At What Point Is Islamist Rhetoric a Crime?

by Jim Geraghty

No matter how bad your day goes today, you can always feel like a real winner… compared of course, to Reality Winner.

At What Point Is Islamist Rhetoric a Crime?

From a new report by Professor Peter Neumann & Dr. Shiraz Maher, King’s College London, commissioned by the BBC:

The Internet plays an important role in terms of disseminating information and building the brand of organisations such as [ISIS], but it is rarely sufficient in replacing the potency and charm of a real-world recruiter. Perhaps more than any other radical cluster, the network around [British extremist Anjem] Choudary has been linked to scores of attacks, both at home and abroad, and dozens of foreign fighters joining IS in Syria.

In September 2016, Choudary was sentenced to five years and six months in prison for his support for ISIS.

Yesterday on Twitter, Sam Hooper gave me a little grief — perhaps deserved — for my comments on the day’s Three Martini Lunch podcast generally supportive of U.K. prime minister Theresa May’s proposal of new measures in response to the recent Islamist terror attacks.

Hooper asked, “should someone be arrested for saying ‘I want to overthrow the U.S. government and establish an Islamic state?” Not for actually doing it, mind you, but merely for saying the words. Are saying those words aloud a crime? If so, aren’t we getting unnervingly close to the concept of “Thought Crimes”?

It’s fair to ask that question; it’s entirely possible that my perspective on terrorism right now is emotionally clouded by the thought of those ten children, and 22 people overall, who went to an Ariana Grande concert one night and never came home. Indeed, it would be odd and unnerving and inconsistent with our traditions of free expression to arrest and imprison someone for the mere expression of the thought.

(On the other hand, if you’re going to have a hate-crime law the way the United Kingdom does, it’s pretty ridiculous to not apply it to someone who’s preaching violence against infidels.)

But when we’ve witnessed and endured Islamist terror attack after Islamist terror attack in one Western city after another, isn’t it fair to ask how many who call for an Islamist overthrow of the government and imposition of Sharia law are truly harmless? Is that a threshold where an angry young male who’s drifting into Islamism reaches and stops? Or is it a stepping stone on a path to launching an attack? Are there many young Muslims out there who say, “Yes, I want to see the U.K.’s traditional governing structure destroyed; stoning and beheading added to the system of criminal punishments; adultery, dishonor, and blasphemy added to the criminal code; the criminalization of homosexuality; the devaluing of the testimony of a female witness in court; the banning of conversion from Islam to another faith, the imposition of dhimmi status upon all non-Muslims… but I don’t want to be violent about it”?

If you really buy into all that and express those views, a lot of people are going to start looking at you like you’re a ticking time bomb. And I’m not sure that’s unfair stereotyping, because so many people who believe all that turn out to be wearing literal ticking time bombs.

Put another way, how many permanently nonviolent radicals are out there?

Hooper at least concurs that comments like that seem to be sufficient reason for investigation and surveillance, and that additional factors, like traveling to Syria, are good reason for authorities to intervene. The problem then becomes one of scale; a few weeks ago the British government stated that “security services are currently running 500 active investigations looking at some 3,000 potential suspects.” Considering how it usually takes a dozen or more law-enforcement officials to conduct around-the-clock surveillance, the ability to monitor every potential threat is beyond them without drastically expanded resources.

(When you have 3,000 potential suspects, aren’t we beyond “a few bad apples”? Aren’t we talking about a subculture that is embracing, incubating, and nurturing extremism?)

From the number of times we’ve seen a terror attack launched by someone who was on a government “watch list,” it sounds like security services here and in the U.K. and in other European countries are pretty good at finding guys who are potential threats. They’re just not intervening fast enough, because they can’t collect sufficient evidence for a conviction of an imminent criminal act.

We’re at a point where the tools of some of the terrorists — knives, trucks — are so common that there’s not much of a “planning stage” where law enforcement can intervene. When an aspiring jihadist contemplates a truck attack instead of building a bomb, there’s no step of buying the chemicals for the bomb, no time spent building the bomb, no strange smells for neighbors to report, no chemicals for the dogs to sniff while searching his home, etcetera. The terrorist can suddenly decide to launch his attack during his commute; all he has to do is swerve onto a crowded sidewalk.

There’s an old cliché in cop films, when a really bad guy is under suspicion, the lieutenant tells the cops, “If he so much as spits on the sidewalk, book him.” Perhaps a possible solution is for Western countries to take our ludicrously complicated criminal codes and stop applying them to little kids selling lemonade on the street corner and throw them at those touting Islamist rhetoric. Finally, the nanny state could be good for something useful. If you call for overthrowing the government, the government will push back by the Al Capone approach — looking for any excuse including tax evasion to put you behind bars.

We’re in that familiar territory of trying to figure out when merely controversial or incendiary speech becomes incitement. I don’t have a precise guideline; perhaps incitement will always be in the eye of the beholder. Or perhaps it’s like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography; we know it when we see it.

ESPN Reverses Stance on Acceptance of Williams, Rowdy Friends

Is the return of Hank Williams Jr. to Monday Night Football a good thing? I’m happy, mostly because I like the song.

Williams will debut a new version of “All My Rowdy Friends,” featuring its “Are you ready for some football?” catchphrase, before the first Monday night game of the season, between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis on Sept. 11.

ESPN pulled the song midseason in 2011, following controversial comments made by Williams on Fox News that compared then-President Barack Obama golfing with then-Rep. House Speaker John Boehner to a meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler. Williams also called Obama and Joe Biden “the enemy.”

The original Williams song had been on Monday Night Football broadcasts since 1989.

One of my favorite sportswriters, Jason Whitlock, is unimpressed, calling ESPN’s move, “ceremonial, symbolic and token.”

Maybe. On the other hand, maybe it says something that ESPN feels the need to make ceremonial, symbolic, and token moves.

I’d prefer if Disney and/or ESPN didn’t feel any particular need to cater to any political view; I just want to know what’s going on in the world of sports. Yes, some days the news in that world that will align with the world of politics — financing sports stadiums, athletes attempting to alleviate the troubles of inner-city neighborhoods they grew up in, athletes participating in protests and causes, the gradual growth of women’s sports, the Turkish government effectively declaring war on an NBA player. But most of the time, I want the scores, the highlights, the injury updates, the occasional soft-focus feature and who’s likely to win tonight.

ADDENDA: You know what will be thrilling about former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday? We’ll finally get to hear about a Trump administration controversy from a named, on-the-record source.

This morning I showed my boys this segment of What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?, a Peanuts television special from 1983 marking the anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. It’s a good age-appropriate way to show kids a sense of what we remember and honor this day.

The Morning Jolt

By Jim Geraghty