The audacity of hate

October 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal agents have broken up a plot to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and shoot or decapitate 102 black people in a Tennessee murder spree, the ATF said Monday.

After we’ve gotten over the horror that comes from reading it for the first time, we would do well to remember that this is fantastic news. This isn’t the first time someone has plotted to rob us of Senator Obama’s life, nor will it be the last, and the security services are owed a tremendous debt gratitude for their commitment, skill and bravery in breaking these plots before they break America.

But a plot uncovered is still a plot that’s failed, and when you remember that there’s only a smattering of psychopaths who’d dream of committing such a crime, and even fewer who would act on it, I think it’s fair to say that the cause of violent white supremacy has been dealt a heavy blow.

We should also remember, just as with the threat posed by terrorists, that their murderous motives are often defeated by their own grandiose stupidity. According to this report, these two guys really believed they could rob a gunstore, shoot 88 African Americans, decapitate another 14, go on a national killing spree and then somehow put themselves in a position to fire a shot at Senator Obama. Would anyone care to work out the odds of them pulling just one of these crimes off without being caught? No, me neither.

In their own very different ways, these skinheads have offered conclusive proof of something Obama’s been saying ever since he arrived in American life; that the colour of your skin has absolutely no reflection on the content of your character. With a lot of hard work, Barack Obama will be elected the next President of the United States, and when he does, America will have demonstrated that it’s easier for a black man to earn the highest office in the land than it is for a handful of embittered white racists to disrupt the amazing progress the country’s made since the abolition of Jim Crow.

That, my friends, is change you can believe in.

The war on kindness

October 25, 2008 at 10:47 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

It’s December 2006 and I’m still stuck in that awful void between leaving university and finding a ‘proper job’. I earn enough money for food, rent, cigarettes and cider by working in a newsagent’s in Meadowhall, and after eight hours of having my sanity shredded by swathes of obsessive shoppers, we head off into town to attend the staff Christmas party.

We’re about a hundred yards from the door of the all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant when a young woman approaches us. At first she seemed like any other Christmas shopper we’d served that day, but whilst she was carrying a clutch of high street shopping bags and was demurely dressed, distress was etched across her pretty young face. She tells us she’d come here by bus from Burton-on-Trent to do some last minute shopping, but has somehow misplaced her purse. Since all the shops are shut and she has neither a phone nor any money, she’s facing the prospect of spending a night on the street unless she can scrape something together for a bus ride home.

At this point her voice starts to break, she stops making eye contact and the tears begin to swell. She doesn’t want to do this, she says, but is it possible that we could loan her something – anything – to help her get back home?

My two workmates make their apologies – after all, none of us are paid above the minimum wage – but since my lapsed Anglican upbringing tends to burden me with an annual excess of goodwill, I ask how much she needs. Twentysomething pounds, she replies, in a polished, middle class accent. I take out my wallet and give her the exact amount.

The anxiety is instantly flushed away and replaced by a look of gratitude. She’s solvent, she promises, and she’ll give me her address so I can get in touch about paying the money back. Don’t worry, I say. Let’s just exchange names, I’ll give you my email address and you can get in touch when you’re home. After a dozen ‘thankyous’, a ‘Merry Christmas’ and a ‘have a safe journey’, we go our separate ways; me to the MSG drenched ‘Jumbos’ restaurant, her to ‘Burton on Trent’. And I never saw or heard from her again.

Until yesterday, when I was wandering around the city centre and caught the front page of the local paper:

Scores of Sheffield rail passengers were duped by a well-groomed junkie who looked like an innocent stranded in the big city. Often clutching carrier bags from upmarket stores, to dozens of rail passengers Rebecca Cosgrove looked every inch the respectable young woman who had spent the day shopping in Sheffield. In fact, she was a 25-year-old junkie with an “appalling” record of dishonesty who duped scores of rail passengers out of cash she tearfully claimed she needed to get home.

[…]

Her usual hard luck story was that she had been to Meadowhall and lost her purse. She would claim she had to return to Burton-on-Trent and was short of cash for the coach fare.

There are many aspects to this sorry tale that are far more mortifying than just losing £20. For me, at least, the most humiliating part was that it laid bare the pathetic pretence of my benevolence. I’ve given money to much bigger bad luck cases than Ms Cosgrove; I’ve frequently handed over a few quid to scuffed, slurring, shabbily-dressed human beings whose excuses were so see-thru it was like they didn’t care if you knew the truth. But would I have ever given so much money to someone who wasn’t as eloquent, attractive and well-turned-out as Rebecca was? Probably not; she knew that her appearance and her manner was the best way of extracting money from people and she exploited it with amazing efficiency.

But aside from just making me feel embarrassed, I worry that her talent for acting will forever poison the attitudes of those who’ve been burned. I really doubt that anyone, out of the scores of people who were cheated, will be willing to invest the same kind of trust in a needy stranger that they did with Ms Cosgrove – I certainly. All of the people who ‘loaned’ her money were willing to suspend the suspicion and doubt that comes with being approached in the street, and now that those doubts have been proved true, they’re far less likely to help out someone whose story is genuine.

Incidents like this can have a corrosive effect on society. They help spread the kind of disenchantment and cynicism that makes us less polite to each other, less trusting of each other, less compassionate and less helpful towards one another. Lest any of you think otherwise, this isn’t an endorsement of Cameron’s ‘Broken Society’; just an acceptance that a society is at its strongest when trust exists amongst its citizens, and its deeply saddening to see it being eroded.

But when I’m done with the sadness, the self-flagellation and the selfish pining for society, all I’m left with is compassion. Compassion for her addiction: that it was easier for Rebecca to create an identity, act out a scenario and cry in front of each person she approached than it was to kick the drugs should tell you everything about how destructive heroin can be. Compassion for her sentence: anyone with even a passing relationship with this blog will already know what I think about our prison system, particularly its effect on women, and I worry for anyone – anyone – who enters that system. And compassion for her future: this is Rebecca’s second time in prison, and I can only hope that – against all the odds – she can survive and build the kind of life her talent deserves.

From the moment I read yesterday’s paper I’ve had one recurring thought: she didn’t grow up wanting to do this. Rebecca Cosgrove is young enough and smart enough to build a great life for herself. I hope she finds the desire to build that life, that someone will take a risk and give her the opportunity, and that maybe one day she’ll be able to show the kind of kindness to a needy stranger that so many of us had shown to her.

Image by flickr user deneyterrio (Creative Commons)

Valerie Plame

October 25, 2008 at 10:25 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

I’ve been remiss in not posting this sooner. With a heavy hat tip to my friend The Better Neil, this is probably  the most joyous song about CIA operations officers in the history of recorded sound:

The Decemberists

Fascists & trade unions

October 23, 2008 at 11:18 am | Posted in British Politics | 1 Comment

Join the campaign to allow unions to expel fascists

Aside from that peerage for Peter Mandleson, this is one of the more irritating things to happen in the House of Lords for quite a while. Back in 2002 the rail union ASLEF was taken to court by one of its members after he was expelled for being a member of the BNP. He won, and so several years later ASLEF took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights and argued that the decision breached article 11 of the European Convention, which states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The court ruled in ASLEF’s favour by insisting that just as individuals have a right to choose whether or not to join a trade union, so trade unions have the right to choose their members. As a consequence, the government was compelled to introduce legislation recognising this ruling, and this became Section 18 of the new Employment Bill. But then the legislation was introduced into the Lords, and they couldn’t help themselves from interfering:

Under the revised Bill, trade unions will not only find it more difficult to remove fascists but individual BNP members will actually be afforded more protection than any other trade unionist.

[...]

A legal opinion on the Lords amendments concludes: “If the revised version of section 18 comes into law, I am convinced that it will become more difficult than ever for trade unions to expel BNP members. It will also be an opportunity for the BNP to pick publicity fights with trade unions, and also to waste trade union funds.”

Whatever conflicts might exist within the trade union movement – how close should they be to the government, how strongly should they campaign on certain issues, under what circumstances should they take industrial action – at its very heart lies a commitment to equality and solidarity, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexuality. Since these values are anaethema to a party like the BNP, unions should have the right to say that their membership is not welcome.

You can go here to show your support.

Making history

October 23, 2008 at 11:17 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

Ben Smith receives a really touching eyewitness acount of early voting in Indiana:

For me the most moving moment came when the family in front of me, comprising probably 4 generations of voters (including an 18 year old girl voting for her first time and a 90-something hunched-over grandmother), got their turn to vote. When the old woman left the voting booth she made it about halfway to the door before collapsing in a nearby chair, where she began weeping uncontrollably. When we rushed over to help we realized that she wasn’t in trouble at all but she had not truly believed, until she left the booth, that she would ever live long enough to cast a vote for an African-American for president. Anyone who doesn’t think that African-American turnout will absolutely SHATTER every existing record is in for a very rude surprise.

There were about 20 people in front of me but remarkably not a single person left the room without voting over the 2 hours it took to get through the line.

Obama’s grandparents

October 23, 2008 at 11:17 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

You will have heard by now that Madelyn Dunham, Barack Obama’s maternal grandmother and a woman he describes as a huge influence on his life, is gravely ill and may not make it through to November 4th. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates pens a beautiful tribute:

I was looking at this picture of Obama’s grandparents and thinking how much he looks like his grandfather. And suddenly, for whatever reason, I was struck by the fact that they had made the decision to love their daughter, no matter what, and love their grandson, no matter what. I’d bet money that they never even thought of themselves as courageous, that they didn’t give much thought to the broader struggles in the the world at the time. They were just doing what right, honorable people do. But the fact is that, in the 60s, you could be disowned for falling in love with a black woman or black man. There is a reason why we have a long history of publicly biracial black people, but not so much of publicly biracial white people.

We often give a pass to racists by noting that they were “of their times.” Fair enough, and I know Hawaii was a different beast, but still, today, let us speak of people who were ahead of their times, who were outside of their times. Let us remember that Barack Obama learned the great lessons of life from courageous white people. Let us speak of those who do what  normal, right people should always do when faced with a child–commit an act love. Here’s to doing the right thing.

Read the rest here.

Atheists on the bus

October 22, 2008 at 10:53 am | Posted in Misc. | 2 Comments

Atheist advertising on buses; like all the best ideas, it’s short and irresistibly simple, shouldn’t offend anyone other than the easily-offended and spreads a benign & positive message. Plus, everyone likes pretty flowers, right? Here’s Ariane Sherine on how the campaign started:

If the buses hit the road, this will be the UK’s first ever atheist advertising campaign. It’s an exciting development, which I never expected when I first proposed the idea on Cif in June. Back then, I was just keen to counter the religious ads running on public transport, which featured a URL to a website telling non-Christians they would spend “all eternity in torment in hell”, burning in “a lake of fire”. When I suggested the atheist counter-slogan (now shortened for readability), the response was extremely positive, and hundreds of you pledged your support after the follow-up article.

As you read this, a new advertising campaign for Alpha Courses is running on London buses. If you attend an Alpha Course, you will again be told that failing to believe in Jesus will condemn you to hell. There’s no doubt that advertising can be effective, and religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing. Religious organisations’ jobs are made easier because there’s no publicly visible counter-view to refute their threats of eternal damnation.

You can donate to the campaign here, and as an added bonus, Richard Dawkins promises to match donations up to £5,500. And who doesn’t want to see Richard Dawkins a little out of pocket?!

Curb your enthusiasm

October 22, 2008 at 10:06 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments

There’s been some jubilation on the Labour blogs about this OECD report on income inequality, and I’m frankly at a loss to understand why. For the Anglo-centric among us, the big headline is that whilst other ‘developed’ countries have experienced an increase in inequality, the gap in Britain has narrowed dramatically. Even though the banking crisis and global recession has made the report pretty antiquated (not to mention leaving us nostalgic for those long-gone days of stability), it does provide some good news and, on first glance, offers a rebuke to people like me who have criticised the government for not doing enough.

However, if you give the report’s findings slightly more scrutiny, you’ll find that there remain several reasons to curb your enthusiasm. First, the greatest reduction occurred during 2000-2005, and whilst it’s right to identify tax credits, the minimum wage and the New Deal as contributing factors, it remains true that the main driving force behind any reduction is greater employment, and the government can’t take sole credit for every job that was created during this period of growth.

Second, after 2005 these numbers begin to stagnate, which suggests the government’s policies have had only limited success and haven’t gone so far as to substantially tackle entrenched poverty and immobility. This would be confirmed by other studies showing an increase in poverty amongst both children and pensioners, greater health inequality and declining social mobility. We should also remember that Britain remains one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, that the poor remain massively effected by the spiralling cost of living, and that this government recently doubled the amount they had to pay in income tax.

The OECD report shows that Labour has overseen a reduction in the gap between richest and poorest, and their supporters are welcome to wave it in the face of a Conservative Party which contributed to its eye-watering rise and has no substantive plans for how to reduce it further. But before they get too self-satisfied, they’d do well to remember that by their own high standards, they’re still falling short.

‘The Troubleshooter’

October 22, 2008 at 10:05 am | Posted in British Politics, Misc. | Leave a comment

I know it’s mean to mock a guy who is, at best, a long shot of becoming Lib Dem President, but did nobody warn Chandila Fernando that this web advert makes him look like a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike promoting a made-for-TV movie? I know he’s trying to appear ‘Serious‘ (as opposed to the guy who appears in bad gameshows), but the existence of what looks suspiciously like a crosshair to the left of his head gives him the appearance of an edgy government agent hell-bent on destroying enemies of the state. When they find out that he actually just wants to streamline the party’s constitution, they’re going to find it something of an anti-climax.

Long distance relationships

October 20, 2008 at 4:06 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | Leave a comment

In an article which somehow manages to summon both emotion and analysis, Simon Pellew reminds us that a prisoner’s own family is also a victim of crime, but stresses the important role regular visitations play in the fraught, awkward endeavour to rehabilitate them:

Gary’s girlfriend, Lisa, was in tears. She owed a lot of money, was on medication for depression and Gary still had a year to serve of his sentence for armed robbery. Gary, in desperation, offered to “get out the balaclava” when he got outside.

What will stop him doing another armed robbery? Research published this week by the Ministry of Justice has shown that most prison work is ineffective. Their much-vaunted, and vastly expensive, cognitive behaviour programmes are not making any impact on reoffending rates. The MoJ is facing a cut in its budget of nearly a billion pounds. This will probably be the death knell of these programmes.

The only prison activities that seem to make a difference are: attending a prison job club, victim awareness courses and having contact with a probation officer.

However, there is one factor that makes an even bigger difference – family ties. A prisoner with no family visits has a 70% re-offending rate; those with family visits have a 52% re-offending rate. What could be simpler: keep the family strong and crime goes down. Hollywood is right – men are saved by a good woman.

More here.

Waitin’ for a superman

October 20, 2008 at 9:57 am | Posted in Barack Obama, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment

I don’t know whether it’s due to guilt, but there’s a trend among certain sections of the Decent Left to diminish  or dismiss the disastrous consequences of the Bush presidency with excuses like “you don’t know him like I know him,”/”he wasn’t all bad”, or by pointing to Barack Obama and saying some variant of “see, everything turns out fine & dandy in the end”. On Harry’s Place, a guy who shares my first name opts for both approaches and lists the reasons why we should all be glad that Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004. The reasoning isn’t strong.

1. The four years since 2004 have allowed Democrats to become more serious about international relations and back away from the Daily Kos activist fringe mentality. They have rediscovered internationalism, and retreated from a risk of isolationism.

First, if you’re going to make the mistake of judging a candidate by the caliber of their internet supporters then you can make exactly the same argument against George W. Bush; I don’t recall the right-wing blogosphere of the time placing great stock in temperance and rationality. Second, ‘the Daily Kos activist fringe’ had almost zero policy influence among John Kerry’s advisers, so quite why he raises the spectre of a bunch of keyboard-bashers typing the country into oblivion is a mystery.

2. The Democrats have avoided taking a major hit on the economy, so stand a better chance of two straight terms.

Certain sections of the economy were already in decline in 2004, not least in Ohio, which became a critical and decisive swing state. Whilst Bush wanted a privatisation of social security which recent events have shown would’ve been catastrophic, Kerry promised to implement a more progressive tax policy, discourage outsourcing and create incentives for companies that created jobs. Had he been elected and succeeded in implementing his reforms, it’s possible that the effects of a global downturn wouldn’t have been so deeply felt. Could he have stopped the banking collapse? Probably not. Would he have managed it better than Bush? Well, it wouldn’t have been hard, would it?

3. It gave Bush a chance to push the surge in Iraq through despite vigorous opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Remember Baker Hamilton’s recommendation to pull troops out of Iraq? Only Bush could have pushed the surge through, since he had little to lose. The surge has been a success. Long-term success is less dependent on Washington than it was in 2004, and more dependent on the Iraqi determination to succeed.

But as soon as he’d been re-elected, Bush spent two years pursuing the same fruitless & self-destructive strategy in Iraq and it took the demolition of his congressional majority in 06 to force him into changing things. We don’t know, of course, whether a Kerry administration could’ve brought about some semblance of stability to the country, but we do know that he was committed to staying there until it had been achieved and we can be certain that he wouldn’t have wasted two years ‘staying the course’.

4. Bush’s actions on HIV and tropical diseases in Africa should be recognised by more people than Bob Geldof. We may not see its like again.

This is certainly true, and Bush’s financial commitment to Africa – even taking into account the absolutely sinful ‘abstinence only’ stipulation – is one of the few credits of his Presidency. Yet this statement operates under the unspoken assumption that a Kerry administration wouldn’t have shared the same commitment, when the record shows that he opposed a cap on foreign aid and had already offered a more substantive aid proposal.

5. It has allowed a situation to arise where Obama has had the opportunity to become President, perhaps for two terms, at precisely the time that the rest of the world is becoming more open to the US – even before Bush goes. An Obama Presidency will change things.

This is a perfectly valid opinion. Personally, I think Obama’s political skills are such that he could’ve won the Presidency in several hypothetical scenarios, but it’s undeniable that the circumstances have benefited him.

The main reason I think it’s misguided to assume that America would’ve been better enduring two terms of George W. Bush, despite all it has wrought, and waiting for Obama, is that it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to correct all of Bush’s mistakes in 8 years. Obama isn’t superman, and whilst his presidency will certainly change things, that change requires more than one President to make it last. For him to leave the country with a lasting legacy will require his successor to share similar values and refrain from dismantling any good that he’s done. For that reason, it would’ve been better for the country and the world if he’d been running to succeed President John Kerry in 2012.

Lap dancing and the benefits of blogging

October 19, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Posted in Feminisms | Leave a comment

There are too many know-it-alls in blogland and not enough know-nothings. Whilst it’s probably self-defeating to position myself in the latter character, I was genuinely delighted by the responses to the question “why can’t we unionise lap dancers?” when it found its way over to Liberal Conspiracy. Since it has the benefit of speaking from personal experience, this comment by a dancer who’s involved in trying to organise this industry is the best of a really good bunch and deserves reprinting in full:

Speaking for the dancers – yes, in many venues we could do with better working conditions and rights. It would be great if venues had to give a concrete reason for sacking us, or if they couldn’t suddenly double the number of dancers or the house fee without some kind of justification or warning, or if they had to provide adequate changing facilities, security, a clean stage to dance on… However, dancers are difficult to unionise, for many reasons; and without the management agreeing to recognise union contracts or demands it’s all academic anyway.

Within London the majority of dancers are not originally from Britain and most do not plan to stay here long-term.  They’re here for a few years to send as much money as possible home, then leave. UK nationals may be stripping part-time to fund university, or to tide them over between jobs. In all those scenarios they just want to keep their heads down, make money and leave; they’re probably not registered self-employed, are not paying tax, and don’t want to appear on the radar. Joining a union is therefore risky. Also they don’t really care what happens to the industry and working conditions etc. long term.

Those of us who do see the job as a career, are registered self-employed etc would in many ways love to see it all better regulated (thought it’s working conditions within the clubs which needs to be looked at, not the bigger licensing picture; current licensing regulations are fine). But when 80 per cent of the dancers around you aren’t interested, it’s hard to get anything going.

Getting dancers to join the IUSW is a challenge as most dancers do not identify themselves as sex workers therefore the name of the union is an instant turn-off. More of us are Equity members, and get good benefits from them. The membership fees are also an issue as we already pay out so much of our hard-earned cash: we pay striptease agency fees, high house fees to the venues, all our travel/costumes/make-up/cab costs, those of us registered pay tax and national insurance, accident insurance in case we fall off the pole… It adds up to hundreds of pounds a week. we need to see concrete proof that union membership will benefit us before we’re prepared to pay out even more.

If I were to say, “I’m not going to work at any venue where i have to pay fees to go work there, that does not provide me with a locker for my property and valuables, that does not increase fees and dancer numbers at random, that always provides clean facilities” – then there would be virtually NO-WHERE in London I could work (ironically the best place I do is underground and unlicensed). We’re forced to carry on putting up with bad conditions as the other option is to find a new career.

I imagine it may be easier to unionise dancers outside of London, this is something the GMB is currently looking at.

In a way, what is required is a big threat (the current proposed licensing changes could be that) to draw everyone – dancers, management, agencies – together against a common enemy. At the moment, despite the bad conditions, there are enough good points (and some truly fabulous points – I love my job) that most of us don’t want to rock the boat and potentially put ourselves out of work.

Colin Powell’s plea for decency

October 19, 2008 at 8:57 pm | Posted in U.S. Politics | 1 Comment

I don’t post Presidential endorsements on this blog because they generally have little impact on the course of an election. I make an exception here because Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama is interesting on a number of levels. At its most basic, it happens to be one of the most eloquent, well-argued and persuasive endorsements the Senator has received, and at a time when both campaigns are transmitting nothing but white noise, it’s nice to hear a more thoughtful, measured assessment of the choices facing Americans.

But there’s a lot more going on here. Much of Powell’s endorsement is a plea for decency; whilst he softly stamps on the lie about Obama’s faith, he also attacks the implicit suggestion that there is something wrong with being Muslim, and speaks of a young Islamic American who was killed serving his country in Iraq. There is a tacit acknowledgement here that America’s public sphere is ailing just as badly as the economy.

He is as explicit as he can be about who is responsible for this startling decay; the former Secretary of State is horrified by what the Republican Party has become, dismantles the attacks on Obama’s patriotism and questions the judgement of selecting a woman who is neither qualified nor ready to assume the highest office in the land. It’s no secret that Powell was the most moderate member of George W. Bush’s cabinet, but he goes so far as to say that the party as a whole is so far to the right that it cannot be trusted with the power of appointing new judges to the Supreme Court. In a later video explaining his endorsement, he attacks the Minnesota representative who asked the media to investigate which members of Congress are anti-American, and even defends Obama on taxes. Yes, a Reagan Republican defended a liberal Democrat on the issue of tax. That’s how extreme the GOP’s rhetoric has become.

In terms of horserace politics, this matters little; it won’t close the deal for Obama any more than Joe Lieberman’s endorsement helped McCain. But what makes it significant is that this is the most high profile Republican yet to warn that the party is killing itself, has lost touch with the political centre, is alienating its most moderate supporters and is undeserving of power.

Whilst he’ll be villified & ridiculed in the short term, in the barren years to come he will receive the sincere gratitude of those who try to save the party from itself.

Department of corrections

October 19, 2008 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | 3 Comments

I’m aware that announcing “Melanie Phillips has said/written something which happens to be untrue” has all the headline-grabbing newsworthiness of “it’s raining in Sheffield”, but in this instance it does carry a rather delicious irony. In a post where she basically admits that she couldn’t care less if Sarah Palin turned out to be an imbecile because she’s a Christian and everyone knows that Militant Atheists caused (among other things) today’s banking crisis, Melanie chides the ‘appalling’ Joe Biden for his rather comical tendency to misspeak. According Melanie, Biden is a guy

whose career has been defined by serial grovelling to and appeasement of Iran with all the disastrous consequences that have flowed from that. Not to mention the fact that Biden also revealed during his TV debate that he thinks the US president during the 1929 Wall Street crash was Franklin D Roosevelt, rather than Herbert Hoover who actually was, and that FDR talked to the public about it on TV, which was not yet possible at that time. How can such an idiot be elected to serve ‘a heartbeat away from the presidency’?

Yeah, what a doofus. Only problem is, I watched the Vice Presidential debate and he said no such thing; he actually made the gaffe during an interview segment with Katie Couric. So in a paragraph where she assails the Democrat for getting his facts wrong, Melanie… gets her facts wrong. Brilliant.

To re-jig Phillips’ rather scathing rhetorical question, “How can such an idiot be paid to write for a national magazine?”

The grave uniqueness of 9/11

October 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm | Posted in International, Terrorism | Leave a comment

There’s a great deal to admire about Stella Rimington; not only did she give the best years of her life to keep the country safe, but her practically-minded critique of the government’s approach to anti-terrorism legislation fatally injured the notion that to oppose 42 days detention was to be ‘soft’ on protecting the public. Still, you can’t be right all the time, and about halfway through this interview she makes a statement which seems as incorrect as it is inartful:

The response to 9/11 was “a huge overreaction”, she says. “You know, it was another terrorist incident. It was huge, and horrible, and seemed worse because we all watched it unfold on television. So yes, 9/11 was bigger, but not … not …” Not qualitatively different? “No. That’s not how it struck me. I suppose I’d lived with terrorist events for a good part of my working life, and this was, as far as I was concerned, another one.”

Hmmm. I suspect this kind of dispassionate detachment is more of a virtue when you’re working for the security services than it is when you’re a member of the House of Lords. Now, arguing that 9/11 provoked a ‘huge overreaction’ isn’t particularly controversial – that argument, or some variant of it, has been deployed in the context of the Iraq war and against the panicked, draconian anti-terror measures seen both here and in the United States. No, the problematic part of this interview is her assessment that 9/11 wasn’t qualitatively different from other, non-televised terror attacks.

To know whether this is actually true, I think it helps to ask the following questions: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, did MI5 undergo any kind of internal reassessment of its threats, targets and modes of operating, and did this lead to any operational changes? It’s a question Dame Rimington could answer better than anyone, and if her answer is, as I suspect, affirmative, then surely that would reflect the enormity of what happened on that September morning.

Beyond that, I think it’s misguided to assume that events can be separated from their consequences, particularly when some of those consequences were inevitable. Leaving aside the unanswerable question of whether a more competent administration could’ve stopped the attacks from happening, it’s safe to assume that a President Gore would’ve responded by invading Afghanistan and authorising a vast expansion of anti-terror legislation. We can also be fairly confident that a Prime Minister Hague or Kennedy would’ve participated in said war and introduced their own anti-terror measures. It wasn’t the fact that we could see the carnage unfolding on TV that gave 9/11 its grave uniqueness; it was the terror of learning what these fanatics were capable of and the deep sense of foreboding that even more carnage would follow.

Update: Norman Geras has some related thoughts here.

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