It’s war – mostly online

We should be grateful that the war of words doesn’t actually spill blood because otherwise the cyber sphere would be strewn with dead bodies by now. Still, there must be a lot of wounded.

Marina Mahathir, The Star

IN 1982, two largish nations went to war over a tiny group of islands. One of them, Argentina, decided to assert a long-standing claim over the islands they call the Malvinas. Unfortunately, the islands had long been a British “dependent territory”.

One country saw it as a “re-occupation” while the other saw it as an invasion. And so the Falklands War began, ending only 72 days later with 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland islanders dead.

I don’t want to go into the politics of that war but it was between two countries trying to protect their sovereignty. Unlike the Iraq-Kuwait war in 1990, the war between Great Britain and Argentina remained between just those two countries.

Eleven years later, a group of people representing no country “attacked” the United States and set off wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and basically changed the world for the worst, with many deaths, mostly of innocent civilians.

All of this to me seems to point to one thing, which is that war doesn’t make sense. Which is why we should be careful when declaring war on anyone.

In the last few weeks, a ragtag band of people have occupied a bit of our territory mostly to draw attention to their alleged claims to that piece of land.

We took a while to realise that they were serious, and seriously armed, and once we did, suddenly it was war.

Now I use the word “war” loosely here, meaning that our authorities finally decided that they had to deal with this group aggressively.

We could not actually declare war on another country because no country had invaded us, only the delusional citizens of a neighbouring one.

This fine point seems to have been lost on some. All at once, “war” broke out, mostly online. We should be grateful that the war of words doesn’t actually spill blood because otherwise the cyber sphere would be strewn with dead bodies by now. Still, there must be a lot of wounded.

Suddenly, otherwise mild and liberal people turned belligerent and the baying for blood abounded. Patriotism morphed into nationalism, then into plain old-fashioned jingoism. Flags flew high and fervent prayers for victory were said.

Those of us who were shocked by the gall of these people scrambled around to get more information.

The appalling lack of it on our side pointed to one obvious deficit in our country: there is hardly anyone here who can explain what this is all about.

This invariably led us to scour the news sites in the Philippines for some explanation of these people and their claims.

While some of the Philippine media are just as sensationalist as ours, the more serious ones published several articles by academics with a good grasp of the historical background of those islands where the invaders come from.

On our side, we have only one academic who, at this time of writing, has done 26 interviews on the subject.

Unfortunately, not everybody is interested in nuance and historical background. Suddenly because it is “war”, everything becomes acceptable, including violent name-calling.

I began to understand the real effect and relevance of Bush’s “war on terror”, how it made jingoism in the United States acceptable and how demo­cracy could be so easily suspended. Already we are possibly seeing some “collateral damage”.

In times like these, talking about peace becomes politically incorrect. To be properly patriotic, one must shake one’s spears and not hold out bouquets of flowers.

Yet this was what a group of young people did last Friday in a project called Ops Bunga. They went to the Philippine embassy to place bunches of flowers as a gesture of peace towards our neighbours.

A tiny gesture but a much needed calming one, a moment of solidarity among Malaysians and a hand extended in friendship.

It is instructive that in moments of tension, it is almost always young people who think up positive ideas to smooth the waters.

Resolutely apolitical, these young ones refuse to allow any hijacking of the issue by politicians. Indeed, they could be said to be a response to the political grandstanding that often accompanies these events.

Meanwhile, I have to wonder where our usual rabble rousers are, the ones who are ever ready to pick fights with their fellow citizens, yet who have become strangely silent. Confused maybe?