Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The costs of provocation

[From top: Nazis in Chicago, Illinois in 1977; Ulster Protestants parade in Northern Ireland; "Ultra-nationalist" extremists march through Umm El-Fahm, Israel, yesterday]

There are times when the dark side bursts through, in groups as well as individuals, and "free expression" becomes simply an excuse to wound the feelings of others. Whether such demonstrations of hatred should be proscribed is, as we know, a hotly-debated question today.

Deliberate incitement to riot is against the law in most countries, including the ones indicated here. And lesser provocations can still come under the ban. Many years ago in the UK, I witnessed a number of gay liberation protesters rounded up by police as they demonstrated somewhat provocatively against a religious rally: they were charged with "insulting behaviour." Similar provisions in other venues are not unknown. Yet, when it comes to some types of organized political provocation, these strictures seem to disappear into thin air. Instead, the vast resources of the state are deployed in their support.

In 1977, some Nazi lowlifes (excuse the tautology) decided to organize a march through Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago where a number of elderly Holocaust survivors were living. The American Civil Liberties Union lost a lot of its membership defending this one, and rightly so. Nobody, especially not those who made it out of the death camps, should have to tolerate swastika flags flying proudly in their neighbourhoods. The march went ahead elsewhere, but the swastika flags and emblems were banned, a decision that was upheld by the US Supreme Court, First Amendment or no First Amendment.

Protestant marches in Northern Ireland continue every July 12, commemorating the victory of William of Orange against Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. These days, given the peace-building process, the marches have been scaled back, but until recently they made their way deliberately through Catholic neighbourhoods, tribal songs and wardrums at full pitch. The purpose has been to remind Northern Irish Catholics that they are a defeated people, in case they'd forgotten.

Yesterday a group of Israeli Jewish extremists led by former members of the now-outlawed Kach Party (a fascist and terrorist organization whose ranks once included the Butcher of Hebron, Baruch Goldstein) marched through an Israeli town called Umm al-Fahm, under heavy police protection. Most of the residents of this town are Arab-Israelis: the purpose of the march was simply to teach them who's boss, and to begin the process, in leader Baruch Marzel's words, of rooting out "the hostile seed".

The term for this sort of thing is "triumphalism," and the aims are always the same: deliberate offence, humiliation, power-tripping.

As noted, the issue of freedom of expression is at the core of this. The state--American, Ulster, Israeli--has thrown tremendous amounts of money into making the provocations possible: massive police protection being the obvious one. The malice behind all three events is palpably obvious: their offensive nature is equally obvious. Why should such things be permitted--ultimately at the taxpayer's expense?

Possibly we have here a debate that differs from the usual one. Freedom of expression is all very well, but, as many of the current crop of Speech Warriors™ are the first to maintain in other contexts, that doesn't mean that other folks should have to pay the freight. The logical conclusion, it seems to me, is that all of these marches should be permitted to proceed--but without state support. No massive police presence. No special measures taken to abet the provocation at our cost. Let 'em go in naked, as it were.

And suddenly the whole question becomes almost hypothetical. Comments?

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