Tag Archives: Terrorism

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

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Can Charlie Hebdo rise again?

The callous murder of ten journalists and two policemen yesterday in the centre of Paris is a landmark moment. The French now have their own 9/11 or 7/7. It’s certainly a defining moment in the history of freedom of expression too: on a par with the Rushdie fatwa.

It’s less than 24 hours since the atrocity and the murders are still at large, yet there is already so much to write about. With ‘moments’ such as this we experience cycles of news, comment, counter-comment and meta comment (i.e. comment on the comment). We seem to be experiencing all of these at once. Continue reading

A modest proposal to improve the tabloid press a notch

Alan Hemming has been murdered in Syria. What a disgusting, inhumane act.

Few of us have much faith in the tabloids to show much restraint in these situations.

However, Stig Abel, Managing Editor at The Sun, says his paper will not glorify the killing and will instead focus on celebrating the life of a kind and decent man.

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On the killing of children

The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.

In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.

What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?

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Are Human Rights a vote winner?

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

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A partial defence of Kiefer Sutherland's '24'

The conventional wisdom is that Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 is an apologia for torture, a cultural product of America’s post 9/11 crisis of confidence. It is produced by Fox, a media outlet not known for its liberal bias1.

Every week the show presents a new ‘ticking bomb’ dilemma for Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer. These scenarios properly belong in a university Ethics 101 seminar, not real life. Would you kill one person to save a hundred? Is torture justified if it yields information that saves lives? In Bauer’s world, the answer would always appear to be ‘yes’. He consistently chooses the path that saves more Americans in the aggregate, regardless of the law. And when he does so, he prevails. The people he tortures are always guilty and the confessions he extracts always yield useful information.

This is a 180° reversal of real life, of course. But by promoting the idea that the abolition of due process can be effective, 24 is propaganda for the abandonment of law and decency that characterised the Bush/Cheney administration. 24 skews public debate on such issues.

However, I have just watched Season 7. This block of episodes has a very different feel to the previous seasons. Terrorists still attack passenger aeroplanes, launch WMD, and attempt to assassinate the President. And Jack Bauer foils their plans on an hourly basis. However, this time the action has moved from decadent, decaying Los Angeles to Washington DC. This proximity to the institutions of State clearly inspire the supporting characters. As the action unfolds, Bauer is consistently harangued and brow-beaten over his actions by the people around him. FBI Special Agent Reneé Walker tries to play along with Bauer’s unconventional approach, and finds she does not have the stomach for it. Special Agent Larry Moss says “the rules are what make us better.” Back at the FBI HQ, the analysts complain about racially profiling suspects. In a key scene with a liberal Senator, Bauer is forced to entertain the notion that it is the rule of law that makes America, and that sometimes upholding The Constitution should take priority over saving lives. By the end of the series, Jack has accepted this argument.

Meanwhile, in the White House, POTUS Allison Taylor puts the responsibilities of her office over the unity of her family in a most dramatic fashion, following her head not her heart. The situations that she and Bauer encounter are no less preposterous than anything in the previous seasons… But at least in Series 7 the characters give proper weight to the importance of the law as they make their decisions.

24 Season 7 was made in 2008. You can tell it is the product of a different political wind. In an overt attempt to redeem itself after many years promoting a Manichean worldview, this series ensures that every Muslim character is wholly noble. As Bauer lies critically ill in a hospital bed, he even summons an Imam for spiritual guidance.

It is a shame that 24 took so long to put forward the view that it is the law that is at the heart of the American Way. It is a shame that it took the producers six seasons before they remembered that United States Presidents take an oath to defend the Constitution, not the people. Jack Bauer’s torturing ways are themselves an attack on American ideals, and it is a shame that this is only called out in Season 7.

But hey – at least the series does, finally, make that conceptual connection. Just as Jack Bauer repents his sins to the Imam, so 24 Season 7 feels like it too is asking for forgiveness.

Does the show deserve absolution? That all depends how Season 8 unfolds, and I haven’t watched that yet.



1. Yes, I do know that Fox also produces The Simpsons but that does not excuse Fox News.

Swan at Utoeya Island

Norway Wins, Breivik Loses

(Les på norsk). There was an interesting piece on the radio this morning on how Norwegian attitudes to immigration have changed, since the Utøya Massacre last year.  Apparently people have become more proud of being Norwegian, but also more accepting of immigration.  This is the polar opposite of the cultural war that Anders Bering Breivik hoped to ignite when he committed his atrocities.

I would say that Norway has also ‘won’ in the sense that it has not compromised on its principles or the rule-of-law in its response to the terrorists.  Breivik’s 21 year prison sentence seems ridiculously lenient to me… but it is the maximum allowed by Norwegian law, and they have stuck to it.  It is admirable and noteworthy that the legal system has withstood such a traumatic shock.  What is it about Norwegian culture that they were able to resist the shrill call that “something must be done”?

Compare this to the knee-jerk responses in the USA and the UK.  More than a decade after the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan, America still imprisons foreign nationals without trial in Guantánamo Bay.  Here in the UK Parliament settled on 42 days detention without charge for terror suspects.  Both countries allowed panic and fear to set policies that removed civil liberties.  We should have been more like Norway, and stood firmer.

How the Olympics Pwned the Terrorists

A final thought on the Olympics. It was a giant middle-finger towards the terrorists, wasn’t it?

I remember that week in 2005 very well. As well as the announcement confirming we had won the Olympic bid, that week in July also saw the G8 protests at Gleneagles and Edinburgh, and the Make Poverty History events, also centred in Scotland, that culminated in the Live 8 concerts. There was a real sense of political momentum, a feeling of people power, and for once, and absence of the usual cynicism associated with politics. I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and attended several of the events, including the Make Poverty History march around the city. We all wore white, and from the air the crowds formed a white ring that resembled the plastic wrist bands that had become the emblem of the movement.

And then four idiots spoiled everything. (I have written before – on the first anniversary of 7/7, actually – about what an act of deflation that was. The constructive political ‘moment’ around G8 was destroyed by their actions, and the country and the government fell back into fear and reactionary politics).

We know that the aim of the four terrorists, and those who assisted them, was to sow division within our society. It would be wrong to ascribe to them a consistent ideology, but their confused brand of fundamentalist Islam was at odds with cosmopolitan London and multicultural, multi-racial Britain.

The fact that Londoners and tourists alike continued to use the London underground system was an immediate retort to their actions. The fact that the party that they spoiled on 7th of July 2005 was reformed as a celebration of modern Britain during these recent Olympic Games, is also something to be proud of. The success of the games is the most eloquent possible response to their actions (a complete ‘pwnage’ in modern digital parlance). That the person who emerged as the darling of these games was a Somali born, British Muslim man comfortable in his nationality and faith, makes the refutation of the terrorist ideology all the more complete.

I hope that other disaffected young men like Mohammed Siddique Khan and his group Will have seen these Olympics and realised that there are other paths to follow. Perhaps the Mo-Bot and the cheeky smiles of the Games Makers are together a more effective counter-terrorist measure than detaining people without trial could ever be.

Human Rights Under Attack Again

Plenty of Sharp-bait in the media this morning. David Cameron will give a speech today criticising the European Court of Human Rights, for going against the laws and judicial decisions of Council of Europe countries.

I’ve argued before, in a post on paedos and prisoners, that in the human rights framework, a judgement that frustrates the populist sentiment is a feature, not a bug. The case of Abu Qatada is cited as an example of a problem, but I see it as the system working well. The man (odious as he may be) hasn’t had a proper trial, and the European Court pointed this out. What’s wrong with that?

The response from the reactionaries is “he doesn’t deserve a fair trial”. This implies a two-tier system of liberty and justice, an Us-and-Them approach which eventually dehumanises certain groups. We need an effective justice and security system to provide some protection against violence and extremism. But it has to apply a consistent set of rules and procedures if it ismto woeffort perky. And we also need an external court of human rights, to protect us from the careless elements in our own society, who are happy to dispense with due process whenever it is not to their taste. it’s a shame that our Prime Minister is pandering to these “careless elements” and I hope the other party leaders, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, do not follow suit.

The Cost of Terrorists and Dictators

Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:

Has any single human being, either directly or indirectly, cost the United States more money than Osama bin Laden? Even a very partial, very haphazard, tallying of the costs from 9/11 reaches swiftly into the trillions of dollars. … Has any single individual even come close to costing America that much? Adolph Hitler is probably one of the few candidates

That reminds me of this link I posted in 2005, pointing out the cost of the Iraq War was in the region of $1.25 trillion.  Professor Keith Hartley suggested that it would have been cheaper and quicker to have paid Saddam Hussein and his family a few billion dollars to go into exile.

However cheap (relatively speaking) such a deal would be, we know it would never be workable.  Revolutions and regime change stem from the terrible treatment of citizens by their Government and Leader.  These injustices can never be considered ‘corrected’ if the wrong-doers swan off into luxurious exile.  Our sense of what is morally right – that tyrants and genocidaires should be brought to justice (or at least killed) – trumps pragmatic considerations.  We have an inate belief that this approach is worth the continued sacrifice of our soliders, and the chaos and cost in the world economies.  Breaking this understanding, via the sterile calculations of a Cost-Benefit analysis or Return on Investment figures, would ultimately lead to bigger wars.