The body of Muammar Gaddafi is in cold-storage in Misrata. It is unclear how exactly he died because different people keep giving different accounts of his capture and death. What we do know is that people are queuing up to see the corpse with their own eyes, to take photos and celebrate that he has gone.

And what is wrong with that? Another example of liberal Western sensitivity that hates to see blood and is too wet or squeamish to be happy at the departure of a tyrant?

The world cannot be worse off without Gaddafi holding any power. The madman is now gone for ever and his tyrannical empire is shattered. Good.

But, as long as we think the rule of law is essential to any civilised or governable democratic society, we cannot pick and choose when the rule of law should apply. Gaddafi’s brutality might well provoke a vengeful response from those who suffered, but suffering does not justify sidelining the rule of law when personally convenient. If we want Robert Mugabe to be held to account by the rule of law which he has abandoned in Zimbabwe, we have to hold to its universality. We cannot hold him to it while allowing others to dismiss it in acts of vengeance. A greater deterrent to other dictators would have been to see Gaddafi and his sons in court, not in fridges.

A civilised society must always see the human body as more than just ‘stuff’. That’s why we bury our dead with dignity. That’s why we don’t just chuck our loved ones into the sea as if the body meant nothing once the life has left it. The body matters.

So, what does it say to us and our children when we glory in the brutalised and torn body of another human being? Is it justified by voyeurism? Or vengeance? Or does it represent a more worrying and capricious reduction of human value?

Muammar Gaddafi was an execrable tyrant who caused misery to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. But, using that fact to justify summary execution, physical torture, desecration of a body bodes ill for when we want to argue that bodies are to be honoured, torture to be rejected, murder to be abhorred. We can’t pick and choose when the rule of law is to apply.

Holiday over. Back in the office. Back on my laptop where I can embed links in my posts. It’s also back to viewing the world from home (as opposed to ‘away’).

As the Libya endgame continues, there is a good deal of comment in the blogosphere about the role of the National Transitional Council, NATO, foreign governments, etc. Much of it involves urging caution and questioning NATO’s involvement – approving the end whilst worrying about the means… and the potential consequences. EthicalComment has some good post-holiday observations (as usual) and some useful links to, for example, Chatham House papers.

I was intrigued to catch up with Tony Blair’s reflections on the UK riots. I know too many people who would disagree with Blair on principle even if he said the sky was blue; but, I think he is absolutely right to question the reflex of British politicians, religious leaders and media commentators to blame some sort of generalised moral decline for the riots. Whilst agreeing with Michael White’s critique of the inadequacy of Blair’s critique, I still think he was right to assert (initially when Prime Minister) that specific problems need specific solutions – that the dysfunctionality of some families requires systematic, one-at-a-time, targeted investment of time, expertise and accompaniment to turn around those dysfunctionalities that are deeply embedded in family culture, experience or expectation.

The problem, of course, is that one of the most valuable resources to achieve that end – and one that was making a demonstrable difference to many families – is being severely cut back: Sure Start. Ask any health professional working with such families and they will almost universally tell the same story. David Cameron has trumpeted the percentage increase in health visitors (my wife is one), but the health visitors need resources such as Sure Start to which they can refer their people. There is surely an irony that financial investment in youth provision and resources for supporting families is being severely cut at the very time that the decision-makers are complaining about the dysfunctionality of some of our citizens.

(And, yes, Blair helped to develop the consumer-greedy society that Thatcher began; and, yes, that introduces a further debate about public morality and the shaping of our culture in the last thirty years. But, it doesn’t setract from the significance of the specific point about the so-called ‘hard to reach’.)

This is not just about financial investment and my observation is not about ideology – that somehow chucking money at problems solves the problem. But, it is crazy to cut funding of those resources that are designed to make a long-term difference, but have already made short-term improvements.

Which leads on to the third element of these post-holiday thoughts: the teaching of Religious Education in schools. Again, some commentators will automatically reach for their red ink at the mere mention of religious education having any value at all. They think that their own world view is neutral and that religous world views are somewhere up the loony scale, heading away from neutral. Such respondents should read David Bentley Hart‘s excoriating expose of such shallow thinking in The Atheist Delusions – an academically informed response to the assumptions and ill-informed sweeping assertions of the so-called New Atheists. (Obviously, it’s a bit of a shame to introduce fact and history into these debates…)

However, what is often ignored is that Religious Education does not start from the assumption that a particular religious ‘truth’ needs to be propagated, but, rather, that children and young people need to learn (a) how to think about what they think about the world, (b) how particular traditions have developed ways of doing this through particular histories, and (c) why understanding epistemology – how we know that we know what we know – matters. Surely, this should be indisputable in post-riot England. Yes, I believe that the Christian world view makes most sense of the world, human experience, morality, etc.; but, that is secondary to the importance of at least getting kids to (a) ask the right questions and (b) understand that asking these questions actually matters.

To that end I agree that the teaching of RE should continue to be a core subject in the school curriculum. If it isn’t, what will be saying to the riots of twenty years from now when faced with dysfunctional kids whose morality was allowed to be shaped by happenstance and serendipity rather than being shaped and informed to the extent that they can make their mind up?

It is unsurprising that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome the way he did:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

We continue to neglect the shaping of the mind at our future peril.

It looks like Gaddafi is on the run with his sons – who must be feeling awfully cheated out of their inheritance. It has been clear for years that their father is – how can we put it politely?- delusional. Those journalists who have met him say that he is lucid one minute and ramblingly incomprehensible the next. (Mind you, he’s not alone in that…)

In his latest (and last) broadcast message to ‘his’ people he said he will fight to win or become a martyr. Interesting use of an over-used word: martyr.

The word comes from the Greek and means ‘a witness’ – that is, one who bears witness to truth that cannot be denied. So, what does Gaddafi think he is a witness of? To which values does he bear witness? To self-aggrandisement, power, hubris, cruelty, domination and rule by fear? Thus, a martyr to delusion and illusion?

Didn’t someone once say, “Blessed are the meek…”? Didn’t that same person grasp the truth that the truth sets you – and, therefore, everyone else – free? And didn’t he propose – against the ridicule of the power-merchants – that rejection of power for it’s own sake is essential… that a cross is preferable to feeding Number one by turning stones into bread for the sake of one’s own security?

I read (on Twitter, I think) that the draft constitution for the putative new Libya owes much to Jesus and Locke. I guess we’ll see.

However, whatever else happens, we need to recover the word ‘martyr’ from its religious misappropriation and its common cheapening in vernacular parlance. Simply dying to make a point is not in any sense ‘martyrdom’. It might be dramatic and it might even be thought heroic. But, if people like Gaddafi think that going down in a hail of bullets as someone ‘sincere’ or ‘passionately committed’ to his cause will somehow mark him down in history as a noble victim, he is going to get a bit of a shock. Posterity will ridicule misguided and hubristic tyranny, not venerate its sincerity.

It’s one of the odder aspects of today’s world that people still say that “as long as you believe in something with sincerity”, that’s OK. Think Stalin. Think Hitler. Think Saddam. Think Robert Mugabe. Think Gaddafi.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


It is a fact of life that decisions made by politicians or any other leaders are analysed by observers as if they were made in isolation from other factors. The moral purity or political expediency of a particular decision is examined as if this decision were made to stand alone and bear the weight of concentrated critique.

Yet, most of life is just not like that. The decisions we make are sometimes forced upon us at a time of least expediency and are conditioned by factors that might be either unfortunate, unwanted or, in some way or other, compromising. I suspect that this is usually unwelcome and even unhelpful.

So, at a time when many commentators – seemingly glad of some action to get their teeth into at last – are following the attacks on Libya with a critical eye back onto the hypocrisy of Western support for regimes such as Gaddafi’s, the decision to act over Libya is not capable of being seen through some pure moral lens. We might regret having (a) thought that stable Arab regimes were culturally appropriate and desirable and, therefore, sustainable, and (b) having aided such regimes for a generation or more by arming them to the teeth… in the interests of domestic security, of course.

But, our vision is always limited. It is easy to stand in the academy or the editorial office casting judgement that costs nothing to the judge;it is a different matter entirely to be compelled to jump when you would prefer to wait for more conducive circumstances. David Cameron might reassure us that Libya is no Iraq, but the threats of a ‘long war’ from Gaddafi and the concerns raised by the Arab League (these attacks were apparently not what they thought they had signed up to) might well confound him.

I began to think about this element of leadership while reading a paper produced this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Cohesion, counter-terrorism and community in West Yorkshire. I have a huge amount to learn from those on the ground when I move to Bradford next month, so I make no pretensions about fully understanding local cultures there. But, the interesting thing about this paper is the questions it poses to the way we ‘see’ communities in complex circumstances and the assumptions we bring to our judgements.

The paper, based on research, makes a number of points, but two are particularly interesting:

  1. Despite allegations by politicians, media and others that communities lead ‘parallel lives’, the evidence suggests that there already is a huge degree of ‘community cohesion’ in everyday life.
  2. Well-intended policies (a) to prevent terrorism and (b) to build community cohesion conflicted to the extent that potential for neither was maximised.

In the latter case it was simply that policies that were comprehensible in their own right were inhibited by their contextual association with the other. In the words of the summary findings, “The implementation of Prevent at the local level had direct and negative effects on the parallel attempt to pursue community cohesion programmes.”

This is similar to the coincidence of a good idea – the ‘Big Society‘ – with another reality – the Comprehensive Spending Review. The former might well be negated by its association with the latter… despite government attempts to separate the two and retain their distinctive integrities. Put simply (rather than simplistically), the Big Society depends on voluntary groups taking responsibility for services previously provided by the State while the funding for such groups is cut off because of the spending constraints. The association of the two initiatives is unfortunate for many reasons.

This might all be obvious to everybody else, but it has got me thinking about the nature of leadership in complex organisations and in complex contexts. We rarely have the freedom to make simple decisions in isolation from the rest of reality: normally our decisions are compromised, subject to unwelcome and intrusive extraneous factors, and held hostage to consequences which cannot be predicted. In the words of the final conclusion of the JRF paper:

Community cohesion as a policy cannot be isolated from the impact of other government policies.

A statement of the obvious, maybe; but, even though the powerbrokers need tight scrutiny in a democracy, we observers might do well to at least recognise the complexity of the decision-making process and its context when we cast our judgements from a distance and the comfort of a study.