Sunday, 25 September 2011

Response to the reporting of my interview with the Guardian

George Orwell noticed early in life that ‘no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper’.

Is that a churlish opening? Riazat Butt doesn’t completely misrepresent me (read her interpretation of our interview here), but her abridged account has rendered me, in some forum quarters at least, the humanist with a fascist face.
I did say and do believe that combating the subjugation of women and suppression of human flourishing might be a humanist reason for war – and I can’t be alone. Western governments have used humanist language to justify military adventures since the Second Punic War, and they are obviously manipulating some kind of moral consensus or they simply wouldn’t have bothered.
But I don’t believe that humanist altruism is the primary reason for this war any more than I believe that Roman conquests were always defensive. In my experience, war in the Middle East is about controlling land and resources. I was very clear to Riazat on that point. Capitalism is the dominant ideology on the side that covets the resources; the theocratic ‘Other’ prizes the land. This is reductionist, I know. The casus beli spectrum is no doubt as diverse as colours in a rainbow. At the end of it though, one is sure to find a pot of black gold.
In his requisite study, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), Robert Pape concludes that suicide bombing is a response to the presence of foreign troops in lands prized by the bomber. On 11 September 2001, we saw the most appalling suicide attack in history, and a direct causal link from the Twin Towers to my own presence in Helmand is axiomatic, but Pape adds a plausible piece to the puzzle of why the attacks happened at all.
Many people reject that. They want conflicts to resonate exclusively with words like ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘emancipation’. Those who plan our wars understand this and no doubt believe it, but it is disingenuous to deny the more pernicious aspects of our dominant ideology. To understand this and lament it without yielding an inch to the synthetic rectitude of totalitarian systems is not cognitive dissonance.
Most secular humanists, unless they have been reading Aristotle recently, are probably consequentialists. Before choosing to oppose the war in Afghanistan, intellectually honest consequentialists (and that’s not an oxymoron) should examine accounts of life under the intrusive laws of brutal regimes, add a clear-sighted assessment of the threat of a Jihadist ideology and then calculate with care. That’s not to say that a default opposition to war is irrational, of course it isn’t, but pacifism does not have an immutable right to the moral high ground – it just requires a powerfully rational reason to shift it.

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