Cry, Havoc!, And Let Slip The Dogs Of War: If Islamic State has citizens, it is the West that made them.
DOES THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY’S “Responsibility To Protect” apply to Islamic State? (IS) Has the violence unleashed by IS against civilians living in Syria and Iraq reached a level of intensity comparable to the genocidal slaughter unleashed against Rwanda’s Tutsi population in 1994? If the present level of military intervention is not maintained, or stepped-up, are hundreds-of-thousands, perhaps millions, of innocent non-combatants in imminent danger of losing their lives?
The answer to this question is, clearly, “No.” The IS regime, while indisputably brutal in its treatment of non-Islamic religious minorities, prisoners of war, civilian aid workers, journalists, and persons found guilty of committing homosexual acts, has not (to date) engaged in the indiscriminate mass slaughter of entire populations.
The international community’s responsibility to the victims of IS violence is, therefore, to make every attempt to bring those responsible for what are clearly war crimes and crimes against humanity before an appropriately constituted international criminal tribunal (ICT). This would be modelled on of the bodies set up to deal with the massive human-rights breaches in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
The prospect of being arraigned before such a tribunal may or may not be acting as a deterrent to the IS leadership, but it is, demonstrably, influencing the personal political calculus of those IS operatives responsible for carrying out its many atrocities. The very fact that these individuals wear masks indicates that they know they are committing heinous crimes and are anxious to escape legal retribution.
The contrast between these masked perpetrators and the unmasked American military personnel who allowed themselves to be photographed tormenting Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison is instructive. Had the latter known that their actions would one day be made public, most of them would never have participated, or, becoming involved, would’ve made absolutely certain they could not be identified.
Like the long-since destroyed videos of CIA waterboarding sessions, the images of Abu Ghraib were never intended to see the light of day. IS propaganda videos, on the other hand, are intended to both terrify the infidels and inspire the faithful. They are, therefore, made with guilty intent, and their creators are well aware of what will happen to them if they are identified and arrested by the agents of international justice.
It is as well to remember, however, that IS is by no means the first belligerent power to release video images demonstrating the strength of their will and the power of their weapons. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) is often referred to as “The Nintendo War” on account of the computer-game-like images of United States precision-guided munitions striking their targets.
Of course the US armed forces’ public relations team did not allow the audience back home to witness what was happening to the human-beings sheltering inside the buildings that were exploding in such dramatic fashion on their television screens. The carnage wrought upon human flesh by high explosives puts the gruesome efforts of IS executioners to shame.
Nor was it the practice of either the American or the international news media to give the military commanders who authorised these precision-guided missile attacks colourful monikers like “Jihadi John”. Soldiers following the lawful orders of their superior officers are generally not regarded as criminals – not even when those orders are publicly acknowledged to have been deliberately formulated to generate “shock and awe” in the civilian population.
Those who find themselves outraged and repulsed by IS propaganda videos showing prisoners being beheaded or burned alive should, perhaps, ask themselves if they experienced similar emotions back in March 2003 when the US media was gleefully beaming-out images of Baghdad aflame. The American message back then was as unequivocal as the IS message is now: “This is what becomes of evil-doers.”
The crucial difference being that, in the case of the Americans, the message wasn’t personalised. Innocent people’s bodies were certainly ripped apart and/or burned beyond recognition in the manufacture of America’s message to the peoples of the Middle East, but we only got to see such “collateral damage” occasionally – as when a Cruise missile somehow went astray and incinerated scores of women and children taking refuge in a concrete shelter.
Repeat such exercises often enough and it is hardly surprising if the effect upon those in receipt of such explosive communications is brutalisation beyond the reach of pity or remorse.
Closer to home, those advocating for the deployment of 100 Kiwi soldiers to Iraq are arguing that the international community has a responsibility to protect the unfortunate inhabitants of Islamic State. But, didn’t that same international community have a responsibility to protect the people of Iraq when the world’s most powerful military machine was rumbling towards its borders in 2003? And wasn’t it that same terrible machine, raining down white phosphorous on the city of Fallujah, that nurtured, with every bomb dropped and bullet fired, the fell creatures who now hold sway across broad swathes of Iraq and Syria?
If Islamic State has citizens, it is the West that made them.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 16 February 2015.