30 November 2004

Yes, Your Majesty

Last week saw the ceremony of the Queen’s speech which dates back, they say, to medieval times – though I’m not so sure. A good deal of it is early Victorian baroque. There was a lot of stately reinvention in her great grand mama’s day.

Anyway, I’m sure the Lifeguards would rather be escorting a golden coach than searching suspect civilians in Iraq.

And it’s a great day out for the toffs who can put on their finery. There’s quite a bit of cross dressing – that used to be illegal for ordinary persons like you and me – and I know for a fact (and I studiously avoid strong assertions where I can) that some of the male hosiery comes from the ladies’ department of Marks and Spencer.

It’s the ultimate charade of course. Tony Blair and the lads wrote the whole lot so it behoves the Queen to read it in a flat disinterested voice. In that endeavour she entirely succeeds. To allow just a hint of a snigger, a gleam in the eye, a perceptible turning up of the royal nose, could be construed as partisan and contrary to various provisions in Magna Carta.

This time round the political parties are behaving with masterly cunning. Labour must wrong-foot the Tories so the emphasis is on law and order and even more stringent measures to punish every miscreant from graffiti scribblers to international terrorists. But all that was invented by the Tories so Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are in a bit of a quandary. While much of the nation worries that some measures may be too strict the Tories can hardly say they are not strict enough. Nor can they launch a general attack against the proposals because they have been whining about them for ages.

So they fall back on a well tried yaboo. We’ve heard all this before they cry and you haven’t delivered.

And they have a point. We have heard it all before – tough on crime, zero tolerance, fast-track convictions, stiffer sentences – and nobody feels significantly safer. So, Your Majesty, you will have to keep your word. Or have I got that wrong – it’s the fellas who wrote your speech who must do so.

Meanwhile in America giant posters of George W Bush are appearing at roadsides with the simple legend – Our Leader. Not quite as big as the Saddam or Ayatollah posters but we’re getting there.

But worry not, fellow citizens of the United Kingdom. He leads America, not us.

Or have I got that wrong as well?

23 November 2004

What price democracy?

Fadhil Badrani is a respected Iraqi journalist and resident of Falluja. He reports regularly for Reuters and the BBC World Service in Arabic. He sent this message:

A row of palm trees used to run along the street outside my house – now only the trunks are left. The upper half of each tree has vanished, blown away by mortar fire. From my window, I can also make out that the minarets of several mosques have been toppled. There are more and more dead bodies on the streets and the stench is unbearable. Smoke is everywhere.

A house some doors from mine was hit during the bombardment on Wednesday night. A 13-year-old boy was killed. His name was Ghazi. I tried to flee the city last night but I could not get very far. It was too dangerous. I am getting used to the bombardment. I have learnt to sleep through the noise – the smaller bombs no longer bother me.

Without water and electricity, we feel completely cut off from everyone else. I only found out Yasser Arafat had died because the BBC rang me. It is hard to know how much people outside Falluja are aware of what is going on here. I want them to know about conditions inside this city – there are dead women and children lying on the streets.

People are getting weaker from hunger. Many are dying from their injuries because there is no medical help left in the city whatsoever. Some families have started burying their dead in their gardens.

A family came to me last night, asking if I knew anywhere they could get hold of some food. When I mentioned that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had died, they were shocked. "It's a conspiracy," they said. "They have killed him so that his death overshadows our plight in the news."

When people in Falluja feel the world is not interested in their fate, they start asking if the media is doing its job. A father who lost two children in the bombing wanted to know if everything I was reporting was actually being broadcast. This city smells of explosives and decaying flesh.

I too wonder if the media is doing its job. Fox News commands by far the biggest audience in America. It reports Falluja as a hugely gripping action movie. The people lap it up. It’s the war on terror. We are spreading democracy. Let’s kick some ass. God is on our side.

21 November 2004

Christmas - the real thing

Oliver Cromwell is not a great favourite in many parts of Ireland for reasons best left untouched at this season of goodwill. What’s more, he detested Christmas, which he called ‘an extreme forgetfulness of Christ, giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Spoil sport.

Its observance was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1644.

The Pilgrim Fathers didn’t like Christmas either. In 1620, Thomas Jones, master of the Mayflower, officially banned it, and for the next 200 years, Christmas went underground in America. In 1659 its celebration was made a criminal offence in Massachusetts.

Modern day puritans may be alarmed that it was a Pope, a German prince and a soft drinks company who created the Christmas we know today.

No one can pinpoint the exact day of Christ's birth. St Luke’s Gospel speaks of ‘shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night’ – unlikely in the bitterly cold winters of the Levant. Most scholars believe that Jesus was born in the Spring.

But in 356 AD Pope Julius fixed the ‘Feast of the Nativity’ at 25 December. The date was gradually accepted by most Christian churches. It was a shrewd move because mid-winter celebrations, and excesses, had a long pagan history and it was wise to harness a bit of heathen vitality to the Christian cause. But many pre-Christian and non-Christian activities lived on. In Ireland we had mummers and wren boys well into the twentieth century.

As a personal celebration of Christmas in 1252, Henry III had 600 oxen slaughtered to get the party going plus loads of salmon pies and roasted peacocks. You can understand the puritanical swing some centuries later.

In 1846 a picture appeared in the Illustrated London News of Queen Victoria and her German consort, Prince Albert, standing with their children around a Christmas tree. The couple were highly popular and Christmas trees, until then a German creation, took off. They remain unpopular in France.

St Nicholas had been a Christmas icon for centuries in Europe. The Dutch had corrupted his name to Sinterklass which, in English, became Santa Claus. Santa started out as a thin man often dressed in green or blue. But in 1931, Coca-Cola ran a Christmas advertising campaign and he got a complete makeover in the company’s corporate red and white. They chose a retired plump and bearded Coca-Cola salesman to be the model.

You can understand why we still accept him without question. It’s the real thing.

16 November 2004

Body count

The re-election of George W Bush is not going to have an immediate effect on either your life or mine. But the longer term outcome for millions world wide, where he is generally despised, will be somewhat different.

The inhabitants of the Iraqi city of Fallujah will be the first to suffer the consequences of the American vote. Now that liberal opinion has been swept aside American forces will take the city apart and hundreds of innocent Iraqis – those unable to flee – will die.

At the beginning of the war the one or two soldiers who were killed made world news. The deaths among the Black Watch have again produced the same reaction. ‘Collateral damage’ – the death of civilians – was glossed over from the start but we were assured that such unfortunate, occasional, regrettable (but inevitable) incidents are the price we must pay for liberation.

The first scientific research into the Iraqi death toll was carried out by an independent group of scientists and I find it remarkable how little it has been debated. It’s no longer news. It certainly was not of the slightest concern during the American elections. Clare Short fumed in the House of Commons as did the Labour Against War group and the Stop the War Coalition. Well they would, wouldn’t they, said the critics of the report.

The critics maintain that the report is deeply flawed but the approach used is generally accepted by statisticians as sound. Critics maintain there are ‘hot spots’ (Fallujah for example) where casualties will be disproportionately high and it is therefore incorrect to assume that all of over Iraq the same level of deaths will apply. But the researchers recognised this factor and excluded Fallujah from their calculations. What’s more, the estimate of 100,000 deaths is the mean figure between the lowest and the highest assessments. Either way, around 50% will be women and children.

But the point is we are dealing with many thousands of deaths. We have moved from single deaths, to threes and fours, to tens, to hundreds, to thousands, and we are not much engaged in the debate as to whether the deaths run into five or six figures. The Pentagon keeps its own calculations secret.

Retired US General Tommy Franks, who is credited as ‘successfully leading the military operation to liberate Iraq’, shrugs off the problem.

‘We don't do body counts,’ he says.

Too busy liberating the people of Iraq General?

02 November 2004

Democracy's big day

Today (Tuesday) is a big day in America and a worry for the rest of us.

The American people will chose their forty-third President and may the best man win. But will he? It will be a close call, even if the greatest democracy in the world (not my own phrase you understand) had a voting system that was actually reliable.

The last presidential election was farcical. It exposed a system, or lack of it, which accepted dozens of different voting protocols all over the country. With a little help from Florida (run by his brother) George W made it to the White House.

But that’s all behind us because, in a spirit of contriteness, forgiveness and good sense HAVA was enacted – the Help America Vote Act. It should have provided ample time to get the new system up and running before 2004.

But in spite of federal subsidies to develop HAVA, 41 legislatures declined, preferring to put the changes on hold until 2006.

The new system will depend on under-tested technology. Even if reliable, votes will be untraceable and investigation into fraud or computer error will be virtually impossible.

Today’s voting will be riddled with flaws, errors and straightforward abuse. I might suggest that a group of impartial observers from, say, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and North Korea, supervise the proceedings to ensure that the election will meet international standards.

On the question of voter identification HAVA only requires identification of those voters who registered by mail. As proof of identification it will accept a bank statement, utility bill, driver's licence, or any other government document. And, even if a voter does not have identification, a poll worker must give the voter a provisional vote.

But Colorado, for example, will demand identification to be shown by all voters and lists a driver's licence or state-issued ID number as ‘required’ even though the law allows other documents.
South Carolina's election workers' manual says that ‘if a person presents himself without a valid photo ID or registration certificate he/she should not be allowed to vote.’

In Missouri, the law lets partisan poll workers waive ID requirements. It requires documents from ‘some government agency’ or a post-secondary school – poorer people are less likely to attend college. But then the rules add: ‘Personal knowledge of the voter . . . is acceptable voter identification.’

So if you know the voter, and you like him, he’s OK!