Tragedy of Ukraine

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The day after 9/11 I emailed George W Bush urging a moderate response. I was expressing the consensus view of my Saturday morning English conversation class in Bishkek. President Bush ignored that advice.

Yesterday I emailed Joe Biden with very different advice – too late for it to influence his State if the Union Address. Here’s what I wrote:

Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address

I am an Australia/British citizen with many friends in Ukraine and no rancour towards the Russian people.  I understand the strategy of putting economic pressure on Russia’s businesses and population in the hope that Putin will be disempowered from within.  But as we learned in WW2 the Russian people have the ability to withstand great hardship – as do the Ukrainians – and Putin has successfully mined a deep deposit of nationalism and perceived historical grievance.

Therefore I do not believe that sanctions alone will be enough to save Ukraine, the Baltic states (notwithstanding NATO Article 5) and perhaps other former members of Russia’s sphere of influence. 

Like Hitler, Putin has made his wider intentions clear.  If we choose to believe that he’s bluffing, or will be brought to his senses by non-military means, we are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.  Eventually we will have to fight him, just as we had to fight Hitler.  Now is the best time to do it, while a significant part of his military machine is engaged in Ukraine.

I spoke to a German colleague yesterday, who said that any military intervention to save Ukraine could precipitate WW3.  I replied that it’s already started.  Putin fired the starting gun.  If we (the ‘good guys’) dawdle he will only get stronger, and Xi Jinping will feel increasingly comfortable supporting him and fulfilling his promise to subjugate Taiwan.

My German colleague also pointed out the vulnerability of Europe to a nuclear attack.  The logic of that argument is that we should allow Putin to do whatever he wants, because he’s the only leader mad and bad enough to make a first strike.  That would mean that the MAD strategy has failed and we are living in a new world order in which freedom, democracy and the rule of law have no place.

Taliban

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Almost everyone in the democratic world feels the same way about what’s happening in Afghanistan. We went in uninvited, ousted a government and installed a new one, introduced a democratic constitution and oversaw elections. We poured billions of dollars into modernising the country’s infrastructure and institutions. Above all we set new standards for human rights and, in particular, the rights of women and girls. Afghanistan was set for a brighter future under the protection of the mightiest military alliance the world has ever seen – or so it seemed.

And then we said, “Nah. Sod this for a game of soldiers. We’re off.” Or, rather, that was said on our behalf by the US President. None of the allies was strong enough to stand alone, or even in concert if the mightiest of them left the field.

I do not need to dwell on the crimes that the Taliban has been guilty of. In our value system murder, genocide, kidnapping, rape, torture and slavery are heinous. For the Taliban they are standard operating procedure. Even after twenty years, their ideology and the wickedness that flows from it have not changed.

An uncomfortable thought crossed my mind this morning. What if Australia were invaded by the Taliban and we were subjected to the kind of brutal injustice that Afghans now face? How profound would be that shock? How devastated would be our way of life, our self-regard, our sense of place and purpose?

My next thought was even more uncomfortable. Would that devastation be anything like the impact that British colonisation had upon the Aboriginal inhabitants of this land? Were we (I mean my European forebears) the Taliban?

Citizenship

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I live in Australia, where we have a Prime Minister (Scott Morrison, pictured) who is admired for winning an election against the odds and almost single-handed. But few people like him and fewer trust him. Like Boris Johnson, he won because people couldn’t stomach the alternative.

We were recently visited by the Prime Minister of our smaller, poorer sister-state New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern, also pictured). I’d hazard a guess that if the Australian electorate were given the choice they’d vote overwhelmingly for Jacinda to replace Scott. She comes across as sincere, principled, compassionate, straight-talking… the qualities that seem to be disqualifications for high political office in Australia.

Now I’ll come to the point. As well as making amicable noises about our common values and regional interests while she was here, Jacinda raised in public a very sharp-edged issue. Many New Zealanders live in Australia and some run foul of the law. If they are imprisoned for a year ior more, and have not obtained Australian citizenship, they are expelled to New Zealand on their release. Most of these people are long-term Australian residents and have little if any connection with New Zealand; in some cases they came here as babies. Jacinda Ardern asserts – reasonably in my view – that these people have made Australia their home and should be accepted as Australia’s problem. She threatened to introduce a reciprocal law in New Zealand if we did not change ours.

Scott Morrison stood firm, as he is wont to do (unless radio shock-jocks tell him not to). But there is another, equally hard-edged issue that undermines his intransigence. There are Australians among the ragged remnants of Daesh/ISIS held as prisoners in Syria. They are not wanted there, but are considered too dangerous to release. If citizenship is the criterion, surely Australia has a moral duty to take these people back, charge them with crimes, re-educate them, hand their children over to foster parents, keep them under surveillance, or let them go. But the Government says, “No.”

Scott Morrison likes to talk about keeping Australians safe. That’s fine, but as one of the world’s richest and most stable countries I’d say we have a bigger responsibility than that. Am I wrong?

Travel and Terrorism

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First, I offer a big apology to my fans, for not having posted for such a long time. In inadequate recompense I give you this link to a brilliant article by Waleed Aly in the Sydney Morning Herald. Waleed is a writer and broadcaster, and one of the most thoughtful and articulate blokes in Australia today.

The article is about Brexit, which makes me stroppier than almost anything outside the Middle East. But I’ve written so much and so often about Brexit, and none of it seems to have touched the hearts and minds of the decision-makers who matter, so now I’m going to push other people’s views and analysis with which I agree. Certainly Waleed expresses what I think better than I can.

But all that has nothing to do with either travel or terrorism. I’m in the UK at the moment, having travelled from Adelaide via Dubai – not my favourite transit hub, I have to say. On the way I was moved to compose the following limerick, which I throw to you, my readers, much as a rock star might throw an item of clothing into the audience…

While waiting in airport queues,
Then taking off watch, belt and shoes,
I imagine Osama
Bin Laden (the charmer)
Laughing – he didn’t lose!

ISIS Brides and Babies

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There are thousands of them: foreign women who married Daesh (aka IS, ISIL or ISIS) men and who are now sitting in refugee camps, in many cases with their children.  Some are alleged to have attacked other refugees whose behaviour does not conform to Daesh norms, and even to have set firs to those people’s tents.

Mother and Child in a Kurdish-run Camp

Their home countries are reluctant to take them back, for understandable reasons. It’s hard to believe the claims that they were too young to know what they were getting into, or were taken in by the propaganda about the creation of a perfect Islamic state and somehow missed the bits about murder, torture, rape and slavery.

The case of Shamima Begum has hit the headlines in the UK, whence she fled at the age of 15 to join Daesh. Her Dutch husband survived the fighting and has renounced Daesh. Shamima wants to go home with her baby. The UK doesn’t want either of them. It’s a similar story with Australia Zehra Duman. An estimated 9,000 are nationals of the Russian Federation (mainly Chechnya) and other former Soviet Republics.

My view is pretty simple. These people, however wicked, deluded or gullible they may have been, are citizens of countries which have laws, institutions and financial resources far beyond those of the Kurds and others who are holding them. It’s our responsibility to receive them back, subject the adults to due legal process, and care for the children in such a way that they will grow up sane, productive and law-abiding. This will not be cheap, but it will surely be cheaper than letting stateless extremists and their hapless offspring roam the world working mischief.

I just checked, and Australia still has a law dealing with treason. It is contained in Chapter 5 of the Criminal Code. The penalty for intentionally assisting, by any means whatever, another country or organisation [my emphasis] that is engaged in hostilities against the Australian Defence Force is life imprisonment.

The law is specifically framed to include terrorist organisations. One would hope that the phrase “by any means whatever” is broad enough to encompass making one’s way into a war zone to marry an enemy combatant and bear his children, who will be educated in extremism and brought up to be Daesh’s foot soldiers – and martyrs if they’re lucky.

Musings from Bangkok

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That’s not a very informative title, but I’m posting about two separate things and I happen to be in a transit lounge in Bangkok with a lot of time to spare.

I just came off a flight where I watched a film I’d vaguely heard about and a documentary about the Cassini mission to Saturn. Both affected me to the extent that I want to share.

The film was ‘Downsizing’, starring Matt Damon. It has been described as sci-fi satire but I don’t think that does it justice. The title relates to a scientific breakthrough that reduces people to 1/14 their height, and consequently 1/2744 their volume and mass. The aim is to reduce humankind’s environmental footprint before we destroy our habitat, but it has the side effect of allowing the ‘small people’ to use their savings to buy huge mansions in special resort-like communities and live lives of leisure and luxury.

I want you to see the film, so I won’t say any more – except to laud the actress who was for me the de facto star (see photo). Her name is Hong Chau, born in Thailand of Vietnamese refugee parents and now living in the USA. She plays a Vietnamese activist and amputee and she is superb.

The Cassini documentary starred the gallant little spacecraft itself, which was sacrificed at the end of a spectacularly successful mission. It was vaporised in a fireball in Saturn’s atmosphere, with eerie echoes of ancestral sacrifices to uncaring gods. This sacrifice was necessary to avoid the danger of terrestrial contamination of an environment where life already exists or one day may.

I found myself tearing up, not because of Cassini’s death, but because the whole enterprise showed what our species can do and be at our very very best. NASA had a huge team of specialists, men and women, young and old, from many nationalities. They had a common goal to know, a dedication to science, and no malign intent.

The NASA team’s goodness contrasted starkly with the recent horror in Indonesia where a whole family, young children included, wiped itself out in coordinated murderous attacks. This was a team effort too, but instead of being enthused by science their minds were infected by a perverted ideology that thrives only on ignorance and superstition. This was our species as its very very worst.

Martyrs

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Causes thrive on martyrs. Suicide bombers are described as ‘martyrs’ by their puppet masters. Interestingly, people who gain moral strength from their own martyrs rarely recognise that their enemies may gain equal moral strength from theirs.

The opponents of fanatical Islamism, which is fuelled by the blood of ‘martyrs’, have gained a new martyr of their own: Colonel Arnaud Beltrame (pictured). He was the police officer who exchanged himself for a hostage at the Super U supermarket in Trèbes.

Not only did he expose himself to the most extreme danger. He kept his mobile ’phone with him and connected to fellow police officers, allowing them to hear what was going on inside.

Arnaud Beltrame died a hero’s death. His heroism and his name will be remembered when the ‘martyrs’ of Daesh, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and their like are at the bottom of the rubbish heap of history.

Hate Speech

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Yesterday I was paddling a kayak on the Dnieper River. I was in the back seat, Tamara was in the front. Out of the blue she asked me about my religion. I replied that I was an atheist. After a moment’s thought she said, “So what do you love?” She gestured upward, as much as one can while paddling a kayak, so clearly “My wife” or “My family” would not do as an answer.

Not really us – our kayak was red.

“Truth and justice,” I said eventually. That seemed too short a list and I searched for more things that I could express in Russian. But even in English I decided those two were enough.

Ashore, I pondered my answer. Does loving truth and justice necessarily mean hating untruth and injustice? After all, untruth and injustice encompass ignorance, superstition, indoctrination, exploitation, tyranny, cruelty… all things to be hated, surely.

Then today I was listening to a podcast: Phillip Adams interviewing US journalist Glenn Greenwald, who when practising as a lawyer had defended extremists’ first amendment right to express views that most people found abhorrent.

“What about hate speech?” asked Phillip. I found myself agreeing with Glenn when he said that freedom of speech cannot be qualified. Who defines ‘hate speech’ – the Government? Facebook? Google? He cited German cases where criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has resulted in prosecution as anti-Semitic hate speech.

But is there a distinction to be drawn between hatred of abstract ideas and hatred of the people who subscribe to those ideas? We all (I hope) hate what is done in Daesh’s name: murder, kidnapping, rape, slavery and the rest. But is it alright to hate the perpetrators? And is it alright to express that hatred publicly?

From kayaking to cognition. From paddling to pontification. What do you think?

 

Are They Terrorists?

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Communists are devoted to the ideology of Communism. Capitalists snuffle at the trough of Capitalism. Platonists follow the philosophical teachings of Plato.

But what about arsonists, cyclists and saxophonists? They are –ists without –isms. So it is with terrorists. ‘Terrorism’ is not an ideology or a philosophy. Terrorists are simply bad people employing a tactic of war, designed to demoralise an enemy and sap his will to fight. When good people employ this tactic they call it ‘shock and awe’.

So are the Muslims who drive vans at unsuspecting people or set off suicide vests in crowded places terrorists? I don’t think they are, not in the literal sense of the word. They do not seek to create terror, but hatred – hatred of Muslims.

This is not my own original thought. It is the published strategy of Daesh, which recognises three kinds of Muslim. There are the fanatical fundamentalists who support, fund and fight for Daesh’s cause. At the other end of the spectrum are the morally corrupt people who call themselves Muslims but are no better than Infidels: men who drink beer and women who wear makeup, and most of the royals who run the Middle East.

In the middle are the silent majority of Muslims who sort-of believe the dogma and sort-of observe the rituals, much as most people who were brought up Christian sing Christmas carols and eat hot cross buns, but are more interested in giving their children a good education, paying off the mortgage and going somewhere nice on holiday. This is the target. The silent majority. Daesh’s aim is to create hatred of them, causing them to feel alienated and eventually withdraw from the secular societies they have happily inhabited.

If all goes according to plan they will withdraw into the welcoming arms of the True Believers, who will take their children into their madrassas, veil their adolescent daughters, and teach their adolescent sons the take revenge on the societies that rejected them.

So the way to thwart them is to refuse to hate.

There is a terrible battle going on within Islam – or rather several terrible battles, very like the battles that raged in Christendom 500 years ago. They may take as long to be resolved. They may never be resolved. But if there is a way for the rest of us to hasten a happy outcome, it will involve engaging with and supporting the people whose values most closely resemble our own.

Cowards?

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“Prepare for more pain YOU COWARD.” That’s the 5cm-high headline on page 9 of today’s Sunday Mail. The ‘coward’ referred to is Riduan Isomuddin (aka Hambali), the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, who’s been in Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

Increasingly, world leaders and commentators have been attaching the ‘coward’ label to suicide bombers and perpetrators of other atrocities, and I’m not sure that it’s appropriate.

Whatever one thinks of these people and their motives, and the puppeteers who pull their strings, I don’t think they’re cowards. They have to overcome their instinct for self-preservation, for one thing; and their instinctive empathy for fellow humans. Killing oneself and killing other people takes courage.

But, you may say, if a crime is committed in the name of Islam the perpetrator is promised great rewards in Paradise. True, but what if his suicide vest fails? What if he’s shot but not killed? He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life locked up, maybe maimed, probably celibate, hoping that failure to complete his mission does not disqualify him from receiving a martyr’s prize.

And surely some of them must consider the possibility that the men who made those promises are themselves misguided – or even liars. Then they face eternity in Hell.

No. I see foolishness, I see wickedness, but I don’t see cowardice.

Does it matter what epithets we throw at them? I think it does. Unless we correctly characterise their crimes and their motivation we cannot counter them effectively.

Sorry: I can think of no suitable picture to include in this post.