Commentary by Derek Bateman
It’s a week since the slaughter of the innocents at the Manchester Arena and the single image I can’t get out of my mind is the face of Eilidh MacLeod of Barra. She looks into the lens and right through us with the defiant beauty of youth, a look that both asserts her arrival at the door of adulthood and challenges us, as if asking what kind of world we have created for her generation.
Not that she knew that. To her this was just being, a wild creature engaging in the ever-changing excitement of growing up – the thrill that led her to a pop concert in the city. It’s the contrast between the empty slopes of pastoral Barra and its misty air of the ethereal with the sickening brutality of jihadist murder that is most poignant. The surreal disjunction contrasts the unchanging stability of one world with the shrieking madness of the other.
The insane serendipity of it all shocked my ten-year-old. ‘She left home to have fun at a party and didn’t know it was the last time’, she said, articulating one of the great unknowns for all of us. Accident, heart attack, random violence all stalk us every day. On leaving home and saying goodbye, none of us knows if it’s for the last time. A recently retired neighbour ended a disagreement with the words: ‘Never mind. Life’s too short.’ Four days later he was found dead. ‘I never saw him again’, said the other arguer, pondering the ironies of existence.
And you just know that out there in the Western Isles, Eilidh’s family will question themselves, silently doubt their decision-making with the ache that if only they could go back in time…But life is a procession of If Only. And it will always be true that no one is burdened with blame but the perpetrator(s). Those who planned, organised and committed this act are solely to blame. There is no mealy-mouthed excuses for cold-blooded mass murder.
But that cannot be used as a reason to quietly close the door on examining why it happened. However nihilistic, jihadism does not exist in isolation from the world it attacks. Every day in some part of the globe a family suffers like the MacLeods…in untold numbers in shattered Syria, across destabilised Libya, endlessly in Afghanistan, or, with UK cluster bombs, in Yemen…and so it goes on, countries conflicted among themselves but often the recipients of western foreign policy decisions. Interventions through invasion, insertion of advisers, support back-up for one side or another and, of course the relentless re-armament of militias through profit-seeking arms sales – in which we and the Americans specialise – destroy lives and communities.
Add in the vicious on-going Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the hangover of the US-UK invasion of Iraq, and you can see how millions of people feel little sympathy for a handful of deaths in the rich, seemingly inoculated western nations. Compared to a mother in Aleppo, a British woman has no actual knowledge of what it is to live every day in fear, where children are at literally risk, hunger and disease constant, home is bombarded and death close by. Even people who wish no harm to anyone in the west will console themselves with the unspoken satisfaction that a sporadic bombing here is a taste of what life is like for them. We tend not to engage too deeply with the world’s on-going wars of tribalism and religious sectarianism because they are mostly unfathomable, convoluted affairs and because it’s simply unbearable to share the daily sense of grief and loss involved. We shake our heads and move on. In my case, to help assuage guilt and offer solidarity, I give to Unicef and Medical Aid to Palestine.
But, like Britain’s – and Barra’s – grieving families, every one we see wailing in despair over a small broken body in a dusty village is going through the same human hell. The bewilderment, disbelief, the anger and despair are the same, be it Castlebay or Kabul. Manchester didn’t scare us into surrendering to jihad or opening a door to the stone-age death cult of IS as was intended, but it did act as an excoriating reminder of how millions of fellow humans are forced to survive, rarely far from death. Some of that violence is either the indirect consequence of actions taken by our government and allies or it is perpetrated by us or our agents. That’s why we cannot allow the semi secret military apparatus to sneak arms into war zones without democratic scrutiny. If the public are told the truth about war in Yemen and it becomes a national issue of importance, would they accept it? Or might they see how Britain’s involvement in attacking a muslim country might lead to retaliation?
The UK gives £100m to aid Yemen. But it receives £3.3 billion from selling arms to Saudi Arabia which uses them to attack Yemen. More than 5000 civilians have been killed mostly by the bombing raids with British-made weapons. Those are families. Children are blown up, some left with terrible shrapnel injuries and the war is leading to large scale famine and a humanitarian crisis. We are a key part of that crisis.
SAS troops are thought to be there (as in Syria, Iraq and Libya without parliament being told). In Libya it gets even darker as it isn’t clear who our personnel are fighting on behalf of – there isn’t a government as such. And it’s clear there’s been an unspoken policy of encouraging fighters to go to Libya from the UK and to return unchecked, the route taken by Salman Abedi. This murky soup is deliberately kept secret from the public who are deemed unworthy of having the information. That of course also means we were unaware that our own security forces had been warned by Abedi’s own family and friends that he was dangerous. They were also told by American security about him well in advance.
This of course is dereliction of duty. The first responsibility of government is defence of the realm and there can be no doubt that in failing to run a suitably efficient security and intelligence service able to respond to repeated and timeous warnings, this government has let down the country. They unnecessarily exposed to lethal threat citizens who could reasonably expect protection. It will always be true that an unknown individual or even one on a list but not regarded as active, can strike at will and wrong-foot the police. There is no known defence to this. But when the government’s policy allows for unofficial fighters to pass in and out of the country unchecked and when a named individual is identified by several sources as of imminent danger, there can be no excuse when lives are lost through inaction.
I find it extraordinary that the link between Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office – running immigration control, anti terrorism and security – and this disaster is not a key part of the election. The Tories are proven to be weak on security and defence. The former commander of armed forces told MPs the UK couldn’t withstand an attack by the Russians, our forces are so depleted. Now we find that even with clear advance warnings, our intelligence and security cannot respond in time to save lives.
Saying you’re good at something doesn’t make it so and we’ve heard enough about strong leadership lately to make us laugh and enough about running the economy to make us cry.
The crumbling of the Tory image edifice into a pile of rubble is the story of the campaign, embodied by twitchy Theresa who sounds panicked, unsure and incompetent. Not being Jeremy isn’t nearly enough and, even if she does pull off a nervous victory as expected, her perception with the public is fatally wounded. And to the EU negotiators she will be more rag doll than iron lady, a pitiable figure with but a squeak of an argument rather than Gloriana summoning her archers.
May has done the impossible – she has made Corbyn electable. What a country. Please can we leave soon?