George Monbiot and Our Guilty Taboo

I am generally wary of empty, vain gestures and am well aware of the trap so it was with great interest that I read about George Monbiot’s attempt at a citizen’s arrest on John Bolton. My first thought was how is this going to work and that no way would I have the bottle to attempt it. I agree with Monbiot that the Iraq war is a vast war crime, the worst and most distressing aspect of it beyond the fact of the millions of lives smashed and countries destabilised being the normalisation of the crime.

Only the other day I was explaining to my brother why, while I was and remain delighted with the huge protests, the moment of clarity and non-violent action, it did not absolve us of the vast and horrible crime against the Iraqi people dating from the first gulf war (with the illegal bombing of Iraqi civilian infrastructure to magnify the impact of sanctions with the express purpose of destabilising the regime and maybe punishing the Iraqi people—see Barton Gellman’s ’91 article). While I rejoice in the protests 9and they were important) they were still far too transient and the grat bulk of us, having had our moment of clarity and made our point have gone back to letting the war criminals get on with the job (however incompetently and short-sightedly executed) of securing the oil that is so critical for our fantastically materialistically-rich and spiritually impoverished lives.

Of a very, very few people of courage among us can we truly say they have responded to the enormity of the crime—people like Denis Halliday and Scott Ritter. It was entirely predictable that folks would pile into Monbiot for reminding us of this and it was equally predictable that Monbiot would have little difficulty in shredding their arguments and expose them all these years later as clinging to obvious media scams to ease people’s consciences in the path to war, such as the Niger-uranium fiasco (that only took the IAEA about half an hour’s work with Google to expose as a fraud when finally handed the documents—see Hersh’s Chain of Command).

Yet I sense a tinge of defensiveness, a scent of apology in Monbiot’s article of defence. There should be none. Some of us feel a little less soiled, and a little more human for the protests of Monbiot.

I am convinced that modern guilt is both useless and self-indulgent. Before the romantic era the concept may well have been associated with a clean and healthy attitude (see, for example, Park Honan’s account of Jane and Henry Austen’s attitude towards Henry’s bankruptcy [pp. 376-8] for an excellent example of healthy Christian guilt in action). In Buddhism, four ‘powers’ need to be present to counteract the proliferating consequences of a negative action (making it a habit): the power of support (more about this below), the power of regret for having committed the action, the power of resolve not to commit it again and the power of the antidote, which we can think of as some action that will extend the meditation over time and give the practice a chance to transform our minds. Catholics recite on the rosary and Tibetan Buddhists do likewise. Clearly to bring the power of support, regret and resolve together for some fraction of a second, only to forget about it isn’t going to do much. The powers must be as sincere and powerfully present as possible and this must be held for some time for the meditation to be effective. Finally it is helpful once the practice is finished to have some confidence that the practice has been effective.

The power of support really entails tuning into our enlightened or divine potential, a mental distancing from our temporal, contingent, imperfect state (in Christian terms, our fallen state; in Buddhist terms our unenlightened state). It is not that we are denying being human, but just stepping back from it temporarily so that we can confront and properly absorb what we have done or the pattern that has given rise it. Having confronted it and realised how counterproductive the action or behaviour is (and for the exercise to have any meaning this mustn’t be fake–you really have to understand how the negative action will only bring trouble on you in the long run, not merely that it is wrong because of some social convention or because someone says it is so), and then generated a sincere resolve, and sustained it in meditation, can the practice be effective. (It is called a confession practice.)

Collectively we haven’t even begun this process and risk a repetition of the crime. The skilful management of the mullahs and some guardian angels in the US national security structure have kept us from plunging further into the abyss. Until we properly confront and understand what we have done we remain at risk of repetition.

This is why Monbiot’s protest, and Haw‘s, and all the others that refuse to acquiesce in this monstrous crime is important. As long as we remain in denial we risk spreading the poison. Only by facing up to it can we hope to move beyond it.

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