Prime Minister, you say you are ‘disgusted’ by the beheadings of journalists recently carried out by IS. If only we could take that for granted. If only you did not feel that you had to tell us. Preferred that it were a safe assumption. Preferred that we were given credit for our intelligence. Treated like adults.
Public decapitations filmed for propaganda purposes are disturbing, shocking reminders of the darkest parts of the human condition, the barbarism and atrocity of war. The taunting and gloating of the young men carrying out the executions confront and disgust us. But let’s not let moral indignation supplant our reasoned understanding of this latest hideous brutality.
Yes, Mr Abbott, most of us are disgusted. Just as we are disgusted and ashamed to be denying basic human rights in our lethal detention centres and fetid camps where we pen up asylum seekers for indefinite periods before they are processed. Whatever processed means. It seems to include untimely and preventable death through neglect.
But thank you for sharing. We see it now. You do seem to have a blind spot. A disturbing moral blindness in many areas. Perhaps you are wise when you feel you do need to tell us. Duly noted. Just don’t expect us to take it as gospel.
Allow your electorate some intelligence. Credit us with some faculty of reason.
Prime Minister, you appear highly selective in your outrage. Where, for example, is your moral outrage over Saudi beheadings of women? Six women have been decapitated by sword this year. The public floggings of women? Or could it be that you voice moral indignation whenever it’s political expedient? When it helps your cause?
Over the last year, Saudis have executed eighty people. Twelve were women. Most were decapitated in public. Last August a mother and daughter were beheaded before an audience of men in a Dharan market. It was alleged the mother had colluded with her daughter to kill her husband. Saudi beheadings are typically not publicised for fear of Western censure.
Mr Abbott, tell us straight. You don’t have to soften us up for the coalition of the wilting’s latest military misadventure. We know you. We know you can’t resist. You believe it will boost your popularity. In the short term this may be true. In the long term, however, it is bad for all of us. Groundhog day is upon us. Eleven years on we are going down the same track. What’s that? Another war on terror? Again we have a rallying cry. And an emblem, the grotesque atrocity of public execution of the innocent. One again it is a humanitarian cause. It is moral. It is the right thing to do. Righteous. Let us not be deceived, however, it is another war in Iraq. A war that threatens to repeat all of our earlier disasters. It will be long and bloody. It will create further chaos and suffering.
The rise of Jihadist terrorism in Iraq cannot be seen in isolation. Nor is it useful to assume the moral high ground, (assuming there is any space left on that overcrowded premium real estate). We need to take a broader and deeper view. A Prime Minister’s expression of disgust is his prerogative as a private citizen. And one which will be widely shared. Keep it private. In public it is a risky gambit because it manufactures a spurious legitimacy and identity of purpose. We are drawn irresistibly to don the mantle of the righteous in pursuit of the damned.
The PM’s expression of disgust privileges a reductive perspective. Demonising the barbaric executioners helps mobilise us against them but it is not conducive to understanding them or to any enduring solution to the problem they represent. It begs prejudging and trivialising of the horrific acts we are being made to witness. We may even feel comforted in our moral outrage, supported as we are by our nation’s leader. Before too long we are complicit in a lynch mob or posse.
The reality is confronting and disquieting. First, we must identify and accept our own responsibility, repugnant as this may be. For we helped to create this Jihadist monster. Whilst it may make some of us feel good, at the moment, to point the finger, we must accept some blame. Just as we must be part of the solution.
In joining the United States in the ‘war on terror’, we helped create the painful chaos that made the rise of ISIS and similar groups possible. Western intervention caused massive dislocation, instability and resentment: a perfect breeding ground for unrest. Fanatical jihadist groups thrived.
It is true we deposed a tyrant in Saddam Hussein. But other monsters were fostered by his overthrow and by the collapse of his modern state. Demonising helped distort our perspective. We were unwilling to face even the most fundamental of realities such as the huge death toll occasioned by our intervention.
At an early part in the war with Iraq, an estimated 400,000 to 900,000 civilian deaths occurred. Yet Bush dismissed the figures, claiming it was based on flawed techniques, even though it used estimation techniques his own government agencies taught others to use. Instead we were positioned to expect Iraqis to rush to democracy and nation-building. Our willful self-deception appeared limitless.
Violent sectarian conflict ensued. It continues today. The Iraqi state is unlikely to survive. Together we have helped destroy it. We supported PM Nouri al-Maliki in his self-destruction, his corrupt, incompetent government and his campaign of Sunni persecution. Little wonder, ISIS found eager recruits among the Iraqi Sunni population.
The Coalition of the Willing was our last outside invasion’s grand title. It was predicated on a lie, the convenient fiction that the Iraqi leader had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Other mythologies included the fiction that Osama Bin Laden was the master mind behind the September 11 attack. In the end the ‘war on terror’ cost the US three to four trillion dollars, helping to send it broke in fiscal terms and also in terms of reputation. If Bin Laden had hoped to bring about the end of the American Century, he succeeded. Gone was the mythic invincibility of US foreign power. In its place was the spectacle of small bands of rag-tag guerrilla soldiers defying or frustrating the greatest power in world history.
Yet we are tooling up to do it all again. By now we would hope we have learned from our earlier lack of regard for the consequences of our immediate actions. We do not need to join any coalition of the willy-nilly however well our impulsivity matches our leader’s personality, or however much our great and powerful friend the United States may expect it of us.
Let us not again jump on our moral high horses and rush into a complex and lethal struggle we don’t understand to follow a noble cause instead of a battle plan. Let us do some hard thinking about what it is we want to achieve lest we be fooled once again into indulging in the luxury of moral outrage at the cost of due diligence. We need to be clear-sighted about what we want to achieve and how we should best go about it. Disgust may be a starting point but it must be followed by informed and dispassionate analysis. Otherwise like a latter day Don Quixote we are in danger of being seduced by the ideals of chivalry and ignoring the voice of reason. Not chivalry but practicality should be our watchword. Romantic ideals of vengeance will ultimately destroy us unless they are tempered with the wisdom of strategic thinking based on the best possible evidence and advice.