Monthly Archives: December 2012

USA: Guns and the National Soul

A gun, setting all superfluous definition aside, is a deadly weapon and nothing more. The right to wield a gun is nothing more than the right to wield a deadly weapon, which is to say the right to the power of life and death. The events of last week speak for themselves.

It is not a right every person should be entitled to, and the sane world has long since gone beyond weariness of this fact in the face of one nation whose rational identity is periodically torn to shreds. There is no valid defence of the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

What an anachronistic relic of the days when a musket for every Minuteman was a sound strategy against British tyranny. Your average gun-toter might spout this line, “The best defence against tyranny is a well-armed populace,” and I shouldn’t have to delve too deeply into that one to point out the lunacy. The self-defence argument is also redundant based on a principle of escalation. A knife is still a lethal weapon but if everyone only carried knives for self-defence it would still be safer than carrying guns. Fists can also be quite lethal and we all usually have them… you get the point. Why insist on being able to kill more things, more quickly?

The deaths of twenty children in Newtown should be the final straw. Every time this has happened should have been the final straw. Newtown wasn’t even the first incident this year.

In February, 17 year old Thomas Lane killed three classmates with a semi-automatic handgun in Ohio. July brought on one the greatest horrors in American criminal history when James Holmes killed 12 and injured several dozen more cinema goers in Aurora, Colorado. In August, 15 year old Robert Gladden opened fire on classmates in Maryland with a shotgun, critically injuring a young man with Down Syndrome. In September, 13 year old Cade Poulus shot himself dead in the hallway of his school in Oklahoma. David Phan of Utah, 14, did the same the following month.

That was 2012 for the American gun lobby. Shall we go further back? Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech University, Nickel Mines, Weston High School, Essex Elementary, Red Lake Senior High School, Santana, Rocori, University of Arkansas, Lake Worth…. Columbine.

There are far more and Columbine only takes us back as far as 1999. In no half-baked terms, the deaths of these people are on the hands of the defenders of the notion that every American has the right to bear arms. And not just any arms, short of heavy explosive weaponry I’m not sure there is a conventional armament that can’t be obtained legally in the USA. What exactly is wrong with a set of controls which enables only weaponry for hunting and sport? Shotguns and rifles should really be enough firepower for any rural enthusiast and still serve a self-defensive role if you were desperately attached to that argument.

This lobby that has campaigned ruthlessly for its aims has a well-documented entrenchment in American politics. In essence, they bribe politicians not to go after them. Apologies, they make campaign contributions. Potato… potato.

I’m past the point of cultural relativity. Every American who still wants to possess every kind of firearm known to man needs a sturdy smack around the head. It isn’t a question of the 99% of responsible gun owners mitigating the 1% who do terrible things, it is precisely the opposite. In the UK this was determined in heartbeat by Jack Straw in the wake of Dunblane and serious gun control was just about the most excellent thing Labour achieved.

Look at the statistics. There are 3.4 million civilian firearms in the UK of which I’m guessing the vast majority are used for hunting and sport. That’s 6.2 guns for every hundred people. There were 41 homicides by firearm in the last year, 6.6% of all homicides, equalling 0.07 deaths per 100,000 of the population. In the USA there are about 270 million civilian firearms, 88.8 per 100 people. Last year there were 9,146 homicides by firearm, 60% of all homicides, 2.97 per 100,000 of the population.

Any individual who might look at those numbers and not think there is a serious problem that needs rapid correction, is a moron. And yes I as a Brit do have a right to comment on this American affair, the tragic and needless deaths of innocent children reach far and wide.

The gun lobby has been very quiet in the wake of Newtown, it’s the least they could do. But by now, to me the issue is clear. Defend the current system of control in the USA or attempt to fight improved regulation and you forfeit the right to care about the lives of those twenty children and all the teenagers, students and adults who died before them thanks to the most senseless and irresponsible aspect of culture in the modern world.

Best of luck to Obama in the coming months taking this one on.

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Regressive UK

A rather horrible week for social progress in the UK. George Osborne’s Autumn Statement speaks for itself. Further austerity will be unforgiving in raking back government services that will clearly hit lower and middle income families. There were titbits of liberalism… bringing forward the 10k tax allowance increase, scrapping the fuel duty increase… but with slashed corporate tax rates and an increased threshold for the top tax band and inheritance, it is very easy to accuse the Chancellor of not protecting the more vulnerable, but rather unapologetically improving circumstances for business and wealth.

It’s more complicated than that of course, it always is, but despite young George’s attempts to veil his distinctly conservative statement with convolution and detail, the spirit of it was clear to see. With as much disregard for the less affluent as is politically feasible, he will drag the nations economy back into stability. His perspective seems to be driven by interest rates, inflation, credit ratings, borrowing and spending; macro factors, as opposed to those niggling details like quality of life for families or youth unemployment.

As a young individual with a complex liberal/libertarian stance, one despairs. I approve of Osborne’s mandate to return the country’s finances to a sound place and appreciate that it’s not going to be done without some tears. There is absolute legitimacy in undoing some of the bloated social infrastructure of the Labour years. I just wish with every ounce of my being he didn’t have to be quite such a dick about it. Perhaps if his opposite number, the truly unbearable Ed Balls, had some serious thoughts to throw into the mix, Osborne would be more obliged to balance his approach.

The intricacies and uncertainties of the budget have been well dissected however, and better than I could, and really were just worth a mention in context with two other social issues that have sprung up. All thrown together, I’m pondering a possible lifestyle elsewhere in the world. These issues are drug policy and gay marriage.

Drug policy will be dealt with briefly as I largely said my piece in an earlier article subsequent to the UKDPC report. But last week, a further extensive study, this time by MPs and led by the broadly respected and experienced Kieth Vaz, recommended an immediate royal commission on national drug policy. It was called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redress a failing system, backed by evidence from alternative systems that have found success in Portugal and elsewhere, and are being generally lauded due to their success and focus on care, not criminality.

To describe a mix of emotions that includes horror but also a total lack of surprise is difficult, yet so it was when Home Office minister Jeremy Browne deftly swatted the idea of the commission down. He was then followed by a sweaty David Cameron going further to say that drug policy wasn’t on the table for discussion as actually the current system is apparently working and we shouldn’t abandon it. This was so patently a case of sidestepping another protracted war against his socially draconian backbenchers I was almost willing to forgive him until I reminded myself that my early interest in Cameron was as a potential moderator of the party. If losing on Europe was enough for him to bow down in submission to this noxious clique then all hope is lost.

If further proof was needed that the party was slipping back in time, then all one needed was Maria Miller taking to the dispatch box and detailing her “quadruple lock” on the sanctity of a church’s authority to allow gay marriage or not. It being Church of England Canon that this is illegal, she was basically rubber stamping the illegality of a traditional form of homosexual union in this nation. Other religious institutions may choose different stances but that is somewhat not the point here. Using so cynically the separation of church and state and freedoms of religious expression, that abhorrent wing of the Tory party dodged a bullet in achieving their aims but not also looking overtly discriminatory.

How totally infuriating this has all been. Social values in politics is incredibly dangerous territory in the first place, as generally it is little more than a downward projection of the values of one or a few individuals who find themselves in a position of authority. I don’t belief the government should have a jurisdiction any greater than the handling of revenues, the implementation of law and the defence of the realm. Yet the three major issues in government of late, as I’ve identified them, are all so tainted by social values that I enforce my position that government should entirely avoid the arbitration of values.

It is a slightly difficult line to tread. The implementation of law that prevents murder is to some extent a law influenced by the social value that we should not kill each other, but this is a perfectly defensible and morally utilitarian example. The best way to feel safe about my person is with mutual reassurance – I shall not murder, am not a threat, and so shall not be murdered. Or at least, should not be murdered. But how that logic extends to one individual or group saying, “I disapprove of this thing that in no way directly effects me and so it should not be allowed,” is beyond me.

Students smoking legal marijuana will not have Browne getting high in the Commons – smokers will smoke, abstainers will not. Traditionally recognised gay marriage will not have Miller turning cheek and hitting the Soho bars and neither is there a jot of validity in that contemptible argument that it would erode the heterosexual interpretation of the union. It’s just all such thinly veiled, subjective, bigoted, unintelligent, unintelligible, irrational… codswallop.

Also known as bullshit. If I were Cameron I would re-establish my backbone and take to the backbenches with a cleaver. Conservative values politics in the last week has socially regressed the nation yet again.

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A Little Nod to Leveson

The big news on the home front in the last week or so was obviously the big reveal for the Leveson Inquiry. This issue was never exactly close to my heart despite being one of the news media and journalism, as it never really dealt with my kind of journalism. I despise the world of tabloids and gossip, and as far as I could tell, the travesties that led to the Inquiry had nothing to do with the international affairs or even domestic ones of any serious import that I follow. The Inquiry itself was more of a news piece than many of the stories it involved.

To be clear, I care about the murder of a young girl like Milly Dowler and I do care about the fates of those families who lost loved ones to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The manner in which I care though is probably quite different to the manner in which a reader of those know publications, now in disrepute, cares. I heard about Milly Dowler and was deeply saddened, can empathise with loss and have a deep, abiding respect for anyone who joins the Armed Forces. I have on the other hand, little to no interest in the sort of in-depth, Victorian-era grotesquerie as provided by many national prints.

Make no mistake, what certain journalists did around these cases was a dictionary example of immorality. But the Leveson Inquiry was not awfully cautious about making a strong distinction and it was for others to defend the incredibly important profession of journalism as it should be. To me, journalism is an essential pursuit in which practices are often daring, dangerous, clever and wholly vital to proper knowledge. There is no natural association with phone hacking and bribes in my mind and thus there must effectively be two types of journalism – real and tabloid.

It’s hardly breaking the thought mould there but I think it’s important to persistently reiterate the fact so as not to drag many an incredible talent into the murk of hacks. The debate on Leveson’s final judgement and Cameron’s reaction raged for a few days but has been reduced to a steady fizzle in the onslaught of other events and developments. Worryingly, the only notable distinction being made was between print and online spaces.

But what of the judgement? A regulatory body with statutory underpinning is required rather than a statutory regulatory body,  but either way it’s irrelevant because Cameron wouldn’t budge on even the lighter interpretation. I will be cautious in agreeing with Cameron, as one should these days, as I’m still not entirely sure I agree with him for his reasons. His revolve around that rather hypocritical political argument about not installing statute that can be used gradually for political gain or exploitation.

Quite the good Samaritan really. Alternatively, any excuse is better than admitting he doesn’t want to annoy the media with further regulation only a couple of years from an election in which he will really very badly need media support. I don’t mind though, politicians will be political, and ultimately he doesn’t want a regulatory system that is basically already in existence.

Ian Hislop phrases this most effectively – why do we need further regulation when there is a system of laws in place that will properly deal with an offending tabloid journalist if caught and properly prosecuted? By all means fine publications a meaningful amount for wildly libellous statements but in terms of ensuring the conduct of journalists and editors, just make sure the actual law is working. If this requires picking apart the hellishly intertwined relationships of journalists and police then by all means, but don’t go about the tired business of shock and outrage followed by overreaching and unnecessary measures.

An attempt to make sure this kind of thing never happens is naïve. Extra regulation or not, some unscrupulous prat working for whichever rag will eventually hack another phone and when he does, we can put others off that kind of behaviour by sending him to jail.

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Syria – Back in the Spotlight

I’m distinctly aware of the fact that in the previous two articles I spelled the name of the Egyptian President in two different fashions. Morsi or Mursi, I apologise, but until the the global news media can figure out which they prefer or is correct, I see no means by which I could. Hopefully the distinction is minimal but then certainly my name is spelled Rory and Rury would be rather odd, so I suspect not. Alas, there are bigger issues at hand.

Having briefly discussed the situation in Egypt it would seem remiss not give Syria another update. I’ve clearly promoted the idea that these two countries are more realistic prospects in the pursuit of Middle-Eastern stability and the current events could go either way for each nation despite the rational courses of action being quite obvious. For Egypt it is the internal pursuit of compromise in order to return to political norms but for Syria it is entirely different. With talk of chemical weapons being bandied around such luminaries as William Hague and the actually sedate Hillary Clinton, the situation has reached yet another level.

In my opinion, the time for aggressive intervention against Assad was sometime between his brutal suppression of peaceful protest against his rule and his escalation to militarily hunting and killing his own people. There were other points between then and now that should have served as adequate cassus belli, such as use of the air force from simply ground forces (tanks weren’t doing the trick) and the outbreak of full civil war, or indeed the establishment and growing international recognition of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, otherwise known as a substantive and organised body that warrants material aid.

There were reasons in my mind not to intervene some 18 months ago, in the immediate aftermath or even coinciding with the Arab Spring and the successful action taken in Libya. Syria is a bigger, wealthier country with more serious allies, a more serious military and, if you’re of the cynical variety, no oil. It could have been a much longer and more bloody international conflict than Libya, during which the people would still have suffered and inevitably as it all went slightly wrong the West would be carefully assessing its own insatiable freedom-lust. It would have been much more like another Iraq.

The gloves are off now though. Assad and his regime have perpetrated more than enough atrocity and dragged the country into such a state of terrible conflict and deprivation that his removal is as non-negotiable as the day the vast majority of his people decided they wanted him gone. That other nations must intervene is with a mind to quickly bringing an end to a war that is doing vastly disproportionate damage to the civilian populations and infrastructures. Whatever humanitarian arguments existed once in defence of non-interventionism are now redundant as the humanitarian situation could not be conceivably worse, short of the use of chemical weapons, and intervention is now surely itself humanitarian.

The Syrian government would not be considering the use of it’s WMDs unless in a desperate situation and it could be said it is. The NCSROF has started to receive monetary and military support and is kicking the conflict out of stalemate. Despite support from Iran, Assad is gradually losing. I would be happy to see a clinical and swift destruction of weakened Syrian military assets by Western forces, as has been proved possible in Libya, followed by intense redevelopment of the nation organised by internal bodies but supported by those same forces that joined intervention.

Assad’s fate seems practically sealed. The faster the rest of world takes serious action now, the faster this conflict will be done and with less death and misery than letting it run its inevitable course. Syria on the cusp of a new and brighter future is to me the whole region in the same position.

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Egypt – Further Analysis

Bewildering as it is, we have seen serious political progress in Egypt. After much toing and froing between the Islamist majority as embodied by Mursi’s Freedom and Justice Party, and secular opposition in the National Salvation Front, Mursi dropped his controversial decree with a tacit reminder from the military that unfavourable political compromise is a great deal better than civil war. On one hand a positive intervention to avoid further bloody conflict, on the other, a quite reminder that a ruthless martial mechanism lies in waiting. This particular outcome was definitely a surprise for me at least.

There was a point in the last week, as the opposition staged a belligerent occupation of the Presidential Palace, and Mursi was required to clear them out with some convincing and several deaths, that things looked extremely bleak. Mursi offered dialogue to his detractors but was steadfastly rejected, much to the consternation of observers, and as heavy-handed as his attempts to concentrate power were, there was half a feeling that the opposition was being rather too militant and extreme in their interpretation of defending the new democratic system. An outright refusal to talk to your opponents usually smacks of an unwillingness to resolve conflict but in this case it quite possibly was a new class of democratic defenders who were so unwilling to let their nation slip back into autocracy, under any guise, that they made themselves an immovable force.

And so what was only days ago a deep scepticism concerning the present motives and intentions of National Salvation Front leaders such as Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, is now a cautious respect for having held firm. There can’t yet be wholehearted praise as the NSF opted for a controversial, if mostly admirable road, in choosing democratic principles over peace, stability and cooperation. Although Mursi didn’t take any form of conflict to the opposition with his unpopular decree, he arguably did invite it considering Egypt’s recent history.

Of particular interest here is that a Muslim Brotherhood Egypt evidently has no need of Western watchdogs. Distrust, however justified, of an Islamist agenda is in good supply already, as is the willingness to act against it. Of even greater interest is the fact that the Islamist faction, if taken as broadly represented by Mursi, is willing to capitulate or at least concede. The initial reaction to NSF outrage was the calling of a referendum on the newly drafted constitution, and after further troubles and warning there was further concession from the president. As skin deep as the opposition claim these concessions to be, they are still of huge significance as it is still compromise from a central government that is under attack from an opposition for being totalitarian.

Mursi might emerge from this in decent shape. He still wants a referendum that he is likely to win, and there is only so much stamping of feet an opposition can engage in before admitting they lost a democratic process. And is it possible that their assaults on Mursi were based more on principle than on substance? The executive decree was objectively undeniably overreaching, you simply cannot excuse legislation from judicial review, but then the unpopular judiciary was an obstinate impediment to progress with surviving links to the Mubarak era. They had already shown their hand during the summer with their dissolution of the Constituent Assembly that over 80% of Egyptians wanted in place to ratify a new constitution.

Could it be that Mursi had the best progressive intentions in his mind for the nation, but sorely miscalculated what would be acceptable in terms of achieving them? Is this the steep learning curve for a newborn governmental system that isn’t naturally drawn to genuine democratic solutions? I would hope so, but the opposition still isn’t happy and Mursi has been obliged to order military forces to support the civil police. It seems the affair has injected a sturdy dose of mistrust and it remains for the opposition not to let this muddy the forward path. From my perspective it seems that Egypt needs law and order and to become besotted with a rosy and immediate sense of liberal ideology after many decades of despotism is perhaps unrealistic.

In terms of outcomes, it would seem best that Mursi’s government compromises and remains in power, as it could only be a positive thing that Egypt’s first democratic authority was successful providing it was successful in those terms. For Mursi to come to the end of his term having wrangled enough executive power to call his government only nominally democratic would not be a success, but to assert that intention is largely speculative and probably wrong. With the military poking its head above the sand we can be reminded of what the worst outcome would be. If conflict was to continue or escalate and the military were to reimpose martial law, it would be disastrous. Comfortable juntas are by precedent exceptionally difficult to remove and Egypt’s military have already shown signs of reluctance to relinquish power in the past.

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In The Name of Morsi, Stop

A slew of critical developments in the Middle-East makes an aspiring commentator’s life rather hard. You feel obliged not to make sweeping predictions on a day to day basis that could variably be proven right or wrong due to the uncertainty abound. How long will this latest ceasefire between Hamas and Israel last? How effective will Mohammed Morsi be as a key mediator? Will we ever turn our attention back to Syria as we never did for so much West African drought and starvation? What of Palestinian ascension to non-member observer state in the UN and Israel’s bewilderingly petulant response of further settlement building in the West Bank? All pressing questions, though by my own admission superseded by the disassociated actions of the now ambiguous superstar of the hour, Egyptian President Morsi.

Not a day a after the previous article in which I praised the recently elected moderate Islamist for his tempered response to Israel’s far overreaching response to militancy in the Gaza Strip, did he do something quite unexpected. Issuing a decree against the largely unpopular judiciary that prevented any further decree from being blocked, he ignited a storm, with a predominately secular opposition quick to accuse him of establishing yet another Pharaoh-like autocratic form of rule. It is well within the nature of oppositions to say occasionally hyperbolic things against the incumbent but here in Egypt, barely relieved of the shadow of Mubarak’s long and unfortunate tenure, the shock and revulsion takes on a far less opportunistic tone.

And lo do we see another Middle-Eastern nation simultaneously consumed again with political instability. Not a moment after the opposition protesters said their piece against Morsi’s audacity, did the Islamist supporters rally back in praise of their man. It’s a difficult situation to parse as despite the obvious concerns associated with self-appointed executive authority, Morsi was very quick to try and diffuse the situation with certain assurances. The decree was more limited in scope than initially assumed, and part of a broader draft constitution which is in itself a remarkable process for Egypt to be going through in light of recent history. It includes limitations to presidential terms and civilian oversight of the military.Yet Tahrir Square remained brimming with a feisty atmosphere of defiance and the Supreme Constitutional Court was soon assailed by Islamists intent on disrupting proceedings, likely inspired by their wariness of the court which dissolved the Islamist dominated lower house of parliament during the summer.

Morsi’s hastily announced referendum for the 15th December on the draft constitution is consummately the gauntlet being laid down, not only for the more obvious factional concerns but also for the democratic future of Egypt. On the condition that the referendum is held fairly and properly, it’s outcome will say a great deal. Whether the secular opposition or Islamist government emerges victorious, the big question is whether the outcome will be respected by the loser. Clashes between opposition and government groups have thus far been limited, which is itself an encouraging sign, but it is hard to say if these spats will dissipate or intensify after the referendum result. If the former, it would be a triumph for the young democratic nation although most commentators predict the latter is more likely.

That comes as something of a surprise to me as although undeniable that Morsi’s attempt at gaining further powers would be intolerable in a more mature democracy, he has shown some conciliatory qualities and the draft constitution is a dramatic improvement on the suspended 1971 version. He hasn’t just steam-rolled over his detractors and neither have they resorted immediately to bloodshed. Organised protests have indeed been aggressive at points but I’m still willing to the believe that there could be a peaceful resolution as long as the respective sides remain patient and aware of the fact that disagreeable politics is a great deal preferable to outright internal conflict. It is rather on a knife’s edge however, and we must reluctantly wait for the referendum, if of course its announcement serves to temporarily calm moods and is allowed to take place.

Egypt, much like Syria, is in my opinion more at the centre of Middle-Eastern stability than Israel at present. Netenyahu’s utterly contemptible response to Palestine’s successful petition to the UN is a perfect example of how utterly irrational some of the involved actors are, and how we should be giving them a very cold shoulder while focusing on less entrenched issues. Egypt and Syria as peaceful, prosperous and democratic nations would be two large symbols of progress in the region. The major difference between the two is that Syria requires action from the rest of the world whilst we can only sit back and let Egypt guide itself through these times. Both are precarious to say the least but, unlike Israel, actionable by the appropriate forces.

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