I hate war. I hate the destruction of life, its cheap exchange for national or factional supremacy.
And I hate the thought that sometimes the best way to protect life is to take others’ lives. I know the cadence-ridden responses, Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, and perhaps most notably this week Martin Luther King’s “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that”.
I am not a pacifist. I have a huge amount of respect for a noble tradition of non-violence and a refusal to engage in war regardless of its ends or means. I sometimes wish I was a pacifist. But then I find exceptions. I find cases when people in forgotten corners of the world are systematically slaughtered and the world stands by, watching.
I hope there are diplomatic solutions. I hope there are ways to stop the fighting, stop the indiscriminate death some way other than through the use of force. But if that doesn’t work, and it shows no sign of succeeding, then military action must be considered.
Because borders do not define who my neighbour is. And we have a responsibility to love our neighbour, and love our enemy, and when they are killing each other, we should respond. This is not imperialism, it is caring for our neighbours. Maybe more global PCSO than global policeman.
In The West Wing president Bartlett is gently berated by new staffer Will Bailey for valuing Khundunese (fictional African country where acts of genocide are taking place) lives less than American lives. After a hastily rewritten speech Bartlett declared to his staff: “It’s easy to watch the news and think of Khundunese as either hapless victims or crazed butchers, and it turns out that’s not true. I got this intelligence summary this afternoon. ‘Mothers are standing in front of tanks.’ And we’re going to get their backs.”
Yesterday Britain said that regardless of what goes on in Syria, we’re not going to get their backs.
It was a gross abdication of moral responsibility for political point-scoring [cue eruptions of outrage].
David Cameron made a huge miscalculation in calling a vote, amending the motion to be meaningless if it passed and devastating when it was lost. No planes would be given the green light had parliament voted in favour of action in principle, the weapons report from UN inspectors would be considered, parliament would vote again.
But instead parliament voted that regardless of the findings, whatever atrocities may be taking place, there will not be a second vote. Instead we will sit on our hands as chemical weapons stick to schoolchildren and burn off their skin. The vote wasn’t an act of wisdom or thoughtfulness; it was a reckless commitment to standing on the sidelines.
I don’t care if this is a humiliation for Cameron, I don’t care if this is a sign of strength for Miliband. I care what this motion may mean for the lives of Syrians.
If, as is suspected, chemical weapons have been used, then military action is justified both to alleviate humanitarian distress and send a message that such weapons will not be tolerated. The question then is whether it is the most effective response.
I’m not convinced military action is the answer in Syria, it could bring untold consequences, it could destabilise the region yet further, Iran could become drawn into a conflict that pushes Middle East peace even further away. And then of course there’s the question of whether air strikes can effectively debilitate the capacity of the Syrian military to deploy chemical weapons, if this is what they have been doing.
But to vote to say we won’t even consider taking action, that’s walking by on the other side of the road.