The attacks in Paris last night are horrifying in their death toll, the number of those injured and that fact that there was no conceivable offence which the victims had committed, apart, that is, from living in France. My prayers go with the families of those killed and injured, and with the people of Paris and of France who are coming to terms with the shock.
There are already a lot of idiot statements going around the web, and no doubt there will be many more in the future, but before I get to those, I find I am shocked not to have heard anything from the media about the bombings in Beirut and Baghdad before yesterday, and I suspect I might never have heard about them had it not been for the Paris attacks. Our media has failed us in this; lives do not matter less because they are in the Middle East than in Europe, or because they are those of people with a different religion or a different skin colour. Nor do they matter less because Beirut and Baghdad are far less shocked than is Paris, as they are more used to such atrocities – indeed, we should perhaps consider that Beirut and (in particular) Baghdad deserve special sympathy because there, the violence is more frequent and therefore more damaging to morale.
Some of those idiot statements have come from the French President, François Hollande, in various statements. He talks about severe measures, and about a war on terror, and did that even before anyone had claimed responsibility for the attacks. I can understand that a politician will feel the need to capture the mood of his country, and that that mood is one of wishing to have vengeance for the damage. A statesman, however (and I would have hoped that the president of a major European nation might have managed to achieve that status) would seek to guide the people rather than ride the wave of their anger, and precipitate action is one of the things which terrorists most hope to cause. He would acknowledge the anger, state that he shares it and talk about prevention of a future atrocity and taking measured steps against those ultimately responsible.
Let me start with “war on terror”. This is a ridiculous concept, almost as much so as a war on drugs (do I go out and shoot a few aspirin?). Wars are between sovereign nations, and the vast majority of terrorist groups are not acting on behalf of a sovereign state (though the military of many nations may be guilty of terror attacks themselves). Curiously, these attacks are possibly an exception, in that credit has been claimed by IS, who are de-facto a sovereign state, holding a large swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria. I think he would have been justified in principle in declaring war on Islamic State – I am even inclined to think that this meets the criteria necessary for starting a just war under Augustine’s and Aquinas’ principles (jus ad bellum). Of course, no-one wants to recognise IS as a state…
This topic, in fact, came up in last night’s Global Christian Perspectives webcast, in which Allan Bevere went into some detail about just war, and rightly pointed out that it is not just the issue of whether you go to war which is subject to moral principles (originally specifically Christian, but now in theory accepted as good argument in international law), but also whether the war is waged justly (jus in bello). If you cannot wage war justly, even if it is just to start a war, you have no moral alternative but to sue for peace or surrender, according to Augustine and Aquinas. Major principles are that there must be a reasonable prospect of success, and that you must not kill innocents.
There, I think we have huge difficulties, firstly in safeguarding innocents. Certainly, efforts to date in the “war on terror” have resulted in very large numbers of innocent casualties – many more innocents than terrorists, in fact. Unless we change our way of dealing with this (and there is really no alternative to “boots on the ground” given the lamentable accuracy of targeting from the air – this piece of idiocy from Allen West is actually right on point; I might think that he was a liberal speaking satirically if I didn’t know better), we will not possess “jus in bello” and cannot reasonably wage war even against IS.
Secondly, what remote possibility is there of ever declaring success? In particular, what possibility is there of success when we are not prepared to occupy (for an indefinite but no doubt very long period) even the states which we have held accountable for past terrorism? It is, of course, very widely appreciated that where you kill innocents in significant numbers, you actually create new terrorists in greater numbers than the reduction you tend to achieve, and certainly create more sympathy for the terrorists’ cause; certainly the terrorists understand this, and the overreaction is one of the outcomes they most desire. What possibility is there of success when prosecuting the “war” actually makes more new terrorists than it kills, and where significant numbers of them are living in states which have no responsibility for their actions, sometimes our own nations?
I recently linked again from facebook to my 2013 meditation on Remembrance Day, and the sentiments there are still entirely valid. If anything, though, the more I read the gospels, the less I think that Jesus would have approved any of the Just War concepts which Augustine came up with; he would not approve war at all. I am not quite at the point of being able to say that I would never support my country going to war in any circumstances (though I thoroughly approve Jeremy Corbyn’s undertaking that if he became Prime Minister, he would never order the use of nuclear weapons, and hope that the right wing and the media are wrong that this makes him unlelectable), but at the least, can we try to adhere to Just War principles?
I now realise that I missed something in my 2013 account. Although I rightly, I think, determined that no war my country had fought in the last 100 years or more had been just with the exception of World War II, I missed the fact that the way Britain fought the war emphatically did not meet just war standards, as we deliberately targeted civilian populations (first with the excuse that the Germans had first bombed London, which it proves was in error when a raid overshot industrial targets). I think I can therefore now say that we have not fought a completely just war at any time in history which I can think of.
I realise that in saying that, I am going completely against a lot of public mood, particularly at present in France. I will also probably make myself unpopular in many circles if I point out that the fact that my country, France and Spain have been targeted by Islamic terrorists follows our own actions in bombing and invading Islamic countries, and killing large numbers of innocent Muslims. It is, no doubt, difficult for someone whose home is bombed and whose family members are killed or maimed to appreciate that we were not waging war on them and that the correct action is not to come and bomb us.
I do not think that I would be inclined to accept the excuse of someone who killed my wife that she was “collateral damage”, for instance, though I would hope that my Christian principles would win out over my natural urge to do them at least as much damage in return, and if not them personally, then their families, their friends or those associated with them, or in paroxysms of grief, those who looked a bit like them or shared their politics or religion – it is scary what the frustration of powerlessness in the face of loss can do to human morality, what depths otherwise civilised people are prepared to sink to. I could here point out Rene Girard’s work on the futility of redemptive violence and his identification of the Crucifixion as the “last scapegoat”, after which we need not look to violence to redeem anything.
War is hell. It crucifies people and nations. We should do everything in our power to avoid it. And, if we are a Christian nation, or a nation whose sense of morality was forged in Christianity even if we have moved on from that belief, we should consider very seriously the injunction to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
France, however, is not feeling much like that at the moment (and who can blame them?). Feelings, however, do not have to become actions, and a statesman might point that out. On the back of that, there are some other stupid statements. “It’s because of all the refugees” is one obvious one. Well, despite the fact that I now hear that a Syrian man who is known to have come via Lesbos may be implicated (and I’m afraid I find that all too convenient to those arguing against the refugees), in general the refugees are trying to get away from the people who do these things. Christianity inherited from Judaism an obligation of hospitality towards the stranger, which Europe is not doing a very good job of upholding so far, and it would be a tragedy if the borders now closed completely, which is certainly what not a few people are suggesting. You might argue that Europe is post-Christian, but it has emerged out of Christianity and in theory still holds to largely Christian principles. It could be that the basic European principle of free movement of people within Europe (to which my country does not wholly subscribe) may be ending here, and that would be a tragedy for Europe and a victory for the terrorists. If you’re in the States, contemplate what the imposition of full border controls between the individual states would do to, for instance, the commute from New Jersey to New York…
Equally damaging is the suggestion that the attacks must be because of security failures, and therefore we should massively increase security measures. One of the things which makes Europe a great place to live, work and holiday in is that it is relatively free, we are not a set of police states, a set of nations obsessed with looking over our shoulders. If we lose that as a reaction to these attacks, again the terrorists have won. We also value free speech, and that would vanish under such a regime – in point of fact that has already been horribly eroded due to previous attacks (such as those on Charlie Hebdo, in central London and on trains in Madrid).
A statesman would say that there is a value in being European, a value created from our common beliefs in justice and mercy, tolerance, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of belief. He would suggest that if we react in such a way as to reduce those values, the terrorists have destroyed us. 8 men with guns and some explosives will have caused the destruction of the dream of a multi-national union of some 750 million people, and we will largely have done it to ourselves.
A Christian statesman might remind us that Jesus said “what you do to the least of these, you do to me”.