By Alf Baird
Compassion relates to our understanding of suffering; compassion is an emotional questioning motivated by love and pity. Indignation, on the other hand, usually has a target which is attacked; “they did it, so they (whoever ‘they’ may be) must be punished”.
Indignation is a more insistent impulse, demanding reaction and action; indignation is considered to be antagonistic and generally motivated by outrage. We see it all the time. Anytime something goes badly wrong people look for someone to blame. It might be anyone, even sometimes the wrong person or organisation. Our media feeds on this, and the media itself is fed by vested interests, in the form of press releases, misinformation and so on, attributing blame in whichever direction the vested interest dictates.
According to these definitions there is often a tension between compassion and indignation. This is seen for instance in the poetry of the Great War, where a predominance of one can inhibit or overwhelm the other. This can cause problems and often means our indignation can influence or even ‘bludgeon’ our reactions?
In WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon’s poem called ‘Does it matter?’ there is a clear sense that Sassoon pities those who have lost their legs, their sight or even their minds, but his indignation is directed at the ignorance of those who will not ‘worry a bit’. The poem is really directed at those who fail to appreciate the wider, more significant issues and the important, often unanswered questions – such as: why are we here, in the trenches, in WWI in the first place? A war that so readily and yet so unquestioningly destroyed the lives of millions of men and their families. Here are a few lines from Sassoon’s poem:
“Do they matter?–those dreams from the pit? …
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know that you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.” (lines 11-15)
This somewhat ironic tone was used intentionally by Sassoon to highlight what he considered to be the ‘callous insensitivity of people’. In adopting such a tone, Sassoon intentionally obscures the compassion that motivated him to write the poem. Sassoon’s actual indignation, however, is for those who fail to address the really important questions. The why are we here? What was WWI fought for, exactly? Why did millions of mostly young men die horrible deaths? For what purpose? And, who was really behind the war (and other wars even today)?
This week we are asked to commemorate the start of WWI, the ‘war to end all wars’. Sassoon would be in no doubt we should instead address the important ‘why’ questions. Historians have since established the key factors that led to WW1, which included: the motivation of a small ruling elite in Europe (in part to suppress civil unrest at home and the rise of socialism); the role of the press barons (in whipping up a frenzy); the role of the arms manufacturing companies (through massive sale of armaments and subsequent demonstration of expensive new technological warfare), and the role of the banks in financing the entire ‘shooting match’. These were all factors rather more important than many folk care to imagine, or as the mainstream media like to tell it, even today, a century later. Unfortunately the unsavoury aspects of this cabal of decision makers remain with us even today. And you will not find much in the way of compassion here.
There are many aspects of life that cause distress today, resulting in our indignation and compassion. Foodbanks, poverty, widening inequality, war and armed conflict, the indiscriminate murder of civilians often led by state-funded/or state-run forces, as in Gaza, and the recent shooting down of the Malaysian airline over Eastern Ukraine. And corruption seems rife – whether in state organisations, in business, or in the media; we have plenty of examples here in the UK, with cover-ups exposed in politics (Iraq war, MP expenses), in the mainstream media (phone hacking), in business (the banks and the arms industry, the Government selling of Royal Mail and most other public utilities which made investors much richer thanks to heavily discounted sale prices) and even within the police (Hillsborough, the shooting of unarmed civilians, fabricated evidence, and the feeding of information to the media). Who can we trust in authority anymore? So many have been found wanting, and at the highest levels.
Can we find compassion here, amongst those in authority, the leaders of our society and nation? Leaders are role models and their behaviour and culture has wider repercussions. Culture at the top is a difficult thing to change; culture is the result of decades and even centuries of sustained practice. Culture is ‘the way we do things’.
The word ‘Compassion’ is mentioned in the mace of the Scottish Parliament. Yes it is that important! The mace was a favoured weapon of the middle ages. It was most effective for smashing through the armour or helmet of an opponent. Nowadays it is used to signal that parliament is at work. Engraved on the head of the mace at Holyrood are four words: ‘Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Integrity’. These are said to relate to the ideals that the people of Scotland aspire to for their Members of Parliament. But such ideals also relate to the decisions our leaders make on our behalf, and in our name.
There is no inscription on the Westminster Parliament maces, as far as I know. So we do not know how high compassion rates there. But actions sometime speak better than words. The responsibility for arms export licenses in the UK is a reserved matter to Westminster, as is defence, foreign affairs, economic and banking regulation, and other important high level matters of governance. Many of the problems our society faces today actually relate to these reserved powers, and their management, or mismanagement as the case may be. People living in Scotland will soon have a choice to make on whether they wish to take more responsibility for these matters or to continue to leave them to Westminster.
There is not much if any compassion shown by Israel for the civilians in Gaza. Schools and hospitals have been destroyed by tanks, artillery and aircraft. Entire towns have been attacked and now lie in ruins. The state of Israel does not appear to be showing any compassion. And neither are its military suppliers. You might well ask who Israel’s arms suppliers are. Well it includes us – yes, the UK supplies much of Israel’s military needs. In fact Israel is Britain’s largest arms export customer. Our political leaders at Westminster licence a great deal of arms and associated equipment sent to Israel and many other hotspots around the world.
Does that not also make each one of us responsible for the outcomes? Can we really show indignation at events in Gaza? How can we show compassion for the suffering in Gaza, yet at the same time be aware that we vote here for political leaders and a Westminster government which licenses arms exports to Israel and to other hostile and oppressive regimes? Should we not also feel some responsibility? Is our indignation and outrage at events in Gaza and elsewhere really justified?
These are terrible events for which our nation supplies much of the means of resulting death, injury and carnage. Here in Scotland we therefore need to ask ourselves why we support successive governments at Westminster that continue to license British arms exports to Israel, arms that are used to kill and injure innocent civilians and destroy their towns, infrastructure and livelihoods.
Britain’s role in world conflicts does not end in Gaza. We may also have shown indignation and compassion when the Malaysian aircraft was brought down recently by a Russian missile with the loss of nearly 300 lives? But did we know there are currently more than 200 arms licences issued by the British Government to sell British-made weapons to Russia, including missile-launching equipment? These licenses are still in place despite Prime Minster David Cameron’s claim in the Commons some time ago that the government had imposed an absolute arms embargo against Russia, according to a report by a cross-party group of MPs. A large number of British weapons and military components which the MPs say are still approved for sale and export to Russia are contained in a report by House of Commons committees which recently scrutinised arms export controls.
In fact more than 3,000 UK export licences for arms worth over £12bn were approved for 28 countries all of which had been cited by the UK Foreign Office for their poor human rights records. They include Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia and Sri Lanka. Of 285 current licences for Russia, only 34 have been suspended or revoked. So the UK government which acts on our behalf and in our name is and has been for many years selling arms to numerous oppressive regimes around the world.
In Scotland’s forthcoming referendum a No vote would simply confirm our support for this practice to continue, irrespective of which London-based party is in power. The last Labour government’s decision to approve export licences to Syria for chemicals which could be used for weapons between July 2004 and May 2010 was described by MP’s as “highly questionable”. The decision of the present coalition government to approve two further export licences for chemicals to Syria in January 2012 after the civil war had started in 2011 was described by the same MP’s as “irresponsible”. However these decisions are far more than just “highly questionable” or “irresponsible”. This is polite Westminster language for what is in fact a series of reprehensible acts. If any nation supplies weapons to an irresponsible regime (or to anyone else for that matter) which then goes on to use these weapons to inflict suffering and murder and destruction on its own or other peoples then the arms supplier also surely has to take some responsibility for what are criminal acts.
The anti-war organisation War on Want has stated that: “By supporting the arms trade with Israeli companies, the British government is sending a clear message of approval for Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people.” The Committee of MP’s found that the current UK coalition
government has 381 arms licences to Israel in place, worth £7.8 billion.
The new Watchkeeper drone being developed for the UK military is based on a model that Israel has what it describes as ‘field tested’ in attacks on Gaza. These ‘field tests’ left many Palestinians dead, including children. The UK Ministry of Defence has awarded a £1 billion contract for the new Watchkeeper drone to a joint venture between Israeli firm Elbit and its commercial partner, Thales UK. In effect the UK is using collaboration with an Israeli defence firm to develop even worse terror ‘capability’.
Matters don’t just stop at Israel and Russia. UK Ministers approved the export of sniper rifles, bullets, tear gas and other ammunition to Libya shortly before Col Gadhafi ordered his military forces to crush the pro-democracy uprising. The MP’s report proved that UK-made arms were used against the rebel uprising in Libya when thousands of Libyan citizens were killed. Like many unstable countries today Libya remains full of guns supplied by Britain and this is leading to more violence in towns across the country.
The recent report by MPs has exposed the ‘secret’ of Britain selling arms to some of the world’s most brutal regimes. Successive British governments have ‘misjudged the risk’, according to the Commons’ Committee on Arms Export Control. Again that seems like very polite language masking something that is clearly far worse than mere ‘misjudgement’.
The UK also awarded Bahrain arms export licences covering submachine guns, sniper rifles, CS hand grenades, smoke canisters, stun grenades and other equipment. Dozens of its citizens were killed and thousands injured when the Gulf state violently confronted freedom campaigners. Substantial UK arms sales have also been made to Saudi Arabia.
It does not end here. There are still existing contracts for Syria, despite the fact that the UK is also sending equipment to rebels fighting the Assad regime and has considered arming them as well. What does that say about our integrity, far less our compassion? There are even 57 UK arms licenses for Argentina, which remains in a serious dispute with Britain over the Falklands.
According to the organisation Campaign against Arms Trade, it is UK Government policy and practice to actively promote and support arms sales despite the fact the ‘industry’ only contributes 0.2% of UK jobs. The arms market is dominated by a handful of well networked multinational companies, all of which have a revolving door for recruiting ex politicians as well as former high level government officials including former ambassadors. In other words selling arms is an established part of the political culture in Britain, or rather Westminster.
So long as our nation continues to supply arms, our indignation rings hollow, and our compassion seems worthless. Can we stop this type of immoral behaviour and culture? In Scotland we will have an opportunity, very soon, to change the way our country is run, and for whom it is run. We have an opportunity to alter the political culture – the way ‘we’ do things. We can in future ensure our political leaders live by the ideals inscribed on the Holyrood mace. The signs are good, as an independent Scotland intends to start by getting rid once and for all of the Westminster commitment to nuclear weapons. By voting Yes we will be playing our part to help finally put an end to Britain’s arms supply culture. Voting No simply gives the Westminster supported arms industry carte blanche to continue the indiscriminate supply of arms in our name.
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