A hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War and we are forced to ask ourselves whether we are on the brink of the Third — or has it already broken out in a thousand different places, in a thousand different guises? We look at North Africa, the Near and Middle East; at parts of subSaharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent; at Malaysia and even further afield; and then are brought up short by reflecting that even here, on our own streets, there is violence and the threat of violence, talk of radicalisation and extremism. Parliament’s recall to discuss British participation in air strikes against IS is widely regarded as a rubber-stamp exercise. Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about the cataclysm enveloping us; President Obama has ratcheted up his rhetoric a notch to condemn the ungodly nature of the brutal killings that are the IS trademark; but ordinary people, you and me, what do we make of it all?
We live very near the headquarters of the SAS and are very aware of the brave men and women who are sent to perform extraordinarily dangerous tasks in order to protect us against various threats, both here and overseas. But we are also aware that the nature of war is changing. It is now much more diffuse, much more hidden. It takes place in shopping malls and subway stations; it targets the civilian as much as, in some ways even more than, the military. The legality of air strikes against IS in Iraq is, to the layman, much clearer than the supposed grounds on which Mr Bush and Mr Blair led us into the last Iraq conflict. The measure being put before Parliament today is hedged with all kinds of qualifications, some of them no doubt intended to ensure that Mr Milliband cannot rock the boat, but still there is fear of mission creep and the inevitable backlash.
The truth is we are faced with an impossible choice. Whether we act or do not act, people are going to die. In earlier posts I have written about the conditions that need to be met for what is called a just war. We cannot pretend that we are not involved in what Parliament decides today. We cannot say, ‘Not in my name’ and thereby distance ourselves from the consequences of that decision. The men and women stationed in Cyprus know very well that within a few hours half a dozen British Tornadoes may be taking to the skies with the aim of inflicting as much damage as they can on IS forces. However ambivalent we may feel about the use of violence, however torn, we have to face up to the fact that we are not dealing with people who are open to reason. Many innocent people have already died terrible deaths at their hands. Let us pray that IS may be stopped from inflicting even more death and destruction. At the same time, let us also pray for the courage and determination to bear the consequences of what promises to be a long and bloody conflict, not only ‘over there’ but also over here.