Well, they did it. Britain’s bureaucratic-medical-juridical elite triumphed over a toddler who, in defiance of elite opinion, refuses to die. On Wednesday evening, an appeals court ruling dashed what was probably the last legal hope for saving Alfie Evans, the 23-month-old boy who is being held against his parents’ will at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, England.
Doctors determined that Alfie’s little-understood degenerative brain disorder meant further treatment was futile, and a High Court judge barred his parents from seeking additional treatment at a Vatican hospital (at Italian expense). By Justice Anthony Hayden’s dim lights, the best Alfie could hope for was a death with “dignity.” So he ordered Alfie’s respirator to be removed, having predicted that the boy wouldn’t survive without it. To implement Justice Hayden’s sentence, Alder Hey staff withdrew oxygen, hydration, and nutritional support.
But then Alfie kept on living, and living . . . and living. He has now, as of this writing, been breathing without the respirator for nearly two days. His oxygen was restored Tuesday, but the hospital continues to withhold sustenance. So much for “death with dignity.” Outside, a phalanx of Liverpool’s finest stood watch lest Alfie’s supporters attempt to rescue him. The officers also expelled a pair of German helicopter pilots dispatched by Pope Francis for the air evacuation.
As if the authoritarian aspect of all this weren’t crystal clear, local police also warned social-media users to be careful what they say online about the matter. “I would like to make people aware that these posts are being monitored,” said Chief Inspector Chris Gibson, “and remind social media users that any offences including malicious communications and threatening behaviour will be investigated and where necessary will be acted upon.”
Threatening speech that puts people in fear of imminent harm is illegal in most Western jurisdictions, and if any of Alfie’s supporters have engaged in such speech, they have only damaged the cause and should be held accountable. But bear in mind that police in England take a very expansive view of what counts as “malicious communication” and online hate; they are quite explicit about their censorious aims.
Last year, the Crown Prosecution Service, which oversees public prosecutions in England and Wales, revised its guidelines for addressing online hate crimes. “People all over the world are questioning how those in positions of power can counter the kinds of extreme views that are increasingly being aired,” Alison Saunders, director for public prosecutions, wrote in a Guardian op-ed announcing the new guidelines. The answer, she said, was to treat “online hate crimes as seriously as those committed face to face.”
Put another way, the yahoo who drunkenly posts racist material on his Facebook page is as culpable as the neo-Nazi who physically desecrates a Jewish cemetery. The new guidelines were added to already overbroad hate-crime laws that restrict speech based purely on the subjective views of the alleged victims. In England, the authorities define as a hate crime “any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.”
New rules that came into effect in 2014, moreover, require police to investigate hate-crimes complaints “regardless of whether or not those making the complaint are the victim and irrespective of whether or not there is any evidence to identify the hate crime incident.”
That was why Home Secretary Amber Rudd found herself the subject of a hate-crime probe over a speech she delivered at 2016’s Tory party conference, in which she fulminated against foreigners “taking jobs British workers could do.” More recently, police investigated the columnist Rod Liddle for making fun of the Welsh. The bridge that connects England and Wales, he had written, links the latter’s “rain-sodden valleys with the First World.” The cases are silly, but the chilling effect on free speech in Britain is all too serious—and real.
That brings us back to Alfie. As the case has progressed, the political, religious, and class fault lines running through it have become ever more visible. Alfie’s parents are working class and Catholic. Judging by the social-media outpouring, many of their supporters hail from a similar class firmament: the type who voted for Brexit, who read the Sun and the Daily Mail, who are puzzled by all this talk about gender and newfangled pronouns, and who quietly cheer Donald Trump across the pond.
On the other side stands an administrative elite that has had it with “these people”—with their voting habits, their sentimentality and patriotism, their common sense on Islam and integration, and, well, their failure to understand that it is up to experts, not parents, to discern the “best interests” of a toddler like Alfie. The members of this elite worry a lot these days about the health of liberal-democratic order. An entire cottage industry has sprung up, churning out books and policy briefs on how to preserve democracy against populists and uncouth, excitable majorities. But fair-minded observers of the Alfie Evans debacle can decide for themselves which camp poses the greater threat to freedom in Britain.