How I Came to Support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign against Israel

The current appalling slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza with no regard for the lives of Palestinians, and in violation of international law, makes BDS an absolute necessity and an ethical obligation for anyone who is claims to be a decent human being. It’s time to stop tolerating this outlaw behaviour.


When I was a teenager, I believed that the boycott of South Africa was the wrong way to oppose apartheid. I thought it would hurt the wrong people, close down dialogue and result in a siege mentality that would prolong the conflict. My mind changed, in good part, after hitch-hiking around the country in 1984, meeting a wide array of people, and experiencing the inhumanity of the system first-hand. The day a very tired and elderly African lady coming home from a long day at work was ordered by the bus driver to vacate her seat for me, a young man perfectly capable of standing, was a potent experience. Ashamed of how I benefited from the system (and simultaneously harmed another) simply by virtue of looking Caucasian was a transformative, radicalizing moment. Hearing from activists and ordinary Africans that they supported the boycott, even though they knew they would suffer…

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Gaza and the Lonely Death of Just War Theory

Just war theory is arguably at the heart of both the international normative and legal order, and Western political thought about the justified use of military force. Certainly, just war theory is woven into the UN Charter, humanitarian law and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) particularly. In recent years, there were vigorous just war-based discussions over the legitimacy of the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, and the bombing of Libya, among others. It is something of a surprise therefore, that there is currently no similar vigorous discussion over whether the present attack on Gaza meets the criteria of a just war. Such a discussion is clearly in order, and has important implications for international politics.

Just war comes in various forms, but at its core it is based on seven key principles. These principles state that in order for a war to be just,

1. The war must be fought for a just cause.
2. The war must be declared by a lawful authority.
3. It must be fought for a right intention.
4. It must be a last resort after peaceful alternatives have been tried.
5. It must have a reasonable chance of success to avoid prolonging suffering.
6. The force used must be proportionate.
7. Innocent civilians should not be harmed.

In short, wars should be fought only for a just or legitimate cause, and the war itself must be conducted in a just manner. The argument is that in order for a war to be considered just (or legitimate), it should adhere to all of these seven principles. If we apply these criteria to the current attack on Gaza, it is clear that it does not come close to meeting the criteria of a just war. In fact, it is probably fair to suggest that it is one of the most unjust or least legitimate wars fought in recent years, as every single one of the seven principles of just war is either utterly violated or at least highly questionable.

First, it is questionable whether this war is being fought for what most would recognise as a just cause. There is enough evidence to suggest that it is a war of revenge for the kidnap and deaths of the Israeli teenagers, and/or an attempt to disrupt the unity agreement between Hamas and the PA in order to delay further talks on substantive issues surrounding the occupation and a two-state solution. It can also be argued that it is being fought for largely domestic political reasons, rather than for the achievement of genuine long-term peace and security. This is certainly a valid conclusion given that the attack has failed to stop Hamas rockets (as the previous operation in 2012 also failed to do) and its utterly predictable outcome will be to strengthen Hamas leadership and control of Gaza. However, I am willing to concede that on this point Israel could potentially argue that it is attacking in national self-defence which would be a just cause under current international law. At the same time, there are clearly moral and legal limits to the national defence justification. Israel could not legitimately drop nuclear bombs on its neighbours simply by claiming the necessity of self-defence, for example.

Second, in the current international system, it is normally expected that the UN Security Council is the primary legitimate authority for authorising the use of force. In this case, as in previous cases, Israel has ignored the UN and acted unilaterally. States that unilaterally go to war are usually sanctioned in some way. Russia, for example, is currently being sanctioned for using force in the Ukraine. Again, however, I am willing to concede that this could be an arguable point and Israel does have the right to decide by itself when it goes to war – a right the US also claimed in the war on terror. However, if states are free to choose when to go to war themselves without UN authorisation, this has serious implications for the international order and undermines the role of the UN Security Council in maintaining international peace and security.

Third, just war theory states that wars must be fought for the right intention, meaning that they are fought out of a genuine desire for peace, justice and the good of all. Saint Augustine, the original just war theorist, argued that just wars should be fought with love. There is very little evidence, particularly in the light of both the actions and the attitudes of Israeli leaders and many sections of the Israeli public, that this is anything else but ‘mowing the lawn’, revenge, collective punishment and blood-letting, most likely for continued Palestinian resistance to settlements and the illegal and disproportionate siege of Gaza. Once again, however, I am willing to give the Israeli government the benefit of the doubt on this particular principle and not assert that they are necessarily fighting this war with malign intentions.

On the fourth and one of the most important principles, however, there is no doubt that Israel is in violation of just war precepts. In no way, shape or form can Israel claim that this was the last resort after peaceful means had been attempted. Gaza is completely surrounded and contained, and Hamas and the Arab League have in the past and more recently offered a basis for talks. Israel could have easily re-started serious negotiations, especially after the unity pact between Hamas and the PA eliminated one of the last objections Israel had previously made to re-starting the peace talks. Hamas has offered a ten-year truce if Israel would ease the blockade of Gaza. At the very least, this could have been the basis for serious talks, which if after a few months of honest negotiations had failed, then Israel might have been able to argue that this war was a last resort. Given what we know about the lead-up to, and the context of, this war, no one can seriously argue that it meets the condition of last resort.

The attack on Gaza also fails the fifth principle of just war, namely, that it should have a reasonable chance of success to avoid prolonging suffering. In fact, we know with a very high degree of certainty that this war will fail to destroy Hamas, and fail to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into Israel in the future. We know this because not only does Hamas continue to manage to fire off hundreds of rockets, despite weeks of Israeli bombing, but an identical attack on Gaza in 2012 failed to stop Hamas rockets. It is likely that, as in 2012, the day before this attack ends, Hamas will again fire off a number of rockets just to prove it hasn’t been beaten yet. Not only that, as in 2012, at the end of this war, when thousands are dead and Gaza city is nothing but rubble, we all know that Hamas will be stronger than ever. In sum, this war is producing untold suffering for no discernable strategic success, and therefore cannot meet the principle of reasonable success.

On the sixth principle of just war – proportionality – there is again no doubt that Israel is acting unjustly. This is obvious from the daily images of destruction and the hourly casualty figures, and in the comparison of military capabilities between Israel and Hamas. Hamas has managed to fire around 2,500 rockets towards Israel, which has resulted in 3 Israeli civilian casualties. As tragic as these deaths are, in response, Israel has killed well over a thousand Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes, as well as mosques, schools, hospitals, the power station and other vital infrastructure, and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. This amounts to killing more than 300 Palestinians for every Israeli killed, and has resulted in untold amounts of suffering. No one can possibly suggest it is a proportionate use of force.

Finally, just war principles prioritise the non-targeting of civilians. Once again, in no possible interpretation of the current situation could Israel claim to be making an effort to avoid civilian targets. As its own defence spokesperson claimed, Israel’s drone and satellite surveillance systems are so sophisticated they were able to detect the make of guns carried by Hamas militants disguised as Israeli soldiers. Given this, it is inconceivable that they can’t see when they are blowing up children playing football on a beach, or in a school yard. With the most sophisticated surveillance system in the world, we are apparently meant to believe that Israel has nonetheless accidentally killed over a thousand civilians, or worse, that they somehow deserved their horrible death. In addition, we only need to observe the indiscriminate anti-personnel weapons being used by Israeli forces in the densely populated areas of Gaza to see that this principle is being violated every hour. And the broader strategy of blowing up thousands of buildings in one of the most densely populated areas of the world where people have nowhere else to flee also guarantees a high civilian body count. And the argument that all these civilian deaths are because Hamas is using human shields is no longer credible.

In sum, it is plainly obvious that this is far from a just war. It violates four of the seven principles of just war outright, and may also arguably violate the other three. The only reasonable assessment is that this in fact, a deeply unjust war, a disproportionate massacre of a largely defenceless people. It is exactly the kind of war of aggression that just war theory was designed to prevent or mitigate, and by engaging in it, Israel is behaving like a rogue state. By its actions, Israel is saying that it does not hold to just war and does not care to be bound by just war principles in its use of force. Moreover, the Israeli government knows this all too well, which is why they have gone into high gear to try and shape public debate and media coverage about the attack. The point is that on this assessment, supporters of just war – such as many of the world’s Christians, the R2P proponents, most Western leaders, the UN, the EU – have a duty to condemn this war and point out that it violates the normative international order which we have been trying to establish since WWII. They ought to stop aiding and abetting such illegitimate, rogue behaviour and instead impose sanctions like they did (albeit reluctantly) in South Africa in the 1980s. It is a double standard and it undermines the international normative order when our leaders insist that they support the principles of just war and the legitimate use of force, but then remain silently complicit or openly supportive when Israel fights an obviously unjust, illegitimate war.

Of course, as critics will point out, just war is more of an aspirational wish-list than anything else, and few wars ever conform to it. My point however, is that just war theory has been vigorously used to defend other wars as recently as during NATO’s bombing of Libya, and it forms the normative basis for R2P, humanitarian law, and other aspects of the international legal order. It is also used as a rallying call for imposing sanctions on states like Russia, who it is argued, are engaging in an unjust war. The fact that no Western leader, and few IR scholars or pundits are discussing the Israeli attack on Gaza in terms of just war theory suggests that they have given up on it, or that they believe it only applies to some states and not others. The project of making just war the normative heart of international politics, it seems, is dead. By not speaking out on Gaza, we have quietly given up on the project of a rule-based international system.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, the smashing of Gaza is a painful reminder that we no longer truly believe in universal human rights, rule of law, or justice. That is what the actions of our leaders and sometimes our fellow citizens tell us, because if we truly believed in these values, we wouldn’t allow our leaders to remain silently complicit. I’m beginning to wonder if we ever did truly believe in those values, and where we go from here. If our leaders and societies are no longer committed to just war principles, what does this say about us, and where do those of us working for a just and peaceful international order look to find ways of limiting violence and war? Are we headed for another era in which civilians are once again considered fair game in war? How do we stop the mass killing of civilians from being normalised once again? Answers on a postcard, please…

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The Case Against Voting

I want to make it clear that I am not against voting per se. Under the right circumstances, and in certain contexts, voting can be an effective and meaningful form of democratic participation or collective decision-making. Rather, my argument is that at this present historical juncture – in this time and place, right here and now in New Zealand (and likely many other countries) – voting is largely a pointless activity. I suggest two main reasons for such a depressing conclusion.

The first main reason is that, as any reasonable assessment demonstrates, voting is no longer fit for purpose given the challenges currently facing us. That is, voting and the broader context of electoral politics is incapable of generating the kinds of deep and profound political and social change we need in order to deal with our generation’s challenges, and has largely lost its democratic content. In particular, I would argue that electoral politics can no longer deal with the deeply interrelated challenges of global climate change and wealth inequality. These two issues threaten our economy, our society, our social values and way of life, and indeed, our long-term viable existence on this planet. More importantly, they are highly complex problems that in order to meet adequately will require multiple, long-term coordinated actions (including sustained cross-party, and inter-state political cooperation), replacing the profit motive and perpetual economic growth as the central principles of capitalism, and either re-nationalising the banks, the energy sector, transport, and the like, or at the very least, regulating these sectors into compliance with an entirely new set of social, economic and political priorities.

So why can’t voting and the electoral system function effectively to meet these challenges? There are several rather obvious reasons. First, the structure and culture of electoral politics now prevents the kind of politics we actually need to meet these challenges. This is because, among other things, the electoral cycle creates incentives for presentism and buck-passing; democracies are ‘systematically biased in favour of the present’, as some pundits argue. It also creates incentives towards ignoring lessons and the rejection of evidence-based policy in favour of short-term electoral calculations. More importantly, the electoral system promotes centrism and ideological conformity, as witnessed by the broad acceptance of neoliberalism by virtually every single major political party in the Western world. In truth, the similarities between parties now outweigh and outnumber the differences between them, and electoral choice today is largely confined to either accelerated neoliberalism or a slightly slower, gentler neoliberalism (no party is offering to reverse or abandon neoliberalism for something else, for example). Another problem is that electoral politics is permeated by a culture of adversarialism, which is more than simply a sociological condition but is a direct consequence of the embedded pay-off structures in the system. Related to this, and more specifically, the process required to pass legislation can never go beyond dealing with single issues. As a consequence of all these characteristics, electoral politics is today only capable of the most minimalist reformism, which is actually more than simply irritating; it is harmful because it leaves the root problems intact to continue injuring people.

A second key problem, and one I need not labour here, is the well-known democratic deficit engendered by successive generations of de-regulation and privatisation. The consequence of this is that electoral politics is now structurally limited in its ability to control markets, capital and other special interests. Today, most parliaments probably could not act decisively in some crucial areas because they have ceded control to capital, markets, and other interests.

A third problem with the current political system lies in the influence of special interests on politics, which is itself a direct result of wealth inequality. Apart from the almost weekly media reports we read in New Zealand about ministers meeting with special economic interests behind closed doors, party donations scandals, and all the professional lobbyists among the 63 approved visitors with direct access to the Beehive, the international evidence gathered by Thomas Picketty and the Princeton Study on voter preferences – among others – shows that the political system responds to the preferences of the wealthy far more than to those of the less well off. It is in fact, more of an oligarchy than a democracy; political institutions have largely been captured by the wealthy. In conjunction with the democratic deficit caused by de-regulation, the kindest way to put this is to say that democratic institutions have lost control of capitalism, and are now in fact, controlled by capitalism. This perhaps explains why even a modest tax increase on the wealthy is so difficult for a major party to suggest.

A final key problem with the current political system is the increasingly unrepresentative nature of politicians: earning a minimum of $141,000 per year, MPs in New Zealand are in the top 2% of earners (70% of New Zealanders earn less than $43,000 per year; 50% less than $24,000). In addition, the rise of the professional political class has created a set of embedded interests which may not be the same interests as society (or the planet). This is a well-observed sociological phenomenon: once a professional class arises, its core interests lie in ensuring continued employment, career progress, and maintaining the conditions of its privilege. The same holds true for political parties. What this means is that the central driving purpose of the electoral and wider political system is now to maintain the overall arrangements and perpetuate its own survival as an institution and its place in the social hierarchy.

In the end, these are very serious, structurally-embedded problems which cannot be fixed merely by voting for the right politicians. The reality we must now face is that in functionalist terms, the electoral system is not just structurally incapable of dealing with certain challenges, but is part of the architecture by which the current system is maintained. Through reformism, minor adjustments and a legitimising ideological function, periodic voting ensures that neoliberal capitalism and its accompanying inequities and damage to the planet continues without serious challenge. Given that neoliberal capitalism created the problems of inequality and climate change in the first place, this suggests we cannot now look to it for solutions – at least in its present form.

To paraphrase Naomi Klein, at a moment in history when we need a collective approach to solve a series of interlocking collective problems, we are lumbered with an electoral system that promotes individualism, isolation and self-interest. At a moment when we need controls over corporate power and the regulation of capital, we are burdened with an electoral system in which ‘regulation’ is a dirty word and corporate power and the power of the market is greater than political power – and when we most require strong, determined and flexible political action, we find our politicians are tied down by the apparatus of ‘free trade’ and deregulation. At a moment when we need politicians to build public institutions and empower local communities, we find ourselves ruled by a political class who only seem to know how to dismantle and starve public institutions.

At a moment when we need politicians to work together in holistic, comprehensive and interlinked ways, we find we are stuck with an anachronistic, adversarial politics which can only deal with one issue at a time. At a moment when we need to move from a system based on individual consumerism to one based on sustainable communalism, we are forced to participate in individualistic electoral consumerism. At a moment when we need to adopt a long-term horizon, we find ourselves trapped in short-term electoral cycles. At a moment in history when we need a revolution in the way we live and produce material goods and make social decisions, we are stuck with a system capable only of more of the same old way of doing things.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, I want to suggest a second reason for pessimism, namely, that not only is voting no longer fit for purpose, voting is bad for you. Once again, there are a number of reasons for this. First, voting legitimises the status quo and a system in which the role of ordinary people is actually to endorse rule by the wealthy and for the wealthy. It is, in effect, allowing ourselves to be used as a means of elite rule and elite legitimisation. Second, as a method, voting is ambiguous and far too blunt an instrument of preference communication to be useful: you can’t really signal which issue you are voting on, but politicians can use your vote to justify policies which you might, in fact, actually oppose. Related to this, voting today creates cynicism and disillusionment, in large part because the system means that politicians have to promise so much to so many, knowing that they will be unable to fulfil them, and knowing that they will introduce policies they failed to mention during the election.

Third, I would argue that voting is ultimately assimilating and pacifying of citizens, and it socialises the voter into a belief system in which the act of voting represents democratic participation and a political system where their doubts and ideals are shaped into narrowly prescribed, consensus generating forms. In this respect, voting promotes a collective illusion, namely, that ticking a ballot form is a meaningful form of democratic participation, that voting is democratisation, and that voting involves the exercise of real influence. The reality is the opposite: voting is ultimately both disempowering and a mechanism for engendering psychological compliance with the current system. It is in fact, antithetical to the real promise of democracy, which is to enhance the capacity of people to exercise autonomy and control over their own lives and communities.

Fourth, voting is in many ways disempowering and de-politicising: it is both a formal and symbolic way of giving up our individual autonomy and responsibility to others. As such, it reinforces a culture of learned helplessness and dependency on a select group of (elite) others to run our lives. Voting reinforces the message that we cannot, we need not, and we should not be involved in important decision-making or building a better society for ourselves and our communities.

Fifth, voting reinforces the logic and basis of atomised liberal subjects by requiring us to make individual votes based on self-interest: it is a temporary, self-interested transaction in which we sell our votes to those who promise to give us something we want in return. This is simply the selfish, commodified logic of capitalist social relations in the political sphere, and is the same logic that has caused our current crises. Voting constitutes us as separate, atomised, individual (political) consumers, and reinforces the individual’s sense of self in terms of commodified social relations. More significantly, electoral politics divides and fractures local communities by competitively appealing to individuals and their interests, and by introducing winner-take-all contests into groups. Electoral politics reinforces the adversarial and individualistic logic of capitalism, as I’ve noted, at a moment in history when consensus and communalism would be more beneficial.

In the end, more than just substituting the form of democracy for the substance of democracy, it can be argued that voting actually impedes progress by legitimising the existing system, encouraging politicians to believe that they have a mandate and support from the people, reinforcing the alienation of individuals, and constricting the space for an alternative politics. In other words, voting just encourages them to more of the same!

Of course, this leaves us with some difficult questions: Can the electoral system be reformed? Are there alternatives to voting? I would argue that it is unlikely that the electoral system can be reformed in the short-term, or at least in time to deal with the current crises. Its problems are structurally embedded in the system. However, there are a number of positive reforms which would potentially improve the current system of electoral politics in New Zealand, including: institutionalising and enabling the right of recall and no confidence, especially in cases of broken promises; binding referenda on issues of national importance, including the economy, the environment, social welfare, education, health and the arts; alternative voting systems such as STV and the end of closed party lists; linking MP wages to the median wage; placing limits on how many terms politicians can serve; and prohibiting private donations to political parties and restricting lobbyists. A nation-wide direct consultation (a National Dialogue) in which citizens could participate, and from which binding recommendations on issues of national importance could come, would be another possible avenue for enhancing democratic participation, and a kind of extra-parliamentary form of democratic participation.

However, these are mostly reformist approaches which would likely do very little to make the current system truly democratic and effective. I want to tentatively suggest that there are undoubtedly other forms of everyday, subaltern political agency which are potentially more meaningful, and potentially more effective and empowering than electoral politics, and which may start to generate the kind of innovative, radical politics which could make a real difference. Part of the problem, however, is that neoliberalism and electoral politics have shrivelled our political imaginations and limited our horizon of possibilities. This makes is extremely difficult to think about alternatives to what currently exists. The following are just some initial thoughts about the directions we might take.

In the first place, we need a revolution of everyday life through the infusion of politics into the everyday – what James Scott calls ‘infra-politics’ – as an alternative to the current moribund national politics. Such everyday resistance and activism by citizens can sometimes lead to large-scale ‘refusal’ and eventual larger forms of political mobilisation. The value of practising everyday democracy is that it actually helps to create new forms of subjectivity in citizens. We should also think about the need to contest the idea of the state being the exclusive site of the political, and the need to construct autonomous movements, organisations and political spaces in order to re-situate democratic participation. This is what Abensour calls ‘insurgent democracy’. It is an idea defintiely worth exploring.

In the end, there’s no simple answer to the deep hole we find ourselves in as we think about the forthcoming election. It’s a long-term project of ‘reinventing democracy’ which begins by honestly facing up to the structural weaknesses of the current system. The key point is that we will never discover a better democracy while we cling to the old, broken democratic system.

In conclusion, as I mentioned at the start, I am not against voting per se, and I am not suggesting you shouldn’t vote in the upcoming election. You can vote if you like, but just recognise that it is little more than a rather pointless, symbolic gesture which won’t have any substantial effect – except more intensive neo-liberal capitalism if one particular party gets in, and slightly less intensive neo-liberal capitalism if the other one wins. Also recognise that it will function to reinforce the current status quo and will therefore probably do more harm than good – to you, to our society, to the planet, to the possibilities of real, individual democratic participation.

In other words, if you do decide to vote, please don’t just vote. Don’t stop at the polling booth: go and do something else as well. Do anything else that involves your active engagement with political issues – start a reading group to educate yourself, form a cooperative, join a union and volunteer to be on its leadership, launch a creative protest against consumerism, do some guerrilla gardening, launch an independent media centre, create a temporary autonomous zone in a squat, join or start an activist group – anything! I believe that it is only when we start to think and act outside of the narrow confines of electoral politics that we will find meaningful ways to expand the democratic space, discover new solutions and achieve a more meaningful political agency for ourselves and our societies. Sadly, but realistically, it is only outside of the current electoral political system – and outside the confines of the state – that individuals and communities can reclaim a genuine sense of democratic citizenship and perhaps start to deal with the serious challenges facing our generation.

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The Problem with Gaza

The problem with Gaza is that when we see its suffering, we know that our commitment to human rights stops at the Israeli border; it hurries past the apartheid wall. We do not, it seems, believe in universal human rights after all.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see its dead, dust-covered children, we know that our belief in the rule of law and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity is nothing more than fancy talk designed to seduce and distract from the ethical vacuum at the heart of our legal ethics.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see the crushed wheelchairs of the disabled, too slow to get out with a one minute warning, we know that we consider some lives to be value-less, expendable, ungrievable. The Gazan dead are collateral damage, the responsibility of the terrorists, unfortunate accidents, deserving of their deaths because of their government; there are a million reasons to discount lives, to dismiss suffering.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see its hospitals crowded with the weeping wounded, waiting for vital medicines to be allowed in by Israeli border officials, we realise that we do not consider that all people have the right to live in freedom and dignity. We have learned to accept the imprisonment of an entire people behind walls; we accept that some can enjoy the freedoms we possess while others must possess subjugation, injustice, humiliation.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see family homes, hospitals, mosques and cultural centres reduced to rubble, we know that our commitment to international law and justice is little more than political expediency, a rhetorical flourish concealing a cynical calculus.

The problem with Gaza is that when we see people running about helplessly behind the walls, desperate to escape the screaming, searching bombs, we know that we accept an international order in which the powerful terrify and debase the weak, the oppressed are denied the right to resist, and in which military might trumps morality and reason.

The problem with Gaza is that it is a mirror to the moral vacuum that is ‘civilised, Western values’. It taunts us, mocking our deeply-held beliefs, our delusional self-confessed identity as civilised, democratic, advanced. We think our politicians, our institutions and our societies really do cherish human rights, democracy, rule of law and a compassionate, humane international order. We believe our media tell the truth. But when we look at what Israel does to Gaza, to the Palestinians across the colonised territories, day after day and year after year, we know that none of this is really true. Suddenly, brutally, we know that we are hypocrites, our leaders are hypocrites, our purported values are nothing but vapours; they vanish with the first breeze of a US-made Israeli attack helicopter.

The problem with Gaza is that it reminds us that our governments send arms to Israel, accept its nuclear arsenal without protest, maintain full diplomatic relations with it, allow its representatives to speak unchallenged in our media, make excuses for its illegal, immoral behaviour, and block UN resolutions which criticise its walls, its blockades, its annexation of land, its excessive violence. It reminds us that we continue to vote for politicians and political parties who refuse to speak or act on behalf of the oppressed, despite their fine rhetoric about freedom and human rights. It reminds us that we allow Israel to act with impunity by our silence, our cooperation, our normalised relations. It reminds us that we have chosen a side, and it is not the side of justice and freedom.

The problem with Gaza is that it reminds us that we are all complicit in its suffering if we do nothing.

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Confessions of a Terrorist: A Novel

In 2011, I started writing a novel about terrorism. I did so because although I had read literally hundreds of novels about terrorism, I had yet to find one which I could in all good conscience recommend to my students as a useful supplement to the academic literature. There did not seem to be any novels which gave an authentic account of why someone would join a terrorist group or choose the life of militant. I also wrote it because I knew that Critical Terrorism Studies needed to find new ways to communicate its ideas to the public. It was not going to be enough to write more academic books and articles; we needed more affective and interesting ways of writing about terrorism.

I am happy to report that in May 2014 my novel, Confessions of a Terrorist, will be published by Zed Books. Below is an abridged version of the Preface to the novel. It explains in more detail why I wrote the novel and what its premise is.


PREFACE to Confessions of a Terrorist: 

The premise of this novel is quite simple: if you sat down face-to-face with a terrorist, what questions would you ask him or her? What would you like to know about their life, their upbringing, their reasons for taking up armed struggle, their aims and goals, their sense of morality, their feelings about what they do? This question is important, not least because terrorism seems to be everywhere these days, and yet paradoxically, we appear to know almost nothing about the people who perpetrate it. It is on our television screens and in our newspapers virtually every day, and everywhere you go there are reminders of how much efforts to prevent terrorism have fundamentally changed our way of life. In fact, there has never been so much public discussion and information about terrorism at any time in history. And yet, paradoxically, whenever a terrorist incident occurs, the first question on everyone’s lips is: why did they do it? What turned this person into a murderer? What is really going on in the mind of a terrorist?

There’s another reason why this question is important: if we don’t understand what really goes on in the mind of terrorists, we will be forced to simply try and imagine it. We’ll have to just guess at what they’re thinking. I suggest that this is actually what we have been doing for many years now: guessing, imagining, fantasizing about what goes on in the mind of a militant. And thus far, if novels, movies, television shows, and media portrayals are anything to go by, we imagine that terrorists are insane, fanatical, psychologically damaged, cruel, immoral, essentially ‘evil’, and most importantly, quite inhuman.

The problem with viewing terrorists through this veil of ignorance, with trying to understand them through the lens of our usually frightened imagination, is that ultimately we cannot help but turn them into monsters and bogeymen. They cease to be real people, human beings with a history, a childhood, feelings, life experiences, aspirations, values. They are instead reduced to what they’ve done or what they perhaps intended to do. And when this happens, they inevitably become a ‘cancer’ and a ‘scourge’, a ‘savage’, an ‘animal’, an ‘extremist’, an ‘evildoer’. At this point, we also give permission for them to be treated as less than human. Cancer is to be eradicated, after all; scourges are to be quarantined; animals are to be hunted or tamed.

In other words, it is precisely because we have failed to see the humanity of the terrorist, because we have imagined them as something other than a fellow human being, that we have tortured, rendered, imprisoned without trial, and summarily killed thousands of people we suspect or imagine to be terrorists in the past few years. Apart from compounding the original wrong of terrorism, I would argue that this is a counter-productive and ultimately self-defeating approach. It cannot work to end or prevent further acts of terrorism; its only certain result is to create more terrorists and engender more violent retaliation.

Sadly, it seems that artists, novelists, film-makers and others who write about terrorism have embraced this veil of ignorance which currently characterises our collective understanding. This is surprising, given that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former terrorists and militants one could quite easily talk to, and hundreds of published interviews, autobiographies, and in-depth studies with them.

So what’s going on? Why do we stutter and stumble about in trying to explain their actions and motives when they are perfectly willing to explain it all, and when there is plenty of information available to understand them? I believe it is because, as anthropologists tell us, there is kind of taboo against ‘talking to terrorists’ or trying to understand them at a human level. A taboo is an unspoken prohibition that functions to maintain the limits of social behaviour and which is designed to protect society from certain culturally determined dangers. In this case, the terrorism taboo is designed to segregate terrorists and militants, and to protect society from their perceived malign influence. Talking to them, listening to their voices, hearing their arguments, trying to understand their point of view is therefore prohibited. The fear is that getting too close to a terrorist may lead to some kind of infection or contamination, and thus will the cancerous evil of terrorism spread. This taboo is so powerful and so prevalent that you will almost never hear the real voice of a terrorist in a public forum such as the media. They are not allowed to speak for themselves.

A central purpose of this novel therefore is to try and break through the taboo on ‘talking to terrorists’. As such, it treats the terrorist as a fully human being, not a stereotypical monster or an inhuman, incomprehensible fanatic. More importantly, the novel allows the terrorist to speak and have a real voice, uncensored and unrestricted, honest and intimate. Of course, the danger of taking this approach, as warned by the taboo, is that in listening to the voice of the terrorist, we will begin to comprehend their point of view. Their reasons may become understandable to us. The key point is that understanding – or even sympathising – with the goals of the terrorist is not the same as condoning and legitimising their violent actions. I can understand the necessity of resisting oppression without accepting the need to strap on a suicide vest or leave a bomb in a train station to kill commuters. However, without understanding the mind of the terrorist in the first place, we are left with nothing but our terrified imagination as the foundation on which to construct a counter-terrorism policy.

If you want to read more, you can pre-order the book at any of the following websites:


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The Beast They Call the Revolution

In a few days I will be giving my Inaugural Professorial Lecture. It is a time to reflect on the journey that has brought me to this place. Kevin Clements will be introducing me at the lecture, so it seemed appropriate to reblog this post about our first meeting 25 years ago.


In 1988, I painted a series of pictures for a module on the sociology of peace and justice taught by Kevin Clements at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. The pictures were my attempt at a creative interpretation of some key issues facing Africa’s struggle to overcome the violent and distorting legacy of colonialism and achieve a better future. Below I reproduce some often blurry photos of the original paintings and the text which accompanied each one. Please remember I wrote this in 1988 when I was much younger than I am today.

The Chief – oils on board, 1988. The idea for this painting came from a photograph which my father has of a local chief who used to visit our mission-station. He was dressed as a European and carried a modern ‘wireless’, but he also carried a traditional spear. The painting points to the inherent conflict in…

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Swords into Ploughshares: A World Peace Day Sermon

The following is the text of the sermon I gave today at St Paul’s Cathedral, Dunedin, as part of World Peace Day Sunday:

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

I would like to extend my thanks to Dean Trevor James for asking me to give the sermon this morning. It is really a tremendous honour for me to speak to you in such a wonderful place – our beautiful cathedral – and on such a special occasion when we gather to re-commit ourselves to the sacred task – and I believe it is a sacred task, one that is deeply rooted in our faith – of building peace in a violent and suffering world.

The International Day of Peace, or, World Peace Day was first established by the United Nations in 1981. The UN declared that “Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations.” At the same time, the International Day of Peace is also a Day of Ceasefire – a day for making peace in both personal relationships, and the larger conflicts of our time. On Ceasefire Day, the world calls for, and prays for, the guns to fall silent everywhere, at least for one day. This year, the theme of Ceasefire Day is a question: Who Will You Make Peace With?

As a consequence, yesterday, millions of people around the world, including some of us here who spent the day in the Octagon, gathered together to wait in silence, pray, meditate, learn, sing, dance, light a candle and in a myriad of creative ways, commit themselves anew to the task of making peace a reality in the world. And today, together with people of faith around the world, we also gather in this cathedral to pray, to seek inspiration and strength, and to ask for God’s blessing on our individual and collective efforts to follow in Christ’s footsteps as peacemakers. 

Before I go any further, let me confess: I am no theologian, and I have never undertaken any formal biblical or religious studies. I do come from a family tradition of clergy. If I had gone into the ministry, as my family once hoped for, I would have been a fifth generation minister. However, it was not be. I found another, though not dissimilar, vocation. The point is, I have no particular qualifications to speak to you today. This means that I can only speak from the heart about what I personally believe and how I, as a practicing Christian, read the bible, and in particular, how I understand the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

I must also declare that I am a pacifist. I am a pacifist for three main reasons – because I am scholar, because I am human being, and because I am a Christian.

As a scholar, I have studied war and political violence for more than twenty years now, and I have come to three general conclusions about war. First, every argument advanced by scholars or legal experts or politicians for the necessity and legitimacy of war in general, or indeed for any specific war of the last sixty years at least, upon careful examination, lacks proper foundation in both reason and evidence.

Second, the weight of evidence – historical and contemporary – clearly demonstrates that war is incapable of establishing lasting, genuine peace. The primary effect of war throughout history is to create the conditions for further episodes of violent conflict and future wars. This is not to say that war does not sometimes lead to temporary peace. But it is to accept along with Gandhi that, “I oppose all violence because the good it does is always temporary but the harm it does is permanent”.

Third, my studies have led me to the conclusion that there are far more effective means of resolving conflict and creating the conditions of lasting peace than using military force and violence – if only we have the vision to see them and the courage to try them. There are, in other words, proven alternatives to war. War is never the sole remaining option, nor the optimal choice, in any given situation.

Apart from my scholarly reasons, I am also a pacifist because I am a human being who has seen war first hand and experienced a small taste of its horror. I was born and raised as the son of a missionary in the southern part of Zambia, not more than 20 miles from the border with what was then Rhodesia. During the Rhodesian war –what is now called the Zimbabwean war of independence – the fighting spilled across into Zambia, and I experienced first-hand the fear of proximity to military battle, and the absolute terror of being manhandled by a soldier off a bus at a military roadblock to be taken to what I believed was my likely execution. At that moment, I experienced the moral abyss of war: in war, there is no law, no rules, no protection, just arbitrary violence.

During this war when I was growing up, I also spoke at length to soldiers who at the age of 19 or 20 were psychologically scarred by what they had seen and done in combat. As many of you will also have experienced, veterans come home from war with deep moral and psychological injuries, which are then often passed on from generation to generation.

In any case, these experiences confirmed to me that war is probably humanity’s greatest evil, and its greatest tragedy. In fact, war is the time and place where the human capacity for sin and evil finds its greatest expression. There has never been a war where hate, fear, malice, cruelty, rape, lack of control, torture and murder have not been present – and where once ordinary and decent human beings have remained unaffected or uncorrupted by these evils. To put it another way, I know of no single person in history who has experienced war firsthand who has ever found it to be uplifting, or enriching, or ennobling, or life-affirming. War, which is the organized killing of fellow human beings, is utterly destructive and disfiguring to the human body and spirit. There is nothing redeeming or good in war. This is why I reject war in all its forms. This is one reason why I am a pacifist.

Sadly, in our society, the true horrors of war and its inherently craven nature, are too often obscured. In our movies and television shows, our news and our memorials, we more often prefer to hide the awful reality of the human suffering and death that results from war. Instead, we focus on its heroism and nobility, sacrifice and nation-affirming character.

However, perhaps the most important reason – and what I want to focus on today – is that I am a pacifist because I am also a Christian, and I believe that my faith demands a radical commitment to principled nonviolence, anti-militarism and peacemaking. This flows directly from my firm belief that the starting point for any Christian on any ethical issue is the example and teaching of Jesus. So, what does Jesus say about peace, and violence, and war? Among many verses, I’m sure we are all familiar with the following:

·         “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5: 9)

·         “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5: 38-39, 43-45)

·         “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 25)

·          “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” (Matt. 26: 52)

The only way I can read these verses is as an uncompromising opposition to revenge and retribution, violence and war, and as heralding a new ethic of love for enemies, and a radical non-violent response to injustice and oppression. And as I read about the life and teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, I am left with the following questions:

Would the Jesus we read about in the Gospels ever, under any circumstances, stick a bayonet into another human being?

Would he drop a bomb on village full of people?

Would he shoot someone in the face, or run someone over in a tank? 

The answer is unequivocally, No. As Reinhold Neibuhr put it, “The ethic of Christ is uncompromisingly pacifist.” Moreover, it is clear that this is both a personal and a communal ethic; the listeners of Jesus would have interpreted it as applying both to individuals and the people as a community.

Later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul re-affirms this radical new ethic proclaimed by Jesus. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends… Do not be overcome with evil; but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 11: 17-21). Paul also admonishes Christians to “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6: 14-15). And then, he reminds us that as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22) – will be produced in us. These are all the values which are the direct opposite of war and violence, and they come from Christ’s indwelling in our lives. 

In the Old Testament, we are told about the Peaceable Kingdom which is foretold and inaugurated by the incarnation of Jesus, who is according to the Prophets, “the Prince of Peace”. In God’s Kingdom, peace prevails as its primary characteristic, as the following verses clearly state:

 ·         “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat… they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11: 6, 9)

·         “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2: 18)

·         “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Micah 4: 3)

·         “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9: 10)

As before, I find that I can only understand these verses as saying that God’s Kingdom, which is both foretold and inaugurated in Christ, is characterized by peace, justice and love for enemies. And that there is no place for war in God’s Kingdom: “Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land”. In fact, there is not even a place for training for war: “nor will they train for war anymore”. In God’s Kingdom, the instruments of death and killing are transformed into instruments of life and human well-being: “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

This reading of the Bible, and the ethical position it entails – the position of principled nonviolence, of refusing to participate in any form in war, in working tirelessly to establish God’s Kingdom of peace on earth – is in fact the oldest tradition in Christianity, and one which continues today in the historic peace churches, such as the Quakers. For the first few centuries after the life of Jesus, Christians did not join the military, nor did they engage in violent resistance to oppression and persecution. I believe that this is the original Christian tradition. Origen (185-254), one of the great figures of the early church, wrote: “For we no longer take sword against a nation, nor do we learn any more to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

But what about that other Christian tradition – the tradition of Christians serving in the military, of Chaplains attached to the armed forces, of bibles being distributed to soldiers, of military services held in churches, of congregations praying for the success of their nation in war? This tradition began with the conversion of the Roman ruler, Constantine, in the third century, and his declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent fusion of religious and temporal power in the institutions of the state. In order to justify the use of military force by the now Christian state, and the participation of Christians in the army, theologians of the day were compelled to develop the Doctrine of Just War. This doctrine has guided many Christians, especially the official state churches of many countries, ever since.

Briefly, Just War Doctrine states that a number of conditions need to be satisfied for a war to be considered just, and for Christians to therefore support it and participate in it:

·         The war must be for a just cause;

·         The war must be declared by a lawful authority;

·         It must be fought for a right intention;

·         It must be a last resort after peaceful alternatives have been tried;

·         It must have a reasonable chance of success;

·         The force used must be proportionate;

·         Innocent civilians should not be harmed.

Just War theologians argued that if these strict conditions were fulfilled, Christians could fight in the war with a clear conscience. Importantly, the original Just War Doctrine was rooted in the understanding that war was inherently evil; it could never be considered good nor heroic.

However, in my view, Just War Doctrine is wrong on a number of grounds. First, as most ethicists and political philosophers now accept, it is incoherent and inconsistent as a guide for moral behavior in war. This is because among its many inconsistencies which I cannot go into here, it separates means and ends, it separates intentions and actions, and it creates two separate moral spheres – war where killing is permissible, and peace where it is not.

More seriously, Just War Doctrine elevates the political community – the nation-state – above the rights and morality of individual human beings, and makes killing other human beings in the name of the state a duty. This creates the absurd, and I would argue anti-Christian, situation where fellow Christians may be compelled to kill each other in the name of different nation-states who are at war. At the very least, it involves children of God killing other children of God in the name of political institutions – which, I might add, were not created by God, but most often created by war, dispossession, and the forceful incorporation of peoples into a new unit.

Importantly, I would argue that no war in the last one hundred years at least can confidently be said to have adhered properly to Just War precepts, for the simple reason that there is no war I know of where all other nonviolent options have been properly tried first. What I mean by this is simply that vast resources are poured into preparing for war, training for war, and making war. No similar level of resources – financial or human – have been devoted to training for, preparing for, or attempting peaceful methods of conflict resolution. Compare military budgets with diplomatic budgets. Compare how many people are trained to fight in the military with how many people are trained in nonviolence and conflict resolution. Compare how many scientists are working on weapons development with how many are working on peaceful solutions. We cannot say that war is the last resort until we have put at least as much effort into finding nonviolent solutions as we have into preparing for, and making, war.   

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for us here today, I believe that Just War Doctrine is wrong is because it clearly contradicts the life and teaching of Jesus, and the values of his Peaceful Kingdom. The violence, the harm, the injury, the hatred, the brutality of war contradicts everything about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In the end, my Christian pacifism is renewed each time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, particularly the line “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time I pray this, I ask myself this:

·         Is it God’s will that more than 100 million human beings have been murdered in wars in the past century? 

·         Is it God’s will that hundreds of millions of people are driven from their homes, forced to flee and live in appalling conditions because of war?

·         Is it God’s will that tens of thousands of women and girls are raped and sexually violated in war every year?

·         And is it God’s will that men and women study and train and discipline themselves to kill and maim their fellow human beings in combat?

·         Is it God’s will that scientists and strategists work tirelessly, year after year, to devise ever more destructive ways to kill, and maim and destroy other human beings?

·         Is it God’s will that people spend their days working in factories to make cluster munitions and other horrible weapons that will spread around the world and be used to tear apart the bodies of their fellow human beings?

·         Is it God’s will that uncountable trillions of dollars have been spent, and continue to be spent, on maintaining military forces while millions of children are under-fed, families are un-housed, entire generations of young people are un-educated, and millions lack in basic medication?

·         Is it God’s will that veterans come back from war with physical and emotional wounds which diminish and distort their lives, and poison their relationships, for decades after?

·         Is it God’s will that we as a society seem to revel in war and killing as entertainment, turn it into video games for our children, and mythologise soldiers and warriors – who are the professionals of killing in our society – as heroic?

The question I ask myself is this: how can I pray the Lord’s prayer in all sincerity, week after week, year after year – thy will be done on earth – if I then support war which is clearly against God’s will?  I cannot pray for God’s will to be done on earth and then work against God’s will by supporting war. If I do, then my prayer is not sincere and I am a hypocrite.

Peace is at the core of God’s kingdom. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came down from heaven to give us his peace. His peace has both an individual dimension and a collective dimension. At the level of the individual, he offers through his redemptive grace the chance to make peace with God and peace with ourselves. At the collective level, his life, death and resurrection inaugurates and brings into existence a new Kingdom of peace, love, and justice.

As Christians, I believe we are called equally to both kinds of peace. We are called to make peace with our God, and make peace in the world with our fellow human beings. Too often, we have focused on the one – inner peace – and neglected the other – Kingdom peace on earth. This is because too often, we have been afraid to follow the radical example of Jesus; we have been too afraid to speak out against the dominant values of our friends, our families, our society; perhaps we have been too afraid of losing respect and influence from the powerful in this world.

So, sisters and brothers, children of God, what should we do? Both of my parents are ministers and they taught me that a sermon always ought to end with some practical suggestions for how we might respond. I believe we follow a practical faith of real relevance to the world; without actions, our faith is meaningless. Individually, I take from this reading of Jesus the challenge to continue educating myself – to learn more about the biblical basis of Christian pacifism; to learn more about the true nature of war, and the practicalities and potentialities of peace.

I am also challenged to ensure that I am at peace with God and my neighbor – that peace and peacefulness characterizes all my relationships with others, and with the earth that sustains me.

Lastly, I am challenged about my commitment to making peace in the world, to being a blessed peacemaker and working for Christ’s kingdom of peace on earth here and now. In this respect, I try to look for ways of contributing to peace organisations and peace groups, to actions and forms of activism that promote peace and oppose war and militarism. There are peace organisations in our own church, such as the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, as well as many others in our city, our nation and the wider world.

And what about collectively? How should we respond as a community of faith to Jesus’s life and teaching? I believe that as a church, the Anglican Church, particularly as the main Christian church which has a long tradition and close historical relationship with the New Zealand state, I wonder if we need to ask some potentially difficult and painful questions.

·         Do we compromise our faith in the name of maintaining political favour by officially supporting war and militarism – by providing religious sanction to the nation’s military, to its wars and interventions, to its patriotic myths?

·         How can we honour those who serve in the armed services while also following Jesus’ call to radical pacifism and the Kingdom imperative to end war and the preparation for war?

·         Do we deny our Lord when we fail as an institution to speak out against all forms of war and militarism, and when we fail to denounce the violence and destruction of some of our nation’s policies?

·         Is it time for the Anglican Church in this nation, and for St Paul’s Cathedral in our city, to make a radical commitment to being peacemakers, and to take a more consistent, principled and open stand against war and all forms of militarism – to speak out against military spending, for example, particularly while so many children live in poverty in this country?

·         In a practical sense, is it time to devote significant financial and human resources to the study and practice of nonviolence – to educating and training Christian peacemakers who can offer peaceful alternatives to military forces and violent intervention?

My hope and my prayer is that all of us here today, and St Paul’s Cathedral and the entire community of faith in Dunedin, will grow in God’s peace, will try harder to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and will be blessed peacemakers; and that our homes, our churches and our city will bring about God’s peace on earth as it is in heaven. This will be an extremely difficult task. It will require dedicated and tireless struggle. Fortunately, Jesus promises help; he gives us his peace as a source of strength: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14: 27).

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.   

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