How much can we blame al-Awlaqi?

So, Roshonara Choudhary, the stupid woman who tried to murder the MP, Stephen Timms, has received a 15-to-life sentence. Today, the Guardian (and probably other papers) printed transcripts of her interviews with the police after the stabbing, in which she came across as calm and seemed to accept the consequences of what she had done.

The finger is, once again, being pointed at “Shaikh” Anwar al-Awlaqi, the American preacher currently living in Yemen, whose videos were found on Choudhary’s home computer. They didn’t say what the “hate videos” consisted of, but it’s widely known that he has begun to openly advocate violence since his imprisonment in Yemen a few years ago. Before that, he was best known for his Sirah tapes, which many young Muslims listened to keenly. His recent turn means that anyone who ever shared a platform with him or sells his old CD’s is presumed in some places to be a fellow traveller with him now.

However, we can’t blame him for anything anyone who has watched his videos, even the recent ones, has done. This woman acted on her own judgement and was not told to do anything by him. Her actions should be blamed on her alone, and can’t be used to point the finger at anyone else in any way associated with him.

There’s a letter in today’s Guardian advocating that Google should use its multilingual technology to censor content based on the use of certain words, and subject material with certain triggers to human moderation. This would require them to hire a huge number of staff, when in reality, anyone can “flag” a video containing inappropriate or illegal material, but in any case, American law distinguishes between advocating and inciting, which is to direct someone to commit a crime, and only the latter is illegal. We should not expect the state, or some company, to protect us from ideas, as we are adults, after all (and as for those who aren’t, there are people called “parents” whose duty that is).

Furthermore, it’s noticeable that sentences are getting harsher, with Choudhary receiving a sentence for attempted murder that exceeds what many people convicted of actual murder receive, or what people receive for deliberate cruelty, including against disabled people. The judge informed her that, had she succeeded in killing Timms, she would have received a whole-life sentence, so one should ask whether the murder of a politician for supporting an illegal war is really a more heinous offence than some of the senseless murders in London which commonly receive life sentences with set tariffs. Anyone familiar with the Northern Ireland peace process will be aware that some terrorists known to have participated in bombings and massacres — of ordinary people, not soldiers or politicians — ended up serving less time than Choudhary will. It begs the question of why an MP’s life is somehow worth more than that of a disabled child, or an equally innocent ordinary person in south London or Northern Ireland.

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