Friday, February 26, 2010

With great power comes great obfuscation

With great power comes great responsibility” is one of those lines that, despite being uttered in a Spiderman movie, will linger on in social consciousness.

The statement is a catchy version of a line in a Roosevelt speech (which, incidentally, he never gave because he died the night before): “Today, we have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility”.

This may well, in turn, come from the Bible, which, in the book of Luke, states: “From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Whatever its origins, the assertion is evocative and, as I sat watching Tony Blair give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, I could not get the line out of my head.

The quote came to mind for three reasons.

Firstly, the way George W Bush and Blair painted Saddam Hussein as the incarnation of evil and the West as the saviours of the Iraqi people was as fantastical as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Secondly, the full quotation in the movie, although cheesy, is rather profound in the context of the Iraq war. In the film, the line is used in relation to a school bully who used to torment the young Peter Parker before he transformed into Spiderman. Spiderman’s uncle warns: “But just because you can beat him up doesn’t give you the right to. Remember, with great power comes great responsibility”. This is a warning Bush and Blair would have done well to heed in relation to the bully, Hussein.

Finally, Blair’s blind obstinacy that he did the right thing and had no regrets about his actions has left me questioning if he really does take responsibility for his actions. In the Chilcot Inquiry, Blair claimed that “there is not a single day that passes” without him thinking about his responsibility. Blair claims he had multiple responsibilities, including the responsibility to protect the country. But everyone now knows that Hussein was not a threat to the UK. Yes, Hussein was harming his own people, but it is difficult to sustain an argument that you care about ordinary Iraqis with over 95 000 civilian deaths on your hands.

Based on Blair’s insistence (on another TV show) that, even if there were no weapons of mass destruction, he still would “have thought it right to remove [Hussein]” one can only conclude that Blair sees responsibility as being tied to his personal opinion of what was right or wrong. But taking a difficult decision because you think it is right and you have the power to do it, particularly when most ordinary people could see it was ill advised, does not negate the real responsibility that comes with such actions.

I find it hard to understand how one can feel responsible for, yet not regret or feel the need to apologise for, an ill-planned and ill-executed war that has by all accounts been a disaster.

When asked recently about the number of inquiries into the war by a US channel, Blair commented that he felt it was hard for people to simply disagree on a matter these days. Rather, he added, people had a tendency to think there was “some great deceit” or “conspiracy” rather than just to accept that people “have different points of view and hold them reasonably for genuine reasons”.

But what Blair does not appear to understand is that we are not talking about a disagreement about whether Pepsi is better than Coke, or whether Batman would beat Spiderman in a fictitious fight. Disagreement in the Iraq case meant that politicians, led by Blair, rammed through a political decision to kill thousands of people – a decision that millions of ordinary people in the UK and in the rest of the world opposed. Taking responsibility, in this case, means accounting for the deaths that followed one’s decision – not rationalising why you thought it was a good idea.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 February 2010.