic activities might possibly cause a threat to national security. Most of them do not do so. Road accidents cause far more deaths and injuries than terrorism does. Non-terrorist violence causes far more murders and injuries than terrorism does.

The vile actions of the killers of Lee Rigby are unlikely to pose a threat to national security or to what we might value as the British way of life. The reaction of politicians to terrorism is a far greater threat to our open society, freedom of thought and expression, rule of law and parliamentary democracy than murders of any sort are likely to be.

• Hugh McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University