Monday, 31 August 2015

Better Than Them

Nazis on trial, Nuremburg 1946     
We are used to the media twisting stories, but few stories are more emotive than Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks in the USA. So when issues around them are twisted and misrepresented, the result can be the makings of yet a further tragedy - the sacrifice of truth.

Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn is being excoriated by the Tory press, the leader of what is left of the Lib Dems and by his own party's defence spokesperson for saying in 2011 that :
"There was no attempt whatsoever that I can see to arrest (Osama Bin Laden), to put him on trial, to go through that process. This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Centre was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died."

Lib Dem Tim Farron attacked these comments as "utterly wrong", apparently unaware that his predecessor Paddy Ashdown had in fact uttered very similar sentiments at the same time as Corbyn, saying that Bin Laden's killing rather than trial under the due process of the law was "wholly, wholly, wholly wrong".

Undeterred, Labour's Kevan Jones chimed in that Corbyn's comments showed he was out of touch with ordinary people. Yet, what is it that appals us most about al-Qaeda and ISIS and their ilk? Is at least one aspect of it not their arbitrary killings of people without any due process of law?

Labour leader contender Jeremy Corbyn
We will probably never know for sure what happened when Bin Laden was shot dead by US commandos when they burst into his bedroom. It may or may not have been possible to arrest him. But why would we not regret the absence of a trial?

After all, aren't some of the most famous trials in history the ones that took place at Nuremburg in 1946, when the surviving Nazi leaders of Germany were put on trial to account for their many crimes. It was a showcase for both the appalling acts they had committed and for the fact that, what defined democratic countries over brutal thugs like Hitler's henchmen and, by extension, Bin Laden's gang, was and should be the rule of law and the judicial process of fair trial.

Corbyn has made clear he totally opposes all that al-Qaeda stands for; none of the words he has spoken indicate any sympathy or support for Bin Laden and his terrible deeds. What they do warn is that, if we spiral down rather than hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards, we risk prolonging the agony of conflict and we also perversely allow al-Qaeda to win no matter how many times we kill Bin Laden. That is because what al-Qaeda and ISIS want more than anything is for us to stop being ourselves, stop having free countries ruled by fair laws passed by democratic legislatures and enforced by properly functioning courts using due process.

The trial of Osama Bin Laden would have laid bare his crimes, his poisonous worldview and might have put a crashing halt to the radicalisation of some of those who regard him as a hero. Doubtless, it might have raised some difficult questions too about his past affiliations and the Bush family's relationship with his own relatives; but in the struggle to oppose the Islamists advancing through Syria and Iraq, what could possibly have been a more powerful way of showing that we were better than them?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Human Tide

Weeping refugee in Kos with his children - the face of the future?
This week has seen yet more appalling news about the deaths of hundreds of refugees trying to flee from fighting in the Middle East to the alleged safety of Europe. While over 200 were feared drowned when yet another over-packed boat sank, 70 were found suffocated to death inside a  small freezer truck in Austria, having been abandoned by Hungarian people smugglers.

Yet in the UK, which has taken barely 200 Syrian refugees compared to Germany's 800,000, our Prime Minister's main concern this was was that he and his wife had been swimming in shit off the coast of Cornwall. Poor Camerons worried that their own Government's failure to dispose of human waste properly might lead to them getting tummy bugs after surfboarding in the sea. At least they made it to shore and when they did the people waiting for them were there to protect rather than arrest or abuse them.

Cameron was a leading proponent of the bombing of Libya in 2011. In a few short weeks, British, French and other NATO jets inflicted some £20 billions of damage as well as helped plunge the country into anarchy. After a quick trip to crow over his work and tout for business for his mates in "reconstructing" the country he had just helped devastate, Dave retreated back behind his English Channel defences. And now, although arguably breaking the law in ordering British military action at present in Syria without parliamentary approval, he has continued to refuse to contemplate the consequences of his actions.

Syrian refugees reach Greece. Ordinary people in extraordinary times.
One in four Syrians is now a refugee, while in Libya, millions have fled one part of the country or another. In both places, ISIS and/or al-Qaeda or their offshoots are growing. Gaddaffi may have been brutal in his own way, but under him we never saw Christians paraded on the shores of Libyan beaches and beheaded; women were not burnt alive for alleged witchcraft and black Africans in the country were accorded some degree of equality - whereas now they are routinely murdered. And similarly, in Syria, while in no way endorsing the corrupt cronyism of the Assad dictatorship, a complex web of different faith groups co-existed in peace until weapons from the West's great ally, Saudi Arabia, flooded into the country and helped fuel the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups.

So having participated in making the world infinitely more dangerous, what is our Government doing? Well, the Prime Minister himelf has mainly spent his time stigmatising a mere 3,000 people in Calais who want to come here as a "swarm" threatening to undermine the very way of life of our country. The only idea on any actual action to date seems to be that the Tories want international agreement to invade Libya solely to destroy boats as opposed to do anything about putting right the mess they helped make. If they indeed have their way, how many fishing communities might be destroyed when the invaders decide to sink their boats as well given that they will, of course, become a target for people traffickers whose own boats have been sunk? How will that help anyone?

The bottom line is that our world is now a world of refugees. Earlier this week, I listened in disbelief as a senior BBC journalist questioned a UNHCR representative with "I can see why young men might board boats to Europe to take the risk, but why would a woman take her young children on board?" He seemed either incapable or unwilling to comprehend what it is that people are fleeing from - in Libya, trapped on the narrow strip of inhabited coastline and facing persecution and death, you have three choices: stay and die; go south into the Sahara Desert or go north across the sea to Europe. Which would you choose if it was you, or your children? Or are Cameron and his coterie seriously saying people should stay or even be sent back to exist in the midst of civil wars or under the black flags of al-Qaeda and ISIS?

Of the 11 million refugees across the world, barely 200,000 are in Britain, where we pride ourselves on alleged tolerance and claimed generosity. The majority are to be found in Iran (just under 1 million), Pakistan (2.6 million), in Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (2.4 million) and Turkey (1.6 million) and scores of other states, none of them in Europe. While one in every 319 people in Britain is a refugee, the figure is 1 in 310 in France, 1 in 144 in Germany, 1 in 74 in Iran, 1 in 70 in Pakistan, 1 in 31 in Chad, 1 in 4 in Lebanon and 1 in 3 in Jordan. Full tables here. 

Return her to ISIS?
This is not "Europe's migrant crisis" and even with the large numbers coming, we do not face hordes compared to other countries. But there is a global refugee crisis and it will become much, much worse.

Razor wire, patrol boats, hostile media and populist politicians will not solve this. Refugees move primarily for two reasons - to escape poverty and violence. These are growing and with the developed world's cavalier approach to rapidly increasing inequality and the rapacious destruction of our natural resources, both of which have the greatest impact first on the poorest, the numbers now crossing the sea to Europe from Africa and the Near East will be as a trickle compared to what will come.

And the deluge to follow will not be halted unless we take real action to tackle the causes of flight. For that, we will need new international leadership, unbound by the interests of arms-dealing multinational business and free of the prejudice and bigotry of the Trumps and others who are setting the western political agenda for now.

And as for Cameron, as he sits on a sea of crap without a paddle, may he perhaps take some time to reflect on the consequences of his actions. May he consider that the people grasping onto their drowning children as their own lives fade away are coming in an apparently hopeless bid to appeal to him and others of his ilk for sanctuary in a troubled world. It is unlikely, but we can hope that if he does so, he may just conceivably temper his sociopathic hubris with some small degree of compassion towards not a swarm, but rather a tide - a tide of fragile flesh and blood, a tide of lives broken and hopes lost forever; a tide of humanity.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Pennies from the Heavens

The Weather Forecast is being put out to tender.

So the Meteorological Office has lost its contract with the BBC to provide and present the weather forecast. After 96 years, it seems it isn't cheap enough so the BBC are "going out to tender" to get better value for money.

Now, there have been a few spectacular mistakes over the years - viz of course Michael Fish's infamous reassurance that there was no hurricane coming in 1987, just before half the country was submerged in gales and floods of supposedly biblical proportions. But the science of weather has improved massively over the decades and the Met, itself a public body, has a global reputation as a paragon of good practice.

However, we live in Neoliberal Land, so, as with nearly everything now, even the weather has to be outsourced. Given that most public service contracts have a supposed split of 60% of the decision being made on quality of service and 40% on price (no one seems able to explain quite how that works in practice), the bids put against the tender may make interesting reading. Who will be putting them in? After all, there's not another Met Office out there and we are more likely to see some commercial organisation take it over. Indeed, on the ITV channels we already see that "the weather is sponsored by" a whole range of private companies - none of whom seem to be very successful at improving the climate.

What might we have ahead of us?

The Sun would be an obvious sponsor for the weather - but in Britain, could they deliver? Amazon could provide us a forecast of warm winds offshore, while the ubiquitous Crapita could give up half way through the shipping forecast when it turns out to be just a bit too difficult for the guy with the tea leaves to be sure if millions of tons of maritime capital should set sail or not.

Typically, when there was no public weather forecast, in 1854, the Government's Board of Trade established the Met as a public service to private maritime companies. Now, with the entire nation benefiting, it is time to sell it off, except that, as has been the case with most privatisation, privately outsourced weather forecasting is highly unlikely to match the Met. This has already been signalled by the fact that when it really counts, the BBC has given up on its new franchisees before they are even known. For severe weather events, it seems, the Corporation will still use the Met forecasts.

However, a concering coda, highlighted by Green Party Energy Speaker Cllr Andrew Cooper, is whether the BBC, now under massive pressure from the Tory Government on a range of issues from funding to editorial, will continue to look to the Met's global leadership on global warming. With a recent programme by rightwing commentator Quentin Letts controversially subverting the Met Office on this very issue with, to say the least, a questionable range of "information", there is a real concern that this major step will undermine the struggle for our planet's future.

What is more public than the weather and providing accurate information on its effects on everything from growing our food to what clothes to wear on a morning? And what should be less commodifiable by profit-seekers than our climate? But, in truth, who is surprised by this latest auctioning off of our society's assets?

So here is the Forecast -
Income swelling and heavy showers of profits expected in City areas. Dividends, good.
Severe public service failure across the UK. Imminent.


Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Pulp Fiction - DWP at Work

So what we always knew is now admitted. The Department of Work & Pensions tells lies.

Picture - Philip Absolon
 In this case, it is in their propaganda. They have made up quotes and used actors for stories of people supposedly put back on "the right track" by having their benefits sanctioned. Odd, isn't it, how the Tories (and previously their Lib Dem orcs) claim to oppose the so-called "nanny state", yet they more than anyone patronise our citizens over the need to be corrected, disciplined into being the deserving poor.

One "story" is particularly appalling because, although the person on the leaflet is not real, the tale almost certainly illustrates the experience of many. "Sarah" was advised by the benevolently guiding hand of her kindly work coach to produce a curriculum vitae (c.v.) to aid her search for employment. Although she didn't think it would help, Sarah agreed to produce a cv. But she didn't do it quickly enough and missed a meeting with Obi Wan Worksearchi, so she got a letter cutting her benefit for two weeks. Now however it is back to normal and Sarah is really pleased to have a good cv. "It's going to help me when I am ready to go back to work."

Except perhaps the last sentence is the cruelest of all. Worse than the sanctions almost. Because in terms of gaining employment, cvs are only of marginal help in gaining employment and the lack of one is certainly not a valid reason to sanction someone's benefits. C.V.s are eclectic in layout and content, rarely geared to the job being applied for and in the majority of cases if you use one to apply to any medium or larger employer, often as not they are likely to be consigned to the shredder.

Indeed, the Government's own advisory employment body, ACAS, guides employers to use their own application forms NOT cvs.

"Application forms can help the recruitment process by providing necessary and relevant information about the applicant and their skills....CVs can be time-consuming and may not provide the information required." (ACAS Recruitment & Induction Guidance Booklet, page 15)

The DWP has had to withdraw these "illustrative" fables, but what are they up to? Are they really trying to provide unemployed people with a hand up? Or are they simply piling agony on vulnerable people to grind them down?

The truth is, if Sarah was real, she would be one of the people who, to keep their benefits, are required to "contract" to apply for dozens of jobs each week simply to keep their benefits. Quantity is how it is counted and what matters; not chances of success or actual outcomes. And their cvs are the means to do so - scattered ed from Job Clubs like confetti in every direction, applying for work the applicants often know little to nothing about, are not qualified to do and have no chance of getting. But proof to their patronising gauleiters that they are complying and obeying their orders. Even if it is near pointless and at best cruelly misleading to jobseekers.

Our society is rotten and sick to the core - 50% of sanctions appealed against are overturned. While on the one hand it shows the system can be challenged successfully, that very statistic shows its sheer inhumanity. So many do not appeal because they either don't understand how to or fear rocking the boat further. But more than this it shows the appalling nonchalance with which they are doled out by DWP staff who are now known to be working to targets to impose sanctions. So, even if everyone complied, many would still be sanctioned nevertheless.

 With ever more punitive measures being introduced to force people into low paid jobs and even unpaid "experience",  the depths to which freeloading Ministers like Ian Duncan Smith are prepared to sink in their war on the poor seem to scoop ever lower. And the doublespeak and doublethink drilled into the skulls of DWP staff carrying out their directives become ever more twisted until the outsourced wretches who day by day impose sanctions come to view their clients not as fellow humans needing help but as targets.

This may be some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, some means of psychologically getting by, who knows, but it manifests itself not only in ever more bizarre decisions, but in their behaviour. A while ago we saw the official working for DWP contractor ATOS who blogged about clients as "parasitic wankers". A DWP worker left and reported that she "got brownie points for cruelty", including phoning a man in hospital to sanction him at her manager's insistence. Meanwhile, a number of terminally ill benefits claimants have been asked to estimate how soon it will be before they are dead.

All this is done in our name - and if not already then one day, whoever we are, however arrogantly we may think it never will be, however impervious to the unforeseen we feel, it could be any one of us being sanctioned.

So IDS becomes Kafka. Josef K should have done that c.v.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

This Plastic Earth

Our waters are filled with plastic, the permanent, poisonous and deadly detritus of our "convenient" way of life.
Two years ago, I blogged about the terrible toll plastic products are taking on nature in "Rubbish". This covered the phenomenon of the Pacific gyre, a vast area of the international waters where plastic rubbish has gradually collected from all across the planet to form a new continent of rubbish. This chokes the seas, damaging plant and animal life and although every society, every nation and company in the world is responsible in some way, no one is taking any responsibility or action to clean it up. Even if we miraculously stopped all new plastic waste tomorrow, the tens of millions of tonnes already accumulated around our seas will remain, unchanging for decades and centuries.

Five plastic "continents" of plastic rubbish fill our Oceans
As highlighted in "Rubbish", birds often mistake pieces of colourful plastic for fish and feed it to their chicks, who eventually die as the plastic gathers in their tiny guts. Similarly, plastic shopping bags floating in sea water can appear to be jelly fish to hungry turtles, dolphins and whales. Fair-Fish estimate that as much as 24,000 tonnes of plastics are consumed annually by marine animals in the North Pacific alone - the global total could be as much as five to six times this.

Indigestible, indestructible, everlasting plastic. A boon to many aspects of our society and how we choose to live. But death to many many of our fellow creatures as well as an increasing problem as our landfill sites are saturated. And perhaps because of our economies' obsession with capitalist marketing and the attendant packaging which has exponentially covered more and more of what we purchase (even computer ink cartridges, it seems, need to be kept "fresh" through several near impenetrable layers of the stuff), people seem happy to throw it thoughtlessly away.

These six plastic bags killed a 15 year old leatherback turtle
The US Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 80% of marine pollution originates on the land. Most of that is plastic of some sort. The NRDC wants international regulation to hold producers of plastics to account, but in the deregulated economy we live and work in, effective action seems far away still.

The continuing crisis of the impact of plastic waste on creatures across the planet was highlighted by two news stories this week. One was a whale approaching some fishermen and keeping near them until they realised it was seeking their help to remove a plastic bag that had become caught in its mouth. The second was a turtle caught by some researchers who thought a parasitic worm had burrowed into the poor animal's nostril, causing it severe breathing difficulties. On closer inspection, they realised it was a plastic drinking straw, perhaps tossed from a cruise ship or simply dumped with other garbage literally anywhere on the planet, and now lodged deep inside the turtle's nose and breathing passage.

So here, in four videos, are some of the consequences of this pointless stuff - including the stories of the whale and the turtle, and another one about a baby dolphin. Bear in mind that these are the exceptions and the poor animals in them were "lucky" to have encountered humans intelligent and compassionate enough to have both the means and inclination to help them. Most end up like the whale in the final video, who died after accumulating over six square metres of plastic in his stomach - much of it consisting of disposable supermarket carrier bags.

Read more about the effect of our plastic RUBBISH here.


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Gentlemen's Agreement

“I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform, even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

 Mr Blair ridiculed those who said their “heart” wanted to back the leftwinger, declaring: “Get a transplant”. (HUFFINGTON POST, 22/7/15)

“If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation." (THE GUARDIAN ONLINE, 12/8/15)

"I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them."

"Many of the things she said, even though they pained people like me on the left... had a certain creditability." (BBC ONLINE, 8/4/13)

"As a person she was kind and generous spirited and always very supportive of me as Prime Minister... (although they came from different parties)." London24, 8/4/13

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Men Who Saved The World - Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov without whose courage and quick thinking our world might be long gone.

Today we remember the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945. With Japan continuing to resist the US forces in the Pacific after the earlier bombing of Hiroshima, the Allies concluded that a second atomic attack was required to force a surrender, which duly took place on 15 August.

By 1949, both the West and the Soviet bloc had acquired nuclear weapons and the Cold War had begun in earnest. Over the years that followed, massive nuclear arsenals were built up on both sides with the capacity to destroy the earth several times over. Initially, these were to be carried on bomber planes, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as time went by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of thousands of miles of flight became the preferred delivery method. These were held in underground silos, on submarines and on mobile truck launchers. The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) held that because both sides could destroy each other, nuclear weapons would never be used. In this way, an awful "peace" could be established - except as noted in an earlier blog, the actual result was a long series of devastatingly violent and bloody proxy wars.

Yet quite aside from the appalling "Balance of Terror" and dreadful waste of resources required by MAD, the doctrine itself did not remain static. By the early 1980s, under the Reagan Presidency, American political leaders such as Henry Kissinger were openly talking about the feasibility of "limited" nuclear war where smaller nuclear devices could be deployed for use on European battlefields but somehow contained from developing into global conflagration. Similarly, some publically postulated more than a little enthusiatically about a first strike on the Soviet Union, which would involve firing US missiles at the sites of Soviet ones, "knocking out" the Russians before they could respond.

Into this mix came increasingly sophisticated computerisation. Both sides relied on not always particularly reliable early warning systems to detect attacks by each other. With the short time and high stakes involved, Command and Control required almost instantaneous human decisions on how to respond to data, decisions that could determine the very survival of life on Earth.

The possible consequences were powerfully depicted in 1980s popular culture in films like Wargames and the song 99 Balloons, but were officially dismissed as the biased ramblings of peace activists or the sensationalist fiction of pulp novelists. Yet the supposed fiction could not have been much closer to the truth.

On 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov was on duty as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Soviet Defence Forces at a bunker near Moscow. His role was to identify any alerts on the Early Warning System, decide if they were real and report them to his superiors, who would have barely more than three or four minutes to decide whether to respond with a counter-attack. Following the Soviets' shooting down of a South Korean passenger jet that had entered their airspace a couple of weeks earlier, leading to the deaths of scores of American passengers, tension was high between Andropov's Soviet Government and the Reagan White House.

Just after midnight, the system identified a single US Minuteman nuclear missile being fired at the Soviet Union. Petrov concluded that this was a computer error, judging that an American first strike would be likely to involve large numbers of missiles. Shortly after, however, the system identified a further four Minutemen being launched against the Soviets. Again, Petrov concluded, correctly, that this was a further false alarm. The cause of the computer error was later identified as sunlight hitting high altitude clouds. Given the split second decision-making required and the international situation, had he made a different call, most commentators, including one of his superior officers, have subsequently judged that Andropov would almost certainly have called for a full counter-strike, plunging the world into the nuclear abyss because of a glitch in the computer system.

Stanislav Petrov interviewed recently
The incident was kept secret until after the end of the Cold War. In the bureaucracy that was the Soviet Union, Petrov was praised by his superiors for his prompt thinking, but disciplined for not properly completing his paperwork about the incident. He remains today a largely unknown and unsung hero (although he has been the subject of a documentary film and has received several peace awards).

The 1983 incident was not the only one of this nature - in 1962, when American ships began to drop depth charges on a Soviet submarine in international waters during the Cuban Missile crisis, the Political Officer and the Captain, out of contact with Moscow for several days, feared war had begun and wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at their attackers. The Deputy Captain, Vasili Arkhipov, voted against doing so and as Soviet military regulations required unanimous agreement between the three of them, the strike did not proceed. Instead, with oxygen getting low, they surfaced among the American ships and headed home.

There have been other accidental occurrences, such as American bombers crashing and almost detonating their nuclear payload, while the NATO Able Archer military manoeuvres in November 1983, just weeks after the Petrov incident, were so realistic that the Soviet Politburo put Warsaw Pact forces on high alert, fearing an imminent invasion. In 1979, the American NORAD early warning system registered a full Soviet strike on the USA as being underway. A US senator present at NORAD at the time described scenes of total panic as operatives prepared a counter-strike, fortunately realising at the very last moment that what they were seeing was actually an accidental repeat of a test scenario run by their own side.

The last known incident was as late as 1995, when by then Russian as opposed to Soviet radar systems mistook a Norwegian/US rocket test as a possible attack. Perhaps most terrifyingly of all, the semi-inebriated President Boris Yeltsin was handed the codes required to decide on a nuclear attack on the West. Fortunately, the trajectory of the missile was soon seen to be heading away from Russian airspace.

So just as the fingers on the trigger of our survival have been those of a few men, we would have been long gone now was it not for the prompt thinking and courage of two Soviet officers. At other times, it seems we have been fortunate that computer errors became evident just in time to stop people who were automatically rushing to follow predetermined instructions to wipe us from existence and irradiate our planet for aeons to come.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are so far the only times atomic weapons have been used in war, although there have been many test explosions as well. With the West seemingly set on confrontation with the Russians over Ukraine, there is more than a little enthusiasm among some of our would-be Napoleons for a return to the Cold War. With our ever greater reliance on computerisation to run our military, with even autonomous decision making robots in development by both the USA and UK, they may want to stop and consider the terrifying future they are offering.

Meantime, as we remember the dead of 1945, let's also remember Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, the men who saved the world. For now.

A Nagasaki child
Humans melted together at Hiroshima

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Destroyer of Worlds - Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

We commemorate today the dropping of the atomic bomb, code-named Little Boy, by the US Air Force on the Japanese city of Hiroshima seventy years ago. Along with one dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, it killed tens of thousands of people, left many more with severe burns, radiation sickness and later generations with genetic illnesses. It heralded the beginning of a new nuclear age where once the USSR had also acquired these weapons, a balance of terror appropriately termed Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) existed for over four and a half decades between the world's two main superpowers.

It is difficult to judge from this distance in history about the motives and reasons of 1945: Nazi Germany was working hard to create an atomic bomb and so it followed the Allies did the same. At the time, because of its hitherto unimagined power, many thought it would make war obsolete because of the consequences of a nuclear exchange. Even Gandhi initially welcomed it for this perceived reason, but its actual use in 1945 was enough in itself to cause Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, to question what had been done.

And indeed any thoughts of benefit were soon to be disavowed: the weapons became bigger and ever more powerful to the tens and hundreds of times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, but the wars continued and grew worse. In Korea, in Malaysia, in Vietnam and the Middle East and then all across the southern hemisphere as proxy armies for the USA and USSR battled over the corpses of millions. There was no direct confrontation, but the military in the USA began to develop the ludicrous concept of limited or tactical nuclear war and the line between conventional and nuclear weapons became blurred. Both the UK and USA, for example, used depleted uranium tipped missiles in Serbia in the 1990s and in Iraq in 2003 and subsequently. DU is a by-product of the enrichment process used to make nuclear weapons.

The consequences for the local population have been insidiously devastating - birth defects in Iraq have rocketed since the 2003 invasion with the most obvious reason being the prevalence of DU-related radiation from munitions used in urban zones. The rate of genetic defects and mutations, as well as related illnesses such as cancer, is considerably worse in parts of Iraq now than thosd measured in post-1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (More information HERE; caution contains extremely graphic and upsetting images)

"Highly stimulating" -  Dr Strangelove satirised the atomic fetish
The fetishistic attachment of some political leaders to nuclear missiles has been satirised many times over, perhaps most powerfully by Peter Sellars in Dr Strangelove, but it is a case where real life has at times been too extreme to be believable.

This last few weeks, we have seen a potential breakthrough in limiting the spread of these awful weapons. Although it is questionable whether Iran has been planning on building its own nuclear bomb, an outline agreement with the international community paves the way to halt any such possibility. The US Congress Republicans have been indicating hostility to the agreement, but as President Obama has observed, rejecting it would leave them with the sole option of fighting yet another war in the Middle East.

Iran, centre, & where nuclear bombs are in the Middle East
There are now more nuclear weapons states than ever - Iran is surrounded by them, with Israel holding the largest arsenal in the Middle East and steadfastly refusing to let anyone from the UN inspect it. India and Pakistan have atomic bombs and Saudi Arabia almost certainly has the capacity to create one. Only South Africa and some of the former Soviet states have ever renounced their nuclear weapons, while the British political establishment is hell-bent on renewing our Trident nuclear system at huge cost - as much as £100 billions even although the global scene is now so changed from when it was originally acquired.

There is enough weaponry on the planet to eradicate all life five or six times over within a few hours. In order to carry on living, we may put this fact to the back of our minds, but the awful truth is that by this time tomorrow, we could be extinct along with every other living thing. Indeed, in 1983, technical accident almost led to an all-out holocaust had it not been for the prompt and courageous thinking of a sole Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, who realised just in time what was happening.

So the real remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should not simply be to solemnly remember the dead. It must also be to determine now more than ever that the greatest testament to those who perished would be if humanity does indeed work to renounce and remove these planet-killing weapons once and for all.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Thrill of the Kill

They are pests, aren't they? Sometimes they cause a bit of damage or get in they way of what we want to do - so, you see, it actually helps protect the environment if we HUNT THEM A BIT!

We get to use some PRETTY COOL GUNS!

Oh, ignore the animal rights lot - as any hunter knows, these beasts enjoy the THRILL OF THE CHASE!

Yes, a good day's hunting.....

....makes us THE MEN WE ARE!!!

(Stills from Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox, 1968)

Pretty horrible, isn't it? The idea of being hunted for a bit of fun, with some thin justification thrown in about looking after some greater good.

But sadly, it isn't science fiction.

The last week has seen a huge debate around Big Game hunting in Africa after Cecil the lion was lured out of a Zimbabwean national park to be shot, skinned and decapitated by an American dentist, Walter Palmer, who reportedly paid over $50,000 for the chance. The act in itself is likely to have been illegal, but it is the morality of it that has come under a lot of public scrutiny over the last few days.

"Look! I killed this!" Walter Palmer thinks this impresses women, allegedly.
Those who try to justify it often fall back on claims either that this sort of hunting helps protect the African environment from over-population by some types of animals and/or somehow helps the local economy, giving poor Africans much needed work or business. They point to the fact that in many cases local people also hunt some of the animals that tourists pay good money to kill themselves.

There is a small truth in it sometimes - yes sometimes (by no means always) the animals used for Big Game shooting are also hunted by local people, though normally this is for food and survival, not for sport. Nor is it for the chance to boast to an unimpressed American waitress that you have cut the skull off a dead lion, as the dentist reportedly did (complete with photo). Indeed, many of the species hunted are either endangered or close to that status - hence the need for national parks (and for Palmer's guides to lure Cecil out of one).

Similarly, the claims of economic benefits to local people ignore the reality that as several reports have shown, the vast tracts of land needed for Big Game Hunts could be used far more productively for both humans and animals. It essentially is a rich man's sport played out on rich men's lands - local populations are often uninvolved and either restricted from using the land, or even thrown off it, to allow western tourists to come and shoot.

 On BBC Radio 4 Today Programme earlier this week, one defender of hunting said that it was inevitable because "everything in the world is a commodity". This is key - if everything is a potential commodity, then truly nothing and indeed no one is safe.There are no moral limits, nothing that cannot be done and a price tag slapped on it.

We have even now got so called canned hunting, where lions and other animals are born and raised in captivity to be released, disoriented, into confined areas for western tourists to hunt them. In some cases, given the ineptitude of some of these hapless, would-be annihilators, they are issued with wide-spray machines guns to reduce their chance of missing their helpless targets. And totally blowing any claim that this is something helpful, captive lions are even bred and hunted in confined spaces in Arizona, USA.

And perhaps it is this aspect of the dentist's tale that is the most distasteful, most worrying and what angers or concerns most people - the pleasure these people derive from their so-called sport, the thrill of the kill. Because, as you look at the hundreds upon hundreds of online photos of these oft-grinning killers posing with the corpses of the beautiful creatures they have coldly executed, the odds stacked almost totally in their well-armed favour, you can almost see the blood lust, the power rush.

And if you listen to one of them on this video on Youtube, reverentially talking about the power of the weapon he has carried thousands of miles expressly to kill a lioness, you can't help but think of the warning of the philosopher Immanuel Kant when he said, “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” 

Or, to update Kant, the hearts of some women too - because while this remains a heavily male-dominated activity, it is no longer solely so. Indeed, as well as dentist Palmer's wife, whole families have "safari-ed" to Africa and elsewhere to kill. And, closer to home, there are more than a few people, including our Prime Minister, who would like once again to see packs of people chasing and tearing to pieces defenceless creatures across our own green and not-so-pleasant land.

We share our world, in trust to the future, with millions of other species. We may, for now, be the dominant one, but that gives us responsibilities to protect and respect rather than destroy; to nurture and honour rather than commodify the glorious diversity of life around us. We owe that to our companion creatures and, perhaps above all, we owe it to ourselves.

Somewhere, something had gone badly wrong....

ACTION: Please follow this link to sign a petition asking the European Union to ban imports of lion hunting trophies in honour of Cecil the Lion ; PETITION LINK