The Rights of Man: George Austin on a dangerous industry

A Times contributor asked which year was the best in which to have been born. Well, I thought, obviously 1931 when I first appeared on the scene. In my childhood and early teens we did have the Second World War, the bombings, rationing and the rest, but there was no drug culture, the streets were safe to walk, and everyone had just about enough to eat and wear.

Though on second thoughts not every one: those caught in the after-effects of the widespread unemployment of the 20s and of the Great Depression were desperately poor. And you had the choice of paying for medical treatment or not having any at all – rather like dental treatment in York in 2004.

Then, as I reflected, certainly not 1931 if you were a Jew in Nazi Germany, or if you were to be one of the millions starved and slaughtered in Stalin’s pogroms, or if you were on the wrong side of discrimination in southern Africa or the southern States of America.

Of course there is still war, discrimination, starvation. But it has to be said that in the seventy-odd years that have passed since then, much has improved in many parts of the world during that time, due not least to the growing awareness of human rights at any rate by First World nations.

Maybe this is one of the positive fruits of the permissive Sixties, that decade whose physical monument is displayed in the worst architecture within living memory, if not in all our history. That is nothing by comparison with its legacy in our social affairs, for it was that which spawned most of the present ills we face today, not least within the church.

There is even a downside to the principle of human rights, at least as it has developed in many areas of understanding. The Prime Minister has rightly pointed out that too often rights have been demanded without the complementary recognition that with human rights go human responsibilities, and that this must be corrected.

But can it always be so? How can a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion be balanced against the baby’s right to be born? In reality the baby has no such right in law and becomes a depersonalized ‘foetus’. Or in the recent controversy over the right of a doctor to abort an under-age girl’s baby without reference to the parents?

How is a criminal’s right to justice, compassion and the possibility of reform to be weighed against the victim’s right to see that justice has been done, especially when all too often the lightness of sentence brings no justice for that victim and leaves a contempt for the legal system? Or is the criminal considered the real victim?

A recent article in the Sunday Times showed how the human rights culture has the potential to become totally destructive. A journalist, Annie Jacobson, was travelling with her husband and young son from Detroit to Los Angeles. Boarding with them were six men of Middle Eastern origin, two with what looked like musical instruments in 18-inch long carrying cases, another with a McDonalds bag and one man wearing an orthopaedic shoe.

After they settled in their seats, a larger group of Middle Eastern men boarded, one going into first-class in a seat nearest to the cockpit door, the rest scattered around economy. As soon as the plane had taken off and the seat-belt sign switched off, the bizarre behaviour began. The men began to take objects to the forward and rear toilets, following each other successively.

Other passengers began to look seriously uneasy. Annie Jacobson’s husband went to talk to a flight attendant about it, who told him that both she and the captain were aware of it and that there were ‘people on board’ who were watching the men.

Then as the flight approached Los Angeles and the flight attendants strapped themselves into their seats for the landing, seven of the men stood up in unison and went to the front and rear toilets, standing to wait as their colleagues went in and out. No-one asked them to return to their seats.

Other passengers were not surprisingly seriously anxious, one or two outwardly distraught. Then as the last man returned to his seat he passed the man who was obviously the leader, ran his forefinger across his throat and mouthed ‘No’ to him.

As the Jacobsons walked up the jet-way, federal marshals and other officials rushed on to the plane to take the men away for questioning and a little later LAPD agents ran past the departing passengers and on to the plane.

And then it became more bizarre. As a journalist, Jacobson began to look for news reports of the incident but there was nothing, nor any mentions of arrests at the airport. She delved deeper and came across a report of some months previously, headlined ‘Terrorists bid to build bombs in mid-flight: intelligence reveals dry runs of new threat to blow up airliners.’

So if the FBI had warned airlines of this danger, why were the men not searched at the security barrier at Detroit? The answer is simple but chilling: politically correct anti-discrimination laws forbad it, and if airlines have more than two young Arab males in for secondary questioning they are fined.

Yes, fined. Moreover, she alleged that just ten days after 9/11 the Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, ‘fired off a letter to all US airlines forbidding them from implementing the one security action that could have prevented that act of terrorism: subjecting Middle Eastern passengers to an added degree of pre-flight security.’ Since then three airlines have been fined for safeguarding the public in this, to a total of nearly $3 million.

So because of a perverted understanding of human rights and anti-discrimination, those passengers were subjected to a life-scarring ordeal. Surely they had the human right to travel in the secure knowledge that everything had been done to ensure their safety?

This is of course an extreme example of a corruption of the principle of human rights, and sadly there are signs that it is spreading in our society. Already there are clouds on the horizon hinting that those who hold to particular expressions of religious belief or to aspects of teaching falling foul of the liberal agenda may have their right to freedom of religion limited.

Human rights are a privilege and must be protected. But we need to be vigilant and to be sure that human rights for all are not eroded for some because of the political dogmas of those whose duty is to safeguard them.