On the offensive

Ken Livingstone went on Question Time and offended some people last week, which shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. Not only because he has made build a career on offending people, but because when it comes to discussing terrorism, a lot of people seem to think that blazing moral outrage is the only way of ensuring everyone knows Just How Bad They Think Terrorism Is, as if the biggest danger facing us is that we might accidentally become a nation of apologists.

Take the tremendous knee-jerk reaction to Livingstone saying that the 7/7 terrorists ‘gave their lives’ for their beliefs. ‘WHAT???’ responded a twittersphere of caps lock, punctuation-heavy outrage, ‘they didn’t give THEIR lives, they TOOK OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES!!!’

I pointed out to a couple of people that, the truth of the second bit notwithstanding, it is an indisputable fact that the bombers sacrificed their lives too. Nobody’s trying to glorify it, least of all Livingstone, who as Mayor of London responded to the 7/7 bombings with a speech that was roundly applauded as summing up the mood of the city and the nation, and which incidentally used the exact same phrase without attracting any criticism. And why should it? Giving your life is a requirement for a suicide bomber (the clue’s in the name) and if we’re going to understand terrorism we do actually have to get our heads around that terrorists think they have something worth sacrificing themselves for.

One of the Offended People angrily argued that:

You ‘give your life’ if you put yourself in a position where others might kill you or where you kill yourself, NOT when you set out deliberately to kill others.
So we’re not in fact arguing about whether they ‘gave their lives’ in a literal sense at all, but about the phrase itself – as if you have to earn it through some romantic notion of noble self-sacrifice. That’s understandable – the phrase has religious connotations and associations with remembrance; Danbury Mint make a bronze sculpture of ‘the Brave British Tommy’ who ‘gave his life’ for King and Country, though ironically he probably gave his life considerably less willingly than your average extremist and in fact was pretty much forced by King and Country to give his life so it might be more accurate to say they took it from him, but that sort of sentiment makes people feel awkward at remembrance services. Still, there’s one damning distinction you can make about the 7/7 suicide bombers – their lives were never taken from them.

Except… in a less literal sense they were. Their lives were taken at the point they were indoctrinated into the twisted worldview that convinced them that these atrocities were justified. To think otherwise is to assume that they were born evil and, by extension, to believe that there is no solution to the problem of terrorism – the ‘shit happens’ explanation. Well, this shit doesn’t just happen, and understanding what drives people to extremism lies at the heart of stopping it from happening. That does actually mean looking at extremists with some awareness of context, which the Sun will label ‘sympathy for jihadis’, but which anyone actually looking to find a long term solution would call learning lessons from history.

That’s a distinction that eluded Matt Forde on Question Time. Ken Livingstone’s view that the 7/7 bombings were a direct consequence of Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq is neither illogical or original, but it got Forde worked up into a state of righteous indignation as he accused Livingstone of trying to ‘absolve’ terrorists, fundamentally failing to recognise that seeking explanations is utterly different to pleading absolution, and apportioning blame to a leader who ignored advice an exacerbated an unstable situation doesn’t in any way lesson the blame that lies with the perpetrators.

Plenty of others want to obliterate the shadow of Western foreign policy from our collective act of finger pointing. The aftermath of the Paris attacks saw shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden saying we shouldn’t see terrorist acts as always being a reaction to what the West do, bizarrely adding that it ‘risks infantilising the terrorists’ when ‘they are adults entirely responsible for what they do’ – as if the fact that the terrorists have a choice not to be terrorists means we can’t possibly consider their motives. Should we be careful not to see Cameron’s proposed bombing campaign as a reaction to the Paris attacks, because it risks infantilising him?

Emma Reynolds MP competed to be even more smugly Completely Appalled By Terrorists And Anyone Who Doesn’t Also Direct Their Full Appalledness At Them when she asked if Cameron agreed that ‘full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists and any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West or France’s military intervention in Syria is not only wrong, disgraceful, but also should be condemned?’ earning her that half-pissed sleep talking noise that indicates approval from the Tory benches, even though her tautology-laden question didn’t really have much of a point, except to gently stab the leader of her own party in the back and toady up to David Cameron – who duly replied that the half-pissed sleep talking was an indication of just how right she was, a condescending note of gratitude in his voice.

You bet he was grateful. Nobody stands to gain so much from the outraged objection to ‘any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West‘. If his proposed airstrikes in Syria go ahead, it’s an attitude that places him entirely above reproach, whatever the consequences – because even while experts are say bombing will make the situation worse, that airstrikes are playing into the hands of ISIS, and that Cameron’s case for the strikes contains ‘straightforward deceit’, we won’t be allowed to mention any of that if there are repercussions. After a terrorist attack, any such criticism could be shut down as a disgraceful attempt to blame the West, to absolve the terrorists, and to justify their atrocities. So the Prime Minister can do what he likes and blow the consequences, because his critics are all jihadi sympathisers and if a responsible adult becomes an extremist it’s nothing to do with him.

And so the cycle goes on. Cameron blithely talks about ‘learning from the mistakes of Iraq’ without acknowledging any connection between fourteen years of military action in the Middle East and the fact that we’re less secure than ever. When the worst happens, he has a wall of moral outrage to hide behind, the truth that terrorism can never be justified merging with the outright lie that the West can never be blamed.

Unless, perhaps, we’re prepared to offend a few people.

What goes around comes around

David Cameron has already voiced his embarrassment over that Bullingdon club photo. Well, some more photos emerged on Sunday, as well as a story about a thing one person claims photographic evidence also exists for, though if it does it remains mercifully shielded from the public eye. Nevertheless, one imagines there has been more embarrassment in the Cameron household these last couple of days, something the nation has delighted in exploiting with a relentless stream of predictable and mostly not very good pig-based jokes on twitter.

As some have pointed out, we all did stupid things when we were younger (though, I would protest, not that stupid), but the real hypocrisy here is that the story comes from a single uncorroborated and uncertain source in a book written by a disgruntled Tory peer and revealed to the world in the pages of a notoriously capricious ‘news’paper. Essentially, it is revenge porn, albeit in prosaic and most likely fictional form. It’s ironic that Lord Ashcroft’s work is being championed by people who would normally contemplate demeaning pig sex themselves before getting behind the words of either a Tory peer or the Daily Mail.

One person who definitely won’t be talking about ‘hashtag piggate’ is the new leader of the Labour party. Tim Farron couldn’t resist a little dig on twitter (‘I’ve never been more pleased to be a vegetarian’) but Corbyn is still tweeting about railways, and is all set to disappoint those hoping he will ask a crowd sourced pig-based question at PMQs. Because whatever you think of Corbyn, he is making his leadership about real people and real issues, not dubious stories and character attacks. He probably doesn’t give a crap about whether Cameron stuck his thing in a dead pig or not because he’s much more concerned about £4.4bn of tax credit cuts, as heartless an attack on the poor as burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person (something else Cameron did not do at university). Cameron’s alleged porcine student dalliances have no bearing on his ability to do his job, at least compared to How He Is Doing His Job (and since his leadership puts the NHS in jeopardy, threatens to close down the BBC, demonizes the disabled, endangers the environment and continues to pour money into an obsolete defense system before the issue has even been voted on in Parliament, that is very relevant indeed).

This is worth noting because last week we were bombarded with stories about Jeremy Corbyn which, if less visceral than the pig thing, were just as fatuous. Stories about him snubbing England’s Rugby World Cup, or riding a communist bicycle, or having an evil great great grandfather. Only slightly less inane and equally unsubstantiated were stories about his disrespect for servicemen, his sexist shadow cabinet and his love of terrorists, splashed across newspapers as fact and gleefully retweeted by Conservative MPs and supporters ad nauseum. And lest we forget (as if we’re going to be allowed to), the Prime Minister’s first response to the announcement of Labour’s new leader was to brand him a threat to National security, a less specific accusation than the pig thing but as incendiary a claim (Cameron usually reserves such language for talking about ISIS). Is it any wonder that Cameron’s detractors have seized this opportunity to turn the tables? And when such hyperbole are being used by the Tories, who could truly blame Corbyn if started referring to them as a secret pig fucking cabal?

But he won’t. There will be no grainy monochrome scaremongering video from Labour about Cameron and pigs. Corbyn’s questions to the Prime Minister will continue to focus single-mindedly on Conservative policies. It may not be the first time Cameron has been embarrassed about his student days, but it is perhaps not the last time he will have reason to be grateful that Corbyn is a better man than him.

Conservative with the truth

The movie released yesterday by the Tories about Jeremy Corbyn (coming soon to a social networking site near you) has revealed a truth that not even the most fervent left-winger can wriggle away from: Labour’s new leader, however human and principled he managed to appear during the leadership campaign, has pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. He is a frightening figure. He does evil things, thinks evil thoughts, has evil friends and is putting our very lives in jeopardy with every passing second.

That, surely, is the only conclusion any reasonable person can draw from the video. And video is simply not capable of lying, any more than Conservative PR people are. These are FACTS. We see and hear Corbyn incriminated with his own disgusting words – what more proof do we need?

Labour apologists can whinge about ‘context’ all they like, but it’s not as if you could make David Cameron look like this with an hour to spare on Premiere Pro.

Is it?


Leslie Boosey (of Boosey & Hawkes), to Benjamin Britten in 1940:

‘I think the more one is in the United States, the more one becomes impressed with that feeling of limitless opportunity which has been so lacking over here. If only there were a United States of Europe, instead of 20 squabbling countries, what a marvellous place it would be. Who knows, perhaps this is the good that may come out of the present evil…’

How quickly people forget what had to happen to push us towards a more united Europe, and our limitations without it.

When you choose your enemies, you should expect to be treated like one

Yesterday’s twitterstorm in a twittercup was the news that the EDL’s Tommy Robinson kicked up a fuss in Selfridges because a man he assumed was a Muslim refused to serve his friend. The shop assistant in question has been suspended and there was plenty of righteous anger flying about, partly because righteous anger is generally what Tommy Robinson provokes, but this time it was also aimed at the rather heavy handed response of Selfridges.

However, as Mic Wright has blogged, even the leader of the English Defence League ought to expect decent service in a shop that prides itself on making everyone welcome. I had no patience for the B&B owners who, on the grounds of faith, refused to give a double room to a gay couple. They offer a service, they should jolly well give it to everyone, whatever their personal feelings. And we can’t have one rule for homosexuals and a different one for the EDL (even though, ironically, both homosexuals and the EDL would probably like that). No question, the shop assistant in Selfridges should have just got on and done his job.

But it’s easy for me to write that. Given quite how revolting the EDL and Robinson himself are I don’t know how well I’d cope with them in the flesh, and I’m a middle class white male; how I’d react if I actually felt targeted by them is impossible for me to imagine. Yes, the staff member in this case acted unprofessionally – but his response was an understandable and human one. Give him a ticking off, sure. Send him for training on customer care in the face of racists, absolutely. But a compassionate employer needs to recognise that workers are not machines, they are subject to human emotions and impulses, which in this case could hardly be called irrational. Suspension, investigation and even talk of what the Daily Mirror subtly headlines the SACK are unnecessarily victimising a man who clearly already feels victimised.

Nor should Selfridges have so wholeheartedly taken the side of a customer being trying to intimidate said staff member by waving a phone in his face (clearly with every intention of getting the video on the internet at the earliest possible opportunity). An apology would have sufficed, but instead Robinson and his chum were rewarded with two £25 steaks and VIP treatment. If only from a selfish PR point of view, Selfridges might have shown a bit more restraint. Robinson would have had less opportunity to crow over that ‘Muslim’ he was served by and I don’t think Selfridges need have worried too much about pissing off the EDL demographic. (I witnessed their recent march across Tower Bridge: they are pitifully tiny group and their general demeanour didn’t suggest that many of them shop at Selfridges.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that, unlike a gay couple wanting to stay in a B&B for a weekend, Robinson has made a choice to stand as a public figurehead for outspoken and often violent Islamophobia. He has, in so many words, branded certain racial groups as an enemy: when you choose your enemies, you should expect to be treated like one (as should those who hang out with you). We are talking about a man whose family is under 24-hour police protection, after all.

In spite of all of which, he absolutely ought to be given fair and equal treatment whether in court or in Selfridges. But which of us could possibly blame a shop assistant for falling short of that ideal?