Half a League, Half a League, Half a League Onward

by Thomas Knapp

It takes a lot to shut me up. I tend to be first past the post with an opinion, right or wrong, and not much brings me up short in that area.

I must confess, however to falling speechless and slack-jawed for a moment at the sheer gall of a CBS News Internet poll accompanying the story of two men sentenced Tuesday in the United Kingdom (“Brits get 4 years prison for Facebook riot posts,” August 17): “Is four years prison too harsh for a Facebook post?”

I don’t really even have to reach the issue of reader response (although, as I write, 50% of respondents sickeningly declare for “No, fair punishment”). The only thing possibly more appalling than the question itself asked with a straight face is the absence among multiple choice answers of “are you out of your freaking mind? Prison? For a Facebook post?

Folks, this is not an edge case — “fire in a crowded theater” or “fighting words” spoken while brandishing molotov cocktails. It’s a clear matter of people sitting in front of computers, typing things intended to be read by other people sitting in front of other computers.

Nor, seemingly, did the Crown Prosecution Service pull a fast one with “conspiracy” charges or other trickery to make it look like this was about anything other than speech. The cases were plainly charged, the alleged crime being “inciting disorder.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, the war for humanity’s future — a war that has raged for centuries, a war in which the sides are the state versus everyone else, winner take all, and the stakes amount to nothing less than a future dominated by totalitarianism versus the slimmest shot at creating a free society — has over the last year or so been stripped to its essence as an information war. The state’s guns are very real and its victims still bleed red, but the battle will be won or lost at the level of information and communications control.

While I firmly believe that only one outcome — the end of the Westphalian nation-state — is possible, I’m surprised with the speed at which states are confirming my estimate of the situation by descending to the tactic of desperation: The frontal assault.

Over the course of only a year or so, the Wikileaks disclosures and Bradley Manning affair have pushed the US government away from the typical “damage control” approach to disclosure of embarrassing state secrets and into a policy of sparing the state public scrutiny at all costs.

Over the course of mere months, we’ve gone from “western democracies” chiding Egypt’s Mubarak regime for shutting down Internet access to stall a revolution, to San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit bureaucracy shutting down cell phone access lest its authority be “challenged.”

In a matter of a few weeks the status of “social media” has been doubly transformed — first from “a free marketplace of ideas” into a potentially dangerous venue that prisoners might abuse, and now from that into a place where communicating might make one a prisoner.

All of the foregoing, of course, assisted by lapdog media with a sudden handwringing interest in “flash mobs” and the temerity to ask questions like “is four years prison too harsh for a Facebook post?” as if the correct answer could conceivably be anything other than “are you out of your freaking mind?”

Things will certainly get worse before they get better, but the stink of fear surrounds the state and its defenders. And for good reason. They’re living on borrowed time.

10 thoughts on “Half a League, Half a League, Half a League Onward

  1. Reality check time.

    People were looting and rioting. Deliberately acting to incite that looting and rioting is a serious matter. To deliberately incite violent crime is a crime, it is wrong and it should be punished.

    Fuck off if you think this is about free speech, it isn’t, get real. Those were real mobs, burning down real peoples houses, with real people trapped inside them.

  2. I agree that incitement is a serious matter,but should only be so if there was a consequence proven in court. If a mob had turned up and looted and it could be shown that the perpetrators had no will of their own and were entirely controlled by the post on face book then the poster gets 4 years. But no-one turned up, nothing happened. No-one should get sent to prison for willing something to happen. It’s ridiculous. The police should have just had a word with them about how stupid they were given the context. But no-one can be held responsible for other people’s actions, it completely does away with the idea of free will and individual accountability

  3. Arguably, incitement, even of the most egregious type, should not be a crime. If I shout, “kill the Jews!” and somebody else goes and kills a Jew, that was his choice to heed my words (and can one actually prove that he killed the Jew because of my words? How do you prove motivation, which is intrinsically inaccessible inside the human mind) and thus his responsibility, not mine.

    Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto openly incite their readers to violent revolution. Why are they not illegal?

  4. I also find the article about Facebook and Smartphones hysterically funny. No greater proof of the inadequacy of government as a system is its total inability to control even what goes on inside prisons, the territory where there is absolute power and no property rights. The can’t stop prisoners having phones, against the rules, or having drugs, against the rules, or raping each other, against the rules. It glibly mentions that the phones are smuggled in by the guards.

    And these people claim they can run all of society? It’s comical, isn’t it?

  5. Daisy, if someone trys to incit a riot in the midst of unrest and widespread rioting then simply having ‘a word with them’ isn’t good enough just because they happened to fail in their attempts (unlike many others). It needs to be very clear indeed to the ferals who are inclined to riot and loot that if they incit people to do so or if they do so themselves, they will be punished harshly.

  6. Ian B, the idea that incitment is not morally responsible, only the people who chooses to be incited is a nice theory. However, in real life there are a lot of impressionable idiots and to deliberately provoke them into commiting violence rioting and looting is a morally culpable act.

    And there is a diiference to a general call to revolution such as in Das Kapital and a specific organising of a rioting mob. A very big and real difference. We are leaving the world of nice theoretical debates and entering the world where people actually get their houses set on fire by a shouting mob whilst they are stuck upstairs.

  7. CH, I am not interested in morality, and neither is a proper law system. It is interested in acts, not motivations. The only suitable place for motivations is in the matter of mitigation- the thief who steals because he is starving may receive a lighter sentence than he who is not. But “moral” culpability is not a matter for the courts, just criminal culpability.

  8. CH If you read my post again I think you’ll see I agree with what you say:if looting has occurred and it could be proved beyond doubt it was because of the posters words then yes that would be serious. The point about having a word is simply because It wasn’t a nice thing to do. However, let’s not get carried away with the idea of ‘widespread looting’ and ‘unrest. There was no rioting in Warrington or Northwich, and even had there had been who’s fault would it be? This is a crucial question if we are looking for justice, accountability and sanity. If we can prosecute for incitement when nothing happened where does that leave us? And what about leaving ourselves wide open to criminals using someone else’s words in mitigation. Should Rushdie be guilty of incitement? The book burners would claim so.Unless it can be proved beyond a doubt then we might as well admit of the voice of God directing people.The Norwiegan murderer claims he was compelled-now there’s a word to play about with- to massacre because of all the words spoken and written by his political enemies. This is not just a nice theoretical debate, this ends in people being sent to prison because the powers that be don’t like what they say; I don’t think it is an exaggerated fear to say this opens the way for people to be persecuted.I recall a saying I and most other people grew up with when we tried to blame someone else for what we had done_ ‘if so and so told you to put your hand in the fire would you do that to’? We have to have personal accountability.

  9. The people that set people’s houses on fire while they are stuck upstairs, and who have done it for a laugh, are taught deliberately to be like that by socalists. I get really really riled, and I begin to tire of this whole war, because nobody will listen and nobody will start to perceive that there’s no way that thousands, and hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions (if the truth be known) of people become evil, and do evil things, in a world where this is not needful, without being trained so to be by a certain political philosophy which says it’s all right to do this. Just read anything recent by the foul, repellent Laurie Penny (who ought to be ashamed of herself.)

  10. Ian B, fine forget about morality. The fact is that if someone incits people to violence they are directly causing violence to happen. They should be stopped from doing so. That is a straightforward matter of realism.

    daisy, there was widespread rioting and looting across England. It is just a matter of chance that Northwich and Warrington did not experience that. During such a time, to call for rioting and looting was highly likely to result in rioting and looting, as indeed it did in many places. Therefore the only sensible response is to make it known that people who do try and incite violence and looting will be punished. It is completely and totally irrelevant if that incitment is successful or not. Attempted murder is still treated seriously regardless of the fact that it failed. There is no analogy with Salman Rushdie writing a book, he never called for or attempted to incite any violence at all.

    David Davis, I am totally aware that it is the result of the Welfare State that people have a sense of entitlement and justification to act like that. That does not mean that it excuses those who organise and incite the riots and looting.

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