Monday, December 31, 2012

Guns and Freedom: An American Conundrum

I didn’t grow up with guns. I have never owned a gun. In fact, as a child and young adult in Great Britain, I never even saw a gun - except on television.

The United States is very different to Great Britain. It has different freedoms and a unique history that has given birth to those freedoms. Because of this, threats to take away people’s guns by force would go nowhere. Nor would it solve the issue of gun violence. Criminals will always get guns – legal or not.

In the aftermath of the murder of 20 six and seven year-olds, as well as six adults, at a Connecticut school, there has never been a more critical time for serious debate about guns. The National Rifle Association’s claim that the reason for mass school shootings is not the prevalence of military-style weapons but the lack of armed officers in schools left me cold. This misses the point entirely. It also assumes that living in an armed society is normal. It isn’t.

Even though I’m not a citizen, I have lived here as a legal resident for two decades and support the right to bear arms. But I would suggest some common sense restrictions, especially with regard to military-style assault weapons that release a round of bullets with one pull of the trigger.

The NRA has easy answers. Gun control advocates have easy answers. But the answers are not easy. The issue is far from simple, and changing the law is not going to make guns disappear from the black market. What is needed is dialogue, not unilateral dictates. Those children cannot have died in vain. After each of the recent massacres there has been excuses and inaction; now is the time for action.

Armed guards wouldn’t make classrooms safer, let alone promote a learning environment. There would have to be guards in every classroom and not just at the entrances as there are many ways to get into a school. A student simply has to put a gun in a bag, come to school as normal and start shooting, and there will be multiple deaths before an armed guard could get there. Schools should be safe sanctuaries, not armed camps.

So, what to do? For a start, severely restrict or ban the relative easy access to military style assault weapons, whose purpose is to kill human beings. Close the loopholes that allow guns to be sold without background checks, and have a mandatory training course for all guns purchased.

Consider the issue of mental illness and alienation in society. Most—if not all--of the recent perpetrators of mass shootings seemed to be mentally ill. Beef up the background checks for mental illness. And buying guns and ammo on the internet just seems like a really bad idea.

A recent no-questions-asked gun buyback program in Los Angeles was a huge success. Expand this to other towns and cities. Fewer guns on the streets can only be a good thing.

Today children are bombarded with violence throughout the gaming industry, movies, and the media. Where is the outrage about the ever increasing violence in video games?

In a free society there has to be reason and I hope there will be a shift in the conversation. America is better than this. What next? Kids going to school wearing bullet proof vests?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why Malala Matters

Malala Yousafzai, aged 15, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she returned home from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Her alleged offense? A yearning for an education and her public pronouncements in pursuit of it.

Even as she recovers, after being flown to a hospital in Great Britain, the Taliban chillingly re-stated their intent to kill her - should she survive.

Fundamentalism is unbending and the Taliban’s obscurantist interpretation of Islam has nothing to do with religion. Scratch at the surface of this and many other authoritarian creeds and you’ll see a play for power and control. Imposing your will by force.

Malala, with her books and outspoken denunciation of school closings, threatened that; the alternative is to be a second class citizen.

A fundamentalist may claim that theirs is the path to true salvation, but how can faith be real and true if coerced? It is knowledge they fear. And it is knowledge that will set you free.

The enduring menace of the Taliban will have consequences for girls and women long into the future though perhaps this brave girl’s actions will a more enduring impact; after all, the Taliban targeted her because they fear the future that she embodies.

Three years ago she spoke out, in turn giving voice to thousands of girls like her – banned from attending school and hidden from public view. Her courage in facing down the Taliban is a sign they cannot win because without tolerance and education there is no future.

I hope Malala will inspire a new generation. The future lies in protecting children like her -- and there are millions of them.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Innocence of Muslims: Freedom at a Price

Innocence of Muslims, a 13 minute video on YouTube, is a grotesque and bigoted piece of propaganda which would be laughable were it not for the ugly Islamophobia it propagates. But images have the power to persuade and this nasty piece of work has had the effect its makers likely intended.

It was apparently made by an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian living in the United States though initial news reports stated it was made by an Israeli property developer using funds from “Jewish donors”. Regardless, the damage is done and the fact remains that this piece of trash is so bad it makes for effective propaganda.

It is an embarrassment to the art of film making. Poor acting, crude stage sets and lines that don’t lip-synch with what the actors are mouthing is the order of the day. So why the level of venom and violence over such an amateurish production? And how do we make sense of such unpredictable outbreaks of violence?

There is a belief in the West that if Arab countries (I differentiate between Arab countries and the wider Muslim world) would just adopt democracy then we’d all get along just fine. This reveals a delusional understanding of concurrent reality, and an acceptance that the West has little or no control over such events. Consider: We are seeing people storming the streets with anti-Western messages in the same countries where popular rebellions against authoritarian dictators were hailed as the "Arab spring" just months ago.

What is the difference between a hitherto obedient population rising to overthrow a brutal dictator and rioting mobs blinded by inflammatory rhetoric? Certainly the “trailer” has nothing to do with the government of the United States, but in our electronic age images flashed around the world can falsely shape perceptions of who we are. Like it or not, this virtual world is our reality. Doubtless poverty, exploitation, repression and bad leaders have also shaped the visceral reaction to it.

In the West we see nothing wrong with making such a movie. After all, it’s up to the individual whether or not to watch something. And it says nothing about what other Americans feel about Islam, only what the few people who made the movie believe. To us it seems ridiculous to blame the employees of the US embassy or Americans or Westerners in general for such an amateur production. Our freedom of expression is a right, albeit one that is often imperfectly realized.

Should our right to freedom of expression not overstep other individuals’ rights not to be insulted? Should we acknowledge the film is wrong and move on? Of course, it would be good if bigots didn’t produce provocative films, if Muslims saw it for what it is etc; but give me freedom of choice every time.

Sadly, the violence and the loss of life completes the work of this awful film. It is undoubtedly a provocation but people still have a choice about how to express their disgust. Is that best done by attacking the nearest Western symbols, or by peaceful demonstration and legal challenge?

There is a lot of nonsense on YouTube some of which is best ignored. What is clear is that the film makers went out of their way to offend. Here’s hoping that Muslim communities can be persuaded to treat it with the contempt it deserves…

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Flame Fever Grips Britain

The London Olympics--for so long a glimmer on the horizon--are now just weeks away.

Last month, while staying with my dad, I saw the Olympic flame pass through Cirencester. Before it arrived on British soil I had images of lone runners splashing through puddles, watched by only hardy enthusiasts. The reality could not have been more different. A torch relay that began in uncertainty quickly became a phenomenon.

In Cirencester, the local schools closed early and the town center was filled with thousands of people. Long before the flame arrived they stood in lines six deep waving union jacks and school children clutched replica cardboard torches, creating a carnival atmosphere. The sense of anticipation was palpable.

In spite of the corporate sponsors’ choreographed efforts, the relay quickly took on a life of its own and became the people’s event. The same thing has happened in towns and villages across Britain. The triumph has been to make the London Games seem both national and local.

But not everyone is excited about the Olympics. Many people argue that the two weeks spent staging the Games is a misuse of tax payers’ money, and that the cost, £9 billion ($13.8 billion),--a huge increase on the original claimed cost of £2.3 billion ($3.5 billion)--could have been better spent on education or the health service.

Olympic history is also littered with white elephants and debt. When the Games are over, it will be the Government left holding the bag and the British taxpayer who will be paying for it for years to come. The government is confident there will be a lasting legacy of regeneration, at least in east London. We’ll see.

Despite the enormous cost, hosting the Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I can‘t wait for the Opening Ceremony. In any event, Britain always rises to the grand occasion. Case in point: The Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And we certainly have the heritage. Just look at some of the Olympic venues: cycling at Hampden Court Palace; beach volleyball at Horse Guards’ Parade; road running in the Mall; and tennis at Wimbledon. Not bad for starters.

A serious failure, however, is the Games’ dog’s dinner of an official logo. In an apparent modern twist on the Olympic colors it looks like it has been dropped on the floor and the shattered pieces picked up and used anyway. Makes me dizzy just looking at it.

And let’s not forget the official mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, who as one commentator joked, look like the offspring from a one night stand between a Dalek and a Tellytubby. They are surely the worst Olympic mascots ever. At the very least, they are certain to scare many a small child.

But if nothing else, both the logo and the mascots play to Britain’s innate quirkiness and mild eccentricity that the country seems to revel in. We seem to enjoy laughing at our own failures. Perhaps they’ll grow on me, but I’ll not hold my breath.

On a more somber note, the Olympics will militarize London. Officers with machine guns will patrol the Underground; Police special forces, their faces covered by balaclavas, will be present; and the army will man supersonic surface to air missile systems capable of shooting down an airborne target from six sites nearby. A Royal Navy battleship will also be moored in the Thames.

There are the things I love about the Olympics that live long in the memory - the medals, the anthems, the great sporting moments. I wish it didn’t need to be branded like everything else. The people’s way of engaging has little to do with Coca Cola, Samsung, or Lloyds TSB.

In Britain, the Olympic spirit has stirred something in the collective experience. And given how much it has all cost it’s appropriate that the games belong to the people. There was an alchemy at work in Cirencester that May afternoon and if a similar reaction continues everywhere else the flame appears then perhaps we can expect magic come July.

Photo by Ian Lloyd-Graham