LONDON -- Hyde Park Corner is one of the most famous and hallowed spots in this great city. There, each Sunday morning, orators, preachers, revolutionaries and crazies would mount soapboxes and say whatever they pleased.
Nothing was taboo. This was Britain's temple of free speech.
Last week, PM Tony Blair rammed a new law through Parliament making "glorification of terrorism" a criminal offence.
Meanwhile, Blair's big brother, U.S. President George W. Bush, is in deep, deep doodoo over the Iraq debacle, mounting casualties in Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and the storm of national ridicule caused by trigger-happy VP Dick Cheney. Republicans are gasping for air.
The image of Cheney, the warlord who avoided the Vietnam draft, blasting defenceless little birds and an unlucky friend on a hunting trip last weekend probably did more damage to the Bush administration than all its lies about Iraq.
The only area in which Bush still commands favourable public support is his so-called war on terrorism. Incidentally, the Pentagon just proclaimed a "long war against terrorism," meaning an Orwellian endless struggle against a ghostly enemy that hopefully will keep flag-waving Bible-Belters voting Republican, and defence plants running three shifts.
Over in Britain, Blair's power is eroding. He has been exposed as a serial liar over Iraq. In sharp contrast to the lapdog U.S. media, Britain's feisty press keeps slamming Blair.
How to reverse Labour's waning fortunes? Monkey see, monkey do. Follow your leader, George W. Whip up the voters over "terrorism" even though there is no such thing. (As Prince Hassan of Jordan observed with impeccable logic, "terrorism is a tactic, not a definable enemy.")
Britons are demanding more security after the July 7 bombings of London's Underground that killed 52 last year. Tighter security is certainly in order. Any militant groups -- Muslim radicals, Tamil Tigers, Sikh separatists, etc. -- who resort to violence in the U.K. should be jailed for long term, then expelled. No cause, however noble, justifies attacking civilians.
But a vague law mandating prison for "glorifying terrorism" reeks of totalitarianism and undermines Britain's reputation as a font of democracy and justice.
To preserve the status quo, the Great Powers decided to brand all armed struggles against oppression and injustice as "terrorism": Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation; tiny bands of Chechen mujahidin fighting Russian genocide in the Caucasus; guerillas battling communist regimes in Uzbekistan; Filipino Muslims resisting Christian invaders seizing their farms; Kashmiris fighting for independence from India, and so on. All are now "terrorists."
Now, mounting a Hyde Park soapbox to praise the Chechens' valiant struggle or urging Palestinians or Iraqis or Afghans to keep resisting foreign occupation will be a crime. Terrorism has erased the term "justice" from our minds.
The litmus test of free speech is letting people you detest say what they choose, and defending their right to say things that may be painfully hateful or deeply stupid.
Tony Blair just trampled this basic British right. Britain now joins sleazy, third-world despotisms where The Glorious Leader alone determines what one may and may not say.
Stopping the ravings of a handful of loud-mouthed fanatics like the recently jailed British imam, Abu Hamza, is not worth endangering Britain's sacrosanct freedoms.
History shows such gag laws are soon followed by offences like "insulting the leadership." Then, by crimes like "encouraging anti-state activities," and, that gulag gate-opener, being "an enemy of the people."
© 2006 The Toronto Sun