Friday, 24 September 2010

The Pope, the state, and freedom: Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

Since the Pope’s visit was a state visit by a head of state, it was natural that, in a speech to political leaders, he should turn to relations between the United Kingdom and the Vatican, and to areas in which the British Government “has been engaged with the Holy See.” And so he did.
I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

Your readiness to do so is already implied in the unprecedented invitation extended to me today. And it finds expression in the fields of concern in which your Government has been engaged with the Holy See. In the area of peace, there have been exchanges regarding the elaboration of an international arms trade treaty; regarding human rights, the Holy See and the United Kingdom have welcomed the spread of democracy, especially in the last sixty-five years; in the field of development, there has been collaboration on debt relief, fair trade and financing for development, particularly through the International Finance Facility, the International Immunization Bond, and the Advanced Market Commitment. The Holy See also looks forward to exploring with the United Kingdom new ways to promote environmental responsibility, to the benefit of all.

I also note that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013. In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor. But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare. Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed “too big to fail”. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly “too big to fail”.
It is no surprise that when it came down to specific areas of government policy, the fields that the Pope wished to speak about were the fairly uncontroversial areas of motherhood and appl peace, human rights, development (i.e. the relief of global poverty), and the environment. The Pope highlighted several specifics including the advance of democracy in the past 65 years (an odd thing for the Pope to welcome, since the Vatican is not, as far as I know, itself a democracy) - but (again, not surprisingly) his concern was largely about what governments could do help poor people in other countries.

In particular, the Pope notes “that the present Government has committed the United Kingdom to devoting 0.7% of national income to development aid by 2013.” All three main parties in the UK have had made this commitment, and it is generally considered something that all people of goodwill should support, but I do not believe that it is the duty of government to be charitable with other people’s money - and, to be honest, I don’t see anything particularly virtuous about it either.

The Pope also makes the point that if governments are willing and able to spend huge quantities of tax-payer’s money to bail out large corporations, that they should be able to do the same for poor people in poor countries. One gets the impression that the Pope’s view is that the government was not necessarily wrong to do the former, and should certainly be prepared to do the latter. In other words, when it comes to the extent and role of the state, it seems that the Pope is not just happy enough to go along with the current British political consensus - but that he also probably supports it. So, not much encouragement for libertarian principles there.

The Pope continued:
This overview of recent cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Holy See illustrates well how much progress has been made, in the years that have passed since the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations, in promoting throughout the world the many core values that we share. I hope and pray that this relationship will continue to bear fruit, and that it will be mirrored in a growing acceptance of the need for dialogue and respect at every level of society between the world of reason and the world of faith. I am convinced that, within this country too, there are many areas in which the Church and the public authorities can work together for the good of citizens, in harmony with this Parliament’s historic practice of invoking the Spirit’s guidance upon those who seek to improve the conditions of all mankind. For such cooperation to be possible, religious bodies – including institutions linked to the Catholic Church – need to be free to act in accordance with their own principles and specific convictions based upon the faith and the official teaching of the Church. In this way, such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association are guaranteed. ”
Having spoken about relations between the UK and the Vatican, the Pope returned the theme of the necessity of “dialogue between the world of reason and the world of faith”. Personally, I think that this is an odd thing to say, as it implies that these are two different worlds - and possibly even that it is not possible to be a person of both reason and faith. I can see Richard Dawkins taking the view that if you have faith, then you are irrational, but I know the Pope doesn’t, so I think that he could have chosen his words better.

And finally, the Pope comes back to his earlier point, and to effectively end his address by again stating the need for such basic rights as religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of association to be guaranteed. This was clearly the Pope’s great concern, for it comes out at the beginning of his address (third paragraph: “Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law”) the middle of his address (seventh paragraph: “These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion . . . . .”) and the conclusion of his address. And that is good.

However, there is one thing that strikes me as particularly odd about it. The Pope, in his address, repeatedly refers to Sir Thomas More.
As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.”
Thomas More was a faithful Catholic and a man of courage and principle, as depicted in the film A Man for all Seasons. But that is not all that he was. Thomas More was also a firm believer in the burning of heretics.

Some people might say that this was an unexceptional belief for a 16th century man, and that he should not be judged by 20th century standards. There is some truth in that. But even by the standards of the 16th century, More was remarkably enthusiastic about burning heretics. When John Tewkesbury, a London leather-seller found guilty of having a copy of William Tyndale’s book The Parable of the Wicked Mammon was sentenced to burning for refusing to recant, More declared: he "burned as there was neuer wretche I wene better worthy." There were very few other major theological writers in 16th century Europe whose words show such eagerness to have their religious opponents burned.

So, in his address, the Pope spoke passionately in favour of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience - while praising a man who was militantly opposed to both. Thomas More believed that the Roman Catholic Church was right, that everybody else was wrong, and that it was the duty of the state to burn those who were heretics. He believed that heresy should be excluded from the public square. In short, More’s policy was precisely that of those who (to use the Pope’s words) “would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced.” It seems to me that for the Pope to use Thomas More as his starting point in an address that pleaded for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience was, to put it mildly, somewhat ironic.

That Pope Benedict should choose to focus on several aspects of freedom (freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, freedom of political affiliation and freedom of religion) in the major political speech of his visit to the UK was good news for lovers of freedom. Many religious leaders would, I suspect, not have chosen to emphasise freedom to the same extent - if at all. That he chose to speak about these freedoms as things that we in Britain need to keep valuing is particularly welcome. However, the Pope is clearly not a libertarian yet.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Pope, the state, and freedom: Part 1

The recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI was a state visit to the United Kingdom, and so it is not surprising that the Pope did not merely address the faithful, but also spoke to political leaders at Westminster Hall. And, it seems to me, if we are interested in the Pope’s views on matters of state, it is to his address at this meeting that we need to look. Here are some of my thoughts.

The third paragraph set the tone:
This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.
In his third paragraph, the Pope considers the limits of state power, and says that “decisive steps have been taken at several points in [Britain’s] history to place limits on the exercise of power,” and this is something that he seems to approve of - as do libertarians, of course. There is more common ground with libertarians here: the Pope used the word “freedom” twice in this paragraph - and freedom was to be a major theme in the address, as he was to use the word a further five times. He spoke of Britain as “as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.” That sums up our political tradition well, and this is something that libertarians are happy with.

The Pope also said “While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.” The interesting word here is ‘much.’ Catholic social teaching has ‘much’ in common with the British tradition - but how much? He didn’t say - but his comment about using different language is interesting. The most important features of Catholic social teaching would appear, from the Pope’s words, to be ‘safeguarding the unique dignity of every human person’ and ‘fostering the common good’ - rather than safeguarding freedom and the rule of law. So how do we safeguard the unique dignity of every human person? How do we foster the common good? One suspects that the Pope would agree that the rule of law, the equality of everyone before the law, and freedom of speech are important - but how important?

In paragraphs 5 and 6, the Pope spoke of the importance of ethics in public life.
There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.”
It is about what we believe is right and wrong. And I suppose nobody is going to disagree. All political philosophy follows from beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. Libertarians, or example, believe that it is wrong for the state to deny people certain basic freedoms. Slavery, which the Pope mentioned, is an example of something that libertarians believe is wrong.

What about economics? The Pope said “There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.” So - to what extent was the credit crunch caused by dishonesty? No doubt some Rothbardian will rush in and say that the Pope is quite right - that fractional reserve banking is fraud - but I don’t pretend to know about these things! Some people will say that it was caused to a large extent by greed, but greed is somewhat difficult to define. And to what extent was it caused by selfishness - i.e. a lack of care and concern for other people? If any economists are reading this, feel free to share your thoughts.

And so the Pope asked “Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”, and replied that the answer is ‘reason’: “The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.” And the Pope went on to say that where we had religion without the corrective of reason or reason without the corrective of religion, things tended to go wrong - in both the political and religious sphere. “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.

This begs the question “Which religion?” Because they don’t all say the same things. Christianity, Islam, and Aztec religion all have rather different things to say. But it also raises further questions in my mind. Is the Pope basically suggesting that legislators, even though they may be basically secular people, need to listen more to the pronouncements of the Catholic Bishops, and the General Synod, and the Chief Rabbi, and other religious groups?

Because if that is what he is saying, it sounds very different to what I find in the Bible. The Bible tells of Old Testament prophets speaking to kings, and (perhaps more relevantly for our day) it tells us of the apostle Paul speaking to individuals in the political realm - such as Sergius Paulus, Festus and Felix (all of whom were Roman governors) and King Agrippa. I simply cannot imagine that the apostle Paul would have said to Sergius Paulus “You need to listen to what the priests at the temple of Aphrodite, and the rabbis of the synagogues, and the presbyters of the churches, and hear what they are saying.” Paul did not encourage rulers who were secularly minded people to listen to faith communities - he encouraged them to become Christians - presumably with the expectation that they would try to govern in accordance with the teaching of Jesus. It seems to me that the Pope’s approach is quite different.

And at this point, the Pope comes to one of his main points - the marginalization of religion:
In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.”
By the way, living, as I do, in a country where Christmas was not a public holiday until 1958, I can’t see why any Christian would be worried about whether or not we publicly celebrate Christmas. Scotland was at least as Christian in the first half of the 20th century as it is today.

And this brings us to two more of the Pope’s seven references to freedom.
“And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”
I’m not quite sure what the Pope meant when he spoke of Christians in public roles being required at times to act against their conscience. What does he mean by “acting against their conscience?” I suspect that he doesn’t mean doing something illegal or dishonest - but rather something that a Christian might believe is wrong, but that would be regarded by most people in Britain as quite acceptable. Employers have rights, too - and that should include the right to dismiss people who are not doing their job properly. A Christian who doesn’t like it should find alternative work. The problem arises when it is difficult to find alternative work - because one employer has a virtual monopoly in certain fields. And that situation most often arises when the employer is the state. If the roll of the state in modern Britain was rolled back, discrimination against Christians would cease to be a problem - and freedom would be extended.

(To be continued)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Thou shalt love the state thy God . . .

There has been rather a lot in the news recently about the coming cuts in government expenditure, in particular with regard to the possibility of civil unrest that might result.

And while the ASI blog and Jeff Randal and many others have pointed out that these cuts are actually not as deep as some people would have you believe, anyone involved in local government will tell you that difficult decisions will have to be made, the result of which will be some very unhappy people.

Public sector trade unions are particularly concerned, and are speaking of the need to defend jobs and services. My gut feeling is that they are more concerned about the former than the latter. What really worries people is losing their jobs. For the unions, the state sector exists to protect jobs.

This has been brought home to me by a couple of recent conversations that I have had. One was a with a politician. He told me that many rural communities simply cannot survive on the private sector, because the private sector will never create enough jobs. These communities need a substantial state sector in order to provide employment.

The other conversation was with the head teacher of a primary school. We chatted about the huge growth in the number of people employed in small rural schools in recent decades. She admitted that it was a waste of money, but said (with great feeling) “At least it provides jobs. Where would these people find employment if it were not for these jobs?” In other words, she felt that the jobs didn’t really need doing - but creating jobs, even if those jobs are somewhat pointless, is a reasonable use of tax-payers’ money. The state is there to provide us with a living.

But is that what the state exists for?

And then there is the case of a young man I know called Ben. Ben is a very nice chap. He could, potentially, get a job - though he doesn’t have one at the moment. In fact, because of a hereditary condition, he might have difficulty getting one - and his condition means that he will never be able to be completely independent. He could stay at home with his parents, but, in order to be less dependent on them, he stays in a house with some friends, who would also have difficulties looking after themselves. Ben’s rent is paid by the state, and he lives on state benefits. This is, obviously, a great relief to his parents, for whom his condition has been a great worry over the years.

When I think about Ben, and about my two recent conversations, it is not difficult to see why many people in Britain today greatly appreciate the state. Indeed, we don’t just appreciate the state, we love it - because we depend on it. We look to it to step in and solve our problems, in a way that nobody would have dreamed of doing 100 years ago. It has become our saviour.

But it has become more than that. Ben has relatives who are reasonably well off. They do not, however, give anything to him. They have been advised not to include Ben in their wills. And the reason, of course, is that Ben has everything he needs at the moment, and any additional wealth that comes his way will simply lead to a loss of state benefits. Ben will not benefit from any money that is given to him. The state is, in this case, encouraging people not to provide for their relatives. And that bothers me. Surely people should be encouraged to make financial provision for their relatives?

The state, in other words, is becoming our provider and our life - that which we simply cannot survive without. The state has become not simply a safety net, if everything else fails - it is our first port of call. This is not, of course, the state as people conceived of it 300 years ago, or 200 years ago, or even 100 or years ago - but the modern, welfare state.

To many, it sounds good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just mean wasting money, creating dependency, and discouraging responsibility. Because the state doesn’t just give. It also takes, for it has nothing of its own, and can only give what it takes from others. But the real problem is not the fact that it takes our money. The real problem is that the state finds it very difficult not to tell us what we can and cannot do - and when we are totally dependent on it, we will have little inclination to defend our freedoms.

The state was designed to be servant. But as it has increasingly become our all powerful provider, it looks like it has become our god. Is the state one of the great idols of modern Britain?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

50 funny people write to the Guardian

50 people, some of whom I have heard of, have written a letter to the Guardian to express the view that the Pope should not be given the honour of a state visit to Britain.

What an odd letter.

I could see the point if they said "Look, we know that technically speaking he is a head of state, but we all know that the Vatican isn't really a proper country, and that he is really the head of religious body - so surely a state visit isn't really appropriate."

Or, to put it another way, if they had just sent in their first two sentences and (most of) the last sentence, their letter would have been reasonable.
We, the undersigned, share the view that Pope Ratzinger should not be given the honour of a state visit to this country. We believe that the pope, as a citizen of Europe and the leader of a religion with many adherents in the UK, is of course free to enter and tour our country. We reject the masquerading of the Holy See as a state and the pope as a head of state as merely a convenient fiction to amplify the international influence of the Vatican.
But they seem to be saying "If he held progressive opinions, we wouldn't have a problem with the Pope being accorded the honour of a state visit*, but we really don't like the Roman Catholic Church and its beliefs - and it has made some major mistakes in the past - so we think that a state visit is inappropriate."

However, even the second sentence managed to amuse me. "We believe that the pope, as a citizen of Europe and the leader of a religion with many adherents in the UK, is of course free to enter and tour our country."

Yes, it's that phrase "a citizen of Europe". I'd heard of European citizenship, but I thought that meant "a citizen of a country that was part of the European Union." To refer to the Pope as "a citizen of Europe" implies, to me at least, that Europe is a nation state.

(*And they would probably feel that the £12 million cost of the visit to the tax-payer would be money well spent if the Pope was using his visit to advocate progressive opinions!)

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reflections on "9/11"

Since I arrived at Paddington Station just over half a century ago, there have been three events that, it seems to me, have, more than any other, changed and shaped the political world.

The world as it was then

The political world at that time - the world of the 1950s, 60s and 70s - was dominated by the Cold War - the ideological conflict in which the west found itself threatened by revolutionary socialism inspired by the thought of Karl Marx. Wars involving the UK, France, and the USA (and other western states) were fought in Korea (1950-53) and Vietnam (1955-75). And several other wars and revolutions were inspired in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And then there were Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Middle Eastern conflicts in those days were seen as part of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union backing Syria and Egypt, and the USA backing Israel. And most significantly, socialism was the ideology that inspired discontented Arabs. Nasser, Arafat, and the Baathists of Syria and Iraq all used the language of socialism. They were political secularists. And among the more extreme Palestinian factions, like the PFLP, it was Marx rather than Mohammed who inspired the leadership. George Habbash, the leader of the PFLP was not even Muslim. He was Greek Orthodox.

Event 1: The Iranian Revolution

Then along came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Militant Islam, which had been a fairly insignificant force in the 1960s and 70s, now became a major force among the discontented people of the Middle East. Socialism had not delivered the goods. Perhaps Islam could. And anyway, socialism was essentially western, and Marx was European, and the communism’s preference for atheism had never been particularly popular in the Middle East. As the Lebanese Civil War raged, Hezbollah emerged as a major force. And a few years later, an Islamic Palestinian group called Hamas came into being. And the west started to worry about militant Islam - even if it was still more worried about Marxist socialism.

Event 2: The collapse of the Soviet Union.

As a result of changes in domestic and foreign policy in the Soviet Union brought in under Gorbachev’s leadership, the Cold War came to a fairly sudden end. In 1989, the Soviet backed regimes in Eastern Europe effectively collapsed. In 1990 Germany was reunited. In 1991 the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union came to an end. Civil wars broke out in what had been Yugoslavia, but the world seemed to be a less threatening place. And among the discontented in the Middle East, secular socialism’s credibility as a revolutionary force dwindled further. All the time, the power and influence of militant Islam was growing.

Event 3: The September 11 attacks

Nine months into the new century, the world changed again. It wasn’t just that the Turks were at the gates of Vienna. They were now at the gates of every city in the western world. And Islam was every bit as terrifying as communism had been in the Cold War era.

And so it remains today. Furthermore, the Cold War era seems like ancient history. Brezhnev has been dead for nearly 30 years, and it is a quarter of a century ago that Gorbachev began his program which was to lead to the winding up of the Soviet empire. It is not just that Islam is the great threat to Western civilisation; it feels like it has always been that way.

And it seems to me that this has had two major effects in the way people in Britain think. The first, and most obvious, is that there is a real and widespread fear of Muslims, and of also fear of Islam per se. There were those in Britain who feared Muslims and Islam 10 years ago - but the levels of concern are far higher today. The rise of Islamic militancy has changed the way that we see Muslims. Islamic militancy, however, is a phenomenon that was virtually unknown 40 years ago, and that a large proportion of the world’s Muslims don’t have much enthusiasm for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Muslims do vary considerably. I would differentiate, by the way, between how we view Muslims, and how we view Islam per se. I don’t judge Islam (or any other faith) by its adherents, but by what I know of its founder and of its teachings.

It seems to me that the 9/11 attacks have had another effect on the way some people in Britain think. Many people are increasingly suspicious not just of Islam, but of all religion. After all, for decades now, I have been hearing people saying that all religions are basically the same. We’ve all heard it. (Remember Steve Turner’s satirical poem, Creed?) And if they are all basically the same, it follows that Christianity is as dangerous as Islam. Since 9/11, it has become common to hear people in Britain claiming that religion is the cause of most wars. Very few people would have made such a claim 15 years ago. 50 years ago it would have been almost unthinkable for someone in Britain to have made such an idiotic assertion.

There is one other thing that, as a Christian, I find interesting. Both the old threat to the west (revolutionary communism) and the new threat (revolutionary Islam), have one thing in common. Not just in theory, but also in practice, both have proved to be strongly hostile to Christianity.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Gloria mundi

According to Total Politics, this blog has been voted one of the top 50 Scottish blogs for 2010. In fact, it managed to place at number 30 - which is a bit of a surprise. I must confess that while it is very nice to be accorded such an honour, the really nice thing is that some people must have made the effort to vote for it. Thank you very much, whoever you are. I am very touched.

I suppose the funny thing is that Stewart Cowan actually got to the story and mentioned it 10 days before I did. (Thanks, Stewart! It's good to see that your blog made the list as well.) I've not been spending much time in the blogosphere recently, and I'm not the only one. Quite a few bloggers seem to be giving up, or going into abeyance - though I see that Tom Paine is back, and even Cranmer has risen from the dead. (I must confess considerable curiosity about the latter, who has made many enigmatic comments about his struggles.)

I also notice that quite a few of the blogs that I read have already appeared on the Total Politics "top blogs" lists, and I hope that several more will do so over the next few weeks as the lists are released.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Freedom of the Press. Yes, but . . . .

Today is the 9th anniversary of what Americans generally refer to as 9/11. The events of the day were shocking, and what shocked me most at the time was the ease with which the attackers were able to launch their devastating attack on the World Trade Center. Security procedures obviously needed to be tightened up. And they were - probably rather more than was necessary.

Alas, that was not all that happened. The war on terror was launched, which was to include the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. (For my thoughts, see here.) And the British and American governments passed legislation which seriously (and, in my opinion, unnecessarily) curtailed basic freedoms.

However, this year, 9/11 is particularly dismal. This is because, for the past few days, Terry Jones has been constantly in the headlines, because he planned to hold a Burn-a-Koran day. Mr. Jones, is the pastor of an independent congregation in Gainesville, Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center. The BBC says that it has about 50 members. (The DWOC website refers to him as Dr. Jones, and describes him as President of Dove Charismatic Ministries.)

Now it seems to me that the interesting thing about all this is not Mr. Jones’ plan to burn a few copies of Koran. The interesting thing is the amount of media attention that his plan received. And it struck me that if Mr. Jones could become instantly famous for announcing that he was going to hold a Burn-a-Koran day, so could I. Needless to say, I have no such plans, and nor to most other Christians in Britain - or the USA. But Mr. Jones does, because (not to put too fine a point on it) Mr. Jones is a nutter. (There are plenty of them around, no matter where in the world you go, and I'm not convinced that American Christians are, on the whole, any nuttier, on average, than other people.) But Mr. Jones has managed to become rather better known than most nutters, and to have worried a lot more people. Which is quite understandable, because it was felt that his action would probably lead to a rather extreme reaction from some other nutters. (Though if I’m being honest, I have to say that his planned response to the 9/11 incidents is actually fairly mild compared to that of some leading politicians . . . . )

Anyway, the point of the matter is that this nutter should simply have been ignored. He should have been allowed to get on with his book burning. The media should have realised that his plans were rather incendiary, and should have given them no publicity at all. That way I would not have heard of them, and nor would you, and nor would the Muslim world. Alas, the media failed to do what they should have done, and as a result, Mr. Jones is famous.

When Herostratus burned the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus in the year 356 B.C. in an effort to achieve fame, the authorities in the city of Ephesus, in order to discourage copy-cat incidents from fame-seekers, banned the mention of his name. You can see why.

It would have been utterly wrong for the authorities to ban the mention of Mr. Jones or his plans. Freedom of the press is important. But with freedom comes responsibility. And in my view, the behaviour of the press in this instance has been irresponsible. And the problem with that is that irresponsible behaviour brings freedom into disrepute.

Freedom-lovers, take note.