Expendable innocents

Jean Charles de Menezes came to Britain as an electrician. When he left, shot eight times as he fell helpless to the ground, he became Everyman. He was a victim of the war on terror, which does not discriminate among its victims. His death invites us to reflect on where our conscription into that war has brought us.

Those who bring terror—bring down towers, blow up trains, police stations and markets—are convinced that the societies they attack are corrupt and are indulging in state terrorism. They dismiss our talk of human dignity, truth, faithfulness, love of peace, freedom and equality before the law as the mask covering an arbitrary, violent, Godless and venal face. They believe that terrorism will unmask this face. In that will lie their triumph.

Four years into the war on terror, they are looking good. Their crucial first victory was to persuade their enemies to describe their response to terrorism as a war. In wars, anything goes, and qualities like peace, justice, honesty and scrupulous attention to legality fall into the background. Ends and means become confused.

The invasion of Afghanistan, and more patently the invasion of Iraq, introduced to public life a principled mendacity. It also revealed a readiness to inflict great suffering on other people for doubtful goals. The images of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay display the contempt for other faces, other religions, and indeed for humanity, that the terrorists hoped to unmask.

Even more disquieting than the torture of prisoners has been the response to it. Shuffling and weasel words. Practices that were once instinctively rejected as dehumanising are now considered legitimate when used by those who fight the War against Terrorism.

Wars against terror soon turn against those on whose behalf they are fought. This is the significance of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died as Everyman. What is most chilling is not that he was shot again and again in cold blood, nor that politicians and police defended his death as a regrettable and repeatable necessity, but that they were believed. The lack of outrage shown by the British public suggests that the innocent are now expendable.

The war on terror has not yet finished with its children. It will engender laws and practices that can be used against the different, the suspect and the critical. In Australia, such laws and practices have been rehearsed in the war on asylum seekers.

In the short term, the war on terror will embolden terrorists. They are shaping Western society to the image they have of it. In the long run, however, we may only hope that the controlling image of war will discredit itself, and we shall find a response to terror that is firm, reasonable, and based in human dignity. 

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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