9/11 and some cliches from Westerns

This is an expanded and altered version of a response to a post by Henry Neufeld on the Energion Discussion Network.

We have just had another anniversary of 9/11, and been reminded of the tragedy of the many people killed in the hijacked airliners and in the World Trade Centre. But we have also been reminded of another, ongoing tragedy.

I look back on what followed 9/11 with huge sadness. Although what I say here might appear to reflect mostly on the USA, it should be remembered that the UK has assisted in most of these actions and, when it hasn’t, cheered from the sidelines.

Firstly, much of the response to 9/11 has been military, and the more I read the gospels, the less I can see Jesus sanctioning any form of aggressive violence, still less the extremes of violence which occur in war; some of the very many people killed or maimed since 9/11 in the name of the “War on Terror” may have been enemies (many were not), but Jesus told us to love our enemies, and love is not conveyed by bombs or bullets.

I write this as someone who used to be very keen on military history, and who was an enthusiastic (and fairly successful) player of wargames. Although I’ve never served in the military, I’ve had friends who were, and have worked together with military men during my days as a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor. Sun Tsu and Clausewitz are on my bookshelf. I’ve a pretty good idea of how to fight wars and win. And, under the influence of Jesus, I can see my trajectory ending up with the pacifist stance of the Quakers or the Mennonites – I’m not there yet, as I still cling to the concept that some degree of self-defence might occasionally be justified, but I can see the writing on the wall for my impulse to meet violence with violence, instead of with love.

Secondly, it is abundantly clear from the current refugee crisis that the actions taken have caused an humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Most of the refugees come from those places targeted in the course of the War on Terror – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and a number of lesser targets. Societies have been destroyed, millions of innocent people have been made homeless and destitute.

Putting aside pacifist and even humanitarian considerations for a moment, and reverting to my old self, thinking of the military practicalities, if something was to be done, it seems to me that it should have been a SMART task, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. I think almost every action taken since then as part of the “war on terror” fails at least one of them, and in particular Iraq failed them all. There was no clear aim, there was no way in which success could be measured, the objective of creating a stable democratic society was not achievable in any event and has manifestly failed catastrophically, it attacked a country which was actually an enemy of Al Quaeda and was therefore irrelevant, and there was no end point in sight – and there still isn’t. Afghanistan might, perhaps, have been relevant, as Al Quaeda was based there, but the objectives were unspecific, impossible to achieve or measure and although troops have substantially been withdrawn now, it is clear that the only way to secure any of the objectives which were articulated after the event would have been to stay there in force indefinitely. Arguably, the target ought to have been Saudi Arabia

It may be that revenge (or merely a desire to lash out at random) was not actually a dominant motive, but what has happened since looks strangely like the actions of a rather uncoordinated giant in a bar fight who, when punched by surprise, attacks the nearest people he doesn’t like the look of and flails about doing huge violence, often to those who are unconnected with the injury and merely happen to be available targets. Often he hurts himself as much as he hurts those around him. We’ve all seen that cliche in Westerns, I suspect…

As I touched on in the recent GCP episode, the anniversary has this time come as we are remembering the events of World War II; in particular, I’ve been watching a set of programmes on the Blitz, during which Nazi Germany destroyed much of many of our cities, mostly during 1941/2.

This has forcibly recalled to me the problems with tit-for-tat actions – the Blitz started in 1940 when German bombers attacking on one account the London industrial and dock zones and on another RAF airfields overshot and bombed residential areas in the East End of London; in return, Churchill ordered the bombing of Berlin, and Hitler reciprocated by promising to level London. This tit-for-tat bombing of civilian populations continued throughout the war (although from the German side it lessened considerably between 1941 and 1943, and “The Blitz” properly refers to the bombing of London in 1940/41), including the almost complete flattening of the city of Coventry here, and of course Hamburg, Dresden and Leipzig in Germany. We ended up killing about 10 times as many civilians as the Germans managed to.

It also recalled the fact that in order to stand against Hitler, the country had to become far more authoritarian and, for a while, an effective police state – which were two of the things we were fighting for freedom from. We became a lot more like our enemy.

The bombing of the East End, which was a mistake, was also an opportunity for Churchill to cast the Germans in a bad light for the purposes of propaganda – they were particularly despicable as they had bombed civilians. Of course, the British response was to become even more despicable as we joined in with gusto and escalated the scale – and the German propaganda machine, of course, picked up on that…

For propaganda purposes, it was also important to Churchill to show that we were not intimidated by the “terror attack” (and how else can one characterise the bombing of civilians), and by and large we rose to the occasion and believed the propaganda. The terror was therefore ineffective to break the will of the people, and that has been the story with most terror attacks since then. By the time the propagandists have finished with their spin, the main effect is to make the victims hate the aggressors, or hate them more.

Since 9/11, both our countries have become markedly more xenophobic (and, dare I say it, trigger happy), we have become more surveilled and far less free in many ways than we were beforehand. The pattern seems to me clear, that in trying to preserve freedom, democracy and tolerance, we lose freedom, democracy and tolerance. If we allow this to continue happening, the terrorists have won; they have destroyed our societies by our own efforts.

“But we had to do something” is the cry which springs to mind. But did we?It seems to me that although the devastation of 9/11 and the wanton slaughter of civilians of 7/7 were appalling, and the natural reaction is to want to hit back, actually in comparison with the size and strength and population of the USA and the UK, those were pinpricks. We could have “turned the other cheek”, and (as one version of that sentiment continues) by so doing heaped coals of fire upon their heads.

Frustration is an amazing producer of anger and badly conceived actions, though, and we should not have allowed ourselves to succumb to that.

This is not “showing weakness”; the weak man strikes out blindly and reactively when provoked, the strong man can absorb the blow and consider what course is the best – and that may be to do nothing.

We could, perhaps, also have wondered what we had done to make ourselves the target for such an action; a reading of Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God” would reveal quite a lot of interest, although we would probably not want to cease from trying to export our cultures as well as our other products to the Islamic world as a result.

There is, however, one simple lesson we can take from another cliche of Westerns. Don’t sell guns to the Indians. By “Indians” here, I mean any of the countries of the region, and in that I include Israel, which may in theory be a western-style democracy in a region of theocracies and dictatorships, but which in practice acts like a tribal theocracy itself much of the time, much as the Boers of South Africa eventually came to act like another African tribe, maintaining hegemony by force and exclusion. From the point of view of Islam, it is a Western intrusion into a historically Islamic area which is maintained there by force, and which oppresses its Palestinian subjects horribly.

I look at hugely negative reactions in both the UK and the USA to significant Muslim migration into our countries, and see an echo of how the Muslim world must see Israel.

However, I don’t just target Israel here. We sell to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Quatar and the other Gulf States, which are not democracies, and which are equally regarded by some Muslims (notably Al Quaeda) as regimes to be combated. We have also sold variously to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to Al Quaeda offshoots and even at one point to ISIS.

Don’t sell guns to the Indians. You’ll regret it.

One Response to “9/11 and some cliches from Westerns”

  1. Eyre Lines » Blog Archive » 9/11 and afterwards Says:

    […] of that day; as I finish writing this, there’s someone on the radio talking about it. I wrote at some length about my reaction to our military incursions in the Middle East which stemmed from 9/11 some years […]

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