Leading article: Offensive, but not illegal

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The Independent Online

The tone of the political debate about how Britain is to deal with the threat of terrorism from within its own borders is growing increasing hysterical. And each measure being mooted by the Government seems more inappropriate than the last. The latest proposal from the Home Office minister Hazel Blears is to "rebrand" Britain's ethnic minorities so as to encourage the process of integration. Ms Blears is inspired by the practice of some US citizens of adopting a "hyphenated" identity, such as "Italian-American" or "Irish-American". She foresees benefits to community cohesion if ethnic minority Britons were to call themselves, for example, "British-Asian" rather than "Muslim" or "Asian".

On a superficial reading her proposal may seem attractive to some. There is no reason why Britons should not simultaneously demonstrate pride in their ethnic heritage and the British nationality. But closer inspection of the minister's words reveals their emptiness. Americans adopt a "hyphenated identity" because they want to, not because the US Government decrees they should. If British citizens wish to do the same, that is a matter for them, not Ms Blears or the Government.

Another bizarre proposal that has emerged in recent days is that extremist Muslims in the UK who make offensive statements regarding terrorism should be prosecuted for treason. We are told the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions are to meet with senior police to decide whether such charges of treason can be brought against those who have voiced support for terrorism in the wake of the London bombings. This will please the right-wing press who have long called for figures such as Omar Bakri Mohammed to be prosecuted on such a dramatic-sounding charge. But, as with "rebranding", this idea has little substance. For one thing, it would be almost impossible to prove in the courts.

The most depressing aspect of the Government's response to the London bombings has been its apparent desire to stretch the law to prosecute a handful of Islamist extremists. As well as plans to revivify the treason laws, there are plans in train to create new offences of "condoning" or "glorifying" terrorism. Yet what these amount to is little more than a clampdown on free speech.

Of course, what the likes of Abu Izzadeen and Abu Uzair have said in recent weeks is monstrously offensive. But a liberal society should not create new laws to criminalise those who only offend us. If there is evidence of wrong-doing, prosecute such people under existing leglislation. Otherwise, this is merely a distraction from the task of tracking down those actively plotting to commit acts of terrorism.