Friday, September 24, 2004


Give children the right to vote (no, seriously...)

For some time, the British government has been toying with ideas of how to get people in this country to vote. Since having decent polices that people might be encouraged to vote for has been ruled out, the debate has shifted to other questions - i.e. would people be more willing to vote if elections were held on a Sunday instead of the traditional Thursday?

A more exciting proposal, indicating New Labour's occasional penchant for innovation, is the suggestion that the right to vote might be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds. The government - that is, the Prime Minister - professes that he has not made his mind up yet and that he can see good arguments either way.
In April this year, the Electoral Commission, which had been examining the problem,
issued its own answer. The Commission had been asked to look into reasons why so few young people in the 18-21 age group had chosen to vote in the May 2001 general election. Only 39% did so - less than in any other age category. Could extending the votes to younger people encourage greater participation in national elections, the Commission asked? No, was the view they came to. The Commission found that under 18s were even less enthusiastic and that those interested in voting at 16 were in a minority. The Commission's only suggestion was that the minimum age for a member of Parliament should be dropped from 21 to 18.
Elsewhere, the debate won little enthusiasm and quite a bit of scorn, with the exception of some campaigning groups.

With the debate still frozen over whether 16 year-olds should be permitted to vote, I would like to make a different proposal - that there should be no age restriction on voting and that children at any age who express an interest in voting should have the right to do so. Just putting those words togther often prompts the noise of raised eyebrows and instant counter-arguments, combined with shouts of "That's ridiculous!" so I had better explain why I think it is a good idea.
Allowing children to vote - actually allowing children to do pretty much anything - arouses strong passions and often hostility. Some members of the public expressed the following views during the discussion over 16 year-ods voting:

"I think that there has to be some kind of cut-of point, I mean you couldn't have 2 year olds crawling into ballot boxes on their own to vote (!), so why not 18? With peer pressure and media pressure children are forced to grow up to [sic] quickly anyway, childhood is the most fun you're likely to have in this life, well until retirement anyway :-), so why should we give them more to worry about and argue about and split them into even more cliques and factions at school?"

"I dont think that the voting age should be lowered. It is such a stupid suggestion and cant [sic] believe it. Kids dont [sic] watch politics on TV, they dont [sic] follow presedential elections. Kids now-a-days only care about what they are wearing and girls/guys. This is a stupid suggestion and it should be forgetten imediatly." [sic] ...They are also very busy with school work and dont have time, alot of them dont want to vote either which could lead to unfair voting. [sic]

"I don't think its a good idea because loads of people i knwo [sic] of 16/17 say they believe in anarchy! What would this unleash on the country, others support the BNP as they are inexperienced and don't really know what its all about!"

"Are the Electoral Commission mad? The voting age should be raised to about 25. Never have we had such dumbed down youth, with their total disregard for responsibilities but encyclopaedic knowledge of their 'rights'. The day our 16 and 17 year olds get the right to show some maturity of thinking should come on the day they stop tagging, scratching, cussing, spitting and mugging. Why on earth should aspects of my life be decided by those who don't give a stuff about the quality of anyone else's? Just look at their glum, cheerless faces - all attitude and no charisma. What they really need is not the vote, but a good belt for their ludicrously oversized jeans."

"No. I really believe that your average sixteen year old has neither the interest nor maturity to utilise a voting right. Parents/carers will simply be provided with an additional vote. Even those actively interested tend to pursue youthful ideals which, whilst admirable are usually impractical."

These replies are not untypical and reflect rather common attitudes towards young people and children. The various views expressed here are popular but they won't stand up to any scrutiny and on the whole, the suspicion they arouse is that the case against allowing children to have voting rights is based entirely on mean-spirited and often weird prejudices about under-18s.

One of the first points is important - that it is impossible for babies or toddlers to vote meaningfully so there must be a cut-off point. This sounds reasonable, but actually it is not. The injustice of an arbitrary cut-off point based on age is that it works on the crass and demonstrably false assumption that children all mature at around the same time.
In one article in the Enquirer, a 17 year-old girl in Washington expresses her disappointment that she will not be allowed to vote in the US presidential elctions this year because she won't be quite 18 on the day - "I am very, very interested in politics in general... It just breaks my heart - I'm going to miss the cutoff point." Lindsay Holbrooke will be 17 and 11 months old in November 2004. She wants to vote for John Kerry, the Democratic candidate. In January 2005, she will live under the administration of the winning candidate but she won't have had the chance to vote for him.

Clearly there is an injustice here. The notion that Lindsay is better able to make her mind on matters political in January but too immature in November is silly. You can solve her problem by allowing 17 year-olds to vote - but you will quickly discover that there are people like Lindsay at the age of 16, 15, 14... A fair system would allow all of them to vote not when they reach an age designated by adults, but when they feel ready to. This brings us to the earlier point - "you couldn't have 2 year olds crawling into ballot boxes on their own to vote!" Note first, before we go any further, that most two year-olds are quite capable of walking and do not crawl. That may be an aside, but it might just be worth noting that the person expressing this opinion is not all that familiar with children's development. In any case, my suggestion is that children should be allowed to vote if they show an interest and ask for that right. Since a two year-old is not capable of this, the issue does not even arise. Most young children will not understand the idea of voting and will not find it interesting to them.

The last of the opinions cited insists "I really believe that your average sixteen year old has neither the interest nor maturity to utilise a voting right", indicating the degree of resistance to extending the voting rights to 16 year-olds - let well alone much younger children. Again, the point is not what the "average sixteen year old" thinks, whoever he or she may be, but whether individual 16 year-olds feel that they want to vote and that they are ready to do so.
It is hard to shake the suspicion that so many of these arguments are informed by prejudice, or by people who spend very little time with young people, except when they see groups of them hanging round on bikes at the corner of an estate reeling off expletives, smoking and hawking up their saliva.

Those who do spend time in the company of children and teenagers and who are at all interested in discovering what they think about anything will have come across other kinds of children. In my own school, until recently, we had a 10 year-old Iranian girl (her mother was forced to leave Iran by the regime), who was very active in the anti-war movement and the protests against President Bush in November 2003. Tanya (not her real name), is a girl of striking maturity and intelligence - in the best sense of those words. She was more than capable of expressing opinions and, if she wanted to, as capable of voting in an election as most adult.

While Tanya stood out in many ways, other children in her class, including the most disruptive, are often quite capable of expressing political opinons. Abdullah (name changed again), for instance, one of the more disruptive members of the class, is very informed about the situation facing the Kurds, reflecting his own background. Whether such children would want to vote if given that right is another matter, but there is no good reason to deny them the opportunity.

The argument that children should not be allowed to vote because they don't understand the issues - sometimes quite explicitly expressed in terms of their supposed stupidity - has one obvious flaw. If taken seriously, it could be used as an argument for barring most adults from voting - and in fact from barring humanity in general from any kind of decision making. No one could argue that most adults understand fully or even adequately a whole range of issues - the causes of inflation, the scientific debate over the causes and likely impact of global warming, the origins and effects of Third World debt, the historical background of the conflict in Northern Ireland and so on. Not only is understanding of these issues among the general public very low - but understanding among our political representatives is often as low or even lower. Perhaps there are those who would like to claim that Boris Yeltsin had a good grasp of economics, or Dick Cheney has a sound background in studies of climate-change, or that Richard Nixon could be safely entrusted with the world's largest nuclear arsenal, but few will join them.

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that many adults vote, when they choose to do so, for entirely frivolous reasons - such as the physical appearance of a candidate. A recent survey of public opinion in Britain found that 40% of the public would be disinclined to vote for a Prime Minister who was Jewish - a view that is sinister as well as idiotic. Presidential elections in the US often quite openly revolve around such issues as whether John Kerry eats hamburgers (his detractors claim that he doesn't, he claimed he did - but perhaps untruthfully). In one infamous British by-election in the Midlands in 1964, the Conservative candidate swept to victory with the winning slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour." And it is worth noting that often it is people with a high level of education and privilege who are voting on such grounds. It is an unfortunate reality that adults with grossly ill-informed views and sometimes very horrible ones cast their votes along with everyone else.
But most of us believe - rightly - that the fact that adults vote for dubious or bad reasons is not good enough grounds for denying them the right to vote. There are some who might talk about a society governed by an elite of very intelligent people (by which they usually mean people like themselves), but most of us appreciate that a country run by an unelected elite chosen for their supposed intelligence would be the most insufferable tyranny imaginable. Hopefully, most people recognise that in practice, extending trust and responsibility to as wide a range of people as possible is fairer and makes for a better society.

One more serious effort at a scientific case against giving young people voting rights comes from R. Elizabeth Cornwell and Professor Richard Dawkins (recently named Britain's favourite intellectual in a national poll). Cornwell and Dawkins argued that at 16 years, the brain is still not properly formed - rather it is in a state of internal turmoil - and so important decisions such as voting should be put in such volatile hands.
They begin with one warning of a world where politicians appeal to the younger vote, quoting the website of one Labour MP:

"Hey, chill with the anti-Europe vibes already! You totally won't be able to wear the word 'fcuk' on your shirt anymore if we break our connection with France, y'dig? ROFFLE! So, cut it with the bling bling and do something for the community, man. Join in and take action with any of the groovy sites we've listed, or just drop Tom a line for a quiet rap by the electronic email. Tom's well-up on the Interwebnet, and he won't harsh your buzz or dis you down the line."

Admittedly, this is pretty shocking stuff, but it is worth pointing out that the people producing this are not young people, but adults attempting to reach out to them. Their own article has been given the title 'Dodgy frontal lobes, y'dig?' Titles are usually picked by sub-editors so let us not blame Cornwell and Dawkins, but might this title suggest a little something about adult attitudes towards young people (and we might also add - towards black young people in particular?) That they are so stupid we must affect a different language in order to talk to them? Adults like to talk about "getting down to their level" when it comes to children - and yet quite often end up somewhere below their level and embarassing self-respecting children.

The argument continues on a more serious note:

Neuroscientists such as Jay Geidd, of the US National Institutes of Health, have shown that the brain undergoes major reconstruction from the onset of puberty which continues until 20 or beyond: especially the frontal lobes or prefrontal cortex, the very bit that enables us to think in the abstract, weigh moral dilemmas and control our impulses. It's been called the part of the brain that makes us human. Frontal lobe damage causes severe personality changes and sudden emotional outbursts. Patients often can't control inappropriate or antisocial behaviour, can't plan for the future, or see the consequences of their behaviour. Do these symptoms sound familiar?
...As Geidd says, "[It's] not that the teens are stupid or incapable... It's sort of unfair to expect them to have adult levels of organisational skills or decision-making before their brain is finished being built." In Jensen's words, "[Parents] have to function like a surrogate set of frontal lobes." The child psychologist Charles Nelson of the University of Minnesota says much the same thing, after explaining the erratic and moody teenage behaviour which bedevils even the most adoring parents: "[Adolescents] are capable of very strong emotions and very strong passions, but their prefrontal cortex hasn't caught up with them yet. It's as though they don't have the brakes that allow them to slow those emotions down."

This is, in my view, a good example of what can happen when scientists start looking at brains and not at people - or more specifically, when they make unwarranted generalisations about human behaviour on the basis of what they have learned about the physical formation of the brain.

The fact is that there are plenty of people under the age of 18 who do not conform to this "erratic and moody" teenage stereotype and who are as capable of dealing with their emotions as most adults are with theirs. Nor is it a question of "expecting them to have organizational skills or decision-making before their brain is finished being built" - rather it is a matter of allowing them to take part in decision-making if and when they want to. Incidentally, it is denying teenagers the opportunity to exercise such responsibilites which is more often a cause of that "erratic and moody teenage behaviour which bedevils even the most adoring parents".

Dawkins and Cromwell go on to conclude from the studies of the frontal lobe that young people should not only not be voting but that they should have even fewer decision-making powers than they do already:

Never mind the vote. Should people whose brains are still unfinished and in turmoil be making life-changing decisions for themselves: Which A-levels to take? Which university to apply to? Sixteen-year-old brains might be scarcely better equipped to make a sensible judgment - about their own or the country's future - than six-year-old brains are equipped to read War and Peace.

One interesting piece of conventional wisdom that is always doing the rounds is the idea that young people grow up too fast these days, that they don't have the chance to be children and enjoy it. There is some substance to this view, but much less than many people realise. In particular, young people are not growing up especially fast in the liberal societies of the West - they are actually growing up slower than in almost any period in history.

I remember reading Roman history with a certain amount of astonishment, in particular the life of Octavian, later the Emperor Augustus. Octavian, made a priest at the age of 15, was appointed to a postion of senior millitary command in Julius Caesar's expedition against Parthia by the age of 18, and following Caesar's murder he commanded those armies and defeated Caesar's assasins in a civil war alongside Mark Antony. Octavian then marched on Rome and demanded that he be made consul, later agreeing with Mark Antony to divide the Roman Empire between them, with Octavian taking the Western empire, and Mark Antony the East. When he later had the opportunity, Octavian took on Mark Antony (aged 48) and captured the Eastern empire. Having defeated all of his domestic opponents on the battlefield he assumed unrivalled personal control of the Roman Empire, effectively abolished the Republic and established a monarchical dictaorship, became the Emperor Augustus and officially the son of a god. Aged 19. Young people these days, eh?

As with Octavian, such adolescent power-trips usually happened to children from backgrounds of privilege - they were groomed for political office and given opportunities denied to most. There are of course many cases of children treated in this way who turned out to be monstrous tyrants or hopelessly incompetent. But the point is not that a dictator from the ancient world is a good role model for contemporary teenagers (don't try this one at home, kids), but that in times past, it was not uncommon for people of a very young age to assume serious administrative responsibilities and to show themsleves to be rather effective.
It might suprise many to know that in mediaeval England, for instance, it would not be unheard of for 12 year-olds to be given such tasks as collecting taxes or raising armies across several counties - and being perfectly able to do it. By contrast, in 21st century Westminster, it is virtually unheard of for an MP to be appointed to the cabinet before the age of 36 - and that would be considered young, even embarassingly young.

The West's most famous love story, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is another interesting example. This play is widely loved and performed but few realise that Juliet is supposed to be 13 years old, and her Romeo 16. Theatres rarely put on a performance with a thirteen year-old Juliet - who falls in love, marries, takes a drug in order to feign suicide and but ends up taking her life through a misunderstanding or a sixteen year-old Romeo, a philanderer who falls madly for Juliet, marries her secretly, commits murder, flees into exile and then commits suicide. If they did, they would remind us that childhood is indeed longer now than it used to be. Girls in particular effectively became adults as soon as they reached puberty and were married to much older men in a manner that would now be an imprisonable offence. This was not, incidentally, a good thing - but it serves to remind us that what we now consider childhood is a great deal more artificial than many of us realise.

A slight change of subject - touch therapy. Touch therapists tell us that our bodies are surrounded by a bio-energy field or aura and that imbalances in the aura can be the cause of physical ailments, from burns to cancer. They claim that by using their hands to manipulate this undetectable aura and smooth out its imbalances they can heal serious physical conditions.

Touch therapy is popular - it is practised in 80 hospitals by 100,000 practitioners in North America alone, and taught in 100 colleges and universities. It is also complete nonsense. A few years ago, one bright US scientist, Emily Rosa, from the town of Boulder in Colorado, thought of a rather simple way of putting touch therapy to the test. Her experiment was uncomplicated - she invited 80 touch therapists to demonstrate their powers with a double-blind test. Emily would sit at a table with a cardboard screen in front of her in which there were two holes. She would place her hand over one of the holes, chosen randomly each time. The touch therapists would put both of their hands through the holes and feel for Emily's bio-energy field and then tell her which hole she has holding her hand under, while she recorded the results. Many of the therapists expressed confidence that they would be right every time. In the event - to their great shock, they were correct less than half of the time (44% over 280 tests). They performed just a little worse than one might expect from chance. Their powers were non-existent.

What makes this especially interesting is that the scientist, Emily Rosa, was nine years-old and carried out the tests as a fourth-grade school science project. She bought the materials for the experiment for ten dollars. Afterwards, with her mother, a nurse, and a medical statistician to help her with the format, she wrote up her experiment as an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article was subjected to peer review and the editors of the journal declared it to be "solid gold". Emily Rosa became the youngest scientist in history to have an article published in a major medical journal. She was later awarded $1,000 by the James Randi Educational Foundation to help her in more research projects.

Emily Rosa, 9

Think about this for a minute - the many, many adults who practice touch therapy, put themselves thorugh it and testify to its healing power and have spent much money in the process all can vote. Emily Rosa, who devised an experiment that proved that touch therapy is a fraud and got it published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, can't.

The view expressed earlier that, "Kids now-a-days only care about what they are wearing and girls/guys" should be seen for what it is, a nasty piece of prejudice. Kids only care about clothes and the opposite sex in the same way that women only care about gossip and shopping, black people only care about sport and music and Jews only care about money - it's called negative stereotyping, and it's often considered bad form, though young people have to put up with it all the time.

And it comes at an odd time - in Britain, we have just witnessed an almost unprecedented involvement of children in politics in the build-up to the Iraq war. In early 2003 as preparations for the US and British invasion intensified, there a was a widespread feeling of unease over the coming war in Britian and much organised opposition, culminating in the anti-war march on February 15th 2003 in London in which as many as 2 million people may have particiapted, joined by millions more in cities around the world.

Less well-known, however, is the role played by children in this. Children were the most vehemently anti-war age category in the country - a survey carried out by Newsround, the children's news-show on the BBC, found that 80% of the children surveyed opposed sending troops into Iraq and found only 10% in favour. On Wednesday March 5th, 2003, young people across Britain organised a nationwide walk out of schools in order to protest against the coming escalation of the war. Thousands participated and children's protests took place in London, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. They engaged in sit-down protests, blocking roads and facing arrest.

This is a Newsround report on the March 5th protest in London:

The whole thing was sparked off by the power of e-mail! Newsround spoke to one of the kids on the protest. She told us that she had received an e-mail telling her what was going to happen. The message said that kids should protest outside Parliament about the war, and when they should do it.

The e-mail quickly went round hundreds of kids all round London. She described how, in her playground at break time the next day, a bunch of kids brought out banners they had made, and walked out.

Almost the whole school followed!

Their teachers tried to stop them, but the children ran to the Underground. The children started protesting in Parliament Square, but were moved on by police at 1pm.

This was the only national strike against the war - and the participants were usually aged between 18-11. No other sector of British society engaged in this level of protest or took this kind of risk. The children made history - and they were not thanked for it. Two students at a Leeds grammar school, Sachin Sharma and Carey Davies, both aged 16, were suspended for organising a walkout at their school as headteachers across the country moved to clamp down on this unexpected militancy. Sachin complained:

"The majority of our school does not have democratic rights. They have no means to express themselves, and they don't have a voice in real terms. The only way we can, as minors, express ourselves is through demonstration." (emphasis added)

The head teacher, John Steel, responded:

He added that while the pupils' political beliefs were valued, the curriculum provided the proper channels for the expression of those beliefs.

Now can anyone explain in what way the curriculum provides channels for the expression of political beliefs? It doesn't of course - the curriculum is a collection of material that children are supposed to have thrust on them as a matter of law. It provides little room for _expression of any kind, let well alone a channel for active opposition to government policy. The pupils' political views are valued - just so long as they do nothing to act on them.
It may be that you think these children were quite wrong about Iraq - but the main issue here is that they evidently had serious interests well beyond football or TV, or blagging their way into pubs, or Big Brother, or smoking weed, or what they were wearing or losing their virginity at the earliest possible juncture and they tried to act on it at some risk to themselves. If the government had been prevented from taking Britain into the war, Tony Blair might have been forced to say "And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling kids!"
And given that this week, US military losses just reached, and quickly passed, a thousand dead, while the Bush administration has admitted to "miscalculations" in its occupation of post-Saddam Iraq and that it no longer controls much of the country or even the capital - can we not admit that those kids had a reasonable point?

Young people on the march in Madrid, many placards, no votes

Children are, of course, greatly affected by politics. No one has ever consulted children about the level child benefit should be set at - but they are directly affected. They are also affected by health, prison, social welfare, immigration, investment and environmental policies among others. Which is not to mention education policy - the latest government white paper on education was introduced with much discussion about the role of head teachers, the role of the private sector, the workload of teachers, parental choice - all important matters for sure, but it is rather significant that one set of people's views and role was not discussed. Children are expected to be passive recipients of the outcome of whatever is decided for them.

After the Beslan massacre of schoolchildren in Russia it seems rather weak to suggest that politics is not the business of the young. The Iraq war affects children here too, not least the brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of those coming back home in coffins - a pretty large number for the Coalition as a whole and perhaps set to get quite a lot bigger. One Scottish girl, Maxine Gentle, aged 14, has just recently had to cope with the loss of her older brother, Private Gordon Gentle, whose short life ended at 19 outside Basra in southern Iraq in June. She wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister which was published in some national newspapers, of which some extracts are reprinted here:

My feelings are that I think you are rubbish at your job. You don't care about the British public, armed forces or anyone in fact.

My big brother died at the age of 19, and what for? A war over oil and money, that's what I think this war is all about...

I think you should withdraw all of our soldiers from Iraq... My big brother meant the world to me. I looked up to him with pride because he made something of himself. He was well known, just like you, but everyone liked and loved him, not like you, because I have no respect for you, and nor do a lot of people I know.

Gordon had only passed... in April, and yet by May YOU sent him and many others to a war zone.
What I find strange is that in order to be a qualified plumber or electrician you need to train for 3 or 4 years, but to be a qualified soldier, and learn to KILL someone, you only need to train for SIX MONTHS!

...everyone is hurting badly right now, but you would not know that because your sons are all tucked up nicely in bed at night, at the same time as there are mums and dads who still have sons over there, who can't sleep at night, wondering if their loved ones are coming home or are they going to be the next ones to be killed...

...It is okay for you sitting there with all your money and power, ruining people's lives by the decisions YOU make... All you and your new "best friend" George Bush care about is Iraq's oil... Nothing you can do or say will change my mind, or the fact that I am hurting badly inside. I cry myself to sleep most of the time because Gordon has gone and is never coming back...

...I am ashamed to admit being British when I have got such a bad prime minister as you...

Yours sincerely Maxine Gentle

Maxine has pretty strong political views - and the loss of her brother is a matter that clearly affects her. But she can't vote for or against the government that sent her brother to Iraq. Can we really argue that there is a good reason for this?

Private Gordon Gentle, killed in southern Iraq, June 28th, 2004

At a school like mine, many of the children come from non-English speaking backgrounds and learn English as a second language (or sometimes as a third, fourth or fifth language). Since some of their parents cannot speak English and many members of staff cannot speak Turkish, Albanian, Somali, Vietnamese or Spanish, the children are required as intepreters - instantly translating from one language to another at our request. In many businesses and restaurants where the owners speak very little of the language in the country where they work, the adults commonly rely on the fast-learning children to speak to customers and vice-versa. This is just one of the ways in which children - when given the opportunity - can prove especially competent in tasks for which competent adults are hard to find and much sought after. Operating computers is another example - many adults are notoriously reliant on their sons and daughters to show them how they work. Children have many skills and abilities which are often taken for granted and forgotten by adults who choose to see children as a burden, a nuisance or a threat.

Some decades ago, Dr. Suzuki, a Japanese music teacher, became famous for helping very young children learn to play difficult music on the violin. The US educationalist John Holt (himself a cello player), visited a performance while Suzuki went on tour with some of his pupils in the USA:

"A few years later, when a group of these chidren came to the New England Conservatory on a tour of the US, I was there to hear them, along with several hundred others, many of them music teachers. The children, perhaps twenty of them, came onstage, healthy, energetic, and happy. At the time I thought the average age of the children might be five or six; I now think they may have been a year or two older. Dr. Suzuki and a young assistant checked the tuning of the children's violins. We waited in great suspense. What would they play? Perhaps some of the slower and easier tunes of Vivaldi, Handel, or Bach? Dr. Suzuki gave the down beat, and then away they went - playing not some easy tune but the Bach Double Concerto, in perfect tune, tempo, and rhythm, and with great energy and musicality. It was breathtaking, hair-raising. I could not have been more astonished if the children had floated up to the ceiling."

These children were not unusual, nor were they made to perform through parents yelling at them to practice from as soon as they learned to walk. Suzuki showed that children surrounded by music at a very early age and encouraged to experiment with musical instruments could become competent at playing very difficult pieces on a notoriously difficult instrument by the age of six.
Children have the potential to really startle us in many, many ways if grown-ups are ready and willing to let them.

In practical terms, allowing children to vote would be a simple matter - we would simply extend them the right and allow them to exercise it if they made a request to be on the electoral roll. Schools, youth clubs, public libraries and so on could have the information and application forms ready along with notices and posters telling people of their voting rights. The forms could be made available on the internet.

Some children have problems with reading - this should not be an obstacle to letting them vote if they want to, since illiterate adults are allowed to vote and many countries such as South Africa have developed systems to make voting simple for those who are unfamiliar with it or might have trouble understanding the ballot papers. Inside the polling station, people could be ready to help younger children - better still if older children were employed for this task, answering any questions young voters had - where to go to, how to mark the ballot and so on.
There is the problem that children might be pushed into voting a certain way by their parents. This should not, however, be used to prevent all children voting. Many adults vote the way their parents do but many children - as in the case of the Iraq war, for instance - are quite capable of making their own minds up about important issues, as much as any adult. Furthermore, in a society which accorded children greater respect, forcing them to vote in a certain way will become as socially unacceptable as announcing that you hit your child with a belt when they answer you back.

Maybe some six year-old will apply for voting rights and vote in a frivolous manner but the harm done by such an unlikely event is not very great and the possible benefits of inviting the very young to take the world around them seriously and to think how they might like to change it are considerable - above all, we will be telling children that we think their feelings actually matter. Which will be new for many of them.

There are of course many other areas in whch our attitudes towards the young should be examined and quite a few other practices that may end up going the same way as practices like tying children's hands underneath opposite ends of their beds to prevent them sucking on their thumbs. But allowing children who want to vote to do so as a matter of right could be a small step to prompting adults to take children more seriously. If children thought about how they could use their vote, they might even get politicians to think about them as people rather than photo opportunities.

And on another positive note, politicans kissing babies will be less intolerable when the babies have the right to eject them from office as soon as is feasible.
Alex Higgins

Thursday, June 03, 2004


The Trial of Saddam Hussein

The current bulletin is being delayed for non-conspiracy related technical reasons. In the meantime, here is something i wrote about the implications of the arrest of Saddam Hussein. It was written last December, but it still basically stands up on re-reading, i think, so here it is.
So far there have been few developments with respect to a trial of Saddam Hussein. There have been some political developments within Iraq which have overtaken this article, but the various points made here still stand.

The arrest of Saddam Hussein has profound consequences for many issues of great significance and has had a dramatic impact on events in Iraq - a lot of things to give careful thought to. And yet, i doubt that i'm alone when i confess that my first thought was "Whoa - he's got a beard." I really should remember for future major historical events to try and make my first thought something interesting. September 11th, the fall of the Berlin Wall etc. - can hardly remember my first reaction, but it was nothing great.

The arrest of Saddam Hussein put a smile, well more of a smirk actually, on George Bush's face (who still pronouces it "Surdaaarm") and inspired another embarrassingly insincere sermon from our Prime Minister here in England - but these are unfortunate side-effects of what was an overwhelmingly positive development. After the wanton summary executions of Uday and Qusay Hussein by troops of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, there was every reason to suspect that the US military would try and resolve the issue of Saddam Hussein in a similarly permanent fashion. Instead, the 4th Infantry Division produced Priority Target number 1 bloodlessly, giving a valuable opportunity for justice to take a hand. The US army has, of course, no right to be in Tikrit, but if they are there at all it might as well be to make that arrest.

According to the 4th infantry's story, they checked Saddam's old farmhouse (not a brilliant choice of hideout, incidentally) and discovered the concealed hole. They were about to chuck a hand grenade in it when Saddam's hands emerged upright and the former president told them, in English, "My name is Saddam Hussein. I am president of Iraq and I want to negotiate." And for the first time in decades, it would have been possible for someone to laugh in his face. The film footage of Mr "I am president of Iraq" showed a resigned man meekly accepting a medical check-up, prompting the rather unpleasant speculation that he might have given himself up like that in March 2003 when most Arab governments requested his resignation and Bush issued his ultimatum, rather than wait 9 months and thousands of deaths later.
The treatment of Saddam Hussein has prompted criticism and outrage, and raised the question of whether showing film of Saddam to the global media was a violation of the Geneva Convention, but it is difficult to see how the occupying authorities could have acted differently under the circumstances, nor is it clear that the Convention's articles on anonymity and safety of prisoners have been violated. Iraqis certainly needed to know and to be sure.
For some Iraqi rebels and others in the region, possibly even a few people in the West, the sight of Saddam humbled before the US is discouraging but it shouldn't be. It is a great mistake for people in Iraq or the Arab world to let a butcher like Saddam be the figurehead, even nominally, for patriotic or radical resistance to US imperialism. It is essential that those in the region who wish to challenge US hegemony do it themselves rather than channel their sympathies through his like. Those who secretly hoped that Saddam would give the US a bloody nose are asking to be - and deserve to be - disappointed.

It's unlikely that the police in England would take it kindly if anyone here chose to celebrate the capture of Saddam by firing off AK-47's into the air. Whenever i see Iraqis celebrating like that, i worry that we will see a follow up headline like "500 killed in Baghdad as stray bullets fired in celebrations wipe out residential block". Among the first to come out and celebrate was the Iraqi Communist Party, waving red flags and coming out on to the streets in force. In the South, Shi'ites held huge marches celebrating the end of their fear for their long-term tormentor. In the north, Iraqi Kurds were ecstatic. For many of the people in Iraq, it was the first piece of good news in months.
But among the stupider remarks made after the arrest was the rapidly over-used cliche that "Christmas had come early" for the Bush administration. For Iraqis and many others, that Christmas has come very, very late.

The arrest of Saddam Hussein marks an important opportunity to either take a step forward, or a step backward, in developing international law. We can continue the process begun with the arrest of General Pinochet and carried on through the arrests and trials of Hassain Habre, Foday Sankoh, Slobodan Milsoevic and figures in the Khmer Rouge and the attempted trial of Ariel Sharon that establish powerful legal precedents that can potentially restrict the criminal actions of the powerful and even catch up with the smug criminal elements in our own political and military establishment.
We should not underestimate the importance of this. During the US atrocity war in Vietnam, US General Telford Taylor decided to compare the conduct of the authors of that war with the precedent of the Nuremburg Trials and concluded carefully and quietly that some of their offences were capital crimes. As one commentator pointed out, it is not every day that a senior US general, jurist and legal expert concludes that a significant section of his political class should probably be dropped through a trapdoor with a rope around their necks. But the chances of actually trying these people is becoming less remote.
There are currently 4 lawsuits being filed against Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in the US alone. He had to flee France to avoid anwering questions to a court, he runs from interviewers who ask him awkward questions, dodges subpoenas, hides even from pro-Pinochet judges in South America and Peter Tatchell was very close to getting a judge to issue an arrest warrant for him while he was in London. The law is, at last, developing the long arm it is supposed to have. Also, Britian's attache to Beijing, Brigadeer John Kerr may eventually be prosecuted for the murder of the Irish lawyer Pat Finucae and scores of other murders during a particularly dirty phase of the dirty war in Northern Ireland. The Met are even investigating the British army's massive atrocities in Kenya in the 1950s.
If Milosevic can be tried for the crimes of allies and proxies in Bosnia (as he should be), many members of the current US administration can certainly be tried for the comparable offences committed in Central America and elsewhere.

At the same time, the Bush administration is trying to bring a halt to the spread of international justice. So far they have used threats and bribes against any nation that will not agree that no US nationals should ever face trial before the International Criminal Court, and refused to co-operate with the ICC more generally. Bush's obvious hatred of international law could seriously compromise efforts to try Saddam Hussein properly.
It is exciting that with Saddam captured alive, he will face a trial. But so far, the indications of the character of the future trial are not good. It is quite clear that Bush hopes for a short trial ending in an execution. As the London director of Human Rights Watch told BBC news, the seeming generosity behind Bush's insistence that the trial be a purely Iraqi matter is entirely fake. The Bush administration hopes to avoid the dangers (to them) of strengthening international justice and avoid embarassing questions about US complicity in Saddam's worst atrocities. The US government never indicted Saddam Hussein as a war criminal or set up an international tribunal for Iraqi war criminals, and there is a reason.
Prospective members of the new Iraqi government are eager to dispatch Saddam in the manner of Nicolai Ceaucescu - a quick trial followed by an execution with the bloodied face of the dead dictator on the papers (to be fair, he certainly wanted to kill them). Meanwhile, much popular opinion in Iraq wishes to deal with Saddam not in the manner of Ceaucescu, but in the manner of Mussolini.
If anyone ever deserved the death penalty, Saddam Hussein is a qualifier. But it would be the wrong thing to do. First because the death penalty is barbaric and wrong in principle - the popular phrase to kill someone "execution-style" refers to a particularly cold-blooded, ruthless and psychopathic kind of homicide for a reason. Second, because it sets the wrong precedent for the new Iraq. And third, because Saddam must have huge amounts of information on the fates and whereabouts of large numbers of murdered people, and of the actions of his colleagues which may be lost permanently if he is killed quickly.
The Iraqi not-actually-Governing Council set out proposals on December 10th, three days before Saddam's capture, for trials for the criminals of the former regime, indicating some serious thought on the matter. But the Iraqi Communications Minister, interviewed on the BBC's Newsnight, strongly suggested that the death penalty would be used for Saddam. As for his trial, i quote from memory, "But really, what need do we have of proof?"

The issue is not proof - establishing Saddam's guilt for murder, genocide and aggression is about as difficult as reciting the alphabet. Whereas Milosevic's crimes were often devolved on to proxies and paper trails carefully avoided, Saddam Hussein was quite brazen about the killing thing. Human Rights Watch has 18 tonnes of official documents, most of them found in government buildings by Kurdish rebels during the 1991 revolution, recording in agonising detail the genocidal Anfal campaign. In proper Nazi style, Saddam's regime liked to film its worst atrocities in order to show the videos to undergraduate torturers in the lower echelons of the state apparatus. The US and British occupying authorities have been careless about collecting evidence for trials they don't want, leaving documents to scatter in the wind in burnt out ministries and mass graves to be dug up by desperate relatives without a proper forensic exhumation. A proper international tribunal like the one for the former Yugoslavia with teams of investigators and years of patient case-building costs hundreds of millions dollars - and Bush is quite happy not to pay for it.

Establishing Saddam's guilt is not a problem. The important issue, for those interested in justice, is to establish precisely what he did, how many were killed or tortured, where the disappeared are buried and who else was involved. Given the scale of the atrocities, a proper accounting in a court room would take years. A good trial offers something much more "cathartic" than an execution - the chance for victims to challenge and question their former tormentors. Consider this scene from the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia:

"In November 2000, a Muslim woman testified about the fall of Srebrenica and the disappearance of her husband and two sons. Before stepping off the stand, she asked the judges if she could herself pose a question to General Krstic. One of her sons was thirteen when Serb soldiers pulled him away from her outside the Dutch UN base. 'I plead that you ask Mr. Krstic if there is any hope' she said to the judge, as she choked on her grief. 'At least for that child which they took alive from my hands. I dream about him. He speaks to me. Does Mr. Krstic know if he is somewhere, alive?' Krstic sat frozen, his head down."

(Samantha Powers, 'A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide', p502)

I can hardly think of a single example that so powerfully illustrates the case for international justice as that, though i can think of many similar people in the situation of that woman. Needless to say, the mother's teenage son, as General Krstic would have known well, is dead.
Saddam remains unrepentent of his crimes - like Pinochet, like Milosevic, like Pol Pot, like Kissinger, like the whole lot of them. I read once that William the Conqueror wept on his death bed for the people of northern England whom he slaughtered mercilessly in the 11th century, but i can't recall any other cases of repentant tyrants.
Saddam hinted to his captors that he might refuse to go to the toilet since, "How can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?" To which the obvious answer is, Iraq has been in bondage since 1963 and for many of those years Saddam quite happily relieved himself in gold-plated bathrooms.
So far, 2,000 Kurdish bodies have been uncovered in a single grave in Kirkuk, 1,000 corpses in Muhammad Sakran, 72 in Najaf, 150 in Basra, 40 in Abul Khasib and what looks like a full 15,000 at Al-Mawahil. Saddam regards these people as treacherous agents of foreign powers and "thieves".

Saddam was dictator Al-Bakr's deputy after the second Ba'athist coup of 1968 and pushed aside his superior in 1979. In that time he killed unknown numbers in the Kurdish revolt of 1974-5, between half a million and just over one million Iranian soldiers and civilians in his war aginst Iran of 1980-88, around 180,000 Kurds during the genocide of 1987-88, tens of thousands more in crushing the revolt of March 1991, anywhere between 50-300,000 Shia Muslims during the Iraqi intifada that March, 2,000 killed in Kuwait, a number of Israeli civilians and unknown, uncounted tens of thousands of other Iraqis killed in the ordinary rounds of purge, torture, massacre and disappearance, people buried alive, bathed in acid, hanged in public, stuffed through plastic shredding machines, 1968-2003. Saddam was unusual in actually killing and torturing these people himself.
Saddam is an Arab Pol Pot. In the world today, only a handful of individuals really compare - the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the authors of the genocide in Rwanda, General Suhartu of Indonesia who has had a sham trial involving only charges of corruption and the authors of the wars in Vietnam and the Congo. His indictment for crimes against peace and humanity is long overdue.

There is a corollary to this, of course. Most of Saddam's worst crimes were committed with the support of other governments - Arab governments, the Soviet Union, France, Britain and the US. I include below, for your benefit, a picture of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein at the beginning of their beautiful relationship, December 20th, 1983:

Maybe they'll get back together again. This is not an innocent handshake. Rumsfeld was on a mission to re-establish full diplomatic relations and assist Saddam militarily in his war aginst Iran and his own population.

In the Milosevic trial, interesting testimony of Western complicity in some of his crimes have emerged. In the case of Saddam, the complicity is much deeper. One of the biggest opportunities of a trial of Saddam Hussein is for an international tribunal to subpoena members of foreign governments who facilitated his crimes. Chances are this crucial element of justice for Iraq will be missed, and the victims of Saddam and his backers short-changed.
One of the trickiest issues relates to what exactly constitutes a criminal offence. Saddam was hired as a CIA agent in the early 1960s when he was just a young torturer trying to help bring about a fascist coup and overthrow the Qassem government. In 1975, the US government and the Shah of Iran agreed on a deal with Baghdad and ended their support for the Kurdish revolt, leaving the Kurdish pesh merga to be massacred, as they were - a decision which a congressional investigation described as cynical even by the standards of covert operations.
In March 1991, just after the first Gulf War, the Bush senior administration accidentally prompted an Iraqi revolution rather than a military coup that they were hoping for. Bush Senior gave a speech urging the Iraqi people to rise up - they didn't realise that he didn't mean it. The word 'people' was added in at the last minute to give what was a speech addressed to the Iraqi army a more democratic feel.
Faced with a choice between popular revolt and genocidal dictatorship that they had just fought a war against, the US came down heavily on the side of the latter. US troops destroyed weapons dumps to stop the anti-Saddam rebels using them. They dug long ditches in the Iraqi desert to slow the rebels down and facilitate their slaughter at the hands of Saddam's army. They permitted Saddam the use of specially designated helicopter gunships in the mis-named no-fly zones to kill Shia and Kurds at will, while their planes flew overhead, watching the spectacle (remember this when you see those huge mass graves in the south of Iraq). Most fatefully, the Bush senior administration made clear its hostility to the rebels just at the moment when senior Iraqi army officers were trying to guess which side was going to win before taking sides. For many, the US position settled the matter. Only the massive flow of Kurdish refugees across the Turkish border prompted a US invasion in the north of Iraq to set up a safe haven once the Kurdish revolt was defeated - Operation Provide Comfort (to the Turkish government).
The trouble with all this is that it isn't illegal under existing laws, just really, really nasty. It is very hard to make a criminal case against those who did it.
However, in the case of Saddam's war of aggression against Iran and the chemical-weapon and machine-gun massacres of the Kurds in the 1980s, it is a different matter. Assisting aggression and assisting genocide are criminal offences (you'd hope, wouldn't you?). Providing weaponry, knowingly assisting in the development of a chemical weapons programme, providing satellite intelligence of Kurdish rebel positions, training Iraqi troops, providing money for purchase of more weapons straight after the Halabja massacre - that is the level of official US, British, French, Russian and Arab complicity. Furthermore, the Carter administration encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in the first place, while the Reagan administration joined in the fight, sinking Iranian ships and shooting down an Iranian passenger plane with more than 300 people in it. There's also the question of the lists of political opponents and their addresses given to the Ba'athists by the CIA during the first coup in 1963 - obviously, the CIA was asking them to arrest/kill anyone on the list, which they did.
A proper international tribunal should reveal all of this and could even lead to - whisper it - prosecutions. If it doesn't, then all the people who died in these crimes will have been sold out.

The other big issue raised by Saddam's arrest is, as the BBC liked to put it, will it lead to a reduction in the violence? Meaning, will Iraqi rebels stop trying to force the US army out of their country. The answer to that line of inquiry came pretty quickly. Maybe there are long-term trends that have been overlooked, but it doesn't seem likely.
On the day of Saddam's arrest, 17 people were killed in a rebel bombing attack on a police station (Christmas coming early for the Bush administration indeed). It would have been a major news story except that Saddam was captured. A US soldier also died while defusing a bomb that day, but there was no need to bring his death into it either - don't want to spoil an early Christmas after all. Staff Sgt. Kimberly A. Voelz his name was, for anyone who is interested. Aged 27. Three others have been killed in accidents since December 14th.
The following day, nine people were killed in two further attacks on police stations. Today, 17 people were killed on a busy road in Baghdad when a truck bomb exploded prematurely while on its way to another police station. I can't give you a single name. No, "the violence" in the offical euphemism for the war, is not about to stop.

Meanwhile, a different and more disgusting kind of killing has been going on. When Saddam was arrested, the biggest demonstrations were celebrating his capture. Not everyone agreed. In some parts of the country, the mood is different and there were demonstrations in Saddam's favour. The US army responded to these with ferocity. The BBC's John Simpson, in his excellent report on December the 16th showed shocking footage of Iraqis in Fallujah running for their lives and diving for cover as US bullets raced over their heads and into the crowd. Afterward, there gunfights between rebels and the Iraqi police, with the police in retreat. Protestors angrily stormed the US-appointed mayor's office and the mayor fled.
It was a pretty standard massacre. In Robert Fisk's report for the Independent, five protestors were killed. This was one incident among many around central Iraq. 18 protestors seem to have murdered in all, 11 in the town of Samarra.
The official military resposne is standard, too. The dead were "insurgents" and US troops had responded to attacks made against them. It's the same, boring, Bloody Sunday script. In several months time, the US army may sheepishly accept "liability" for the deaths and offer some financial compensation as they did with the original Fallujah massacre of April 28th.
The US military is going to have more trouble being believed as time goes on, especially after the debacle in Samara a couple of weeks ago. A US convoy carrying new banknotes arrived in the town and was ambushed by rebels, prompting return fire from US troops which killed a number of civilians, about 10. No rebels were identified among the dead. This story was reported by the US military as 'US army kills 54 insurgents'. The military wanted to get a headline that people would remember before professional journalists had time to go in and establish the facts - but even the Associated Press didn't believe the story and ran contradictory accounts along with the military's headline. For future reference, a claim by the US army that they killed a large number of rebels without taking any casualties or harming civilians is a lie until proven otherwise.

The capture of Saddam prompted much elation within the Bush administration partly because they have been constantly pushing the idea to the US public that all resistance in Iraq to the US presence is either directed by Saddam or his loyalists or what are called foreign fighters (foreign not including US, obviously!) of the Bin Laden kind. Ideologically, they cannot cope with the idea that some of those they are fighting are just Iraqis who want them out the country. For many in the US, Saddam is the mastermind behind 9/11 and capturing him means an end to the war in Iraq, if not the war on terrorism itself.
This line is not going to be easy to sustain in the coming months. It seems reasonably clear now that Saddam has not been directing guerrilla resistance. His capture may demoralise rebels who fought for his return - and a good thing if it does. But it may serve to encourage those who opposed his return but were drawn to the resistance against the US. With Saddam reduced to a bad memory, Iraqis have been showing signs of losing the old fears - now they set up their own newspapers, hold huge rallies and demonstrations and show their anger. A society that is armed to the death - you saw the guns that they were firing off in celebration - and just isn't afraid any more is in a position to make demands on its occupiers and to make their stay impossible.
The capture of Saddam means the final defeat of a major enemy of Iraqi freedom and that of the region, which it is why it is a good thing. The Iraqis are in a better position now to take on the other enemies of their freedom. So there are hopeful things in all this, but the bloody events of the last few days look set to carry on through the holiday season and into the new year. The only certainty about the future for Iraq is that more people will die, soon. Stay angry about it.


Spanish Bombs and the Autism of Violence

This was written on March 11th, an immediate response cut short by lack of time. A liitle way below is an update taking into account developments in the last few days.

Possibly March 11th will come to have a similar resonance in Europe and certainly in Spain as September 11th, prompting the discouraging question as to how many days we will be obliged to remember such horrors.

Shortly after hearing of the bombs that have shattered Madrid, a friend and i e-mailed our friend and former colleague who is working there as a primary school teacher. She wrote back:

I am fine but we are all very shaken. One of the bombs that went off was practically next to my friend's flat and the area is cordoned off. The whole city is in shock and there are threats to
the entire public transport system. Over 170 people have been killed. We are trying to get on as usual for the kids but it's not easy.

The figures are staggering - 190 people [198 as of Friday] have died so far and around 1,200 [1,400 as of Friday] are injured. Blood has not been shed on this scale in Spain since the period of the Franco dictatorship and nothing like this has occurred before in the low-level conflict between the Spanish government and the Basque rebels, ETA which has been going off and on since 1968. For Western Europe too, today's massacre is a rare low point in our post-World War II history - the Lockerbie bombing in 1989 or De Gualle's massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961 being the last episodes on this scale.

The Spanish government, led by Jose Maria Aznar of the conservative Popular Party has been quick, perhaps too quick, to accuse ETA of the slaughter. The Spanish Ministry of the Interior, noting initial findings that the dynamite used in the explosions is of a kind often used by ETA, and that ETA has been attempting a number of bombing operations recently that might have caused comparable deaths if they had succeeded, has supported this view.
That said, Herri Batasuna, the political party identified with ETA - recently made illegal by the Aznar government - has insisted that ETA is not responsible. ETA usually claim repsonsibility for their operations but have not in this case. The Aznar government stands to benefit electorally in Sunday's election if ETA is responsible since it is closely identitified with a hardline stance towards Basque separatists, but if the bombing turns out to be connected to the Spanish government's role in supporting the US military presence in Iraq and South-West Asia generally it stands to lose support from a population which was overwhelmingly opposed to the US invasion of Iraq despite their government's position.
More recently, signs are emerging suggesting that an al-Qai'da-like cell may be the murderers instead, including a letter apparently claiming repsonsibility on behalf of the Abu Mafs al-Masri brigades to the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper based in London, which receieved similar letters following recent bombings in Istanbul. The letter proclaims that "We have succeeded in infiltrating the heart of crusader Europe and struck one of the bases of the crusader alliance". The letter cannot really be authenticated but it coincides with the discovery of a van in Madrid apparently containing detonators and tapes in Arabic.

So maybe it is a group affiliated with al-Qai'da. Or maybe ETA. Or perhaps not. Presumably there are some people out there who thought that they were doing the right thing by stuffing powerful explosives on crowded commuter trains and detonating them at rush hour without warning, but they haven't bothered to share their motives with those of us who aren't in on the joke, nor have they taken any responsibility for their actions.
It seems a strange gripe to protest at the lack of terrorist etiquette, much as George Orwell once wrote of the "decline of the English murder" noting the low quality of contemporary murders as compared with some of the class acts of the 19th century. But it is not a trivial matter.

On Friday February 17th 1978, the Provisional IRA placed a bomb in the window grille of the La Mons Hotel in County Down. The grotesque device they used was designed to have the same impact as napalm. But the intent of the IRA's team was not to kill. Needless to say, if you put an incendiary bomb in a hotel you are asking for trouble, but the aim was to ring the police and give them enough time to alert those in the hotel to get out, but not enough time to prevent the explosion which would destroy a tourist facility and help drive the cost of the British military presence in Ireland higher.
According the BBC journalist Martin Dillon, writing in his book 'Stone Cold' about the loyalist killer Michael Stone, the PIRA's bombers placed the bomb, set it to detonate and then headed over to a public phone to relay the warning to the RUC. But when they reached the phone, they found it had been vandalised. The bombers quickly rushed off in search of another phone but were stopped at a military checkpoint. After negotiating their way past the British army, they drove up to Belfast and finally rang the police. There were two minutes to spare - no time at all. The bomb went off, killing 12 people, whose charred bodies more resembled the casualties of the US war in Vietnam than the Irish war.
Not for the first time or last time, the PIRA had seriously botched its operation. But two days later, they admitted responsibility and stated:

"[The warning] ...proved totally inadequate given the disastrous consequences. We accept condemnation and criticism from only two sources: from the relatives and friends of those who were accidentally killed, and from our supporters who have rightly and severely criticized us".

This statement did not exactly scale new heights of sincerity or repentence. But it is worth looking at some of its basic elements - the statement acknowledges that burning defenceless civilians to death marks a failure and not a success for the IRA. It acknowledges the suffering of the bereaved and notes that the incident has upset their support base and prompted major disagrements within the organisation. All in all, those who issued such a statement recognised that they inhabit the same moral universe as the rest of us and realise that after the bombing they had to respond with some contrition.

Compare that with the response so far by whoever commissioned the carnage in Madrid. There has been no statement, there was no warning, there was never any visible intention of sparing anyone's life.
The March 2nd bombings of Iraqi Shias in Karbala are another case in point. Almost 200 people were killed. Who did it? What for? What was the point? What did they think they were doing? What did they hope would come about from the slaughter? What do they want? The truth is, that beyond the charmed cirle of perpetrators, a number of whom killed themselves in order to kill others, no one else has a damn clue. The citizens of Karbala are left guessing - and hosing the blood off their streets.
As the German Marxist writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger notes, many of today's practitioners of political violence are defined by their sheer autism - their total self-involvement and apparent inability to show empathy or understanding of anything beyond a narrow set of concerns. They struggle to engage with the outside world and often do not bother - their elaborate names:

"...cannot disguise the fact that no goal, no plan, no idea binds them together other than the strategy ... of death and destruction... What gives today's civil wars a new and terrifying slant is the fact that they are waged without stakes on either side, that they are wars about nothing at all. value is attributed to life - either to one's own or to the lives of one's opponents..."

One of the tasks of the emerging global justice movement must be precisely to challenge that "autism of violence", to keep alive belief in universal values, against all their opponents

If the Spanish government is correct in accusing ETA of the bombing, then attention must return to a serious resolution of the conflict in the Basque country. Today Aznar has openly stated that there can be no negotiations with ETA or Herri Batasuna, which is a bad start. The Aznar government, which it should be said is a very bad government undeserving of victory in Sunday's poll, has used the political climate after September 2001 to suppress militant Basque nationalism, banning Herri Batasuna, banning a documentary on the conflict, shutting down a Basque-language newspaper (Euskladunon Egunkaria) and arresting ten of its staff and squashing proposals for a referendum on the extension of Basque autonomy.

ETA tried to kill Aznar in 1995 - as with Margaret Thatcher and the IRA, or with Sharon and Arafat, this is quite a personal fight. And there are other elements to the Spanish governement's war with ETA. Today's London Independent was published too late to cover today's bombing. Their story instead is "UN says Spain tortured Eta 'terrorists'". A Dutch human rights specialist, Theo van Boven, issued a short report into the use of torture in the Baque country by the Spanish police. He described the torture as "not systematic" but "more than sporadic and incidental. The report listed a number of forms of torture used ranging from the usual beatings, threats and sleep deprivation techniques to harsher methods such as asphyxiation of prisoners with plastic bags.
The Spanish government declared that the UN report was inaccurate and to be ignored. They issued a dossier of denial almost four times longer than the original report and made clear that thought they were prepared to accept further UN investigation, there was not about to be a serious change in policy. But the UN is not alone in its condemnation of police torture in Spain - Amnesty International called for reforms to prevent torture and the dropping charges against journalists who were accused of fabricating torture claims on ETA's behalf exactly one year ago today, March 11th, 2003.

For more on the Basque conflict, see this article.
Another World is Desirable

Since writing the above, a few things have changed. ETA have strongly denied responsibility for the bombing and a video from al-Qa'ida has emerged in which they claim responsibility from someone who claims to be in charge of their operations in Europe. Although it is still not clear, the argument that some group connected to al-Qa'ida was responsible seems much stronger than the counter-argument. Meanwhile, the death toll carried on rising to 200 and the number of people with injuries is now thought to be 1,500.
The Spanish people have also responded. They responded by taking to the streets in their millions on Friday night in a quiet and dignified protest against what was done to them. And they appear today to be repsonding in the poll booths by punishing the government that took them into the war in Iraq and was so quick to pin the blame ETA precisely to avoid the claim that they had made Spain a target for al-Qa'ida. It looks like people in Spain are not responding to the massacre with chauvinism or anti-Muslim racism, and not even with renewed enthusiasm for a military solution. It is a statement to the Bush administration as well as the devotees of Bin Laden - people around the world are getting more than sick of both of you.

The messages so far received from groups claiming to be affiliated with or part of al-Qa'ida, presuming they are what they purport to be (which is not easy to tell - professional at killing these people may be, but at communications they are not), are horrible acts of gloating. The statement sent to the London-based Arabic newspaper informed us:

The death squad [their words] succeeded in penetrating the crusader European depths and striking one of the pillars of the crusader alliance - Spain - with a painful blow. These bomb attacks were part of settling old scores with the crusader Spain for its war against Islam.
Where is America to protect you today, Aznar? Who is going to protect you, Britain, Italy, Japan and other hirelings from us? When we hit Italian troops in Nasirya
[Iraq] and sent you and other hirelings a warning to withdraw from the alliance against Islam, you did not comprehend our warning – now we have made it clear - we hope that it will be understood this time.
We in Abu Hafs al-Masri did not feel sad for the death of the so-called civilians. Is it lawful for them to kill our children, women, elderly and men in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Kashmir, and is unlawful for us to kill them back?

There are several obvious responses. Among them - groups rather like al-Qa'ida are not at all adverse to killing civilians, children, women and elderly in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kashmir when it suits them, as it frequently has done. The people of Afghanistan are in fact rather anxious to be rid of such people - see The people of Madrid were not "so-called civilians" - and they were among the most militantly anti-war people in Europe and patently did not deserve what they got even in the sick logic of the perpetrators.
It continues:

Stop targeting us, release our prisoners, and leave our land, we will stop attacking you. The people of US allied countries have to put pressure on their governments to immediately end their alliance with the US in the war against terror (Islam). If you persist we will also continue… We want to tell you that the Death Smoke squad will reach you soon, and then you will see your dead in their thousands – God willing… This is a warning…

Many of us in the European left have been trying to put pressure on our governments precisely to stop supporting US foreign policy aims, to pursue justice in the Middle East, to end human rights abuses against Muslims at home and abroad and to find a way to peace and we have built a huge movement. The Spanish left was at the very forefront of this struggle and they will probably continue to be despite everything.
But al-Qa'ida should be equally assured that the left has a quarrel with them - we oppose their vengeful slaughter of civilians, we oppose their brutal sectarianism towards Shia Muslims, and we oppose the particualry vicious brand of totalitarianism that they wish to impose on the world's Muslims, of whom they pretend to be the liberators. I have met a couple of their victims from September 11th - they were kind-hearted people who did not wars fought or barbarism inflicted in their names. But they do expect to see the surviving murderers of their family members and friends answer for their crimes against humanity in a proper, international tribunal. And maybe one day, they will get just that (stopping the US government undermining the International Criminal Court would be a start). These people should answer for what they have done in front of their victims - not as martyrs, not as political prisoners, not as terrorists, but as people who have commissioned crimes against our common humanity.

As for the war on terrorism - well Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and others did say it would take years. Maybe decades. Maybe a whole century. Then we would finally have defeated terrorism forever after however many deaths in the great cities of the West or in the countries of South-West Asia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia and Africa our governments are prepared to accept - a pretty large figure, we can reasonably expect. It seems however, that they did not take into the account the fact that the people of this planet don't want decades of atrocity and counter-atrocity - that people might just get sick of being afraid all the time. Aznar and the Spanish conservatives are being voted down today because people are waking up to the stupidity of the Bush administration's policy and the endless war he proposes. Intelligence and decency are making some headway - and politicians the world over will be in trouble if they can't stop it. Another world is possible and also highly desirable.

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