There was a revealing exchange concerning Iraq in Prime Minister's Question Time today, between Vince Cable and Gordon Brown.
Cable: "When he [Brown] was in Basra this week was he told that 40 women, at least, have been executed for personal immorality ... [I]s this why 173 British troops have died? Transferring power from the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein to the terror of the fascist militia who run the streets of Basra."
My first thought was to wonder what Cable thought of World War Two. Did Britain win? That war began when Chamberlain demanded that German troops leave Poland. When it ended, Poland had transferred from the totalitarian regime of Adolf Hitler to the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin. Is that why thousands of British troops died? It's a shame that in 1945 Cable was too young to denounce the government of the day.
However, there is a deeper point I want to make and it concerns two different kinds of violence. To illustrate them, I shall use examples from American history.
Situation One - You are a black slave in the early 19th century. You own nothing. Your master beats you.
Situation Two - You are a gold prospector (of any race) in the late 19th century. You work in a remote region where the forces of law and order are weak. You find gold but it is stolen from you, along with everything else you have. You are also beaten. If you go back to prospecting there is a significant chance that this will happen again.
Is one worse than the other? Vince Cable might say there is no difference, as in both cases you are beaten and have nothing. But I think that there is a significant moral difference. In the first situation, the person who beats you and lets you own nothing is acting entirely within the law. In the second situation, the people who robbed and beat you are outlaws. They may escape justice, but there is always the possibility that it will catch up with them. Although both situations are appalling. I find the first situation more morally repugnant than the second.