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Raqqah and Mars – One-Way Journeys Beyond the Pale.

February 23, 2015

The Voyage of Columbus


Two stories about people making choices most of us would find almost impossible to comprehend hit the news this week.

The families of the three London teenagers who flew to Turkey, seemingly on their way to join the fifty-odd British Muslim women already in the tender embrace of the Islamic State, are distraught. Why would these children leave their comfortable homes and loving families for life in some bomb-scarred town in Syria or Iraq to become wives and very likely widows in short order?  Effectively they’re part of a conveyor belt of brood-mares and handmaidens imported for the benefit of the battle-hardened shock troops of jihad ISIS-style.

A few months ago in This Year’s Best-Seller: The Rough Guide for Jihadis? I offered an explanation as to why young men are flocking to ISIS in such numbers:

“Read their tweets and you can recognise the immaturity of any typical 18-to-20-year old. Wild excitement, enthusiasm and yes, idealism, though not yet tempered by the harsh realities of experience. For some of them that harsh reality seems to be bearing down.

So what if for these young idealists violent jihad is essentially a form of adventure, rather like the gap year rite of passage thousands of British school leavers go through when they head off to Thailand, India, the Antipodes and the Americas in search of new experiences, fun and, in some cases, to do some good in the countries they visit? Are these mamma’s boys from Luton, Blackburn and East London basically backpackers with attitude?”

But the girls? I’m stumped. Surely they realise that there is unlikely to be a way back for them? Even if they survive the increasing military pressure on ISIS, which sooner or later will escalate into a ground war, they are likely to be scarred for life by the experience. So should they ever make it back to their families they will surely not be the wide-eyed idealists that stepped on to the plane at Gatwick airport.

And so to another one-way voyage. Last week, the organisation behind the Mars One mission announced a short list of a hundred people who are prepared be part of the first human colony on Mars. The only problem is that it will be a one-way mission. No way back.

Now the spread of humanity across the globe would never have happened without explorers and migrants setting out on journeys from which they knew they were unlikely to return. But at least they had reasonable prospects that wherever they went they would have air to breathe, water to drink and sources of food. If food and water was scarce, they could usually re-trace their steps back to the last fertile land through which they travelled.

But for the Mars colonists life would always hang on a thread. The supply of food, water and oxygen would depend on technology. No technology has ever been infallible, and none would be more critical to life than that employed on Mars. The psychological impact of life in an unforgiving, alien environment with no prospect of return is surely something for which it would be impossible to prepare the colonists.

The mission may never happen, at least within the time-frame set by the organisers. This piece in the Guardian casts doubts on many levels. I for one hope that it doesn’t happen, at least as currently planned. I think it would be immoral to send a group of idealistic young people on a mission with no prospect of coming back, even if those involved have freely volunteered to take part. Far better, before we contemplate any colony, is to send people to Mars to explore and experiment, and then return them to Earth. And even if the exploratory missions were followed by permanent colonies, those colonists should be given the option of return.

If it takes another fifty years to achieve that objective, so what? Mars has been around for billions of years. Surely it can wait a mere half-century longer for the dubious pleasure of our presence?

So there you have it. Two one-way journeys, both a matter of personal choice. The first we – at least in the West – look on with consternation and horror. The second we look on with fascination tempered with trepidation for the future of those who wish to take part.

Should we condemn one journey as the result of cynical grooming and indoctrination, and not the other, in which twenty-four brave and idealistic people make their choices under the influence of what might be the misplaced optimism of those behind the Mars mission?

A bizarre juxtaposition of choices, perhaps. That’s for you to decide.

From → Middle East, Politics, UK

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