Journalist Lauren Booth questions whether the West can really hold the moral high ground in the aftermath of the deadly Paris terrorist attacks.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” William Shakespeare
What do we want to happen as a result of the murder of French civilians in Parisian venues at the weekend? Closed borders, removal of immigrants, military intervention?
We must each ask ourselves this question, debating the answer vigorously, as the collaborative answer will define the qualities which will make up European and national responses to such terrible events and even characterize our society for years to come.
In his address after the events on 13 November, French President Francois
Hollande imposed a national state of emergency. He declared that the co-ordinated attacks in the capital were more than terrorism.
“This is an act of war,” he said, pledging to respond “mercilessly” to the terrible bloodshed in the French capital.
The subsequent bombing in Raqqa by the French air force, in a region of Syria currently under the control of ISIS, has been reported as both “extensive” and focused. The targets have been, we are told, weapons storage facilities and militant training camps.
Journalists are at pains to reflect that these attacks are in no way “revenge” for what has taken place, but tactical and precisely aimed to avoid civilian casualties. The French air force are to be congratulated that – according to local hospital reports – indeed no local people were injured
or killed in the campaign. We must be able to discuss how safe future bombing campaigns will be for the already bombarded, starved and tortured Syrian people beneath them.
Civilians on the frontline
Civilians are today and have been for decades on the front line, most noticeably and vastly, in the Middle East, from Yemen to Syria, from Libya to Iraq via Palestine. And this weekend, 129 innocent people were killed in a usually peaceful city, in Europe. Killed as they went about their post-work leisure activities.
129 is an awful number. Yet, in terms of modern war (the President’s word not my own), it is a tragic, but a relatively small one. Civilian war dead, are numbered in multiple zeros now. We live in an age where soldiers,
who join armies to fight, are increasingly protected from combat, with no expense spared, on the gadgets and deadly machinery which whilst inflicting damage on the enemy, means they should as rarely as possible, leave the safety of their homeland. The most favored of this type of weapon currently being the military drone.
Perhaps in order to decide our national response to the weekends tragedy, we must first acknoweldge what it really is that horrifies us in the bloody practices of ISIS.
It’s not actually the numerical amount who died. A more major element is the “anytime, anywhere” apparent randomness of the murders. This gives us a chilling sense of “it could be me or my family in that street cafe, restaurant, gig…”
As a child I remember having to climb many a long and winding London Underground staircase after the station was evacuated due to an IRA bomb threat. The anxiety of the evacuation was mitigated by the fact that Irish Nationalists usually gave time for civilians to move away from the target before detonation. The act of malicious damage to property of the crown and the hated British government more of an aim than the murder and maiming of people going about their business.
Contrast that with a sudden burst of shocking rapid machine gun fire and bodies falling around you, at a rock concert.
So, intention then, is a major factor. The shark-eyed coldness of one who glorifies in the bloody, deliberate murder of unarmed people going about their lives. To simply point a gun at one terrified innocent after another and pull the trigger, bang, bang, with deliberate hatred and malice chills the soul far more than the number of dead. 129 dead.
What separates us from them?
In seeking our response to the attacks, socially and politically, we must look again at what makes us different from violent militants and their aims. We need to stick to principles which seek out justice and fairness – adhering to them and holding them close, despite the difficulty of doing so. Like holding onto a hot rock.
That is if, I said if, we are still seeking the higher moral ground. And seek it we must, here in Europe. Because, may I be blunt? It isn’t the murder of men, women and children which marks us apart from the militants lurking on our streets with intent to kill and maim.
How can it be, when successive reports and studies have sought to remind politicians and voters in Europe and the US of the human cost of long distance raids and campaigns against ISIS?
Modern warfare accepts civilians not military personnel make up the front line. In a largely under featured report released just last month in October 2015, the publication “Intercept” revealed research into classified documents proved that nine out of every ten people killed in U.S. drone strikes overseas in just one specific time period were innocent civilians or other unintended targets.
The series is called The Drone Papers – read it. The publication asserts that:
“The public has a right to see these documents .. to understand the circumstances under which the U.S. government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal.”
We are horrified to see mums and dads, kids and neighbors fleeing explosions in French streets. It has become code normal for this to happen in less illustrious cities in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the Pentagon carries out its “targeted killing program.”
What makes the murder of civilians in these cases and in such large numbers acceptable to us in the West, allowing us to carry on with our daily lives, without a tear to the collective eye is the assertion by our leaders and our military that civilian casualties are “minimal” or “accidental” and therefore “regrettable.”
Because to deliberately kill innocent people going about their business is clearly the act of “psychotic thugs” (Spectator 14 Nov) carried out by the kinds of people who cope by dehumanizing their victims whilst in the grip of a “psychotic delusion” (Fox News on James Foley killer (Aug 2014).
Just twelve weeks ago “Airwars” a project set up by independent journalists published details of 52 US led coalition strikes using what it believes are credible on the ground reports. They found at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including those of more than 100 children.
In a year long air campaign against ISIS there have already been more than 5,700 air strikes in Syria and Iraq with its impact on civilians still largely unknown. The coalition’s lead commander, Lt Gen John Hesterman, says the campaign is “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare”.
However, Airwars project leader Chris Woods has said: “The emphasis on precision in our view hasn’t been borne out by facts on the ground.”
People, real people die in bombing raids. We are talking about men, women and children who do not expect or deserve to die at their wedding, favorite cafe, in a hospital or at home. Any more than the men or women of Paris brutally murdered at the weekend can in any way be held accountable for their own killing.
Stating these facts is not done in order to attempt to excuse the inexcusable. It is done to acknowledge that it is our duty to seek a higher level of morality and respect for human life than murderers and psychotics. These ethics of security and the right to live a terror-free life not only apply to our “own” people in Europe but to men, women and children everywhere.
Good guys and bad guys
In the aftermath of each new attack in Europe, EU citizens seek to draw comfort from the narrative that, in the anarchy of global warfare, we remain, quite clearly, “the good guys.”
Different from the wicked baddies with their Wild West style facial hair and black, villains clothing, We, in the West, are the morally courageous bastions of guidance in the modern age. At the gates – or the fences, of our weakened borders savages await to commit more of the terror that Parisians have just experienced. That is our current media and political
129 dead. A terrible number. A number which shrinks each time you look at it. And doesn’t that make it worse? Such a small number in death terms. It doesn’t begin to tell the story of lost mums, dads, talented students, adored partners, grandparents, colleagues.
UN figures showed that 1.7 million Iraqi civilians died due to the West’s sanctions regime. Approximately 900,000 of whom were children.
Our society is making the plea bargain of “manslaughter” then for the continued direct political hand in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Muslim world and millions of indirect deaths. Unknown numbers of Arab civilians have been permanently injured and orphaned due to our leaders policies.
But we can live with this, can’t we? Because our jets, machine guns, tank fire and missiles commit atrocities “by accident.”
What turns the human stomach and causes the heart to contract with disgust and loathing is the clear relish which ISIS militants express in deliberately taking innocent lives.
US Presidential candidate Ted Cruz issued a statement after Fridays attacks. In it he called on military action by the US and presumably its allies, to in future, take less – not more – consideration of civilian safety. ISIS extremism says Cruz “will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties, when the terrorists have such utter
disregard for innocent life. As we reel in horror about civilian deaths, a US presidential candidate calls for – more of the same. The cycle of hatred, on the back of rhetoric like this, can only run and run.
How different does it feel for the parent whose 8 year old is blown apart
by a coalition missile to know his child’s death is labelled an “unfortunate accident.” How relieved does a husband feel whose wife and child died in the US attack on a Yemeni hospital after being told the attack was “regrettable?”
Do they cry less tears or feel in any way safer or recompensed by that narrative?!
Do we care about them anyway, or have we space in our hearts for only a small, regional section of humanity?
Our answer to these questions will tell us whether we are able to hold the moral high ground against those who relish rather than regret acts of wanton murder.
You can follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenBoothUK