There’s no such thing as a ‘just war’ now – only murder 8 December 2015
Last week, as every British person (and half the world) knows, MPs voted with a clear majority to extend airstrikes targeting ISIS fighters and resources to Syria.
The decision was, of course, controversial. There is a lot at stake here: innocent Syrians will undoubtedly lose their lives. This, needless to say, is a huge tragedy. A decision like this can’t be taken lightly.
MPs know this, which is why the vote came after a full day of debate in the House of Commons, with passionate speeches on both sides of the argument.
More than this, any decision to enter a form of conflict has always been known to be significant: which is why there is a tradition of ‘just war’ theory from ancient Greek, Roman and Christian thinkers like Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century AD (before being further developed by mediaeval theologians like Thomas Aquinas).
This theory makes clear that there are very strict circumstances for going to war: for instance, it must be a proportionate response to whatever threat is perceived, and it must be a last resort after all peaceful options have been investigated and attempted.
There are also very strict rules for what makes a war just: the behaviour of combatants is also strictly defined.
So the question is: was the vote last week to go to war, just? Are airstrikes in Syria part of a “just” war?
Except that’s not the question, apparently. From a survey of social media and news over the past week, you could be forgiven for thinking that the real question was: are MPs murderers or not?
In fact, it’s not even clear that there is a question. The answer has already been declared: it’s a resounding yes.
Hilary Benn dared to make a passionate speech in support of extending the airstrikes, addressing some of the key objections of those who opposed action, to be told that his father Tony would be “birling in his grave”. Not by Twitter trolls – but by Alex Salmond MSP.
Because of course, in political debate in the twenty-first century, we hold people to account on the basis of their parents’ views. And we invoke their deceased parents when they make the wrong decision (that is: the decision that we don’t like).
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie was threatened by a Muslim convert who would show her “what it’s like to murder innocents”.
The very same rhetoric, of course, that is used by IS fighters to justify brutal beheadings, and was used by the killers of Lee Rigby in 2013.
This kind of attitude is simplistic and dangerous. But unfortunately, it’s not far off the rhetoric that is rampant over social media.
MPs made a hugely difficult decision. For Labour MPs in particular, given a free vote, it was a particularly difficult call. They must have agonised over the arguments on both sides.
But this is the point. There were two sides to the argument. MPs might not always be the most popular people, but I’m reluctant to believe they’re all bloodthirsty demons who are relishing the thought of innocent Syrians being killed by bombs.
Far from it: it’s the thought of innocent Syrians dying at the hands of ISIS that drove MPs like Hilary Benn to step out and speak bravely in support of airstrikes, standing right next to his leader knowing he opposed him.
Because however many times people cry “these bombs will kill innocent Syrians”, it doesn’t change the fact that innocent Syrians are already dying at the hands of ISIS.
As it happens, I’m not sure it was the right decision. It’s not clear to me that David Cameron understands the nature of the threat we face, which is so much bigger than just ISIS and their fighters: it’s their resources, and the resources of other extremist groups, and most significantly, it’s their ideology – one that has global reach, such that it can influence impressionable teenagers sitting on their sofas in Britain. And as Hilary Benn himself acknowledged, the bombs won’t defeat ISIS.
For some, a war can never be justified as long as innocent civilians are killed. For many others, there is a significant difference between intentionally targeting innocent civilians, and bombing ISIS resources and fighters in order to destroy them, with the tragic, foreseen consequence that innocent Syrians will die.
The former is unequivocally evil; the latter causes immense suffering, but evil is not intended.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the latter is a choice that can be made lightly, but it does make it possible to choose this option in very strict circumstances, under strict conditions.
The question MPs had to decide upon – a decision they now have to live with – is whether these strict criteria have been met. Is this a proportionate response? Is this definitely a last resort – have all options have been considered and tried? Is the right outcome being aimed for, and is it realistic that it will be achieved? All of these are questionable.
So by all means, challenge MPs on whether this is proportionate action. Or on whether it is measured. Or on whether they’ve really explored all other possible courses of action.
But please, stop pretending they’re just bloodthirsty murderers who made the decision with huge smiles on their faces. As Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, wrote on the day of the vote: “I voted against…[but] I won’t sleep sounder tonight feeling righteous any more than I did last night feeling worried.”