Blogroll: Lustig's Letter

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Updated: 7 min 17 sec ago

Keeping calm and carrying on

Fri, 24/03/2017 - 09:18
Remember these people:
Aysha Frade, a school administrator with a Spanish mother and a Cypriot father, on her way to pick up her children from school.
Kurt Cochran, an American from West Bountiful in Utah, on a tour of Europe with his wife Melissa to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
Leslie Rhodes, aged 75, who died of his injuries late on Thursday night.
Keith Palmer, a police officer with 15 years’ experience, a member of the Metropolitan police parliamentary and diplomatic protection command.
Four victims of a callous murderer whose name need not concern us.  (Although now that we know that he was born in Kent as Adrian Ajao, I look forward to the apologies from all the racist bigots who claimed that the attack was in some way related to immigration.)
How unlucky his victims were to be at Westminster on Wednesday afternoon -- three of them walking across Westminster Bridge, the fourth doing his job at the entrance to the houses of parliament.
And as we mourn all victims of politically-motivated killings, let us also remember Lee Rigby, the off-duty soldier who was murdered in 2013, and Jo Cox, the MP who was killed last June and whose husband Brendan has been a role model ever since as we struggle to find the right words in response to such cruelty.
After the Westminster attacks on Wednesday, he said: 'The person who did this wants us to be fearful and divided. Let's show them that we are neither.'
In Paris 16 months ago, 130 people died when gunmen opened fire in a series of coordinated attacks. In Brussels, exactly a year ago, 32 people were killed. In Nice, last July, 86 died when a lorry ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Promenade des Anglais. And in Berlin last December, 12 died in a similar attack on a Christmas market.
So we may be forgiven for thinking that London got off lightly. We knew the city was not immune, we knew that the security services believed an attack was 'highly likely'. It was a question of when, not if.
Why did London get off lightly? It is tempting to say that we were lucky, but luck was only part of it. The attacker was armed with only knives. No gun -- because it's not easy to get hold of guns in a country with strict laws about the ownership of firearms.
He couldn't get into the Palace of Westminster because it is extremely well-fortified. Those hideous black security barriers are there for a reason. If he could have, I'm sure he would have loved to kill some MPs. PC Palmer was in his way, and gave his life to defend them.
Let us not forget: in 1979, the senior Conservative MP Airey Neave was murdered when Irish republican bombers placed an explosive device beneath his car while it was in the House of Commons underground car park.
In 1984, they blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton and nearly wiped out Margaret Thatcher's entire Cabinet. In 1991, they tried to kill John Major's Cabinet by firing mortars at 10 Downing Street.
So yes, we were lucky on Wednesday that it was 'only' a man in a rented car with a couple of knives. But we also owe an immense debt to the police and security services who have learnt well from the mistakes of the past. We are all immeasurably safer today than we were during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 80s.
It would be the height of folly to claim that a coordinated series of attacks on the scale of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 could not be mounted again. But it is worth noting that for more than a decade, there has been nothing comparable. (In 2007, two car bombs were discovered and disabled before they could be detonated, and the following day, there was an attempted attack at Glasgow airport.)
Londoners like to claim that the spirit of Blitz lives on in the capital. The truth is that in all the major cities of Europe that have been attacked, life goes on. Which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Twenty-four hours after the Westminster attack, I walked through the heart of London's West End -- and with the exception of a helicopter whirring noisily overhead and a couple of heavily-armed police officers on patrol in Leicester Square, it was as if nothing at all had happened.  
Over the coming days, we will learn more about the man who was responsible for the attack and perhaps begin to understand more about the best way to minimise the risk of more such attacks in the future. For the police and the security services, the task is never-ending -- to find, identify and monitor those who seek to do us harm. As the IRA said after they failed to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984: 'Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.'

The task for the rest of us is crystal clear: we keep calm and carry on. Because that's the exact opposite of what the killers want us to do.
Categories: Current Affairs

Why the pundits may soon owe you an apology

Fri, 17/03/2017 - 07:56
I think it may soon be time to offer an apology on behalf of the International Consortium of Commentators and Columnists, aka The Punditocracy.
Over the past nine months, you may have gained the impression that the Western world, made up of the so-called liberal democracies, was being engulfed by an unstoppable populist tide of xenophobia, bigotry and nativism. First came the Brexit vote in the UK last June, then the Trump victory in the US in November. In Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, populist, Islamophobic parties all seemed to be inexorably gaining support.
I know that one election result proves nothing, but the Dutch election this week ought at least to lead to a re-examining of what the media studies folk would call the ‘dominant narrative’. Perhaps the tide of populism and nativism is not so unstoppable after all.
Let’s look at some numbers from recent history. First the EU referendum: UK voters were split almost down the middle last June, 52% to 48%. Despite what Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues would have you believe, Brexit is not ‘the will of the people’, but the will of just 35% of registered voters, given that only 72% of them bothered to vote.
Second, the US presidential election. Donald Trump’s victory did not represent a violent swing to nativism; after all, he won three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and most Americans do not support his uniquely toxic brand of bigotry, ignorance and extreme narcissism. 
Third, the presidential election in Austria, where last December, Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party beat Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant, post-Nazi Freedom Party. By 54% to 46%, Austrians decided not to return their country to the darkest days of its recent history.
And now, the Netherlands, where the only Dutch politician anyone outside the country has heard of, the viscerally Islamophobic Geert Wilders, won just 13% of the national vote, barely ahead of the centrist D66 party on 12% and the Greens on 9%.
As it happens, support for Wilders was almost exactly equal to UKIP’s support in the 2015 UK general election, and far below what UKIP achieved in the European parliament elections of 2014, when it won 27% of the vote, more than either the Tories or Labour. (UKIP’s current poll rating is hovering around 10%.)
So why has the ‘dominant narrative’ given you a different impression? Because, in a nutshell, we journalists love nothing more than a dramatic story – and ‘Beware, the Fascists are on the march’, or variations on the theme, is certainly dramatic enough to spin into a thousand words on a dull Thursday morning.
I do not suggest for one moment that we should not have reported the rise in support for populist politicians feeding off – and often encouraging – fear of immigrants and of the effect of globalisation on the jobs market.
But I do suggest that politicians are not alone in succumbing to the temptation to feed off fear. Journalists know just as well as politicians that you get a lot more attention shouting ‘The barbarians are at the gates’ than by gently murmuring that, by and large, and all things considered, we’re probably going to be OK.
(Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte may well owe his election triumph at least in part to the way in which he so successfully exploited tensions with Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, by banning two Turkish ministers from addressing rallies in the Netherlands. What better way to fend off the threat from Geert Wilders than by showing how tough he could be against the Turks?)
So perhaps BBC news producers might be encouraged to resist the temptation to call on Nigel Farage every other day, simply because they know he’s likely to say something provocative and get their programme quoted in the news bulletins. Their US colleagues used to feel the same way about the ‘joke candidate’ Donald Trump – and look where it got them.  Interview-bookers, please note: Mr Farage may have turned into a posh-boy version of George Galloway, but as an ex-party leader, he now represents no one other than his own reflection in the mirror.
If the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidential election in June, the ‘dominant narrative’ may finally be put back in its box.  And if the German anti-immigrant, anti-EU AfD party does badly in September — its current opinion poll ratings are in single figures – the box’s lid can finally be nailed down.
And then, perhaps, we’ll read more stories from places like St Louis, Missouri, where local Muslims collected tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the repair of gravestones after an attack on a Jewish cemetery, and Victoria, Texas, where a rabbi handed over the keys to his synagogue to local Muslims after an arson attack on their mosque. Real stories from the real world, instead of overblown nationalist rhetoric from cynical populists.
Of course, liberal democracies face major challenges. But we need to beware of scaring ourselves into a sense of despair. And we journalists need to be especially careful not to get carried away by our love of the dramatic and the controversial, which are always so much more exciting than boring old complexity and nuance.
Me? I cling to the hope that we’re living through nothing more than a spasm of history. One day, perhaps sooner than we think, Donald Trump will no longer be the US president. And one day, probably much later than we think, Britain will have worked out a sustainable new relationship with its European neighbours.

So we should fasten our life jackets, refuse to panic, and do everything we can to keep the ship afloat as we ride out the storm. Eventually, the seas will calm, and the winds will abate. Let’s meet again on dry land.
Categories: Current Affairs

Is Theresa May turning into Donald Trump?

Fri, 10/03/2017 - 09:18

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Did you go to a grammar school? And if you did, did you get a good education?
If the answer to both those questions is Yes, you may very well have welcomed the government's pledge in the budget this week to make extra money available for new schools that will be allowed to choose their pupils according to academic ability.
So here's another question: Do you believe that encouraging the establishment of more grammar schools gives parents more choice about where to send their children to school? If your answer is Yes again, I fear you are sadly mistaken.
Because the whole point of selective schools is that it is not the parents who do the choosing. It's the schools. And that -- as those of you with long memories will recall -- is why grammar schools were abolished: too many parents were left angry and disappointed when their 11-year-old children were labelled 'failures' and shunted off to secondary modern schools.
It also explains, as Simon Jenkins pointed out in The Guardian, why even Margaret Thatcher, as education secretary in 1970, knew better than to halt the move away from selective schools. Tory voters did not like the idea of going back to a system in which their children risked being written off as 11-plus failures.
In a speech last September, Theresa May said: 'For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have.' That comes close to being an 'alternative fact' of Trumpist proportions. (Trump believes he won the biggest electoral victory since Ronald Reagan, and that Barack Obama bugged his phones, but that's not true either.)
Good schools that offer children good life chances do not exist only in leafy suburbs or where parents are able to pay for the privilege of a private education. Good schools exist wherever good, motivated teachers are given the resources they need to educate, encourage and inspire the children who come through their doors every morning. And there is no evidence whatsoever to back Mrs May's belief that selective schools offer bright children better chances in later life. It is dogma, pure and simple.
There is, however, plenty of evidence that providing government money to encourage more selective schools is an extravagant misuse of scarce resources. What possible sense can it make to allocate £320 million for the establishment of 110 new free schools, some of which will be selective, and only £216 million for the 20,000 existing state schools? (Declaration of interest: both my children were educated at a state comprehensive school.)
The budgets of mainstream schools are still being cut, year after year. According to a survey of 1,000 school staff in England published in January, 80% said their school either had made cutbacks or was planning to, a third said their schools were not replacing teachers who leave, and 14% said that teachers at their schools were being made redundant.
That is the current reality in the state system: fewer teachers, fewer support staff, fewer books, and morale at rock bottom. Little wonder that this week the head teachers of more than a thousand schools have sent out letters to parents and MPs warning that their budgets are at breaking point.
In last year's budget, the then chancellor George Osborne -- the one who is now being paid £650,000 a year to work one day a week at the asset manager Black Rock -- announced that all schools would be forced to turn themselves into independently-run academies by 2020. Less than two months later, the idea was scrapped in the face of near-universal opposition.
Now, his successor, Philip Hammond, is in hot water over his proposal to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed. So I have the perfect solution for him: scrap the NI increase, and fill the hole in the accounts by also scrapping the free school cash allocation.
That way, white van man will be happy and his children will have a better chance of getting a better education.  Win-win -- maybe I should drop a note to the chancellor.
Categories: Current Affairs

A message to Labour MPs: find your backbones

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 09:31

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So we've come to this. The only people with the courage to stand up to the Brexiteer ultras are the unelected, unaccountable, undemocratic House of Lords.
Labour MPs should be hanging their heads in shame. Jeremy Corbyn should be looking in a mirror and recoiling in horror at his reflection.
Where is the opposition to Mrs May's cowardly rush to Brexit chaos? Where is the push-back? Are John Major and Tony Blair -- not exactly the country's most popular former prime ministers -- really the only senior politicians prepared to point out what a disastrous course this government is embarked on?
Who speaks for the 48 per cent? For the millions of Labour supporters who voted Remain last year and who now have been left leaderless? How many times do Labour MPs have to be reminded that two-thirds of their supporters want the UK to remain in the EU?
In the face of what they wrongly think is a rush to UKIP by their traditional supporters in their northern heartlands, Labour MPs have become paralysed into irrelevance. The humiliating Copeland by-election defeat last week was not a result of a UKIP surge (in fact, the party slumped from 15.5% of the vote in the 2015 general election to 6.5% in the by-election) but mainly because former UKIP voters switched to the Tories.
For Labour to claim that it lost in Copeland because voters felt 'disenfranchised from politics ... left behind by politicians' is utterly bonkers -- since when did voters feeling disenfranchised decide to vote for the party that has been in office for the past seven years?
No wonder that, according to The Times, nearly 26,000 Labour members have left the party since last summer, in despair, I imagine, at its utter inability to influence the most important political debate in decades.
A government needs an opposition. The country needs an opposition. Ministers need to be challenged, their assumptions need to be tested. The Lib Dems do what little they can, but with a grand total of nine MPs, they can't do much. (In Copeland, by the way, their vote share was up 4% compared to 2015.)
In The Guardian, Martin Kettle wrote that Labour leaders now appear willing to envisage what he called a 'hard, anti-immigrant Brexit', and he added: 'There is nothing socialist about this, nothing social democratic, nothing liberal, nothing progressive, nothing moral...'
Politics is always about making choices in response to conflicting pressures. But the only pressure on Mrs May and her colleagues at the moment comes from her own party's ultras: go faster, they cry, go further, go harder. And every time someone dares to suggest that there might be another way, they respond: 'What about the will of the people? You must obey the will of the people.'
So let us nail the lie once again. Brexit is not the 'will of the people'. Just over one-third (34.73%) of the electorate voted in favour of the UK leaving the EU last June. That is not 'the people' -- it is one-third of the people. (Turn-out on referendum day was 72% of registered voters, of whom 52% voted Leave.)
And where, in the light of those figures, are Labour MPs? Nowhere. Philip Stephens put it well in the Financial Times: 'Britain is about to leave the EU — the most important, and dangerous, decision it has taken since 1945. The government seems set on the hardest of hard Brexits. Why? Because Labour’s absence has turned politics into a conversation between Conservatives — a conversation in which English nationalists have the loudest voice.'
No one voted for the UK to leave the single market or the customs union, because no one was asked the question. Nor did anyone vote in favour of leaving millions of EU citizens resident in the UK -- many of them married to UK citizens and with children who are also UK citizens -- in an agonising limbo, not knowing whether they will be allowed to remain here once we have left the EU.
Mrs May regards them as gambling chips, to be held in reserve until she finally sits down to play Brexit poker. But they are not gambling chips, they are people who make a huge contribution to the NHS, the financial services industry, and the arts. I dare not imagine what would happen to our crumbling social care system, for example, if the EU citizens who currently look after some of the UK's most vulnerable people decided that they were no longer prepared to wait for Mrs May to make her opening move.
I do not believe that the referendum result should be overturned. A majority of the voters who expressed a preference last June chose to vote Leave. That is a fact, and I accept it as such. But they did not express a preference -- because they were not asked -- about what kind of post-Brexit relationship with the EU they favoured.
So why aren't Labour MPs saying any of this? Why aren't they voting against the government at every opportunity, tabling amendments, trying to attract support from pro-EU Tories, arguing for a better way forward? Why is it only unelected peers who understand what is at stake?
It is not too late. Labour MPs still have time to rediscover their backbones and to do what most Labour voters want them to do. Ignore Jeremy Corbyn -- after all, he ignored successive party leaders for more than thirty years, so he can hardly complain -- and do what opposition MPs are paid to do.
Represent the people who voted for you. Oppose the government. And do everything you can to save the country from a train-crash Brexit that risks doing immeasurable harm to the country's future.

Categories: Current Affairs

Our last hope: inter-stellar migration

Fri, 24/02/2017 - 09:01
Somewhere on one of the newly-discovered planets orbiting the star known as Trappist-1, there are life forms that have worked out how to live sensibly. (Please note: this is not fake news. It is conjecture. Bear with me ...)
Just imagine: these life forms conserve as much as they destroy.
They protect the environment on which they depend for their survival.
And they have drawn up a system of rules that protect the most vulnerable and respect universally accepted rights. They call this rules system the Pan-Galactic Convention of Universal Life Rights.
Their leaders always tell the truth and are chosen by mass assemblies of all life forms on the planet. Political debate is conducted in accordance with legally-defined parameters: all statements made must be capable of scientific proof, and any insults aimed at those holding differing views render the insulting individual ineligible for public office.
There's just one problem: I don't know where to buy a ticket to go and live there. (I'm assuming they have immigration rules that allow all well-intentioned aliens to settle on their planet. After all, why wouldn't they?)
These planets are, in astronomical terms, our next door neighbours, a mere 39 light years away, which translates -- I think -- into just 234,000,000,000,000 miles (I've rounded up to the nearest trillion). If I jumped on a rocket tomorrow, I could be there in, oh, something like 700,000 years. So, at least, I'm assured by the BBC's estimable science editor David Shukman.
The star around which the planets orbit is known as an ultra-cool dwarf, which means they are bathed in life-giving warmth and the light of a perpetual sunset. Three of them are in the so-called 'Goldilocks zone', neither too hot nor too cold, where liquid water, and therefore life, could exist.
I think planets 1e, 1f, and 1g all sound quite delightful, but if I were allowed to choose, I'd head for 1f, on the basis that I always try to avoid extremes. And if I indulge my inner fantasist, it is because the planet on which we currently exist is in such a God-awful mess that hopping on an inter-stellar bus to relocate a couple of hundred trillion miles down the road seems a supremely sensible course of action.
To take just one, miserable example: according to the United Nations, more than 20 million people on our planet -- specifically in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen -- are now facing famine or risk of famine over the coming six months. If you're one of my most faithful readers, this won't come as a surprise to you.
After all, last November, I reported from north-east Nigeria: 'The UN has warned that up to 75,000 children could die within the next 12 months unless more help arrives urgently ... As many as 14 million people could soon be in need of help.'
And nearly three years ago, I reported from South Sudan: 'It is happening again. Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, 30 years after the famine in Ethiopia, Africa's twin scourges are back. This time it is a single country facing a double disaster. South Sudan, the world's newest nation, not yet three years old, is on the brink of catastrophe.'
Other reporters, responding to ever more desperate appeals from relief agencies, also sounded the alarm. We might as well have been reporting from one of those newly-discovered planets. Conferences were convened and pledges were made, but some of them, like the UK government's promise this week of £100 million of 'new support'for South Sudan, were simply repeats of earlier pledges. Playing with numbers while people die. Nice.
For much of my adult life, life on Planet Earth has appeared to be getting steadily more agreeable. The shadow of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s and 60s slowly gave way to arms reduction agreements in the 1970s and 80s, and then the Cold War ended in 1989, democracy took hold all across Europe, and we seemed destined for a future of stability and freedom.
But then came the wars in the Balkans, the genocide in Rwanda, the 9/11 attacks and everything that followed. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, and Britain trying to find a way to extricate itself from the European Union, we face a future of deep uncertainty and great danger.
So will you join me on my rocket trip to the constellation Aquarius? Or should we stay put and hope the current political spasm will pass?
After all, UKIP didn't win the Stoke by-election, so maybe that spasm has already passed. On the other hand, Labour lost in Copeland, so its long slide into oblivion continues.

Conclusion? I'm on my way to the inter-stellar ticket office. See you there.
Categories: Current Affairs

A President unhinged, a world endangered

Fri, 17/02/2017 - 09:09
All foreign leaders who meet the US President these days have to ask themselves just one, deeply worrying question: does this man have a clue what he's talking about?
Or, to put it another way: Does he have the mental capacity to do the job he was elected to do?
I have witnessed a lot of press conferences during my 45-plus years as a reporter, but never, ever, have I witnessed anything to compare with President Trump's performance yesterday.
The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, summed it up perfectly: 'President Donald Trump defended as highly effective his tenure so far in the White House, which has been marked by legal fights, West Wing power struggles, confrontations with US allies, the withdrawal of one of his cabinet nominees and the firing of his national security adviser after he misled administration officials about his contacts with Russia.'
(Within hours, the man he had picked as his new national security adviser was reported to have turned the job down, apparently having described the prospect of joining an administration that Mr Trump insists is a finely-tuned machine as a 'shit sandwich'.)
This is the man who was reported last summer to have asked a foreign policy expert not once but three times: 'If we have them [nuclear weapons], why can't we use them?'
The man who was reported last week to have phoned his now ex-national security adviser at three o'clock in the morning to ask if a strong dollar or a weak dollar was better for the US economy.
The man who was reported this week -- again by the Wall Street Journal -- to be regarded with such deep suspicion by his own intelligence services that they have decided not to pass on everything they know because they don't trust him. 
And the man who, with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing next to him, answered a reporter's question about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks since his inauguration with the words: 'Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honoured by the victory that we had — 316 electoral college votes ... As far as people, Jewish people, so many friends; a daughter who happens to be here right now; a son-in-law, and three beautiful grandchildren. I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening. And you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. OK? Thank you.'
A day later, he was asked the same question again, and after calling the question unfair and insulting, these were his exact words: 'Here's the story, folks. Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism. The least racist person ... I hate the charge. I find it repulsive. I hate even the question.'
There is nothing new about suggesting that Donald Trump might not have the ideal temperament to be the head of state of the most powerful nation on the planet. What is new is the growing sense that he might not have the mental capacity. In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, the highly respected commentator Elizabeth Drew writes: 'Trump’s possible mental deficiencies are ... a troubling question: serious medical professionals suspect he has narcissistic personality disorder, and also oncoming dementia, judging from his limited vocabulary. (If one compares his earlier appearances on YouTube, for example a 1988 interview with Larry King, it appears that Trump used to speak more fluently and coherently than he does now, especially in some of his recent rambling presentations.)'
The fact that Mr Trump is determined to wage war on the media -- except those that are uncritical of him -- is not the most serious of his many shortcomings. What must, surely, be far more worrying to every sentient being in Washington and around the world is that he appears to have only the most tenuous grip on reality.
He insists that he won the biggest election victory since Ronald Reagan, and when he is told to his face that he didn't, he sulks like a schoolchild: 'Well, I was given that information.'
I was in good company as my jaw hit the floor as I watched him in full flow at his press conference, reduced at one point to insisting (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that he was not 'ranting and raving'. The veteran Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who just happens to be Winston Churchill's grandson, commented on Twitter: 'The President in full rant tonight. It seems he's acting heedless of grown up advice ... God knows what will happen with the big stuff.'
Which, of course, is why this is all so serious. In Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang, calculations are being made: how can we test this most unpredictable and unhinged of US presidents? Long-range missiles are being test fired, a Russian spy ship is spotted 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut, and in the Black Sea, Russian fighter jets are photographed buzzing a US warship.
At his joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister, President Trump off-handedly ripped up one of the US's most hallowed foreign policy principles: that the only solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is to create an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.
These were his exact words: 'I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.' In other words, 'one-state, two-state, what do I care?'
It so happens that I agree with the president that the so-called two-state solution is no longer feasible. As I wrote in my recently-published memoir, after fifty years of illegal Israeli settlement-building on occupied Palestinian territory 'any attempt to create an independent Palestinian state would end up looking not so much like a patchwork quilt as like a succession of ink blots left behind by a careless colonial conqueror.'
But I wish I felt that Mr Trump had any idea what he was talking about. And I wish I didn't have a deep nagging fear that his reckless insouciance may well lead the Palestinians to conclude that the man in the White House needs to be taught a lesson about the reality of the conflict.
Last November, just a few days after his election victory, I wrote: 'The election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place ... What scares me most about [him] is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead ... For the next four years, the world will scarcely dare to breathe as we learn to live with a dangerous and unpredictable president in the White House.'
Four years? I'm not sure we can survive four years. Members of the US Congress now have a heavy responsibility resting on their shoulders; let's hope they understand where their duty lies.

Their duty to their country, and to the rest of the world. To rescue all of us before the 45th President of the United States of America has a chance to do any more harm.
Categories: Current Affairs

Will the law stretch from Srebrenica to Saydnaya?

Fri, 10/02/2017 - 09:10
Let us pretend that Brexit isn't happening. Let us also pretend that the name Trump means nothing to you. And then let us focus on a tiny shaft of sunlight that cuts through the global gloom and serves to remind us that wrongs need not always last for ever.
Eight former Bosnian Serb police officers went on trial in Belgrade this week, charged with taking part in the massacre of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. It was the worst atrocity committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War -- and now, more than 20 years later, at least some of those alleged to have been responsible are facing justice.
Whatever the eventual verdicts, they will not bring back the dead. Just as the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946 did not bring back any of the six million victims of the Holocaust. But justice serves a purpose, even after two decades. For survivors, and for the relatives of those who died, it means being able to look at the killers and say to them: 'What you did will not go unpunished.'
The military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, Ratko Mladić, is currently awaiting a verdict at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Last year, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Radovan Karadžić, was sentenced to 40 years in jail after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. They have both faced justice, just as those eight former police officers are facing justice now in Belgrade.
I wonder if anyone in Damascus has noticed. Are there perhaps a few senior military officers, police officers -- who knows, perhaps people even closer to Bashar al-Assad -- wondering if one day, they, too, might find themselves facing justice?
According to Amnesty International, in one of the most shocking reports it has ever published, as many as 13,000 people have been hanged in a Syrian military prison over a five-year period since the start of the anti-government protests in 2011. Saydnaya prison is less than twenty miles from Damascus, and Amnesty says it believes that the abuses committed there 'have been authorised at the very highest levels of the Syrian government.'
The details in the Amnesty report are horrific. I do not intend to repeat them here, but you can read the report for yourself by clicking here. How credible are the accounts? Amnesty says it interviewed thirty-one former prisoners, four former prison officials or guards, three former judges, three doctors, four lawyers, and twenty-two people whose family members were believed to be detained at Saydnaya. To me, that sounds credible enough.
So here's what I'm getting at. One day -- perhaps in twenty years' time, or perhaps much sooner than that -- some of the people responsible for the obscenities taking place at Saydnaya will stand trial. Just as senior Nazis did at Nuremberg, and senior Khmer Rouge officials did in Cambodia.
Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.
Dictatorships never last for ever. Slobodan Milošević and his henchmen discovered that, as did Pol Pot and his band of Khmer Rouge murderers, Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and countless others. Some despots die a natural death (Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong-il), others are overthrown and face trial for their crimes.
And that's where the law comes in. It might seem a bit of a stretch to link Brexit and Trump with the atrocities of Srebrenica and Saydnaya -- but all are, or should be, challengeable in the law courts. Whether it's Gina Miller and her successful challenge to Theresa May's decision to bypass parliament on the way to triggering Article 50, or the US 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the case against Donald Trump's proposed immigration ban, or the Belgrade trial of the former Bosnian Serb police officers -- as long as there are independent courts and courageous lawyers, there is hope for the victims of untrammelled executive power. (Which is why, of course, on both sides of the Atlantic, governments attack them.)
A final thought -- even incorrigible liberals like me need to remind ourselves sometimes that however miserable we might feel about Brexit or Trump, we face nothing a fraction as terrifying as what the Muslims of Srebrenica faced in 1995, or what the people of Syria have been facing for the past six years.

It helps to keep a sense of proportion. 
Categories: Current Affairs

Lost in Washington: political backbones

Fri, 03/02/2017 - 08:42

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What a bunch of spineless cowards they are.
A year ago, just about every senior US Republican was calling Donald Trump unhinged, dangerous and unfit to be president. Now they either look the other way or make lame excuses as he demonstrates daily how right they were.
Backbones? Who needs 'em? They know they were right all along, yet they stay silent. With a few, heroic exceptions, they are demonstrating a disgraceful lack of any sense that they owe it to their country to bring the Trump disaster to a speedy end.
(Section 4 of the 25th amendment to the US constitution reads:  'Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments, or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.')
For now, Washington watches in horror as the president, ostensibly marking Black History Month, pays tribute to Frederick Douglass, who, he said, 'is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice.'
Er, what? Frederick Douglass died in 1895 and just happens to be probably the best-known African-American social reformer of the nineteenth century, a former slave who played a massively influential role in the abolitionist movement. President Trump, it seems, has never heard of him.
His ignorance, like his arrogance, is terrifying. He says that the countries from which he has now banned all immigrants -- at least temporarily for now -- pose a major threat to the security of the US.
Evidence? None. Not a single citizen of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen has carried out a single fatal terrorist attack on US soil. Nor has a single Syrian refugee killed a single US citizen on US soil.
This isn't policy based on facts, fake or otherwise. This is policy based on bigotry.
It is true that the countries singled out by Trump do harbour some terrorists -- indeed, according to one US immigration expert, six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis, and one Yemeni have been convicted of attempting or carrying out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 1975. Seventeen people over the past forty-two years. No wonder the leader of the most powerful nation on earth is quivering in fear.
On the other hand, the couple who killed 14 people in an attack in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, were both of Pakistani origin (although one of them had been born in the US). So is Pakistan on the ban list? It is not.
Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people on the Fort Hood military base in 2009, was born in the US to Palestinian parents who had immigrated from the West Bank. So are Palestinians on the ban list? They are not.
The brothers who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013 were of Chechen origin. So is Russia (Chechnya is part of Russia) on the ban list? It is not.
And of course, the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Lebanon. So are those countries on the ban list? They are not.
I apologise. I should choose my words more carefully, because we're told that what President Trump announced last weekend wasn't really a ban at all. According to his spokesman Sean Spicer: 'A ban would mean people can’t get in, and we’ve clearly seen hundreds of thousands of people come into our country from other countries.'
So who was the idiot who said: 'If the ban were announced with a one-week notice, the "bad" would rush into our country during that week'?
Oops. It was President Trump. Who doesn't seem to know that no one from any of the countries on his ban-that-isn't-a-ban list is allowed in to the US without going through rigorous checks. Refugees usually have to wait for well over a year before all the checks are completed.
Never mind. At least we now know who exactly is covered by this ban-that-is-not-a-ban. Mo Farah can rejoin his family in Oregon, because according to the UK Foreign Office, unless you're trying to get into the US directly from one of the seven named countries, you've got nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter where you were born, or even whether you have dual nationality.
So, for example, if you're a British-born jihadi, just back from Raqaa, as long as MI5 haven't spotted you, you can jump on a plane at Heathrow and jet off to New York without a care in the world. If, on the other hand, you're an eminent Iraqi physician, hoping to take up the professorship you have been offered at Harvard medical school, sorry, no chance.
It all makes perfect sense, doesn't it? Carefully thought out, meticulously implemented. And you can tell that it's not aimed just at Muslims because it affects everyone from the named countries. Well, everyone except Christians, of course. And Jews, because if you're an Iraqi or Yemeni Jew with an Israeli passport, you'll be fine as well.
The former mayor of New York and Trump uber-loyalist Rudy Giuliani says he's the one who came up with the plan after Trump asked him to find a legal way to implement a ban -- or not-a-ban -- on Muslim immigrants. Simples, said Giuliani. 'We focused on ... the areas of the world that create danger for us, which is a factual basis, not a religious basis. Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible ... It's not based on religion. It's based on places where there is substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country.'
'Substantial evidence?' 'Factual basis'? Presumably that's why nearly a thousand -- a thousand! -- State department officials and diplomats have signed a letter opposing the measure. Experts, eh? What do they know?
I hope Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil who is Donald Trump's secretary of state, takes a hard look at the madhouse he has entered and decides he wants no part of it. I hope defence secretary James Matiss, a former general in the US Marine Corps, does the same. These men are not deranged ideologues, blinded by bigotry. They should quit now, and explain why.
Their consciences -- and those of hundreds more Republican politicians and officials across the US -- can bring this nightmare to an end. Just as in Brexitland, the consciences of Tory MPs who know that Theresa May is leading the UK towards a precipice could also end a British nightmare.
I have in mind the Tory MPs who claim to think 'The people have spoken' means 'I surrender.' The Tory MPs who, if they lose an election, rush to tear up their party membership and flock to join the Labour party. 'The people have elected a Labour government. We must now support the Labour government.' I don't think so.
And the Labour MPs like Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary, no less, who told the Commons that she was voting for the government's Brexit bill, even though 'I still fear that its consequences, both for our economy and our society, are potentially catastrophic.'

Washington isn't the only town where backbones are in short supply.
Categories: Current Affairs