Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Right Hand Cleansing The Left

What an uneasy alliance. What shuffling about, bargaining, withholding of assent to garner greater sacrifices - how very political. Amazing how the potential loss of high political office can focus the mind and re-direct toward peace with one's one-time antagonist. But, as the saying goes, politics does make strange bedfellows.

But it looks as though a successful rub-my-back-I'll-rub-yours deal has finally been struck between General Pervez Musharraf and former president Benazir Bhutto. Odd, isn't it, how so many former presidents of Pakistan are in exile, self-imposed or not, as a result of the inconvenient revelations of corruption...?

Benazir Bhutto has agreed to return to her country from London, to help a desperate rival. Contingent, of course, that all corruption charges against her former regime be dropped. No problem. Consider it done. She will now assist General Musharraf in his three-term ambition. Of course he too has agreed to a sacrifice; he will cease and desist; no longer represent the country's armed forces and doff his uniform.

Nice for Ms. Bhutto; as head of her large and popular party, she returns to Pakistan to help rule that troubled country. Immunity from prosecution has been granted; offered to all parliamentarians between the years 1988 and 1999 against whom charges have not yet been proven. Effectively excluding another former president, coincidentally charged with corruption, also in exile.

Whom General Musharraf had deposed in a military coup in 1999; none other than Nawaz Sharif, also champing at the bit to return to a country sadly in need of his interventionist role as a prospective new head of state. But General Musharaff offered exemption to Ms. Bhutto only, even though both she and Mr. Sharif were once blamed by him for the economic difficulties that brought the country to near-bankruptcy.

Now everyone is bankrupt - morally. Hypocrisy and corrupt manipulation remain the order of the day. Nothing like the urgency of political exigencies to make friends of enemies.


The Inconvenience of Reality

Or the stunning inconvenience of moral dilemmas. Making it so dreadfully difficult to take the moral high ground, when situational realities intervene, making it imperative that a re-orientation take place. Which in and of itself sometimes spells out another reality; that of abandoning first principles, which, when observed, have the effect of leaving one on the low side of the tide.

There are many such dilemmas facing any country that seeks to behave and make decisions that meet self-imposed and outwardly-anticipated standards. All the more so when that country is Israel, whose political ethics and behavioural norms have been and continue to be compromised by actions outside their sphere of influence, requiring response of a nature not always appreciated by a world that has imposed its own standard of expectations on her.

So it is signally when Israel, facing the immutably deadly face of terrorism responds in a manner that some observers consider 'in kind'. That country having had the experience time and again that only an emphatic response balancing aggression with aggression has any deterrence impact on those whose purpose is to see her vanquished, expunged from the geography. Disproportionality may be argued, but effectiveness is key.

And on another level there is the great sad Jewish conscience that demands of itself that its response to need be a compassionate and understanding one. Not only based on her own unanswered needs at times of torment, but as a national trait, a trauma imposed not by dreadful experience necessarily, but by a type of genetic imprinting.

When desperate Darfurians, black African Muslims flee to safety through Egypt to their destination in Israel and beg for refuge, how can Israel demur? No one granted Jews refuge, a surcease from the horrors of the Holocaust. No world body, no pact-sharing countries have succeeded in drawing themselves out of their unbelievable stupor of helplessness to stop Sudan's genocidal response to insurgents.

As a people who know how the ultimate in suffering can be defined, Jews expect no less of Israel, their country, than to respond affirmatively. And so she did, accepting the first 500 desperate Darfurians who made their way into the country, for permanent settlement. In a country whose citizens total barely six million, one-fifth of whom are non-Jews, that acceptance equals sacrifice.

For a country whose purpose of existence is to provide a haven for Jews worldwide, in the wake of the monstrous attempt to completely annihilate that same people, that acceptance is generous. For a country with a finite geography, tiny by any standards, continually in strife with its own indigenous Muslim population, to accept another group however needy, may be seen as chancy.

The United States, in contrast, known for its hugely generous heart, saw fit to take in fewer than two thousand Sudanese refugees last year, a number quickly absorbed into its huge 300-million population and gigantic geography, about one-third of North America. But having accepted that initial 500 fleeing Sudanese, Israel is faced with the reality of an additional influx of equally-desperate refugees - some 50 each day.

In response to which the difficult decision was made in an agreement with Egypt that these dreadfully needy people would be returned to Egypt, which will then remove them back to their country of origin. Official orders have been given that all further Darfurian arrivals will be turned back at the border to Egypt. What is a country to do?

That's a hard one. And Jews both inside and outside of Israel are indicating their displeasure, loud and clear, with the government position. While yet understanding the manifold reasons behind it. Just as, for another example, it is understood that Israel desperately requires allies, and most particularly potential allies from the Muslim world.

And when one such as Turkey gives indication that it views Israel not as a pariah state but as a proudly legitimate one, needful of support in the region, Israel finds itself rubbing against moral complicity, facing another moral dilemma. And, in the end, acceding to the unendurable imperative of undermining its own moral sense of reality.

Israel chose the path of ensuring good relations with Turkey prevail, and protecting the well-being of Turkish Jews by compromising her morals, by refusing to officially give notice that she recognizes the Armenian genocide. The tacit admission was made, that the consequences of wartime actions by the Turks were tantamount to genocide, and full stop.

The facts sacrificed to realpolitik. Morals sacrificed to existential need. Pity that such choices must be made. The expedience of perceived necessity trumping moral imperatives.

It does pain.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gunplay: Success Strategem

U.S. - 90 guns for every 100 citizens

No kidding. Don't believe me? Well, we have it on the very best authority; a country, to become healthy, wealthy and wise encourages gun ownership. Yep. According to the Small Arms Survey 2006 by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies. Didn't say who they were funded by. The U.S. National Rifle Association?

The survey lets us know that over half the eight million new guns manufactured worldwide each year are purchased in the United States. No wonder U.S. citizens have in their possession roughly one-third of the known firearms in existence. That's a lot of fire power. It's well know, of course, that violence in the United States is expressed often with the help of firearms.

And countries like Canada that share a border with the United States are leery of the types of lethal automatic firearms that enter Canada. And Canada practises due diligence in attempting, whenever and wherever possible to obstruct and halt entry across the border. But where there is a demand there will always be a way.

Surprisingly, India had the world's second-largest civilian gun arsenal. About 47 million firearms outside law enforcement agencies and in military possession. Placing India at four guns per 100 people. Is India wealthy by western standards? Getting there, but one would have grave doubts whether the ownership of guns plays any part in its growing economic success.

China has been given third-place ranking with 40 million privately-owned guns. Who knew? Who even suspected? China!?! In ranking order, Germany, France, Pakistan, Mexico (there's that border influence again) Brazil and Russia brought up the rear. We're talking civilian gun ownership, not a nation's armed forces or policing agents.

Yemen, it would appear, placed second as the most heavily armed citizenry on a per capita basis behind the United States, with 61 guns per 100 citizens. Then came Finland with 56, Switzerland with 46, Iran with 30 and Serbia with 38 firearms per 100 citizens. So how does private-citizen gun ownership equate with a country's wealth?

Straggling behind came France, Canada, Sweden, Austria and Germany, each boasting (or not) about 30 guns per 100 people. Many underdeveloped countries, it was pointed out, where scarcity of goods and means leads to endemic violence, had a scarcer incidence of gun ownership. And just as well.

"Weapons ownership may be correlated with rising levels of wealth and that means we need to think about future demand in parts of the world where economic growth is giving people larger disposable incomes", stated Keith Krause, the survey director. Huh? Isn't this a bit arse-backward?

Don't we start with greater disposable income, creating an atmosphere of enablement in gun ownership, not the other way around? Guns as a fetish object of power and control are expressed as a national 'right' by Americans, and in some states of the union the right to bear arms and gun ownership is actually enshrined in legislation.

Some argue that personal ownership of a weapon, like a handgun, a lethal object if there ever was one, is meant specifically to kill people. Others argue that possession of a gun is a deterrent to crime. Since so many individuals own guns and no one is ever certain who has one, the crime level is dampened. That's cute.

How about rampant gun ownership leading to a breakdown in societal mores and expectations? How about gun ownership granting the owner of said gun the wherewithal to explore his every unlawful anti-society and lethal fantasy?

And while it's instructive to learn that of the world arsenal of guns some 650 million are held by civilians, while a mere 225 are in the possession of law enforcement and military forces, it's not reassuring. The balance is rather more than a little askew.

And it's even scarier to learn that only about 12% of civilian weapons are thought to be registered by authorities. Which would mean that there are far more individual civilians owning lethal weapons produced for the purpose of killing other individuals in the possession of society's many misfits and psychopaths than the study's participants could even imagine.

Guns equal brutal force. Brutal force equals wealth? Give us a break.


Refusing Complicity

Oh dear, Moscow is 'irked'. Taking those loong strides, carrying that big stick, raising those petulantly polemical issues, and currying favour where possible hasn't resulted, it would seem, in raising the broad spectrum of support in particular places Vladimir Putin and his administration had counted on. Although why they would is anyone's guess.

Yes most certainly international investment in Russia has always been fraught with insecurity. Where even at the best of times, when the economic situation has been stable and the country has been anxious to secure foreign investment, the unwary or perhaps insufficiently-wary have experienced the let-down of being abused of their trust.

So if the Russian state sees not too much awry in deciding to nationalize an industry formerly owned and operated by foreign private interests, why would they then hesitate to take onto themselves a successful, highly-profitable and vital industry from private Russian ownership to public? On trumped-up charges of, say, tax evasion?

So here's the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former buddy of Boris Yeltsin, permitted to purchase a former state-owned and -operated energy industry during a time of economic collapse. As Russian oligarchs are prone to do, when handed an opportunity, Mr. Khodorkovsky made the most of his, and changed the oil company into a resounding economic success.

In the process making himself a billionaire. And in the course of succeeding events during which Vladimir Putin ascended to the Kremlin, finding fault with his presidency. Making no secret of his plan to use his fortune to help bring about a change in administration, challenging President Putin and his cadres. Could be he didn't care for the KGB antecedents and the political creep-back.

Surprise! for his troubles being arrested for fraud, then languishing in prison, for the state is the ultimate power and the justice system can be suborned. But even brutal authoritarian rule likes to be liked and accepted and have its decisions seconded and assisted. Which explains the high dudgeon expressed by Yuri Chaika, Russia's prosecutor-general.

"Switzerland's refusal to help Russia does not have legal weight and is spurred by political motivations", said he. And would he not know all about political motivations, after all? The Swiss court took the step of ordering Swiss bank officials to desist in assisting the Russian government to investigate the previous owner of Yukos.

The Swiss panel of five judges ruled it believed that Mr. Khodorkovsky's prosecution and conviction were - there's that phrase again - politically motivated. Moreover that his trial bore evidence of procedural irregularities and deficiencies; legally corrupt, in other words. They minced no words in indicating their understanding that the man's human rights were infringed upon in refusing him the legal right to defense.

Thus clearing the way to unblock $248-million in bank accounts of the former Yukos oil company chairman, and his partner. Yukos, under private ownership of Mr. Khodorkovsky and its executives was considered to be administratively transparent, an extremely well operated company. His fatal error was to fund opposition parties. Giving his president the opportunity to accuse him and bring the former state energy company back into the fold.

Which led to his being accused of fraud and tax evasion and money-laundering. Which led further to the bankruptcy of the company, so it could be auctioned off and purchased by state-controlled Rosneft. Back in state hands, under a close apparatchik of President Putin. And leading, finally, to the firm grasp by the State of its energy industry, and the country's economic advancement.

Nice trick if you can do it. And they did.

But when a Swiss court points a finger of accusation, of dirty dealing at a country, that's a decided set-back. There will be long-term repercussions. As though the current administration isn't under enough of a black cloud for harassment and persecuting its one-time allies, bullying them with the withholding of its energy reserves.

This is the first time the top Swiss court has overturned an international request for assistance on political grounds. The court has declared in essence that Mr. Khodorkovsky was a victim of political wrong-doing, that legality is missing from the Russian system of justice.

That's bound to sting. About time. Try again. Do it right.

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The Islamic Embrace

Societies whose mainstay is based upon a single, overpowering allure of theism and whose every action of every day is informed by a code of behaviour and strict allegiance to a Deity who demands utter conformation to a sacred code; complete submission of self and ego to that completely life-instructing, deliberately complex mode of self-sacrifice by and large remain wedded to the familiar comfort of their belief and the immutable tenets of their religion.

All the more so when those societies have never known any other demands upon their allegiance in living memory. And when, in addition, the multifarious minutiae of those theistic compulsions inform each and every act comprised of day-to-day life, a way of life enshrined in the culture, totally accepted by the society at large, the formula for continuance and complete submission does not yield easily to change.

Certainly not a change that is seen to be attempted to be imposed by an outside source. Any minor differences or major, between the adherents of the religion and way of life are dissolved and the culture acts as one to deny the intruder entry, standing together as a single entity in defiance of interference from the world outside the historical culture.

This kind of rejection of outside influence demanding change to a religion, a culture not completely understood by the outsider is a normal component of human relations. As frangibly connected as any family can be, they pull together as a deeply homogeneous group to deny any type of assault upon one of their community, in complete harmony expressing a common purpose - of defense.

My father may have been a brute, but he was good to us; my brother may have committed atrocities but he is my brother; my mother may have looked the other way, but she is, above all else, my mother. It takes a tremblingly-enlightened mind heavily burdened by a sense of right and wrong irrespective of religious indoctrination to distinguish between personal alliances and group responsibility.

In the ordinary course of human experience why would a close social group bound together by religion, history and culture lend itself to the re-structuring and re-evaluation of all they have ever held dear at the behest of an arrogant outsider? And in the ordinary course of human experience religious belief has been encouraged as a means by which an elite has been able to control a populace. It is only when education and experience conspire to prod people to question the status quo that change occurs; not outside intervention.

Fear of the Almighty and a wish to conform to expectations by the society at large speaks to the human condition where, as gregarious creatures, we seek acceptance and 'belonging' to specific groups shape our identify and give us comfort. When we're conditioned to accept a way of life as normal, and respect the prohibitions that ensure the society acts as one, we don't take kindly to outside sources imposing re-structuring.

When everyone in a society, an ethnic group, a traditional culture, accepts the basic tenets of an ethology, an ideology, a religion, the community itself is pacified from within, and the individual obligations to the society as a whole are guaranteed. No one likes being different, odd man out, the square nail that won't fit into the round peg. There is comfort in conforming, in being a respected part of a cultural whole.

Without the guidance of a religion-imposed group of instructions to ensure that people behave well, anarchy may result in some societies. It's no different in societies whose ethology is based on secularism, and the political system lays out specific laws and civil entitlements. While it's true that people as individuals do, by and large, have an inbred sense of right and wrong, it helps when the boundaries are set and writ in stone.

Societies that have been long accustomed to living with a theology that defines their every act, their very perceptions, their reactions and their mode of living, from the pedestrian acts of everyday life, to the sublime surrender of their spirits to the vision of a God, are more inclined to accept strictures on their personal freedoms; indeed won't even recognize them as such. They are willing, obligatory, silk-threaded trammels.

There are those who claim that in secularly-administered countries a higher incidence of graft and corruption, nepotism and self-serving betrayals of the society at large occur, and they may be right. That belief seems certainly to have led to the rise of a stricter adherence to the Islamic code of reference in some societies. In Western countries where religion has taken a decided back stage to secular social life, there is a breakdown in civility, values and morals.

On the other hand, there are definite Islamic countries ruled by authoritarian militias, corrupt politicians, and monarchical dynasties some of whom impose a strictly religious rule, others not, whose rule may emulate that of a democracy, but yet whose administrations leave their populations ill-served through indifference, incompetence or outright corruption.

Strictly formulaic Islamic states like Iran (and Afghanistan under the Taliban) demonstrate themselves to be equally self-serving, corrupt, brutal and given to the practise of the irrelevance of human rights. Their fundamentalist interpretation of the religion they practise leaves their populations in thrall to an illusion and a promise, while denying them the opportunity to attain basic civil rights.

When people become completely dissatisfied with the lives they are forced by such circumstances to lead, when they are so restive and resentful that they look elsewhere for hope, they will grasp at alternatives that promise hope for their futures. Which has helped to bring Islamist groups to the fore, as an alternative to the failures which have administered poorly.

Hezbollah and Hamas, both devoutly jihadist Islamist groups, owe their popularity to their discerning eye in realizing that their populations were horribly underserved, and their promise to serve their people and bring them out of their social-economic dudgeon brought them popular support, giving them the opportunity to re-shape politics.

Conversely, in Afghanistan, the populace had its brief flirtation with fundamentalist Islam which brought them only abuse, stagnation, ignorance and grief, and rejected it in favour of a new and 'clean' administration (which yet burdened itself with human-rights-abusing warlords for whom the Taliban were the purported solution).

If Muslim populations look to modernize themselves to create a society where women are completely emancipated, where economic opportunities, scientific and social advancement are recognized and practised, while still remaining observant Muslims, they've really got to reach out toward moderation, elusive enough for any group at any time.

As long as Muslims fear to take the initiative, to take steps to blend their beliefs with secular modernism, honouring their religion, while joining the political-economic, educational, philosophical, scientific, social ideals and values that will connect them with other societies, and bring them to a state of acceptance of other religions, suspicion, fear and resentment will always rule.

Big order. As it is, too few moderate voices are heard in the wilderness of dissent and protest against the burgeoning Islamist agenda.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Katrina's Legacy

Two years after the violently punishing catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina up-ended life in New Orleans, the city is still struggling to become what it once was. By all accounts it is so bogged down in its efforts to regain itself that it doesn't appear likely it ever will, entirely.

Where once it was a largely black city, it is now a pale imitation of itself. Where once the city's fabled high life and celebrated music had earned it wide admiration and a booming tourist trade, it now boasts but a feeble resemblance to its former glory.

Determined New Orleans residents returned from their hurricane-imposed exile and their ongoing attempts to resurrect that which once was have reached some modicum of success, but they're hampered by many things beyond their control.

Basic services are not yet completely restored, and the rate of violent crime, always a background problem, has soared. Law and order capabilities still lag, and local health care clinics struggle.

Some areas of the city have recovered a mere 10% of their original inhabitants, the destroyed and decaying houses still boarded up, the scant residents who returned making do as best they can in a nightmare vision of recalling what once was and is no longer.

Returned residents elsewhere have been in the process of restoring their homes, investing in their futures, still awaiting the release of promised funding, held up in a dispute between the State and federal authorities.

And then there are an estimated 195,000 Gulf Coast families living in FEMA's famous trailers. The squalid FEMA parks are scattered throughout Gulf Coast communities, encircled by chain-link fencing with single exits and entrances and located in areas unsuitable for human habitation; isolated, beside airports, giving little environmental comfort to their dwellers.

They can be likened to industrial chicken batteries where poultry is cooped in close quarters, in too-close proximity for comfort and health, both physical and mental. Trailers stand side by side, separated by a few metres, without any semblance of normal habitude for families with children, with privacy issues, totally psychologically debilitating to the residents.

Children living in FEMA housing; ghettos for the underprivileged and the helpless, are more susceptible to chronic medical conditions, many do not attend school; health care is not available to families, who also feel themselves completely abandoned by a country and an administration disinclined to deal with their problems.

Violence is prevalent, family break-downs as well. People are bereft of the assurance that all people require wherever they live, that their lives and those of their children are safe from harm. Many of the trailers, lined with wood panelling, are tainted with formaldehyde, leaving some of the people living within their confines with severe respiratory problems.

The traumatic events following on August 28, 2005 when families lost their homes, their sense of belonging, their security, properties, opportunities for education and employment - live still with them. These people have gone from desperately bereft to permanent desolation, with no surcease of their agony in clear sight.

Funds have been approved by the federal government to allow for the production of alternative and affordable housing units but red tape and disagreements between contractors and levels of government ensure that no quick and easy fixes are in the offing. Priorities once again gone astray.

Is this to be believed, in a country as strongly resolute, wealthy and proud as is the United States?

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Let It Be So

Canadians have reason to be proud. To be declared persona non grata, to have our charge d'affaires asked to leave Sudan - its vile administration in high dudgeon over a perceived diplomatic slight - is a compliment we must needs work a trifle harder to truly deserve.

Not for Canada the choice of the European Union in cringing disavowal of intent to ensure their envoy may be permitted to once again take up his place in Khartoum.

The craven submission of the European development commissioner, in conveying the politesse of conforming to Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir's requirement to be seen as having been hard done by through the medium of a slight is pathetic.

The accusation that both diplomats, that of the European Union and Canada's were said to have 'interfered' in Sudan's internal affairs by urging the release of recently-arrested opposition leaders, under accusations of an attempted (obviously, if such an attempt was contemplated, its actuality was a dismally lamentable failure) coup is laughable.

Should Sudan's opposition leaders have made any such attempt, kudos to them. Should it be the case that they experience great personal pain caused by the current administration's horribly human-rights-abusing actions toward their countrymen, more power to them, and our great admiration as well.

That they are unable to muster sufficient strength of numbers and popular determination to assist them in their efforts says too much about Sudan.

That Canada continues to fund this morally corrupt regime through the African Union - for humanitarian assistance, peace-building projects and reconstruction - is a problem for Canada to ponder yet again and perhaps even re-consider.

If we're propping up a brutally totalitarian regime that takes great umbrage at the concern evinced by the international community regarding Khartoum's hand in murdering its people, we're wrong, and must right that wrong.

That our Minister of Foreign Affairs has made it abundantly clear that Canada has no intention whatever of submitting to the indignation of Sudan's government over this country's abhorrence of the travesty ongoing in Darfur and elsewhere, is a source of pride to Canadians.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

No! A Billion Light Years?

Ah, the supreme majesty of the night-time sky. It's there, the unimaginable colossus of space high above us as we lift our heads once the sun descends (or, more correctly, earth's face turns in its orbit around that heavenly body whose tremendous pull glues us to that orbit) and we marvel at the immenseness, the twinkling stars and other heavenly bodies, the occasional shooting star wasting itself, burning into our atmosphere, the satellites that spin the cerulean space and send down all those signals, convincing us of the quality of our intelligence.

With a backyard telescope, some patience and a modicum of knowledge about the placement of the heavenly bodies the amateur star-gazer can pick out galaxies other than our own, faint but present. We can observe Jupiter, along with some of its satellites, and dream about the vastness of space, cold and alien to us, yet familiar through constant and casual observation, night by night. It's all up there, and we're down here. And not as though never the twain shall met, as we have, in a sense, from time to time, in our careful and costly explorations.

Now we're informed that astronomers have identified the largest emptiness ever yet discovered in our sky, a tremendous void hosting nothing at all, merely space with nothing in it to crowd out anything at all - a total absence of matter. Like our minds, totally absent, an irritating void when we attempt to comprehend the immenseness and activities out there in the firmament, replete with stars, gaseous and mineral, laden with metals; ice-laden dust, and mysterious dark matter; collapsars, giant stars, heavenly dwarfs heavier than our sun.

The void, it would appear, exists - can a void exist? - in a region of the universe far from where we exist. In contemplating the vastness of the universe is not anywhere far from where we exist? In explaining the size of this emptiness, this nothingness, this gigantic void, we are informed: "travelling at the speed of light it would take about a billion years and there wouldn't be much to see. A pretty boring journey", according to Lawrence Rudnick, professor of astronomy at University of Minnesota.

Consider: Minnesota is a large state. It is as nothing in size to the distance between the earth and its satellite, the moon. Yet think of the time warp in travelling a billion years, for in that space of time what once existed may certainly no longer be in existence. That which we see before us through the medium of powerful, polished lenses are merely items which are travelling to our senses through primordial time and in the travelling have ceased to exist; imploded, exploded, become dust of the universe to reassemble into another form.

A light year's distance equates to nine trillion kilometres. Can we conceive of such impossible distances? Can we equate such vast tracts of space with any kind of experiences we might be familiar with in our little planet? Upon which we have a plenitude of experiences including the travel of great distance - but in comparison to what? The size of that impossible void is analogous to great galaxies each holding in their gravitational grasp billions of stars; impossibly huge clouds of space dust.

Can we wrap our futilely minuscule minds around this immensity? Do our personal trials and tribulations in such a context have any meaning whatsoever? And the constant strife and horrendous upheavals both through natural phenomena and the indifference of man-made incompetence which we experience on this globe of ours, how do they fit into the greater scheme of the universe at large? Piffle. We are, in effect, ourselves as nothing.

In the words of the discoverer of this gargantuan void who claims not to have experienced any problems in contemplating the immensity of this Nothing: "I've been thinking about nothing for a long time, unrelated to this research." Is that what we are so busily engaged with, upon this earth, thinking of nothing, perceiving nothing, accomplishing nothing...? Which leads to yet another line of enquiry; as we do nothing, think of nothing, do we in fact exist?

Whose imagination are we a figment of?

But let us think then, that the world is both full and finite. And let us try to conceive the Nothingness that comes after the world has ended. When we think of that Nothingness, can we perhaps picture it as a wind? No, because it would have to be truly nothing, not even wind. In terms of natural philosophy - not of faith - is an interminable nothing conceivable? It is much easier to imagine horned men or two-tailed fish through composition of parts already known: we can only add to the world, where we believe it ends, more parts similar to those we already know (an expanse made again and always of water and land, stars and skies). Without limit.

But if the world were finite, Nothingness, inasmuch as it is nothing could not be, and what then would lie beyond the confines of the world? The Void. And so, to deny the infinite we affirm the Void, which can only be infinite, otherwise at its end we would have to think again of a new and inconceivable expanse of nothing. Thus it is better to think at once and freely of the Void and people it with atoms, reserving the right to think of it as empty, emptier than any emptiness. The Island of the Day Before - Umberto Eco

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Kindly Academic Enablers

There is much to be said for a nation's need to heal itself. For a culture, a historical and ethnic group to realize that there are some traditions which prove in reality to be unjustifiably harmful to a great proportion of their population. The subjugation, lack of empowerment and commodification of women is one outstanding example.

The need for women to be "protected" against abuse, for example, leading to far greater abuse against women. Women are seen to be so little trusted that they are to be held from public view lest they stir bestial compulsions in the hearts of men. Who are obviously so little to be trusted that they cannot, are not expected, to control their baser instincts.

A society that finds itself unwilling to instruct men in decent social behaviour, will find itself resorting to other means. Men will be free to pursue all the avenues that society opens to them so generously, from seeking higher education, to pursuing business interests and simply going about a normal lifestyle. While women are constrained from appearing in public unaccompanied by a male relative.

And even when in the company of a protector, they must be oppressively clad from head to foot in climates not known to welcome complete cover. And all the better if the face is sheltered also from the gaze of men. Pursuit of a career is not possible, nor is the pursuit of a higher education. Work of a humble type may be permitted, but interaction between genders is unseemly and illegal.

While during the Middle Ages in Europe chastity belts were often forced upon women, ostensibly for their own protection, but in reality to protect a male's property from use by other males, a practise even more pernicious and harmful to women's health continues to be practised in female genital mutilation. The removal of the clitoris to ensure women will not be tempted to sin.

Worse, the practise of infibulation where the clitoris, and inner labia are surgically removed, (with crude cutting implements) with the assurance that a lifetime of urinary tract infections will plague women, as well as sterility and occasionally death. In some instances the vagina is then crudely sewn together with thread, or fastened loosely together with thorns, to ensure entry is impossible without detection.

To ensure that when a bride is claimed to be virginal it can be proven. And any young woman who refuse to submit to tradition assures herself of unmarriageability. Muslim societies, in particular those of Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Indonesia practise the most brutal types of infibulation. Human rights defenders have always protested these practices.

Amnesty International calls this practise violence against women. What else is it? The World Health Organization called for the complete abolition of the practise in the 1970s. Prominent Somali women activists work assiduously to try to persuade women against the practise. But in these societies women are considered to be possessions. And they also represent the tradition of male-dominated societies whose word is law.

For it is not the Koran, nor Islam itself that demands that women relinquish control over their bodies in this way. It is a male society that demands purity and the satisfaction of sole possession of ownership. Yet the intellectual left falls all over itself to defend a custom of brutality that has its genesis in ownership and subjugation of half of a country's population.

To protest, to attempt to alter the situation through education is to interfere.

They recommend that the Western world look away, not become involved, not indulge in any kind of moral persuasion or economic or political pressure to mould these societies in a manner more enlightened-aligned with what is taken for granted elsewhere. Thus can the chair of anthropology at the University of Toronto preach:

"There are good reasons within the society for the operation to continue, but these are cultural reasons. They are not scientific ones," according to Professor Janice Boddy, author of C
ivilizing Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan. The empire-building British did badly in the 1920s in attempting to re-educate Sudanese midwives, it would seem; their pressure leading to Sudan outlawing the practise in 1946.

Laws aside, the culture and the tradition and the rationale behind it haven't changed. But Professor Boddy feels Western interference to be unnecessary and indeed deleterious to the society it seeks to lead away from traditional practise. Professor Boddy insists the Sudanese, as a guarded culture, view the practise as a defence of their people against outsiders.

"The cultural context in which this practise takes place supports the idea of enclosing the body against harm", she writes. "The idea of closing the womb, which is the most precious organ of the female body is very highly supported by other kinds of practises." It will not easily be amenable to eradication.

And the science, she argues, against the practise leaves much to be desired.

She does not herself believe in the incidence of shock and death resulting from the most severe types of genital mutilation. She likens the uproar against the ongoing tradition of female genital mutilation as another manifestation of British imperialism.

It would be most interesting to hear people of her ilk defend genocide on the basis of traditional hostilities playing out to their natural conclusion.

On the other hand, it would add nothing to solving an intractably harmful practise that boasts so many vulnerable victims.

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Re-Naming God

Well, most certainly, in this Topsy-turfy world we all now inhabit some chirpy individual bethought herself of a solution toward solving the suspicion and enmity at times evinced between adherents of various religions. In particular those three religions named the Abrahamic trio; those that were born of the holy scriptures identified as the Old Testament. Judaism, its offshoot Christianity and the last-born of this uneasy family, Islam.

The solution? Simple, really. Re-name God. Scrap Yahweh or Jehovah or Holy Father and name God instead Allah. The name, it was ventured, has such a charming ring to it. And cannot we see Christians scrambling all over one another, wildly encouraging Protestants of every division and Roman Catholics in theirs to happily adopt the name of Allah with which to grace their vision of He on high. And Jews? Hanging from the balconies in wild rapture.

Muslims, on the other hand, appear to be receptive to this bright new idea in encouraging greater understanding and amity between religious groups by going-along-to-get-along. The suggestion is as it should be. Bowing to the nature of Islam and its firm appraisal of itself as the one true and only path to God's heavenly door, the salvation of humanity. Did I forget to mention the suggestion emanated from Great Britain?

That very place where it was recently reported that Muhammad is now the second-most popular name given to babies, hard on the heels of the first most popular and soon to overtake it. It is, perhaps, inevitable? Why chafe under the misery of considering what is to come, after all? Why not pre-empt the anguish and just accept the inevitability of it all?

In the same spirit, with perhaps a touch of caustic irony came another recommendation through the publication
Time Out London, recommending the efficacy of London's transition toward the total acceptance, for all, of Islam, with a concomitant altering of laws and customs to reflect that Islamification.

Oh certainly there might be the occasional protest, from, for example, the Anglican Church and just incidentally the numerous Hindus and Sikhs among others who inhabit that city, but good gracious, changes are always difficult. It is in the nature of human beings to be resistant to change, to cling desperately to that which is familiar, which has proved itself to be tried-and-true.

The author of the item, one Michael Hodges, did offer some sterling observations such as that the constant kneeling and assumption of the prone position in obeisance to Allah, the show of complete submission as required, might forestall the onset of osteoporosis, halt the ongoing epidemic of obesity, and reverse the impending vacancies in church attendance so lamented by the pious.

And mightn't this embrace of Islam create an atmosphere of calm and serenity, of belonging and satisfaction within the population? Islamists do claim, after all, that the embrace of Islam leads to pacification, equality and respect: "Under Islam all ethnicities are equal. Once you have submitted to Allah you are a Muslim - it doesn't matter what colour you are. End of story."

End of story indeed. Acceptance equals capitulation, leads to submission and concludes with a life in abeyance, then one utterly subsumed. On the other hand, the politically correct and the left-liberal intellectuals have churned these types of overtures so thoroughly in their barrel of life-affirming tricks to bring them into total alignment with the perceived underdog that it makes sense.

It's an almost-irresistible recommendation. No longer would there be imams fulminating against the profanity and purposeless of the Western lifestyle. The obscenity of modern life would be enfolded into another purpose, relegated to the hellfires that deserve them. And any dissenting individuals thrown into that raging furnace with their godless ideology. Madrassas would no longer need to preach the virtues of jihad.

Bloodthirstily raging jihadists would no longer plot to bomb popular and well-populated dens of iniquity. Their purpose collapsed, so would the worldwide movement to violent jihad. The world would be safe, no longer threatened by devoted jihadist terrorists, for we will have succumbed to the allure of safety and security in Islam; become devoted and devout Muslims.

Mind, we have seen the face of modern Islam and while it seeks inclusiveness, indeed the opportunity to foist Islam universally upon a reluctant world by any and all means, we have also observed that it is not fundamentally tolerant in nature, but aggressive, demanding, repressive, oppressive.

Witness Iraq and Sudan, the sacrifice of moderate Muslims to the demands of fundamentalist Muslims.

But hey, this is the real world and you just can't have everything. In any event, we've been complacent for long enough about our place in this world, we of other religions and of none. We'll become accustomed to restraints on public expression, the endangerment of women's rights, the constraints on gender interaction, the education of children.

We'll learn to adjust to Sharia law, to the loss of a secular judiciary, to a dictated sense of public decorum, the demands of daily prayer and abstinence from alcohol, decadent music and dance and theatre. We'll become accustomed to thinking, breathing, living and hearing Islam before all else. Nature abhors a vacuum and theism will rush into our empty souls.

Too much has been made of free speech and human rights, in any event. Right?

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Vital Inroads to Understanding and Acceptance

Finally, a face-to-face attempt to understand that which is sufficiently a mystery to lead to the strife of misunderstanding. Through an exchange visit of firsts, with rabbis journeying to India and inviting a delegation of Indian Muslim leaders to visit Israel, a concord of greater awareness has become possible, where stereotypes are being expunged and replaced by an awareness of reality.

On a visit to the border town of Sderot, additional misconceptions evaporated when the Indian delegation experienced first-hand what it is like to be bombarded by Palestinian Authority-affiliated terror rockets. But that was only one portion of the extensive tour undertaken by the Indian Muslim delegation, at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee.

Maulana Jamil Ilyasi, president of the All India Organization of Imams and Mosques is visiting Israel as the head of the Indian delegation. The group represents a half-million imams and 200-million Indian Muslims, a truly staggering Muslim presence representing some 40% of the Muslim worldwide population. The Indo-Asian News Service reports that the visit has caused a stir among Indian Muslims, as no doubt it would.

Imam Ilyasi is quoted as having said "The Jews I have met here say that we are all children of Abraham, part of the same family. This is something I didn't hear in India. The Muslims in India should come and see things for themselves." Well, obviously that's not quite possible. Millions of people don't travel en masse to see with their very own eyes, that preconceived notions of religious-based biases don't necessarily express reality.

But the fact that these representative clerics have made the trip, have seen and heard some rarely-expressed truths in their homeland, and now have come to a greater understanding that surface differences in traditions, cultures, historical antecedents needn't necessarily separate people and render them susceptible to hostilities advances hope. It is their experience and their new perceptions that must be conveyed to their flocks back home.

"My initial impression was that the Israelis are certainly dominating Muslims out here. Once I came here, that impression completely changed. I saw the reality on the ground, the mutual respect Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews have for each other. constant conflict is not the reality here", according to Imam Ilyasi. "In Jerusalem I saw that Muslims, Christians and Jews live side by side, not at each other's throats."

On the other hand, in the Negev, in Sderot the delegation was exposed to another type of Israeli-Arab interchange: "We heard a warning shot which was followed by a siren. We were immediately rushed to a shelter house where we heard the sound of a rocket attack", recounted a member of the delegation to the Times of India.

On the plus side again, an inter-religious dialogue took place between representatives of Israel's Chief Rabbinate and the Muslim Indian leaders, concluding with a joint declaration. "It is high time for the religious leaders of both sides to engage in dialogue and use their collective influence to stop the bloodshed of innocent civilians. Rather, we need to condemn killings, reject extremism, and the misuse of religion for acts for violence. Suicide is a forbidden act in Islam and therefore suicidal attacks can not find sanction."

Yes. Indeed. Tell that to Hamas, to Fatah, to Hezbollah, to Iran, to Syria. Above all, tell it to the assemblies of Muslims in India. Their great numbers, turned to the solving of this issue on the world stage could go far in attempting the persuasion of reason and the Islamic ideal of living in harmony with one's neighbour, of persuading their Arab counterparts that the most recent interpretations of the Koran leave much to be desired.

In the meanwhile, Israel is integrating and absorbing a different group of the Indian demographic, one which has a fabled and historic connection with the land of Israel, the Bnei Menashe community. The government of India has agreed to permit its nationals, recognized as members of the Bnei Menashe tribe to emigrate to Israel, where they will undergo formal Judaic conversion in recognition of their historic past and current wishes.

A total of over 1,700 Bnei Menashe have immigrated to Israel, with another 5,000 identified as wishing to make Aliyah. They differ in religious orientation from other Indians because they managed somehow, over the millennia to maintain ancient traditions bearing no resemblance to those practised in the Indian subcontinent. Their claim to descent from the tribe of Menashe was revealed and made public 30 years ago by Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil.

All is not sweetness and light in the acceptance of the Bnei Menashe as some Israelis find it difficult to accept their presence, considering them to be nothing more than immigrants of convenience, interested in Israel for economic advancement. But in fact they are materially well off in India, and since they've been affirmed as descendants of Israel, it is generally accepted they should be welcomed into the fold.

It's not inconceivable that Israelis and Indians could draw closer, in a communal spirit of helpfulness one to the other. The two peoples do seem to have much in common, in their values and industrious characters, their religious adherence, their democratic spirit, their ancient histories.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

The efficacy of a Hamas-led government in providing wherewithal for Palestinians living within the Gaza Strip may appear at times to leave something to be desired. There are those Gazans, for example, who chafe at the militant direction in which their everyday lives have been straitened. Who may feel some little resentment at the newly-established fact that they are being led by a Sharia-impacting group dedicated to turning Gaza from secular to divine rule.

A theistic-ruled social environment that will inform every aspect of their lives, henceforth. Delivering them from the social malaise of the unbelievers who succumb to the allure of all things blasphemous and scorned by the pious. In short, hauling them back to another space, another place in time and history; re-structuring their values more in keeping with God's order.

The first order of the day then, is to learn to get along without certain modern conveniences. A careful re-ordering of expectations, so to speak. For example, power that permits the illumination of interiors, the operation of household appliances, night-time street lighting and energy to operate cash registers, computers, to bring light to the darkness of civil infrastructure. Cut off.

Well, perhaps only temporarily. But in the doing a manifestation of the lack of respect in which Hamas is held by outside sources as a result of its obduracy in refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Gaza's Jewish neighbours. The world may from time to time experience its own eruptions of suspicion and dislike against Jews in general, but it usually comes to its senses and accepts that Jews will be Jews and they will insist on existing.

They do, however, look askance at a collective dedicated to the utter extirpation of a significant portion of the world population; not in numbers so much but in recognition of the historic contribution this ethnic, social, cultural, religious group has made to the betterment of world society. Thus did the European Union determine it would resist paying for fuel for Gaza, as to continue to do so would be construed as supporting Hamas.

And, understandably, without due payment, the supplier, an Israeli energy supply company, cut off supplies at source. As why on earth, even for humanitarian reasons, would the supplier continue to ensure that energy flowed uninterrupted and unpaid for, into Gaza? There's always the possibility that a few days of frustrated inconvenience can be instrumental in focusing the mind on reality.

For consider this: Hamas-affiliated terrorists see nothing amiss in firing rockets at the Rothenberg Power Station situated in Ashkelon, that very infrastructure through which a major proportion of Gaza's energy needs flow. Cutting off whose nose to spite whose face? How utterly stupid, after all, is a group that sees utility in sniping at workers repairing a supply line going directly into Gaza?

Hamas is improvidently imbecilic enough to launch rockets at the energy supplier, to fire at energy workers, and they anticipate that energy will flow unrestricted to fulfil their needs? So Gazans need look no further than the madcap antics of their brave protectors when their electricity has been cut and they swelter in the heat, watch perishables spoil and lament that their water pumps aren't working.

They might enquire politely, delicately, of the Hamas elite whether the claims that they're pocketing electricity revenues are indeed true. They might wish to enquire when their garbage pick-up will resume, and that would assume that Hamas is prepared to finally pay municipal workers to lift their protest strike.

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Victorious Party of God

Nothing like breast-beating propaganda to entertain and heighten expectations in one's followers, and the current show-time martial extravaganza courtesy of Hezbollah in the wake of its "divine victory" over the Israeli Defence Forces last summer meets the exemplary standards hoisted on the petards of all blustering societal misfits whose charisma and charm have elevated them to positions of trust and bellicose protection of an already-dysfunctional social group.

Hence the "Spider's Web" newly launched in a corner of Beirut, a museum dedicated to the stunningly courageous acts of war unleashed against a neighbouring state by a cadre of homicidal religious zealots who claim the confidence of Allah. Little does it matter, evidently, that they carefully planned the sacrifice of lives of the very people they claim to protect, in utilizing them as expendable background actors in the drama that drew deadly artillery from the IDF in retaliatory response to violent provocations.

As proof of their prowess in war, the detritus of skirmishes clutter this popular new "museum". Charred Israeli military vehicles, the propeller of a helicopter, the paraphernalia of an army's refuse, along with the cherished remnants of bits and pieces once belonging to the vanquished; boots, helmets, machine guns, radios, oxygen tanks. Highlighted by the poignant personal effects looted from dead Israeli soldiers; tefillin.

Victory is sweet, as it was pre-ordained by Allah and delivered by his creatures of death. Busloads of children are transported to the museum, to revel in the tale of victory over an implacable enemy that desired to achieve nothing less than their annihilation, thus earning their own early demise. Hezbollah has become extraordinarily skilled at writing its own history, in total defiance of reality.

Despite that the Lebanese government condemned Hezbollah for dragging the country into a war it had no desire to participate in, nor become a victim of; the government itself taking no pleasure in 'remembering' the war between Israel and Hezbollah, a conflict that considerably impacted on the country's infrastructure, and some very particular segments of its population.

Hezbollah has reason to be grateful to new technology which permits its dedicated artists, graphic designers and engineers to proudly produce displays that can leave no doubt in the minds of the eager onlookers that evil Israel's intent on destroying the Shia residents of the south was handily foiled by the intrepid army of Hezbollah Islamists.

Children and hijab-covered women, along with all the other proud and curious onlookers are able to find great satisfaction in the doctored depictions of blood-drenched and limbless corpses of Israeli soldiers. Digitally assisted to illustrate just where all these enemies of the Arab nations are destined to end: lifeless, surrounded by hellfires.

The victorious Party of God is illustriously invincible, a true indication of the esteem in which Allah holds Hezbollah and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The display obviously gives great pleasure to its audience and they shouted their approval as the proud progenitor of this brave new world addressed them at the museum's opening.

The most popular display is not, needless to say, that which demonstrates Lebanese refugees hopelessly surveying their bombed-out homes, nor photographs of bloody Lebanese children in hospitals sprouting IV tubes and sporting bandages. This is the justification. Hands-down favourites are those illustrating the just desserts delivered by Hezbollah to the IDF.

A bombed-out Israeli tank, a re-created bomb crater, amply lined with mannequins of dead Israeli soldiers, the anguish of death on their faces delectable to the beholder. And other favourites, close-up photos of Hezbollah's dedicated terrorist brigade launching rockets and missiles on the Israeli town of Haifa.

Then there is the piece de resistance; the gift shop - for after all what self-respecting museum anywhere does not elevate itself to the living art of producing memorable items reminiscent or reflective of the displays so popular with its audience? There, museum goers may purchase DVDs of Nasrallah's speeches, Hezbollah's video games, hats, flags, mugs with Hezbollah's insignia.

Disneyland, Islamist style.

A proud moment in history reviewed in all its glory, the onlookers regaled by descriptions of the divine victory. They can be serene in the knowledge that their God has given direction and approval to his worldly proxies to pursue his ends; to destroy the invader and reclaim the holy land.

Or so goes that particular interpretation.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Protesting What, Exactly?

The current summit at Montebello, Quebec of the three political leaders of North America; where President Filipe Calderon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President George W. Bush are meeting, ostensibly, to ensure that the continent combines its efforts toward a more secure unit in the face of world terrorism, to advance the economic fortunes of all three to present a counterpart to the European Union in their combined strength and to counter the growing economic presence of such burgeoning giants as India and China certainly has its detractors.

On the face of it, the purpose sounds good. This union has been named the Security and Prosperity Partnership whose purpose is to broaden and deepen integration of the three countries in every sphere, from security to the health of the economy. Both the initiative and the participants have their critics, and they are legion. From the huge outcry of alarmed nationalists in Canada to conservative critics in the U.S. who fear the SPP will have the outcome of eroding national sovereignty, wipe out the border, institute a single currency, reduce workers' wages and working conditions within the U.S. In short, each country's protesters' concerns mirror one another's.

If there are protesters and worry-warts on the Mexican end, we haven't heard about them, but can be assured nonetheless that they're there and as bitterly divided among themselves as are those in the rest of North America. Some of the systemic changes seem to make sense, like regulations over food-colour dyes, common standards for hazardous materials containers, navigation systems for North American airways - but only if they report to the highest standards, not to be reduced to standards dictated by the money-making interests of large corporations.

And we've no assurances that such is not the case. Since coming out of the SPP process thus far has been the creation of the North American Competitiveness Council which is a collection of representative business leaders; ten appointed to represent each country. Their purpose is to 'advise' the leaders on how best to move the goals of the SPP forward. And therein lies a bit of a problem in that what protesters and indeed any interested onlookers see is those extremely self-interested corporate tails wagging the political dogs.

Moreover, all the meetings, along with progress reports as they're produced are maintained in a veil of secrecy, exclusive to those intimately involved in these proceedings, despite the fact that any institution of agreed-upon findings will most surely impact on the populations of those three involved countries. Critics insist that it is only corporate leaders who are being consulted. The viewpoints of scientists, labour leaders, human rights experts, police associations, environmentalists, even legislators have not been sought. Thank you very much.

Thus far the agreed-upon changes produced by the SPP in its short life can be summed up as a handful of common emergency measures planning. Which would incorporate plans for allied action during future potential avian/or and influenza pandemics. And then there is a long list of regulatory issues, such as foodstuff labelling, and pipeline standards, as well as air quality data-collaborative collection systems. As long as adherence to high quality is recognized to ensure already-existing regulations aren't undermined, that sounds fairly intelligent. Full stop.

There are other, very controversial issues to be debated; items which appear to be 'under review' by country-representative bureaucrats, which might include the export of water, joint visa-issuance standards and rules for immigration. There are, without doubt, many issues of great importance to the civil stability, economic opportunities, enhancement of societal values held in great esteem by all three countries, where harmonization across borders might prove to be a great assist, but some things like the wholesale exportation of water resources, and gas and oil require a step back for further consideration.

Only because the largest and more aggressive of the political entities, the greater-consuming nation with the largest population, whose powers of persuasion have proved in the past to be inimical to the best interests of its continental partners might be seen to be engaged in actively diverting the natural resources of its partners for its own insatiable use. Thus the protests.

Yet there's one singular contingent of protesters whose presence puzzles me. Those confusing the engagement of the United States in Iraq with these very precise and particular home-grown-and-contained issues, carrying aloft banners reading "Troops Out Now!". And PA-checkered headscarves adorning the heads of other protesters. Reminds me of the time when I joined an anti-war protest before the second Iraq invasion and found myself surrounded by anti-Israel signage.

So let's get this straight: protesting what, exactly, please do tell...?

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Here, There And Everywhere

Let's face it, there's scarcely a product or a foodstuff that China hasn't had a hand in producing, available on the cheap just about everywhere in the world, especially the Western world. For consumers outside China the availability of less expensive consumer goods has been an end to a means of ownership. True, there's more than a whiff of suspicion inherent in Chinese-made goods, an unenviable lack of trust due to sometimes shoddy workmanship that once was attached to post WWII Japan.

Now, and for decades, Japanese-produced goods have been synonymous in consumers' minds with quality goods. Where once Switzerland and Germany produced exquisite mechanical products and optical lenses, Japanese-produced goods managed to equal their quality, at much-reduced prices. In the process, putting the older manufacturers on their toes, then flat on their backs. Japanese demand quality goods themselves, and they take pride in their ability to produce quality, in their inspection process to ensure that factory to store-shelf equals confidence.

China's working on it. Where once beautifully designed furniture of quality workmanship came out of places like Grand Rapids Falls, Michigan and elsewhere in the United States, such furniture is now manufactured, where else? in China. The largest furniture company in the United States has an immense inventory of excellently-produced furniture and it's manufactured in China. Order a dining room or bedroom suite and it'll take a month, month-and-a-half for processing.

Processing? Well that means the order goes in, and the work is done in China, then shipped out to your home in North America. At a price, including shipping costs, a mere fraction of what it would take to produce something similar in a North American location. China has a wealth of skilled workers; her most notable and important resource. Jade from British Columbia is shipped to China to be worked into precise little figures of animals, shipped back to B.C. then sold in tourist places like Cache Creek, B.C. as mementos.

Go into any supermarket in North America looking for garlic bulbs and what do you find? Garlic from China. All right, we've got to draw the line somewhere; invariably the bulbs are dried out and sprouted as well, likely completely lacking in nutritional value. But price? A half-dozen netted bulbs for a mere $1. Thank heavens we still have the option of visiting farms nearby city centres to purchase three bulbs of fresh garlic for a pittance of $3.50, nutritional value intact.

Even Japan now has some of its electronic products made in China, with Japanese logos on them, as interested as any other country in lowering production costs to achieve a more favourable outcome at the cash register. We get computer parts and equipment, radios, television, cameras, furniture, toys, games, clothing, telephones, footwear, office machines, lamps, sound recorders, handbags, suitcases, sweaters, motor vehicle parts and accessories - for a partial inventory - from China.

Chances are when you visit your local supermarket and decide to buy packaged flash-frozen fish it comes from China. We read some labels and some country-of-origin identification, but not always. Who knew we import confectionery sugar from China? Or pasta? When I buy salmon fillets and the package reads "Wild Pacific Salmon" that makes me think I've got a really good and nutritiously-tasty product. I often assume I'm buying B.C. salmon. And I'm wrong. But boy, it's great eating hot off the barbecue.

Isn't there always a downside? Health Canada figures indicate that Chinese-made consumer goods have been subject to more safety recalls than those from any other country. On the other hand, it's doubtful that we import as many products from other countries as we do from China. With the possible exception of the United States, and we've had our problems there, as well, with tainted tomato juice, spinach and any number of other perishables which poor handling practises can easily contaminate.

Yet toys, household goods like toothpaste and food ingredients; baby products and food for pets have made headlines as they've been found to be sub-par and sometimes downright dangerous to human and pet health, due to lax inspections and poor quality control at their place of origin. But - 60% of goods exported from China globally owe their origin to western-owned and -operated manufacturers. Produced by Chinese owned factories, but contracted for by western companies.

If there are production standards that must be met, they must first be explicitly ordered to be met. Loss of custom is always a nice cudgel to ensure that everyone is singing from the same hymnal. Anyone who thinks that China is alone responsible for the contretemps in ill-produced goods isn't thinking straight. It's to China's advantage to produce well received and fundamentally trusted goods. It's a blot on her reputation and her pride when events prove otherwise.

And let's face it, we've become rather interdependent. If consumers became sufficiently annoyed, and perhaps even fearful of products coming out of China that they loudly and belligerently demanded that all goods currently stemming from that source be replaced by goods produced elsewhere where they feel they would have greater confidence in its quality things would really be stood on their heads. Where's it all to come from? China's pre-eminence in production has put so many competitors out of business, we'd be hard put to find sources.

Going through store shelves to pull Chinese-produced goods would soon empty those same shelves. Governments whose manufacturers make production deals with their Chinese producers have to put pressure where it's due; not only on China, but the responsible importers as well. And if we're really serious about health and safety and security of supply we should look inward, and support local producers and manufacturers, where feasible.
Some of whose parts would undoubtedly also come from China.

Fact is, in Canada the government doesn't require additives to food products to be included on labels. A "Made in Canada" label need only represent 51% of Canadian-produced goods to qualify.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

His Tat For Their Tch

No new Cold War, not at all. Just bully matching up to bully. More or less. After all, it was the Bush administration that started this little match-up going. Sacrificing the goodwill that had finally engaged the leaders of Russia and the United States post-dissolution of the Soviet Union. That was when Russia was teetering on political and economic collapse, and big brother, formerly major antagonist, empathized and encouraged its former adversary.

This is now. A resurgent Russia, with pride restored, thanks to a booming economy and a strong-willed president is no longer willing to eat humble pie and take a back seat to world events. Especially those being manipulated by an arrogant world power that saw fit to resurrect the "star wars" vision of a former president. When the Bush administration brought the defensive missile shield to Europe in former Russian satellite countries the insult was simply too much to bear.

The Russian Bear declared this a provocation and that was calling it what is most decidedly is. Russia is no longer powerless to react. And react she has. On a number of fronts. And in so doing is restoring pride to the country. Vladimir Putin now has announced during joint military exercises with China that although she elected to halt her strategic aircraft flights in 1992 unilaterally she has since thought otherwise since no other countries emulated her.

"Unfortunately our example was not followed by everyone. Flights by other countries' strategic aircraft continue, and this creates certain problems for ensuring the security of the Russian Federation." True, this is more than a little precious, since Russia halted those flights as a direct result of her political/economic collapse.

Russian air force generals had earlier announced their bomber crews had flown near Guam, close to the U.S. military base, and "exchanged smiles" (read: psychological challenge) with American pilots who had scrambled to track their aerial nose-thumbing. Just as last month Britain's Royal Air Force rushed fighter jets to intercept two Tu-95 "Bear" bombers flying into British air space.

Routine, simply routine, beams Putin. Get used to it. Russia's senior admiral has now also noted that it's past time for his country to establish a permanent naval base in the Mediterranean; they may even re-open a base in Syria. And Russia's claims that it has a geographic right to territory in the Arctic merely builds on her long history of Arctic exploration.

Think that's all cause for being nervous? Put this one on for size. Just as Washington has successfully locked Russia out of NATO, so now has Moscow locked Washington out of even observer status during military manoeuvres under the auspices of the 6-member Shanghai Co-operation Organization of which Russia is a proud member.

The SCO, in fact, may be emerging as a powerful counterpart to NATO, representing central Asia. It's a useful political tool for the promotion of energy co-operation in an area whose newly-discovered reserves are becoming increasingly important in today's world. Pakistan, India, Mongolia and Iran all aspire to join the SCO.

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is held in great regard by members of the SCO, though not all is sweetness and light in a highly charged and competitive atmosphere that prevails anywhere nations with singular interests congregate.


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Secure in Afghanistan

Actually there is little security in that country, although hopes remain high that security may eventually be possible. And toward which purpose the UN-sanctioned presence of NATO troops in that country are striving to do their utmost to obtain.

Unfortunately, not all of NATO-committed troops want to be in those areas in the south, adjoining the border with Pakistan because it's fraught with the most immediate kind of danger thanks to the resurgent Taliban.

Nor are the non-NATO contributing nations to the peace-keeping mission there any more eager than their NATO counterparts to post their troops in the seething provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Tripping the light fantastic through the contributing countries, their regular and reserve army strengths and the percentage deployed in Afghanistan one readily comes to the conclusion that there is little enthusiasm among the committed.

Of the countries whose troops are present, of the 25 NATO countries only a handful stand out for committing significantly representative numbers of their total troop strengths to this vital mission.

Omitting those countries whose percentile participation falls into the 1% and below levels, there is the United States at 5%, the United Kingdom at 6%, Norway at 3%, the Netherlands at 6%, Lithuania at 2%, Estonia at 4%, Denmark at 3%, and finally Canada at 10% of their total troop strengths.

Similarly, of the 11 non-NATO troop contributing countries those whose participation falls at 1% or lower excluded, there remains New Zealand at 4%, and Australia at 3% of their respective countries' total troop commitment relative to the size of their regular and reserve contingents.

It's understandable that countries like the United States with a combined troop strength of 1,199,000 and the United Kingdom with a combined troop strength of 205,000 would have 25,000 (5%) and 6,500 (6) respectively of their troops stationed in Afghanistan since they're actively engaged in Iraq battling Islamist terrorists there, with far greater representation in that theatre.

Canada, with its paltry total regular army of 20,000 and reserves of 17,000 - not involved in Iraq - with a contribution of 2,000 troops at 10% is stretched to the limit. The fact that Canadian troops have been stationed in volatile Kandahar province (as are Netherlanders troops, relatively newly deployed there) places them directly in the line of danger.

Which accounts for the sixty-six Canadian soldiers (and one diplomat) who have been killed since 2002. The last six months has seen a sizeable uptick in Canadian deaths, accounting for twenty-two soldiers having been killed as a result mostly of IEDs (improvised explosive devices set by roadsides) or suicide-bomb attacks, both of which are increasing.

Canadian and other troops are busy training the Afghan National Army, to bring it up to useful strength, to train recruits and to help arm them. With the hope that in the near future troops of other armies may gradually withdraw, leaving the regular Afghan army to look to their country's security.

Only yesterday the chief of Zhari district was killed in Kandahar City by a suicide bomber laden with an explosives vest. In the blast, three of his children were killed and two others injured. Because of reluctance on the part of contributing countries' governments to place their nationals in immediate danger, the most troublesome area of the country is exactly where support is lowest.

The Taliban have slipped back into areas of the southern provinces where it was formerly thought they had been routed and their numbers have increased, along with their determination. Attacks have increased elevenfold in the last few years.

Security will continue to remain elusive until and unless greater numbers of foreign troops are committed to these troubled areas; until and unless Pakistan becomes capable of offering more resistance to the presence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their mountainous tribal regions; until and unless Afghans themselves become fully determined enough to fight for their own rights and freedoms.

Which would mean a sea change in the social order of endemic corruption, from parliamentarians to police.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

In The Spirit

Is it credible that people could be so inconceivably gullible? That their need for support and for hope is so great that they completely surrender intelligence and good common sense for a belief in the curing abilities resting in the personage of an emissary of the Divine? How is it that these extraordinary charlatans prosper? It is surely beyond belief.

Yet there it is, Christian fundamentalists, Pentecostalists, sacrifice reason to their spiritual belief in the grace of God. The presence of God is transmitted to sufferers, fearful beings inheriting this earth, through the auspices of one whose hubris is so great as to equate himself with the presence of God on this earth. That Jewish man of so long ago, reputed to have been the earlier emissary, has his own emulators.

And to think that a Messianic impostor such as Benny Hinn originated in Toronto. One shudders. Now the United States is blessed by his residence, his presence, his unerring ability to cure sufferers of whatever their dire ills happen to be. His presence as God's emissary ensures he can perform miracles that modern medicine and its practitioners cannot.

And by such simple expedients, as espousing the impossible. "God is giving you power over demons", says he. "He is giving you power over Satan, when you walk in, Satan will walk out." Mind over matter? Confidently instill belief in the vulnerable, who desperately need to believe, to grasp that lifeline of possibility; no, undeniability, and you are assured status.

This man promises miracle cures. He promises believers prosperity. He offers through the auspices of his good graces with God, life-altering spiritual experience. Those in his audience whom he addresses, gasp and fall back into mind-numbing faints, dexterously 'caught' by assistants standing to attention behind them. Mass hysteria? Heaven forfend that interpretation.

Benny Hinn Ministries are installed the world over; in Toronto, England, South Africa, Korea, Australia, Brazil. Texas is blessed and honoured by being the place chosen for its headquarters. What a truly singular honour. It's rumoured that Mr. Hinn is the most 'successful' faith healer in the world; success in this instance being equated with financial remuneration.

Tax laws in the United States do not require that faith ministries divulge the extent of their fortunes. Unlike most religious groups, Benny Hinn Ministries does not voluntarily divulge their financial data. Mr. Hinn himself, however, does proudly admit that every penny his ministry takes in is spent on God's work.

God, it would appear, wishes Mr. Hinn to live a lavish lifestyle, in a sumptuously appointed California mansion, and airlifted in his private jet around the world. If he behaves like an eminently successful CEO, it is only because that is precisely what he is. But what do we unbelievers know, after all?

"He cured me of AIDS", claims one young woman who attended one of his healing clinics in Kampala, Uganda. "I can feel it. I just know."

Indeed. God help her.

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God Is Great

In God we trust. Do we not? And for the greater glory of God, in His signal honour, great personal sacrifice is demonstrated day after day. God's fervent adherents struggle to perform Godlike actions, skipping the precursor to the 'taking away' and sliding right into destruction of 'thine enemies'.

Not only is there the presence of al-Qaeda, but also that of al-Qaeda in Iraq, surpassing its parent by one yardstick after another.

Al-Qaeda felt itself justified in sending its emissaries on passenger flights to smash into the living symbol of American pre-eminence in world political stature and economics, sending its living tools into Paradise, and the hapless victims of the World Trade Center and air passengers to another place to which Allah in His infinite wisdom consigned them.

Osama bin Laden does not rest on his laurels; he assiduously grooms successors and sends out ripples of irresistible compulsion to join with fascistic jihadism far and wide, enjoining the engaged and the enraged to do their duty to global jihad for the greater purpose of the achievement of a renewed caliphate.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, somewhat more determinedly fanatic (and who knew such a state was possible?) sends his emissaries on countless missions to elevate the sacred sites of Islam into shattered pieces, and the devout Muslims within praying to Allah shattered along with them. For the greater glory of God, the Divine Spirit, the Compassionate, the All-Seeing.

Those mosques, after all, were dedicated Shi'ite, an affront to Allah in their errant ways, in accepting an impostor inheritor. Rest assured, Iran's Revolutionary Guard is more than adept at countering the Sunnis; training and arming Muqtada al Sadr's Shia militias to visit upon the Sunnis the end-of-days scenario that the Sunni terrorists are granting the Shias. To the greater glory of God.

Now al-Qaeda in Iraq has blessed the Yazidis with their unwavering attention, blasting that sect's adherents into oblivion for their error in judgement in murdering one of their own for her error in judgement. Hundreds of lives shattered beyond redemption by four truck bombs, and many hundreds more horribly wounded to ensure their trauma becomes folk legend.

Let us not overlook the dark wisdom of Hezbollah, itself armed, trained and financed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Gifted with thousands of Iranian missiles, aided and encouraged by the Revolutionary Guards, doing their brave utmost to cause as much carnage to their neighbour as possible. Alas, in the process, sacrificing their Islamic brothers and sisters, but all for the greater glory of God.

In Afghanistan and in Pakistan the struggle between reason and passion continue, with Islamist forces militating against governments positioned vulnerably between civil breakdown and Islamist victory. Pakistan's citizens make the choice to avoid extremism only to be treated to a fundamentalist tantrum of opposition. Tribal fundamentalists handily lend themselves to the presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In Turkey, that reasonable and secular nation, like challenges. Their moderate leader in the grand tradition of Turkey's honoured Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, now none other than a member of an Islamist party. With another, seemingly more ardent Islamist set to become President of Turkey, thus weighing the prime minister and the president against the fundamentalist-averse Turkey military. Does this mark the beginning of a collapse into raging Islamism?

Hamas, let us not forget that tender group's purpose; the support of the Palestinian people, the scourge of the 'occupying power', with a vision of overcoming the State of Israel and supplanting it with a State of Palestine, occupying the landmass upon which Israel governs itself as a legitimate nation of intruders into Muslim-held territory. Their ferocious aim is to extirpate the intruder and embrace in whole the geography now severed.

Serving Allah. For is it not written, is it not demanded of good and pious Muslims that they never permit land once occupied by Muslims, by Islamic states, to be converted blasphemously outside Islam? Is it not forbidden to permit a nation of another ethnicity, another religion to sully that formerly sacred land?

India too, celebrating its 60th anniversary after the achievement of independence from British rule, faces ongoing challenges by al-Qaeda and related Islamist groups, widening the gap between Hindu and Muslim, desperately attempting to re-enact scenes of bloody carnage during the separation and re-birth of Indian, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Kashmiri insurgents threaten to topple the tender balance.

Incendiary activities throughout the world; not to be forgotten are the threats and actions against Islam-averse targets in Spain, Britain, Australia, the U.S., Germany, Amsterdam, Indonesia and elsewhere in this increasingly nervous world.

Allahu Akbar!


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Surprise: Social Alienation the Cause

No surprises in the conclusions reached by a study of the NYPD looking into the process of radicalization of young Muslim men in Western society. The results released pinpoint vital stages of the process, from the pre-radicalization stage, consisting of dissatisfied social misfits, to the discovery by these troubled youth of where their sympathies lie, to the succumbing of said youth to indoctrination, and the final step of militant training resulting in jihadization.

Any armchair psychologist could have come up with the same results. But one supposes it is given a stamp of authority through the auspices of a social study conducted by a coterie of police psychologists, investigators and theorists. Young men who can't seem to fit into the society in which they live, who become petulantly aggrieved and search for purpose and a way to avenge themselves against the society that seems to deny them, look for answers. Always have.

The process isn't all that dissimilar to that which takes place among dislocated, dissatisfied, socially disaffected youth anywhere. Where the outcome is a release of tension through the use of violence. Through combining forces with other like-minded disaffected youth; the helpfulness of strength in numbers, of belonging. The clubs and gangs of violent-prone, social-upheaving youth who wage battle against society and against one another for primacy.

That these particular young men were of a heritage and a background religion that gave them purpose through the manipulation by radical recruiters on the lookout for such societal malingerers simply proved a good fit; useful for those on the prowl for recruits, and useful for those youth whose lives seemed to lack purpose. They were, in essence, being invited to join a club, a group whose purpose appeared agreeable to their bruised and brutalized spirits.

Once they're hooked and find a common purpose, an answer to their feelings of societal alienation, an offer to belong, to be one of the dedicated few, the special, the exceptional, it's but a gradual journey to introduce them and finally convert them to fundamentalism and the allure of jihadism. Convince them that the society that surrounds and engulfs them is to blame, and they have in their hands the answers to their own confused pain; they're secure.

If the jihadist-bound predators who frequent mosques and schools to dangle the temptation of belonging to a special group, a brotherly-bonded clique are sufficiently intent and dedicated there is no lack of potential converts in any society. Politicize these aggrieved youth, encourage them to believe that in their hands lie the answers to the insults thrown in the faces of Muslims by Western society, and they're ripe for the picking.

First it's the spiritual and political mentors, then support through the Internet and jihadist videos, and the adrenalin-rush of corresponding and communicating with other jihadist radicals dedicated to the violent overthrow of established government, from Bosnia to the United Kingdom, France and Holland to Canada.

It's like a psychological lobotomy, and very effective; the violence of jihadist purpose itself becomes their religion.

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Jihadist Bombast

There's that brave and courageous leader of his people at it again. Extolling his own virtues and successes, larding his compatriots' bravery with praise and pounding his chest with promise for the enemy, should they dare once again to respond to provocations calculated to do just that. Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, brother under God with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and to the indivisible Shia brotherhood exhorts his people to celebrate their victory over the enemy.

To be more precise, Hezbollah's "divine victory" over Israel. For the Lord their God led them to certain victory. Their high-minded, moral-laden instinct to battle a hated enemy, secure in the knowledge that Allah had foreordained their victory led them to exemplary battlefield conduct. Of which they and their trusting followers need be truly proud. Murdering border soldiers of the enemy, kidnapping and refusing to release others. Feigning surprise when the provoked responded.

Then cleverly utilizing a much-celebrated battlefield technique to entice the enemy to follow and respond. Sacrificing in the process the lives of many of their followers, since the vaunted technique, simple enough in its execution, more troubling in its intent, was to have jihadist militias operating from within the midst of dense settlements of Shia Lebanese civilians. And, surprise! when the enemy detected the geographic origin of the assaults they responded with pinpoint accuracy.

Alas, responding artillery and bombs hit where the jihadists once were, but had vacated with the alacrity given only to those sincerely devoted to saving their own skins. Then with great crocodile tears and loud lament groomed for the international news media, pointing the finger of blame at the enemy for destroying the lives of innocent civilians, randomly and without reason.

Using ambulances to convey armed militias. Waving the white flag of surrender to halt fire when transporting militia members. Manipulating scenes of carnage to make them appear worse than reality. Transporting corpses to take their places elsewhere than where they died to bolster claims of brutality from the enemy. Clumsily doctoring up film footage, creating scenes of destruction far from reality. Spinning stories for the eager media; claiming fairness and bravery in action against all odds for themselves.

Leaving little option for the defensive actions of the enemy but to believe that all ambulances and all wavers of white flags henceforth were no longer indicative of civilian or rescue movement, but rather that of the jihadists. Outstanding indices of bravery and courage on the field of battle. Now Sheik Nasrallah, having been re-armed by Syria and Iran boasts yet again of the mettle of Hezbollah.

"If you, the Zionists, are considering attacking Lebanon, I am reserving a surprise for you that will change the fate of the war and the region," he promised expansively during a televised rally in Beirut. "By saying this, I and the resistance realize the responsibility we are taking on", he claimed during the anniversary rally of the Israel-Hezbollah war of last summer. Exactly what members of the Arab League accused Hezbollah of last year; lack of responsibility toward Lebanon for provoking Israel into responding to its assaults.

A mindless mass hysteria of honour to this man whose devotion to jihad and the suborning of the legally-constituted government of Lebanon is guaranteed from the hearts and mouths of his Shia supporters in the south.

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Fanatically Deadly Indoctrination for Children

Hard to imagine that any group could possibly feel proud of indoctrinating children into the sacred channels of religiously-sanctioned hatred and a wish to devote oneself to the destruction of a perceived enemy as a way to do honour to one's God. If you're a member of a violently jihadist order like Hamas or Hezbollah the way appears to be clearly guided by a compassionately loving hand of God. Obviously, a very personal god, one who states very precise preferences.

A god, simply put, that has had superimposed over His holiness and the sacred script that outlines Islamic precepts a more ancient and primitive ethos of a culture more attuned to deadly warfare on a scale small enough to encompass wiping out one's close clan enemies, and large enough to embrace launching a war against another nation whose presence is seen to be spiritually troubling in its foreignness among like-aspiring others.

Hamas's young Palestinian heroine - a guide and mentor for all other young Palestinian children who have been carefully and assiduously taught, through the written and the spoken word, through the examples they see around them of dedicated 'occupation' fighters, through the overheard conversations at home and in their neighbourhoods to detest and fear their Jewish neighbours - is proud of her status as a 'resister'.

As why would not any 11-year-old child of earnest and trusting mien, encouraged and praised by those who educate her to become the symbol of young Palestinian resistance, newly-minted martyrs-in-the-making. There is nothing particularly abnormal about Saraa Barhoum, whose parents have allowed her to be carefully groomed as a child exponent of jihad on
Tomorrow's Pioneers, aired on Hamas television.

She appears to be a bright child, readily adapted to her role as a television personality, a spokesperson for Hamas, an explainer to other children of the trust placed in them for the future by Allah, to protect and uphold the virtues of Islam and in particular the deserved place of Palestinians in a landscape once dedicated to Allah, but wrested from rightful Palestinian ownership by hatefully greedy, militaristic Jews.

With Farfour - the larger-than-life animal character who espoused the Palestinian cause - slain by an evil "Israeli" adversary on the television programme, a new liberator in the form of an equally-large character bee has come to the fore. Sweet little Saraa explains Farfour's demise as indicative of what has occurred time and again: "A lot of people in Palestine have died as martyrs, and lots of Palestinians hope to be martyrs" according to Saraa who hopes herself to ascend to such an honoured end.

"Of course" she responded when asked if she foresaw such a role for herself. "It's something to be proud of. Every Palestinian citizen hopes to be a martyr." Taken to its logical conclusion on the basis of this child's apprehension of the situation, Palestinians owe much to the presence of the Israeli population in the area for affording them the opportunity to reach toward such a divinely-inspired conclusion to their lives.

Not all Palestinians are so devoid of conscience and morals that they feel this kind of programming, both on television and the grooming of young minds, represents the kind of outreach that should take place within the Palestinian community. But officials with Hamas television claim that the show has been designed to assist young children to 'connect' with their country and their God.

As for Saraa's thought process with respect to her Israeli counterparts, other young girls representing another culture, another nation: "They have to leave", she says. "This is our country. They kicked us out and stole our happiness. This is a natural result." It is natural for children to think of such simplistic solutions to a problem they see upending the lives of their parents, their neighbours.

It is the shameless, shameful role of Hamas in schooling vulnerable children to hate and seek revenge, and see an enemy where there is a potential neighbour that cries out to the world its starkly primitive nihilism.

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