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Press: Warfare in 2020: beware the soundtrack

02 October 2020


I DON’T suppose many readers spend time on Turkish or Azeri YouTube. But anyone interested in decency and the ways in which propaganda maddens us should know about the way in which they are reporting a small war.

What has been happening on the ground is a series of border skirmishes, in which Armenian and Azerbaijani forces shell each other’s tanks and lorries, or attack them with drones.

What is happening on the internet is that both sides are posting videos in which these killings are set to martial music, so that they appear as patriotic video games. Death becomes appealing entertainment, of a morally uplifting sort; for who can deny the moral uplift of a patriotic spectacle in which our enemies are blown to bits?

In a sense, there is nothing new in this. Had it not been a staple of 19th-century literature? And before that, too: there is a great deal of this sentiment in the Bible as well. Without it, Wilfred Owen would never have had the impact that he did when, in his poems, he rejected it.

But to see it translated into the form of video entertainment for a largely post-literate age is still chilling. The Bishop of Bradford, Dr Toby Howarth, one of the most thoughtful bishops I’ve known, said to me once that the footage of the Bataclan killer stalking down the street was indistinguishable from a first-person shooter, and that this, as much as anything, explained the attractions of violent Islamism.

Now, we see the same dynamic used to promote state violence or war. The tragedy is not that we have learned nothing since 1945, but that we have managed to forget so much.


THE rest of the news is almost all Roman Catholic. There is a chilling little story from China, where the UCA News site reports a startling rewrite of a Gospel story in a textbook of ethics and law put out by a Chinese state publishing house, in which Jesus stones a sinner to death.

Please write in if I’m wrong, but the nub of the blasphemy or heresy here seems to be Jesus saying that he, too, is a sinner. That line is surely reserved for popes. . .

The statement “If the law could only be executed by men without blemishes, the law would be dead” is also made in bad faith, because there need to be limits on the blemishes that we allow to those who can execute the law. That is another doctrine unpopular with the Chinese government.

But only someone wholly ignorant of Christianity could fail to see the otherworldly promise that there might be someone without sin, whose example would make law unnecessary. It is that glimpse of a possibility beyond the circles of the world which absolute power is determined to close off. At least Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor knew what he was doing.


THIS brings me, seamlessly, to the Vatican’s other troubles. Both The Economist and The Financial Times had long stories about its finances, prompted by a scandal that first appeared on Reuters: “Thursday night massacre at the Vatican” was the summary that the author, Philip Pullella, put on his Twitter account — rather better than his agency’s headline, which had been “Key Vatican cardinal caught up in real estate scandal resigns suddenly.”

The Economist followed it up with a long look at the difficulties that the Vatican Bank has had with money-laundering. It had one real zinger of a sentence: “San Marino has made significant progress towards installing a robust anti-money-laundering system. But the Holy See looks more problematic, despite Pope Francis’s avowed intention of overhauling its tangled finances.”

It later veered towards the Reuters story: “Several Vatican officials, clerical and lay, are being investigated by the city state’s prosecutors in connection with the purchase of a building in London that was partly financed using donations from the faithful. Prosecutors are reportedly considering bringing charges that could include extortion.”

The Financial Times wrapped it up. “Documents including emails and financial accounts seen by the Financial Times show that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, whom Pope Francis forced to resign last week, invested Vatican funds into a portfolio of ultra-prime flats in and around Cadogan Square, Knightsbridge, one of the most expensive residential addresses in London.”

Further down the story, there was even the phrase that most warms an old hack’s heart: “The new documents, which do not suggest wrongdoing . . .”. Perish the thought!

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