Wednesday, 17 February 2016

What's in a word

To listen to UK Ministers, one would believe that only Russians kill civilians in Syria, ‘we’ only kill ‘terrorists’.  It’s not credible; there can never be any guarantee that anyone dropping a bomb from the air will only kill those it deems combatants.  But there was another thing that struck me about what Michael Fallon said yesterday as well.  He said that whilst the UK, US etc. are bombing ‘terrorists’, Russia is bombing ‘legitimate opposition forces’.  I’m sure that’s a distinction which will be of great comfort to those being killed by both groups.
It brought to mind the way in which words regularly change their meaning.  It’s a natural attribute of any language, but changing meanings and different interpretations don’t always help rational debate, particularly when those involved in the debate stretch words to mean whatever they want them to mean.  ‘Terrorism’ is a case in point.
As I understand it, the word originated in France as terrorisme to describe the reign of terror during the French revolution.  It referred specifically to actions being taken by the state against its citizens – almost completely the reverse of the way in which it is generally used today.  In the mouths of politicians, it has become a catch-all for anyone using violence in pursuit of political objectives, excluding, of course, those who are seen as friends, and those who use violence as a means of promoting ‘acceptable’ objectives.  As a result, some people can be ‘terrorists’ today, ‘resistance fighters’ tomorrow, and ‘friendly allied governments’ the day after, whilst continuing to do the same things in the same way.  Or all three of those things, depending on who’s describing them.
It’s not only singularly unhelpful as a word when used like that, it’s also a cop-out to avoid debating, or even considering, the underlying causes and issues. But they have to be considered sometime; responding to violence with violence kills individuals but doesn’t kill grievances or beliefs.  On the contrary, it often reinforces them.
The UK has managed to get itself involved in yet another war in the Middle East, and looks likely to be dragged further in; and as is their wont, the politicians have described it as being part of the ‘war on terror’.  IS, or whatever they’re calling themselves today, are a pretty nasty and unpleasant bunch of people.  And the way they administer the territory that the have captured is closer to the original use of the word terrorisme than most of what we’ve seen from many groups to which the term has been applied. 
But I’m simply not convinced that bombing them is a path likely to meet with success in the long term.  We’re sending aircraft to bomb them largely because we have to be seen to be doing something, and this is something that we can do.  But being ‘something that we can do’ is not the same as being ‘something which will make a difference for the long term’.
Throughout human history, one of the hardest forces to tackle has been force based on an absolute religious belief.  The perspective that God demands that we submit to his will, and if anyone refuses, then they must either be forced to submit or be killed is a strange one to most of us today, even if it really isn’t that much different from the perspective of some Christian armies in the past, or that of the Inquisition.  To us, it looks dated and medieval, of course; but that’s a matter of context, not of nature.
The key point is that it isn’t a perspective which can simply be defeated by force.  It's an absolutist idea which needs to be tackled and subdued, but history indicates that we’re more likely to be successful in doing that through trade, education and negotiation.  It’s not often that I find myself half wishing that I was wrong; that a bombing campaign which kills a few thousand now will achieve its aim and avoid the deaths of many, many more later.  Such a belief would be easier in some ways than standing back and saying ‘truthfully, we can’t sort this quickly’ which I guess is why so many have adopted it.  But I can see no successful precedent for such a belief.  And nor could I bring myself to weigh human lives against each other in such a callous fashion - although that's something which seems to come very easily to governments.
Wars can certainly be ‘won’ in the short term.  But time and again history teaches us – even if we rarely learn from it – that the ‘solution’ to one conflict is often part of the cause of the next.  Fundamentalist beliefs cannot be killed by killing those who hold them – even if they could be identified, and even if the thousands of innocents killed in the process were deemed a price worth paying.  Ideas can only be defeated by other, better ideas.  Ignoring that simple reality has already cost the world far too many lives; failure to act on it is costing more on a daily basis.

No comments: