Reflecting on the events of the past few days, I feel both saddened and encouraged. After 10½ hours of impassioned debate, our elected members of parliament agreed, in a free vote, to extend British air strikes from Iraq into Syria, joining the USA and France in striking out against the awful group who call themselves Islamic State.
I feel saddened, because it seems clear to me that there will, inevitably, be civilian casualties from these air strikes. Those will include innocent children, whose lives already are marred and now have one more terror to add to those surrounding them. I feel a sense of despair that this action cannot achieve what its proponents seek – the elimination of Isil – but will merely exacerbate their resolve to fight back. In his concluding speech in parliament, Hilary Benn spoke of Isil:
“They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we make our decision tonight in contempt.” He pointed out their “belief that they are superior to every single one of us in the chamber tonight.”
Powerful words, and no doubt true. But it doesn’t take much imagination to hear almost identical words being spoken in a room of Isil leaders in Raqqa – about the leaders and people of the United Kingdom, United States, or France.
I long for an end to the terror and injustice being inflicted on the people of Syria.
But I fear that this action will exacerbate rather than eliminate that suffering.
However, I do, at the same time, feel heartened by the way in which this decision has been made. And I am grateful for the privilege, the immense and awesome privilege, of living in a land where such a decision has not been made lightly, behind closed doors, or by an unapproachable group of omnipotent tyrants. I feel grateful that I was able to write to my MP (who, incidentally, opposed the motion. Whether my letter in any way influenced his decision, I do not know, but I remain grateful for the freedom to write); others were able to stand outside parliament to express their views; I and others were able to blog and post our views on Facebook; to accept and respond to comments from both sides.
And in Westminster itself, no-one was taking the issue lightly.
Reading some of the words that were said, both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, it seems abundantly clear to me that this was not a vitriolic debate between a bunch of trigger-happy war mongers and their opposing terrorist sympathisers. Rather both sides seemed to approach their arguments from a deep desire to do what is right. And yes, this was far from perfect, there were no doubt mixed motives on both sides, and there was, at times, enough vitriol both in and out of the chambers, but that was far from being the tone of the debate.
Arguments in favour of air strikes
So the arguments in favour of air strikes were mostly framed in a sense of justice, wanting to put an end to the terrorising regime of Isil; not wanting to abandon those who are suffering on the ground in Syria, to “walk by on the other side of the road” (although that is an interesting twist on the parable of the good Samaritan who stopped to bind up the wounds of the one who had been brutally attacked, not to beat the hell out of those who had attacked him); wanting to protect the freedoms and democracy that we hold so dear; and longing for a more peaceful world, free of terror. Those are attitudes and beliefs with which I sympathise.
Arguments against air strikes
Likewise, those speaking against air strikes were longing for a more peaceful world, one that is free of terror and violence; they, too, want to protect the freedoms and democracies of our society; they want an end to the injustice and suffering of the ordinary people of Syria. They are not ones who are burying their heads in the sand, or walking by on the other side of the road. Rather, they were calling for alternative approaches which would get more to the root of the problem, without further escalating the violence.
A more comprehensive approach
So a free vote committed us to military action. I believe, for most, if not all, those in Parliament, that vote was not taken lightly.
And now our planes are flying over Syria, dropping their weapons of destruction. In his speech in the House of Lords, Archbishop Justin Welby, while believing that ‘just war’ criteria had been met, warned that the UK could “end up doing the right thing in such a wrong way that it becomes the wrong thing”.
That is a warning we need to reflect on. He called for a far more comprehensive approach. While we cannot now undo the decision that has been made, surely we can put equal effort and resources into seeking the further non-violent actions that are needed to truly defeat terror.