July 2003 #2

Truth, Lies and Some Old Hebrew

You've probably guessed by now that I'm neither an historian nor linguist. I'm certainly interested in a range of ideas, people and activities. And, of course I have an opinion on most things.

However, there is a real crisis occurring at the moment in the Western world that both you and I have the good, or otherwise, fortune of being part of.

While I would never claim that Australia, the US or the UK are "Christian" countries, I have to concede that many of our moral and ethical Anglo cultural practices are traceable to the teachings in the Christian Bible.

In that light I want to highlight the recent activities of Bush, Blair and Howard, three avowed, self-confessed "Christian" men, who definitely do not "hide their lamp under a bushel". As the holders of the highest offices in their lands, one would expect them to be trustworthy, truthful and, as god fearing men, honest to their religious beliefs.

I'm sure the last week or so has been a trying time for them and their personal faiths, as more and more evidence is released to prove what many were saying all along. That Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction nor was it a threat to any of the "coalition of the willing". In effect that they attempted to make a case out of smoke and mirrors. Smoke and mirrors that they sold Saddam in the first place.

The Old Testament book of Exodus contains the Ten Commandments and the one in particular I want to look at, and apply to the current political conundrum we face, is the ninth one. It says, according the "Literal Translation", "You shall not testify a witness of falsehood against your neighbour".

As I said earlier I'm not an historian, neither am I a linguist, but being curious I went and investigated the Hebrew origins of this commandment and found, to my astonishment, that it actually is far more dense than the way I was taught in Sunday School to understand it.

At Sunday school I was told that it simply meant don't lie and don't make nasty accusations about people. But the fact is, as I understand it now, it is a multi-layered directive that, in typical Hebrew style, has a number of applications, starting from the basic "don't tell fibs" through to "don't tell your nation things that you cant prove to be true". 

The various Hebrew ideas that make up this directive include such concepts as not telling untruths (those things you know are wrong but tell them anyway). Don 't imply (that something is true when you know it isn't, or if you cant prove the veracity of it). Don't testify (in a formal way or pretend you saw or heard something you didn't). Don't be earnest about (something in a way that might persuade people to follow you into wrong doing - by telling fibs on your behalf). Don't implicate others (who you say can back up your claims and on whom you can place influence to do so). Finally, don't bear false witness in the "house of replies" - the place where you and your accused come together in the presence of others to work out your differences.

All that from a couple of lines. But let's not forget we are dealing with an eastern mindset that includes such notions as honour, obedience and loyalty to the group rather than the self.

Our leaders have broken this commandment at each and every stage. Indeed Howard and Blair are still denying they lied, while Bush is able to hide behind "the White House". He to is not prepared to admit that we three nations were misled by our rulers - either deliberately or because their regimes would only accept what they wanted to hear - and thus they broke the trust we put in them to rule compassionately and without fear or favour.

At the outset of the threat of war on Iraq many commentators likened the potential to that in the lead up to the Vietnam War and said that Iraq may well unfold like that conflict.

It is a well known fact that the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" which President Johnston said was cause for the US, and eventually Australia, to fight in Vietnam was a lie. Johnston said, a little over a year after committing US troops, that for all he knew at the time US warships were "shooting at whales". There was no attack on US ships - which were illegally sailing in Vietnamese territorial waters - and Johnston knew that but chose to lie anyway. And lets not forget that the US and Britain were flying illegal bombing raids over Iraq for ten years prior to this latest war.

The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are striking. Both were former colonial countries carved up for the pleasure of the imperial power. Both countries were no threat beyond their borders. Both countries suffered a power vacuum after the leadership was toppled. Both countries leaderships were demonised - although the reality was degrees of difference in form and action. Both were not fully capitalist countries and both, in the main, worshiped a different god. Oh, and they looked different to.

And now, as US, British and Australian nationals are getting killed by the truckload each week, our political leaders cry crocodile tears of sympathy. 

The truth is, these men, and their colleagues in high office, no matter how they or we try and carve it up, broke the ninth commandment. They broke a central tenet of their faith and they broke their trust with us.

From the earliest time I can remember in my life, I was told by my parents, teachers, police, judges, lawyers, friends and lovers - and now my own children - don't lie. Don't tell me things you don't mean or can't prove.

Our so-called "democratic" system is based on trust. It's based, rightly or wrongly, on a notion that we will appoint people who will represent us because they are like us and share our values. One of the values of our nation is trust based on the pursuit of truth, and there are numerous forums where this is evidenced, for instance the ACCC's professed role, the judicial system, public inquiries and ombuspersons. 

Our political system has let us down. We have let us down. The system will only ever be as good or sound as we make it. 

The current revelations demonstrate that Howard, Bush and Blair do not represent the values that we, as a community, hold dear. If that is so, how is it that we can say they represent us and perhaps, more importantly, how come we allow them to continue to say that they represent us?

At every stage, the lies about Iraq unravel. I'm not questioning the need to rid the world of Saddam like despots, but the question facing us now is, how will we ensure that these lying men and their lying colleagues are brought to account? How can we ensure that, like other politicians who have been thrown out over lies like false travel expenses, wrong electoral addresses, stamp claims and so forth, that these men are shamed and made to apologise for their deceit?

Unless and until we make these men face the enormity of their actions, we allow them rule us in no less a fashion than Saddam ruled his people. That is, by keeping them in a fog of lies under a cloud of fear and in a sea of hopelessness.

While I don't identify myself as a Christian, I believe there are some very good moral and ethical concepts within their Bible. My abiding hope is that those who choose to pursue power, and claim the Bible as their guidebook, will at least attempt to stick closer to its teachings than I do. After all if they claim god is on their side, I wonder how they will react when they find out she wasn't and that she knows they lied about that too.