“The world ain’t what it seems, and the moment you think you got it figured out, you’re wrong.”
– Levon Helm as Mr Rate in the movie Shooter
I often find it hard to be sure that the putative perp did the dirty deed. In the early 1980s I was foreman of a jury in a trial of a young man charged with receiving stolen property. He had plead guilty to a number of other receiving charges, for which he had been given a non-custodial sentence. If he were found guilty this time around he would almost certainly go to jail. It was touch and go in the jury room. But I thought that there was reasonable doubt. He was acquitted.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that exactly the right decision was made. But I know that I would have wrestled much more with a decision to find him guilty rather than ‘innocent’. It comes, I think, from being a sceptic across the whole gamut of life. I look for proof. Sometimes I find it hard to believe anything with that deep and abiding certainty that I see in some others.
Funny, I believe in God, for which physical evidence is unobtainable, but have my suspicions about the completeness of evolutionary theory, for which there is an amount of physical evidence. The latest announced cancer cure, cures for aging, quantum computing, driverless cars, the triumph of artificial intelligence over humankind, all are lapped up by some people as being part of a brave new future world. Not by me. I am consistently cynical. I’ll believe it when I see it, which I won’t because I’ll be dead before it likely doesn’t happen.
I am sceptical about both the fact of and the seriousness of manmade global warming, though I do not entirely dismiss the possibility that the alarmists are right. A lot of the people I know seem absolutely sure one way or the other. I have come under fire from both sides.
This brings me to the Russians and to also to Bashar Al-Assad. First to Russians and Mr Putin. Apparently, the Russian government, Putin himself perhaps, employed a Soviet-made nerve agent Novichok to try to knock off ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in London in March of this year. Thankfully both have recovered. The British foreign secretary Boris Johnson was reported as saying that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Russia did it. “There can be no doubt what was used and there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible…Only Russia has the means, motive and record.”
This is what is called circumstantial evidence. Would the Russians have been silly enough to use a nerve agent which could be easily traced back to them? Perhaps they would as a signal to others who would turn against the motherland. I don’t know, but I do know that I have a problem with describing something of this kind as “overwhelming likely.”
It is overwhelming likely that he is guilty, M’lud. Is that the same as guilty beyond reasonable doubt, which though also imprecise has a long legal history to sustain it? Would we send someone to the gallows who is overwhelmingly likely to have committed the murder? What the heck does it mean? I would like those in positions of power to use more precise language before deciding to expel Russian diplomats and to enjoin other countries to do the same. Precision of language leads to precision of thought which, in turn, lays groundwork for better decision-making. As George Orwell puts it in his essay Politics and the English Language: “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Now to that “monster” Assad. It is said, constantly and irritatingly, that he kills his own people. Leave aside whether he regards those opposing him in that tribal part of the world as his own people. Is killing one’s own people better or worse than killing foreigners? In a civil war, as Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis discovered, there are few people to kill but one’s own. That is the nature of the beast.
The US, the UK and France have made it clear that they not wish to intervene in the civil war to overthrow Assad. That’s wise. The situation post-Assad might get even messier and they would own it. Apparently, their limited goal is to deter Assad from gassing his, so-called, own people. This makes sense to me; not primarily to deter Assad but to stand against the more widespread use of chemical weapons. We don’t want to find them being used in New York, in London, in Paris or in Sydney.
I am going to assume that Assad used chlorine gas, and perhaps sarin, in attacking the rebel-held town of Douma. But I have to subdue my scepticism. We are told that he used chemical weapons on numbers of previous occasions since the US attacked a Syrian airbase a year ago. Why then act now and not on those previous occasions? Also, I was not convinced by the video of children being hosed down in Douma. It looked contrived to me. I could be wrong.
Then there is this business of bombing a research and development site, a manufacturing site and a storage site all presumably holding chemical weapons. Surely this would have sent poisonous chemicals flying about? When a spokesman for the Pentagon (Gen. Kenneth McKenzie) was asked about this his arcane response (‘plume analysis’) left the mystery extant.
Mind you, both sides would have an interest in hiding collateral casualties. The Americans and their allies would not want to deal with the criticism that would come from gassing civilians – which we are constantly reminded includes men, women and children. D’oh! The Syrians and Russians, for their part, would not want to admit that there are such casualties because that would prove the existence of chemical weapons which they had undertaken to remove. My question remains. How exactly can more than one hundred missiles wreck buildings holding chemical weapons without sending chemicals pluming into surrounding areas?
I have another question. How is it possible that America, the UK and France formed an alliance and delivered a well-orchestrated, coordinated military strike only seven days after the reported gassing in Douma? I’ve got to believe it was pre-planned and waiting for an ostensible rationale.
I tend not to believe anything governments tell me anymore. I also suspect that they seldom know the whole truth. It is just one of the reasons I believe in God. It is overwhelmingly likely that someone must know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. None of us do. Ipso facto that just leaves God.