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No one at all agrees with George Hook’s view that a victim of rape could be to some extent responsible for the crime. Well, that’s how it seems but it’s not true. Many people agree with him but right now they are silent. They are silent in the face of the powerful outrage expressed by the establishment and by thousands of ordinary decent people who have decided that there’s no room for equivocation on rape.* This would seem to be the first general lesson arising from the incident: if decency and the establishment – especially journalism – combine in outrage, then the expression of a barbaric viewpoint will be met with concerted hostility. In other words, anyone holding such a view will know that its expression will invite opprobrium.

There are two types of opposition and they can be represented by two Irish Times journalists. Firstly, there is the Fintan O’Toole view that George Hook and his associates should be boycotted. ** Secondly, there’s the Kitty Holland view that he ought to be heard and challenged.*** Both accept that his viewpoint represents a wider misogynist perspective, with FO’T adding that Newstalk Radio, George Hook’s employer, is editorially committed to serving/entertaining the audience for this kind of material. Indeed, it is argued by former Newstalk presenter, Sarah Carey, that, “When you make controversy your business model, this is inevitable.”† Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth because the number of vile statements/slurs capable of generating a reaction like this is tiny.

The second general lesson then would seem to be that there are some viewpoints which decency and the establishment find so reprehensible as to warrant exceptional action. That prompts three questions: how does a viewpoint gain this status; how many such viewpoints are there; and, is the list comprehensive?

The road to establishment opposition to rape myths is unfortunately long and tear stained. Marital rape was not illegal in Ireland until 1990. Clearly opposition developed slowly and at some point the numbers represented a breach such that what George Hook said *** appeared beyond that breach. It’s worth mentioning that this is a recent breach; GH has taken the same position many times and recently. Numbers determine in so far as to form a critical mass which delivers the power to say, “No right thinking person would say that.”

At this point the liberal has stepped on to thin ice in being asked to side with the bien pensant. I don’t intend to explore this in any depth. Suffice it to say that there is an old tension here between preventing speech that will cause harm and requiring speech that will challenge the orthodox view. 

In discussing the George Hook incident, I asked a handful of people to identify other views which would attract the same degree of opprobrium. The banishment of Kevin Myers for the expression of a view that was a curious mixture of misogyny and anti Semitism sprang to mind for almost all.†† Racism (including hostility to Travellers) or opposition to homosexuality came to mind too but there was a consensus that while these might prompt a degree of condemnation, it would be nothing like demands for dismissal or the boycott of a radio station. It was thought that there was just one other thing that would compare: child abuse generally and paedophilia particularly.

A list of viewpoints which a typical leftist or progressive would be quick to condemn did not feature. The ton of bricks which fell on George Hook would not fall on nasty comments about women (other than concerning rape) the poor, welfare recipients, politicians, public servants, immigrants etc.

It would seem that there are just these three areas which are condemned as, “No right thinking person would say that.”

Anyone familiar with my views would be surprised if I did not mention what for me was the most glaring omission but it is also a link to and informs the third general lesson.

It is necessary to plumb the depths of depravity to find worse than supporting a rape myth, anti-Semitism or child abuse but supporting and celebrating war crimes is certainly a contender. Now, the IRA for years conducted a campaign of selecting civilians as targets. Each incident was an unambiguous war crime/crime against humanity. Sinn Féin supports/celebrates these crimes while attracting a share of up to 20% of the Irish vote. Bizarrely, Fintan O’Toole listed Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, among those whom he called upon to boycott Newstalk.**

Unlike speakers for Sinn Féin, George Hook (and indeed Kevin Myers) apologised and expressed the error of what was said but there was no way back. The third general lesson then would seem to be that there are viewpoints which decency and the establishment find so reprehensible as to be unforgivable.

So, what have we got? Well, in Ireland decent people and the establishment – especially journalism – can combine to direct a powerful hostility towards anyone expressing a barbaric viewpoint. There is then no redemption; apology, withdrawal, recantation count for nothing. However, very few barbaric viewpoints are considered so reprehensible as to warrant this treatment. There may be as few as three: support for i) rape myths, ii) anti-Semitism and iii) child abuse.

The sudden, public and entirely unexpected onslaught on George Hook and on Newstalk has given rise to suggestions that something has changed: on the one hand, that vile, dangerous nonsense will not be tolerated or on the other, that free speech is threatened. The reality is that too little has changed. The pusher of rape myths now joins a tiny number of officially recognised despicable speakers. Is it possible that the decent citizens and journalists who finally had enough of rape myth-making will pause, look about and ask, “Is there similar or worse that we’ve been ignoring for too long and that warrant the same treatment?” At the very least it might be argued that it is time for guidelines which include a reminder to journalists that there are indeed viewpoints that are so foul, dangerous or depraved that they cannot be ignored or normalised. That would permit the participative citizen to object, cause journalism to engage and the issue could be dragged out into the open, and considered as potentially despicable – the kind of thing that no decent person could say.

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* https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/editorial/no-room-for-equivocation-on-rape-1.3217200

** https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-why-i-will-not-appear-on-newstalk-again-1.3216957

*** https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/george-hook-should-be-challenged-not-silenced-1.3219952

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/media-and-marketing/george-hook-colourfully-bombastic-persona-with-distaste-for-political-correctness-1.3222742

†† https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/kevin-myers-i-have-no-career-left-my-reputation-is-in-tatters-1.3174510

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At this late stage it may seem unforgiving to argue that membership of or support for Sinn Féin cannot be made a routine, acceptable matter. It may seem too to be dwelling in the past or indeed to be showing a preparedness to risk the peace process. However, the problem with SF is not that it is an organisation putting a criminal or military past behind it. The problem is a great deal more serious; there can be no question of tolerance for anyone or any group with a history or record of involvement in or support for crimes against humanity. The true nature of what is now whitewashed as “the armed struggle” creates a categorical difference and places SF among those parties whose 20th century horrors make their existence in the 21st century an affront to civilisation.

SF argue not merely that the IRA has ceased to exist and that they are fully committed to peace, they also argue that the terrible things which happened during the troubles or the armed struggle were typical of wars anywhere and are best forgotten, that it is time to move on. Their proposition is that a war has ended and that its participants were good people caught up in a conflict and can now return to civilian life. This is a parody which decent people will never accept.

There is, however, a moderate case that wrongdoing should be forgiven and forgotten. That can apply to all manner of offence from traffic violations, through thievery and on to murder but it cannot apply to crimes against humanity. Such crime is a category in itself; it involves not an offence against the person or the state but against everyone and against what it means to be human. It cannot be tolerated, forgiven or be wiped away by a local peace deal. Perpetrators, their commanders and facilitators must be hunted for the rest of their lives; they must know that they risk being treated like those frail, old people finally apprehended decades after the end of WW2. Their supporters must never be allowed fully to enjoy the society of ordinary people.

There is variety in the pit of horrors that faces anyone looking at crimes against humanity and war crimes but one thing stands out: the intentional targeting of civilians. Let something be absolutely clear: all combatants select targets, they make a choice. Some choose civilians. That is to say, they choose to kill civilians rather than soldiers. 

SF will say that the IRA was involved in a war of liberation, that they were fighting an army of occupation and crucially they will claim that civilians unfortunately die in all wars. Yes, civilians die in wars but when they are intentionally targeted, it is deemed a war crime, a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the IRA campaign was not a military campaign blighted by the unfortunate deaths of civilians. Neither was it a military campaign during which war crimes were committed, crimes which dishonoured the majority of the fighting force. Rather it was a campaign in which civilians were routinely chosen as targets; the preference for civilian deaths was punctuated by military engagements.* The reality of the IRA’s armed struggle is a hideous inversion of SF’s warrior tale.

The Good Friday Agreement approved by the majority of Irish people involved among other features an end to IRA attacks in return for the Irish and UK states’ virtual amnesty for perpetrators, commanders and facilitators. It did not absolve, forgive or change the horror; it was a deal approved by citizens under duress. The IRA’s campaign remains a sordid series of crimes against humanity which was and is approved by SF. The Good Friday Agreement does not oblige any Irish citizen to join or vote for SF. Neither does it oblige any Irish citizen to engage socially with members and supporters of SF.

Well, there’s a small caveat. There is a constant low-level threat to end the “peace process”. In other words, if SF is denied what it sees as its rightful place within the establishment of a peaceful Ireland, that might lead somehow – despite the disbandment of the IRA – to renewed violence.

Their view is that SF must be successful and opposition – especially being truthful about their position in support for crimes against humanity – constitutes opposition to the peace process. Citizens are expected to accept the goblin tale of an honourable armed struggle, worthy of remembrance, even celebration. Dissent is met with anger and cries of betrayal.

SF has recruited many members, quite a few of them born after the end of IRA violence and enjoys the support of roughly 15 – 20% of voters. These people are not deluded, mistaken or intimidated. They are aware of what they are doing, they are making informed decisions, but their feigned innocence is aided by a common thread among journalists: that SF needs to break with its past by changing its leaders. It is a particularly sneaky argument which pretends that a veil of ignorance and innocence separates older from younger members. The reality is that those who might replace the current leaders joined the organisation before the killings stopped. Their present finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, joined the year that Garda McCabe was murdered, a year in which civilians were bombed in Britain. It might then be argued that skipping a generation of potential leaders would work. However, a look at the celebrations on the election of their MEPs reveals pictures of Lynn Boylan hoisted on the shoulders of an alleged bomber. Her partner, Eoin O’Broin, is the SF spokesperson on Housing, Planning & Local Government. It is ludicrous to suggest that such people were unaware of the nature of their chosen party and do not now discuss it.

There are even younger members who, it is argued, were born years after the killings had stopped and who know nothing of the crimes. This is patronising nonsense which rests on the plainly silly suggestion that the decision to join a political party is a trivial matter, done without thought. Not so. When a young person joins a party, it is deliberate, a choice, the selection of one party from among others.

A similar range of choice faces voters of whom something in the region of 20% choose SF. It is this figure that reveals the extent of a dark stain on Irish society. A variety of evasions is offered to explain that these citizens are innocent of support for any kind of violence, never mind crimes against humanity.

It is said that at this remove from the ceasefire they know nothing of what happened or regard it as a history which should now be ignored. It is said that while they are aware of the crimes, they are voting for current policies and/or personalities, or are voting tactically against a despised government. It is argued that SF has become socialist or vaguely leftist and their relatively large support offers the possibility of a left-alliance majority government.

These are the arguments of those who despise ordinary citizens, who regard them as utterly uninformed, incapable of reasoned voting. That’s simply not true, though there are voters who may try to avoid responsibility by feigning ignorance. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of voters – including SF voters – are well aware of what they are doing.

The line that the past does not matter or matters less than current concerns merits consideration. It cannot be uncoupled from a clear look at what is being said not to matter or is being rated as relatively unimportant. Past involvement in minor transgressions or petty crime could be deemed unimportant with the passage of time. Major crime or even murder might be so regarded in some well argued circumstance. However, choosing to target civilians – crimes against humanity – time and again can never be disregarded. Similarly, when it comes to voting intentions, the very idea that such crimes could be less important than a policy or programme is abhorrent to civilised thinking.

It is time that Irish citizens paid attention to this phenomenon. Rather than pretend that it is something innocuous or some sort of misunderstanding or mistake, face it: a sizeable minority in Ireland are not overly concerned that a party with a record of support for a campaign of crimes against humanity continues to exist and/or they approve of that campaign.

There is an obligation on the rest of us to stand up for a basic point of civilisation: that the targeting of civilians is unforgivable. In this republic each citizen faces the decision of whether or not to acquiesce, to socialise without dissent with the one fifth of citizens who do not accept that point.


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* It might be pointed out that of the deaths attributed to nationalist paramilitaries the ratio of security force to civilian casualties is not as bad as the ratios for loyalists or the security forces. However, three things must be emphasised. Firstly, the numbers killed by nationalists were greater. Secondly, the people injured – often hideously so – numbered in the tens of thousands. In discussion of casualties they generally receive relatively little attention and they were overwhelmingly civilian. Thirdly, the bombings of public places which characterised the conflict were repeated instances of a choice of targeting civilians.

When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

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* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/08/20/from-daniel-pearl-to-james-foley-the-modern-tactic-of-islamist-beheadings/

*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0739318042000245345

Almost everyone – indeed probably everyone without exception – would regard an attack on civilians as gravely wrong. Most would consider it a crime against humanity. In the course of a war it is certainly a war crime. In Gaza the IDF has made attacks on civilians a routine occurrence. Clearly they believe that while they may face moral condemnation, they will never be brought to book for their crimes.

The IDF argue that Hamas launch rockets at civilians in Israel and that the launch sites are positioned to take advantage of human shields. According to the IDF this means that there is no option but to target civilians. They sometimes give warnings, telling civilians to leave or risk attack.

Let’s dispose of this argument in the simple terms it deserves. Should a maniac take over a house opposite yours and begin to fire on your house and family, as long as you are sure that the family opposite had left it would be reasonable to expect the authorities to deal with the situation. If that meant blowing the house to bits, then so be it. If, however, the family opposite were still inside, you’d be fully aware that your own family would have to take cover and wait until the authorities found a way of dealing with the gunman without injuring the family opposite. The situation in Gaza is basically similar.

Israel would appear to have a reliable defensive shield against rocket attack; few if any get through. There is therefore no need for spectacular, destructive counter attacks. Of course rocket attacks on civilians cannot be tolerated but until such time as the attackers can be neutralised without killing their human shields*, Israeli citizens will have to endure, relying on cover and the IDF’s defensive shield.

Ridiculous calls have appeared on-line for the state of Israel to be tried for crimes against humanity.** There is some improvement in calling for the Israeli prime minister to be charged. Two points arise. Firstly, individuals commit crimes and it would appear that quite a number of people in the Israeli chain of command and individual soldiers should fear indictment.

Secondly, ridiculous calls for trial or keeping demands for trial at the highest level are often carefully considered. Their aim is to ensure that no one ever faces trial. They prepare the ground for opposing charges against any individual unless some top person is charged first, i.e. they prepare the ground for the familiar whataboutery that leaves the majority of such murderers walking free. As soon as it is suggested that an Israeli soldier or officer should face an international court for a crime against humanity, the whatabout will go up: “What about Benjamin Netanyahu, what about Tony Blair, what about Iraq, what about Afghanistan …?” Most of the whatabouters know exactly what they are doing: they want to seem as if they are opposed to crimes against humanity while trying to ensure that none of the criminals they support will see the inside of a court.

Few ordinary citizens would support the proposition that no criminal should be charged unless all similar criminals are charged. This sort of thing is a mad parody of the notion of fairness. Axis Second World War criminals are pursued to this very day. It is certainly true that there were Allied criminals who never needed to worry about charges. The argument that Nazis who killed civilians should not be hunted because other killers are not hunted is indefensible.

It may be galling to watch a minor official in the dock while his or her commander or prime minister is still strutting about but the trial should go ahead. The defence of “I was obeying orders because I was in fear of my own life” is legitimate and a court can decide.

This is it: a crime against humanity – specifically, bombing or shooting civilians – is inexcusable. A perpetrator, his or her commander (direct or remote), facilitator or supporter must know that for the rest of their lives they will be wanted by an international court of justice. No ceasefire, no peace agreement between local agencies which may include a sordid deal can or should give them international protection.

Either support for Hamas or the effectiveness of the Israeli missile shield meant that there were few if any calls for international justice to be meted out to anyone who would fire a rocket at civilians. Israeli criminals must be comforted by that.

Closer to home Irish citizens are enduring the sick spectacle of Sinn Fein condemnation of Israeli slaughter of civilians.

The world at present is far too safe and cosy for those who murder civilians. From the soldier/volunteer/militia person who presses the trigger, delivers or detonates the bomb, missile or drone right through the chain of command and support all should be made to know that international justice awaits them if they can be isolated and captured.

“A target-rich environment” is an offensive military term referring to efficient use of bombs and bullets. It can be turned here against the killers of civilians. By all accounts the incidence of this crime has been high in Gaza. The IDF slaughter provides a target-rich environment for those who want justice. Gaza would be a good and fruitful place to make it clear that there will never be rest for anyone involved in the killing of civilians.

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* Journalists in Gaza have reported that they could find no evidence of Hamas using human shields.

** It is intended to ignore the offence of war crime in what follows. The reason will become clear. In brief an emphasis on a state of war may allow some perpetrators to escape the criminal net.