Weapon of choice

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Let’s get this out of the way first: I am against chemical weapons. This really ought not need stating. Who, but a psychopath, would be for chemical weapons? However, after posting the following comment on Twitter the day before yesterday, it was implied by a join-the-dots minority that if I don’t believe it’s right for “Western allies” to bomb Syria, then I must approve of the use of the enzyme inhibitor Sarin on Syrians.

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As you can hopefully see, I was merely trying to expose what I see as the hypocrisy of American outrage at what John Kerry called Assad’s “cowardly” use of chemical weapons. (Anything outside of hand-to-hand combat might be defined as “cowardly”, but that’s a semantic quibble.) To take the moral high ground and start handing down judgements, you’d better be able to defend your position. While 300 or so re-Tweeted my statement wholesale (including Chuck D, one of the more surreal episodes in my life, I’ll be honest), plenty took exception to the link I was making, arguing that Agent Orange was a “biological” weapon only intended to destroy 13% of the vegetation in another country; that the comparison was worthless as it happened over 40 years ago; and that to hand-wring about US warmongering was to let Bashar al-Assad off the hook and – by implication – do a thumbs-up gesture to chemical attacks.

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Hey, let’s be lenient to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and say, OK, they only intended to decimate the trees, plants and crops by dropping millions of gallons of Monsanto and Dow herbicide mixed with jet fuel on rural South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971, and that they only truly accidentally killed and maimed hundreds of thousands, and caused untold thousands of future birth defects. (Not to mention health problems from leukemia to lymphoma caused in US service personnel exposed to the same toxins – almost 40,000 disability claims were made against the US government as a result.) This was chemical warfare, pure and simple; it’s just that such defoliants were not subsequently banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty of 1993, so they must be alright. An arbitrary “green line” is thus drawn.

To be honest, whenever the UK gets globally trigger-happy – and David Cameron and his Bullingdon pals seem currently gearing up for a whizzo “arm’s-length” adventure that is pretty much guaranteed not to dirty their hands – I get nervous. Like them, I lash out, but with words only. I grasp for historical comparisons and chinks in armour, and Twitter is a fast-typed medium. It’s the only one I’ve got when I have no time to blog.

At times of war, I become a cartoon lefty with a CND badge. I make no apology for that. Although the defoliation of Vietnam happened in my lifetime, it did not cross my young radar at the time. When Thatcher sent a thousand to their deaths in the South Atlantic in 1982, I felt that deep sense of powerless dread for the first time, and I’ve felt it again, all too regularly and under various administrations, ever since – none more deeply than during the first Gulf War, and none more profoundly than on the eve of the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, against which I marched twice, in disbelief that a Labour Prime Minister would form a human centipede with George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield.

I’m getting that dread now. I can feel it in my chest. It’s hard enough coping with a recession, without war to worry about. And the Middle East is not a region to be messed with, as “the West” knows only too vividly, still wiping its bloodied hands after two previous suicide missions. If “the West” fires missiles at Syria, it risks making matters worse, not better. Assad seems unlikely to back down; he’s clearly a bit of a chinless nutcase with entitlement issues, whose monarchical authority has been under siege since the Arab Spring (remember that?), and whose big-stick regime is propped up by Iran, Russia and China. If we bomb his people, that’s great PR for him in his nice suit with his nice wife.

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The position of “the West” seems to be: shooting your own citizens and blowing them up is acceptable – as is arresting, detaining and torturing them under “emergency” powers, which the Assad family has been doing since 1963 when it seized power and set up its own quasi-royal line for perpetuity – but using chemical weapons on them is unacceptable. (We’ve heard talk of this “red line” that has been crossed, which is in effect a legal one, not a moral one in any case. This is why I made my original comment about US “outrage”. Why wasn’t the Obama administration equally “outraged” when Assad’s troops first fired on Syrian citizens in July 2011? As for the UK and France; we helped carve up the Middle East in the first place in our colonial pomp, but for some reason can’t resist donning the flak jacket and going back to knock on its door and run away.)

I understand that the world in which we’re living exists within a precarious framework of legality in terms of warfare, and the “rules of engagement” are our shared figleaf of decency while trying to kill each other. Conventions are agreed. Treaties are signed. The UN sits and debates. Motions are passed. Threats are made. Counter threats are made back. The Hague is constantly cited. Despots are supposed to be brought to justice, but are often just shot, or left to their own people to dispose of. If Assad has broken the law – a law which almost randomly precludes regimes from spraying certain listed chemicals on its own people as that’s, like, really out of order – then arrest him and put him in the dock. I am anti-chemical weapons, but then, I am the warmonger’s worst nightmare, as I am also generally anti-weapons. The multi-billion dollar defence industry would collapse if I had my dream.

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It struck me yesterday, as we joined hands across the world to celebrate those stirring words of Dr. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 – at a time, significantly, when many young black men were fighting and dying in South East Asia for a country that was two years away from enshrining their right to vote – that the world has not progressed that much in the intervening half-century in terms of morality and consistency. We have better technology, and can kill and maim from even greater distances, remotely and cleanly, but we still kill and maim. In the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Americans were prepared to march for causes they believed in (a quarter of a million heard Dr. King’s entreaty for “freedom to ring”). Obama may be the first black president – a democratic achievement beyond King’s wildest dreams – but he is currently gunning to gun civilians down. If he had his way – and if he sidesteps the UN, he is no better than Bush – the Xbox missiles would be raining down tomorrow. Tomorrow!

I haven’t voted Labour since 1997. If Ed Milliband allows this country to bomb another one, I will not vote for them again, any time soon. It is with mixed feelings that I note the number of Tory MPs currently ranging against Cameron’s bellicose wishes – around 70? – as I did not expect to agree with any of those bastards on anything. But to vote “no” to military action is not to vote “yes” to chemical weapons. Remember that. A man called “Greg” Tweeted me and Chuck D overnight – asking us how we’d like our families to be sprayed with Sarin. That showed us, right? For we would not like our families to be sprayed with Sarin. Fuck me, while there are people out there using that logic, we’re in trouble.

Let commonsense ring.

And stop shooting the badgers.

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Orange is not the only suit

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Guantánamo Bay is a prison. They might call it a “detention camp”, or a “facility”, but it’s a prison, in Cuba, where people are held, and have been held since January 2002, during the panic after 9/11. It exists outside of US legal jurisdiction. The plan, under “war president” George W. Bush, was for it to operate outside of the tiresome Geneva Conventions, which held until 2006, when the Supreme Court ruined everything by conceding rights to certain protections under Article 3 (which offers “persons not taking active part in hostilities” immunity from various “outrages upon personal dignity” and “judicial guarantees … recognized as indispensable by civilised peoples”).

Amnesty International named Guantánamo a “gulag.” In January 2009, President Barack Obama promised to shut the ghoulish, lawless place down “within the year.” Historians will note that this promise was not fulfilled. Admittedly, this is mainly because a Republican congress blocked it, as it has successfully blocked anything approaching a commonsense debate or ruling since Obama was sworn in.

At a press conference in Washington this week, surely politically engorged by now in his second term, Obama said it was “not sustainable” to keep Guantánamo open. Never mind that it’s an international embarrassment, an insult to all of our freedoms, and a permanent stain on the United States’ standing in the world, that’s not enough of a sell. He had to resort to scare tactics (which is ironic, considering how much fear of fear itself lies at the heart of Guantánamo’s “open for business” status), warning that the gulag’s continued existence was a “recruitment tool” for extremists. So its effect on extremists who are not in the prison is the best reason for releasing those largely unconvicted, uncharged prisoners who are in it.

There are around 160 detainees still inside, rocking the orange jumpsuit of 21st century iconography. Many are now on hunger strike and of those 100 or so, 21 are being force fed. The main effort there currently is to keep its inmates alive. After ten years of institutionalised, unpoliced torture and outrages upon human dignity, it seems like small beer that the prisoners’ protest began over allegations that guards mistreated Qur’ans, rather than human beings, although torture comes in many and various forms, including psychological, emotional, religious and material.

Never mind that the so-called “terror suspects”  have not been charged with anything, half of them have been cleared for release. (Only five – five – have gone to trial.) So why are they all still there? It is an outrage. Obama has once again promised to shut it down. Why should we believe him? (And I speak as a non-American who totally bought into the “HOPE” he peddled in 2008.) “I am going to get my team to review everything that is currently being done in Guantánamo,” he said in that press conference, which is a bit like someone you’ve complained to on the phone telling you they will “escalate the issue” and give you a “ticket number”. There’s not much he can promise, I guess, other than to act “administratively” (the government is an administration), but how about acting “physically”? Just going down there and opening the gates, with a few helicopters waiting?

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You may same I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said. Good. Guards are said to have attempted to “break the resolve” of the hunger strikers by moving them to single cells, for ease of monitoring. So they’re in solitary? That’s nice. Some of them have been there for the full 11 years, while the world turned without them, and their families started to forget what they looked like.

The Boston “terror attack” – a horrible tragedy whose attendant local and national panic led to some uneasy flag-waving triumphalism when one of the alleged perpetrators was dead, the other unable to speak in hospital – has put “terror suspects” back in the spotlight. But nobody’s rounding up Chechnyan immigrants and sending them in hoods to Cuba past the big sign reading, “You are now leaving US legal jurisdiction, have a nice stay!” So some progress has been made since the dark, dismal days of Bush.

But still Obama will need to win congressional support In order to close Guantánamo and release its inmates. He may not be able to pull it off, but if he doesn’t, it will be a stain on his presidency too. It’s easy for Americans, he said, to “demagogue the issue.” He’s an eloquent, persuasive president, liberal on the whole if not in totality, but if he can’t condemn this unsafe building, who the hell ever will?

According to the Guardian, which penned a stirring leader on the subject today (“An Indelible Stain”), the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “The president can order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantánamo population.” The video of the press conference is here. I say: get to it.

Reprieve, the charity that makes this kind of thing its calling, provides an excellent Guantánamo timeline here.

Republican party reptiles

I find myself unnaturally interested in American politics. I have been ever since Mad magazine introduced me, satirically, to President Carter in the 70s and I was forced to learn about his predecessors in order to understand the jokes. Clearly, around Presidential Election time, my interest swells. As a loyal and voracious subscriber to the New Yorker since 2005, I am fed information on a weekly basis about the comings and goings not just of the Democrats the left-leaning magazine explicitly supports, but also of the colourful Republicans and Tea Party luminaries who, since Obama’s election in 2008, have been jostling for position to take him down. (As you can see above, I attended the CNN Election Night party in November 2008, held in a church in London, and watched the early results come in with other political junkies – and some freeloaders – although we were, ironically I think, kicked out before the decisive states were called. They handed out partisan badges on the way in. )

I have been following the progress of this year’s Republican hopefuls with long-distance enthusiasm and bemusement, as they seem a particularly rum bunch. One of them will actually be challenging a frankly damaged Obama for his second term; it’s sometimes hard to believe that any of this shower could run a country, but then, look at George W. Bush, a man who wore his downhome ignorance on his sleeve and won two terms – or at least, got in twice.

We’ve lost Lutheran congresswoman and climate change denier Michelle Bachmann since the Iowa caucuses, which in terms of morbid entertainment value is a shame. (After all, she’s the Tea Party nutter of choice, post-Palin, accusing Obama of being “anti-American,” trying to get rid of energy-saving lightbulbs, gunning to get the minimum wage capped, and damning same-sex marriage from a pulpit where the Pope is considered the anti-Christ, if I’ve read the literature properly.)

Of the other column-inch-snaffling front runners, former restaurant tycoon, business lobbyist and Baptist talk radio show host Herman Cain also withdrew, before Christmas, after allegations of sexual misconduct, which is another blow for entertainment value, as he seemed not to have a clue what he would do if elected to office, other than cut tax to a basic 9% across the board. Doesn’t really matter, as he will never take office.

What’s frightening about these grinning, glad-handing, evangelical loons is that one of them could theoretically capitalise on the right-facing zeitgeist and beat Obama in November, taking office in 2013. After all, Republicans do get in. And the electorate does seem pretty disappointed with Obama, on both left and right, and especially in the middle, which is where elections are won and lost. Last week’s New Yorker provided profiles of both Ron Paul – the gurning 76-year-old Texan obstetrician and “white-haired, wide-eyed prophet” who seriously wants to ban Income Tax and end all foreign aid – and Newt Gingrich – “Mr Speaker”, political veteran, “swashbuckling geostrategist” and inveterate debate winner who shut down the federal government during the Cinton era over Medicare premiums, earned $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lender, and recently made reference to the “invented Palestinian people.” Of this loopy pair, it’s Gingrich who was seen as the biggest threat to Mitt Romney. (Good heavens, they have excellent names, the Republicans, you have to hand that to them.) But Rick Santorum almost caught up with Romney in Iowa. He’s the Fox News-friendly ex-senator and attorney with the goofy grin who was just eight votes behind Romeny in Iowa, and is an intelligent design fan, considers sodomy to be “antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family” and seems to think that liberal values are to blame for the Catholic child abuse scandal.

Mitt Romney is a Massachusetts Mormon and CEO of management buyout merchants Bain, who “kept a well-groomed appearance” at university during the campus upheavals of the 60s, according to a Boston Globe profile, seems to have built his reputation as a can-do kinda guy on his miraculous turnouaround of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 1988 and is not to the tastes of the more evangelical wing of his party because a) he’s a Mormom, and b) he used to be pro-choice, but switched to being pro-life in 2005. This reputation for u-turns dogs him; he certainly upped his far-right views during his 2008 run for Presidential nomination. He seems like a slick wheeler-dealer and kind of looks like a President.

Post-Bachmann, they’re all men of a certain age, which is boring, and they all seem to conform to the image of an American politician, from the relatively youthful John Huntsman, 51, to the 76-year-old Paul. In other words, they either look like James Brolin or John Mahoney, and all points inbetween. Rick Perry is the most Bush-like of the current crop, the grinning Governor of Texas, former Eagle Scout, USAF pilot and “hyper-masculine cowboy” who sets out his stall in a YouTube video, saying “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, and your kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas”; Gingrich is the most experienced in the ways of Washington, and Romney still seems fresh from his failed attempt to run in 2008. They would all strip the financial industry of what little in the way of regulation remains and “shrink” government, which is the Republican creed. If any of these reptiles gets in, taxes will be lowered, or scrapped, and Iran will either be ignored (if Ron Paul gets in: “no more foreign wars; no more foreign aid; not even very much foreign policy”, according to Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker), or nuked (if any of the others get in).

I will continue to follow this dangerous soap opera closely. They’re in New Hampshire right now for tomorrow’s vote, with Huntsman – another Mormon, also a former Reagan staffer, Utah Governor and ambassador to China under Obama whose “moderate” views play well to more liberal-minded Republicans – endorsed by a number of key local publications. There’s still everything to play for.

For anyone not in the least bit interested in US politics – I fear we ignore these God-fearing, gun-toting, gay-bashing, healthcare-hating, people at our peril.

Too soon?

I’m a little behind on this story, or non-story, but I happened to be listening to LBC, London’s talk station, in the cab on the way to do my Zoe Ball slot this morning, just before 6.30, and I heard an extract from breakfast DJ Nick Ferrari’s show from earlier in the week – they run a best-of on Saturdays. It was, I’m afraid to say, typical of the kind of reactionary, kneejerk right wing shit-stirring that Ferrari is often accused of, and which I usually defend him against. I think he is actually a very powerful broadcaster with a commanding presence, newspaperman’s instinct for a story and a Londoner’s feel for his audience, and I have appeared on his show a couple of times to review the papers, so I’ve seen him at work. It’s clear where his political loyalties lie, but this does not preclude him from being an intelligent presenter, and there is a world of difference between him and Jon Gaunt, for instance. However, this was a seemingly defiant piece of ignorance, dressed as moral outrage.

Barack Obama, the headlines said, had compared the BP oil spill to the September 11 attacks. He hadn’t. But it made a good screamer; even the apparently cool-headed Guardian ran with, “Barack Obama compares oil spill to 9/11.” Which he didn’t. In fact, in an interview with the US website Politico, he said this:

“In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.”

Which is different to comparing it to 9/11, I trust you’ll agree. However, the right-wing, Obama-bashing American media picked up the ball and kicked it over the fence, contacting the families of those who perished in the September 11 attacks, reminding them of their loss and getting them to say that they were pretty upset that their president had compared their tragedy to an oil spill, which he hadn’t. “He’s off-base,” said former New York fire department deputy chief Jim Riches, whose son died at the World Trade Centre. “These were terrorist attacks, not something caused by people trying to make money.”

Well, let’s debate the intricacies of that statement another time. In brief, since Obama didn’t compare the oil spill to 9/11, he merely compared the effects it might have on perceptions of key issues, there is no need to examine the comparison. But this is what Nick Ferrari chose to do. His researchers had worked hard. He read out the death toll and all the financial costs of 9/11, in dollars; then he read out, for comparison (because it’s about time somebody actually compared the oil spill to 9/11), the death toll and financial costs of the oil spill, in pounds. Well, guess what? More people died in the former – around 2,900 more – and more money was lost.

To his credit, Ferrari was careful to say that it was a tragedy that 11 people had died because of the BP spill, but this hardly subtracted from his point, which was made with sledgehammer subtlety: 9/11 was really bad because it was caused by evil Arab terrorists, the oil spill is just slightly bad because it was caused by oil companies who are going to help us drive our cars and anyway, it’s mainly a few pelicans the tree-hugging environmentalists are getting het up about. And Obama was “grandstanding” and “playing to the gallery” by comparing the two. Which he would have been, had he compared the two.

I’m afraid this sorry little item made me think of all the bellowing right-wing shock jocks and Fox commentators in the US, the ones I’m constantly glad we don’t have; they get their teeth into a bone whose marrow is 100% agenda and won’t let go. They shout the loudest, and hope that their noise drowns out any gainsaying or common sense. Nick Ferrari is better than this approach, as I am always saying to people who knock him without listening to him. But it got worse. Balance ran for the hills. He had the mother of someone who died in the Twin Towers on the phone. She was outraged that the President had compared some pelicans to 9/11. She might well be, had he done so. But in fact, it was Nick Ferrari who had done it, not Obama. (Ferrari had even quoted Obama, as I have done, before launching into his needless tirade. Did anyone else spot that?)

This is not reasoned political debate. It’s the gleeful bashing by free-market climate change deniers of a Democrat president for something he didn’t do by those that think he’s a bit of a universal healthcare wuss. (I don’t think he’s perfect, by the way – he’s been something of a disappointment in many areas, but it’s impossible to live up to that kind of expectation. The irony is that Ferrari did his LBC shows from Chicago during Obama’s election, brilliantly reflecting the joy on the streets at this momentous time, and it made fantastic radio, for which he can be proud for the rest of his career.)

But here was the own goal, which almost made me yelp with excitement. Ferrari, having been red-faced with righteous anger on behalf of all those killed in the World Trade Center attacks (except the hijackers – he pointedly left them out of the death toll), and the opportunistic cheapness of comparing it to a little oil spill, then asked a man from Reuters, “Is this Obama’s Katrina?”

Is this Obama’s Katrina?

Nick Ferrari had just made an opportunistic and cheap comparison of the BP oil spill to the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, in which 1,836 people died, and in which $81 billion’s worth of damage was caused. Was he, by any chance, grandstanding and playing to the gallery?