Friday, May 6, 2011

On the manner of their passing ...

Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
- Matthew 26:52

I was about to ask "What is it about the Australian psyche?", but its not about us, or them - whoever they may be. Its about people, about individuals in situations and the sub-cultures in which they are contained; about upbringing, education, friends, colleagues and the work environment.

You see, some of us think nothing of the police fatally shooting a man brandishing a knife, apparently incapable of overpowering and disarming him, all their training notwithstanding. Others among us, however, inveterate Uncle Sam bashers I have little doubt, call the shooting of Bin Laden an 'assassination', an extra-judicial killing - and this in complete ignorance of what happened when he and a group of armed men not working for Al Qaeda came face to face for the first time since September 2001.

Whether or not we shall ever learn exactly how Bin Laden met his death is a matter of speculation. A man with his history, in his situation, is likely to have been armed and to have resisted apprehension. Whether or not he would have been worth more to his captors alive than dead is a moot point.

Al Qaeda, reputably, does not operate hierarchically or under centralized control. By this time Bin Laden may have enjoyed no more executive insight, or oversight, than a constitutional sovereign, a titular head of state, to be kept in the loop after the event. This, however, flies in the face of reports that his home yielded an intelligence bonanza, a rich supply of data mostly in electronic form. This information must have travelled in and out by courier, since other reports stated that the dwelling was suspect because it was the only one of its type in the neighbourhood without telephone or internet connections.

In my view, uninformed as I am, Bin Laden alive is worth more to his captors than Bin Laden dead. What better place for him, ultimately, than the International Court at the Hague? That his captors would place themselves and their nation at considerable risk of reprisals I have no doubt. Bin Laden alive would have remained a beacon to his followers, but will this be any less so now that he is dead? In the place of the American President I should have wanted to speak with Bin Laden. Not only would this have been the statesmanlike thing to do, but it might actually have been instructive to learn something of the motivations of men who appear to believe that the world, and their respective societies, should revert to some mythical bygone era of domination by sword wielding, God fearing, priest ridden, warrior nomads, forgetting that the great Islamic civilization of the later Mediaeval period grew out of the subjugation of the desert nomads and resulted in centuries of rule by a people who, although Islamic, are essentially European rather than Arab.

Like so many with blood on their hands throughout the ages, Bin Laden occupied a fantasy world in which history, religion, culture and politics are surreal, distorted almost beyond rational comprehension, putting him in the same class - although fortunately far less effective - as men like Hitler and Stalin. Now that he is dead, shall we ever know what went on in that mind?

So, there will be those who say that he should not have been killed, without at this time knowing whether his attackers had a choice and those who believe that he was the victim of a deliberate 'kill' order. In stark contrast are the cases of the many Australians who have been shot down by armed police, often armed with nothing more deadly than a knife which - as any trained soldier will tell you - is worse than useless in the hands of someone not schooled in its use as an offensive weapon.

During a brief period of national service in the defence force of another country, I was taught the principle - to be applied while guarding sensitive installations - of minimum force, and equal force. Our weapons were to be kept unloaded at all times and the magazine supplied, containing only five rounds, was sealed with tape pending authorization from a superior officer. On no account were we to fire unless fired upon. People who approached us wielding knives, clubs, spears or any offensive weapon other than a firearm were to be disabled and disarmed in hand-to-hand encounters in which, as non-professionals eagerly awaiting discharge into civilian life, we had some rudimentary training. As a consequence, even after many years, I feel quite confident of being able to handle myself in most situations, against fellow amateurs, armed with nothing more than a straw broom.

Australia has a much smaller population than the United Kingdom and less crime per capita. British police, for the most part, manage admirably armed with nothing more than telescopic batons, in the use of which they are remarkably proficient. Confrontation with individuals bearing fire arms is the province of specially trained and equipped armed response teams. Fire fights are avoided at all costs. Why are we not prepared to invest in the recruitment and training of our police and to create forces enjoying the same degree of community affection and respect as the Met?

And so the death of yet another deranged, knife wielding individual at the hands of the Victorian Police goes almost without notice, lost in the noise surrounding the endless media coverage of the little we know about the Bin Laden shooting. By, perhaps unavoidably, killing Bin Laden we may have lost - for now at any rate - the opportunity to learn more about a mysterious individual, those who assisted him, and the manner in which they evaded capture for almost a decade.

For those who seek to use Bin Laden's death as an opportunity to castigate 'dastardly' Uncle Sam I have nothing but contempt. You are small people, with minds to match, lacking both compassion and humanity while grinding your puny axes. For our police who feel that their last resort when dealing with the mentally ill is deadly force, I have sympathy. You have been short changed by your recruiting, training, command and control structures. The time for us to stand back and take a long, hard look at ourselves is well overdue.

During the Bronze Age, weapons were scarce and expensive and conflict as much symbolic and ceremonial as actual. Iron, it has been suggested, changed all that by enabling the cheap, mass production of deadly weapons and the creation of huge armies. Since then, it seems, we have been unable to settle our differences without bloodshed, our own and that of others. War has long since ceased to be the province exclusively of a warrior caste, but has involved societies and nations in mass destruction and the killing of innocents on a genocidal scale. Bin Laden was a man from the past projected into the present, his followers without hope of a future.

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