In 1910 , or so our family folklore suggests, my grandparents from both my mother and my father’s side emigrated to the United Kingdom. I say emigrated, I say to the United Kingdom, neither are strictly accurate.
They thought that they were going to America but the lying Captain of the ship, that both sides of the family booked passage with, headed west , got to the British Isles sailed round it a couple of times and deposited them in the London docks telling them that the Statue of Liberty was just around the corner. Speaking no English they then arrived at the desk of a perplexed immigration officer asking in sign language where they could find this iconic emblem of the free world. Thankfully he got his priorities right and just got them through the formalities very quickly and welcomed them to their new life.
There was a small element of controversy. I am not Jewish but I am adopted and my adopted parents and thus my grandparents, were. I like to think this was a very gentle and almost supportive form of antisemitism because arriving in a hurry without paperwork and without language to determine this, the Immigration officer decided that it was appropriate to record all of my grandparents dates of birth as December the 25th! Somewhere in his mind having to deal all day with a stream non English speaking Jews looking for the Big Apple was made better with the little artifice of them perpetually having to give their birth dates as Christmas Day.
I cant blame him, it made choosing presents that bit easier.
But the parallels and indeed the contrasts with the current situation in Ukraine are quite stark. My grandparents weren’t emigrating, they were refugees. They were entirely happy where they were thank you, until a group of people told them that they were no longer welcome where they had lived for centuries. According to my grandparents these aggressive people made their point through terror; killing, destroying religious places of worship and businesses, they threw people out of their homes, murdered women and children and told people they had no right to existence. The aggressors were Russian.
The priority that the immigration officer got right was that whatever your distance from these people’s faith or life experience, he recognised that it is a fundamental human right to be protected against oppression and he saw it as his duty to get these people to safety as quickly as possible.
In 2022 we are making people fleeing the same kind of aggression go through hoops that extend their misery, and this led by a Home Secretary whose own family were immigrants. The irony can’t be more plain and the disservice by Priti Patel, for which frankly she should resign, cannot be more obvious. We have a Home Office Immigration service that is not fit for purpose and is a national and indeed because of its interface, international, disgrace.
My family went on to contribute to the UK in various ways. In my adopted family we have psychiatrists, tailors , shop keepers, CEOs of businesses and charities, we have doctors , we have lawyers, writers even people who contribute to the Orkney News. Who could imagine ! Every other immigrant family from whatever; racial, religious or geographic background can tell a similar story. My mother’s father contributed to the war by giving up his factory where he made very high end furniture to the construction of Mosquito fighter bombers. Working from the premise that anything you make with your hands you also make with your soul he would probably have wanted to send them out with a nice walnut veneer or French polish. That they might be shot at, I am sure would have stressed him greatly.
For the “ Russian” aggression today we should not blame all Russians, it is more accurate to speak of the “ Putin Regime” because there are plenty of Russians who do not approve of what is happening and who are suffering in their own right for demanding an end to this absurd assault. 15 years imprisonment for saying that a war is not a “special military action, “ is high price to pay for principles.
A high price too to pay for your choice of words.
Yet words matter.
I have a very good friend with whom I have an ongoing disagreement over the word “ genocide.”
He would see the Nazi actions against the Jews in the Second World War as genocide while he would see the actions of the Putin’s regime in Ukraine as; possibly war crimes, certainly an appalling unjustified inexcusable and aggressive act. Given my adopted background my disagreement with him is ironic because I see the actions by both regimes as being in parallel.
To me trying to find a qualitative difference between one form of heinous act of depravity and another is a relevant as arguing how many angels can dance on the end of pin. It is irrelevant. To the three dead people including a child who were murdered in Mariupol when planes dropped a bomb on a maternity hospital, it is supremely irrelevant, they were alive, now they are not. Viewed in isolation that was not genocide, but it was a war crime. Do we care about the distinction ?
Actually we should, because it reflects upon the motivation of the aggressor and it characterises their action and points us towards the moral duties we have in relation to that.
In 1941 Winston Churchill referred to the German invasion of the Soviet Union as “a crime without a name.” It was only after the war that thought was given to how this should be referenced. Phrases existed to describe what was being done in different languages but there was no single word that was internationally recognised. It is much easier to prosecute someone for a crime if you can give it a name .
It wasn’t until Rafael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish Lawyer began to explore this in 1944 that a name was agreed. Lemkin took the Greek word “ genos “ meaning race or people and the Latin suffix -caedo meaning “ act of killing , and came up with the first definition of a quite specific activity that was more than War, more than war crimes because it had with it a quite definable intent.
Lemkin’s point of reference was not the Nazis actions agains the Jews but the genocide against the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire in World War 1.
Not every aspect of what genocide is, has been perpetrated by the Putin Regime, but it is worth a brief consideration of those aspects that are relevant. You need to consider the word “ intent”. People can act with ; intent, knowledge , recklessness or negligence. Intent is considered to be the most serious measure of a perpetrator’s actions.
An intent to do what ? Genocidal intent is described as an intent to destroy in whole or in part a national ethnic racial or religious group. In terms of the acts that define intent there are several that again do not relate to the current actions but “killing members of the group” “ deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction” these apply.
It is hard to look at the wanton destruction of the physical fabric of cities, the indiscriminate destruction of cultural heritage and the forcing out people from the places they live and suggest that these considerations are not being met.
But the key to me is the word intent.
Indiscriminate use of lethal weapons on innocent civilians who cannot defend themselves such as; the elderly , women, children, this is a war crime. But the point at which Putin addressed his country and said that Ukraine had no right to an independent existence, that for me was the point that we reached genocide. Because the actions that then followed had intent to implement that vision. The artifice of “ protecting Russian speakers” went out of the window the minute he bombed Russian speakers who chose to be Ukrainian. This is about wiping Ukrainian heritage off the map. The rest is semantics.
To the dead, the words really don’t matter, to their grieving relatives they don’t either but to those of us who are not directly involved, I’d suggest they do. Because unburdened by the immediacy of war we are required to think rationally and proportionately.
So is there a rational paradigm in which we move from sanctions and condemnation to the point at which we feel we need to do more ?
This is not an argument for military action, far from it I abhor the thought, it is plea that we have some thought about what we can and cannot tolerate . Russia is at present talking up the use of Chemical weapons by Ukraine in the Dombass this is a total nonsense, part of the PR machine of the desperate and can easily be seen as an attempt at justification for bringing their own chemical weapons out of their lethal toy box.
If the bombing of maternity hospitals and the killing of children and women is not sufficiently abhorrent, if the indiscriminate carpet bombing of civilian areas is not sufficiently inhuman, does the use of a more efficient killing agent such as chemical weapons tip the balance for us ? Is this genocide?
I guess Putin will be thinking “ beyond invading a NATO country , do these guys have a red line ?”
At the moment we are supplying “ defensive materials” to Ukraine. Defensive seems to come with a word attachment – anti. We send “ anti tank weapons “ “ anti aircraft weapons ” we seem to believe that supplying aircraft is a step too far. For whom? Does this logic drive to the thinking of the Kremlin, do they see that nice nuance? Or will they at some point, possibly as their aircraft are being shot out of the sky in increasing numbers, determine that these anti – supplies are an act of war? When does “ anti” become antagonistic? Is it when we move from shoulder launched weapons to more efficient and thus effective anti air systems ? Is it when we supply tanks or allow Poland to supply Mig 29 aircraft ?
I have heard many politicians use the phrase “ we cannot allow Putin to win.”
What does that mean? Does he have to lose?
Does the West have a red line other than the invasion of a NATO country and if so what does it define it by ? What form of depravity is intolerable? Or is depravity incremental, the more we see it the more we tolerate it?
We talk about weapons of mass destruction but if your society is massively destroyed using conventional weapons is there a difference?
Short of nuclear war what kind of pain would we be willing to endure to stop the pain of Ukraine? What kind of pain does Russia need to experience before it is forced to turn back?
People speak of the threat of nuclear war if we undertake no fly zones. Yet we believed that MAD philosophy ( Mutually Assured Destruction ) was the cornerstone of deterrence. You may or may not like her politics but Nicola Sturgeon’s analysis was right in saying that the only thing that nuclear weapons seems to have deterred is the willingness to help a nation from being destroyed by its nuclear neighbour. Far from nuclear weapons deterring war , they had instead set the parameters for the level of inhumanity of war you can aspire to without triggering a military reaction. We are in new territory.
Yet the angels continue to dance on the end of a pin. Apparently .