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Apr 142014
 

It’s a bit ridiculous to compare the two, but if you look at the number of casualties involved, the 9/11 terrorist incident which caused around 2,900 casualties is very roughly comparable in size to The Troubles (with some 3,500 casualties). Of course the troubles consisted of many small incidents over a period of 30-odd years.

During that time, one of the IRA‘s (the “Official IRA”, the “Provisional IRA” and the INLA) principle source of funds were the groups NORAID and Clan na Gael. Which were based in the USA, and raised funds from supporters in the USA.

Or in other words, some US citizens were helping to fund a 9/11.

What’s more anyone who reads the history of the IRA is made very aware that the IRA regarded the US as a safe haven for their “soldiers”.

It’s interesting to contemplate using some the war on terror’s weapons against some US citizens :-

  • Extra-ordinary rendition of US citizens to concentration camps excluded from the protection of the law – so they could be tortured.
  • Freezing of the assets of some US citizens suspected of helping to fund terrorism.

It is perhaps a useful tool to consider whether certain counter-terrorism tactics are a step too far.

 

Feb 222013
 

There has been a lot of discussion on how top maths students in schools in the UK, don’t keep up with students in schools in Asia. Funnily enough the difference is much smaller for British Asian kids. Which is an interesting thing given that people are concentrating on what the schools should be doing.

Now it’s not wrong to say that schools could do with improvement; no matter how well the school system is doing, it could always do with improvement. In particular for this particular report, looking at the top performers in a class is worth doing – it is natural, but unfortunate that the top performers in a class are often left just to get on with it. They are after all performing well enough even if they could do better if pushed.

But as can be seen from the performance of British Asians, it’s more than just the schools. Things may well have changed since I was at school, but back then there was this weird cultural thing.

Those of us who were seen as being good at maths were always thought of as a little odd — geeks, nerds, swots, and the like. Of course if you were good at other subjects you got it too, but it wasn’t as bad as being good at maths. Not really as bad as genuine bullying, but it generates an atmosphere where it’s ok not to try too hard at maths.

Does this still go on? If so, it would explain these results.

Dec 112011
 

David Cameron has officially put the UK into the slow-lane of Europe with the other 26 countries all in the fast lane – including not just the 17 members of the Eurozone, but also those other countries that do not use the Euro. The excuse for doing so is to protect the banking industry – specifically the City of London from a transaction tax.

There are of course the Euro-sceptics whose mindset is stuck in the 19th century who are celebrating and suggesting that we should go further and have a referendum on leaving the EU and ‘going it alone’. Fortunately even the majority of Tories (whose instincts lie in that direction) realise this is a step too far and realise that whatever minor annoyances there are, the membership of Europe is a good thing for us.

To exaggerate the scale of things somewhat, Britain is a country playing in the playground of 900-kilo behemoths – China, the USA, and right next door to us (and we’re effectively part of it … sometimes) the giant of Europe. And it is a giant, although people often underestimate the power of Europe – all those funny Europeans, surely they can’t add up to much can they ? Actually they do – the GDP of the European Union as a whole is larger than any country in the world including the USA and China; admittedly only marginally larger than the GDP of the USA (a trifling 2 trillion dollars larger). This is because we usually rank countries in order of GDP, but miss larger blocks.

It is essentially an “accident” of history that Europe has remained a grouping of 26 independent countries whereas China became a huge land empire, and the USA became a federal union of “nation states”. The accident is of course a complex series of events throughout European history that is beyond the scope of this blog entry!

This could all be an example of short-term thinking – whilst staying out may protect the financial industry (although it is interesting to note that the Financial Times wasn’t entirely positive about this), it may well harm Britain’s prospects in the longer term. And increased regulation and taxation of the banking industry may be what the leaders of banking oppose, but it could well be that people in the UK actually would quite agree with it.

By staying out, we will have less influence over the core of Europe with less say on how Europe progresses. Whilst some people may welcome this, it does seem unwise to risk losing any amount of influence over what is our largest trading partner. And losing any influence with an organisation to which we belong seems unwise.

For some strange reason – perhaps because we seem to like bad news better than good news – the news about the European Union always seems to be bad rather than good. Some of this is merely down to how it is presented – we always hear about draconian regulation of business from Europe, but rarely stop to think that perhaps the regulation was called for by consumers because of abuses by businesses (such as international roaming charges by mobile phone operators), or that the European regulation merely harmonises regulation across Europe – would that business rather have 26 sets of regulations to work with, or 1 ?

There is also a bizarre myth that the European Union is less democratic than the national governments. That all EU power is controlled by unelected European Commissioners. That is a myth put about by politicians who are in danger of losing their cushy jobs if the people eventually device that with the EU parliament in place, there is no more need for expensive national parliaments. In fact, it is entirely possible that the EU is more democratic than national governments.

We often take the earlier accomplishments of the EU for granted – the ability to travel across Europe without visas at every turn. Who has not sailed through the fast lane at airports pitying those from outside the EU who are stuck in the slow lane ? And what about peace across Europe ?

Nov 192011
 

The interesting thing about what has been happening in Syria over the last few months is that people are just about beginning to ask why the West (as in the UK, France, USA, Germany, etc) are not taking the lead in doing something about Syria. There seems to be an assumption that we only did something about Libya, because it was easy and somehow in our interests to do so (i.e. “oil”).

Well perhaps, although Libyan oil reserves are hardly big enough to risk that much over.

But there are plenty of other reasons why the West isn’t taking the initiative over the Syrian situation.

First, on several occasions those opposing the current Syrian regime have made it clear that they do not want foreign intervention. So intervention could risk making the situation worse.

Secondly if you accept that there would be no Libyan-style intervention, you are pretty much limited to applying for and imposing sanctions of some kind. And the West has been doing that for some time – the EU has been imposing increasingly draconian sanctions since at least May this year, and the US has been imposing sanctions for far longer although in their case this has little to do with support for democratisation and more to do with punishing Syrians for having a government that supports Hezbollah. Yet despite all the talk, the Arab League has yet to impose sanctions. So who is taking the lead here ?

Lastly, it is all very well expecting the West to take the lead in opposition to noxious regimes, but where else in life do you find a situation where nothing happens, because the one who usually takes the lead in a community of equals has nodded off? If the Arab League feels the West isn’t making a strong enough stand, there is no reason why they cannot take the lead here. The West is distracted at the moment with economic problems – in particular the Eurozone crisis; maybe it should be pushing harder for something to happen in Syria, but when it isn’t doing enough (and some people might argue that it is), the Arab League could push itself.

 

Sep 032011
 

I have blogged before about the death sentence (and possibly other entries too) but people are still being executed, so there is no reason why I should stop ranting about this. Hopefully this entry will be a little more fact-orientated than previous attempts.

Execution is one of those contentious issues, and in a country that has long banned the death sentence the whole debate starts up again when we discover people such as Harold Shipman and Fred West. It is difficult to argue against the death sentence when such creatures are in the news, but it has to be done.

If You Execute Criminals, You Also Kill The Innocent

Criminal justice systems are run by fallible people; no matter how hard we try, people will always make mistakes and some of those mistakes can cause disastrous consequences – and in the case where criminals are sentenced to death, it is not just possible, but really has happened that innocent people are killed by the government. Detailed statistics on this are practically impossible to locate – partially because we don’t know who has been executed for a crime they have not committed.

All we know is that some people have been executed because they were innocent, and some people were executed because they did not receive a fair trial. For instance, take the case of Sacco and Vanzetti where two men were executed in 1927, but in 1977 the governor of Massachusetts admitted that they had received an unfair trial and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.”. This coming despite the possibility that Sacco was in fact guilty of the crime – ballistic tests on his gun in 1961 indicated it was used in the killings although it had been interfered with enough that any prosecution based on those ballistic tests would be unfair.

So here we have a case where two men were executed – one who was innocent and received an unfair trial, and another at worst received an unfair trial. And of course these two anarchists were involved in a particularly well publicised case – how many others executed have received no help in establishing their innocence ?

Of course other people have tried coming up with useful statistics, and I will myself …

Out of a list of 33 “notable” executions in the UK since 1910, 6 were of people had their convictions quashed posthumously. This gives a rate of 18% of executions being of innocent people! An alternative figure of 632 executions in the UK between 1900 and 1949, would reduce the false execution rate to 1%. Neither of these figures is satisfactory, although the second is probably closer to the mark – although it misses out the number of executions between 1950 onwards, the figure for the number of innocent people executed is probably also not complete.

But it does illustrate that of all executions, some include innocent victims – perhaps 1%. Or in other words, out of every 100 people executed, at least 1 person is innocent of the crime he or she is executed for.

Perhaps you might think that 1 out of every 100 people executed is a small price to pay, but consider how you would feel if that innocent person was someone you loved more than your own life ? Your husband, your wife, your son, or your daughter. How would you feel then ?

Every innocent victim of the hangman’s noose is someone’s loved one.

But We’ll Only Do It For The Really Bad

If you restrict executions to the really heinous crimes where you are really sure that the criminal is guilty, what happens ?

Well firstly, it does not stop innocent people from being executed. Take the example of Timothy Evans, a man who was initially found guilty of murdering his own daughter (and he was suspected of killing his wife too); yet three years later it was discovered that his neighbour John Christie was a serial killer and eventually shown to have killed the daughter and wife. Timothy Evans was eventually pardoned in 1966. Of course it was a bit late for him as he had already been executed.

No matter how certain you are that someone is guilty of a crime, there is always the chance that they are not in fact guilty.

Secondly, it is a slippery slope – if you execute someone for committing a really nasty murder, it becomes easier to allow executions for “less serious” murders, and then so-called lesser crimes. As an example of this in action, see the Bloody Code article where the UK in little more than 100 years went from 50 crimes punishable by death, to 220 crimes punishable by death.

Life Imprisonment Is Cheaper

This is actually an argument in favour of abolishing the death sentence, but a despicable one.

It is true that in the US today, it is probably cheaper to imprison someone for life rather than sentence someone to death. This is because most death sentences go through an excruciating process involving many appeals to all parts of the criminal justice system. If us woolly liberals would just shut up about the death sentence, it would be possible to execute people very cheaply.

But we’re not going to shut up about it.

And looking at the money involved is contemptible – this discussion is about justice, mercy, and all sorts of ideals. If society cannot afford a just criminal justice system, it can no longer be called a society.

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

No matter the method a country chooses to execute a criminal, it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment – prohibited by the UN (article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although I’ve used the traditional English phrase rather than the wording of the UN). The reasons why the death sentence is inhuman is varied, but includes :-

  1. Most people sentenced to death spend a long time on death row awaiting execution – an average of 14 years in 2009 (and the link contains other interesting information). The reasons for this are irrelevant. The effect on the prisoner amounts to psychological torture sufficient that many on death row have requested rapid execution to end their suffering – even prisoners who were eventually found innocent.
  2. We may have moved on from impaling, or other forms of execution that take the victim many days to die, but that does not mean the current methods are humane – even the “most humane” method of lethal injection has those who claim it causes unnecessary suffering in some cases.
  3. There is a degree of arbitrariness in how the death penalty is applied leading – a serial killer with 48 victims to his name can “get off” with life imprisonment whilst someone who has killed just one victim is executed. The more you dig into just how arbitrary the death sentence is, the more you should get concerned about it. Shouldn’t justice be even-handed ?

Final Word

This may not be the final version of this blog – as things occur to me, as I get the incentive to write, and as facts crop up I will be adding to it. But for now it is enough.

This probably won’t convince anyone in favour of the death sentence to give up and start opposing it, but it might encourage those who are undecided to look a bit deeper and come down in favour of abolishing it.

Jul 102011
 

Or “There’s Nothing Wrong With America That A Good Strong Dose Of Socialism Wouldn’t Cure”

This is of course written from the perspective of someone who isn’t that familiar with the US – I haven’t lived there since the 1970s, and I was a bit young to be making notes on the political situation (although I do remember the aftermath of the Watergate scandal). And I’m sure I’ll wander off course from the initial subject of “socialism”. Of course I do read about the crazy freak show that is American politics these days.

For some reason the word “socialism” seems to cause most Americans to blow up. It seems a bit like a trump card – accuse something of being socialist and you’ve won the argument against it, whatever the truth of the argument and whether there’s any scrap of truth in the notion that some policy may be socialist. Or whether a socialist policy has any virtue … some Americans would rather do things poorly than risk doing anything with a “socialist” label on it.

Anyone growing up in the US could be forgiven for thinking that “socialism” is some form of hideous dysfunction that causes an irrational desire to punish hard working people in the form of making them pay more than their share. Or something.

Funnily enough, the US does have socialist policies, but they are called something else – except when some troglodyte wants to destroy such policies. Think “Medicaid”. Or the US Postal Service.

Why does this word trigger such a violent response ? Well there’s a whole bunch of possible reasons …

Firstly there is a lot of confusion between “communism” and “socialism”. The first is a system of government that espouses socialist economic principles throughout the economy (amongst other things); the second is an economic system where the means of production are owned collectively – usually by the government. Of course socialism is really about a lot more than the pure dictionary definition – things like health care provision for all, pensions for the old, attempts at income distribution (to avoid the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor – which is a pretty big problem right now), etc.

And in reality a socialist regime is likely to socialise only a limited part of industry – the obvious example (for me) being Britain in the 1950s where railways, and coal industries were nationalised but most industries were left alone. In some ways that is a poor example given the history of the railways and the coal industry in Britain after nationalisation, but that overlooks the fact that the industries were nationalised partly because they were already in such a poor state.

Americans often hear “communist” when someone says “socialist”, and start to worry about communism … or to be more precise an authoritarian state labelling itself “communist” (although the Soviet Union was about as communist as my toenail clippings). The origins of this fear of communism are probably related to the establishment of the Soviet Union and more significantly, their establishment of Comintern with it’s mission of establishment of communist regimes everywhere. Through fair means or foul.

Now here’s where it starts to get interesting: In both the US and Britain between the two world wars, there was a considerable level of official interest and concern in the activities of communists and organisations such as Comintern. By chance, Britain’s “spook” community included someone who believed that whilst action could and should be taken against organisations such as Comintern, targeting legitimate politicians such as members of the Labour party was wrong. This may have helped influence the rather more enthusiastic head of MI5.

Whereas the equivalent in the US (Hoover as the head of the FBI) had no such influence allowing his anti-communist zeal to exceed the real danger and cross over into harassing innocents on the left of the political spectrum. This probably helped the anti-communists on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities which whilst not quite as loony as McCarthy himself, did go far beyond what was acceptable and far beyond what the risk of communism entailed.

I have known people who were member of the old hard left all their lives – including those who insisted on keeping a portrait of Uncle Joe on the wall. None of those were unpatriotic – they may have wanted a socialist government; they may even have wanted a communist revolution. But none would have countenanced being ruled from Moscow.

You might say they were being deceived, and that Moscow was keeping control of an inner core of hard core supporters to take over a left-wing government and hand over control. But that was always an unrealistic option – it would take Russian tanks in the streets for such a government to keep control, which was more than a little unrealistic for the US.

Not that fighting the cold war was wrong. But the winners of the cold war were far more the people living under “communism” in the Soviet Union and satellite states, and the armaments companies. That is not to say that we did not benefit, but the benefits were less direct than is most obviously thought of. After all the threat of nuclear war was there not because the Soviet Union existed (after all they didn’t get nuclear weapons without us), but because we were facing them down.

But that is all in the past, and the automatic rejection by Americans of policies with the phrase “But that’s socialism” is now outdated. Indeed the correct reaction is “Yeah. So what ? It’s also right.”.

The right-wing in the freak show that is American politics today, is a bizarre and perplexing combination of Ayn Rand‘s seductive denial of society, and the fundamentalist christians. Indeed they seem to have combined the worst aspects of both, and rejected any redeeming qualities – the belief in an infectious imaginary friend but discarding christian charity (except to those “deserving” of charity), and the belief in individualism without the responsibilities of freedom – the responsibility to share in the care of the less fortunate.

Many Americans (and to be fair, plenty of others) hate paying taxes to pay for benefits for those less fortunate – direct benefits, educational benefits, health care benefits, etc. There is a belief that an individual’s income is for their benefit alone, and nobody has a right to take it away. Indeed that taxation is a form of theft by the government.

There is an element of truth to the theft argument, but it is very wrong to assume that an individual’s income is solely down to their abilities. There are too many contributing factors to an individual’s ability to earn – and those factors are commonly paid for by society as a whole. Such as police to keep order, armed forces to defend the country, education, etc.

Sure those services might be provided by private companies under some sort of “libertarian” utopia, but none of us are living under one of those right now.  And frankly, historical experience shows that private provision of what are normally regarded as government services has been less than successful – look at the history of fire fighting for example.

The earliest (in modern history) fire brigades were introduced by insurance companies to protect the property of those who insured with them. Sure enough, they refused to save the property of anyone else, but fire is one of those things that does not protect property boundaries – by stopping the fire of your uninsured neighbour, your own property is protected to a greater extent than if you waited until your own property was on fire. So those private fire brigades were privatised and the brigades funded from the public purse.

It’s a rare and unusual person who complains about socialism when the fire brigade comes up, but isn’t this what it is ?

Socialism and socialist policies are not good in themselves; neither are they bad. The virtue of any policy is whether it would be effective … and more effective than what is currently in place. Not whether it is ‘socialist’, or whatever. The label is irrelevant.

Jan 152010
 

Before reading further, go and visit http://www.dec.org.uk/ and make a donation.

One of the things that is clear from the current chaos in Haiti approaching nearly four days since the earthquake (and to be fair from other disasters) is that getting aid on the ground takes far too long. This is not supposed to be a criticism of anyone – I’m simply at this stage wondering what the delay is caused by.

Perhaps we have unrealistic expectations of how quickly aid can be sent in – I’m sure that it is a lot harder than we think it should be! I’m sure there will be those throwing criticism at the UN, the Haitian government, etc. all without much in the way of justification.

What are the politics of sending in assistance in situations like this? Normally if US troops were to “go in” to a country to help out n a disaster without permission from the government it would be an act of war – can you imagine how the Chinese government would react ? So normally we can assume that those offering assistance need to obtain permission from the local government.

But what happens when the local government has effectively ceased to operate ? The Haitian government has problems at the best of times, and was effectively unreachable for a while during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Did the rescuers have to wait until they could get someone from the government on the phone ? I cannot imagine the UN operating any other way – they are (and in fact should be given their other work) the paragons of diplomatic nicety.

Perhaps governments could consider giving advanced permission along the lines of “Hey! If a really big disaster happens, you’ve got permission to come in and help and we’ll have a nice polite chat about it afterwards”. Do such arrangements already exist ?

The other thing that springs to mind is that there needs to be some way of arranging air transport very rapidly. In this case there is an airport close by, but an airport that is not up to dealing with a such a large influx of cargo planes. In many other cases, there is no convenient airport. Perhaps it is not possible to build a temporary airport in a matter of hours, but it is something that needs someone to think about a way of trying. At the very least it should be possible to “upgrade” the air traffic control system equipment in a matter of hours – which appears to have been a problem in Haiti.

People can survive without food for quite a while, and without water for not so very long, but those in need of medical help need it now. Do we need to consider parachuting in small medical stabilisation teams ? Obviously a full field hospital would be preferred but a small team (or many of them) with supplies that can be carried can at least stabilise causalities to give them a better chance of surviving until more comprehensive facilities are available.

Similarly in the event of earthquakes, parachuting in search and rescue teams with minimal equipment could accomplish quite a bit even before heavy equipment is available.

There is also the psychological effect of having someone on the ground. Even if those early aid workers cannot accomplish much for those who are fit and healthy, they at do least indicate that help is coming and that they have not been forgotten.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we need a more military approach to emergency aid in situations like this. And I’m not exactly a fan of the military! The military are used to reacting very rapidly to a limited extent with rapid reaction forces available to go into action on very short notice. If the UN were given the resources to setup an organisation that would work in the same way (but with different aims) it would be very much more effective at responding to disasters like this.

After all, we use the normal military in situations like this – who aren’t even properly equipped for performing this job!

Nov 142009
 

It has been announced this week that one of the alleged perpetrators (although he has freely confessed) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried in New York for orchestrating the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The prosecution is rumoured to be asking for the death penalty.

If he is found guilty (and there seems little doubt he will eventually be found so), will he actually be put to death?

Whilst those in favour of the death penalty will argue in favour, there is a very good pragmatic reason why he should not be put to death. If he is executed by the US authorities, he will be regarded as a martyr by the Islamic extremists which will encourage others. Indeed he probably wants to be martyred by being executed; does it make sense to “punish” a mass murderer by giving him what he wants ?

Life imprisonment without parole is a far nastier punishment.

Hopefully someone in the US justice system will take the pragmatic approach and not give him what he wants as punishment and does not sentence him to execution.

But if you do not execute this mass murderer, how can you justify executing others whose crime is less extreme?

With any luck (yes I am opposed to the death penalty), the long term effect of taking the pragmatic approach will be that the death penalty will come to an end in the US.

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