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Working Out the Ethics of 'Defence' at the London Arms Fair

Is killing a bunch of people really the best way to save lives?

by Uzi Gold
18 September 2013, 4:00pm

Last week, Britain hosted a four-day get-together for the planet's preeminent weapons dealers. The DSEi arms fair, held in London's ExCel Centre, touts itself as a "world leading defence and security event" and sells just about anything you could ever need if you're in the business of launching expensive military interventions in collapsing states.

The fair is perhaps the prime global destination for people who sell weapons and people who buy weapons to get together and deal in death. And considering weapons in all their various guises (chemical, remote and nuclear) have been dominating the news lately, I figured I should probably head down to check it out.   

When I arrived, the cops were out in force, presumably because this sort of event usually attracts the kind of peacenik protesters who are militantly opposed to the whole firing-missiles-at-innocent-Yemeni-families thing. 

Like these guys, for example, who had been camped out to give punters a warm welcome with cries of, "You're arming dictators!" and, "The arms fair is mental!"

Inside, the setup is basically the same as any other trade show you might have attended with your work colleagues. Only, instead of smarmy sociopaths trying to sell you foreign real estate, you have people enthusiastically trying to flog you automatic weapons and camouflaged machine gun turrets.

Just like any other conference, there was a wide array of branded freebies on offer. I'm not sure how likely a funky USB stick or screen-printed tote bag is to influence a dictator's choice of submachine gun, but it was nice to see that everyone was putting the effort in.

Many of those in attendance looked like they might have been there for some kind of fleeting, IRL Call of Duty experience rather than because they had a genuine interest in buying anything. And you can't blame them; it's not often that you get to hold a cool gun with a laser sight in central London.

Or perhaps he really was some kind of highly skilled mercenary with designs on a coup. Either way, it can't hurt to hold it, can it? Pick it up, the weight feels really nice in your hand. Dare to dream. Imagine the damage you could do to an adolescent rebel in a central African jungle with this!

Between all the bog-standard assault rifles and sci-fi Hollywood death machines, there was this dog. 

As unassuming as he looked, it turned out that the dog's get-up had something to do with counter-terrorism. Dealing with "internal threats" is increasingly big business; DSEi boasted homeland security, counter-terror and personal security products that apparently required 30 percent more space than in 2011, which didn't do much for my growing sense of paranoia.

After learning how canines can help to stop coordinated bomb attacks, I headed over to the Israeli Pavilion. Equipped with my UK-Israel solidarity pin, I requested an audience with the Israeli Ministry of Defence (SIBAT), who – after finishing their deal with the Finnish delegation (escorted by a British Naval Officer) – saw my press badge and immediately told me to leave.

I had better luck with Elbit Systems, purveyor of fine drones and electronic warfare systems. Though somewhat cagey after seeing my badge, they proudly told me that Israeli systems are the best in the world, largely because no one else does such "comprehensive field-testing".

I presumed that the field these systems had been comprehensively tested in was in and around the Gaza strip, but as soon as I raised the topic a burly security guard ushered me away. I complied, because I didn't really feel like being Krav-Maga'd into the sick bay of the BAE Type 45 destroyer docked up outside.  

Most of the people manning the stalls seemed pretty at ease with the advanced killing technology they were being paid to talk up, reasoning that each device plays an important role in "saving lives".

Personally, I wasn’t convinced that selling gigantic missiles is on a par with working in a field hospital, but – as one BAE Systems salesman put it – he can sleep at night because he feels good about "protecting those who protect [him]".

Given that a journalist had been ejected from the conference for simply using the protesters' #stopDSEi hashtag – and after being moved on as soon as I tried to question Elbit Systems about their products – I felt that the salespeople were far too sheltered from any kind of scrutiny about their role in all of this. To remedy that, I tried to get some industry representatives to help me out of the moral maze by asking them if killing people is really the best way to save lives.

Shockingly, most people weren’t up for that kind of ethical naval gazing, instead reciting PR lines like, “I believe in being part of the solution,” and, “I would really have to direct you to our communications department to answer that."

Overall, those working for the defence companies seemed pretty adamant that they were part of a morally upstanding profession. In fact, someone even made the link between Jesus watching over his flock and the industry of death protecting its subjects by raining hellfire on foreigners. Which is an association I'm certain the messiah would have endorsed.      

Others were less concerned with religious responsibility and more preoccupied with defending themselves against the "other" – a stance that has kept the American firearms industry thriving for decades. An AkzoNobel saleswoman, who was selling a paint that can absorb harmful elements of the gas in chemical weapons, told me, “It’s all to do with religion and culture; if we didn’t destroy them, they would destroy us."

Or, as a woman from Defence News’ advertising department put it, "One word: freedom. We defend our freedom from those who want to take it away."

But looking around the fair, I wasn't so sure that this "us and them" narrative worked. Most of our wars these days seem to be waged pretty much exclusively against insurgencies, often made up of ordinary people who pose little military threat to Western or NATO-led forces.   

Of course, there's also the fact that the lines between "us" and "them" are so consistently blurred. In recent memory, Britain alone has sold components for chemical weapons to Syria, backed a US bid to overturn a cluster-bomb ban and continues to engage with Bahrain – a country with a "dismal" human rights record – to accommodate their interest in buying a Eurofighter jet from our government.   

I'm not suggesting the fair has no standards; in 2011, the Pakistan Ordinance Factory was thrown out for promoting cluster bombs, and this year were denied visas to enter. And as I walked around, a French firm called MagForce International and a Chinese company called Tian Jin My Way International Trading were being chucked out for selling leg irons and electronic batons that could be used for torture.

However, it goes without saying that none of the merchants at the fair are entitled to take any kind of moral high ground. This is an industry that is concerned solely with profiting from death, and there's little time to scrutinise how many lives a bomb might end up destroying when there's payment to discuss.     

More stories about weapons:

Are Chemical Weapons Actually Useful in a War?

Inside the Free Syrian Army's Secret DIY Weapons Factory

This Egyptian Lingerie Salesman Is Now an Illegal Weapons Dealer

WATCH – SOFEX: The Business of War