Howard Jacobson: Some human rights are plain wrong

The culture of the inviolability of the individual has found a congenial resting place in our schools
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The Independent Online

Let's be clear: I didn't vote tactically the other day to keep Labour in by voting Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out which was itself a ploy to get Labour out by voting Social Democrat to put the Tories in, on the off-chance that we'd get a Liberal Conservative coalition which would collapse so quickly that the Tories would have to form a second coalition with Labour which would strengthen the Liberal Democrats, thereby ultimately keeping both the Tories and Labour out – reader, I didn't tie myself in these electoral knots just to wake up two weeks later to hear that al-Qa'ida operatives are alive and well and being looked after in the country they can't wait to blow apart, or to hear Nick Clegg assert that "The law is very clear, that it is wrong to deport people for whom there is serious concern that they could be seriously mistreated, or tortured or indeed killed".

Groundhog Day. The same what's right and what's wrong and what the law is clear about, as though the law was ever clear about anything, the same giving largesse with one hand while taking with the other (see Johann Hari's recent article on those we do send back to be mistreated, tortured or even killed), the same claptrap of hand-me-down compassion we've been hearing for the past 13 years of unexamined holier-than-thou human rights assumptiousness.

What I want to wake up and hear from a new government is that the law is an ass and we intend to change it.

Whatever Cameron's thinking, Clegg is thinking same old same old. "We, like any civilised nation, abide by the very highest standards of human rights," he continues, but we will stop him there. We cannot argue with someone who asserts what he's offering to prove. You don't defend human rights legislation by invoking it. For it is not evident beyond disputation that we have a duty to worry what happens to those we send back to their own countries, when they only left their own countries to destroy ours. Nor is it evident beyond disputation that to show such concern for those who show none for us is the mark of a civilised nation. Loving our neighbours certainly belongs to civilisation, but loving our neighbours more than we love ourselves belongs to pathology. As for loving our neighbours more than we love ourselves when those neighbours' idea of neighbourliness is a kiss with a stick of explosives, I'm not sure that the psychology of human self-destructiveness can supply a word that does justice to its derangement.

Nor do I know many people who see the matter differently. You may think this merely shows I hang around with right-wing thugs, but I ask you to try this test with your nearest and dearest – sit them down somewhere convivial, look them in the eyes, and ask them whether, in the great spirit of human consciousness, man and woman speaking to man and woman, honestly now, in that non-ideological part of themselves where justice and humanity reside, they give a shit what happens to a deported terrorist.

Two things, in my experience, will now happen. Firstly, they will leap at the opportunity to say what at other times they feel they cannot, which is that they couldn't care less, absolutely couldn't give a monkey's – an expression of indifference which only a fool or a knave would condemn, for indifference is to humane concern what hate is love: you need to feel the one to feel the other. Secondly, they will revel in the delicious irony of sending back to where they learnt their violence those who would bring their violence here. Not only, in other words, are they indifferent to the suffering to which the would-be bomber might be subject, they long for it in their souls.

And if you don't believe this will be the response, again I urge you, try it. But be prepared for a fun night. The genie of mischief, long bottled up but at last released, is a great lightener of spirits.

There is, I concede, an argument to be made against following the dictates of our heart. Ideally, the law exists to express our best selves, free of partisanship, passion and self-interest. It is impersonal because we cannot be. But it's a hair trigger negotiation: now the law is too like us, now it is too little, now too much the brute, now too much the angel. So we dare never let it out of our sight. Least of all human rights law whose justification, paradoxically, is that it is removed entirely from the experience of being human – humans being punitive, vengeful, mischievous and on the whole against it.

This much we know: that society is a rough and tumble affair, and that whatever legislation would, in the ether of high-minded abstraction, make the person inviolable in all circumstances is legislation that cannot work.

Lynda May, the art teacher charged with assaulting a pupil with a glue stick, has just been cleared. Three cheers for that. But why was the case ever brought? Why was she charged by the police? Why was a prosecution allowed to proceed to the level of the High Court? Why did the pupil, whose finger bled a bit, think he'd been hard done by? Why was he encouraged to pursue his nothing grievance by whoever it was at home that should have given him an Elastoplast and locked him in his room?

Human rights, that's why. The culture of the inviolability of the individual which has permeated society and found a particularly congenial, not to say opportunistic, resting place in our schools. Schoolchildren now think they have a human right. Here's your big chance, Mr Clegg – tell them they don't. By every account, the boy whose thumbnail Mrs May was alleged to have assaulted had a mouth so foul he spat asterisks. "F*** off," he told Mrs May when she welcomed him to class. And this was art class. You could understand had it been geography or gym. I wish I'd said "F*** off, Hargreaves" 50 years ago when he tried to hang me upside down from a wall-bar after a lunch of braised tongue and sago pudding. But art class!

"F*** off", anyway, was what the boy said to Lynda May, for which vileness she would have been within her human rights to glue his lips together with a Pritt Stick and then send him somewhere he was certain to be tortured.

Only in heaven is there inviolability of person. Only in heaven do we enjoy the human right of not suffering the cruel consequence of cruel action, and that's because in heaven we have ceased to be human.