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I agree with Tony Blair…

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…albeit only on his claim that western countries have been “outspent, outmanoeuvred and out-strategised” by Islamist extremism.

But what’s missing from Blair’s analysis is an acknowledgement of how much of this funding comes from elites in countries which successive UK governments, including his own, have failed to challenge.

There is nothing unique about the tendency of Islamist demagogues to incite hatred by demonising a particular national or ethnic group, fan resentments by scapegoating a caricatured foreign enemy for domestic problems, entrench inequalities by aggressively enforcing “traditional” social codes, and promote fear by seeking to link unconnected events into some vast global conspiracy.

Elites the world over propagate such extremist ideas as a means of manipulating people and increasing their own power. Sometimes they will sincerely believe their own propaganda. Often, as in the former Yugoslavia, Burundi, and, according to some sources, Iran, the private behaviour of many in power suggests that they have little or no regard for the ideas they are promoting to others with such vigour.

But in a great many cases, a major driving force behind the propagation of these ideas is that they serve a specific political (and often economic) purpose for someone, somewhere. “Challenging the narrative”, to paraphrase Blair, can only get us so far if we refuse to acknowledge this dimension.

As Mark Curtis makes clear in his excellent book “Secret Affairs“, when it comes to militant Islam, no country can match the money poured into propagating an extreme form of “Wahabbism” by Saudi Arabia. Money gained, in large part, through the country’s vast oil reserves.

Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist dictatorship run by a tiny, corrupt elite that uses militant Islam as a tool for manipulating people. Unlike Iran, that corrupt elite is on very good terms with a number of western governments, notably the UK.

While Prime Minister, Blair personally helped broker a £40 billion arms deal with the Saudi elite. He also sought to scupper, ostensibly on grounds of national security, a major corruption investigation implicating the Saudi royal family in bribery.

It’s no coincidence that corruption and extremism often go hand in hand. For starters, the kind of person who will kill, torture and rape his way into power will tend to have fewer scruples than most about looting the national treasury for his own enrichment when he gets there. And once a corrupt elite has been installed – the enormous financial benefits for the dictator and those in his favour will provide an overwhelming incentive to do whatever it takes to hang onto power. Promoting batty extremist ideas is a tried and tested method.

The distinguishing feature, it seems to me, of the corrupt elite that seized control of Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century is less the particular flavour of their extremism, than the fact that they were lucky enough to take power shortly before the discovery of the country’s vast oil reserves.

In seeking to position itself as the leader of the Islamic world, the Saudi state has spent an estimated $70 billion promoting “Wahhabism” around the globe. One US think-tank describes this as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”.

If we’re serious about understanding how Islamic extremism grew to be such a powerful global force – and how that power can effectively be “challenged”, then this seems like quite an important fact to overlook.

Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth has not only funded militant Islam – it has helped to protect the country’s elite from the consequences of its actions. Western governments seem largely content to focus on the secondary problems of Saudi-funded terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than risk jeopardising lucrative trade deals and energy supplies by facing up to the root cause.

Blair’s indulgence of Saudi Arabia’s hardline Islamist dictatorship continues even now. Earlier this year the Saudi government reported that the former Prime Minister had held another meeting with “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz”, this time to discuss their plans to “achieve a just and comprehensive peace” in the Middle East. Well good luck with that one…

This post is partly a (tangential) reponse to an excellent piece from Heresy Corner.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Posted in terrorism

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Review of “Secret Affairs” by Mark Curtis

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By me, from the New Humanist

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis (Serpent’s Tail)

When Iran’s last democratically elected Prime Minister set about nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain sought to replace him with a “dictator” – in the words of our then Ambassador to Tehran – who would “settle the oil question on reasonable terms”. In the process, the Foreign Office actively supported a man they saw as “a complete political reactionary,” Ayatollah Kashani, whose hard-line followers organised the large-scale protests that preceded the 1953 coup, which installed the arch-conservative – but pro-Western – Shah. Kashani went on to mentor Ruhollah Khomeini, who in 1979 overthrew the Shah and installed the repressive theocracy that continues in power today.

In Secret Affairs, Mark Curtis delivers an unsettling verdict on the conduct of British foreign policy over the last hundred years. In pursuit of our national interest, the UK has repeatedly sided with the most brutal and conservative forces of political Islam – and aggressively conspired against democratic governments around the globe. While this has yielded temporary gains, in the long run the policy has proved enormously costly, even in its own cynical terms.

Across the Muslim world, for most of the past century, Britain’s chief enemy has been not religious extremism but the secular nationalists who sought to wrest back control of their country’s resources from the former colonial powers. Time and again, from Egypt to Iran to Indonesia, we have sought to undermine such leaders by arming and training their extremist opponents, while giving generous support to Islamist dictators willing to do business on favourable terms. In the process, we have contributed directly to the growth of radical Islam worldwide, and the consequences are now coming home to haunt us.

Eager to retain a strategic foothold in South Asia – in Churchill’s words, to “keep a bit of India” after independence in 1947 – Britain was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, an artificial state with little to hold it together but its identity as a Muslim nation. In recent decades, successive Pakistani governments have sought to bolster their power by fanning religious fervour at home, and backing militant Islamists across the region. Yet Pakistan has long been treated as a key UK ally, and a favoured recipient of military aid – even as, so Curtis claims, Pakistani intelligence services have continued backing the jihadi groups now fighting British forces in Afghanistan.

Closer still has been our relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose modern form Britain also helped shape, at the close of the colonial era. Seeking to position itself as the leader of the Muslim world, the Saudi state has, since the 1970s, spent an estimated $50 billion promoting its fundamentalist brand of “Wahhabism” around the globe, in what one US think-tank describes as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”. In positioning the UK as a favoured trading partner for Saudi oil, arms and, latterly, financial investments, Labour and Conservative governments alike have systematically played down the true character of the regime, and its links to global terror.

The picture that emerges is of a nation locked into a series of uncomfortable alliances – of questionable overall benefit even to our narrow self-interest – whose nature our government is unable fully to acknowledge. The issue seems exacerbated by the extraordinary levels of secrecy around UK foreign policy, hindering effective debate about the decisions being taken in our name. Many of the files surrounding Britain’s abortive intervention in Suez, for example, still remain classified half a century later. Due to the UK’s controversial “30-year rule”, much of the more recent historical record is simply missing.

Curtis seems nonetheless to have done an excellent job with the sources available, assembling an impressive array of leaks and government admissions, to argue that, at least in ethical terms, UK foreign policy has changed little in recent decades. He makes a compelling, if somewhat disheartening, case.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Book reviews, terrorism

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UK “citizens” to be known as “suspects” from July 1st

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From The Independent

Civil liberties campaigners have condemned as “chilling” UK government plans to replace the term “citizen” with “suspect” on all passports and driving licences from July 1st.

The amendment was one among a number of changes approved by MPs last week as part of the controversial Coroners and Justice Reform Bill, which will also increase data sharing between government departments, and allow some inquests to be held in secret.

A Home Office spokeswoman, who asked not to be named, told the Independent that staff will be working around the clock to ensure that the changes are implemented smoothly. UK passport and driving licence holders will be asked to begin handing in their documents within the next few weeks.

The Home Office insists that the change enjoys broad public support, and merely formalises a policy that the government has been operating in practice for several years.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and security of the British public. This vital amendment clarifies our relationship with the people we are working so hard to protect, and will enable us to streamline our intelligence-gathering activities. Those raising questions clearly do not understand the nature of the threat we are facing.”

Update – 2nd April 2009 – As readers may have deduced, this article is somewhat less than wholly accurate, but perhaps it’s just a matter of time…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2009 at 11:00 am

UN condemns UK government over torture complicity

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From The Guardian:

Britain is condemned today in a highly critical UN report for breaching basic human rights and “trying to conceal illegal acts” in the fight against terrorism.

The report is sharply critical of British co-operation in the transfer of detainees to places where they are likely to be tortured as part of the US rendition programme. It accuses British ­intelligence officers of interviewing detainees held ­incommunicado in Pakistan in ­”so-called safe houses where they were being tortured”.

It adds that Britain, and a number of other countries, sent interrogators to Guantánamo Bay in a further example of what “can be reasonably understood as implicitly condoning” torture and ill-treatment. It said the US was able to create its system for moving terror suspects around foreign jails only with the support of its allies.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Was this why the UK Ministry of Defence decided to smear Human Rights Watch?

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A couple of weeks ago, anonymous Ministry of Defence Officials were accused of smearing Human Rights Watch by suggesting, falsely, that the HRW researcher in Afghanistan had improperly obtained official secrets by becoming (to use the standard euphemistic term)  “close” to a British army officer.

Now it’s been revealed that HRW are shortly to release a report giving detailed evidence of complicity in torture by UK government officials in neighbouring Pakistan.

From the Observer:

Among the 10 identified cases of British citizens and residents mentioned in the report is Rangzieb Ahmed, 33, from Rochdale, who claims he was tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by two MI5 officers. Ahmed was convicted of being a member of al-Qaida at Manchester crown court, yet the jury was not told that three of the fingernails of his left hand had been removed. The response from MI5 to the allegations that it had colluded in Ahmed’s torture were heard in camera, however, after the press and the public were excluded from the proceedings. Ahmed’s description of the cell in which he claims he was tortured closely matches that where Salahuddin Amin, 33, from Luton, says he was tortured by ISI officers between interviews with MI5 officers.

Zeeshan Siddiqui, 25, from London, who was detained in Pakistan in 2005, also claims he was interviewed by British intelligence agents during a period in which he was tortured.

Other cases include that of a London medical student who was detained in Karachi and tortured after the July 2005 attacks in London. Another case involving Britons allegedly tortured in Pakistan and questioned by UK agents involves a British Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter.

Rashid Rauf, from Birmingham, was detained in Pakistan and questioned over suspected terrorist activity in 2006. He was reportedly killed after a US drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal regions, though his body has never been found.

Hasan said: “What the research suggests is that these are not incidents involving one particular rogue officer or two, but rather an array of individuals involved over a period of several years.

“The issue is not just British complicity in the torture of British citizens, it is the issue of British complicity in the torture period. We know of at least 10 cases, but the complicity probably runs much deeper because it involves a series of terrorism suspects who are Pakistani. This is the heart of the matter.

“They are not the same individuals [MI5 officers] all the time. I know that the people who have gone to see Siddiqui in Peshawar are not the same people who have seen Ahmed in Rawalpindi.”

Last night the government faced calls to clarify precisely its relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which are known to routinely use torture.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 22, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Ex-MI5 head accuses UK government of exploiting public terror fears

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45 minutes from attack

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which politicians – and the media – exploit public fears about terrorism in order to sell newspapers and ill-conveived government policies. Now the former MI5 head Stella Rimmington has joined those raising concerns, arguing that “It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties”.

From The Telegraph:

Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has warned that the fear of terrorism is being exploited by the Government to erode civil liberties and risks creating a police state.

Dame Stella accused ministers of interfering with people’s privacy and playing straight into the hands of terrorists.

“Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy,” Dame Stella said in an interview with a Spanish newspaper.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 17, 2009 at 11:15 am

UK government implicated in torture

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From The Guardian

A policy governing the interrogation of terrorism suspects in Pakistan that led to British citizens and residents being tortured was devised by MI5 lawyers and figures in government, according to evidence heard in court.

A number of British terrorism suspects who have been detained without trial in Pakistan say they were tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents before being questioned by MI5. In some cases their accusations are supported by medical evidence.

The existence of an official interrogation policy emerged during cross-examination in the high court in London of an MI5 officer who had questioned one of the detainees, Binyam Mohamed, the British resident currently held in Guantánamo Bay.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 17, 2009 at 11:03 am

God, Tony and Torture

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From The Observer

When I talk to people at very senior levels in government, I don’t find them willing to put a hand on heart and swear that British agents were never complicit in torture. British and American intelligence are closely enmeshed; it stretches credulity to snapping point that no one in the Blair government knew what was being perpetrated.

On the same day that the foreign secretary was facing accusations of a cover-up, Tony Blair was in Washington wearing his faith on his sleeve. At a “prayer breakfast” with Barack Obama, the former prime minister made more than 30 mentions of God and declared: “We pray that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will.”

Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period. It was not as if the Bush administration made much pretence about it. “Bad things happen to bad people,” baldly declared Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Did Tony Blair never ask what was going on? If he did not ask, was it because he knew he would not like the answer? His own law officers were highly uncomfortable with the legal black hole created at Guantánamo. Charlie Falconer, not only his lord chancellor but also one of his closest allies, tried to persuade his friend to raise his voice in opposition. He failed. “An anomaly” was all Mr Blair would ever say about Camp Delta when he was prime minister.

The true extent to which British officials colluded in torture is yet to be established. In terms of ethical complicity, I think we can already begin to return a verdict. As the God-fearing Tony Blair knows, there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. “We have condoned with our silence torture committed by others,” says Charles Guthrie, his favourite general.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 8, 2009 at 8:39 am

Cheney makes an early start on his “too ill to stand trial” defence…

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pinochet

Compare…                                                                     …and contrast.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Bush administration admits torture, UK government admits “war on terror” was misconceived.

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A couple of gobsmackers from today’s Guardian:

US lawyers battling against torture and other abuses at Guantánamo Bay are braced for George Bush issuing last-minute pardons to protect those in his administration most closely implicated.

The lawyers’ warning came after a senior member of the Bush administration, Susan Crawford, admitted for the first time that torture had been carried out. Until now, the Bush administration, in particular the vice-president, Dick Cheney, had denied the interrogation techniques at Guantánamo constituted torture.

Crawford’s admission of torture is in relation to the case of a Saudi national, Mohammed al-Qahtani, 30, accused of involvement in the 9/11 attack. He is often referred to by US authorities as the “20th hijacker”. He was denied entry to the US in August 2001 and captured in Afghanistan in 2002. He was tortured for a month and then kept in isolation.

Crawford, a Pentagon official who last year was put in charge of military commissions that decide whether detainees should be tried, told the Washington Post: “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution].” She added: “The techniques they used were all authorised, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent.”

***************************************************************************************

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, today declared that the use of the phrase “war on terror” as a western rallying cry since the September 11 attacks had been a mistake that may have caused “more harm than good”.

In an article in today’s Guardian, five days before the Bush administration leaves the White House, Miliband delivered a comprehensive critique of its defining mission, saying that the war on terror was misconceived and that the west cannot “kill its way” out of the threats it faces.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 15, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Church-aided rebel group rampages through Congo, killing hundreds

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The BBC reports that more than 400 people have been killed in the last few days, after Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army stepped up its war on civilians in the North-Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The article cites the Catholic aid NGO Caritas as its source for the casualty figures – but fails to mention that the same organisation was earlier this year implicated in supplying food and medicine to the LRA, amid the misguided hope that this would help persuade them to sign a peace deal. In fact, this material support gave the group a vital lifeline, allowing it to sustain its fighters while it reorganised and rearmed under the cover of the ongoing peace negotiations.

As long ago as October 2007, the International Criminal Court had warned that the LRA was selling surplus food aid in order to buy weapons. But the Catholic Church appears to have taken no notice, with Caritas continuing to supply aid until at least April 2008 – six months after the ICC had publicly raised its concerns.

UN mediators fooled again by LRA leader Joseph Kony

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From the Institute of War and Peace Reporting

After announcing that he would sign a peace deal with the Ugandan government on Saturday, November 29, Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony again drew a crowd to the jungle camp of Nabanga on the border between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

As Kony has done in the past, he balked, leaving a host of his Acholi tribal and cultural leaders waiting and wanting, along with the United Nations special envoy Joachim Chissano, the talk’s chief mediatory, South Sudan vice- president Riek Machar and a flock of international observers.

While the signing of the agreement would certainly have been a milestone in the history of Uganda, it remains a meaningless document despite the vast amount of time and money spent by international community on the talks, including the provision of food and other supplies to the rebels, over the past couple of years…

Kony has been able to manipulate the international community with his repeated peace overtures. He has devised the perfect ploy: talk peace, and do the opposite.

What’s clear is that Kony will be around for a long time, doing what he wants, when he wants, in part due to the painful indulgence of the international community.

Sadly, the innocent and the defenceless suffer. Maybe now, finally, the international community will wake up.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 1, 2008 at 11:59 pm

The Sun comes out for democracy

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For years, The Sun newspaper and its erstwhile political spokesman Trevor Kavanagh have firmly supported UK government demands for ever more “sweeping new powers” to bug, monitor and jail us without charge and with minimal oversight. Two days ago, the newspaper was still demanding – albeit with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance – that the police be allowed to “detain suspects for as long as they need”.

But the arrest of Sally Murrer, combined with the government’s suicide attack against the last remnants of its reputation seems to have brought about a change of heart.

“We are a police state here and now”, declares Trevor Kavanagh in today’s Sun.

I used to think ID cards were a good thing. What law-abiding citizen could object to these new weapons against terrorists, rapists and murderers? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Not any more… If Damian Green can be banged up for nine hours for telling the truth, what hope for you and me? …

The Government’s kneejerk abuse of anti-terror laws as a political weapon is increasingly sinister. It uses them on any pretext – even freezing the economy of friendly Iceland recently when its banks went bust… Soon, unelected snoopers will be able to pry into our mobile calls, text messages and emails. These are the alarming consequences of an authoritarian regime that sees the state as paramount and the people as pygmies.

The Sun says…

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It’s hardly news that pundits and columnists often talk at cross purposes and contradict themselves, but to do so within two paragraphs of the same article takes some talent.

Today’s Sun newspaper editorial begins in a familiar vein:

IT is shocking that Indian authorities believe British-born Pakistani terrorists took part in the Mumbai massacre. If true, it proves we have still not learned the lessons of London’s 7/7…

That is why we must give our security services the surveillance powers they require. And we must let police detain suspects for as long as they need.

Then in the next paragraph we are told:

The arrest of Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green is a terrible blow to our democracy. Mr Green was pounced on in raids involving 20 anti-terrorist cops. His homes and offices were searched and his private files and computers seized. His Commons room was turned over apparently with the consent of Labour Speaker Michael Martin. Why was MP Mr Green treated like an al-Qaeda bomber?

The answer, at least in part, is that newspapers like The Sun have, for years, slavishly supported every New Labour demand for “sweeping new powers” to bug, and detain indefinitely on vaguely-defined charges anyone who they say might be a terrorist.

All the while the government has been progressively widening the definition of “criminal” or “terrorist” activity – amid barely a squeak of protest from the supine tabloid media.

That paranoid state officials would end up using these arbitrary powers to harass critics and attack opposition politicians was completely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between politicians who stoke public fears about terrorism in order to extend their own power, and tabloid newspapers that make their money from enthusiastically regurgitating every torture-tainted government scare story.

Echoes of Sally Murrer case as senior UK opposition politician arrested by counter-terrorism police

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In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I highlight the extent to which government demands for “sweeping new powers”, ostensibly to protect public security, often lead to those powers being used in ways far beyond those originally intended. One among many recent examples was the use of anti-terrorist legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK.

Now counter-terrorism police have arrested the Conservative shadow Home Office minister Damian Green, after he published documents recently released by a government whistle-blower. Green was charged with “aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public office”.

Following his release on bail, Damian Green said:

“I was astonished to have spent more than nine hours under arrest for doing my job. I emphatically deny that I have done anything wrong. I have many times made public information that the government wanted to keep secret, information that the public has a right to know.

“In a democracy, opposition politicians have a duty to hold the government to account. I was elected to the House of Commons precisely to do that and I certainly intend to continue doing so.”

Interestingly, this charge closely resembles the spurious case brought against the local journalist Sally Murrer, in an apparent attempt to intimidate the police whistleblower Mark Kearney. According to the Press Gazette, Murrer was charged with aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring Kearney to commit the offence of “misconduct in a public office”.

Groupthink, Self-serving bias, Space Cadets and the Stanford Prison Experiment – “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at the Beyond Words book festival

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Earlier this week I had a very enjoyable afternoon discussing “Don’t Get Fooled Again” at University College School’s “Beyond Words” book festival, and looking at some of the more eye-catching bits of psychological research that I came across while writing the book. The audience had some challenging and wide-ranging questions, and I thought it might be interesting to post some more background links here.

I was about halfway through my research when I realised that a great many of the delusions I was looking at seemed to come down, at least in part, to what might once have been called “excessive vanity”: The conspiracy theorists who think that they alone are part of some special group with special knowledge about AIDS/the Illuminati/911 or the “great asbestos scam” while everyone else muddles along in their brainwashed ignorance. Or the crank who’s convinced that, just by using his uncommon “common sense”, he’s managed to find a fatal flaw in a well-established scientific theory that generations of world-renowned biologists have somehow contrived to miss.

But what I hadn’t known was the degree to which almost all of us seem to over-rate ourselves and our own abilities, at least to some degree. The average driver thinks that they’re a better driver than the average driver – and reason dictates that we can’t all be above average. Most people also seem to rate themselves at least slightly better than others in intelligence, and significantly better in warmth, generosity and – my personal favourite – likelihood of leaving the largest slice of pizza for someone else when there are only two slices left. The research link for that particular claim can be found here – and for a more general overview I’d recommend Cordelia Fine’s excellent book “A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives”.

Somewhat less academic but still very interesting was the case of a reality TV show called “Space Cadets” where a Channel Four production company managed to convince a group of contestants that they were being sent into space and put into orbit around the earth. In fact they were sitting in a Hollywood space shuttle simulator at a disused military airbase in Suffolk.

The programme-makers had set out explicitly to recreate a psychological phenomenon known as “groupthink”, where members of a close-knit social group become so focussed on a particular group belief or objective that they lose their ability to think critically. But what hadn’t been predicted was the effect that the experience would have on the actors who were in on the hoax, and whose job it was to pretend to be an ordinary member of the group.

“My poor brain is a scramble of half-truths, astronomical lies and unbridled lunacy”, Skelton wrote in the Guardian, shortly after the hoax was finally revealed.

“I’ve just scribbled a list of what I know for sure: I’ve been a mole on a fake reality show called Space Cadets; I have a Russian doll in my hand luggage; I’ve just spent the past five days in a flight simulator in a hangar on the Suffolk coast; and – last but by no means least – I’ve just spent the past five days in space.

My default brain position aboard Earth Orbiter One was that we were 200 kilometres up, travelling at about seven kilometres per second. Too many things were telling me that for me to think otherwise.”

The psychological manipulation had been so strong that even though Skelton knew, rationally, that
the whole thing was a hoax, he found himself believing it anyway.

The third case study I looked at was the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment, which took place in the early 1970s. Researcher Philip Zimbardo constructed a model prison in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department, and got a group of students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. Within days, a significant proportion of the guards, who just days previously had been seemingly normal college students, had been transformed into brutal sadists, who relished the power that they’d been given and the opportunities for abuse that it gave them. In the end, the experiment had to be terminated early. Full details about the experiment and its wider implications can be found at Zimbardo’s excellent Stanford Prison Experiment website.

Interestingly, when the soldiers implicated in the horrific Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal were put on trial, Philip Zimbardo was one of the key witnesses for the defence, arguing that the “situational pressures” on the guards, stemming from the way the prison had been mismanaged, made such abuses entirely predictable.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that human beings are rather more vulnerable to delusion and manipulation than we are usually be prepared to admit – but that confronting these vulnerabilities, and doing our best to understand them, is crucial in reducing our risk of being fooled in future.

Broxtowe NG16 – the most racist postcode in Britain?

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I have to admit mixed feelings about the apparent leak of the British National Party’s full membership list. It seems almost inevitable that publishing the addresses of 12,000 followers of this widely despised racist group is going to lead to some bigoted old fascist getting attacked in their home, and I tend to feel that there are better ways of dealing with the problem.

I also think there’s some truth in the argument that, within modern British culture, the BNP serves a symbolic purpose that far outweighs its real political significance – as a convenient symbol of everything that’s nasty, despicable, and archaic about our country – and that sometimes, perhaps especially for guilty white lefties like me, having a go at the BNP can just be a quick and easy way of defining one’s self as a good, modern, liberal-minded sort of person, without having to confront any of those messy, less-than-liberal psychological impulses that lurk within us all.

Equally, having grown up with the echoes of World War II continuing to resonate – my grandmother still has stories about narrowly escaping death in Nazi air raids – and having gone to school with people who openly bragged about supporting the BNP and its racist policies, it seems tempting to agree that we can’t afford to take any chances, and that anyone who backs this neo-fascist outfit deserves to be publicly vilified.

Either way, I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the list, and what it tells us about the political party that everyone loves to hate. A quick bit of number-crunching reveals that the most popular BNP first name is “John”, and the most common surname “Smith” – though “Peter Smith” appears to be the most common full name among BNP members, by my reckoning.

The top 45 BNP first names all appear to be men’s names (though “Colin” and “Darren” came in at a disappointing 24th and 27th place respectively), with men making up more than 75% of the BNP’s membership. The most common BNP women’s names were Julie, Susan and Patricia, and two thirds were a “Mrs” rather than a “Ms” or a “Miss”…

There are more BNP members in Leicester (409) than in the whole of London (316) – but the single most popular BNP postcode was Broxtowe NG16, in Greater Nottingham, with 57 closet racists peeping out from behind the net curtains.

The top ten most BNP-afflicted towns in the country appear to be:

Town/city BNP members
Birmingham 423
Leicester 409
Nottingham 393
London 316
Leeds 276
Newcastle 262
Blackburn 259
Derby 232
Coventry 228
Peterborough 227

Written by Richard Wilson

November 20, 2008 at 9:26 am

Outgoing chief prosecutor warns against “mediaeval delusions” and “the paraphernalia of paranoia”

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Ken MacDonald, the outgoing chief prosecutor of England and Wales, has warned against paranoid fears over terrorism being used to justify giving the government ever more “sweeping powers”, the BBC reports.

“We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state”, he said in his final speech.

Following the heavy defeat of government proposals to allow itself to detain people for 42 days without charge, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced plans to create a giant database to monitor the telephone, email and internet usage of everyone in the UK – ostensibly on the basis that this will help to fight terrorism. Opposition parties have described the plan as “Orwellian”.

In his speech, Ken Macdonald urged resistance to what he called the “paraphernalia of paranoia”:

“Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.

“Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions, rather than to degrade them.

“We would do well not to insult ourselves and all of our institutions and our processes of law in the face of these medieval delusions.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between journalists who whip up public fears over terrorism in order to sell more newspapers, and politicians who exaggerate the threat so as to justify their demands for ‘sweeping powers’ to invade our privacy, evade public scrutiny, and control our behaviour.

Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh on US atrocities in Iraq

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From UC Berkeley News

In the evening’s most emotional moment, Hersh talked about a call he had gotten from a first lieutenant in charge of a unit stationed halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. His group was bivouacking outside of town in an agricultural area, and had hired 30 or so Iraqis to guard a local granary. A few weeks passed. They got to know the men they hired, and to like them. Then orders came down from Baghdad that the village would be “cleared.” Another platoon from the soldier’s company came and executed the Iraqi granary guards. All of them.

“He said they just shot them one by one. And his people, and he, and the villagers of course, went nuts,” Hersh said quietly. “He was hysterical, totally hysterical. He went to the company captain, who said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s a kill. We got 36 insurgents. Don’t you read those stories when the Americans say we had a combat maneuver and 15 insurgents were killed?’

“It’s shades of Vietnam again, folks: body counts,” Hersh continued. “You know what I told him? I said, ‘Fella, you blamed the captain, he knows that you think he committed murder, your troops know that their fellow soldiers committed murder. Shut up. Complete your tour. Just shut up! You’re going to get a bullet in the back.’ And that’s where we are in this war.”

Written by Richard Wilson

October 25, 2008 at 5:00 am

Weapons of Mass Derision

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Gordon Brown’s controversial use of the “Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act” to freeze Icelandic assets in Britain was taken by many here in the UK as further evidence that ‘sweeping powers’ given to the government ostensibly to fight terrorism will inevitably being used for other purposes.

But the move has also triggered an outpouring of mass derision among Icelanders, with 12% of the population of the country signing an online petition, and hundreds putting together their own quirky photographic protests, many of them with a distinctively Icelandic feel.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I argue that mockery is a vital tool in the fight against fearmongering politicians who seek to enhance their own powers or evade scrutiny by exploiting public anxieties over terrorism.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 24, 2008 at 10:46 pm