ISIS – Are We All Guilty?
I’m not a great fan of spending hours poring over political tweets, but looking at comments on the killing by ISIS of poor Muadh al-Kasasbeh, the Jordan pilot, reminds me why. Not so much a bunch of tweets, more a swarm of angry wasps.
One article I happened upon was fairly typical of a genre that you come across frequently when a political group commits an atrocity. I call it the “blame-one-blame-all” argument.
The argument typically goes like this. You piously denounce the act, and then tell us that we’re all hypocrites for not taking a similar view of every other atrocity committed by governments across the world in pursuits of their ends.
Thus in Who can claim the moral high ground? Yvonne Ridley denounces the ISIS atrocity, but reminds us of the brutality of the Sisi regime in Egypt, the consequences of American drone strikes in Pakistan and torture in Abu Ghraib, and of Israeli white phosphorus shells in Gaza. She asks us why we don’t condemn these acts with equal vehemence.
She is using a rhetorical technique as old as rhetoric itself – using a specific to illustrate a wider point, in this case that we are all murderers and torturers if we allow our governments to act in our name.
The technique is often used in a social context. How can you continue to be a Catholic while your church “allows” its priests to abuse children? Acts of individuals are construed as evidence that the practice has become a hallmark of the institution.
How can you condemn the rape of a woman in one country when you let women in your society behave in a manner that is tantamount to prostitution?
There’s also the historical variant. Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein “regretting” the “civilian casualties” in an IRA bomb attack, but reminding us that the people who carried out the act were reacting to a series of acts of oppression starting with Oliver Cromwell’s massacres in the 17th Century. In other words, we were to blame for the bombing.
These arguments are both seductive and manipulative. They seek to draw our attention away from the act in question by claiming to put it into a wider context, when what they are really doing is using it to serve an agenda that was in place before the act was committed.
The possibilities are endless. Western colonialism is to blame for the massacres in Rwanda. The Sykes-Picot Agreement is somehow to blame for the sectarian strife in Iraq and Syria, no matter that the Battle of Karbala took place twelve hundred years before. I am to blame for the slave trade because one of my alleged ancestors was a slave trader? Despite the fact that he redeemed himself in later life by campaigning against the slave trade – he wrote the words to Amazing Grace – what right do I have to speak out against modern slavery?
My Arab friends call it “mixing”, which is a much more succinct description than I can muster.
The purpose of placing things in context should be to understand, not to blame. Not to diffuse the blast of condemnation against a particular act, no matter who carried it out.
I have no doubt that Yvonne Ridley is absolutely sincere in her condemnation of ISIS atrocities. But her reminder of our collective responsibility for other evils past and present should not draw us away from the main question, which is how to deal with ISIS. There are enough dimensions to that problem alone without linking it to all the other intractable issues she raises.
Would she prefer that the US and its allies removes all its planes and drones from the region, and leaves ISIS free to slaughter and enslave all the Yazidis, Shia and Christians in its territory free from interference? Yet these are the same forces that are attacking the Taliban in Pakistan and Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
The underlying thread of her narrative appears to be the oppression of Muslims, with which I heartily empathise. But sadly most of the oppressing today seems to be by fellow Muslims, whoever might be to blame for the present state of affairs. We are where we are, and we need to address the present and future.
I will close with a quotation from Emily Herlyn, a young German teacher from Freiburg who spent a year working as a tour guide in Auschwitz. Her article appeared in the Jewish-American journal, the Jewish Daily Forward. She worked at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and describes a conversation with an elderly former inmate:
“Once, a group of elderly British people visited the Center. In the synagogue, I began telling them about my work at the AJC, until a man in his 80s motioned that he had a question. He explained that he had grown up in Germany. Because he was Jewish, he and his family were deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which they miraculously all survived. He asked how I, as a German, felt living here knowing that my forefathers were responsible for the crimes that had been committed in Auschwitz. His tone was accusing and I was stunned at how bluntly he had phrased it.
Others in the group immediately complained that this was an unfair question to ask and said that I didn’t have to answer. But I gave it some thought. Then I answered that the topic of the Holocaust had been a big part of my education, as was the question of guilt, which was discussed frequently. But the Holocaust, I continued, should not be a question of guilt, but one of responsibility. As my generation is too young to be blamed for the crimes our forefathers committed over 70 years ago, I didn’t think we should feel guilty, nor is there any benefit to be had from this. What I did think, though, was that we had a responsibility to learn and teach about that part of our country’s history, despite how unpleasant and painful it is. This was why I felt good about living in Oświęcim and about my work there.”
I hope it doesn’t take another 70 years before those who care about the Middle East start talking about responsibility rather than guilt.