View Full Version : Worthy Voice from the Past

October 26th, 2005, 05:31 PM
"May I be allowed to offer one or two reflections on the British Government's decision to retaliate against German prisoners, which seems so far to have aroused extraordinarily little protest?

"By chaining up German prisoners in response to similar action by the Germans, we descend, at any rate in the eyes of the ordinary observer, to the level of our enemies. It is unquestionable when one thinks of the history of the past ten years that there is a deep moral difference between democracy and Fascism, but if we go on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth we simply cause that difference to be forgotten. Moreover, in the matter of ruthlessness we are unlikely to compete successfully with our enemies. As the Italian radio has just proclaimed, the Fascist principle is two eyes for an eye and a whole set of teeth for one tooth. At some point or another public opinion in England will flinch from the implications of this statement, and it is not very difficult to foresee what will happen.

"As a result of our action the Germans will chain up more British prisoners, we shall have to follow suit by chaining up more Axis prisoners, and so it will continue till logically all the prisoners on either side will be in chains. In practice, of course, we shall become disgusted with the process first, and we shall announce that the chaining up will now cease, leaving, almost certainly, more British than Axis prisoners in fetters. We shall have thus acted both barbarously and weakly, damaging our own good name without succeeding in terrorising the enemy.

"It seems to me that the civilised answer to the German action would be something like this: 'You proclaim that you are putting thousands of British prisoners in chains because some half-dozen Germans or thereabouts were temporarily tied up during the Dieppe raid. This is disgusting hypocrisy, in the first place because of your own record during the past ten years, in the second place because troops who have taken prisoners have got to secure them somehow until they can get them to a place of safety, and to tie men's hands in such circumstances is totally different from chaining up a helpless prisoner who is already in an internment camp. At this moment, we cannot stop you maltreating our prisoners, though we shall probably remember it at the peace settlement, but don't fear that we shall retaliate in kind. You are Nazis, we are civilised men. This latest act of yours simply demonstrates the difference.'

"At this moment this may not seem a very satisfying reply, but I suggest that to anyone who looks back in three months' time, it will seem better than what we are doing at present and it is the duty of those who can keep their heads to protest before the inherently silly process of retaliation against the helpless is carried any further."

--George Orwell, October 12, 1942 (http://www.andrewsullivan.com/index.php?dish_inc=archives/2005_07_10_dish_archive.html#112143792996852094)
(with thanks to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish archive)

To which Andrew Sullivan added the following: "Notice also that the practice Orwell was abhorring was merely the chaining of prisoners of war. Just the shackling! And his enemies were genocidal maniacs. Can you imagine what he would think of suspending legal bans on torture? Or forcing detainees into near-suffocation through drowning? If we kept our heads against the Nazis, why can we not remain sane and moral against today's fascists?"