27 February 2007

Poetry as a threat to national security

Just as the heart beats in the darkness of the body,
so I, despite this cage, continue to beat with life.
Those who have no courage or honour consider themselves free, but they are slaves.
I am flying on the wings of thought, and so, even in this cage, I know a greater freedom.
- Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost
The above are but a few of the 25,000 lines of poetry written by Dost during the three years he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. Dost has since been freed after the Americans finally realized he was an innocent man. Prior to his arrest by Pakistani intelligence officers, he was a respected religious scholar, poet, journalist and author of 19 books.

Dost was not alone in writing poetry while incarcerated.
A collection of poems by Guantanamo detainees is scheduled for publication later this year. The collection, consisting of 21 poems written in Arabic, Pashto and English, has been gathered, despite strong opposition from the American military, by Northern Illinois University law professor Marc Falkoff, who represents 17 of the prisoners.

Many poems written by the inmates will never be published. The Pentagon has refused to declassify much of their work, arguing that poetry presents a special risk to national security. Dost has only been able to retrieve ten per cent of his work and Falkoff has not been allowed to see poems sent to other lawyers. Dangerous things, poems.

For all those poetry fans out there, the book will be entitled "Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak." Watch for it.

26 February 2007

Why are we siding with al-Qaeda?

According to a story in the March'07 issue of Harper's Magazine, last year Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawiri, chastised Hamas for engaging in electoral politics, insisting Palestine could only be liberated by armed jihad. Curiously, the West seems to be sending Hamas and the Palestinians a similar message.

Hamas's first foray into electoral politics was hugely successful, leaving them as the new government of the Palestinian territories. The West, however, does not approve of their policies and quickly, led by Canada no less, shunned them, cutting off aid and refusing to negotiate with their leaders. We seem to be reinforcing al-Zawiri's message: electoral politics doesn't work unless you submit to the West.

When we are on message with al-Qaeda in criticizing democracy, we might want to review our position before too many Palestinians, and others in the Muslim world, start believing us.

23 February 2007

Brainwashing surfaces in an unlikely place

During the Korean war, the world was introduced to the new and frightening term "brain washing." Practiced by the Chinese on their captives, the technique consisted of applying brutal indoctrination to change victims' basic beliefs. The Chinese didn't invent it, of course. It dates back at least to the inquisition.

It recently cropped up in a place we might not expect - the United States. Jose Padilla, arrested as a terror suspect in 2002, classified as an "enemy combatant" and entombed in a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina, now faces trial in Miami. For over three and a half years he was isolated in a tiny cell, allowed to see no one but his interrogators, and subjected to intense sensory deprivation alternated with intense sensory overload. He also insists he was drugged.

As a result of this treatment his lawyers, backed up by health professionals, claim he has been so damaged he is incapable of assisting in his defense. He now believes his captors are his protectors and his lawyers his interrogators -- classic signs of brain washing. According to one prison officer, he now acts like "a piece of furniture."

In an article in The Guardian on Padilla's trial, Naomi Klein discusses an entire section in Guantanamo filled with now-delusional prisoners, essentially driven insane by harsh interrogation techniques. If Padilla, an American citizen, can be treated the way he was in the United States, where his captors knew he would eventually have his day in court. one can hardly imagine how prisoners in Guantanamo are treated, foreigners who will probably never get a fair trial.

21 February 2007

Let's get our torture rules straight

Two stories in this morning's Globe illustrate our inconsistency in turning foreign nationals over to suspect authorities.

The first concerned a banker named Gao Shan who fled China after allegedly embezzling $150-million and recently turned up in Vancouver. Needless to say, the Chinese want him back. His case is reminiscent of that of Lai Changxing, a Chinese national accused of masterminding a $10-billion smuggling ring who has managed to remain in Canada since 1999 because of our fears he will be mistreated if we return him.

The other story related to Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association's charge that our military's practice of turning Afghan detainees over to Afghan security forces, who are notorious for their use of torture, violates international law and the Charter of Rights. In the past, we have also turned captured Afghans over to the Americans, who are also accused of abusing prisoners.

Personally, I see no reason why we should place the dignity of Chinese bankers above that of Afghan insurgents. The humanity of each should receive profound and equal respect. I therefore wish Amnesty and the BCCLA success in protecting the rights of Afghan prisoners.

Carrying a white wedding a step too far

Three brides-to-be in Sint Niklaas, Belgium, were looking forward to white weddings. Unfortunately, the town registrar was ... well ... black, so the three called off the ceremonies.

The registrar and deputy mayor, Wouter Van Bellingen, Belgian-born son of Rwandan parents, is not however short of business. Hundreds of couples from across Europe have called wanting him to marry them, and he is planning a wedding festival in the town square for March 21st, international anti-racism day.

In Canada, some registrars balk at marrying the "wrong" couples. In Belgium, some couples balk at being married by the "wrong" registrar. Bigotry can get you coming and going.

20 February 2007

Majority rule is not democracy

In a recent Globe article discussing a debate at McGill University between Canadian and American supreme court justices, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is reported as saying, "What democracy means is that the majority rules. If you don't believe that you don't believe in democracy."

Justice Scalia's dogmatic assurance notwithstanding, his definition of democracy is seriously flawed. Democracy means, literally, the people rule. All the people. Not just white people, or male people, or heterosexual people, but all the people equally. Majority rule, on the other hand, is no more than a method to facilitate decision-making.

When all citizens do not agree on a question, as is usually the case, majority rule allows them to reach a consensus. Ideally, issues should be resolved proportionate to the support various views hold among the citizenry. For example, if on a particular issue, 60% of the people support Approach A and 40 % support Approach B, the democratic resolution would be an approach including 60% A and 40% B. Of course many issues must be resolved either one way or the other, in which case the resolution would have to be either 100% A or 100% B. But even here, the minority must be fully heard and its views incorporated as much as is reasonably possible.

Majority rule never justifies depriving any person of his or her equality in fully participating as a citizen. When it does it becomes a tyranny of the majority, a serious corruption of democracy. If American supreme court justices don't recognize this, the rights of American minorities remain at risk.

19 February 2007

Zimbabwe turns into a sewer

More depressing news about Zimbabwe as officials scramble to raise $1.4-million for its psychopathic president Robert Mugabe's birthday party.

As the country's towns and cities descend into chaos, water and sewage systems are breaking down. Many districts in the capital, Harare, are without water for weeks. Entrepreneurs sell water from shallow wells, often contaminated by the widespread use of pit latrines. Raw sewage flows through streets as sewer pipes break and are not repaired. Raw sewage is even pumped into the capital's main reservoir, Lake Chivero.

The result is a country that once had some of the highest public health standards in Africa now has the world's lowest life expectancy. The decline is highlighted by a recent outbreak of cholera. The government insists the threat is under control but medical experts disagree with three people dead so far and dozens more falling ill.

The ability of one man to inflict so much suffering on so many is one of the wonders of a supposedly intelligent species.

Will the Quartet play a peace tune?

The recent formation of a coalition government in Palestine between Fatah and Hamas has renewed hope for peace in the Palestine Territories. Needless to say, it has been warmly greeted by Palestinians. But not entirely by the so-called Quartet of Mideast Mediators (The European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Russia).

The Russians seem to be onside. They have urged the Quartet to accept the new government. The UN special coordinator on the Mideast peace process calls the new arrangement "a very important step forward." But the United States is playing the spoiler. Unless the new government agrees to all the conditions previously demanded by the Quartet, the U.S. will continue to subject the Palestinians to sanctions and will boycott all cabinet ministers in a unity government, including Fatah members and independents.

The American recalcitrance will do nothing but mischief for the cause of Middle Eastern peace. Rejecting a breakthrough that has brought new hope to the Palestinians, and no doubt relief to the Arab world generally, the U.S. is once again showing itself to be the dog wagged by the Israeli tail.

If the deal fails to advance the Palestinian cause, Mahmoud Abbas will be held principally to account. He is the president, he is the Palestinian with the strongest reputation in the international community. If he can't sell it, his reputation among Palestinians will be seriously damaged. Meanwhile Hamas's popularity has been sharply revived by the deal. If Abbas fails, the Palestinians may see Hamas as their sole legitimate leader. It's hard to believe that's what the Americans want, but that's what their intransigence could lead to.

Let us hope wiser heads in the Quartet prevail.

15 February 2007

A whole new meaning to "going green"

Local officials in Fumin county, China, have given a whole new meaning to "going green." Villagers were surprised last summer when workers began painting a nearby mountain, site of a former quarry, astro-turf green. Not surprisingly in China, the authorities have not explained why.

Some locals believe it's to improve the county's feng shui, others that it's a response to increased attention to the environment. Yet others suggested if the money had been spent on grass and trees, they could have reclaimed a lot more of the mountain.

When asked about the project, a woman from the Fumin county forestry department replied, " I don't have any information on this. You should ask the leader from above." Right. Blame it on the boss.

The case of Robert Mugabe: Does revolution breed psychopaths?

As Zimbabwe slides further into chaos, questions about its president, Robert Mugabe, become more intense. Has power corrupted him? Is he slipping into senility? Or, the question I find most intriguing, are we simply observing the behaviour of a psychopath? And, if so, is this a common affliction of revolutionary leaders?

Mugabe exhibited psychopathic behaviour early in his career as head of state. Following the successful insurgency against the white government of Ian Smith, Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980. In 1983, he fired his revolutionary partner Joshua Nkomo from cabinet and unleashed the murderous North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Nkomo's Ndebele supporters. Thousands of civilians were killed or disappeared. Once the resistance was crushed, Mugabe established a one-party state. In 1987, he abolished the position of prime minister and assumed the office of president with new powers. In recent years, he has become increasingly erratic, brutally suppressing opposition and adopting social and economic policies that have driven millions of people into exile, millions into dire poverty, destroyed the middle class and wrecked the economy.

The environment of revolution, the environment that nourished Mugabe, is violent and often chaotic, highly amenable to psychopathy. When ruthlessness is an asset, the most ruthless might be expected to rise to the top. And the last century has seen a multitude of examples: Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, and a host of African leaders.

Of course there have been many leaders equally psychopathic who have risen to power by other means, from Caligula to Leopold II of Belgium, but revolution seems to produce more than its fair share. It would be an intriguing exercise, a good topic for a Master's or Ph.D. thesis perhaps, to do an extensive survey of revolutionary leaders and analyze them for psychopathy. I suspect the results might not make pleasant reading.

14 February 2007

What point progress?

We've been suckered. Two developments over the past twenty years promised workers a better life: the technological miracle of computers and world trade. But have they delivered?

A recent study by Statistics Canada suggests not. It indicates, for example, that Canadians are working harder, or at least longer, than they were two decades ago. In 1986, they worked an average of 8.4 hours a day, in 2005 an average of 8.9 hours. The number of workers who worked longer also grew. In 1986, 17 per cent of workers spent 10 hours or more at work, in 2005, 25 per cent did. The study found the increase in hours worked is the major reason people spend less time with their families today than they did 20 years ago. And they spend less than half as much time with their friends.

It is possible of course that people would rather be at work than with their families and friends, or contributing to community life, or just playing, but rising stress levels suggest otherwise. We can afford to buy more stuff, of course, but once you've got adequate stuff, even more adds little to the quality of life.

Computers, which like all technology, ought to make work easier and more pleasant may have actually made it more demanding. Answering emails alone has become a major and relentless component of work. World trade has made work life more competitive and thus more demanding and more stressful. We have enslaved ourselves to the mindless mantra "We must compete in the global marketplace."

All this leads to an obvious question: What is the point of technological and economic progress that leads to a declining quality of life? Or perhaps a more important question: Who's making the decisions?

13 February 2007

"Moderate" replaces "democratic" in the Middle East

Only yesterday it seems, we heard incessantly about the goal of establishing democratic regimes in the Middle East. Now the emphasis is on working with the "moderate" nations. The leaders of these "moderate" nations, all dictators, typically include King Abdullah of Jordan, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and, of course, our very favourite Middle Eastern dictators, the al-Sauds of Arabia. Referring to Saudi Arabia, the world's most misogynistic government, as moderate is a particular stretch.

The United States hasn't been a particularly strong supporter of democracy in the Third World. Its first order of business has always been to favour governments that served its economic and strategic interests. If a democratic government best serves those interests, fine. If a dictatorship is more amenable, the Americans aren't above collaborating in the overthrow of democracy and replacing it with tyranny, as they and the British did in Iran in the 1950s, creating animosities that plague the region to this day.

The recent American and British enthusiasm for establishing democracy in the Middle East was almost certainly driven by a belief that democratic regimes would be more agreeable to their, and to Israel's, interests. This was a dubious theory, simply because the view on Israel that should be expected on the Arab street is opposition to its very existence. But the Americans and the British couldn't be expected to recognize this because they have always preferred to listen to the Arab dictators rather than the Arab people. They were deeply shocked when democracy appeared in the form of Hamas and Hezbollah and it turned out, as should have been expected, that neither recognizes Israel.

Both organizations, therefore, had to be crushed, particularly Hamas even though it had fairly and freely been elected to govern the Palestine Authority. And the interest in Middle Eastern democracy retreated into the older habit of working with Middle Eastern "moderates."

Needless to say, the dictators share the West's hostility toward groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. These are grassroots organizations willing to work through the democratic process, and nothing scares dictators like parties that authentically represent the people. Indeed the dictators are busy suppressing similar entities in their own countries. So they are quite willing to collaborate with Israel and its Western allies in suppressing Hamas and Hezbollah.

The dictators have very recently moderated their opposition to these groups for two reasons. Rather to their surprise, they found their people wildly supportive of Hezbollah in the recent Lebanon war. Indeed Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, became probably the most popular figure in the Middle East. But what has really concerned the dictators is the readiness of non-Arab Iran to step in and support Hamas and Hezbollah if Arab countries (and the West) won't. One result of the moderation is Saudi Arabia mediating to unite Fatah and Hamas .

Its efforts to mediate between the feuding parties in Palestine notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia remains a brutal, corrupt dictatorship with a fanatical religious bent. It is not a moderate nation, and the West's pretending otherwise and cozying up to it only infuriates that great majority of Arab people who would appreciate the opportunity to choose their own governors and run their own societies. It only feeds into extremist rhetoric and enthusiasm.

"Moderate" cannot be defined simply as that which serves American, British and Israeli interests. It must include governments that practice moderation toward their own people and that means democratic process. If we truly want peace in the Middle East, not just oil and an impregnable Israel, we should persist in the pursuit of democracy. But that definitely does not mean imposing it by brute force. It does mean listening to the Arab people, and that, tragically, we don't seem prepared to do.

12 February 2007

Why social conservatives want to control the courts

The Harper government's rigging of judicial advisory committees to ensure conservative appointments to the courts, referred to as "ideological contamination of the justice system" by John Ibbitson in Monday's Globe, is hardly surprising. Although Harper seems to drift in and out of the social conservative orbit, his heart remains loyal to their philosophy, so he has responded appropriately to their belief that judges are too liberal.

One might think that liberal, in the sense of open-minded, would be a good thing for a judge to be. But not to social conservatives. To them, open-mindedness is anathema. Tolerance is the enemy. They believe there is only one legitimate moral design -- theirs -- and any other is wicked, and to tolerate any other is sinful. A liberal judge is therefore an instrument of sin.

Protecting society from sin requires protection from open-mindedness, from tolerance, from liberalism. Social conservatives believe the law must answer to God, specifically to their narrow interpretation of God's wishes: for conservative Muslims this means the Koran, i.e. Sharia law, and for conservative Christians it means the Bible, preferably the Old Testament. They cannot, in good conscience, accept anything less.

This is the essence of Harper's "contamination of the justice system," a narrow, self-righteous concept of law that considers a liberal society a society of moral decay, the work of the devil. The fixing of the committees not only politicizes the judicial system, it theocratizes it.

I conclude as Ibbitson did in his column: "The Conservative government is putting at risk the independence of, and international respect for, the Canadian judiciary. It is an appalling misjudgement that must be reversed."

Portugal says "yes" to abortions

Portugal may be 90% Catholic, but that didn't prevent the electorate from voting 59% in favour of allowing abortion on demand during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Although the turnout was lower than the 50% which makes referendums in Portugal legally binding, the Socialist government is expected to proceed quickly with a new law. This will be a huge relief to the 40,000 Portuguese women a year who either travel abroad or risk back street abortions and up to three years in prison.

The new law will leave Ireland, Poland and Malta as the only European countries that either ban or severely restrict abortion. Prime Minister Jose Socrates referred to the current prohibition and the damage it does to women's health as "Portugal's most shameful wound." Finally the wound is to be healed.

08 February 2007

The ineluctable logic of a carbon tax

If a man walks down the street eating a candy bar and tosses the wrapper onto the sidewalk, most of us are offended. How dare this rascal throw his garbage onto other people's property? The more courageous among us might even confront him. And yet when we drive down the street, spewing garbage much more destructive than candy wrappers into the air other people have to breath, it hardly bothers us at all. The reason, of course, is that we can't see it. If car exhaust was bright orange, we would be horrified, and quite properly feel profoundly guilty, at the mess we were creating. But it isn't, so out of sight, out of mind.

But it shouldn't be. Unlike candy wrappers, this garbage is contributing to global warming and endangering the life of the entire planet. Our mothers taught us we should clean up after ourselves, and she was right, and we should. But how? We can hardly tie a big balloon on the end of our exhaust, collect the emissions, and than toss them in the garbage bin when we get home.

But we can pay a carbon tax. If the price of gas was supplemented with a tax per gallon, the proceeds of which were directed solely to pollution abatement, we could pay our dues, at least in part. Such a tax is eminently justified and perfectly fair. The more garbage you dump into the atmosphere, the more tax you pay.

You could then confront the candy-wrapper tosser with a clear conscience.

China's growing environmental debt still doesn't equal ours

China's massive pollution is a news item that now seems to receive almost as much attention as global warming, to which it is becoming a major contributor. The country is predicted to surpass the United States as the world's biggest greenhouse gas producer within two years.

China is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol but as a developing nation is currently exempt from a commitment to reduce emissions. Indeed this is one of the reasons the Americans used to opt out. The Chinese insist quite rightly that the developed countries created the problem while enjoying most of the benefits of industrialization, so the developed countries have the greatest responsibility to address the problem. Nonetheless, China's economy is huge and growing, as is its use of dirty energy, and for all our sakes it must reduce emissions proportionately.

Our individual responsibility, however, remains far greater than theirs. China has 4.4 times the population of the United States, so even if the greenhouse gas production of the two countries is equal, each individual American (and each Canadian) is still contributing 4.4 times as much. We have, therefore, 4.4 times the responsibility to cut back. Indeed even more, because we have created a disproportionate amount of the damage and enjoyed a disproportionate amount of the spoils. And we should keep in mind that, because of what we are doing to the planet, the Chinese may never hope to achieve our standard of living without laying waste to the Earth.

So we must ask much more of the Chinese, and the Indians, and other developing nations, but we must ask much, much more of ourselves.

06 February 2007

The real cost of the Iraq war

The Pentagon originally estimated the cost of the Iraq war would be $50-billion. Presidential economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey claimed it would be $200-billion. Bush fired him for his impudence. So far it is over $500-billion and is projected to top the cost of the Vietnam war - about $614-billion at today's prices.

But the real cost to Americans is measured in more than dollars, even U.S. dollars. The New York Times estimates with just half the money spent on the war the U.S. could have provided universal health care for its people, offered nursery education for all the country's three and four-year-olds, and immunized the world's children against a host of diseases. In his latest proposed budget, President Bush has further cut programs designed for the elderly and the poor while increasing defence spending by 11.3 per cent.

The Bush administration has talked tirelessly about the need of the war to protect Americans. Yet American innocents, particularly the sick, the old, and children, are increasingly put at risk. Some protection.

05 February 2007

Prominent British Jews challenge pro-Israel establishment

An article in today's Guardian describes the revolt of a group of prominent British Jews against the U.K.'s Jewish establishment. The group presented their position in an open letter on the Guardian's website. The signatories include Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, actor Stephen Fry, historian and author Eric Hobsbawm and a host of other luminaries, a full list of which can be found on the group's website, Independent Jewish Voices.

The group states, "We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole." As for the situation in Palestine, they insist "... those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people."

Antony Lerman, director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, has gone so far as to propose the merging of Israel and the Palestinian territories into a single bi-national federation and repealing the Jewish right of return.

This dissent from the views of leading Jewish organizations is appearing in the U.S. as well where historian Tony Judt told the New York times that the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was something new and might cause references to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to be seen as "just a political defence of Israeli policy."

Not surprisingly, dissenters like Lerman and Judt are being accused by establishment voices of dangerous, if not outright anti-semitic, views. The debate promises to be heated.