After the recent attack in Manchester, and well before that of yesterday, the AFR published an editorial. It included this:
It is not an inversion of western liberal values to say that living in Australia means at bare minimum an acceptance of democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech and equality of race, gender and belief. If you won’t defend these basics that allow you – and every Australian around you – to live in freedom; if you think your own intolerance comes first, then you need to change. That’s a civic inclusiveness which is quite different from the mindless nationalism of the fringes.
Then it got down to what it referred to as ‘Australian values.’ I wonder if they are different to ‘western liberal values,’ and if so how. The author doesn’t say.
A totally secure police state would destroy the freedoms we enjoy, and migrants seek. But nor can we allow institutions of government, education and free speech to be intimidated by cultural concerns into ignoring unacceptable threats and dangers. We have been too passive in projecting the values that Australians hold, and why they are a better way of life than intolerance and jihad. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is right to insist on an Australian values test for new citizens – so that migrants know what those values are, and why they matter. And in one clear statement of those values: there is no moral equivalence between Western military actions in the Middle East that strive to minimise casualties, and terrorist attacks on the West that maximise them.
What caught my eye was the reference to ‘Western military actions in the Middle East that strive to minimise casualties.’ Hopefully, any such military action was subject to the rules of war, in which case the reference to minimising casualties adds little. I say ‘hopefully’ because nothing about the war in Syria suggests that any of the many parties involved in bombing in Syria has the slightest interest in keeping casualties down.
Let’s put that to one side. We are invited to make a moral judgment that Western military actions in the Middle East are less immoral than or in some way morally superior to acts of terrorism that are driven by the conflict in the Middle East.
Two issues then arise. What if you take the view – which many responsible people do – that no such military action has benefited the people who live in the affected nations? Secondly, what if you take the view – which many responsible people do – that Western military action in Iraq was based on a false premise, was badly managed, and has left Iraq and Syria as failed states and breeding grounds for the most lethal kinds of terrorist?
About the worst crimes that politicians can commit is to lead their people into war on a false premise and for a bad result. Most people think that that is what the governments of the U S, the U K, and Australia did in the second Iraq war. It’s also clear to me – and many others – that the political leaders were not just wrong – they lied. They said that they were invading to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction when in truth they were invading to effect regime change, and it is precisely their botching of that function that has done so much to increase our exposure to terrorism.
Let’s assume then that some people believe that Bush, Blair and Howard lied about why they were going into Iraq, or at the very least they invaded Iraq on a false premise, and that as a result both the people of Iraq and we are worse off because we are all now exposed to more terrorism than we were before. Then turn to a young Muslem who is deceived and deluded into accepting a perversion of his religion so that he becomes a suicidal terrorist and kills himself and others.
At bottom, all the above parties are involved in killing people to achieve political ends. Many would think that any issue of moral equivalence or otherwise is one on which reasonable minds might differ and is also one that might best be left to God. But it would be monstrous, would it not, to suggest that that there can only be one answer, and that such an answer might be found by applying ‘Australian values’ – the relevant premises of which are yet to be revealed to us?
So, in my view it’s best to stay away from ‘Australian values’. As soon as you get away from motherhood – like ‘western liberal values’ – and you get specific, you risk finding yourself in a political quagmire and exposing people to the risk of g that brand of political blackmail that we call McCarthyism.
Poet of the month: Homer (Iliad, Book I)
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour
Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power
Latona’s son a dire contagion spread
And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead;
The king of men his reverent priest defied
And for the king’s offence the people died.