Apr 2006

John Reid

Note: This essay was about twice as long as it currently is. Unfortunately (depending on your point of view) there was a big cut’n’paste farrago resulting in the second half getting deleted. This means there’s a whole chunk of the argument just missing, as well as the dissection of much of Reid’s speech. It’s way too late to rewrite it tonight, and I’m almost certain I’ll not have the enthusiasm for a rewrite in the near future… so you’ll have to make do with half an essay. I think I made a couple of relevant points in the first half though.

The blogosphere… or leastways, the bit I flap about in, has lately been buzzing with talk of John Reid’s recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). The mainstream media (MSM) have covered it of course, but predictably with little gusto. Thankfully, as the MSM become less and less relevant – all parroting the same corporate line, shifted slightly left or right depending upon the pretensions of the editor – it provides space for truly fine writers to fill (rather than truly adequate copywriters). Unpaid writers who are willing to spend the time and energy to genuinely educate and inform their readers. To critique and analyse an issue, rather than providing a 500 word puff-piece in return for a paycheque. Bloggers who – by virtue of having a smaller, but more interested readership – don’t have to dumb down a point or follow an editorial policy that always has one eye on advertising revenue. So on the issue of the Defence Secretary’s disturbing speech, I recommend you check out the following pieces…

Dr. Reid has responded to the mild criticism he received from some elements of the MSM by pathetically mewling about being taken “out of context”. This was a familiar cry up until a few years ago. But since the late 1990s, it’s generally been possible for anyone interested to get hold of a complete copy of a recent speech within a few minutes. The internet has – in some respects – turned soundbite culture on its head. Context can be fully restored by those who choose to do so. Sadly, I’m not sure many people do. Anyways, it clearly isn’t a lesson that John Reid has learnt too well. The full text of his speech is – by itself – more damning than anything being said about him in the MSM.

Now, the speech is quite long and – by and large – pretty dull. But I still feel it’s worth a read-through for those interested in the topic. Because the juicy bits are really juicy. He clearly – albeit euphemistically – calls for torture and internment to be accepted as valid weapons in The War Against Terror. That a man with such beliefs is Defence Secretary tells you all you need to know about the current British government. This is a morally bankrupt regime and – viewed objectively – bears chilling similarities to the recently deposed regime in Iraq.

Both are willing to kill (and support the killing of) non-combatants en masse in order to achieve their stated political aims. Both are willing to wage pre-emptive war against another nation to further their political agenda. And now it seems, both will use indefinite internment without trial and even torture to achieve ends it deems as worthy of such tactics. Reid wants to be able to legally rip out fingernails and teeth. To legally boil people alive. And what’s more, he wants to be able to choose who merits such treatment without fear of any consequences to himself.

Dr. Reid begins his lecture by pointing out that he’s not a lawyer…

I am not myself a lawyer but, as a practising politician, I understand how law continues to evolve in response to real changes in the world.

This immediately got me thinking; “If he’s not a lawyer, then I wonder what he is? What’s he a doctor of?” A couple of clicks later and it turns out that he’s an historian. BA and MA in history, PhD in Economic History (I valiantly resist the urge to go off on a tangent about how “economic history” is a redundancy).

The guy is a comic genius though… moments after drawing my attention to the fact that he’s an historian, he launches into some of the most absurd historical revisionism I’ve ever heard. It seems he takes his own maxim seriously…

I always believed socialists, or indeed any rational person, should be revisionist on principle.
Dr. John Reid

Can anyone tell me exactly why the following analysis of where The Geneva Conventions (the basic international laws which cover warfare) came from might be considered a tad opportunistic…

For centuries conflict between tribes, cities and states was completely unbridled and savage. Very gradually, mankind developed a range of conventions that they applied to constrain and moderate what is in essence a brutal activity.

Eventually, these agreements became rules, which became laws. Much has been achieved in current legal frameworks. But warfare continues to evolve, and, in its moral dimensions, we have now to cope with a deliberate regression towards barbaric terrorism by our opponents.

Uh-huh… subtle isn’t it? Despite his protestations, politics has clearly made the man more lawyer than historian. Reid is – I believe deliberately – casting The Geneva Conventions as simply the latest iteration in an ongoing process to define the rules of warfare. He is drawing an imaginary line from Sun Tzu through Hugo Grotius in the 1600s and then to the first Geneva Convention in 1864. It’s incredibly misleading. And, as I say, opportunistic. By spinning this web of false history, Reid paints The Geneva Conventions as merely a set of rules which require constant updating as war evolves.

It is true that they are that. But they are not “merely” that. The first Geneva Convention was drafted and signed thanks to the work of the remarkable Henry Dunant, founder of The International Red Cross. It essentially laid out rules for the treatment of injured or sick people during wartime. Later conventions covered the treatment of civilians during wartime and the treatment of prisoners of war.

These are not merely iterations of the rules of war. They constitute both a moral and legal code. A vital difference. And it places a strict obligation on those who wish to act in a legally and morally responsible manner.

Furthermore, what Dr. Reid chooses to overlook is that the modern Geneva Conventions aren’t merely a further iteration of the codes of behaviour which preceded them. They are the result of a four-month long convention in 1949 in which the nations of the world; horrified by the recent world war and the Nazi regime’s treatment of certain groups, and perhaps equally horrified at the thought of a future filled with nuclear bombs; gathered together and set down the moral code by which all future conflicts had to be settled.

This wasn’t “tweaking the rules” in order to take into account the new technology of warfare, or the particular tactics employed by The Enemy. This was an understanding that the barbarism of Germany in the 30s and 40s must never be allowed to occur again. It made a clear statement of right and wrong. The rules Dr. Reid seeks to have tweaked, amended or weakened are precisely those rules put in place by humanity to stop people acting like the Nazis.

Reidy then uses a transparent bait and switch. Of course, says he, “our values – of law, democracy, restraint and respect – are at the core of our national beliefs, and even if – as some suggest [yes, you John, you suggest] – they create a short-term tactical disadvantage, they represent a long-term strategic advantage”. Got that everyone? Even though our laws against boiling people alive may present short-term difficulties for those who wish to boil people alive; in the long-term, it’s a good thing we have them.

But within two paragraphs he’s saying…

Historically, of course, laws have always been adapted to better suit the times. When they have become out-dated, or less relevant, or less applicable to the realities of the day they have been modified or changed. This is true of all laws, domestic or international.

See it? See the switch? The first paragraph talks about “our values – of law, democracy, restraint and respect”. The second one is only talking about “laws”. All we’re doing is changing a few “less relevant laws”. It’s as if he’s saying that a law permitting state torture would have no effect on “our values – of […] democracy, restraint and respect”. Surely he’s not that stupid is he? One of the classes I took when studying philosophy was “Discourse”… Dr. John Reid (an anagram of “John did err” incidentally) would have been laughed out of the room for that one.

That is why I pose three questions about the international legal framework. Put simply, in today’s changed circumstances are we convinced that it adequately covers:

  • the contemporary threat from international terrorists?
  • The circumstances in which states may need to take action in order to avert imminent attack?
  • Those situations where the international community needs to intervene on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity in order to stop internal suppression — mass murder and genocide — as opposed to external aggression?

Before I go any further I want to tackle one of the phrases used by Dr. Reid in the above snippet. Can you guess which one? That’s right…

“today’s changed circumstances”

When Reid says “today’s changed circumstances”, he doesn’t literally mean “today” of course. That would be silly. No, he means “September 11, 2001”. He even says so later in the speech. “September 11, 2001 was”, apparently, “a date which exposed how much [our view of the world] needed to change”. Except it really wasn’t. We’re certainly living in changed times since that day, but entirely thanks to the reaction of western governments. Al Qaeda launched a deadly attack on several buildings and aircraft in the United States. That much is true. But it was us who changed the world. Try not to forget that. As Einstein once remarked, “The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”

To me, September 11, 2001 represents a terrible missed opportunity. The problem of radical Islamic terrorism existed prior to 9-11. On 9-12, however, I’d argue that it was at its lowest ebb. Sympathisers are the lifeblood of terrorist organisations. On September 12th 2001, the sympathy of the entire world was with New York. The images we all saw on our screens hit at an emotional level that negated politics for most of us. Those photographs of the young firemen rushing up the stairs into – what we know to be – certain death… I cried my eyes out.

I don’t know what America could have done to best capitalise on the immense goodwill shown towards it by the world back then. But it’s safe to say that what they did do was horribly counterproductive. Islamic terrorism hit British shores as a direct result of UK involvement in US policy. The same is true for Spain. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are in flames and global anti-American feeling is higher than it’s ever been. The people who declared and are running The War Against Terror are patently doing it wrong. They’re making matters far worse. And when those same people suggest that the changes they have wrought in the world require the abandonment of “our values – of law, democracy, restraint and respect”, then it’s probably a bad idea to give them free rein.

Besides, it’s probably a wee bit dodgy for Dr. Reid to be bandying around Geneva Conventions. After all, he may be itching to change them to better suit his desires to rip the fingernails from suspected terrorists, but as of now they are still a legal force to be reckoned with. Leastways in theory. The 4th Convention (the one dealing with the treatment of civilians) states the following…

Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons: (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

Convention IV | Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 12 August 1949.

It’s really quite specific with all that “shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever”. So a prize to the first person who can square that clause with the use of cluster bombs.

Like Reid, I am not myself a lawyer but, as a practising human being, I understand that a society which condones torture is a society that has lost its way. The man has clearly spent too long fighting monsters and didn’t heed Nietzsche’s advice to ‘take care lest he thereby become one’.

As Defence Secretary it is John Reid’s job to defend the country and – by extension – its values. It is not acceptable that he seek to alter those values so he can better protect them. Anyone suggesting such a plan is clearly unable to do the job, and must be removed from it as soon as possible.

Posted in: Opinion