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What would Palmerston have made of the bullying of Salman Rushdie?

When a British citizen is threatened by a foreign lynch mob, surely the Government has a role to play?

By on Tuesday, 18 September 2012

What's the point of being a British citizen if the Government won't protect you? via AP Images

What's the point of being a British citizen if the Government won't protect you? via AP Images

Who remembers Don Pacifico these days? He has a rather modest entry in Wikipedia, but he is perhaps the most emblematic figure of British Foreign policy in the nineteenth century.

David Pacifico was a Gibraltarian Jew living in Athens. When a Greek mob attacked his home and destroyed his property, Lord Palmerston took decisive action, even though Pacifico’s connection to Britain was in fact tenuous. But the fleet was sent to blockade the port of Athens, and the Greek government was forced to pay compensation. Palmerston justified this strong reaction in a five hour speech in parliament which contained these ringing words:

“As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.”

All that happened in 1850. How times have changed. Britain now hardly has a fleet, but even so, when a British citizen is threatened by a foreign lynch-mob, surely the British government still has a role it can play. Britain has allies, and one would hope that they would support decisive and firm action when a single British subject is subject to unwarranted foreign agression. And the fact remains that it is the duty of government to protect its citizens.

Twenty-five years have passed and perhaps at this distance of time we can look at our contemporary Don Pacifico, the writer Sir Salman Rushdie. Twenty-five years ago the response by the British government was perhaps not as forthright as it might have been. Perhaps the government of Mrs Thatcher was caught on the back foot as this was a new situation. If that was the case, we have certainly reaped the fruits of it, as the Rushdie affair has been endlessly replayed in the intervening two decades and a half. The latest riots and attacks on embassies in retaliation for the amateur film made in California is but the newest manifestation of this. And it seems that we are helpless in the face of such attacks – unless closing down every embassy in Africa and Asia is a possibility, which it isn’t.

It is important to state, even now, that Sir Salman Rushdie did nothing wrong in writing and publishing the Satanic Verses. It may have been offensive, but we are all free to offend and be offended, and our culture must defend that basic freedom. As a Catholic I am often offended by what people say and write but I refrain from violence. And will continue to do so. I wish others would too.

  • paulpriest

     Reminded of the episode of the West Wing  watch from 7mins

    Pacifico wasn’t merely an ordinary citizen – he was the retired British-Consul to Greece so it does make things slightly different…especially when the fire destroying Pacifico’s property was caused by a riot induced by police overreaction in implementing government orders to suppress any public anti-jewish displays which might offend a visiting Rothschild

    Salman Rushdie is a British Citizen who’s been afforded the utmost protection by the State [ and I do know the behind the scenes security issues - having attended events with him and having been at university with SR's godson]

    So let’s unpack what you’re arguing for Father…

    a refrain[ing] from violence


    decisive firm action when a British subject is subject to unwarranted foreign aggression…

    like what?
    is there a proportional response? Doesn’t seem likely..

    a futile severance of diplomatic relations?

    an action which might lead to an overreaction by outraged unscrupulous protesters?

    How many have died in the past week because of this Muhammad video?
    Ditto the Pope’s comments at Regensburg?

    Diplomacy isn’t about right or wrong, and it most certainly isn’t about justice…

    If we want to take the moral high-ground and face the maniacally irrational Leviathan?
    we’d better be prepared [and willing] to accept the consequences…
    and acknowledge that other people – innocent and utterly unrelated to our actions – will pay the price for it…

    It can be very easy to make a choice if you’re the provisional martyr – but when others [especially innocent and unknown ones] will be the inadvertent martyrs?
    It becomes a little tougher…

  • JabbaPapa

    The Satanic Verses is one of the very few books that I have tried and failed to read, for cause of irremediable badness.

    Of course I utterly condemn these atrocious menaces against Mr. Rushdie.

    But the work strikes me as being a calculated and deliberate attempt to incite religious animosity, so that the well of my sympathy towards this person is a shallow one.

  • Herman U. Ticke

    I read SV as I thought it was my duty to do back in the 1990s.
    A tough read. Rushdie’s work is to literature what Dignitatis Humanae is to theology.
    From memory I would comment that: (I don’t propose to read it again.)
    If one were so minded it would be easy to consider it as offensive to white people, British people,
    the Police, Jews, Christians and also the one black man in the book is an abuser of women.
    The mohammed-related sections form only a small part of the whole book.
    Critics inform us that the book draws heavily on Indian folklore nearly all of
    which will go over the head of a European reader.
    But then they would say that.

  • mollysdad

    I don’t think gunboats would be the thing to use nowadays. Suffice it to say that the leaders of Iran are terrorists who are therefore legitimate military targets to begin with. In reinstating the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, these blasphemous monsters have just moved up the target list.

  • Meena

    I don’t think gunboats would be the thing to use nowadays. ………..
    these blasphemous monsters have just moved up the target list.”

    Can you please make up your mind?

  • Meena

    Of course you might only, simply be saying that “gunboats” are rather out-of-date, and that nowadays the cruise-missile is its replacement. 

    But I don’t think you’re saying this. I think you are muddled, as usual.

  • Cassandra

    Oh! Wonderful! A poor country just liberated from the Turks in force by Bully Boy Palmerston to pay damages for property that Don Pacifico claimed to have owned because he was a British Citizen. No I do not admire Palmerston. Well did Lord Byron warn the Greeks to beware Latin Fraud and Turkish Force.

    Admit it Father the Catholic Church has for the last 1,000 years hated the Greeks and continues in some circles to do so!! Is because you had a guilty conscience .Does the 4th Crusade mean anything to you? 

    Stop sneering at the Greeks and their problems. At least they know their faults.. The west continues its usual absorption with itself. It is always right.perfect, holy.!

  • Jonathan West

     I say send a gunboat up the Bosphorus and blow their minarets off!

  • LocutusOP

     I presume you can cite the article in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which provides justification for your claim that it is lawful – since I assume that “lawful” refers to the moral law and not the civic law where such acts are illegal, at least in the U.K..

  • LocutusOP

    I haven’t read his book, so I can’t comment on the content. I disagree with the spirit of what you wrote though.

    First of all, there is no right to have embassies anywhere, so closing embassies is certainly a possibility, and in many cases might even be preferable. In fact, governments should be forced to justify the rationale for having embassies because many (if not most) are just a waste of space and time.

    Secondly, the fact that imperial Britain bullied Greece a while back is not something which should be praised, but rather something which should be regretted. Any other approach would lead to a world which does not respect territorial integrity, and it would be possible to plant subjects in foreign countries to invite military interventions.

    Most importantly though, the there is no overriding public interest in the government stepping in to protect an individual from the course of his actions. Freedom of speech simply entails the freedom to express opinions without being imprisoned or harassed by your own government (something which we can hardly claim applies in Britain anymore, sadly), and does not entail that we should use public funds to protect private individuals who offend others….Although it does mean we should punish those who refute words with violence or threats – but again, within one’s own borders.

  • LocutusOP

    Not knowing anything about Pacifico, I was nonetheless absolutely certain that he was no run-of-the-mill citizen.

    This is not one of Father ALS’s more intellectually coherent posts, I think we’ll agree, and you’ve unpacked the confused (I wanted to write ‘schizophrenic’ but that didn’t seem gentle) approach to this issue rather well.


    Lord Byron more fittingly said ‘Greece! Sad relic of departed worth!’  You are right that Palmerston was in the wrong, though you seem to have missed the point entirely.

    And sorry, but we Latins don’t hate the Greeks, although twelfth century soldiers-of-fortune and twenty-first century bankers seem find the backward state of the country makes good grounds for easy pickings.h Though most of us think the West is in moral shambles.

  • mollysdad

    There is no death penalty in the United Kingdom. But in terms of the moral law, and the ancient Law of Noah, the death penalty is a just penalty for murder, treason and commensurate crimes of terrorism, conspiracy to wage aggressive war and to commit genocide, and therefore also for the blasphemy of calling God to witness in favour of committing them. The United Kingdom could alternatively invoke the right of belligerency or emergency powers.

    Current Catholic teaching disfavours the use of the death penalty unless there is no other way of protecting society. I interpret this to allow the use of the death penalty in cases where there is an unacceptable risk that the incarceration of the criminal would interfere with the rehabilitation ofother prisoners.

    The Supreme Leader of Iran is guilty of one or more of the above crimes and, in relation to Israel, of acts preparatory to aggressive war and genocide. He is also guilty of maintaining a regime founded on the crime of blasphemy committed for a seditious, treasonable or criminal purpose. For that reason, he and his accomplices deserve to die.

  • Benedict Carter

    The Fourth Crusade was hampered by the Greeks every step of the way. 1204 – the year of how many? Six different Byzantine Emperors, all busy poisoning and blinding each other. Promises of food and support made by all and sundry to the Crusaders, all broken one after the other. The Byzantines got what they deserved. 

  • Benedict Carter

    It’s not gun-boats we should be worried about, but the country which issued the fatwas against Rushdie getting hold of nuclear weapons. 

  • Kevin

    It is right that the government can authoritatively enforce the law only if it also has our backs.

    I would disagree, however, that we are free to offend. Freedom of speech means being able to say, “I think we should have a republican form of government”, without being hauled off to the Tower. It does not mean, for example, freedom to wear a t-shirt bearing a four-letter expletive, which can only serve the purpose of antagonising one’s neighbours who are themselves obliged to us in law (e.g. negligence law).

    Offending is not the same as being offended. The former can be defined objectively in terms of law enforcement but the latter is more subjective. Thus blasphemy can be a criminal offence. The matter under discussion here concerns statements that are considered blasphemous by a foreign legal system. The tradition here is that Britons are free to do whatever is not expressly prohibited by law. We should resist attempts to enforce a foreign blasphemy law in Britain.

  • Acleron

    Well said!

    Realising that being offended is not a reason for anything other than verbal disagreement is a sign of maturity.