Archive for September, 2001

Ed Vaizey

September 27th, 2001

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that Mr Duncan Smith’s Shadow Cabinet were a pathetic bunch of losers, or something similar. So do go and look at Ed Vaizey’s effort in The Guardian to persuade us of the contrary opinion. Ed Vaizey thinks that Michael Howard “is the Rudy Giuliani of British politics. He has never been loved by the public, but he is someone the public instinctively turns to when it wants genuine action” Do you turn to Michael Howard when you want some genuine action?

Against War

September 23rd, 2001

The peace movement is coming together all around me, except on “govchat”, my graduate department’s email chatlist. So I’ve just sent it a message. I’ve suppressed the identities of other participants in the conversation, since I don’t think it’s a public group, and I don’t mention aspects of US foreign policy in the Middle East not because I don’t think these are very important, but because one participant in the conversation who used to serve in the US military said he didn’t like reading “email diatribe after email diatribe condemning the evil imperialistic policies of America while my friends are overseas in harm’s way defending American lives”. So I’ve spared his feelings on this occasion at least.

“FIRST, the moral objection. All of us can construct arguments in our heads for why intervention in Afghanistan might be the “right thing to do”, all things considered, thinking especially of the issues which address our particular ethical concerns. All of us can (if we like to do this kind of thing) crunch the numbers in our own moral calculators and decide for ourselves how many civilian casualties are reasonable, defensible, inevitable or legitimate “collateral damage”. XX and YY have both mentioned, for example, the importance of “minimizing” civilian casualties. But this is a vague aspiration, like being “against sin” or “opposed to terrorism” — it’s one we all share. And it is a sad fact that the kind of war which _genuinely_ minimises civilian casualties is almost certainly not on offer. NATO spoke of the importance of minimizing civilian casualties during the Kosovo intervention, yet five hundred Yugoslav civilians were killed (this is the Human Rights Watch estimate), and Amnesty International’s report into the bombing concluded unambiguously that “civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the laws of war”. The NATO powers did not adhere to those laws during those eleven weeks (though they said they did), and I don’t think we have good reason to be confident that the Bush administration will during the present conflict, either. Those who think war is OK if civilian casualties are minimized should ask themselves whether they think the mechanisms are in place to secure this goal and whether they trust the US/NATO leaders to incorporate the strictest concern for civilian life into their military decisionmaking. Otherwise it will be a matter for _chance_ as to whether they get the kind of war they’d like to see, and this is obviously too important a matter to leave to this kind of chance. Six thousand-plus innocent people were blown to bits in last week’s atrocity; I don’t believe that any of us have enough assurance that the coming conflict won’t blow a few more to bits, and while I’m perfectly able to draw a distinction between the intended, foreseeable victims of terrorist attack and unintended, foreseeable victims of governmental response, this distinction doesn’t make me feel happy enough to sanction the blowing to bits of those who fall into the latter category. “SECOND, the political objection. We should be immensely suspicious of giving our backing to a war with such ill-defined parameters as this one. WW2 came to have clear war aims: Germany’s unconditional surrender; so did the Gulf War: the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait; so did the Kosovo intervention: the removal of Serb military forces from Kosovo. When our governments announce their “war on terrorism” it is entirely unclear as to quite what it is that we are being asked to support. This is, in fact, where we get very close to “1984″ territory: Pakistan is our ally this week for putting pressure on the Taliban; next week it might become our enemy if the US administration chooses to remember that it was considered by Jane’s in 1997 as the “world’s leader in hosting international terrorist organisations”. Eastasia this week, Eurasia the next. Every move the administration makes on this front will be justified with reference to intelligence reports to which citizens don’t have access. Thus the governments say, and the media repeats, that OBL is the “prime suspect” for the 9/11 atrocity. Indeed, it may very well have been carried out on his instruction or by his minions — but we haven’t seen nearly enough evidence presented in the public sphere to persuade a sceptical citizen that this in fact is the case. Many of us much of the time are not wholly confident in the truth of the knowledge which national security organisations like the CIA, FBI, MI5 and MI6 help to generate — yet if this “war on terrorism” is allowed to get going and to escalate, we will repeatedly be asked to agree that acts of violence should be carried out in our names against up to sixty foreign regimes based on the selective leaking of state intelligence which will be almost impossible to verify. Our governments will almost certainly restrict our civil liberties and increase their surveillance over us as a part of this “war” which we are being told may go on for years. In short, we are being asked to put far too much of our trust in the most secretive, least accountable branches of government than is warranted as part of a war which the authorities are so far refusing to define with any precision, and which will therefore be defined as it unfolds entirely in accordance with their own short-term interests, which may very well not be ours.

“THIRD, the practical objections. XX is obviously right that “organized elite groups are [not] mere reflections of mass experiences or attitudes”, but do people who favour “war” think that they will be able to break the terrorist networks apart irrevocably and reduce over the long term the likelihood of terrorist attacks on Western civilian targets? Remember that the British state failed to defeat the Provisional IRA in a twenty-year plus conflict despite being able (i) to keep Belfast and Derry under permanent military occupation, (ii) having a rather small local population counted at most in the low hundreds of thousands even passively supportive of the IRA’s activities and (iii) perpetrating a number of severe human rights abuses. Perhaps the Brits were just incompetent, but it seems to me that it is wildly optimistic to think that US military activity in the Middle East will secure the defeat over the long term of fundamentalist terror groups, especially since the specifically anti-US stance of such groups turns on their ability to exploit an already-existing distrust and dislike of US interference in the region, which is likely to increase. Sometimes the media discourse about this crisis focuses on the so-called “rogue” regimes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, as if they are the chief problem and the major culprits but it’s a very striking fact that most of the hijackers named by the US authorities were citizens of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. For those who preach “jihad” against America it can only be music to their ears when Mr. Bush announces a “crusade” in return. And to pursue the IRA analogy a little further, the British made the biggest inroads into the IRA in the late 1970s period when it treated IRA activity as chiefly _criminal_ rather than military in nature. This was a period when the death toll of the Northern Irish troubles fell sharply and when the number of terrorists being jailed rose substantially. The IRA was under a great deal of pressure, and in the end it was only something as drastic as the self-slaughter of the hunger strikers which enabled it to rally republican support for the armed struggle in the 1980s. I don’t think we’ve yet had a sensible debate as to whether the effort against terrorism should be treated primarily as a matter for international policing rather than military sabre-rattling and intervention: President Bush pre-empted that debate when he immediately branded this crisis a “war against America” and got Mr Blair to make equally foolish public declarations. Of course there would be problems in organising such an international investigation — the Taliban wouldn’t have handed OBL over if a request for extradition had come from a UN body, either — but in general this seems to me an immensely preferable route to go down in formulating anti-terrorist strategy. Strengthen the institutions for international policing, strengthen the International Criminal Court. Build genuinely multilateral institutions. And introduce better airline security and — crucially — a more transparent international banking system.

“Each of these three sets of objections seems to me convincing. Together they are overwhelming.

“FINALLY: I’m sure that a part of the reason why I feel so strongly opposed to war in Afghanistan this time around is that I made the mistake of thinking the NATO intervention in Kosovo was a reasonable one at the time, yet the arguments for that war still seem to me to be more persuasive than the arguments for this one. Back in 1999 I believed too much of what I was reading in the US/UK press and hearing from the politicians, and I judged there was more merit in the arguments of the various liberal humanitarian interventionists than I do now. Reflecting on and reading about that episode subsequently changed my opinion, and I now feel ashamed for having argued a pro-war position with friends and colleagues. (Relevant factors which changed my mind included my shifting evaluation of the West’s disregard for international law, NATO’s use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium weapons, the avoidable killing of civilians, the course of NATO diplomacy in the period of Rambouillet and the demands placed on Yugoslavia, together with my persistent disinclination to believe that the Chinese Embassy was attacked owing to out-of-date maps being used by US planners.) So some of you may feel that I am overcompensating this time around in confidently rejecting a conflict which I fear is about to start and throwing myself into the peace movement here in Britain, which is now, I am pleased to report, growing fast. I feel more scared about what Mr Bush’s war is going to do to the citizens of the Western democracies and to the peoples of the Middle East than I feel threatened by international terrorists (and yes, growing up in London, bomb scares were part of everyday life). There are a lot of us who share the same feeling. Given that this is supposed to be a war on terror, that’s not good.

“The War on Terrorism is like the War on Drugs: the US Government isn’t going to win it, and it has the potential to do a vast amount of harm at home and abroad on the way to not being won.”


Michaele writes [23.9.01]: I rather enjoyed reading this. I am hoping that the peace movement here in Seattle receives a well-needed boost when students get back to the UW [University of Washington] in a week. In the meantime, I have been rabble-rousing in email form, and pleasantly surprised that so far my friend Peter is the only one who thinks war is a sensible idea. (Of course, there’s also the parents – but I have long since�given up on trying to persuade them to change their politics). Thanks for speaking for peace on govchat – from previous email conversations I’ve participated in, I can imagine that your voice was well-needed!


September 21st, 2001

Those who know me will know that I am somewhat opposed to At a time when thousands of small bookshops around the world are struggling to stay afloat, the last thing the literate world needs is a supercentralised book depository to drive a lot of them out of business. And it’s anti-union, too. But my dislike of Amazon was tempered ever-so-slightly earlier today for a brief, shining moment when my friend Richard sent me this magnificent link.

Congratulations, Todd B. Vick, M.A, for this valuable store of opinions on the current crop of Thomist secondary literature. Just bear in mind, though, that if you want to stock up on commentaries on Aquinas and other Doctors of the Church, you might want to buy them in cheaper second-hand editions from the helpful people at

Richard wrote [21.9.01]: Yes, I too have no great time for Amazon, especially as it is ferociously anti-union. In fact, I think a boycott of Amazon is called for. You might like this link. As well as the magnificent – I’m a very regular user – you might like to highlight Best Books Buys, which is also excellent and shows that Amazon is rarely the cheapest possibility.

P.S. I’m still having trouble reading the weblog – does it not like Netscape?

Chris replies [21.9.01]: Apparently not: I hadn’t noticed this before. Anyone got any idea why – or whether there’s a solution?

Todd writes [21.9.01]: I shop Abebooks all the time. In fact, almost twice as much as Amazon. I’m not sure of the intent of this e-mail, as odd as it seems to me, but if you have less expensive resource places where I can but materials such as Thomistic works, then I’m all ears. I make frequent trips to Chicago, Ill. and Madison, WI., to shop as the local used bookstores – the used gems are always found at these places! Any suggestions let me know. I ALWAYS buy used before I buy new (albeit the condition is right).

P.S. if you go here you will see that I have a link to ABE. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

Nick wrote [23.9.01]: Here’s an easy link to remember: This one was set up to protest Amazon’s jiggery-pokery with US patent law (IIRC, they claimed they’d invented e-commerce and nobody else should be allowed to sell things over the Internet), which is possibly yet another reason to dislike them.


September 21st, 2001

Not all of my weblog-related postbag makes it into these columns unscathed. It’s usually valuable to read and to discuss other people’s points of view. Not always. Someone who had found their way to this page wrote to me this morning to opine that “the NY disaster was an organized and amazingly efficient operation, only the likes of the CIA and Mossad could do it” and that “it could be a conspiracy”. What kind of conspiracy? Well, there’s an unsubtle insinuation a couple of sentences further on that it might involve “Jewish owned banks”. Ah yes, that kind of conspiracy.

I’m not at all sorry to report that the weblog isn’t interested in giving space to these kinds of “arguments”, so please don’t bother to send them to me. Either put your garbage in the dustbin where it belongs, or if you can’t quite manage that, send it off to instead.

A few things

September 20th, 2001

* If you’d like to receive occasional email messages from me collating information about anti-war vigils, protests, rallies and other activities in London and Oxford, tell me. The first listings went out today.

* Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has been writing a song about the events of the last week, called “Americans United”. I don’t think it has been recorded yet, but you can follow Orrin’s career in patriotic song and listen to examples of his work on two valuable webpages here and here. Thanks to Michaele for sending me this important information, and to Raj for the URLs. (Raj says: “Best thing is if you play it backwards, very slowly, you can hear a ghostly voice intoning all eleven Theses on Feuerbach“.)

* And do go and admire MIT‘s homepage, now festooned with CND logos. (Thanks to Rob for this).

Politics and the English Language

September 19th, 2001

At times of political crisis it is usually a good idea to reread George Orwell’s 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language”. It is full of good advice, most of which I try to follow most of the time, although Orwell would no doubt dislike the number of foreign phrases I contrive to slip into my prose, and the length of some of my sentences. What a joy it is, then, on this occasion to come across these particular words:

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.”

It is marvellous to find the clich� of the hour, “stand shoulder to shoulder”, in Orwell’s list, but the description that follows also speaks to the present moment. There are good reasons why W. sometimes comes across as a dummy rather than as a live human being, or why we feel that he might not be choosing his own words for himself, but I suspect that it is Mr Blair who is further along the path to transforming himself into a machine. (W. by contrast will always remain a cipher, a middle initial, or perhaps just an uncomplicated tool). Whereas W. needs to concentrate hard in order to get his words out at all, Blair can effortlessly disengage his thinking from his speaking parts, and is able to appear oblivious to the fact that his conversation in filmed interviews in quite inane. (While he does not sound as if he is “uttering the responses”, he always sounds as if he is in church, which is why he is the vicar of St Albion parish). Neither man is very good with verbs, the one because he cannot really talk, the other because he found it politically astute to dispense with them a long time ago.

Stop the Unjust Hatred!

September 18th, 2001

Bob wrote [20.9.01]: “Am I the only one who finds this deeply problematic? I can understand that being a Sikh is a tough (and dangerous) deal right now in America, and a little education never hurts. The problem that I have with this is that this poster seems to imply that it is fine to beat up other turban-wearing folks who aren’t Sikhs.”