Qatada shows that it isn’t only injury we have to quiet; it’s our sense of the preposterous, too

We are told we must protect an advocate of violence from torture in his birth country

Share

Our subject today is Dr Johnson’s hypothetical highwayman. For readers who have forgotten him, here’s a reminder.

Boswell and Johnson are drinking tea at the home of Dr Taylor, Prebendary of Westminster. Johnson is uncharacteristically silent, “reading in a variety of books”, according to Boswell, “suddenly throwing down one, and taking up another”. Twenty more triumphant years of Kindling and we will wonder how that would be possible.

Johnson mentions that he means to go to Streatham that night, probably to call on Mrs Thrale. This might explain the agitation of his manner. “You’ll be robbed if you do,” Dr Taylor warns him, “or you must shoot a highwayman.” Perhaps catching a murderous glint in Johnson’s eye, he goes on to say he would rather be robbed than shoot a highwayman.

Human rights hindering direct action, even then.

Johnson is more pragmatic. “I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me,” he says – raising the interesting side question of whether the author of Rasselas and Lives of the Poets went about with a pair of pistols concealed in his waistcoat – “than afterwards swear against him at the Old Bailey.” There is less chance of mistaken identity, that way, he explains. Shoot him in the act and you can be sure you have the right man. “Besides, we feel less reluctance to take away a man’s life, when we are heated by the injury, than to do it at a distance of time, by an oath, after we have cooled.”

“So, Sir,” puts in Boswell, taking the role of Shami Chakrabarti, “you would rather act from the motive of private passion, than that of publick advantage.”

Comes back Dr Johnson, never a man to miss a joke that punctures high-mindeness, “Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.”

I would have that line framed and placed behind the chair of every judge in the land.

It will now be apparent that while I evoke the hypothetical highwayman, I am looking at Abu Qatada. Not that mistaken identity, or fear that there might be mistaken identity, has played any part in this long-running smash hit comedy of errors – “The funniest play on in London: don’t miss it!” It’s to his credit that he has made no attempt to disguise or soften his appearance. He looks what we accuse him of being. Indeed he looks so what we accuse him of being that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he means to mock us with our melodramatic imaginings.

I trust I will not be construed as suggesting that someone should have taken Abu Qatada’s life when he was caught in the act, whatever the act was. But it would certainly have saved time and money. And maybe made the world a safer place. Whoever chose the quick way of silencing Osama bin Laden made a wise decision. It was not a moral decision, but sometimes wisdom must prevail. It could even be argued – and Johnson is on the way to arguing it – that there are times when wisdom, all things considered, seizes the high ground from morality. Whoever saves mankind by an immoral act performs a greater good than he who would see it perish in the name of principle.

The absurdity of giving principle precedence over the humanity which principle exists to serve – because where there is no life there is no call to distinguish between right and wrong – was demonstrated last week by the Court of Appeal’s insistence that the possible risk Abu Qatada poses to national security has no relevance to the law on whether sending him home would infringe his human rights. Since the logic of this entails weighing the consequences to Qatada, it breaks down in the matter of not weighing the consequences to us. The key word is “relevance”. If risk is irrelevant to the letter of a specific law, then there’s something wrong with that specific law. For the letter killeth.

As for human rights, we have been round the houses on the subject. Even liberals lacking Johnsonian robustness look uncomfortable when human rights are invoked in the case of Qatada. But a principle is a principle. And there’s the problem. Sometimes one overriding principle makes a dog’s dinner of another. Human rights is not the first concept to have originated in the highest and most disinterested motives, that compels every civilised person’s allegiance, but that falls foul of the contradiction at its heart. “What about my human rights?” is a banal, dog-in-a-manger plea, but it asserts a fundamental truth – rule on behalf of one person’s rights and you violate someone else’s. In this instance, those to whom, by the court’s admission, Qatada might very well pose a risk.

Geoffrey Robertson QC argued eloquently on Newsnight for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and we agree with him. Something must be set above our private interests, the fury of our passions, the common reasoning of the marketplace and the will of Theresa May. In the end, the cacophony must be silenced. Left or right, bloodthirsty or forgiving, we must all submit to the judgement of those we appoint to reason dispassionately in cases where we, forever “heated by injury”, cannot.

But it isn’t only injury, or apprehension of injury, we have to quiet; it’s also our sense of the preposterous. And to be told we must protect an advocate of violence and hatred from the risk of torture in the country of his birth outrages both. Principle is a fine thing, but so is common sense. Boswell was a lawyer. The distinction he makes between acting from the motive of private passion and the motive of public good is the law’s. And that’s the distinction Johnson refutes. “Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.”

Sometimes we just have to shoot the highwayman.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella  

Sure, teenage girls need role models – but not of the Zoella kind

Chloe Hamilton
Abortions based solely on gender are illegal in Britain  

Abortion is safe, and it should be as available as easily as contraception

Ann Furedi
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album