Howard Jacobson: When you've got a red-top heart, the concept of human rights means absolutely nothing

You want to smash the television. It makes you violent, thinking in the language of the popular press
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The Independent Online

Be still my pulpy red-top heart. Observant readers who noticed I wrote no column last week might have thought I was on holiday. Wrong. I was in hiding. Not from authority but from myself. From the popular press promptings which have commandeered my heart.

It's been a bad time for people in my condition: elitist intellectuals with a red-top heart complaint. Bombs go off and you don't want to feel what the readers of the Daily Rabble feel, but you do. Bombs go off and all the niceties are blown to smithereens. Just before I went into hiding I heard a well-educated Muslim family speaking on the radio from Pakistan.

The gist of what they said was that only 50 people had been killed on the London Underground, so why should they care. The next day, television vox-popped young Muslim men outside a London railway station. They said they objected to being searched because of their appearance. If the authorities continued with this policy, they added, they would lose the sympathy of Muslims. It sounded like a threat. Elsewhere it was being argued that such harrying of Muslims would simply drive them into the arms of extremists. Could this be so? If a person feels he has been stopped and searched just once too often is it a natural next step for him to blow up a train?

What happens when you hear talk of this kind, and you have red-top arteries, is that you want to smash the television. First you shout, "So who else should they be searching, you morons." Then you tell anyone you can find to listen that when bearded novelists of a certain age begin planting bombs all over London, you will willingly, gleefully, gratefully submit to being searched every time you leave the house; then you start throwing things at the screen. It makes you violent, thinking in the language of the popular press. Which is probably what's wrong with terrorists as well.

I had the consolation, at least, while I was off, of following the cricket. It calmed my nerves, England winning at something. The fact was, though, that we were only two runs from having lost on a morning we were expected to romp home. Two runs and I'd have been clamouring for the Aussies to be deported on the grounds that they didn't have the decency to know when they were beaten. That's the trouble with a red-top heart: it will find you no matter where you hide.

And now I am returned it is murmuring again. Omar Bakri Mohammed. Can we keep him out or are we morally obliged to let him back. I am not with the editors of the Daily Rabble in caring that the unsavoury cleric draws benefits from a country he would like to see destroyed.

Forget the benefits. There are plenty of undesirables on benefits. Nor do I object to his saying unkind, ungrateful things about us. So he gives offence, so what? Speaking as an elitist intellectual now, I am fiercely against the upcoming legislation on the giving of offence. It's the being careful not to cause offence that has got us into this mess. But what changes the picture are those bombs. When people are bombing you, you are at war. And in time of war citizens are required to watch what they say.

Omar Bakri Mohammed will insist that if it is a war then he is on the other side. Which is, of course, his right. As it is ours, in that case, to lock him up or send him home.

So far not all that crudely populist, I would have thought. But what I am going to say next assuredly is. If Omar Bakri Mohammed wasn't originally wanted in his own country, has gone out of his way to make himself detestable and dangerous in this, and no place on earth can be found for him where his safety can be guaranteed, remind me again of the objection to dropping him in the sea. His Human Rights? Be still, be still...

Even as an elitist intellectual I have never been sold much on the concept of Human Rights. On the surface irresistible, just as multiculturalism was on the surface irresistible, it makes the same mistake of isolating the piece from the pattern. If we did not live in society our Human Rights would be irrefragable. Out of society, Lord Justice Brooke can go on finding in favour of 15 year olds who claim that Asbos violate their human rights until the cows come home; within society his ruling merely spells misery for everybody else. What about "our" human right to live unmolested, as we who have a red top thumping in our chests are forever asking?

In defence of their ancient privilege to be wrong, their Lordships are growing uppity. "If the Government undermines the judiciary then the judiciary might be tempted to undermine the Government," Lord Carlile of Berriew told this newspaper last week. Which sounds as much of a threat to me as "If you go on searching us we will turn into terrorists". And not a whit less treasonable either. Hanging them aside, judges would do well to remember that governments, being electable, are a sounder gauge of our democracy than they are. They should also remember that the last time one of their number made a high profile intervention into the anti-terror laws debate, he warned us we had more to fear from tampering with our ancient freedoms (of which he considered himself the guardian) than from terrorists.

Take your bow and retire into obscurity, Lord Hoffman.

In truth, if we are to speak of ancient freedoms, then few are more precious than our freedom to despise the law. In the rogues' gallery of our national consciousness and literature, judges outnumber all other fools and scoundrels. The Human Rights Act has only added an opportunity for sanctimoniousness to their immemorial scoundrelly and folly.

And that's not my red-top heart you hear. It's the ancient wisdom of our culture.