Friday, October 13, 2006 


Obsolete is currently suffering from the computer blues, meaning that something has gone tits up.

Normal service should hopefully be resumed shortly.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006 

There are (or should be) no words.

You might remember the Lancet report of 2004, which suggested that 100,000 Iraqis had died as a result of military intervention. At the time the survey, conducted by going from house to house in randomly-chosen areas of the country, was soon buried under an avalanche of opprobrium, not just from the usual suspects on the right, but also from those on the supposed left, such as the Observer, which misreported the study. The government similarly dumped on it from a great height, horrified that the public might turn against them in righteous anger if they believed the study's main finding.

It appears like the debate that followed the publishing of the study of the Lancet is going to happen all over again. Today a second study has been published which suggests that at the very least just less than 400,000 have died as a result of the invasion. The most probable figure however, is 654,965 dead.

It's worth putting that figure into context. According to a study conducted by UNICEF in 1999, between 400 and 500,000 died in Iraq between 1991 and 1999 as a result of the sanctions regime, which as we now know, succeeded in containing Saddam, but only at an intolerable cost to the civilian population. The Iran-Iraq war, with Saddam being encouraged from Washington, although the United States helped to arm both sides as revealed by the Iran-Contra affair, resulted in the deaths of a million. The number of Iraqi civilians that Saddam himself is estimated to be responsible for is more difficult to come to. Taking the numbers estimated to have died from the repression of the Kurds in 1988, and the repercussions that occurred against the Shia and Kurds after the failure of the 1991 rising, brings his toll to at least 150,000, although it could be as high as 330,000. Even if you then round that number up to 500,000, taking into account others that died throughout his reign, it still only brings the total to be equal to that of the sanctions. By comparison, the number of deaths estimated to have occurred in the Darfur region of Sudan since the beginning of the conflict is 400,000, which has been described by some as genocide.

The soul-crushing thing about calculating the number of deaths is that you become desensitised to just what each of the figures means to the family and friends of those involved. Stalin was right when he said that one death is a tragedy and that a million is a statistic. Already accusations are being made that the timing of the release of the study is meant to embarrass the Republicans as they face their mid-term elections. That there are those who are so completely shameless in their politics that they're prepared to climb on top of a pile of bodies and then shout that they're a politically motivated illusion shows just how far from reality we in the west have gone, thanks to our unprecedented safety and comfort. Thomas Friedman summed it up best (although he had no idea how gleefully his honesty would be seized on by the left) when he wrote:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Some of us have still not woken up to this truth. We need to. For now however, in relation to Iraq, there are, or should be, no words.

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A crisis entirely of their own making.

Connaught barracks.

Pity poor John Reid. Selected by a Newsnight focus group as the best man to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership, buoyed by making what was seen by the Scum as an impressive speech to the Labour conference, and brought into the public's living rooms by the alleged liquid explosives terror plot, things were looking up and up. Like a stroppy teenager, he must now be thinking that it's just so unfair that the prisons overcrowding crisis just had to come along and bite him up the arse.

The current prison population stands at 79,819 (or at least it did on Monday), which is around 300 places off full capacity. Step forward Reid, announcing that "Operation Safeguard" (the Home Office sure can pick some corny names) is coming into operation. Police cells, which cost the taxpayer around £350 per prisoner per night, will be used to house low risk "lags". Connaught Barracks, as previously highlighted by this blog, is to be converted by December into an open prison, completely ignoring the reservations of the local people who are rather concerned and unhappy that the government hadn't bothered to consult them about it. Still, no doubt they'll come round to the view of Rebekah Wade, which is that it's "common sense". Most controversially, Reid stated that foreign prisoners, of which there are around 8,000 in British jails, will be given "support" up to the equivalent of £2,500 to enable them to go home. Cue the Express screaming on its front page that we're now giving dirty foreigners money to go home, which we're not. Other newspapers have taken the line that it's a bribe, which is closer to the truth, but since when did a bribe involve education or assistance with starting a business?

Did John Reid have the honesty to admit that the government's complete sycophancy towards the tabloids is the reason why the prisons are now full to bursting? Of course he didn't. Instead, while mentioning that judges are making full use of "indeterminate" sentences introduced in the 2003 Criminal Justice Bill, (of which, according to the NOMS statistics for August, there are already an incredible 7,628 now facing the possibility of facing the rest of their life in prison) the dastardly briefs have been less keen on the emphasis put on community punishments and tagging in the same laws. That it's been well documented that when politicians and the media are concentrating on draconian punishments, whether for serious offenders or not, judges tend to opt for more punitive sentences doesn't warrant a mention. Then again, this is the same John Reid which effectively handed over the keys to the Home Office to Rebekah Wade, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of the Sun's full fury.

Reid's comments on community punishments were pure window-dressing. There is to be no rethinking of the current orthodoxy regarding crime and punishment; how could there be when the slightest squeak from judges or prison reform groups that all we're doing is perpetuating a vicious cycle of reoffending is met by screams of outrage from the media which New Labour has done so much to court? The failing starts early, in the education system, where half of children leave school without the qualifications necessary for life. Rehabilitation in prison itself is impossible when they are so over-stretched; research from the Prison Reform Trust concluded that re-offending upon release increases by 10% in the currently full to bursting jails. Even if the government did own up to the fact that the current situation cannot continue, it's stuck in the bind of being unable to fund two major criminal justice programs at once. Prison building inevitably gets the cash.

What needs to happen is a complete step change in thinking. We have to admit that locking up over 80,000 men and women is not making us any safer in the long term. It removes the most dangerous from society for good, but leaves us with the vast majority no better off, or indeed, actually made worse from their time inside. Why can the £37,000 need to lock a person up be put to a far better use? No one is suggesting that violent offenders should not be locked up for own safety, far from it. If anything, those convicted of those crimes still get off too lightly. The two boys who killed Damilola Taylor were sentenced to just eight years in prison, even if there were extenuating circumstances regarding the case, with them being tried for manslaughter rather than murder. They should have received at the very least 12 years in custody for such a heinous and shocking act of inhumanity. Our system for dealing with drug offences, those addicted to substances, the mentally ill and the vast majority of women prisoners should reflect the fact that their crimes are less serious. Community punishment does not just need to be that; while to appease the tabloids it needs to have a harsh element, rehabilitation should still be the key. The scheme set-up to help foreign prisoners leave is exactly the sort of thing that should be available to them.

Instead, what we're faced with a system that by current trends will be holding 100,000 men and women by the time of the next election, although God knows how. The statement that a society can be judged by the way it treats those it imprisons is still very apt. At the moment, we're completely guilty of throwing away the key and forgetting about those locked up. A truly honest and radical government would recognise this. It may hurt to begin with, but society can only gain from such optimism. At the moment, the cynicism and pessimism which surrounds the criminal justice system is a harsh reflection on us all.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006 

Pass the sick bags.

Bloggerheads has dived deep into the gutter and dissected the already decaying corpse of the Mark Foley scandal. An essential, if mind-meltingly horrible read.

Oh, and by the way, the Sun has still to even mention the growing fallout from the affair.

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Monday, October 09, 2006 

Did the earth move for you?

They might be impoverished, starving and ruled by a Stalinist midget, but hey, at least they've got a cool flag.

Lordy lordy lordy. The world is a much more dangerous place than it was when we went to bed last night, according to John Williams over on Comment is Free. Rather than referring to the fact that the Murdoch press are doing everything possible in their power to whip up concern over Muslim women dressed in niqabs, as both papers splash on two unrelated security stories, he is in fact talking about North Korea's attempt at testing a nuclear weapon, if it was in fact an atomic bomb.

Russian sources have suggested that the bomb itself was in the region of between 5 and 15 kilotons.
Janes Defence have said it could have been between 2 to 12 kilotons. For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a blast equivalent to around 13 kilotons. The trident nuclear warheads that our own Dear Leaders' have their trigger-finger on, have a payload ranging in strength from 100 kilotons to 475 kilotons. North Korea's test is then, in rather bleak terms, similar to the country itself - 60 years behind.

That N Korea appears to have carried out a nuclear test also doesn't alter the fact that it appears incredibly unlikely that they can actually attach the bomb to a missile. The last test of their long-range weaponry, the appropriately named Taepodong-2 (because let's face it, missiles are a Freudian's best friend - what else are missiles if they're not explosive penis extensions?), meant to be able to reach Alaska or Hawaii, was a rather embarrassing display for Kim-jung Il, as he only managed to keep it up for around 43 seconds before it crashed back into the sea of flaccidity.

Inevitably, every politician who likes the opportunity of either being quoted or appearing on the news for 10 seconds has rushed to condemn North Korea's insolence. Blair called it irresponsible, Bush called it provocative, and it all went downhill from there. Both Pakistan and India, hilariously and ironically felt that it was a good time for them to be hypocritical on a world stage, both making statements about the dangers of destabilising the peninsula, completely unlike their rush to the bomb led to proliferation. Israel, it has to be said, appears to have kept quiet for now, and as for Iran, according to the Washington Post state radio has apparently said the test "was a reaction to America's threats and humiliation."

The typical response from said politicians has been to demand more sanctions on North Korea, with the UN Security Council immediately calling an urgent meeting. It seems doubtful that the sanctions will do anything to actually stop the Korean programme from continuing. The lesson of Iraq tells us that sanctions tend to only hurt the people rather than the leader. The other lesson is that along with sanctions inspections are needed. There appears next to no chance of that happening, North Korea having expelled the IAEA a few years back. John Howard, the Australian prat who masquerades as the prime minister, suggested that he would be pushing for "targeted financial and travel sanctions, other trade restrictions and/or aviation restrictions." That the North Koreans themselves don't tend to go anywhere (leaving the glorious socialist paradise might make them not want to return), nor that Kim Jong-il himself only tends to make the odd highly secretive trip into China, doesn't seem to matter. As for trade, recent experiments with markets in the country were either abandoned or scaled down dramatically. How much there is to restrict is open for debate.

It's worth remembering that America was prepared to go to war with North Korea back in 1994 after original suspicions that the country was building up a covert nuclear weapons programme. A deal called the "Agreed Framework"brought the two countries back from the brink. In exchange for North Korea dismantling its graphite-moderated plants, the United States would help fund and build two light-water nuclear reactors, which could only be used for civilian purposes. The reactors remain unfinished.

Whether North Korea would have actually dismantled its programme if the deal had gone as planned is impossible to tell. What must be achingly apparent to almost everyone though is that President Bush's axis of evil speech must have woken up Kim Jong-il to the threat of regime change, which was inexorably heading Iraq's way. Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, and at that stage North Korea didn't have a nuclear weapon, even if its programme had been in operation for years. Four years down the line, and the country now claims to have around 8 bombs.

North Korea appears to definitively and finally possess the most powerful bargaining chip of them all. We're often told of how the seemingly petulant and impetuous acts of Kim Jong-il are pleas both for help and attention, but despite all the attempts at deals, they've all been ignored or batted away. The only solution now is diplomacy, and that diplomacy appears to be of the most limp kind imaginable, if sanctions are to be both the first and seeming last resort. We're left then with Bush and Blair once again appearing to be a modern day political incarnation of Laurel and Hardy: this certainly is a mess, and they've got themselves into it.

Related post:
Big Stick Small Carrot - Welcome to our Club

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