Monday, 2 May 2011

Is an ignoramus a kind of hippo?

We live in a world where the average person thinks himself deep if they see a conspiracy theory everywhere. Those same people will then watch Britain's Got Talent and The Only Way Is Essex and proclaim them the zenith of entertainment. It's safe to say I don't have a high opinion of the average person in British society (and we're not going to get started on what I think about more than a few people on the other side of the Atlantic - well, not until later).

Today's reports of the death of Osama Bin Laden have aroused the sceptics - and with good reason. The evidence of his death is sketchy. A photo has been doing the rounds of the battered body of Bin Laden, but there's more than a little doubt hanging over it and more than one fairly intelligent person I know has declared it photoshopped by someone aiming to capitalise on the story. The story of his death isn't entirely watertight, with reports stating that the body has already been disposed of, and at sea to boot. The conspiracy theorists are out in force at the moment, hypothesising that Bin Laden isn't dead, or is dead and has been for some time, or (in perhaps the most lunatic suggestion I've seen) never existed in the first place (yeah, television pictures of him over the course of 30 years or so aren't any kind of evidence and are just an American government cover-up, aren't they?).

I'm of an open mind in the issue. I'd like to believe he is no longer a threat, but I'm also realistic enough to see the holes in the story. As I lawyer, I see reasonable doubt in the evidence.

But as a reasonably intelligent human being I also like to think I see beyond the story and into the stupidity of the morons currently writing comments on the BBC's comments board at the foot of the report.

I've perhaps not been following the news as I could have been over the past few weeks, what with dissertations and other work to be doing. But I have picked up on the furore raised by the potential Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump surrounding Barack Obama's nationality. Not only do I find it cynical political posturing, I also find it a shameful incidence of racism. The question of President Obama's nationality has nothing to do with his ability to run a country, and has more to do with playing on the fears of an ignorant mass of voters who will react to any question of 'un-Americanism' by reacting against it.

We saw during the presidential race of 2008 the fear and ignorance of any non-white that certain parts of American society can't shake off. And we're constantly hearing now how Obama is Muslim (which he isn't), how he isn't an American citizen (which he is), how he's a terrorist (which he isn't), not through informed comment but through the fear and ignorance of an uneducated underclass.

Take one comment on the BBC website as an example of the ignorance, bigotry and sheer hatred that some people seem to have:

"I was elated this morning, when I woke up to find a certain Islamic leader who struck terror into the heart of America had been shot dead. Then I was left disappointed as I realised it was an S not a B"
If Obama was white then there would be no question of whether he was Muslim (which still begs the question - why does that matter? Being a follower of the Islamic faith does not mean someone's a terrorist: far from it. A true follower of Islam will be a peaceful man, as, at the heart of the matter, there's not a greatly significant amount different between the faiths of Christianity and Islam), wasn't American, or whatever. Yet because he's not of what certain Republicans would term an acceptable colour he's put under scrutiny for these things so his presidency is undermined. Apparently, racism is an acceptable tool of statescraft in Western democracy.

Time to move back over the pond to more familiar territory. After the abolition of the death penalty in the late 1960s, there seems to be an increasing amount of people demanding the flog 'em and hang 'em form of justice to come back. Personally, I'm dead set against capital punishment, but I'll listen to reasoned arguments in favour of it because there are some good arguments for it. Indeed, in the case of Bin Laden I don't actually have a problem with the reports that he was killed on the spot without a trial. I'm not saying that as someone who's turned his back on organised justice; it's a concession to the unique situation of Bin Laden and the West. Had he been brought in alive it would have resulted in chaos: terrorists would have tried to get him back, there would have been unrest at his trial, he would probably have been assassinated somewhere down the line. While the lack of a trial will worry many people, it's understandable and forgiveable in these circumstances. I think a majority of people would look at the situation and see it a similar way, whether they were American, British, French, German, Canadian, etc.

Of course, we have to have at least one person making a snide comment about British justice:

"Thank god the Yanks got there before the British as the Brits would have caught him and sentenced him to the full wrath of the British Justice, a maximum Community Order of 300 hours Unpaid Work with absolutley no chance of being extradited to the USA"
Note the poor spelling.

It's another comment arising from ignorance. In this case, of English (not British) justice. Whilst some people seem to think even a tiny indiscretion warrants doing time, and anything more major deserves hanging, the English justice system has in fact developed beyond these pea-brained responses. Fine, so some sentences are genuinely soft - but they're the exception that proves the rule. I far prefer English justice's measured approach against American justice and its need to appease the electorate, with judges being voted into and out of office. If Bin Laden was tried and convicted in an English court he wouldn't be leaving prison at any stage of his life. No, he wouldn't be extradited, because of the European Convention of Human Rights, which is apparently another bone of contention for Daily Mail readers.

According to some, criminals use the ECHR to stay in the country once they've been convicted. A state is under a duty to protect the lives of all it has charge of (Article 2). You can't pick and choose the lives you protect. Every human life is protected. Sometimes this doesn't seem fair - but think of the alternative. Small-time petty criminals being sent back to goodness knows where, where they face the death penalty for minor crimes committed in their formative years? People fleeing from war being sent back to face the horrors of genocide? Whilst the current situation is a little unsavoury in more than a few cases, the alternative is (or, at least, should be) utterly unpalatable to anyone with human feelings.

Unfortunately the modern day ignoramuses who seem to make up a majority get more of a say than people who have more than the Daily Mail's hate between their ears. I could have picked any number of comments from the story. It's a sad indictment of modern society.

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