One of the most alarming, and indeed depressing sights of the last week was that of various unsavoury beefy men carrying automatic weapons and storming Michigan’s Capitol building in protest at the measures the governor has sensibly introduced to prevent the coronavirus spreading.
Why were they carrying such weapons? As a European, I cannot understand the American mentality that is so wedded to guns, despite the appalling number of people who die from gunshots in the US every year: over 35,000 dead and another 75,000 injured. 1.5 million have died from guns in the US over the last fifty years. The annual death toll from guns in Britain is about 50 to 60 a year, or less than 0.2% of the US figure.
The USA is an extreme example, but it is not unique. As a human race we are obsessed by guns and weapons generally. There are almost one BILLION guns in the world, more than ever before. Every year the world produces 12 BILLION bullets, almost two for every person on earth. And every year around 500,000 people are killed by guns.
This is both mad and obscene. I am reminded of Gandhi who was asked by a supercilious British representative what he thought of Western civilisation. Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.”
For the problems with weapons are not ones that relates simply to mad individuals. It is endemic in society. Even more depressing last week than the events in Michigan were the contents of a report issued by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This revealed that in 2019, the world spent $1917 BILLION on military expenditure. Five countries account for 62% of the military expenditure: the US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India.
Just think what could be done with that enormous sum to make the world a better place. The World Bank in 2017 calculated that $150 billion a year would deliver universal safe water and sanitation, helping to reduce childhood disease and deaths while boosting economic growth. That can be achieved with less than 8% of the present spending on weapons. To provide basic education for the 57 million children who do not have this would cost $53 billion a year (2013 figure), or less than 3% of the military expenditure. And imagine how much the world could do with $50 billion to move to a green future and so help halt climate change, or to protect endangered species that the human race is wiping out at an unprecedented rate, way above natural extinction levels.
There is an old cynical saying that war is diplomacy by other means, but it is very easy to start a war and much more difficult to stop it. Just look at Iraq which was invaded by the US and UK in 2003 and which today is a mess, a dangerous cauldron of instability where about the only crop that grows is terrorism. I am proud that along with every single other MP in my party, the Liberal Democrats, I voted against that immoral and stupid military intervention.
The sad fact is that wars arise not always because diplomacy has failed, but because political leaders see a political advantage in pursuing a military option, or because, and this is especially true in the US, weapons manufacturers need international tension to keep their sales up.
There is another old saying, this time an idealistic 1960s one. Suppose they gave a war (like you give a party) and nobody came?
We need honest principled politicians who will say no to war, no to violence, who will seek to strengthen our democratic systems, and strengthen the United Nations. Sadly Marco Pannella is no longer with us but we can take heart that the ideas he championed – non-violence, the abolition of nuclear power, and civil rights like the right to divorce, the right to abortion, and the legalisation of cannabis – are as relevant today as when he espoused them.
We all need to fight for these causes, for justice, because, to tweak another old saying, for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good people to do nothing.
Former UK Home Office Minister