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Monday, October 30, 2006 

So burn the flag if you must...

A flag-burning everyone should be able to applaud.

The rule used to be that there was a few years between laws being made in the United States and similar legislation being passed over here in America's satellite. Perhaps similarly to how Alastair Campbell was subconsciously influenced, in Lord Hutton's words, to sex up the Iraq WMD dossier, Tarique Ghaffur might while have got the idea to ban flag burning from a manufactured hoo-hah earlier in the year in America, where suddenly the rights and wrongs of burning the flag became a distraction from the coffins coming back wrapped in it.

The police openly demanding more powers always has the whiff of the dictatorship about it. Last year we had local chiefs of police phoning up their MPs, urging them to vote for the 90 day detention without charge legislation for suspected terrorists. If anything, such direct lobbying backfired, with MPs rebelling against such openly political grandstanding from the police, led by Sir Ian Blair, fresh from his denials about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, saying that he'd prefer even longer than 90 days. 12 months on, and while there have been no further terrorist attacks, there have been a couple of scares, one of which had the police lifting for their telephones to sell their smears to the Murdoch press, the other of which we still know little about the true threat posed.

The main uproars of the year though have been the protest in February by the remnants of Al-Muhajiroun, then known as al-Ghuraba, and now likely known by yet another name, and the more recent protest in the aftermath of the Pope's quoted comments of a Byzantine emperor on Mohammad. Both protests involved in some way the extremist idiot and former womaniser Anjem Choudrary, who while he isn't demanding the execution of God's messenger on earth, is supposedly a lawyer. The demonstration in February, when protesters carried placards with such delightful statements as "BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM" was seen to some as the last straw, with the police doing very little other than photographing those who were taking part and keeping others away from them. Incitement to murder was very clearly taking place. While some charges have since brought, these have typically been well down the news agenda. The second protest was much more calm by comparison, with no such inflammatory placards, just the rantings of Choudrary, who only suggested that the Pope could be subject to capital punishment, rather than saying he should be executed.

At the heart of the recommendations is something eminently sensible, which is making a level playing field for all such protests. It's quite true that the BNP has recently been banned from carrying out potentially confrontational protests; one such march planned for Luton was stopped. If the BNP can't protest outside mosques, than neither should extremist Islamists be allowed to protest outside churches. As it happens, I'd rather that neither were stopped from doing so, but things being as they are, that's an unrealistic pipe dream. There are going to have to be some concessions on both sides.

On the flag burning front however, and with the wearing of masks, there must and should not be any such compromise. Tarique Ghaffur may have his heart in the right place, as Sunny believes, but the banning of the burning of flags would be a reactionary, completely unnecessary limitation on freedom of expression. Does anyone really care about the burning of a piece of cloth with the emblem of a nation on it, other than the cripplingly idiotic patriot fringe? Is it really that potentially offensive? More than anything, the burning of flags just often shows a protest going too far, labouring on the point of whatever the demonstration is about. Those doing the immolation often provide an image for the opposing side with their actions, as the burning of the Israeli flag by some Hizbullah supporters did on the Ceasefire Now demonstration at the beginning for August for the right wing Sunday broadsheets. On the other hand, would there be a more fitting image for the reduction of civil liberties under Blair than for someone to set fire to a Union Jack at the Cenotaph when he leaves Downing Street for the last time?

There is something even deeper here though. As anyone who has been on a reasonably well attended demonstration in the last few years will tell you, especially in London, the police increasingly are taking video and photographs of every single person. Everyone of you, by virtue of deciding to exercise your democratic right to lobby parliament or complain about whatever it is you're upset about it, appears to be a potential criminal. Even on good natured, entirely peaceful marches, where there is absolutely no chance of violence breaking out where video or photographic evidence might be necessary for a court case, this still happens and goes on. It's the same kind of logic which underpins the DNA database, which our Dear Leader last week advocated should contain every single person's genetic makeup. Everyone now arrested has their fingerprints and a mouth swab taken. Even if you're not charged, you're still a potential criminal, there on the computer for the rest of your life, just in case. You can't be too careful, after all.

This is the true reason behind wanting to ban the wearing of masks. The police and the government want to have complete, total, undeniable control over anyone who disagrees with them. They want to know who they are, where they are, and what they think. The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned yesterday in the Sunday Times that we, the poor, benighted so-called free citizens of Britain, are now spied upon more than any other population in the free world. That's a really special one to add the best/worst in Europe list, along with having the most teenage pregnancies and the most obese.

It's not as if the police don't have enough powers already. You can't demonstrate with a mile of parliament without first getting permission. You're liable to be stopped and searched for so much as farting out of turn, thanks to section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. You can be detained for up to 28 days without charge for terrorism offences, as long as the police can feed a line to a judge after every seven days. You can be arrested, or at least questioned, for saying virtually anything potentially offensive in public, as such varied figures as Stephen Green, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Anne Robinson and many others have found. The police can now arrest you for any piffling break of the law, when previously they would have dealt you an on the spot caution, told you to move on or given you a verbal warning. Now they want to be able to arrest and charge you with spraying a piece of cloth in deodorant and then sparking a flame near it.

Naturally, the proposed legislation would not catch women wearing the veil. In practice, the police might be a little less discretionary. The emergency protest in Manchester in the aftermath of Jack Straw's comments about the niqab might well have left police in a quandary if they had such powers. A few women on the march in August, who coincidentally appeared to be Hizbullah supporters, wore the full veil. Would the police have objected if this proposed law was in force? Who knows?

That there is the root problem with all the new powers given to our superb crime fighters. Every single new law or power they have, and remember, according to the Liberal Democrats, the Dear Leader has created 3,000 new criminal offences, the police abuse. They've used the 1997 act targeting stalkers to crackdown on those pesky repeat protestors. They've used section 44 of the Terrorism Act to stop just about anyone they feel like. They boarded a pair of buses going to a protest at an RAF base 2 days after the Iraq began and forced them to turn around, on the specious argument that they believed they were going to cause a "breach of the peace". Henry Porter, in another eloquently argued, quietly fuming article, brings up other such instances.

All of which makes you yearn for the protections of the US constitution. One of the main reasons why a flag burning ban would never reach the statute book in the US is because it would almost certainly be struck down by a court as breaching the right to free expression. Over here, we have to make do with the "hated" Human Rights Act, which some politicians want to dilute and which the Sun wants abolished. The ever continuing urges of the powerful in society to dilute the rights of the common man are going on unabated, and will continue to. It's only by standing up, if necessary, for the small things, and that means the right to burn the flag and to wear a mask while doing it, that we'll stop it from happening.

P.S. If you needed any more evidence that it's a bad idea, the Sun thinks, to quote Dick Cheney, that it's a no-brainer.

Related post:
Ministry of Truth - Burning the flag doesn’t make freedom go away, it’s kinda like Free-dom ok?

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