28 December 2003

In Whom We Trust

Common Sense
John Maxwell

AS you might imagine, I receive a daily flood of e-mail and, as is now usual, much of it is the detritus of the consumer society, the endless solicitations to improve my virility, 'interact' with wild, wild, women, accept a percentage for lending my bank account for temporarily parking millions stolen from poor people all over the world.

I get letters from people describing themselves as the widows of Sani Abacha, the sons of Mobutu, the estranged wives of Estrada of the Philippines and a host of other con-men and women who clearly feel that most of us, like them, will stoop to dishonesty if there is no danger of being caught.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, an American computer security expert warned that electronic vigilantes would be seeking to revenge themselves on people they thought were enemies or consorting with the enemy. Shortly after that pronouncement, my computer was besieged by all sorts of interlopers, some, I suppose, simply interested in reading my mail or discovering secret caches of child pornography or whatever. Others, more persistent, seem more sinister.

I have learned to take them in my stride, although I did get an apology from one Israeli website, which had been used to attack my computer. I have had to block access to my computer to dozens of websites, mainly unused web servers temporarily captured by the righteous ungodly.

I also get some odd letters from exotic parts of the world, praising or cursing me for something I've written. Last week, I got one from an Englishman who vouchsafed the fact that he was under serious investigation by the FBI for hacking into US high security sites, such as the Defence Department, among others. I got the feeling that he knew that I was under attack from his more patriotic fellows and was, in his way, trying to sympathise. Last week an institutional e-mail system in the US returned an e-mail of mine because it contained offensive material - an anti-war poem.

Under attack

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I remember vividly what I was doing when somebody phoned me to tell me about the attack on the World Trade Centre. I'd been reading about a massive Anglo-American electronic spy system called Echelon, which could eavesdrop on any telephone conversation anywhere, read any e-mail and generally make anyone, anywhere, as naked as the statues used to be in the US Department of Justice. According to one document, which I archived at 7:54 that morning, the European Union had just issued a report calling on the UK "to prove its commitment to the EU" by pulling out of Echelon - which also involves the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

The EU feared that Echelon would be used for industrial espionage by the US and its Anglophone kin against the European Union and everybody else. The events of September 11 have probably blown away any EU concern about Echelon and, instead, excited EU interest in joining this elite hackers club.

I remember asking myself, somewhat bemusedly later on September 11 why, if Echelon were so powerful, was it unable to forestall the hijackings. As it has turned out, even without Echelon, there were masses of warnings which the competent authorities disregarded, and there were several people who, had they done their jobs that day, might have prevented at least part of the catastrophe. Because of this, on Christmas Eve, at least 75 families bereaved on September 11, refused millions of dollars in compensation and decided to take the government of the United States, the airlines and various other institutions to court.
They want answers more than money.

Journalists' DNA taken

One of the revelations of the Iraq war was an unfortunate tendency for journalists to be standing just where American and British troops were intending to shoot - including hotel balconies and the roofs of radio stations. Journalists have always had a lamentably bad sense of place. For instance, several European and other foreign journalists arriving on assignment in the United States are at this moment being openly abused by officials of the US Government. An editorial in the Toledo (Ohio) Blade, yesterday, blasted the US administration and the attorney-general, John Ashcroft for impeding the press in ways which the Blade says "put the United States in the ranks of Third World dictatorships".

According to the Blade, US immigration and customs officials are arresting, detaining, and deporting journalists arriving in the US without special visas. This is so even when they come from nations whose citizens can stay for up to 90 days without a visa if they are arriving as tourists or on business, ". . .members of the press arriving without the visas, which no one told them they needed, are treated like criminals, handcuffed as they're marched through airports, photographed, fingerprinted, and their DNA taken."

This sort of treatment has been going on for some months.The French were apparently (for obvious reasons) the first to get the treatment. But the US Patriot Act is an equal opportunity oppressor from which no one is safe. Which is one reason we need to examine, line by line, our government's proposed new Anti-Terrorism Act, which is based on the noxious American legislation. With so many patriots at large, ordinary people are not safe.

The Rewards of Patriotism

My own lamentable sense of place tells me that as a journalist, it is my place to be between the oppressors and the oppressed because, as a journalist, I am also a citizen, a member of my community - not a spectator. Which is why, for me, it is a no-brainer to condemn Sameer Younis' demand that the 'Redundancy law" be abolished. Poor people are now more highly taxed than the rich in Jamaica. When they are made redundant, they would lose all equity in their work without the 'Redundancy law'. The capitalist, whose retirement they have made secure, insists that they should also pay for their own disinheritance, after the employer has capitalised their labour. For me, the government should impose a redundancy tax rather than leave it to employers to set aside the small sums necessary to finance social justice.

Some of the most 'objective' American journalists are the television news 'anchors', columnists and other stars of the media. Their salaries make it unthinkable to expect them to be anywhere but on the right side of the fence. And, if proof were needed, more came this week when it was disclosed that the indomitable William Buckley and the fearless George Will, were both on the secret payroll of a media mogul named Conrad Black, a Canadian who became British so that he could become Lord Black. He was until recently the third largest media empire in world, behind Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch. He advocates Canada becoming a part of the United States and his Jerusalem Post earlier this year advocated the murder of Yasser Arafat.

Lord Black's reputation is now in tatters, because it has come to light that he has stolen millions of dollars from the shareholders of a holding company called Hollinger, and he will have to face the music in Britain and in the USA. He will have to sell his London Daily Telegraph, Chicago SunTimes, and other media properties in Britain, Canada and the US. Apparently, it was Black's habit to reward his right-wing pets with lucrative sinecures. Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard N Perle, and the former head of Archer Daniels Midland, Dwayne O Andreas all, at some time, received large sums of money for what unkindly, might years ago, have been called brown-nosing. Mr Will, asked about his 'work' for Lord Black, claimed that it was entirely his own business.

Mad Cows and Congressmen

The general security alarm in the United States this past weekend has cost Air France a lot of money but has also obscured all sorts of difficulties for important people, not least of which has been the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - BSE or Mad Cow Disease - in the western United States. It may, of course, be no big thing, as the US agriculture secretary proclaims. She will continue eating beef, as will President George W Bush.

But the Japanese, Koreans and at least 14 other nations including Jamaica, have banned American beef, as recommended under WTO rules. Astonishing as it may seem, nearly two decades after the British cattle industry was devastated by BSE, the United States is still conducting only the most perfunctory of tests to safeguard their food supply. Without an accredited lab, they had to send a tissue sample to Britain this week, to confirm that it was BSE. Only a minuscule fraction of animals destined for slaughter is tested, although a related condition, CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) has over the last two years devastated herds of elk in the western United States.

Earlier this month, the Republican-dominated US Congress killed a legislative provision which would have prevented the slaughter of sick or injured - 'downed' cattle. The Holstein cow in which BSE was found, was 'down' - too sick to stand for its slaughter- but its meat passed into the food chain anyway. The company responsible, is recalling 5,000 tons of beef processed in the same plant as the sick cow's. McDonald's and other fast-food companies say that their meat is not from 'downed' cows, although 130,000 such animals become hamburger every year. American cattle are stoked with antibiotics, growth hormone and genetically-modified grain, all to make them more profitable and damn the consumer.

BSE and its related diseases come from turning cows and other animals into cannibals; they are fed blood meal and bone meal made from other cattle. And chickens, hogs, dogs and cats are turned into cannibals too, by the omnivorous American food industry. When my younger daughter was about 10 years old she told me she was not eating meat anymore: "I'm not eating anything with a face" she said.

Journalists might well reflect on that remark.