All is not butter that comes from a cow

cowManufactured anger can be just as dangerous as the real thing

Like the captain of a sinking ship appealing for calm at the lifeboats, Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld tried in vain to impose order on the Kiddush; the meal celebrating the Jewish Sabbath. “Families first, families first!” he exhorted over the herring. He was either unheard or ignored: elbows were deployed with the speed of the tanks he had fought in during the 1982 war in Lebanon, children squeezed between ample bellies to snaffle crisps and the single malt was knocked over into the aubergine. The semi-organised chaos of the Western Marble Arch synagogue in central London contrasted with the peace of the Nirvana restaurant next door.

The animated and wiry rabbi blesses every day he is able to perform this duty. Three years ago he was warned by MI5 that, alongside Boris Johnson, the-then Mayor of London, his name was on a Hamas hit-list; “exalted company,” he smiles. Shabbat, Judaism’s Sabbath, the weekly day of rest and centerpiece of Jewish life, is always a special time for the faithful. The weekend of November 11th and 12th was especially significant. Hoping to promote community and identity by energising those whose participation had waned a tad, Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, had decreed it to be ‘Shabbat UK 2016’; the third annual jamboree of all things Jewish.

But as one community was united in celebration, so too was another in condemnation. Shabbat starts just before sunset each Friday, after which all work is to cease until Saturday night. In winter months this sees observant Jews knocking off around four o’clock in the afternoon; the Chief Rabbi hoped employers would respect this requirement. Most respondents shrugged in bemusement (it is not unusual to see Britain’s pubs heaving at this time on a Friday, regardless of season), but some expressed outrage at a perceived shoehorning of religion into the secular British workplace. The Chief Rabbi would be better to keep his nose out of such matters, they carped.

How confected is such peevishness? Britons consider themselves an undemonstrative and tolerant bunch who live and let live, mustn’t grumble and rub along well enough, thankyou very much. They wish not to offend, or be offended, in almost equal measure, but can’t remember which is more important. This ability to muddle through and accommodate disagreeable attitudes has served the country well and it is unusual for otherwise inconsequential issues to beget such chippiness. Ruddy cheeks are generally assumed to be the result of bracing walks and fireside whiskies, not grousing over largely irrelevant social mores.

Even the Labour party has had to exorcise the ghost of anti-Semitism, and the line between criticising Israeli government policy and Jews more generally is easily smudged. It is easy to see why, says James Sorene, CEO of the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), a think tank. He blames a lazy and complicit press for whipping up old prejudices. The complicated subject of Israel “makes good journalists better,” he believes, “and bad journalists worse”. One in five Britons think hating Israel and questioning its right to exist is not anti-Semitic says a BICOM poll released on November 4th.

Islam has suffered superfluous rage too. Louis Smith, Britain’s four-Olympic-medal winning gymnast, took a tumble recently after he appeared to mock the religion in a leaked video. His drunken antics resulted in a two-month ban from his sport’s governing body. It will not impact his career, but sends a dubious message. Did British Gymnastics get on its high horse because he insulted Islam or for being a ninny? (If the latter is now their responsibility, public bodies will be busy; not least in the Palace of Westminster.) Incitement to hatred is a criminal act; laughing at others’ religious beliefs is not and dictating what can and cannot be considered funny ultimately leads to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Concocted fury born of a fear of upsetting religious sensibilities helps nobody.

The worrying aspect of this trend for fabricated anger and knee-jerk rage is that it stifles productive debate – the one thing Britain is crying out for in this topsy-turvy 2016. Ridicule is a powerful de-motivator and who wants to offer opinions and receive a tongue-lashing in return? Social media hurl voices much further than they hitherto have reached and they land with added force; moderate views have consequently retreated from public discourse. Increasingly, the only views available are polarised. The majority of participants care little for tackling or winning the argument; the primary purpose is to vent spleen.

Reasons to be cheerless

Gisela Stuart, MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Chair of Vote Leave for the EU referendum (now Chair of its successor: Change Britain), identifies three culprits for this coarsening of political discourse in recent years. First: the professionalisation of the politics of outrage. Epitomised by the “bloody scary” former Austrian politician Stefan Petzner, the trick is to play the underdog, capture headlines and be as shocking as possible, without letting public outrage turn to disgust. Second: the unhealthy manner by which political parties have courted race and religion. Distributing Eid cards for example, or targeting specific ethnicities might be considered vote-winners, but can backfire and highlight division. Third: the tribal nature of British politics, particularly since the Brexit vote. In Britain, winners are expected to demonstrate high-minded responsibility, losers to huddle together and seek solace. Brexit cut across these lines: Theresa May supported Remain but finds herself having to champion Leave. “And the losers are saying ‘how dare you win! Explain yourselves!” Mrs Stuart laughs, “actual ideas have gone out the window”.

When discussion becomes antipodal and mouths and minds open and close in toxic ying-yang relationships, society risks fracturing. Rabbi Rosenfeld remains hopeful and considers Britain a wonderful place to practice his religion. He longs for a return of traditional British balance. “After all,” he grins, “as Shimon Peres said: it is only anti-Semitic to hate Jews more than absolutely necessary.”



Not in front of the children

16x-2011-TFH-038-052The public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko starts tomorrow in the Royal Courts of Justice in London (details here).  Litvinenko was a former KGB officer, openly critical of Vladimir Putin and reportedly in the pay of MI6. He was allegedly murdered by two Russian nationals, Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun, both of whom are former KGB bodyguards, using the highly radioactive substance polonium-210.  Traces of the element were found in Litvinenko’s body, a Mayfair hotel and Itsu sushi bar, both in London and frequented by Litvinenko on the suspected day of his poisoning, and British Airways aircraft supposedly used by Lugovoy and Kovtun travelling to and from Russia.

One of the terms of reference for the inquiry is to identify where responsibility for the death lies.  This could be politically explosive if Sir Robert Owen, the inquiry’s Chairman, criticises the Russian state in any way, which is likely given its refusal to extradite Lugovoy and Kovtun.   What the inquiry will not be discussing however, is the much more politically charged issue of the efficacy and morality of the alleged tactic used; that of a targeted killing.

Much has been spoken of precision weapons in recent years (including an earlier post, Man versus machine). But little consideration has been given to debating the most precise way of targeting an adversary; using a human being to identify and kill another.  The most recent public use of this tactic was the killing in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas member, allegedly by an Israeli team, on January 19th 2010 (see more here).  In terms of collateral damage (i.e. killing people other than those intended) it is about as precise a method as is currently available.  But to much of the world the employment of this tactic is abhorrent.

Why? Ultimately, killing is morally challenging and the demand from society for a clinically efficient targeting of its adversaries without the necessity of having to consider the realities of the task is naive and hypocritical. This view is understood by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee: “Society is very happy to talk about peacekeeping,” she says, “but when you say, ‘do you know, there is a requirement to kill people before you get the peace and you can’t have one without the other’, we don’t like engaging with that.”

Society’s relationship with security and the necessity of killing is complicated.  The increasing impact of human rights legislation and the presumption in the West that existential threats are relics of history have contributed to a lower tolerance for casualties and collateral damage. But the desire not to engage with this issue leads to the contradictory position whereby the most precise and discriminatory technique of targeted killing is eschewed in favour of one, such as drone strikes, that will undoubtedly lead to greater collateral damage.  Targeted killing through the use of a small team in personal contact with the adversary exposes the wider civilian population to a level of harm far below that accepted with precision munitions.

Ms Stuart is in favour of discussing the merits and difficulties of employing such tactics, but accepts it will be a difficult to win the argument with the general public.  When asked if Britain should be prepared to go into a third country with a functioning state and carry out a targeted killing operation, she replied: “I hope so, but it’s a bit like sex education when a 5-year old asks you something. You don’t tell them the whole story, but what you do tell them has to be the truth.  It is un-British to make it too obvious.  Not in front of the children.”

Man versus Machine

reaper“We have not let technology run away with our ethics.”  So says a senior British Army Officer in the UK’s Ministry of Defence when quizzed about drones; the catch-all descriptor for unmanned aerial vehicles. But his comment hints at a nervousness in senior political and military circles of an erosion of public support due to the state’s perceived heavy-handed use of technology.

Drones have been getting a bad press lately.  Once hailed as the antidote to messy ground-holding military deployments they now epitomise that sensitive and contested area where technology and ethics overlap.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism claims drones were responsible for between 282 and 535 civilian deaths in President Obama’s first three years in office.   But politicians, wary of a public prone to rapid judgements when flag-draped coffins fill the front pages and impatient for “quick wins” as Philip Hammond, the former British Defence Secretary, explained to the Munich Security Conference on February 1st 2014, regularly hail a technology deemed invulnerable and, more importantly, precise.

But there are two problems with claims of precision.  First, in a military context it implies infallibility.  True, technical sophistication has resulted in a marked increase in the use of so-called precision guided munitions (PGM): in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 8% of US aerial attacks employed PGMs; in Iraq in 2003 it was 68%.  But they do not always land where intended as much can influence a munition in flight.  Weather, faulty technology and human error in the construction of the weapon, weapon platform or targeting equipment can all influence where a payload lands, regardless of how stable the cross-hairs have been held on a target.

The second problem is the suggestion that the West marks its own homework when it comes to accounting for the employment of lethal technology.  The military uses the term Circular Error Probable (CEP) to describe precision, defining it as a circle radius around a target within which 50% of weapons should fall. Modern PGMs have very small CEPs, usually less than 13 metres, achieving an accuracy military planners have long desired.  But the significant downside to PGMs is the unwritten part of the definition: half the munitions will not land in the CEP and the margin they will miss by is unquantifiable. In other words, they can land anywhere and still be described as a ‘precise’ weapon.  Critics say this qualification lets politicians and the military off the ethical hook too easily and is a significant factor in the anger felt by those subject to such bombardment.

However, public anger towards drone strikes is as nothing compared to the outrage generated by the NSA and GCHQ cyber-spying revelations by Edward Snowden, the exiled former NSA contractor wanted for espionage in the US. But the real threat to the US and UK administrations from these allegations of global-scale mis-use of technology is that it has united the political left and right: left because of the affront to civil liberties, right due to the perceived scant regard for Congressional or Parliamentary oversight. Politicians abhor ceding the agenda, particularly where national security is concerned. Gisela Stuart, a British MP and member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, is all for the ethical use of lethal technology – she led a recent Parliamentary debate into drones – but is forthright in her defence of its ultimate purpose: “At the end of the day I don’t want you to give me a hanky to wipe away the blood, I’d prefer you to make sure it’s not there in the first place.”  The arms race between ethics and technology looks set to continue for some time yet.