Richard Ingrams' Week: So we didn't behave as badly as the US?

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Those British soldiers savagely maltreating Iraqi demonstrators were filmed in April 2004 at a time when there was widescale opposition to our troops. Hundreds were rioting, the Army was being attacked with grenades and several rioters were shot dead.

Yet at the time we were not aware of any of this. Instead, the British public was sold a story of our troops, in contrast to the Americans in the north, restoring calm and establishing good relations with the Iraqis.

Nicely spoken generals on the Today programme emphasised that they were very good at this sort of thing as a result, primarily, of their long years of experience in Northern Ireland.

Yet one lesson from Northern Ireland seemed not to have sunk in - how any overreaction by the Army - Bloody Sunday being a famous example - could provide the enemy with a priceless propaganda weapon and completely undermine the so-called battle for hearts and minds. Exactly the same sort of thing has now happened in Iraq.

Tony Blair's response has been typically dishonest.

There will be, he says, a thorough investigation but we have to remember that the vast majority of British troops are highly professional. It is only "a tiny minority" who have given cause for concern.

One wonders how long it will be before he applies the argument to other areas.

After all, it is only a tiny minority of citizens who are in prison, the remainder are law-abiding. Only a tiny minority are sleeping on the streets, the great majority have nice homes to go to. So why should anyone get too worked up about these controversial issues?

Cheney may never recover from the ridicule

My grandfather Sir James Reid, who was one of Queen Victoria's doctors and capable of exercising influence over her, was once deputed to advise her that she should not take her crooked Indian servant, the Munshi, on a state visit to Paris. Why not, she asked huffily. "Because they will laugh at you," Sir James replied.

He won, and the Munshi stayed at home. For, like many Top People, Queen Victoria probably realised you can survive all kinds of criticisms and scandals, but it is fatal to become a laughing stock.

The now discredited David Blunkett, twice forced to resign because of misdemeanours, lost his reputation not because of them - how many could recall the details by now? - but because he became a figure of fun. Will the same fate now befall Dick Cheney?

A deeply uncharming individual, he is credited with being the chief instigator of the Iraq war. He is associated with all kinds of shady dealings, in particular the smear campaign against a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, and his wife, the CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The Vice-President seemed to brush away all the criticism. But he has had his comeuppance by accidentally shooting a friend, peppering him with pellets and apparently bringing on a heart attack. Mr Cheney, left, has himself become a target - only for great ridicule. I doubt if he will ever recover.

The jokers are having a field day. Older readers may be reminded, as I was, of Tom Lehrer's "Hunting Song", about the man who "shot the maximum the game laws would allow / Two game wardens, seven hunters and a cow".

* The obituary of my old Oxford philosophy tutor Peter Strawson brought back painful memories of my almost total failure as a student to make head or tail of the subject.

Strawson, according to his obituary, came to fame in the first place when he challenged Bertrand Russell's Theory of Descriptions. The argument was condensed into what was understood by the statement "The King of France is bald". Russell said one thing, Strawson another. I'm ashamed to say that 45 years later I am still unable to understand what on earth that is all about.

Peter Strawson was a charming man who realised early on, I think, that I couldn't make much sense of his tutorials. But being very tactful and well-mannered he never said anything to that effect. So we sat opposite one another, Strawson discoursing about whether or not the King of France was bald while I nodded from time to time to make it look as if I was being enlightened when I was not.

Despite my failure to follow Strawson, I still think I derived some benefit from studying philosophy, if only because it makes one think about the meaning of words, especially those used by politicians and so-called opinion-formers.

Last week, for example, MPs approved a law banning the "glorification of terrorism" without being able to define what was meant by either term. Glorification could mean almost anything, and terrorism is a notoriously vague and dangerous concept - one man's terrorist being another man's militant or freedom-fighter.

theoldie@theoldie.co.uk

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