Saturday 14 November 2015

The pacifist's error

In a world where we are confronted on a daily basis with horrific images of war or the consequences of military conflict, it seems plausible to adopt a pacifist stance. Wouldn't it be better if we refrained from any confrontation with our foes? Perhaps we could prevent further bloodshed by declaring our unwillingness to use arms? 

Pacifism has a long and distinguished history, featuring amongst other proponents people like Jesus Christ and Gandhi. Its heyday in modern times probably occurred around the 1970s and 1980s when two superpowers confronted each other in Central Europe with enormous arsenals of weaponry which made any potential military conflict non-sensical. 

Jeremy Corbyn's pacifism originates in that period. His pacifism is rooted in the belief that conflict only generates more conflict, which will ultimately prove futile and destructive of the human race. He has recently confirmed his position when he said that he would not give the military the permission to use a key mechanism in the defence architecture of the country, nuclear weapons. 

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn - 'Personal principles over confronting evil'

There has been some debate as to whether Corbyn would make a reliable commander in chief if he was ever elected as a prime minister given his reluctance to allow the military to defend the country with all means necessary. Yet, the actual issue lies elsewhere, and it goes to the heart of the pacifist doctrine he espouses. 

Pacifism draws its strength from the idea that the willingness to fight only leads to more conflict and more bloodshed. We can all think of some scenarios where this is undoubtedly true. Some fights we don't want to pick. Sometimes it is better to walk away. Yet, this is largely true only for very simplistic situations, not for complex ones as they now present themselves in world politics with increasing frequency. Corbyn's error appears to be the error of many pacifists before him: extrapolating from an easily intuitive example and thinking it applies to everything else. The paradigmatic case is that Chamberlain's policy of appeasement towards Hitler. The then British prime minister has been much maligned by his decision to negotiate with who we now know was a man poised to destroy European civilisation. But Chamberlain was probably motivated by the conviction that everyone was animated by a desire for peace. 

The fundamental error at the heart of Chamberlain's calculations was therefore a misunderstanding of Hitler's worldview. In contrast, the fundamental error at the heart of pacifists today cannot be a misunderstanding of the murderous intentions of ISIS or any other terrorist organisation. Today, we have a hard-earned comprehension of the horrifying life-denying and destructive ideology of ISIS terrorists. 

So, Corbyn's pacifism is not a miscalculation of the destructive aspirations of our foes. What motivates him is his desire not to have to make the difficult call to fight murder with force. At the core of this desire lies an ambition to remain pure, not to be associated with acts that may lead to suffering. And as such it is a wish that is both noble and horrifyingly naive. As ISIS terrorists attacked innocent civilians in Paris and murdered them one by one in the Bataclan concert hall, brave police officers had to move into the venue and confront them. There was no time for negotiations or to prevaricate in the face of the terrorists' determination to kill at random. The officers did not have the privilege to indulge in pacifist principles.

For Corbyn, who recently regretted that the killer Jihadi John was killed by a drone strike, killing can never be justified, not even to protect innocent civilians. With murderous terrorists striking at the heart of Europe, Corbyn's unwillingness to defend innocent civilians to protect his principles makes him a liability for the security of the country. His pacifism reveals itself as a fundamentally selfish desire to remain unsullied by decisions for which there are no cleancut options, for which there are only losses and no wins, which, in a sense is the core business of grown up politics. 

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