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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 192: September 2011

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

It’s a riot (Part 2)
In the last issue of Nonviolent News we wrote about riots in Belfast and Ardoyne. This summer though it was England’s turn to experience the worst rioting in Europe as London and a few other cities or towns saw rioting and looting which has not been seen for decades or even longer. If no one had been killed or seriously injured we would be tempted to say ‘Now you know what it’s like’ to Britain but unfortunately there were a number of deaths, three in the one car incident.

Northern Ireland has the derogatory term ‘recreational rioting’, implying rioting because young people have nothing better to do. But then why have they ‘nothing better to do’? There is an element of truth in the term ‘recreational rioting’ but by itself it cannot explain why, even with adrenalin flowing, people would attack police, burn buildings and loot shops. It is noticeable that looting, while it has certainly taken place, has not been a major feature of riots in Northern Ireland.

But the rioting in England, while often done for diffuse reasons, was not apolitical. David Cameron and the Tories might want to blame ‘moral breakdown’ in society but that is a cop out (to coin a phrase). There are surely a variety of factors of which ‘lack of parental control’ (for younger rioters) might be the only factor which could possibly fit the Tories’ analysis. Other factors include consumerism – presented and promoted to all in society but unavailable to poor and marginalised people, privatised individualism fostered by neo-liberalism, the lack of opportunities to today’s young people mainly through high unemployment and the changed nature of the work environment, the withdrawal of supports and services by the Tory government, and lastly, but not leastly, distrust and hatred of the police. If you feel you have nothing to lose then you may act like you have nothing to lose. And that may include damaging and trashing your own local area or one nearby.

Of course the rioting was not an organised political event, it was not making the point in a very rational or coherent fashion but to miss the message is to miss the whole point and take a totally privatised view of the whole phenomenon. Furthermore, and this is a point we regularly make in relation to Northern Ireland and wars fought by the West, the emphasis again and again from governments is that violence, state violence, works and is moral. But you cannot compartmentalise things this way. No wonder, when rage increased to stratospheric levels, that the whole pot boiled over. And getting the lid back on will require some positive thinking and not the vindictive sentencing and moral witch hunt that the British establishment have been engaged in.

On having a neo-colonial mentality
The news (carried in this issue) that the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat government could easily have walked away from providing facilities to the US military at Shannon for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is just mind-boggling. Whether you call it toadyism, craven acceptance of neo-imperialism, simple failure of nerve, an unwillingness to risk rocking any boat, a lack of vision, the arrogance of politicians, the infatuation of many Irish people with the USA, a lack of awareness of the reality of war, whatever, or whatever combination of these factors, it will go down in the annals of Irish foreign policy as a truly woeful defining moment when a supposedly ‘neutral’ government decided to back the world’s biggest military power by giving it the only thing it wanted in Ireland in its war efforts – the use of Shannon Airport. It is completely GUBU (grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented) to borrow words from the late Charles J Haughey.

If governments in a democracy ignore the considered and morally-based wishes of the people, as the Fianna Fail led coalition of Bertie Ahern demonstrably did, then it is no wonder that any concept of democratic government and political accountability is in the doldrums. It was clear from public expressions of opposition to the Iraq war before it began, and to Irish involvement in it, that the majority of Irish people wanted nothing to do with this military extravagance by the USA and its allies. This point was confirmed by an independent poll commissioned by PANA, the Peace And Neutrality Alliance, in early 2007, showing a considerable majority of Irish people were against the use of US troops using Shannon Airport going to and fro Iraq.

But, as Shannonwatch also point out,” The current Irish government are not without blame either. Even though the Programme for Government says they will "enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law" they have not done so. In fact Pat Breen TD (Fine Gael) stated in an interview....that his party has always approved of military personnel going through Shannon. This is at odds with an assurance given by Eamon Gilmore at the Labour Party Special Congress on 5th March, when he confirmed that the Programme for Government statement means exactly what it says.”

It is time to call a halt to the sorry spectacle of US military adventures being facilitated by the Irish state. Of course the USA can use facilities in the neighbouring island of Britain instead but that does not justify Irish complicity in what have been sorry and ill-begotten military adventures with enormous repercussions in terms of human misery and waste.

‘NATO’ + ‘Liberation’ = Oxymoron?
NATO military action – well above and beyond what was authorised by the UN resolution on protecting civilians and including well over 20,000 aerial military missions as well as on the ground support and advice – was undoubtedly the crucial factor that has led to the final stages of the overthrown of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, but many questions remain. We certainly do not yet know what the new regime will be like, and, while it might be difficult for it to equal Muammar Gaddafi’s human rights abuses, it is clear that some killings by the rebels took place which were not justified by the ‘rules of war’. Whether the new regime will use its oil revenues for the good of the people is another question which only time will tell, and some of Gaddafi’s policies were populist in this regard; but the fact that ‘the West’ will look for its reward in favourable oil contracts is undoubtedly going to be the case.

But while ‘the West’ in the shape of NATO – which had over recent years come to quite a rapprochement with Gaddafi after years in the wilderness – has got rid of one tyrant who it was recently touting as having returned to the fold of civilisation, the military action may well have done a disservice to the ongoing prospects for the advancement of democracy and human rights throughout the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries. Embedding human rights and democracy cannot easily be done by the blunt instrument of bombs and war. Rather it requires organic growth, most especially through the use of nonviolence and civil society’s involvement in the overthrow of autocracy and dictatorship. NATO is unlikely to intervene in other struggles for rights and democracy, such as in Syria, but promoting violence plays into the hands of the state who are likely to hold almost all the weapons and certainly the sophisticated ones, and the allegiance of the army.

Obviously we cannot regret the departure from power of someone with as blood-soaked hands as Gaddafi. But whether the new regime will mark a new departure remains to be seen. Regretfully it does nothing to support hard-pressed activists in other MENA countries and may have done them damage since ‘change’ will be more linked with the west and with military action. ‘The West’ should have a more sophisticated approach to supporting these activists with an emphasis on nonviolent struggle and, where necessary, hidden noncooperation.

- - - - - - -

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Riots, Environment & Wilful Blindness

This summer was marked by profoundly disturbing events. The most tragic is the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa, affecting 11 million people, a population approximately twice that of Ireland. In late July the United States averted bankruptcy at the last moment by a less than satisfactory agreement between President Obama and Congress. There was the mega collapse of the stock markets, the expensive war waged by NATO against Libya, the News of the World phone tapping scandal, the Cloyne report on child abuse to which the Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded by describing the Catholic Church as “dysfunctional, disconnected, elitist and narcissistic”. In July there was a return to the bad old days of riots in parts of Belfast and in early August there were riots in deprived areas of London as well as other English cities. Five people were killed, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and properties looted and burnt down.

What, one might ask do, these disparate events have to do with the environment? The connection is that they arise out of a world of “dysfunctional, disconnected, elitist and narcissistic” institutions, which in turn are reliant on a mindset of knowing and not knowing at the same time. Margaret Heffernan explores this duality in her book Wilful Blindness (2011).

The British Prime Minister bombing Libya is a classic example of wilful blindness. When in opposition he disparaged the idea of trying to bomb countries into democracy from 10,000 feet, yet in power this is exactly what he is doing, having to date spent £260m on the exercise. Clerical child abuse in Ireland is another example of wilful blindness: people knew that particular priests were abusing children, but as the existential implications of knowing were too awesome to contemplate they chose not to know.

The same wilful blindness could be said to apply to the riots in England which were focused on looting shops. Our society encourages us to cultivate an identity based on the possession of iconic brands of personal goods. A narcissistic attitude of grab and run is nurtured by various segments of society while countered by others. This approach has no regard to consequences either in terms of the hurt we cause or the damage we do to the environment. (I wonder if any of the looters were influenced by the Budweiser billboards, “Grab a Bud”.)

As the following illustrates the rioters and the elite share a similar moral code. In a letter on the riots to The Guardian, 10 August, Labour MP John McDonnell writes that we have created a grotesquely unequal society. “A society of looters created with MPs and their expenses, bankers and their bonuses, tax-evading corporations, hacking journalists, bribe-taking police officers, and now a group of alienated kids are seizing their chance.” The Independent reported recently that UK banks fund the cluster bomb industry. These bombs injure and kill large numbers of civilians. While the Westminster government rightly condemns the death and destruction provoked by the summer riots, governments, banks and corporations around the world support the displacement of people in Third World slums in order to build business parks and the clear felling of forests rich in biodiversity in order to build highways and dams. The European and American empires and many of their most commercial enterprises were built on theft.

What Margaret Heffernan makes clear is that we are all liable to wilful blindness, which often involves shielding ourselves from knowledge which would oblige us to act in ways that would radically change our way of life, sense of meaning and identity. For example, we know that our life-style is unsustainable and if unchanged will almost certainly lead to the collapse of the life-support systems of the planet, yet we live as if we don’t know this, choosing instead to believe that the solution to our economic, environmental and social woes is economic growth. Erich Fromm (1955) would describe this as collective insanity.

Larry Speight’s photo appears on the INNATE photo site.

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