Message in a gunboat (Sending in the SAS)

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In the further discussion of the Gillian Gibbons case on the radio this morning, the question of whether the teacher should be militarily rescued was discussed. Vanessa Feltz said she thought, and claimed that she discovered, from reading his column in the Telegraph today, that Boris Johnson had thought as well, of the Don Pacifico incident. Don Pacifico was a Portuguese Jew who served as the Portuguese consul in Athens, and his home was attacked and vandalised by a mob which included the sons of a government minister, while the police looked on and did nothing. As he was born in Gibraltar, he was a British citizen and appealed to the British government for assistance in 1848, whereupon Lord Palmerston initiated a naval blockade of the Greek port of Piraeus and seized Greek ships and assets to the value of Pacifico’s claim. He spoke in the Commons of a time when a Roman citizen could say “I am a Roman citizen” and know that he could count on Roman assistance, and suggested that the same should be true for British citizens. (More: Austrolabe.)

Feltz’s stance brought out one raving nutter who went on about how “we let Islam get away with murder” and suggested that the SAS should be sent down there. He ended his tirade with a curse against the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). Feltz apologised, but I realised that the guy was a raving racist. I found her reference to the Israelis sending their troops to Entebbe to rescue the Israeli hostages amusing, since this guy probably hated Jews and Africans as much as Muslims. Anyway, the image in a lot of British people’s heads of the SAS (Special Air Service) is an almost mystical one of a fighting force that can be sent in anywhere and never get anything wrong.

There are two problems with Britain sending in the SAS (or any other armed service) in such situation. The first is that it would cause an awful lot more problems than it would solve, both for Britain and its overseas citizens. It would alienate any country which was allied to the country invaded, which in this case means much of the Arab world. The question arises as to how British troops could reach the Sudan - unless we have an awful lot of men in Kenya, it would be difficult to reach the place without passing through other Muslim countries. In countries with (even) less of a commitment to the rule of law than Sudan, it could even lead to the British citizen in question being murdered as soon as the government got wind of such an action; it could lead to British interests being targeted for mob revenge or terrorism, or even to British citizens being barred from entering certain countries.

The other is that it could only be used on weak countries. The clamour that has surrounded this woman is extraordinary given that British citizens who face the death penalty, or imprisonment for much longer periods in squalid conditions, do not attract a fraction of the attention. Should we send the SAS into Ohio to rescue Kenny Richey, who is believed by everyone except the Ohio prosecution service to be innocent? Perhaps we should have sent them into India to rescue that deaf man who was locked up for supposed drug smuggling? Of course, nobody would suggest something so stupid. However, any time a British citizen got into trouble in a third-world country, or even perhaps in eastern Europe, there would be an outburst of anger, a round of vilification of that country and its customs, it would not be considered that the person involved might be guilty, and we could be dragged into a pointless and fruitless war. We could also get into a fight with that country’s “big brother”.

It is a non-starter. Don Pacifico was not any ordinary citizen, but a diplomat. Yes, it is true that in the past, armies were sent in to rescue individuals, including by the Muslim sultans, but today, there are far more travellers and more people who could get into trouble. As I wrote earlier, I do not believe that her arrest was justified, but if we will not kill and die to rescue British citizens in mortal danger, it is ridiculous to suggest it here.

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