Notes From the Margins…

Fearful Symmetries

  • May 27, 2013
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At the end of a sad and horrible week, in which the brutal murder of a British soldier in Woolwich has unleashed dark forces that are more likely than ever to place all British Muslims under a state of siege,   The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland chose to berate Ken Livingstone and ‘the left’ for suggesting that the murder of drummer Lee Rigby had anything to do with “Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.”

Comparing the Woolwich murder to the rightwing response to Anders Breivik’s mass murders in Norway, Freedland observed:

Be in no doubt, Livingstone and the anti-war movement would be appalled if their arguments were played back to them in reverse. Imagine what they would say to the claim that Breivik’s terror vindicated the old rivers-of-blood warnings, predicting that decades of multiculturalism would end in disaster, and now it was time to change course.

This is really a non-point.     Of course the right did say things like that  in response to Breivik’s massacre, because there are many on the right who share his loathing of Muslims, and his belief that immigration is paving the way for the downfall of Europe, even if they didn’t approve of his ‘solution.’

But Freedland’s suggestion that it is therefore morally shameful to suggest that that there is a connection between the wars that the British government has perpetrated or supported abroad, and fantasy holy warriors like  Michael Adebolajo is inane and ridiculous.

Since 9/11, British governments have fought one war after another in various Muslim countries, in addition to providing political or logistical support to wars that we don’t hear about, and acts of violence and extra-legal activities that rarely reach the attention of the public but which have become normalised as a result of the terrorwars of the last decade.

These wars and interventions have not made anyone more secure, either in the countries where they take place or in our own.     They have destabilised whole countries and regions, and unleashed a destructive dynamic in which militarism acts as a justification for terrorism and terrorism then acts as a justification for more militarism.

This process has been justified by endless terrortalk and rhetoric about ‘national security’ which has transformed the public into spectators of the game of terror and counter-terror, oohing and aahing as the two ‘sides’ trade blows with each other.

We have become seduced by a sanitised and relatively cost-free version of ‘war’, in which our governments engage in push-button violence whose victims barely appear even as statistics.     We take it for granted, if we even think about it at all,   that these wars are benign, ‘limited’ and ‘humanitarian’.     We hear that our armed forces are engaged in ‘reconstruction’, fighting ‘terror’, or ‘the Taliban’, in order to ‘keep us safe’ or promote democracy and protect the rights of women.

But hundreds of thousands of people have died in these wars, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Mali, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.     Some of them were killed by our armed forces or by our allies and some of them were killed by our enemies.    For the most part, we only count our own casualties, which are always low.

The other victims of these wars are rarely even counted, and even when statistics suggest that quite a lot of them are dying, we still don’t acknowledge any responsibility for them.   We tell ourselves that our side only kills ‘terrorists’ or ‘militants.’    We play down or ignore statistics that call the ‘humanitarianism’ of our wars into question, as the British government did over the Lancet and John Hopkins surveys into ‘excess deaths’ in Iraq.

Do we even care about the irradiated women of Fallujah who have been giving birth to deformed babies because of the weapons our ally fired on that city in 2004?     Do we know that last week, when ‘terror’ returned to the UK,   hundreds were killed in Iraq’s incipient civil war – the latest repercussions of a war that our government fought in our name, without any viable justification and for which no one has ever been held to account?

When Israel blasts the Gaza Strip with high-tech weaponry, with the support of our government, we don’t question its right to do so.   We hear from high-level British army officers like Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, of “the humanitarian concerns that Israel has for the civilian population among the enemy it is fighting.”

Our governments have now taken warfare to a new level of bloodless perfection with the use of drones that only kill the evil ones – or so we are told, and why should we doubt it?     We take satisfaction from our technological dominance, from our ‘surgical’ weapons and the clean, tidy deaths they cause, and we are rightly appalled by the horrors that our enemies attempt to shock us with, especially when these actions take place in our own countries.

Such actions prove that our enemies are cruel, barbarian fanatics, and they also reinforce our own sense of collective virtue.    We know that we are good, because our governments never cease to tell us that we are, and therefore the fact that our enemies attack us because of our goodness or our ‘values’ only reinforces our belief that they are utterly evil.

Even when we hear episodes about our own side that seem to tell a different story, such as Abu Ghraib, the jokey killing of Iraqi civilians by US pilots, or American soldiers cutting off the ears of Taliban as souvenirs, or British soldiers torturing and beating Iraqi civilians to death,   our sense of our goodness remains undisturbed.

Of course we aren’t the only ones to be ‘blind in one eye.’

Men like Adebolajo go off to fight jihad in Somalia, regardless of the thousands of Somali Muslims who have been killed by al-Shabaab.   They condemn the Muslims killed by Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not the civilians who are killed by their own side.  They selectively condemn certain wars while glorifying even the cruelest forms of ‘war’ and violence that their ‘side’ is responsible for.     They construct their own ‘binary’ narratives in which they are completely good and fighting against an enemy that is utterly evil.

Such men see our passivity, indifference, and our uncritical support for the militarism of our governments – and they give themselves a moral blank cheque, just as our governments often do in the name of ‘counter-terror.’   Throughout this bleak decade, we have not found a way to use the democratic instruments available to us to hold our governments   accountable for the things they do that are wrong.

And in these circumstances we can’t be entirely surprised that  people will try to kill us – and they won’t do it nicely, sitting at a desk with a styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and a mouse in the other, wiping out some ‘radical sheikh’ in Yemen before taking time off for lunch.   No amount of shutting down ‘preachers of hate’, peeking at the Internet or trying to detect ‘radicalisation’ will be able to stop them entirely.

So it is entirely to acknowledge a connection between the terrorwars of the last decade and the butchery that took place in Woolwich last week.  It is in fact essential, especially when we see terror profiteers like John Reid telling us what we need to do to fight terrorism – the same John Reid who helped plot the Iraq war and once expressed his fury with the BBC because it reported that Iraqi civilians were dying in the early stages of the invasion.

Men like this claim to want to defend and protect us.   But they are also part of the terrorism nightmare.     The wars they started helped create the breeding ground in which the killers of Drummer Rigby could flourish.  And if we are ever to build a world in which militarism and terrorism have no place, we need to recognise that they are also part of the nightmare in which we are now trapped.






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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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