The last few weeks have been quite bad from the point of view of the avid reader of /listener to news who is also a pacifist. The question keeps coming up: what is to be done in the face of what is presented to us as uncontrollable violence, hatred and disregard of anything remotely connected to human decency.
But what is even more disturbing is the media frenzy in which one news medium tries to outdo the other in terms of describing this terrible situation in the most vivid terms; it could be called scare mongering.
And politicians – devoid of any serious leadership qualities – are scared not to be seen to be talking tough just in case the media are right and we are facing major incidents here at home (and ‘at home’ in this context means: the West).
A caveat to begin with
Lest anyone is in any doubt: I do not condone violence or brutality whoever perpetrates it. So what follows is in the context of my horror at what happened to James Foley; my horror at what is happening in the Middle East generally – to the Palestinians, to the Yezidis, to Israeli civilians, to anyone caught up in this lunacy of blood-letting; my horror at what is happening in Eastern Ukraine; my horror at what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri; my horror at what is happening in so many other conflict areas in the world. All the others have pretty much disappeared from the headlines, because the media just follow today’s crises.
What do we hear of the violent conflict in South Sudan? What do we hear about the girls kidnapped in Nigeria? What do we hear of the conflict in the Central African Republic? Precious little.
Free Media without Responsibility
I believe in the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech, absolutely. But with it comes a degree of responsibility. That starts with actually putting your name/identity to what you say – and that is a particular issue with Internet based sources of opinion and diatribe. And whilst professional journalist write under their name and are identifiable others – commentators on newspaper and other media website among them – write under pseudonyms which allow them to say things they can’t prove, to be quite outrageous in some of what they say, and in taking absolutely no responsibility for any of the consequences. And at times, professional journalism and politics react to that kind of public verbal outburst.
But responsibility does not end there; there is also the consideration: what will my saying this or that in public mean in terms of the effect it will have on the general public or sections of the general public?
And I think the media (most of them, anyway) are completely out of control on this; as are some of our leading politicians – and at times it is not clear who is reacting to whom but it is a vicious self-feeding cycle.
What am I talking about?
First, there is the problem that much speculation is presented as fact; often, the headline makes it sound like a fact and then the small print gives it a way as speculation.
Second, there is the issue of hyping stuff up; and of giving things more credence than they deserve. The amount of media coverage – and we must be clear that the people who are referred to as IS or ISiL are very media savvy – must give them a real boost: they are being taken seriously; they are treated as if they were ‘a state’ with a military and an agenda and strategy; the media coverage itself is part of the oxygen of notoriety they crave.
Appropriately, the video which allegedly shows the beheading of James Foley has not been shown on public TV; but we’ve had graphic descriptions of it; and we keep being shown the still that has been all over the media which leaves the rest to the imagination.
Third, there is a race to be the first to suggest the toughest response to ‘the British jihadists’ involved in all of this. The media don’t seem to think that a calm, considered response which looks at who they are, why they felt it was necessary to engage in this carnage, whether those British citizens that have gone to Syria and/or Iraq have actually engaged in this carnage, and so on.
But oh, no, we have a great clamour that tries to come up with ‘tough’ measures including: stripping British citizens of their citizenship – senior politicians seem to think that open disregard for international law is going to help in this context. Just once, I’d like to congratulate the Home Secretary for saying that this is not legally possible; or assuming guilt unless the person can prove innocence – that’s a really good idea: to overturn hundreds of years of rule of law! In the name of security and protecting British values!
Let us come to our senses:
We need to understand that none of what is happening (in Iraq/Syria/ Palestine/Israel and elsewhere in conflict areas) is happening in a vacuum. Decades of foreign policy history have led us to where we are now. And that is not to say that the current US Administration or current British Government is to blame. But it is to say that we can’t look at these issues only on the basis of today’s context.
We need to understand that violence never brings about peace; it never has done, and it never will do.
The question: but what would you do (in the face of any one of the conflicts currently raging) is the wrong question because it ignores the historic context. My answer is: we should never have allowed ourselves to get to this point. And to say that violence (i.e. military intervention) is the only answer open to us because the situation is completely out of hand is just compounding millennia of mistakes.
My answer would be – this isn’t going to be solved in the blink of an eye; and yes, it will cost lives. Pacifism isn’t saying: no one must die; pacifism is saying: thou shall not kill. There is a difference. And to say, I won’t kill if you don’t is not an appropriate response.
Recognise the fact that we don’t live by our values
Hypocrisy is a terrible thing; here we are, horrified by the execution of James Foley (and rightly so) but continuing to accept that the US uses the death penalty. Here we are, horrified by the violence inflicted on civilian populations by ISiL but willing to continue to supply military equipment to the government of Israel in the full knowledge that it will be used on the citizens of Gaza. (The news of an open ended ceasefire in that war is welcome; and I hope that it will hold and lead to meaningful peace negotiations; but that does not alter the fact that supplying military equipment, arms and munitions has not helped to reduce violence in the past – and won’t do in the future). Here we are, horrified by the policies of people we call dictators yet willing to consider making common cause with them against others we call our enemies.
And talk of enemies is always dangerous.
A bold move would be:
- For the US to put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in light of our horror at an execution
- For all countries that export arms to put an immediate moratorium on all arms export to anyone (we know that even if we arm the people we think are on our side, they can and do switch sides and the kit can fall into the ‘wrong’ hands)
- For all countries that are members of the UN to convene an urgent General Assembly that has as its only agenda item the question of how to make the UN effective in dealing with breaches of international law
- For the US to immediately sign up to the International Criminal Court
- For all nuclear weapons states to commit themselves to nuclear disarmament now (and certainly to commit themselves to not making any more – so, no replacement of Trident, please)
- For all countries that value the rule of law to make sure that it is actually applied and that there is no room for questioning legal commitments under international law, humanitarian law and human rights law
Much more than that needs to be done; but it would be a start. I know it’s not likely to happen, and I guess the media, the politicians, the think tanks and the experts will have thousands of arguments why what I say is wrong and impractical: but I’m a pacifist, and I take not killing seriously, and I think that none of this will ever happen unless some people start saying it.