A journey without return: we have been here before

By Jill Segger
November 17, 2015

We have been here before. November 13 2015; September 11 2001. Thither the echoes come.

Shock, fear, grief anger. Such emotions do not make for measured responses. But politicians have an immense responsibility in the managing of terrible situations. President Hollande, responding in the immediate aftermath of Friday's appalling events and evidently deeply shaken, accused Islamic State of “ an act of war”. The words, though welcomed by many, immediately laid down a marker which makes reasoned analysis very much more difficult. David Cameron's same day response – and it is only fair to say pitch perfect is elusive in such instances – was orotund and at that stage, largely meaningless.

Once a declaration of 'war' is made, even though it be outside the parameters of international law, a popular legitimacy is conferred on further violent action. France began an intensive bombing attack on the northern Syrian town of Raqqa on Sunday 15 November. Raqqa is held by Islamic State forces and is described as a poor area from which escape is difficult. The result is obvious: more innocent and helpless civilians will be killed. It seems unlikely that public buildings in Europe will be illuminated in solidarity with these people.

The escalation of military response happens very quickly. Today (17 November), David Cameron, in an attempt to build a parliamentary majority for UK air strikes against Syria, has announced a “comprehensive strategy” for such action. There seems to be as yet no indication that he understands the meaning of 'comprehensive' in this context. In 2003, frightened populations (that's what terrorists do) were told that the invasion of Iraq was necessary to defeat terrorism. Where are the attempts to assess the failure of this strategy and to examine what actions – if any – led to a decrease in terrorism and which to its increase?

Neither is any attention being paid to the funding of Islamic State or to the organisations and states supplying them with arms. So far, we have heard nothing of a willingness to seek the backing of the United Nations, of the possibility of building alliances in the region, nor of Britain asking hard questions of its allies. The only card in play is a bombing campaign.

If this is presented as the only course of action, it is not difficult to see that public opinion may be led into compliance. There is understandable and entirely legitimate anger at what happened in Paris last week. However, much comment has been vicious, or at best intemperate. A caller to Radio 4's 'Any Answers' programme last week demanded that people who travel from Britain to Syria to join jihadi groups, together with their UK families, should be placed in concentration camps on “some Scottish island” and be subject to force-feeding. This view is evidently at the outlying reaches of the lunatic fringe. Nonetheless,you do not need to listen to phone-ins for very long to hear many variations on a theme of “the scum of the earth must be wiped off the planet”. That tone is not going to encourage government to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Unless we can undertake a more reasoned and nuanced exploration of the threat posed by Islamic State and how we may best respond, we are very likely to be carried along on a wave of outrage into acquiescence in another Middle Eastern intervention which has not been thought through. In addition to causing immense suffering to the innocent, this will serve to strengthen the recruiting capacity of terrorist groups. Such exploration will not be easy. The gulf between liberal, culturally and religiously diverse democracies and a movement which views a 7th century theological and legal mindset through lenses of fundamentalism and violence is vast. And the forces of 'something must be done' are building and pulling us towards disaster.

Bugles and drums have always had the power to drown out the still small voice of reason and non-violence. The current mood permits Jeremy Corbyn to be calumniated by Sky News as “Jihadi Jez”, simply for reminding the vengeful that capture and the process of law are ever to be preferred over extra-judicial killing. And some members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are so determined to undermine their leader that they seem unable to stand quietly for long enough to reflect that 'shoot to kill' on our streets should not be the unquestioned blanket response of civilised societies to possible threats. Remember Jean Charles de Menezes.

War has been described as “a journey without return”. We must do all in our power to find a better way.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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