To Limit Another's Rights Is To Limit One's Own: Is it too much to expect senior members of our Government to be capable of explaining that we protect the rights of human-beings precisely because not even the most depraved act can cancel-out the fact that its perpetrator is also a human-being, a possessor of rights – one of us?
THE SHOCK/HORROR expressed at the Christchurch Shooter’s letter from prison is unworthy of a grown-up nation. A bold assertion, to which the cynical will undoubtedly reply: “True – but this is New Zealand we’re talking about!” Beleaguered liberals will chuckle ruefully – and move on. Because who now believes that the shock/horror “deplorables” are in any way redeemable? And, who really cares?
Such defeatism is unworthy of us. Historically, New Zealanders have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moral clarity. It was almost sixty years ago that the New Zealand Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty. Does anyone, today, seriously dispute that this legislative reform was carried out against the strong opposition of what was almost certainly a clear majority of the electorate? No. And yet, the politicians of 1961 did not surrender to the ignorance and cruelty of the “hang-‘em-high!” majority – they rose above it.
Our Parliament did the same in 1986 when deliberating the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. Those around at the time will recall the extraordinary rally of conservative Christians who gathered on Parliament’s forecourt to pile high the boxes containing the signatures of the 800,000 New Zealanders petitioning the House of Representatives to reject the Bill. This was, easily, the largest petition in New Zealand history. Did the majority of MPs favouring reform quail before this frightening demonstration of the Christian Right’s numbers? They did not. The Bill became law.
These battles were won because in both 1961 and 1986 liberal New Zealanders still had faith in the duty of reason to over-rule ignorance and cruelty. They refused to be swayed by mere numbers. That a majority of the population believed in the state-sanctioned killing of helpless individuals, or evinced a knee-jerk antipathy to homosexual acts, proved only how dangerous it was to determine what is and is not morally defensible by counting heads.
Even at the risk of someone crying “Godwin”, it is still worth asking if, in 1935, the infamous “Nuremburg Laws” discriminating against the Jews of Germany had been put to a referendum, and endorsed, would that have excused everything that followed? Of course not.
Democracy isn’t just about honouring the will of the majority, it is also – and perhaps more importantly – about protecting the rights of the minority. Precisely because they are human rights: inherent and unalienable; they are not susceptible to the vagaries of popular opinion. To suggest otherwise, which, shamefully, appears to be the position of the NZ First Party, is to invest the majority with the power to annihilate their enemies – and democracy along with them.
The Christchurch Shooter is a human-being charged with appalling crimes. Even so, and those alleged crimes notwithstanding, the outraged majority is not entitled to turn him into a thing without rights. As a prisoner of the state, he must be accorded all the rights and privileges guaranteed to him by law. Included among these is the right to communicate with the outside world: the right to write a letter.
Does this mean that he must be permitted to write to his racist followers, instructing them to make war upon innocent human-beings? Absolutely not. Anymore than we are obliged to permit a person to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The letters of the Christchurch Shooter, by inspiring White Supremacists all around the world, have the power to inflict suffering and death on an horrific scale. As such, the prison authorities have both the right and the duty to prevent such communications being sent.
By the same token, however, those Ministers of the Crown with an interest in the trial of the Christchurch Shooter have a duty to uphold the international covenants guaranteeing the rights of prisoners to which New Zealand is signatory. Moreover, they should all possess the wit and will to patiently explain to the ignorant and the cruel why it is their duty to protect even an evildoer’s rights.
Is it too much to expect senior members of our Government to be capable of this? Surely, every politician should understand that we protect the rights of human-beings precisely because not even the most depraved act can cancel-out the fact that its perpetrator is also a human-being, a possessor of rights – one of us.
Herein lies the paradox. That the criminal’s attempted negation of our common humanity only serves to heighten its inherent and transcendent value. That is why, by honouring the Christchurch Shooter’s right to write, we are simultaneously acknowledging and honouring the humanity of the people who fell before his bullets. More importantly, by negating his negation, we are proudly proclaiming his utter moral defeat.
If New Zealand’s liberal politicians have forgotten these arguments, then, surely, it is time they relearned them.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 August 2019.