Monday 20 December 2010

Dear Pope Benedict XVI

Dear Pope Benedict XVI,

I read about your 2010 end-of-year speech on CBSnews today and feel a burning need to reply both for myself, and on behalf of the very many similarly thinking people.

I am proud to be a secularist and an atheist, and amongst other things I stand against:

 - child pornography;
 - drug abuse;
 - sexual tourism;
 - psychological destruction of children;
 - paedophilia; and
 - moral relativism.

I also stand against the Catholic Church's dealing with criminal child sexual abuse perpetrated by its priests, as you yourself described in your speech, by which you and your church have:

 - 'treated' rather than punished criminal abusers;
 - considered paedophilia to be a social norm;
 - refused to accept child sexual abuse as a crime, despite its widespread legal status as such;
 - illegally refused to report crimes to police;
 - denied that such crimes are an absolute evil;
 - promoted moral relativism;
 - blamed the crimes of priests on society, or the 1970s;

I call on you to change your approach to dealing with this criminal activity by:

 - recognising the sexual abuse of children as a serious criminal offence;
 - recognising that your church has been complicit in concealing and protecting criminals, many of whom have then gone on to commit further such crimes;
 - apologising unambiguously for such crimes committed by your church's priests, and the protection of those criminals by your church;
 - insisting that allegations of crime are reported to police authorities;
 - cooperating fully with the police in criminal investigations;
 - reforming your church's culture of secrecy which provides freedom for criminals to commit crime with impunity;
 - recognising that justice and help for victims of crime is more important than protecting criminals;
 - recognising that bishops and others who knowingly covered up criminal abuse were complicit in those crimes;
 - defrocking all priests guilty of criminal abuse, and all those who were or are complicit in protecting them;

I recognise that this last point may apply to your own time in church office before or during your tenure as Pope, and that defrocking a Pope may not be possible within your church.  If this is the case, then I urge you to bring your tenure as Pope to an end at your earliest opportunity, using whatever methods are available to you.  This will perhaps bring the opportunity for wholesale reform of your church, the prevention of further criminal activity and fuller justice for your church's victims.

I abhor your blaming the criminal activity committed by your church, and its priests, on wider society and in doing so trying to absolve yourself and your church from responsibility.  That is the refuge of the lowest scoundrel and deserving of harsh judgement by all moral and right thinking people, whether they be religious, agnostic or atheist.

In the name of all the little children who have so cruelly been abused while under the care of your church, and its priests, I urge you to pray for the strength to take the difficult but right decisions.

Yours sincerely,


Thursday 16 December 2010

Is it Time for the Afghans to Leave Afghanistan?

This provocative proposition was brought to my attention and I was asked for my opinion. It was posted online at World Affairs Journal.

The thing is, it sounds so reasonable at first, when you read the rationale, but my gut reaction is entirely opposite. Somewhere in resolving that inner conflict I hoped to grasp something worth posting.

A friend related the idea to European settlers who almost entirely cleared  North America of its indigenous peoples.  But I wanted to look deeper than an analogy, at just why this idea is terrible.

Let's start with the "Land of the Free".  The Bill of Rights proclaims all 'men' to be equal: not just all Americans.  So even peaceful Afghans should be free.  Free means having the choice to remain in your home, and in your homeland.  So forcing Afghans off their land is not on, despite the hypocritical historic treatment of indigenous people.

And think about the practical issues. Even if we went ahead, but people weren't willing. Would that not inflame anti-Western extremism and terrorism? How would the world react to news coverage of our military forces throwing civilians from their homes, then setting them on fire? Would we want millions of angry, hate-filled refugees living among us in our comfortable suburbs? No, that is no solution.

However, providing Afghans with a free choice, even incentive to migrate, is another matter. By our own standards, many Afghans may well be better off in more industrial cultures. Right wing isolationism in many industrial nations leads people to oppose immigration, so there may be a 'hearts and minds' opportunity back home!

Surely as better motivated and aspirational Afghans leave, the situation for those remaining may be less tolerable, leading to a downward spiral of despair, crime and religious extremism among those left behind. Doesn't that sound familiar? Is that what Afghanistan has become already? Have all the people 'we would want' already left Afghanistan?

It seems to me that the solution is to invest and improve Afghanistan, not clear it out and abandon it. The military and civil resources available to do this were severely diluted by the absurd diversionary war in Iraq, which took our focus from the real issue in Afghanistan.

If we in the industrialised West want to solve the problem, then we need to pay for the solution, however hard that is in the present economic climate. If we don't then we will join the end of the line of nations who have tried to tame Afghanistan and failed. And we must live with the consequences of leaving a poisonous hotbed of crime, extremism and terrorist training in place.

The treatment is costly. But the disease may be more costly. I don't know of a low-cost solution - but I am convinced that forcing, or motivating, Afghans to leave Afghanistan simply isn't it.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

REVISITED: Was Blair right to take us to war?

I originally wrote the following piece on 30 January 2010, after Lord Goldsmith and Tony Blair had appeared to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances and decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Today we learn that Blair is to be recalled to be questioned further. Perhaps it is opportune to revisit my treatment of the matter in January. Comments welcome as ever...

I clearly remember the events of 11th September 2001. I was meeting colleagues who had flown in from Texas when the news reached us. I could not help but feel for their shock and horror as their country was so terribly attacked. And as a Briton I knew that my country was equally vulnerable to attack. Having lived my first three decades under the threat of Irish terrorism, my natural instinct was to deal robustly with terrorists using military force as necessary.

So it was with a heavy heart, but firm resolve, that I decided that I was in full support of my country's military involvement in defeating the Taliban of Afghanistan. It was clearly they who had sheltered, trained and supported the al-Qaeda terrorists who carried out the attacks on New York, and posed a continued threat to the rest of us.

I was rather less resolute in supporting action against Iraq. The 1991 war to kick Saddam out of Kuwait was a clearly justified action to defeat an aggressor who had a carried out an illegal and unwarranted invasion of another country. It was as justified in my mind as the British action in the Falklands War of 1982. Stopping the allied advance before it reached Baghdad, and leaving Saddam in power, was a strategic error of monumental proportions. We'd had our opportunity and rationale to topple him but had failed. That, I concluded, was that. And while Saddam was clearly a nasty piece of work, his ability to wage war had been severely curtailed.

There was nothing to suggest that Saddam had even the remotest involvement in September 11th. Yet Fox News and US public opinion would not let facts get in the way of a good story, and repeated polls revealed that a majority of US citizens believed that Saddam was to blame. It was clear to me that Iraq was being set up for attack under a highly dubious pretext.

Hans Blix and the UN Monitoring Commission investigating Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) reported clear obstruction by Iraqi officials and claimed to have indications that Saddam was working on WMD. But they could produce no hard evidence. By the time he was withdrawn from Iraq, Blix cautioned that there was a very real likelihood that Saddam had no such capability. It was quite possible that Saddam was blustering and posturing about his WMD capabilities to save face in the Arab world, without giving the UN a smoking gun with which to justify an attack. And in hindsight, this appears to be precisely what he was doing.

But at the time, the terrorist threat of WMD following September 11th was being used as rationale for war. And while I personally did not believe regime change to be justified, or that Saddam had been involved in 9/11, the threat of Saddam's WMD being used against the West, bolstered by the supposedly clear evidence which was hinted at in the Iraq Dossier, was the deciding factor which persuaded me that my country, my government and my Prime Minister were right to take military action. And after much deliberation on the matter, I decided that Mr Blair was right.

But like many, many others, the absence of material evidence that Saddam had any WMD capability at all has left the bitter taste of deceit in my mouth. I have become quite angry at being misled, at the carnage inflicted on the people of Iraq, the diversion of focus away from the real threat in Afghanistan and the obscene money being made by US oil- and security-companies as a direct result of this ill-conceived war.

So what does the evidence from Lord Goldsmith and Tony Blair himself at the Chilcot Inquiry this week reveal?

In a nutshell, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has explained the apparent change in his stance before the war. He said that he initially advised that it would be "safer" to obtain a fresh UN resolution, but that following a visit to the US he advised that using previous UN resolutions including 1441, it may be possible to construct a "reasonable case" for war but that it was by no means certain that a court would concur with that argument. Cutting through the manoeuvring bullshit, I take this to mean that the legal basis for the war was highly questionable.

Mr Blair on the other hand explained that following 9/11 the risk from extremists was perceived to be far more real. Fair enough. He went on to admit that there was no legal case for regime change, but instead focussed on the perceived threat of WMD and previous UN resolutions which Lord Goldsmith had already testified was legally unsound. On this basis it is very difficult to conclude that the war was legal under international law. He committed our forces to action on the basis of a "reasonable argument" which Lord goldsmith could construct without any expectation that a court would later uphold as being legal.

As far as the law is concerned then, there would appear to be a very real case for Mr Blair to answer. As I tend not to be particularly extreme in my political views, it is therefore somewhat surprising that I should conclude that Mr Blair should be brought to answer for his actions in an International Court. But despite the risk of appearing to side with the protesters demonstrating outside the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, this is precisely my conclusion.

So, Mr Blair may have acted illegally. But was he right or not? Certainly on the WMD front he was not. There has not emerged one shred of evidence that Saddam had any WMD capability whatsoever. But his main argument at the Chilcot Inquiry focussed on the fact that Saddam was "wicked" and that both Iraq and the world were better off without him. While few would argue that Saddam was anything other than a brutal and cruel despot, it is difficult to resolve the benefit of his removal with the tragedy of 100,000 to 600,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, the deaths of coalition military personnel, the consequent lack of progress in Afghanistan and the injury to diplomacy and the rule of international law.

It is often said that the harm caused to Iraq during and since the war is no greater than that under Saddam. While this is a dubious claim indeed, it misses the point that Saddam was responsible for his atrocities but since the war the consequent atrocities are the responsibility of the invaders. And western forces killing people are no better than Iraqi forces killing people.

Given this reasoning, I am faced with the inescapable conclusion that Mr Blair was indeed wrong to go to war against Iraq. If he had waited for evidence of genuine threat to come to light, the legal and moral case would probably be quite different. But he did not. He chose to go to war on a flimsy legal basis and with very weak intelligence. In doing so he caused a great deal of harm in return for eliminating a non-existent threat.

In conclusion, I believe that I and many others were deceived into supporting the war, that Mr Blair was wrong to take this country to war on the basis he did, and that there is a very real legal case for him to answer in an International court.

I wonder what Chilcot will conclude.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Saint or Sinner?

I am no anarchist. I abide by the rule of law and enjoy its protection. But I also have a scepticism of authority and want to see that those whom we entrust to make the laws we live by are not allowed to hide behind secrecy and claims of 'national interest' to abuse the power we have granted to them. Therefore I had mixed feelings about Wikileaks.

I mean, what can be so harmful about a safe channel for exposing corporate wrongdoing, or government corruption? After all, the freedoms we all value, and which many of us take for granted, were won through war, civil disobedience and direct action which was far stronger than breaches of secrecy.

So when a friend from Texas equated Wikileaks with terrorism, after the recent publication of US diplomatic cables, my instinct was to wonder what had prompted such an uncharacteristically intemperate judgement. However I have long known my friend to be a carefully thinking person, so I could not dismiss it as a gut reaction. I therefore determined to look carefully at what was being released, with an open mind, and try to form a judgement based on the available facts.

First of all I noted the hysteria with which many in the US were baying for the blood of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. It reminded me of the chilling fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Then I read that the US government has a networked database accessible to people working in the military, civil service and government. The leaked diplomatic cables apparently had been accessible to some 3.5 million people. Did that fact just pass you by? 3.5 million people. 3,500,000 individual people. Three point five million people. The population of Sweden, where Wikileaks is supposedly based, is 9 million. Imagine a secret known to every male of working age in Sweden. That's about 3.5 million people. Is that a secret any longer? At what point does knowledge shared by many people become considered as published? The precise recipe for Coca Cola is reputed to be known by no more than 5 people. Personally I doubt that, but it does give you a marker at one end of the secrecy scale. By the time you get to 3.5 million, is it a secret any longer? I think not. So this information was virtually in the public domain anyway, and by the hand of the US government itself. So I conclude that a good dose of responsibility must lie there. Perhaps that's why they are so vociferous in their hysteria for Wikileaks in general, and Assange in particular.

If indignation at being found culpable in the release of this information itself was not sufficient, Assange gives plenty of other reasons. Diplomatic embarrassment can surely be painful, and can sometimes be harmful. But when serious wrongdoing is revealed, it can lead to people losing their positions of power, and in some cases of criminal wrongdoing, imprisonment.

To leave aside many other examples and give just one: consider the 2004 kidnapping of an innocent German citizen by the CIA, wrongly identified as a terrorist. When an outraged Germany moved to issue international arrest warrants for the CIA perpetrators, the US government threatened retaliation to bilateral interests. Imagine how the US would react to the criminal kidnapping of a US citizen by a large foreign power, followed by threats to punish the pursuit of legal redress. It would rightly be condemned as state sponsored terrorism, and that charge should be laid at those responsible: both the CIA for the kidnapping, and the State Department for their cynical blackmail.

So clearly the US government comes out of this affair smelling very badly indeed. But what of the other leaked materials, and the motives of Wikileaks and Assange himself? Is he any better?

In the first batch of released diplomatic cables was the revelation that China had become exasperated with a 'childish' North Korean regime. It was further suggested that China was considering cutting it's ally loose and being prepared to concede a re-united Korea, led from Seoul. No one with an awareness of global politics will be surprised by the alleged-facts as revealed. However Asia in general is highly sensitive to diplomatic etiquette. The embarrassment and loss of face by the Chinese government at these public revelations has the power to cause them to rethink their position. Who can tell the outcome of the diplomatic furore which must be raging between Beijing and Pyongyang. North Korea is hugely more unpleasant to its people, and more threatening to world peace, than was Saddam Hussein. If the act of publishing such sensitive material could result in postponing the demise of the regime in Pyongyang, then those responsible have done the world a monumental injury.

The latest and greatest revelations to impact my judgement of this matter relate to the identification of sites of global strategic importance to the preservation of US public health, economic and national security. Taking a look at the nature of the sites revealed, it is clear that they not only relate to US interests but to many if not most advanced nations too. While some may not feel strongly that preserving the US nuclear deterrent helps the rest of the world, the supply of critical medication potentially affects millions and threats to global communications could level whole economies. The meek defence that 'specific locations are not identified' doesn't wash. It doesn't take a genius to use the internet to locate most, or all of the strategic facilities identified. Those who would threaten the capitalist West may try to guess at which sites are of strategic importance. But now they have the assessment of those who know best. And that is damaging on a global scale.

A useful service can be done by giving voice to evidence of corruption and other wrongdoing. Wikileaks had the potential to provide such a service. It would always be controversial, and would always make powerful enemies. But hosted in a neutral country with a strong rule of law protecting the rights of freedom, it may have continued to serve.

Who knows how Assange's ego was hooked by the temptation manifest in 250,000 classified US diplomatic documents. Who knows his motivation for publishing material so damaging to the nations which guaranteed his freedom. How much of an anarchist must he be to threaten not only US interests, but the security at the heart of western civilisation?

I think you can already sense that I have made my judgement about Julian Assange. On the available evidence, he is a sinner not a saint. But his guilt is also shared with the idiotic person or committee who assessed, or should have assessed, the merit of allowing 3.5 million people access to material as sensitive as this. In my view Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of releasing the material to Assange, should never have had access to this material without having undergone security checking consistent with the harm which its release could cause, and in my opinion bears a small proportion of the blame.

So what will happen? Here's my prediction: Assange will be apprehended and either 'dealt with' quietly or prosecuted. His public vilification will preclude a fair trial in the US, but it will proceed anyway. Manning will also be made an example of. Those in the US responsible for the terrible deficiencies in information security will either continue with their careers or will quietly be pensioned off, and otherwise escape Scott-free. That is the way of the world, and is what we collectively allow our representatives in power to get away with. So perhaps, in a sense, we all bear some of the responsibility.

Saturday 13 November 2010

The Great Debate

Scientists, religious advocates and lay people have long held as truth the view that science can describe how the world works, but can say nothing about the purpose of life or the values by which we should live.

Advances in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have been pushing against this barrier for some years now and finally seem to be breaking through.  We may well be at the brink of a new scientific revolution, one which sees for the first time a rational basis for values and ethics and allows people to choose religion or not without the fear of undermining moral values.  Indeed such a rational basis for values may at last give us a sound progressive morality without the need to hold on to archaic origin myths, the authority of morally corrupt religious leaders and without the need quietly to brush under the carpet some of the indefensible practices advocated in scripture.

A new rational ethics can extend beyond believers in 'our religion' to encompass all people, and maybe even all sentient animals as well.  And if different capacities for suffering can be understood scientifically, then different values can be applied to mice and men without logical inconsistency.

Is such expectation justified?  Can values have a scientific basis at all?  Can science tell us what is right and wrong?  This last question is the basis for a debate which recently took place at the Arizona State University, and is presented in the videos below.  The total running time is 2 hours, in 7 sections, and is well worth it for thinking people interested in science, religion, philosophy or ethics.

For a short-cut summary, scroll down to Steven Pinker's 12 min address which I think cuts through to the heart of the matter.

Part 1 - Introduction by Roger Bingham then Sam Harris

Part 2 - Patricia Smith Churchland

Part 3 - Peter Singer

Part 4 - Lawrence Krauss

Part 5 - Simon Blackburn

Part 6 - Steven Pinker

Part 7 - The Debate Panel

Thursday 11 November 2010

Message to Amazon

Regarding: The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure
AMAZON, most of us believe in free speech. But there are also legal limits on this. In many jurisdictions, inciting criminal acts is conspiracy and both you and the author may be liable to criminal prosecution by continuing to publish this material. I urge you to remove it from sale while you seek competent legal advice in all jurisdictions in which you do business.
Amazon is a corporate entity. That is: a self-obsessed sociopath which works to maximise profit at the expense of its stake-holders. This is not a judgement about Amazon, but a statement of fact about what corporations are, as enshrined in company law. Appealing to its morals, or better nature, is futile - a corporation doesn't have them. We must present a sound business case for changing its mind.

Presumably Amazon currently judges that freedom to publish at will is more profitable that caving in to public outrage. When the point is reached where outraging its stakeholders will damage its business interests more than self-censorship, then logically it will change its policy.

Part of this involves explaining to stakeholders, which in this case includes most of the online planet, precisely what this book says. Another part is looking for legal threats to this continued publication which can convince Amazon that it is in its interests to reconsider.

REVIEW - The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure [Kindle Edition] by Phillip R Greaves

I saw a link to a protest group on Facebook against this book.  Having seen all kinds of intemperate rage against its very existence, and imagining that I'm some kind of fair minded bloke, I decided to download a copy and read it before judging it for myself.

The author is a paedophile (British spelling, I'm British).  Hold your horses and put down your stones: we abhor his view, but as intelligent and rational people we defend to the death his right to express it.  Don't we?  Well, let's see.

He begins by claiming no intention to promote or excuse sexual congress between adults and minors, then goes on precisely to do just that.  I will spare readers much of the detail, but some is necessary to make the point.

He asserts that paedophiles "care for and befriend their young lovers" and "always" put them first.  This denies basic human nature and requires us to believe that paedophiles never succumb to the enormous temptation to go further than their partners wish.  As other adults sometimes cross this line, in the heat of passion, why expect us to believe that paedophiles don't.

He asserts that paedophiles "never practice intercourse with juveniles under thirteen".  From the testimony of adults I know, and have known, this is plainly and verifiably false.

He claims that a paedophile "becomes child-like with respect to its juvenile partner" and "enters into an equality of personhood with its young friend".  But ignores the fact that the juvenile still sees a fully mature and powerful adult, not an equal child.

He then claims that "these realities place pedosexuals firmly among humanity's most considerate and solicitous lovers".

At this point, I could read no more.

Immature children have no equality with fully mature, powerful adults whom children are disposed to look to for authority, judgement, protection and nurture.  Such children are not lovers, but victims - victims of adults who abuse their position of authority and trust.  Most of us begin our sexual lives by fumbling and experimenting with those who are as inept and inexperienced as we are.  We make silly mistakes and so do our partners.  We say no, we say maybe, we push the boundaries, we pull back, we go forward.  With an equal partner, at an age when we can deal with the emotional storm which rages, we feel our way to sexual maturity.

With a powerful adult, with a mature sexual appetite, deceiving themselves perhaps that the child is equally empowered, we lose the ability to say "no", we are taken advantage of and become victimised.  As we doubt ourselves, our choices, our limits of self, fearful of raging conflicted feelings, and maybe fearful of future sexual encounters, our lives are poorer to the temporary satisfaction of the paedophile.

The author misses the point entirely.  He fails to comprehend the harm of under-age sex, particularly with adults.  He fails to appreciate why such activity is illegal in most advanced societies.  He therefore promotes his tastes as though they were harmless.  Not only is this book distasteful to those who understand the fragility of young minds, it is arguably illegal in a number of jurisdictions where it may be judged to incite, or conspire to promote, criminal behaviour.

I'm joining the group!  And I'm quite happy to justify precisely why I'm joining the group, on an informed basis.

If you'd like to view or join the group, you can find it at

Thursday 14 October 2010

Did I mean to start this?

Er, not sure yet if this is a good idea.  We'll see.

Occasionally I have something to get off my chest.  Sometimes it's controversial which is why Billy is a good alias.  I don't intend to post every day and annoy the bewotsits out of any followers I pick up, but once in a while I'll put a little something out there and see what comes back.

So, I'll give it a go and see where it goes.  Feedback always welcome!