Tag Archives: Terrorism

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.

The Propaganda of Obama

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011

This week, much has been made of the fascinating photograph published by the White House, showing President Obama surrounded by his national security team as they followed the Bin Laden killing, as it happened. The newspapers I’ve read have all carried a knowing analysis of the image, explaining the telling body language and identifying each of the onlookers. Some of the less prominent figures, such as the Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason, suffered the indignity of being unrecognised by the press.

The photo has already been labelled iconic, which I think is an overused word in this era of highly accomplished photojournalism, but it may yet become the most popular photo of Obama’s Presidency (it is one of the most popular photos on Flickr ever). If It does, this will be no accident. The image is as masterful a piece of propaganda as you are ever likely to see.  And, we’ve been here before.

The White House Flickr stream is touted as an emblem of open government. Photographer Peter Souza seems to have a free reign to wander around the Oval office and even the high-security Situation Rooms, with impunity. It conveys a message that there is nothing to hide.

The image in question is particularly good because it seems to portray a very long moment. If Souza had been filming the scene we imagine that it would not have looked very different from the still photograph… apart from some blinking. The uncritical analysis of the image in the press completely accepts this idea. The behaviour of the President during this operation (and indeed all those with a political interest in appearing strong, such as Vice President Biden, Hillary Clinton, and recently embattled Defence Secretary Robert Gates) has been defined by this image. When voters are asked “is Obama a strong leader?” (a hardy perennial in the opinion polls), this is the image they will remember when they agree.

However, a quick look at the photo’s attributes can remind us how manipulated this image actually is. For example, the file name for the image – which is assigned to it automatically by the camera – is P050111PS-0210. The file names of the images published either side of this one in the Flickr photo stream have the suffix 0106 and 0475, which means that Souza took 368 other photos around the same time, which he and the White House communications team chose not to publish. This is standard practice amongst all photojournalists – for every good photo, there are scores that are discarded because they do not quite capture the story you wish to convey. In this case, I’ll bet there are versions of this image that are under-exposed, or have Obama blinking, or of Joe Biden looking gormless, or with Robert Gates picking his nose, or Hillary Clinton with a double chin. Moreover, there will be others where Biden and Gates, on the extreme left and right of the image, are out of shot, which would be unacceptable.

Interestingly, there is a figure in a black jacket, standing next to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who is out of shot. This man stands with his arms folded (very Alpha Male) and he has a prime position behind Clinton and Gates. He must be as least as important as Tomason and Anthony Blinken (advisor to Joe Biden), both of whom have to peek over the shoulder of Bill Daley, just to get a look-in. I am not suggesting that this is some shadowy figure at the heart of a conspiracy – he might be some lesser aide or bodyguard. I just draw attention to him in order to point out how our gaze and opinions can be so easily directed. “If there aren’t photos then it didn’t happen” is an old newsroom adage. Add to that “If you’re not in the photo, then you weren’t there.”

Don’t get me wrong – I like President Obama, and I share his overall political outlook. One can hardly complain that he and his team choose to present themselves to the world in the best possible light. This is the essence of electoral politics, in fact. However, it is the job of the media to cast a critical eye over the images released to us by governments. The fact that Souza’s photo has been so swiftly elevated to ‘iconic’ status suggests to me that media due-diligence has not been performed in this case, which should be a cause for worry. Body language analyses and ‘who’s who’ type photo articles constitute fluffy, filler journalism. They are appropriate for Royal Wedding coverage, but not for matters of major geopolitical significance.

Two Types of Patriotism

Crowds assemble to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Crowds assemble to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Micah in Kansas City is uneasy about the celebrations surrounding the killing of Osama Bin Laden:

The backlash of ignorant commentary and opinion about the death of Bin Laden on Twitter tonight was disheartening, and I’m so very glad I deleted my Facebook so I didn’t have to gaze upon the even more ignorant statuses of “patriots” glad about the death of another human being.

For me, it was impossible not to make the mental link between the celebrations in America, and the recent flag-waving down on The Mall.  Both events have been obvious moments of unity for the respective countries.  Both events mark symbolic endings to a particular period of national history.  In the British case, the confusion of Princess Diana’s marriage, the sorrow of her death, and perhaps the end of a particular type of monarchy.  In the American case, it is the ending of something much more significant (what Emily Maitliss on the BBC just called a “psychological watershed”), a decade of fear, insularity and a sense of revenge not yet wrought.

Moreover, the Royal Wedding and Osama’s death both signal much more optimistic new chapters.  A pared down, modern and middle-class Monarchy for us.  And for the Americans, a reassertion of their primacy in matters military.

I wonder whether these events can sustain this symbolism.  Wills and Kate are but two individuals getting hitched in a country that has massive economic problems and not a few social and cultural challenges ahead of it.  And in the American case, the death of a figurehead will not in itself stop the Al Q’aeda threat, nor reverse its economic decline relative to the Asian super-powers.  Time will tell whether these outpourings of national confidence, on both sides of ‘the pond’, mark a new period of success or a patriotic dead-cat bounce.

Regardless of the final significance, Micah’s post highlights an crucial difference between the two groups of cheering crowds: On The Mall in London, the flag-wavers were celebrating life;  On The Mall in Washington, they were cheering a death.  I wonder how this essential difference between these two moments of patriotic punctuation will affect the two nations in years to come?