I’ve lost more than one friend to terrorism. In 1988 Flora Swire, who I knew in the joint Christian Union at King Edward’s, Birmingham, was killed in the Lockerbie plane bombing. In 1989 Romanian pastor Vasilie Gherman, who had visited our house not long before, was killed by the Securitate, apparently because it was believed that he would be a ring-leader in opposition to Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu, and his state-terror regime, fell anyway, a few months later. At that time, until 1996, I was working for an international Christian youth movement. Perhaps once or twice a year one of our number would fall victim to kidnapping, and never be returned, or to direct terrorism, as often as not when they were not even the intended target.
Let me make it clear from the outset, then, that I am no friend to terrorism or terrorists. I am utterly and implacably opposed to everything they stand for. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, it is sometimes said. But, as far as I am concerned, as soon as someone moves into the means of terror, their legitimacy is completely gone. There is a way back: terrorists can renounce terror and embrace peaceful means. But that is the only way back.
Be that as it may, I think the US has put itself in a morally indefensible position by ‘welcoming’ the killing of the Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in Syria last night. And I believe they have made yet another in a series of crucial diplomatic misjudgements in the Middle East.
Their position is indefensible because to welcome his killing is to embrace the means of terror. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies put the Nazi War Criminals on trial. Some were sentenced to death. Some were sentenced to life imprisonment. Was the death penalty justified? Perhaps. Was it right that some people who were implicated in the murder of hundreds or thousands were allowed to live, albeit in prison? Perhaps. We second-guess the judgements of our predecessors at our peril. But what is certainly true is that they were tried in a court of law – albeit an unprecedented court – and suffered the sentence that was handed out to them. There is not doubt that the actions of Mughniyeh were appalling, and that the consequences of those actions were appalling. But they were not more appalling than those of Göring, Frick and Von Ribbentropp. Each of these were convicted, and the sentence carried out.
Mughniyeh was murdered by exactly the same means – terrorism – for which he was wanted by the US government. Was he guilty? It seems certain that he was. Would he have been convicted if he could have been arrested and brought to trial? Again, it seems quite certain that he would have been. Would he have suffered the death penalty? Judging by the Iraq trials, yes, he probably would have done. But the crucial difference is that he was not arrested, not tried, and not sentenced. If I murder a murderer, am I innocent? Of course not. There is no suggestion that the US was implicated in Mughniyeh’s murder. But by welcoming it, they have given approval to it. From a moral point of view, this position cannot be sustained. It is to be hoped that the US will step back from it, with a diplomatic ‘clarification’, perhaps that they deplore the injustice and violence of his end, but that they believe a threat to the lives of others has been removed, notwithstanding the means by which this happened.
So much for the moral position. The miscalculation, however, may have more serious consequences. It is a truism of dealing with terrorists that we do not wish to ‘create martyrs’. This was discussed endlessly in relation to the trial of Saddam Hussain. It is one reason why it was decided that he should be tried by an Iraqi court, and not an American or international one.
But in welcoming this man’s death, they have done nothing more than create a martyr, and that when there was no need to do so. If they had simply issued a statement deploring all deaths by violence, stating that they regarded this man as an enemy, but believed that even an enemy should have had a fair trial, then they could have done a great deal to prevent Imad Mughniyeh’s death from spiralling into wider unrest. Or if they could not have said that, at the very least, they could have said nothing. Instead, once more they fan the flames in the Middle East. When will we learn anything?
During the period of Mughniyeh’s activity, some of my friends (though I knew them only later) were living in Beirut. They moved house to another part of the city. A few days later, they went back to their former home to pick up some things. The building had been obliterated by a bomb. I have no idea whether it was a Mughniyeh bomb, or a bomb dropped from a plane, or a bomb built by one of Mughniyeh’s alllies, or by his enemies. Bombs do not discriminate in this way. But their lives were saved, simply because they had moved house a few days before. Over the tortured years of the 1980s and 90s, and to the present day (though mercifully less than in the 1980s), many thousands of people’s lives were lost who did not happen to be in the right place when the wrong thing happened. Mughniyeh and his allies must bear a heavy share in the guilt of this. We in the West may agonise (if we wish) about to what extent our Middle Eastern policies may have contributed to those deaths. We might equally well speculate about how many lives our policies perhaps saved. To do either is in fact fruitless. We cannot analyse our guilt or virtue in this way. But we are left with a responsibility. To act, and to speak, in such a way that we do not cost more lives, that we do not inflame an already perilous situation. That we are peace-makers, not war-mongers.
It is time that we learned not merely to repeat the mistakes of the past.