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.

At least it wasn’t Homer

From Chinadaily.com

From Chinadaily.com

Marge Simpson ‘posed nude’ for Playboy Magazine last week. Sounds like spoof news from The Onion or Daily Mash, I know. But much of last week’s news had a spoofy flavour. Like Prince Philip ranting, in classic grumpy old man fashion, that ‘you practically have to make love to’ TV remote controls in order to get them to work, and NASA ‘bombing’ the moon.

Actually, Mrs Simpson (née Bouvier), one of the lead characters on TV’s longest-running sitcom (and a cartoon) did not ‘pose nude’ as the Telegraph (and Independent) said – the ‘photoshoot’ only contains ‘implied nudity’; and NASA did not ‘bomb’ the moon (the Telegraph and others again), just crashed a rocket into it in search of ice.

Obviously, newspapers using misleading words to make stories more interesting is about as surprising as the fact that Prince Philip really did say that stuff about remotes. And when we’re misled about cartoons (who, let’s face it, are no Jessica Rabbit), it probably doesn’t matter. But when it’s about the Archbishop of Canterbury and the war in Iraq, it does.

Last week, The Sun ran a story that claimed: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday hijacked a service honouring the sacrifice of British troops in Iraq – to spout an anti-war rant.’ And that sounds awful, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. Or at least, only as true as Marge posing nude, judging by The Sun’s own quotes.

The Archbishop ‘hijacked’ the proceedings by being their main preacher. Which is like saying David Cameron ‘hijacked’ the recent conference in Manchester with an attack on Labour.

From getreligion.org

From getreligion.org

And his disgusting ‘anti-war rant’? It included this venom: ‘Reflecting on the years of the Iraq campaign, we cannot say that no mistakes were ever made.’ Shocking, I know. He also suggested that we should think more carefully the next time we were asked to send young people to die. Which is crazy, right? I mean, as I’m sure The Sun would agree, give them better equipment, but don’t think too hard about starting wars. It is far less dramatic.

The Sun’s story not only suggested that the content of the speech was inappropriate for an occasion where our troops’ sacrifice was honoured, it suggested that to make such a point at all was disrespectful to those who’d died. And this is an argument and an attitude that is trotted out all too often when nations have been at war.

But, would German citizens have been wrong in 1939 to question whether it was right to send their young men to die for their Fuhrer? Were the veterans of the Vietnam ‘police action’ who bitterly protested the continuing war being disloyal to their living and fallen comrades? No. Because if young men and women are going to die serving a country they have committed to obey, it is up to those of us who are safe at home, not facing the danger they face, to make sure that they are not being sacrificed for nothing, or for goals that are far from righteous.

When the patriot Rudyard Kipling wrote, in 1918: ‘If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied,’ he expressed something that is too often still true today. That truth is most relevant when we honour the fallen. Pretending that is not the case or refusing at least to ask the question is not something that any Christian should be comfortable with. Regardless of what any paper says.

And, yeah, here’s who i would have picked:

War. uh. What is it good for (again)?

On Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell once revealed that he had done a voiceover for an Army recruitment video. Amstell’s one-liner, which he apparently said to the director of the ad, ran something like: ‘Can you absolutely assure me that this advert will not lead to any middle-class kids getting killed?’ Big laugh. But, to quote the American catch-phrase: It’s funny ’cause it’s true. The modern history of war has involved far more working class young people dying for their country (or some more numinous end) than those who our society has considered as having ‘prospects’.

Last week, as we learned that 15 British troops had been killed in Afghanistan in just 10 days, the question of their background or relative ‘prospects’ did not come up. Nor should it have done. The needless death of one young person before they have had the opportunity to live a full life is appalling, whether he could have been a doctor or a construction worker.

FRom nowpublic.com

FRom nowpublic.com

But at some point, if we are to be active citizens, allowing our faith to inform our political voice, we will need to ask whether this, and many more of our assumptions about war, are right.

As one followed news coverage of and comment on the Afghanistan deaths last week, one could have been forgiven for thinking that all that mattered was whether these brave young people had big enough helicopters and good enough cars. As if a war can be fought without people dying. As if there is a level of ‘equippedness’ that would mean an 18-year-old being shot at or whose car has been bombed in Helmand province will have a 100% chance of going back to his mum alive.

The fact is, young people die in war because that is what has been planned. Why has Britain not put more troops on the ground? Because someone in charge has done the numbers and come up with a sum that says that with the likely rate of deaths, a certain number of troops will be enough to outlast and overpower the enemy without being completely wiped out. This is one of the calculations that happens before any war or battle. Sure, we keep the numbers of our dead soldiers to a minimum, but the acceptability that some will die is fundamental to all military planning. So when politicians try to play a blame game (even using the very real issue of equipment) it seems disingenuous. Because, for the most part, they were in favour of sending these kids to die. Perhaps not the ones in the news this week, but certainly some of them.

Please understand: I am not an absolute pacifist. I can’t say, with Hitler in our recent past, that military action (and yes, the violence that entails) is never necessary.

From favianna.com

From favianna.com

But I am with Larry Norman, who reminded Christians in the 70s that the Vietnam war constituted ‘sacrificing your children’ and trying to ‘kill all your enemies.’ And I think we should remember that when considering whether a war is worth it.

I’m not saying it’s a simple question. But when the old, wealthy men and women (on both sides of the House) who make the decisions to send people who have barely finished being children to be slaughtered (and, let’s never forget, to slaughter the children of others) start trying to use deaths for political capital, I want them to be conscripted to the front line.

Want to do more than get angry?

Here is a list of charities that take care of British servicemen and women who have given limbs, psychological well-being, or just time in very dangerous situations.

My personal recommendation is this one.

You can also give towards reconstruction in Afghanistan here.

And please don’t forget the other side.

OKAY, so that was quite serious. But this is quite funny:

Muslims are the New Jews

Antisemitic propaganda, 1936. http://www.ushmm.org

Like Jews in Germany, 1930, European Muslims are in danger. Germany at that point was a country that was too civilized, too great a culture, home of great thinkers and a great history to ever be suspected of an eventual descent into barbarism and animal hate that would result in the death of millions because of their race. Similarly, we assume, according to the cliché, that it ‘can’t happen here’. And in a narrow sense it can’t. But that’s because we only imagine ‘it’ happening to the same victims.

In 1930, when Hitler’s party started having more success, it was riding on a number of factors, but one of them was a rise in anti-semitism. There was a mood, spreading across Europe, of increasing intolerance for Jews as a race. Scapegoating, blatant racist lies (the global Jewish conspiracy, for one), suspicion of their insular culture and the unwillingness of the orthodox to fully integrate into European society all played a part.

From faithfreedom.org

From faithfreedom.org

Can you think of another racio-religious community in Europe that is also suspected, as a group, of plots and conspiracies to destroy our way of life, who are regularly and publicly criticized for failing to integrate culturally, whose insularity and zealous religious fervour are a source of fear and suspicion for even the politically moderate masses?

I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the Swedes.

Last week’s Daily Express ran a huge, front-page headline that demanded that the Muslim Burkha be banned in Britain, as some politicians are seeking in France. Not quite Kristallnacht, I admit, but the fact that there was no general outcry against such a vehemently anti-Muslim statement is telling of our culture’s mood.

The burkha issue is as silly as it is an example of anti-Islamic feeling. Why s

hould Muslim women not be allowed to choose whatever they wish to wear, in order to express their religious convictions? Are the Express (or the rest of the tabloids) brave enough to demand that orthodox Jews cut off their sideburns and take off their hats in order to integrate better into Britain? I didn’t think so. Xenophobes are, by definition,

cowards.

But it’s disconcerting that we can’t see their faces, you say. Diddums. Get over it. This point is made often on radio call-in shows and on internet comment sites, which kinda proves that it is stupid, no?

‘But what about the poor women who are pressured to wear the burkha by their husbands?’ some people ask. And that, I agree, is a terrible thing. And as soon as those champions of women’s rights find ways (or even bother trying) to prevent non-Muslim women from wearing (or, indeed not wearing) clothes in order to please husbands, boyfriends, potential mates or magazine style gurus, I’ll believe that they are motivated by something other than a dislike for Islam.

Am I saying Muslims are in danger of extermination within the decade? No. But as hateful, xenophobic rumours about the horrors of Islam ‘overrunning’ Britain (or France, or Germany) keep being perpetuated, I want you to see the similarity between these rumours (and the much-forwarded emails accompanying them) and those early German films, portraying Jews as vicious, subhuman, greedy and dangerous. I’m pointing this out so that when political decisions (be they to do with limitations on citizenship or wars against Muslim peoples) are made, you will know what you are doing when you do not speak out. So that you cannot say ‘I didn’t know.’

Update: Click here to read a story about the mood of intolerance spilling over.

Is Britain evil?

most popular storiesAs Iran exploded, Spain experienced another terrorist attack and a Somali MP was executed by militants in his own capital last week, do you know what the three most popular stories on the BBC website were? ‘Duck charms restaurant customers’; ‘Squirrel nuts over builder friend’ and a medieval recipe for cooking porpoise that is now available online.

At the same time, Gordon Brown was objecting, in the strongest possible terms, to the Iranian supreme leader calling Britain ‘evil’. Evil we may not be, but shallow and indifferent we apparently are.

But does that justify the Iranian jibe? The easy response is to write it off as one of the ravings of a madman or to become offended at the unprovoked insult. Or, as some lefties and fundamentalist Christians might: agree with him. Personally, I do not. But,why is the Ayatollah being so rude? Is there any truth in his accusation?

t-shirt available at Zazzle.com

t-shirt available at Zazzle.com

Britain’s actions towards Iran in the past could easily be filed under ‘evil’. Questionable acts do not an evil country make, but it understandably colours the Iranian view of Britain. Britain for years ‘owned’ and siphoned off Iran’s oil reserves (through the corporation that was to become BP), the proceeds never reaching the people of Iran. Britain propped up the oppressive regime of the Shah, and when a popularly elected Prime Minister nationalised oil revenues and started improving the position of ordinary people, Britain convinced the CIA to topple him and reinstate the dictator. When the United States designated Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’ despite Iranian help in ‘defeating’ the Taleban, Britain was America’s greatest ally, with a foreign policy and attitude effectively indistinguishable on the matter. You see, we’ve called them evil too.

Image from bristol.indymedia.org

Image from bristol.indymedia.org

Ah, you say, but that is all just history. But what is the source of most Britons’ distrust of and antipathy towards Iran (an antipathy evident in media coverage and public feedback)? Is it really the (very real) political repression and human rights abuses in the Islamic republic? If it is, it is odd that we don’t have such strong opinions about Saudi Arabia or any number of other British allies with similar records. Or does it have more to do with images of hostage-taking and angry shouting from clerics that are also ‘history’? Is it really about Iran’s support for armed groups in Lebanon and Palestine? If so, that seems an uncharacteristic interest in the local affairs of foreign countries from a nation that seems in reality to be more concerned with squirrels and ducks than suicide bombers abroad.

As, last week, Britain tried to remedy the crisis born of rampant capitalism by trying to ensconce itself more deeply in that fatally flawed philosophy (evidenced in increasing cases of economic hardship being met with further emphasis on private profit as a ‘solution’, at the expense of ordinary people in the museum, broadcasting or industrial sectors), the Ayatollah may have been wrong to call us evil. The beam in his own eye is, after all, great. But, then, he is not a Christian. And before we react indignantly we should examine how foolish, shallow, selfish and hypocritical we ourselves have become. We can focus on the falsehood in his one word, or choose to find the truth in the sentiment, repent, and be changed. Or we can surf the net for funny animals, eating slices of porpoise and pretending everything’s fine.

When Kangaroos Attack

‘It’s a lunatic ninja coming through the window!’ That’s what Australian, Beat Ettlin, apparently thought as a kangaroo burst through the window of his Canberra home two weeks ago. To be fair, he was half asleep and a marsupial Chuck Norris had just started a home-invasion, but the fact is, he was wrong. And, by gum, if that isn’t a neat way to tie together some stories from the past week: how people have got it wrong.

It sounds rather negative, I know. But, if we can apparently have ‘elephants’ in almost every room these days, then I propose that we might also have ‘ninjas at the window’ – unsubstatiated but popularly held incorrectitudes and wrongnesses that, by simple and ubiquitous repetition, can become a kind of ‘wikipinion’, if we’re not careful. And as people who hopefully love truth, we should recognise them.

A massive ‘ninja’ was revealed to be a kangaroo last week, when Sean Hodgson was released from prison, where he had languished for 27 years. Hodgson was convicted of a murder he did not commit. There are several ninjas at the window here. The fact Hodgson was convicted at all was clearly wrong, though to be fair to the courts, DNA techniques were not available at the time. But when Hodgson’s defenders attempted, ten years ago, to get evidence re-examined with new science, they were either lied to or given a bungled answer that prevented further investigation. Ninja. Perhaps the greatest ninja is the idea of bringing back the death penalty whenever something in the news (like the horrific Fritzl case last week) arouses public ire. Clearly our legal system sometimes gets things very wrong. Giving it the power to kill is as stupid as allowing a vast majority of people to carry guns.

Another spectacular ninja peered through the window of the Nuclear deterrent issue last week. A spokesman from the defence community, championing the view that the Trident nuclear weapons system should be replaced and updated, trotted out the usual nonsense about how it was important that ‘moral nations’ held weapons of mass destruction and prevented immoral nations from having them. That was, of course, a ninja. I know of no country, nation or race that any thinking Christian could consider particularly moral. Particularly not ones that go to war on false pretexts or oppress through trade. As Noam Chomsky points out, the only reason other nations do not commit the crimes the USA, Britain and Russia commit is because they lack the power to do so.

A related ninja popped up again when the pro-nuke eejit actually suggested that funding shortfalls for Trident could be bridged by taking money from elsewhere in the nation’s budget. You know, from grossly overfunded and unimportant sectors like health and education. It was a revelation to finally hear a hawkish commentator actually say such things out loud, but smart Christians must recognise such views as wrong wrong wrong.

Perhaps not an anti-ninja, but at least a positive point from last week’s news was the fact that most Christians didn’t riot in the streets when a cartoon of the Pope with a condom over his head was published. What remains to be seen, as we congratulate ourselves on how much more tolerant we are than Muslims, is what our more hot-headed congregants do when similar cartoons focus on Jesus. Prepare to repell ninjas!

Brown v Clarkson


Jeremy Clarkson is an overcompensating, climate-change-denying, right-wing moron. That’s got nothing to do with my column this week, I’ve just been waiting for him to give me an excuse.

Last week’s news was dominated by British workers striking in protest at UK jobs going to Italian and Portuguese contractors. Gordon Brown did little to help by having mouthed off about ‘British jobs for British workers’. Surreally, traditionally leftist trades unionists, supposedly committed to international solidarity with the ‘workers of the world’ were spouting ‘they’re stealing our jobs and wimmins’ rhetoric, more suited to the BNP, euroskeptics and, well… Clarkson.

Now, let’s be clear: the corporations in question have something to answer for. But it is not hiring people unfortunate enough to lack the God-given blessing of being born British. It’s that they were hiring contractors rather than long-term workers. And why are they doing this? Because it’s cheaper. Because contractors need less in the way of personal development, long-term investment and all that pesky ‘viewing them as human beings’ stuff. Their nationality is not (or at least shouldn’t be) important. The fact that jobs are being lost as a consequence of corporations putting profit over people, is.

Commuters trying to get to work last week

Commuters trying to get to work last week

This undervaluing of humanity was evident everywhere last week. As snow barred people’s way to work, many grumblers took to the airwaves, complaining bitterly of how much it was costing the economy, forgetting (or perhaps denying) that man is more than a factor of production, that life may consist of more than work and may enjoy added worth thanks to the occasional ‘snow day’. Luckily no Christian would make that mistake, would they?

Human beings lost out to more abstract concepts too last week. Judges who ordered that information be released from intelligence officials about a man who had been kidnapped and probably tortured (if President Obama is to be believed) by our allies, were met with a wall of non-compliance. Justice could not in this case be done because it might threaten our ‘special relationship’ with America. Human justice was ignored in favour of political expediency.

Possibly my favourite example of humanity being sold out was of Lt Colonel Owen McNally, a British officer arrested last week for ‘leaking sensitive information‘. What was the top secret information, and what nefarious power was receiving it? The figures were of civilian deaths caused by Britain and her allies in Afghanistan. They were leaked to a human rights organisation. Gosh, I’m glad such a dangerous traitor has been removed from society.

Our world is not generally okay with a few ‘bad apples’ spoiling it for everyone. A handful of bankers did not cause the current economic crisis – a system based of greed and propped up by injustice did. Britain will not be better when foreigners, contract workers or certain bosses leave. Torture and civilian deaths do not happen because some people overstep their bounds. Fundamentally we have forgotten that human beings are more important than profits, narrow concepts of nationhood or ‘the way we do things’.

Christians can see this. Are we saying anything? More importantly, are we modelling any alternatives? Or are we happy to let the world go on as it is, while we cuddle up warm at home, watching (the admittedly very funny and talented) Clarkson on the telly?