UK wants to join the air strikes campaign against ISIL in Syria – but can’t come up with any good reasons why.
On July 7, 2005, I had a kind of fantasy, lying in a London hospital bed hours after being two metres from Mohammed Sidique Khan when he exploded his bomb. For just a moment the regular movement of medical staff round my bed seemed to stop and the nurse who fixed the ever-tightening blood pressure equipment on me disappeared.
I thought about Fallujah where, I’d read in a column by Naomi Klein, that hospitals had been targeted in the allies’ attack. What if the nurse was now dead; or worse, in his place came one of the heavy-booted soldiers we had all seen in images from Abu Ghraib?
I wasn’t, of course, fantasizing. The pain was real enough, as in my forehead where I wear shrapnel to this day. The emotional rationality was real too, because my thinking was of the “as if” quality. It was a kind of projected empathy, not fantasy.
One of my post-traumatic stress therapists told me, when I mentioned my heightened emotional empathy after 7/7 – bringing me to tears sometimes in very public places – that it was a common condition among his patients.
But I want to go further than my psychologist to claim that empathy is part of the human condition, of human civilisation, of art, and of some photography.
It lies at the heart of the power of images like those from Abu Ghraib which I was remembering that day; and I feel that even more strongly after hearing Mark Neville, the official war artist in Helmand, Afghanistan, who was also suffering from post-traumatic stress, speak at the Archives of War conference in London about his photographic project, Battle Against Stigma.
Judith Butler, the American philosopher, has called these empathy-creating images a way of recognising “precarious life, grievable life” as a fragile, conjoint and contesting condition of our humanity; and Jay Winter, professor of history at Yale, spoke at the Archives of War conference about the personal transgressive images his research into World War I revealed in contrast to official war images.
ISIL and other terrorist organisations aim at image foreclosure too, promoting those horrific things that our own media don't explicitly represent...
I drew on that subjective emotive power in my book Experiencing 7/7 by ending it with my “Letter to Mohammed Sidique Khan”; and also by putting on the cover of my book, Icons of War and Terror, an image which was not an icon: two isolated, near-naked children surrounded by rocket bombs in war-ravaged fields during the West Pakistan military genocide against their own people in 1971, in what is now Bangladesh.
Butler, like Winter, talks of “ways of framing that will bring the human into view in its frailty and precariousness, that will allow us to stand for the value of and dignity of human life, to react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated without regard for their value as lives”; and seeks “alternative frames” to government and military “frames of foreclosure”.
Regular genres of images
So when governments go into war, as in Iraq 2004 and maybe Syria 2015, we see the regular genres of images in our newspapers: attack maps, latest military aircraft, drones, precision weaponry, smart bombs.
The “collateral damage” of citizens is not represented, but foreclosed as, in building-up towards bombing in Syria, we are again told about precision weaponry. Yet research published in The Lancet medical journal suggested that there were several hundred thousand innocent lives lost in the invasion of Iraq.
ISIL and other terrorist organisations aim at image foreclosure too, promoting those horrific things that our own media don’t explicitly represent: like the beheading of hostages. ISIL looks for ever increasing ways of execution, as William Merrin, professor of media studies at Swansea University, noted at the Archives of War conference, using social media and our own mainstream media to advertise their atrocities and force worldwide participation in their horrors. They do this to ever reduce the barriers between war zone and everyday life and to encourage further Western aggression: so British citizens today are between a rock and a hard place.
But ISIL’s atrocities must not stop us from thinking more deeply about our own modes of foreclosure, locked into an increasing nationalism which closes off, as Butler says, our ability to see the precariousness of ourselves symbiotically among the precariousness of others.
This is what Ken Livingston was implying last week on the television news when, opposing the bombing of Syria, he asked how it would look if we attacked ISIL in Syria in support of “our allies”, having systematically ignored both politically and in our media the equally grievable ISIL killings of many more people in the Middle East.
It is also why Livingston talked of Mohammed Sidique Khan “laying down his life”, to the distaste of his opponent in the news interview.
Good reasons not to bomb
There are many good reasons for not bombing in Syria: the considerable doubt that there exist any reliable “allies” in a ground war; the lack of any strategy for reconstruction “after ISIL” and “after Assad” threatening a replay of what happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; the economic cost of more planes and latest military means to this country which is busy closing down its libraries and yet proclaims to the Muslim world its superior culture, politics and civilisation; and the unseemly scene of Blairites and grandees within the Labour Party seeking to rid themselves of a new leader who does indeed promote “alternative frames”, both to foreign policy and to neoliberal economic policy, in response to political-ideological frames which create massive degrading and evisceration of lives.
But above all, for me the major reason for not bombing Syria is this diminishing of our humanity and civilisation, as we continue to foreclose our framing. It will fail as a policy too, because our main targets must be the war at home: the lost hearts and minds of so many of our own people – including Muslim people.
In a national news item which I produced for broadcast television on July 7, 2006, four Muslim university students told me that they did not agree with what Mohammed Sidique Khan had done a year before, but they agreed with what he had said in his suicide tape.
They taught me about their concept of umma and reminded me of the power of grievability: the ethical power to grieve about the fragility of our own lives always in the context of people well beyond our own (and our allies’) borders.
For Muslims it indicates a history of exploitation long before Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria; and for all of us it offers the fragile future of humanity itself in an over-heating world.
John Tulloch is a British university lecturer who is best known as a survivor of the July 7, 2005 London Bombings.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.