I have been discussing with the imperfectly Voltairean Mrs T. in comments the sort of grounds on which modern states actually censor, rather than those which they pretend to themselves they apply. In particular, I want to argue that notions of obscenity have reappeared, but now they are applied to politics, rather than to matters of sex.
Germane here is the case of Samina Malik, a Muslim shop assistant who is going to go to jail partly for writing poems about jihad in the privacy of her own hard disk. This has been quite widely reported in the British press this morning, but the most interesting comment came right at the end of the Guardian’s report:
Peter Clarke, head of the Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command, said: “Malik held violent extremist views which she shared with other like-minded people over the internet. Merely possessing this material is a serious criminal offence.”
This really is thought crime. I am not sure from the context whether my first reading was accurate — that he was referring to her rather disgusting poem1 about beheading, rather than the instruction manuals also found in her room. These included — according to the Times — The Mujaheddin Poisoner’s Handbook, Encyclopaedia Jihad, How to Win in Hand-to-Hand Combat, and How to Make Bombs. But the point is that there isn’t any imminent danger to the public from reading this stuff. On the contrary, as I was suggesting earlier, the way that this stuff works is slowly, and the more dangerously because it is private.
I’m not happy about either possible stance here: the one that says we should freely allow this kind of material, even at the risk, almost the statistical certainty, that some of the people who read it will be depraved and corrupted; and the opposing one which says that the government has a perfect right to snoop around on our hard disks.
1 so in a just world he will spend time in jail too, if the state is going to move into literary criticism.