Sunday, October 02, 2005

Andrew Sullivan: How America tiptoed into the torture chamber

The Sunday Times Review, 3 October 2005


Great American hero in the making, Ian Fishback. But don't forget some simple things: governments are elected by peoples but are not to be equated with peoples. That's why you find half the people in the US and the UK against the war in Iraq with their governments hell bent of continuing to occupy Iraq or finding it increasing difficult to find a way out. This shows one of the failures of democracy.

Governments come and go, their main representatives retiring to peaceful and lucrative lecturer tours,the odd world-wide book launch, a smattering of university or think-tank sinecures, a string of directorships in companies selling Africans things they don't need. Take our soon-to be retiring Prime Minister, Tony Bair, who blatantly lied to his electorate to get Britain involved with America in Iraq. All, of course, will be revealed in the massive tome that will be ghost-written for him as part of his bid for immortality in political history. By then the moment for blame will have pasted. He will no longer be held responsible for any unintended consquences, because that is not how the democratic game works. A week is a long time in politics, as they say.

By then Iraq as now constituted, may be no more. Though many will remember the way the politicians who are now in power in America and Britain decided they had to hoodwink their own peoples in order to invade Iraq, in the main it will be forgotten about or at least put aside as further crises appear on the horizon. In Britain our new Prime Minster, Brown, will feel happy to withdraw his military forces from Iraq, barring an occasional plane fly-over to assist in the air defence of Iraq, on the unspoken grounds that he wasn't personally responsible for sending them in, though he will give some other convoluted and disingenuous reason.

Democracies are extremely limited but their adherents live under the illusion that they are not, just because capitalism has proved so successful. Politicans constantly attempt to persuade their electorates democracy as we now have it, is the climax vegetation of the political ecology.

Islamists pick on the weaknesses in democracy (debate, uncertainty, confusion,political opportunitism, short-termism, et al) to argue for undemocracy. Historically, democracy is only 23.59 of the 24 hour political clock. The tradition in the UK, as we are constantly reminded by drama-documentaries on our kings and queens, was to torture, hang, draw and quarter traitors, who would in effect be the members of the opposition in todays money.

When Andrew Sullivan remonstrates about his adopted country using torture in extremis, he is actually putting his finger on one of the glaring weaknessess of democracies such as America: governance is bound in with economics. Elected governments are not principally the way societies such as ours chose to retain order or to promote fairness, within and without, but the way economies are grown, with the protection of citizens, law and order, seen as an integral part of that growth and properity (hence a failure to tackle such obvious problems as pollution and envirnomental degredation, such as stripping the tropical rainforests, because it conflicts with the god growth).

If those who governed were nothing to do with how its citizens made a living, except in so much as it made laws for the fair competition in the marketplace, health and safety and non-exploitation of workers, etc., what in essence would be the bare minimum - with an emphasis on making sure individuals , rich or poor, can live in peace and health - then the desire for foreign adventures, the competion between economies, should lessen. The rules would be different, politicians would have restricted powers.

In essence, this goes back to the old, weary, critique of nationalism. When so much is talked about globalisation, it is pathetic more is not made of the failings of nationalism, which for all the talk of patriotism in places like the States, is all this patriotism amounts to. But the answer cannot be found in any neo-Marxist or fundamentalist religious stance, even if they can be stating points. The internet shurely provides a clear notion of how democracies can operate: the nearest analogy I can think of is the spectacle of a swarming of a massive flock of starlings, which was on TV the other night. The flock build in number as it flies back and forth, till at a certain 'critcal mass', many thousands of birds, patterns are created in the sky which one hads to be reminded are the result of the complex actions and reactions of individual birds. Someime the patterns break into two distinct clumps. But hey can coalesce again.

This works is through constant and immediate feed back within a system that will break down if the individuals don't stick to the rules. There may well be a leader in there, but it is more likely to be some built in set of rules which creates the unbelievable patterns: unbelievable because it seems impossible (and as we watch the patterns we are distracted from the knowledge it is created by individual animals) to be so coodinated.

How can we devise a political system which will act like a starling flock? How can we make sure though elected by us, our governments actually do what we want? In this current crisis Blair ignored a vey large anti-war demonstration because he was thinking of something bigger and further into the future (possibly) which he knew, as an elected politician, he could not discuss with his own people. Though in a civilised and mature democracy this ought to be possible. Blair went round the country pre-war drumming up support and attempting to persuade us of the properness of action against Saddam. But many simply couldn't see it. They may not have been very knowledgalble about the Middle East, but it doesn't take more than a few facts to come up with "It'll probably be a mess". People don't like wars.

The long-term desire of the major industrial powers to secure their energy supply is quite natural and perfectly understandable. Nations are discreet units despite their interconnectedness. We would think America extremely foolish if they let themselves be starved of oil with the attendant decimation of their economy. If there was only one plate of food left, individuals would probably kill each other to obtain it. Why should be expect organised conglomerations of people to act any differently? No other country in America's position would sit back and await their fate. But the greater questions about growth economies and protection of the environment have not even been asked let alone answered. It's the lemmings walking backwards, eyes shut, over the cliff.

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memories of a childhood in Iraq in the 1950s * thoughts on events in the Middle East

Location: United Kingdom

expatriot in Middle East as child, retired teacher.

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