Only connect – it’s not whataboutery

16 Nov

Like countless others on Saturday morning I padded bleary-eyed into the kitchen to make coffee and, while I waited, switch on the radio. You know something big has happened by the muted tones of those on the scene, and by the unusually long slot allowed them before the anchor team resumes control. As the enormity of the carnage in Paris became clear I felt a revulsion shared by tens if not hundreds of millions. It’s called Being Human.

But something else is equally human, and more uniquely so. That’s the ability to stand back from our emotional experience and take in a bigger context. In this I found myself processing competing cognitions. First and foremost was shuddering empathy with the scores of Parisians who didn’t get home on Friday night, and never will, having been cut to bloody shreds by young men with Kalashnikovs and visions of paradise. Allahu Akbar.

But alongside empathy and horror was the recognition that I don’t feel the same revulsion over collateral drone slaughter at weddings in Herat or Kandahar, or body counts in the thousands in post invasion Fallujah. Why not? Empathy and sympathy are, it seems, on short ration. I know peaceable folk, with zero experience of being bombed from the sky, who glibly conclude that air strikes on far off lands – their peoples less psycho­log­ically real to us than Londoners, New Yorkers or Parisians – are a regrett­ab­le necessity in the face of Islamist terror.

Another opposition kicked in too: on the one hand my despair at puerile but privil­eged belief systems, and at liberals who defend their “right” to protection from richly deserved ridicule; on the other my assessment that while seventh century certitudes play a powerful role here, they are not the ultimate drivers of Isis. Today, below an unusually insightful Guardian piece by Scot Atran, a fellow commenter likened Isis to Pol Pot through the fact of a minority imposing its will on the majority. I responded thus:

There’s a parallel you miss. The Khmer Rouge was a tiny, lunatic sect before Cambodia was bombed (illegally) by Nixon. So was Isis a tiny, lunatic sect before Iraq was invaded (illegally?) by Bush and Blair. More generally, to speak of Islam’s intolerance – and it is intolerant as, to lesser degree, are the other Abrahamic fairy tales – without also speaking of decades of self serving western meddling in the middle east, and the ethnic cleansing on which Israel was founded, is to ignore the elephant in the room. I don’t say ending global injustice will automatically stop Islamist terror; these things aren’t quite so mechanistic. But Islamism is an extreme response to an extreme world order. It’s just that we don’t see the latter as extreme because, well-fed and latte sipping, we are among its beneficiaries.

Inevitably I drew accusations of “whataboutery”. This, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the epithet of choice on social media for any attempt to contextualise terror. In the heat of the moment – and who’d deny the moment is hot? – the accusation comes close to one of treachery, of giving succour to those who delight in the slaughter of innocents. But step back a little; consider what those making the charge are saying. The daily oppression of Palestinians as the west looks away (or worse) … our Faustian Pact with a tiny, autocratic and fundamentalist elite in Riyadh … the arming of jihadists in cold war Afghanistan … Bush-Blair’s reckless folly in Iraq, Obama-Cameron’s in Libya … All this, we are to believe, and much more besides, has no connection whatsoever with the rise of Isis. Really?

Only connect, urged E M Forster. Whataboutery is an accusation to be directed at peddlers in irrelevance and spurious equivalence, not at those who assert causalities obvious to all but the inexcusably ignorant and wilfully blind.

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