Reading Twitter late last night, you could be forgiven for thinking Parliament had just voted to bomb a school, rather than a terrorist organisation. Some tweeters would have you believe our lawmakers had literally voted for genocide. An intervention that hadn’t even begun yet was a ‘war crime’, our Prime Minister an imperialist aggressor clapping and laughing as he robbed the NHS to pay for bombs.
War is horrible. No MP would have voted for airstrike without the possibility of civilian causalities weighing heavily on their decision. It is also incredibly complex. We are still unsure of the lessons of Iraq and Libya, much less how to apply them to a four-year civil war which has already heaped unbearable suffering on the Syrian people. There are no easy answers.
Except on Twitter, where by necessity every opinion can be stated in 140 characters, and every difficult decision simplified into a meme. Here are just a few of the distortions that flooded Twitter last night:
1. Parliament has voted for killing children
Any civilian death is a tragedy, and the death toll from the occupation of Iraq is a reminder of the cost intervention can have. But RAF bombing of Isis in Iraq has so far caused no civilian casualties. We are getting better at minimising collateral damage, and fairly obviously RAF rules of engagement do more to avoid civilian deaths than those of Isis. Even a little more thinking should have revealed that morally we are just as responsible for those murdered by Isis if we fail to act.
2. “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make”
Remember that time Twitter cleverly demolished the right of Parliament to launch military action in line with a UN resolution using a quote from Shrek? This was a popular meme used to criticise David Cameron and the vote. It’s not clear whose lives exactly the Prime Minister is so willing to sacrifice- those of RAF servicemen and women or Syrian civilians. Either way, it’s a gross over-simplification. To imply that taking action against Isis is born out a callous disregard for human life is clearly nonsense- people are already dying at the hands of a murderous death cult.
3. The Doctor wouldn’t approve
If only we listened to the Doctor. A few weeks ago he gave an impassioned and beautiful - if a bit overwritten and insipid in places - speech about the horrors of going to war. Unfortunately the Doctor isn’t at his best when he’s lecturing humans on why we suck. It’s kind of difficult to hear coming from a Time Lord who - at one point - wiped out both sides in a galaxy-spanning war. No, he’s at his best when he’s solving problems with no easy answer. Like when he euthanasises a space whale because the only other options are to let it keep suffering or to kill the humans relying on it to survive. A complex and difficult decision, like the one Parliament had to make yesterday.
4. We’re robbing the poor to pay for war
This one is clearly nonsense. The money comes from another pot. A brave attempt to create an issue-linkage between the tampon tax and foreign policy, though.
5. Parliament voted for genocide
The word ‘genocide' was thrown around a lot last night, but surprisingly not to describe the actions of ISIS. No, the suggestion was that UK action in Syria would amount to genocide. The bitter irony here is of course that Isis have attempted genocide, and it was partly RAF airstrikes in Iraq that helped the Yazidis escape.
Oh, and Parliament didn’t laugh as they voted for military action. The tension of a difficult debate was broken by a less significant piece of business.
Knee-jerk responses like these deprive us of the nuance needed to properly debate. However comprehensive it is, no plan for a just war or humanitarian intervention has an answer to the sixth-former holding a ‘bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity’ placard: it can’t survive the transition into a black and white, all war is bad mentality.
This lazy thinking makes heartless warmongers out of people who care every bit as much about the fate of Syrian civilians as those opposed to bombing. It undermines the thoughtful opponents, concerned about the effectiveness of an aerial campaign and worried it will further destabilise the region. It polarises and cheapens the debate. We’re better than this.
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