Should David Hicks have been shortlisted for his novel Guantanamo: My Journey? This question raises a number of issues about free speech and the criteria used to assess literary merit. It also raises the question of political leadership or lack of it, when matters of potentially conflicting values arise in our society.
It’s beyond question that the right to free speech is important in a democracy. Does that mean that it is okay to incite murder or racist behaviour or terrorism? Surely, there are some limits? In March of this year the US Supreme Court ruled eight to one that people picketing military funerals with hateful signs had the right to do this because the right to free speech was so important.
In this case, the book was about past experience, and is not inciting criminal behaviour, so our support of free speech should cover the right of the book to be published, even if Mr. Hicks is a convicted terrorist who operated with the Taliban, the repressive regime that burned books and murdered teachers and girls trying to attend school. The Taliban, of course, does not support free speech.
The second issue is whether Mr. Hicks be allowed to profit by it (for example by winning an award prize)? I understand that prosecutors are addressing this question under the law that prevents convicted criminals profiting from writing books about their criminal activities.
Next we come to the issue of literary merit. I understand the publisher has dismissed suggestions that a ghost writer wrote the book. But what about content? Reviews of the book have referred to the fact that Mr. Hicks has included only sparse details of his experience in Afghanistan, and has not included some of the evidence tying him to the activities he has apparently now said was the result of a coerced confession. Perhaps the book might have more merit as a non-fiction literary work if he had given a full and frank account of these activities, instead of trying to fudge or brush over them.
Should a book like this, and an author with his track record, be entitled to be nominated for a literary prize? Australians are a forgiving bunch. Most of us would tend to allow that a person is entitled to a second chance if they plead mea culpa and express genuine remorse. Has Mr. Hicks done this, or has he tried to pretend it never happened? If the latter is the case, then surely whoever is responsible would be showing poor judgment to consider such a book for a non-fiction award. After all, there is no shortage of worthy entries.
We should not forget those who have been giving their lives and risking their lives trying to make the world safer from those who want to kill and maim innocent people for some warped values system. And the Taliban values are about as warped as one can get.
It is ironic that someone who actively supported a regime that killed teachers and burned books and refused to educate girls would write a self-serving book trying to justify a position few of us would consider justifiable.
It is even more laughable that a politician could see such a book as worthy of literary shortlisting based upon benchmarks of “democracy”.