Am I a Terrorist?

The UK’s Terrorism Act 2006 makes it an offence to:

(a) distribute or circulate a terrorist publication;
(b) give, sell or lend such a publication;
(c) offer such a publication for sale or loan;
(d) provide a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to or look at such a publication, or to acquire it by means of a gift, sale or loan;
(e) transmits the contents of such a publication electronically; or
(f) have such a publication in his possession with a view to its becoming the subject of conduct falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (e).

This is almost certainly the reason that the British Library has decided against including Taliban documents within its archives, as reported by Al Jazeera.  Despite the Library believing there is a clear academic value in these documents, it has engaged in an act of self-censorship over fear of prosecution, whether for itself or for researchers accessing these documents.

This is a problem.  I have always known vaguely that the UK’s anti-terrorism laws, introduced during Tony Blair’s Labour government following the 9/11 attacks and subsequently strengthened since, are stringent and widespread.  I have only examined the law in depth, however, after being alerted to it by that Al Jazeera article.  It also brought my attention to the case of Rizwaan Sabir, who writes here of being arrested in 2008 as a masters student for downloading a document titled ‘An Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ from the US Department of Justice website to aid his research.  The case against him collapsed and he was rightfully granted compensation, but this case highlights the how these laws are open to abuse.  I have no doubt that similar instances have since occurred.

I’m beginning to wonder whether I myself might even have accessed documents for research purposes which would come under suspicion.  Earlier this year I wrote an essay for a Middle-Eastern History undergraduate course at university in which I examined the Islamic State’s development in the context of historical jihadi movements.  To do so, I cited official IS press releases in order to provide evidence of the group’s ideology.  Is this an act of terrorism?  What if I were to have gone further and explored more jihadi works – say, of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leading jihadi theorist who has influenced many movements in Iraq during the last decade?  I would be reading these sources purely out of academic interest with no intention of becoming a jihadi myself.  Would that be an act of terrorism?

Let’s go even broader.  I have a downloaded copy of The Communist Manifesto on my phone I’m reading through out of historical and ideological interest.  Is that terrorism?  For another university essay last year, I consulted a copy of Mein Kampf to gain an insight into National Socialist ideology.  Was that terrorism?  Under UK law, certainly not – these documents, even Mein Kampf, are understood to have academic value.  So it’s clear that, in the UK, ‘terrorist documents’ can be narrowed down generally to those which espouse violent Islamism.

Of course, as Sabir mentions in his article, there’s a strong element of ‘racial discrimination’ here.  As a white British citizen with no Muslim or Middle-Eastern ancestry, it is likely that I could get away with accessing jihadi documents for the purpose of academic research as I don’t fit the profile of an Islamist terrorist.  Indeed, in the unlikely event I would be charged, I’d be protected under the Terrorism Act which states that individuals charged can be defended if:

(a) the statement neither expressed his views nor had his endorsement (whether by virtue of section 3 or otherwise); and
(b) that it was clear, in all the circumstances of the statement’s publication, that it did not express his views and (apart from the possibility of his having been given and failed to comply with a notice under subsection (3) of that section) did not have his endorsement.

I imagine this is what protected Sabir, as well as the fact he accessed the documents from the US government.  I would hope this clause has protected most people who have been charged with terrorism for conducting legitimate academic research.  Nevertheless, as the British Library has demonstrated, the legislation is still effective in creating an atmosphere where self-censorship is widely practiced, which cannot be healthy for academia.  If the UK is to maintain its reputation for academic freedom and world-class research, this problem needs to be tackled.

Does Sport Count As News?

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who groans whenever watching the news and the presenter says, “Now for some sport!”  A definition of news I’ve found goes:  “Newly received or noteworthy information, esp. about recent or important events.”  Can stories about a man kicking a ball into a net or a woman jumping over a high pole, as impressive as these actions are, really be considered news under that definition?  Is it noteworthy or important?  Sure, there’s room to discuss the economic and social impact of sports (overpaid footballers, cash-cow for advertisers, cause of unrest in Brazil, etc) but to actually report on the activities? It’s particularly strange when international news stations report news, like Al Jazeera.  At least when the BBC reports it you can guarantee there may be at least some people who have a vested interest.

Alright, this rant is stemming from the fact I find sport incredibly dull.  I don’t have a problem with news about recent literary events or films, so I recognise this is a partisan view I’m expressing.  Perhaps neither of them can be defined as news either but they do at least, it can be argued, actually have an influence on the world through the expression of ideas and concepts.  I’m not saying sport is a bad thing – encouraging people to strive for improvement and be healthy is great – but, ignoring the shady economics angle, does it really affect anyone besides the players themselves?

I don’t have definite answers and this is hardly a pressing issue – just something I’ve been pondering on recently.  Let me know if you disagree!

Is the News Bad for You?

I came across this infuriating article a week or so ago, and have been meaning to write a response to it, but lost track of priorities and it slipped back.  In the article, the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli makes his case that exposure to the news is harmful for us in a variety of ways.  He gives 10 reasons as to why he believes this:

News is misleading.
Dobelli uses a variety of examples to expand on this point, some of which, I agree, may be valid.  The first, of how the news would distort a story of a bridge collapse involving a car, is incredibly generalised, and any important issues – like the general structural safety of bridges – would be marginalised.  Sure, The Daily Mail would spew forth some headline like “BENEFIT SCROUNGER IN BRIDGE TRAGEDY, 12 CHILDREN ORPHANED” or whatever, but one would hope a more decent source of news, like The BBC or The Independent, would look into the wider issue at hand – in addition to reporting the tragedy itself.

I do agree that news causes us to have the ‘wrong risk map’; that news can make us overemphasise the threat of terrorism, etc.  But this isn’t the fault of the news.  What should news organisations do?  Not report it?  Or is it better for individuals, having abandoned the news, to simply not know about terrorist attacks?  Is our potential lack of ability to contextualis news stories really a convincing reason to deprive ourselves of information?

“We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.”

That’s rather a condescending statement.  Some people may base their decisions on stories they see, but I would like to think most people would reason whether there would be an effect on their own lives.  Once again, is the solution to “cut yourself off from news consumption entirely” really any better?  I’d rather make a flawed judgement based on information than a flawed judgement blind.  I’m not keen on following advice which begins by doubting my reasoning abilities, but perhaps that’s just me.

News is irrelevant.
This is a huge bugbear of mine.  Oh so often, I’ll be raving something along the lines of, “Hey, guys, France now has a Socialist President!” or “Did you hear about the Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery?!”  More often than not, I’ll be received by glazed looks and some comment as to why I care.  I’ve even had the “it doesn’t affect you” spiel before.  My response is: if we go through life only ever taking notice of things which affect us directly, we would live in a very self-absorbed and greed-filled society indeed.  Alright, perhaps the Venezuelan election really doesn’t matter, but I think it is worth knowing how people in the rest of the world live.  If we don’t have information, or worse, if we don’t care, how can we be expected to engage in the letter-writing campaigns, petitions and donations which increasingly have a positive impact for millions across the world.

Say an earthquake happens to strike San Francisco, which is predicted to happen one day again in the future.  There are many casualties, and there is a desperate appeal for donations to help with aid.  If people didn’t read anything irrelevant, they would have no way of knowing what was going on.  I can somewhat agree with Dobelli in regard to the majority of crass ‘human interest’ stories – the type you would find in tabloids – but, to be honest, I rarely define these as news anyway.

News has no explanatory power
I am becoming ever more certain than Dobelli has had particularly bad experiences with the news.  If you ever watch a good documentary on Al Jazeera, or, say, on the BBC’s Panorama, or even manage to get past the first few pages of most decent newspapers, you’ll find layer upon layer of analysis and discussion.  I can see his point when it comes to slow, hidden movements, but even these are often newsworthy; demographic changes, updated opinion polls, changing employment patterns and environmental studies, to name a few, are very often in the news.

News is toxic for your body.

“It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.”

Uh.  I’ll take his word for that one.  I personally find learning new bits of information quite relaxing, but I appreciate I may be in the majority for that one.

News increases cognitive errors.
Basically, this point says that we look at news from the perspective of our pre-conceived biases, and interpret stories in such a way.  This is true, I must admit.  Reading news about a study into the failings of wind power won’t dash my enthusiasm for renewable energy; I’d simply brush it off as flawed.  But this isn’t true in every occasion.  If someone I have a lot of respect for, like Al Gore or Caroline Lucas, were to dismiss a section of renewable energy – or even just particularly damning statistics – I’m sure I would allow my beliefs to be challenged.

News inhibits thinking.
In the age of Twitter and soundbites, there may also be a point to this one.  “News is an intentional interruption system.”  Does it limit our patience for long, spanning articles?  This must vary from person to person, and I can only talk about myself; I’m a big user of Twitter and I tend to read lots of articles in short spans, but this doesn’t stop me being able to read and learn from long, spanning essays.

News works like a drug.
This is true for me; I am addicted to information.  I’m proud of this fact.  But to claim that “most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books” is a massive, unproven and, frankly, ridiculous generalisation.  In today’s globalised world, virtually everyone is a news consumer.  Does this mean virtually everyone struggles to read long articles and books?  Of course not!

News wastes time.
I have already determined that news is both worthwhile and relevant, so therefore I reject the idea that gaining information is ever a waste of time.  Like anything else in life, it’s about balance.

News makes us passive.
Fair enough, news can depress us and make us feel helpless.  On the other hand, we can feel spurned into action.  This also depends on the type of person you are.

News kills creativity.
As a writer, who is currently experiencing a deficit of creativity, this did make me pause, but I soon realised this is far more likely to be due to current school stresses than my reading of the news; my creativity flourishes during holidays.  Thing is, he claims to know nobody who reads the news and is also creative, whereas I know plenty of people who do and are both.  We evidently inhabit very different spheres.

Central African Republic Rebellion (March 2013)

The issue of a rebellion in the Central African Republic (CAR), which I blogged about when the story first surfaced in January, seems to have escalated once more.  Al Jazeera is reporting that the Seleka rebel coalition, which seeks to forcible remove President Bozizé, have made it into the capital Bangui and have engaged in battle with the CAR Army.  Apparently this is a response to the President having broken the January ceasefire agreement.

Knowing virtually nothing about the country, region or issues involved, I couldn’t begin to speculate on what will happen.  Will the rebels successfully topple Bozizé, or will his fighters push them back?  Will the CAR’s regional allies step in to save him?  What will happen to him if the rebels succeed?  Will any of this make any difference to the people of the Republic?  For the last question, at least, the cynic in me would say none of this will affect the ‘ordinary person’ at all.

Also, it’s interesting to see varied reactions to this in the news.  Checking various websites, both Al Jazeera and Le Monde have this as breaking news on their front page, yet I can’t find a single mention on The Guardian and BBC News only has the story tucked away at the bottom of the ‘World News’ list.

The Israeli Election

Tomorrow, the people of Israel will vote for their next government.  The most significant election to happen in the region since President Morsi was elected in Egypt last June, the way the vote goes will have a profound effect on relations within the Middle East.  Israel is arguably the most democratic country in the Middle East (unless you live in Palestine) and also has the most powerful military, currently being the only country to possess nuclear weapons.

The election will be held in the context of, as ever, a country which sees itself under siege.  There is the old problem of Palestine, which will particularly be in the public mind after the occurance of what Israel terms ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’, though according to reports this is having a surprisingly small impact on the election.  Most parties appear committed to Israel’s current covert strategy of slowly absorbing the territories and denying them of sovereignty; even the opposition, Labor, has been silent on the issue.  Which is surprising, really, considering recent clashes, Palestine’s recent admission as a non-member observer state in the United Nations, and the government’s decision to build more settlements.

More significantly, the old foe Iran is perceived to be the greatest threat to Israeli security.    Expected to soon reach nuclear weapon capabilities – though this is a highly contested statement – the debate in Israel is not if action should be taken in the event of Iran coming close to acquiring nuclear weapons, but the severity of that action.  It’s no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu, seeking re-election, would love to launch military strikes against Iran, but it’s less clear if he would do so without US support.

With things calmer on the northern border with Lebanon, Israel’s main secondary threat is now a consequence of the Arab Uprisings.  It faces an Islamist-dominated government to the south in Egypt, which although seems dedicated to peace now may not always be.  Egyptian instability has also resulted in the advancement of insurgents in the Sinai region, leading to another wall.  To the east, Israel’s traditional foe from whom it still occupies territory, Syria, is wracked in a deadly civil war.  On this issue Israel is torn; Syria is an ally of Iran so it may seem in their interests to support the rebellion, but this risks bringing radical Islamic extremists to power, who would be all but certain to oppose Israel’s very existence – at least they know where they stand with Assad.  So it’s no surprise that Israel has stayed quiet, fearful of either outcome.

The debate within the election does seem to be mostly on the issue of defence and security, rather than the typical discussions on economic policies we’re seeing in Western countries at the moment.  This election quiz by Al Jazeera, despite providing confusing results, gives an indication of which issues are being discussed in the current climate.  It’s quite terrifying.

So how will the election go?  The latest opinion poll has predicted 32% will go to Netanyahu’s coalition party Likud Beiteinu, which would make it the largest party in the Knesset despite having a combined 10% fewer votes than in 2009.  Labor is polled at 17% – 4% more than in 2009.  The ultra-nationalist, and frankly extremely dangerous ‘Jewish Home Party’ is polled at 12%.  The remaining 39% is scattered among a variety of populist, Zionist and liberal parties.  It is clear that Israel is a very divided society and no party will achieve a majority, meaning more extreme parties will play a ‘kingmaker’ role in forming coalitions.  Although I am a supporter of proportional representation, I believe there is a strong argument to introduce a plurality system in Israel, considering the current political climate.

I expect Israel to continue down its current path after this election, with few changes in the near future.

Mali: Letter to Francois Hollande

In response to reports of the deaths of 11 civilians in Mali in French airstrikes, I sought out an email address to contact French President Francois Hollande.  I doubt he’ll ever read it, and because it’s written in English it may even be discarded (I wondered whether to contact the French embassy instead), but here’s the email I sent to his official address:

“Dear Mr. President,

I welcome the news that France has intervened in the Malian Conflict. Severe human rights abuses are being conducted on a daily basis in the north of the country, and it is clear that the insurgents cannot be allowed to control the entirety of Mali for both the country’s sake and for the sake of the rest of the world.
However, it is being reported that French air strikes upon rebel bases have caused civilian casualties. Both Al-Jazeera and The Guardian are reporting the deaths of at least eleven civilians, three of whom are believed to be children. I urge you to ensure that the French Air Force does everything within its power to avoid civilian deaths, and that when in the tragic circumstances civilians are killed, their deaths are investigated thoroughly.
Yours sincerely
Mathew _______”