Nobody, except Assad and his supporters, could quarrel with the good intention of deterring him from further use of chemical weapons against his own people. But any good that such attacks might do is far outweighed by their long term harm, anguishing as the pictures of gassed children are. For too many people in the world it is too reminiscent of western fits of morality in the nineteenth century, when we sent gun boats to teach the fuzzy wuzzies what civilization was all about. The Americans would do better to apologize for dropping two atom bombs and we would do better to apologize for burning forty thousand civilians alive in Hamburg. The one thing we will not do is to stop living as if it were the nineteenth century and face the realities of our own time.
You don’t have to be divinely inspired to see that a future world of nine billion people by 2050 where work will be in very short supply because of the advance of automation, and, if most of the scientists are right, one devastated by climate change in which millions will lack even food and water unless we urgently and decisively grasp the global warming issue, but one also not lacking in weapons of mass destruction – this will not be a comfortable place. What we have to do above all things is to take the actions we can still take to avert this oncoming global catastrophe. The issues are technical, economic and meteorological, but above all they are moral. It is for this reason that Britain is uniquely placed to take the lead, ironically because he who has done most harm has most to apologize for. There is hardly a major problem in the world today which does not have at its root a legacy of the British Empire.
Consider some of the atrocities committed by that empire: West Indian slavery; the rape of Bengal; a million and a half Irish left to die in the potato famine; the opium wars; the great Indian famines of the late nineteenth century in which British officials were taking the food out of mouths of starving children in order to service the government’s debt to Rothschild’s bank; the black and tans; the botched partition of India in a country where before the coming of the British Moslem and Hindu had lived peaceably together for centuries; the torture and castration of thousands of Africans in concentration camps in Kenya in the nineteen fifties. When I was a boy a monk always used to appear at assembly at my school just before Christmas and urge us to bring back Christmas cards, so that the Kikuyu who lived on the slopes of Kilimanjaro could put them up in their kraals. It is only now that I discover what was actually happening to the Kikuyu. For us the British Empire is as remote as 1066. But for many of the people we colonized it is only yesterday.
Yet there is another side to all this. We also gave democracy and tolerance and the rule of law and the basic decency of George Orwell’s old maid biking through the mists to church to the world; London today is the very model of what a future globalized world could be. These things are not hypocrisies. They are wonderful gifts which we still have to give. They have only co-existed with the atrocities our nation has committed because we excel in that skill an imperial nation must enjoy, an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion. But these things are all in the past, long as the shadow of that past might be. We can no longer afford self-delusion. It’s a new world, one in which we really do have to love one another or die.
We must hope that the climate sceptics are right. But the scientific probability is that they aren’t. The nations of the world have to grasp the fossil fuel issue – together. We have to stop fighting wars – together. We have to feel the unparalleled excitement of saving our very earth – together. The world needs leadership and example more than anything else. We are uniquely placed to give it, and we need to start by making an act of bitter penitence. We have to stop giving the appearance that we are still living in the nineteenth century. Nothing could handicap us more in this great vocation that could be ours than the widespread perception that, being ourselves so upright and moral, we are still sending gunboats to force others to be so too, justified as that action in itself might be. Nations have to stop looking out solely for their own interests and if necessary fighting wars to do it. We need to start by doing so ourselves. There are other options. We need to feel the inspiration and immense excitement of those options for ourselves and then communicate unfailing optimism about the future, because it is ours to make that future, to others.
Thomas Jackson (www.thomj.co.uk) is author of Darwin’s Error: the Poet Who Died and Richard Dawkins Is Wrong About God Because S(h)e Doesn’t Exist