Suffering in the Modern World #2: Those who live by the sword…

Another political post, that has nothing (much) to do with the seventeenth century (except, perhaps, insofar as ‘plus ça change…’). I’m not planning to make a habit of posts like these – I just want to get it off my chest!

I don’t think I have ever been so upset by a news story as I was by the account, in November 2008, of  a thirteen-year-old girl stoned to death in Somalia for ‘adultery’. The story is one of unmitigated horror. The girl was terrified, and begged for mercy, but was thrust into a hole and buried up to her neck. Some fifty men threw stones at her. Nurses were engaged to confirm that she was dead. She wasn’t, so they threw more stones.

In addition to the horror of the scene was the background to the
case; apparently, the girl was a victim of multiple rape and, instead of
seeking justice for her, the militia in control of the town made her the guilty party. Even the crowd of over a thousand that went to witness the stoning was reportedly appalled. According to a member of that crowd, ‘People were saying this was not good for Sharia law, this was not good for human rights, this was not good for anything’.

But what will always bring a lump to my throat more than anything else is the role of the girl’s father. When his daughter told him what had happened to her, he went to the authorities to try and get justice for her. That, for me, brings out the enormity of what happened more than anything else – a little girl’s trust in her father, his trust in the authorities, and the sheer brutality and callousness of the violation of that trust makes some of the hardest reading I have ever come across. The anguish of the father, and the innocence of the daughter’s trust in him are not described in the accounts of her death, but just thinking about them adds a layer of pathos that I find almost unbearable.

A month later, Chris Albin-Lackey of Human Rights Watch published an article on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia that – while it does not tear at the heartstrings in the same way – is, in its own way, equally upsetting:

America’s most visible response to the crisis has been a series of air strikes against terrorism suspects that have mostly killed civilians. The air strikes – and the way in which US officials have ignored overwhelming evidence of Ethiopian and transitional government war crimes – have fueled anti-American sentiment.

US policy not only has displayed a callous disregard for the basic human rights of Somalis, but it has failed on its own terms, breeding the very extremism it sought to eliminate. Drawing on widespread hostility to the Ethiopian intervention and resentment of the abuses, insurgents loosely grouped under the banner of a group called Al-Shabaab (“youth”) have become the most powerful military force on the ground. Al-Shabaab’s leaders preach a kind of Islamist extremism that had never managed to take root in Somalia before the nightmare of the last two years. (The US Role in Somalia’s Calamity)

It was Al-Shabaab who put that little girl to death, and I’m not going to be shedding too many tears over the fact that they have been ousted from Kismayo, the town where her infamous murder took place. But I worry when I read reports like this:

Mounting concern about the twin threats posed by pirates and Islamic insurgents operating in Somalia has led Britain and other EU nations to consider the feasibility of air strikes against their logistical hubs and training camps, the Guardian has been told. (Somalia: UK weighs up air strikes against rebels)

At that time (February 2012), air strikes in Somalia were just being mooted, but a year later they were a reality – though not one the US was admitting to publicly (January 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia). Five years on, and the same policy of air strikes which Albin-Lackey accuses of ‘breeding the very extremism’ it is supposed to be stamping out is still going strong.

Am I reassured by new American guidelines, stating that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’ (Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy)? Not particularly. Within a week of Obama making that speech, reports are coming in that US air strikes have killed and wounded civilians in Afghanistan (Six Afghan civilians killed, 12 injured in US-led air strike). Whether true or not, reports like this on Islamic news channels have verisimilitude, and will continue to radicalize populations against the US.

The message that US policies are backfiring is as pertinent today as it ever has been, with even high-profile mainstream establishment figures like General Stanley McChrystal and General
Cartwright beginning to voice their concerns (The blowback: When American violence leads to anti-American violence).

As I said in my post on torture, the real issue is not the questionable legality of such action, nor whether it is or is not effective. The real issue is that by adopting methods like these the US and its allies lose the moral high ground. The only way the ‘civilized’ world is going to achieve anything worth achieving is by making it clear that is civilized, and that, however brutal and despicable the methods of others are, it will consistently and guaranteeably rise above such methods. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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