Thursday, 27 August 2009

The War on Terror... and other abstract nouns

Almost from the moment Kenny MacAskill announced his decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the backlash began. For the first time since his inauguration last January, Barack Obama actually seemed pretty miffed. Even Gordon Brown claimed he was 'repulsed' - although this comment appears to be more directed toward the rapturous welcome the shellsuit-clad Megrahi received in Tripoli, than any comment on his release. Perhaps it was the shellsuit itself that Brown found repulsive.

Now I don't want to get into too much detail about Megrahi here. Plenty of people in the know believe that his conviction was unsafe, and based on circumstantial evidence - although this of course was not a factor in the decision to release him. Balancing the need to punish a man convicted of 270 murders, against the need to show that "we" have a moral superiority over terrorists and can recognise that in some circumstances it is better to treat people with compassion rather than revenge, is a minefield. I'll leave it to those who are paid to make these decisions.

But I do want to focus, briefly, on the backlash. And not just the silly idea of boycotting Scottish products which has been mooted, presumably by the Freedom Fries brigade.

Broadly speaking, it seems that the major objection to Megrahi's release - understandably - is that many families remain bereaved by the murder of 270 civilians back in December 1988. Worse than that, he has failed to show any remorse for the crime - not least, presumably, because he had (until his release) been appealing against his conviction.

I remember clearly when I first heard about the Lockerbie tragedy. I was horrified. There is something about terrorism in the air that really has an emotional impact. And of course the terrorists know this. 9/11 is the prime example.

So, fair enough, I say. If you lost a loved one on Pan Am flight 103, or on the ground in Lockerbie itself, then you have every right to feel angry about Megrahi's release. As many relatives of the victims have pointed out, Megrahi didn't show a shred of compassion to the people he killed, so why should he be the beneficiary of compassion? Why, indeed, should anybody who blows up airliners full of civilians feel anything but the full force of the law?

For example...

Five months before Lockerbie, the USS Vincennes was steaming through the Straits of Hormuz. At the same time, Iran Air flight 655 was flying from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. 290 passengers and crew were aboard the Airbus A300, including 66 children. In the process of chasing some Iranian patrol vessels, the Vincennes shot down the Iranian jet, with the loss of all lives on board.

It took four years for the US Government to admit that the Vincennes had been in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident, and that the Airbus had been in Iranian airspace. The Americans' explanation that the aircraft had been mistaken for an attacking F14 Tomcat is of course laughable - the Airbus is 54 metres long and cruises at 515mph; whereas the Tomcat is just 19 metres long and travels at up to 1,500mph. This is a bit like mistaking an African elephant for a domestic cat. In broad daylight. With state-of-the-art military radar and aircraft recognition equipment. And at least one decent pair of binoculars. And a big sign saying "This Is An Elephant".

In August 1988, then President George H W Bush said of the incident: "I'll never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are." Which just about demonstrates the US attitude to destroying aircraft in mid-air... unless someone else does it, of course. It wasn't until 1996 that the US agreed to pay over $130 million in compensation. Which sort of looks like an admission of guilt. A bit.

So where is the outrage? The commander of the Vincennes, Captain William C Rogers III, was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1990 by President Bush "for exceptionaly meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.... from April 1987 to May 1989". No trial took place, and Rogers was not subjected to a court-martial, despite the fact that he stated he did not believe the Airbus (which was transmitting an IFF code) was non-hostile. Sort of like mistaking a white flag for an RPG launcher, only even more stupid and reckless.

I don't know about you, but if I had lost a relative on Iran Air 655, I might be more than a little put out that the man responsible for its destruction was not only allowed to go unpunished, but was actually openly rewarded for his conduct at that time. Arguably, had the US taken this incident more seriously instead of attempting to cover it up, Lockerbie may never have happened.

But Iran Air 655 was still an accident, right? Well, possibly. But this wasn't.

6 October 1976. Cubana flight 455 is en route from Barbados to Jamaica, with 73 passengers and crew on board. Two explosions rip the aircraft apart, and the pilot crashes it into the ocean, once it becomes apparent he will not be able to make it back to land. All on board died.

14 October 1976. Luis Posada Carilles and Orlando Bosch are arrested in Caracas. Weapons, explosives, and a radio transmitter were found at Posada's company premises. Both men had been trained and employed by the CIA. A declassified CIA document quotes Posada as saying "We are going to hit a Cuban airliner... Orlando has the details" in September 1976.

8 August 1985. Two co-conspirators are found guilty of aggravated homicide in a Venezuelan court, and sentenced to twenty years. Bosch got off on a technicality (evidence wasn't translated into Spanish in time), and Posada escaped and went on the run.

Fast-forward to today. You might think that the United States government, with all the noise it makes about pursuing terrorists, might have nabbed these two by now. Perhaps they are languishing in some hellhole prison after being extraordinarily rendered by the CIA. Er, no.

In 1990, President George H W Bush (yes, him again) granted Bosch a pardon. He now lives in Miami. Posada was in fact arrested by US authorities in 2005, but only for illegally entering the United States. The charges were later dismissed - apparently because Posada faces the possibility of torture if extradited back to Venezuela. And they say Americans don't do irony. Like Bosch, Posada now lives freely in the USA - something that 73 innocent people will never be able to do.

Bosch, Posada, Rogers, and any number of other US-backed killers remain alive and at liberty; Abdulbaset al-Megrahi is about to die. It seems to me that Megrahi has served his sentence. Perhaps now we need to go after those who have yet to be held to account for their own crimes. And perhaps we can take some advice from a man that all US Presidents claim to follow: "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

I Found A Tory Policy At Last

I have been casually following the Healthcare debate in the United States recently, most notably because of some of the more bizarre and outrageous statements that have been made about Britain's "socialised" healthcare system. Did I say statements? I meant lies.

For example, Fox News's Glenn Beck - never a man closely acquainted with the truth at the best of times - claimed that world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking would have been left to die by the NHS. Hawking immediately rebutted:

"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he said. "I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived."

That just about covers that, then. Well done Glenn. As "fair and balanced" as we have come to expect.

It gets worse, though. Much worse.

Hypothetical question - what would YOU do, if you knew you had (a) no coherent argument, and (b) were about to lose a debate? That's right... you reach for Godwin's Law (Limbaugh), call the other side Nazis (Beck), and harp on incoherently about an "evil" system involving state-sanctioned murder by "death panels" (Palin).

Nurses model their new NHS uniforms [above]

Obviously we have come to expect this sort of behaviour from the Fox News brigade, and the shock-jocks. This isn't new. But for a recent VP candidate, and probable future Presidential candidate, this demonstrates an alarming shift towards the loony end of the political spectrum from the Republicans.

Even the British are at it (or, at least, one Brit who makes a career out of talking complete bollocks). The NHS isn't perfect, but this doesn't tally in the slightest with my experience of the NHS. This, however, is a reasonable riposte to Mr Hannan which I wholly endorse:

Despairing of anything that might resemble a proper fact-based debate in the United States, I turned closer to home to see if the recent elevation in this story's prominence might actually prompt the Tories to come up with a policy. I've been waiting a long time for this moment. Would "Call me Dave" Cameron oblige, or would there just be more mealy-mouthed words about supporting the NHS, while packing his team of health ministers with people paid by private healthcare companies?

Searching for Tory policies these days is no small task. Yes, they make statements on a daily basis - and some of these statements appear, at first glance, to be policy-type commitments... but on closer inspection they generally turn out to be piffle. Thus far, I have found one in particular that caught my eye, thanks to the snappy name they gave it - the "Bonfire of the Quangos". Oh yes, Tories, very clever and hilarious. Shame there's no substance, but never mind. At least you've set your stall out in terms of not supporting massive unelected organisations running the nation's infrastructure. And fair enough, I say.

Back to their health policy. I went to the one place where surely I'd be able to find an unadulterated summary. For the first time in my life, therefore, I visited the Tories' own website - and look what I found:

Few things matter more to our country than the NHS – it’s an institution that binds the nation together.

And a Conservative Government will work tirelessly to earn the trust of the patients and staff of the NHS.

* We will always provide the funding the NHS needs and are committed to real increases in health spending
* We will scrap Labour’s plans to cut A&E and maternity services, which are not supported by evidence that patient access and care will be improved, so that patients have access to high-quality services at their local hospital
* We will protect family doctor services by opposing Labour’s plans to impose impersonal "polyclinics" at the expense of local GP surgeries
* We will make money available for 45,000 more single rooms in the NHS over five years, almost doubling their current number. This will mean every patient going into hospital for planned care can have a single room if they want one
* We will reform the way drugs are priced so that all new treatments that are clinically effective are made available, ending the situation whereby cancer drugs that are routinely available in the rest of Europe and not provided in this country
* Most importantly, we will set the NHS free from the ministerial meddling that has resulted in money being diverted from patient care to wasteful bureaucracy. We want to deliver an NHS that provides the best health standards in the world, and ensure every patient is able to choose a good healthcare provider for their needs.

Our draft NHS Autonomy and Accountability Bill, published in 2007, set out plans to release NHS staff from top-down interference and allow them to concentrate on doing what they do best: providing top-quality care to patients.

A vital part of this is the creation of an independent NHS Board to take responsibility for dividing up NHS funds between different parts of the country away from Ministerial meddling. This body will allocate money fairly and in a way which will help secure equal access to healthcare for all.

Much of this is, of course, rubbish. How can anyone, for example, disagree with the first sentence - and are there any political parties that don't say just the same as the Tories' second sentence? And what is "top-down interference", if it's not just "doing as your boss has instructed"?

The bit that interests me most, though, is the creation of a new NHS board to replace "ministerial meddling". (Funny, I thought it was the Health Secretary's job to get involved in the NHS, but no... apparently it's meddling.)

How big would this NHS Board have to be, to run an organisation with 1.5 million employees, and a budget of around £100 billion? Even Andy Burnham realises that this would involve the creation of the world's largest Quango.

Could it possibly be, that Cameron was once again talking out of his Eton-educated multi-millionaire completely-out-of-touch pandering-to-the-Mail behind? Again?

Given all the private healthcare interests already ensconced in Cameron's shadow cabinet, I think we can see through these statements to the real future of the NHS under a Tory government. And it makes Glenn Beck look almost sane.

Cartoon (c) Martin Rowson, The Guardian

Monday, 17 August 2009

Norfolk & Rest For The Wicked

We have recently returned from a week's break in Norfolk, where we stayed in a converted windmill.

If you're looking for some peace and quiet, without having to fly somewhere remote (or, rather, more remote than just outside Great Yarmouth) then you could do a lot worse than here. The mill, a former drainage pump for Haddiscoe Island, is a four mile drive from the nearest Tarmac. Now known as Red Mill (for fairly obvious reasons), it was formerly known as Langley Detached Mill.

Haddiscoe Island is over 2,000 acres of drained marshes used as grazing for cattle. The island is dotted with gates and cattle grids to keep the livestock under control, and there are currently two residences (that we could see) in constant use on the island. Other than these signs of civilisation, there is little other than wildlife to break the silence.

The island's bird life is extraordinarily diverse. Even an avian ignoramus such as I was able to see (with identification assisted by my splendid wife) cormorants, Egyptian geese, herons, swifts, and many more. We even saw - in daylight - an owl taking small rodents from the long grasslands. The same owl swooped at me more than once when I stepped outside at night for a cigarette. Having spent most of my life living in cities, this place feels truly wild.

Here's a shaky video of the mill exterior, and immediate surroundings, recorded on my phone:

As you can imagine, such a place is paradise for dogs. Azul and Blackie wasted no opportunities to run off on adventures, only to reappear half an hour later covered in various noxious substances. The water in the drainage channels isn't the freshest....

Azul seemed to be mainly fascinated with the cows. However, this being calving season, the cows failed to reciprocate Azul's friendly curiosity. On more than one occasion I was walking along the track across the island, looking for the dogs after their latest escape attempt, only to find the cows herding them back to me. I've never seen a cow chase a dog before. It was worth the wait.

Blackie, as ever, is more interested in smelling, eating, or rolling in things. Preferably dirty things. If there's a filthy ditch full of stagnant water somewhere, you can be sure Blackie is heading in that direction. Or is already half-submerged in it.

Canine adventures aside, we found our stay in the mill to be most restful. It's a rare opportunity these days to be able to sit by the water and read a book. No traffic. No people (bar the occasional walker along the sea wall, or the odd passing river craft). And barely any mobile phone coverage (and thus no work). If they had mains water, and broadband, I'd happily stay there all year round.

The ground floor of the mill has an extension built to house the bathroom and kitchen, but otherwise all remaining rooms are built into the original structure. The ground floor has a cosy living room with gas fire, and steps up to the first floor bedroom, which has views north toward Yarmouth. The second floor is accessed by a vertiginous 'stairway' (ie ladder), and a similar arrangement allows you to climb right up to the cap itself, where some of the original mill workings remain. The views from all floors are stunning - and, as is so often the case in this part of the country, the sunsets are pretty staggering too. Each night we were able to sit on the decking outside the mill, watching the flame-red sky reflecting off the River Yare.

I think the dogs will miss this place even more than I do.