Tag Archives: crime

Justice, mercy or revenge

Today’s news has been pretty much filled with items about the decision to allow Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man jailed for blowing up a US airliner over Lockerbie in 1988, to go home to die. al-Megrahi is suffering from terminal cancer and, according to some reports at least, has about three months to live. It is probably unsurprising that this release has generated a lot of vox pop about what an “outrage” it is that he be allowed home to die. One of the terms of his release is that al-Megrahi dropped his series of appeals against his conviction, saving the UK taxpayer a large amount of money; however I can only assume that he still thinks he is innocent (or at least has a chance of being found innocent) but no longer had the will to fight this.

In the UK a life sentence doesn’t actually mean you are expected to die in jail. The criminal justice system is, in theory at least, based upon the principles of removing an offender from society as long as they present a danger to society, while providing correctional education to allow them to reintegrate to society upon release.

Equally, in the UK (and the US I am fairly sure) there are frequent cases where a prisoner is released from jail on compassionate grounds. There is nothing specifically unusual about this case.

The biggest difference here is that this is a person who has killed Americans. As a result, President Obama felt the urge to pressurise the “Scottish Government” (hmm) to change its mind about al-Megrahi’s release. President Obamba is not alone in this, almost every US politician has tried to convince the Scottish Justice Minister to change his mind. The UK radio and TV news is running headlines about how this has “all been ignored” – as if the requests of US politicians should carry some weight in this matter. I notice that previously the US government fell over itself to listen to pleas from UK politicians about the treatment of Gary McKinnon… Or not.

All this is only mildly interesting. I notice with more interest, and a lot of amusement, that the same parts of the British media objecting to this were crying for the release of the convicted Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs. Obviously there are differences, Biggs is unrepentant, proud of his crime and white so the objections of Jack Mill‘s son went largely ignored.

Unusually for a missive from WhyDontYou Towers, I have no real opinion one way or another over the treatment and final disposal of al-Megrahi other than to wish there was some actual justice and consistency in the UK Criminal Justice system. Justice is not about revenge. Fair treatment includes compassion. Nothing that happens to al-Megrahi will bring back the dead or turn the clock back to before the murders. If justice is allowed to become revenge, then Al Qaeda can give up, we’ve destroyed western society ourselves. There can be no doubt that al-Megrahi showed his victims no compassion, but so what? Do two wrongs make a right? Does anyone honestly think al-Megrahi remains a danger to society? The news is showing traumatic footage of the night Pan Am Flight 103 went down – what can this do other than inflame people about the decision, which I think is at least consistent with the UK criminal justice policy.

As is always the case, the BBC is an example of the odd responses. There is the frequently wrong idea that those who are emotionally entangled can give a just and reasoned opinion – the BBC website has an entire page devoted to “Reaction – Lockerbie Bomber Set Free.” Show the effects of emotional involvement, the sister of a victim understandably says:

I don’t know how you show compassion to someone who has shown no remorse for what he has done and as Mr MacAskill praised the justice system and the investigation and the trial, how do you then show this person compassion? It’s just utterly despicable. I think he should have died in prison. Why should he be returned to Libya? That’s not what we were promised. We were always told he would serve out his full sentence in Scotland.

It is understandable, but wrong. I cant begin to imagine the suffering this person has undergone, but that is not grounds for a policy decision. This is why in the Dark Ages we moved away from blood feuds and instituted a system of courts and laws.  While she may not, yet, see it, the only way to show compassion is in situations like this. There is no compassion in being nice to nice people you like. Compassion involves doing what is right even when you dont want to.

The inherently evil David Cameron gives us a sign of the Criminal Justice system we can look forward to if the Tories come to power:

This man was convicted of murdering 270 people, he showed no compassion to them, they weren’t allowed to go home and die with their relatives in their own bed and I think this is a very bad decision

Ah, an eye for an eye eh? Does the body count matter? If he had killed just one, would he be objecting? Is the only reason to keep him in jail the fact that 270 families were torn apart rather than one or two? I suspect that if you are a grieving family member, the pain is not reduced simply because no one else died.

The Scottish Labour Leader has shown a tendency towards fluid politics that is characteristic of the Labour Party in general:

While one can have sympathy for the family of a gravely ill prisoner, on balance, our duty is to honour and respect the victims of Lockerbie and have compassion for them. The SNP’s handling of this case has let down Scotland

Yes, have compassion for the victims. Making someone suffer because not doing so would upset the families is not compassionate. It is pretty much a cowardly response.

Annoyingly for a committed Atheist, the Reverend Ian Galloway (Church of Scotland) says what is, IMHO, the right thing:

We are defined as a nation by how we treat those who have chosen to hurt us. Do we choose mercy even when they did not chose mercy? This was not about whether one man was guilty or innocent. Nor is it about whether he had a right to mercy but whether we as a nation, despite the continuing pain of many, are willing to be merciful. I understand the deep anger and grief that still grips the souls of the victims’ families and I respect their views, but to them, I would say justice is not lost in acting in mercy. Instead our deepest humanity is expressed for the better. To choose mercy is the tough choice and today our nation met that challenge.

Infuriatingly I cant help but agree with everything he has said here.

If you want to read some genuinely insane arguments on this matter have a look at the BBC “Have Your Say” Pages. Here the hatred really flows. The whole of Europe is called “Cowardly” because the Scottish National Party stood up to American pressure. The irony is amusing, if the ranting is disturbing.

It saddens me that people are still suffering to such an extent about this. Their suffering will not be changed by this persons release, nor would their suffering end if he had died in jail. That political figures in both countries are making so much capital out of this is an example of how craven politics really is. When I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with a Church of Scotland Reverend, its time to lie down.

Protect your data

Compulsory ID cards are instruments of evil. They will not make protect you from crime and will not make you safer, unless they end up produced out of bomb proof kevlar and big enough to wear. They serve no purpose for any member of the public but will cost you money. The only conceivable reason why the government is so keen to force the British public into paying for them is to allow the intelligence and security agencies unparalleled access to personal data and activity.

This is actually the only bones to the “make you safer” argument, in that by allowing the Police / Security services access to your ID card data (which would, one assumes, include all the locations where your ID has been checked and what purposes it was checked for) it will increase their ability to find criminals and terrorists. If you have read any of my previous posts you will be well aware that I think this is very, very, wrong. But this is an argument for another day. Today’s ironic turn of events is that even if MI5 have all your data and are watching your every move it wont help – because al-Qaida are actually working for MI5 in the first place.

From today’s Guardian:

A senior Tory MP today called for an investigation into whether MI5 mistakenly recruited al-Qaida sympathisers.

Patrick Mercer, the chairman of the counter-terrorism subcommittee, said six Muslim recruits had been thrown out of the service because of serious concerns over their pasts.

The MP said he was writing to the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to call for an investigation into the matter.

Two of the six men allegedly attended al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan while the others had unexplained gaps of up to three months in their CVs.

The irony here is really not lost on me and points to two issues.

First off, and possibly most importantly, no matter how much vetting takes place BADPEOPLE™ will get into the police or government. This has been the case since the dawn of secrecy. By their very nature spies are people who are able to infiltrate the highest levels of an organisation by appearing trustworthy. Equally, as the police and intelligence/security services well know, agents are people who are currently trusted by an organisation but are vulnerable to being expolited by hostile groups. This is done all the time against “enemies” (criminal or political), and it is even done in the “civilian” business world. I am sure this is stating the obvious but it is important background.

Knowing this, do you think that having all your identity data in one central location is a good idea? For ID cards to work, huge swathes of people need to be able to access the database – which causes errors. The data has to be entered and maintained, which causes errors. These are accidental problems which would be bad enough. Criminals and terrorists have the funding and will to deliberately corrupt the data. The concept of an ID card moves the burden of proof from the government to the “innocent until proven otherwise” citizen. Do you have the resources and will power of an organised crime gang or terrorist group?

If a criminal can compromise one aspect of your ID data that is a BADTHING©™® but you can take steps to rectify it, knowing that it shouldn’t lead to a cascade of ID failures. Stealing your National Insurance number, for example, shouldn’t lead to them getting access to your bank account details or your drivers licence. Crucially, should a criminal use your NI Number – and nothing else -  in the process of a crime (odd but possible) then it is unlikely that you would be the suspect. However, with a central ID card that is not the case.

Now back to MI5 and the other police and security agencies. Given the number of people involved, and recent large scale recruitment campaigns, it is unfathomable that some bad eggs haven’t slipped through the net. In the case of MI5 the pay is so pitiful by London terms that it is equally certain that there are some members of the organisation who would be open to financial corruption – not to mention the ones who could be co-opted in a million different ways. Do you trust them with all your data? Do you trust them to treat you fairly at all times?

Secondly: what sort of crazy world is it where an “unexplained gaps of up to three months” in your CV means you are a terrorist? I hope they never see my CV otherwise its Gitmo for me. Or is it just 3+ month gaps in the CV of people of middle-eastern descent? What is happening?

I’d say the world had gone mad but it seems an understatement. What really worries me is an old saying that keeps going round my head about when everyone else in the world seems mad its probably you…

America Scares Me

OK, I have finally torn myself away from the accursed Wii long enough to surf the internet, read some articles and comments and become quite worried about the future of the human race.  Before I am accused of massive hyperbole, remember America is the worlds only superpower and, like it or not, societal changes there radiate out across the English speaking world quite quickly. (Yes, I am looking at you Creationism).

It seems that, despite being the leader of the free world, a beacon of Democracy and willing to invade other nations who abuse human rights, the USA has a very ambivalent approach towards one of the most inhumane of activities – torture. I know I have talked about this previously, but reading through the comments on the USA Today letter reminded me of conversations I have had with people in the US, and gives an insight into how the government policies seem to be built.

First off my position on the matter: Torture is never, ever, acceptable. It is a war crime and the practitioners of such acts should be treated as international war criminals. Waterboarding is torture. Calling torture “enhanced interrogation” does not change what it is any more than calling my car a boat will make it sail. I can think of no (real) circumstances in which torture is justified. Saying torture is better than execution is farcical.  The idea that torture would be carried out in my name, or to protect some nebulous concept of my safety is abhorrent.

However, I consider myself a rational person and I am willing to explore viewpoints and opinions that differ from my own. It is possible that I could be wrong in my stance about torture so I will look at some of the arguments for it. For the purposes of this rant, I will use the responses to the, frankly, insane USA Today letter. From these it appears the following “justify” torture: (Some I will post in full, others I will try to identify the more coherent parts)

in the meantime…they saw off our heads…….while weak dems say nothing about that……why do dems defend these killers of U.S citizens is alarming…..shows there huge weakness for our security. (from wave who, unsuprisingly, has no friends but 5 recommends for this nonsense)

This makes no sense. It is nothing but an appeal to fear, wrapped up in some bizarre attempt to make 2+2 equal three hundred and eleven. But it is a common one so I will try to salvage some sanity out it and see if it holds any water.

It breaks down into a few parts. First off the claim that torturing people is the only defence against “them” sawing off American heads. Now, given that people in custody are no longer in position to weild a saw this is true, but there is no requirement to torture them for this. Has the mistreatment of people in places such as Guantanamo reduced the amount of beheadings of Americans in the middle east? Erm, no. So we can strike that part. The second bit is just a sign that wave is insane. Objecting to torture is not defending the killers of US citizens any more than not torturing murder or rape suspects is. Shall we advocate tortuing people suspected of drink driving (which kills many, many more citizens each year)? If not the argument makes no sense.

The next one hints at what worries me about society.

Why is this such a difficult question for you? Given the choice between the safety and security of my loved ones *and* subjecting a terrorist to a few moments of anxiety (enhanced interrogation techniques), this is an easy choice! Glycine

Oh my Thor. Worryingly this is an attitude similar to one I encountered in people I talked to during my visit to the US. It shows the horrific effect language has had on people. 24 is not real. People do not get up at the end of the show, take a bow and give a PR conference to promote the sale of their DVD. Torture is torture. The clue is in the name. Waterboarding is not a “few moments of anxiety.”

This whole bag of madness falls down on a few levels. First off, if it is so mild how can it work on embittered, committed jihadists? If it is so mild (I can generate more than a few moments of anxiety for most people going to an interview, let alone questioning by law enforcement) why is it called “enhanced interrogation?” Dispel forever the idea that waterboarding is tame. That any form of torture can be passed of as time and almost humorous. It is not. It is there to break a persons will in the shortest possible time. This is not something people ever fully recover from.

Equally sad is the loss of any form of “innocent until proven guilty.” It now seems that if someone thinks you are a criminal you are one and will be tortured until you confess. Sounds all very 21st century to me. The people subjected to torture by agents of the US government are not always confirmed terrorists. Some will be people who are massively unlucky. Is torturing them (which will provide no extra security to your loved ones) acceptable? If so, where do we draw the line? When do we stop torturing people on the off-chance they may know something which may help increase the security of your loved ones? Crucially, what happens when someone comes to torture you to protect their loved ones? Would you be OK with that? Even if you are actually insane enough to think that torturing people based simply on their nationality and skin colour is acceptable, you have to face the fact it decreases national security. For every person who is interned and tortured, there will be families at home who rail against the injustice. Mistreatment of prisoners is the greatest recruiting tool an insurgent or terrorist organisation can hope for. For every suspected terrorist you torture, you recruit four or five more into his organisation. How does this make any sense at all?

We have the token argument from insanity:

Torture like many evils will not ‘go away’ because do-gooders wish it so.
and
Which is worse: killing the enemy outright or keeping them for the duration in a POW camp? (or Federal prison?) Incarceration, even with three meals a day, a bible, a toilet, clothing, bedding, et cetera, is none the less, torture — but who gives a damn? Ronald David (who, amazingly, has 8 friends on USA Today. Wow).

This is no argument, its just mad ranting. Torture like any crime will never quite go away but does that mean we should accept it? Do we accept rape or murder? No. If someone abducted ten people from US cities and tortured them for a few months, they would go to jail or face the death penalty. If the government does it, its OK. Does that make sense? I just love the attempt to use a derogatory “do-gooders” term against those who oppose evils such as torture. I’d rather be a do-gooder than a do-eviler. Maybe its the atheist in me.

Comparing torture with incarceration is madness. Nothing further needs to be said. Everything else this nutter has written on this letter speaks of mental illness.

(two chestnuts from Crazyfun_22 who has 11 bloody friends) In addition to Michael, the other loons posting about waterboarding are also subscribing to something in either their water or thier “Pipe”. The waterboarding the japanese did is not even close to what we did following 9/11, those people were drowned in the process. Waterboarding that ends in death can and shoud be classified as torture…so put down the remote after you turn off MSNBC and look some stuff up from multiple independent sources and get your facts straight.

Right, so torturing someone and stopping just before they die is OK then. This is insane. Torture is torture. Murder is murder. You can torture someone to death which is both torture and murder. Its like saying raping someone but not killing them is OK. All this crazy makes my head hurt.

Lastly, all you people who are commenting on waterboarding being used to get info on Iraq and make an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection….WRONG….it was used to try and determine intel on potnetial threats to Americans…period. While I am sure Saddam was part of the questioning, it was for American’s safety…and that does include you loony bins.

Here we come to the basic claim that seems to sustain the support for torture.

Torturing person X (who is hopefully not the from the same ethnic or religious background as you) is acceptable if it provides actionable intelligence that can save lives of people you care about.

This argument allows Americans to condemn other nations who torture prisoners (because the information gained is not helping people they care about) while practising it themselves. It carries a strong moral appeal because, seriously, who doesn’t want to save lives. There is even a utilitarian argument that the suffering of the few outweighs the benefits for the many. You can see why so many people agree with this concept and, as a result, support the use of torture by agents of the government .

Sadly it is all nonsense, and for so many different reasons it is hard to know where to begin.

If we take the utilitarian argument first. You have no way of knowing if the information provided from the torture will save lives until after you have tortured the person. If you know in advance enough to make this call, you know enough to not need to torture the person. Without knowing this you have to react to everything the person says – including lies and confusion. This takes up resources and manpower better spent elsewhere. A committed jihadist could even use this to distract your resources from where they would be best placed. If you are tortuing someone who genuinely doesn’t know what you are asking, when do you stop? Do you wait until they make something up? Unlike Jack Bauer you have no way of knowing the veracity of what your victim is telling you. You may get the truth in the first 10 seconds (about how long I would take to crack) but would you believe it? Would you continue to torture until you broke them and they changed their story? In reality, unlike 24, torture is a good way of making somone say what you want them to say – nothing else.

Following on from this, if you torture the person and it turns out they cant give you useful information, what then? The argument that useful information means torture is justified now means this was not-justified. Do you proceed to punish everyone involved with the now-criminal act? Anything else means the utilitarian argument suggests all torture is justifed on the basis that an unknown amount of information gained may be useful – but this applies to everything. Maybe torturing you or your parents will be useful. How do we know until we try?

It strikes me people can be quick to come up with hypothetical situations where torture would be acceptable, as long as it is someone else on the receiving end. Knowing that no system is 100% correct, innocent people will occasionally get caught up, would you be happy if you were that innocent person? If not, then torture is not acceptable. If you feel you would be happy to spend five years in “enhanced interrogation” because you knew, deep down, it was making the world safer, then I think you are insane.

(ranting over, back to the Wii…)

Put them in the stocks

The average person is not a criminologist. This is as obvious as saying that the average person doesn’t have many skills in dentistry. You’d think long and hard before you asked a random person in the street to fill one of your molars.

So, I’m pretty gobsmacked by a cracked new plan to give the public the opportunity to vote on punishments for convicted criminals.

Research carried out by the Cabinet Office has persuaded her that greater community engagement would not encourage vigilante activity or excessive punishments. (from the Guardian)

Yeah, right.

The mad ministers supporting this plan are keeping it for minor offences, because they know full well that letting rabid local prejudices determine the penalties for more serious crimes would lead to some horrific outcomes. But this implies that people found guilty of minor offences are likely to get less fair treatment than people convicted of major crimes. They might have the details of their offences posted online, for instance.

Smith feels that although the police are becoming better at informing local people about the progress of prosecutions, too many people “disappear” into the criminal justice system. She argues that “justice seen is justice done” and is backing plans for courts to set up local websites informing people of the fate of criminals and cases.

So, commit some minor offence and it is posted on the net for your friends, family, boss and any potential employer to find forever. If you assume that one offence of disorderly conduct should ruin your chances of getting employment for life, then fair enough. However, I thought that the possibility that people could incur a penalty and return to normal life after paying it was inherent in any concept of justice.

Anyone who thinks that it’s OK that getting found guilty of any minor offence means that you’re branded a criminal for life had better get used to there being a huge marginalised group of people with less than no chance of ever getting legitimate work. So, basically, forced to commit crimes to survive.

There are so many things wrong with this plan, I could rant for days. For example, penalties would be decided locally, so would clearly vary from place to place. Sentences are supposed to “reflect communities’ interests”. What if you lived in an area where most people oppose your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, style of dress, or whatever? Would you get fair treatment. Or where you are really popular with the local “community leader”? Or vice versa.

What sort of people will feel they have a right to vote on the penalties for petty crimes? Smug bigots, busybodies, self-appointed community leaders, Daily Mail readers and so on. Is their thirst for vengeance going to be assuaged or fed by getting the right to lord it over petty offenders? Obviously not. They’ll see no reason why their solomonic wisdom shouldn’t be applied to more serious offences. And it’s hard for the government to argue that it’s OK to go down the medieval route for low-level crimes but that serious criminals should be protected by 21st century laws.

The government is already treating the opinions of people with expertise and training in dealing with petty offenders – the probation service – as irrelevant. On 30 December, the Probation Officers Union NAPO expressed unease with the government decision that people doing community service should wear reflective jackets that announce that they are serving a sentence.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said organisations, including churches and charities, that offer unpaid work placements for offenders had become wary of using the vests after incidents of offenders being abused by the public, including missiles being thrown at them. “Many of these organisations are faith-based groups who believe it is not their role to oversee humiliation,” he said, adding that in one area a group of youths had chanted “nonces, smackheads, lowlifes” at one work group. (from the Guardian)

Well, yes, public humiliation is not actually acceptable as a penalty. I am pretty sure that the EC Human Rights Act and international law say something about “cruel and unusual” punishments. And that’s in terms of NOT using them.

The justice minister, David Hanson, fuelled the debate last night by saying he rejected the results of the Napo survey and expected all 42 probation areas to implement the introduction of the high-visibility clothing. “The public expects to see justice being done, and this is what the jackets achieve,” he said.

Hmm. NAPO claim to have evidence that offenders are being bullied and that charities don’t want community service workers to be stigmatised BUT the “justice” minister won’t accept this. He’s not interested at all really. When it’s a question of buying the Daily Mail reader vote, centuries of painfully developing a more humane justice system can go by the board.

“The public expects to see justice being done,” my arse. Is there any evidence for this, at all? Must we assume that the same imaginary people who are badgering Jaqui Smith for the opportunity to have an ID card are also badgering the Justice Minister to provide visible evidence that people convicted of minor offences are being punished? If this is the public’s expectation, it hasn’t been met for a good few centuries. The public used to get to see criminals thrown to the lions in Ancient Rome and to see public executions in pre-modern Europe. Is a public execution a reasonable expectation? Many people were so enraged against the parents of Baby P that they would have felt that execution was reasonable . Would they have the right to watch this over the internet if the death penalty was restored? Failing that, surely the public won’t be satisfied until they can watch Baby P’s murderers in jail on 24 hour webcam over the Internet.

Would this be OK with the minister, if the public’s need to see justice being done is so paramount?

Comically ironic that the case involving a search of a Tory MP’s office (over systematic leaks by a senior civil servant) has had most of Parliament enraged at the shocking suggestion that they could be subject to the same laws as everybody else. The incident seems to have well nigh destroyed the career of the police officer in charge, in sharp contrast to the very limited career damage suffered by senior police officers after the mere shooting of an unarmed Brazilian. Ironic also that the Blair era cash for honours investigations managed to go absolutely nowhere but brought complaints about the waste of public money on pointless police investigations… .

Silly me. There is one rule for MPs and another for the rest of us. So, I would like to share with MPs the mantra of the onward march of UK repression “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” :-D

Die in a hail of gunfire

Who would have thought it, eh? Some crazy people have jumped on the Mumbai Massacre bandwagon to espouse their crazy ideas. Amazing…

Disappointingly predictably, certain individuals are using the massacre to promote their own crazy agendas. On the “Cybercast News Service” yesterday there was an article in which it was claimed that the killings would have been prevented if India didn’t have such strict gun laws:

India’s strict gun laws are partly to blame for the success of the terrorist attack in Mumbai, according to the head of an Indian gun rights group and a U.S. expert who has examined the impact of gun laws on crime and terrorism.

Abhijeet Singh, founder of Indians for Guns, told CNSNews.com Tuesday that if the citizens of Mumbai had been allowed to carry guns, terrorists would not have killed as many people as they did–and might have been deterred from attacking in the first place.

Wow. It still surprises me a little that people can (with apparent seriousness) claim that if everyone had guns, there would be less gunfights. I can see an element of appealing logic, although it flies counter to the current anti-knife crime campaign we have in the UK, which seems to be working. The idea hangs on the fact that Terrorist X wont carry out an attack because if they do, the people they attack will be able to return fire and kill them.

Flawed logic.

First off – if this was true, soldiers wouldn’t be attacked. Islamic terrorists are reasonably prepared to die in the course of their actions, so the return fire is not a deterrent. Equally, even if everyone is carrying guns, the terrorists still have the huge advantage of being the attacker. A crowd of people goin about their daily business is in no state to drop to cover and return handgun fire when they are ambushed by assault rifles. The terrorist has the initiative, dictates where and when the attack will happen and can still kill large numbers before fire is returned with sufficient effect to defeat them.

Another line of reasoning was that if the public had all been armed, the terrorists would have killed a few, then the return fire would have got them – reducing the overall casualty figures.

Wrong, but less flawed. Most people are not combat trained. Despite all the range time gun-lovers carry out, despite all the films they watch, and magazines they read, combat shooting is something very, very different. Battle inoculation is so important that soldiers undergo it so they can experience what being under fire is like – hopefully to reduce the chance they will fuck up when the time comes to fight. Even with all this, and months of specialist training, soldiers make mistakes in the heat of battle. Some people will panic and shoot randomly, some will miss, some will be good shots but poor at target identification. The potential for carnage is beyond belief. The only thing you could hope for is that the terrorist would be just as shocked by the bullets flying in every direction they’d panic and fuck up as well. The problem is terrorists have often been to training camps, where they are taught what it is like…

The whole idea is insane and creates a wonderful scenario for any budding terrorist planners.

Imagine the scene: A shopping mall filled with several hundred armed people going about their daily business. One armed terrorist, dressed like everyone else, walks into the mall and opens fire, dashes to cover, fires again and lies low. The crowd are under fire. Everyone draws their guns and shoots in the direction they think the attack is coming from… At this point, the mall is filled with people seeing other people pointing guns at them. In the ensuing carnage there is only a moderate chance the terrorist will actually get killed, if he has any sense he could easily lie low enough to avoid being hit. Better still, when the security forces arrive, they are faced with how ever many survivors there are, all shooting at each other – how do they decide who to take out?

It is pure madness. Is this really the scenario these people want, or do they think all the members of the public will do cowboy style quick-draws, drop to one knee and double tap the terrorists in the head? By Zeus, the madness makes my eyes water.

Guns do not keep you safe. They do not stop people shooting you. At best they give you the chance to shoot back, but a holstered gun is useless. Carrying a gun makes you a target for everyone else with a gun.  Carrying a gun, at best, gives you a false sense of security.

As ever, the comments for the CNS article are a fertile ground of madness. Some of the more, erm, entertaining ones:

Quote: “Distributing weapons to general public is not the wise and right idea to counter the terrorism.” Hmm, that’s funny, the citizens of Israel found the exact opposite to be true. You think maybe they might have some experience in the matter? Here in Michigan, USA, I carry a loaded pistol every day, everywhere I go. Nothing unusual, just normal everyday business. It’s nice to feel like a citizen instead of a subject.

Erm, no.

I, for one, have had a gun put to my head. I was lucky to have survived. I have vowed to never go through this again without a fight. Dispite my handing over everything to the robber, he still shot at me, but missed, thank God. I can’t carry at a bar, but look how many people are assulted leaving the bar to go to their car. Where would my pistol be? Locked in my car. Big help, isn’t it! I would like to see just one time where a person with a carry permit has gone on a shooting spree in a church, school, sports arena, or entertainment facility with a capacity of 2500 people plus, as these are the places Michigan law forbids my having my weapon with me at. Note! I can carry in a church with the permission of the church. It looks to me like none of the Government Law Makers or any of their families or friends have ever been assulted, so they don’t know what it is like. I suggest they get their heads out of the sand, look at reality and come up with laws that are reaistic.

God and Guns – dont they go together well… This person misses the whole point, but it isnt surprising really. I have been shot at, I have had mortars fired at me, I have had petrol bombs thrown at me by rioters. I was carrying a gun at the time and it didn’t help at all. This person doesn’t want protection, they want to be able to shoot the robber, after they have been robbed. Wonderful escalation that will result in the robber just shooting them first. I defy anyone in the real world to draw a gun and kill an attacker who has a loaded weapon drawn and pointed at them.

Armed,law abiding, citizens protect a nation and its people. But, an unarmed population is at the mercy of their own government, home grown thugs and terrorists as well as invaders from outside their country. Gandhi was right on!!! A realistic pacifist knows that force is the only way to meet force in the end. “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” — The Dalai Lama, (May 15, 2001, The Seattle Times) speaking at the “Educating Heart Summit” in Portland, Oregon, when asked by a girl how to react when a shooter takes aim at a classmate

Well, while it may be true that “armed, law abiding citizens” protect a nation, they are called “soldiers.” Having every citizen armed is certainly not the same thing and does not protect a nation. An armed population is just as at the mercy of its government as an unarmed one. The realistic pacifist mentioned is not a pacifist, pretty much by definition. Self defence is important but if carrying a gun is not defence. A weapon is designed to be used to attack someone. Armour and a Sheild were defence, the sword was the offensive weapon. In modern times the gun is there for offensive activity. If you want to defend yourself, buy a kevlar vest and helmet. Yes, a good (military) defence is a good offence – however that does not carry over to every day life – unless you shoot all passers-by just in case.

If you are so scared that you feel the need to have a gun tucked inside your pants, fine – as long as you dont draw it anywhere near me, I don’t mind. Just remember though, that now you have a gun you are a threat to everyone around you who doesn’t know you. How do they know that you aren’t a screaming madman about to go on a killing rampage? What if you look at them a bit funny and they think its time for the offensive-defence…

Personally, even having been to most of the worlds war-zones, I’d rather not carry a gun.

Live by the sword…

For years now, politicians of all flavours have been busy manipulating public opinion and cherry picking how they present information – all with the aim of convincing the largely apathetic voting public to agree with their crackpot ideas. As you can imagine, however, this has its own share of problems.

As an example, today on the BBC Radio 1 news show (*), there was a terrible indictment of just how mixed up people are. Basically, the Prime Minster Gordon Brown is trying to gain some media-credits with his claims that he is “tackling knife crime.” Obviously the PM and current government are unpopular at the moment so here we see yet another example of how politicians no longer have a political view, but will do what ever they think they can to get support from the barely coherent, rabid, tabloid media.

The knife crime panic is a great example of this. All year, we have been subjected to scare stories in the media about how knife crime is on the increase; if you believe papers such as the Daily Mail there are more stabbings than there are people. I am not for one second trying to imply that knife crime isn’t devastating for the victims and their families – but we need some form of perspective. While there were pockets of increased incidents, the chances of Joe Blogs UK becoming a victim was pretty much the same as it always has been.

However, our media-hungry politicians (on all sides) read the building tabloid-frenzy and jumped in early. For months we had debates about how bad knife crime was, and what were the government going to do about it. This was stoked with the public being drip fed “news” each time a cute, innocent kid got stabbed. Each one was delivered in that wonderful way the tabloids have of making their readers think that the one incident they report is just the tip of the iceberg – in reality, when things are so commonplace, the media loses interest in them… Seeing a great chance, the government (and opposition) built upon the general irrationality of people – isolated incidents were blown out of proportion, personal anecdote was given much greater emphasis etc. So far, so typical. This is all politicians have done for over a decade.

Today, the PM tried to deliver his latest great accomplishment.

The PM announced that the new “crackdowns” implemented by Police in high-risk areas had managed to bring down knife crime. Wonderful. I am sure he expected nothing but fanfare… Sadly, the general public are too depressed and gloom-laden to take good news like this. Also, for years we have been indoctrinated into the idea that out microcosm of life is more representative of society than anything else – which means no matter what the PM claims, people think things are getting worse. From the BBC Pages:

The Prime Minister has spoken to Newsbeat after the government said the latest police crackdown was working.

The government says stabbings are down and fewer teenagers are carrying blades in the 10 parts of England and Wales where there’s been a big effort to tackle the problem.

The figures also show under-18s going to hospital for stabs and cuts are down by a quarter and more serious attacks have dropped by a fifth.

Great news. It doesn’t really say much about the government policies though. Nothing like enough time has passed to know if this is a long term change or a simple “blip”  in the numbers. Equally, there is no way of knowing if the “massive” (**) increase was a statistical blip. The information provided doesn’t tell us if the crime has simply moved elsewhere, or if this is part of a national downturn in knife crime. It really is a non-news item. There isn’t enough information for the viewer to do anything but rely on how the sparse numbers are spun to the public.

Shocking, but this is how the government have wanted us to interact with news for many a year now. If the public were given all the information that drove national policy, half the crazy things we suffer now would never have survived.

Equally comical, is how Gordon Brown reacted to the predictable nonsense questions. According to the BBC, the text messages from their listeners saying things like “I was stabbed 2 years ago, how has knife crime gone down” were a valid counterpoint to the governments figures. A normal, sane, educated person would have laughed and said “shut up crazy fool.” But this is gold to politicians – they want people to think like this so that future crazy laws can be passed. This lead to a very bizarre exchange:

Newsbeat: The statistics on knife crime say one thing. We’re hearing other things from our listeners.
Gordon Brown: That’s why we want to get knives off the street. I’m not complacent at all. A lot of young people are stopping carrying knives but we’ve got a long way to go. And that’s why today you’ve got all these people from all different walks of life; sports people, from the world of entertainment, from radio, from television, all saying, working with the community groups, no to knives. (blah… blah… blah…)

A touch strange. The PM is saying nothing as an actual response. It is certified 100% content free. Isn’t that nice. That was just mildly odd but it was followed by this:

Newsbeat: The stats that you’ve published today seem to show that knife crime is down. A nurse at Bristol Royal Infirmary says stab wound admissions are going up.
Gordon Brown: What I want to know is how we can actually get knife crime down and how we can make sure it stays down. Making sure it stays down is more policing that’s visible on the streets, a presumption to prosecute if you’re seen to be carrying a knife, tougher police and prison sentences when that happens, shops banned from selling knives to young people and schools and community groups doing an educational process whereby young people are discouraged from carrying knives.

What? Listen to it on the radio. Newsbeat phrase their statement as a question. You can hear the question in the reporters voice. She is expecting an answer. Granted she seems unable to actually ask questions, and just makes statements with a rising emphasis at the end to imply a question, but if you speak English you can hear the questioning tone.  However, our glorious PM ignores it. It is really like he has been asked a different question and Newsbeat dubbed their own over the top of it. Nothing he says bares any relation to the question.

Bizarre.

Are we really in such a disconnected world that any of this makes sense? Do politicians think this is acceptable? Do reporters? (He wasn’t challenged on it).

Equally sad, but much more common, is the idea that the experiences of a nurse at the Bristol Royal has such an insight into national trends that their comments outweigh national reports. Even if they are the person who records every admission (and the cause) they have no idea what is going on in Liverpool, Barnsley, Truro, Southampton (etc.). The national statistics are based on reporting from various sources and show the national trend. Knife crime can go down 90% nationally but still show an increase in a region. That an otherwise well educated nurse doesn’t understand this element of statistics gives me concern over how disease surveillance is carried out.

The BBC mentions the “crime hotspots” that were targeted, and show a reduction:

The 10 knife crime hotspots are London, Essex, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, South Wales and Thames Valley.

Unless the Bristol Royal has moved across the River Severn  into Wales, it is not in that list. It could show a trillion percent increase and the governments figures for the crime hotspots would still be down. This nurse’s experiences may be 100%, but they are irrelevant. The only way this person could have had real impact was if the debate was about knife-crime admissions to the Bristol Royal Infirmary. But it wasn’t.

Still, in this day and age of citizen journalism, no one was going to say this. The nurse’s (and others) comments were treated as valid counterpoints to the report and dutifully skipped around by the PM. Are the BBC’s news reporters really so empty that this seemed reasonable?

Sadly the answer seems to be “yes.” Well done Great Britain, I am so proud.

(*) Please note, this is a link to the current newsbeat page – the actual content I am talking about here may have gone by the time you read this. If you can, though, this is worth listening to. Its almost like they re-recorded the PM and asked him different questions…

(**) For an arbitrary value of massive.

When all else fails, blame the Internet

On this morning’s bus journey, I read in what appears to be yesterday’s Metro, from the date on the Metro website version of this article, (although I can’t believe the Metros has a Sunday version.)

Web vengeance on Baby P couple
The identities of the mother and stepfather of Baby P have been posted on the internet – along with messages urging convicts to attack them.

The baby P story is a truly mind-numbing story, involving the torture and murder of a baby, at the hands of his mother, stepfather and the lodger. The child was listed by social services as being at risk, The police had already been involved and had sought a prosecution. No one seemed able to save the lad’s life. It’s one of those stories that push the boundaries of your capacity for rage.

The visual presentation of this story has been disturbing, even for those who can’t bring themselves to read the court statements. The police released a 3-d rendering of a baby’s head with a catalogue of injuries. The next day, the papers followed this up the image with pre-injury pictures of an angelic-looking little blonde boy.

Every one involved – which now means most of the UK population – has been looking to find someone or something to blame. The almost inconceivable stupidity of the social services staff seems a fair target. The government has set up an enquiry. A BBC Panorama programme tonight will investigate claims by police and a senior social worker that they recommended that the child be taken into care. (Hindsight is 20/20, as teh saying goes.)

But, the actual culprits have already been found guilty. The visceral response is to want to execute them. Of course, faced with these backward and depressed people, no doubt themselves abused as children, the quality of mercy would get the better of this instinct, for most people. After all, that’s why most of us are not murdering simpletons.

Understandably, many people expressed their natural fury on the Internet. Intemperately, yes. Still, it seems quite bizarre to see that now this means that the Internet has got to take the blame. As usual.

There was already a half-hearted attempt to blame the Internet in the trial reports when it was reported of the mother that

When she was awake, she spent much of her time on the internet, gossiping in chatrooms and playing online poker.

I am no fan of either moronic chatrooms or online gambling. But, I find it hard to draw any connections between either of these activities and child murder.

Similarly, I can’t see that venting rage on the Intenet is much of a crime either. The argument seems to be that internet rage is bad because it will find its expression in attacks on the guilty three.

Late last week Facebook shut down pages carrying threats and abusive comments about the mother, including one entitled: ‘Death is too good for [the mother's name], torture the bitch that killed Baby P.’
Another was added yesterday and had been viewed by at least 6,000 people last night.
The mother’s profile page on Bebo was removed after abusive messages were added.
The postings demonstrate the ease with which the law can be breached online.

How odd that writing (richly deserved) insulting comments on a website can be a crime. Indeed, unless, the web access in x prison is much more generous than in my (non-custodial, though it sometimes feels otherwise) workplace, I don’t even see how the mother will get to read the comments.

I am most baffled by the idea that identifying these people and saying vicious things about them is somehow equivalent to instructing fellow prisoners to injure them. And that such orders – from people unknown – will be followed to the letter.

Are there people in jail who assume that behavioural instructions on the internet have the force of law? Well, more than the force of law, apparently, because they may not be too responsive to the force of law, given that they are in jail.

Would a random cheque-fraudster who finds him or herself sharing a cell with one of these disgraces to humanity think “Oh, we’ll get on really well” but then read the undisobeyable internet instructions and be obliged to torture and kill the said disgrace to humanity?

Poor people cause all problems

Once again, the UK government shows the contempt with which poor people are viewed.

From today’s BBC news, the home affairs select committee have reported:

Pub happy hours should be banned and supermarkets stopped from selling alcohol at a loss in order to combat drink-fuelled disorder, MPs have said.

This has been on the news all day, with various organisations coming out in support of the idea that alcohol should cost more. Even the British Beer & Pub Association are in favour of the idea (but this is because the cheap beer promotions are costing them money, not because of any sense of civic duty).

Now, there is no doubt that drunken behaviour is a problem. I am not saying it doesn’t cause trouble within communities and within families. I am sceptical of the scale of the problem – I don’t think it is in any way worse now than it was when I was a teenager, when we had the same claims being made. However, given that large amounts of police resources are being thrown at the problem, you’d think it would have had some effect. Personally, despite what the tabloids claim, I have encountered a lot less drunken violence on a night out now, than I did 15 years ago, but this may be an deviation from the norm.

What does confuse me though, is how in Hel’s Kingdom making it more expensive is a solution?

People who get drunk in pubs and fight are the problem. People who have become alcoholics and steal to fund their addiction are the problem. How does making supermarket alcohol more expensive solve either one?

In reality, all it does is impact those less able to afford the drinks – arguably making theft increase – and like all stealth-taxation, it disproportionally impacts the poor. Even moderately wealthy people are going to be immune to an increase in the price of supermarket alcohol (I am biased, I rarely if ever drink so never buy it in a supermarket). Most people I know will buy a bottle of wine or two when they do their weekly shop. They are not causing the problems but will be most affected by the changed price and, in lots of cases will simply have to do without something they enjoy

The people who are causing problems – largely irrational youngsters – will remain unaffected. They will still have a disproportionate disposable income and still be willing to spend it all on a night out. They will still be immature and the most affected by the alcohol. They will still fight and cause public disorder.

The only people who will suffer are those who are already poor. Are they the only ones who cause trouble?

Sometimes I feel like we live in an odd parody of a medieval fiefdom. We have a wealthy class “Lording” it over the poor who are legislated like chattel. Poor people have the least say in how society treats them and are, generally, the ones blamed for the failings of society.

Rather than treat alcoholics, provide better outlets for the energy of youth and better health education, we regularly fall into the “make it cost” more trap. Rich people can pollute the planet, strain the health service, fight in the streets (etc), but Odin Forbid that the serf’s consider it.

I cant wait until we get the renaissance.

Banks Fumble, Taxpayers Punished

The current “banking crisis” has been pretty hard to ignore of late, but here in the WhyDontYou ivory towers, we have tried. Partly this is because both of us are in (largely) economy immune employment sectors and partly (mainly) because neither of us can really fathom the nonsense being thrown about in the news. Given that both of us are required by profession to be mathematically astute (yes, really) it could be taken to imply that the average citizen would be even more lost.

With this in mind, it is entertaining to watch the news about the crisis when it pretty much only shows scared-to-death financial experts going on about weird ways of selling things you dont have (short selling) and how important the banking risk takers are to society. They are so important that the rest of society has to protect them should their risk taking go wrong. Being ignorant of the financial wizardry, this strikes me as being totally insane, let alone unfair. This post (long, sorry) is pretty much a way for me to let off steam about something that is destroying peoples lives and, basically, really annoys me. I would welcome your comments and feedback on my take – if I am wrong, please educate me.

There are two headline examples today (in the UK at least) – The UK Government take ownership of the crap part of Bradford & Bingley, after selling the good bits to a Spanish bank; The American government fails to secure a $700bn line of funding for its banks to keep them safe. (Neither are good news items. Neither are going to reassure people that their future is safe. Do not mistake a light tone here for a lack of concern)

Some Background

UK first. Starting about 20 years ago there was a big rush for building societies to become banks – changing from being basically there for a group of people in one area (eg. Bradford, Halifax) where everyone who paid in was a member to becoming a limited company, where some of the members became shareholders. In the process, especially throughout the 1990s the drive was on for these banks to press hard and return massive profits for the shareholders (often a tiny subset of the Building Societies membership). At the time (and in principle it still does) this seemed a good idea. Most people got a bit of money (sadly for most of the members this was just a bit – around £100) and a few people got lots and lots of money. Everyone was happy.

From this, there was a drive in the finance sector to target more and more high risk trades, where often the winnings were large beyond the avarice of mortal man. City bonuses in the millions ceased to be newsworthy and sales of high end sports cars went through the roof. Being a “risk taker” became the nicest thing you could say about someone. We (the public) were dimly aware that there was a risk it could fall down on the bank (Barings) so we accepted the ostentatious lifestyle of the successful. For some reason we were convinced it was down to skill and intelligence rather than basically throwing dice and hoping for the best. These were people who worked hard predicting the markets and had a rare skill in knowing where the trades were. Or so we thought.

Hidden for most of the time were the downsides to this.

Insane wages in London made the already insane prices there spiral out of control. People began to think that paying £750,000 on a one bedroom apartment was a “good investment.” In turn, this priced even well paid people out of the city, so prices near London went up (often even faster if it was commutable and “nice”). For the last ten years it has been impossible for anyone on less than twice the average wage to even think of buying a house in the south of England, without a hugely fiddling their application – so they did. People overstated their income, understated their expenses, and took insane repayment terms hoping they’d get on the gravy train before they had to pay the capital. Lots of these people had “normal” jobs and were not aware that they were bearing the same risk that the Ferrari driving millionaires living in central London appartments had. The public never benefited from the wins so, rightly you would think, assumed it was safe from the risks.

Wrong. (More on that in a minute)

A similar story in the US (I assume, I have no idea of the background). From my visits, the gulf between rich and poor in America vastly outstrips that in the UK. I have always thought that if you were filthy rich, there is no better place to live than the US, but if you were penniless poor the UK wins. Rich people in America are really rich. I am amazed the poor survive one day to another.

In recent years, the risk loving traders have really had a few field days in the US. Massive windfalls made rich people richer. They took huge risks, which often paid off. People applauded them for having the guts to risk so much, making it hard to condemn them for their salaries and bonuses. As with the UK, most Americans had some fallout from this (house prices going up for example) and people begin to think that property is the best investment, so take some personal risks to buy a house. In turn the bank takes a bit of a risk lending to them, but often at crippling interest rates that will see the bank get its money back in spades.

Eventually, as everyone with hindsight knew it would, the whole system explodes. That is the thing with taking a risk, sometimes you get hurt.

Here is where my understanding and reality part company.

Current events

I have always thought that you took a risk, gambled something for example, sometimes it would pay off and other times it wouldn’t. Some risks are “low risk”: for example, betting that a tossed coin will land on either heads or tails rather than its side is quite a low risk bet – you are a lot more likely to win than lose. Some are “medium risks”: betting on heads in our example. Some are “high risk”: betting the coin will land on its side. They all make sense to us and we live with this sort of understanding on a day to day basis.

The world banks have paid their “High Risk takers” absolute fortunes because they take high risks. This is fair. If I bet £1000 on the coin landing on its side and I won, I would expect to win big, if I bet £1000 on the coin not landing on its side, I would expect to win a tiny amount simply because I wouldn’t expect to lose.

For most of the last two decades, the amazing thing is the risks have (on the whole won). The coin has landed on its side a lot. People have won big.

The problem is people then forgot what a risk it was. If you win something that is high risk enough times, you forget that it is high risk and assume the opposite. The merchant banks have been so successful with high risk ventures, they forgot that “high risk” meant dangerous and plowed more and more money into it. They still throw around the terms, they certainly still paid the bonuses, but everyone assumed it would never happen.

Then the coin came up tails and everyone lost. Everyone who had bet big, lost big.

Oddly, this came as a shock. The great and bold risk takers were mortified. Nothing hits a herd as fast as panic and the trading centres of the west are no different. Contagious fear spread everywhere and a generation of “risk takers” who actually had no idea about risk were the most affected. The less scrupulous traders saw a chance to strip the foundations of fragile structures and asset rich, stable organisations took a massive hit (Bye, bye HBOS). The wonders of a free market allowed short-selling and a few scares to destroy a company with solid resources – can you imagine how scared the rest must have become.

Risk?

So, in the interests of a free market, the government steps in and saves the companies. The government spends billions of the taxpayers money to rescue institutions that have, basically, gambled themselves out into the street.

This is where I am confused.

In the UK, the government has reportedly taken over a £50billion debt on behalf of Bradford and Bingley. That is effectively £1000 per person so that the demutualised, risk taking, company can survive. Although we were not aware of the risk we were taking, nor did we share in the rewards, everyone of us in the UK was involved in the gambles these people were taking.

The US has the same problem. The $700bn bail out (good idea or not) is a phenomenal sum of money. The high flier financial wizz-kids and their high risk lifestyle would cost every one of the 300 million people in the US over $2000. For someone on federal minimum wage, that is 321 hours work – 40 working days – to save the rich from becoming poor (I know it is not quite that simple). Instead, the poor get a little bit poorer. Wonderful.

The US must be the only modern democracy where funding the rich bankers is a more appealing proposition than giving healthcare to the sick. That confuses me.

To confuse me even more, the news today had lots of talking heads on both sides of the Atlantic saying how it might seem strange but it was vital that the taxpayer (poor) bail out the bankers (rich) because. Often simply because. Sometimes there were vague, dire, warnings about the economy, but most of the time it was just a simple statement. We have to do it.

Why?

I don’t doubt that letting one or two banks slip will cause even more panic which will destabilise the economies, but if the US has $700bn and the UK has £20bn going spare, then surely we can weather some rough times. When the average person on the street still has money for shops to take off them, then the economy will still work. In my mind that is where the salvation needs to be pointed.

Equally odd, is this new definition of risk.

If I gamble my house on a high risk deal and lose, I lose my house. Will the government bail me out? (Well, in the UK we have social housing but that is different) It is unlikely. For me, betting on high risk stocks is just that – high risk. I stand to gain but I also stand to lose everything.

If a bank gambles the houses of 20 million people and loses, well they really lose nothing. Poorly paid staff will get laid off but the “risk takers” are immune. The organisation is immune because as long as it cries loudly enough the government helps. For the banks, betting on a high risk is actually risk free. They will either gain a lot, or lose nothing.

Why is this acceptable? Why is this considered normal? Why are we still hearing that it is all down to the taxpayers to save these banks? Why not claw back the multimillion bonuses? Why not fine the fund managers? Why are they allowed to gamble without risk, yet still be thought of as “cool” risk takers?

Crime and Punishment

The most sickening thing about the whole deal is not just that the taxpayer has to suffer.

If, through negligence or design, I caused someone to lose out to the tune of £1000 there are laws that would punish me. If I gambled £1000 of someone else’s money without their knowledge and lost it, I would expect the police to visit me and to end up in jail.

It seems, however, if you do it with enough people then not only does the government step in to cover your debts, but you dont even get punished. In the middle of the credit crunch, UK stockbrokers were still getting massive Christmas bonuses (just not as massive… poor things).

While it often smacks of unscientific voodoo, I accept what the “finance experts” say and that the state has to prop up these failing institutions. However, why should the people who have caused this problem be allowed to walk away? If, for example, the fund managers and directors of each organisation were to be fined in proportion to their participation, the rescue plan’s tax burden would be a sweeter pill.

Alternatively, if this heralds a new era of tightly controlled financial markets, where crazy risks are punished, and these people are not simply able to start ripping the world off again in a few years then, again, it becomes a bit more acceptable.

I think the problem is, this will never happen. The hint that the US bail-out would be followed with government involvement meant that the Republicans stood against the great George Bush and turned down the bill (*). It seems the only way a rescue plan will be approved is if it carries no strings or punishments. Basically, the bankers are free to risk all our money without having to worry…. (Slightly better over here, where we are more accepting of government control and oversight).

What a wonderful world.

(*) This adds an ironic twist. I strongly think that the Republican party expect to lose the next election. McCain/Palin are their idea of a joke. They know the country and the economy is about to tank, and the war in Iraq has gone badly. If they lose the election, Obama will be handed a hospital ball of a presidency. Unless he is truly Odin’s chosen one, come the next elections people will still be smarting from the economic crisis and will be ready to turn to the Republicans once more. Taken in this light, both Bush’s plan to asset strip the country, and the parties refusal to do something that (on the surface) benefits the public makes sense.

Can you be too cynical?

Baltimore isnt just in Maryland

David Simon wrote in the Guardian today. I hate trying to write anything about the Wire. I can’t do it justice. I just end up gushing about its genius or calling it Dickensian, a phrase that was neatly satirised in Series 5.

I also hate the way that appreciating the Wire has become a shorthand for being “hip and sensitive” in the UK, as I noticed when a fair few people interviewed in the Guardian, a couple of months ago, claimed to “only have a TV to watch the Wire….” (I find the Guardian’s Wire discussion forum too irritating to read, even though I have to admit that it’s mainly because the people who contribute so lamely and pretentiously just make me aware how lame and pretentious I sound on the same subject.)

Anyway, there’s a bit in this excellent piece where I think David Simon misunderstands the European popularity of the Wire.

But at the same time, I’m acutely aware that our dystopian depiction of Baltimore has more appeal the farther one travels from America. The Wire is, of course, dissent of a kind and it is true that there are many of my countrymen who are in fundamental disagreement with the manner in which the nation is being governed and managed. But somehow, it sounds better to my ear when it’s my own people talking trash and calling our problems out……
…But the emotion in all of that sometimes leads the overseas commentary about Baltimore and The Wire toward something that I don’t recognise as accurate.
Baltimore is not the inner circle of hell. It is not entirely devoured by a drug economy that serves as its last viable industry. It is not a place in which gangsters routinely fire clip after clip, spraying the streets in daylight ambushes. It is not unlivable, or devoid of humanity, or a reservoir of unmitigated human despair.

It may be about Baltimore but it’s not just about Baltimore. The truth of the Wire isn’t that it describes Baltimore life accurately. It clearly doesn’t. It’s a TV series not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Artistic licence, ffs. What is true in the Wire is the truth of art, i.e. what it says about being the human condition. You’d imagine the only people who would watch it and assume it’s all literally true would be those people who follow soap story-lines as if they are reportage.

I don’t know anything about Baltimore but it’s a pretty “true” depiction of my neighbourhood and my city. Parts of my neighbourhood and parts of the life of my city, granted. Not true all the time and not true of everybody, but there’s enough reality in there for me to recognise it:

Racism; violence; gang warfare; war on drugs; wars over drugs; corruption; soul-destroying education; hopeless kids; traditional industries destroyed; gentrification, and all.

That doesn’t make my city an inner circle of hell, either, although parts of it might qualify as outer circles. Baltimore doesn’t have a monopoly on that stuff. It could be almost any city in the former industrial centres. It’s also just as true of many cities in the emerging economies. What’s amazing about the Wire is not just its accurate sociology, though.

It’s the writing, it’s the characters, it’s the acting, it’s the attention to visual detail. It’s the fact that someone managed to make a series that is really great on a standard superficial TV-watching level and still cram in a social analysis at the same time.

Bank Security?

Here in the UK things such as ID-theft and bank fraud are “big news.” It feels like almost every day there is a news item about the government or large organisations losing personal data or a scare about how many people are out there stealing our online banking details. While I have a professional interest in people worrying about information security (and will provide a wonderful consultancy service for a discount if you quote WhyDontYou Blog) I have to say there is more than a small dose of hype and overkill in this.

That said, there is a risk and it is only sensible that people are aware of the potential risks and given the correct advice to mitigate against them.

The important bit is the “correct advice.”

In the UK at least, the Banks are largely responsible for making good any fraudulent use of an account unless they can prove it was the account owners fault. This is a good thing and while the banks will suffer a bit because of some stupid people, the majority of “innocent” victims are protected.

Obviously the banks dont like this. They could take measures to improve their banking security or they could take measures that give a superficial improvement but, on the whole, only shift the burden onto the account holder. Not too long ago, in the UK, if you wanted to buy something with a card you had to sign to prove who you were. The shop owner compared this with the signature on the card and verified your ID – if they were in doubt, they could seek additional documentation. Despite what people think, signatures are hard to forge. This method also forced the shop keeper to physically check the card and read the details.

Despite this, there was still some residual fraudulent activity so the banks changed the process to “Chip and PIN” where you now enter your card into a reader and type in a 4 digit PIN. Wonderful. This is a reasonably secure system but it has a few pitfalls. The most basic is often the shop staff have no contact with the card during the transaction. This means they don’t carry out the basic authentication check of seeing if the person before them is the owner of the card. My wife regularly uses my credit card to shop, because nowhere we go checks that the person in front of them is Mr **** ****** despite it saying that on the front of the card in big letters. This is less important because the 4 digit PIN becomes the safeguard, but basically, it makes it easier to pass of a cloned / fraudently created card – 4 numbers are reasonably easy to find out or, if the card is “created” then they are irrelevant. As far as security goes, this is (largely) marking time. But it does the important task of moving the burden away from the bank.

The latest brainwave the banks have come up with actually annoys me.

Barclays Bank has decided to implement “PINSentry” when you log into their online banking or try to make online payments. Wonderful idea. Well, maybe.

In a nutshell, they have sent everyone a card reader that you use when you log in. To do online banking, you enter your password (etc) as normal, then you have to enter your card into the reader, get an authorisation code and enter that. All well and good – in fact this is a wide scale implementation of a time-worn authorisation system. Previously the entry system was username+password, then a “secret” code. Now the secret code has been replaced by this token generation system.

The problem is that it undermines one of the reasons you do online banking. For me, I like to use online banking from various locations – I often use it from work and if I am travelling. If I were a Barclays’ customer I would now be forced to carry this bloody stupid PINsentry device around with me. Should my bag be stolen, the thief would have my card and the PINsentry, defeating any security improvement it gives.

From the banks point of view, however, it is a good idea. It shifts the burden of blame in the event of a fraudulent transaction. Now you have to prove your PINsentry was compromised, not them having to prove their systems were not compromised.

This is not a good change. It doesn’t really make your transactions any more secure. It just makes you more to blame if something goes wrong. (Even, I suspect, if the bank has sold your details on eBay…)

An Olympic Sized Lesson

Some sad news today, with a bit of a reflection on the current fear-based legislative ideas that grips the west.

From the BBC:

Sixteen Chinese policemen have been killed in an attack on a border post near Kashgar city in the western region of Xinjiang, state media say.
Two men drove a lorry into a group of jogging policemen before attacking them with explosives and knives, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is sad news and my condolences to the families of all those involved (on the massive off-chance Chinese people can even read this blog).

It shows that the evil of terrorism is truly a global problem. Oddly, China is on record as having an astoundingly appaling human-rights record. It has laws that would make almost anyone in the “free” west blink twice. It has oppressive laws controling how its citizens can (and can’t) behave, forced ID controls and monitors the activities (on and off-line) of its population.

In short, China has the anti-terrorist powers that most western governments would die for.

Did it prevent this attack? Obviously not. Is there any reason to think that people in China are safer from [terrorists|murders|paedophiles|insert bugbear of choice] than any western nation? Well, no.

If anything, history shows that the more oppressed a population becomes, the greater the “revolutionary” response — oddly the US is both an example of this and the figure-head of the New World Order. Terrorists (revolutionaries) find fertile breeding ground where one segment of society feels it is being treated unjustly and no amount of monitoring, surveillance, torture (etc) will prevent this. The current War on Terror is especially ironic as the “terrorists” hate the west because of our freedoms. In our goal to prevent them turning us into oppressive nations we are becoming an oppressive nation.

Well done us.

Is there a solution? If there is, I don’t have it. In the UK terrorism is outlawed by criminal law. Terrorism is a crime. Can a 100% crime-free utopia exist?

For me, the only reasonable solution is to accept the fact there will always be some level of crime (murder, terrorism, burglary etc) and find a situation where we can minimise its impact without destroying the freedoms we once considered universal and self-evident.

Is that difficult?

No Photo Day 2008

Following my posting yesterday (although I doubt the two are linked), I received a message on flickr today, inviting me to join a group (No Photographs Day / 15.DEC.2008) that read:

All,
We, the photographers of the world, are at risk. More and more we are viewed with suspicion, more and more we are subject to illegal interpretations of new anti-terrorism laws, more and more are we stopped and our cameras, our film, our digital media are either confiscated or wiped by officials unaware of the real laws. More and more are we bullied, more and more are we treated with disrespect and fear.
This needs to stop.
This group is to organize a protest.
This protest will involve attempting to get *every* member of flickr to refrain from uploading *any photographs* on a specific day.
This day will be Monday, December 15th 2008.
Join the group, put it in your diaries, tell your friends, discuss in the group, tell people you know in the media, come together.
Come together before it’s illegal to use a camera in a public place.

Now, I am not yet convinced of the value this action will take, but I rarely see the point in “awareness raising” activities so that is not unusual. However, the group does address something I have begun to become interested in (which is why I have “raised awareness” of it through the medium of blog).

Added to this, it (worryingly) seems there are many groups of people who have had problems in one way or another because of their interest in photography:

Representative or not, it is a sorry state of affairs if people in the “free” civilized societies in the west can not carry out a harmless pastime that has been enjoyed for a hundred years. Wont life be better when we carry our papers round, are stopped at random by non-Police Security / Border Guards, are monitored 24/7, have all our emails sifted through by civil servants, be imprisoned for drawings …

Welcome to the New World Order.

Identity Cards Will Cure All That Ails You

Well, first off, thanks to Alun sending me the link to the monstrously funny site called “spEak You’re bRanes” and the simply amazing Twat O Tron, I no longer have the faintest idea if the garbage posted on the BBC website’s have your say section is even slightly real. Worryingly, I think that the gibberish there is actually posted by real people. I say real people, but now I am convinced they are actually employees of the Home Secretary posting nonsense in a thinly disguised attempt to change public opinion. I would hate to think that people this stupid would be able to use a computer well enough to access the internet.

One of today’s talking points is the prospect of introducing Identity Cards to this once free nation. Weirdly the BBC seems to have used the wrong tense with the title, but it is called “Is the government creating a ‘surveillance society’?” and, boy, has it generated some nonsense.

Take this wonder from “Joy Pattinson” (claiming to be from Switzerland, but that just makes me think it is the Twat o Tron):

I have no confidence in this “government” whatsoever! They are unelected, uncouth and incompetent. But I am for ID cards 100% but think they should include everybody over the age of 12 with so much knife crimes in the UK. ID cards are in focus in other European countries and they are not considered security states. But I prefer to live in on with security and less personal freedom than the other way around. ID card protect the honest and legitimates. Those protesting are suspect! Joy

What? Seriously this idiot is claiming that carrying ID cards will prevent knife crime. How, Zeus only knows. I honestly cant even work out where to begin with this bit of nonsense. And, as a point of note, the Labour Party were elected to power in the UK, it is down to the party to decide on the leader of the government.

“John from Wilts” also produces a strangely “Twat-0-Tron”-esque comment with:

I have 2 ID cards both Spanish. One has my name and address on it and my Spanish NHS number and my fingerprint on the reverse. The 2nd card is my medical card with my NHS number and date of birth. Should I have an accident anywhere in Spain when the card is swiped it gives my doctors name my Consultorio (Surgery) and access to my medical records which would include any time spent in hospital and the treatment recieved. What fuss people make about ID cards here is entirely childish and petty.

Again we have another magical use for ID cards to save lives. Quite why some one from Wiltshire thinks a Spanish health service card is any use to them – or different from carrying your British NHS card – is beyond me. Does the NHS even have a system which would allow this?

Oddly, this wonderful life saving use of ID cards is not one they could be put to – so quite how John From Wilts thinks it is relevant is beyond me. Is this an opening shot in the inevitable mission creep ID cards are going to suffer from?

People who support ID cards have a list of things they think the ID card will protect them from. The fact that none of these match the government claims is ignored. Weirdly, the government itself seems unable to quantify what value ID cards will give to our society. What crimes in the (say) last 10 years would have been prevented by people carrying ID cards?

Still, despite this, there seem to be people capable of at least some higher brain functions who support ID cards.

Why?

I blame teh skoolz

On the Radio 1 news today there was a snippet (I am not going to look it up but it will be on the BBC website) about some truly stupid youngsters. Apparently, Police in Scotland have become the first in the UK to target people who admit to crimes on social networking sites such as Bebo and Facebook. (*)

Now, for me, I think this is a good idea. If people (mostly “yoofs” according to the news) are stupid enough to commit a crime and then boast about it online they need to be taken out of the gene pool urgently. One of the young lads interviewed had apparently put up pictures of himself in a balaclava carrying a knife. Why he went to these lengths to remain anonymous, then outed himself online is beyond me.

The most frustrating part, and a good example of how taking away the “classical” education has failed children was a young retard complaining about the police scouring social networking sites to find offenders. He actually had the gall to say it was an invasion of his privacy for the police to look over his Bebo page to find out what crimes he has committed. Flabbergasting.

For me, it weakens the real destruction of our privacy when people think things like this are an invasion of privacy. It is like putting a full page advert in a newspaper and then complaining that people reading it are invading your privacy. Idiocy reigns.

* Oddly I cant find this on the real BBC news so I may have dreamed it – but I hope not as I was driving at the time…