Pandaemonium

THE MORAL CASE FOR MASS MURDER

MICHAEL PORTILLO: ‘I want to put a moral issue to you. If you feel what might come instead of Mubarak might be worse, for them, for Israel, for us, would it be the right thing to crush [the democracy movement in Egypt]?’

DAVID CESARANI:  ‘That is certainly a moral dilemma… If you were to take the wholly pragmatic view, the expedient view of those sitting in the White House and possibly here in Whitehall, stability, the outcome of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown is desirable and is predictable. If you allow this popular, democratic movement to run unchecked you cannot predict what’s going to happen. But you can predict probably that after a short, sharp massive clampdown, at huge human cost, there will be a sullen stability.’

That is an exchange between former Conservative minister Michael Portillo and the distinguished historian and liberal intellectual David Cesarani on the BBC’s Moral Maze this week in which Cesarani explains why the butchery of the protestors in Tahrir Square may be morally justified. It’s true that Cesarani does not explicitly say, ‘Send in the tanks’. But he leaves no one in any doubt as to what he thinks is morally acceptable and may be pragmatically necessary.  He’s not simply suggesting that officials in Washington or London might advocate such a policy. He himself believes that ‘a Tianamen Square-style crackdown’ might be the lesser of ‘two evils’ (the other evil being the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power). Let us not forget that in Beijing the original ‘Tiananmen Square-style crackdown’ probably left some 400 to 500 people dead (even the Chinese government admitted that 200 had lost their lives on the night that tanks and troops cleared the Square). So to suggest that it might be acceptable to send in the tanks against the tens of thousands of protestors in Tahrir Square and to crush their aspirations for freedom is in effect to make a moral case for mass murder.

Cesarani is clearly uncomfortable with the argument. But not so uncomfortable as to be unwilling to reveal it to the nation. What is particularly remarkable is that Portillo did not ask Cesarani whether he supported a ‘Tiananmen Square-style crackdown’. Cesarani himself introduced that analogy into the exchange. Portillo, while disagreeing with Cesarani’s stance, calls it ‘extraordinarily brave’. I call it viscerally shocking. But, then again, Cesarani is only expressing explicitly what for decades has implicitly been the policy ‘of those sitting in the White House and… here in Whitehall’.

Later on in the programme, we hear from Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint magazine, a self-described ‘neo-conservative’ and a vigorous supporter of the Iraq war, as well as of military action against Iran. When it comes to Egypt, however, the people of Egypt are forbidden, in his eyes, from using the mildest of violence to rid themselves of a brutal dictator and his ‘authoritarian… but pro-Western regime’. ‘I think Mubarak will go’, Johnson explains, ‘but I think he should not be forced out at the point of a gun.’  For Johnson, it is legitimate for British and US troops to inflict in Iraq and elsewhere violence far worse than anything we have seen, or will see, in Cairo. But when it comes to ordinary people rising up themselves to demand freedom then violence becomes unacceptable. But that, again, is only to make explicit what has been implicit Western policy for decades.

(David Cesarani enters the discussion around 11 minutes into the programme, and the exchange quoted above begins at around 13 mins in, but the whole show is worth listening to. For those without access to the BBC’s iplayer, the programme will be repeated on BBC Radio 4, Saturday 5 February, 22.15. And in the interest of full disclosure: I am a Moral Maze panelist. I was not on the programme this week, but will be next week.)

11 comments

  1. Tom Richardson

    So, the Realpolitikers are prepared to kill those who stand up for democracy – doh! Our problem is that there is no organising group/party that knows that we have to be even more determined, brutal and forward-looking than they are – where is the contemporary equivalent of the Bolsheviks?

  2. Floyd

    Kenan agree 100% with what you said but on one small point of order, it was Matthew Taylor who said David Cesarani was “extraordinary brave” not Portillo. I am all for so called establishment liberals being exposed in this way

      • Simon

        For the record, in the panelists summing up remarks, Mathew Taylor also said he was ‘incredibly brave’. And went on to justify China’s clampdown on the basis that they have subsequently seen economic growth and lifting its population out of poverty. Though would have to agree with you Kenan about the overall context.

  3. Daniel

    I just want to say you’re a true voice of reason in these matters. Always worthwhile to read your posts.

  4. James Heartfield

    MICHAEL PORTILLO:‘I want to put a moral issue to you. If you feel what might come instead of Blair might be worse, for them, for Israel, for us, would it be the right thing to crush [democracy in England]?’

    DAVID CESARANI: ‘That is certainly a moral dilemma…

  5. The scariest part is actually just before that, where he’s asked his opinion “as a Jew”. I find it quite hard to imagine someone asking for someone’s opinion “as a Jew” on democratic reform in Russia, or high-speed rail links in China. But every political reform in the Arab world has to be seen from the angle of Israel’s interests, even if that just means asking crass questions to someone who doesn’t even live there.

  6. Evelyn

    I listened to the first part of this Radio 4 programme. I too heard David Ceasarani asked for his opinion as a Jew, and my heart sank. As a historian and as a Holocaust historian, David Ceasarani has never functioned as an “official” Jew – he has frequently challenged normative thinking on a range of issues including Israel.
    I may not always agree with him, and he hardly approves of me, but he speaks with moral independence and piercing academic insight. To hear him addressed as the “token” Jew on the programme was deeply depressing.
    For indeed it seemed to me that here, as so often, David was playing Devil’s advocate. He was pointing out (as a historian) that in the context of revolutions, the outcome of popular protest is not always predictable and in some cases may prove less favourable to the welfare of the population as a whole than when an existing stable government is maintained through the use of force. To use China as an example does not imply personal endorsement. David was simply pointing out an uncomfortable reality, and was(as usual) at divergence with the normative view in the UK media. I can think of no one less likely, unless it is yourself Kenan, to speak for either the Whitehouse or Whitehall.

    • Evelyn, Cesarani was not simply playing Devil’s advocate or just ‘pointing out (as a historian) that in the context of revolutions, the outcome of popular protest is not always predictable and in some cases may prove less favourable to the welfare of the population as a whole than when an existing stable government is maintained through the use of force’. He was suggesting that in the specific case of Egypt today, and given the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power, it is both morally acceptable and may be pragmatically necessary to crush the democracy movement and to crush it with the kind of military force that the Chinese government used against the Tiananmen Square protestors. I cannot see anything defensible about that argument. Nor do I see it as diverging from the ‘normative view in the UK media’. After all, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, the idea that stability is more important that democracy and the belief that Western powers should define what such ‘stability’ means, are all central themes both in political discourse and in the reporting of the Egyptian revolt.

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