I finally got around to listening to the LSE lecture given by Gareth Peirce last Thursday. Peirce is a woman I have enormous respect for, having devoted much of her life to fighting for the sanctity of human rights and frequently representing tabloid demon figures. The lecture looks at what has happened to ‘justice’ in Britain since 9/11, doing so by focusing on the story of Shaker Amer, a former British resident who has been held in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years despite never facing any charges.
It is, as the Chair of the lecture notes, “quiet but powerful”. Peirce describes the Blair government’s collusion in rendition and torture, stemming from Blair’s arrogant and messianic belief that the West could ‘reshape the world’ in the wake of 9/11. She reads notes from Jack Straw, David Blunkett and senior civil servants showing that they were not only obstructing the release of the British citizens held by the USA, but actively encouraging their movement to Guantanamo and urging that they never be repatriated – all the while telling the families of these men that they were doing their best to have them returned. She speaks of a collective collusion at a cabinet level – a collusion which led figures like David Miliband to try and prevent the truth ever becoming known and which has continued with Harriet Harman showing breathtaking hypocrisy in berating the coalition for not securing the release of Aamer. Peirce also speaks about the initial change in rhetoric ushered in by the coalition government and how this promise was short-lived, as they too have sought to maintain secrecy and suppress evidence of further torture, including recent activities in Libya.
It is bleak listening and it’s impossible not to feel greatly moved and greatly angry. I felt disgust that figures like Blair and Straw are still feted by many in the Labour party. I felt foolish for my initial optimism that the coalition would be different. I felt sadness that as a human race we seem condemned to be party to these atrocities again and again.
I’ve wondered before why British complicity in torture has never gained traction as ‘an issue’. It is definitely perceived as ‘difficult’, as murky and perhaps as too complicated to engage in. One phrase Peirce uses struck me, however. She speaks about the ten years since 9/11 as being characterised by an ‘avoidance of morality’. It resonated with me as soon as she said it and I’ve been thinking about it since. It is of course spoken in specific relation to this issue, and rightly so. Yet it’s difficult not to argue that it’s a phrase which increasingly sums up our society.
I think we do tend to shy away from moral judgements and the complex consideration of moral issues which this involves. On one level it’s very easy to understand why – none of us are perfect. Start discussing morality and very quickly you’re going to hit the fact that you are as hypocritical as everyone else – indeed, it’s not long before other people will throw this back at you. With that in mind, speaking of morality and of things being unquestionably wrong (as with torture) can see you painted as smug, superior, even judgemental – and we are absolutely terrified of that. It seems to inform so many responses to so many things – we are scared of being seen as judgemental about sex; we are scared of being seen as taking pop culture too seriously; we are scared of being seen as ‘over-thinking’ things. So we don’t even engage with them beyond a superficial level – what would be the point?
I’ve written before (and it wasn’t an original thought, of course) about the rise of irony and insincerity, how they have become so pervasive that they warp how we relate to each other and to the world around us. It never really struck me before how central to this the ‘avoidance of morality’ is (which is silly, because there is little as serious and sincere as morality). Moral issues, it could be said, largely only pierce this bubble when there is an overwhelming consensus and the issue is seen as a very simple one with identified ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, e.g. phone hacking/Murdoch or the latest wheeze from the Tories (and make no mistake – if the initial collusion and cover-ups of torture and rendition had taken place under a Tory government, I think many would be a lot louder about it). In short, morality is allowable when it’s not making any statement beyond ‘I agree with you’. If you consider the wider implications of that, especially in relation to this subject and (for example) the government’s desire for ‘secret courts’, they are absolutely terrifying.
Here is the petition asking for Shaker’s release – please take a moment to sign it and share: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/29410