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Reviews > Book reviews >

Laws that threaten the life of our nation

Thaddeus Birchard on studies of war which reflect today’s dangers

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Just War: The Just War tradition, ethics in modern warfare
Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan

Bloomsbury £10 (978-0-7475-9557-1)

reviewed with

Just War: Psychology and Terrorism
Ron Roberts, editor

PCCS Books £18 (978-1-898-05992-9)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

I NORMALLY celebrate and preach at St Marylebone Parish Church on the first Sunday of each month. So it was on Advent Sunday during the distribution of holy communion that the choir began the Advent Prose. The music took me back to Kelham, to the great chapel, and to the theology of Herbert Kelly. As I settled down to read these two books about justice and war, the words of the prophet Amos continued to echo in my mind: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5. 24).

The first book, Just War, is very short. It is no more than a summary of Just War theory. Its value is in its reflections on the application of Just War thinking to current and recent conflicts in Europe and the Middle East. The authority of the book comes from the professional background of the authors: one, a civil servant with 30 years’ experience of defence; the other, a former NATO commander and Chief of the Defence Staff.

The second book, Just War: Psychology and terrorism, is a series of essays reflecting on an associated set of complex ethical problems. It explores not the justice of war, but the ethical and psychological implications of the so-called war on terror. It looks at, among other things, war speeches and the use of language, social representation, and the effect of war on children. It explores the psychology of British anti-war activism, and finishes with a psychology for peace.

Three essays in this book are particularly important: one on terrorism, another on the psychological effect of torture, and one that explores how a society might move from a civil democracy to a totalitarian state without protest or recognition, “sleep-walking into totalitarianism”.

The first essay of particular interest is a deconstruction of the concept of terrorism. Prefacing itself with Edmund Burke — “Just because we condemn, does not mean that we should not strive to understand” — the essay takes as its principal theme the Islamic militancy. Not as we tend to portray such people as essentially evil and pathologically driven, somehow not like us, but rather as emerging from a rational and culturally created set of understandable constructions.

Islamic militancy is presented as a response to perceived oppression, operating out of the ancient cultural concepts of the ummah, jihad, and martyrdom. The essay goes on to challenge our own social construction that “we the people are good,” and that these other people are not like us, but rather are uncivilised, irrational, barbaric, fanatical, and evil.

The essay on torture explores the physical and psychological effect on the individual of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Notice how language is used to conceal the truth, just as was the case with the Nazis. The essay explores the effects of sleep-deprivation, prolonged isolation, loud music, stress positions, and sexual humiliation — all techniques used by American government operatives. It goes on to expose, confront, and condemn participation by psychologists in the design and application of such techniques.

The final essay of note explores how, or whether, the United Kingdom could be capable of changing from liberal democracy into a totalitarian state. The principal thrust of the argument, which is very convincing, is that people in the UK are imbued with beliefs that make them complacent about the prospect of a slide into totalitarianism. As Lord Hoffman said of indefinite detention, “the real threat to the life of the nation comes not from terrorism, but laws such as these.”

Both of these books are timely contributions to the circumstances in which we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century. They are a call for our times: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above and let the skies pour down righteousness.”

The Revd Dr Thaddeus Birchard is a psychotherapist.

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