Saturday, May 15, 2004

With "friends" like these... 

Australian political landscape is to be shaken by a conflict of epic proportions, as the two major minor parties battle for the right to represent the marginalised left:

"The Australian Democrats have declared the Greens as their new arch rival in the fight to hold the balance of power at the next federal election.

"Speaking at the Australian Democrats national conference in Melbourne today, party leader Senator Andrew Bartlett said its biggest threat for the senate balance of power at the next election was the party's 'friends' the Greens.

"Recent polls - which show the Greens enjoying 7.5 per cent support from the electorate, compared to the Democrats at two per cent - highlight that it has good grounds to be concerned."
As Henry Kissinger said about the Iraq-Iran war, it's a pity both sides can't lose.

Of interest to political junkies might also be the unveiling of the Democrats' new slogan for their party - "The Lie Detectors." Going by Andrew Bartlett's recent performance, "Breathalysers" would be more appropriate.


They give us call centres, we give them politicians 

As John Kerry's struggle against the evils of outsourcing American jobs overseas continues, this week's end sees the likely prospect of India getting its very first Italian Prime Minister, just as Denmark acquires its very first Australian princess. Can anyone stop the unrelenting march of globalisation?


Launching thousand computer-generated ships 

Over a week ago I commented about movie director Wolfgang Petersen's "nuanced" approach to politics and film-making. Now that I went to see "Troy" I can say that fortunately politics does not intrude too much on the epic. There's Agamemnon, an older and more expressive George W Bush, for whom his brother's cuckolding at the hands (?) of a Trojan prince serves merely as an excuse to engage in war of aggression to win power and spoils. There are also the obligatory nods to futility, senselessness and horror of war, which I guess is fair enough in the context of a conflict ostensibly fought over a woman, but which sentiment would sound off key had Peterson decided to tackle conflict such as the Greek-Persian wars.

Apart from that you would be stuck to make any more sensible parallels with the present times (although God knows it won't stop some enthusiasts. After all, if you try hard enough you can find whatever parallels you want in any movie you want. I remember how under communism we used to find analogies and hidden messages in "Star Wars". You might have some idea who we though the bad guys were. It might not have been George Lucas' intention, but apparently we were on a similar wavelength to Ronald Reagan, with his "star wars" and "evil empire").

So while politics doesn't intrude too much on "Troy" unfortunately Hollywood does, particularly towards the end of the movie. This is not in a sense of a "Hollywood ending" (it would be too hard to rewrite "Iliad" to make for a happy ending for everyone concerned), but in a resolution that involves almost all the main characters still left alive by that stage engaging in an apocalyptic showdown, all in scant regard to Homer's original.

Brad Pitt as Achilles steals the show. Sean Bean as the wily Ulysses (or Odysseus as he was known to Greeks) also has a real presence on the screen. Bean, of course, is reunited in "Troy" with Orlando Bloom (Paris), one of his companions from "The Fellowship of the Ring" (in fact, one of the shots where Paris is firing arrows at Greeks is a dead ringer for any of his archery displays in "The Lord of the Rings"; I caught myself looking out for pointy elf ears on the Trojan prince). Always happy to see Aussies excel at the bigger world stage, I have to also note that Eric Bana is quite adequate as Hector, the reluctant warrior. Unfortunately I find it impossible to take him seriously as a dramatic actor. Non-Australians might not be aware of the fact that Bana had made his early show-biz career on Australian television starring in a very successful comedy sketch show. As a consequence, every time I hear his voice on the screen I expect to also hear the explosions of canned laughter. Doesn't do much for an epic. And while we're on the topic of "Troy"'s stars, it transpires that Saffron Burrows , who plays Hector's wife, is an old style English socialist who idolises Tony Benn, Eric Hobsbawm and Noam Chomsky.


Friday, May 14, 2004

Dealing with illegal migrants the Belgian way 

I'm in two minds on this one:

"Belgium's far-right Flemish party, the Vlaams Blok, has launched a new telephone service that allows people to denounce anonymously suspected illegal immigrants living in Belgium...

" 'The Blok has shown its real face: they are Nazis,' said Belgian senator Isabelle Durant, a member of the pro-environment Ecolo part when she heard about the Vlaams Blok's latest initiative. 'It's almost like Flanders in 1933, when informers denounced people'."
The problem is that a lot of successful law-enforcement does depend on denunciation, very often anonymous (take two Australian examples: the Crime Stoppers hotline and the annual Operation Noah during which the police gets anonymous tips about drug offences).

The problem is not the method but the end. For most on the left, illegal migrants are a new persecuted and marginalised minority victim group that has to be protected; for most on the right (and judging by the polling, majority of the population), illegal migrants are a law enforcement issue - after all, they're not called illegal for nothing. If you in the latter group, reporting criminal activity is hardly a Nazi-like behaviour.


News from the wilderness of mirrors 

How bizarre is this?

"Michael Berg, father of 26-year-old Nicholas Berg, told CNN at his home in West Chester, Pennsylvania, that his son went to Oklahoma University several years ago and allowed people later identified by US authorities as terrorists to use his computer.

"US officials, according to CNN, say Berg shared his computer -- and his password -- with one individual, and that password somehow ended up in the possession of Moussaoui, a French citizen arrested one month before the September 11 attacks.

"Nicholas Berg's contacts on the bus near the Oklahoma airport, according to CNN, may have been the reason 'the FBI felt compelled to interview Berg three times in Iraq before clearing him for release'."
For another S11 news you might have missed, check out what we now do know about the contacts between the hijack leader Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence in Prague in 2001 (thanks to tireless work of an investigative journalist, Edward Jay Epstein). On the Iraq-al Quaeda link also check out the new story from another investigator who has been on the case for a decade now.

They don't call intelligence work "the wilderness of mirrors" for nothing. Judging by the continuing controversies over the Pearl Harbor attack, JFK assassination, or the extent of Soviet espionage in the West, we are unlikely to ever arrive at any sort of consensus, but researchers - both the reputable and the disreputable ones - will continue to have a field day.


The weasel update 

The ever-helpful French:

"Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, is on his way to America to lobby Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, and the Bush administration to allow Iraq's transitional leaders to refuse [after 30 June] if US commanders order Iraqi troops into battle."
The French, of course, are unwilling to contribute troops to any peace-keeping force, even one run by the UN, but they're still keen to sabotage anyone else's efforts to keep Iraq from descending into chaos and civil war.

I'm waiting for "The Onion" or "Scrappleface" to run with this news story: "US retrospectively pulls troops from D-Day; Describes the occupied France as a 'black hole that is sucking up' the world."


Condemnations continued 

First Hezbollah condemns Nick Berg's beheading (well, kind of), now it's Hamas' turn - again, kind of:

"I condemn this brutal act and sympathize with the family of the slain American person, who I consider a victim of the wrong U.S. policies in the region... U.S. President George Bush and (Berg's) killers are equally responsible," says Osama Hamdan, Hamas' representative in Lebanon.

That pretty much puts Hamas on the same wave-length as most of the mainstream Western media which has very quickly discovered an attractive angle on the whole story to run with: it's Bush's fault (see also these comments from Berg's former neighbours).

By the way, the "Albawaba" story quoted above calls the man who cut off Berg's head, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an "al Qaeda activist."

At least some other condemnations coming out of the Middle East seem to be a bit more sincere, like this one from the United Arab Emirates' information minister, Sheikh Abdullah:
"We are ashamed, because these terrorists carried out this attack in the name of our religion and our culture...This brutal act has nothing to do with Islam or our Arab values."


Fair and balanced the Australian way 

Melbourne "Age", fondly known for its locality and political inclinations as the Spencer Street Soviet, seems to be getting - gasp - more balanced on its opinion pages, as far as the war coverage goes.

One one hand we can still count on Chris Reus-Smit, the head of the department of international relations at the Australian National University to remind us that "[Prime Minister John Howard's] attachment to George Bush is blinkered to the point of being irresponsible."

And there's the "New York Times" reprint of the ever dependable Maureen Dowd, who says that "[i]n the end, Americans have been reduced to saying at least they don't behead people." (Not sure which Americans Maureen has been listening to. I would have thought that there are some other crucial differences, not the least the fact the Americans recognise the behaviour as wrong and punish the perpetrators).

But this standard leftie fare is balanced by Pamela Bone, an associate editor of "The Age" who writes that "[s]ome people would prefer to see Iraq fail than America succeed" as she correctly brings to readers' attention the fact that "[n]ot all news in Iraq and Afghanistan is bad."

And then we have Tony Parkinson, international editor at "The Age", making the basic point that "[t]he Abu Ghraib abuse doesn't put the US in the same nihilistic wasteland as Saddam."

Who knows, if this trend continues people might yet regain their faith in the printed media.


Ramos Horta: stay the course in Iraq 

One good opinion piece to read today, by Ramos Horta, the East Timorese foreign minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his struggle to gain independence for his nation:

"Some may accuse me of being more of a warmonger than a Nobel laureate, but I stand ready to face my critics. It is always easier to say no to war, even at the price of appeasement. But being politically correct means leaving the innocent to suffer the world over, from Phnom Penh to Baghdad. And that is what those who would cut and run from Iraq risk doing."
Horta is on the political left, as is almost everyone else in East Timorese politics, but I gather from people who have conversed with him on these topics in the past, that he has nothing but contempt for the trendy Western left for whom anti-Americanism always in the end trumps any concern for the oppressed of the world.


Thursday, May 13, 2004

Hezbollah shows its softer side 

What a fine company: "Bush and Hezbollah condemn beheading." The story taken from an AFP wire goes to report:

"Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah harshly criticised the beheading and questioned the timing of a 'horrible' act which drove the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US-led forces from the headlines.

" 'Hezbollah denounces this horrible act which does an immense wrong to Islam and Muslims by a group which falsely pretends to follow the precepts of the religion of pardon and essential human values,' the party said in a statement."
Maybe no one has told Hezbollah yet that Nick Berg was Jewish.

Just in case you think that the good old Party of God is going soft, here's a bit more of what they had to say:

"The timing of this act that overshadowed the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in occupation forces prisons is suspect timing that aims to serve the American administration and occupation forces in Iraq and present excuses and pretexts for their inhumane practices against Iraqi detainees."
I don't know about you, but I can see a conspiracy theory coming on. After Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah's recent remarks about al Quaeda attacks on the Kingdom being the work of Zionists, Hezbollah seems to be laying the groundwork for suggesting that those damned Americans have stages the incident themselves to divert the attention from the recent scandals.

Then there's this backhander to finish the statement:

"[The executors' behaviour is closer to] the Pentagon school - the school of killing and occupation and crimes and torture and immoral practices that were exposed by the great scandal in occupation prisons".
Al Jazeera can't help itself and describes Hezbollah as "[t]he influential Lebanese Islamist group, which the United States deems 'terrorist'." Just in case you were wondering.

(For the sake of completeness, Australia and Canada also list Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. The European Union doesn't.)


Nuts of the world unite 

A few days ago I mentioned on this blog how photos from pornographic websites have now been published on the web as photos of the alleged gang rapes of Iraqi women detainees by American prison guards.

It seems that you can't keep a good (or in this case bad) story down, and the photos have since then acquired life of their own, being used as propaganda weapon by an unholy coalition of crazies around the world to bludgeon the US with.

"Boston Globe" has now published a photograph of the photographs in question (not available on the "Globe" website, so check this scan of the print story), presented at a press conference jointly hosted by a Boston city councilor Chuck Turner and Sadiki Kambon, director of the Black Community Information Center. Kambon received the photos by e-mail from Akbar Muhammad, a representative for the Nation of Islam.

When WorldNetDaily, which originally broke the story about the photo's true origin a week ago, contacted "Boston Globe" and directed the story's writer, Donovan Slack, to the porn website in question, Slack commented: "This is ridiculous. I'll be working at Penthouse soon."

WorldNetDaily writes:

"The Globe published the photographic images despite the fact a skeptical Slack had raised serious doubts about them and was not able to verify their authenticity. Slack was assigned to report on the press conference and did not approve of the photos being published. The photos were approved for publication by three Boston Globe editors."
Great work, guys.

While in the US the photos are being peddled by the Nation of Islam, in Australia they are being publicised by a far-right activist Joe Vialls, who published the pics on his website with lurid commentary about "American Perverts [who] Pack Rape & Kill Iraqi Women". Vialls is a Western Australian conspiracy theorist who among many other things doesn't believe in the official story of S11 ("Forget the media hype about "Arab Hijackers" because there were none on board the aircraft on 9/11. Outrageous? Not at all. The four aircraft used in the attacks were hijacked electronically from the ground")

By the way, as Joe says, "Every report on this web site is researched, analysed and written solely by me on a tint disability pension that buys less each week. If you are better off please help by making a donation." Must be some new welfare initiative - Hate for the Dole. Queue in the world's smallest violin.

Following Vialls' lead in publicising the porn pics, the full collection has now been emailed to all Australian federal politicians by somebody named "Kevin" from a group calling itself "Christians Against Dishonest Politicians" who, for Christians, seem to have a rather unhealthy fascination with violent porn.

What a great rainbow coalition of the America-haters.


Good news from Europe 

From Germany:

"Citing a 'window of opportunity', a German government official said Wednesday Berlin would launch an initiative this autumn for Germany to be given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council."
Because we need another veto. And in case you were wondering, the French are strongly supportive.

From Belgium:

"Belgium’s Defence Minister Andre Flahaut could well be questioned by magistrates investigating a massive fraud that has seen the Belgian army swindled out of millions of euros, it was reported on Wednesday."
Now at least we know where all the money in European defence budgets is going to.

And from France:

"The French economy expanded 0.8 percent in the first quarter, its fastest pace in two years and a better-than-expected performance that officials said confirmed a recovery was gathering steam. 'Our economy has come back toward growth,' Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared. 'We have forecast growth of 1.7 percent in 2004 - we will without doubt reach and surpass that'."
Living in an economy that is consistently growing at 4% per year, all I can say is "wow, those French must be doing something right!"


Situation normal 

I just love how sometimes stories gets juxtaposed on news websites. This from BBC:

"US slaps trade sanctions on Syria"

next to:

"EU plans to talk trade in Syria"


Wednesday, May 12, 2004

A tale of two al Quaedas 

Maybe intelligence reports are correct and after two and a half years of the war on terror al Quaeda is now so decentralised that we can't speak of it anymore of a single entity, even in terms of an umbrella group.

There certainly seems to be a smart al Quaeda and a dumb al Quaeda.

The smart al Quaeda knows that Europe is soft and vulnerable; the dumb al Quaeda thinks that America still is. The smart al Quaeda has watched the events since S11 with great attention and had learned the lessons; for dumb al Quaeda it's still the 1990s.

The smart al Quaeda sets off bombs in Spain because it knows that most European countries only need a gentle nudge to push them towards surrender. The dumb al Quaeda thinks that it's Beirut in 1983 or Mogadishu in 1993 all over again and killing Americans still works; the dumb al Quaeda hasn't learned that in recent times crashing into American sky-scrapers or cutting off American heads on video will not make the United States give up - it will only make them madder.

The smart al Quaeda has perfect timing, attacking just before a crucial election. The dumb al Quaeda has appalling timing. Just when the United States seems to be on the ropes, demoralised by the prison photos flashed on the news around the world night after night for weeks on end, the dumb al Quaeda releases a video of masked thugs chanting "Allah is great" while they hold a bound American hostage down on the ground and cut his head off with a knife - all of it as if to remind the US what this war is about and strengthen their resolve.

The smart al Quaeda seems to be run by Ayman Zawahiri, the good Egyptian doctor and formerly Osama's deputy. The dumb al Quaeda is run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who's in charge of bin Laden's operations in Iraq. He's apparently the man holding up Berg's severed head in the video.

The smart al Quaeda will likely outlast the dumb al Quaeda. In the end though, both will join Nazism and communism on that famous ash-heap of history. Videos like this one will ensure that they do.


The savages 

The video they don't want you to see: Nick Berg, the American hostage gets decapitated by al Quaeda.

Warning: extremely graphic. Some could even argue it's even slightly more graphic than photos of naked Iraqi prisoners piled up on one another.

Now eagerly awaiting the outrage of the "Arab street".


All the apparent news that's fit to braodcast. 

How Al Jazeera reports beheading of the American hostage Nick Berg:

"A video running on an Islamist website has shown the apparent beheading of an American hostage in Iraq.

"A poor quality videotape on Tuesday showed five masked men sawing off the head of the bound hostage dressed in orange Guantanamo Bay style overalls after pushing him off a white plastic chair in a bare room." [my emphasis]
How Al Jazeera reports the Iraqi prisoner abuse:

"Former inmates of the US-occupation run Abu Ghuraib prison near Baghdad still find it difficult to relate their experiences of torture and humiliation, as more pictures of abuse come to light.

"One of the released detainees who was forced to pose naked in a human pyramid has told Aljazeera that the acts committed against them were so horrible that he still could not get himself to speak about most of it."
No apparent abuse this time, and all photos are of excellent quality.


Cannes - is it by any chance in France? 

The Cannes film festival this year will be something to savour. In a puff piece, "The Sydney Morning Herald" gives Michael Moore a free ride, with no mention that the uber-stupid white male had lied about Disney Corporation stifling his "free speech."

In addition to Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11", also on show at the festival "Walter Salles's filmed version of 'The Motorcycle Diaries', with sultry Latino Gael Garcia Bernal as Che Guevara, and Niels Mueller's 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', which stars Sean Penn as a disillusioned American dreamer who decides to hijack a plane."

Movie industry bias? Nah.

At least the part-time performers will not be trying to derail the festival, now that Cannes' organisers had reached a last minute deal with them over unemployment benefits. Had the French welfare actors managed to prevent screenings, Moore would not have been able to blame this one on Bush. Then again...

Meanwhile: Speaking of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and Michael Moore, Spike Lee is surprised that "(the Bush administration) hasn't killed him yet. ... Hopefully, this film will get out to the world before the next election."

Spike shouldn't worry - I'm sure Moore is already planning a fake assassination attempt on himself as the next publicity stunt.


Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The 70-90% myth 

How much of the Iraqi prisoner abuse is a war issue and how much a law enforcement problem?

Many bloggers have already noted in recent days that prison abuse, often much worse than that practiced at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, unfortunately seems to be reasonably common in jails back in America (for the best summary on this point see "Wall Street Journal"'s James Taranto).

Now many news outlets have latched onto the statistic quoted in the original leaked Red Cross report that between 70 and 90% of Iraqi prisoners are arrested by mistake (which, I assume, means that they are either not guilty of the offences they are accused of, or the authorities are not able to prove they are guilty). This claim was based on unofficial estimates of unnamed military personnel in Iraq. I would ideally like to have more reliable numbers to work with, but for the sake of the argument I'll accept the 70-90% figure.

Now, much has been made of this statistic. I don't presume that Red Cross thinks that if the figure was, say, only 20% arrested by mistake (and therefore the other 80% actually guilty) that would make the abuse justified. Therefore, the implication seems to be that arresting people who turn up not to be guilty is in itself a form of abuse, and therefore an indictement on the conduct of the US occupation.

In the United States, unfortunately the most current statistics I could find were for the early 1990s. Thus, in 1994, the number of people arrested for murder was 22,100 and the number of people convicted was 13,068. This gives just over 59% of people arrested being found guilty, and therefore 41% of people being arrested by "mistake."

In the same year, 172,290 people were arrested for robbery and 65,829 convicted, which gives us just over 38% of people arrested being found guilty, and therefore 62% of people being arrested by "mistake."

Similarly, in 1994, 547,760 people were arrested for assault and 97,046 were convicted. This gives us just under 18% of people arrested being found guilty, and thus over 82% of people being arrested by "mistake."

(If any reader has got access to more up-to-date data, please let me know. I don't suspect though that there will be a great deal of difference.)

What does it all show? At the very least that even in the United States, with its advanced criminal justice system, anywhere between 41 and 82% of people arrested are also arrested by mistake. When you then consider the situation in Iraq, with its state of low-level conflict, limited resources, language and cultural barriers, you might realise that all things considered, the US authorities are not doing too badly.


Car costs less in the long run 

That doesn't come as a surprise:

"Most men in Germany would rather spend a weekend with a flashy car than with a sexy female celebrity, according to a new survey released Monday.

"Given the choice between having their hands on a Ferrari Enzo or on Pamela Anderson, 86 percent of German males in the survey chose the car, said the survey for Men's Car magazine.

"And only 25 per cent of respondents chose Britney Spears over a Lamborghini Gallardo.

"Kylie Minogue, however, scraped by with 53 percent when put up against a Porsche Carrera GT, the survey showed."
Australian product wins hands down against cheap American imitations (although I guess the airbags on the Pamela Anderson model are a valuable extra).


Worth reading this Tuesday 

An interesting perspective: have the Iraqi prison abuse photos also sent another message to the "Arab street", a really unintended one?

I've waited my whole life for this one: Eastern European free market policies under threat from Western Europe.

And Bin Laden shortlisted for building the world's tallest sky-scraper. No, not the demolition expert Osama, but his relatives.


Bush made me do it 

In today's "Age", Joseph Wakim, founder the Australian Arabic Council and a former multicultural affairs commissioner builds his castle on the foundations of sand: "George Bush insists that the crimes committed by United State military guards inside Iraqi prisons were an aberration of American values. He fails to see that they are a culmination of his own indoctrination."

What examples of Bush's horrid, dehumanising anti-Arab indoctrination can Wakim cite? Wanting Osama bin Laden "dead or alive". Or his aircraft carrier speech in 2003: "Any person involved in committing or planning terrorist attacks against the American people becomes an enemy of this country, and a target of American justice..." Or his Thanksgiving address to the troops: "you are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq."

In case you were wondering, that's it. This is the sort of vile, over-heated, dehumanising anti-Arab rhetoric that had turned American soldiers into Muslim-hating, Iraqi-abusing monsters. Right?

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, some of us remember that the genesis of these statements were the three hijacked passenger airplanes crashing into the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, killing 3000 civilians. Fancy that bigot Bush thinking that the perpetrators should perhaps be brought to justice!

But why spoil a good story with facts? Notice that nowhere does Wakim cite any real instances where Bush denigrates Islam or Arabs, or makes them the collective target of his wrath. The simple fact is that none exist. And if we're talking about selectivity, how about mentioning the following stories?

- "President Bush... took on the Christian right core of his political base, denouncing anti-Islamic remarks made by religious leaders including evangelist Pat Robertson."

- "Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others," says President Bush.

- "In a score of speeches since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the president has called for tolerance of Muslims, describing Islam as 'a faith based upon peace and love and compassion' and a religion committed to 'morality and learning and tolerance'."
Ah, so this is what Wakim means by dehumanising the enemy and blurring the line between a terrorist and a Muslim.

But Wakim, not satisfied with trashing the bigot in the White House, also has a go at the Hollywood:

"But long before the young soldiers were psyched up by Bush, the anti-Arab predisposition was already there. A steady diet of Hollywood films invariably cast the Arab as the quintessential villain. This generation of US soldiers would have been exposed to blockbusters such as Delta Force (1986), True Lies (1995), Executive Decision (1996), The Siege (1998) and Rules of Engagement (2000). In each conquest, the American heroes reduced the terrorist Arabs to incarceration or incineration. And in each conquest, Arabs were the villains because they were uncivilised and intrinsically evil."
Could it possibly be that in a lot of American movies the terrorists were of Arab ethnicity, because over the last few decades it was Arab, not Latino or Chinese or African terrorists who were responsible for most of the international anti-American and anti-Western terrorism?

And why not mention movies such as "The Sum of All Fears", where out of Hollywood sensitivity, Arab terrorists in the original Tom Clancy's book have been magically replaced with European neo-Nazi terrorists?

But that would be a reasoned argument.


New trends in terrorism 

First comes the news of possibly the first Palestinian hermaphrodite suicide bomber, and now this - Israeli army kills two Palestinian gunmen disguised as women.

In case you were wondering, the female impersonator gunmen have turned up to shoot up a funeral of a Jewish woman and her four children killed by another set of Palestinian gunmen a few days ago.


Monday, May 10, 2004

The Prime Minister may have been the second gunman on the Grassy Knoll, say the Greens 

This is what goes these days for political news in Australia:

"Prime Minister John Howard may have known as long ago as last July of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, the Australian Greens said today.

"Amnesty International first raised its concerns about the torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees by US and coalition troops in July last year in a report to the US government, Greens senator Bob Brown said today. It was almost unconceivable that the human rights group would not have raised its concerns with the Australian government, Senator Brown said.

" '[T]he Australian government must have known since last year but did nothing,' Senator Brown told reporters." [Italics mine]
And Senator Brown "may" have once had some credibility in the electorate, but it's "almost unconceivable" that anyone treats him seriously anymore, since surely he "must have" lost his marbles by now.

I don't know whether Amnesty International has raised its concerns with the Australian government in July last year or anytime after that (seeing that concerns were raised with the American government and the Coalition Provisional Authority, as the two bodies directly responsible for Iraqi prisons), but it's almost unconceivable that they would not have raised its concerns with Senator Brown. Just what did Senator Brown know and when did he know it?

The innuendo in the Brown smear is that the Prime Minister, by silent acquiescence, has participated in a long-standing cover-up, which was only exposed a few weeks ago, due to courage and dilligence of the world media. This is a convenient myth - the investigations of the abuses have been going on for months now, far from the glare of publicity. It might shock Senator Brown, but the authorities, both in the US and in Australia, are perfectly capable of addressing various problems, even those not brought to their attention by Senator Brown.


A flippant comment of the day 

Richard Overy, professor of modern history at King's College, just can't help himself in his opinion piece on the Iraqi prisoner abuse:

"Flicking through a Sunday magazine a few years ago I was struck by a colour photograph of heavily armed German soldiers on the eastern front in Russia burning a village to the ground. With the heavy helmets, camouflaged combat jackets, submachine guns thrown over shoulders, the image seemed standard fare. It was only when I looked at the caption that my illusions dissolved. It was a picture of US troops in Vietnam punishing Vietcong guerrillas.

"It was an easy mistake to make."
No, it wasn't. Overy is one of the more distinguished historians of the Second World War. If he has to look at the caption because otherwise he can't tell apart Wehrmacht from US Army and a Russian village from a Vietnamese village, then I'm seriously worried about Overy's credibility as a serious historian.

Overy writes later on in the piece: "The mistreatment of prisoners, common in Iraq as in occupied Russia or Vietnam, has horrified world opinion."

Putting Vietnam aside (gotta give a tired cliche some rest once in a while), to imply that the mistreatment of prisoners is somehow comparable between the Eastern Front and Iraq, either in terms of quality or quantity (or the consequences), is simply obscene and unbecoming of somebody who fancies himself an authority on the Second World War. Has he actually read any books on the topic? (what am I asking - he's actually written books on the topic, for God's sake.)

To give you some perspective, somewhere between 2 million and 3.3 million Red Army prisoners of war perished while in German hands, "the majority of whom died as a result of a deliberate policy of inadequate nutrition, medical and sanitary facilities, and accommodation, not to mention deliberate cruelty and murder." How's that for common mistreatment? In addition, anywhere between 7 and 20 million Soviet civilians died during the German invasion.

Then again, maybe I'm too harsh on Overy - maybe it was an easy mistake to make. But only if you're a member of the "America=Nazis" crowd. I expected a bit better of Overy, though.


Another casualty in the war on terror 

The war on terror is harming some of the world's poorest people, and - guess what? - it's the West's fault.

"[UK charity] Christian Aid says the UK Government must reverse a 'dangerous drift' towards linking aid to the fight against terror... The report's lead author, John Davison, told BBC News Online: 'Some of the world's poorest people already paying for the war on terror as the giving of aid by the world's richest countries is ruled by the rhetoric of 'with us or against us. This must not be allowed to continue.

" 'The blurring of the line between humanitarian and development activity and military and security activity by donors' governments is dangerous'."
So on the face of it, Christian Aid seems to be arguing that Western governments shouldn't expect that in return for all the generous aid, its recipients should try to stop terrorists from using the recipient countries as home bases for attacks against the West. How dastardly and mean-spirited of the West.

Read more, and you'll also see that Christian Aid is objecting to the fact that some of the Western foreign aid budgets are being spent on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, instead of going to more needy locations. And to the fact that some of the recipient countries are spending some of the aid money to fund their civil wars (like Uganda). This is hardly a news and has nothing to do with Western governments which donate money.

Don't worry though, even in the midst of the war on terror there still are no laws that would prevent private individuals and organisations such as Christian Aid from fund-raising and donating aid to whoever they want, with no strings attached (with exception of fund-raising for terrorist causes). Meanwhile, we shouldn't be too harsh on our governments, which want to spend the taxpayers' money to, in this case, ensure less bang for their buck.


Service with a smile 

How's that for excellent customer service?

"Australia Post is advising people to mail items now to avoid delays during Thursday's planned 24-hour stop work action.

"If you're wishing to send something of importance that you're keen to get in quickly then get it in the mail today so that it's ahead of the strike and therefore you won't be inconvenienced," says Matt Pollard from Australia Post.
I hope that the next time nurses go on strike they will have the same decency to warn potential patients to get sick a day before the work stoppage. And this could also work for firemen...


Sunday, May 09, 2004

The politics of moral outrage 

Read Iowahawk on the recent events in an alternate universe:

"The recent apology of US President George W. Bush for abuses by American military prison guards continued to reverberate around the globe today, as the White House was again inundated with a flurry of 'apology accepted' notes from world media, governmental leaders, and Islamic fundamentalist clerics.

"Typical of the responses was a personal note from Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, who wrote 'aww, dude, you know I can't stay mad at you,' saying that the apology had prompted him to immediately dismantle his country's secret nuclear weapons program. In a postscript, Assad added, 'good luck to the Rangers this year'...

"The apology also prompted an outbreak of gratitude in the Arab street, as hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets Friday in an impromptu demonstration of thanks. In Gaza, a cheering crowd estimated at 30,000 waved American flags and banners reading 'No Prablem Bosh' [sic], while in Damascus throngs gathered in the Square of the Martyrs chanting 'U-S-A, U-S-A'...

"Perhaps the biggest reaction to the Bush apology occurred in Saudi Arabia, where leaders of the fundamentalist Wahabbist sect issued a rare commendation of the president. 'It's just been such a catharsis for all of us,' said Imam Abdelkarim Matwalli, prayer leader of the Grand Mosque in Medina, choking back emotion. 'All we really ever wanted was a simple 'I'm sorry,' and Mr. Bush delivered. Thank you, America'."

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the prisoner abuse continues to be the news story of the moment, with Google news listing over 4,200 recent articles and news reports on the topic.

It was quite clear before, but now as a result of this recent controversy it has become even more painfully clear, that in their righteous anger the global left (and I loosely include among them majority of the educated Muslim opinion, on account of their prevalent anti-American and anti-Western sentiment) is more concerned with who the perpetrators are, than the victims.

The sad truth is that so many around the world seem to very stoically accept the fact that Muslims will invariably kill, torture, imprison, rape, persecute, mistreat and oppress their fellow Muslims. Lest I invariably get accused by the usual suspects of focusing too much on Muslims (or Arabs), let me add that so many around the world also accept the same about the Africans, and (although much less so today) the South Americans and Asians.

It seems that it's only when the Westerners (the Americans in particular, the Israelis on a much smaller scale) are involved as perpetrators that the outrage can truly reach the fever pitch. The intra-faith or intra-ethnic bloodshed and mayhem is so often ignored or excused, and on the occasions it manages to touch the world's conscience, the emotions it generates are not nearly as strong and long-lived as when it's the West that's deemed to be the culprit.

Tutsis and Hutus can keep slaughtering each other (and how many other conflicts in Africa can you name that each year cost the lives of hundreds of thousands?), Arabs can kill, imprison and torture each other, dictators all over Asia, Middle East and Africa can keep on denying their people the most basic human rights - but these sad facts of life are taken almost for granted. The special moral indignation and outrage are reserved only for the occasions when the United States or some other Western country stumbles and falls.

I'm not excusing the failings of the West. But I ask the critics: why do you spend so much time criticising those who don't always live up to the high standards they preach, and not those who don't aspire to any standards at all? Why do you consider a hypocrite to be worse than an unrepentant sinner? Why do you see the sliver in somebody else's eye but not a log in your own?

The argument that the West should be held to higher standards than everyone else, because it's the West after all and not everyone else that goes around preaching about democracy and freedom, I'm afraid doesn't cut it with me. Not because I don't believe that the West shouldn't be held to high standards, but because it's a cop-out and an excuse for the rest of the world to never have to look at itself in the mirror. Worse, it's an insult to human beings all around the world who have to live under appalling political, social or economic conditions to tell them that as non-Westerners they can't and won't inhabit the same moral universe as the West. Yet so often the people who argue that the "Asian values" should not be used to stifle political freedoms get accused of being Euro-centric, those who argue against native kleptocracies and dictatorships are dismissed as racists and neo-colonialists, and those who want to see freedom spread to furthest corners of the earth are found guilty of cultural insectivore, ignorance, inconsistency and worst of all, hypocrisy. Those people are deemed to have no right to lecture the world about freedom and democracy - but the reverse is rarely true. All too often those who shout the loudest about human rights are those who want to drown out the cries from their own torture chambers.

So in the end I say this to all the critics: the West is trying to make the world a better place - we're not always consistent, and sometimes we fail - but at least we're trying. What are you doing to help spread democracy, freedom, prosperity and human rights around the world? I'll give you a small hint: criticising the West is not enough.


From Transylvania with love 

"Van Helsing" debuts at number 1 at the American box office. It's a tale of a fearless vampire- and monster-slayer who can't remember his past, and after watching it last night I wish I could also enjoy a selective amnesia of those two hours and ten minutes. Although I guess it's alright if you're looking for completely mindless entertainment (and please don't try to learn European geography from this movie; Budapest is not surrounded by mountains).

"Van Helsing"'s producer and director Stephen Sommers (also responsible for "The Mummy") dedicated this film to the memory of his father. As my equally unimpressed friend remarked, "he must have really hated his dad."


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