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.

Criticism of the Terrorism Act (2000)

I’d like to add my voice to the rapidly spreading condemnation of the UK border agency’s decision to detain David Miranda for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport.  For those who don’t know, Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who has published leaks made by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.  He was detained whilst en-route from Germany to Brazil, where he and Greenwald live together.  He was interrogated about his intentions and possessions, stripped of his laptop, mobile phone, DVDs and other items and forced to divulge passwords.  He was told that to resist would mean imprisonment.  Speaking to the BBC, he described the way he had been violated as feeling “naked in front of a crowd.”

The legislation that allowed this is Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000).  It makes legal the temporary detention of a person who:

40 (1)
(a)has committed an offence under any of sections 11, 12, 15 to 18, 54 and 56 to 63, or

(b)is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.

There’s a whole heap of offences under (a), including being a member of a terrorist organisation, fundraising for one, providing weapons training, and so on.  But my understanding is that Miranda was detained under point (1) section 58, which states:

(a)he* collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b)he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.

Now, we don’t know what information Miranda was in possession of at the time.  In theory, this could be legal if he was carrying sensitive information which could be ‘useful’ to terrorists.  Yet, as vague as this is, there’s another safeguard for the law in Schedule 7, paragraph 2:

(4) An examining officer may exercise his powers under this paragraph whether or not he has grounds for suspecting that a person falls within section 40(1)(b).

So even if Miranda wasn’t suspected of possessing such information, he could still legally be detained.

I perceive this case to be an abuse of power by the UK border control, allowed by vagaries in terrorism legislation.  I’m not a lawyer, but I’d advocate two changes which should be made to this law:

  1. Remove (4) of paragraph 2, section 7.  An individual ought to at least be suspected of offences relating to terrorism before they can be detained.
  2. Amend (1) of section 58.  “Information of a kind likely to be useful” is far, far too vague, and liable to be interpreted in a way that could result in an abuse of power such as we’ve seen here.  There should be a finite list of kinds of information which count, and this list should give full protection to journalistic independence.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any indication that this current government will be reforming the Act anytime soon.  Home Secretary Theresa May has defended Miranda’s detention under Schedule 7.  I am pleased to see that Miranda is taking legal action, questioning the legality of his detention, and requesting that the analysis of his confiscated possessions be temporarily halted.  Hopefully the courts will rule in favour.

In other, somewhat related news, Bradley Manning has been imprisoned for 35 years.  While I concede that his actions were illegal, I really think such a harsh sentence is unwarranted, particularly considering that the soldiers who committed the war crimes he leaked have so far walked free.  One day in the future this will be recognised by the US government as a shameful mistake.  The optimist in me even hopes that some future president will grant him a pardon before he finishes his sentence.

As I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere, these stories have made it a worrying time to be a journalist.  I’m glad to see Amnesty International have been consistently criticising these developments.  We mustn’t let our need for protection from terrorism be used to curb our civil liberties.  I’ll finish by quoting a paraphrased but nonetheless pertinent phrase by Benjamin Franklin:

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

Related articles:

*I’m going to let the casual sexism of our legislation pass, for now.


Star Trek: Into Darkness (Review)

Contains spoilers.
(I may be rushing this slightly; blame Shakespeare).


It’s time for the second installment of the rebooted Star Trek film series!  I’ve never been a major fan of Star Trek, residing on the Doctor Who side of the inter-nerd fan rivalry, though I’ve seen a couple of the original films (the first two, I think).  Brilliantly brought back to life in 2009 by J. J. Abrams, I highly enjoyed the first film.  Into Darkness mostly continues this trend, though it has its flaws.

I really liked the opening sequence.  This is a confident film to so casually open with the crew engaged in a deadly mission on a primitive planet to stop a volcano erupting.  It adds little to the overall plot, but I enjoyed the spectacle of this alien planet, Spock inside the volcano, and the Enterprise emerging from the sea.

The 2009 film has been both praised and criticised for the complexity of its plot, featuring time travel and alternative timelines.  I personally liked this style of storytelling, but I’m glad Into Darkness has gone for a more linear narrative this time, or the series would have been in danger of suffering from the same repetitive ‘timey-wimeyness’ as recent Doctor Who.  Instead the story is given a much smaller and intimate scale.  Where the first featured a genocidal maniac with an insatiable desire for revenge, here we’re dealing with John Harrison – revealed to be Khan – trying to save his race of advanced humans.  The threat is never larger than acts of terrorism or the crew of the Enterprise, which feels appropriate given the climate we live in today.  There is the looming possibility of war with the Klingons, but this plot thread is never given a great deal of attention and never feels particularly credible; the Klingons existed purely to serve as nonhuman cannon fodder for Kahn, which is questionable morals from the writers if nothing else.   Being new to Star Trek, I’d have liked to see more of the Klingons, who were rather wasted.

This is definitely one of those films with a structure which changes and adapts through the film as events progress, rather than having one arc stretch throughout it.  This isn’t a criticism by any means, and the plot only once or twice seemed to slow and lose its direction – at around the middle.  I’ve seen the film criticised as predictable, but there were bits which did genuinely shock me – such as Kirk’s death, which cleverly mirrored events in 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (a death behind a glass window, Spock and Kirk’s hand gesture and, of course, “KKKAHHAAAAANNNNN!!!!”) leaving me wondering whether his death would be final.  In the end it is reversed as part of the “Spock and Kirk saving each others’ lives” subplot which, while I enjoyed, felt a bit needlessly dragged out.  Into Darknessalso acts nicely as a transition from the introductions of the first film to the missions of exploration seen in the original television series.  Will the next film, if it’s made, be set during the course of these missions?

The characters continue to be brilliantly portrayed by the younger cast who, from what I’ve seen, are doing a remarkable job of bringing life to the originals.  Zachary Quinto, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg and Karl Urban do particularly good jobs as Spock, Checkov, Scottie and “Bones” McCoy.  I’m not entirely convinced by Chris Pine’s performance as Kirk, however.  He’s a good actor, but his youthful portrayal doesn’t seem to have the gravitas I feel Kirk should have at this point.  It worked for the first film, but here where he is captain I feel he should look a bit more experienced.  Among the best performances was undoubtedly Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, who brought such an incredible presence to the role.  His interactions with the other characters were among my favourite parts of the film.  Alice Eve was also good as Dr. Marcus – I can see why the film has been criticised for having an antiquated view of women, though I mostly disagree.  Sure, this particular character was a bit useless, but she was a scientist, not a soldier.  Uhura proves one of the most capable characters on the crew, in complete contrast!  We even saw Leonard Nimoy back as spock which, while serving as a nice return, really didn’t have a purpose.  We don’t need to be told that Khan is dangerous; Cumberbatch’s performance does that well enough on its own.

J. J. Abrams has reaffirmed his position as the King of science-fiction in his direction for this film.  Every location is brilliantly created, the futuristic cities feeling especially real and convincing.  The actions scenes are completely under his control – often in blockbusters action scenes can become messy and confusing, but in this film they were always easy to follow.   The scenes on the Enterprise where the gravity-system failed were thrillingly directed and left me on the edge of my seat until the characters had reached safety.

Overall, Star Trek: Into Darkness is a very commendable film and a worthy addition to the franchise.  I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as the first addition to the rebooted series, but it comes close.  It is at its heart a blockbuster which, try as it might, never quite escapes from the stereotypes of the genre, but does rise to become the best entertainment a blockbuster is capable of.  Essentially, a very solid film.

Final rating: 8.5/10

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.

Our Bright Future

I have noticed a growing number of reports in the news recently, about the concerns held by many biological scientists over the possibility of society heading towards a world without antibiotics.  In the last couple of centuries, humanity has launched an all-out assault on the diseases which, for most of history, have had us at their heels.  Since then there seems to have been an arms race between evolving bacteria and developing drugs.  Unfortunately, from my limited knowledge, it seems that we’re creating the conditions which allows these ‘superbugs’ to develop; overusing antibiotics means that the bacteria which, through random mutations, happen to develop an immunity, will be guaranteed to take over as the dominant strain.  The answer is generally to find new drugs, but in the last 30 years or so there has been a distinct lack of new discoveries.  I’m not sure whether this is because there’s no profit motive in doing so or we’ve simply run out of options.  I’m dearly hoping for Explanation 1.

Having grown up in an age of the utmost medical efficiency, where we can realistically expect to live to a grand age, where, until the age of 11 or so, I almost believed science as capable of anything, this concept is shocking.  It’s been compared as great a threat to the UK (and the world, presumably) as terrorism, though I would say it’s far worse than that.  A world in which people can die of infected cuts, where cancer, appendicitis, etc. kill simply as a result of treatment, is utterly terrifying.

The governments of the world need to invest more into scientific research for this issue, or to give companies motivations for conducting their own research.  If the governments can’t be trusted to deal with such a long term issue, which is likely, then international organisations like the European Union or the United Nations should step in and campaign for it.  The problem won’t go away, and needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.  It would be such a drag to get through 40 years of life then die of a paper cut, because governments were too busy trying to save money and avoid upsetting bankers.

Israel’s Obsession with Walls

Israel appears to be developing an obsession with walls and barricades that would have made the Romans proud.*  First came the infamous West Bank barrier, which upon completion will cover around 700km, clearly separating the territory of Israel and the West Bank.  The Gaza Strip is separated similarly.  The stated purpose of this was to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, and in that respect is appears to have been a success.  But underneath this reasoning there may be a humanitarian disaster for the Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy declined between 2000 and 2002 as work on the barrier began, and has only made a feebly recovery.  Communities have been cut in half.  They have lost their human right to the freedom of movement.  This isn’t even getting into Israel’s highly criticised settlement policy.

The city of Jerusalem is increasingly becoming cut in half, between West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem.  Both Palestine and Israel consider Jerusalem their capital city – and of course, neither respect the right of the other to exist.  Israel, having won the most wars and gaining the most foreign military aid, now appears to exist more so than Palestine.  But that’s a different subject/rant altogether.  Jerusalem is bearing more and more resemblances to  Cold War Berlin, separated by the Berlin Wall.  We can only hope this wall will be brought down as peacefully.

Then I read the news article which inspired this post, commenting on the Israel-Egypt barrier being built along the border at Sinai.  And then, just as I was planning this post in my head, I read this news story of yet another barrier being planned, this time along the eastern border of the Golan Heights as a result of the Syrian Civil War.

The Golan Heights were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 and have remained in their possession ever since.   As the Syrian Civil War becomes ever more violent and bloody it has begun spilling into other countries – this can be seen in both Lebanon and Turkey.  Israel has remained neutral during the war – again a whole other subject – and does not want to be affected by the instability.  So up goes another wall.  Once more this barrier protects Israel from terrorism, this time the terrorists being radical Islamist insurgents who have gained influence in the Sinai region since the Egyptian Revolution.  However it was also intended to cut off the flow of African migrants into Israel, and in that respect it will certainly be successful once reaching completion early this year.  It is also hoped to crack down on illegal drug trafficking.

While there may be some legitimate reasons for all this obsessive building of walls, the fact is that it does nothing for Israel’s image of being an imperialist occupier, and the idea that a Second Apartheid is developing between the Jews and Arabs of the region.  In fact, a quick search with the words ‘barrier’ and ‘wall’ brings up results for every single one of Israel’s neighbours, though not all of these are quite so dramatic in scale.  Virtually, there are walls over every single one of Israel’s borders.  Extreme paranoia, an abuse of human rights or necessary defence?  I could not say.

*Well, okay, the Romans would have resented any attempt of wall-building by Israel, but that’s besides the point…