Norman Geras’ false comparisons

Norman Geras, professor of government at the University of Manchester, author of Normblog, and friend of Harry’s gang, has an article published in yesterday’s Guardian regarding people saying “I told you so” with regard to the London bombings. The article is actually an abridged version of a blog entry from last Wednesday, and has attracted the attention of Melanie Phillips, who accuses the Guardian of “parading on its comment pages a sickening number of apologists for terror, taking that paper into a new dimension altogether of treachery in time of war”. No doubt she means a lesser dimension than that which can land the perpetrator in jail or, in earlier times, swinging from the gallows.

Geras’ article seeks to debunk attempts to give a “root cause” for the London attacks, usually in the form of British participation in the Iraq war. Like an awful lot of the belligerent anti-appeasement literature on the internet, Geras resorts to a mixture of slanders and guilt-trips. The slander, in this case, lies in using the term “apologists”, as if suggesting a root cause, or some way by which we as a society have contributed to the situation in which we now find ourselves, is the same thing as justifying the actions.

It’s important to point out that pro-war dialectic has been characterised by rancour and character assassination. The day after Geras published his piece on so-called apologists, David T at Harry’s Place published an article on so-called “quislings”, “traitors” and “deliberate fellow travellers of theocratic fascist politics”, a “key example” being Seumas Milne of the Guardian who had written a piece accusing Tony Blair of putting his people in danger by participating in two US-led wars in the Muslim world.

The vitriolic tone of the Harry’s Place article echoes earlier fanatical pro-war writing such as Eric S Raymond’s infamous “Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto”. The manifesto alleges that “the Left has failed us by succumbing to reflexive anti-Americanism; by apologizing for terrorist acts; by propounding squalid theories of moral equivalence; and by blaming the victims of evil for the act of evil”. Like Geras, Raymond confuses the society targeted by the attacks with the actual victims, a much smaller group consisting of those killed or injured, and their families, and others directly affected. I have not seen any attempt to attach blame to this group of people.

Geras compares attitudes like Milne’s and, in particular, George Galloway’s, with this scenario:

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.

This is not an entirely valid comparison, because the actions of a common criminal or psychopath in a neighbourhood infested with such people are not motivated by any conviction, but most likely by greed or some perverted desire. The people who do this are individuals attacking individuals, and those individuals were the sole targets of the aggression.

In the case of terrorist attacks, the victims are the individuals killed or injured; the targets or potential victims are the society at which the attacks are aimed. In this case, we have been targeted because our leaders (and let’s be clear, whichever party was in power would have done the same) have involved us in two misguided adventures, disguised as do-gooding missions, in countries of which we as a society (and, as we now know, the said leaders) know little. It is, therefore, natural that we should debate whether we want to be put on the line for this. It is not the same as an uninvolved party lecturing the victim, or his or her family, about their foolishness in going to this or that area, which in any case is a right and proper, if foolish, thing to do. I have every right to walk through any council estate I like at any time of day or night. I don’t have the right to invade someone else’s country on a false pretext.

Later on in Geras’ entry, there appear more false parallels:

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 comparison does not go because the “root causes” are completely different: the presence of a few hundred refugees arousing the anger of a tiny minority with a hostility to black people and other foreigners, as opposed to the bloody occupation of two countries by forces from countries with a history of aggression and imperialism. Second, the people who made the decision that made the thugs angry are not the people they attack: politicians, not African immigrants in the streets. Third, the presence of a small minority of African refugees does not result in any great hardship for the local people, as opposed to the presence of occupying troops in Iraq. Fourth, there is a moral imperative to offer sanctuary to people in demonstrable danger, and the UK is the natural place of refuge because of our self-chosen imperial links with that country. There was no moral imperative to invade Iraq, at least, no more than to invade Burma, North Korea or Zimbabwe, all of which have human rights records as bad as, or worse than, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq.

Geras then accuses the “root-causers” of being “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?

My answer: no, but I’ve come across Jewish commentators willing to excuse vastly more bloody Israeli actions than any of the so-called apologists, or for that matter Muslims living in this country even of a fundamentalist persuasion, have been willing to indulge Muslim terrorists for. These include the assassination of Shaikh Ahmed Yassin (by a bomb, not a rifle bullet, along with seven other people!) and the kidnapping of Mordechai Vanunu. The hatred taught against Jews in some Arab countries is matched by the hostility of many Zionists towards Arabs, particularly Jewish settlers in the occupied territories (many of them American Zionist fanatics). (The hostility they show to critics within their own community may be some indication of their hostility towards Arabs.)

At the end of the day, the Israelis (far more than we in the west) chose their present situation. Their antecedents chose to settle in Palestine during the British occupation, and to indulge in acts of terrorism against both the British and the local Arabs. Others chose to settle en masse there after the end of World War II (perish the thought that they might endure communism like everyone else in eastern Europe). Of course they would face hostility from the Arab inhabitants and their Arab neighbours. That’s what happens when you steal someone else’s country (regardless of whether you have the support of the five predominant imperial powers). The debate over the rights and wrongs of Palestinian resistance tactics does not detract from the reality of situation Israel has built for itself: people who occupy others’ land do not sleep peacefully, however well-armed they are.

Geras then trots out several more false comparisons about someone “triggering” someone else’s violence in some way, none of which have any application to the Iraq war or the terrorist attacks for the reasons already explained. The violence in the three situations Geras presents are examples of simply unprovoked and/or unjustified violence by individuals against individuals in reaction to trivial “provocation”. The object of all this is to demonstrate that contributing causally to violence against one does not equal moral responsibility for that violence, something nobody disagrees with even in the case of the victims of terrorism. People who seek to explain why these attacks happen do not waste their time condemning terrorism because it should go without saying. Putting bombs on the tube to kill innocent people, to say nothing of crashing aeroplanes into large buildings to kill thousands of innocent people, is wrong.

The problem is that people want us to disconnect our sufferings at the hands of terrorists with the sufferings our government’s actions cause overseas. At my school there was a bully whose modus operandi showed just such a disconnect: he would provoke someone into lashing out at him or in some way offending him, and then fly into a rage and beat that person up. On one occasion he required several people to hold him down after an incident of this kind. In our media, since 9/11 and since the London bombings, anyone suggesting that western aggressions against people in Muslim countries has the slightest role in provoking terrorist attacks against civilians here is greeted with sanctimonious outrage.

Of course it has nothing to do with the US-supported Israeli government’s curfews protecting a few hundred settlers by confining tens of thousands of locals to their homes for days on end on pain of instant death by shooting. Of course it has nothing to do with depleted uranium munitions which cause cancers which hospitals can’t treat because medication can’t be imported and the doctors are treating people in Dublin or Boston or Manchester. Of course it has nothing to do with the US air force bombing a wedding party because some local with an axe to grind told them it was a bunch of al-Qa’ida guys. No, they just hate our freedoms. They hate seeing our women not quite dressed up to their standards. They hate our music. They hate the fact that we can get rid of one bunch of useless politicians and replace them with another every five years or before, if they choose to allow us. And the canard which has got the most air time in the last month or so is “they all just want to establish a global caliphate”, which brushes under the carpet another important aspect of Muslim globalism: that of the ummah, a body which feels the pain when just one part is hurt.

And over the couple of weeks since the London bombings, these guys have been playing the media bias game as well - another favourite neo-con canard. So the BBC are loath to use the word terrorist, preferring to state the facts and call the bombers bombers. So the Guardian carries a lot of articles suggesting that our government might have laid us on the line by invading Iraq - never mind the fact that they carry pro-war articles and letters as well, including Geras’ extract and a sympathetic letter in today’s edition (the third down on the page, using the same “fellow traveller” accusation - wonder if this guy reads Harry’s Place?). Despite the paper’s generally liberal perspective, the paper has carried opinion pieces from both left and right, and pro-war voices have included some of the left-liberal press’s regular columnists. It is a mystery why they cannot argue their case without resorting to character assassinations and sanctimonious neo-conesque rhetoric. It’s ironic that there has been so much talk of unity in the wake of the London bombings - the rally I attended in Trafalgar Square was called “London United” - when the tone of debate in some quarters has been so rancourous. Of course they will not divide us with their bombs; that job has already been done by the Sept 11 hijackers.

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