Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Gun Control Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 25 2016.

Colman's Column3

More American civilians have died by gunfire in the past decade than all the Americans who were killed in combat during the Second World War.

The Right to Bear Arms

We think of the argument that citizens have the right to bear arms as a particularly American thing revolving around debates on the Second Amendment to the Constitution. “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

However, this was also an issue in British history in the 17th Century. One of the grievances against James II was that he had caused “several good subjects, being protestants, to be disarmed …”.  Gibbon, in the next century, wrote that “[a] martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince.”

Over 4,000 imported pistols and revolvers were submitted for proof at the Birmingham Proof House in 1889; and 37,000 British pistols were submitted in 1902. For centuries, in Britain, there has been no good reason for citizens to arm themselves in order to overthrow the government, although the current crop of British politicians inspire little trust. The right to bear arms for personal defence was nonetheless jealously preserved, and still exercised into a time almost within living memory. Ninety years ago, it was possible for anyone in Britain, regardless of age or capacity, to walk into a gunsmith’s and buy as many guns and as much ammunition as he could afford.

The Right to Make Money

Paul Jannuzzo, a former chief of American operations for Glock, the Austrian gun company, told Evan Osnos of the New Yorker: “You know that every time a bomb goes off somewhere, every time there’s a shooting somewhere, sales spike like crazy”. Suspicion of impending stricter controls also boosts sales. On January 5th, President Obama announced stricter background checks and the share price of Smith & Wesson, rose to $25.86, its highest level ever. After the attack in Orlando, shares of Smith & Wesson rose 9.8 per cent.

The concept of making money from selling guns to private individuals has an innate flaw: guns last a very long time. Therefore, the industry constantly needs new customers or innovative methods of selling more guns to people who already have some. Americans have accumulated three hundred and ten million firearms. Each American gun owner now has an average of eight guns. Osnos writes: “The right-to-carry movement, by unbridling the presence of firearms in American life and erecting a political blockade against efforts to qualify it, has transformed the culture and business of guns.”

The number of people buying guns for hunting declined rapidly so the industry used fear as a marketing ploy. They managed to make a success of this in spite of the fact that America was becoming much less dangerous because of a sharp decline in violent crime. In defiance of facts, during the mid-two-thousands, almost seventy per cent of Americans were convinced crime had risen in the previous year. In 1997, Massad Ayoob published an article in the magazine Shooting Industry urging dealers to exploit the new concealed-carry laws: “Defensive firearms, sold with knowledgeable advice and the right accessories, offer the best chance of commercial survival for today’s retail firearms dealer.”

How the NRA Changed

Karl Frederick, then president of the National Rifle Association testified to Congress in 1934: “I do not believe in the promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan told reporters that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”

The character of the NRA changed in 1977 when the leadership was wrested from the old guard, who were interested in recreation and rifle-training, by activists who used politics to create a gun rights movement. In 1987, the new-style NRA persuaded the Florida legislature to relax the rules that required concealed-carry applicants to demonstrate “good cause” for a permit.

Guns Don’t Kill People

Prince Philip alienated many when he publicly opposed stricter controls in the UK following the Dunblane massacre, in which 16 five-year-olds were killed by Thomas Hamilton with guns he legally owned. In his inimitable style the prince said that “if a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?” Incidentally, Nigel Farage, one of the architects of the UK’s exit from the EU, recently called for a repeal of the laws passed after Dunblane.

Guns may not kill people, but the gun culture that pervades American society is lethal. Wayne La Pierre, deputy CEO of the NRA, often tries to shift the blame for mass killings onto the media, video games, or Obama’s budget. In doing this, he acknowledges that Americans are influenced by their environment and their environment is dominated by guns. People with guns kill people.

Self Defence

NRA Director Charles L Cotton blamed the Reverend Clementa C Pinckney, the murdered pastor of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for the deaths of eight of his parishioners because as a South Carolina state legislator Pinckney supported stricter gun control. The NRA’s slogan is: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” There is no evidence for this. There is evidence to the contrary. An FBI study found that in 160 incidents an armed civilian stopped the bad guy on only one occasion. Professor John J Donahue III found that permissive concealed-carry laws led to “substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder.

A study published by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that a state’s rate of gun-related homicide consistently went up and down as a function of its levels of gun ownership. The USA, with 88.8 guns per 100 people, had a gun-death rate of 10.2 per 100,000 people. At the other extreme, Japan, with less than one gun for every 100 people, has a gun-death rate of 0.06 per 100,000, and the Netherlands, with 3.9 guns per 100 people, has a gun-death rate of 0.46 per 100,000 people. The link between gun ownership and gun-related homicide was consistent from 1981 to 2010. That relationship held even after the researchers–led by Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel–adjusted for state-to-state variances in factors that influence gun-related homicides, such as urbanization, youth population, crime, alcohol consumption, unemployment and poverty rates, educational attainment, and prevalence of hunting licenses.

One is more likely to be killed by lightning than by a mass shooter. The chance of being shot in one’s own home doubles if there are firearms in the house. Disputes that might have naturally faded away are given a different and more dangerous context if there are lethal weapons close at hand.

Trump

One does not expect consistency, “the hobgoblin of petty minds”, from Donald Trump. However, it is still a surprise to find that in 2000 he supported a ban on assault weapons and a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases. He now needs the support of the NRA and its membership and makes gun-ownership another issue on which to hector the “elites”. Hillary Clinton should disarm her security detail if she wishes to restrict the rights of less privileged people to own guns.

Whether he wins or loses in November, Trump’s fostering of paranoia will have made America an even less safe place. He has widened the gap between “them” and “us” in so many areas including those with what Evan Osnos calls a “combat mind-set” and those without. In the USA there are guns enough for nearly every person (though only a little over a third of Americans own guns).  There are angry gun stock-pilers who are convinced that Armageddon is nigh and they are willing to face it armed and ready. Trump’s supporters will be triumphalist if he wins and angry if he does not do what they want. Many of Trump’s supporters will be very disgruntled if he loses. Many of the disgruntled are heavily armed and belong to militias. Many of them talk openly of their duty to overthrow an elected government if it seems to them to be undermining the constitution.

Many Republicans sought to distance themselves from Trump’s campaign after he told a crowd in Wilmington, North Carolina that if Hillary Clinton won the election and “gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although, the Second Amendment people – maybe there is”. This was a step too far for many – a call to nullify election results at gunpoint.

Gun Control Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 28 2016.

Colman's Column3

There has been a great deal of smugness in Europe about the epidemic of mass slaughter in the US. The recent shootings in Munich remind us that such things to do not only happen in the US. Recent horrors in Europe did not depend on assault weapons – the weapon in Nice was a truck, in Munich an axe bought from a hardware store. The Munich shooter, Ali David Sonboly, used a Glock automatic.

However, just because mass slaughter can be achieved by mentally disturbed people without assault weapons, that is no argument for allowing mentally disturbed people to have access to firearms. Mass shootings are not unknown in the UK but they are so rare that they cause shock and outrage and usually lead to a tightening of gun control.

Hungerford

On 19 August 1987, in Hungerford Berkshire, Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead, including his own mother, using a handgun and two semi-automatic rifles, before committing suicide. Shortly after midday on 19 August, Ryan approached Susan Godfrey, who was picnicking in Savernake Forest. He marched her away from her two young children and shot her 13 times in the back. During Ryan’s rampage, a police officer died and many people were injured. 15 other people were also shot but survived.

No firm motive for the killings has ever been established.  Dr John Hamilton of Broadmoor Hospital and Dr Jim Higgins, a consultant forensic psychiatrist for Mersey Regional Health Authority, both thought Ryan was schizophrenic and psychotic. Hamilton stated: “Ryan was most likely to be suffering from acute schizophrenia. He might have had a reason for doing what he did, but it was likely to be bizarre and peculiar to him.”

The police saw no reason to deny Ryan his firearms certificates in spite of the fact that many people described him as odd. Everyone who knew him thought he was a fantasist who told stories about a non-existent military career. Ryan did labouring work dressed in combat fatigues and was obsessed with guns. He carried his guns in his car and took pot shots at road signs. Given a job clearing footpaths in the town, Ryan would turn up carrying his rifle.

After the massacre, there was an immediate demand for a tightening of the law controlling the possession of guns. “The existing legislation is wholly inadequate …” said the General Secretary of the Police Superintendents’ Association. “There are too many guns in circulation and a lot of people who have guns clearly should not be in possession of them.” The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was passed in the wake of the massacre. The Act bans the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and restricts the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges (in magazine plus the breech).

At the time of the massacre, Ryan legally owned a Zabala shotgun, a Browning shotgun, a Beretta 92FS semi-automatic 9 mm pistol, CZ ORSO semi-automatic .32-caliber pistol, Bernardelli .22-caliber pistol, a Type 56 7.62×39mm semi-automatic, aM1 carbine .30 (7.62×33mm) semi-automatic rifle (a rare “Underwood” model).

Why would a school caretaker need such weapons?

 

Dunblane

On Wednesday 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, aged 43, drove his van to Dunblane Primary School near Stirling, in Scotland. He cut the telephone cables around the school  and made his way to the gymnasium carrying four legally held handguns — two 9mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolvers. He was also carrying 743 cartridges of ammunition.

Why would a shopkeeper need such weapons? Why would the authorities grant him a licence to have any weapons at all?

He shot dead sixteen five-year-old children and one teacher before killing himself.

Hamilton seems to have been a paedophile. There had been complaints to police regarding Hamilton’s behaviour towards the young boys who attended the youth clubs he ran. Claims had been made of his having taken photographs of semi-naked boys. He claimed in letters that malicious rumours about him led to the failure of his shop business in 1993. In the 1980s, George Robertson, a  Labour MP, (later General Secretary of NATO and Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, of Islay in Argyll and Bute) who lived in Dunblane, had complained to the local Conservative MP Michael Forsyth about Hamilton’s boys’ club, which Robertson’s son had attended. Robertson acted as a spokesman for the victims’ families. He was also a key figure in the campaign that led to the ban on handguns in Great Britain.

The Cullen Inquiry into the Dunblane massacre recommended that the government introduce tighter controls on handgun ownership and consider whether an outright ban on private ownership would be in the public interest. There was a great deal of public and media pressure to totally ban private gun ownership. The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee agreed with the need for restrictions on gun ownership but ruled that a handgun ban was not appropriate.

In response to this public debate, the Major government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned all cartridge ammunition handguns with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons in England, Scotland and Wales. Following the 1997 General Election, the Blair government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning the remaining .22 cartridge handguns in England, Scotland and Wales.

Cumbria

On 2 June 2010 a lone gunman, taxi driver Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria, in north west England. The first killings were of people Bird had a personal grudge against, starting with his twin brother and moving on to the family solicitor and then rival taxi drivers. He then drove through several local towns, firing apparently at random, and calling a majority of the victims over to his taxi before shooting them, many of them in the face. After Bird killed himself, police confirmed that two weapons (a double-barrelled shotgun and a .22-calibre rifle with a scope and silencer) had been used by the suspect in the attacks and that thirty different crime scenes were being investigated.

Bird had held a shotgun certificate since 1974 and had renewed it several times, most recently in 2005, and had held a firearms certificate for a rifle from 2007 onward.

How did the firearms legislation allow a taxi driver to have these licences? Why would he need guns?

Gun Crime in the UK

Less than three per cent of firearms offences in the UK result in a serious or fatal injury. For 2011/12, police in England and Wales recorded 541 offences as homicide, of which 42 (eight per cent) involved the use of firearms — a rate of 0.1 illegal gun deaths per 100,000 of population. The number of homicides per year committed with firearms in England and Wales in the ten years to 2011/12, averaged 56 per year. During the same period, there were three fatal shootings of police officers in England and Wales, and 154 non-fatal shootings, an average of 15.4 per year. Britain has some of the strictest gun regulations in the world. As of the middle of last year, there were 1.8 million licensed guns of all kinds in the country, according a report by the UK government. The UK’s population is just under 65 million.

Britain is proud of its record on gun control but why should there be 1.8 million licensed guns in the country? I can never get my head around why ordinary people should be allowed to have guns at all. The three cases described above show that severely disturbed people were allowed to legally possess firearms when they had no need of them.

A small group, known as the Gun Control Network, was founded after Dunblane. Bereaved families and their friends also initiated a campaign named the Snowdrop Petition to ban private gun ownership. The petition achieved 705,000 signatures and was supported by some newspapers, including the Sunday Mail, whose petition to ban handguns had raised 428,279 signatures within five weeks of the massacre.

The UK legislation that was passed had bipartisan support. Even after the killing of Jo Cox MP, political rivals came together in their grief and shock. One cannot imagine Obama and Trump getting together after a shooting the way Cameron and Corbyn did. This is not because British politicians are necessarily morally superior to their US counterparts. I would argue that British legislation is morally superior on this particular issue.

Next week – the right to bear arms.

 

Gun Control Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 21 2016.

Colman's Column3

On July 8 2016, there was yet another mass shooting in the US. Five police officers were killed in Dallas, Texas when a gunman opened fire during a peaceful protest about police killing black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Seven more officers and two civilians were wounded by 25-year-old Micah Johnson. Johnson had been a member of the US Army Reserve until April 2015, served in Afghanistan, and lived in a pleasant black middle class suburb. He had no criminal history or ties to terrorist groups.

President Obama is spending the last months of his presidency acting as counselor to a troubled nation. His speech on the Dallas shootings won general acclamation but Conservative talk radio host Dana Loesch said it was only good until it became “a partisan political lecture on gun control, race, and policing”.

 

On June 12 2016 in the UK, Muhiddin Mire was found guilty of attempted murder. He will be sentenced on July 27.

Leytonstone is a station on the Central line, the line which runs roughly west to east through central London and into the north-eastern suburbs. On December 5 2015, Mire stabbed three people at the station before police subdued him with a stun gun and made an arrest. He was reported to be shouting Muslim slogans and “This is for Syria”.

The Metropolitan Police were very quick to describe this as a “terrorist incident”. The Somali-born knifeman had images of Fusilier Rigby (beheaded by a Nigerian Muslim) and British Islamic State executioner Jihadi John on his phone, along with material linked to ISIS.

It later transpired that the assailant, aged 30, had a history of severe mental illness. His name was not on any database of suspects or known extremists, and he was not believed to have been exploited by any known terrorist group or individual. After Mire was convicted of attempted murder and incarcerated in Broadmoor high-security mental health facility, Commander Dean Haydon, head of counter-terrorism for Scotland Yard, said: “I would not class it as a terrorist incident now.”

Mire had a history of mental illness and was experiencing paranoid delusions a month before the attack. He was sectioned in 2006 during an episode “when, essentially he lost touch with reality” and a month before the incident his GP referred him to his local community mental health services. He had missed an appointment with a community mental health team four days before the incident on 5 December 2015. Mire’s family had also become concerned about his mental health and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to return to Somalia.

Mire had targeted Lyle Zimmerman at random after travelling on the same tube carriage. On video footage, Mire was seen turning Zimmerman over, kicking him six times to the head and chest, and sawing at his throat with a breadknife. Louise McGuinness said in a statement that when she shouted at Mire to stop he turned to her and said: “This is for telling me to stop,” and kicked Zimmerman harder. It seems that his attack on Zimmerman was in emulation of the beheading of Lee Rigby.

Zimmerman, who sustained three large lacerations to his neck that exposed his trachea, testified at Mire’s trial in May 2016, where he said he felt his attacker was “a crazy person, a mentally ill person.”

Prosecutor Jonathan Rees QC had told jurors Mire’s mental health problems were not a defence to his intention to kill Mr Zimmerman. Mr Rees also argued Mire had shown interest in ISIS and Islamic extremism before his “relapse” and his decision to give up his job as a taxi driver. The prosecutor said: “He is sympathetic to those who are choosing to pursue jihad against the non-Muslims. It can be no coincidence that he carried out the attack three days after parliament had voted to extend the bombing campaign against ISIS to territory in Syria. The evidence clearly establishes that the motive underpinning this attack was that bombing campaign in Syria. That was at the very forefront at his mind.”

After the jury delivered its verdict, Judge Richard Marks QC, praised those who remained at the station to warn others while Mire carried out his attack. He said: “There are members of the public who showed remarkable courage and good heartedness who became involved in this case.” He praised the “public spiritedness of the people who rushed in to help on the day of the attack”.

Those public-spirited people did not run away and called the police and filmed the attack providing helpful evidence. The police arrived fairly promptly, tasered the assailant and protected him from an angry mob as they took him into custody.

Nobody died.

So here we have a seriously mentally ill person who has become further deranged by Islamist propaganda, He is arrested, put on trial and will be sentenced and probably locked up in Broadmoor for the rest of his life. The attack was horrific for those involved, particularly Lyle Zimmerman, but nobody died because the only weapon Mire had to hand was a fragile bread knife.

In Orlando, a seriously mentally ill person who had become further deranged by Islamist propaganda, a bi-polar wife-beater with repressed homosexual tendencies, killed 49 innocent people and was then killed himself. Omar Mateen could not be stopped by his victims because he was armed, not with a fragile bread knife, but with an AR-15-type assault rifle, which he would only have needed to reload once during his killing spree due to the weapon’s large magazine size. In the state of Florida, anyone over the age of 18 can buy an AR-15 as no state permit is required. AR15s are owned by around 3.7 million American households. The National Rifle Association has defended the mass sale of assault rifles, insisting they are useful for wild hunting and “home defence.” Why would a family need such a weapon for self-defence? It is not a gun suitable for hunting. Its main function is mass slaughter. The AR15 has become the weapon of choice for mass killers in the US.

I was astounded by the utter fatuity of a comment on Facebook. Someone commented in a fit of juvenile snarkiness: “OK – it’s the gun’s fault”. The NRA is always trotting out the cliché, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. Amend that to, “People with guns kill people, so don’t let madmen get their hands on AR15s.”

I understand why people feel the need to comment on the killing of British MP Jo Cox. It is such a terrible thing for a young woman with two young children and so much to offer the world to be cruelly taken away. We feel we have to say something. We feel we have to say such things should be prevented. We feel we have to seek lessons from this tragic event. I wonder though what lessons there are. Jo Cox’s murderer, Thomas Mair, was clearly mentally ill but we cannot lock up all mentally ill people and he gave no indication of being a danger to anyone. His house was full of books on fascism but can’t send the police around to check everybody taste in reading. People with mental illness should ideally be kept away from guns but how does one do that? UK laws are already stricter than in the USA.

A US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), based in Alabama, said on its website that it had obtained records showing a Thomas Mair had links dating back to 1999 with the neo-Nazi organisation NA (National Alliance). The SPLC posted images showing what it said were purchase orders for books bought by Mair, whose address is given as Batley, from the NA’s publishing arm National Vanguard Books in May of that year. The orders included a manual on how to build a pistol.

 

According to reports collected by the Gun Violence Archive, on the same day as the Orlando massacre there were 42 other shootings in the US which resulted in 18 deaths and 41 injuries. At least five of those killed were children. There have been no mass shootings in the UK since June 15 2016 when Jo Cox was killed. Next week, I will look at how countries other than the US react to mass shootings.

 

Brexit Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 14 2016

Colman's Column3

 

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Grievance Vote against the Elites

When Mrs Thatcher came to office in 1979, manufacturing accounted for almost 30% of Britain’s national income and employed 6.8 million people; by 2010, it accounted for 11% and employed 2.5 million. In no other major economy was industrial collapse so drastic, speedy and long-lasting. There used to be a working class; there used to be a working class culture. Ian Jack writes about the life of the manufacturing towns: “much of the country’s former character was also owed to them – non-conformist chapels, brass bands, giant vegetable championships, self-improvement, association football. Surely nothing as significant to the nation’s economy, culture or politics would ever emerge from them again? And then it did: grievance.”

British politicians in the past had a hinterland: Macmillan and Attlee served with honour and were wounded in the First World War. They saw the poverty in the land and tried to do something about. Today’s politicians go straight from university to think tanks or to work for politicians. They have little contact with the real world. Johnson and Gove were journalists who wrote op eds not well-researched investigations.  Politicians like Cameron, Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith see it as a noble mission to dismantle the welfare state that Attlee and Macmillan built and privatise public good for the profit of their cronies. In his 1991 book The Rise and Decline of the English Working Class 1918-1990, Eric Hopkins shows how the affluence of the Macmillan years became the bleakness of the Thatcher years. Manufacturing industry was replaced by the service and financial industries and the working class lost its sense of community with unemployment and the emasculation of the trade unions. There is an unpleasant view on YouTube of Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party haranguing fellow MEPs, telling them they do not know about real life and have never done a proper job in their lives. The man sitting behind him was a cardiac surgeon who was born in a Gulag. Farage was a commodities broker.

Sunderland was the first to declare a result in the referendum and it was overwhelmingly for leaving as were many other areas devastated by Thatcherism and its aftermath – areas kept alive by massive EU subsidies. Wales as a whole voted to leave. Michael Sheen, the Welsh-born actor (who played the role of Tony Blair) from Port Talbot, tweeted: “Wales votes to trust a new and more rightwing Tory leadership to invest as much money into its poorer areas as EU has been doing.” Many people voted Leave as a way out of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Cornwall, which voted solidly for Leave, has already demanded British government “protection”.

Economic Consequences

Standard & Poor’s stripped Britain of its triple-A credit rating. The Conservative Party set great store by London’s position as the world’s leading financial centre. Banks are preparing to shift jobs out of London amid the uncertainty about whether the UK can keep its “passporting” rights allowing them to operate across the EU. Ironically, although the UK was proud of keeping out of the euro, leaving the EU could mean the City will have rules imposed upon it by eurozone countries.

There is no doubt that some financial services jobs will be relocated to Dublin, Frankfurt, and Paris. US bank JP Morgan has warned 4,000 jobs will go from the UK and HSBC has said 1,000 City jobs will move to France. An Irish friend long resident in France tells me that Paris estate agents are being swamped with enquiries from large financial institutions in London looking for apartments for their personnel. “Whatever Osborne might say, that is the reality”. Rumours are sweeping the City that alternative trading sites are being set up in a number of other financial centres, including Luxembourg.

A survey by the Institute of Directors (IoD), found that nearly two-thirds of those polled said the outcome of the referendum was negative for their business. A quarter of those polled were putting hiring plans on hold, while 5% said they were about to make workers redundant. One in five respondents, out of a poll of more than 1,000 business leaders, were considering moving some of their operations outside of the UK.

There will be an immediate, and downward, impact upon GDP as uncertainty about the UK’s terms of trade with the rest of the world will deter even British firms from investing. If businesses stop investing there will be less employment in the UK economy. This will have a bad effect on consumer spending.

Immigration, Stupid!

Many in Ebbw Vale, the constituency of those left-wing icons Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, voted UKIP in the last general election – a town with almost no immigrants that voted to get the immigrants out. A recent survey showed that 77% of UK citizens are concerned about immigration above any other political/economic topic – and concern is strongest and most widespread in constituencies with virtually no recent immigration.

One can, without wanting to join a fascist party, empathise with those white working class people who feel in their gut that decisions that they were powerless to influence were made by people who were cushioned from the consequences of those decisions. One can understand their sense of insecurity as they see familiar areas changing because of immigration. I was shocked to find that the part of my hometown, Gloucester, which had been the birthplace of the poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, was full of Muslims and mosques. However, in the early 50s it had been full of West Indians.

The austere and donnish classicist, Enoch Powell, had dockers marching through the streets in his support. In the sixties, he became the unlikely spokesman for the beleaguered white working class, even winning the endorsement of Eric Clapton. Because he was a contrarian and mischief-maker, it is likely that Powell took delight in raising issues that both parties shrouded in complicit silence. His “rivers of blood” speech raised matters of real concern. In particular, he was right to suggest that areas like Wolverhampton were experiencing acute problems in adjusting to the concentration of recent immigrants.

Whether or not people voting Leave had legitimate concerns about immigration, there is no doubt that the referendum result seems to be giving licence to racists. Many MPs received reports from their constituencies and communities of migrants being intimidated or “told they need to go home”.  Many people, whose parents or grandparents were born in the UK, now say they feel less secure.

Boris Johnson tells us in his Daily Telegraph column (for which he gets paid 5,000 pounds a week) that he wants a “balanced and humane points-based” immigration system, but that’s for the extremely indeterminate future – and everyone can meanwhile look forward to ‘intense and intensifying’ co-operation with Europe, and opportunities to live, travel, work and study on the continent just as they please. The only pledge the Leavites could honour is a points-based immigration system, which the UK has had since 2008.

A likely scenario is that many elderly people living abroad will have to return to the UK, thereby placing a burden on the NHS (which will not be getting the extra funding promised by the Leavites), while young people currently working and paying taxes will leave the UK.

Conclusion

I respect anybody’s right to vote the way they choose. I am angry at the hypocrisy of those who are dismantling the welfare state and the NHS for the profit of their cronies but pretending to be saving the nation from Brussels bureaucracy.

Many who voted to leave the EU blamed immigrants for their reduced circumstances. There are real problems in the areas that voted to leave. Those problems were not caused by the EU or by immigration. They were caused by the deliberate policies of successive UK governments.

It is distressing to watch the rancour generated by this referendum. George Szirtes is a distinguished poet who found a welcome in England when his family was displaced by the Hungarian uprising in 1956. George sees a very different country today and finds it hard to forgive the Leavites: “You have changed not only my life but a great many people’s lives, both here and elsewhere, for the worse. I am not going to shake your hand for that.”

 

 

 

Brexit Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 7 2016.

Colman's Column3

George Bernard Shaw, an Irishman, once wrote: “Do not believe the laws of God were suspended for England because you were born here.”

david-cameron-487174

David Cameron has post-dated his resignation as prime minister of the UK until October. English football manager, Roy Hodgson, resigned immediately after his team put in an appalling performance in the European Championship against Iceland.  Iceland has a population of 330,000 and 100 professional players. Diehard England football fans always think that this time the World Cup or the Euros will be different – until they’re not.

 

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 03:  Roy Hodgson, manager of England looks on prior to the International friendly match between England and Norway at Wembley Stadium on September 3, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Many in the EU will be grateful for the UK’s departure, breathing a sigh of relief that they will be spared British exceptionalism and superiority. They will be grateful that the fantasy that Britain is doing the EU a favour is at an end.

In the early 90s, I was talking to a EU insider who compared the behaviour of delegates from the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The Irish went to all the social events in Brussels and got to know everybody, and generally got what they wanted by way of charm and intelligence and working the system. The Brits complained a lot and went to bed early.

Cameron’s Legacy

David Cameron promised to have a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in order to appease the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party – those John Major called the “bastards”. This cynical ploy has not only led to the possible fragmentation of the EU, with far-right parties, which are strongly represented in the European Parliament, calling for similar exit referenda in their own nations, it certainly means the end of the UK.

Scotland, Northern Ireland and most major cities, including London, voted Remain. The referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 resulted in a victory for those wanting to stay in the UK. I warned at the time that, although the victory could not be challenged, there could be serious consequences if the views of the 44% who wanted Scottish independence within the EU were not considered. In the general election of May 2015, the Scottish National Party won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats to become the third largest party in the Commons.

Cameron’s legacy on Ireland could be an end to the peace process. An important element of the Good Friday Agreement was that the terrorists’ goal of a united Ireland was subsumed  because the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were both co-operating within the EU. Cameron’s legacy will be the re-erecting of the border between the six counties and the 26 counties – with all the tensions that will bring. Another scenario, however, is that Northern Ireland might join the Republic – Sinn Fein have already called for a referendum on removing the border. In a bizarre twist, Ian Paisley Jr, son of the fire-breathing pastor who bellowed “No surrender!” has advised his constituents to apply for Irish passports. Another border issue now looks rather different – in Gibraltar, 95% voted to Remain, so that outpost of doughty Englishness may become part of Spain to stay in the EU.

What Was the Plan?

Some of the more cogent arguments for remaining made by derided “experts” indicated that a divorce after 43 years of marriage was likely to be extremely complicated, messy and acrimonious. Disentangling trade agreements and establishing a host of new bi-lateral agreements with individual states will be a nightmarish task which will take decades and require the input of armies of experts and bureaucrats.

The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond warned that the Leavites needed to tell voters how they planned to reconcile “mutually incompatible” promises made during the referendum campaign over restricting immigration at the same time as continuing free trade.

That Is Not What We Meant at All

As soon as the result was known, the Leavites started backtracking. The 17 million or so who voted for Brexit were being told almost from the moment the polls closed that they weren’t going to get any of what they had voted for anyway. Michael Gove had been happy about leaving the single market and damn the economic costs. Others now concede the UK will have to stay in the single market. Daniel Hannan MEP admitted that free movement of labour might continue. While votes were still being counted, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party confessed that it had been “a mistake” for Vote Leave to pretend that there would be an extra £350m a week for the NHS. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s promise to scrap VAT on energy bills were obviously fanciful with an economy slowing down and they are irrelevant when there is no government.

Take Me to your Leader

Who is in charge? Cameron quickly announced his resignation but he will be hanging on until October. Michael Gove and Theresa May have announced they will be running for the leadership of the Conservative Party but Boris Johnson has said he will not run – apart from running away from the mess he has created. The opposition Labour Party is in disarray with a majority of MPs calling on Jeremy Corbyn to resign from the leadership.

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty


Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty sets out how an EU country might voluntarily leave the union. The UK will be the first full member state to invoke Article 50. The only precedent is Greenland leaving the EU in 1985 after two years of negotiation. It has a population of 55,000, and only one product: fish.

Failure to conclude new arrangements within two years results in the exiting state falling out of the EU with no new provisions in place. If negotiations are not concluded within two years, Britain risks having to leave the EU with no deal at all.

Leavites and Cameron seem reluctant to get the withdrawal moving. However, some EU bigwigs do not want to indulge their delaying tactics. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU commission president, said: “It doesn’t make any sense to wait until October to try and negotiate the terms of their departure. I would like to get started immediately”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi insisted there could be no formal or informal talks about Britain’s new relationship until the Article 50 had been activated.

The UK will have to renegotiate 80,000 pages of EU agreements, deciding those to be kept in UK law and those to jettison. This will keep parliament busy for decades. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts in the civil service supposedly in the interests of economy and efficiency. The Leavites have excoriated “Brussels bureaucracy” and it is a karmic irony that they have succeeded in unleashing a bureaucratic hell on Whitehall with too few people to deal with it.

Any Turning Back?

The result of the referendum was, legally, purely advisory. To put withdrawal into action it requires the endorsement of parliament. There is another irony in that. A major theme of the Leave campaign was bringing back sovereignty to the UK. The sovereign power of the UK is the monarch in parliament. Lord Heseltine has pointed out: “There is a majority of something like 350 in the House of Commons broadly in favour of the European relationship …There is no way you are going to get those people to say black is white and change their minds unless a) they know what the deal is and b) it has been supported either by an election or by another referendum”. Another estimate is that less than 200 of the 650 MPs supported leaving.

Geoffrey Robertson QC writes: “Before Brexit can be triggered, parliament must repeal the 1972 European Communities Act by which it voted to take us into the European Union – and MPs have every right, and indeed a duty if they think it best for Britain, to vote to stay.”

http://epaper.ceylontoday.lk/TodayEpaper.php?id=2016-07-07

 

More next week on why this happened.

President Hillary Clinton and Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 30 2016

Colman's Column3

 

 

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It is hard to imagine what a Donald Trump presidency might bode for Sri Lanka because Trump makes a virtue of avoiding fixed positions on foreign policy – and he lies. We might surmise that Hillary Clinton as president would probably be bad for Sri Lanka because we can examine her track record as Secretary of State at the time that GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) was trying to defeat the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Clinton chaired the UN Security Council session on September 30 2009 when it adopted Resolution 1888, which dealt with conflict-related sexual violence. The official transcript of her address contained this: “We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. In too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of this violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks.” This is not an off-the-cuff remark – she was reading a prepared speech to a session of which she was the chair.

Sri Lankan prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake’s initial response was off-the cuff. He said that Clinton had apparently forgotten the Monica Lewinsky affair and should tend to her own backyard before alleging that women are being maltreated in other countries. This was not very statesman-like but in those days the prime ministership was not an important job.

The Sri Lankan government lodged an official “note of protest” (omitting any mention of Lewinsky) with the US Embassy in Colombo. Professor  Rajiva Wijesinha, then Secretary to the Human Rights Ministry, told The Island that the government would like the US to reveal any specific allegations against the Sri Lankan Army and  that it was unfortunate that those who had failed to save the LTTE from being crushed, at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army, were now harassing Sri Lanka.

 

Trump has been taking every opportunity to embarrass Clinton on the issue of her e-mails. The controversy over Clinton’s use of a private server led the US government to release some of the e-mails. This enables us to see what her thinking on Sri Lanka was behind the scenes.

A letter from the State Department to Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Rohitha Bogollagama claimed that “numerous cases of rape and sexual violence in Sri Lanka, particularly acts committed against women held in detention by the government” had been detailed over the years by the US government and international human rights groups. This misses the crucial point that Clinton was not merely saying that rapes had occurred but that the Sri Lankan state had officially adopted sexual abuse as a weapon of war.

 

The letter was signed by Melanne Verveer, ambassador at large for global women’s issues at the State Department. She did concede that “in the most recent phase of the conflict, from 2006 to 2009 … we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war, as they clearly have in other conflict areas around the world.” She made sure that she got the last word and set the scene for Clinton’s future actions in getting Sri Lanka’s war record examined by the UNHRC. “Secretary Clinton believes that Sri Lanka must focus to the future and move forward on the promotion of peace and the protection of human rights,”

 

On Oct 3, 2009, Lissa Muscatine, a senior aide to Clinton, acknowledged there had been a lack of due diligence in clearing Clinton’s UN statement.  State department spokesperson Philip Crowley wrote that Clinton was open to the idea of the response coming from someone other than herself. “She feels that this has generated a great deal of media commentary in various quarters, including prominent outlets in this country and in Asia that we have no choice but to respond in a public way. Government supporters are saying that she is listening to the Tamil Diaspora”.

Verveer’s letter was not a retraction and did not come from Clinton. Clinton was still appeasing those who had been calling for an international inquiry into the Vanni offensive. The idea that GOSL used rape as a weapon of war still hung there. Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN, Major General Shavendra Silva, asserted that allegations of rape, during the conflict, as well as in the  post-war period, were meant to justify demands for withdrawal of the Sri Lankan army from the Northern Province. The UN repeated the allegation, in early 2014, in relation to the post-war period also.

 

On 6 May 2009 Deputy Assistant Secretary Mike Owens declared “We, of course, have designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization, and we certainly have no sympathy for some of the things that they’ve carried out, but I think you do have to ask a very legitimate question: Why did they have a following in the beginning? And I think it’s because some in the Tamil community do have legitimate grievances, and we need to find — I think it’s imperative for Sri Lankans to find a way to give everyone in the community, all Sri Lankans a legitimate voice in their government.”

 

There is no denying that Sri Lanka’s military received significant help from the US in its struggle with the LTTE. However, Clinton seemed miffed when President Rajapaksa refused to bow to demands from the international community for a cease fire. Rajapaksa knew fine well that the LTTE used cease-fires to regroup and re-arm and, being so close to victory after 30 years of brutal war, he was not going to fall into that trap.

 

During the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s traditional arms suppliers imposed restrictions. GOSL had to look elsewhere and China was willing to help. Following the defeat of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa regime chose to focus on rapid economic revival and development of infrastructure. The US reneged on its commitment to provide $500 million from the Millennium Development Account for road development.

The released e-mails reveal that Clinton tried to block an IMF loan to GOSL and that the IMF did not like it. Clinton was told that the IMF had, during the final stages of the war, lambasted her in a conversation with Timothy Geithner, the then US Secretary of the Treasury, for ordering the IMF to suspend funding to Sri Lanka. In an email sent to Clinton by Burns Strider, a former senior advisor, Strider said people on the ground with the World Bank and the IMF believed the LTTE must be completely defeated.

 

During her previous campaign for the presidential Democratic nomination Sri Lankan Americans who strongly supported her were discouraged by the way her remarks on terrorism were manipulated by pro-LTTE outlets. Clinton visited Tamil Nadu and met Chief Minister Jeyaram Jayalalithaa, a persistent critic of GOSL, on July 20 2011 and proffered congratulations on her electoral victory. Clinton invited Jayalalithaa to visit US to tell Americans about the great achievements of Tamil Nadu.

 

Clinton has supported regime change in Asia, Africa and South America. She supported the sanctions that did so much harm to Iraqi children. Clinton is supported by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who said on TV that the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it”. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran with nuclear weapons. When the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was publicly sodomised with a knife, Clinton gloated: “We came, we saw, he died.” The US might have thought they had got the regime they wanted after Rajapaksa was ousted and the new government “co-sponsored” with the US a resolution on human rights for the UNHRC. However, the UNHRC business seems to be moving slowly and the current Sri Lankan government has found that it cannot live without China after all. Perhaps the new President Clinton will have plans for a Sri Lankan spring and further regime change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can It Happen There? Part Two.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 23 2016

 

Colman's Column3

 

 

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In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published his dystopian satire It Can’t Happen Here! The novel imagines a charismatic leader winning the presidency and establishing a Fascist dictatorship in the US. Influential American journalist Josh Marshall wrote of Donald Trump: “His public appearances are like a fugue of impulse and aggression, overlapped with charisma and humour and a searching for the spirit of the crowd, a sometimes frantic, sometimes slow mix of neediness, divination and dominance.”

Orlando

Trump said President Obama should “resign in disgrace” for failing to call the Orlando massacre “Islamic terrorism”. Obama was circumspect in his statement expressing sympathy and solidarity with “the LGBT community” and with the people of Orlando. The president expressed inclusiveness while the Republican contender sought to make political capital from divisiveness.

The rifle Omar Mateen used was a Sig Sauer MCX, sometimes known to gun fetishists as the “Black Mamba”. Sig Sauer makes most of its 74,000 semi-automatic rifles sold in the US market at its factory in New Hampshire. In February 2016, Trump toured the factory with his two sons and Trump addressed a crowd at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual trade show where his sons posed for photo opps with Sig Sauer representatives.

Trump has said the existing background check system should be improved, not expanded, and that assault-weapons bans do not work.

Trump on LGBT

Following the Orlando massacre, Trump claimed to be a champion and friend of the LGBT community.  “Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone else who doesn’t share their views or values.”

In reality, Trump must bow to anti-LGBT forces if he wants to win the presidency and is making pacts with them. On 10 June 2016, Trump addressed a meeting of the Road to Majority Summit. Ben Carson, who compared homosexuality to bestiality and paedophilia, moderated the discussion, which was closed to the media, between Trump and hundreds of anti-LGBT activists,.  Trump met major evangelical leaders in New York City on June 21.

American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted back in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Judges

During a Trump presidency, a number of Supreme Court vacancies will give him the opportunity to shape the judiciary. His Supreme Court appointments will need to please the evangelicals.  In May, Trump released a list of 11 potential replacements for Antonin Scalia which were alarming for LGBT people and feminists. One of Trump’s choices is Joan Larsen, who worked for Scalia. She served in the Justice Department office that produced the legal justifications for torture. The nomination of President Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, is being blocked by the Senate, so the next president could have a Supreme Court appointment waiting in January 2017.

Trump’s Policies

Trump makes his lack of fixed policy positions a positive virtue: “A lot of times when I speak, people say that I don’t provide specific policies that some pollster has determined are what people want to hear”

We can confidently predict that a Clinton presidency would not be good for this island nation because we can examine her record as Secretary of State. We have very little to go on with Trump. Mark Danner wrote: “What gives a man who knows little or nothing of foreign policy the unsullied conviction to announce to the world that only he can solve, well, Pakistan? Or terrorism?” One cannot imagine that Trump would help Sri Lanka’s delicate balancing act between India, Pakistan, China and the US or help it deal with the legacy of its defeat of terrorism.

Trump does not make any clear foreign policy statements and what does say often turns out to be a lie. He promised to put together a team of experts to help him with foreign policy but the names he announced puzzled many people. He shared the names with the Washington Post. He said five advisers had signed up to be on his team: Joseph E Schmitz, General Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Walid Phares. The team includes two people who played active roles in Iraq. Trump claims to have been against the invasion (a lie) and has accused GW Bush of lying about WMD.

Schmitz left his job as the Pentagon’s inspector general eleven years ago following allegations that he protected top officials in the GW Bush administration suspected of wrongdoing. Senator Grassley, then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, accused Schmitz of blocking investigations of Bush administration officials tied to Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts and questioned his ties to lobbyists. On leaving the Pentagon took a job with the Prince Group, the parent company of Blackwater USA, the controversial defense contractor whose operatives killed 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

General Joseph “Keith” Kellogg was among the first US personnel sent in to try and govern Iraq after the US removed Saddam Hussein. Kellogg had been employed by US government contractor Oracle Corp. in November 2003 when he went to Baghdad to serve as the Chief Operating Officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a position he held for five months. During his time in Iraq, the Iraqi army was disbanded which helped to plunge the country into chaos. He was responsible for poorly managed contracts that led to audits and inspectors general investigations.

Walid Phares is an anti-Muslim Lebanese Christian, who served as a top adviser to a Christian militia blamed for atrocities during the Lebanese Civil War. He was a close adviser to Samir Geagea, a Lebanese warlord whose career developed from leading hit squads to running the Lebanese Forces.

Carter Page was an investment banker with Merrill-Lynch who has close ties with Gazprom and Putin’s Kremlin. Sergey Aleksashenko, a top Merrill executive in Russia at one time and now an outspoken Kremlin critic, described Page as a junior banker with little understanding of Russia. “I could not imagine Carter as an adviser on foreign policy. It’s really surprising.”

George Papadopoulos, a 2009 graduate of DePaul University, is said to direct an international energy center at the London Centre of International Law Practice. He obtained a master’s degree from the University of London in 2010. Almost all his work appears to have revolved around the role of Greece, Cyprus and an Israeli natural gas discovery in the eastern Mediterranean.  Several people in energy policy circles in London, Washington and New York said they knew nothing of him. Papadopoulos served as an adviser to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

There are those who believe that Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination was initially merely a publicity stunt to boost his business. Now he has got this far, there is a fear that he will use the White House as a business opportunity, and, with his financial interests all over the world, foreign policy would be a prime area. John Wonderlich, of the Sunlight Foundation said that complex diplomacy would be further “complicated and altered by massive personal financial conflicts of interests being present at the same time?”

Ethical Problems

Donald Trump could be president without selling his businesses. Restrictions that prohibit executive branch officials from earning income from their businesses do not apply to the president or vice president. Trump has not committed himself to selling his businesses, and instead he has said that his children and executives would manage them. Kenneth Gross who provided legal assistance to several presidential candidates, said, “He can’t just get amnesia. He’s stuck with the knowledge of what he owns.”

Trump has filed a mandatory personal financial disclosure statement – 104-pages listing his current holdings and their value. With the power of the presidency, Trump could manipulate policy and enforcement to directly benefit his own financial holdings. Trump does a lot of business with the federal government and holds stock in companies, like Boeing, which receive billions of dollars in government contracts.

The commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service is appointed by the president and serves at the pleasure of the president. In his campaign, Trump has been strongly critical of the IRS and has bragged that he pays “as little in taxes as possible”. A Trump-appointed IRS commissioner could allow him to avoid any scrutiny at all for his tax compliance. Trump has not released his tax returns since 1981.

Trump could also use the power of the presidency to intimidate banks into making riskier investments for his companies. Trump has huge debts to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity that was recently caught manipulating markets around the world. What are the implications of the chief executive of the US government owing such a foreign  entity over $100 million?

Loss Aversion Trumps Risk Aversion

Why do people support Trump? Behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered the idea of loss aversion – people feel the pain of losses more than they feel the pleasure of gains. Trump harps on loss. In Trump’s world, things are much worse than they seem: “We’re losing everything.” Trump appeals to a kind of masochism – the median Trump voter is, in reality, better educated and richer than the average American but even people who are not doing as well as they expected feel a sense of loss.

His supporters are willing to take a risk – his unpredictability is a positive. To them he looks like a strong leader – is he a Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Chavez? Is American democracy strong enough to survive four or eight years of a Trump presidency? Adam Gopnik thinks not: “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right…. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak.”

 

Can It Happen There? Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 16 2016.

 

Colman's Column3

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We hacks are very nervous about Godwin’s Law, which was promulgated by American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990. The law states that if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will bring up Hitler or Nazism. One needs to be wary offline also. Godwin was not around in 1935 when Sinclair Lewis published his novel It Can’t Happen Here. I have been looking again at that book as I watch, horrified, the rise of Donald Trump. Some commentators have suggested that Godwin’s Law should be put in abeyance during the course of the 2016 US presidential election. In December 2015, Godwin himself commented on the Nazi and fascist comparisons being made by several articles about The Donald, saying that, “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler or Nazis when you talk about Trump. Or any other politician.”

Let us not forget that Hitler, like Trump, was a demagogue with no experience of governing. It is a fallacy to claim that Hitler was democratically elected Chancellor in 1933 by an overwhelming popular vote. The National Socialist Party was indeed the largest party in the Reichstag having won 37% of the vote in a general election but, not having a working majority, were members of a coalition. Hitler became all-powerful because von Papen and other conservatives disastrously thought they could control him.

Trump uses patriotism as a weapon but also points out how the USA is failing – an empire in decline – and he is the one to Make America Great Again. This echoes the masochistic paranoid victimhood of Germany after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles

Not Hitler

Adam Gopnik commented recently in the New Yorker on Mrs Trump’s remark that her husband was not Hitler, “Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance.”

The phrase, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is often attributed to Edmund Burke (although no-one has been able to find it in any of his writings). Trump has got this far because many not so good men have done worse than nothing.

Senior Republican figures tolerated Trump’s excesses because he seemed popular and they thought all the outrageous Trumpery was showboating. Their fantasy was that if he won the nomination he would take on the aura of a plausible president. Trump makes a big thing of Clinton using speechwriters and keeps pointing out that he has no teleprompter. An NBC News reporter described a speech at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York as ‘presidential’ merely because he had a prepared text and managed to speak for fifteen minutes without being too offensive. Generally speaking, he has continually ramped up the Trumpery and other Republicans cannot control him.

In 1930, Sinclair Lewis was the first US writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis published It Can’t Happen in 1935. This dystopian satire imagines a Fascist dictatorship in the US. The book serves as a warning that political movements like Nazism can come to power when people blindly support a charismatic leader.

From Buzz to the Donald

In Lewis’s novel, US presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip promises to rescue the USA from economic depression. He first wins the Democratic Party nomination, ousting Franklin D Roosevelt. He then becomes president by promising to tax the rich, and stop big business from abusing the common worker.

Windrip is a great showman, but not comfortable with intellectuals. He is swept into office on a tide of revival tent enthusiasm (Lewis covers this theme in Elmer Gantry) and anti-intellectual populism. Despite the reformist facade, Windrip is really the candidate of big business.  He speaks of “liberating” women and minorities, as he gradually strips them of all their rights. Blacks and Jews do not fare well under his rule.

Soon after his election, Windrip puts the media under the supervision of the military. William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day and model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, directs his newspapers to praise the government. The president forces Congress to provide unlimited funding to the military and to pass stringent, unconstitutional laws. He establishes military tribunals for civilians, and denounces critics as traitors. The most loyal followers become a private army, the Minute Men, answerable to no one. The book documents a rapid decline into barbarity and charts an implosion of American culture: thanks to the weight of mass media, the desire for security and comfort, and endemic nationalism, civil society caves in at the touch of a charismatic politician.

As Goering said: “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Complicity

Sinclair Lewis shows that it takes great courage to resist a totalitarian dictatorship. It even takes courage to withhold enthusiastic support. The novel, and the history of Germany in the 1930s, demonstrate that ordinary people can be persuaded to do extraordinary things out of fear or because they benefited from the system. In Nazi Germany, doctors planned, supervised and participated in sterilisation, unethical experiments on humans, torture, euthanasia and genocide, just as American doctors did in Iraq. Ordinary German policemen and nurses killed in cold blood even when they would not have been punished if they demurred.

Unsavoury Supporters

Trump’s anti-government rhetoric goes beyond tea party fulminations but some of his supporters go even further and may not be controllable by Trump. His campaign approved David Riden to go to the Republican National Convention. Riden is one of many Trump supporters with ties to the Patriot Movement, a loose-knit conglomeration of right-wing militias. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, nearly 1,000 anti-government groups now operate in the United States, including as many as 276 armed militias. Riden asserts that all three branches of the US government are “way off away from the Constitution right now.” Riden warns that Americans may need to attack with assault weapons and bombs in the nation’s capital and elsewhere. US leaders who violate the Constitution may have to be done away with: “The polite word is ‘eliminated’,'” he said. “The harsh word is ‘killed.'”

Caleb A Bailey, whom the Trump campaign approved to be a Maryland delegate to the Republican National Convention, was indicted on weapons and child pornography charges. Federal investigators found a fortified subterranean room under his 75-acre gated compound stocked with grenades, tear gas, and illegal machine guns.

Establishment Failure

As well as those psychopaths who are prepared to take up arms against  the government there are many people who have more rational reasons to believe they have been betrayed. As long ago as 1997, the American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that “something would crack” when the nonsuburban electorate come to the realisation that “the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….”

The Democratic Party used to represent the working and middle classes but now prefers to court the professional classes and those who produce no value, those, like hedge-fund managers, who contributed mightily to the financial crisis, or real estate merchants peddling toxic mortgages. The Democrats thought its natural constituents had nowhere else to go. Then along comes Trump – who made his fortune in real estate and reality TV. If he wins the presidency, it is unlikely that he will have the will or the competence to give the betrayed what they want. The consequences of leaving millions of people feeling abandoned yet again will be the stuff of nightmares, especially when many of the disappointed have been stockpiling weaponry.

 

 

 

 

Next week – what a Trump presidency would mean for the rest of the world, including Sri Lanka.

Gun Control – a Comparison

Leytonstone is a station on the Central line, the line which runs roughly west to east through central London and into the north-eastern suburbs. On December 5 2015, a man stabbed three people at the station before police subdued him with a stun gun and made an arrest. The man was reported to be shouting Muslim slogans and “This is for Syria”. Someone called out: “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv! You’re no Muslim, bruv! You ain’t no Muslim!”

The Metropolitan Police were very quick to describe this as a “terrorist incident”. The Somali-born knifeman had images of Fusilier Rigby (beheaded by a Nigerian Muslim) and British Islamic State executioner Jihadi John on his phone, along with material linked to ISIS.

It later transpired that the assailant, Muhiddin Mire, aged 30, had a history of severe mental illness. He was sectioned in 2006 during an episode “when, essentially he lost touch with reality”. His name was not on any database of suspects or known extremists, and he was not believed to have been exploited by any known terrorist group or individual. After Mire was convicted of attempted murder and incarcerated in Broadmoor high-security mental health facility, Commander Dean Haydon, head of counter-terrorism for Scotland Yard, said: “I would not class it as a terrorist incident now.”

Mire was experiencing paranoid delusions a month before the attack and  his GP referred him to his local community mental health services. He had missed an appointment with a community mental health team four days before the incident on 5 December. Mire’s family had also become concerned about his mental health and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to return to Somalia, having failed to persuade the health authorities toplace him in a secure institution.

Mire targeted Lyle Zimmerman at random after travelling on the same tube carriage. On video footage, Mire was seen turning Zimmerman over, kicking him six times to the head and chest, and sawing at his throat with a breadknife. Louise McGuinness said in a statement that when she shouted at Mire to stop he turned to her and said: “This is for telling me to stop,” and kicked Zimmerman harder. It seems that his attack on Zimmerman was in emulation of the beheading of Lee Rigby.

Zimmerman, who sustained three large lacerations to his neck that exposed his trachea, testified at Mire’s trial in May 2016, where he said he felt his attacker was “a crazy person, a mentally ill person.”

Prosecutor Jonathan Rees QC had told jurors Mire’s mental health problems were not a defence that excused  his intention to kill Mr Zimmerman. Mr Rees also argued Mire had shown interest in ISIS and Islamic extremism before his “relapse” and his decision to give up his job as a taxi driver. The prosecutor said: “He is sympathetic to those who are choosing to pursue jihad against  non-Muslims. It can be no coincidence that he carried out the attack three days after parliament had voted to extend the bombing campaign against ISIS to territory in Syria. The evidence clearly establishes that the motive underpinning this attack was that bombing campaign in Syria. That was at the very forefront at his mind.”

After the jury delivered its verdict, Judge Richard Marks QC, praised those who remained at the station to warn others while Mire carried out his attack. He said: “There are members of the public who showed remarkable courage and good heartedness who became involved in this case.” He praised the “public spiritedness of the people who rushed in to help on the day of the attack”.

Those public-spirited people  did not run away and called the police and filmed the attack providing helpful evidence. The police arrived fairly promptly, tasered the assailant and protected him from an angry mob as they took him into custody.

Nobody died.

So here we have a seriously mentally ill person who has become further deranged by Islamist propaganda, He is arrested, put on trial and sentenced. The attack was horrific for those involved, particularly Lyle Zimmerman but nobody died because the only weapon Mire had to hand was a fragile bread knife.

In Orlando, a seriously mentally ill person who had become further deranged by Islamist propaganda, a bi-polar wife-beater with repressed homosexual tendencies, kills 49 innocent people and is then killed himself. Omar Mateen could not be stopped by his victims because he was armed, not with a fragile bread knife, but with an AR-15-type assault rifle, which he would only have needed to reload once during his killing spree due to the weapon’s large magazine size. In the state of Florida, anyone over the age of 18 can buy an AR-15 as no state permit is required. AR15s are owned by around 3.7 million American households. The National Rifle Association has defended the mass sale of assault rifles, insisting they are useful for wild hunting and “home defence.” Why would a family need such a weapon for self-defence? It is not a gun suitable for hunting. Its main function is mass slaughter. The AR15 has become the weapon of choice for mass killers in the US.

 

I was astounded by the utter fatuity of a comment on Facebook. Someone commented in fit of juvenile snarkiness: “OK – it’s the gun’s fault”. The NRA is always trotting out the cliché, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. Amend that to, “People with guns kill people, so don’t let madmen get their hands on AR15s.”

 

Michael White’s The Venetian Detective

 

This article appeared in the Sunday Island on May 15 2016

http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=145213

 

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This fragrant isle gets a mention in Michael White’s new book. One of the hero’s friends, Lord Pinelli, has a manservant called Ajith who is from India. Another servant, who generally answers the door, is called Pius, named as an insult to the Pope of that name. Pius was originally from the jungles of Borneo and no-one is quite sure how he came to be in a Venetian noblemen’s house in 1592. There is speculation that he arrived on a Portuguese spice ship from Taprobane. Pius is an orang-utan.

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As in Equinox, his first novel, in this new book, The Venetian Detective, Michael White uses the vehicle of the detective novel to explore unexpected connections between the rational development of modern scientific practice and alchemy, occultism, necromancy and religion. Mixed in with that is a gumbo of political intrigue and rivalry, papal dominance versus Venetian republican libertarianism, drug dealing and prostitution. There is also a love story.

Michael White is a British writer based in Australia. Born in 1959, he studied at King’s College London (1977-1982) and was a Chemistry lecturer at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford (1984-1991). He used to be a rock star with Colour Me Pop and the Thompson Twins – I saw them live at Hammersmith Palais in the 1980s.  He now lives in Perth, Australia. He is a bestselling author of 39 books, selling over 4 million copies in 40 languages and has appeared on TV and Radio around the world. He has been a science editor of British GQ, and a columnist for the London Sunday Express. He moved to Australia in 2002 and was made an Honorary Research Fellow at Curtin University in 2005.

thompson-twin

Michael White’s books include, Stephen Hawking: A Life in ScienceLeonardo: The First ScientistTolkien: A Biography; and C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia and a biography of Isaac Newton The Last Sorcerer. His first novel Equinox – an occult mystery thriller (with far better writing than Dan Brown’s) reached the Top Ten bestseller list in the UK and has been translated into 35 languages. His most recent non-fiction book is Galileo: Antichrist, a biography of the great scientist and religious radical. Novels following Equinox include: The Medici SecretThe Borgia Ring and The Art of Murder. A further novel features Galileo and Elizabeth I. White has also written novels under the pseudonyms Sam Fisher and Tom West and collaborated on a novel with James Patterson. He has been both short-listed and long-listed for the Aventis prize – Rivals short-listed in 2002 and The Fruits of War long-listed in 2006. He was also nominated for the Ned Kelly Prize for First Novel (for Equinox).

The book opens: “Venice. Ten Minutes Past Midnight, 10th of November, 1592” with two masked and black-cloaked figures lurking in the shadows of the alleyways by the canals, “their footfalls dampened by practice”. The taller of the two men, called here Saviour “could smell blood before he saw it”. The other man is here called Sin Eater. They are looking for a beautiful prostitute called Antoinette Perugino at Alfonzo’s bordello. The diabolic duo witness Antoinette being attacked by a tall man with a cane and being rescued by a squat burly man. She escapes from those two only to have her throat cut by Saviour and Sin Eater.

This is the first of a series of ritualistic murders that the eponymous Venetian Detective investigates. Serial killing leads to mass murder and an orgy of violence. The detective is Doctor Francesco Sagredo who has returned to Venice at the insistence of the current Doge, Pasquale Cicogna, after fifteen years of exile. Many tales have come back to Venice of Sagredo’s adventures and accomplishments, enough to make his rival Niccolo Celsi intensely jealous “The girls are calling him the new Marco Polo”.

The Doge’s son, the foul-mouthed and low-living Tomasso Cicogna, was Sagredo’s comrade in arms at the Battle of Lepanto and becomes his assistant in his new career as a detective, Lewis to Sagredo’s Morse. There are knowingly anachronistic nods towards modern detectives. Like Sherlock Holmes and Adrian Monk Sagredo, dismisses any thought that he has special powers, that he is a wizard: “It is simply deductive reasoning, looking at the evidence before your eyes and drawing logical conclusions that fit the observed facts”. Sagredo has a Gil Grissom-like tendency to say things like “The dead may indeed speak” and “Follow the evidence, the evidence does not lie”. His forensic techniques, as well as his medical practices – which deviate from the then standard prescription of leeches, mercury and horse excrement – lead some to fear that he is dabbling in the occult. He has learnt arcane lore from wise men in Nepal and alarms people when they witness him practising yoga and meditation.

Historical figures like Caravaggio, Hans Lippershey, Giordano Bruno and Galileo make guest appearances. There is also a knowing nod towards our 21st Century celebrity culture in the magazine published by Titus Rinilto.

The book has been optioned for a TV dramatization and there are many meaty roles for experienced actors – Maggie Smith would make a good Violetta Celsi – “corroded by her own excoriating vitriol”. Perhaps Hugh Jackman would make a good Sagredo. Trevor Peacock could be Carlo Perugino. Either Alan Rickman or Ian Richardson would have been perfect for Niccolo Celsi but sadly they have both left us. I would nominate Nick Dunning (Thomas Boleyn in The Tudors) for the role of Cardinal Severino. It is easy to imagine it a visual treat with the camera lingering on the Venetian buildings as the Morse dramatizations relished the ancient structures of Oxford. There will be plenty of sinister atmosphere in the canals and narrow passageways, as in Don’t Look Now. There will be a feast of colourful costumes, as in The Borgias and The Tudors.” “The gold leaf and the beggars, the smell of church incense and bilge, the gaudy ladies of high society…the winding lanes and the houses flat-faced and daubed in a beautiful cacophony of colour, the maze-like routes from one point to another, the market stalls and shops stinking of fish or blood-dripping poultry”. There is an orgy scene around page 197 which will go down well on the screen.

This book has inspired me to delve some more into the history of Venice. I read James (Jan) Morris’s book on Venice before my own brief visit to the city a long time ago and  I am now inspired to read it again. The brilliant literary critic Tony Tanner has long been one of my intellectual heroes. His book Venice Desired examines Venice in the light of the influence it has had on diverse writers over the centuries. While researching my own travel piece on Venice, Venice and Death, I found much of interest in the work of ground-breaking historian Ferdinand Braudel.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/venice-and-death/

 

Michael White’s book The Venetian Detective is a fine achievement, providing much intellectual stimulation and evocative prose alongside the thrills of the historical mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

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