26 October 2004


In the 1980s I gave some lectures to a circuit of American Universities.

At the University of Missouri I had not been forewarned that I was to give a public lecture until I was ushered into a hall where hundreds of the local citizenry were assembled.

God alone knows what rubbish I talked about but I was assured afterwards by the faculty that it had gone down well.

But the various on-campus seminars which followed were memorable if only for the collective good manners and refreshingly inquiring minds of the students. They were all mad keen to become television reporters though on one issue they were uncomfortable – community (race) relations. But that’s another story.

My driver to the airport was Jake.

He asked where I came from. Unfortunately Northern Ireland didn’t ring any bells so I fell back on plan B. I simply said I came from County Down. ‘It sounds a mighty beautiful place,’ said Jake. I agreed.

‘Is that where Maggie Thatcher lives?’ said Jake. I explained the position as best I could.

‘Have you ever met Maggie Thatcher?’ he inquired. This was something of a challenge because I had indeed met the lady. Go for it, I thought.

‘I’ve had a brief word on one or two occasions,’ I said modestly.

‘Wow!’ said Jake, ‘that’s neat.’

‘I’d sure like to mingle with royalty,’ he mused, ‘but it’s kinda hard when ya live in Missouri.’

One can so easily identify with his problem.

Prior to Missouri I had been in Syracuse in upstate New York and for a few years afterwards I kept in touch with the youngsters in the media studies group when they would visit London for their autumn semester. My last reunion was 1987.

In 1988 on their way back home for Christmas, they all perished on Pan Am flight 103.

As the Presidential election looms those bereaved families in Syracuse will have the horrors of global terrorism in mind and who can blame them if they opt for the man they perceive to have the safer pair of hands.

But for many Americans, part of the 96% who don’t have passports, global affairs translate into small town values. Missouri is one of the ‘swing states’ which may determine the final outcome. That outcome is of global importance, probably more so that at any time in our history.

Jake’s vote will be kinda crucial.

19 October 2004

Where will it end?

It’s increasingly difficult writing about Iraq. Easier to hold my head in my hands and simply dwell on the increasing shame and brutality of the whole deplorable mess.

The barbarous murder of Ken Bigley reflects something of the psychopathic hatred that has developed within the Arab world. The detestable Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is the most ruthless of the Arab militants to have been drawn into Iraq to take on the Coalition by whatever means.

While there has been unprecedented denunciation of his barbarity within the Muslim world, BBC Monitoring reports that Arab media have moved quickly and graphically to the next round of Iraqi and Palestinian deaths. The view is that Ken Bigley will soon be seen as just another unfortunate casualty – one of thousands – in what most people in the Middle East view as an unjustified war of aggression.

Compare this with my least favourite source of satellite information, Fox News. Pictures from Iraq or Afghanistan are often subtitled ‘the war on terrorism’ thus reinforcing the justification for the war and its links with 9/11.

But can it be that the murder of Mr Bigley may provide a defining moment, a stomach-turning reminder of the horrors of a war that fewer and fewer people believe in? Ironically that humanitarian view has an alignment with the terrorists’ aims – to cause the sort of revulsion that will weaken Western political resolve.

Donald Rumsfeld, the greatest of all warlords, has again paid a visit to his army on the ground. Even a well managed appearance before his troops could not conceal the cooler enthusiasm of his carefully chosen audience. The situation will get worse before it gets better, he intones.

When will it get better? How soon will the death toll of American soldiers rise to its second thousand? How many innocent Iraqis will die? ­No figures are being published of that particular death toll so far and none ever will be.

Rumsfeld’s promise, within no stated time frame, is to reduce the number of US personnel in Iraq while building up the local security forces. So nobody has the faintest idea when American soldiers will get home and even less idea how an effective quarter-of-a-million local security force can be achieved. Even if that were possible, with what brutality and corruption would they carry out their task?

Don’t worry Fox News, you will not feel at all obliged to report it.

12 October 2004

Upbeat on Iraq

Tony Blair assured the Labour Party Conference that he wanted to deal with the subject of Iraq ‘head on’.

‘The evidence,’ he confessed, ‘about Saddam having actual biological and chemical weapons, as opposed to the capability to develop them, has turned out to be wrong.’

Surprise surprise.

Well actually Tony, the evidence that he had the capability to develop them was also wrong. Capability to develop would imply that a whole research and manufacturing structure was already in place. There was no such evidence.

‘I can apologise,’ Blair added, ‘for the information that turned out to be wrong but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.’ What Tony does ‘sincerely at least’ actually mean?

Did Blair get wrong information? We now know he got a wide range of intelligence information, some true, some speculative with much added caution and caveats. He simply selected the bits that suited his purpose.

As to removing Saddam, ‘regime change’ was never the intention. It was simply the question of forcing Saddam to get rid of his weapons. In November 2002 Blair said: ‘Saddam now has to decide: he can either disarm voluntarily . . . or he can defy the world, in which case he will be disarmed by force.’

So we smash into Iraq, bomb its cities, wreck its infrastructure and kill its people only to find that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to disarm by force.

Meanwhile Messrs Bush and Kerry have had a televised debate watched by 60 million Americans, the whole thing conducted in the most deferential manner by increasingly neutered senior American journalists. Kerry does not dare to undermine the military in the field – if he wants to get elected – and neither of them can touch on the Israeli-Palestine situation, the real source of Middle East conflict, for the same reason.

Both candidates must remain up-beat because, again, that’s where the votes lie. Most Americans, sadly, still believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with September 11 and the White House dares not correct their views.

The liberation of Iraq has become nothing less than an occupation. Its cities are besieged by occupying armies who no longer care about civilian casualties. There is no effective government.

Kerry believes Iraq is a reversible situation. Bush believes it’s getting better. Blair (sincerely at least) believes it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Perhaps we should ask the Iraqis.

05 October 2004

The effluent society

My remarks this week represent the fulfilment of a small journalistic ambition. Back in the 1960s I made a BBC television programme about waste management and I thought up the above title. The ‘affluent society’ was all the rage at that time. My boss thought my proposal too clever by half and too rude. Authority was respected in those days so I dutifully obeyed and came up with an alternative. Besides, I needed the money.

As it happens I recently spent most of a day with Jonathon Porrit, former Director of Friends of the Earth, currently chair of the Sustainable Development Commission so I feel sufficiently inspired to re-launch my effluent concerns. I am equally inspired by the Down District’s new rules on refuse collection.

I found them a bit difficult to understand, but I’m not as sharp as I used to be. Paper, plastics and cans in the blue bin – formerly the paper-only bin. But not tin lids, because they have plastic sealers. And no envelopes because of the gum. Light cardboard yes, but not the big stuff. Compost, grass clippings, dead flowers in the brown bin but don’t try to be smart and get rid of builder’s rubble. Kitchen waste in the black bin – it’s got to last two weeks now. And no glass.

But the trick, I have found, is to have two receptacles in the kitchen and the which-goes-into-what bit becomes very easy.

Thus ends an era of throwing valuable recyclable material into disgusting and unsightly land fill sites. Just as we today look back with distaste on middens and cesspools and untreated sewerage, future generations, we hope, will wonder why the new regulations were not introduced much sooner.

The fact is, so long as we do not have a devolved government, no overall strategy for sustainable development can be agreed. It is left to District Councils to take the lead and Down District has always been at the forefront.

In Biblical times there was a ghastly rubbish dump outside Jerusalem called Gehenna. Like the vast city dumps one finds in today’s third world, it smouldered and festered under the fierce rays of the sun – ‘where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched’. It was from this image that the early Christians developed the idea of hellfire.

Hellfire seems to have gone out of fashion. One day our rat-infested landfill sites will do the same.