Sunday, 24 February 2013

Faith and Reason by Ian Harris

Otago Daily Times              February 22, 2013
Is secular religion a contradiction in terms? The popular answer would be “Of course! Religion can’t be secular, or it wouldn’t be religion.” The popular answer is wrong.

Indeed, two leading exponents of religion in Australia and New Zealand assert that in the modern world, religion must be secular if it is to do its religious job properly. That is because secular means related to this world, this time and this place, and western culture is now secular. The exponents are Winton Higgins, a Sydney teacher of Buddhist meditation, and Sir Lloyd Geering, whose 70th anniversary of ordination as a Presbyterian minister was marked at a special service of Wellington Presbytery last Tuesday. [Feb 19]

Sir Lloyd says there is no contradiction because religion has to do with the meaning and purpose of one’s life, and therefore is part of the human condition. The way people interpret their meaning and purpose will depend largely on how they see the world, and that will vary from person to person, culture to culture, and century to century. But reflecting on them makes everyone religious to some degree.

Sir Lloyd and Mr Higgins met in St Andrew’s Church in Wellington last week, and found much in common between a Buddhist and a Christian approach to secularity in the modern world. Sir Lloyd said the way people see the world today was vastly changed from that of the 1st century, so the way religion is experienced and expressed must change with it.

“A great deal that’s believed and practised in Christianity today is superstition,” he said, defining that as any practice or belief that has outlived the context in which it was once appropriate. “If we regard the past as laying down the permanent and unchanging foundations of religion, we’re in real trouble. Any true religion for this age must fit the way we see reality today, which means it must be secular.” The teaching of both Jesus and the Buddha, relative to their own times and cultures, was more secular or this-worldly than is commonly understood, he said. Both were concerned primarily with how to live life fully and well within their respective cultures.

Mr Higgins sees secular Buddhism as a reaction to a dumbed-down “blancmange Buddhism” that emerged in the West after 1960. It is trying to take something coherent from the Buddha’s earliest teaching and present it in a way that modern people can work with in their secular world. “Secular Buddhism has given away the idea of rebirth,” he said. “The Buddha’s original doctrine leaves no room for that anyway – he saw every aspect of our being as impermanent, with no enduring ‘me’.” The institutionalisation of Buddhism in powerful monasteries brought other agendas into play, including their relation to power elites.

Sir Lloyd parallelled that by describing how in Christianity the church filled the vacuum created by the decline of the Roman empire. It came to be organised like an empire, and the pope took on the imperial title of Pontifex Maximus (pontiff) – “the original Jesus would have been horrified.” He did not think the Catholic Church would become more secular with the election of a new pope. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s had given the church a tremendous burst into the modern world, but since then the governing curia had been taking it backwards.

Mr Higgins said the Buddha was not interested in starting a new religion, but in getting people to tune in to their own experience. Sir Lloyd said Jesus was a rather special Jew who was able to see beyond his Jewishness to the significance of being human, and how to become fully developed human beings. Common to both religions was their concern with right action rather than right belief. This shows in the values they have always put at the forefront: concern for one another, love, compassion, and a readiness to accept the other person, no matter who they are.

Asked what secular religion would look like today, Sir Lloyd sees no need to replace the basic church structure.
“A church is basically a fellowship of people,” he said. “We all need one another, and the church brings people together for mutual support. “Churches should now recognise that we are all part of an evolving universe. They are places where people can learn to give thanks for and marvel at the universe, value all forms of life, value our cultural inheritance, celebrate our togetherness and what we are able to be, and work for a viable human future.”

Deadlock in the "war on terror"

Robert Fisk is a journalist based in the Middle East, and not one to mince his words when reporting on conflict.  He is a stern critic of those who predict quick and easy military victories ln the lottery of war.  His major book, “The Great War for Civilisation” (2007) gived many examples  to illustrate this folly.
In an article just published in the Independent/UK Fisk gives an acute analysis of the “war on terror”, now in  state of deadlock and still claiming more victims in more places.  He sees no end to this without a major change in Western policy, and spells out what that change should be.
Prophetic writing, I would call it. An abridged version appears below this.

War on Terror is the West's New Religion

But all the crusading and invading simply plays into al-Qa'ida's hands
by Robert Fisk            Independent/UK                   February 24, 2013
Endless war. "They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere …" But who, exactly? The leader of which particular groupuscule of al-Qa'ida-inspired gunmen in Mali? Indeed, our lords and masters seem to have not the slightest idea who they are talking about. A few weeks ago, when many of us didn't even know the name of the Malian capital – admit it, O readers – we were all under the impression that al-Qa'ida's resurgence was in Iraq, where it's back to almost daily suicide bombing against Shias.
Thank heavens  that we have Arab writers such as Abdel Bari Atwan – who knew the real Bin Laden better than any other journalist – with his volume After Bin Laden: Al-Qa'ida, the Next Generation. Atwan has structured exactly how al-Qa'ida metamorphosed after Bin Laden's execution and recalled how in 2005 he received by email a document entitled "Al-Qa'ida's strategy to 2020", which contained seven "stages" towards a world Islamic caliphate.
Stage one was to "provoke the ponderous American elephant into invading Muslim lands where it would be easier for the mujahideen to fight it". Stage two: The Muslim nation wakes from its long sleep and is furious at the sight of a new generation of crusaders intent on occupying large parts of the Middle East and stealing its valuable resources. "The seeds of the hatred towards America that al-Qa'ida was banking on," Atwan says, "were planted when the first bombs dropped on Baghdad in 2003." In fact, as I outlined after the invasion, an oblique message from Bin Laden just before the Bush adventure – typically ignored by the CIA – actually urged al-Qa'ida members to co-operate with the hated Baathists against US forces. This was the first call from al-Qa'ida to collaborate with other groups – hence the plague of al-Qa'ida units which are fighting alongside other rebel organizations in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Mali and now Syria.
Stage three is a NATO-al-Qa'ida conflict in a "triangle of horror … in Iraq, Syria and Jordan". In part four, "Al-Qa'ida becomes a global network that … makes enfranchisement exceptionally easy". In part five, the US military budget "is crashed into bankruptcy and economic meltdown ensues". The sixth stage is the "overthrow of the hated Arab dictators. Finally, "the ultimate clash of civilizations and a mighty, apocalyptic battle". Al-Zawahiri, by the way, is always quoting the Yale historian Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which sees economic collapse as the basis for the collapse of empires.
So why not stop spraying bombs and depleted uranium shells on the people of the Middle East? And stop sending our wretched armies to occupy Muslim lands – which is exactly what al-Qa'ida wants us to do – and stop bribing Arab leaders to crush their own people. Instead, can we not visit these sad lands with justice? Justice for the Palestinians, justice for the Kurds, justice for the Iraqi Sunnis, justice for the people of southern Lebanon, justice for the people of Kashmir. If the West put its mind to this real "crusade", al-Qa'ida would disappear. The people who live in the Muslim world can then decide on their own "caliphate".
However, our lords and masters still wish to govern the world, and there is not the slightest chance that they would risk their status, their reputations, their political futures, their lives on such an odd concept. "War on terror" remains the new religion of the West – and why not when the French Interior Minister declares that "there is an Islamic fascism rising everywhere"?
Saddest of all is that we did not read the obvious message: that al-Qa'ida largely failed to hijack the Arab awakening; no picture of Bin Laden and no al-Qa'ida flag graced those millions who marched through the streets of Arab capitals. But no, now we peddle the myth that elected Islamist parties are subterfuge al-Qa'idas, that – deep down – the Islamic world really is in an eternal "clash of civilizations" with us, that we must fear them, hate them.
And so the war goes on. What was it the splendid Leon Panetta – my favorite US Defense Secretary – said in Kabul 18 months ago? "We're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qa'ida." And in London a few days ago? He called for "relentless pressure" on the group. Did al-Qa'ida's press office write this stuff for him? Or is there some dark, unspoken knowledge shared by both us and al-Qa'ida? That we both, in our souls, want the war to go on.
© 2013 Independent/UK                  [Abridged]

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The premises and purposes of American exceptionalism

Glenn Greenwald              Guardian/UK                      18 February 2013
Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and the US - the country with the world's largest stockpile of that weapon and the only one in history to use it - led the condemnation (US allies with large nuclear stockpiles, such as Britain and Israel, vocally joined in).
Nobody can reasonably dispute that North Korea is governed by a monstrous regime and that it would be better if they lacked a nuclear weapons capability.  What interests me here is that highlighted claim: that the US "is the greatest country in world history", and therefore is entitled to do that which other countries are not. The desire to believe it is so strong, the need to proclaim one's own unprecedented superiority so compelling, that it's hardly controversial to say it, despite how nonsensical it is. The opposite is true: it has been vested with the status of orthodoxy.
What I'm always so curious about is the thought process behind this formulation. Depending on how you count, there are 179 countries on the planet. The probability that you will happen to be born into The Objectively Greatest One, to the extent there is such a thing, is less than 1%. As the US accounts for roughly 5% of the world's population, the probability that you will be born into it is 1/20. Those are fairly long odds for the happenstance of being born into the Greatest Country on Earth.
It's certainly true that Americans are justifiably proud of certain nationalistic attributes: class mobility, ethnic diversity, religious freedom, large immigrant populations, life-improving technological discoveries, a commitment to some basic liberties such as free speech and press, historical progress in correcting some of its worst crimes. But all of those virtues are found in equal if not, at this point, greater quantity in numerous other countries. Add to that mix America's shameful attributes - its historic crimes of land theft, genocide, slavery and racism, its sprawling penal state, the company it keeps on certain human rights abuses, the aggressive attack on Iraq, the creation of a worldwide torture regime, its pervasive support for the world's worst tyrannies - and it becomes not just untenable, but laughable, to lavish it with that title.
This is more than just an intellectual exercise. This belief in America's unparalleled greatness has immense impact. It is not hyperbole to say that the sentiment is the overarching belief system of the US political and media class, the primary premise shaping political discourse. Politicians of all types routinely recite the same claim. This eagerness to declare oneself exempt from the rules to which others are bound, on the grounds of one's own objective superiority, is always the animating sentiment behind nationalistic criminality. Here's what Orwell said about that in Notes on Nationalism:

"All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."
Preserving this warped morality, this nationalistic prerogative, is, far and away, the primary objective of America's foreign policy community, composed of its political offices, media outlets, and (especially) think tanks. What Cooke expressed here - that the US, due to its objective superiority, is not bound by the same rules as others - is the most cherished and aggressively guarded principle in that circle. Conversely, the notion that the US should be bound by the same rules as everyone else is the most scorned and marginalized.
In sum, think tank "scholars" don't get invited to important meetings by "national security professionals" in DC if they point out that the US is committing war crimes. They don't get invited to those meetings if they argue that the US should be bound by the same rules and laws it imposes on others when it comes to the use of force. One gets invited to those meetings only if one blindly affirms the right of the US to do whatever it wants, and then devotes oneself to the pragmatic question of how that unfettered license can best be exploited to promote national interests. The culture of DC think tanks, "international relations" professionals, and commentators breeds allegiance to these American prerogatives and US power centers.
This belief in the unfettered legal and moral right of the US to use force anywhere in the world for any reason it wants is sustained only by this belief in objective US superiority, this myth of American exceptionalism. And the results are exactly what one would expect from an approach grounded in a belief system so patently irrational.     [Excerpts only]

Think there's no alternative? Latin America has a few

Seumas Milne                         Guardian/UK                       19 February 2013
Ever since the crash of 2008 exposed the rotten core of a failed economic model, we've been told there are no viable alternatives. As Europe sinks deeper into austerity, governing parties of whatever stripe are routinely rejected by disillusioned voters – only to be replaced by others delivering more welfare cuts, privatisation and inequality. So what should we make of a part of the world where governments have resolutely turned their back on that model, slashed poverty and inequality, taken back industries and resources from corporate control, massively expanded public services and democratic participation – and keep getting re-elected in fiercely contested elections?
That is what has been happening in Latin America for a decade. The latest political leader to underline the trend is the radical economist Rafael Correa, re-elected as president of Ecuador at the weekend with an increased 57% share of the vote, while Correa's party won an outright majority in parliament.
But Ecuador is now part of a well-established pattern. Last October the much reviled but hugely popular Hugo Chávez, who returned home on Monday after two months of cancer treatment in Cuba, was re-elected president of Venezuela with 55% of the vote after 14 years in power in a ballot far more fraud-proof than those in Britain or the US. That followed the re-election of Bolivia's Evo Morales, Latin America's first indigenous president, in 2009; the election of Lula's nominated successor Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in 2010; and of Cristina Fernandez in Argentina in 2011.
Despite their differences, it's not hard to see why. Latin America was the first to experience the disastrous impact of neoliberal dogma and the first to revolt against it. Correa was originally elected in the wake of an economic collapse so devastating that one in 10 left the country. Since then his "citizen's revolution" has cut poverty by nearly a third and extreme poverty by 45%. Unemployment has been slashed, while social security, free health and education have been rapidly expanded – including free higher education, now a constitutional right – while outsourcing has been outlawed.
And that has been achieved not only by using Ecuador's limited oil wealth to benefit the majority, but by making corporations and the well-off pay their taxes (receipts have almost tripled in six years), raising public investment to 15% of national income, extending public ownership, tough renegotiation of oil contracts and re-regulating the banking system to support development.
Correa's government has also closed the US military base at Manta (he'd reconsider, he said, if the US "let us put a military base in Miami"), expanded gay, disability and indigenous rights and adopted some of the most radical environmental policies in the world. But what is happening in Ecuador is only part of a progressive tide that has swept Latin America, as social democratic and radical socialist governments have attacked social and racial inequality, challenged US domination and begun to create genuine regional integration and independence for the first time in 500 years. And given what's already been delivered to the majority, it's hardly surprising they keep getting re-elected.
Of course, Latin America's left-leaning governments have no shortage of failings, from corruption to crime. There is also a question whether the momentum of continental change can be maintained now that Chávez, who spearheaded it, is expected to stand down in the next few weeks. Latin America's transformation is nevertheless deeply rooted and popular, while a discredited right has little to offer. For the rest of the world, it makes a nonsense of the idea that five years into the crisis nothing can be done but more of the same. True, these are economies and societies at a very different stage of development, and their experiences can't simply be replicated elsewhere. But they have certainly shown there are multiple alternatives to neoliberal masochism – which win elections, too.          [Abridged]
Twitter: @SeumasMilne        

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

God as Symbol

by Ian Harris                    Otago Daily Times                 8 Feb. 2013

Symbols are not to be sniffed at. They carry meaning with an allusive edge. They are charged with what psychologist Carl Jung called psychic energy. They have consequences for the way a person lives and, when widely shared, for the way a culture is expressed. They are much, much more than static tokens, signs, emblems, logos, computer icons or trademarks.

The word comes from the Greek symbolon, meaning “throwing things together” so as to create an imaginative association between them. In psychology and religion, symbols do this in such a way as to cast light on human experience. Humans are very good at making these links. Dreams are full of symbols. So is poetry.
For theologian Paul Tillich, a symbol points beyond itself to something sensed but not bounded or precisely defined. A symbol, he says, gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible. A country’s flag is more than a fluttering cloth – it’s a symbol of nationhood and identity. The kiwi conjures up New Zealand, the lion England, the unicorn Scotland.

Actions can be symbols. In Christianity, the breaking of bread and pouring of wine in communion are symbolic of Jesus’ life-giving death on the cross. In Judaism, observance of the Sabbath and lighting the candles on the seven-branched menorah affirm Jewish identity, belonging and faith. It should be obvious, then, that to call “God” a symbol is not to denigrate or dismiss God, but to give the concept a foremost place in human experience.

The way people think about God should evolve and grow as they mature. Looking back, I can identify three major stages in the way I thought about God. All of them seemed complete and worthy at the time, but now I see them as stages on a journey.
In the first phase, God was an actual being, a heavenly father, all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving, ready to guide me and to intervene in my life as he willed. This was the “God out there” of traditional theism.
In the second phase the focus broadened beyond me and my life to the God who was active in history. This was God in the midst of society and of nations, God in events, God the Other with whom we had to reckon. Though still a theistic God, the emphasis was now on discerning this God as the life force in the swirling changes of the times, beckoning towards a better future for the whole of humanity.
Over time, however, I became aware of a growing unease about that understanding of God, in both myself and others. After 400 years of exponentially expanding knowledge, God no longer seemed to relate so readily to the world as we experience it today. Could there be a way of thinking about God that might attract, energise, and provide a sense of meaning and purpose in a secular world – and, importantly, help bring our western Judaeo-Christian heritage through to the present? I think there is, as long as people are willing to see the word “God” as a symbol. And what it symbolises matters supremely.

God as symbol points to what is best and highest and deepest in human experience. Chief among those experiences are faith, hope and love, where faith is a trusting orientation to the future and its possibilities for good; hope keeps people attuned to whatever is life-affirming in any situation, even the grimmest; and love is the steady direction of the will toward the lasting good of another.

God as symbol gathers up what is central to one’s understanding of life, what people sense as ultimate and non-negotiable in the values they live by. Every religion teaches a set of values, with compassion at their core. Each undergirds them and expresses them out of its own distinctive heritage. For Christians, this is supremely demonstrated in Jesus’ life and ministry. In him, God becomes a verb.

God as symbol also provides a focus of coherence for everything people experience. It gives them a bearing relevant to every situation they encounter, a reference point for whatever they plan, think, or do. But that is all cerebral till that God is experienced inwardly, and becomes part of the fabric of a person’s everyday life. Experienced inwardly, but expressed outwardly in relationships with other people in every situation, and increasingly in relation to the planet that sustains us.

When that happens, God as symbol opens into a living reality in human experience – even and especially in our brave new secular world.

The key to forgiveness is the refusal to seek revenge

The problem with our retributive model of justice is that it can easily serve to perpetuate violence and hatred
Giles Fraser                               Guardian/UK                                  8 February 2013

Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry, whose father, Sir Anthony Berry, was killed in the 1984 blast.
He was a short, plumpish academic-looking man in his 60s, with a neat beard and walking stick, clearly uncomfortable among the prawn canapes of a trendy Soho hotel. In this world of peacocks and poseurs, he stood out by not standing out. Quietly spoken, with a Belfast brogue softened by a childhood in East Anglia, he drew little attention to himself. Which was, no doubt, why Patrick Magee could pass unnoticed as he toured the country in 1978, planting 16 bombs in various cities and, then again, in 1984, when he blew up Brighton's Grand Hotel during the Conservative party conference, killing five people.
Among his victims that night was Tory MP Sir Anthony Berry. His daughter Jo was also at the party, sipping wine and chatting to the inquisitive crowd. The body language between them was awkward but not overtly hostile. On first-name terms, they had clearly spent quite a bit of time in each other's company since they first met in 2000, often at events like this one: last month's launch of the documentary film, Beyond Right and Wrong, exploring the subject of forgiveness. Magee did 14 years in prison, released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. Some continue to feel that this punishment was not enough; that, on some level, he got away with it.
It is a similar uneasy feeling one can have with forgiveness itself, that it undermines the basic logic of proportionality that underpins most moral thinking – that the scales of justice require some sort of balance. Crime needs to be offset by a proportionate amount of punishment. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Forgiveness ignores all of that, which is why it exists beyond right and wrong.
Yet the problem with the retributive model of justice, constructed as it is upon the moral instinct for proportionality, is that it can easily serve to perpetuate violence and hatred – one act of violence leading to another in response, which can provoke yet another, and so on. The blood feud that can exist between families is the most striking example of how answering violence with violence can be a potentially endless business, with old hatreds forever spawning new ones.
Politicians who support amnesty arrangements such as the Good Friday agreement are often upbraided. But what Jo Berry is interested in is how the instinct for revenge can easily become a betrayal of the future. Her forgiveness of Patrick Magee is quite extraordinary, taking huge courage and emotional poise. And she admitted to me that she sometimes goes for a walk on the beach in north Wales and smashes rocks against each other in frustration. This is a safe detonation of the anger she feels inside. She says that for all to move on and reclaim a more peaceful future, these feelings have to be left on the beach.
Too often, forgiveness is construed as miraculously having positive feelings towards the person who had harmed you. This understanding is, I suspect, an impossible fiction. But what is not impossible is the refusal of revenge, the refusal to answer back in kind. Beyond Right and Wrong examines powerful stories of ordinary people in Rwanda and Israel/Palestine who have let go of perfectly natural punitive instincts in the name of a brighter tomorrow, one not trapped by the hatreds of the past. One might also note that, in Christian terms, it is this same sacrifice that puts the good into Good Friday.
Twitter: @giles_fraser

Desmond Tutu Blasts US Drones: American or Not, All Victims Are Human

Tutu: 'Does the US really want to tell those of us in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?'
- Lauren McCauley, staff writer           Common Dreams            February 14, 2013

In a letter to the New York Times published Wednesday, South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu challenged the hypocrisy of the US and its citizens for accepting a killer drone program when it pertains to foreign suspects while demanding judicial review when those targets are American citizens.
Longtime peace activist and Nobel Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (Photograph: Zak Hussein/PA) He writes:
Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the 19th century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it.
I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.
Tutu was responding specifically to an earlier New York Times piece which discussed the idea of a "special court" or tribunal to review drone strikes against US citizens. Though not entirely new, the plan has gained momentum since last week's confirmation hearing of CIA director nominee John Brennan during which lawmakers, including Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Angus King (I-Maine), discussed the option.
During the hearing, Senator King reportedly said he thought the court "would pass constitutional muster only if it were limited to cases involving American citizens."

If you want the truth during a war, don't ask a pundit

TV, informed commentators are too often ignored in favour of 'experts' with their own political agendas
Patrick Cockburn                               Independent/UK                        27 January 2013
The ignorance of television pundits and the limitations of "embedded" journalism ease the way for governments to launch disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, still in its early stages, Mali. Little is learned from past failure because the media gives such a misleading picture of what happened.
In times of war, of course, experts under contract can make money. Their views help to shape public opinion, and governments try to control them. In 2003, US television channels employed retired senior military officers as their in-house experts on the war in Iraq. The Pentagon gave these ex-officers exclusive weekly briefings enabling them to appear to have the inside track on the conflict. Minor dissent on tactics was tolerated by the Pentagon, but broader criticism of the war was punished by exclusion from the briefings. This was ultimately revealed in The New York Times, but TV companies showed little embarrassment that their independent military experts had been in the Pentagon's pocket.
There invariably are people who genuinely know everything about a country or the background to a crisis. They usually work at a university rather than a Washington think tank, and their views may be contrary to governmental policy. Much the best-informed commentary I have seen about the French intervention in Mali is a piece in the Financial Times by Hugh Roberts, professor of North African and Middle Eastern history at Tufts University. He writes: "The Sahel's terrorism problem dates back no further than 2003 – the West's global war on terror gave birth to it; the West's part in the destruction of Muammar Gaddafi's Libya aggravated it; and France's decision to pursue another war in Mali is expanding it." Roberts's succinct account of the roots of the crisis outdoes any analysis elsewhere.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the template for state control or manipulation of the media. "Embedding" became an accepted part of war reporting, though media outlets gave up a greater part of their independence than they admitted.
The advantages were obvious. Access was greater. It could be dangerous, but going with an army is safer than travelling alone. Seldom mentioned but important for many media organisations is the fact that embedding is free. Television crews are housed, transported and fed at no cost to their employers by the American or British army.
From the start the disadvantages of "embedding" were obvious, giving the military the option of rejecting critics. Who would have guessed from British television coverage of the dispatch of the Army to Helmand in 2006 that the British embassy in Kabul had advised against the move as inviting disaster?
I had an early taste of the downside of "embedding" in 2004, when US forces stormed Fallujah. Almost the entire foreign press corps in Iraq went with them and reported a famous if bloody victory. In reality, Iraqi insurgents took advantage of the departure of US forces there to capture Mosul. Yet this defeat had scant coverage abroad because foreign reporters were all with the US army in Fallujah.
Embedding never meant total manipulation and would not have worked if it had. The best correspondents found ways of finding out what was happening and reporting it. Overall, however, embedding was effective censorship.
This censorship is now becoming more intense, particularly in the British Army. Official minders have become obligatory and restrictions on coverage are increasing. The reason is probably that the withdrawal of coalition forces is now close, after a campaign that has failed in most objectives. The Taliban's fighters are likely to take over positions the British vacate. A former British officer told me he had been ordered to assure journalists that the Afghan soldiers he had mentored are up to fighting the Taliban. "Of course that is completely untrue," he said.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Hubris of the Drones by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Pub. by Common Dreams               12 February   2013
Last week, The New York Times published a chilling account of how indiscriminate killing in war remains bad policy even today. It’s done not by young GIs in the field but by anonymous puppeteers guiding drones that hover and attack by remote control against targets thousands of miles away, often killing the innocent and driving their enraged and grieving families and friends straight into the arms of the very terrorists we’re trying to eradicate.
The Times told of a Muslim cleric in Yemen named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, standing in a village mosque denouncing al Qaeda. It was a brave thing to do — a respected tribal figure, arguing against terrorism. But two days later, when he and a police officer cousin agreed to meet with three al Qaeda members to continue the argument, all five men — friend and foe — were incinerated by an American drone attack. The killings infuriated the village and prompted rumors of an upwelling of support in the town for al Qaeda, because, the Times reported, “such a move is seen as the only way to retaliate against the United States.”
Our blind faith in technology combined with a false sense of infallible righteousness continues unabated. Reuters correspondent David Rohde recently wrote: “The Obama administration’s covert drone program is on the wrong side of history. With each strike, Washington presents itself as an opponent of the rule of law, not a supporter. Not surprisingly, a foreign power killing people with no public discussion, or review of who died and why, promotes anger among Pakistanis, Yemenis and many others.”
Rohde has firsthand knowledge of what a drone strike can do. He was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008 and held for seven months. During his captivity, a drone struck nearby. “It was so close that shrapnel and mud showered down into the courtyard,” he told the BBC last year. “Just the force and size of the explosion amazed me. It comes with no warning and tremendous force… There’s sense that your sovereignty is being violated… It’s a serious military action. It is not this light precise pinprick that many Americans believe.”
A special report from the Council on Foreign Relations, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” quotes “a former senior military official” saying, “Drone strikes are just a signal of arrogance that will boomerang against America.” The report notes that, “The current trajectory of U.S. drone strike policies is unsustainable… without any meaningful checks — imposed by domestic or international political pressure — or sustained oversight from other branches of government, U.S. drone strikes create a moral hazard because of the negligible risks from such strikes and the unprecedented disconnect between American officials and personnel and the actual effects on the ground.”
Negligible? Such hubris brought us to grief in Vietnam and Iraq and may do so again. Yet the ease with which drones are employed and the lower risk to our own forces makes the unmanned aircraft increasingly appealing to the military and the CIA. We’re using drones more and more; some 350 strikes since President Obama took office. And there’s a whole new generation of the weapons on the way — deadlier and with greater endurance.
According to the CFR report, “Of the estimated three thousand people killed by drones… the vast majority were neither al-Qaeda nor Taliban leaders. Instead, most were low-level, anonymous suspected militants who were predominantly engaged in insurgent or terrorist operations against their governments, rather than in active international terrorist plots.”
We have to wonder if each innocent killed — a young boy gathering wood at dawn, unsuspecting of his imminent annihilation; a student who picked up the wrong hitchhikers; that tribal elder arguing against fanatics — doesn’t give rise to second thoughts by those judges who prematurely handed our president the Nobel Prize for Peace. Better they had kept it on the shelf in hopeful waiting, untarnished.        [Abbrev.]
Journalist Bill Moyers is the host of the new show Moyers & Company

What a tragedy that we couldn't stop the war in Iraq

Owen Jones                Independent/UK                10 February 2013
Almost exactly a decade ago, on a bitingly cold February day, we marched in our hundreds of thousands to stop a catastrophe. The historic demonstration against the Iraq war was more of a shuffle than a march: the streets were too crammed to walk very fast. The coach to London was packed full of car workers. Lollipop ladies, firefighters, supermarket shelf stackers, lecturers, shopkeepers marched: there was a euphoria that people power brings. When we left for our pick-up points, placards scattering the street, chants still echoing, we thought we had won. How could the greatest mass of demonstrators to have ever swarmed through Britain’s streets be tossed aside?
It is a memory now punctured with bitterness. Yes, we helped trigger one of the greatest parliamentary rebellions in history as 139 Labour MPs defied the Whip, but the largely united Tories came to Tony Blair’s rescue. The consequences of the Iraq obscenity were far worse than those of us who yelled “Not In Our Name” imagined. Years of blood and chaos followed. There can be no sense of triumphalism or vindication.
We were right about the false pretext: the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t a based on a hunch. We listened to Scott Ritter, the Republican-supporting former UN chief weapons’ inspector, who declared months before the first bombs fell that “since 1998 Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed”. We understood that the former foreign secretary Robin Cook knew what he was talking about when – in his historic resignation speech – he declared that “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term”. It was illegal,” said the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the aftermath; it was “contrary to international law”, Sir Michael Wood, former chief legal adviser to the Foreign Office, told the Chilcot inquiry.
Neither did we believe it was motivated by humanitarian considerations, not least given the West’s appalling record of supporting brutal dictatorships. It is a scandal which continues today, from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan – whose dictator is currently employing Tony Blair to the tune of $13m a year. The CIA originally helped the Baathists into power: they even supplied lists of Communists who were promptly slaughtered. The West armed and supported Saddam in his war with Iran, and when anti-war Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn stood up in Parliament in 1988 to denounce Britain’s support for the Baathist tyranny after the gassing of the Kurds, he was a lone voice. Nearly all of those who used the suffering of the Kurdish people 15 years later to justify the invasion said nothing.
A Sunni uprising began almost immediately; rebellions among the majority Shia population would follow. Iraq became a playground for al-Qa’ida-inspired fanatics who previously had nothing to do with the country. More than 12,000 civilians were murdered in more than a thousand suicide bombings in the first seven years alone. A grotesque sectarian bloodbath ensued: decapitations, car bombs, mass graves, bloated bodies floating in rivers.
Statistics have a habit of stripping humanity out of an argument. But the human cost matters. The occupiers refused to count the dead, leaving it to wildly differing estimates. The Iraq Body Count’s conservative figures are at least 172,906 violent deaths; the Iraqi government and the World Health Organisation estimated up to 223,000 killed in the first three years; one study even estimated over a million had died. When much of the city of Fallujah was razed and hundreds killed by US forces – who used white phosphorous, which strips the skins from people’s bodies – the cruise missile liberals fell largely silent.
All this blood, and for what? Iraq is now 150th out of 179 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, worse than Russia or Zimbabwe; and the US government-funded Freedom House rates Iraq 6 for civil liberties and 6 for political rights, with 7 being the worst.
Easy for me to berate, you might think: I didn’t live through the horror of Saddam. Listen to the Iraqi people, then. A detailed poll by Zogby at the end of 2011 revealed that just 30 per cent of Iraqis felt the invasion left them better off; 23 per cent felt things were just the same, and 42 per cent said they were worse. Among the Shia, 70 per cent felt things were worse or just as bad as under Saddam; it was 79 per cent among Sunnis.
The hawks were wrong on every count. Wrong about the weapons; wrong about being greeted with flowers; wrong about the human cost; wrong about Iraq becoming a flourishing democracy. But I remember the euphoria I felt on 15 February 2003 with grief. We did not stop an inferno which began a month later, consuming the lives of hundreds ohousands, including 179 British soldiers. Incalculable misery; incalculable horror. It must never happen again.

Barack Obama is Pushing Gun Control at Home, but He’s a Killer Abroad

By Gary Younge                   Guardian/UK                      February 10, 2013
Over the last few weeks there has been a distinct incongruity – to say the least – between the agenda Obama is promoting at home and the one he defends abroad. His justification for targeted killings and drone strikes in foreign parts. In short, the credibility of a president in challenging lawless social violence in US cities is fundamentally undermined when he has his own personal kill list in violation of international law to terminate enemies elsewhere.
The Obama administration appears to have compartmentalised its response to violence and its victims. One moment the Obamas are mourning the tragic loss of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old girl who attended his inauguration. She was shot less than a mile from their Chicago home while sheltering from the rain in a park. The first lady, Michelle Obama, who attended Hadiya's funeral on Saturday, said, through a spokeswoman: "Too many times, we've seen young people struck down with so much of their lives ahead of them."
The administration is maintaining a stony silence over the murder of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old American born in Denver who was killed by a drone in Yemen in 2011. His father, Anwar (also American), was an Islamist cleric – killed by a drone a few weeks earlier. When asked about the incident during the election campaign, Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and senior adviser to Obama's re-election campaign, essentially blamed Abdulrahman for having the kind of dad the US wanted to kill. "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the wellbeing of their children."
We should not be surprised. These contradictions are inherent in the tension between the position to which he was elected and the forces that elected him. He was elected to represent the interests of the most powerful and well-armed nation on Earth at a time of war. Murder was in the job description of the office he applied for and won to great fanfare. For all the claims of him becoming a great role model for young black men, he was always going to be responsible for the deaths of more innocents than Biggie and Tupac combined.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 2004 and 2013 drone strikes have killed up to 893 civilians (including 176 children) in Pakistan, 178 civilians (including 37 children) in Yemen, and 57 civilians (including three children) in Somalia (while these started under Bush they were accelerated under Obama). But Obama was returned to office by the votes of – among others – blacks, Latinos, youth and the poor, the very people and communities most likely to be blighted by gun violence. Michelle Obama came to Hadiya's funeral after considerable pressure had been applied by black communities in Chicago and nationwide. Since the shootings of children at Sandy Hook elementary school Obama has led an audacious push to galvanise a majority, in the country and in Congress, for tougher gun controls.
The unfortunate timing has highlighted the discrepancy between his foreign and domestic policies, exposing them not only as hypocritical but deeply tragic. While shop windows all around Obama's Chicago home hang posters saying "Stop killing people", the man they sent to the White House is doing precisely the opposite. Having shown his ability to rally human empathy to progressive causes at home, he then fails to recognise the common humanity of the innocents he is killing abroad.
"[America can be] a moral power," said Martin Luther King – on whose Bible Obama swore in as president – during the Vietnam war. "A power harnessed to the service of peace and human beings, not an inhumane power unleashed against defenceless people." That's as true on the streets of Chicago as it is in the border regions of Pakistan.                [Abridged]
Twitter: @garyyounge    © 2013 The

Our Hurting Planet

Posted by Arthur Palmer          14 February 2013

So many of the articles which appear on this blog are spelling out the horrors that are visited upon vulnerable communities by war and armed violence. This is bound to happen when political power insists on control, regardless of the human cost.  The method has a long and sad history.  But maybe we are now at a period when there is a greater awareness of what is happening, and why.  Is there also a new questioning, sometimes even a sense of despair, as indicated by the number of suicides among US soldiers returning from Iraq nd Afghanistan.  This number now exceeds that of soldiers killed in action. This is new.
Mass protests in London failed to stop the invasion of Iraq.  The claims of the politicians on which this was based were proven to be lies, but those who made them suffered no penalty.  When faith in national leaders is so shaken we may look for some new development before long.  And as with the fall of the Berlin Wall, this could be sudden and arrive when least expected. 
This personal comment is by way of introduction to the three articles which follow.