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good behaviour


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- crimes of war
- caught in the act
- good behaviour
- security in new millenium
- gun running
- making peace where we live

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'BAE may be sitting on more timebombs’ ran a Sunday Times headline recently. No, not an arms trade exposé, but a drop in profits. BAE Systems, one of the UK’s biggest arms manufacturers, had been cryptically described as ‘a strong defensive stock, able to cope well as a military player when times became less positive’. Not that strong, apparently. So now more job cuts, and some worried shareholders. Astonishingly, except maybe to cynics, BAE’s anxious investors include the Labour Party pension fund (34,721 shares); the Royal College of Pathologists (29,502); the British Medical Association staff fund (63,712); NACRO (1,000); the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (1,679); Nuffield College Oxford (30,015); the Co-op Insurance Society, owned by the ethically investing Co-op Group (13,798,294 – not a misprint); and the Leukaemia Research Fund (10,000). A spokesman for the LRF said he saw no contradiction between dedication to curing leukaemia and investment in a company whose shells are said to cause it. ‘BAE Systems are not responsible for what went on in Kosovo.’


During the 1988 Palestinian Intifada, Yitzhak Rabin (then Israeli defence minister) spoke publicly of the need to ‘break the bones of Intifada rioters’. One Israeli colonel ordered troops to round up twenty Palestinian men from two villages in the West Bank, blindfold and handcuff them, and break their bones. Some soldiers (given permission by their unit commander) refused. Others carried out the order so vigorously that they broke their truncheons. The colonel got away with an official rebuke. But when the story reached the public domain, he was sent for trial, found guilty, and punished. (Defence chief Rabin, however, was not charged.) The judge said: ‘These actions outrage every civilised person. Senior officers must be aware that the morality of the Israeli Defence Forces forbids such behaviour’.

It’s sometimes forgotten that there is no universally established moral code. (The UN Declaration of Human Rights is essentially a Western construct, and people cite it or depart from it at their convenience.) Instead there are diverse, often localised, systems, generated by particular attitudes and beliefs. They are adhered to when people respect the authority that invokes the moral laws they’re used to, but not always. Moral principles, and conventions about what moral behaviour actually is, vary and shift. ‘The morality of the Israeli Defence Force forbids’ brutality, but obviously allows killing. In World War Two, when asked to hand over occupied Shanghai’s Jewish refugees to the Nazis, the Japanese government refused ( ‘such is not in accord with the norms of civilised states’), apparently finding no moral inconsistency in their own treatment of prisoners of war.

Historically questions of morality have tended to be settled publicly by power vested in religious or secular authority, and privately by codes of partisanship derived by individuals from the culture in which they live. Neither power nor partisanship make ’goodness’ of action or intention a main priority.

Here is a Stalinist, writing years after Stalin’s death: ‘You must think of humanity as a body that requires constant surgery, which cannot be done without the spilling of blood. Unpleasant acts, granted; but we do not find any of this immoral. All acts that further socialism are moral acts.’ And another, who actively took part in the Terror: ‘I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our goal was the universal triumph of communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible, to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people who stood in the way.... I stopped my ears to children’s crying and women’s wails.’

Communism isn’t the only villain. A Russian commentator remarks that it ‘was indeed a new religion, in that many of its early adherents believed that they were introducing a new and universal morality. This helps to explain their extraordinary capacity for ruthlessness and pure-minded evil. Doctrinaire liberal capitalism, by contrast, believes that a self-regulating market can do without morality altogether’ – and, by extension, capitalist society too.

The philosopher Herbert Spencer (who said that republicanism was the highest form of government but required the highest type of human nature to run it) observed that ‘opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings and not by the intellect’: that’s true of the strength with which opinions are held, at any rate. Whatever efforts may be made to establish moral principles, the volatility and vulnerability of human nature have to be taken into account. It isn’t enough just to think; yet without thought action is morally blind.

In Gaza, young boys have a great time learning to handle rifles, cheerfully shouting their ‘hate speech’ against Israel. The older men say ‘we want peace’, but what they mean is ‘victory’. One says, with a friendly smile, ‘If I was able to, I would kill every one of the Jews.’ The leader of the Hamas terrorist organisation, an elderly quadriplegic (no, not a war wound; a sporting accident in his teens) says, ‘There’s a difference between what is right and what is magnanimous. Magnanimity is better; but we still have the right to kill. My conscience is clear: I am not the aggressor. Islam gives me the moral right to defend myself by whatever means’. (The British journalist interviewing him said afterwards, banging his forehead, ‘Why didn’t I give him a hard time with my questions? I just couldn’t feel any antagonism to this old guy in a wheelchair. I even kissed him goodbye!’ Close up and not confrontational, you see the person before you see the ideology. Something worth remembering.)

A recent letter from Jerusalem reports that ‘on both sides, there are appreciable numbers of people who seem positively to relish the prospect of endless bloodshed.’ Most of the world’s people aren’t killers; yet all over the world there are people ready to kill, people trained to organise killing, people prepared to give the order to kill. Not many of them would think of themselves as ‘a person who kills’.

The Hamas leader says that Islam requires you to treat the enemy as he treats you. This retributory injunction isn’t exclusive to people of nations far from our own. Churchill was cheered by London crowds when he said ( of the area bombing of German cities) that the overwhelming majority would cry ‘We will mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure, that they have meted out to us’. The British government’s morality that had banned the bombing of civilian targets in 1939 shifted with the Blitz in 1940. It went on sliding throughout the war, right down to Hiroshima. Fifty years later, in an era supposed to be politically more humane, the US and UK could embark on what was called, in an effort to claim moral ground, ‘humanitarian’ bombing. At the same time a US congressman could say that 20,000 civilian deaths were a low price for peace in Kosovo; a Secretary of State could say of the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, ‘A very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it’.

A pacifist’s working definition of ‘peace’ might be ‘a state of affairs in which all disputes are handled without recourse to arms’. But ‘peace’ demands a deeper definition than that. It should be everyone’s aim to find one: a moral position acknowledging respect for life, dignity and individuality, and acceptable world wide. ‘Peace,’ said a Palestinian to an Israeli, ‘means that you allow the Palestinians to have the kind of freedom and dignity you wish for yourselves and your children’. We have to give attention to what is owed to any individual, and to devise subtly structured codes that implement it.

Such scrupulousness is needed in a world in which some people are fiercely attached to religions and causes, while others have no commitment to any system on which to rely for a moral rule of thumb. This is a world in which individuals as well as groups can be stretched between two or more allegiances, or have none. It’s also a world in which the technology of violence and warfare makes it possible to kill on an industrial scale; and to wage war at a distance, so that the human targets have negligible reality for their killers.

Even locally there’s an inadequate sense of the value of ‘the other’. In Borneo, for example, indigenous Dayaks and migrant Madurese have been in fluctuating conflict for years. Massacres are frequent. The Dayaks’ custom is to remove the heads and hearts of those they kill. Even a Dayak dismayed by such slaughter said frankly, ‘When I saw the bodies, I felt nothing, as long as they were people I didn’t know.’ Yet a real understanding has grown that simply stopping the killing doesn’t achieve peace: differing cultural and social values have to be acknowledged, respected and met. It’s becoming understood that the Madurese, as incomers, must go – but that the settlement must be achieved with dignity for both sides.

‘The fruit of hatred is hatred,’ says an African teacher. There’s much talk nowadays of developing a ‘culture of peace’, where tolerance and friendship can be planted and reaped. But how to achieve this in a weapon-heavy world? One suggestion is that ethics should be rethought, humanised. The starting point is indeed universal: every individual’s will to survive. ‘Though the Life Force,’ said George Bernard Shaw, ‘supplies us with its purpose, it has no other brains to work with than those it has painfully and imperfectly evolved in our heads’. But we must do our best with our limited abilities. (The ever-increasing number of people working for peace are well placed to form a vanguard.)

The next step is enlightened self-interest: recognition and establishment of the practical benefits of co-operation and unselfishness, which include freedom from fear. After that we can build some universal principles of good behaviour on a number of human characteristics: most people’s dislike of cruelty; almost everyone’s capacity for sympathy and respect.

Then we can take a new look at courage: locating heroism only in nonviolence. ‘Cultivate’ said Gandhi, ‘ the quiet courage of dying without killing’. ‘What my father needs me for,’ said a Serb enduring the bombing of Belgrade, ‘is to serve his wars. It’s my victory, and his defeat, to have the courage to say no, and not to die for him’. We’ll also hope that words like ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ can transcend their positive/negative militaristic metaphorical properties.

It needs to be much better understood how militarism is learned, so that we can drive it out of the cultural syllabus. In a state of war, wrote a Belgrade diarist in 1999, ‘military logic enters our everyday language. We talk about adapting to war conditions. When you become used to it, you forget to ask How? and Why?’ A letter from Algeria (1996) lamented: ‘The descent into hell continues. Our values have been turned upside down’. It’s been noted more than once how the perpetrators of the Holocaust ‘became increasingly brutalised ‘once the killing began. As in combat, the horrors of the initial encounter eventually became routine, and the killing became progressively easier. In this sense, brutalisation was not the cause but the effect.’

Dr Sheila Cassidy experienced torture in Chile. ‘Most ordinary people love children, are gentle with the old and are capable of heroic behaviour to help someone in distress. And yet many ordinary people are capable of hardening their hearts, of ignoring the suffering of others.’ Well, we ought to be learning from our capacity for callous implacability. A single sympathetic act can begin to thaw it, in our societies and in ourselves, and contribute to our necessary evolution away from violence. ‘The first step is not to look away.’ A US pilot flying over My Lai remembers that the Nazis shot people in ditches, so he goes down alone to protect the remaining villagers from his countrymen’s brutality. An Israeli professor writes a history of land ownership since 1948, and doesn’t fudge the indirect revelation of how Israelis have tried to erase the memory of Arab occupation – another form of ethnic cleansing, which the whole world supposedly condemns.

Honesty, clear thinking, remembering to ask How? and Why?, fortifies a sense of self that doesn’t depend on tribalism, nationalism, fanaticism, conforming obedience, gang prejudice or an exclusive moral/cultural code. Milovan Djilas was a committed communist, but still spoke out against Stalinism. ‘I had to follow that road [of dissent] even if my steps were confused and uneven. Otherwise I would not remain a man in my own eyes. If I know something with certainty and am convinced of its truth, how can I deny it, hide it from the world and from myself?’

‘The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, ‘ said Solzhenitsyn, pointing out that it’s often chance that dictates which side of the line we are. Maybe moral education should be less a priority (as long as it remains locally linked to differing systems) than arranging our social institutions so that human beings aren’t placed in situations in which they are likely to behave badly. And in arranging our modes of social interaction so that violence, and violence-breeding military intervention, isn’t an option when trust is absent and relationships break down.

Meanwhile a highly reader-friendly primer is available: ‘Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century’. In language that is never difficult, and in segments that are easy to digest, philosopher Jonathan Glover analyses the moral and psychological background of some of the major atrocities performed by people whose ‘moral identity’ had been eroded. His aim is to point the way to a new and workable moral philosophy. ‘There are features of our time which make it particularly important to build up moral defences against barbarism....The means for expressing cruelty and carrying out mass killing have been fully developed. It is too late to stop the technology. It is to the psychology that we should now turn.’ Real humaneness, as opposed to the kind we pay lip service to, or litigiously claim as a right, has been said to be on the wane. This book alerts the reader to the subtle ways in which any of us – yes, any of us – can slide into moral irresponsibility. Read it!

Margaret Melicharova

‘Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century’, by Jonathan Glover (1999). Picador pbk, £12.50
Other sources for this article include:
‘Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know’, edited by Roy Gutman & David Rieff. WW Norton pbk £15
‘Captured Voices’, edited by John McCarthy. Indigo pbk, £6.99


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