Sneering At September’s Dead: 9/11 As a Symbolic Point of Abuse

By Jack Staples-Butler

On September 11th 2016, the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, members of a social justice activist group organised on Facebook named Coalition Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) destroyed a 9/11 memorial at Occidental College, Los Angeles, which was mainly made of small American flags to mark each victim of the attacks. The memorial had been planted by the Occidental College Republicans. Many flags had been snapped in two or pushed them into overflowing garbage cans. The group had left flyers ostensibly memorialising the “1,455,590 Innocent Iraqis Who Died During the U.S. Invasion for Something They Didn’t Do”, placed over an image of the Twin Towers. CODE, following the anti-imperialist moral tropes of Milosevic and Assad, denied their own organisational responsibility for the vandalism whilst supporting the actions of those who carried it out, claiming “this symbol of the American flag is particularly triggering for many different reasons. The same ‘RIP’ image was previously known for being posted on September 11th 2015 by the Entourage lead star Adrian Grenier, who deleted it following an angry backlash, and subsequently enjoying uncritically positive coverage Al Jazeera’s AJ+ on Facebook.

The insincere and belittling ‘RIPs’ have been added to by other celebrities of left-wing imagination, including the official Twitter account for Ahmed Mohamed, the ‘clock boy’ erstwhile of Irving, Texas now living in the Qatar emirate. Mohamed’s official account received positive acclaim in likes and retweets after repeating the same fabricated statistic on September 11th 2016. Noticeably, the Mohamed account’s tweet copies the language of the original image almost word-for-word, but adds an additional 500,000+ deaths and changes ‘Iraqis’ to ‘Muslims’ without further explanation. Variations of the image give different numbers, asserted with the same certainty.

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‘1,455,590’, the oddly-specific death toll of Iraqi civilians is a fabrication; a deliberately sensationalist ‘rough estimate’ which originated on the website of the left-wing pressure group Just Foreign Policy now presented in the ‘RIP’ image as received truth. The exact, minute death toll from the 2003-2011 war is unknown, partly because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep accurate census records. Most recent estimates place total casualties below the one-million mark. Iraq Body Counts puts the grand total from 2003-2016 at around 268,000. The majority of these casualties were not inflicted by U.S. forces or ‘during the U.S. Invasion’ in 2003. The purpose of the deliberately inflated Just Foreign Policy figure, in the ‘RIP’ image’s juxtaposition with the confirmed and familiar 9/11 death toll, was to belittle the commemoration and memory of the victims. The ‘RIP’ image’s recurrence each September utilises the 9/11 anniversary to promote manipulatively sentimental anti-Americanism, and distorts public understanding of Iraq and the Middle East. But in ‘social justice’ left-wing social spheres online, it is morally praiseworthy to circulate this intellectual detritus in September, and then some.

Mainstream leftism and even liberalism can accommodate junk statistics deployed in a similar invective of minimisation and whataboutery; the “more likely to be killed by right-wing terrorists and “more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than terrorism” tropes are among the most widely-circulated in social media discussions of terrorism on the left. The ‘lawnmower’ claim entered the maelstrom of mainstream popular culture as celebrities like Kim Kardashian shared an aesthetically authoritative image based on a selective study of terrorism after 9/11, from 2001-2014. Fawning clickbait headlines such as “This powerful image being shared across social media is a powerful reminder that religion isn’t the problem” are written in the passive voice to disguise the headlines’ own agency in constructing the terrorism-belittling narrative. This narrative around terrorism after 9/11 has remained one of minimisation, denial and wallowing in the comfort of junk explanations and misinformation. Instead of encouraging sober or unprejudicial reflection on the reality of security threats or the dangerous allure of totalitarian ideas, praise is given for the liberal burying of heads in the sand.

This Image Being Shared Across Social Media Is A Powerful Reminder That Religion Isn t The Problem

Whilst visiting the United States in September 2016, I observed something on social media which I had not thought possible in socially acceptable, real-name public discourse. An American friend (referred to here as ‘R.X.’) working in the universities sector, a proudly self-proclaimed ‘social justice warrior’ with teaching responsibilities, had posted the same image which belittled and sarcastically diminished the dead of September 11th 2001. The image was identical to one which would be left at the vandalised Occidental College memorial, and contained links to 9/11 ‘Truth’ websites and a crank journal deceptively named Euro Physics News which serviced the melting temperature-fixated paranoia of the far-left and far-right. With the aesthetics of a memorial graphic typical of those circulated around tragic anniversaries, the clickbait image signalled the virtues of anti-Americanism and diminishing of the importance of 9/11 and the lives of the dead, via the vehicle of a pseudo-tribute made with snarling insincerity. R.X. was certainly no liberal patriot (photos of American flag-burning by various radicals sometimes got generous sharing from them), but the 9/11’RIP’ image seemed to cross a new boundary of contempt for life, liberty and the existence of historical truth.

The tawdry piece of clickbait being shared by an educated person, to approval by other educated members of a wide social circle, managed to insult and instrumentally exploit the 9/11 victims, the civilian casualties of the Iraq war, and practically every veteran of the United States armed forces and the international coalition which served in Iraq. The piece is a vulgar distillation of a language around 9/11 which became familiar in left-wing politics from almost immediately after the attacks. The extreme border of this mindset was the Ward Churchill controversy and his description of the incinerated World Trade Centre staff as “little Eichmanns. But others as morally sensible and empathetic as Mary Beard could be warped by the reflexive desire to blame the yankees and obliterate the moral agency of the murderers. As Beard infamously wrote in October 2001, as the bodies were still being pulled out of smouldering rubble:

“This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.”

Beard has never apologised for these remarks, and has consistently defended the legitimacy of the substance and form of portraying the hijackers as delivering a rational and predictable response to “bullies”. The original ‘take’ she offered is shared by the malaise of reductive left-wing thought following 9/11 and more recent attacks by ISIS cells in Europe. Here is the wisdom of the socialist pop-historian historian Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States, urging readers:

“We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action… We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism”.

Consider what this beloved left-wing writer of “well, actually” history, name-checked with praise in the film Good Will Hunting, is really saying about the murderers and victims of 9/11. These words, published on September 14th 2001 (the same day the FBI first named the nineteen hijackers), portray Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the hijackers as men of “quiet anger” who were “victims” of American foreign policy. The beliefs, personalities, moral agency and all empirical evidence about the hijackers is pre-emptively obliterated from the equation, and would remain so throughout the default left understanding of the attacks.

The attacks were provoked, the true murderers and “bullies” were the hatred liberal capitalist nations of the West, and the attackers themselves possessed no real responsibility for their actions. The possibility that the attacks were not the desperate response of a downtrodden peasant army was not considered. As was self-evident from the group’s founding statements, concern for the poor and wretched of the Earth did not factor in Al-Qaeda’s calculations before 9/11, nor did they have any desire to see the end of ‘imperialism’ itself. Bin Laden’s own dream was for a global jihadist war on Afghan soil, a great struggle against the West in which he predicted and hoped that millions of Muslims would die in a protracted humiliation of the United States. Abu Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State got further in seeing their nightmarish vision realised, albeit within limited geography. The perpetrators of 9/11 or since were not exploited peasants or workers dreaming of emancipation, but the builders of a theocratic empire with dreams of slavery, conquest and the extermination of Jews and Yazidis. In the narrative which Beard promoted and shared with many others, all of this was irrelevant to fact that the privileged yankees “had it coming”.

My friend R.X. had long-standing form for blaming their country of birth for the multitude of the world’s evils. However, I had presumed they would spare their friends and themselves the injustice of sharing such palpably manipulative numerology, particularly on the anniversary of the attacks. When I asked R.X. why they had decided to share the untrue numbers of dead with an unknowing audience, their answer was a revealing insight in the epistemological norms they inhabited:

R.X.: “I know the numbers might not be right, but the societal impact this graphic gets at is still relevant. To be honest though, I don’t care enough to look these up.”

For R.X., the moral parameters were simple. Fabricated statistics, the belittling of 9/11 victims, the obliteration by omission of most Iraqi civilians killed by terrorism and insurgencies supported by Iran and other regional actors, the absolution of convicted and self-proclaimed mass-killers with yet more fabricated evidence from the Truthers, were perfectly reasonable things to share and promote in the week of a 9/11 anniversary. ‘Societal impact’ of a narrative was the primary concern; facts and numbers contradicting the narrative were irrelevant. A neat distillation of postmodernist nihilism aside, the popularity of this attitude among R.X.’s social circle reveals something about contemporary society even apart from the ideology which produces it. In the 2010s, it is acceptable to lie, scoff and sneer about and at the victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist atrocities without social consequence on the social justice left. If any public backlash that does arise from the obscenity of vandalising memorials or insulting victims and survivors on the date of memorial using junk statistics, you can be assured defences from social justice academia and viral media targeting a progressive audience.

The self-identified social justice left is not alone in its abuse of 9/11 victims and the memory of 9/11 itself. The partisan exploitation of the attacks during the Bush Administration was followed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate’s miserable failings in healthcare provision for 9/11 rescue workers. Even before Trump, the GOP had fallen badly at the measure which judges a society by how it treats its heroes and the most vulnerable; embodying both were the illness-stricken 9/11 rescue workers who were deprived of healthcare by Republican votes in successive Congresses. The 9/11 First Responders bills being politically championed by Jon Stewart and his army of Comedy Central-watching liberals in 2010, with the rescue workers losing health coverage again in 2015 due to a Republican-led Senate deadlock was a subject which ‘Blue Lives Matter conservatives preferred to forget.

The most widespread vice drawn from 9/11 on the American Right was conservative embrace of authoritarian pornography like the ludicrous ‘Flight 93 Election’ essay comparing Trump supporters to the heroic cockpit-storming passengers of the doomed United 93. The essay gained wide popularity and acceptance among the Trump-supporting commentariat and even fence-sitting conservatives unsure about whether to back Trump, whom the essay directed its millenarian pontificating towards. The right-wing journalist Bret Stephens argued that the ‘Flight 93’ essay was a painful reflection on the state of conservative thought:

“To reread “The Flight 93 Election” today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large... To imply, as Anton did, that Barack Obama, for all his shortcomings, was Ziad Jarrah, Flight 93’s lead hijacker, is vile…To suggest that Donald Trump, a man who has sacrificed nothing in his life for anyone or anything, is the worthy moral heir to the Flight 93 passengers is a travesty.”

In comparison to these ‘real-world’ assaults on the dignity of 9/11 victims from the conservative right, it is easy to dismiss observations of leftists belittling the victims of terrorism as ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ syndrome. However, since 9/11, the coalescence of the online world and real life has made distinctions between the wrongness of a misinformed town hall meeting and a misinformed network of social media friends almost redundant. Circulating false information, whether aggressively promoting fake news sites protected with a ‘satire’ disclaimer, or just old-fashioned physics-warping conspiracy theories passed on in chain emails, is only half of the equation. Historical truth means nothing to the 9/11 Truther, or the fabricated death toll mourner, when these claims continue to be promoted after their falsehood is made unambiguous. The warped ethics and morality of circulating the ‘RIP’ image are downstream from this happy dissolution of historical fact.

At the extreme end of the social justice left’s abuse of the 9/11 victims is the mindset of what Jamie Palmer described as the ‘Theatre of Radical Cruelty’, which includes gleeful revelling in the death and suffering of those who share America’s collective guilt. American student Otto Warmbier’s show-trial, torture and murder by the North Korean gulag system brought smiles and sneers to bloggers on Salon and The Huffington Post that ‘white privilege’ was being revoked and punished by the DPRK. The vandalism of the Occidental College 9/11 memorial was similar in mindset to the Marxist-Leninist youths who in March 2017 ‘protested’ against the Victims of Communism memorial in Washington DC, gleefully tweeting a group photo of finger-flipping obscenity pointed at the hundred million dead. The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cache attacks prompted disturbing responses on the Anglo-American left ranging from tepid displays of non-sympathy for the victims; to Laurie Penny’s open contempt for the ‘racist trolling’ she attributed to the murdered cartoonists whilst their blood remained spattered on office walls. Similarly, the victims and survivors of the worst terror attack in U.S. history have more frequently found themselves on the receiving end of the social justice left’s blunt anti-imperialist moral calculation.

One of the great social media frenzies of 2016 was in reaction to the Stanford University rapist Brock Turner, who was given a sentence of only three months imprisonment after being found guilty of a serious sexual offence. The manifestly poor decision of a California judge was embedded in the social justice hemisphere as irrefutable validation that the United States was in the grip of a rape culture where victims were blamed and rapists were routinely tolerated. BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith declared an article on Brock Turner was BuzzFeed’s most-shared story since ‘The Dress’, a record-breaking pseudo-event created by Kim Kardashian. Social justice activists and intersectional feminist websites whose columnists publicly promoted a utopian fantasy of the Foucauldian far-left, the goal to “abolish prisons, police and the American settler-state” now demanded the harshest penal punishments for Turner. In the broad issue of ‘rape apologism’ and victim-blaming, leftists and liberals would be enraged at images claiming that Brock Turner was innocent, was framed or mocking his victim by comparison to fraudulently inflated sexual assault statistics drawn from other countries.

Yet this is what the ‘RIP’ image demands of readers. It is predicated on the essential anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism of social justice politics. Americans cannot really be victims of mass murder just as whites and Jews can never be victims of racism; thus, only America, Israel or other ‘colonialist’ powers can be guilty of committing mass murder, rape and ‘oppression’. Conversely, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups cannot be morally responsible for mass murder; they are either reacting to oppressive American foreign policy, are being secretly controlled and funded by Israel, or they never carried out the attacks in the first place. The actual perpetrators of the mass murder of almost 3,000 Americans are absolved of their guilt. For people who share the ‘RIP’ image around September 11th, the moral culpability of Osama Bin Laden, the hijackers and the entire Al-Qaeda network responsible for the atrocities and thousands more since, is erased or diminished into irrelevance. Noticeably, the Arab and Muslim victims of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements are absorbed into the fabricated death toll attributed to solely U.S. military action.  

When asked about the obscenity of declaring the terrorist killers of thousands of Muslims innocent by blaming other parties, R.X. sneeringly replied that to even name Al-Qaeda’s murder of Muslims was to speak of “black-on-black crime” – a cardinal sin of racism which social justice leftism treats a priori as both wrong and wrongthink. If hundreds of Shia pilgrims are slaughtered in an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a holy site, or Sunnis who refuse to accept the authority of Abu Al-Baghdadi as their Caliph are slit by the throat en masse, all responsibility lies with America. Far from genuinely commemorating or mourning Muslims who have died violently since 9/11, the ‘RIP’ image posters display only a willingness to instrumentalise their deaths, stripping the dead of dignity and their killers of any accountability.

This has likely been familiar territory for those familiar with the work of Norman Geras, though I notice a difference in the phenomena presented in the disturbed responses to 9/11 and terrorism exhibited on social media. Geras analysed and critiqued the response and group behaviours of the organised and cultural left, the intellectual circles who gathered around literary journals, book reviews and campus lectures. The kind of thinking which permeated through devotees of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Pilger, Edward Said and the who’s who of the ‘anti-imperialist’ left could hardly be called popular culture. The debasing argument over ‘root causes’ was a feud in ivory towers and broadsheets, among the politically-interested class who subscribed to wonkish magazines, the poets and novelists who conflated radicalism with style, and a few celebrity enthusiasts from the film and music business. As with those on the right and centre-left who criticised and exposed their intellectual abuses, they all existed in nerdish subcultures separate from the general public. Those who intently followed arguments between Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and their toadies and critics were unlikely to overlap with the tens of millions who followed reality television and talent competitions.

Since Norman Geras’s death, the advance of social media into the realm of intractability has accelerated the mainstreaming of fringe ideas to lightning speed. The British Labour Party has been conquered by the former senior membership of the Stop the War Campaign and Venezuela Solidarity Campaign largely due to the organising capacity of Facebook and Twitter. The success of radical and illiberal parties and regimes are downstream from the cultural acceptability of their ideas. The circulation of tropes about terrorism once trafficked by cynical closet sympathisers of extremism now enjoy the casually-tweeted support of the most popular and influential figures of mainstream culture. Terror-apologising nihilism is now a display of public virtue. To adapt a phrase from Chomsky himself, this must involve the responsibility of intellectuals.

One statistic about 9/11 and the passage of time since can be more terrifying than many of the figures now synonymous with the atrocity. The statistic, based on an estimate by the Los Angeles Times journalist Terry McDermott is difficult to quantify and must be given appropriately cautious treatment. If true, it reveals something about the culture of Western democracies and the curiosities of their intellectual classes. Ten thousand books have been written about the 9/11. Only one was about the 9/11 hijackers themselves. Being generous, it is possible true number of books specifically focused on 9/11 itself, and not part of a larger tome on war and terrorism, is only around one thousand. The prognosis, however, is unavoidable. There has been a dearth and desolation of interest in the 9/11 hijackers themselves from the lettered classes. For the people responsible for culture and the written word in Western societies, preferred narratives about 9/11 are known before and apart from knowing anything about the men responsible for it.

McDermott himself, with his 2008 book Perfect Soldiers, was the first and only civilian writer to produce a close study of who, how and why the hijackings of the four aircraft actually took place. Most of the other ten thousand plus books were polemics, political tracts, academic metanarratives or literary works which instrumentalised the attacks with no consideration of who carried them out. Lost in the portentous screeds of civilisational struggle by reactionary bluster, the Chomskyan superstructures of imperialism and anti-imperialism, Said’s Orientalist theories spoon-fed through cultural studies reading lists, and all the memes and tropes blaming America for bringing the attack on itself, is who actually carried out the attacks and why.

The names of the hijackers remain unknown to most people in the United States, both the general public or the educated. Social sciences graduates who can confidently pronounce how 9/11 was ‘blowback’ for Western imperialism and reel off lists of activist-inflated death tolls from American foreign policy crimes, draw blanks when asked to name the men whose crimes redefined the course of history.

On any anniversary of September 11th, the great and impulsively reached-for narrative of ‘anti-imperialism’ must be held up against the evidence. The narratives built around the murder almost 3,000 people by eminent figures of academia and now parroted by the most popular celebrities are constructed with total disregard to the most basic facts of the event. What went on inside the skulls of Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the pilot hijackers Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehi and Hani Hanjour barely, if ever, factors into the analysis offered by the moral certainties of “had it coming”, “beyond quiet anger” and “RIP”.

Whilst writing this article, the editor raised the term “symbolic point of abuse”, a description which eclipses any I had for the relationship between social justice leftism and 9/11. The memory of the attacks remains one of the most misinformed subjects in modern history, though arousing moral certainty from those who hold the victims of 9/11 in a haze of contempt, and the hijackers in a haze of ignorant, de-personalised sympathy. Both victims and perpetrators of the attacks are a source of irritation and cognitive discomfort for the people enthralled by the verbosity of social justice newspeak or the vulgar simplicity of the ‘RIP’ trope. On any anniversary of the mass murders committed by the Al-Qaeda cult, we would do well to honour the victims by learning why they were killed. They deserve as much, as equally the murderers are deserving of the accurate judgement of history.

 

You can read more by the author at his blog.

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The Vicar of Glibley

By Ben Sixsmith

I feel sure that Giles Fraser, the Church of England priest and Guardian columnist, is a nice man: a loving husband, a devoted father and a loyal friend. But with such authority it is not enough to be nice, and in his work he can be obtuse, sentimental and smug. His writing spreads like treacle throughout Britain’s media; sweet but sick-making.

Reacting to the case of Charlie Gard, a young child whose parents were denied the right to seek experimental treatment for his terminal illness, Fraser tweets:

We need more love in the world not more bloody science.

More science, of course, could have saved little Charlie’s life. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debate around his treatment it is an absurd thing to say when other children’s lives depend on the continuation of medical progress. The difference between medical science advancing and not is the different between them living decades and days. No amount of love would heal the wounds inflicted by the latter possibility.

Still, this was a tweet. None of us are at our best on Twitter. Yet this is entirely characteristic of him. Time and again he proclaims lofty platitudes. Promoting gay marriage, he wrote that…

What I find in the Bible is a gradually expanding consciousness that God is love and not an instrument of oppression. And there is always more of that inclusive love to discover.

So that’s it? Goodbye millennia of moral teachings? So long centuries of philosophical argumentation? Some Christians who support gay marriage, like Daniel Helminiak, analyse Biblical and theological teachings in depth. For Fraser, love is all you need. It was enough to justify abandoning his Church Times column as a protest against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “moral opposition to homosexuality”.

I mention this because it illustrates Fraser’s habit of plastering quasi-theological, cod-philosophical rationalisations on his moral and aesthetic instincts. Floating in a kind of spiritual self-righteousness he rarely analyses their complexities and contradictions, or attempts to find his place in a coherent tradition. He denies, for example, that Jesus sacrificed himself – not with reference to scripture or theological arguments but as it is “a disgusting idea”. I am no Christian and, thus, in no place to condemn heresy but the unmerited assurance of Fraser’s judgements is absurd.

This is more obvious when he writes on politics. Community is a good thing, he believes, and so he argued in one column that is wrong to expect people to abandon or dilute their culture. I sympathise. Our conceptions of meaning and identity are wrapped up in our cultural characteristics and we lose something when they are deconstructed. But wait! Fraser is an advocate of mass immigration. If we have large ethnic minorities in Britain how can we maintain a united, cohesive and efficient society if people speak different languages and hold different values? Fraser does not mention this. It is too complicated.

Fraser sounds oddly conservative in this article. “The very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not,” he says. ” To speak of community without any sense of a difference between being in it and out of it evacuates the term of any possible meaning.” This sounds like a Straussian argument for border control. It is not, of course. Fraser wants some kind of cultural patchwork. Yet it feels as if he likes everyone to have their traditional cultures except the ancestrally English. When he visited what sounds like a charming little village fete he wrote “how white”.

At the end of his article Fraser salutes Muslims for their “resistance to the hegemony of integration”. Given that some Muslims resist integration by forming sharia courts where domestic abuse is sanctioned; secretly circumcising little girls and running away to Syria to join ISIS you would think he would at least qualify his admiration. Nope. His feelings resist empirical contradiction.

Fraser is sadly naive about jihadism. Responding to a Radio 3 broadcast of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, in which nuns choose to die before renouncing their faith, Fraser asked what what have happened if it had been a story of Islamic martyrdomThere would have been outrage, he said, for “isn’t this religious extremism”? Well, no, not in the sense that people use the term. What people fear about jihadism is not people dying for the faith but people killing other people for their faith. Was Fraser asleep for the last two decades?

Sometimes he acknowledges acts of terrorism but he can’t believe they have anything to do with religion. Reacting to last year’s in Berlin, where a Muslim drove a lorry into a crowded Christmas market, Fraser wrote that terrorism cannot be inspired by faith because religious people “trust in God’s greatness” to heal the world and act on his behalf. This is one view of faith. It is not one most people share. I do not think Muhammad would have liked indiscriminate terrorism but is Fraser not aware that he was a brutal conqueror and statesman who very much thought he was doing God’s will in politics and war?

Despite all this hazy, subjective, impressionistic writing, Fraser thinks that he has a monopoly on reason. Of conservative Anglicans, he says that, “rather than laugh at them or argue with them, the best thing is probably ignore them”. Some of the words I have written here is harsh but I think this sentence excuses some severity. Why should the same treatment not be accorded to him?

Fraser’s columns often seem like sermons: heartfelt, urgent and emotive. Yet as far as I can tell the authority of priests is lower than that of God. Analogously, if not equivalently, the authority of political commentators is lower than that of data, logic and tradition. Our value depends on our ability to channel them.

Corbyn, Terrorism and Intervention

By Harris Coverley

Let me just make a few things clear: after all these years I am still a socialist. I voted Labour in 2015 (and would do so all over again), and find myself broadly agreeing with a lot of what the current Labour manifesto has to offer. I never supported the Iraq War, and I feel the War in Afghanistan was mismanaged, as was the intervention in Libya. However, I cannot bring myself to vote Labour due to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, one of the most pressing issues of contention being his relationship to, and opinions of, terrorism.

This piece was originally two separate posts that I have edited together to form one full whole for publication here. The original posts can be found here and here.

On Corbyn’s Terrorism Speech, Islamist Terrorism and the Left’s “Terrorism Problem”

Firstly there is the issue of Corbyn’s speech, a speech which in many ways reflects what he has believed and promoted for years, but has been translated through a more acceptable prism.

This is not to say I disagreed with all of it: he harangues the government for applying the logic of austerity to the security services (even though his current Shadow Home Secretary wanted to abolish Mi5…) and the emergency response services (even though his current Shadow Chancellor signed a manifesto pledging their disarmament), underlining that the traditional Tory doctrine of “law and order” is utterly hollow in the face of neoliberalism’s onslaught. The contribution of prison dysfunction to the problem is also a pressing concern (note that such an issue contributed to the catalyst that has allowed the recent cycle of terrorist attacks in Paris).

But his speech contains severe contradictions and unfounded assumptions common to the rhetoric of his ilk, and it is a good opportunity to rehash some criticisms of them.

Corbyn in many ways mimics what must be a millennia old rhetorical Sophistic form, but mastered and applied by Noam Chomsky in the late 20th century and adopted by many political pundits of all stripes thereafter, whereby if you want to say something highly controversial and disagreeable, you first say its exact opposite, and then state a bland and vague version of it (you can also do this the other way around with the same effect). You could even use the “dog whistle” method of using certain words and phrases to communicate semi-hidden meaning and instruction. This way, you can address your intended audience — the proverbial choir one preaches to — directly, confuse fence sitters and the casually interested into agreeing with you, and when your critics accuse of saying the thing in question, you can point to the opposite point you said and declare “In fact, I actually said the opposite…”, which while technically true, is intellectually dishonest.

This is the rhetorical form of Corbyn’s speech: the “blame” may be “with the terrorists”, but we must see to it that “our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country” — a blatant declaration that it is doing the very opposite.

There are other contradictions as well: if these terrorist actors are such purveyors of “atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity”, and that such “vicious and contemptible acts…cause profound pain and suffering”, then why does he aim to make “conflict resolution” the heart of his foreign policy, wherein you “will almost always [be] talking to people you profoundly disagree with”? Usually people who are “depraved” are beyond dialogue, and require a more forceful response…

But really, most of Corbyn’s condemnation of the attacks is just platitude: it is what you are expected to say, especially when you are employing the aforementioned method.

(It is also embarrassing that Corbyn says that we “must support our Armed Services”, when he is on record — video exists — in 2010 saying that the only austerity cuts must be to them. He said it, you can’t just brush it away…)

The aforementioned ‘opposed point’ Corbyn makes is clear: “Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. […] And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.” However, he doesn’t mention, other than prison dysfunction, what might also be leading to those causes. Again: the only real culprit on offer here is British foreign policy.

Corbyn seems to want to balance main causes of terrorism between the actions of the West and the agency of terrorists themselves, but really, without directly identifying the ideological-political drivers of the main international terrorist phenomenon — that is, what I like to call revolutionary Islamism, or is more generally known as Salafi jihadism —not even mentioning IS by name, then the rhetorical axis in practice in focuses on the West being guilty of their own woes due to “blowback” from their own policy.

But the idea of “blowback” is a questionable one. Some like Peter Bergen — whom I greatly respect as the first journalist to make Al-Qaeda his focus — sees it as a real driver of global terrorism in regards to the Iraq War. Other evidence from the Iraq War however suggests otherwise.

There also the old chestnut of confusing correlation with causation (C =/= C).

https://twitter.com/ronanburtenshaw/status/867857311615696896

This graph has been presented as “proof” the Iraq War caused a rise in deaths from terrorism — again, that C =/= C problem. But if we adopt its logic and look closely at the graph the opposite seems true: after the 2006 troop surge there was actually an overall long-term decline in terrorist deaths, and terrorism-related deaths only began to rise sharply again after the beginnings of the Syrian Civil War, a war from which Western intervention has been (until recently) almost entirely absent. You could draw that Western intervention applied consistently could in fact reduce terrorism-related deaths overall, but that would be falling back on the correlation fallacy…

Another graph shows that over the past twenty years, terrorism attacks in Britain have reduced to an historic low, not exactly indicating a country in the throes of “blowback”.

https://twitter.com/t_wainwright/status/867761850376695809

There are other problem: I don’t know how a 2003 war can cause 2001 attacks…you also have to ignore things like the 1993 WTC Bombing and the 1995 Bojinka Plot (the “original” 9/11 which would have killed far more people). I think much of the timespan of Islamist terrorism is omitted from these graphs, leading to a distorted picture. Islamist terrorism killed tens of thousands in the Middle East throughout the ’80s and ’90s; our response in the West was mostly “Oh Dearism”

“Blowback”, as opposed to a serious IR theory, is mostly used as a means to blame the West for its own foreign policy errors in the face of multiple terrorist attacks and hundreds of young men travelling to the Middle East to essentially kill themselves but not before killing as many innocents as they can (and desecrating a few priceless artefacts along the way). But in terms of real or self-alleged causation, the actual “inspiration” events vary, as Jonathan Freeland recently wrote: “I recall my own first encounter with [jihadism], back in the 1990s. I was speaking at a student meeting that was disrupted by loud activists from the extremist al-Muhajiroun group. What were they furious about? The west’s failure to take military action over Bosnia. These young men were livid that Britain and the US had not dropped bombs to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. It proved, they said, that the west held Muslim lives to be cheap.” Maajid Nawaz, a former jihadi-turned-secularist activist, confirmed this for his own experience: “So Bosnia was the key recruitment drive. It was the key thing that allowed an entire generation of people that were my age, around 16 years old to be approached by Islamists who said — “do you want a solution to this problem?””.

“Blowback” is also a non-falsifiable theory: regardless of remote the act is, the War on Terror or Western foreign policy in general must somehow be responsible. For example: Joe Sacco somehow managed to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on the Abu Ghraib abuses, even though Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said the killings had been ordered purely in the name of “vengeance for the prophet”.

In reality, there is nothing unusual about what happened in Manchester, if we take a global perspective. Every day Islamists kill Muslim civilians across the Islamic world, and do it in the name of defending their own principles against ‘kafir’. That this sometimes happens here is not indicative of a special event; rather, we are lucky that, unlike in say Iraq, this is not a weekly if not daily event. We are not the true focus of Islamist rage because we are, as IS puts it, the “grey zone”, a place where some Muslims live, who must be either reached (and “converted”) or killed with the rest of the “infidels”, but it is the Islamic world with its Muslim population where the pivotal battles must be fought. Muslims who agree with their aims are encouraged to stay and commit terrorism in the West, but this column of extremists is obviously a microscopic group.

Of course, ideologically speaking, Islamists despise the West: democracy is “polytheism” and incompatible with Islam; secular law conflicts with God’s law; feminine freedom is an affront to decency; and so on. Our military actions — for example, drone strikes — are nothing compared to what the West represents, to quote an IS fighter from the most recent Shiraz Maher interview: “We primarily fight wars due to [sic] ppl being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue. […] Their kufr against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.” We should take the words of mass murderers with pinches of salt, but then again, the regressive left (for want of a better phrase) latch onto to certain elements of Islamist discourse that parallel their own anti-interventionist/“anti-imperialist” stance while ignoring what lies at the heart of what truly drives Islamist terrorists as political actors, and what really drives all political actors: their ideology and their vision for the world. Every Islamist ideology broadly considered, whether Sunni or Shia, is dependent not on some defensive “anti-colonial” narrative lifted from Fanon — which only makes up part of their discourse — but on a desire to remake the entire world as they believe their respective interpretation of god wants to see it. For Hamas and Hezbollah (Corbyn knows them quite well I believe…), this entails the elimination of both Israel and Middle Eastern Jewry in its entirety, and the creation of a totalitarian Palestinian state in its place. For Iran’s Islamic Republic, this entails the destruction of Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the establishment of a Shia hegemony over all of the Middle East — the Achaemenid Empire reborn. For Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, this entails the creation of a global Caliphate, a state that encompasses the entire world in a totalitarian system. There is no plurality in this one, no diversity — it is a total and complete domination.

The softly, softly “conflict resolution” approach Corbyn invokes will not work with this last group of Islamists. With the Palestinians and Islamic Republics, a solution is possible when cooler heads prevail (and I still hope one day to visit that Palestinian state), but the ‘Islamist internationals’ will never yield. They already think they are right and are willing to die for it. You talking to them just buys them time. You finding “compromise” with them just means their unwilling subjects will continue suffer. (And to think Corbyn criticised Smith for suggesting the exact same thing…)

None of this has somehow been birthed purely or even mostly from the so-called War on Terror; the 9/11 Attacks can be traced intellectually back through Osama Bin Laden, through to the chief theorist of the Muslim Brotherhood and founder of modern jihadism Sayyid Qutb, and even further back to the Islamic Revival of the late 19th century in the terminally declining Ottoman Empire (and the collapse of the sectarian millet system with it). The intellectual history of the Islamic world may at times be confusing and obscure, but (to ironically invoke Edward Saïd) to reduce a great, centuries-long political, cultural and religious struggle within a vast population spread across the Old World down to petty reaction is Euro-centric Orientalism.

At the end of the day, taking his entire career as given, Corbyn has what might best be termed an ideological terrorism fetish. The ideological ends of the terrorists themselves do not really matter, whether it be a United Ireland under a Gerry Adams dictatorship or an Islamic fascist Palestine with its Jewish population nicely expunged. It is an admiration for terrorists based in the understanding that terrorists are revolutionaries who oppose the currently existing order of things, and as revolutionaries they require unquestioning solidarity. Even when the struggle is over, every criticism of the terrorists’ violence — no matter how brutal — must be contextualised as a response to the violence of the state or of other actors, often through either minimisation or equivocation; this is why Corbyn still refuses to condemn the IRA without mentioning Loyalists. If he has to lie about it, he will lie about it.

Cobyn has systematically voted against almost every anti-terrorism law not because he believes they require judicial oversight (which begs the question: why did he never table any amendments?), but because he feels such legislation would interfere with the actions of righteous rebels.

The admiration for terrorists by political radicals (including pseudo-radical poseurs such as Corbyn) goes back a long way, and can be seen in an 1869 letter by Mikhail Bakunin, the prophet of modern anarchism, to Nikolai Ogarev, in which he praised brigandage (banditry in the Russian badlands) as a revolutionary ideal: “Banditry is one of the most honourable ways of life within the Russian state [representing] a desperate protest by the people against the infamous social order[.] The bandit is the people’s hero, defender and saviour.” For Bakunin, the bandit is currently in Russia “the only true revolutionary”, and as for moral responsibility, regardless of how many innocents are killed, it is purely the state’s fault: “Governmental cruelty has engendered the cruelty of the people and made it into something necessary and natural.”

Corbyn through a long line of apologists for mass criminality in the name of revolution carries on this tradition. His association with Irish irredentist terrorists (for how else can we describe the IRA really?) and every calibre of Islamist extremist is well documented.

For example: The Stop the War Coalition, of which Corbyn was an officer and later Chair from 2011 to 2015, in 2005 released this statement: “The StWC reaffirms its call for an end to the occupation, the return of all British troops in Iraq to this country and recognises once more the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends.” They had earlier affiliated during the initial anti-war protests with various Islamic extremist organisations.

Much later during the Paris Attacks, the StWC published an article titled “Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East”, which they later, under the pressure of multiple resignations, apologised for, but which in essence contained the same “blowback” argument that Corbyn makes. The article read: “Without decades of intervention by the US and its allies there would have been no ‘war on terror’ and no terrorist attacks in Paris. […] Without the American crime of aggressive war against Iraq — which, by the measurements used by Western governments themselves, left more than a million innocent people dead — there would be no ISIS, no “Al Qaeda in Iraq”.” Corbyn later that year attended their Christmas fundraiser as a “special guest”.

(There are many other occasions such as these, but The Times has helpfully compiled a list.)

It would be unfair to say Corbyn rejects military intervention outright, but it isn’t really a ‘Corbyn doctrine’: “I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.”

There is an obvious problem with this: the bar is too vague to ever be properly set, or perhaps it is set so high the Hubble Telescope has yet to detect it. In his parliamentary career he has voted against every single military intervention against genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass murder, and defends this proud inaction to this very day (see his latest interview with Peston). If this means branching further into outright genocide denial, then why not?

He may point to Rwanda as a potential candidate for intervention, but there is no record in Hansard of him advocating anything like that at the time (for the whole of 1994, he apparently references Rwanda only once, in relation to humanitarian aid figures).

 

Corbyn and the IRA: A Closer Look

If Corbyn had just been straight up about his relationship to the IRA at the beginning, so much of this could have been avoided, but several spurious interviews later it cannot be ignored.

Just last Friday, Corbyn looked Andrew Neil dead in the eye and said: “I never met the IRA.” He also followed this up with: “I have never supported the IRA.”

This is quite a surprise, given that his supporters throughout his troubled leadership have systematically placed him at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland (and still are doing so), something he had not disavowed until just then.

Before we deal with this new claim, let us just analyse the original group of claims of Corbyn’s contribution to the ending the Troubles.

Of those major histories of the Troubles published in the past twenty or so years, almost none of them seem to mention Corbyn’s name. He is not mentioned in the ‘new standard’ history of the conflict by David McKittrick, Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict (Penguin, 2012) according to the index, nor is he mentioned in Tim Pat Coogan’s 1996 account The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1995 and the Search for Peace (Arrow, 1996). (Go ahead, check, the indexes are available for preview.) How can someone supposedly so pivotal (or not) be completely ‘whitewashed’ out? Is it a vast Blairite conspiracy to re-write history?

I did however manage to find a single reference to Corbyn in the authoritative anthology The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories (MUP, 2016), but it was only in relation to the 2015 Labour leadership election, and it definitely did not paint the “Corbyn as peacemaker” dogma in the most flattering light. Here is the section in full (the ‘killer’ is the last sentence):

“The public voicing of Irish republican perspectives, or views in any way supportive of them, continues to be a risky business in England today. Di Parkin’s interviewees for her chapter 12, all Labour Party activists promoting dialogue with Sinn Féin in the 1980s, prefer to remain anonymous in order to conceal their political work in the past from their employers. Anecdotally, these concerns — and counter-measures for what Marie Breen Smyth has termed identity management are widespread, especially among those who have or seek public positions of responsibility and accountability. A vivid example of the way political sympathy for, or engagement with, Irish republicanism during the conflict continues to provide a basis for hostility and delegitimisation in British public culture can be seen in the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn during his successful campaign for the Labour Party leadership in 2015, and subsequently on Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, for their ‘links with the IRA’ and refusal to single out republican violence for condemnation.
 More thoughtful critics of Corbyn and McDonnell might point out that ‘silencing’ could also work in a different way here: they presented their position in 2015 as if, in the 1980s, they had simply been encouraging dialogue and a ‘peace process’ with Irish republicanism avant la lettre. However, during the early and mid 1980s, Corbyn was unashamedly a supporter of Irish republicanism’s right to ‘resist’ British ‘oppression’.” [pp. 11–12]

(The full chapter is available online here.)

In the cited chapter, that certain participants chose to partake ‘anonymously’ could seem to be enough to explain Corbyn’s current denialism, but this makes no sense: he and his supporters have been open about it in the very recent past (and present), so why acclaim anonymity now? Even when it seems such a participation was stunningly minor?

(Does anybody else remember that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Ted Danson donates a wing to a charity building project under the moniker “Anonymous”, only at the unveiling party to go around admitting that he was “Anonymous”, and for his supposed “humility” he got distantly more praise than Larry David who had also donated a wing but under his own name? Life imitates art…)

Every reference I can find of Corbyn during the Troubles references him not as a “peacemaker” but as an out-and-out supporter of the IRA and its campaign of violence. According to Rosa Prince’s biography of Corbyn, the Northern Irish historian and Professor of Politics at Queen’s Belfast (and former radical republican) said the following of Corbyn’s interest in the conflict: “The terms on which Corbyn was in dialogue with Adams was on the basis that Adams wins”. The same biography mentions the opinion of Northern Irish Catholic journalist Eilis O’Hanlon: “From Corbyn to McDonnell to Ken Livingstone, they all justify it these days by saying it was OK because it led eventually to the peace process. But that’s disingenuous in the extreme. When they were out defending the IRA, its fellow travellers also didn’t know when, or if, that campaign would end. They still happily supported, or had an ambivalent attitude towards, Republican violence. They knew exactly what they were doing, and how their solidarity was used by the Republican movement to paint its murder campaign as part of some wider struggle for social justice.”

All of this has a strong basis in fact: Corbyn has openly partaken in multiple link-ups with the IRA during and after the Troubles, starting at least in October 1984 when he played “host” to two convicted IRA killers. His claim to have “never met the IRA” does not only not stand up: it is demonstrably false through the words of the IRA and its closest associates themselves. Repeat photographic evidence belies this. (Even though he sometimes seems to struggle to know what exactly is going on…)

The only thing that suggests any condemnation of the IRA at any time before his leadership was an early day motion he signed in 1994 condemning the 1974 Birmingham bombing, but in fact, the motion does not actually mention the IRA by name, and demands the “cessation of violence by the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland”; this is just yet another vague equivocation.

His own supporters claim he was fundamental to the peace process. One even places him at the crux of making the Good Friday Agreement work:

https://twitter.com/RedLeftAndy/status/867345006394257409

Let’s take that assertion as a given: why would someone who has “never met the IRA” be selected, out of all other MPs, to head this off? The answer is obvious: only if they had a pre-existing relationship of some kind.

Corbyn has since admitted meeting “convicted IRA terrorists” (Peston’s phrase not his) in the most stumbling, mumbling, “please-can-we-move-on” kind of way possible, but the original assertion is still making its rounds.

McDonnell and Abbott, his closest political associates, fare a lot more honestly in their declarations. McDonnell has a long history of praising the IRA, and as recently as 2003 said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands, we now have a peace process.” In 2015, he gave one of those non-apology apologies literally of the “If I gave offence” variety, but the aforementioned rhetoric stands for itself. Abbott made an even more unambiguous declaration back in 1984: “[Ireland] is our struggle — every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us. A defeat in Northern Ireland would be a defeat indeed.” She may have had an “afro” back then (her bizarre self-defence), but her refusal to disavow her own words speaks for itself.

I don’t think Corbyn is completely stupid, nor are his supporters; they know the IRA has a toxic legacy that leaves even the most dye-the-wool Labour voter tasting bitterness. This explains both his recent denial and the Corbynite attempt to “ret-con” his IRA relationship (again, in spite of overwhelming evidence otherwise). Given everything, no amount of spin or retroactive (pseudo-)apologies will make this look any better. Trying to portray attending a commemoration for dead IRA operatives as some pathetic attempt to “call for a peace and dialogue” just will not cut it when it considered with everything else.

But in denying his links in the face of overwhelming evidence, he puts the final nail in the coffin for his supporters’ declarations of his limitless “honesty”, and a supposed progress through Corbynism towards a “kinder and gentler politics” that disavows the horrors of Blairite spin.

“…Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

Final Thoughts

There are people who will read this and argue that I have somehow taken quotes ‘out of context’; however, the more and more context you give quote by quote, the more these people tend to either stretch or narrow meanings, split hairs, equivocate (as though that absolves the original remark), or will demand so much additional context that the entire extant history of the known universe will have to be provided, by which time their defendant has managed to get away scot-free. I have tried to be as fair to Corbyn as possible, I’ve cited all the relevant links, and please be my guest and read Corbyn’s original speech linked at the top and all the sources on offer.

Just for a moment, forget his past general relationship with terrorism: such an egregious dishonesty can only raise the question of how open and transparent a Corbyn government would actually be, or indeed how disingenuous and censorship happy it could get.

And to return to question of his overarching relationship to terrorism and his views on intervention: When Corbyn stands up and parrots a revised version of the same line he’s been pushing for decades, while demanding that we “do not doubt [his]determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders”, I respond to him (and his followers): given everything you have said, both right now and in the past stretching back thirty-five years, why the hell should I or anybody else not doubt your word?

Apologists among us

By Norman Geras

July 13, 2005

OK, it’s more than time to nail this. Within hours of the bombs going off last Thursday the voices one could have predicted began to make themselves heard with their putative explanations for the murder and maiming of a random group of tube and bus passengers in London. It was due to Blair, Iraq and Afghanistan, illegal war and all the rest of it. The first voices, so far as I know, were those of the SWP and George Galloway, but it wasn’t very long – indeed it was no time at all, taking into account production schedules – before this stuff was spreading like the infestation it is across the pages of Britain’s oldest liberal newspaper, where it has remained for going on a week (and today as appallingly as ever).

Let’s just get by the matter of timing – of timeliness – with the brief expression of repugnance which it deserves. No words of dismay or regret, let alone sorrow, mourning, could be allowed to pass these people’s lips without the accompaniment of a ‘We told you so’ and an exercise in blaming someone else than the perpetrators. No sense of what an awful tragedy like this might call for or rule out. Just as if you were to hear from a distraught friend that her husband (or lover, mother, son) had just been murdered while walking in a ‘bad’ neighbourhood, and were to respond by saying how upset you were to hear it (or maybe even to give that part a miss) but that it was extremely foolish of the deceased to have been walking there on his or her own. We had all this in the early aftermath of September 11 2001, so in a way it was to be expected. But one constantly nurtures the illusion that people learn. The fact is that some of them don’t and, from where they think, can’t. It is a matter of interest to me now that there was even (some time during the last year, though I don’t recall where and so can’t link to it) a comments thread on which one or two of the participants questioned whether there had really been left and liberal voices after 9/11 making excuses for the crime of that day and proffering little essays in ‘understanding’. Yes, there really were then, and there have been again now.

It needs to be seen and said clear: there are, amongst us, apologists for what the killers do, and they make more difficult the long fight that is needed to defeat them. (To forestall any possible misunderstanding on this point: I do not say these people are not entitled to the views they express or to their expression of them. They are. Just as I am entitled to criticize their views for the wretched apologia they amount to.) The plea will be made, though – it always is – that these are not apologists, they are merely honest Joes and Joanies endeavouring to understand the world in which we all live. What could be wrong with that? What indeed? Nothing is wrong with genuine efforts at understanding; on these we all depend. But the genuine article is one thing, and root-causes advocacy that seeks to dissipate responsibility for atrocity, mass murder, crime against humanity, especially in the immediate aftermath of their occurrence, is something else.

Note, first, the selectivity in the general way root-causes arguments function. Purporting to be about causal explanation rather than excuse-making, they are invariably deployed on behalf of movements, actions, etc., for which the proponent wants to engage our sympathy or indulgence, and in order to direct blame towards some party for whom he or she has no sympathy. Try the following, by way of a hypothetical example, to see how the exercise works and doesn’t work.

On account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans who have been denied the right to remain in the UK. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this decision and they take out their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to halt the deportations, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn’t happen, even though (ex hypothesi) the government decision is part of the causal chain leading to the violence in question. It wouldn’t happen because the anger of the thugs doesn’t begin to justify what they have done.

The root-causers always plead a desire merely to expand our understanding, but they’re very selective in what they want us to ‘understand’. Did you ever hear a Jenny Tonge who empathizes with the Palestinian suicide bomber also understanding the worries of Israeli and other Jews – after the Holocaust, after the decades-long hostility of the Arab world to the State of Israel and the teaching of hatred there against Jews, after the acts of war against that state and the acts of terrorism against its citizens? This would seem to constitute a potentially rich soil of roots and causes, but it goes unexplored by the supposedly non-excuse-making purveyors of a root-causism seeking to ‘understand’.

The fact is that if causes and explanation are indeed a serious enterprise and not just a convenient partisan game, then it needs to be recognized that causality is one thing and moral responsibility another, although the two are related. Observe…

Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says ‘You had it coming’. In this story it is uncontroversially true – I can tell you this, being the story’s one and only author – that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David’s anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David’s punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was ‘I love the music of Bob Dylan’. David for his part doesn’t like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn’t have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan’s music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David’s mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I’d say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.

In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthemore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame.

The ‘We told you so’ crowd all just somehow know that the Iraq war was an effective cause of the deaths in London last week. How do they know this, these clever people? Leave aside for the moment the question of rightness and wrongness – for, of course, there were many people (in London, in the rest of the UK) for whom the Iraq war was not wrong but right, and if they are right that it was right, then no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the ‘militants’ and ‘activists’. But, as I say, leave this aside. How do they know?

What they need to know is not just that Iraq was one of a number of influencing causes, but that it was the specific, and a necessary, motivating cause for the London bombings. Because if it was only an influencing motivational cause amongst others, and if, more particularly, another such motivational cause was supplied by the military intervention in Afghanistan, then we don’t have that the London bombings wouldn’t have happened but for the Iraq war. Now, I’m aware that some of the ‘We told you so’ people are of the view that the intervention in Afghanistan was wrong too. But others of the ‘We told you so’ people aren’t of this view; and that segment of root-cause opinion, at least, will have a hard time of it establishing that just the Iraq war, and not Afghanistan – or anything else, for that matter (Palestine, the status of women, modernity, sexual freedom, pluralism, religious tolerance) – is what has provoked the murderers to their murders.

As for those (the SWPers, Galloways, etc.) for whom the intervention in Afghanistan should also not have happened, I’m happy to leave them where they are on this. These are people for whom the crime of 9/11 did not constitute an act of war meriting a military response, people whose preferred course of action was to leave the Taliban in situ ruling that country and al-Qaida with the freedom to continue organizing there. This rather does help to establish what is one of the main objects of the present post, namely that the root-causers are very selective about the root causes they’re willing to recognize as relevant; and, attached as they are to an ethico-political outlook that has lately been (let us just say) indulgent towards anti-democratic forces, they particularly favour root causes originating in the vicinity of Washington DC.

To shift part of the blame for the London killings and maimings on to Blair and Bush – and also Parliament and Congress, and everyone who supported the war in all the coalition-of-the-willing countries – you not only have to guess at the Iraq war having been operative and decisive in the motivations of the actual bombers, you not only have to overlook anything that might have been right about that war, like seeing off one of the most brutal and murderous dictators of the last few decades, you further have to reckon that what was wrong about the war not merely caused the anger of those bombers but made their response, in some sort, morally appropriate rather than (what it in fact was) criminally excessive. Just think about the implications of this position. If on account of the Iraq war Tony Blair is to blame for four young British Muslims (as it now seems) murdering and injuring some large number of travellers in London, will he also be to blame if one or two members of the Stop the War Coalition for the same reason should decide to bump off a few people in, say, Dundee? Ever on the lookout for damning causes, the root-causers never seem to go for the most obvious of them, so visibly obvious a one that it isn’t even beneath the surface of things the way roots often are, it’s right out in the open. This is the cause, indeed, which shows – negatively – why most critics of the Iraq war and of other events, institutions, movements, do not go around murdering people they are upset or angry with; I mean the fanatical, fundamentalist belief system which teaches hatred and justifies these acts of murder, justifies them to those who are swayed by it but not to anyone else. It somehow gets a free pass from the hunters-out of causes.

So, there are apologists among us. They have to be fought – fought intellectually and politically and without let-up. What is it that moves them to their disgraceful litany of excuses? This is doubtless a complex matter, but here are a few suggestions. One thing seems to be the treatment of those who practise terror as though they were part of some natural environment we have to take as given – not themselves free and responsible agents, but like a vicious dog or a hive of bees. If we do anything that provokes them, that must make us morally responsible, for they can be expected to react as they do. If this isn’t a form of covert racism, then it’s a kind of diminishing culturalism and is equally insulting to the people transformed by it into amoral beings incapable of choice or judgement.

Then, with at least some of the root-causers, their political sympathies and antipathies naturally incline them towards apologia. Here are people for whom the discomfiture of the US is number one priority, who would therefore have been happy to see the Americans bogged down without reaching Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein, who have openly spoken their support for an Iraqi ‘resistance’ committing daily crimes against the people of Iraq.

However, there are others not of this ilk and who would be horrified and outraged – and rightly – to see themselves described as indulgent towards such ugly and murderous forces, but who employ the tropes of blame-shifting and excuse-making nonetheless. These people, one may speculate more charitably, are merely confused; and amongst the things they are confused by are more local political divisions and animosities, which can seem to loom larger before them than the battle for and against democratic societies, for and against pluralist, enlightenment cultures, being fought across the world today.

Whatever the combination of impulses behind the pleas of the root-causes apologists, they do not help to strengthen the democratic culture and institutions whose benefits we and they share. Because we believe in and value these we have to contend with what such people say. But contend with is precisely it. We have to contest what they say of this kind, challenge it all along the line. We are not obliged to respect their repeated exercises in apologia for the inexcusable.

(My thanks to Eve Garrard for discussion and advice in the preparation of this post.)

Ed.: The original post is here

France, the Left and the burkini ban: It’s complicated

By Nora Mulready

My reaction to the burkini ban and ‘that photo’ was not quite in step with most people on the Left. Yes, the state shouldn’t be telling women what to wear but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the reaction is a bit over the top. The French Courts have already ruled that the ban is unlawful and must be lifted. There will be push back from the mayors, and this one will likely run on for a while longer while they fight is out in the courts. Personally, I have mixed feelings. Do I think it was a great idea? Probably not. Am I outraged? Not really. Am I going to jump to the defence of an item of clothing that only exists because women and girls have been taught that it is ‘immodest’ to swim in public without covering their entire bodies? No.

I have by now read countless tweets, articles, facebook posts etc with reference to some variation of “a woman was forced to strip at gunpoint by the French police.” I’m sorry, but this didn’t happen. The French police carry guns. If they give you directions, did they tell you to tourner à gauche at gunpoint? No, of course not. There was never any threat that the woman would be shot, and to suggest there was is either deliberately dishonest or genuinely daft. This is France, where they subscribe to Human Rights law, it’s not the wild west of an ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. She was never in any danger from the police. Further, there was no ‘force’. A woman was asked to comply with a publicly advertised dress code, or leave the beach. She was given a choice. She choose to stay on the beach. In Venice recently I wasn’t allowed to enter St Mark’s Basilica without covering my shoulders. I had a choice, wear a shawl given by the church security, or don’t come in. I wanted to go in, I made a choice, I complied. It’s infantilising to suggest that women are incapable of making such a choice without feeling mortally offended, feeling vulnerable, feeling violated. We’re pretty robust, rational creatures these days, capable of weighing up our options and making decisions.

A big problem is that the Left has erected an impenetrable mental barrier to discussions of Islamic dress, from headscarves to burkas, to burkinis, supplementing what should have been years of legitimate, and healthy, public discussion and debate with the Pavlovian response:”it’s their choice”. We have nothing to say about the reason why people make these choices, we make no attempt to try and persuade women and girls that they don’t have to cover up (in fact, the very idea of saying that is considered insulting, even racist), we abandon Muslim women (and men) who makes these arguments, we abandon ex-Muslims who make these arguments. If our state schools taught all girls that they should cover their hair and hide their bodies, would our society accept that? I hope not. And yet for countless girls, we don’t just accept it but defend it in the name of equality.

I see the bukhini ban as an example of this conflict between secular liberalism and conservative religion, something France is having to grapple more than most. ‘Rights’ is a messy moral and legal area. Rights conflict. That’s why we have Human Rights law and Human Rights courts. Your right to swing your fist stops precisely where my nose begins, as they say, and very few such conflicts are as clear cut as that one. France is a secular Republic, its citizens’ right to secular public spaces is integral to its very foundations. Religious dress is integral to conservative Islam. These things clash, of course they do, and unless our answer is simply that one should always give in to the other, there are going to be messy clashes as we navigate our way through. One of the most helpful things everyone can now do is talk about it all, openly, honestly, and as far as possible, without fear. That requires a new acceptance that it is legitimate to discuss – and, if people so wish, to criticise – overt symbols of conservative Islam, including when manifested in women’s clothes. It also requires an understanding that in the current climate of Islamist extremism, a particularly raw subject in France, overt symbols of conservative Islam are going to be seen by many as more than an expression of personal faith or individual expression. This may be unfair, but it is the reality of the times we live in.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I am certain of is that we will make our way through it all far better if people of all perspectives can speak openly about how they feel. I’m not asking for bans, I’m asking for conversations, and for an acknowledgement that silence leads to tensions. I’m asking that political leaders on the Left stop leaving it to the far right to give voice to the secular instincts of secular Europeans, because as we are seeing in France, if the Left don’t help find answers, the Right will. I’m asking that if girls are gong to be taught that they need to cover up, they are also exposed to arguments that say they don’t have to. I’m asking for a bit of honesty on the Left about why an international context dominated by Islamist violence means there are likely to be stronger reactions to overt symbols of conservative Islam than to those of other religions. And I’m asking for the Left to see that if we want to help make things better, as opposed to standing on the sidelines as the diversity and equality we cherish is destroyed by extremists of all sides, we don’t only have a right to make these points, we have a duty.

Corbyn’s past will destroy Labour’s future

By John Rogan

This is an edited version of the author’s original post on Medium, kindly reproduced with his permission.

The Socialist Workers Party are right about one thing at least – the Labour Party is indeed imbued with “electoralism”. Labour Party members believe that Labour needs to be in Government to change things for the better. The big split is that while the PLP believe Corbyn is the main obstacle to power, many of his supporters believe it to be the PLP.

I believe the 80% of the PLP who have no confidence in Corbyn winning to be absolutely correct. Why? One issue. Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn, along with John McDonnell, was among those on the Left who gave critical support to the Provisional IRA “against British Imperialism”. He may, in the leftist parlance of the time, not have agreed with some of their methods but they were deserving of solidarity. Now this is being dishonestly dressed up as Corbyn being ahead of his time and helping to bring about the peace process by talking to the Republicans. This refusal to face what Corbyn’s views actually were could be a major factor in destroying the Labour vote in many parts of the country (e.g. Birmingham and Warrington to take the obvious examples).

For those who are willing to take the time, I suggest you read the articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. To summarise, Jeremy Corbyn was on the editorial board of “London Labour Briefing” (LLB) in the 1980s. After the Brighton bombing in 1984, LLB ran an editorial condemning it. Cue an angry reaction from readers and the next editorial ran an apology for the condemnation and reemphasised its support for Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Briefing 1984

If any Sinn Fein members or supporters happen to be reading this, you should put your feelings of nostalgia and gratitude towards Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the Republican Movement to one side for the moment and look at the following.

Jeremy Corbyn is a founder member of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) as is John McDonnell (it’s Chair for many years). At the LRC AGM 2012 on November 12, the following motion, moved by Gerry Downing’s Socialist Fight grouping, was passed:

LRC 2012

report in “Weekly Worker” stated the following:

ww12

Prison officer David Black was killed by “dissident Republicans” on November 1st 2012. Caitriona Ruane, Sinn Fein MLA, called his killing a “pointless murder” and Martin McGuinness even expressed a willingness to go to his funeral . In fact McGuinness went as far as issuing a joint statement with then First Minister David Robinson to appeal for help to catch the killers, saying that an attack on any member of the Northern Ireland Prison Service was “an attack on all of us”.

Meanwhile, eleven days after the murder of David Black, the LRC (Chair John McDonnell, founder member Jeremy Corbyn) supported a motion not only calling this killing “political” but also for the freeing of the perpetrators. In other words, an act of political solidarity with those, (the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA etc.), who would wish Northern Ireland to return to the worst days of the “troubles”.

Perhaps one day, the Chair of the LRC, John McDonnell MP will offer an explanation for that organisation’s political solidarity with “dissident Republicans”. Perhaps, one day, a founder member of the LRC, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, might offer his view on the LRC’s political solidarity with the killers of David Black.

Did either Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell vote for Motion 4? I’ve no idea. Maybe that question will come up in the General Election too.

I’ll try to be charitable and say the LRC, alongside Corbyn and McDonnell, are perfect examples of ultra-left, student union politicians. An “anti-imperialist” motion like this would have been voted for without thinking of any consequences. It’s not as if it would really have any effect on the Northern Ireland peace process. After all, it’s not as if Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell were holding leading positions in the Labour Party then.

They do now though.

John McDonnell said in 1998, in an interview with An Phoblacht (the Sinn Fein newspaper), “An assembly is not what people have laid down their lives for over thirty years. We want peace, but the settlement must be just and the settlement must be for an agreed and united Ireland.” Reading this, I, for one, am glad John McDonnell was not a Sinn Fein leader during the negotiations which lead to the Good Friday Agreement.

In May 1987, the Sunday Express ran a front page story where it said Jeremy Corbyn stood for a minute’s silence for eight IRA members who had been killed by the British Army in Ireland.

Corbyn IRA 87

Afterwards he was quoted as saying, “I’m happy to commemorate all those who died fighting for an independent Ireland.” The meeting had been organised by the “Wolfe Tone Society” which was set up in London in 1984 to support Sinn Fein and its policies, including support for the IRA.

How might all this play out in a General election though?

Here’s how I picture that might look on a Conservative Party billboard in a General Election campaign:

Corbyn Tory election

Imagine that billboard in Birmingham or in Warrington during a General Election campaign. Imagine it throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. In Glasgow, where I come from, sectarian and political tensions would be dangerously stoked up. And, if Corbyn supporters believe all this talk of supporting the IRA is a “smear”, let’s wait until a General Election debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May — “Were you or were you not at the Wolfe Tone Society meeting where you stood for a minute’s silence for IRA terrorists, Mr Corbyn? Were you or were you not a member of the editorial board of London Labour Briefing who supported the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party conference in 1984, Mr Corbyn?”

Would the Conservative Party be at fault for publishing such a poster?

In my opinion, it would not. Conservatives want power, they want to win and they are perfectly entitled to use all legitimate political means to achieve that end. Highlighting Jeremy Corbyn’s backing for the IRA would be part of that.

The blame for such a poster being published would lie entirely with Jeremy Corbyn and all of those of his supporters who know his views and history regarding the IRA and back him for Labour leader. I would also blame those prominent supporters (particularly Trade Union leaders) who have heard these accusations but either don’t want to investigate the truth of the matter or know the truth and want a quiet life.

They would all be responsible for Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour to a devastating, catastrophic rout at a General Election.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership (again), I would paraphrase George Orwell and say, if you want a vision of the future, imagine the Tories laughing in Labour’s face again and again for the next ten, fifteen, twenty years (at least).

May HoC

Iraq and a Labour Foreign Policy future: Stand tall, be brave, send help

When you think of the state of our world, Labour’s troubles can seem very small, almost irrelevant. But they’re not. They’re important, because Britain is important, and because the Labour Party is important to Britain. We have lost our capacity to become the government,we have lost our intellectual credibility in the eyes of the country and the world, and – maybe most tragically of all – we have lost our instinctive sense of morality. To recover on any count means facing down some powerful, by now almost endemic, beliefs on the Left, and none more so than those embodied in the Stop the War Coalition, and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘foreign policy.’ Their dominance for a decade and more over what constitutes moral internationalism has eroded away Labour’s belief in the robust defence of human rights in the world, and this is wrong.

The most profound damage they have done is in shaping Labour’s understanding of the consequences of the intervention in Iraq. They argue perpetually that the world’s current ills started at the removal of Saddam in 2003. Kobani, Sinjar, Yezidis, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Aleppo? Iraq, always Iraq. Nothing before that point is ever relevant, and to bring it up triggers incredulity on the Left. But what went before is of course relevant to understanding the world that came after. Long before the Iraq war the Taliban were already meting out Islamist enslavement of women and girls, Iran’s Islamist government had been burying women alive for adultery and hanging gay men from lampposts for decades, and Al Queda had already carried out mass murder in America on 9/11. What links them (and these are but the tiniest number of possible examples) is the political ideology of Islamism, a deep rooted, incredibly contagious, violent philosophy whose proponents have been killing and oppressing for decades. Imagine what the world could be like had Saddam’s sadistic regime been here to give Islamism financial, political and military support. No, it is good that he is gone, and we need to stop apologising for thinking that. Long before the Iraq war, Islamism was already a deeply oppressive force for those with the misfortune to live within it, and it had already become the ideology of contemporary international terrorism. It’s not about us, it never has been.

A terrible effect of the Left’s determination to blame the ongoing violence in the Middle East and beyond on the Iraq war is that Labour has focused on our own military intervention as the main cause of Islamist terrorism, when it should have been relentlessly trying to understand and find ways to counter Islamism itself. This is a political ideology with its own internal propulsion, it’s supporters may use our own actions as propaganda but the roots of Islamism have nothing to do with the Iraq war. Labour has spent a decade and more apologising for something we did not create, and – as Jeremy Corbyn did again last night in the Leaders debate – damning initiatives, such as Prevent, designed explicitly to protect children from Islamist propaganda. Labour should have been contributing to finding solutions, to making Prevent better, using our links within communities to help bridge divides. We should have been relentlessly constructive, but instead – beleaguered by an activist Left full of misplaced certainty and anti-Western theory – we have too often used our voice to condemn those who have been trying to help.

Labour is an internationalist party that has always believed that the strong should help the weak yet by the time parliament voted on whether to join the fight against Assad we voted against sending military help. We watched carnage being inflicted and we walked away. Thanks to the Tory government, Hilary Benn and many Labour MPs, we have now intervened against ISIS, but in the meantime the world has witnessed pure horror in Syria and the situation has deteriorated, possibly beyond repair. One day I hope to see a Public Inquiry into the reasons and the consequences of that initial inaction in Syria, (called for here by the Director of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq), which should include an assessment of the role and agenda of the Stop the War Coalition and its member MPs. For now, Labour must start to remember that without a strong military,  and the international will to enforce, ‘Human Rights’ is not a foreign policy, it’s just some words on poster.

The world can be a terrible, messy and infinitely complex place. That the Iraq war could be ‘blamed’ for every Islamist atrocity that subsequently occurred is by now as ludicrous as blaming it for every atrocity that went beforehand. We can’t continue to damn our politicians for failing to achieve a world peace that transparently cannot exist. It is fantasy. What we can do is ask them to make honest decisions, based on the facts in front of them, and on solid understandings of what they are dealing with. For those of us who believe in the principle of humanitarian military intervention, and for those of us who believe removing Saddam was right and necessary, that means being prepared to force the truth on to the table within the Labour Party. It also means accepting that there are no perfect answers in foreign policy and that leadership demands making choices, sometimes extremely difficult choices. Finally, if Labour is to stand tall again and make our rightful contribution to a the world, we must remember that the rise of Islamism is not about us, and it never has been.