International Peace Day

On the 21st of September…

News media has long been known to be a bit of a balancing act. The media shows us things it knows we want to see. It tailors its content to its market guided by years of finding out from its customers “what interests you?”.¬†¬†But the media doesn’t just react to its readers, listeners and viewers. It plays a rather more elusive and pervasive role. The media also tells us what it thinks we we ought to know. As well as giving us what we want, it manages our expectations and tells us what we should want to read about, watch on our televisions and hear on our radios.
From looking at the front page of a newspaper we get a heady and hard to distinguish mix of what we want and what we should want.
Today is the International Day of Peace. A global day of celebration of cooperation, nonviolence, justice and equality. This event doesn’t feature on the top stories of news sites or radio shows. It isn’t a national holiday or the subject of much activity like a religious holiday might be. But all is not lost.
From looking at news sites and newspapers the top stories for planet Earth today are very much about peace.
News of the terrorist murder of Afghanistan’s peace envoy features as the top story. News of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, their state of negative peace is discussed. Stories of a typhoon in Japan threatening the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant gives the headlines an environmental edge. Hopeful news of another Gaddafi stronghold falling to the Libyan government and their acceptance at the United Nations as the official representatives of the Libyan people are reported. Finally Obama’s peace mission to the middle east concludes global top stories.
Peace is about terrorism. Peace is about drugs and law and order. Peace is about protecting our environment and sustainability. Peace is about humanitarian intervention and global governance. Peace is about diplomacy and interstate conflict. Although there is no mention of this important date in today’s headlines every story leading the news today is fundamentally about peace. Murdoch doesn’t control the news, we do and today the news was about peace. That means that we the consumers of the news are desperate for news about peace. Not only that but the media executives agree with us. They think that we ought to know about peace.
Although no one has mentioned International Peace Day the outlook isn’t bad. Happy Peace Day, keep up the good work.


Who’s Afraid of Foreign Aid?

What scares you? What wakes you up in a cold sweat? In the United States a Gallup poll in 2005 showed that the thing teenagers are most afraid of are terrorist attacks. Other surveys by the pollsters show similar figures amongst adults fearing pandemics affecting them or their families. Other international issues like war and nuclear war rated highly in the same surveys. What I’m seeing here is that we are petrified of things we can’t predict or gain control of. In a globalised world we’re afraid of things that are triggered far away but at some point are going to hurt us in our own homes. The things that keep us up at night are also beyond the control of our governments and outside the reach of our armed forces.

No matter how much money we plough into fighter jets and spooks there will always be terrorists. Increasingly they don’t come from some far away country on the news, they were born in the local hospital. They sat with us in a lecture theatre at University. No amount of tanks and aircraft carriers are going to stop a disturbed person putting a bomb on a rush hour London bus.

We can buy billions of pounds of vaccines. We can put a surgical mask on every person in the world but a sneeze on the tube carrying a virus from an animal on a farm in a poor country can kill millions. What we have to understand is this: that trying to stop disasters once they have started is futile. But in the past futility has never convinced our governments, and the electorate pressuring them, not to try.

To articulate it in terms prime ministers and presidents understand: it’s very expensive. For every $60 spent on resolving wars it has cost $1 to prevent them (Oxpeace). It’s indisputable in fields from medicine to crime that prevention is not only cheaper but can be easier than resolution.

We don’t need to start a glossy government programme to prevent wars. We don’t need an initiative to prevent people from becoming terrorists or an NGO to work with developing countries to improve the terrible living and farming conditions that will breed next pandemic. We already have them. They are just chronically underfunded, they are sidelined and ridiculed and targeted in state spending cuts.

Sceptics will cry deficit reduction or ‘solving our problems at home before we give away money to the third world’. What these sorts of people need to realise is that countries and communities and individuals do not exist in a vacuum. Our homes and cities are vulnerable to both problems that originated far away or in a community centre 5 minutes drive from here. Prevention is the only answer.

Imagine this: instead of spending $1 trillion on the War on Terror (USA Today) we’d spent it on foreign aid. Countries that have decent schools and hospitals and better social equality don’ descend into violence. India doesn’t resent the UK for centuries of brutal oppression and strap bombs to its young people. Countries with clean, safe farming and a government food safety agency aren’t about to generate the next Swine Flu.

We need to stop seeing foreign aid as charity. We need to stop our governments portraying it as ‘the moral thing to do’. It’s neither. It’s a more pragmatic, effective and cheaper way of ensuring a world where we aren’t afraid to leave our homes. In the face of overwhelming evidence that prevention is better than cure you can’t help but look for another reason why people dislike foreign aid. It’s a sad state of affairs but even though it will make them safer, cost them less money and generally improve humanity’s lot people don’t care. If we can’t convince them with cold hard facts they’re unlikely to ever change their minds.

Killing Osama Bin Laden – justice, healing and ‘what next?’

Regardless of your feelings on the methods used to kill Osama Bin Laden or your opinions on their just nature, it is somewhat relieving to wake up this morning to a world with one less unscrupulous person in it willing to kills thousands of people.

What happens now? Will Al-Qaeda cease to exist? Will we see a dramatic fall in terrorist plots and those murdered by them?

Probably not. This is for two reasons, one structural and one symbolic:

Al-Qaeda has not got a rigid hierarchy in the form of a triangle with Bin Laden at the top presiding. Members of a broader terrorist group may be unaware of the vast majority of other members, their relative size and capability and most importantly their plans. The group is broken down into reasonably autonomous cells who have infrequent communication with leadership by which they receive often vague directions and objectives, they are not nearly as well planned out, regimented and organised as they can appear. This ‘cell’ structure has inherent benefits, it means that if one cell is neutralised by national security forces the others continue, there are no weak links in the chain to break because the cells aren’t connected by very much. The members of the cell (who may be taken off for extraordinary rendition in the unlikely event they are captured alive) are ignorant of the activities of the other cells, their members or locations. This fragmented nature serves these dangerous, isolated and undeniably disturbed people well when they have agreed to lay down their lives for a cause, they don’t feel the need to demand legitimacy from the leadership or to play a role in decision making. So killing the head of such an organisation is frankly unlikely to derail their plans for long, the cells have their orders and some may even be unaware of the news of the loss of their leader.

The symbolic effect of murdering Bin Laden is much more hard to quantify or draw in a neat diagram. The people who serve the ideals he represents are not ones to feel despair at his loss. They serve a greater purpose more important than a single life, this is evidenced by their total willingness to die for the organisation. They are not going to have a mourning period or take some time to reflect on their next steps. They are psychologically damaged, brainwashed, radicalised, angry and isolated from society. They will lash out at the nearest target or if they had existing plans that could be sped up the one they feel will hurt the people who murdered him most. This is not good news for the Global North, we may have incurred the wrath of very dangerous people who have been driven into a frenzy of hatred and are now more than willing to take risks and try untested plans. They may reach out their feelers into countries like the United Kingdom or the USA and activate cells lying dormant, we cannot be complacent or expect reprisal to take place in a small town north of Islamabad, it may well take place much closer to home, if at all.

I wanted to discuss the nature of the incident that resulted in Bin Laden’s murder. Notice I have chosen to use the word murder, I did so to imply the lack of justice in yesterday’s events. He was killed by soldiers, in secret and without trial. This smacks of extra-judicial killing, of ignoring the judicial process and of failing to take the opportunity to kick start the process by which people can come to terms with the horror that he caused them. Make no mistake, I am by no means upset at hearing of his death, quite the opposite, but I cannot be completely satisfied at the way it was conducted. Yes Bin Laden is a military target so by international law his murder was legitimate and legal but he has committed crimes against humanity and for that simply being shot in a firefight just isn’t good enough. I would have much preferred to see him dragged to the International Criminal Court to stand trial, televised across the world, and receive thousands of consecutive life sentences. Why would I have preferred this option? For three reasons, one is that it is justice, it is how international¬† law works, the second is that the imagery of the Coalition’s capture of Bin Laden is a potent tool in the fight against terrorism and thirdly because without truth, openness and accountability the people that Bin Laden hurt will struggle to heal.

Bin Laden is an international criminal and frankly being shot by a marine isn’t how the judicial system works, he needed to stand trial and accept his punishment. The former is an easy way out for him. However the United States struggles with the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court so would probably have refused to allow him to stand trial there and Bin Laden himself would have dismissed it and had a greater opportunity to appear as a martyr.

The imagery of the Coalition’s capture of ‘public enemy number one’ could have been extremely useful from a publicity perspective. I have noted before his followers are unlikely to be put off by his loss, quite the reverse, but his being brought to justice would have shown the public, from Afghanistan to America and every where in between that the Coalition is in control, succeeding and that terrorism will always fail and you will always lose.

Finally the question of healing is very important. His standing trial and being sentenced would have acted as closure. His questioning and the presentation of evidence would have shed light on the mystique around him. He would have been shown as ‘just a person’ or ‘a damaged, frightened and angry man’. The friends and families of those murdered by him would be able to look at his face in the dock, and think ‘we won, justice will be served, it wasn’t futile’. A moment of ecstasy, as demonstrated by the parties erupting across the United States, or a burst of jubilation isn’t going to help them recover emotionally from the damage he did. What we need is truth – why did he do those things? Even if the answer is nonsensical, then at least we know he is insane and can close the book psychologically on the pain and loss and move forwards.

Osama Bin Laden’s killing is good because it has slightly reduced the number of terrorists in the world, but it wasn’t justice, it won’t help the people he hurt recover and it was a missed opportunity to show the world how effective anti-terrorist military activity can be.