The Word “Defensive” Is Now Meaningless

September 8, 2015

by Martin Odoni

Defence has always been a tricky subject, as the lines between self-defence and paranoia are often very blurred. What some would call a preventative measure, others would call an act of hysteria. More often than not, I suspect, the truth is somewhere in between the two, but a general lack of openness will usually make it hard to judge.

On Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron, who is showing increasing symptoms of a man who equates leadership skills with ruthlessness and the ability to avoid being held accountable, delivered a statement to the House Of Commons in which he discussed the growing Syrian Refugee Crisis, and conceded that emerging news of British nationals fighting for Islamic State of Iraq & Levant (ISIL) being recently killed in British air-strikes was true. It happened on 21st August.

Now I have already mentioned recently that Cameron’s decision to authorise military action in Syria in direct contravention of a House Of Commons vote from two years ago showed a contempt-for-Parliament that borders on corruption. It was not actually illegal, I must stress, but whatever the precise lettering-of-the-rules might be, he was essentially declaring that he can ignore the People’s Representatives in Parliament, even over the deployment of the Armed Forces. This is almost a declaration of dictatorship. If the country were currently in a fairly balanced and rational collective frame-of-mind, he might have been forced to resign for it, but with a dominant right-wing media in love with bellicose rhetoric, and a growing xenophobia and intolerance tingeing most political discussion, the majority response has been a shrug-of-the-shoulders. I shall not go into further detail on that right now, but I wanted to analyse some of the remarks Cameron made in defence of this particular military action.

The deaths of the two men killed in the air-strike, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, Cameron described as “entirely lawful”. “We took this action because there was no alternative,” he said. “We were exercising Britain’s inherent right in self defence.” The two men had been with ISIL for some time, and according to Cameron, “There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies.”

While I would agree that Britain has a right to defend itself, is this action not a pretty big stretch? Khan and Hussain were in Syria when they died. Unless these planned attacks that Cameron claims he has evidence of – as usual with these things the ‘evidence’ has been mysteriously withheld – involved use of inter-continental ballistic missiles, which seems astonishingly unlikely from an organisation like ISIL that does not even possess an air force or navy, the threat they posed to Britain does sound somewhat remote. Hussain appears linked to a derailed attack on an Armed Forces Day parade – if you think we can trust a reporter for The Sun – but the facts that a) he did not play any direct, hands-on role in it, and b) it failed, underline that his threat was nothing about which we should get into a sweat. Indeed, all the attacks in question have been foiled, according to Cameron, so where exactly lay the apparently urgent need to kill them?

Cameron spoke of planned “barbaric attacks” against the West this summer. But it is September, the summer is now over, and even at the time Hussain and Khan died, August was already long in the tooth. So such attacks would only have happened in the past – which they did not anyway. So what were the killings going to prevent? Other attacks they might attempt in the future? Well okay, but this is precisely why I argue that paranoia can be mistaken for defence, as “They might do something terrible in the future” is a pretty abstract reason for killing someone, especially someone with a dismal success record to-date. If we really are going to follow the principle that people should be killed because of a history of plotting crimes, in case they commit a crime in the future, we are rather heading into the draconian realm of Thought Policing.

NB: Before I get any of the usual accusations of being a wishy-washy liberal who is divorced from the real world, I am not saying I am particularly sorry that Hussain or Khan are dead. Despite Cameron’s refusal to release any details, there is some evidence in the public domain from other sources, including YouTube videos, that they may be implicated in several brutal beheadings. So with a little more openness from the Government, and accepting the realities of war, I would be quite prepared to accept that Hussain and Khan deserved no better. My concern is why the Prime Minister feels the need to make their deaths sound so urgently essential that he opted to violate the will of Parliament, when the practical threat the two men posed seems both minor and easily-thwarted. I might also add that I find people who just take a Prime Minister’s word for it, when he tries to justify militarism in foreign lands by invoking ‘defence’, are more likely to be living in a fantasy world than I am.

The danger of using self-defence to describe the killings is that the explanation can easily be turned around and used to defend the acts of ISIL. As far as soldiers in ISIL are concerned, their rapid conquest of wide stretches of Syria and Iraq are ‘defensive’ of the Islamic Holy Land. From the perspective of Radical Islam in all its many and varied forms, attempts to purge the Holy Land of the ‘taint’ of Westernisation are nothing worse than the antibodies of a human body trying to fight off an infection. I do not agree with them on that score, of course, but the area they argue from is hardly any greyer than the one the West argues from when it meddles in the Middle East in the first place, and Cameron is not helping matters when he uses the same distorted definition of ‘defence’ when it is convenient to him.

Defence, in short, seems to mean anything from actual self-protection to attacking anyone when it just seems to be too much of a fuss not to attack them. It therefore means nothing specific at all.

As for Cameron’s insistence that the killings were ‘lawful’, on the basis that there was no Government in the region who could ratify them, that does sound a little like saying that he is staking a sort of claim to sovereignty. “Nobody else is in charge there, nobody else is enforcing justice there, therefore I am.” This underlines my earlier points about Cameron beginning to appear increasingly megalomaniacal. He seems to think he is entitled to authorise violent death without being accountable to anyone, which makes him as dangerous as Tony Blair proved to be, although for slightly different reasons. In international terms, both seem to live in a childish Star Wars fantasy, one where Blair pictures himself in a simplistic world of Good vs Evil and, like Luke Skywalker, he will fight heroically for the goodies and bring ‘evil’ to its knees, with little forward planning, without seeking much definition of what constitutes ‘evil’, and without acknowledging the horrendous, uncontrollable knock-on effects. Cameron’s perspective is also simplistic, but more in keeping with Anakin Skywalker’s affection for absolute authority summarily to destroy what he sees as ‘evil’, and to be as violent and unhesitating in doing it as is practical, and without pausing to consider whether he really has the right to do it.

Once again, by the letter, you can probably raise enough reasonable doubts to conclude that what happened was lawful, due to the worryingly broad ‘executive powers’ that the Prime Minister’s office has long held. But part of me wonders whether Cameron authorised the killings while the two men were in Syria, in the hope that he could avoid any awkward legal entanglements if they had to be terminated elsewhere later. Certainly, the legal implications if they had returned to Britain and were then gunned down by the SAS on the streets of Cardiff or Birmingham would be huge.

To those who say, “What’s the problem? They got what was coming to them, we should have done it sooner,” I say, “What is to stop the Prime Minister doing similar things to anybody he dislikes? Anybody who disagrees with him?” If we tell him we are not going to question him using summary execution, what else will he assume he can do without repercussion? Surely state-sanctioned killing is the action, above all others, that a leader can commit to that must always be cross-examined? And surely any and all flaws in its application must always be highlighted? If we are not going to hold the Prime Minister to account for that, surely there is nothing for which it is worth holding him to account at all?

And yet we do have a go at Cameron – usually rightly – for all manner of other deeds he does, which says something about us that we probably do not wish to notice; we are living in very disturbing times indeed when many of the same people who grumble long and loud (and correctly) about politicians claiming dodgy expenses, will at the same time happily cheer the Prime Minister on without a moment’s hesitation when he metes out summary ‘justice’ in the name of ‘defence’.

Unaccountable expenses = bad
Unaccountable killing = good?

What a deranged country we are.


3 Responses to “The Word “Defensive” Is Now Meaningless”

  1. xraypat Says:

    This is excellent as ever…thought-proving and bringing all relevant facts to the fore. I am amazed that Cameron thinks he can go above Parliament and behave as a Dictator. Naziism comes to mind….We must persuade our representatives in the UK and Scottish Parliaments, and the Welsh Assembly, to fight this with every weapon in their arsenals. We cannot allow disdain for legal votes, on our behalf, by our MPs to be discarded and ignored….otherwise we might as well give up the attempt to have government by the people for the people.
    Thank you Martin.


    • Martin Odoni Says:

      You’re welcome, although one thing I should mention is that there is nothing unusual about a PM declaring war without Parliament’s approval. What is so galling is that Cameron promised before the 2010 Election to introduce a new Act to prevent it happening. To date, he hasn’t introduced it, and is now even taking arbitrary military actions himself. Given Parliament explicitly voted against the action two years ago, he is being the ultimate hypocrite.

  2. ‘This is almost a declaration of dictatorship’ – Couldn’t have said it better.

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