Howard Jacobson: Some things are more important than human rights – life and love, for starters

Those who offer to act in freedom’s name should not take that name in vain

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Nothing is more precious than freedom: true or false? False. Life is more precious than freedom. Which is why the majority of mankind will suffer almost any abridgement of its freedom so long as it can go on breathing. At least alive we may win freedom tomorrow.

And then there's love. People will compromise their freedom for that, too, for to be free and yet alone can make freedom feel a worthless commodity. Who wants to be free as an uprooted tree is free, asked D H Lawrence.

But after life and love, yes, freedom. Which is why it's important that those who offer to act in freedom's name don't take that name in vain. If freedom today is a diminished entity, that is not the fault only of tyrants. Freedom fighters who are themselves no more than tyrants in waiting demean freedom; privacy advocates who would rather a plane go down than its passengers be searched to within an inch of modesty demean freedom; civil rights activists, when they reduce all relations between the citizen and state to a pantomime – Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters – demean freedom. Civil rights, human rights! – half the time what we call "human rights" are nothing but a travesty of that nexus of obligation and entitlement that makes us human.

I have trouble with the concept of rights, not because I want less protection against violation but because I want more. "Human rights" is too feeble an expression of what we have to lose from the depredations of others. He who throws me into prison without a hearing takes away my liberty, not my rights. He who sticks a dagger in my heart takes away my life, not my rights. I am unable to think of myself as a person to whom rights attach. I am flesh and blood not a repository of rights. And thou shalt not raise a finger against my flesh nor spill an ounce of my blood. Obey that ancient injunction and you can flush rights down the pan.

There's an old Lithuanian proverb: every man is his neighbour's matching shoe. No there isn't. I've invented it. But there should be such a proverb. Ties of affiliation bind us and at the same time trip us up. Bonds of blood, loyalty, fellowship, even hatred, not rights. We call this what Mrs Thatcher wouldn't – "society". Society being a collective for the sake of which we agree to have our shoes tied together and our freedom to do as we wish curtailed.

The suicide bomber seeks to curtail our lives. We need not trouble ourselves with what he seeks to do to his own. By targeting us, he steps outside the collective, forfeiting our fellowship and our protection. He is no longer a companion shoe. In order to prevent his curtailing our lives, we consent to more of our freedoms being curtailed instead. But not our most precious freedoms. Not our freedom to think or to hold and express contrary opinions. Not our freedom to love whom we choose, to not love whom we choose, to go our own way in our heads (for we can be bounded in a nutshell and still count ourselves kings of infinite space.) Just our freedom to pass through airport security without immense inconvenience, a sometimes unnecessary degree of rudeness, and without the outlines of our private parts being flashed up on an X-ray screen or whatever.

Forgive my vagueness. I don't know how the technology of surveillance operates. And frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. They can show what they scan of me on 1,000-inch screens throughout the airport for all I care. They wouldn't bother, of course. I know the limits of my appeal. But if I were well known to the readers of Grazia they might. Discovering that he has a grainy X-ray of what goes on beneath the clothes of the winner of last year's I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, the argument goes, the unscrupulous body scanner operative will sell the images to the highest bidder. Highly unlikely to be a taker, in my view, given that there will already be far more explicit photographs of the celebrity in question kicking about the market somewhere. Better quality, too. But even if that's not the case, are we supposed to care? Where the soul has already been sold cheap should we really waste our outrage on the selling of a body? Privacy? Reader, he who fights to protect our privacy in the age of television and Hello! is defending what almost nobody any longer wants.

Ah, but the children. The children, the children – the last refuge of the scoundrel. Better the plane go down and 500 lives be lost than that a single child be exposed to the sexual curiosity of a pervert. We have lost our minds about children. I don't minimise the vileness of the pervert, or the sorrow and the suffering he, or she – let's not forget the "she" – can cause. But we cannot police the imagination; nor can we scour the four corners of the earth to remove every image that might stimulate it. Whoever must have such images will find them. We cannot close every school, destroy every camera, or blindfold every adult in order to keep our children off the mental screens of perverts. Through the scanner you must go, my little darlings, so that you might arrive safely at your destination, and let the sick play as they must.

Of course there is always choosing more precisely those we scan and those we don't, but here, in the usual farcical manner of these things, one set of rights collides with another – the right, dictated by common sense, to be presumed an unlikely carrier of lethal chemicals, and the rights of people with highly suspicious profiling not to be suspected. And here the civil rightists are at their most hypocritical and absurd, asking us as a society to deny one of our most useful human instincts, which is to recognise from experience the lineaments of danger, what it looks like, where it comes from. And if we get it wrong, as we will surely sometimes get it wrong? Then we get it wrong. No system of survival was yet devised that did not have unfairness in it.

As for the argument that we will make terrorists out of those we unjustly suspect, only a fool would advance it. Anyone so inflammable as to become a terrorist because he is strip-searched at an airport already is a terrorist.

In the meantime – if there is a meantime – God save us from the moral illiterates who would put our "rights" before our lives.

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