Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Lyrical Terrorism" and the theory of Free Rights

Now here's a post you can all disagree with vehemently in the comments section!

The Guardian reported that Samina Malik was convicted of "possessing records likely to be used for terrorism." These records consist of two things, according to the article: 1) her own poems that discuss participating in jihad, beheading people and other disturbing subjects and 2) Osama bin Laden's declaration of war, pamphlets from extreme sects and various computer books that discuss the practicalities of war. She worked at Heathrow, but the article does not mention how she was arrested. For that, enter the Telegraph, which gives a more complete picture of the events leading to her conviction. Some of the additional details include writings where she indicated the growing desire to become a martyr and that she published her poems on the internet. It also mentions that her arrest came after an email she sent was found on another person's computer. In America, we have had similar cases where children write stories about killing their teacher and classmates and may or may not have information to accomplish this. In both cases, what disturbs me is two fold: 1) these violent desires among our youth and 2) the response of the authorities to equate reading and writing with terrorist activity.

It is this latter question that I want to analyze. To what extent does what we read and write fall under a different standard of conduct than what we do? The Constitution suggests that the press has freedom to publish, but does not address what happens when that freedom leads one to (to use the standard example) "falsely yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre". There the Supreme Court has suggested that the language was used with ill-intent and that it implicitly contained a threat, which should be punished because it directly incited an action that endangered others. But when you write a story or a poem, you move into a different realm it seems and the question becomes what are the dangers of poetry? Plato expelled poets because their ability to sway minds towards their beliefs was too dangerous to a well-kept citizenry. Poetry has long been a force for moral and religious instruction and celebration, as Holy Books and hymns attest. Yet, do we run the risk in persecuting ideas that are abhorrent when we suggest that authors should not be allowed to write what they do not act upon?

Current terrorist law is moving towards this direction of claiming that authors are responsible for the actions they inspire, but this theory only works when we apply it to terrorism, which is our greatest fear. If we abstract it, can we make the same argument? And should we indulge in Socratic consistency and ignore the potentially real distinctions between "lyrical terrorism" and other forms of writing? First, the example. Stephen King writes scary novels about clowns who kill people. I think. I actually am terrified of SK thus don't read him; but others do and I think this is what they say! So, someone reads his novel, already possesses some inclinations to serial killing, but has never acted on it. Now he dresses as a clown and kills 2 people in exactly the same way SK describes. The intent predates the knowledge, but would the person have acted on the inclinations without the inspiration of SK? Here I would argue that there is a clear distinction between fiction and reality because the author is not responsible for the appropriation of his work by others; he is not responsible for people who wish to turn fiction into reality because books fiction is a medium widely regarded as being a reflection of life, but not life itself. (Unless you're Sidney, who declared that poetry is truer than life. Of course, they didn't have serial killer novels in the Renaissance. Ballads on serial killers, yes, but that was descriptive not imaginative. And I'm not sure Sidney really thought much about ballads.) Is there a difference with terrorism, where a reasonable author can expect there are people who do want to know how to engage in jihad? Does that change the author's responsibility? And how do we judge the intent of the author if we only have their texts to evaluate that intent?

To consider that question, I want to consider the second charge Malik was accused of: possessing works that instruct in terrorism. Two things are at issue: 1) did she intend to use them actively or 2) did she use them as research with her poems? The first is a different issue than what I'm considering (the whole stop terrorists before they attack is a worthy goal, but again has its own complications) and the second leads us back to whether her poems can reasonably be considered as actively participating in terrorism. Beyond this dialectic, though, there is an innate suggestion that you act upon what you read, that having enough books by terrorists makes you a terrorist yourself. (By that account, I'm a poet and a child. Oh, I have a few murder mysteries too. Look out!) This enacts yet another danger to the idea of literature and writing as a realm distinct from the actions of the real world. Do we require that texts we find potentially encourage actual violence (not at issue in this case from what I have read) be censored?

I think with terrorism we blind ourselves to the implications of what we say. We declare that terrorism is "an exception" and that its horror is so great that it demands "new rules," which we foolishly think will not affect other areas of our lives. (Like school shootings.) So, my question is how should we view artistic expression that happens to have a political perspective we disagree with? What happens when that political expression is violent? What happens when that political expression is only violent if someone (else) chooses to make it so? How do we judge intent if it is only expressed through a literary medium?

1 comment:

Rus Bowden said...

Well said, Chelsea.

On Clattery MacHinery on Poetry, there is a call for poetic license, for freedom:

World Samina Malik Day December 6th