Our willing executioners

By Paul Oestreicher. Canon Paul Oestreicher is Quaker chaplain to the University of Sussex and a vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (THE GUARDIAN, 27/01/07):

‘How is it that a nation like Britain can come to support instruments of mass slaughter as a means of defending its values, its freedom, its independence, its heritage?” asks the veteran Jesuit Gerard Hughes. That question needs to be asked on the annual commemoration of the Holocaust. If the United Kingdom believed its survival was ever seriously threatened by some future foe, would we be prepared to turn to ashes vast numbers of men, women and children, and so poison the atmosphere that many would die agonisingly over more than a generation? That is the Auschwitz question British people should be considering in response to Tony Blair’s invitation to debate whether Britain should retain nuclear weapons into an indefinite future.

I will not trivialise the Holocaust, in which my grandmother died, as a means to an end. But it is because it was the culmination of centuries of anti-semitism in our so-called Christian culture that I ask whether a willingness to stomach unlimited violence may not escalate into another kind of – even larger scale – horror.

Has our militant prime minister who feels answerable to God ever asked himself: am I prepared to commit mass murder as a last resort? His friends in the military-industrial complex leave him in no doubt as to their wishes, and he will not disappoint them – although many of his generals doubt if another generation of nuclear submarines makes even a modicum of military sense.

We are assured we can afford the huge cost, ignoring the fact that poverty is one of the greatest threats to both global security and our moral standing. True, Trident’s successor will provide work, but have British workers ever been asked if they might not prefer one of many alternatives?

The real debate is political, not military. Do ethics matter? We are prepared to invade and bomb others to stop them making the bomb while insisting on our own. What kind of post-imperial hubris is that, when we have helped start at least two unjust Middle East wars? Britannia policing the world under the American eagle’s wings is bad news. We lost a foreign secretary who believed in ethical politics. One of the last things Robin Cook wrote before his death was a reasoned plea not to replace Trident. The last-ditch stand of the apologists is to argue that these weapons will deter but are too terrible to use. How do they know what a politician in 30 years’ time may decide, perhaps one as disturbed as Anthony Eden in 1956? Meanwhile, what are we doing to the spiritual health of those who sail these monstrous creatures of the sea? At least Hitler’s “willing executioners” had to watch their victims enter the gas chambers.

A generation ago the Church of England general synod debated this issue live on the BBC. The consensus was that there was no moral case for the long-term retention of these weapons; to negotiate them away was a human and Christian duty. The Catholic bishops of America said it even more strongly. So did the Pope. Our politicians did not listen, and do not listen now to the Scottish Catholic bishops and most other British church leaders, who, in measured tones, have said no. My tone is not measured. It is time to cry out aloud, to cry no in the lobbies and the streets.

We were not fools on the road from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square more than 40 years ago. Nor are the true patriots who week by week get arrested at Faslane. A world with more and more nuclear weapons is no insurance policy. Auschwitz, even by another name, must forever be put beyond the pale.