Moral arguments

It is occasionally worth recalling that the concept of “terror bombing” was not dreamed up in a cave in Afghanistan, but by a celebrated British statesman, who legitimised the mass killing of civilians as a means to defeat the enemy (37,000 in Hamburg and 25,000 in Dresden).

Collective amnesia forces us to wash our hands of these unpalatable truths, but painful introspection is necessary if we are to understand our modern afflictions. Terrorism and the targeting of civilians is always odious, and we should be able to condemn it in all its forms, not excuse and venerate some practitioners simply because they are or were on our side.

The moral argument does not work like that.

Witnesses

So once more our activists and scholars petition us, “Why are you silent? Why do you not speak out?”

And yes, it is true, we feel like renegades, as if indifferent to the suffering of afflicted innocents everywhere.

But the communal amnesia they demand of us won’t stick. We have been browbeaten by tragedy before, and driven by emotion to join the bold choruses demanding war.

And now the millions dead and nations in anarchic turmoil stand witness against us.

This fire

They demand that you speak up, say something, make your voice heard, as if everything is clearcut and obvious and true, and as though your voice would make a difference to the wronged, caught in the crossfire of conflict.

Perhaps the silent fear opening the door to another giant invasion from outside, sold as a humanitarian intervention like Iraq and Libya.

Perhaps the silent still recall how those moderate Western-backed rebels morphed into the fearsome ISIS before our very eyes, providing new incentives to bomb the oil fields of Syria just a year after parliament declined to bomb them because of Assad.

Doors will open anyway, and those who want war will get it, whether we witness for the wronged or not. And those that demand we speak up now will demand that we stay silent in the face of wrongs perpetuated by our allies and friends. No, now is the time to call for more war, claim our respected leaders, not a time to petition for peace.

And on and on it goes. Yet more innocents will be wronged, innocent lives destroyed, as the fire spreads, rages out of control and ravages all in its path. And in time we will watch as our unprincipled leaders change their minds, adopting whichever new stance best suits the moment, confounding their students and followers with the fog of confusion that characterises these anarchic times.

But for now: “Speak up!” they chant. “O you hypocrites, turncoats, renegades, men of weak faith, backsliders, heretics, heathens, traitors, defectors, fugitives and snakes: petition all the forces of earth to rain cruise missiles down on the enemy. Demand that they deploy the standing armies from Saudi and Kuwait to vanquish the evil enemy. Speak up, speak up! Join our mighty chorus, beating the drums of war!”

Browbeaten, we might capitulate. Who wants to be an outlaw amongst friends? We will join in the sorrowful rejoinders and mournful laments, withheld from the mass of the victims of equally calamitous crimes; may our invocations sanctify the poor few amongst the thousands dead. Without a doubt it is their right.

But tomorrow, I can tell you, those hallowed ones will change their tune. Those that demand you speak up now, will tomorrow be writing of evil plots, of false-flag operations, of media-collusion, of takfiri extremists who don’t represent us. The fog will suddenly have lifted for them. But as for you: you are still the hypocrite, the heretic and heathen. You are still the ignorant one, to be turned whichever way the shepherd chooses, at that particular moment, on that particular day.

We are but partisan pawns on the great chessboard. We have forgotten that we are called to witness to the truth — if we are able to — not to champion for our team come what may. And if we do not know, or cannot verify the news we receive, to stay silent. Yes, even if everyone around us demands that we speak up, take a stance, make a choice.

But in any case, this fire will rage on and only spread, because nobody is willing to pour on cooling waters to extinguish the ravaging flames. The presumed wise ones demand an incendiary response: only fools would call for peace. So let us be fools.

To be just

If you’re a humanitarian aid organisations claiming to be unbiased, non-partisan and apolitical, your social media feed really should reflect it. I understand that emotions are running high, as we’re moved by the intense suffering of innocents — but aid organisations claiming to support all humanity irregardless of their beliefs should be scrupulous in maintaining that stance.

In Syria there are thousands of innocent victims across all ethnic and sectarian divides. There are civilians held under siege in both rebel and pro-government towns and villages. Militants on all sides have committed atrocities, holding civilians hostage, forcibly conscripting fighters, killing their opponents and causing a mass exodus of people into neighbouring states.

No doubt someone has to apportion blame and hold aggressors to account. But humanitarian organisations claiming to help all? If they are to discharge their obligations justly, their job is to support the vulnerable and needy, no matter who they are.

Chosen people

Quoting a contemporary of William Wallace and applying it to the present day would normally be considered plain odd. People would say, look, they were different battles in different times with different proponents — and even then his views were considered controversial. But, no, the words of sheikh ul-islam in his battle with Muslims declared apostates in medieval Syria are regurgitated daily and passed on as if a directive from revelation. For in the legends of today, the people of sham are a chosen people — though, of course, not the rulers of sham and their army. But the people, yes, and the foreigners who have flooded in from outside to support them. Though not the foreigners aiding the rulers. No, only the chosen people of the chosen people. And this is the madness that unfolds.

Shock and awe

I don’t know what is happening on the ground. It is impossible for me to verify anything that is reported to me. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad. I do not know if the narrative that has reached me is a representation of reality, or mere propaganda.

I have heard claims and counter-claims. I have read differing accounts of the same incidents. I have followed dubious and suspect social media feeds. I have seen footage of war, repurposed from a music video — and aid workers playing the mannequin challenge. And, yet the harrowing accounts of presumed-to-be honest aid workers and relief organisations too.

What is the truth? What is the reality on the ground? Are civilians being targeted by that awful regime, or are they being liberated from four-years held hostage by terrorist groups? Are civilians being targeted by the conquering rebel groups, or are the rebels the saviours of the people, defending them when no one else would?

I honestly have no idea. It is impossible to verify most of what I hear. Yes, the reverse image search is always there, enabling us to separate old news from new. Yes, here and there you can divine the truth. But by and large, there are just great big questions, exaggerated all the more by the media’s sudden concern for people it usually despises.

Truth is the first casualty of shock and awe. Sympathy for the victims, whoever they are, the second. Objectivity the third. Compassion the fourth. Somewhere in this list are lessons for us all.

Delivering aid

The British Government is providing £100million in aid to Yemen, whilst simultaneously selling £3.7billion of weapons and military support to Saudi Arabia, whose actions have been causing massive suffering and damage there since March 2015 (almost 4000 civilians killed and 130 health facilities hit).

All aid agencies are going to struggle to get aid to those who need it most; Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals have been hit by Saudi bombs several times now, but continue to work there. We must trust that organisations such as Oxfam, Unicef, the Red Cross and Islamic Relief that explicitly ask us to support their work in Yemen have the means to reach those in need.

Yet it does all seems tragically futile when our own government has such an intimate and compromising relationship with arms dealers, who help fuel conflicts like this in the first place.

The little people have their good intentions, as they spend of their wealth on the poor and the needy, but they have no influence. Only governments can decide how they will behave in the world: to take a moral stance, or just focus on economic growth, whatever it takes.