PC21 What’s going on?

We walked along the line of the surf of the crowded beach on a Sunday in September in Barra da Tijuca, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro; the sun was warm on our backs. I looked at the carefree groups of families and friends, at children playing either in the surf or with a football (this is Brazil, after all!) and at other adults, just splashing in the shallows. It was totally divorced from the obscene photograph of a black figure brandishing a knife in front of a kneeling orange-suited human that had appeared on the front page of my digital Times that morning.

I had looked at the photo of the latest British hostage, a 44 year old man with a family, with friends, with loved ones. It was so surreal. I knew from the news report that, moments after the photo was taken, he would be murdered, in cold blood, in the most barbaric and inhuman way. The British Press seem to suggest that because the killer was a British citizen, that it was somehow worse than if he had been an Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani. Murder is murder. The photos of Iraqi prisoners of war shot in ISIS-controlled territory, simply because they belonged to a different branch of Islam, produces the same sense the outrage that every like-minded human must feel, revulsion, disgust, huge sadness. However it seems that those who carried out these murders do not feel anything but pleasure, of satisfaction that the infidel is dead.

Interconnected thoughts run through my brain, with no sense of cohesion.

Isn’t this a rerun of the Crusades, white Christians battling the ‘infidels’ (that name again!) just updated by 700 years?

Is a man being shot, and I remember a horrific photograph of a South Vietnamese Army officer firing a pistol against the head of a suspected Viet Cong, any worse than a man being beheaded? Somehow I feel it is, but it’s hardly a rational thought, balancing one way of killing someone with another. In the Middle Ages people in England were ‘hung, drawn and quartered’; how barbaric! We’ve developed, I guess, more sophisticated ways of killing people – so that’s good, is it? But actually we are repulsed by what ISIS is doing now!

In an effort to define the ‘laws for conflict’, The 1899 Hague Convention specifies “the treatment of prisoners of war, includes the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1864 for the treatment of the wounded, and forbids the use of poisons, the killing of enemy combatants who have surrendered, the looting of a town or place, and the attack or bombardment of undefended towns or habitations.” It was often ignored in World War Two and the countries in the present conflict in the Middle East, and in particular ISIS, clearly didn’t ratify it. I wonder whether they have read it!

During The Cold War the opposing power blocks of the USA and the USSR insured, through an unthinkable alternative of a nuclear exchange, peace; the tensions remained, but there was peace. And at the end of the Cold War everyone imagined that there would be a peace dividend, that the money spent on armaments could be channelled into education and health, two basic requirements of our societies. It hasn’t happened and it seems that the whole world has become unbalanced, fault lines opening up in every continent.

Jenni Russell, in a Times’ article about the Scottish Referendum, wrote:

“Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Syria, Libya, Boko Haram, Ukraine. These are not just troubling diversions on the way to a better future. They remind us that there’s nothing inevitable about the victory of enlightened values, the spread of secularism or the appeal of democracy. Raw power and brutality are flourishing ……. and we need to work out how to deal with it.” She quotes the American Jonathan Haidt who argues that “institutions such as the UN and the EU have evolved to allow us to live together without turning on anyone who is not our kin. They are barriers against chaos and won’t work if we chose to follow the narcissism of small differences and become a group of fractured squabbling nations.”

Here in Brazil, despite a great deal of internal focus with a Presidential election this coming weekend, in our C21st interconnected world where for example Brazil sends millions of chickens to McDonalds in Russia every month, one can’t ignore what’s happening elsewhere. The Pope has called the current conflicts in the world a ‘piecemeal World War Three’. Certainly the liberal values by which we live are under threat, but we have a propensity to celebrate our differences in a tragic way and forget to rejoice in the potential for our common future.

……….. The sun continues to shine, the sea continues to break on the warm sand ……. and the world of conflict seems remote  …… but my feeling of helplessness remains. Is man destined to always be in conflict with himself?

As I said, just some scribbles about what seems to be going on inside my head!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. South America’s geographical position in relation to the other continents has, for some reason, meant it has stayed apart from global conflicts in the past, most governments maintaining a policy of non-interventionism. Pressure from the USA after 1942 meant Brazil leant towards the Allies cause, and after some of its merchant ships were sunk by German U boats, Brazil joined the Allies. In 1944 a Brazilian Division (some 25,000 men) was eventually established in Italy and saw action in the Allied forces’ drive north. Pilots of its Air Force flew combat missions in the Italian campaign whilst its navy also took action against German U boats.

And of course there was the Battle of the River Plate, off Argentina/Uruguay, when three Royal Navy cruisers cornered the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee in December 1939, three months into the war. After an hour of fighting, with damage being sustained on both sides, the Admiral Graf Spee retreated into the neutral port of Montevideo for essential repairs. The Hague Convention required the German ship to leave within 24 hours, but the British encouraged it to stay whilst they tried to gather more warships offshore. They fed disinformation about the size of this Royal Naval task force, so that the German captain, Captain Langsdorff, decided to scuttle his battleship in the shallow waters of the estuary of the River Plate, rather than face the imagined enemy offshore. Recovery of the wreck started in 2005 as it’s become a hazard to shipping!


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