Friday, April 21, 2000

Ever hear of Operation Napkin? When John O’Sullivan mentioned it in a Canadian newspaper column recently, it sounded at first like a case for Inspector Clousseau. In fact, Big Brother is behind it for real. Police in Gloucester, England, are cracking down on “racist” remarks uttered by their fellow Britons by “going undercover,” posing as restaurant goers in order to eavesdrop on patrons out for a bite of Chinese or Indian cuisine. The presumption is that a monstrous evil lurks in the heart of the Englishman with a taste for duck sauce, and it is up to the state, backed by the long, strong arm of the police, to seek it out for punishment. One man has already been hauled in for “racially aggravated harassment,” while another narrowly escaped arrest for mimicking an Indian waiter. According to the Times of London, “Now Gloucester police are warning that they will be carrying out more covert operations in ethnic restaurants.”

Chilling effect anyone? Despite the preposterous name (did they really have to call it Operation Napkin?) and the irrepressibly spoofable nature of such “covert operations,” this police action is anything but funny in its grim reality. After all, the last police force to listen in on conversations in Europe was known as the Gestapo. Indeed, there is the faint but unmistakable sound of boot-heel clicking to be heard punctuating the words of Gloucester’s Chief Inspector Dean Walker: “Racist behavior is unacceptable. The constabulary is now taking a proactive stance in relation to racist offenses rather than waiting for people to report them to us.”

It seems that the “thought police,” once just a metaphor for the politically and coercively correct, are carrying actual guns these days, or at least billy clubs. Not only that, but they could turn up anywhere. No longer confined to campuses and environs, the thought police just might pop up on the other side of the pu-pu platter. Diner beware.

Of course, even only somewhat-enlightened citizens of the 21st century are unaccepting of what likely rates as “racist behavior” in Gloucester name-calling, taunting and other such rudenesses. (One hopes that ethnic humor hasn’t made it to the police blotter as well.) But is boorishness a criminal offense? At what point, if any, does such nonviolent behavior pose a threat that requires pre-emptive police action? If imitating an Indian accent almost got some bloke thrown into jail, it would seem that we, as Westerners, are on (or past) the brink of the most repressive thought and speech controls seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, some thoughts and speech are more repressed and more repressively punished by the state than others.

Consider a not altogether unrelated case closer to home, one that involves a dramatic example of what surely exceeds Operation Napkin’s definition of restaurant-style racism and the punitive powers of the state. The Washington Times recently reported that a 22-year-old man named Brian Swetnam, having pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime conspiracy charges for his role in a 1997 cross burning at a Maryland high school, was sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole. This is how the paper summed up the case:

“Federal prosecutors said Swetnam and three other men were angry about an assault on a white student at the school. They discussed ways to threaten black students, including hiring a killer. In the end, they opted for a cross-burning…” As noted by Peter Brimelow, writing on, an on-line magazine, a sentence of 10 years without parole for a crime committed by a teenager in which no one was hurt surely qualifies as something close to draconian, far exceeding sentences often meted out for violent crimes.

One wonders what sentence Swetnam might have drawn had he chosen instead to burn an American flag. Or, for that matter, had he affixed a lump of dried elephant dung to the breast of a Virgin Mary. In the Western world today only certain symbols are sacred, only certain groups are protected, and only certain language is proscribed. And woe to those who cross the line or, in Monty Python land, go to the wrong restaurant. It’s neither necessary nor desirable to defend the animosities and ill will that exist among men in order to question the state’s increasingly intrusive and dictatorial role in combating them a role that is, alas, also increasingly applauded. Do people live in freedom under such a state? Or have they bargained some measure of freedom away for something else?

In a penetrating new book, “After Liberalism,” Paul Edward Gottfried argues that Westerners “have given away what they value less, the responsibility for self-government for themselves and their polity, in return for what they value more, sexual and expressive freedoms of a certain kind and the apparent guarantee of entitlements.” As one looks around the Western world, it’s hard to argue.

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