Saturday, 13 December 2014

CIA Torture and a look forward to 2015

So now we know.  

What many people have suspected for years is now officially recognized by the Senate report on CIA activities – post 9/11, torture has been used in a vain attempt to obtain “information” from detainees to make America safe.  No matter that under UN Charters, torture is illegal.  No matter that there is no irrefutable evidence that any of the information gained under torture has added anything useful to information already available through other means.  No matter that the US has roundly condemned other countries like Saddam’s Iraq, Gaddafi’s Libya, and Assad’s Syria for employing torture as a means to an end – it has been doing precisely the same thing.   But of course, that’s different – the US are the good guys, and Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad Muslims, sponsors of al-Qaeda and therefore bad guys.

Bull.  This is just another example of the hypocrisy and arrogance that is rapidly destroying any good reputation the US may once have had in world affairs.  It’s no more than affirmation that actually America is, right now, an ailing country in urgent need of treatment.

This has been the case for years – arguably, in fact, from its first colonization by white European settlers.  Then, the enemy was the native American, who was the wrong colour, wore very little in the way of clothing and had never heard of God, never mind worshipped him.  So of course the “New” Americans – British, Dutch and other Europeans until Independence - wasted little time in sorting out that little difficulty by a wholesale slaughter using weapons that were superior to anything the Natives possessed.  It was a process that continued as the settlers spread westward across the plains, through to the Indian Wars in the 19th century that completed the job and forced the surviving Redskins into reservations.   Nowadays, these might be termed concentration camps or perhaps, more charitably, mere ghettoes.   But by whatever means, the Native population had been decimated and left with little in the way of wealth, prospects or human dignity. 

By this time, of course, our Americans had created and were close to abandoning a slave economy.  Again, millions of people, all the wrong colour, had been uprooted from their homelands – this time far away on the African continent – and shipped in the most appalling conditions to America, where they were sold in the same way as animals, to labour and make life easier for the white owner.  It took a bloody Civil War to end slavery, at least in law, though it has been argued that slavery still exists, not only in the US but across the “civilised” – for which read Western white – world.  My own country, the UK, should hang its head in shame over this – it has at least apologised for its part in the 18th and 19th century slave trade in providing the ships to transport them – and do more to combat the appalling conditions that still exist elsewhere (including it has to be said in Britain itself).  The Australian government has apologised for doling out similar treatment to its Aboriginal population and continues to take steps (perhaps too small, but steps nonetheless) to help them live better lives now.  Perhaps I missed it, but I cannot recall similar action being taken towards the Native American population by a US government.  

Despite Rosa Parks and the efforts of other Civil Rights campaigners like Martin Luther King that have given the coloured American population much better lives than even fifty years ago, with better living conditions and career prospects than ever before, racism is still rife in the country (as it is elsewhere, including in many European nations and in Britain).  Proportionately more black people live in low quality housing.  Proportionately more are in prison or unemployed or poorly educated.  This cannot be mere bad luck, nor can all of them be blamed for the positions in which they find themselves.  No, the victimisation is still there and still clear, and frequently ignored or swept under the carpet.  The events in Ferguson Missouri and New York over the past few weeks clearly show that racism is still rife amongst US law enforcement agencies, and that there is still a reluctance to address the situation.  Two unarmed coloured men die at the hands (in one case quite literally) of white law enforcement officers, and yet in neither case have criminal charges been brought.  Quite the opposite: in both cases, the victims themselves have been blamed for essentially bringing about their own fate.  The unrest and demonstrations of people nationwide, both black and white, suggest the opinion is not shared by the general public.  Meanwhile, across the country, not a day goes by without similar cases being reported.  The evil gun culture, so entrenched in US society, continues to rack up its bloody toll, and the powerful (and rich) NRA continues to influence politicians to block any legislation that may change this.

And now, since 9/11, there is a new enemy to fear, and that is the Muslim.  Don’t get me wrong, please, I condemn the 9/11 atrocity without reservation, and equally the 7/7 atrocity that hit London subsequently, and indeed any other terrorist act.  But the way the Bush government lashed out in response, like a spoilt child whose favourite toy has been broken, and dragged the British and the rest of the Coalition along with it on a pile of doctored “evidence” and lies has surely made the situation worse. 

In the 1990s, Iraq invaded Kuwait (a territory that it claimed, historically, to be part of Iraq).  Protesting that invading a “sovereign nation” was wrong and against international law (correct on both counts) Bush the Elder launched the First Gulf War and with the help of Britain and others pushed Saddam’s army back across the border and “liberated” Kuwait.  This was accepted by pretty much everyone, including Arab nations.  Fast forward a few years to 9/11.  Bush the Younger’s response to the attack on America’s own soil was to launch the War on Terror, ostensibly against the al Qaeda organization (NOT in itself a sovereign nation) and to pursue this invaded both Iraq (where the butcher Saddam was toppled) and Afghanistan (where the fundamentalist Taliban were ousted from power).  This seems to me to be hypocritical at the very least – you cannot accuse someone, no matter how heinous they are, of breaking international law in this way, and then within a very a short span do exactly the same thing and insist you are doing “the right thing”.

The lack of a Plan B – what do we do now we’ve toppled the government? – merely led to a slaughter of the innocents in both countries that continues to this day (even though US and British and other troops have gone home – apart from a few “advisors”: special forces and spooks to you and me, pretending to be trainers).  Both countries are now mired in corruption and illegal paramilitary forces that prevent any semblance of a normal life for the citizens, most of whom merely want to have enough food to eat and a decent education for their kids.  Understandably (if perhaps a little unfairly) the Iraqi and Afghan youth trapped in this situation blame the US and Britain for their plight, and hence provide a rich seam of discontent to be mined by al Qaeda and IS and other militant Islamic groups.

Perhaps predictably, a lot of young Arab people elsewhere view the situation with resentment – they see no future for themselves or their countries – and are also prime targets for the militant Islamists to draw into their clutches.  They perceive that Western society – in particular America and Britain – has bullied the poorer Islamic nations, and are lashing out against them in revenge.  They are fanatics and happy to die themselves to exact their revenge.  It is a twisted view, of course, and one thankfully held by only a minority of Muslims – but that minority, by its vicious and bloody tactics, its mass killings and public beheadings of white Westerners (and any local who does not share their view of the Koran) has the stronger voice.

Militant Islam may well have risen anyway, with the same principals of jihad and death and destruction, but there is no doubt in my mind that the American policy of trying to force its own version of Democracy on nations that perhaps didn’t really want it has been a major factor in speeding up its spread.

Which brings me to another point – the broken US political system.

Clearly, it isn’t working.  The choice of government seems to lie between a Republican party that (correctly) puts American interests first but is happiest if those interests are supported by its own vested interests (basically private enterprise, big business and a low taxation regime) and a Democratic party that (correctly) puts American interests first but wants to spread the wealth generated around a bit more fairly, so that even poor people have access to health care and a decent education, even if that means that the wealthy have to pay a bit more tax to pay for it.  There seems to be no real middle ground.   

Government is formed by a combination of the Executive Branch (the President, his Cabinet and the Judiciary), Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate, both elected offices) and local State government through Governors and locally elected representatives.  Individual towns and cities too have a high degree of autonomy through powerful elected Mayors.  It’s a complicated system, and the whole edifice is greased by money  - not only in taxation (both local and federal) but at the party level by “donation” – which is essentially people dipping into their pockets and giving their hard-earned cash to fund their candidate of choice.  Much of this, I’m sure, is well meant and done for the public good by genuinely decent and concerned citizens of all races and religions.  British parties are funded in a similar way but much smaller scale.  But the more an individual or organization donates to a party the more it expects in return.  This raises a question rarely aired, to my knowledge, and even more rarely addressed: when does a “donation” become a “bribe”?  To put it another way, when does genuine financial support to enable a politician or his party to do genuine work become hiring that politician for personal gain (that may or may not coincide with what the majority of the electorate actually want)?  Where is the line between civic responsibility and corruption?

Yet this questionable form of democracy is what the US is desperately trying to foist onto nations that for perhaps generations have happily survived and indeed prospered under various forms of government that are a million miles from what is acceptable to Western society.  Absolute hereditary monarchies have their place in society, as do benevolent dictatorships, surely – provided the human rights and well-being of their subjects are protected and prioritized.  It’s only when the monarch or dictator moves away from a recognition of basic human dignity that problems occur – and that is another example of human frailty rather than something that “democracy” is likely to prevent.  Anybody has the right to a personal opinion, but not to impose it on other people – that to me is key human right, and one that by their actions, successive US and Allied democratic governments have broken in trying to enforce their beliefs on others.

I’m perhaps a being a little unfair to the US here because political systems world-wide appear to me to be in a bad way.  In Britain, arguably the inventor of democracy, extremist parties such as UKIP are gaining support through a virulent anti-EU and anti-immigration platform without offering any positive message or manifesto of how they will improve people’s lives.  The major parties are more concerned with sound-bite politics and scoring points off each other by scare-stories and personal abuse, and the most senior members of both Government and Opposition are career politicians who have gone straight from university to party politics without doing a “real” day’s work in their lives.  Their policies are bringing pain and hardship to families the length and breadth of the country – and yet there seems to be no real alternative.  Conviction Politicians, genuine public servants whose first thought is to their electorate and not to personal gain, seem as extinct as the dinosaurs.

I’m painting a bleak picture here, in this Festive Season, but I find it very difficult to identify anything to be optimistic about.

As far as the Report that inspired this piece is concerned, Obama is to be congratulated for ordering it, releasing it and supporting its findings.  He is also to be commended, in my view, for his measured reaction to the Ferguson and New York police killings, and his continued efforts to promote dialogue across the country about gun control, health care, race relations and so on – the Big Issues that remain unresolved.  The shame is that pretty much throughout his Presidency this Democrat has been hamstrung by a Republican party, strong in both Houses and now having control of both, that often made it impossible for him to enforce the kinds of social change he committed to and that gained him office, and have now left him a lame duck President for the final year.  I think that is a tragedy not only for America but arguably for the world.

In the wake of the Report, the usual GOP hawks like the odious Cheney, and the former CIA Director Michael Hayden, crawled out of the woodwork defending the CIA’s behaviour specifically, and torture (sorry, Enhanced Interrogation Techniques – so much nicer, don’t you think?) more generally, as being necessary, producing valuable intelligence and saving American lives – all three claims roundly disproved by the content of the Report according to all the key point summaries I’ve seen.  I find it very interesting that Bush the Younger, who approved the entire programme and was clearly (by all accounts, on both sides of the argument) regularly briefed in detail as to what was being done and to what effect, has remained silent and made no comment.  Is he perhaps just being his usual stubborn, simple-minded self, incapable of recognizing an error of judgement (most likely), or is he perhaps as appalled and embarrassed by the Report as the rest of us but unable to formulate a way to express his contrition and apologise (yeah, right…..)?

Britain and other European nations like Poland and Portugal, Germany and the Czech Republic, should also be asking questions of themselves and their relations with US after their documented assistance in providing facilities for the CIA rendition flights that carried suspects to the US and, in some cases, provided facilities to start the entire interrogation process.  The British Government has admitted to providing flight assistance – re-fuelling facilities and the like – but insists that it played no part in any interrogation process, whether enhanced or not.  Alexander Kwasniewski, Polish President at the time, has stated publicly that his country provided similar assistance and also an interrogation centre, but that as soon as the Polish government got wind that some of the things going on there were a little unsavoury, “demanded” of Bush that they stop and apparently this happened.  Other countries implicated have so far been silent on the matter.

Clearly, it’s a story that is going to run and run through 2015, with elections scheduled in both the UK and the US.  Early days, but it seems likely to me, based on public opinion as reported on various news services and conversations I’ve had with people (and, yes, I know that is not a real guide), that Labour will win the UK Election (though perhaps without a clear majority, opening the nightmare scenario of deal-making with Farage’s UKIP mavericks and others) and the Republicans will return in Washington (with a probable dumping of much Obama legislation out of spite and a return to the kind of free-market excess and gung-ho foreign policy that arguably led the world into this mess in the first place). 

If that happens – well, hold on for a rough ride.  The Arab world, whether Militant or moderate, will feel less than impressed with the prospects, and Israel, conversely, will become even more stridently anti-Arab (if that is possible) with the stronger support of the Jewish Republican lobby having a greater say with its government.  Relations with China have thawed lately, and business improved as a result, but will this continue under the new power structures?   How will the increasingly fractious relationship between Britain and the EU develop?  Probably not well, especially if there is any attempt to restrict immigration and introduce controls.

Through it all, IS and other Militant Islamic terror groups are likely to grow in strength, barbarity and hence influence.  This is the great imponderable, in my opinion.  Never mind a still ailing global economy, and the unrest being propagated by Russia in Ukraine and other neighbouring regions that have prompted sanctions that are now biting very hard (Russia will be in recession soon, and how they react to that may be interesting) – the confrontation between Militant Islam and the rest of the world is likely to have more far-reaching consequences.

Action needs to be taken against IS and the other organizations, but storming in booted and armed as the US and its allies have done in the past does not seem to have worked – Iraq, Afghanistan and IS themselves would seem to be the proof of that.  A new way needs to found to address this, and I am less than convinced that any Western politician, let alone government, has either the ability or the courage to do that.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Philip Hughes - a true cricketing tragedy

I never saw Philip Hughes play cricket.

By all accounts, he was a fine and exciting batsman, a typical attacking Aussie who loved taking apart the opposition’s bowling attack.  26 test matches and the youngest player to a score a century in each innings of one.  He was also a very popular man, both in his home country and in England where he played for three counties.  No-one seems to have a bad word to say about him.

So it is a true tragedy that at the age of 25 (so young!) his life has ended.  Struck at the base of the skull, where it joins the neck, trying a hook shot at the SCG, he collapsed and was rushed to a nearby hospital.  Despite major surgery he died two days later without waking up.  The artery in his neck was ruptured and blood seems to have poured into his brain.  The operation tried to relieve the pressure and repair the artery, but to no avail.  It was a complete freak – apparently a one in a billion chance, according to one report.

Such a sad loss, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his grieving family and friends.

It brought back many memories. 
I used to be a keen cricketer, back in the 1970s, before the advent of helmets and much other protective gear.  I only played for my local village team, for fun, and was no more than average even at that level.  I batted a bit, bowled a bit and kept wicket, and loved it.  One year I managed to win the club’s Single Wicket tournament, where individual players competed one-on-one against each other – 4 overs each (24 balls) to score as many runs as you could and get the other bloke out.  That was undoubtedly my finest hour, and to this day I can’t figure out how I managed to clean bowl the club’s best batsman for 6, the day after he had scored 80-odd in a match, in the semi -final (he went on to easily top the batting averages that season), nor to take 18 runs in the last over of the final off one of the best bowlers, to win the trophy.   One of the guys ran a book on the competition and somebody cleaned him out by putting ten quid on me at ridiculous odds before we started.

As I say, we had no real protection.  We had big old shin-pads to protect our legs, padded gloves to protect our hands (that’s if we were lucky – often the kit bag was short of both, and batting with one pad and no gloves was not uncommon) and a plastic cup to shove down the front of our underpants to protect our balls.  I shelled out about £30 to buy my own set of pads and gloves and a decent box to strap on and protect my manhood.  It was money well spent, and even after I stopped playing I kept it all, eventually donating it to another club about 30 years later, when I finally left England and accepted I would never need them again.

But even in those days and at that amateur level, the sort of ball that killed Hughes was common and an accepted tactic.  We quick(ish) bowlers used it to try and intimidate batsmen in exactly the same way as bowlers at the highest levels of the game do today (and frankly always have done).   If the pitch was a bit lively, we did it all the more, because often the ball would ping up high even when you weren’t aiming to do it, from a not very short length, and that made it even harder for batsmen to read and play it.   I was a comparative rarity, a left-arm quick bowler, so the angle I was delivering the ball at was a bit different and harder to bat against, at least at village green level, so I did pretty well.  That is to say, I hit a good few batsmen on the elbow or the glove or the ribs, and it usually did the trick – it softened ‘em up and gave me their wicket a few balls later.  It was part of the game, and we’d have a beer or two together in the pub or the clubhouse afterwards.

Because they would do exactly the same to me.  I had my fair share of cuts and bruises from the same kind of hits that I was dishing out.  I don’t remember breaking anything (either my bones or an opponent’s) nor inflicting any serious cuts, but I remember one kid at school taking a fast rising ball smack in the face, and his top lip was split from one side to the other and his nose broken.  It was nasty, especially for 14 year old him.  It didn’t stop him, though – once it had all healed up (maybe three weeks?) he was back playing again.   No fear – just like all kids, I suppose.

We got battered fielding as well.  Silly mid-on and silly mid-off – where you’re standing about three or four yards in front of the batsman and thus quite literally in the firing line – were the most dangerous positions to field, because you were totally unprotected – no gloves, no pads, no helmets, no box.  I got more bruises fielding there than I ever did batting.

But even now, years later, half a lifetime later in fact, I miss playing cricket more than I miss playing football – and that is saying something. 

So getting back to poor Phil Hughes.

He was just very unlucky.  Cricket is – and always has been – a dangerous sport: that ball is bloody hard.  The only things that have changed since my day are the increased use of protective gear, and the fact that today’s players are much fitter.  They are athletes now, gym-toned and strong, not the flabby joggers of my youth.  With that fitness comes strength, and agility, and speed both of thought and body.  Perhaps the helmets and body armour and so on have led to a touch of complacency, as these supremely fit cricketers perhaps feel more invincible now than at any time in history.  I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case.  But even so, they are I’m sure acutely aware of the dangers – just as we were – but their love of the sport transcends that.

No doubt there will now be calls to re-design helmets (and that will probably happen) to offer even more protection.  No doubt cricketers themselves will recognise this sad wake-up call and re-think their attitudes a bit, perhaps temper some of the more naked aggression that exists (but not for long – the pressure and rewards of winning will see to that).  I’m sure there will be calls to ban or at least severely limit short-pitched bowling.

I hope that last doesn’t happen, because cricket would not then be cricket.  Jonathan Agnew, the commentator and ex-England fast bowler, put it very eloquently on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show today.  That duel, he said, between the batsman and the aggressive fast bowler, the gladiatorial challenge that both participants absolutely love, is one of the elements that make the sport so challenging and enjoyable to watch (and play) and to dilute it in any way would lessen the sport and devalue it.

I’m sure that Phil Hughes, may he rest in peace, would share that view, and would not want change.

And a final thought.  Whilst cricket lovers rightly mourn the man, let’s not forget poor Sean Abbott, the 22 year old kid, who bowled the fateful ball.   How must he be feeling now, knowing that he has killed a man in this way?  No amount of counselling will ever change that fact.  That too is a terrible thing to have to bear.  Our thoughts and prayers should be with him, too.