Right, doesn’t mean right, right?

(Previously published in the McTavish Opera blog 24 May 2013)
Being able to do something doesn’t mean you always should.”

I am writing this blog in the hope it will not only provoke thought but also that it may actually instill a healthy debate. It is one of the greatest conundrums of all time; are there limits on civil liberties?

We all have rights to some extent or another and those of us lucky enough to live in the western democracies tend to enjoy a great deal more than many other countries throughout the world. Yet even within these rights, just because something is legal and we can do something does not necessarily mean we should do it.

I recall a case several years ago of a man who was walking along the promenade of Portobello beach in Edinburgh. He would occasionally stop and rest his shoulder bag on the promenade wall. It was only one sharp-eyed individual who noticed a lens poking out from the bag and he and other men confronted the person concerned. He was held (and lucky not to be beaten to pulp) and police called. When they arrived they searched his bag and found a camcorder concealed inside. Examination of the images proved he had been surreptitiously filming children playing on the beach. He was led away, more for his own safety than anything else, and a search on his house subsequently found indecent images of children on his computer. There is an interesting twist to this tale however. Police and the courts were unable to bring any charges for his actions on Portobello Promenade for the simple fact that there is no law in Scotland against filming or photographing anyone in public. The same is true for the rest of the UK, for the USA and indeed for most countries throughout the world.

As a keen photographer I would not wish to see any laws against photographing or filming in public instituted. The above case however is one which fits perfectly to the conundrum. The man concerned was actually acting fully within the law. Indeed, had he openly held the camcorder, he still would have been within the law (and probably less likely to draw attention to himself). What he did however was completely reprehensible from the point of view from any decent member of society. He in fact crossed the line of decency and it could be argued that he abused his rights.

It is also interesting to note that neither in Scots or English Law will you find any laws restricting being nude in public. You may of course be charged with the wonderful catch all of Breach of the Peace, or in Scotland possibly under the archaic law of Outraging Public Morals. Yet it remains true that anywhere in the UK you could walk about stark naked and still be within the law (and possibly insane if you happen to do it between October and May).

This brings up the case of the so-called “naked rambler”, Stephen Gough. Stephen Gough is a former solider and a naturist who is well aware that there is no law against public nudity. He has twice walked stark naked, save for boots on his feet, the length of the British mainland, from Lands End to John O’Groats. Gough maintains that his rambling is a campaign to highlight and promote naturism, which sounds very laudable. Following these two rambles, which saw Gough arrested several times but released quickly afterwards on each occasion, he spent a great deal of the years 2006-2012 in prisons, mostly in Scotland, for being naked in public. It was upon his release in July 2012 that is actions ceased to humorous. Within days of his release he was stopped by police in Dunfermline, Fife, when he was walking naked in the direction of a childrens playground. He attempted to push past them, determined to continue on his route and was arrested for Breach of the Peace. He was sentenced to five months imprisonment in September 2012 but having spent most of the time in custody, was released the following month and walked naked from Saughton Prison, Edinburgh, to Eadle in England. In May 2013 Stephen Gough was fined £1800 for walking naked past a school in Eastleigh, Hampshire.

I am a believer in naturism myself. I used to belong to a naturist website but left when it became the haunt of perverts who do not understand that naturism has nothing to do with sex. I therefore cannot help but wonder if Stephen Gough is of the same ilk. Certainly his wish to walk naked past children prove that his motives are far from altruistic and that he should actually be treated with suspicion. Stephen Gough and his supporters counter argue that if naturism were accepted normal behviour then children would have no problem with nudity, and again, that he acted fully within the confines of the law. This may be true but the fact remains however that naturism currently is not considered to be accepted normal behaviour, and until it is naturists should act with a sense of propriety. Public nudity may be completely legal but I would be first to argue that there is a time and a place for everything, and anyone who does not recognise that, far from supporting civil rights is in fact, again, abusing them.

In the United States of America everyone has the right to bear arms, as enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The Second Amendment causes a lot of controversy, however it is widely accepted by the vast majority of US Citizens that they have a right to bear arms, which many indeed do.

It is not my place as a UK Citizen to question the Second Amendment or the rights of people in another country to bear arms. I did however find one recent development disturbing. In February 2013 the state of Arkansas passed legislation allowing people to carry concealed arms in places of worship. The understanding is that the faithful will tell the member of clergy they have a concealed firearm and ask if it is alright to take it in. I for one do not believe that many will even bother to ask. If the firearm is concealed, why bother to advertise the fact you have it? Why ask if there is any possibility your pastor, rabbi, iman, etc, is likely to say no?

Many may wonder why I, a Scot and an atheist, should even bother about carrying guns in churches. The reason is because it is simply not the done thing. In the odd occasion I have entered a church (it does happen – and no, fire and brimstone does not rain down and the seventh gate of Hell does not spring open), I show respect to the faith it represents and will even uncover my head. Just as I have covered my head whenever I have entered a mosque or a synagogue. I cannot even comprehend of why anyone would wish to carry a firearm in a church, or any other place of worship. What does that say of their respect for their faith, or for their amount of trust in their religious leader and the rest of their congregation, who are supposedly meant to be as family to them?

I got into a discussion about this on a social networking site. I had a some Americans horrified at the idea but others fully in favour of it. One more arrogant person tried to argue that Christians and other believers are at threat in the USA and they need to protect themselves. I countered by stating the fact that I could not find even one incidence of any atheist carrying out the shooting of any theist either in the USA or anywhere else in the world. Yet when there have been fanatical shootings, in the vast majority of cases the perpetrator has either themselves been a Christian or have come from a strict Christian background. Arguments came back that responsible gun owners have respect their weapons and those around them. I replied that I agreed – but strangely enough every gun owner claims to be “responsible” (including one NRA chapter leader who recently shot himself in the foot through accidental discharge – and had ten of his guns stolen) and you cannot always be sure just who and who is not a responsible owner. Therefore, it would only take one armed “crazy” to cause a tragedy in a church. My arrogant opponent responded that if others in the congregation were armed, they could stop him/her, to which I countered that if that were the case, it would only take one gunshot, perhaps even by accidental discharge, to create a full scale shootout and bloodbath in a church, where innocent bystanders, possibly including children, would be the most pitiful of the victims.

Were the bearing of concealed arms in church not insane enough, in March 2013 the state of Georgia took it one step further and attempted to introduce a bill allowing the bearing of arms in public bars and other establishments where alcohol is served. According to Washington State University around half of all homicides are preceded with a heated argument and that 40% of male offenders and 33% of female offenders are under the influence of alcohol at the time. Allowing firearms where alcohol can only to my mind exacerbate that problem. Not only does it make the propensity for bar room fights to become lethal more likely, it makes them downright probable. For if someone is going to a bar and thinks people there may be armed, then they are far more likely to carry a firearm themselves for self defence. It is not unlike the problem we have in Scotland with youths who get into the wrong company and then take to carrying a knife “for protection”. But the tragic fact is that anyone who carries a weapon, be it a knife, a gun, or whatever, then they are far more likely to use that weapon. It is due to this fact – and it is a fact – that Scotland now has a zero tolerance policies of people carrying knives or other weapons. So it is, that if you mix guns and alcohol, that is a deadly cocktail which can only end in carnage. I could not agree more with Hannah Ridge who reported this story in The Big Slice (19 March 2013):

“People in Georgia may want to carry guns in churches and in bars. However, if those guns are going to make people less safe, then the state government should not be enabling them. Laws forbid bartenders from serving intoxicated patrons, even when they want more to drink. Laws prevent even licensed drivers from driving whatever speed they think best on the freeway. Laws forbid citizens from driving under the influence, even when they ‘feel fine.’ Laws forbid using controlled substances, even when citizens wish they did not. When laws are established for public safety, they are not just subject to the whims of the people. Public safety has to be taken into account.”

I can already hear some Americans screaming “He wants to take our guns from us.” I do not, not for one moment. It is not my place to even question US law or your Second Amendment rights. All I am saying is have a sense of propriety about them. It may interest some however, particularly some Americans with a rosy-tinted views of the Old West and the frontier days, that at one time firearms were restricted. Shootouts in towns in the old west did indeed happen, but nowhere as nearly as much as many imagine and the image of them is largely a mythology created by Hollywood. Quite the contrary, in many towns in the old west people visiting were often required to hand over their firearms to the sheriff upon arrival and would not have them returned to them until they left. These measures were enacted precisely to prevent shootouts and to ensure public safety.

We therefore see there is already a well-set precedent for controlling the carrying of firearms. Therefore if the legislators of Arkansas, and more so Georgia, the NRA and others in favour of legislation to allow guns in churches and bars think they are harking back to the old west, they are deeply wrong and John Wayne, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart aren’t coming to save the day. Thankfully the bill in Georgia was subsequently dropped and there is no need for those who proposed it to eventually find a good use for their guns – for each to take one into an empty room and take the last honourable step left open to them.

During my exchange on the matter of guns in churches, the arrogant person I mentioned dug his heels in and stated he would take his gun to church, because he can, and it is right to do so. And I took to likening him to some other Americans who do what they want; precisely because they rightfully state that what they do is always within the law and that they are exercising their rights as enshrined in the US Constitution. I am referring of course to the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), for those who have been living in a cave for the last 20 years, are an odious organisation founded by Pastor Fred Phelps and his family. Claiming that the end times are coming, the WBC maintain that mankind is breaking God’s laws and therefore God hates just about everyone and everything. Their favourite target however is homosexual men. Due to their twisted logic, because the USA allows gays in the military, God hates the USA. And because of this, the WBC picket funerals, particularly the funerals of fallen service personnel, with placards stating “God hates Fags”, “God hates the USA”, “Thank God for 9/11” and various other odious messages while all the time singing and chanting, completely ignoring any pleas or calls to respect either the dead or those in mourning. Many may think why the authorities do not do something about the WBC. Well the simple reply is they cannot. What the WBC do is not only fully within the law, it is their right in law and under the US Constitution to carry out their despicable actions. What particularly galls me about this is that they hide behind the very constitution which they claim to hate so very much. It is cowardice in the highest degree.

Yet it does not need actions like those of the WBC to cause violence and heartache. There are a great many religious preachers, both in the UK and the USA, who spout bile against homosexuality and who state that gays deserve to die. And while they may not be directly involved, many of these people have led to gay men and lesbian women being attacked and even killed. In the same way, nothing can be done to stop a small minority of political Islamists to preach hate against either the UK or US states, but by radicalising others, they inevitably cause violent action to take place. To my mind, such people remind me of the 16th century preacher John Knox, who would spout venom from the pulpit of St Giles Kirk in Edinburgh against Roman Catholics in general and Mary, Queen of Scots in particular. Knox’s sermons inevitably led to public violence, yet when that broke out he was nowhere to be seen. John Knox was a rabble-rouser and a trouble making coward, content to let others do his fighting for him. And I see no difference between him, the WBC, clergy who spout hate towards gays, or radical Islamists preachers who spout hate towards the UK and the US states.

I could give a great many other instances but I would argue therefore that there are indeed limits to civil liberties and just because the law says you can do something, does not mean it is always right to do it. So what is to be done?

There are no easy answers. As one who looks around and sees civil liberties already being slowly eroded, I for one would certainly not like to see any further legislation instituted. I would argue that with human rights come human responsibilities and as hard as it may seem, we need to become self-policing over this matter. Not just should we watch what we say and do and question whether or not that is appropriate behaviour at any given time, we must be prepared to speak out against and challenge others who have no such sense of propriety, to ask them to stop and to think first before proceeding. For in the end not only do they abuse their own rights, but the rights of all of us, and thereby make further erosion of our civil liberties all the more possible, as well as their own.

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