18 November 2005

November memories

By Rupert Read

So, the Remembrance services are over, and it's time to put away the poppies, for another year. I have taken off my red poppy (which I wear for the benefit of some of war's worst victims: the soldiers themselves), and my white poppy (which I wear so as to say: never again. No more war.).

The other historic event that we commemorate each November is the foiling of the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Last week, I took the part of Guy Fawkes in an enjoyable and informative modern 're-trial' of Fawkes held at Norwich Magistrate's Court, under the auspices of 'Norwich Churches Together'.

Now, unlike Guy Fawkes, I am a committed believer in non-violent methods. I am a Quaker, and a member of the Norwich 'Peace Police'. (The 'Peace Police' are a group of friends who join together in non-violent 'direct-action' campaigning for peace. Our motto is 'Upholding and enforcing international law - through non-violent means'.).

I disagree very strongly indeed with the methods that Guy Fawkes chose; but I also disagree very strongly with what was done to him. I absolutely love fireworks and bonfires (as long as they aren't let off too anti-socially, late at night!); but I have always felt vaguely uncomfortable that on Guy Fawkes Night we celebrate the torture and burning and violent execution of this man. The event in the Magistrates' Court was a chance for me to explain that: to explain why it is always wrong to torture even those who might threaten us or our way of life. Why torture is incompatible with civilisation. This message is very important today. For our government is complicit (because of its intelligence service's involvement) with the torture of so many, including Britons, at places like Guantanamo Bay; and our government is, furthermore, complicit (because of the CIA being given free passage to transport victims through Heathrow Airport) in 'exporting' people for even more appalling tortures in various countries, as part of the CIA's 'extraordinary rendition' programme. (At least in the seventeenth century the government was honest about its (horrific) use of torture. Today, our government pretends to be innocent of torture which in effect it condones, in foreign countries.)

Much of the threat of violence that faced the British government in 1605 was due to its own violence: its insufficient tolerance of religious minorities, its lack of democratic accountability, its violent state and military apparatus. Many things have changed since then - but aren't there also some worrying similarities? What threat the British government - and, rather more so, we the British people (let us not forget the awful events of July, in London) - what threat we do face today from non-state terrorism exists largely as a result of the government's own actions.

What am I referring to? Well, for instance, the extraordinary decision unlawfully to attack Iraq, in 2003. (The attack on Iraq is agreed by most international lawyers to have been unlawful, because it was a 'pre-emptive strike', a war of aggression, which lacked good cause and lacked UN backing.) That attack has brought in its train events such as last November's lethal 'coalition' assault on Fallujah, in which chemicals including phosphor were used as weapons. (And this attack on Fallujah, which cost hundreds of civilians their lives, has unfortunately become another event which we should remember, each November.)

Guy Fawkes was acting violently against a state (his own) that was if anything even more violent, even more destructive. The same is true of fundamentalist terrorists today. Until our government stops its criminal activities, which have resulted in many tens of thousands of innocents dying in Iraq, and (this summer) in tens of innocents dying in London, it has itself to blame for the violent revenges that, tragically and appallingly, are wreaked upon it - or, rather, upon us.

For stating these truths, I could potentially be vulnerable to prosecution under the 'Glorification of Terrorism' act, very recently passed in the House of Commons. Not because I am glorifying terrorism: I would of course never dream of doing that. But because what I am saying might be twisted into sounding as if it is an apology for terrorism, a way of excusing terrorism. Whereas what I actually think is: terrorist methods are never right. Whether they are used by private individuals, or by governments.

As a passionate believer in the rule of law and in non-violence, I have the right to criticise those who would wreak revenge on Britain and its government, through violence. But what right does the (violent, criminal) British government itself have, to make similar criticisms?

After the fireworks and poppies have all been put away, this question remains.