Letters: Racism and freedom of speech

I loathe the BNP but I am horrified at the pledge to change the law
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Sir: I am stunned that Gordon Brown and other politicians now want to tighten race-hate laws because Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, was found not guilty of incitement, along with member Mark Collett.

It is patently obvious that the real reason they wish to change the law is because in the areas where the BNP are active, they are making huge inroads into the white, working-class vote.

That, incidentally, is the fault of New Labour who, by abandoning their roots have created the space for the BNP to grow, and if you can't beat them on a level playing field then it's you who don't deserve to be politicians. I loathe the BNP and have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time campaigning and leafleting against them in their own backyards. I have even been attacked twice by fascists.

But I will not support this or any government if they attempt to pass legislation that inhibits what people say in the privacy of their own homes or in private meetings, which in essence is what they are proposing. If you support that, you become by definition a fascist yourself.

This proposal, along with compulsory ID cards and the Serious & Organised Crime Act (which has been used to arrest people for wearing political T-shirts, possessing a cake with a CND emblem on it and other misuses) just shows how perilously close we are to Orwell's 1984.



Sir: Defendants are charged with an offence. A jury (repeat: a jury) acquits. Gordon Brown (putative next prime minister) responds: "Then we must change the law."

Forget the specific occasion (I, too, despise the BNP). Consider where the principle of changing the law because you deplore a jury decision leads. I shudder.



Why do we use the label 'terrorism'?

Sir: Last week's speech by the head of MI5 has been widely reported as a warning of further conspiracies to harm or kill UK citizens by al-Qa'ida-inspired fanatics, but rather than cause alarm, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's words should be met with a re-evaluation of not only so-called anti-terrorist policy but who it is we call "terrorists".

Until recently, any debate on terrorism was accompanied by the adage, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". Atrocities against civilians, such as the 7 July bombings, mean repetition is distasteful. But we should ask why we use the label "terrorist" and what are its consequences.

Sometimes this label is limited to only those acts where the victims are civilians. But the blood-stained euphemism of "collateral damage" muddies this distinction, as is evidenced in criticism of the United States and Israel as "terrorists".

The label "terrorism" lacks universally uncontested definition. It is politicised and those who use it cannot avoid being equally politicised. But a more acute problem is the dehumanisation of events it supports.

Though we view killing of civilians as heartless, any mature and constructive approach capable of preventing further incidents must acknowledge the human side of such attacks, both the so-called "terrorists" as well as victims. If we are to defeat "terrorism", we must abandon this politicised and dehumanising term and instead present such incidents and plots in as mundane a way as possible.

Lumping different incidents together as "global terrorism", regardless of whether they are related, only helps to fan the flames of sensationalism, giving such acts political weight.

We must not generalise but instead look at the mundane events through which individuals became positioned as "terrorists". If we fail to do so, we will only help extend the lines of those said to be moving from "sympathiser" to "terrorist".



Sir: I'm not casting aspersions, but should comments by MI5 be automatically regarded as reliable? If I were head of MI5, and I was aware of, say, a handful of serious terror plots, would I go on record as saying there are only a handful?

This might blow the cover on operations. I would be tempted to multiply this number, for reasons of national security, by say a factor of 10. So "about 30" would seem a reasonable number. It seems a bit silly to assume that what spies publicly quote is "the truth", because truth is something they are, often correctly, trained to conceal.



Sir: Tony Blair and MI5 say they know of about 30 terrorist threats to Britain (Letters, 11 November). Can any of them be activated in 45 minutes?



Dangerous future for America

Sir: John MacGregor's excellent letter about George Bush being punished for occupation of Iraq (10 November) paints a compelling picture of the downside consequences of the President's failed foreign policy, but in my view, there are more to come.

From the end of the Second World War until the end of the Clinton presidency, the US was generally admired and respected by the rest of the world. With the Bush administration operating a neo-conservative ideology and deciding the US was capable of "going it alone" in any global region where it chose to intervene, began the commencement of a fault line in world alignments.

The attacks of 9/11 etched itself into America's worst fears, and the neo-con policymakers were able to ride on this wave to execute their boldest plans at the apex of American power. But they ignored the lessons of history, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, or the legacy of Vietnam and the growing power of China.

The result has been a reversal of all the policymakers had expected. Forced into awkward co-operation with other countries through the once-despised UN, they are also obliged to deal with North Korea through China and with Iran through Russia or the EU.

With this perceptible loss of political momentum we also see the control America once exercised over global capital markets is waning. The first sign is that the City of London is taking business away but in the long run this economic power has to be diluted by the creditor countries of China and Japan.

This would leave only military pre-dominance, and there lies the danger. Within a decade, the USA could be in the position of the USSR in the 1980s, an isolated military colossus with declining political and economic power.

Empires can collapse quickly following global fault lines usually brought about by wars. The Ottoman Empire fell in 1920 after the First World War, the British Empire after the Second World War, and the Soviet empire in 1990 after the Afghan war.

Let us hope that should Afghanistan and Iraq prove to be America's nemesis a Gorbachev-like figure will emerge there to save us from Armageddon.



Sir: Whether or not it was a mistake to invade Iraq, we are there. To create a democratic state and then to abandon it would be both immoral and criminal.

It would be to follow what the Labour Government did to Aden in 1967-68 when they shamefully abandoned the fledgling Federation of South Arabia, resulting in its collapse the moment we left.



A balanced look at Scotland

Sir: Finally, a more balanced article on the political situation north of the border ("Beware this tartan timebomb", Johann Hari, 9 November), spoilt only by the usual subsidy-junkie gibe ("bribery"). Although ethnic minorities in England may come to identify themselves as British, in Scotland a significant proportion of ethnic minorities adopt a Scots identity and support the SNP.

But it was a refreshing read, particularly in light of recent jock-bashing in the media and the cartoon lampooning of John Reid as a Glesga heidbanger. Would a point of satire be made of an MP or minister's colour, sexuality or disability?



Sir: In Anthony North's letter on daylight saving (10 November), any intelligent person would rightly be offended at the offhand and racist dismissal of, say, "a few Muslims", "a few Pakistanis", "a few Jews", "a few Kurds", "a few Palestinians" or even perhaps "a few Yorkshiremen". Why then is the dismissal of "a few Scots" anything less?

This "disadvantage" would involve Scots schoolchildren, and many Scots workers, going to school and work, and returning home, in darkness, and for a long part of the winter.



Put yourself in place of an armed officer

Sir: The letter from Peter Janikoun (8 November) would seem a little too eager to dismiss the concerns raised by the police in respect of shootings of armed or seemingly armed suspects.

He cites, for example, the lack of statistics from the representatives of Acpo and the Police Federation. Perhaps I can help him. PC Sharon Beshenivsky was the 36th police officer to be killed on duty in the past two decades, of which 24 were shot, stabbed or beaten to death.

Although this is in no way a defence for deaths at the hands of the police, one has surely to at least try to empathise with an officer who has to make a decision in an exceedingly short space of time. An investigation is automatically triggered; the knowledge that this will happen the officer will have in the back of his mind at the time of the incident. He is still obliged to make the decision.

There are not plenty of candidates for specialist firearms training; indeed, many forces are suffering from a shortage of candidates primarily because of fear of vilification should something go wrong.

There are many people who believe that no matter how much opprobrium is poured over public servants they will always get on with the job. This is not the case, and I refer people to shortages in the Armed Forces, health service and teaching.



City scoured for a favourite read

Sir: I have never been one to enjoy small tasters of things, a soupcon of this, a smidgeon of that. No tantalisers for me. Just give me all, or nothing. That's the way I like it.

Online, niblet-sized morsels of Howard Jacobson, I don't do, least of all when he is in full throttle on the Old Testament in general, the Seventh Commandment in particular (Comment, 4 November).

But the limitations of my exiled existence hit their lowest on Sunday 5 November when I discovered that the one copy my supermarket had ordered of Saturday's Independent had been sold to a mere someone, without so much as a by-your-leave.

I will not bore you with the desperate machinations which ensued as news vendor, distributor et al, rather than incur my wrath, scoured Riyadh for any remaining copies.

Forty-eight hours later (and much crossing of palms with silver), the last, lone copy was prised from its refuge. The erudite piece was mine and I pause on the threshold ...

May I claim this week's Intrepid Reader Award?



What about Mary?

Sir: It is now coming to the time of year where the familiar nativity scene will be set up in many communities. For decades, no one has said they feel uncomfortable with the sight of the Virgin Mary covering her head. In fact, are there any images of her with an uncovered head? Will Mr Blair try to ban them?



Reid's values

Sir: John Reid has announced a new script of British values to win over Muslims. The values include "respect for the law", "freedom of speech", "equality of opportunity", and "taking responsibility for others". I suppose he will use the illegal war in Iraq, the ban on protests near Westminster, the NHS postcode lottery and sending ill-equipped troops to war as examples of the Government's lead in each of these areas. You couldn't make it up.



Remember Stumpy

Sir: Reading your list of drumming casualties (article, 11 November), I was astonished by one glaring omission. No mention was given to Spinal Tap's legendary percussionist John "Stumpy" Pepys who, as every true rock fan knows, succumbed to a bizarre gardening accident in 1969.



The pay-off

Sir: Some months ago it was reported that, by the end of 2006, Britain would finish paying the United States for the lend lease and other support which we received to enable us to continue our active participation in the Second World War. Leaving aside the question of whether it was appropriate for Britain to be liable for this debt, would final payment enable the UK to pursue a foreign policy independent of the United States?



Puff for Self

Sir: In an age where even the cigar "twixt the lips" of, arguably, our greatest engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is often expunged from photographs, it was refreshing to see that no such fate befell Will Self's cigarette as he bestrode The Segway to review the future of technology (Magazine, 11 November). I hope he remembered to dispose of the butt in a responsible, eco-friendly way.



Devious Devon

Sir: What is going on in Devon? Not content in bribing a rare seabird to visit Dawlish to help boost the tourist trade (report, 13 November), they are now claiming to have invented the pasty as well. These are serious matters, and we must be told the truth.



Sir: Worcestershire sauce in a Cornish pasty ("Mark Hix's Cornish pasties", 13 November)? I don't think so.