Moral Mazes

IssueMarch 2005
Comment by David MacKenzie

Ever since I got into some warm water for including in a press release a quote which compared Trident to Auschwitz I have been alert to the potential danger of such comparisons. The Dresden commemorations have raised the issue again, with much use of the term “moral equivalence”.

Boggy ground

The phrase itself has an interesting history. William James used it in 1906 in an essay proposing a civil substitute for military service which would retain some of the “moral” benefits of war, and which would be “the welder of men into cohesive states”.

Apparently Ronald Reagan said that the Mujahedin were the moral equivalent of the founding fathers, a position from which the US administration may be said to have edged away. Supporters of the Iraq war have argued their case by pouring scorn on claims of moral equivalence between the actions of a brutal tyrant and the killing of thousands of civilians by aerial bombardment. It is boggy ground.

Roll out the red carpet

But I am tempted again. Scotland's First Minister Jack McConnell, commenting on the news that the G8 summit is coming to Gleneagles this July , burbled “Bringing the leaders here is not only a privilege, it is further recognition of the international reputation of Scotland and its people and of our excel -lent facilities and infrastructure. I do hope that Scotland will provide its characteristic warm welcome and excellent hospitality.” This is the more or less the exact moral equivalent of rolling out the red carpet fora conference of the Mob.

With his remarks McConnell wasn't exactly sticking his neck out and risking a public outcry. For one thing it's the kind of ministerial pap that no-one pays much attention to anyway. More significantly the public image odds have been stacked pretty much in favour of the summiteers.

Although it is beginning to improve now, the mainstream media in Scotland has been dire in its coverage of the G8. There are unbalanced references to Genoa with no mention of police provocation and brutali -ty. There are various allusions to anarchists — a one-word ignorant stereotype conveying something nasty, secretive, nihilistic and dangerous.

Who's revolution?

We have learned this week that the excellent infrastructure Jack talks about will include water cannon specially loaned for the occasion by Belgium. (This has raised a smile of recognition for those Scottish activists whose first and perhaps only encounter with water cannon was at the NATO HQ in Brussels.) Protest and disruption on the scale we may expect in July will not only be a whole new world for the police in Scotland but will be an entirely new experience for the people of Scotland, and indeed for peace activists who get involved.

Working with new and relatively unknown partners raises questions, as it has done in the anti-war movement. Where are they coming from? How do they operate? If the revolution happens their way would I be in jail? This is balanced by the hopes for a big input of badly needed new energy and refreshment.

Doomed, insane, haywire

Personally I have to confess that this is well outside my comfort zone. Nothing new in that. In the context of nonviolent action it is a commonplace that one should not go beyond what “one is comfortable with”, but taken too literally that is a recipe for complete stasis. I have never taken action without a strong emotional conviction that I was doomed, that the enterprise was insane, that it would all go hay wire — a premonition that is only proved right about 25% of the time. At the same time there is discomfort and discomfort and I suppose the trick is to know the difference.

Anyway, I may have been too hard on Jack McConnell, since yesterday he was reported assaying that the climate change deniers like the US must betaken to task as the G8 summit approaches. So maybe his cunning plan is to lock them all up in Gleneagles Hotel and not let them out until they promise to behave.

See more of: David Mackenzie's diary