September 11 reflection

I really hope it’s not ‘too soon’, but you never know. ‘Too soon’, of course, is the response topical jokes about catastrophes sometimes receive when the public mood is not quite ready for light to be made of whatever disaster, tragedy or scandal is being targeted by a comedian. It was also the response to several statements, articles and speeches written by very serious people in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September. Several columnists, activists and philosophers were vehemently criticized within the first few months following the September 11th attacks, for daring to ask certain questions or make certain observations about the events. And even now, as I consider bringing them up nine years later, I suspect some people will be muttering: ‘too soon’ and wishing I’d be quiet.

But that is simply because ‘soonness’ has nothing to do with why people objected then (as they do now) to certain things being said about 9-11. It’s the same impulse that makes ordinarily rational people object to a mosque being built near the site of the Twin Towers (in which a Muslim prayer room operated peacefully for many years). Because of the great number of people killed in that area, on that day, both have taken on a kind of sacred character for many. This is understandable for the friends and relatives in particular of those who died, but it should not preclude us from asking a question that several people were lambasted for asking nearer to the time: was there anything fundamentally more important about the people killed on September 11 than all other people?

Philosophers and critics who pointed out that while the events of September 11 were tragic and horrible they were not that out of keeping with what was experienced by the rest of the world were attacked for being outrageous, disloyal and speaking ‘too soon’. Is it still too soon now to ask why we still care so much about the 3,000 victims of that attack while even then we could hardly muster as much sympathy for the 20,000 who died in India that January? Is it too soon to ask why every civilian casualty in America should be venerated and mourned, while in our wars in the Middle East they should not even be counted?

Is it still too soon to genuinely ask the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ without resorting to cartoon answers that assume madness, fanaticism or unadulterated evil and take no factors into account like the historic and economic oppression of Muslim countries by western powers or of the millions of children that had died in Iraq due to American sanctions and been deemed ‘acceptable’ by the US Secretary of State?

Is it still too soon to point out that American lives (and British lives, for that matter) are not nor have they ever been, more valuable than those of civilians or combatants in states with whom we are at war or in regions where our friends or companies commit misdeeds? Is it still too soon to ask Christians in particular to recognise this fact?

Is it too soon to compare the motives of the hijackers to the motives of those who pushed for the Iraq invasion for moral worth?

Is it still too soon to start comparing the numbers of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, through military conflict and subsequent chaos, on both sides, to the numbers killed on September 11?

I’m not saying that all or even any of these questions would in any way justify the taking of human life (on September 11 2001 or any other day). I am also not saying that the dead from the Twin Towers should not be mourned, and that with respect and dignity. But the ‘war on terror’ continues. Iraq and Afghanistan will live for generations with the consequences of the actions undertaken by governments we elected in response to 9-11. If we don’t ask questions now, or some time soon, we never will. And we will make the same awful mistakes again.


Rumpole and the ever-eroding liberties

There’s a great series of radio plays on the BBC iPlayer. Called Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the first one is both amusing and profound (as well as being really good radio).

John Mortimer’s greatest creation faces the challenge of trying to defend a client who is not allowed to know the charges he is facing.

An excellent exploration of the idiocy and injustice inherent in much anti-terror legislation in Britain today, and funny to boot.

Ah, Dubya, all is forgiven. *hic*

beyond the raveI feel unsettled. Horrified, even. I think I’m in shock. You see, I just read an excerpt from an interview that made me feel sympathy for George W Bush. I’ve washed and washed but I can’t seem to get clean. Last week, papers reported how President Bush had spoken rather candidly on television about his past struggles with excessive drinking. I’m not ashamed to admit that his candour and humanity, his willingness to admit weakness, moved me. So much so, in fact, that I had the urge to forgive his political wrong-headedness, the many who have died because of his foreign and economic policies and forgive his giving evangelicals a bad name. And maybe buy him a drink.

It’s the way you feel in horror movies, when the monster turns to look mournfully out of a window, a single tear tracing a silvery line down its disfigured face, as it watches children playing happily in the snow outside. from Willis O'BrienTo shout: ‘Kill! Kill it now! Hit it with the ashtray! Feed it unsaturated fats! Stab it in the head with a fork while it’s not looking!’ at that point is considered bad form. We’re encouraged, instead, to enjoy the complexity, the grown-upness of stories that supposedly go beyond simplistic black and white moralising and finding beauty in paradox (as Jeremy Clarkson would rather die choking on a Greenpeace flyer than say).

It’s a technique that reflects a larger socio-philosophical trend: moral relativism that reduces the world to one big ethical grey-area, and one that will present problems to Christians. We’ll see it, I’m sure, in the latest Hammer Horror vampire film, Beyond the Rave, which papers last week told us will be released on the internet, but about some issues we seem to have a phobia of paradox and complexity. Take the tiny two-column piece in the Independent on Sunday last week about Osama bin Laden’s son, Omar.

Omar talks about his dad as a ‘good father’ and of how Osama loved barbecues, flowers and ‘beautiful desert trips’. He tells of how his father would read him ‘really lovely poems with his calm, soothing voice’ and how he would carry his son on his shoulders after a game of footy. It’s a side of Osama bin Laden that, I think you’ll agree, we don’t hear much about. Why? Because we don’t want to. And why is that? Because he is the enemy. And it’s easier to fight enemies who are monsters rather than humans. It avoids the Hammer Horror scenario of sympathy for the vampire losing you valuable seconds in despatching him. But those of us called to love our enemies (and call me old fashioned, but I count people who want to kill me as enemies) would probably find that command easier if we tried to see them as human beings, flawed as we are and with differing political agendas, but every bit as much made in the image of God as we are.

Seeing George Dubya or Osama the Terrifying (depending on your politics) with as much empathy as we muster for King Kong, Frankenstein, or whatever poor creature crawls out of the proverbial black lagoon would make it easier to love them. We must always remember that a monster is a monster. But identifying that flicker of humanity would also help us to see past the hate, self-interest and dehumanising rhetoric that make war, torture and intolerance possible and engage like humans over the real issues. But when it comes to doing the right thing, I think sometimes we don’t want easy, we want an excuse.


Bush drunk? never! This video puts that little myth to bed like the bad girl she is:



Hamasteopaths? Medical-Qaeda?

‘Doctor, doctor! I think I’m a sheep!’

‘Really? That’s baaaad…’

Ah, doctor-doctor jokes. They’re just not going to be the same after last week’s revelations of suspected bomb-plotters being on the NHS payroll. Now it will all be: ‘Doctor, doctor! I’m a wig-wam, I’m a teepee!’ ‘Your problem is you’re too tense. Take three gas-canisters and two thousand nails, go to Glasgow airport and call me in the morning. Allahu Achbar!’ (Two tents, geddit?)

And that is, I think you will agree, less funny than the original. What is kinda funny is a BUPA study that last week showed NHS consultants get private treatment themselves—and that was before we started worrying that all our nice young foreign doctors are potential Jihadis. Yes, BUPA, of all people, saying that the NHS is not up to scratch. What possible motivation could they have for saying that? The point is that last week’s news was full of shock and horror that doctors could have been involved in the recent failed bomb-attacks.

BBC Radio 4 had one of its reporters talking in tones of horror about how foreign doctors working in the UK are only screened and checked in terms of their qualifications and medical skills. Now I am all for letting more of the single, pretty ones in, but that is not what she meant at all. She went on to complain that currently there are no procedures in place to check on foreign doctors’ political sympathies. Because that would be relevant to saving lives, apparently. And acceptable in a society where freedom of conscience is protected.

How, asked other commentators, could people who had sworn to save lives end up trying to take lives? Did their Hippocratic oaths mean nothing to them? I am inclined to agree. Yet, if I have no fundamental problem with a trained British doctor joining the military, not in his professional capacity but to become a fighting soldier, should I ask the same questions of him? No. because, as the old saying goes: ‘there are no anaesthetists in foxholes.’

Much comment also revolved around the fact that this plot challenged the popular profile of a terrorist as an uneducated disaffected youth, easily manipulated and with nothing to live for. Another BBC commentator made the startling discovery that terrorists could be ‘intelligent, well-educated professionals’ and sounded perplexed. And if you see terrorists as madmen or dupes, then perplexing it must be. If you see them as people with a combination of deep (if, in my opinion misguided) religious faith and political determination, backed into a corner by a sense of powerlessness and overwhelming injustice at world events, it doesn’t seem so crazy. Just terrible.

Because killing innocent people, no matter what your cause, is terrible. And if we say that, then we cannot dismiss as ‘terrorist rantings’ their feeling that in Iraq and Afghanistan our own society has similarly erred. As Christians we cannot and must not support their methods, even if we sympathise with their frustration. But equally we have a duty to listen to and try to understand the reasons why decent, educated people would do this. As people of another absolute faith, who subscribe to higher standards than this society’s humanism and materialism and who also take martyrs as heroes, we are also extremists. But because we are called to love and forgiveness, we have a duty to help our secular society understand better where those less loving extremists are coming from, so that the violence can be stopped. Trying to censor political thought or continuing in the illusion that people must be mad or stupid to hate us will at best get us nowhere and at worst get us killed.

Iraq and a hard place

Dick Cheney is a card. He kills me (figuratively, obviously—I have never been hunting with him). Last week he suggested that the increase in intensity of the fighting in Iraq was due to insurgents trying to “break the will of the American people,” as American mid-term elections approach. This is frankly hilarious. To badly paraphrase Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (essential commentary on current events in my opinion), I do find it a little hard to believe that Al Quaeda and Iraqi insurgents prefer one bunch of rich white guys who see them as the enemy over another. The assumption Mr Cheney makes of course is that a Democrat win is somehow a victory for terrorism as well. Which, if I were a Democrat, I would take exception to. It is silly logic, not just because of the monstrous claim underlying it (the Opposition are traitors) but because Democrats, while scoring political points off their Republican President with the war, were for the most part quite happy to support him when the invasion was first mooted. Of course the big news from the States from last week was not this sleight but John Kerry’ s unbelievably inept “joke” that students who did not get good grades could end up in Iraq. President Bush took offence on behalf of the military, which, incidentally, is recalling or legally summoning thousands of ‘inactive servicemen’ to serve in Iraq as you read this. Military recruiters also seem to be intensifying their activities, according to reports, often resorting to cold-calling high-school students (whose names have to be supplied by law), recruiting at unemployment centres and falsifying medical tests in order to meet growing targets. While Kerry, Bush and Cheney bickered in the States, over here Tories and strange bedfellows, the Welsh and Scots, were sniping at poor Tony last week too, demanding an inquiry into reasons for going to war. Many Christians who opposed going to war in the first place and who long for an end to the slaughter of young people on both the occupying and indigenous sides might greet this news with acclamation. But we must be careful. The call for an inquiry and British military calls for a withdrawal warrant not only practical but moral consideration. Time does not change moral imperatives but it does change situations. I do not believe that it was right to invade Iraq, but neither do I believe we can act like yobs at a house-party who trash the furniture, break all the windows and then say “this place is a mess, let’s leave,” or even worse: “we’re not wanted”. We have a duty to repair some of the damage our war has done if any of the platitudes about concern for the Iraqi people we have used as justifications are to sound even vaguely credible and we need to make sure we do not leave merely because it is getting too expensive. Expense was also in the papers last week concerning a Birmingham council worker who The Mirror deemed to be overpaid (he got £90,000 a year). I too think this is a bit steep for changing lightbulbs, but I think the outrage comes less from the fact the worker was off sick and more from the fact we don’t believe blue-collar work is worth as much as the efforts of office workers or lawyers. This is classist, prejudiced and wrong. It seems more sensible to pay people like bin men more than the likes of me, since I get to sit in a heated office all day and would hate to do their job. But c’est la vie. At least they are not in Iraq.





Fighting Terror With Irony

Defeating terrorists with irony, now there’s an idea. Theodore Kaczynski is facing his most awful punishment yet. Kaczynski is the so-called Unabomber who killed three people and injured twenty others between the 70s and the 90s as part of a one-man terror campaign focused on his hatred of technology. He may be facing the rest of his life behind bars, but a recent decision by a judge that made news last week is probably not going to make life feel any better. The judge ordered that the Unabomber’s possessions, seized on his arrest, be sold at public auction to contribute to restitution for his victims. But here’s the good part. The auction is going to take place online. Using the internet to make profit off the Unabomber is like using fines paid by animal rights activist to buy a fur coat. You know it’s wrong, you know it’s mean, but there’s just something so right about it.

By the same token, if Al Q’aida are paying attention, one thing has got to be bugging them more than anything. The people who chose the Twin Towers, symbol of western capitalism, as their prime target have got to hate that Hollywood is now cashing in. With two major motion pictures dealing with the events of September 11 raking in big bucks for studios that are part of the American financial juggernaut that also owns countless oilfields and pays bejillions of dollars into both Republican and Democrat campaign funds, it is clear what we must do. We must deliver an ultimatum: If you keep attacking us, we will keep making films. I know what you’re thinking. This is blackmail.

Home Secretary John Reid would disapprove too. Last week he dismissed an open letter from Muslim leaders that suggested that British foreign policy was making it hard for moderate Muslims to fight extremism (and actually fuelled it) as “a dreadful misjudgment”. The letter which was disconcertingly not written by an Imam with a hook, an eye-patch or anything else denoting a comic-book villain, was signed by three MPs and three peers as well as 38 groups. Mr Reid (who was echoed by Michael Howard in yet another step towards the inevitable fusion of the Labour and Conservative parties) said that the UK would never let it’s policies be dictated by terrorists. And of course he is right.

But isn’t it a little disingenuous to equate the suggestion that some of our policies may make people angry (rightly or wrongly) with handing over power to nutters with bombs? Do we really believe that former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s comments that the half a million children starved to death by sanctions against Iraq were “worth it” in 1996 had no effect on people pondering the ethics of killing thousands of Americans a few years later? Do the actions of abortion doctors really have nothing to do with the actions of those Christians who shoot them? Are Israel’s actions in Lebanon really nothing to do with those of Hammas? A link justifies nothing. But pretending there is no link, pretending, like someone denying climate change, that what I do has nothing to do with the problem, is not just willfully blind, it’s dangerous. It reduces the area for debate and diminishes the possibility of discovering the truth. If our only plan is killing all our enemies, as a Christian I fear we are doomed to failure. Irony is not going to stop the killing. I am afraid an act of contrition won’t either. But closing our eyes to our own failings will only leave us blind to danger too.