I wouldn’t start from here

In the wake of recent events in Syria, Tanya Jones argues that we need to find and develop nonviolent ways of extending real democracy, of sharing resources fairly, and of resolving conflict. We may not have chosen this as a starting point; but if we don’t start now, she warns, it is going to get a great deal harder in the near future.

What will remain of us if we don’t build democracy and nonviolence now?

If you don’t hurt people, you don’t really care.  That seems to be the message of the almost universal Western approval of the US bombing of Syria on Thursday.  We don’t know what the effects of the fifty-nine missiles will be, how many people have been killed immediately and how many will suffer from their effects. We don’t really mind that Donald Trump acted without the authority either of the United Nations or of his own Congress.  We don’t ask ourselves, remembering the Ghouta attack of 2013, how sure we can really be of Assad’s culpability this time.  We simply breathe a sigh of relief that something has been done, some ‘message sent’, some tension relieved, some reassurance given than we are not callous observers.  If the alternatives are indifference or violence, we will, when the stakes are presented as so high, choose violence.

There was a time when this was true on every level, the domestic as well as the global.  Parents and schoolteachers who did not beat the children in their charge were irresponsible, naive, ultimately cruel in neglecting their duty to mould children into virtue.  Our criminal justice system relied upon violence as its ultimate sanction.  Slowly, very slowly, we came to realise that there were better ways. This realisation trickled as far as our attitude towards our nearest neighbours, though, as evidenced by Michael Howard’s comments about Spain, it may not long survive Brexit. But as far as our stance towards the world at large is concerned, violence is still the answer.

Sometimes this means outright war, though that is expensive in every sense.  More often we content ourselves with one-off incidents, or, as now, by approving those of others; with arming, funding and training direct combatants; with supporting proxy militias, with subsidised arms sales or by the use of military technology in ways that are unclear and often, as in ‘no-fly zones’ don’t sound overly aggressive at all.  All of these involvements of course kill people, primarily civilians, all of them prolong the conflicts, all of them enmesh us, however ignorant we may be, in the web of violence, and all of them reduce our capability to act as honest brokers in helping to seek resolution and peace.

But what are the alternatives?  If we are determined to reject violence, are we condemned to a UKIP-style insularity whereby we don’t attack others only because it’s too much trouble?  I don’t believe so.  The absence of a positive word for non-violence should not mislead us into thinking that it is a lesser, an easier, a weaker alternative to the rifle or the drone.  On the contrary, it is considerably more difficult, not least because our position in the world, the structures that uphold us, have been built for so many centuries upon the threat and use of violence. To take part in peaceful, co-operative solutions, the UK needs not just to begin at the same level as its potential partners but to show a degree of humility and regret for past mistakes that sits particularly ill with our current bombastic jingoism.  In the words of the old joke, in this, as in so much else, I wouldn’t start from here.

But, given that here is where we are, perhaps we might try some of the following:

  1. Tell the truth. About history and in particular our own role.  As far as Syria and the Middle East are concerned, that includes the Sykes-Picot Agreement of a hundred years ago, Winston Churchill’s bright idea, long before his national treasurehood, of converting the Navy from coal to oil and needing a source for the same, the Suez Canal and our dependence upon India to buy our stuff, the duplicitous mess we made over Israel and Palestine, our ongoing rivalry with France and our part in the Cold War, all long before Blair and the dodgy dossier.   About the complexity of the Syrian war and the impossiblity of finding a side wholeheartedly to support.  About the role of climate change in catalysing the conflict, and our responsibility for that.  About what lies behind the simple diagrams and cheerful words about ‘precision bombing’ and ‘collateral damage’.
  2. Listen to the voices. There’s nothing essentially unusual or alien about the conflict in Syria. Those who began demonstrating in March 2011, as part of the wider Arab Spring, wanted what we all want: a chance to have our say in our own government, to talk about politics and our lives, to have the chance to earn a living and care for our families, to give our children a better future. Those same quiet voices are speaking throughout the world, and we, in our privileged position, have the opportunity to listen, to amplify, to reply and to support them, before they are shouted down by noisier demands. Which leads me to:
  3. Understand the potential for violence and sectarianism. Most movements for reform, for human rights and equality begin peacefully, very peacefully. No one knows better than the oppressed that real social justice and equality can’t exist in a world of division and death.  But where good and positive protest is met by violent repression, old wounds can easily be opened, solidarity fissured into prejudice and courage twisted into despair.  Then we look, too late, across from our comfortable vantage-point and blame ethnic and religious identities for conflicts that have a much more universal cause.
  4. Don’t demonise individuals. It’s so tempting, and so easy to ascribe all blame to ‘evil’ leaders, whether ‘dictators’ or ‘terrorists’ and so to turn messy and complex situations into simple morality plays. It’s used to justify violence, to distinguish this particular act of cleansing from the ambiguities of past actions and to avoid dealing with our own complicity and the need to dismantle some of our own privilege. It might be as well to remind ourselves, too, of the clay feet of our favourite heroes.
  5. Help those in need. With so-called ‘humanitarian aid’, of course: food, water, shelter, medical care. But also by providing spaces for dialogue, exploration, discovery, transformation (of us as well as them), by demonstrating patience and generosity.  Those of us living in Northern Ireland are acutely aware of how very much time and room is needed to build peace, and that the process, as the past few weeks have shown, is not without its cul-de-sacs and quagmires.  And if that is the case with a conflict so comparatively straightforward, with so few truly global implications and so little outside intermeddling, we might have the grace to realise how much more goodwill and good energies will be needed to achieve the common good in the Middle East.
  6. Welcome refugees. Again, a little imagination would go a long way. These are people like us, people whose needs and hopes are basically the same as our own, with the difference that they have been forced from their homes, their work, often their families, everything that made their daily lives humdrum and ordinary.  They ask very little, mostly to go home as soon as they can.  We can learn far more than we are called upon to give.
  7. Be brave. It’s not always easy to go against the consensus, especially when that consensus is supported by such a wave of moral outrage and illustrated by scenes of horror and heart-stopping tenderness. However bad the consequences of military action, its adherents can comfort themselves by saying ‘At least we did something’.  Non-violent action is something too, often very much more, but it doesn’t reach the front pages, and it’s not so easy to condense into 140 characters.  So make connections, talk, give generously, say sorry, pray if that’s your thing, but most of all listen and think.  This isn’t primarily about us, about virtue-signalling, or appearing strong, or making sure we condemn in all the right places.  It’s about the people affected now, and their children and theirs in turn.  And it’s about all the people in other places who will, over the next decades, gather in their city squares calling for justice and equality and a halfway decent life.

We have a little space of time now, while the world is still comparatively stable, while the European Union still exists, while nuclear weapons haven’t been used to their full extent for seventy years, before our harvests and water supplies and coasts are devastated by climate change.  In this little space of time we could, if we set our minds to it, really find and develop nonviolent ways of welcoming campaigns for equality and free speech, of celebrating diversity and change, of facilitating real democracy of sharing resources fairly and of resolving conflict. It’s going to be a great deal harder if we don’t do it now. Let’s not give up before we’ve tried.

Tanya Jones

10 April 2017