Neil Oliver: I will continue to air my doubts and ask my questions

How did we get to this place where everything must be seen as black or white, good or evil, sensible or insane?

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To ask questions about events unfolding now – here at home and just a few hours plane-ride away to the east – is a test of faith and also of resolve. To admit to feeling unsure, uncertain – far less to voice doubts about so much as a word of the information broadcast around the clock from official sources about the war in Ukraine – is to risk personal and professional ruin.

It was bad enough during the time of Covid, a time already diminishing to a dot in the rearview mirror, when to ask questions about the safety of vaccines or the wisdom of lockdowns was to find yourself on the naughty step at best and cast into perdition at worst.

Let’s leave aside that there is near universal acknowledgment that lockdown was a bad idea with ruinous consequences that will linger as a shadow on the nation’s lungs for years to come. Doubts raised from the beginning, about every aspect of the official response, and which were loudly – even viciously – dismissed as tantamount to treason – are now revealed as entirely justified. Already long is the line of those who once baited and ridiculed those questioning the official narrative, but who are now keen to distance themselves from old opinions, in hopes of it appearing they were always wary, always unsure, that they too had had their doubts all along. Now, with tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, wanting to know more than that which is being bellowed from every outlet is to face withering rebuke, ridicule and personal attack.

A week or two on from Covid and we are in another new world – or rather, a rehash of the world I grew up in – 70s-and-80s-world, where nuclear apocalypse was so omni-present it was the subject of chart-topping pop songs. When two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score, sang Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Two tribes – how apt. Believe me when I say to you, sang Sting, I hope the Russians love their children too … and all that. World War III and its 100-year-winter of an aftermath is no longer just the subject of movies, but once more the talking point of the day. London Mayor Sadiq Khan bothered to announce that London was well prepared for a nuclear attack, whatever that meant. Maybe it means Khan and his cronies are well prepared, private bunker and all.

With talk of mutually assured destruction back in the tabloids, it might seem the time to ask questions about what best to do, in the interests of the greatest number of people. It might be timely to make sure we do not now, in the heat of the moment, take the steps many already fear will lead to Armageddon. But if it were hard to ask questions about masks and vaccines, that was as nothing compared to the atmosphere now.

The argument goes that while it might – might – have been right to have doubts in Covid world and to have been suspicious about the methods and motives of those above us in the food chain – everything is different now. Now there is no room for anything but certainty and action, and our only course of action is, apparently, clear to see. Questions are mischief at best, treason at worst.

If we are, as individuals, to avoid being characterised as Putin-apologists, fifth columnists, traitors, somehow fascists and commies at the same time – then we must only cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. I saw a front page calling for the assassination of Vladimir Putin – and the call was taken up enthusiastically by prominent figures. I have my doubts about the wisdom of openly advocating such tactics. But doubts are not allowed in the black and white world of unimpeachable, unquestioned certainty.

We still have freedom of speech in this country – of course we do, and I am living proof of it. But for anyone with a doubt in their minds, it is, to put it mildly, hot out there.

How did we get here, to this place where everything is about always being left no option but to pick one of just two sides? How did we get to this place where everything must be seen as black or white, good or evil, sensible or insane?

Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong. What many of us struggle with is how to make sense of the world we are living in now. It is natural and understandable to think we are right. We in the West have often been right – that much is certain – and at times we have moved heaven and earth to make as much of the world as possible mirror our own rightness. But being right does not stop others looking on at us and wishing we were out of the way, that we would stop being who we are and doing what we do. Those people are prepared to do things we regard as unthinkable to make that so. Just because we are right and they are wrong – actually wrong in terms of the ultimate rule book – will not necessarily make them change their ways.

Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, said something along the lines of wishing he had the power to make it that we might see ourselves as others see us.

Surely the last two years have shown us that the powers that be are at least fallible – and that it is not just our right, but our obligation and responsibility to ask questions of those powerful people, in hopes of revealing as complete and as nuanced a picture as possible. Surely we owe that much to ourselves and to our children.

Someone said, war doesn’t determine who is right, war only determines who is left. Right and wrong are not all that is at issue here. What is happening a few hours away by plane is much more complicated than that. I know enough to know that much. The solution – if solution there is – must exist in the shades of grey no one likes. Both sides will have to feel they can say to their audiences – we won.

I assume the Russians love their children too, and the Ukrainians and everyone else within reach of all the damage that is possible now. I certainly love mine. And in the interests of keeping the world safe for them – safe enough, at least – I will continue to air my doubts and ask my questions.