Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Friday, March 18, 2005
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
May I be allowed to offer on or two reflections on the British Governments' decision to retaliate against German prisoners, which seems so far to have aroused extraudinarily little protest?
By chaining up German prisoners in response to similar action by the Germans, we descend, at any rate in the eyes of the ordinary observer, to the level of our enemies. It is unquestionable when one thinks of the history of the past ten years that there is a deep moral difference between democracy and Fascism, but if we go on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth we simply cause that difference to be forgotten. Moreover, in the matter of ruthlessness we are unlikely to compete successfully with our enemies. As the Italian radio has just proclaimed, the Fascist principle is two eyes for an eye and a whole set of teeth for one tooth. At some point or another public opinion in England will flinch from the implications of this statement, and it is not very difficult to foresee what will happen. As a result of our action the Germans will chain up more British prisoners, we shall have to follow suit by chaining up more Axis prisoners, and so it will continue till logically all the prisoners on either side will be in chains. In practice, of course, we shall become disgusted with the process first, and we shall announce that the chaining up will now cease, leaving, almost certainly, more British than Axis prisoners in fetters. We shall have thus acted both barbarously and weakly, damaging our own good name without succeeding in terrorising the enemy. It seems to me that the civilised answer to the German action would be something like this: "You proclaim that you are putting thousands of British prisoners in chains because some half-dozen Germans or thereabouts were temporarily tied up during the Dieppe raid. This is disgustion hypocrisy, in the first place because of your own record during the past ten years, in the second place because troops who have taken prisoners have got to secure them somehow until they can get them to a place of safety, and to tie men's hands in such circumstances is totally different from chaining up a helpless prisoner who is already in an internment camp. At this moment, we cannot stop you maltreating our prisoners, though we shall probably remember it at the peace settlement, but don't fear that we shall retaliate in kind. You are Nazis, we are civilised men. This latest act of yours simply demonstrates the difference."
At this moment this may not seem a very satisfying reply, but I suggest that to anyone who looks back in three months' time, it will seem better than what we are doing at present and it is the duty of those who can keep their heads to protest before the inherently silly process of retaliation against the helpless is carried any further. (emphasis mine)
George Orwell, 12 October 1942
In other words you can't out-Nazi the Nazis and shouldn't bother trying. It is also worth noting that his reference to the "ordinary observer" goes beyond the merely hypothetical. Hindsight being what it is, most people look at Hitler and his merits and faults as a closed subject. While there is now definitely something of a consensus on that account it wasn't always that way. Back in the 30's and even in the 40's, it was not universally accepted that Fascism was evil. For many people it was and remains appealing. There were many who weren't particularly fond of either side in the war, fence-sitters if you will. I believe Orwell saw, much like I do, little things like the treatment of prisoners as greatly important in the war of ideas that was, and continues to rage. Now as then the world is again teeming with fence-sitters and many of which who are vitally important to, if not win over, then at least not alienate any further. Be it the average citizen of Iraq, Iran, or some far away country like Indonesia. Revenge feels good. This is clear. We had 3 Death Wish films to prove that point. However, tactics such as torture do little to help make our case to the student in Tehran but instead aid only in blurring the lines between us and the people to whom we claim to be so superior. We are now fighting on evil's terrain and face the danger of becoming what we hate or at the least least having others see us as such. That matters. This is our chance to demonstrate the difference between us and a bunch of hateful, religious, loons but we unfortunately seem all too eager to diminish that very vital distinction, at any rate in the eyes of the ordinary observer.
posted by Kermit at 3/08/2005 02:22:00 PM |