Charter 77, the human rights group in the former Czechoslovakia dedicated to recognizing and protesting the lawlessness and abuses of the communist regime, turned 40 last month, and the milestone was marked by a panel discussion in Washington sponsored by the Czech Embassy and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
“The Enduring Significance of Charter 77” featured leading scholars and also Martin Palouš, one of the original 241 signatories of the Charter, who became his country’s ambassador to the United States a decade after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Palouš called the Charter movement “a candle in the middle of the night”—the night having fallen over Czechoslovakia with the thunderous Soviet invasion of 1968. The movement emerged quietly during the dark days of what the communists called “normalization”—the restoration of “really existing socialism” after the 1968 invasion quashed the experiment in liberalization known as the Prague Spring.
We like to consider totalitarianism a thing of the past, at least in Western countries, but its temptations are permanent and its justifications never very far away. Since no man is an island, no human action concerns only the actor himself. John Stuart Mill’s famous principle in On Liberty (1859) that the only good reason to interfere with someone’s freedom is to prevent him from doing harm to others is therefore as effective a barrier against totalitarianism as tissue paper against a tsunami. Potential harm to others can be alleged in practically any human action.
Even the most thoroughgoing of penological liberals, I have noticed, has a category of crime – a favourite of sorts, I suppose – that he thinks ought to be severely punished. However much he may deny that punishment is justified, morally or practically, for other crimes, the crime he has selected as being of special heinousness deserves only the most condign punishment. All other crimes may in his opinion merit, and be susceptible only to, explanation and understanding, but this crime must, for moral reasons, be treated with exemplary harshness. At present in Britain the crime selected by penological liberals for…