Basra, and the benefit of the doubt

I am in a dilemma, because I don’t know what to think about the happenings in Basra this week. I am also feeling quite frustrated, because I know that whatever I end up thinking, others will say that I am being woefully naive; that I have been conned by the conniving of The Other Side.

First, our attention has been drawn to some deeply suspicious activities carried out by our British forces. Questions are left unanswered: Why were the two SAS soldiers operating in plain clothes? Does that make them illegal combatants? Why did they have so much weaponry in their vehicle? And most worryingly, why did the British bulldoze a police-station in order to liberate these two men?

Despite this, and despite my distrust of the US/UK governments regarding this issue, I am not convinced that British forces are staging flase-flag operations, as some blog sites have been asserting. There are many possible reasons why these soldiers were carrying so much ordinance, other than for the purpose of executing a terrorist attack during the Karbala festival. Crucially, it is not clear to me how a false-flag operation would benefit a government which is politically committed to winning a War on Terror.

On the other hand, I recall just how frustrating it is when people dismiss a suggestion of underhand dealings. Many people simply did not believe that the great British Government would exaggerate or fabricate the reasons for going to war in Iraq. That they are still credulous allows Tony Blair’s misjudgment to go unpunished.

My only offering is one on political discourse. We have to recognise that there are good people in the world who simply give the benefit of the doubt where we do not; and vice-versa. I rarely grant George W Bush this benefit, even when he appears to be up against an Act of God such as Hurricane Katrina. But people with a more conservative outlook will do so. Conversely, I do tend to give George Galloway MP, the benefit of the doubt where others will call him a Ba’athist apologist.

So it is with the Daily Mirror hoax, and the recent events in Basra. Whether you side with the British forces or the citizens of Basra depends not on your analysis of the facts, which are scarce, but on how your political opinions have shaped your world view. Thus we have the camp of people who condemn the Iraqi police-force as an insurgent-riddled lost cause; and the group on the other side who claim that it is the British forces who have been provoking all the troubles.

When commenting on any political issue, the real challenge is to present evidence that convinces people who are not already predisposed to your point of view. You must think like your opponents, and present arguments that will convince them, even if your own threshold has long been surpassed. Shouting “it is a conspiracy by the oil-mongers” does nothing to convince those who genuinely believe that the Iraqi occupation is morally right. By contrast, the Abu Ghraib scandal was one issue that transcended the political divide, and caused journalists like Johann Hari to change their position on the war. The photographs of two sullen SAS soldiers are not such evidence. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing does, I suppose, depend on your point of view.

The Devil's Alternative

The news that Simon Harris, the suspected murderer of Rory Blackhall, had been facing sex offence charges, has led to calls for yet another reform to the crimminal justice system. This time, it is suggested that we add people who have simply been accused of sex offenses to be added to the sex offenders register until their trial. This idea of pre-emptive justice inevitably reminds me of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died at Stockwell tube station on 22 July.

Then as now, the argument centres around the idea of public protection. Those in power declare that it would be crimminally negligent of them to allow innocent people to die. For them, to ‘err on the side of caution’ is to neutralise potential threats, and ask questions later. Menezes is simply a tragic casualty of war. Likewise, depriving a potentially innocent man of his civil liberties is a price worth paying, to reduce the treat of harm to the Great British Public.

However, we must admit that people will kill and abuse each other, whatever the actions taken by the State. If they are doing this in numbers that society deems unacceptable (for now, 52 people dead on the London Transport system fits that criteria, in this country at least) then the problem is not necessarily a failure of policing, but a failure of society and a failure of political decision-making. Locking people up, putting them under surveillance, or even shooting them seven times in the head (and then once in the leg) is a simplistic policy answer.

The fact that these crimes occur highlights the fact that the security services are not all-powerful. The State simply cannot protect us from everything. It is crucially the role of the State which is under scrutiny here. Not only the State’s to deal with such threats, but where the State exists on the moral plane. We must be very clear about this point, and at present the waters are muddied.

The State is not a person. It cannot make snap decisions based upon the ‘facts on the gound’. Instead, the State is a collection of people, all of us, and we have to make decisions in advance, which are then applied equally throughout the country. They are our laws, and we must stick to them. There can be no special circumstances when these are flouted. If there are, then they become unfair, unjust, and ultimately meaningless.

Many people have said this before, but often they conclude their argument at this point. However, respecting the rule of law, and our civil liberties, has some very unpalatable consequences which we must nevertheless admit to ourselves if we are to have any chance of improving our society.

Perhaps it is better for another child to be murdered, than for an innocent man to have his life ruined by false imprisonment or even a false accusation. Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State. Whatever the choice made, someone will die. In the case of a true suicide bomber or a child murderer, the killer is an individual. But in the Menezes case, the killer was the State. It was us. There is a moral difference between allowing a death that even the police are powerless to prevent, and proactively causing the death of an innocent person.

The choice is of course a Devil’s Alternative, but when our agents made our choice for us on 22 July, we all became murderers. To absolve ourselves of this sin, we must ensure that it never happens again. Some of our laws make it harder to catch terrorists. Better that we allow innocent people to die by terrorism than to become murderers, terrorists, ourselves. Altering our laws can no longer help us win the battles against terrorists, sex offenders or indeed any other crime. We need to begin altering our society, and the way we conduct our political debate, if we are to stand any chance of winning.

Has Democracy Failed?

First published in The LIP magazine, February 2003


 

Democracy should be the champion of diversity. The word conjures in our minds the image of a Greek city state, where each citizen has his own, considered and educated opinion. They talk, they listen, and then they vote. A decision prevails, and we progress.

However, some things have happened to our world over the past thousand years. First, the democratic system has been clogged by the powerful and the ignorant, who are often the same people. The economic system, however amoral, has allowed some people to buy louder opinions. Second, we have created an education system that manages to yield citizens who have no discernable opinions of their own, nor the tools of imagination, inquiry and logic that will allow them to form some.

Now, then, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ has become manifest. Instead of a constant stream of dialogue between people and between groups, we have a partially-elective oligarchy that itself exists only to influence the opinion of a single mind. If that mind is already made up, all dialogue is pointless.

Other opinions are voiced, but even if they are heard the very nature of the system ensures they cannot be heeded. Democracy has switched sides, and instead of being the shield of diversity, it has become the tool of homogenisation. We have a rubbish excuse for democracy, and it is not something to be valued, or fought for.

The politics surrounding the war in Iraq, and the protests against it, illustrate these points—if we have to resort to massive direct action, why have democracy? Our opinions count for nothing, because those who didn’t have an opinion at election time are happy to let the oligarchy think for them now.

What has been forgotten at every level of the debate is that democracy should be more than just voting for a president. ‘Democracy’ in Zimbabwe means just that, and it has created grotesque results. In Iraq we send our brothers and sisters to kill and to die in their thousands, in the name of that same confused ideal. We do not know what we are fighting for, and so our humanity is eroded in the deserts of Arabia.

What is to be done, then? Democracy should be reclaimed. Once again, it should be about engaging in rational, critical and political discourse at every level, not just in Westminster and Washington. Debate should not be run by the national media but by every group of people in the country. The group of souls who label themselves students are not doing this, despite being seeped in the diverse and many subjects they study. This is shameful. Only when democracy has be reclaimed, and real plurality of thought is really considered, can true diversity flourish.

We cannot ask for a simple paradigm shift. Such a change in the way we conduct our lives, our interactions, will take generations. But the seeds must be planted now, for our grandchildren will reap what we sow. This is our project, and with this modest offering it begins.