Blair’s plan sacrifices too much freedom

By Steve Chapman: Syndicated Columnist

No one really wants to fault Tony Blair as he strives to address the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism. After one round of deadly bombings and a second round of attempted ones just two weeks apart, everyone knows that his fears are not exactly a hallucination. In this case, most people in the United States as well as Britain would prefer the prime minister went too far rather than not far enough.

In a statement last week, he praised his people’s “tolerance and good nature,” but said they feel “a determination that this very tolerance and good nature should not be abused by a small but fanatical minority.” He proceeded to unveil a plan to expel foreign nationals, such as militant Muslim clerics, who exhibit sympathy for terrorism.

His plan would mandate deportation for any noncitizen who is guilty of “fostering hatred” or “justifying or validating … violence” or “glorifying terrorism.” For those who have come from abroad, Blair declared, “staying here carries with it a duty. That duty is to share and support the values that sustain the British way of life.”

Left unexplained is why that duty should apply only to foreign nationals. Shouldn’t native-born Britons have an even greater obligation not to criticize or reject such values? Why should anyone be allowed to question the common ideals of the British nation?

The reason, of course, is that unfettered debate is the foundation of a free society and one of the proudest achievements of British democracy. If open expression by Britons serves a vital function — informing and stimulating thought — why doesn’t open expression by immigrants and foreign visitors advance that purpose as well?

The problem with Blair’s program is not that he wants to crack down on terrorist activity undertaken by imported radicals. Violence and other forms of criminality deserve vigorous prosecution and punishment. But his plan goes beyond targeting terrorist acts to penalizing forbidden thoughts and words. Just venturing into a radical bookstore could get you the boot.

If a radical Islamic leader is recruiting suicide bombers, helping them plan their crimes or inciting them to kill people, he shouldn’t be deported — he should be convicted and locked up. Blair, however, wants to expel anyone who merely expresses ideas that might conceivably be dangerous.

That prohibition is a net that will catch minnows as well as sharks. It would mean anyone praising Yasser Arafat’s leadership could be sent packing. So could anyone expressing the slightest sympathy for the Nicaraguan contras, who once enjoyed the support of the Reagan administration. Ditto for Nelson Mandela, who led an armed guerrilla group before becoming a symbol of brotherhood.

The point is not that anyone will actually be kicked out for saying a kind word about Nelson Mandela. The point is that there is a huge gulf between “justifying” violence and engaging in terrorism.

The history of freedom of speech, in fact, is mainly the story of learning to tolerate statements that have the potential to cause real harm. We allow the Ku Klux Klan to hold rallies even though they could inspire people to racial violence. We permit Communist Party conventions even though they might spawn cells of armed revolutionaries. We let people hold and advocate extreme views because we have faith in the value of unrestrained debate to expose error and advance truth.

And we don’t define truth by the nationality of the speaker. One of the cardinal principles of law in this country is that constitutional rights are the property not just of American citizens, but of anyone who arrives here. A resident alien or a visitor can’t be punished for saying things the rest of us are allowed to say.

Brits may think we can hold to that policy only because we’re not under attack. But we held to it even when we faced the biggest threat ever. During World War II, the government tried to strip the citizenship of a German immigrant who preached Nazism while we were fighting Hitler. But the Supreme Court said it could not expel him for expressing “sinister-sounding views that native-born citizens utter with impunity.”

Blair presumes that if young Muslims are shielded from incendiary rhetoric, they won’t become terrorists. But shutting up a few radical preachers won’t silence their ideas. In the Internet age, anyone who wants to hear calls to jihad can get them in an instant.

In the end, his plan promises to sacrifice freedom without improving security. Blair wants outsiders who come to Britain to “support the values that sustain the British way of life.” They might answer: After you.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: schapman@tribune.com