Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I was on the way to lunch with my good friend, and fellow former North-Eastern PPC, Laetitia. The outside world was bright, the tube was slow but on time, and I had just the right amount left of the new Jonathan Franzen novel. Its Dickensian protagonist was finally over her infatuation with the Assange-like messianic bad guy; the novella-length chapters were starting to stretch backwards and forwards in my mind, revealing a brilliant whole. And I was about to have a relaxing afternoon in the pub. Life was great! Until –
Part One: The little girl (perhaps four years old) across from you on the train sobs quietly for the ten minutes she sits there. The accompanying woman constantly bats away her wet hands, eventually saying loudly, ‘If you touch me once more, I’ll put you on the other side of the carriage.’
Even if the girl was being punished for something that she needed to learn was wrong, repelling her natural instinct to reach out for comfort seemed cruel. The carriage exuded unease, but, of course, societal litigiousness has left us fearful of admitting any interest (the word itself having become terrifying) in unknown children. Oh, except whilst reading the tabloids or exploitative misery lit on sale at your local supermarket.
Part Two: The train arrives at their stop, and you see the woman ignore the girl, and take the hand of the boy who is also sitting with them. The girl follows, alighting as the doors begin to shut. You watch her walk slowly along the platform, becoming gradually separated, as people push past. The woman doesn’t look back.
Yes, if a certain kind of person had been on the platform, the woman might have never seen the girl again (or, in a different possible world, solely during supervised visits). But this final act of neglect was unrevealed until the last moment, when the train was seconds away from hitting 40mph and the tunnel towards my waiting afternoon. If another kind of person had been on the platform, they might have pointed out the woman’s negligence. What if they were the same person, however: the wrong one and the right one? Often, the significance of earlier pages is only disclosed when you reach the end of the novel, but, in real life, our choices – and their effects – are not pre-determined (no time for free will chat, now).
A momentary intervention in foreign circumstances might seem technically correct (and conscience assuaging) whilst, in the long term, making the situation worse for those actually involved. If you see someone in a cafe holding a baby with its head unsupported, dangling painfully, are you unquestionably improving things for the baby by pointing this out? Might the indignity of being shown up not encourage the careless carer to take it out on the child? Might it be better to speak to the carer’s partner, when they go to pay the bill? Or to mention it the waitress, who has an air of authority? To write a note, and drop it in the pram? To do nothing? Or is it always right to jump in? And wrong not to have done?
If you know that eating fewer delicious ketchupy bacon sandwiches will make your friend both thinner (and probably happier), and less likely to succumb to cancer, should you tell him? If your Prime Minister and monarch entertain the dictatorial leader of a murderous regime to dinner, should you rebel?
Even the best schools tend to leave us with limited ability to fit world history together, yet Nazism and the Holocaust are covered extensively in British curricula. Few would deny the need for an awareness of this period: not only because we should know about what happened, but also because it should help us to understand the present and future, in order to prevent similar atrocities. Yet, mostly, we are not unaware of the great evils that continue to happen. The 100,000 people in the prison camps of North Korea. The continued contraventions of the 1925 Geneva Protocol (regarding the use of chemical weapons) in Syria. The endless human rights abuses in forgotten countries like Turkmenistan.
Mass-scale monstrosities can’t be bracketed with situational inequalities, such as the relative drawings of the poverty line, or a country’s urgent need for energy and medication brought about by the lack, or poor sharing, of resources. And, whilst you might hate the Conservatives for cutting benefits, to suggest this is being done maliciously not only misses the point, it also denigrates real instances of intentional evil.
I’m not suggesting that seemingly less bad things should be ignored because of seemingly more bad things – or I could never be sympathetic about your broken leg, since I’d know that someone else might be being decapitated in a Middle-Eastern desert. (Or – along the same lines – go for a nice lunch with Laetitia, when I could be volunteering in a soup kitchen.) But equalising crimes helps nobody; it only dilutes true atrocity. A wolf-whistle is not rape, and reducing tax credits to prop up a considered (even if ill-thought-out) economic programme is neither necessarily ideological nor totalitarian. We need to accept this, and deal with problems for what they are.
Post-Iraq, ‘intervention’ can seem like a dirty word. And, yes, recent history rightly makes us more aware of the risk of unintended consequences, the necessity of ensuring the validity of military intelligence, and the acknowledgment of complicated ground situations (as exemplified by the Syrian conflict). But it’s unthinkable that we (as part of a wider international community) won’t need to consider it again and again, and more and more.
Tackling root causes and providing overseas aid for protective education is essential. Talking with – as opposed to appeasing – abusive regimes and terrorists might be, too, yet must depend on the right reasoning. And, sure, some want to rely upon the pressure of diplomatic involvement, such as trade sanctions and enforced isolation – but Gove or Osborne? Saudi Arabia or China? Both or neither? What about places that are past that?
Peace is sometimes best sought through force. And it will be until the perpetrators of evil cease leaving this as the only workable recourse. Sadly, war can still be just, and our democratic, human-rights-upholding, modern nation should think harder about this. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult, but sometimes, it’s simply wrong for the people of one country – or many – to sit by and watch those of another suffer.
And this is where questions about international intervention differ from those regarding the woman on the train. Ok, both are grounded in the consideration of moral puzzles – and both rest upon balancing instincts, such as empathy, with the need to decide what counts as an appropriate response to a specific situation, and how to assess the effects that reaction might bring. But confusing an individual’s obligations with those of a Government can lead to reckless vigilantism.
The bad guy in the Franzen novel runs an organisation based on WikiLeaks; many who feel uncomfortable about military intervention still lionise vigilantes such as Assange or Snowden. Their actions, however – often, rash reactions to emotive stimuli – are incomparable to justified governmental action that is backed up with strong arguments from elected representatives, military nous, and proven intelligence. Indeed, vigilantism can result in the weakening of the state’s ability to protect.
Two million words – if the Chilcot Report ever surfaces – are unlikely to convince us unequivocally whether we should or shouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq. But life is increasingly untenable there, and elsewhere. We shouldn’t let a past decision (made for right or wrong) prevent us from taking necessary decisions in further cases. And we have to fight against those who remain beholden to a relativistic fear of causing offense abroad, or who fall back on a blind and outdated hatred for what they see as ‘American’ capitalism instituting itself in selfish imperialism. Those in positions of authority who inherently oppose all intervention should come clean and put forward their case. And those who want to search out the right solution – rather than an easy one – should begin to answer them.
There will be future international crises (not forgetting those that are ongoing, not least in Syria), and there will be further parliamentary votes on intervention. Calling for the latter should not depend upon the assurance of partisan ‘success’. Focusing on the seemingly insurmountable practical difficulties of fixing the world’s problems can prevent us from considering the moral imperatives our country – as part of a global community – nonetheless faces. It is not good enough to say that it is impossible to help. We have to find a way to do more.