No-one can look at the pictures of David Haines with his baby daughter or at the picture of him grim-faced and kneeling in his orange boiler suit, knowing he will never see his daughter again, never be there to comfort her or protect her, and not be appalled at the callous brutal and wasteful end of his life. It was a brutal murder (not execution) that stole a father from a little girl and a much loved husband, brother and son from his family. Those who did it are inhuman and our gut instinct is to demand retribution. The grim irony is that David Haines would not have been there at all if it wasn’t for the fact that most of us find it difficult to channel the same depths of outrage for the equally innocent lives that have been snuffed out in the endless conflicts that the West perpetuates.
Those who knew him say David Haines was a caring individual who was prepared to go out and knowingly put his life on the line to improve the lives of others. Not with a gun but with aid. He is a great loss, just as great a loss as all those children across the Middle East and beyond who will never have the chance to grow up and contribute to the world. Just as great a loss as all those other fathers, brothers and sons, mothers, sisters and daughters, who will never again get to see their families. But, we should ask ourselves, where is our outrage for them? Is it not our capacity to display such selective outrage over the callous waste of human lives that fuels the ethnic and religious tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere?
We should also pause for a moment and consider the power relationships of aid. Despite the honourable intentions, there is an inevitable power relationship between the donor and the recipient of aid. Humanitarian aid inevitably recalls the asynchronous relationships of empire where patronising and sometimes brutal projects claimed to be “civilising” “savage” indigenous cultures. These days it often comes with economic conditions, tying the recipients into free market “reforms” that open the country and population up to exploitation by multi-national companies. ACTED, for whom David Haines was working when he was kidnapped present themselves as a non-political, non-religious charity providing technical aid to deprived, often war-torn areas – but whatever their intentions and no matter what commitment they show and what personal danger they put themselves in, they can never fully extricate themselves from the web of power and exploitation spun by the imperialist powers who are often implicated in the wars in the first instance and stand to profit from the reconstruction. None of this makes the murder of David Haines any less brutal and pointless. Indeed, that many aid workers fully understand this dynamic and still go out to help, often aiming to rectify a longstanding wrong, makes it all the more tragic.
None of this is in evidence as politicians and the media go into overdrive in the wake of his death. But are Islamic State any more of a threat to world peace and anymore blood-thirsty than the West and their allies? A quick search on the internet will show you plenty of evidence of atrocities carried out against civilians and even children, which our government and media quite happily overlook because it doesn’t fit in with the discourse of the “just war” or the “civilising” power of the markets. While we are warned that ISIS are planning for an end game on the Turkish-Syrian border, NATO looks to be planning an end game that extends right up to the Ukrainian-Russian border and seems an equally destabilising influence to that of ISIS.
ISIS can only exist as a threat to world peace because the US, UK and others so carelessly spread weapons across the world, both for their own enrichment and to support their own ideology. Without the weapons deposited in the middle east so thoughtlessly, ISIS would just be the sum of their component parts; a rag-tag of fundamentalists, fascists and serial killers organised by the local mafia. Not nice people – and hardly likely to be seen as the solution to anything by anyone. Despite their fascist brutality, their ability to exploit the black economy and their stash of purloined weapons, they do not have the same resources as a fully formed nation state, which after all has a much greater hoard of looted wealth to bring to bear. ISIS are at most a tin-pot dictatorship, reportedly riddled with factions and in-fighting. Of course, like any street gang, they have the ability to recruit the disaffected with their apparent power. In this they are aided and abetted by the amplification of their actions by the media and the government (who did a similar job as publicists for the EDL).
This is not to argue that ISIS actions aren’t horrific. They are – but no more horrific than many of the states we have been prepared to support in the past – and many of the states we still support now. But selective reporting makes them out to be a unique threat. The media and the government love an external threat to unify the population. These binaries suit both the fundamentalists of religion and the fundamentalists of capital – but never reflect the real politic which they are seen to practice where allegiances (and moral outrage) will shift in a moment to suit the (mostly corporate) interests of our leaders.
Through the lens of the Machiavellian hypocrisy that characterises global politics, the appearance of ISIS is very useful to governments everywhere. The discourse has increasingly been that the appearance of fundamentalism and criminality across the Middle East has been a direct consequence of the collapse of the power to the state. The political establishment would like to present it as a choice between the totalitarian regimes of Assad, Hussein et al, the fundamentalist states of Saudi Arabia and Iran et al or the benevolent liberalism of free market capitalism. Whenever people power looks like rearing its head it is squashed by the apparent incompetence of Western intervention. But could Western intervention in the Arab Spring really have been so incompetent that it resulted in fundamentalist governments in Libya and Egypt? Are they also so inept as to make exactly the same mistake as they have in Afghanistan and arming the fundamentalist resistance which then turns out to be the very same threat they cite when clamping down on our civil liberties? Do we really believe the operatives of the state are that stupid? They don’t keep making the same mistake; they keep making the same choice! And, scared witless by the selective publicity accorded to acts which, while barbaric, are unfortunately common, we dance to our leaders tune when they tell us it is all for our own protection – and smack us with a truncheon if we disagree.
A year ago Cameron wanted to launch an attack on Syria on the basis of regime change – but the British people weren’t falling for it. This year he wants to launch an attack on the same area but against ISIS. The British people are still very suspicious. Despite the bleating of his apologists, Tony Blair finally put to bed the notion of the just war, so convoluted were the machinations of his spin machine, so ill-conceived was the exit strategy and so blatant was the profiteering that followed. The funding of extremists by western governments is now widely known and understood. The fact that western governments have played a huge role in arming and training religious fundamentalism means their claims to be keeping us safe are a sick joke. And the punch line, as always, is written in the blood of innocents.