Netherland: And Now ... Utrecht

Truth and justice are unhappily mutually exclusive. While in legal terms, legislative parameters will define acts and qualitize their reprehensibility, in truth, speech and conduct that ingratiate themselves to a society have to be addressed politically.
by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Paradise Island

Almost immediately after the heartrending loss of innocent lives in Christchurch came a shooting in Utrecht - a city in far away Netherlands. A man randomly opened fire at a tram, severely wounding many around. At the time of writing 3 people had died of their injuries. The police were of the view that this could have been an act of terrorism. Unlike in the Christchurch killings where the intent of the murderer was known immediately after the killings, the police were unable to say at the outset of the investigation whether the Utrecht killings were motivated by racial bias. This notwithstanding, this too was incontrovertibly and unquestionably an act of hatred.

Endemic to hatred is the preeminent role played by hate speech. Hate speech may involve any word or utterance intended to injure, denigrate, degrade, humiliate or ridicule people on the basis of a distinguishing feature that is represented as inferior or unacceptable. The most insidious version of hate speech lies in hateful discourse which, if indulged in for sustained periods, will ensure its social acceptability. The inevitable corollary to this process is hate propaganda which often ingrains itself in a social system where the social degradation of the subject occupies the forefront of political discourse. Hate propaganda, spawned by hate speech, dehumanizes and depersonalizes the subject, degrading him to an imaginary persona and relegating him to the lowest depths usually assigned to a political enemy. The immediate reaction of a society to this phenomenon is the recognition of hate crimes which emerge from hate speech and propaganda as any other crime, thus obfuscating the hatred that inspired such crimes and trivializing their qualitatively different nature. The ultimate result is of course the social acceptability of hate crimes and their desirability. This odious conclusion to a parasitic process is almost ephemeral and could pervade the intellectual consciousness of a society to its ultimate destruction.

The juridical apprehension ingrained in a democratic system, admitting of "freedom of speech" has to be given cautious consideration so that safeguards are entrenched in a legislative structure in a social setting that would prevent the use of hate speech and hate propaganda. The law must essentially distinguish between the classic dichotomy between speech and conduct, in order to arrogate a definitive place to speech that would tantamount to conduct based on the injury that the speech causes. Principles of causation must be identified in order to ensure that boundaries between speech and conduct are not obfuscated and purveyors of hate speech are not exonerated of their overall responsibilities to society. Social consciousness must transcend parochial considerations of legal dogma and embrace the compelling need to recognize and envision "clear and imminent danger" that hate speech may cause. A certain curative logic based on imputation must be ingrained in the legislative minds of a ideology dominated era. In a sense, this approach can analogically be likened to the preventive reasoning of risk management that is capable of conceptualising possible harm to national harmony.

Truth and justice are unhappily mutually exclusive. While in legal terms, legislative parameters will define acts and qualitize their reprehensibility, in truth, speech and conduct that ingratiate themselves to a society have to be addressed politically. This is the dilemma that legislators will face in dealing with racial hatred. Hate speech and hate propaganda primarily erode ethical boundaries and convey an unequivocal message of contempt and degradation. The operative question then becomes ethical, as to whether societal mores would abnegate their vigil and tolerate some members of society inciting their fellow citizens to degrade, demean and cause indignity to other members of the very same society, with the ultimate aim of harming them? Conversely, is there any obligation on a society to actively protect all its members from indignity and physical harm caused by hatred? The answer to both these questions lies in the fundamental issue of restrictions on racist speech, and the indignity that one would suffer in living in a society that might tolerate racist speech. Obviously, a society committed to protecting principles of social and political equality cannot look by and passively endorse such atrocities, and much would depend on the efficacy of a State's coercive mechanisms. These mechanisms must not only be punitive, but should also be sufficiently compelling to ensure that members of a society not only respect a particular law but also internalize the effects of their proscribed acts.

If I were to say a few words in memory of those who died as victims of the heinous crimes in Christchurch and all other preceding inhuman massacres, especially with regard to the children whose lives were snatched away, I would quote a simplified version of a great document written after a great tragedy in human history:

"One day, a large number of people gathered. They came from different places and they were quite different from one another. Some were men, and some were women. Their skin, their hair and their eyes were different colours. Their bodies and faces were different shapes. Many people had been hurt or killed because of their religion, their race or their political opinions. What brought those people together was the wish that there should be no more war, that nobody should ever be hurt again and that people who had not done other people any harm should never be punished again. So, all together, they wrote a document. In this document they tried to make a list of rights that every human being has, and that everyone else should respect."

This document is called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this is what it says: “All people are born free; all people are born equal and so have equal rights. People can think for themselves and understand what's going on around them. Everyone should act as brothers and sisters. It does not matter what race you are; it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman; it does not matter what language you speak, what your religion is, what your political opinions are, what country you come from or who your family is. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor. It does not matter what part of the world you come from; whether your country is a kingdom or republic - these rights and freedoms are meant to be enjoyed by everyone."

"Everyone has the right to live, the right to be free and the right to personal safety. No one can be someone else's slave. No one is to be hurt or to be punished in cruel or humiliating ways. The law must be the same for everyone. The law must protect everyone. People have the right to be protected by the courts, so that their rights are respected. People cannot be arrested or sent away from their country, unless it is for a very serious reason. Everyone has the right to a fair trial. No one has the right to interfere in other peoples lives, in their families, in their homes or in their correspondence. People have the right of free movement within their country. People have the right to leave any country, even their own, and then return. No person or people shall have their nationality taken away from them This means everyone has the right to belong to a nation. And they also have the right to change their nationality, if they want to”.

“Everyone has the right to think the way they like. People have the right to hold opinions and tell other people what their opinions are, and they have the right to practice their religion in private or in public. All people have the right to meet together and to form associations. But no one can be forced to join an association if he or she does not want to."

"All children have the same rights, whether their parents are married or not. Everyone has the right to go to school and school must be free. Everyone should have the right to be taught a trade. Education should emphasise understanding, comprehension, tolerance and friendship."

"People have duties towards the place where they live and towards other people who live with them. Nothing that is written in this document may be used to justify taking away the rights and freedoms set out in this Declaration.

"Many years ago, this Declaration was approved. However, not all countries respect this document, and this is why everyone ought to read this document, and why it should be taught in schools all over the world."

It is important to remember that the spontaneity brought to bear in the powerful feelings expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a direct result of the collective suffering of people through hatred among mankind. Surely there is more to it than that. We must educate , our children on the viciousness of hatred and the need to recognize respect. Respect for others; respect for oneself; and responsibility for our actions. At least their generation will know how to behave in a community.


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