Monday, 14 May 2007

On terrorism

This blog is fast becoming just a respository for rejected letters - and here's another one... I wrote to Howard Jacobson last week because I found his article in the Independent somewhat irritating. No response has been forthcoming. I've taken the liberty of making a couple of improvements to the version that I sent to Mr Jacobson...

I should note that, in my response, I use the word "terrorism" in the same way that the popular press uses it: To refer to small "extremist" groups who carry out violent attacks on civilian populations. In fact this use of the word is misleading: Firstly, it implies that governments are not capable of terrorism (war, apparently, is not terrorism) and, secondly, it reinforces the notion that to be in opposition to the prevailing political and economic elite is to be "extreme" (in which case, moderation be damned). For more details, read Chomsky!

Dear Mr Jacobson,

I enjoy reading your articles in the Saturday Independent - they are always entertaining and stimulating, even when running contrary to my own opinion. However your last article irritated me a little. I felt that you were making use of a standard, quite underhand, trick to make your point; namely, you misrepresented the position of those with whom you disagree (in this case those opposed to the War on Terror) in order to shown them to be absurd.

I count myself as one of those whom you misrepresented so I thought I would take the opportunity to state my position.

I do not deny the existence of terrorism. Clearly there are nutters walking the streets of Sussex who wish to inflict pain on random strangers. I maintain that there are not many nutters in Sussex - perhaps not nearly as many as the government would have us believe - but let us put that to one side for the moment. Instead let us ask what are we to do?

There are, it seems to me, two main approaches. The first is to deny a potential terrorist the MEANS to inflict terror - this is the stuff of the War on Terror. This approach involves focussed policing, greater surveillance, possibly a tighter border control, maybe racial profiling, maybe lengthened detention of suspects etc etc. Inevitably liberties must be sacrificed in order to implement this approach.

The second approach is to remove the MOTIVE from the potential terrorist. This of course depends a lot on what that motive is (not on what the terrorist perceives it to be, but on what really motivates him/her). Generally acts of terror are perpetuated for very clear reasons that have an element of (albeit very twisted) logic to them. If terror erupts because of a government policy then clearly a change to that policy may be one way to avoid further terror - this course of action being balanced against the virtue of the policy in the first place, as well as the obvious and reasonable unwillingness to "give in to terror".

Both of these approaches are inevitably limited. When the cause of a terrorist is to denounce drunk women in nightclubs we're not going to get far on the motive front. If we are to effectively remove the means for any prospective terrorist then we will potentially remove the means for any prospective dissent; we will also divert great quantities of political and social energies into the task of hunting the terrorists down - and that is a price too high.

A price too high because, although terrorism exists, the scale of it is not as terrifying as the government would have us believe. Don't get me wrong, acts of terrorism can be catastrophic - I have come mighty close to a panic attack on the tube just thinking about the events of 7th July 2005. And every death in London that day was a tragedy which brought distress, even despair, to many.

However, despite this, even were I to believe every government statement on the issue, terrorism simply isn't the major issue that it's made out to be. For what was the major cause of human suffering on 7th July 2005? It was the same cause as on 11th September 2001; indeed it was the same cause on every other day in the last one thousand years - poverty and hunger. By some estimates 50 000 people die every day from poverty-related causes, and that's not to mention the millions for whom poverty is a daily source of acute misery. It is inconceivable that terrorism will ever cause one tenth, even one thousandth of the deaths that poverty causes.

When we speak of the "threat" of terrorism we mean, I presume, that terrorism threatens our lives, our happiness, maybe even our social order. And yet it is clear that our lives and our happiness are under far greater threat from poverty. It is clear also that our social order must be rotten if it is perpetuating the tragedy of mass poverty. Terrorism is not a solution to that rotten social order; nonetheless it is worth reflecting whether we really want to put so much energy into maintaining that order when, perhaps, the real task is to dismantle it.

I would be interested to read any reply that you may have.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Well aimed words from The Lancet

My mental image of “The Lancet” medical journal has the Lancet as a tiny candle shining out from within the immense inky blackness of its publisher, Reed-Elsevier. For, as much as I detest Reed and everything it stand for, the Lancet manages to deliver regular doses of enlightenment to its fortunate readers…

In the last month or so two articles have caught my attention. The first was not, strictly speaking, in the Lancet at all; but the author was the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton. Writing in the Guardian, Horton discusses the government’s response to the Johns Hopkins study on Iraq civilian mortality; this study was published in the Lancet last October and created headlines with its estimate that 650,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the American and British led invasion in March 2003.

At the time the government rubbished the report. Horton writes:
…the prime minister's official spokesman said that the Lancet's study "was not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate". The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were "extrapolated" and a "leap". President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report".

It now emerges that the government - and President Bush - were, as usual, lying through their teeth. For this is the advice that experts were giving the government at the time:
The Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser said the research was "robust", close to "best practice", and "balanced". He recommended "caution in publicly criticising the study"… The prime minister's adviser finally gave in. He wrote: "The survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones".

I do not know why I continue to be astonished at government duplicity but, well, I just do. I must keep reminding myself that governments have far less loyalty to the truth than the average citizen – why should a government bother to try and just massage the truth when a servile media will allow it to ignore the truth altogethr?

The other Lancet article that caught my attention has already been highlighted in a recent IndyMedia article. Those interested should refer to that article however the key point is that the Lancet has called for the defeat of the current Australian government citing, inter alia, “Prime Minister John Howard’s indifference to the academic medical community and his profound intolerance to those less secure than himself and his administration”.

The Lancet editorial coincided with a recent report on the health of aboriginal Australians. The Sydney Morning Herald summed up the report this way:
The health of Aborigines lags almost 100 years behind other Australians and they are the sickest indigenous people of all the wealthy nations, a report by the World Health Organisation says.

A change of government may not help matters much in Australia, but it sure as hell wouldn’t make things worse.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Reed-Elsevier: Publishing Journals and Selling Bombs

The following is an update on my earlier article about Reed-Elsevier. More damning revelations have emerged about Reed's activities as you will see...

Reed-Elsevier are one of the biggest publishers of mathematics journals in the world - they list 102 mathematics journals on their website including the likes of "Topology", "Journal of Number Theory" and "Journal of Algebra". What is less well known is that Reed also organises arms fairs.

Through their subsidiary companies, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, Reed-Elsevier are responsible for organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London, the Idex Fair in Abu Dhabi and Shot Show, a North American small arms exhibition.

Reed's defence of their involvement in the arms trade is that they are involved in a legitimate business operating under tight regulation. But consider some of the facts. The list of invitees to DSEi 2005 included seven of the twenty countries on the UK Foreign Office’s list of regimes which commit the most severe abuses of human rights - such notorious regimes as Indonesia and Colombia were amongst those present. And picture the delights that were promoted at DSEi: small arms (responsible for 500,000 deaths every year), torture equipment (including leg irons, stun guns and stun batons), cluster bombs and the list goes on...

The sale of cluster bombs in particular brought a storm of criticism from the public. Human Rights Watch estimates that cluster bombs were responsible for more civilian casualties during the invasion of Iraq than any other military tactic. The public outcry at their sale at DSEi resulted in Reed’s company secretary rushing out a statement that “there were no cluster bombs at DSEi. They were not displayed and not offered for sale…”

But they were. It was subsequently revealed that p.182 of DSEi’s official catalogue openly listed components for “aircraft deployed cluster bombs” amongst the products on offer. This page is missing, along with a bunch of others, in the copy of the catalogue on DSEi’s website: an embarrassing reprographical error for a publishing company like Reed Elsevier! And if you wanted more than just cluster bomb components you could always speak to representatives from the 14 cluster bomb manufacturers who attended DSEi and who would happily flog you the whole bomb.

Controversy has arisen again in relation to this year's Idex arms fair. It has just emerged that the Sudanese defence minister was one of those invited to Idex, despite being the representative of a regime that stands accused of genocide by the United States. Once again cluster bombs were promoted at the show - a Reed spokesman was forced to concede that although cluster munitions were supposedly not marketed at Reed's arms fairs there was an "incident" of this happening at Idex 2007.

Finally let me mention Shot Show 2006. As at DSEi, torture equipment was for sale at the Shot Show, this time including electroshock batons and stun guns made by the company Security Equipment Coroporation whose tagline is "Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975."

Unsurprisingly Reed’s arms fairs have attracted the wrath of a number of different groups. Because of Reed’s “other role” as a publishing house, their services are used by many people for whom the arms trade is anathema. The medical community has led the way - in September 2005 the editorial board of The Lancet, arguably the world’s most prestigious medical journal and one which is published by Reed, issued a scathing condemnation of Reed Elsevier’s role in the global arms trade. They called on the company “to divest itself of all business interests that threaten human, and especially civilian, health and well-being.”

In the last three months the British Journal of Medicine and the Royal Society of Medicine have also published excoriating editorials with regards to Reed's involvement in the arms trade; Richard Smith wrote in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that the people in the strongest position to take action against Reed-Elsevier are "the authors and readers of The Lancet and the 2000 other journals". The most recent issue of The Lancet included three pages of letters about Reed's connection to the arms trade; correspondents were unanimously appalled.

Other groups have joined the chorus of dismay: In 2006, on the eve of the London Book Fair, also organised by Reed, thirteen internationally renowned writers – including 2 Nobel Prize winners and 6 winners of the Man Booker prize – issued a public letter criticising the company’s arms fairs. The writers included AS Byatt, JM Coetzee and Ian McEwan.

And now the academics are getting in on the act. Close to 140 academics recently signed an open letter to Reed Elsevier in which they called on Reed to cease all involvement in arms fairs. The letter was printed in the Times Higher Education Supplement; amongst other things the correspondents wrote that that Reed’s involvement in the arms trade “is entirely at odds with the ethical and social obligations we have to promote the beneficial applications of our work and prevent its misuse, to anticipate and evaluate the possible unintended consequences of scientific and technological developments, and to consider at all times the moral responsibility we carry for our work.”

The letter was signed by some of the most respected minds in academia - including a number of very prominent mathematicians. Mathematicians have also joined other academics, including such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, in supporting an on-line petition against Reed's involvement in the arms trade:

Many have gone further and have joined an on-line boycott against publishing in Reed-Elsevier journals:

One of the boycotters, Prof Sir Michael Atiyah, one of the greatest mathematicians of the last hundred years, recently commented that "science and technology offer enormous opportunities for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately these potential benefits are overshadowed by the exploitation of science for military ends.”

Professor Atiyah’s words echo sentiments of Albert Einstein expressed some seventy years earlier: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavours... in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.”

Reed Elsevier is effectively exploiting the respectable and worthwhile work of mathematicians and other academics to mask its sinister and deadly role in the global arms trade. This exploitation is indeed a curse for millions of victims of the arms trade the world over. As the letter, petition and boycott show, mathematicians will not accept this and are prepared to speak out. It is to be hoped that, sooner or later, Reed Elsevier will get the message.