Friday, 12 December 2008

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

DATELINE Paris: “French police have arrested the suspected military chief of the Basque separatist group Eta.”
Dateline Bogota: “Spain’s government is investigating links between the Basque separatist organisation Eta and Colombian Farc rebels.”
Dateline Madrid: “A businessman has been shot dead outside a restaurant in Azpeitia, northern Spain. Spanish police say they suspect the Basque separatist group Eta is behind the killing.”
Three obviously linked stories from three different international news sources in the past few days. The link? The missing word “terrorist”.
For some reason, whenever Eta is mentioned the word mutates into “separatist”.
This is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for years. I don’t remember the news media ever referring to the IRA that way, yet Eta’s aims and methods are pretty much identical to those of the old Irish “terrorists”. So why the different terminology?
Of course it’s hardly new to point out that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter. Which way you choose to describe violent Palestinians, for example, depends on your view of the whole Middle-East question.
But when and why the world’s news editors all agreed to extend courtesy titles to murderous Basques but not to other similar gangs I neither know nor understand.
Now take Mumbai. A scan of news coverage around the world last week shows that the word “terrorists” was applied to the horrific events in the Indian city. But nothing like as often as the words “attackers”, “militants” or even “fanatics”. In the early stages, while the crisis was still going on, they were “gunmen” and “hostage-takers”.
I wouldn’t begin to guess why this might be. Especially as the killers have been identified with Lashkar-e-Taiba, or “Army of the Pure”, a Pakistani “militant group” whose aims for Kashmir are similar to Eta’s aims for the Basque region – or the IRA’s for Ireland. And whose methods have included attacks on India’s parliament and, even more foully, on an amusement park in Hyderabad.
The attack on the parliament building in New Delhi in 2001 nearly brought India and Pakistan to war, which was almost certainly the intention. The bombings in Hyderabad last year killed 42 people including a number of children.
Another 19 bombs placed around the city were found and defused. They had been placed at bus stops, by cinemas, road junctions and pedestrian bridges and near a public fountain.
The explosives were there to kill not specific individuals but random victims. The bombers almost certainly didn’t care that they didn’t all go off, as long as some did.
There can only be one motive for such acts. That is to spread fear among ordinary people. Fear disproportionate to the actual risk of death or injury. In other words, terror.
Since 2004 India has lost more lives to terrorist incidents than all of North America, South America, Central America, Europe and Eurasia put together.
Yet outside India itself, the killers in the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Mumbai Jewish Centre are still “gunmen”, not “terrorists”.
It seems wrong. And yet.
I wonder whether there might be some sense in removing the word “terrorist” from all reporting not just of Eta and the Mumbai atrocities, but all such groups and events.
I wonder if to the perpetrators and their supporters the very word glamorises them. If it gives them some twisted sense of legitimacy. Whether, in fact, it assists them in their goal of spreading terror.
I am certain the ill-perceived, vague and self-perpetuating “War on Terror” has had all those undesirable effects.

If each of us carried a gun…

POSSIBLY the most idiotic public response to the Mumbai killings was an article in a Sunday paper by one Richard Munday.
Why they gave an old gun-nut prime space to ride his hobby-horse I don’t know. But his piece this weekend has certainly caused more stir than either of his out-of-print 1996 pamphlets “Most Armed and Most Free” and “Guns and Violence”.
His argument is well summed up by the headline: “If each of us carried a gun… we could help to combat terrorism”.
Whether turning the Mumbai hotels into mass shootout scenes would actually have saved lives is a moot point. One we will (probably fortunately) never be able to answer.
Arming the citizenry would have made no difference in Hyderabad, 9/11 or Bali. Or virtually any other terrorist event I can think of.
But it would make me a hell of a lot more scared around town of a Friday night. Or any place where young males and alcohol mix.
What if every rioter in Athens this week had carried a handgun? Every West Ham fan? Or every late-night lout who turns up in A&E?
As the police rightly point out, carrying a knife makes you more likely to be stabbed. And carrying a gun? No thanks.

Friday, 5 December 2008

A decent man and a darned fine singer

BILLY BRAGG is a national treasure. What’s more, he has a much pleasanter voice these days than I remember from his 1980s heyday.
I agreed with nearly everything Billy said from the Corn Exchange stage during his gig in Ipswich last week too. All except the quite unnecessary and bigoted joke about goatee beards.
Otis Gibbs onstage with the Bottle Rockets. From his websiteNo real surprise there. The surprise was the brilliant support set by Otis Gibbs (right). Like most people there, no doubt, I had never heard of Gibbs before. Which made his performance, unlike Billy’s, a total revelation.
In his voice and some of his songwriting I detected hints of the late Townes Van Zandt. But the only artist I can really liken him to is Van Zandt’s later and greater disciple Steve Earle. The fact that Gibbs stands up well to that comparison is the highest praise in my book.
Like Earle’s, his musical style wanders the unclaimed territory between country, folk and blues. Like Earle’s, his songwriting is personal and witty, with strong traditional-sounding tunes and narratives. His voice is a bluesman’s lived-in growl and he’s no mean guitarist either.
Otis Gibbs: a man trying to live decently in an indecent worldAnd, like Steve Earle, he is deeply committed to the kind of decent human values that aren’t common to all in his native Indiana. Though, as he proudly informed us, Indiana broke with long tradition this year by voting for a smart and decent man – Barack Obama.
Otis Gibbs’s latest album, Grandpa Walked a Picketline, has been doing a sterling tour of duty on my CD player this past week. I eagerly await delivery of one or two earlier ones.
Otis himself was happy during the interval to compare beards, declaring mine to be “at the stage where it becomes a commitment”. His own – not a goatee – is definitely a case of facial hair to aspire to.
Like Billy Bragg, Gibbs is a living antidote to the pervading mass of manufactured music that means nothing. I can’t imagine he even wants to be “a star”. He is living the alternative American dream, a modern Woody Guthrie with a better singing voice.
Since taking a conscious decision in his late twenties to “drop out” he has planted more than 7,000 trees, slept in what he calls “hobo jungles”, walked with nomadic shepherds in the Carpathian mountains and been strip-searched by cops in Detroit.
One of my favourite stories of his travels is of him being inspired by an anti-war rally in Prague, where he found himself among 500,000 demonstrators. He then went home to be one among 18 at a similar-but-different protest in Indianapolis.
He first met Billy Bragg when both were playing a gig at a shelter for the homeless in Austin, Texas in 2006. That same year he got his hands dirty doing volunteer rebuilding work in flood-devastated New Orleans.
And his concern for the homeless is not theoretical or patronising. When he sings of what it’s like to sleep rough you know it comes from experience.
Despite tales of boxcar travel, though, he is a man of his times. He has a smart website where you can hear his music, read his journal – and see a good selection of his excellent black-and-white photographs.
Not just a good singer and songwriter, but a good man. And vice-versa.
Check out his music, his photos and his journal at

Arresting case of a Tory MP

HAVE the police and the “security services” (whoever and whatever they really are) overstepped themselves in the case of Damian Green?
My first thought, when the shadow home office minister started squawking about being arrested, was fairly clear. It was simply that MPs are not above the law, so why should he be exempt from arrest?
But on reflection, and on digesting further information, the matter becomes much less clear-cut.
Sure, MPs should be treated like everyone else. But should anyone be subject to the kind of treatment Green received?
It’s not so much that he was taken away and quizzed for nine hours. More what the cops got up to at his home and his office meanwhile.
Both places were ransacked – looking for what, exactly? If his wife hadn’t been well up on the law (she’s a barrister) his home computer, mobile phone and Blackberry would apparently have been taken away. He says his PC hasn’t worked properly since.
And all this not in pursuit of any carefully drafted modern legislation, but an ancient, vague and obscure piece of common law about “conspiracy to commit misconduct in public life”.
Misconduct? Talking to civil servants and journalists?
If you or I contact our MP we ought to expect some degree of confidentiality. That’s one thing the security forces have clearly breached here.
And it’s a crucial part of an MP’s role – especially of an opposition MP – to keep a watch on what the government gets up to. And also, incidentally, the civil service, the police and the security services.
When Mr Green talks about a constitutional crisis he may not be overblowing his own trumpet after all. He may have a point.