I return in wind and rain on Sunday night from a weekend in Northamptonshire—more than two hours down the M1 as opposed to the usual hour and a quarter—to find a message at home in London on the fax machine. Nearly all the faxes I receive nowadays are impersonal and unsolicited. They are either unbelievable special offers, such as a return flight to Barcelona for £1, or requests from pollsters for my opinion on something. This fax falls into the second category and wants me to tick "Yes" or "No" to the question "Should there be a mandatory prisonsentence for people who kill pets?" The answer "Yes" is clearly what it wants, for the fax tells the story of a drunken mother who, in a "horrific incident", dropped a puppy from the balcony of her fourth-floor flat in Portsmouth in front of her four-year-old daughter. Before dropping it to its death, she taunted her daughter with the words "Shall we keep Molly, shall we not?" The daughter's reply is not recorded, but Molly fell 30 feet, "suffered major internal injuries with ruptures to the liver, and took 20 minutes to die". The mother, 43, was found guilty in Portsmouth Magistrates Court of "cruelly ill-treating" the puppy (which she had bought two weeks earlier) and causing it "unnecessary suffering". The fact that the puppy also died didn't seem to concern the magistrates, who released the woman on bail to await sentence.
The pollster says my vote, together with any the others, will be "presented to the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and Portsmouth Magistrates Court". It would be scandalous if they were influenced by it in any way. But why should anyone want to know what I think in the first place? The fax says the poll was commissioned by "21st Century Faxes", whoever they may be. Their address is given as being in Wapping, East London, which is best known for the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. One of his tabloids, the Sun, is in the habit of polling its readers on everything and rebuking the Government if it doesn't do as they say. Its pretence is that the British people and readers of the Sun are synonymous and that democracy demands they be obeyed. But if its polls are based on random faxes to people like me, who never reply and aren't even Sun readers, then they are even more futile than I had imagined. But if you want to know what I think, I couldn't support mandatory prison sentences for people who kill pets because I would worry about my rich country neighbours in Northamptonshire. They would be in prison forever if their pheasants were categorised as pets, for they kill thousands and thousands of them every year. Pheasants may have their origins as wild birds in Asia, but in England they are domestically reared and treated as pets until they are released to be slaughtered in the name of sport. They are cared for, fed, and protected by kindly gamekeepers who visit them daily in their cages to see that they are all right. Until judgment day comes, one would probably rather be a pheasant in Northamptonshire than an al-Qaida prisoner in Camp X-Ray.
My country neighbours share the view of the American Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, that the treatment of the Al-Qaida prisoners should not concern us. But the Daily Mail, a right-wing paper that is ferocious on domestic law-and-order issues, continues to campaign on their human rights and to try to rouse the British to anger over the Americans' indifference to them. With the Labour Party now under the control of Tony Blair and other "shoulder-to-shoulder" types, criticism of the United States from the Left has become much more muted than it used to be. Instead, anti-Americanism seems to be enjoying a resurgence on the Right. You might have thought that nostalgic imperialists would by now have become accustomed to Britain's loss of world dominion to America, but resentment still smoulders within their hearts. The unspoken motive for the Daily Mail's campaign is that the Americans are not fit to rule the world. They supposedly lack our civilised values and our sense of noblesse oblige. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail continues to feel passionately about pets. It has raised many thousands of pounds for the care of the animals in Kabul Zoo, especially for the mangy, 37-year-old lion Marjan that was rendered blind and toothless in a grenade attack. Two grenades were thrown at him by the brother of an Afghan soldier who had been killed by Marjan for petting his mate. Marjan, who died on Saturday, was known to be a killer, which is more than can be said for many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
I am just as worried as the Israelis are by the revelation that the latest Jerusalem suicide bomber is a woman. For whereas male martyrdom can be explained by the promise of 72 virgins in paradise, women have no interest in such a reward. The question "what do women get?" was raised recently by an Australian Muslim on the website of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the world's great centres of Islamic scholarship. A convoluted answer included the information that obedient Muslim women, however "old and worn-out", would be recreated in Paradise as virgins "amiable to their husbands". If women are prepared to kill themselves for this, then the future looks very bleak indeed.