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Who can claim the moral high ground?

February 6, 2015 at 6:26 pm

The horrific killing of Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh prompted scores of world leaders and politicians to rush to the podium and condemn the vile method and brutal nature of his murder. ISIS, it seemed, had reached plumbed new depths in the group’s attempts to shock and repel its enemies. Personally, I didn’t seek out the sordid porn video showing the wholly unIslamic killing because, having witnessed first-hand what fire does to the human body, the very thought was too repugnant.

However, out of all the words penned and spoken it was some brief comments submitted by two men, representing East and West, which stood out from the hysterical sound-bites churned out by governments and palaces alike.

The first of the two was the Facebook offering of Al-Jazeera anchor Mahmoud Murad, whose response was brief: “It happened in Egypt before ISIS did it! For everyone whose feelings were hurt by these pictures, I apologise. But my little heart can no longer bear this vast amount of hypocrisy.”

The second came in a tweet from an American known only as @Mr.LV426, who observed wryly: “If you’re going to burn people alive, have the common courtesy to do it remotely from a video game console 1000s of miles away.”

Of course both were highlighting the double standards coming from the mouths of leaders who, while reluctant to flaunt the results of their own military actions via public video, also burn people alive.

Murad was targeting the double standards of Egypt’s leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi who came to power in a military coup which killed hundreds of innocent people. In at least one incident this involved the burning alive of some protestors during the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya massacre of August 2013.

The American tweeter was alluding to the hundreds of innocents in Pakistan who have been burned alive in their homes by Hellfire missiles during US drone strikes. The victims who survive missile attacks, including many children, often suffer disfiguring burns and limb amputations while the charred remains of those killed are usually unidentifiable.

@Mr.LV426 was, quite possibly, also referring to the antics of US forces in Fallujah who sent “rains of fire” on Iraqi citizens in 2004 when they showered them with chemicals, including burning white phosphorus. (See Albeit reluctantly, US generals were also forced to admit that at the start of the Iraq war they used incendiary bombs and Mark 77 firebombs containing a fuel-gel mixture that was similar to napalm, near bridges over the Saddam Canal and Tigris River.

So there you have it; death by burning is not exclusive to ISIS after all. However, there is a difference; while most leaders like Obama and Al-Sisi prefer to do their killing under the publicity radar, the leaders of the so-called Islamic State catalogue and video their gruesome work deliberately for public display. The result is complete shock, disgust and revulsion, but why the White House is surprised is anyone’s guess, for Barack Obama knows all about this sort of outrage. He is still trying to conceal all the videos and photographs sitting in archives which show CIA and military torture on Obama’s watch and that of his predecessor, George W Bush.

There are literally thousands of pictures showing in awful detail the US government’s brutal treatment of its prisoners, in Afghanistan, Iraq and other dark sites around the world. They are so gruesome that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki warned US officials years ago that if Obama released them “Baghdad will burn”. That particular view from the Iraqi politician was shared by senior generals sitting in the Pentagon, which implies that whatever those archives contain they cross all acceptable cultural sensitivities, geographic boundaries and notions of human decency.

Of course it’s not just America and Egypt which target and burn civilians. Their close ally Israel used white phosphorus shells during the second Lebanon war and also in the 2008 war against the Palestinian civilians locked into the besieged Gaza Strip. Just like the ill-fated Kasasbeh, they too had no chance to escape the flames. Israel at first denied that it used white phosphorus in Gaza but, facing mounting evidence which exposed its lies, it then claimed that it was using all weapons in compliance with international law.

All of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found in Gaza were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time. The US government had supplied Israel with the deadly chemical weapons.

Another of America’s — and Britain’s — allies is Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, whose chosen method of disposing of those who cross him has been to boil them alive. Now, it seems, he prefers to freeze them to death, according to Abdurakhmon Tashanov of the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Goodness) human rights centre. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Tashanov said that he has “information about the existence of special torture cells that are extremely cold and in which the guards and interrogators put cold water on the floors to increase the suffering of the inmates.”

Quite why the nihilistic and morally bereft ISIS shows these videos is up for debate but I doubt that it has anything to do with exposing the double standards and hypocrisy at play in the West. Nevertheless, it has to be said that, sadly, when it comes to burning, torturing and slaughtering people there is no moral high ground which can be claimed by political leaders in either the East or the West.

Most religions urge clemency and mercy when dealing with captives and Islam promotes this clearly. I can testify personally to this having emerged from captivity in Afghanistan largely unscathed and unharmed after being held by the Afghan Taliban in October 2001. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas resistance fighters from his tank stationed on the Gaza border in 2006 and held for 5 years, can no doubt vouch likewise.

Perhaps the world’s rulers need to take a long, hard look at their own ethics and morality in such matters. The reality is that they are little better than the thugs who call themselves ISIS.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.