A edited version of this posting was published in the Huffington Post.
Margaret Thatcher’s steadfast dismissal of Nelson Mandela as a terrorist exposed one of her (many) great shortcomings. Her failure to engage with the psychology of oppression. Be it the ANC, the IRA or the PLO, they had to be beaten. Mandela, on the other hand, understood that, when generational injustice prevails and in the absence of hope, otherwise peaceable people will fight back.
As world leaders queue up to pay tribute to Mandela, the absence of successors of his caliber is plain. We have lost the only world leader that was driven by principle, not privilege, morality, not political expedience and compassion for the oppressed, not deference for the oppressors. There is a situation vacant for visionary, ethical leadership but no obvious candidates in the wings.
Tony Blair started off with such potential. His role brokering peace in Northern Ireland is irrefutable, though the real (unsung) hero of the day was Mo Mowlam. But his achievements in Northern Ireland were soon to be overshadowed by his failings in Iraq and Palestine. His empathy for the historical injustices visited upon Catholics in Northern Ireland did not extend to oppressed Muslims throughout the world.
The ongoing trial of the Woolwich killings should serve to shine a spotlight on the psychology of oppression and the legacy it bequeaths. My heart goes out to the family of Lee Rigby who was brutally murdered in May and my thoughts are with them as they’re forced to relive his last moments.
When the story first broke it was hijacked by Islamaphobic media coverage sparking revenge attacks on Mosques and Muslims throughout the country. The media’s propensity to conflate Islam with terrorism is not new. Shortly after 7/11 I was running a seminar when a participant arrived late. He had been jumped on by a gang of “skin heads” who shouted Islamaphobic obscenities while beating the crap out of him, ending with “Go home Paki”.
He was a cockney atheist but he was flaunting a deep tan at the time, which, under the circumstances (media whipping up hatred of any one “foreign looking”), was foolhardy. Tanning booths in Dale Winton’s neighbourhood were on the brink of bankruptcy for a fortnight.
Blair and Bush lost the plot, pursuing their deluded "war on terror" that effectively equated to an indefensible war on Muslims. They acted in defiance of public outrage and as a consequence, I believe, they systematically destabilised the world.
Foreign policy that sanctions torture abroad, such as Guantanamo, will always come back to bite. There is no greater recruiting sergeant for terrorism than torturing innocent civilians. We know from history that if we oppress and deny people their right to self determination, abuse them and deprive them recourse to justice, they will eventually retaliate.
Austerity measures (a euphemism for stealing from the poor to give to the rich) seems to escape media scrutiny in all this. Even before the recession, minority ethnic young men, such as the Woolwich defendants, were more likely to be excluded from school and be over represented in prison, social and psychiatric services, and twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. A recent report showed that, although this has been known for decades, nothing has been done to stem the crisis.
A generation of young people are faced with the prospect of long term unemployment, alienation and anger. Inequality and injustice on this scale is a recipe for social unrest. Terrorists are filling a position made vacant in the minds of some of our most disaffected young men by a society that will bail out miscreants in suits but starve our youth of investment, care and any hope for the future. Nelson Mandela inherently knew what his contemporaries fail to grasp, if you have nothing, there’s nothing left to lose.