The Point
Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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How Did We Get Here (& What The Hell Do We Do Now)?

Derek MacPherson, Clydebank Yesser, Australian citizen, and Babelfish blogger attempts a 3 part answer to the biggest question of the day.

Part 1

Seriously. We're all asking ourselves one, or both, of these questions, aren't we? How exactly did a group we'd never heard of a few short years ago, a group we can't even decide what to call (I'm going to use 'Daesh' because apparently it annoys them), become, in such a short time, such a massive headache for, well, most of the world? And what can we possibly do about it that won't just make matters worse. These are serious questions. Deadly serious we might say. I will attempt to give answers to both of them, but first there's a bit of housekeeping we need to take care of. I had, as the title suggests, intended this piece to be about the past and the future. But the present elephant in the room can't be ignored. Recently David Cameron finally got his wish, got the vote through the Commons and started bombing in Syria. And now I have to talk about that before I can go on to talk about how we got into this mess in the first place, and how I, as opposed to David Camoron (mis-spelling entirely intentional), think we should proceed from this point on. It's not a good point to be at, but unfortunately this is the only reality we've got. That's going to be the really interesting bit, for me to write anyway. But first, Cameron and his approach (to call it a strategy would be a gross abuse of the language).

So, things we need to consider about current government policy, in no particular order. Cameron's stated reasons for doing it, his arguments – laughably irrational. It will make us safer. How, exactly, and in what possible universe could it make us safer? All logic and all experience tell us the opposite. Every time, every single time, we get involved we make matters worse, we make more enemies, now and in the future, as a generation of children grows up with horrific memories and missing parents, brothers, sisters. And every single time we end up more at risk. There are a lot of reasons why we continually intervene and continually screw up, but that's what parts 2 and 3 are about. For now let's just take it, because I think it's pretty self-evident, that that's what we do. So will we be safer? Not remotely. We just drew a big target on our backs. C'mon, admit it, you've had that thought too, haven't you?

We have to defend our friends and allies, pull our weight, do our bit. Well sure, but does that still apply if your friends and allies are making a serious mistake? Wouldn't it be better to be honest with them? A bit like the way you'd take your friend's car keys off them if they were drunkenly brandishing them and telling you to get in? Now I'm not suggesting our elected representatives are drunk at the wheel, although when you look at the quality of their decision making, and the size of the Westminster bar tab, you do sometimes wonder. But in this case, as with every other time they've intervened in the Middle East, they clearly don't know what the hell they're doing. They've got no goals, they've got no contingency plans, they've got no exit strategy. What they have got is the unholy trinity of bad reasons for doing anything. 1) Somebody had to do something. 2) We had to be seen to be doing something, and 3) It seemed like a good idea at the time.

So what are we/they doing? They are waging an air campaign. Now, you'll possibly have heard a lot of phrases about air things. Air defence. Air support. Air cover. Air superiority, even air supremacy. Here's one you've never heard though: air victory. There's a reason for that. There's no such thing. Nobody ever won a war, or even a battle, with air power alone. You can check. It's never happened. And yet so many people seem to think, as some of them did in 2011, that it's better to do something rather than nothing, even if you have little or no idea what the results will be. It's not! I was thinking about this earlier, and I remembered an interview I saw many years ago with the captain of a British Airways 747 which unexpectedly flew into a cloud of very fine particles of volcanic ash somewhere in the neighbourhood of Indonesia. At first the crew were transfixed by the eerily beautiful light show created by the tiny particles hitting the nose and windscreens of the aircraft. They had no idea what was causing it as none of them had ever seen anything like it before, but as they were discussing it one by one, but in quick succession, the engines started to shut down. Now as the captain explained, a quadruple engine failure at cruising altitude is a very rare thing indeed, but the first thing you do, if it should ever happen to you, according to the training he'd received, is this: sit on your hands. The thing is going to glide, and when you're six or seven thousand feet higher than the peak of Mount Everest it's going to glide for a while. What you absolutely must not do is to panic, and react before you've had a chance to consider the situation and to make some sort of a plan. To do so might very well make matters worse, maybe even catastrophically worse.

So the other thing we need to get out of the way is what, in the situation we find ourselves in, we don't do. What we must not do. This will be quicker and easier than answering my two questions, but it does have to be done. The simple answer is that you never do what your opponent is trying to provoke you into doing. Now there are a number of things which fall into this category. I'm going to make a short list.

Be afraid. We cannot allow ourselves to be afraid. Remember who we are. Since when were we afraid of anybody? They are terrorists. The clue's in the name. Their objective is to create terror. As soon as you're afraid of them, they win.

Let it affect our lives in any way. As soon as we do that, perhaps by asking ourselves should we really go to that match, that rally in the square, because there's a remote chance there might be a terrorist attack (and by the way, you're still far more likely to be struck by lightning, and you don't go around worrying about that), they win again.
Let it affect our attitudes to refugees. It shouldn't need saying, but it does. The Syrian refugees in particular are the people who are fleeing Daesh. Seven million people have been displaced by that conflict. Hundreds of thousands have already arrived in Europe, soon it will be a couple of million. And people are worrying, no they are actually saying they are afraid, because one or two of them might be terrorists. One in a million! If you are seriously saying that, if you are really that fearful, then this next bit's just for you. See item 1, drink a cup of concrete and harden the fuck up! Think this through. If we turn our backs on these refugees, what lesson are they supposed to take away from that? "Hey, Daesh were right! These people are complete bastards! And they hate us!" And what are we going to do with them anyway? No, you haven't thought that one through either, have you? Is it just going to be Somebody Else's Problem? Whatever country they happen to be in at the moment, that's their tough luck? Or are you suggesting we drive them all back into the sea? Or perhaps you think we should keep them in camps? Millions of people, in Europe, in concentration camps. Ringing any bells yet? Win number 3 for the terrorists!

Let it affect our attitudes to our own Muslim community. That would be disastrous. And disgraceful. In Scotland we have not experienced the same social problems that have plagued England, and France, the US, Australia, or any one of a number of western countries. We haven't had hundreds of young people running off to Syria to join Daesh. Why not? Because we haven't, so far, made young people of Muslim background feel alienated in the way those other countries have. Forty years ago, when I was growing up in Clydebank, the first migrants from Pakistan were just beginning to arrive, and yet we already had a distressing level of toxic sectarianism. You know what I'm talking about – competing groups of Christian extremists. Now hang on (I can already hear the Christians protesting), that really had nothing to do with religion, it was more akin to some form of tribalism and a whole bunch of teenage boys bursting with testosterone and spoiling for a fight. To which I respond, "Your point being?" Because isn't that exactly what is fuelling the present Daesh phenomenon? Now we like to believe, with I think some justification, that we've moved on from those days, that things have got better. We may well be just about the only country that over that period of time has acquired a Muslim minority and yet seen the level of religious conflict decline. We have always enjoyed good relations at both the personal and community level. This is something we've got right that those other countries have not, and not just recently either, something we got right 30 or 40 years ago. Here's a radical idea - let's keep it that way! Otherwise the terrorists win again!

Lash out ineffectually and indiscriminately, because we had to do something. Like by launching air strikes for instance. It's an incredibly bad, no worse than that, a spectacularly stupid idea. For a number of important reasons. The first, and unarguably most important reason, is that airstrikes are not, can never be, 'surgical.' That is a myth put about to make us feel better about ourselves, to allow us to look the other way as our governments slaughter many, many times more civilians, more children, more innocents than any terrorist group could ever hope to. Because that's what's really happening down there, on the ground. Let's not kid ourselves. The very term 'terrorism' was coined to describe aerial bombing of civilian populations. Real people are really dying down there, because of our pathetic, hand-wringing cries that we 'have to do something!' Which brings us to the second reason – it doesn't work. You'd think it would, wouldn't you? Think about bombs falling everywhere around you. It must be terrifying. And yet, it doesn't terrorise people, it just pisses them off. As I mentioned, I'm from Clydebank. The Blitz is a big part of our history, our mythology. We were bombed more heavily than any other place in Scotland, second worst in the UK, after Coventry. Did we all become advocates of surrender to Germany? We did not. Certainly it must have been a terrifying experience for those who went through it, but once it was over those feelings very quickly began to turn to anger. A cold, hard anger, and a steely determination to fight back. If that's the effect it had on us, then why would we imagine for one moment that it would provoke a different reaction amongst a different bunch of people?

Thirdly, you can't defeat a terrorist group by conventional military means. That's why it's such an effective strategy (and we will discuss alternative ways it can be countered in Part 3). Terrorists don't tend to wear uniforms and they blend in with the civilian population. If you use conventional military means against them you're pretty much bound to kill more civilians than combatants, thereby committing a war crime. Especially when you're using an instrument as blunt as air power. But as they say, when all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail, so our leaders go ahead and do it anyway, and invent the myth of 'precision' bombing and 'surgical' strikes, to deny their shame. But ok, let's say you manage to get some of the people you're actually aiming at. The question remains: is the number of enemies you manage to take out greater than or equal to the number you create as a result of your bombing? Well, the evidence is in, because Western governments have been doing this for quite a while now, well over 20 years at least. What do you think? Are we safer? Do we have fewer enemies? Are there fewer terrorists and potential/wannabe terrorists in the world today than there were a quarter of a Century ago? Are we in the West better-liked, more respected, thought of more favourably in the countries of the Middle East, or in Muslim countries in general, than we used to be? Have you had enough rhetorical questions yet? Because I think my point is made. We are doing exactly, exactly what Daesh were hoping we would do. As Frankie Boyle put it in his own inimitable style, in his recent article for the Guardian, 'ISIS wants an insane, medieval race war – and we've decided to give them one.'

So, now that we've got that out of the way, what should we be doing? Well the detail will have to wait for Part 3, however that may be no bad thing. For the time being, we need to accept that doing something is not necessarily better than doing nothing, not when you don't know what you're doing! We need to learn from that 747 captain (who, incidentally, was subsequently able to restart his engines, make an emergency landing, and save every single life onboard) and sit on our hands. And of course, as the picture at the top says in large, friendly letters (and it's good advice at any time), Don't Panic!


Part 2 follows shortly.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books