Thursday, 25 May 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Dangerous Idea

(This post was originally published as an article in 2015 on another website, now defunct. It now seems relevant yet again.)

Unlike many conservatives, I wasn’t that bothered by Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem. As the columnist Peter Hitchens noted: “The world’s full of countries where you have to salute the leader and sing the party song in public. This isn’t one of them.”

Much more troubling than Mr Corbyn’s aversion to ‘God Save The Queen’ are the remarks he made after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. Interviewed by the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV, he said:

“There was no attempt whatsoever that I could see to arrest him and put him on trial, to go through that process…this was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

There are several problems here.

For one thing, Corbyn really has no way of knowing whether or not the US soldiers who carried out the raid intended to kill Bin Laden regardless of circumstances. Several accounts of the event describe him as being killed while reaching for a weapon. Corbyn also displays a certain naivete about the option of “arresting” Bin Laden, as if it were simply a matter of sending Slipper of the Yard and two stout constables round to his house with a warrant. And if he had been put on trial, this would have raised its own problems—any city hosting a trial would instantly become a huge terrorist target in its own right.

More fundamentally, he is using the word “tragedy” in such a way as to obfuscate rather than enlighten. “Tragedy” is not a moral category. It’s a vague and emotional term used to cover a range of bad happenings. But not all bad happenings are bad in the same sense, to the same degree, and for the same reasons.

Even if you think Bin Laden’s death was tragic, perhaps because you see it as emblematic of the lawlessness and brutality of the war on terror, or because you subscribe to John Donne’s view that “any man’s death diminishes me/Because I am involved in mankind”, there is a problem with lumping it together with 9/11.

The Abbottabad raid was an operation carried out by uniformed soldiers, subject to a known chain of command as required by the Geneva Conventions, against the admitted leader of a global terrorist organisation, known to be responsible not just for 9/11 but for numerous other atrocities, e.g. the African embassy bombings in 1998, whose victims were mostly African civilians.

By contrast, on 9/11, nineteen terrorists murdered a total of 2,977 unarmed civilians, including, lest we forget, eight small children on the hijacked planes. The attacks continue to claim victims today, as people who were enveloped by the clouds of dust and rubble succumb to lung disease.

To say simply that both of these events were “tragedies”, without any further attempt to distinguish between them, is morally perverse and evasive, a deliberate attempt to muddy the moral waters between those who commit acts of terror against civilians and those who seek (however imperfectly) to prevent those acts.

Mr Corbyn would doubtless argue that the response to 9/11 by the US and its allies has been a disaster, that the US has committed its own atrocities against non-combatants, that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have unleashed waves of chaos, violence and misery. He would not be entirely wrong, although there are important qualifications regarding intent, objectives and context when comparing the actions of liberal democracies and Islamist terror groups. Modern wars—fought against fluid, fanatical non-state organisations who target civilians relentlessly, do not respect any of the laws of war by which the liberal democracies are bound, and who wear no uniform—throw up some very difficult challenges for the Western powers.

The leader of the Labour Party’s problem is that in the realm of international affairs, he appears to be an example of that dangerous creature, the man with one idea. That one idea is that Britain and the United States, and their allies such as Israel, are the main sources of injustice, disorder and terror in the world, or at least the main ones to which we should pay attention.

It may stem from the common progressive belief that past or current victimhood bestows special moral status on people or groups, such that they can no longer be held to the same standards as those with “power”. This is why he is willing to give a hearing to organisations like the IRA, or Hezbollah and Hamas, and to resort to flannel when asked to give unequivocal condemnations of atrocities committed by “powerless” groups; they are opposing “imperialism” or “American hegemony” and so there must be something to be said for them.

I do not say that there is no truth at all in this view of things. But it is only one idea among many that are needed to understand the world aright, and Mr Corbyn’s pronouncements on foreign policy give little reason to believe that he has thought very deeply about the others.

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