Saturday, 9 August 2014

Liberal Apologetics for Israel in the Huffington Post

As the daily death toll rises in the Gaza Strip, the liberal apologists for the crimes of the state of Israel on appear to be thinner ground. The scale of the tragedy of Operation Protective Edge looks set to not only exceed, but dwarf that of the last Israeli massacre of Operation Cast Lead, in which 1,400 Palestinians, including 300 children were killed, and some 5,300 injured – the majority of which were civilians. Those seeking to justify Israeli crimes in these instances usually fall back on the nonetheless benign intentions of the Israeli state, generally found in the expression of abstract principles about democracy. In doing so, they manage to perform impressive feats of intellectual acrobatics to ignore what representatives of the Israeli state actually say about their own intentions and goals.

I’ve already mentioned that IDF commanders have referred to Operation Protective Edge as a standard “shock and awe” tactic designed in part to erode Hamas' support and weaken Palestinian morale, and this is something which was very much at play in Operation Cast Lead, too. In Cast Lead, IDF soldiers were given specific instructions as to how much regard for the right to life of Palestinians the average soldier was to have in conducting warfare in a built-up occupied territory [emphasis added]:
“You don’t see a terrorist there [in the house]? Fire at the window. It was real urban
warfare. This is the difference between urban warfare and a limited confrontation. In
urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents. It was simply urban warfare in
every way. . . . They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted. . . . our brigade commander at least once . . . went so far as to say this was war and in war as in war, no consideration of civilians was to be taken. You shoot anyone you see.”

That’s testimony from Breaking the Silence – an NGO which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories”. On Operation Protective Edge, the founder of the organisation and former IDF soldier Yehuda Shaul had the following to say:

One of the biggest lies of this operation and Cast Lead is that we’re doing everything to avoid civilian casualties. When you use artillery in a place like Gaza you can’t say you are taking every precaution. It’s not the case that generals are looking to kill more civilians, far from that. But we are far away from the official line that everything is being done to avoid civilian casualties.”

I’m of the perhaps unfashionable opinion that it doesn’t matter a damn whether the general of an occupying force pours himself a whiskey at the end of an evening, wipes the sweat away from his brow, and wonders if that artillery which hit a UN-run school should have been fired. The point is that there was still an unjustifiable attack on civilians, rather than whether the general was upset at the end of it. What matters is level of predictability and scope, and it takes a great deal of mental acrobatics to see the sheer scale of the atrocities committed in Gaza and to arrive at the conclusion that the Israeli military, in anything besides interviews and PR, concerns itself greatly with the lives of Palestinian civilians. Statements like the ones above merely corroborate what the average cynic would have suspected all along.

Liberal apologetics in the Huffington Post

A rather silly bit of apologia on the Huffington Post has been doing the rounds by a writer called Ali A. Rizvi, which asks that we consider 7 things before we pick a side in the “Middle East Conflict” (I think he means the Israeli assault on Gaza). The writer begins by claiming he’s been “accused” of being pro-Palestinian, though I'm not sure where – presumably some ultra-rightist on Twitter. A quick look through his post history shows him to be a new atheist who has devoted column inches to the supposed “myth” of Islamophobia whilst writing profiles of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, who has in the past described Islam, a religion of over one billion adherents, as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and who has called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the current assault on Gaza which has killed over 400 children at time of writing. I will leave the reader to decide upon the author’s professed neutrality, based on the intellectual company he keeps. Now, onto the substance, such that it is.


The first point made in the piece is a typical trope pulled out by IDF and Likud apologists, that it is wrong for the weight of international opinion to bear down so heavily on Israel, because there are more people dying in other conflicts. The big question mark placed at the end of this is the supposition of closet anti-semitism on the part of Israel’s critics. The author writes: “If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I'd be thanking God I'm not Jewish.” 

However, there was a great deal of international outcry about the conflict in Syria, and the UK even had a vote in Parliament on whether or not to go to war over it. With the Islamic State, condemnation and outrage at the actions of the group is there in droves. It’s really possible to be in two places at once on these things. What’s perhaps a more important distinction is that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria represent an internal armed conflict – otherwise known as a civil war. Israel’s acts against Gazan civilians represent the acts of an occupying power against a civilian population. Under the Geneva Conventions, Israel has a greater responsibility towards the Palestinians than Assad has towards the Free Syrian Army or the other thousands of resistance groups that have cropped up in the conflict. The outrage against Israel for its actions, therefore, can be defended as an expression of a consistent principle of international law..


Aha – the author says - the Israeli occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the unilateral withdrawal of troops! Israel is no longer occupying Gaza since its troops left and has not done so for nine years, so it cannot be said to be bound by the laws of occupation! This point is completely bogus, since the laws of occupation don’t refer simply to “boots on the ground”, but to the exercise of effective control over the area. The UN, which is the most relevant authority in this case, still considers Gaza to be occupied. The only people arguing that the 2005 troop withdrawal constitutes an end to the occupation (which Israel has argued isn't even an occupation, so how could it end?) is the Israli government itself and it's not for individual states to dictate principles of international law to the international community. Occupation doesn't refer merely to troop presence but to exercise of “effective control” over an area, which is quite a complex legal principle, but Opinio Juris has a pretty good post on it here as a useful primer. 

The Huffington Post piece, as of writing, has been shared nearly 50,000 times on Facebook, which suggests that some people are likely going to be persuaded by this sort of propaganda masquerading as moderated reason. Elsewhere, the author asserts that the conflict can be explained by the religious beliefs of the adherents, and points to a few quotes from Jewish and Islamic scripture to make his point, but it's an idealist point that should be rejected outright by anyone wanting anything besides a surface-level understanding of issues in the Middle East. Jews and Muslims live peacefully together just fine in other parts of the world. It's the interjection of Sykes-Picots and Balfour Declarations creating arbitrary borders in the Middle East that leads to conflict. It's true that the rhetoric used in these conflicts is often religious, but the overriding history of the Israel/Palestine conflict is one of politics, both local and geo-.

We are also told to ask ourselves exactly why Israel would deliberately want to kill civilians; the thrust of the point being that Israel should actually be commended rather than condemned for its conduct, because of the firepower it possesses and the capability for it to actually completely annihilate the population of Gaza if it wanted to means that the fact it hasn't demonstrates its high regard for civilian life. Of course, we could extend the very same point to a country like North Korea, which could, if it wanted to, simply shoot all of the 200,000 people it has in its concentration camps. The DPRK, then, should be commended for keeping its political prisoners alive. I just watched Vice's excellent documentary on ISIS – in which an ISIS fighter politely tells a man to get his wife to change the fabric on her veil. He could have beheaded her right there and then – so should he be praised for his exercise of restraint?

It's necessary to combat these sorts of predjdices, because they have a tendency to skew perspectives towards favouring a brutal occupying power at the expense of understanding of the issues. The election of Hamas as the dominant legislative power in the Occupied Territories was a goldmine for supporters of Israel – at last they could have confirmation that the Palestinians are inherently genocidal anti-semites. Let's ignore the fact that in the years before Hamas had far less popularity, or that Islamism was itself heavily fundedby Israel in the 80s to erode Fatah support. All that matters is that we're able to paint the Palestinians as a one-track minded, genocidal “other”, evidenced by the victory of Hamas.

Of course, there are some elements of the piece which pay lip service to the crimes of Israel, and at the end of the piece the author rather confusingly calls upon Israel to end the “occupation” which he'd earlier on argued didn't exist since 2005. That said, the overall tone is one of sympathy for and rationalisation of the occupiers and vilification of the Palestinians. Those of us, meanwhile, who value consistency and facts in our continued desire to understand these issues, would do well to leave this sort of thing well alone.


Friday, 1 August 2014

Why We Should Criticise Israel: A Response to Sam Harris



A new piece has emerged from Sam Harris, which represents his first piece of foreign policy commentary in a while now. It seems he's becoming rusty, because this one contains literally no references whatsoever, and exhibits such a horrendously biased interpretation of the current conflict that its prejudices are worth examining in some detail. 

What strikes me as a particularly odious part of Harris’ piece is that murderous intent expressed by Hamas is given front and centre of the piece’s focus, but equally offensive, racist, theocratic expressions by Zionists are ignored. I’m going to hazard a guess that Harris hasn’t actually read the accounts of Zionists describing the brutal Operation Cast Lead, in which over 1,400 Palestinians were killed as “mowing the lawn”, because if he had it would call into doubt his claim that Israel bombs civilians in sorrow rather than in anger.

If we kill their families, that will frighten them” -  not, as you would perhaps first guess, the brutal injunction of a jihadist death-cult leader, but a recent statement from reserve IDF general Oren Schachor. One doesn’t have to search far to find examples of Israeli justifications for Operation Protective Edge being couched in violent, retributive terms, such as the far-right Israelis revelling in there being “no school tomorrow” in Gaza after the IDF obliterated a UN-run school, killing 19 people and injuring nearly 100. Again, I'm sure Harris would condemn this, but make an aside that Israel is nonetheless pure in its intentions towards the Palestinians, because of reasons.

Even in apologising for its own citizens' crimes, the Israeli state seeks to demonise the oppressed population of the Palestinian Territories in any way it can. See, for instance, Prime Minister Bejnamin Netanyahu’s response to the brutal murder by a group of ultra-Zionists of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdeir, beaten, then forced to drink gasoline before being set on fire and burning to death. The apology? That “…there is no place for such murderers in our society. In that we stand apart from our neighbours – In their society murderers are seen as heroes and have squares named after them” – one would be forgiven for forgetting, for a moment, that what was being decried were the actions of Israeli citizens. Even these can be attributed to being more closely aligned with the supposedly murderous Palestinian character, in the eyes of the Israeli state.

These injunctions to racism and demonisation of the populations of the Palestinian territories surely bely Harris’ claim that all Israel wants is to live peacefully with its neighbors and expand its technology sector. In any case, why the Israeli population would want to live peacefully besides people it considers to be members of a death cult is never explained, nor does Harris explain why the Israelis themselves should desire this. He points to the Hamas charter, a decades-old document generally ignored or denounced by the Hamas leadership, of evidence of the Palestinian’s murderous intent towards Jews. So if the charter is such a big deal, why bother making injunctions towards peaceful co-existence? There couldn’t be peaceful co-existence with the Nazis, after all, how can there be peaceful co-existence with a group of people who are, according to Harris, murderous anti-semites? It’s this kind of racist portrayal of the Palestinians as being a revenge cult that impedes progress towards a peace settlement and it’s exactly the kind of racism – yes, racism – that pervades Harris’ article.

The obvious retort to Harris’ invocation of the Hamas Charter is that the Hamas charter is in no way representative of the goals of the Palestinian population or even Hamas as an organisation. All it takes is one lazy Wikipedia search to find a quote from Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, stating that the Charter is “a piece of history and longer relevant.” Of course, none of that matters if your intent is to demonise the Palestinians and blame elements of their leadership for the massacring of civilian children. You can just refer to the Charter willy-nilly as if it weren’t written decades ago and rejected in modern times. This is not understanding a situation – it's simplistic grandstanding.

Harris says that all we need to do in order to understand the “moral difference” between Israel and Hamas is to “ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it”, but this is a silly thought experiment that is too abstract and hypothetical to be of any practical value in a conflict which is currently occurring. It’s a crude form of denialism which demands that rather than analyse the actions of the IDF as they are right now, we should instead envisage an entirely fictional conflict, in which dynamics, economics, politics, history and political support are completely reversed and judge the actions of Hamas in that, instead. Why we need to perform these mental acrobatics and imagine conflicts by which we should judge Hamas’ non-existent actions is beyond me, since we have a conflict currently unfolding before our very eyes in which over 1,300 civilians are dead, thousands more injured and nearly half a million displaced. “War crimes are war crimes”, Harris states. Indeed, they are – so why is the piece entitled “Why I Don’t Criticise Israel”? Surely war criminals are not beyond a bit of criticism?

Harris’ bizarre thought experiment is representative of a particular strain of Harris’ thought which posits religions as mere ideologies; as static things to which people arrive independent of outside influence and then become inspired to action. In Hegelian terms, this is called 'idealism', and it was kindly refuted by a couple of German philosophers over a century ago. To demand that religious extremists give up their religion, as Harris does (a goal I share, incidentally) is to demand the end to a condition which requires religious extremism, not a simplistic condemnation of the ideas themselves.

In Harris' world, all that matters is the ideology, therefore, if it were the Palestinians who had their own technologically advanced state which had illegally occupied two densely populated Israeli areas since 1967 and placed them under brutal occupation, the dynamics of the conflict and rhetoric of both sides would nonetheless remain the same. Thus we can use the Hamas charter as a useful indicator of how Hamas would actually behave if this thought experiment were a reality. As with Harris' approach to theology, all that matters is fundamental principles – nuance and development of the jihadist cause from its roots is irrelevant.

Incidentally, the extreme of Hamas, generally speaking, advocates for an outcome in which all of Israel becomes the state of Palestine. That's undoubtedly an unworkable position, but it's a far cry from Harris' claims that Hamas explicitly desires genocide. Genocide has a very specific legal definition, and throwing it around is ill-advised, because it cheapens the meaning of the term as one reserved for the highest international crime imaginable. The more moderate wing of Hamas, meanwhile, advocates for a two-state solution. Now, Harris does say in his piece that it's wrong to equate Hamas with the whole of the Palestinians, but I'll submit to the reader that really this is just another typical example of Harris trying to have his cake and eat it – trying to deflect criticism by claiming what he said is not what he actually meant. Later on in the article he says that the “Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan” and describes Israel as being “surrounded by people who have genocidal intentions towards them”. I'll leave the reader to decide what Harris' general opinion of the Palestinian population of over 4 million people is.

A far more odious claim in Harris' piece is to lay the blame for Israeli war crimes at the door of the Palestinians themselves. Israeli war crimes can be explained and understood because the Israelis have been “brutalized by this process – that is, made brutal by it. But it is largely due to the character of their enemies.” One is reminded of the old joke about the British soldier stabbing to death the Irishman, sobbing harder with each thrust of the bayonet. The Irishman, in his dying breath, incredulously asks the British soldier why he's crying. The soldier wipes a tear away - “we will never forgive you”, he says, “for what you've made us do to you”. If that seems too parodic, perhaps consider former Israeli PM Golda Meir's statement that “we cannot forgive [the Arabs] for forcing us to kill their children.” One was a joke, another was grandstanding from a colonialist – what's Harris' excuse?

Of course, his excuse is that he's simply making a point about the reality of fighting multiple wars. Only Israel is not fighting a war. It is conductingmilitary action in territories which it has illegally occuped fornearly 50 years. Furthermore, the injunction that Israel is engaging in self-defense would require acknowledgment that Palestine is a state, something explicitly denied by Israel and would also require a lack of effective control over the occupied areas, something which Israel does exercise. Since Israel under the laws of occupation has a greater duty to protect civilian life than it would in a genuine wartime situation, it should not garner praise for what Harris claims is its commendable restraint in this and other military action against the occupied territories – it should receive the utmost condemnation for not exercising enough. The Palestinian Territories are not a belligerent in an external armed conflict, and it serves us well to reiterate that Israel has illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, again something conveniently left out of Harris' piece.

In any case, it's true to the point of truism that war has a detrimental effect on the moral character of its participants. Picture Old Major from Fawlty Towers, whose only good word about the Germans is that their women are “good card players” or John McCain's occasional use of the word “gooks” to refer to the Vietnamese. It's entirely correct that Israeli brutality can be explained by the nature of the conflict. That said, I don't see why only Israel gets this sort of empathy, yet the people living in the Palestinian Territories, the majority of which are far more likely to have a family member who was killed or wounded than the average Israeli citizen is, are condemned for following an extreme ideology. Can we not expect some consistency in what was an otherwise fairly salient point?

Ultimately, Harris' piece demonstrates that he's once again on the wrong side of history with regards to the inherent rightness of the west and her allies. The day will hopefully one day come when the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is behind us, the Palestinians have their own separate state, and we can see the occupation in the same way we see view the oppression of blacks in South Africa under apartheid. In the meantime, we will have to put up with a lot more ill-informed apologia like that present in Harris' piece. Hopefully the rest of us will have some good sense to exercise some empathy and that much-sought after but rarely exercised critical thought.



Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Poem for Michael Gove



So, farewell then
Michael Gove
Hated by educators
And public alike
How does it feel to know
You'll never again be the cause
Of a teacher's strike?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Iraq 2014: Relight the Fire

Yes I know it's been a while. Maybe it's nostalgia that brought me back here. Seeing Iraq on the news again, hearing people talking about “cutting and running”, lots of people talking about scary jihadis, armchair theologians who probably don't know a single Muslim talking about what they imagine are the intricacies of Islamic doctrine. That sort of stuff gives someone a twinge of longing - “hey”, you think, “I used to write about shit like that.”

So you go switch on the news and do a bit of research. Though I have to say, one thing that's changed is I've totally given up on the BBC for my coverage of these sorts of events. Someone showed me a video the other day of a nightly news report in 2003 with the BBC's Chief Sycophant (they call it “Politics Editor” over there) Andrew Marr reporting on the fall of Baghdad. It's a glorious victory, he proclaims in the video. Ministers are walking around with smiles like “split watermelons”. Blair's critics need to shutup – they've been proven wrong and he's been proven right! Yeah, you idiots – who cares about terrorist attacks? They might happen, but everyone in Number 10 is having a good time right now, so don't harsh their buzz.



Friday, 31 May 2013

On Woolwich, Counter-Terrorism and Leaderless Terrorist Movements


Brutality or, at least, its coverage in the mainstream press, has the effect of revealing much more about its commentators than the act itself. Each writer has his or her own take and very few commentators really 'learn' from these types of events, except in the sense that one 'learns' that one has been correct all along. A right-wing pundit might see in the Woolwich murder a reiteration of the senseless barbarism of the Islamic faith's crudest elements, whilst a left-wing commentator might view the same event as a stark reminder of the marginalisation of Muslims in post-9/11 Britain. Opinions, therefore, remain largely unchanged, only held with more vigor; catharsis comes only in the form of the state proudly declaring its toughness in the face of such wanton destruction from "the other." Toughness, in this instance, being shorthand for overbearing, illiberal attacks on free expression, free association and privacy - supposedly bedrocks of the liberal democratic state - in reality, political bargaining chips to be traded and discarded at a moment's notice for the sake of appearing iron-willed and resolute.

It should, of course, go without saying that the murders in Woolwich were in no sense acts of politically serious individuals utilising strategic violence for political ends - 'terrorism', by another name. At least, not terrorism as has been commonly understood. Terrorism in its common form has an entrepreneurial, hierarchical command structure and a steadfast dedication to propaganda by deed. Discipline, therefore, is paramount, and what the Woolwich murders and, their US counterparts, the Boston bombers, certainly lack is the rigid militaristic discipline of Osama Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. What the Woolwich murderers and the Boston bombers instead represent is a new and deliberate kind of leaderless jihad which views itself as a temporary stopgap measure in the fact of traditional Islamic terrorism's defeat on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Leaderless jihad is terrorism for the iPod generation. Instead of getting your ragtag bunch of guys together to demonstrate your commitment to the cause in order to be shipped off to a jihadist training camp and be shown the ropes by ex-Mujaheddin fighters and other dedicated Islamist warriors, a would-be terrorist can simply download his or her professed ideology, pick and choose whichever radical clerics they wish and share their tough-talk on jihadist forums. If they're the Real Deal, they can then make a crude explosive device to be detonated in a crowded area, or simply drive into town with a meat cleaver and hack apart the first British army officer they see and proudly proclaim to be fighting for their brothers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The fact that these leaderless jihadists have never set foot in any of these countries or that the majority of people suffering as a result of western policy in these areas would likely disapprove of this wanton destruction is irrelevant. Their pain and outrage is vicarious - they are fighting in the belly of the beast for those whose pain they've experienced through the influx of information coming from mainstream news outlets and jihadist conspiracy theory websites.

This isn't to say that leaderless jihad is an entirely grass-roots phenomenon. As a tactic, it borrows heavily from the white supremacist movement in the United States, who have in the past few decades articulated and relied on the tactic of leaderless resistance in the face of widespread surveillance from the US government. In essence - where hierarchical command structures fail, leaderless resistance thrives. A leaderless movement is virtually impervious to infiltration, since anything short of round-the-clock spying on every single citizen around the world leaves open cracks through which a lone wolf can slip. On the downside, leaderless resistance represents in many ways the death rattle of a terrorist movement - it's going out, but with guns blazing, and a sign that a group is utilising a leaderless strategy is in many ways a sign of a movement on the ropes.

The leaderless jihadi movement finds its origins in the writings of the Islamic militant Aby Mus'ab al-Suri, an al-Qaeda strategist credited with responsibility for the 2004 Madrid Bombings and the bombings in London in July 2005. In al-Suri's analysis, America has employed her "stunning technological superiority" to completely dominate the battlefield. In this sense, therefore, a "secret-regional-hierarchical" structure is a strategic impossibility, and al-Suri's solution to this conundrum is what he terms a "Global Resistance Call" - a sort of information warfare, in which ideology, military tactics, vulnerable targets, bomb-making instructions, etc. are disseminated to impressionable Islamist activists across the globe. All that is required for this strategy is an open means of communication and a sufficiently embittered, impressionable audience. It should give us pause for thought that neither the Woolwich attackers nor the Boston bombers had reached the age of 30 yet - terrorism is as much about impressionable, misguided youth as it is about fanatics flying aeroplanes into buildings.

The question, therefore, is what is the proper policy response towards this kind of structurally anarchic political resistance? It should go without saying (though frequently doesn't) that measures outlawing "extremist" speech or increased surveillance on "vulnerable communities" (read: spying on Muslims) are unlikely to do much to address the problem. As said above, anything short of total surveillance of information,  a technologically impossible policing of the internet (including restrictions on the online underworld of the deep web) and widespread bugging of all public places would still render our public spaces vulnerable in a tactical sense to the sorts of attacks which occurred in Woolwich and Boston. In terms of a law-enforcement response, there is very little that separates the attacks of a leaderless jihad from your average back-alley knife murder. Neither rely on much in the way of resources or hierarchical command, and planning can take place entirely inside the perpetrators head, rendering them potentially immune to traditional avenues of prevention. That both the Woolwich killers and the Boston bombers were aware to the intelligence authorities speaks directly to the inability for traditional means of infiltration to be anything approaching a perfect counter-terrorism policy.

Which brings us to the second source of sustenance for leaderless jihadists - the sense of vicarious (and sometimes directly influenced) outrage and marginalisation. A liberal democracy utilising harsh, draconian crackdowns on extremism which in effect amount to marginalisation of a religious minority is likely to run the risk of that deadly combination of freedom to act and minority repression on which terrorism thrives. Our counter-terrorism policy and the language of our coverage needs consistency in order to be seen as legitimate. The fact is that many Muslims, not unjustifiably, see counter-terrorism measures and commentary in the US and the UK as maximising the scale of violence emanating from Islamic communities and branding it as terrorism, whilst minimising the violence committed by white westerners as traditional "ordinary" violence. 

It shouldn't be necessary to say this (though it is), but none of this is to bring legitimacy to the kinds of violence experienced in the US and the UK over the past few months, only to understand its causes. The notion that minority discrimination causes politically motivated violence is well-established in the academic literature, and tub-thumping, grandstanding claims about the immorality of the evil-doers or apocalyptic calls to arms against the forces of barbarism do nothing to address the problem. In fact, they merely inflame already existing tensions and provide terrorists with the conceptual framework they desire - that this is, fundamentally, a war over ideology and religion rather than a law-enforcement phenomenon whose victims are few, yet visceral and wanton enough to warrant a serious response. 

It is in this, therefore, that we find the proper scope of our counter-terrorism response - one that needs to be explicitly focused on violence per se, rather than policing ideology (however repellent) or religious communities. It might come as a surprise to some that even many Salafists are turned off by the kinds of short-sighted calls to arms being expounded by Muslim youths, and yet find their position as ideological, though non-violent, extremists capable of dissuading young Islamists with something to prove increasingly threatened by the zero tolerance approach adopted by many elements of the more hardline counter-terrorist policies. 

Unless, therefore, western counter-terrorism policies begin to work in conjunction with and for the benefit of marginalised religious minorities, it is likely that we will see more violence of the kinds exhibited over the past few months. Looking 'tough' on terrorism and giving lofty speeches about the threats posed by radical clerics might be politically expedient, but as a means to combat the violence stemming from all sorts of politically disaffected individuals, it is deeply unserious and lacks any kind of true tactical rigor. In future, then, we might find that making more friends than enemies works out best for everyone in the long-term.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Sam Harris and the Ethics of Torture


Sam Harris has been having a bit of a rough time recently. In addition to being denounced to the point of ridicule as a neo-con apologist in the New Media, the old media has started taking shots. Glenn Greenwald's piece in The Guardian, it seems, was the final straw, and now Harris has revised the section of his website in which he takes the time to address in more comprehensive terms his exact position on his alleged "thought experiments" that have angered the liberal intelligentsia.

As someone who wrote a fairly lengthy critique of Harris a while back, I was all up for this - I've never been of the impression that Harris is a genuinely malicious individual intent on providing moral justification for war crimes, and it's always worth giving people an opportunity to explain themselves. The problem with Harris isn't that he's explicitly bad-natured,  but that his past writings on just about anything besides neuroscience reveal him to be a lazy thinker who fails to properly consider the implications of the things he says in public. Unfortunately, his latest revision of his response to critics smacks of a thinker wanting to eat his cake and have it; in one breath denouncing Abu Ghraib as inexcusable, and the next calling for the moral necessity of torture. 

What follows is ostensibly a critique of Sam Harris' thinking on torture, because it's the aspect of Harris' thinking which I find to be the most troubling and the most morally inexcusable. However, I feel some of the issues with Harris' writings on torture can be extended towards much of his other writings on other subjects. In particular, I think Harris is particularly troublesome when he turns his attention towards foreign policy, the war on terror and ethics. His contempt for researchers in the field of terrorism studies is a separate piece in itself. So whilst this piece will address torture, it should hopefully serve as a partial critique of Harris' writings in general. So without further ado, let's jump into some of the points Harris raises.

Unfortunately Harris' response to critics on torture is largely unchanged, and he's still rehashing old points about time-bomb scenarios and posing problems he claims nobody has addressed head-on. It is true that the majority of the criticisms of Harris use his support of torture as an in-itself indictment of his writing rather than addressing his arguments. It happens that his arguments are extremely weak and rely on straw men and false equivalences, but I suppose this has given Harris the impression that his opponents don't have any ammunition. The real reason support of torture is itself an indictment is because torture has been debated extensively for centuries in philosophical and legal discourse, and due to the hard work of an extremely dedicated human rights legal movement, is now considered a jus cogens crime in international law. That is, it's a crime on which moral debate is presumed to have ended, and anyone committing such a crime can be subject to universal jurisdiction. What that means is, say you're a high-ranking government official responsible for torture in, oh I dunno, Chile - you can be arrested in England with an arrest warrant written by a Spanish judge and tried in an English court and found guilty of your crimes.

Legal positivism is, of course, no argument in and of itself - it won't do to simply say it's illegal and that's that. Not least because, strangely enough - Harris bizarrely argues that torture's (il)legal status should remain, but that it should still be employed in extreme circumstances. Maybe it's a lack of imagination on my part, but I fail to see the point of having reams of treaties, statutes, case-law judgments, etc. converging on torture's illegality if security officials going to on a whim suddenly decide that Scenario A is "extreme" enough to warrant torture. Harris' rebuttal is to compare torture to trespassing - as trespassing on someone's property may be illegal, but ethically necessary, so it goes with torture. Yet unless one gets specific with thought experiments it's difficult to engage in them properly; as it stands, any well-drafted law on trespassing will have caveats built into it to not incriminate a person performing an ethically necessary act, and a common-law system will give a fair amount of discretion to a judge on deciding whether a strict application of the law is appropriate for a trespasser who was, say, using the land as a shortcut to take a dying person to the hospital.

Anyway the comparison between torture and trespassing is spurious since it's quite plain that there are different justifications for outlawing trespass and torture. The former is, amongst other things, to ensure property rights are legally meaningful. Torture, on the other hand, has reams of reasons for prohibition ranging from the consequentialist (torture isn't effective and may be counter-productive) to the deontological (torture is a degradation of humanity regardless of consequence) to virtue ethics (a torturer does not possess morally desirable characteristics) to straightforward old-fashioned international legal rules about reciprocity (if you throw away the rulebook, so will everybody else). Using all moral frameworks except from an extremely crude version of utilitarianism in fact bodes not so well for the pro-torture advocate. As it stands, the prohibition on torture within international law is non-derogable, and is so precisely because exceptions to the rule in "extreme" circumstances quickly become the norm. If you think  this applies only to other countries and not nice western democracies, then check out the Constitution Project's report on US detainee mistreatment and then realise that Bush-era torture policies extended to far more than the 9/11 hijackers. What was justified in exception became the norm.

Harris is, however, right to say that the fact that torture was abused in the past does not logically entail that it will always be abused and a 'perfect' torture policy (ahem) is conceivable in a conceptual sense. That is - one that is only used in the most extreme ticking-bomb scenario and that always yields the information that it is aimed at extracting. Yet even if you allow all the premises (which I wouldn't, but let's bite) that this New Torture Regime will ensure that it its use only ever occurs in a ticking bomb scenario and that its use would yield useful information that would lead to the disarming of the bomb, it's still far from a foregone conclusion that torture is moral because you are faced with an important question, and one which I think any would-be torturer would feel extremely uncomfortable about considering its implications. That question is:

How much suffering will you permit?

The argument for Perfect Torture in a Time-Bomb Scenario relies on a fairly crude utilitarian calculus which states that the suffering of one person (the terrorist) is outweighed by the suffering that would be visited upon the inhabitants of City X, which has a bomb rigged to go off in its center. So, the argument goes, if torture is the only means of getting the terrorist to talk, we should use torture to extract that information. That is, in a nutshell, the only reasoning by which the torture-justifier supports his or her argument, and its difficulties can be highlighted by another very simple question:

What if the terrorist manages to withstand the torture, but will only talk if his innocent 6-year old daughter is tortured?

The ethically consistent pro-torture advocate, of course, would be forced to conclude that the torture of the terrorist's family and/or friends is also acceptable, providing the population of City X is sufficiently high to outweigh the suffering of those being tortured. It's not enough to say that the terrorist is the one who planted the bomb and is therefore responsible for his own torture, since the torture is being justified on the basis of lives that would be saved, not on the terrorist's responsibility for his own treatment. The time-bomb scenario is also inadmissible for other reasons relating to realism of the scenario or the fact that the terrorist could simply lie in order to send the authorities on a goose chase, etc. but as a conceptual moral argument it fails because it allows for the torture of not just the individual terrorist, but also for the torture of innocents if that'll get the prisoner talking. Oh, and yeah - this kind of thing does happen, so we're no longer arguing about simple hypotheticals. If it is morally possible to reach a point where time-bomb torture justified on the utilitarian principle of "City X would be saved" would also not permit the torture of innocents, please email me a reference.

Collateral damage and torture

The other major point that Harris presents as a kind of trump-card in his few discussions of torture is that anti-torture advocates don't seem quite so bothered about collateral damage as they do about torture. Now, right off the bat, I'm going to object, because most of the people I've seen arguing against states' torture policies are also totally not OK with illegal invasions, cluster bombs and the like, either. When you're an activist, you really can be in two places at once. It is slightly frustrating, however, to see that Harris, having argued this since 2004 in The End of Faith, either hasn't been directed to or has willfully ignored the literature on torture to the point where he still thinks this is an interesting argument.

Harris' argument, like so many of his propositions, relies on a lot of assumptions. That's permissible if one is genuinely doing hypothetical moral philosophy (If A is...then B), but it's slightly irritating to see Harris use direct examples of individuals in the war on terror like Osama Bin Laden, and talk about actual real-world conflicts and then claim he's only posing hypotheticals when he's criticised. Again, eating the cake and having it. So anyway, the argument Harris is putting forward is basically this: wars will always involve the deaths of innocent civilians, but may still be sometimes justifiable on other grounds. If one therefore justifies the deaths of civilians as a means to an end, one must also justify the torture of some captives in extreme circumstances as a means to an end. That's basically his argument, I'll quote it so readers don't think I'm being disingenuous:
My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this: If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to water-board a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like him).
Again, which is worse: water-boarding a terrorist or killing/maiming him? Which is worse, water-boarding an innocent person or killing/maiming him?  There are journalists who have volunteered to be water-boarded. Where are the journalists who have volunteered to have a 5000-pound bomb dropped on their homes with their families inside? 
This is, quite frankly, silly. Nobody is arguing that torture is morally worse than murder. Yet simply saying that some ethically permissible acts in war are worse than torture is not a ethical argument in favour of torture. For instance, wars involve the mobilisation of large armies, and many of the men and women in those armies are likely to be put in harm's way and a lot of them will die. That is a tragedy of war, and in a hypothetical just war scenario it is unavoidable, but necessary.

It does not, however, follow from "soldiers might/probably will die" that mistreatment of the soldiers is somehow permissible, simply because it is less bad than the worst thing that can happen - namely their deaths. Or that, say, failing to provide them with adequate food is ok on the grounds that, whilst unethical, it's still not as tragic as their deaths. I just don't see any interesting point in conflating the worst and yet inevitable aspects of just war - namely civilian deaths, as a framework for a discussion of the ethics of detainee treatment.

Harris' protestation to those who consider the comparison between torture and collateral damage to be irrelevant is to pose a scenario in which one had to choose between torturing a terrorist or bombing civilians.  "Torturing the terrorist should seem like the more ethical option", he says, but there is also the possibility of, you know, doing neither. Once you've gone out of the ticking bomb scenario, with its assumptions of Perfect Torture and Perfect Results, into a scenario in which a General has to choose between bombing a city or torturing a terrorist, you've defeated the central argument the time-bomb scenario is based on - that we cannot disarm the bomb without torturing the terrorist. If we're choosing between shooting a missile or torturing a terrorist in order to get valuable information, the only qualitative difference between the two scenarios is that with the missile, we can actually choose whether or not the bomb goes off. The ethically sensible answer is therefore to not shoot the missile and not torture the terrorist. Unfortunately, though, it's difficult to go into too much more detail on this because Harris doesn't give any actual examples of how a military officer might actually be in the position where he or she would be forced to choose between torture of a terrorist or bombing a city, and it really is such a ludicrous scenario that it warrants a little bit more than postulating that it "could happen." The example he does provide of a drone strike against a Taliban leader in which 12 innocent people were killed says absolutely nothing about the ethics of torture at all. Harris just simply says that had his wife been tortured in order to obtain "relevant intelligence" rather than killed by a missile, everything would have been OK. It seems to me that in this case the authorities actually had all the relevant intelligence, and proceeded with a drone strike that killed a bunch of innocent people, anyway - how would waterboarding the guy's wife have changed the practical realities of the military operation - would she be able to tell the authorities when all the innocent people would be out shopping? 

I'll just make this brief, practical, point - if a military officer is in a position whereby the only information that can inform his decision whether or not to bomb a target is extracted through torture - it's probably a good idea to get better intelligence.

The worst versus the still-awful-but-not-quite-the-worst

Besides, I would be interested to know how far Harris and other pro-torture advocated would take their moral reasoning regarding collateral damage as "the worst" and torture as "less than the worst" as a reason to permit torture. Consider another horrendous, yet common practise in war - that of the rape of civilian women in an occupied territory. This is, of course, a morally reprehensible act and it's rightly treated by international courts as a war crime, but according to the Harris logic, raping the women in a village is less bad than carpet bombing the village into oblivion, therefore any supporter of just war theory also has to permit rape in extreme circumstances.

You could, of course, argue that the torture is intended to serve a purpose of extracting vital information whereas rape is simply barbaric acquisition of the spoils of war, but you would be wrong. Rape is utilised by unscrupulous war criminal commanders precisely because it is an effective means of humiliating the enemy into submission and preventing an all-out conflict. None of the horrors of rape in wartime matter to the logic of the pro-torture advocate - all that matters is that a full-blown conflict has been averted and nobody was killed, since collateral damage is "the worst", whereas rape/torture is "the still-awful-but-not-quite-the-worst". Or consider our ticking bomb thought experiment above. Let's pose another question:

Suppose that the terrorist is a woman - is it morally permissible to rape her to get her to talk?

These are undoubtedly disgusting things to have to consider - which is precisely why the pro-torture argument is so useless as an ethical position. Once we follow it to its logical conclusion, we are forced to permit the most fundamentally barbaric acts of depravity simply because they appear to be "less worse" than the deaths of civilians. It is, conversely, far more ethical to treat torture with a kind of hands-off absolutism which permits it in no circumstances whatsoever, regardless of consequence or spurious comparisons to other seemingly less desirable (though separate) outcomes.

Torture is hardly the only instance in which we permit this kind of absolutism, either. Harris is a neuroscientist, and is surely aware of the benefits that would be brought to his specific field of research if him and his colleagues were permitted to experiment on live human subjects. It's entirely possible that the field could be advanced by leaps and bounds if even a small number of live human subjects (say, terrorists) were permitted to be analysed in this way. It could, in fact, lead to such advances in the field that thousands, if not millions of lives are saved in years to come if even a small number of humans were able to be used as lab rats for scientific experiments. We don't, however, permit this. Why? The reason is obvious, and there's no need to discuss it in detail, because it relies on the same arguments that render torture a morally reprehensible act.

Some other points

So I think I've addressed the bulk of what makes Harris' argument so weak as an ethical defense of torture, but here's a cheat sheet of the major points in case you need a cocktail-party rebuttal:


1) Harris tries to have it both ways by arguing for torture's utilisation in the war on terror whilst simultaneously arguing that he is merely posing hypotheticals about torture's use "in principle."

2) To the pro-torture advocate, it remains to be seen how they would permit some forms of torture (waterboarding) but disallow others (rape) since the only argument for torture is based on numbers of people dying, rather than the degree of suffering of the tortured.

3) Allowing torture, therefore, allows for the torture of many more people than merely the terrorist, and could even include the terrorist's children.

4) The collateral damage argument is spurious, because simply saying that worse things happen in war does not permit a "gloves are off" scenario (even in extreme circumstances) with regards to other aspects of war such as detainee treatment.

5) Harris' argument is notably weak because it is attempting to argue in the realm of ethical and theoretical abstraction for a policy that begins to show its true colours the more and more one applies it to a practical scenario.


There are a few other points that I'd like to address Harris on that are separate to the main arguments, but still worth addressing because they come up quite regularly in popular discussion of torture. Here they are.

1) Journalists have submitted themselves to waterboarding, therefore it is not torture

Harris doesn't quite make this exact point, but says something very similar to it:
There are journalists who have volunteered to be water-boarded. Where are the journalists who have volunteered to have a 5000-pound bomb dropped on their homes with their families inside?
These journalists generally regret their choice and nearly unanimously come out after withstanding only a few seconds of waterboarding to insist that it's a form of torture. Take this video of right-wing radio host Mancow Muller being waterboarded. His intention was to prove that it wasn't a form of torture, yet all it took was a few seconds to convince this die-hard right-winger that waterboarding isn't frivolous. It's probably more accurate, therefore, to say that journalists ill-advisedly opt to be waterboarded and regret their decision later on. That leaves us where, exactly? If suddenly a bunch of journalists opt to be placed in an iron maiden on the erroneous belief that the spikes won't penetrate the flesh so much, does that say anything about whether or not it's an acceptable way to treat prisoners in wartime?

2) Keep it illegal, but acknowledge that people will break the law in a time-bomb scenario

The problem with this argument is that it turns the legal prohibition on torture into a discretionary opt-out, thereby rendering the illegality meaningless. It preferences the whims of interrogators, who are far more likely to view their scenario as especially important, over the consensus of the international legal and philosophical community, who have worked hard to make torture a non-derogable strict liability crime for wider ethical reasons.

One could make a comparison with other forms of strict liability - take drunk driving. It's probably quite unlikely that even the majority of people over the legal alcohol limit will put someone in danger, much less kill someone. Yet if we take the same approach that drunk driving should not be a strict liability crime and that drunk drivers should feel free to break the law if they deem the circumstances extreme enough to warrant hopping in the car, it renders the whole principle of strict liability meaningless and the prohibition in reality doesn't exist at all.

3) Sam Harris supports torturing innocent people, too

Yes, he does:
If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to water-board a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like him).
My italics. At the very least, this is a frank admission of where a pro-torture policy will end up taking you. Inevitably you will every so often get the wrong guy and end up submitting an innocent person to tremendous acts of barbarism and cruelty. Torture is wrong regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person being tortured, but its reality is made all the more horrifying when considered in the context of the authorities having got the wrong guy. Instead of seeing this statistical certainty as a reason to prohibit torture in all circumstances (better to let a guilty man go unpunished than punish an innocent), Harris runs head-on into it and admits that he's OK with torturing someone who 'happens to look like' the suspect you're after as long as your intention is to obtain intelligence for the war on terror.

There really is no other way to put it than to simply say that this is a sentence unworthy of an individual claiming to have something interesting to say about morality. It's regressive and barbaric, despite the scholarly detachment with which it's stated and poorly-thought out, morally irrational drivel.

Concluding remarks

I hope that I've addressed most of the points Harris brings up when discussion torture. Part of what makes this such a frustrating exercise is that Harris often seems to portray himself as a long dissident voice in moral reasoning speaking truths to absent-minded intellectuals who haven't fully considered that torture could be moral. My advice to Harris or anyone else with a sympathetic ear for his views would be to treat academic philosophy with a little bit less contempt (he calls it "boring" in The Moral Landscape) and in particular to read some legal philosophy and court judgments, and track the development of the prohibition against torture in international law. Then, maybe, he'll realise that its prohibition is not simply relegated to absent-minded squeamishness on the part of a few dewey-eyed liberals. Unfortunately, much of Harris' work seems to suggest that he seriously thinks this to be the case.

Update 1: On Nuclear Terrorism

I've recently become aware of another one of Harris' articles addressing torture. He says he'd rather not talk about it, but since he's the one who brought it up in the first place, it's simply reaping what you sow if you take flack for saying irresponsible things in public. The thing that I found most interesting, though, is that Harris tries to limit his approval of torture to the following circumstance:
We will not torture anyone under any circumstances unless we are certain, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the person in our custody has operational knowledge of an imminent act of nuclear terrorism.
This is actually the only time that Harris tries to limit his defense of torture to only the single most extreme scenario of nuclear terrorism. As noted above, his other writings reveal him to be much more cavalier about the subject, showing him justifying its use even if there's a low chance of its yielding useful information, and willing to take the risk of torturing someone who "looks like" the suspect providing the intention is good.

The above example is a demonstration of a pretty ugly side of Harris' work, revealing an instance of what is a popular term in post-modern academic circles - that of "othering". I'm not a huge fan of the term, but if we're going to use it - this seems like a good example. Harris' arguments about torturing terrorists is always couched in ways of "us" torturing "them", which from the perspective of moral and ethical debate is far more prone to hypocrisy and bias than if we imagine the same things done by "them" to "us".

Now, it turns out that we don't need to use the looming threat of nuclear terrorism as a thought-experiment boogeyman in order to debunk it because, as most readers will know, nuclear bombs have actually been used twice before in wartime by the US against the Japanese. It would be interesting to hear Harris answer the following question:

Had Japan learned of America's intentions to drop a nuclear bomb beforehand, would it therefore be ethically necessary for the Japanese to have captured and tortured high-ranking US officials in order to obtain intelligence necessary to prevent the nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of civilian's lives?

If Harris would answer "yes" to this question then we can take the discussion further from there, but I'm sure readers will see that this sort of reasoning opens up a can of worms that I doubt Harris and other torture advocates intended.

Put simply - if all your concern in the nuclear terrorism scenario is for the protection of innocents, and your justification for torture proceeds on that basis, you should also acknowledge that those suffering under US foreign policy could somehow be justified in capturing and torturing US officials in order to prevent the destruction of their cities.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Kate Middleton, Hilary Mantel and Princess Diana: The Tragic Lives of Female Royalty


"Completely misguided and completely wrong" was what Prime Minister David Cameron said about it all - a phrase which, ironically enough, seems more at home as a critique of the manufactroversy itself than it does Hilary Mantel's essay in the London Review of Books. Of course, both the PM and his would-be successor Ed Milliband's remarks were profoundly stupid if one reads them as addressed towards the substance of the piece itself, which I would guess neither of them have read. Stupid, yes, but politically tonedeaf they were not; Ed and Dave's responses weren't meant to serve as a critique of Mantel's brilliant deconstruction of the public attitudes towards monarchy, but were instead directed towards misled and gullible tabloid readers who believed a snooty, prize-winning intellectual type had just publicly humiliated their beautiful, perfect princess. They needed to know that the politicians were on their side, dammit, and what's a political heavyweight like Dave or Ed meant to do when faced with the bloodlust, the off-with-her-head approach to debate of the tabloid media? Why, they criticise - or, to use the tabloid press' favoured verb, 'slam' the piece itself.

The tabloid media has a post-modern relationship to truth, and when faced with a dichotomy between stretching reality in order to sell papers or a rigorous approach to accuracy, will often prefer the quick sell. Anybody who actually read Mantel's piece will, of course, have found it brimming with satire, sarcasm and, most of all, empathy towards not just Kate, who features as only a minor character in Mantel's examination, but the monarchy as an institution and crucially the human beings confined within its inescapable prison of constant veneer; its requirement of endlessly chipper, dignified, exorbitant celebrity. 

Ironically, but perhaps not unexpectedly, it would fall upon the Daily Mail itself to feature the first genuinely personal criticism of Kate in publishing an 'I agree with Hillary Mantel' piece by Julie Burchill, which had nothing to do with the scope or content of Mantel's original essay, but had everything to do with what the tabloids had allowed - nay - forced it to become. When Mantel observed that Kate had become 'a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung...a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore', it was clear that the blame lay with us, the public, for holding such perceptions - why do we allow ourselves to treat people, royal or not, this way? And what about the institution of monarchy so allows us to dehumanise not just The Royals as celebrities, but ourselves as spectators to that celebrity? Julie Burchill in the Mail, meanwhile, lays the blame not with the public or the press for the dehumanised perception of royalty, but with Kate herself ('she needs to take a leaf out of her own mother-in-law Diana's book') and criticises her career trajectory before she became princess - '[her] dabbling in the family business, Party Pieces, makes us feel that she lacks backbone.'

All this hearkening back to The Time of Diana in which princesses were publicly venerated for their inhuman levels of simplistic humanity is nothing but amnesia. Whilst I was only nine years old when Princess Diana died, I remember the dishonesty of the public and press' about-face not being lost on me. My parents would occasionally read tabloid papers and they were, pre-death of Diana, replete with judgmental stories about her relationship with Dodi Fayed and more often than not treated her humanitarian efforts with patronising scorn rather than humanistic appreciation. In September 1996, less than one year before her death, the Mail on Sunday published a piece by Jessica Davies entitled 'Cunning Queen of Broken Hearts', which begins:
'The woman's a genius! She may be, in her own estimation, 'as thick as a plank', but Princess Diana has an unerring eye for bandwagons...
What a masterstroke it was to time her visit to Washington last week to coincide with the release of First Wives Club - a film about abandoned wives which has taken America by storm.
Just as the misery of dumped wives, and their triumph through revenge, became the talking point among film-goers, who should waft over and present herself as a suitable icon? Why, the brilliant, beautiful Diana - the ultimate Queen of Broken Hearts. For the first time in public she removed her wedding ring. A coincidence? I think not. 
The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, published a piece in June 1997 (two months before Princess Di's death) headlined 'Why Doesn't Di Have a Real Gal Pal?; Men Fall at Her Feet but No Woman Stays Close for Long' that recounts the apparently tempremental, hostile personality of a royal diva unable to make friends for herself:
The fact is that Princess [sic] has a way of behaving and saying things that tends to drive people away.
The large turnover in her staff is evidence enough of that. They just don't stay. Since she married in 1981, I reckon she's got through nearly 100...
For the fact is that to be a friend of Diana is hugely demanding.
You have to be prepared to take calls even at 3am to assure her she is wonderful.
You have to tell her constantly that she looks good and that the papers have been unkind to her. [Enduring England: I wonder why she would think that?]
And, when it is glaringly obvious she has behaved badly or selfishly, you have to tell her that she was quite justified in her actions.
Girlfriends are prepared to do all this up to a point, but they admit that it can become just too exhausting.
And so they walk away.
The brilliance of Mantel's piece was to examine the way royal women are (in Diana's case, literally) sacrificed onto the pyre of tabloid gossip and speculation in a way which has nothing to do with the reality of royal lives, but with the inhuman constraints and demands of monarchical duty. Is it too much to wonder if the strained quest to find perfection in the public spectacle of the Duchess of Cambridge is at least a little bit a desire on the part of the public, ventriloquised by the media, to atone for the oftentimes ghastly treatment of Diana at the hands of the scathing op-ed? The public displays of grief upon Diana's death were surely at least partially an effort at whitewashing history. Now, in Kate, we have a chance to do it all again. Don't mess things up this time, guys.

And yet still this forced love, this required worship, is no less dehumanising and no less degrading than the popular pre-death portrayal of Diana as a histrionic, maneating glory-seeker bouncing from one failed relationship to the next, all the while trying and failing to promote herself as someone who cares about anything but Princess Di. Neither work on the basis of reality, but are stories about stories - in Kate, the fairy-tale princess plucked from a life of common humility (don't laugh) into the dazzling life of royalty - the plot of a particularly unimaginative film, perhaps. In Diana, we had all this, but her narrative inevitably shifted from fairy-tale princess to Disney villain; the self-serving succubus, disruptor of public matrimonial harmony.

The only way to deal with this grotesque subversion of ordinary human decency is to do away with it entirely and such is why any humanistic approach to human compassion warrants - no - requires republicanism. It is only a matter of time, after all, until the public and the media's honeymoon with Kate Middleton ends, and the fickle, cynical whims of capitalist (should that be 'savvy') media transforms this apparently flawless individual into an object of derision, jealousy and scorn. What is the social function of an institution that brings out the worst in us and places at the center of our irrational hatreds individuals who are placed there not out of any desire, or lust for the trappings of 'celebrity experience' but by mere birthright? And woe betide those women, indeed, who happen to catch the eye of the male royals - for they will be loved, hated, publicly defended and denounced in equal measure. With the reaction to Mantel, it seems that anyone who points this out is guilty of an unpardonable sin.