The Corner

National Security & Defense

At What Point Is Islamist Rhetoric a Crime?

From the Tuesday Morning Jolt:

At What Point Is Islamist Rhetoric a Crime?

From a new report by Prof 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 IS, 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 US 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 “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, et cetera. 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 Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography; we know it when we see it.

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