Turning away

Last night’s UK Channel 4 Dispatches was entitled Iraq’s Secret War Files.

I tried to watch it. A few minutes in, I had to switch off. There’s only so much harrowing you can take on a work night. And the few minutes I saw were too harrowing….. A crying child drenched in the blood of the two adults who had been shot in the front seat of a car with 5 children in the back.

The Dispatches web page for this programme starts with:

…exposes the full and unreported horror of the Iraqi conflict and its aftermath, revealing the true scale of civilian casualties; and allegations that after the scandal of Abu Ghraib, American soldiers continued to abuse prisoners; and that US forces did not systematically intervene in the torture and murder of detainees by the Iraqi security services. The programme also features previously unreported material of insurgents being killed while trying to surrender.

I can’t even begin to list the catalogue of horrors that follow on the rest of the page, let alone in the programme.

As I said, I had to turn away from the programme. (And watch the more relaxing repeat of Jim Al-Khalili’s Atom on BBC4.)

So, total respect to those people who don’t just turn away. Who don’t feel it’s like knocking your head repeatedly against concrete to keep speaking up about outrages. Because someone has to have the courage to keep on doing it

Like wikileaks. If ever there would be a well-earned Nobel prize, that would be one given to wikileaks and – even more so – to those people who put the good of humanity before their own fear of arrest and provided the information.

New outrage scale needed

Turn the dial to 11. These news items show the inadequacy of any existing conceptual scale to the task of measuring your daily justified-outrage level.

(1) The pastor and congregation of the Dove World Outreach Center have engaged in an Al Qaeda recruitment campaign. I doubt that they know enough French to translate the phrase agent provacateur but they seem to understand the concept well enough to to play this role. Albeit, well out of reach of the actions they plan to provoke.

Charitably, I will assume it is just a bid to put Dove World Outreach Center in every standard dictionary, whenever there’s a need for an instant definition of “unbelievable stupidity”, “religious bigotry”, or “armchair warrior”. (Plus a few other words and phrases that wouldn’t make it into a school dictionary. )

Maybe they think their god is too slow in hastening Armageddon and needs a helping hand.

The guardian had a ludicrous anti-Dawkins piece the other day, with the writer claiming that:

He has become the mirror image of the theological dogmatists he despises.

There’s nothing like the Dave World Outreach Center to show that – if anything – Dawkins has been pulling his punches.

(You don’t need a link from me. This story is everywhere as they clearly planned.)

(2) And this story that seems equally designed to boost the membership of fundamentalist armies by a factor of several thousand. The Guardian headlines:

US soldiers ‘killed Afghan civilians for sport and collected fingers as trophies’
Soldiers face charges over secret ‘kill team’ which allegedly murdered at random and collected fingers as trophies of war

Dare I hope there’s a holdall somewhere with the names of these soldiers and the Gainesville pastor on it?

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…)

Terrorism in the 21st century

Go on home Osama Bin Laden, you are so last century in your, frankly pathetic, attempts to destroy western civilisation. For over five years now we have heard the mantra about how evil Islamic Terrorists want to destroy the decadent, freedom loving, west and how they will try to bomb us into submission.

Basically they are just impatient amateurs. If they wait long enough we do it to ourselves.

Lets look at the world of 2008:

In my job, I travel by air a lot (*) and as a result get constantly annoyed by the idiotic rules we suffer under the guise of “security.” I get monumentally annoyed by the fact that I have to check in hours before my flight, but should I want a drink during the inevitable two hour delay, I have to pay extortionate airport charges because 101mls of water is deadly (while 99mls isn’t). I get really annoyed at the obnoxious attitude most airport security staff have – although, in all fairness this is probably a reaction to suffering annoyed passengers day in, day out…

Outside work, I am a hobby photographer. I love taking pictures on my travels and feel that the cities and towns of my own country are on a par with anywhere else in the world. However in the new world of “Security” taking photos in public places of tourist landmarks results in a uniformed member of the public (**) coming up to me and asking me what I am doing. Thor forbid that a terrorist group be inexpert enough to need to overtly set up a large Digital SLR to take photographs rather than use a mobile phone or compact camera (the millions of people doing that get ignored…).

Travel around the UK and you will be recorded on CCTV along pretty much every urban street. Go into a shop and you will be recorded on CCTV. Drive along the road and you will be subjected to all manner of electronic surveillance – because, basically, you cant have any expectation of privacy in a public place (***). Despite the idea all people are innocent until proven guilty, the government have decided that Islamic Terrorists are different and the state should be able to imprison them for 42 days before it has to show enough evidence to make a charge, let alone convict. Thank the Lords this has been rejected (for now).

In the UK, religion has always been a minor part of public life and thank Odin, this is still pretty much the case. However, since the Evil Islamic Terrorists appeared, there has been a (so far minor) upsurge in people equating “Christian” with “British.” As such, an attack by Islam on Christianity is being sold as an attack on our fundamental “Britishness” to the point at which the tabloids and tacky local TV have people talking in all seriousness about how the United Kingdom is a “Christian nation” and “Britain was founded by Christians for Christians” – obviously these historically challenged dullards are watching too much American propaganda but that is another issue.

This is the non-religious, freedom loving, civilisation that is so threatened by Islamic terrorists. Hmm. Osama would love it here. Ironically, even our recent fear-inspired legislation wasn’t quite enough to smash western civilisation.

Trumping an army of Osama Bin Ladens, when it comes to smashing down western civilisation the real master is simple free market economics.

It is a sad state of affairs that we can pass laws regulating every aspect of your private life, but even in the face of an economic melt down the thought of regulating “The City” is beyond the pale. City traders can, effectively, lose millions of other peoples money with not even a hint of censure – still getting huge bonuses on the eve of begging the taxpayer for a fortune to cover their losses. The crazy irony of this sees us giving them money so they can give it back to us and tell us it is our own savings… Despite their monumental failings, and complete lack of anything resembling expertise, the banking sector still claims it “knows what it is doing” and should be allowed to function unregulated. Can you imagine catching a con-artist stealing your money, then giving them more money because they know how best to get your money back!!! Insane is an understatement.

The collapse of Iceland’s banks, and their governments apparent refusal to honour international agreements, has caused huge damage to the UK economy – on greater scale than any caused by terrorist attacks (if you ignore the cost of ensuing wars). If I deprived my next door neighbour of £100 I would expect to be arrested and probably jailed, however it seems if you add a few extra zeros everyone forgets about it. Iceland basically have held a gun to the governments head and taken our money. Wars have been fought over much, much less.

In an amazingly scary example of economic understanding, the Conservative shadow Chancellor said that the government should reimburse the councils that lost money to Iceland otherwise council tax would have to be increased to cover the loss. This seems sensible until you realise the effect would be to increase the tax burden on everyone to cover the mistakes made by a few. How would that be fair? Is this what we are to expect from a Conservative government?

I agree with the Government that the national banks and banking infrastructure is critical to the well being of the United Kingdom. I also accept the assertion that it is so important, spending £50,000,000,000 to shore up a system broken by greedy, selfish scumbags is in the public interest. I accept that this will mean other aspects of the national infrastructure will suffer and I accept that this is a necessary evil.

What I cant understand is:

  1. How can something so vital to the nation be outside complete government control? More importantly, how can something so vital be so heavily influenced by foreign nations which, when push comes to shove, have national self interest at stake? This really confuses me.
  2. Why is no one being punished for this? The bank failings are either malicious (in which case why don’t we invade a random country like we’ve done in the past) or negligent. Or both. The claim this is just the “market” is nonsense – the city traders claim to be financial wizards but abjectly failed to see this happening – either they are crap or they were played. Either way someone should be held accountable.
  3. Why the **** haven’t we enforced rock solid legislation to control such a critical asset? We’ve spent over £1000 per living person in the UK on them, why aren’t we having any say in them?
  4. How on Earth are the bankers getting away with claiming they “know best” on how to handle the current situation? (See 2) Blatantly they don’t or if they do, they are working against the national interest.
  5. Why are UK public bodies (Police and councils) allowed to invest money in foreign institutions? The quest for an extra percent of interest has meant public money is being sent to a foreign nation. Let me reword that – money paid by UK taxpayers has been given to a foreign country. Rather than invest in the UK economy dozens of UK public bodies chose to throw it down an Icelandic toilet and when they inevitable happened they cry to the government for more money….

I am going to have to stop here. The madness makes me want to scream. If anyone can explain this to me I would be very grateful.

* Apologies to environmentalists, but unless you are willing to pay me not to fly, my choices are limited.

** Sometimes referred to a “Police Community Support Officers” but that implies they are trained members of the law enforcement community, when in reality 75% of them are nothing more than jumped up busy bodies who get to wear a hat.

*** Well, this is true by definition. However there is a “spirit” of the law thing to consider. While you cant realisitically expect to be private walking down the street you can expect the state to not surveil your every movements. While it can be argued that the almost blanket CCTV coverage is not directed against you, the fact remains it is possible for someone to retrospectively search the databases and track your every movement. The fact the surveillance is directed against 65 million people doesn’t stop it being directed.

Bush finally made a good decision

Wisdom and a desire to avert a full-blown Third World War aren’t characteristics normally associated with George Bush. So it was a shock – but an enormous relief – to see that Bush’s refusal to go along with an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities seems to have saved the world for a bit longer at least.

The Guardian reported today that

Israel asked US for green light to bomb nuclear sites in Iran
US president told Israeli prime minister he would not back attack on Iran, senior European diplomatic sources tell Guardian

The Guardian article says that

the US position was unlikely to change as long as Bush was in office

(That’s not very long then.)

Sci-fi and life

Sci-fi is fine as a genre. You’ll get no arguments against it from me, if you are thinking about comics or books or movies or TV series. Even the conventions and action figures and Klingon costume-wearing are endearing. But I draw the line at turning the real-world into the Matrix IV. (II was poor enough.)

Lockheed Labs and other military tech giants have an longterm project to bring art into life by creating battle droids.

The register has an ongoing thread, Rise of the Machines, that puts the battletech news in the public domain, in a tongue-in-cheek way. As the Register put it about the latest Lockheed tests:

‘Intelligent agents’ control droid legions: flee now
US aerospace colossus Lockheed Martin says it has taken an important step towards the inevitable rebellion of heavily armed, highly intelligent slaughter machines bent on the elimination of humanity. (We’re paraphrasing the company release, obviously.)
The arms globocorp announced yesterday that it had “demonstrated intelligent autonomous control of multiple unmanned systems” using its Intelligent Control and Autonomous Replanning of Unmanned Systems (ICARUS) kit. In other words, a small robot army was directed almost entirely by soulless machine intelligences, nominally overseen by a single human. The robots, in effect, were a heartbeat away from becoming fully independent.

(That’s like being “a heartbeat away from the presidency,” although these droids don’t yet come in a handy fundamentalist creationist soccer mom/bimbo format. )

This would be fair enough, if the droids are just going to fight each other. It would be a good idea the winner of a war being was decided according to which country’s team was the most successful in a round of Command and Conquer.

It might even be bearable to contemplate if there was much indication that human intelligence might ever be part of the war machine algorithms, with or without access to droid killiers. What are the chances of that?

Things for the USA to attack

TW’s last post referred to the New Scientist report that archaeologists are displaying common decency and refusing to list monuments to be protected in the event of a US strike on Iran.

Clearly, America hates anywhere that starts with the letters “IR”

And needs help to draw up attack maps. I will do the job that the archaeologists are too humane to do and list places that the US might like to attack:

  • Iraq (Sorry, too late, they already thought of that )
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • the Iroquois nation (Sorry, too late)

Well there’s only Ireland left. And I don’t think it’s overburdened with recognised world-class archaeological sites to obstruct the handily disposable population. Be very afraid, people of Dublin. (Dublin museum has some fantastic Viking era relics but the site they came from has already been dug up, with an office block stuck over it. The artefacts are all in the museum, in handily lootable form.)

Don’t worry, USA. I checked your own states and only 4 even start with the letter “I” (Idaho, Illinois,Indiana, Iowa) However, I don’t want to worry the citizens of these states but you may be next in the frame after Ireland. Or at least, after wars have been waged against Italy (Luckily for Italy, it has way too much archaeology to be a first strike choice), Iceland, Indonesia and the Isle of Man. Oh, and Israel… (well maybe not that one.)

A few more suggestions for quick and easy wins, thanks to online dictionaries and wikapedia:

  • Irish stew (an Irish excursion should do for this without using any extra firepower)
  • Iridium (some sort of chemical. No idea if this is actually part of weapons tech but that would be killing two birds with one stone if it was)
  • Ira Gershwin (He seems to be dead though.)
  • Irenaeus 2nd century bishop of Lugdunum, Gaul (He’s likely to be already dead too. He may even count as archaeology.)
  • Irapuã – a municipality in São Paulo state (seems to have population of 6,000 or so, barely worth the effort)
  • Irony
    (Not much good. You can’t wage war on an abstract noun, can you? Oh sorry, yes, you can. Terror. Drugs. Obesity, even. Ok irony stays in)