The week from the 17th to the 24th March made for an interesting seven days.
Let’s start with Wednesday the 22nd. A man who grew up with the name Adrian Russell Ajao, but is now known as Khalid Masood, and who had a history of knife attacks, went on a rampage, driving a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, and then running towards the Houses of Parliament where he stabbed a policeman. He managed to injure over 50 people, and to kill four, including the policeman and an American tourist. Ajao himself was shot dead.
The incident was horrifying – but hardly unique. In 1987, Michael Ryan shot 16 people in Hungerford before killing himself. In 1996, Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and one teacher at Dunblane Primary School before killing himself. in 2010, Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria. In terms of death toll, the Westminster attack was not as bad as those incidents.
Two things are different about this incident. One is that politicians have spoken as if this incident is in some way was a threat to the British way of life. The other is the fact that it has been described as a “terrorist” incident.
Terrorism great and small
Which brings us to what happened on the previous day – Tuesday 21st. Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional IRA, died. The Provisional IRA killed over 1700 people during the course of the troubles in Northern Ireland, making them the most deadly “terrorist” organisation ever to operate on British soil.
But their terrorism was of a very different kind from that of Ajao. They used bombs and bullets, and they were a tightly organised body. Ajao was armed with only a knife (and a Hyundai), and he was not acting as part of an organised group. As far as we know, he acted alone. His terrorism bears no resemblance to that of the IRA. His career as a ‘terrorist’ lasted a matter of minutes. The Provisional IRA was active for almost 30 years.
One incident in Ajao’s history seems to me to be significant. According to the Independent:
“In an incident that … may have led to a sense of alienation and grievance, he was convicted in 2000 of wounding and criminal damage. After a row at the Crown and Thistle pub in Northiam, Masood, who had drunk four pints during the afternoon, slashed café owner Piers Mott with a knife, leaving him with a face wound that needed 20 stitches. It was said at the time that Masood had been one of only two black men in the village. And Alexander Taylor-Camara, Masood’s defence barrister, told Hove Crown Court: “There were racial overtones in the argument between himself and the victim. He let that get to him – unusually, because in the past he has been able to shrug off that sort of abuse.””
In short, he comes over as someone who has long felt alienated from British society – and a rather sad figure.
And yet, listening to politicians talk, you would have thought that he posed a serious threat to British democracy. The Prime minister, Theresa May, is quoted as saying
“Yesterday, an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy. But today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism. And we meet here in the oldest of all parliaments because we know democracy and the values it entails will always prevail .”
Indeed, the word “values” was the word of the day among politicians. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said “Our values are superior, our view of the world is better and more generous and our will is stronger.” ”
Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary said “The British people will be united in working together to defeat those who would harm our shared values. Values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. Values symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. Values that will never be destroyed. “
“We are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism.”
Huh? One man with a Hyundai and a knife? And the Prime Minister speaks of how the nation’s resolve will never waver? The way politicians speak, one would think the Luftwaffe were flattening the country, and plucky little Britain was standing up to incredible odds. (Indeed, Andrew Neil did invoke the spirit of the Battle of Britain and speak about the Luftwaffe.)
Are these people delusional? Well, they might be. But I think the more prosaic truth is that they are politicians. Politics is about power. And, to quote Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, “Victimhood is the currency of our current cultural politics. Victimhood is power in our current society.” Hence politicians love to use the language of victimhood, and to portray their nations as victim nations that are under attack from powerful forces. I suspect that government ministers want people to think that Ajao represented powerful forces that threaten Britain, because it strengthens their political power if people believe that.
And, of course, victimhood is also a great enabler of self-righteousness. It enables us to become experts at seeing the specks in the eyes of other people, while not noticing the logs in our own. That was undoubtedly the case with Ajao, but it doesn’t just apply to him.
Yemen, war crimes, and British bombs
And speaking of the Luftwaffe and bombs, there was Friday 17th March.
On that day, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen. Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers.
All the evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia was responsible. According to Human Rights Watch:
“All the parties to the conflict denied responsibility for the attack. Only the Saudi-led coalition has military aircraft. The Houthi-Saleh forces do not. Somalia, which supports the coalition, called on the coalition to investigate. But the coalition has repeatedly shown itself unable or unwilling to credibly investigate its own abuses.”
And Sarah Leah Whitson, their Middle East director, commented
“The coalition’s apparent firing on a boat filled with fleeing refugees is only the latest likely war crime in Yemen’s two-year-long war. Reckless disregard for the lives of civilians has reached a new level of depravity.””
And this is not the only horrifying story coming out of Yemen. While everybody knows about the Westminster attack, more than half of British people are unaware of the war in Yemen. A YouGov poll showed 49 per cent of people knew of the war there, which has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced three million more and left 14 million facing starvation.
Got that? Everybody knows about an incident in which 4 people were killed, but most people in Britain are unaware of a war going on at the moment which has killed 10,000 people.
And what is more, it is not as if the war in Yemen has nothing to do with Britain. The British Government supports the Saudi led coalition which is accused of killing hundreds of civilians – and of deliberately trying to starve rebel areas into submission.
Last year, Britain agreed weapons sales worth 3.3 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia. Some of the cluster bombs dropped in civilian areas were of British manufacture. Under pressure, the Saudis stopped using British cluster bombs and promptly replaced them with Brazilian ones, rather than giving up weapons which are known to kill and maim civilians and children decades after being dropped.
Last September, a Parliamentary report by the Committee on Arms Exports Control, which comprises 16 MPs from four parties, said it was likely British weapons had been used to violate international law.
“The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”
Theresa May rejected this conclusion, and spoke about the importance of Britain’s relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, saying “When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”
The following month, October, saw Parliament rejecting a motion calling for the British government to withdraw its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
And, then in December, when the American government announced it would stop a shipment of precision-guided munition to Saudi Arabia following what it called evidence of “systematic, endemic problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting” (in other words, Saudi bombings of schools, hospitals, wedding parties, and funerals), Theresa May refused to follow the American decision to end bomb sales to Saudi Arabia.
Iraq – and its body count
The day after the attack that killed 42 Somali refugees, was Saturday 18th, which, (by interesting coincidence) is the 14th anniversary of something else that happened in Westminster: the vote in Parliament that Britain “should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”. In other words, on that day, Parliament voted to invade Iraq. (Ironically, it turned out Parliament was mislead, and Iraq didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction.)
As a result of this Parliamentary vote, the invasion began two days later – so Monday 20th March was also a significant anniversary. The invasion, of course, led to war, and the war led to violent death on a massive scale. The Iraq Body Count project has come up with a list of 174,000 Iraqis killed between 2003 and 2013, with between 112,000 and 123,000 of those being civilian non-combatants – a huge number compared to the four people killed in the Westminster attack.
And the Iraqi death toll keeps rising, because the invasion of Iraq led to war that continues to rage to this day. In particular, the war enabled a tiny, insignificant Salafist Islamic group to become a major power in western Iraq calling itself Islamic State – now generally known as ISIS. In 2014, ISIS had their most astonishing success: they capturing Mosul – a city of over half a million people.
In other words, what happened to Mosul in 2014 (and what is happening in Mosul today) is a direct consequence of that parliamentary vote in Westminster in March 2003 – together with US government’s decision to invade taken a few months earlier. And so yesterday’s BBC headline – concerning an American bomb attack on Mosul on the 17th March that apparently killed over 100 civilians) is a masterpiece of ironic understatement: “Mosul battle: US ‘may be responsible’ for civilian deaths.” The fact is that the US and the UK, by starting off the fighting in Iraq in 2003, are unquestionably responsible – not just for the civilian deaths in the Mosul bombing, but all the civilian deaths in Iraq in the last 14 years.
Amber Rudd can talk about the “values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law” and how these values are symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. She may think that these values are symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. But perhaps not everyone sees the Houses of Parliament that way. I would suggest that if you want to know what the Houses of Parliament really stand for, you look at the words of Christ (Matthew 7:16): “ye shall know them by their fruits.” If you look at what the Houses of Parliament actually do, and the consequences of their actions, the truth about Parliament is considerably darker than what politicians would have us believe.
And what of these great values?
Amber Rudd talks about democracy. But is democracy really an important value? If democracy means that democratically elected politicians in the US and UK democratically vote to enable war crimes in Yemen, is democracy really that wonderful a value? If democratically elected politicians in the US and the UK vote democratically to set off a war in the Middle East that will rage for decades and kill hundreds of thousands of people, is democracy something that is sacred?
Amber Rudd talks about the value of tolerance. But what exactly are we supposed to tolerate? Looking at Parliament’s record, one gets the impression that Parliament believes in tolerating repeated Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen. Is that such a good thing?
Amber Rudd talks about the value of the rule of law. It’s a bit of a shame that the rule of law, which was bad enough in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, went out the window completely in that country when the UK and the US invaded Iraq to overthrow him.
And there was also something a little odd about the words of sympathy for the victims for the victims of the Westminster attack that came from politicians. Theresa May, in her speech, said “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected – to the victims themselves, and their family and friends who waved their loved ones off, but will not now be welcoming them home. “
What is odd is that I cannot remember Theresa May saying anything about her thoughts and prayers going out to those affected by British (and American) policy in Yemen. What I can remember is the way she spoke about the importance of Britain’s relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, saying “When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”
Alas, that relationship has done nothing at all to keep people on the streets of Yemen safe. The opposite is true. It has helped make people on the streets of Yemen very unsafe.
One can talk as much as one likes about Parliament embodying values like freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. But actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Parliament in recent years show that there are other values at work in Parliament. Parliament seems to embody a national pride that verges on national self-righteousness, not to mention callous disregard for human life if the people concerned are in certain Middle Eastern countries.
How do we know that Ajao’s attack was an attack on freedom, human rights, or the rule of law? Perhaps, just perhaps, he was angry because he saw darker values at work in Parliament.