French President Jacques Chirac is slated to sign an order outlawing the Radical Unity party (UR), the right-wing extremist group that counted his would-be Bastille Day assassin, Maxime Brunerie, among its followers. Two months ago, the Spanish parliament outlawed the Batsuna party, considered the political arm of the Basque underground. In Germany, the government is in a campaign to outlaw the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD). Israel took similar steps in 1994, when it outlawed the Kach and Kahane-Chai parties.
To outlaw or not to outlaw, that's the question that many now believe is a vital issue in democratic regimes. The examples above are only a partial listing, of course. The organizations mentioned are different in their nature and missions, and the political and historical background of their activities. In France, for example, there are those worried by the links between minuscule Nazi-type groups, like UR, and the classic right-wing parties like Jean Marie le Pen's party. Germany's motivation is the perception of the NPD as similar to National Socialism, and the memory of the Weimar regime's democratic tolerance for the party that entered parliament in free elections. In Spain those opposed to banning Batsuna call it the "inquisition initiative," while in Israel, the right-wing Tzomet party called the decision to ban Kach "Stalinist."
But all these steps to outlaw parties have the same questions as their common denominator: What measures should democracies take to fight their enemies and protect against those whose ambitions are to destroy the democracy? Should they be allowed to express their dangerous views and campaign for them in the conventional political arenas - or should the extreme measure of banning be used? Doesn't outlawing the parties damage democracy itself, in which freedom to organize and freedom of speech are fundamental?
A common argument is that it is best to fight these organizations when they operate in the open. Banning them gives them an aura of being persecuted, increases attention to them and sends them underground, where it is much more difficult to monitor them. In other cases, the parties simply reorganize under a different name and identity.
One argument heard in France is that the activities of the radical rightist party and the attempted assassination of Chirac are a result of frustration with the unique electoral system that does not allow "legitimate" extreme right-wing groups to win representation proportional to their popular support. That argument says it would be best to allow the parties of the "crazies" to "let off steam" in legal frameworks, to prevent deterioration into violence.
But those opposed to banning dangerous parties tend to ignore the important moral, educational and deterrent elements of such bans. In Germany, it would prevent the absurd situation in which as long as the neo-Nazi NPD is legal, it gets police protection and federal financial support. In France, it would prevent the proliferation of web sites like the Radical Unity's site, which says the vandalism of French synagogues is resistance against Jewish "occupation" of the country.
Apparently, a balance has to be drawn between protecting basic civil rights, and concern for public order. Even the most extreme and revolting expression must be allowed - as long as it is not incitement to violence and does not reject the existence of the democracy and its basic values. At the same time, the police and government must undertake every measure necessary to prevent any activity - overt or covert - by banned parties and guarantee that legal extremist parties do not cross the red lines laid down by the legislature.
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