Thomas Sutcliffe: The respectable face of intimidation

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The Independent Online

I felt a faint sense of déjà vu when I read Alistair Currie's response to the news that the Prime Minister had declared his intention to sign an online petition supporting animal testing. Mr Currie is the campaigns director for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection - a group which explicitly disavows violent or intimidating behaviour. Nonetheless, Mr Currie's response raised the threat of non-peaceful protest by means - if you'll forgive the phrase - of a cat's paw. "They cannot simply ignore public concern about testing on animals", he said. "It will only reinforce the desire of some people to take a more extremist line."

Something about this line of attack - with its implication that a lawful course of action is effectively to blame for unlawful ones - struck me as familiar. After a while I remembered where I'd last encountered it - which was in a newspaper report on the attitudes of the new Palestinian culture minister towards belly-dancing. Defending a Hamas hard-line on abdominal gyration, Attallah Abu al-Sibbah employed a similar argument. "If the phenomenon of belly-dancing spreads," he said, "our people might react against it by killing people. We don't want our people to become like the Taliban."

I was struck by the sense of priorities revealed by this statement. Killing people for bellydancing? Regrettable but apparently not where the problem really lay. Provoking murder by midriff? Unacceptable in an Islamic state. There was something odd too about the final sentence - which could surely be paraphrased as "we'll become more like the Taliban so that they don't have to".

I wouldn't want to suggest that the two cases are exactly the same. With Mr Sibbah you can't help suspect that it's a bit of a toss-up between banning and killing. Certainly there wasn't a hint in his published remarks that murder might be an over-reaction. In Mr Currie's case I think the opposition to violent protest is almost certainly sincere - if only, as the BUAV website makes fairly clear, because it is regarded as counter-productive.

And - although I don't agree with BUAV's goals at all - I do have some sympathy with its frustration at the effect violent or threatening behaviour has on their campaigns. Given the choice between letter-writing and grave-robbing - or between placard-waving and intimidating small shareholders - the media will always prefer the latter - which effectively means that animal rights activists like Kerry Whitburn and Jonny Ablewhite - jailed last Thursday for blackmail and profiled in last night's Dispatches - become a human shorthand for all such opposition.

But the fact remains that for Mr Currie to mention the threat of extremism at all is to exploit the leverage of intimidation. And by doing that, the position of extremists isn't weakened but strengthened. Looking at Mr Currie's statement, members of the Animal Liberation Front would be entitled to wonder what argument he might have used if the threat of something worse wasn't hovering in the wings. And that will only confirm their sense that they are the subterranean foundation of the movement rather than one of its structural flaws.

If Mr Currie really wants a reasoned public debate he should steer clear of such arguments altogether. And anyone who disagrees with him should sign The People's Petition ( www.peoplespetition.org.uk) so that his notion of "public concern" about this issue might take a bit less for granted.

Cameron values her assets

Apparently Johnny Depp has been voted the best Hollywood autograph signer in Autograph Collector magazine's annual poll, while Cameron Diaz has been identified as the worst. She doesn't do it very often, and when she does she tends to accompany it with a whiny lecture about the pointlessness of the exercise, which you can see might be galling to people who are willing to sleep in a gutter to fill a blank in their books.

But I think they are being a little short sighted in their disapproval. However charming he is, Johnny is a blight on the market, depressing Depp autograph futures with every unthinking issue of new scrip. The Diaz, on the other hand, should continue to hold its value, barring a sudden softening of her position. True collectors relish rarity above all - and Cameron, surely, protects it.

* Talking of currency, if you want good news from Iraq, and aren't too fussy about provenance, then check out BetOnIraq.com - an American website which invites patriotically-minded investors to make bulk orders of Iraqi dinars. "Put their money where your mouth is," they suggest, pointing out that successfully bolstering the Iraqi economy will also deliver a very handsome return on your investment. Upbeat news stories ("Kurdistan: A New Tourist Mecca?" and "Chaldean Bishop Cites Changes for the Better") attempt to reassure those worried by defeatist coverage in the liberal media. Wondering whether Americans are responding to the call, I stick "Iraqi dinar" into Google Trends, which breaks down Google searches by region and city. Baghdad, quite understandably, comes out on top, but is, intriguingly, followed by Shaw Afb, USA. This, it turns out, is Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, home to the largest combat wing of F-16s. Do some Sergeant Bilko types know something the rest of us don't?

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