Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press

My story is featured in this anthology of space opera and Military SF

I’m delighted to have a short story featured in Crises and Conflicts, a new anthology of space and military science fiction, just published by NewCon Press as part of their 10th Anniversary celebrations.

My piece, ‘Round Trip’ is a tale of loneliness, obsession, patience, and the tedious experience of waiting for a no-frills budget space shuttle to Jupiter (we’ve all be there).

The central science fiction idea in the story is that the universe is finite and curved, a theory developed by the cosmologist Professor Janna Levin. I can highly recommend her book How The Universe Got Its Spots and her beautiful Moth story ‘Life on a Mobius Strip‘. Continue reading “Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press”

Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May

Our constant call-outs of sexism in the media are slowly having an effect

Societal progress moves at a glacial pace. Sexism didn’t go away when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and it’s still with us even though Teresa May now occupies Number 10 Downing Street.

Still, it’s interesting (to me, at least) to watch our societal attitudes change, even at the quantum level.  In fact, I think it is particularly worthwhile to note the most granular changes in our discourse: in this case, how we talk about women and men.

Many people have shared this article by Nicole Morely in the Metro: ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man‘.

Continue reading “Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May”

No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’

Any political party that did not have a mechanism for a sitting leader to be ousted would be pretty much the definition of anti-democratic

The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.

I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns.  But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.

But they are not.  They are profoundly democratic. Continue reading “No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’”

Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

“Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, This Is Wrong”

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Jeremy Corbyn Is Not Doing His Job And Should Resign

The Leader of the Opposition is not leading the opposition. He has turned a tautology into an oxymoron.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Corbyn MP has two jobs and two job titles. First, he is Leader of the Labour Party, a position to which he was elected by a majority of those eligible to vote, in every voter category (members, registered supporters, affiliates).  If that were the whole story then a leadership challenge would be completely undemocratic and wrong.

However, Mr Corbyn is also Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.  This is not some ceremonial title you get when elevated to a particular position, like Lord of the Isles or Second Lord of the Treasury. Instead it is a post that fulfills a crucial rôle in our democracy, scrutinising Government actions and Bills on behalf of the entire country, including people who did not vote Labour.  Just as the Prime Minister (First Lord of the Treasury, by the way) is accountable and answerable to everyone, so too is the Leader of the Opposition. Continue reading “Jeremy Corbyn Is Not Doing His Job And Should Resign”

Article 50 Will Be Triggered When Illogic Dictates

Now Britian has voted to leave the EU, there is a lot of discussion about at the moment over when or if Article 50 will be triggered.

Spinning Hugo suggests that it may never happen. He points out that the negotiating position of the UK is far stronger while Article 50 has not been invoked… and it will be instantly worse once it is invoked.  Since EU leaders have declared that they will not begin negotiations until Article 50 is triggered by the British Government, a stalemate has arisen.

This is a compelling analysis, but I am reminded of the the Unexpected Hanging Paradox:

A judge tells a condemned prisoner that he will be hanged at noon on one weekday in the following week but that the execution will be a surprise to the prisoner. He will not know the day of the hanging until the executioner knocks on his cell door at noon that day.

Using logic, the prisoner deduces that he will never be hanged. When the executioner knocks on his door on a Wednesday he is therefore totally surprised. Continue reading “Article 50 Will Be Triggered When Illogic Dictates”

Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry

British poets can show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice

My colleague Cat Lucas and I sat down with Paul McMenemy, editor of the Lunar Poetry Magazine, to tell their podcast listeners about the work of English PEN. We discussed imprisoned Saudi poet Ashraf Fayad, how blogging is the 21st century version of pamphleteering, and how British poets might show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice at the same time.

You can listen on the Lunar Poetry website, via YouTube or judt hit the play button on the embedded podcast below. Continue reading “Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry”

My Gut Tells Me Teresa May Will Be Our Next Prime Minister

Anyone who can present a calm and collected facade will be an attractive candidate. Teresa May is doing this.

The perils of not posting your blog post immediately after you’ve written it!  I wrote this last night when the two main leadership contenders were Boris Johnson and Teresa May, and he was the bookies’ favourite.  Now Michael Gove has entered the race saying “Boris is not a leader”, Johnson’s odds have lengthened significantly and Mrs May is now the favourite.  I don’t know how that affects the principles I set out below.


The Conservative Party has begun the nomination process to elect a new party leader and therefore out next Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson is the favourite but my gut tells me that Teresa May will win.

Making pronouncements based on what one’s intensities say is a perilous practice. Often you end up talking shit or vomiting nonsense. Allow me to offer some head-like reasoning for what I feel in my waters. Continue reading “My Gut Tells Me Teresa May Will Be Our Next Prime Minister”

The Typography of Labour Resignation Letters

Apparently, Tweeting a copy of one’s resignation letter is now A Thing.

This tweet of mine garnered a few fav-hearts and re-tweets, which suggests that this is the sort of thing people are interested in.

Of course, the content of the letters is the really important part, so far as the authors are concerned. But design and presentation is incredibly important, despite being 99% Invisible when done right. We can gather some insights into the thoughts of the authors by how their resignation letter is laid out.

I compiled a Storify of a couple of dozen Labour Shadow Cabinet resignation letters, and added comments about their design.  Continue reading “The Typography of Labour Resignation Letters”