Archive for the ‘Political musings’ Category


A Florida man who had admitted he killed his wife and posted a photo of the body on Facebook has been found guilty of murder.

Derek Medina admitted taking the picture on his phone and uploading it onto the social media site.

He failed to convince the jury that he had shot Jennifer Alfonso (eight times) in self-defence, after years of abuse.

He said his wife was threatening him with a knife when he shot her in their home in Miami, but prosecutors said she was cowering on the floor.

When he posted the picture, he wrote on Facebook that he expected to go to prison or be sentenced to death for the killing.

Prosecutors successfully argued that the 27-year-old wife was in fear of her life when she was shot in August 2013.

He had vowed to kill her if she left him and she had told friends she intended to do that, the court heard.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Rundle said: “No family should ever have to see their daughter killed and then exhibited worldwide on the internet like some macabre trophy to a husband’s anger.”

Medina, 33, could face a life imprisonment over the murder.

domestic violence


Yesterday was White Ribbon Day, to protest against violence against women, and domestic violence especially. We are not 100% sure if that is what this excellent and thought-provoking poem is about, (it’s a poem, after all, and therefore open to interpretation), but that’s how it speaks to us. Strongly.

We love the way the poem builds in intensity through a repeated motif. This is very skillful writing.



Oh but to shudder at the hands of a lover

Is no fun

No no no

It’s no fun

Mmm and they say she’s oh so clever

Got some charm, keenness about her

It’s alright,

They keep proclaiming

She’s alright,

Yeah he’s alright,

So let them keep on livin’

Don’t intrude on others’ business

She’s alright,

Just keep dancin’ in that darkened corner

She just fine,

Keep on peeling those potatoes

and tossing that great salad

Keep on sending out those letters

Telling everyone about

How bright

How kind,

How wonderful it is

to be around her,

Don’t let them see the secrets

Buried deep beneath the floorboards,

They’re alright

We’re all just fine,

Quit losing sleep over this duo

It’s their battle

We shall not intrude, no

Regardless of what we hear or see, no

She’ll be alright,

Look at her beaming,

Great big grin

look, now they’re kissing,

They’re aright

They’re just fine.




syria photo


At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk, deep in darkest Melbourne, people occasionally pass us vital documents they think should be broadcast to a wider audience.

This is how we stumbled across this revelatory but top secret intelligence briefing on the situation in Syria and Iraq.

With luck, this highly restricted document will clear up any confusion you have on the situation over there. We publish so that the truth may be known. Eat your heart out, Wikileaks.

So … (deep breath) …


Let’s kick off with Syria. President Assad (who is bad) is a nasty guy with a bad moustache who only got the job because his Dad had it before, but then he got so nasty that his people rebelled and the Rebels (who are good) started winning. (Hurrah!) This is despite the dorky Assad having a rather dishy British wife who was universally believed to be good, until she spent too much on shoes and stuff and became generally considered to be bad.

Things were sort of going OK for the good rebels but then some of them turned more than a bit nasty and are now called IS or ISIL or Islamic State or Daesh (doesn’t matter what they’re called, they are definitely bad) and some rebels continued to support democracy (who are still good) and some we are just not all that sure about (who may be bad, or good, but time will tell).

IS are so bad even Al Qaeda (really bad too) don’t like them and start fighting them.

The Americans (who are good) start bombing Islamic State (who are bad) and giving arms to the Syrian Rebels (who are good) so they could fight Assad (who is still bad), which was good. But this ironically puts America on the same side as Al Qaeda in Syria, which is just plain odd.

Now. There is a breakaway state in the north run by the Kurds who want to fight IS (which is a good thing) but the Turkish authorities think they are bad, so we have to say they are bad whilst secretly thinking they’re good and giving them guns to fight IS (which is good) but that is another matter altogether and we’ll get more confused so we’ll let it go. Meanwhile the Turks have shot down a Russian plane which they say was flying in their airspace (which is definitely bad).

Anyway, getting back to Syria and Iraq.

So President Putin (who is bad, because he invaded Crimea and thejoker Ukraine and killed lots of folks including that nice Russian man in London with polonium-poisoned sushi) has decided to back Assad (who is still bad) by attacking ISIS (who are also bad) which is sort of a good thing?

But Putin (still bad) thinks the Syrian Rebels (who are good) are also bad, and so he bombs them too, much to the annoyance of the Americans (who are good) who are busy backing and arming the rebels (who are also good).

Now Iran (who used to be bad, but now they have agreed not to build any nuclear weapons and bomb Israel with them are now sort-of good) are going to provide ground troops to support Assad (still bad) as are the Russians (bad) who now have both ground troops and aircraft in Syria.

So a new Coalition of Assad (still bad) Putin (extra bad) and the Iranians (good, but in a bad sort of way) are going to attack IS (who are very bad) which is a good thing, but also the Syrian Rebels (who are good), which is bad.

Annoyingly, now the British (obviously good, except that funny and rather confused Mr Corbyn, who is probably bad in an ineffective sort of way) and the Americans (also good) and the Australians (who are generally considered good because they’re mainly about cold beer and beaches) cannot attack Assad (still bad) for fear of upsetting Putin (bad) and Iran (good/bad) so now they have to accept that Assad might not be that bad after all compared to IS (who are super bad).

So Assad (bad) is now probably good, being better than IS (but let’s face it, drinking your own wee is better than IS, so no real choice there) and since Putin and Iran are also fighting IS that may now make them good.

America (still good) will find it hard to arm a group of rebels being attacked by the Russians for fear of upsetting Mr Putin (now good) and that nice mad Ayatollah in Iran (sort of good) and so they may be forced to say that the Rebels are now bad, or at the very least abandon them to their fate. This will lead most of them to flee to Turkey and then on to Europe (which is bad) or join IS (still the only constantly bad group, and that would be really bad).

For all the Sunni Muslims in the area, an attack by Shia Muslims and Alawites (Iran and Assad) backed by Russians (infidels) will be seen as something of a Holy War, and the ranks of Daesh will now be seen by the Sunnis as the only Jihadis fighting in the Holy War. Hence many Muslims will now see IS as good even though they are the baddest of the bad. (Doh!)

Sunni Muslims will also see the lack of action by Britain and America in support of their (good) Sunni rebel brothers as something of a betrayal (not to mention we didn’t do anything about a corrupt Shia government being imposed on Sunnis when we took over Iraq: hmmm, might have a point there) and hence we will be seen as more Bad. Again.

A few million refugees are now out of harm’s way (good) but nobody really wants them (bad) and now winter’s coming (bad). Lots of people think the refugees are how IS will sneak bad guys into Europe (which would be bad, but there’s no evidence of it happening, which is good, but that doesn’t stop people being frightened of them even though they have no reason to be, which is bad). Meanwhile the French have decided to bomb Iraq to pay back IS for the attacks (bad) in Paris and other countries like Lebanon and Jordan also look like getting dragged further and further into the conflict (bad).

So now we have America (now bad) and Britain (also bad) and Australia (bad, but with good beer), providing limited support to Sunni Rebels (bad) many of whom are looking to IS (good/bad depending on your point of view, even though they’re still really bad) for support against Assad (now good) who, along with Iran (also good) and Putin (also, now, unbelievably, good) are attempting to retake the country Assad used to run before all this started?

There. I hope that this clears it all up for you.

And if in doubt, fuck it, let’s all just bomb someone else. ‘Cause that will help.

Well done, Mr McClure, whoever and wherever you are. Well done, that man.


Well done, Mr McClure, whoever you are. Well done, that man.

To be utterly frank, Dear Reader, we do not even pretend to fully understand the current Middle East crisis and have even less idea what to do about it. It is times like this that we are very pleased we no longer pursue politics as a career.

This map, for example, purports to show Daesh’s view of a future Caliphate. It suggests that its ambitions stretch at least as far as the historical spread of Islam. The white lines, incidentally, do not relate to modern boundaries, but to Daesh-suggested administrative boundaries, as Daesh does not recognise modern nation states.

Daesh map

Anyhow, in the search for clarity, we reproduce in full below a long but scholarly article which first appeared in New Statesman in early March this year, and then in New Republic, because to us it has the smack of good research and commonsense.

It is a trenchant and thorough re-evaluation of the by-now famous article in The Atlantic (which we were impressed by at the time, and which we believe still has value, as regards, at least, the leadership of IS) which argued that IS – or as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius now urges us to call them, Daesh – is an eschatological “end times” cult that wants nothing more than to provoke a wholesale invasion of Syria and Iraq by the West to usher in the return of Christ and thus the end of the world.

Both articles appear well researched and credible, revealing again (as if we really need to have it reinforced) that this is a highly complex issue that does not succumb to simplistic explanations.

In any event, we urge you to read this article as well, because it goes to the motivation of people to join Daesh and it squarely argues that it is NOT an Islamic movement, and, indeed, that labelling it as such is aiding its existence and even growth. Given recent events worldwide, that analysis is more pressing than ever.

What’s more, as the leader of the “free world” this is a live issue for President Obama, in particular, who is enduring considerable criticism for his nuanced and oft-expressed view that Daesh is not an “Islamic” or “Islamic terrorist” problem. It may be that his reasons for doing so are simply too subtle for many social media readers and posters, especially those who detest Obama anyway, but if this article is credible then his attitude thus far is completely justified.

What is more important is that this is a discussion that every community in the Western world needs to have, as non-Muslim and Muslim communities seek to live peaceably together.

Whatever the precise truth of the situation we now face – and like all situations, there are layers upon layers of meaning and evidence – this article places the responsibility for the radicalisation of Muslim and recent-convert Muslim youth absolutely specifically to the aftermath of the Iraq war, and the subsequent bias and incompetence of the Shia government in Baghdad.

And it asserts – with compelling evidence from experts working in the intelligence field – that grievances in Western societies (poor housing, perceived racism, lack of opportunity, and a desire for belonging and meaning, above all) are all merely exacerbated by the echoes of 2003 and afterwards.

In effect, the article is saying that the war in Iraq never really ended, and that it is now conflated to include Syria.

We might also note that the next domino to fall, in this regard, would be Lebanon, which puts last week’s murderous bombing in Beirut into a critical context.

Please. Take the time to read this article.

UnderstandingWe believe it is an important contribution to current discussions, and should be taken into account as we examine what on earth to do next.

And if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, we have to start somewhere.

In that regard, understanding what is going on seems a good place to start.

Article begins:

It is difficult to forget the names, or the images, of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig. The barbaric beheadings between August and November 2014, in cold blood and on camera, of these five jumpsuit-clad western hostages by the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, provoked widespread outrage and condemnation.

Liberation newspaper journalist Didier Francois who was freed after 10 months in captivity.

Liberation newspaper journalist Didier Francois who was freed after 10 months in captivity.

However, we should also remember the name of Didier François, a French journalist who was held by ISIS in Syria for ten months before being released in April 2014. François has since given us a rare insight into life inside what the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, in a recent report for the magazine, has called the “hermit kingdom” of ISIS, where “few have gone . . . and returned.”

And it is an insight that threatens to turn the conventional wisdom about the world’s most fearsome terrorist organisation on its head.

“There was never really discussion about texts,” the French journalist told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month, referring to his captors. “It was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.”

According to François, “It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran.” And the former hostage revealed to a startled Amanpour: “We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph,” or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.

The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 percent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam—down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under ISIS rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like.”

Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What ISIS really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, the only scholar of Islam whom Wood bothered to interview, described Muslims who considered ISIS to be un-Islamic, or anti-Islamic, as “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” and declared that the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of ISIS “have just as much legitimacy” as any other Muslims, because Islam is “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts.”

Many other analysts across the political spectrum agree and have denounced the Obama administration for refusing, in the words of the journalist-turned-terrorism-expert Peter Bergen, to make “the connection between Islamist terrorism and ultra-fundamentalist forms of Islam.” Writing on the CNN website in February, Bergen declared, “ISIS may be a perversion of Islam, but Islamic it is.”

“Will it take the end of the world for Obama to recognise ISIS as ‘Islamic’?” screamed a headline on the Daily Beast website in the same month. “Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behaviour and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder?” asked Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and high priest of the “New Atheism” movement.

So, is ISIS a recognisably “Islamic” movement? Are ISIS recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?

The Analyst

“Our exploration of the intuitive psychologist’s shortcomings must start with his general tendency to overestimate the importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to environmental influences,” wrote the American social anthropologist Lee Ross in 1977.

It was Ross who coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error”, which refers to the phenomenon in which we place excessive emphasis on internal motivations to explain the behaviour of others, in any given situation, rather than considering the relevant external factors.

SagemanNowhere is the fundamental attribution error more prevalent, suggests the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, than in our navel-gazing analysis of wannabe terrorists and what does or doesn’t motivate them.

“You attribute other people’s behaviour to internal motivations but your own to circumstances. ‘They’re attacking us and therefore we have to attack them.’” Yet, he tells me, we rarely do the reverse.

Few experts have done more to try to understand the mindset of the young men and women who aspire to join the blood-drenched ranks of groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda than Sageman. And few can match his qualifications, credentials or background. The 61-year-old, Polish-born psychiatrist and academic is a former CIA operations officer who was based in Pakistan in the late 1980s. There he worked closely with the Afghan mujahedin.

He has since advised the New York City Police Department on counterterrorism issues, testified in front of the 9/11 Commission in Washington, D.C., and, in his acclaimed works Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, closely analysed the biographies of several hundred terrorists.

Does he see religion as a useful analytical prism through which to view the rise of ISIS and the process by which thousands of young people arrive in Syria and Iraq, ready to fight and die for the group?

“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”

ISIS members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have . . . invested a lot of their own efforts and identity to become this ‘Muslim’ and, because of this, identity is so important to them. They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.’” (A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)

Sageman believes that it isn’t religious faith but, rather, a “sense of emotional and moral outrage” at what they see on their television screens or on YouTube that propels people from Portsmouth to Peshawar, from Berlin to Beirut, to head for war zones and to sign up for the so-called jihad. Today, he notes archly, “Orwell would be [considered as foreign fighter like] a jihadi,” referring to the writer’s involvement in the anti-fascist campaign during the Spanish civil war.

Religion, according to this view, plays a role not as a driver of behaviour but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity. Religion is important in the sense that it happens to “define your identity”, Sageman says, and not because you are “more pious than anybody else.” He invokes the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation state as an “imagined political community”, arguing that the “imagined community of Muslims” is what drives the terrorists, the allure of being members of – and defenders of – the ultimate “in-group.”

JJ“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out.

ISIS fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men in search of a call to arms and a thrilling cause. The ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John” – who was raised and educated in the UK – was described, for instance, by two British medics who met him at a Syrian hospital as “quiet but a bit of an adrenalin junkie”.

Sageman’s viewpoint should not really surprise us. Writing in his 2011 book The Black Banners: the Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, the Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan, who led the bureau’s pre-9/11 investigation into Al Qaeda, observed: “When I first began interrogating AL Qaeda members, I found that while they could quote Bin Laden’s sayings by heart, I knew far more of the Quran than they did—and in fact some barely knew classical Arabic, the language of both the hadithand the Quran. An understanding of their thought process and the limits of their knowledge enabled me and my colleagues to use their claimed piousness against them.”

Three years earlier, in 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was obtained by the Guardian.

It revealed: “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.”

The MI5 analysts noted the disproportionate number of converts and the high propensity for “drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes”. The newspaper claimed they concluded, “A well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

As I have pointed out on these pages before, Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, the two young British Muslim men from Birmingham who were convicted on terrorism charges in 2014 after travelling to fight in Syria, bought copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon prior to their departure. Religious novices, indeed.

Sageman, the former CIA officer, says we have to locate terrorism and extremism in local conflicts rather than in grand or sweeping ideological narratives – the grievances and the anger come first, he argues, followed by the convenient and self-serving ideological justifications. For example, he says, the origins of ISIS as a terror group lie not in this or that Islamic book or school of thought, but in the “slaughter of Sunnis in Iraq.” He reminds me how, in April 2013, when there was a peaceful Sunni demonstration asking the Shia-led Maliki government in Baghdad to reapportion to the various provinces what the government was getting in oil revenues, Iraqi security forces shot into the crowds.

“That was the start of this [current] insurrection.”

Before that, it was the brutal, US-led occupation, under which Iraq became ground zero for suicide bombers from across the region and spurred the creation of new terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

ISIS is the “remnant” of AQI, Sageman adds. He believes that any analysis of the group and of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq that doesn’t take into account the long period of war, torture, occupation and sectarian cleansing is inadequate—and a convenient way of exonerating the west of any responsibility. “Without the invasion of Iraq, [ISIS] would not exist. We created it by our presence there.”

The Spy

BarrettLike Marc Sageman, Richard Barrett has devoted his professional life to understanding terrorism, extremism and radicalization.

The silver-haired 65-year-old was the director of global counterterrorism operations for MI6, both before and after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and he subsequently led the Al Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations between 2004 and 2013.

Unlike Sageman, however, Barrett partly sympathises with Graeme Wood’s and Bernard Haykel’s thesis that “the Islamic State is Islamic”. He tells me that some ISIS followers “are clearly convinced they are following Allah’s will” and he insists: “We should not underestimate the extent of their belief.” However, Barrett concedes that such beliefs and views “will not be the only thing that drew them to the Islamic State”.

The former MI6 officer, who recently published a report on foreign fighters in Syria, agrees with the ex-CIA man on the key issue of what motivates young men to join—and fight for—groups such as ISIS in the first place. Rather than religious faith, it has “mostly to do with the search for identity . . . coupled with a search for belonging and purpose. The Islamic State offers all that and empowers the individual within a collective. It does not judge and accepts all with no concern about their past. This can be very appealing for people who think that they washed up on the wrong shore.”

Whether they are unemployed losers or well-educated professionals, joining ISIS offers new recruits the chance to “believe that they are special . . . that they are part of something that is new, secret and powerful.”

While Barrett doesn’t dismiss the theological angle in the way that Sageman does, he nevertheless acknowledges, “Acting in the name of Islam means that, for the ignorant at least, the groups have some legitimacy for their actions . . . They can pretend it is not just about power and money.”

LouiseThis irreligious lust for power and money is a significant and often overlooked part of the ISIS equation.

The group—often described as messianic and uncompromising—had no qualms about demanding a $200m ransom for the lives of two Japanese hostages in January; nor has it desisted from smuggling pornography into and out of Iraq, according to Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre at George Mason University in Virginia. (Shelley has referred to Isis as a “diversified criminal operation”.)

Then there is the often-ignored alliance at the heart of ISIS between the so-called violent Islamists, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime – an alliance that Barrett has referred to as a “marriage of convenience.” If ISIS is the apocalyptic religious cult that Wood and others believe it is, why was Baghdadi’s deputy in Iraq Abu Muslim al-Afari al-Turkmani, a former senior special forces officer in Hussein’s army? Why is Baghdadi’s number two in Syria Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former major general under Hussein? (Welthisiswhatithink note; al-Anbari was reported killed in Libya in June.) 

“The Ba’athist element was certainly very important . . . as it gave the Islamic State military and administrative capability,” Barrett says. “It also made it possible [for ISIS to] take Mosul so quickly and cause defections and surrenders from the Iraqi army. There was and continues to be a coincidence of interest between Islamic State and other anti-government Sunni groups.”

Here again, it seems, is the fundamental attribution error in play. We neglect to focus on the “interests” of groups such as ISIS and obsess over their supposedly messianic and apocalyptic “beliefs.” The “end of times” strain may be very strong in ISIS, Barrett warns, but: “The Ba’athist elements are still key in Iraq and without them the Islamic State would probably not be able to hold on to the city of Mosul.”

Baghdadi’s appointment as leader of ISIS in 2010 was orchestrated by a former Ba’athist colonel in Hussein’s army, Haji Bakr, (killed in January 2014) according to another recent study produced by Barrett, in which he noted how Bakr had “initially attracted criticism from fellow members of the group for his lack of a proper beard and lax observance of other dictates of their religious practice”. Nevertheless, pragmatism trumped ideology as Bakr’s “organisational skills . . . and network of fellow ex-Ba’athists made him a valuable resource” for ISIS.

Apparently, Baghdadi’s supposed caliphate in Iraq and Syria was less the will of God and more the will of Saddam.

The Theologian

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Isis has been not the sheer size of the territory it has captured, but the way in which it has united the world’s disparate (and often divided) 1.6 billion Muslims against it.

Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced ISIS not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (ISIS’ actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (ISIS is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (ISIS is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).

In September 2014, more than 120 Islamic scholars co-signed an 18-page open letter to Baghdadi, written in Arabic, containing what the Slate website’s Filipa Ioannou described as a “technical point-by-point criticism of ISIS’ actions and ideology based on the Quran and classical religious texts.”

hannityYet buffoonish right-wingers such as the Fox News host Sean Hannity continue to refer to the alleged “silence of Muslims” over the actions of ISIS and ask, “Where are the Muslim leaders?” Meanwhile, academics who should know better, such as Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, insist that the leaders of ISIS “have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

MuradLegitimacy, however, “comes through endorsement by religious leaders. If Sunni Islam’s leaders consider ISIS inauthentic, then that is what it is,” says Abdal Hakim Murad, who teaches Islamic studies at Cambridge University and serves as the dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, which trains imams for British mosques. The blond-haired, 54-year-old Murad is a convert and is also known as Timothy Winter (his brother is the Telegraph football writer Henry). Murad has been described by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan as “one of the most well-respected western theologians”, whose “accomplishments place him amongst the most significant Muslims in the world”.

The religious world, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian, is “packed with fringe and fundamentalist groups that claim the mantle of total authenticity,” Murad tells me. To accept those groups’ assertions at face value is “either naive or tendentious.”

He continues: “Just as Christianity in Bosnia 20 years ago was not properly represented by the churchgoing militias of Radovan Karadzic and just as Judaism is not represented by West Bank settlers who burn mosques, so, too, Islam is not represented by ISIS.”

Contrary to a lazy conventional wisdom which suggests that a 1,400-year-old faith with more than a billion adherents has no hierarchy, “Islam has its leadership, its universities, its muftis and its academies, which unanimously repudiate ISIS,” Murad explains. For the likes of Haykel to claim that the ISIS interpretation of Islam has “just as much legitimacy” as the mainstream view, he adds, is “unscholarly,” “incendiary” and likely to “raise prejudice and comfort the far-right political formations”.

As for ISIS’ obsession with beheadings, crucifixions, hand-chopping and the rest, Murad argues: “With regard to classical sharia punishments, the religion’s teachings in every age are determined by scholarly consensus on the meaning of the complex scriptural texts”—rather than by self-appointed “sharia councils” in the midst of conflict zones.

Many analysts have laid the blame for violent extremism among Muslims at the ideological door of Salafism, a regressive and ultra-conservative brand of Islam, which owes a great deal to the controversial teachings of an 18th-century preacher named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and which today tends to be behind much of the misogyny and sectarianism in the Muslim-majority world. Yet, as even Wood concedes in his Atlantic report, “Most Salafis are not jihadists and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State.”

Salafists tend to be apolitical, whereas groups such as ISIS are intensely political. Even the traditionalist Murad, who has little time for what he has deemed the “cult-like universe of the Salafist mindset”, agrees that the rise of extremism within the movement is a consequence, rather than a cause, of violence and conflict.

“The roots of ISIS have been located in rage against . . . the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Before that event, Salafist extremism was hardly heard of in Syria and Iraq, even though the mosques were full in those countries,” Murad says. “Angry men, often having suffered in US detention, have reached for the narrowest and most violent interpretation of their religion they can find. This is a psychological reaction, not a faithful adherence to classical Muslim norms of jurisprudence.”

In the view of this particular Muslim theologian, ISIS owes a “debt to European far-right thinking.” The group’s “imposition of a monolithic reading of the huge and hugely complex founding literature of the religion is something very new in Islamic civilisation, representing a totalitarian impulse that seems closer to European fascism than to classical Islamic norms.”

The Radical

Raised in Toronto, the son of Indian immigrant parents, Mubin Shaikh went from enjoying a hedonistic teenage lifestyle involving drugs, girls and parties to embracing a militant and “jihadist” view of the world, full of hate and anger.

CSIS and RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh at his Toronto home on February 6th, 2007. Shaikh's information led to the arrest of dozens of terror suspects in the summer of 2006.

CSIS and RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh at his Toronto home on February 6th, 2007. Shaikh’s information led to the arrest of dozens of terror suspects in the summer of 2006.

He felt as though he “had become a stranger in my own land, my own home,” Shaikh told PBS in 2007, referring to an identity crisis that helped spark his “jihadi bug.” After 11 September 2001, he wanted to fight in Afghanistan or Chechnya because: “It felt like the right thing to do.”

It is a familiar path, trodden by the likes of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, as well as Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris. (A former friend of Chérif said that the younger, pot-smoking Kouachi “couldn’t differentiate between Islam and Catholicism” before he became radicalized by “images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison”, as the New York Times put it.)

Yet Shaikh eventually relinquished his violent views after studying Sufi Islam in the Middle East and then boldly volunteered with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to infiltrate several radical groups in Toronto.

The bald and bearded Shaikh, now aged 39 and an adviser to Canadian officials, tells me it is “preposterous” to claim that the killing of Christians and Yazidis by ISIS is rooted in Islamic scripture or doctrine. If it was, “Muslims would have been doing those sorts of things for the past 50-plus years. Yet we find no such thing.”

YAZIDIS(Wellthisiswhatithink insert: This becomes a particularly trenchant comment as a mass grave believed to contain the remains of more than 70 female members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority has been recently discovered east of Sinjar town after Kurdish forces claimed victory over Daesh militants in the area, the mayor and locals have said.

The insurgents overran the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in north-west Iraq in August 2014, systematically killing, capturing and enslaving thousands of its inhabitants in what the United Nations has said may have constituted attempted genocide.

The mayor of Sinjar and local Yazidis who visited the site of the mass grave said last Saturday that they saw clumps of hair, bones, money and keys which they believed belonged to older women from the village of Kocho, whom the militants separated from younger women during their onslaught.)

Shaikh offers three distinct explanations for why ISIS should not be considered or treated as an “Islamic” phenomenon. First, he argues, “The claim that ISIS is ‘Islamic’ because it superficially uses Islamic sources is ridiculous, because the Islamic sources themselves say that those who do so [manifest Islam superficially] are specifically un-Islamic.”

He points to an order issued by the first and original Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, which declared: “Neither kill a child, women [nor] the elderly . . . When you come upon those who have taken to live in monasteries, leave them alone.”

Takfiris are those who declare other Muslims to be apostates and, for Shaikh, “It is the height of incredulity to suggest that they [members of ISIS] are in fact ‘Islamic’ – an opinion shared only by ISIS and [Islamophobes] who echo their claims.”

As for Baghdadi’s supposed scholarly credentials, Shaikh jokes, “Even the devil can quote scripture.”

Second, he argues, it is dangerous to grant ISIS any kind of theological legitimacy amid efforts to formulate a coherent “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategy in the West. “It is quite possibly a fatal blow in that regard because, essentially, it is telling Muslims to condemn that which is Islamic.” It is, he says, a “schizophrenic approach to CVE which will never succeed”.

Third, Shaikh reminds me how the former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often included verses from the Bible at the top of the intelligence briefings that he presented to President George W Bush. “Could we say [Iraq] was a ‘Christianity-motivated war’? How about verses of the Bible [reportedly] engraved on to rifles for use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?”

The former radical points out that highlighting only the role of religion in the radicalization process to the exclusion of, or above, other factors is short-sighted. “Fear, money . . . adventure, alienation and, most certainly, anger at the west for what happened in Iraq . . . [also] explain why people join [ISIS],” he tells me.

Shaikh therefore wants a counterterrorism approach focused not merely on faith or theology, but on “political, social and psychological” factors.

The Pollster

What Dalia Mogahed doesn’t know about Muslim public opinion probably isn’t worth knowing. And the former Gallup pollster and co-author, with the US academic John L Esposito, of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and 50,000 interviews with Muslims in more than 35 countries, says that the survey evidence is clear: the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims reject ISIS-style violence.

DaliaGallup polling conducted for Mogahed’s book found, for instance, that 93 per cent of Muslims condemned the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

The 40-year-old Egyptian-American scholar tells me, “In follow-up questions, Gallup found that not a single respondent of the nearly 50,000 interviewed cited a verse from the Quran in defence of terrorism but, rather, religion was only mentioned to explain why 9/11 was immoral.”

The 7 per cent of Muslims who sympathised with the attacks on the twin towers “defended this position entirely with secular political justifications or distorted concepts of ‘reciprocity’, as in: ‘They kill our civilians. We can kill theirs.’”

It is thus empirically unsound to conflate heightened religious belief with greater support for violence. Mogahed, who became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to hold a position at the White House when she served on Barack Obama’s advisory council on “faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships”, says that she was “surprised” by the results, as they “flew in the face of everything we were being told and every assumption we were making in our counter-terrorism strategy.”

As for Haykel’s claim that Islam is merely “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts”, Mogahed is scathingly dismissive. “If Islam is indeed ‘what Muslims do’, then certainly numbers should be a powerful factor dictating which Muslims we see as representing it,” she says.

“ISIS is a tiny minority whose victims are, in fact, mostly other Muslims.

“By what logic would this gang of killers, which has been universally condemned and brutalizes Muslims more than anyone else, get to represent the global [Muslim] community?”

The former White House adviser continues: “Any philosophy or ideology, from Christianity to capitalism, has normative principles and authorities that speak to those norms. Each also has deviants who distort it to meet political or other goals. If I deny the existence of Christ but call myself a Christian, I’d be wrong. If I say the state should usurp all private property and redistribute it equally among citizens but call myself a capitalist, I would be wrong. Islam is no different.”

Echoing Murad, Mogahed points out, “Islam’s authorities have loudly and unanimously declared ISIS un-Islamic.”

Because of this, “Making a claim that violates normative principles of a philosophy, as defined by those with the authority to decide, is illegitimate.”

What about Haykel’s claim that ISIS fighters are constantly quoting Quranic verses and the hadith, or traditions from the life of the Prophet, and that they “mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion and they do it all the time”? Why do they do that if they don’t believe this stuff – if it isn’t sincere?

“The Quran [and] hadith according to whom?” she responds. “As interpreted by whom? As understood by whom?”

Mogahed, who served as the executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies until 2012 and who now works for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and runs her own consulting firm based in Washington DC, argues that ISIS uses Islamic language and symbols today for the same reason as Palestinian militant groups used the language of secular Arab nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Any organisation uses the dominant social medium of its society,” she says. “Today, the dominant social currency in the Arab world is Islam. More than 90 per cent of Arab Muslims say religion is an important part of their daily life, according to Gallup research. Everyone, not just IS, speaks in Islamic language, from pro-democracy advocates to civil society groups fighting illiteracy.”

For Mogahed, therefore, “a violent reading of the Quran is not leading to political violence. Political violence is leading to a violent reading of the Quran.”

In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism,” Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male ISIS supporters.

“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”

It cannot be said often enough: it isn’t the most pious or devout of Muslims who embrace terrorism, or join groups such as IS. Nor has a raft of studies and surveys uncovered any evidence of a “conveyor belt” that turns people of firm faith into purveyors of violence.

Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process, as Sageman and countless experts testify.

It is an excuse, rather than a reason. ISIS is as much the product of political repression, organised crime and a marriage of convenience with secular, power-hungry Ba’athists as it is the result of a perversion of Islamic beliefs and practices.

As for Islamic scholars, they “unanimously repudiate” ISIS, to quote Murad, while ordinary Muslims “universally condemn” Baghdadi and his bloodthirsty followers, in the words of Mogahed.

The so-called Islamic State is, therefore, “Islamic” in the way the British National Party is “British” or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is “democratic.”

No serious analyst considers the latter two entities to be representative of either Britishness or democracy; few commentators claim that those who join the BNP do so out of a sense of patriotism and nor do they demand that all democrats publicly denounce the DPRK as undemocratic. So why the double standard in relation to the self-styled Islamic State and the religion of Islam? Why the willingness to believe the hype and rhetoric from the spin doctors and propagandists of ISIS?

We must be wary of the trap set for us by Baghdadi’s group – a trap that far too many people who should know better have frustratingly fallen for. A former U.S. State Department official who has worked on counterterrorism issues tells me how worried he is that the arguments of the Atlantic’s Wood, Haykel, Bergen and others have been gaining traction in policymaking circles in recent months. “It was disconcerting to be at [President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism summit in February] and hear so many people discussing the [Atlantic] article while the president and others were trying to marginalise extremist claims to Islamic legitimacy.”

Mogahed is full-square behind her former boss’s decision to delink violent extremism from the Islamic faith in his public pronouncements.

“As [Obama] recently remarked, giving groups like IS religious legitimacy is handing them the ideological victory they desperately desire,” she says. This may be the most significant point of all to understand, as politicians, policymakers and security officials try (and fail) to formulate a coherent response to violent extremism in general and IS in particular.

To claim that IS is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet.

Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

 not afraid



Do not weep for the dead,
They do but sleep. See?

See. They float on a river of dreams,
gently rocked by ripples and currents.
Warmed by sun, cooled by zephyrs.
Do not even weep for their lost futures.
For their future is peace. And
when they awake, it will surely be to you.

Weep now for the sisters, leafing sadly through albums.
Touching a face, here and there.

Weep for the mothers, who hold their empty bellies.
Rocking with horror, a life unraveled.

Weep for the fathers, lips bitten through in inchoate rage.

Weep for the brothers, with no one left to tease.

Weep for the grandparents, dreams of second carings shattered.

Weep for the friends, struck suddenly dumb.

Weep for family celebrations with one chair always empty.

Weep for all who are
mesmerised by pictures,
strangled by sirens,
crying in bathrooms,
staring into emptiness,
fearful for the children,
losing perception,
casting this way and that,
picking flowers
in case it mattters.

Do not weep for the dead.
They would not wish it.
Think on them, because
you know it is true.

Weep now for the living.
The left behind.
Bind their wounds.
Listen in silence.

And weep for the world.
Wash it clean. And cleaner, still.
Make that their memorial.
And let it stand forever.

We are spending a lot more time than usual thinking about Dr Who in the Wellthisiswhatithink household.

Robert Lloyd and a Tardis made entirely of Lego. It's a long story.

Robert Lloyd and a Tardis made entirely of Lego. It’s a long story.

This is primarily because we have become friendly with a great guy who is deeply obsessed with the series and its history – Robert Lloyd.

And not least because he bears an uncanny resemblance to the tenth doctor, David Tennant, which allows the clever chap to make at least a partial living attending fan conferences as a lookalike host, not to mention producing his own very touching and funny Dr Who shows in Australia and overseas.

“Wait … what?”

Indeed, we are thinking of tracking down the real Mr Tennant simply so we can go up to him and ask “Aren’t you Robert Lloyd?”, because that’s the sort of silly joke that appeals to your indefatigable correspondent when the painkillers for our sore shoulder really kick in, and should you happen to run across the hugely talented Scots actor, Dear Reader, we urge you to do the same.

Anyhow, as we are breathlessly making our way through the new series of Doctor Who hiding behind the couch and peeping out occasionally, we have become inevitably more involved in all things Whovian, which is how we came to read fellow scriber Lee Zachariah’s review of the last episode.

It would be a shame to allow the episode to pass unremarked, as it carried a strong – some would say visceral – anti-war message, delivered by the Doctor to the leaders of the Zygon rebellion and Earth’s “Unit”. (Regular viewers will know what we are on about.) The speech is making news in the Twitter-blogo-internety-sphere thing, and rightly so.

soldierThe interesting thing is that this seminal solliloqy was timed to coincide, in the UK, with Remembrance Sunday, which we wrote about yesterday.

Lee’s review, which is well worth a read, contains this trenchant paragraph.

the Doctor delivered a more-than-ten-minute speech (go back and time it if you don’t believe me) about the pointlessness and devastation of war. It’s a sentiment we’ve heard many times before, but not like this. Peter Capaldi delivers the tremendous mostly-monologue brilliantly, and it never ditches the story for the metaphor, or vice-versa.

Which is a good point, well made, in two wises.

Firstly, it would be hard to imagine any television programme – especially one that is “popular” in the sense that it has a hugely wide and generally low-brow demographic appeal – dedicated Whovians will object to that characterisation, but fair play, you aficionados, it is prime time entertainment, you know, not the answer to life, the Universe and everything – that can weave in a ten minute speech to its script on, you know, anything, let alone a passionate and carefully constructed pacifist argument.

We were reminded of the famous attack on the current level of mindless jingoism in America by Jeff Daniels when he was playing news anchor Will McEvoy in the consistently excellent Newsroom, which was cancelled after just three short seasons (disgracefully) and which included one of the finest soliloquies ever delivered in the modern era.

It has been seen literally millions of times, and is constantly being referenced in social media. We would honestly be delighted if it was seen at least once by every American citizen. It’s also a mesmerising performance by Daniels. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and watch it now.


The second point to be made is that the speech in this weekend’s episode of Who absolutely required an actor of the staggering intensity and compassion of Peter Capaldi, the latest (and we hope long-lasting) iteration of the Doctor, both to deliver such a speech with any degree of conviction, and to hold the audience’s attention while he does.

Capaldi’s take on Who is a refreshing change from the whimsical boy-child performances of Matt Smith – he is argumentative, sometimes intolerant, excoriatingly witty, and less human.

Just as Smith emphasised the light-hearted whimsicality of a Time Lord who knows everything and nothing – but who exhibited a fine and moving line in pathos, too – and was perfectly balanced by the bubbly effusion of Karen Gillan – so Capaldi is a conviction Who for a modern era. An era that insistently offers us imminent climate change, dozens of very nasty global conflicts, an apparently unstoppable arms trade, a renewed nuclear arms race, newly intense superpower tensions, the horrors of IS and 4 million Syrian refugees.

Capaldi’s version of Who is perfectly nuanced for today. Just as his soon-to-depart companion Jenna Coleman has had a questioning demeanor and fiery temper and is thus appropriately and winningly less likely to fall for standard Time Lord snake oil shlock.

Anyway, back to the speech itself. As Capaldi fixes us with his near-manic gaze, we are commanded to listen carefully, which in turns allows the writers to try and do something serious with all that transfixed attention.

Talking to the Zygon rebel leader who is threatening to destroy humanity, Capaldi rages:

“The only way anyone can live in peace, is if they’re prepared to forgive. And when this was is over, when you have a homeland free from humans, what do think it’s going to be like? Do you know? Have you thought about it? Have you given it any consideration? Because you’re very close to getting what you want.

“What’s it going to be like? Paint me a picture. Are you going to live in houses? Do you want people to go to work? Will there be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think peole will be allowed to play violins?”

“Well … oh you don’t actually know do you? Because, like every other tantrumming child in history, you don’t actually know what you want.”

“So let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect, and just and fair, and when you have finally got it, exactly they way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The trouble makers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?

Well maybe you will win. But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.”

As he hammers home his points, Capaldi traverses an astonishing range of emotion and meaning in the speech – anger, sarcasm, pleading, fear, intellectual superiority, terror, far-sightedness, urgency.

“Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you don’t know who’s going to die. You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken. How many lives shattered. How much blood will spill until everyone does what they were always going to do from the very beginning. SIT … DOWN … AND … TALK.”

Please. Watch it.



This cultural memorandum is for the attention of David Cameron, Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Rouhani, Benjamin Netanyahu, Malcolm Turnbull, Jean-Claude Juncker, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis, Xi Jinping, Abubakar Shekau, Idriss Deby, Muhammadu Buhari, Shinzō Abe, Justin Trudeau …



Hating war – arguing for a pacifist position, even one that is not utterly purely pacifist – does not mean we cannot weep for and celebrate those who fight wars on our behalf.

With the tragically costly conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Remembrance Sunday – just like Anzac Day in Australia and Memorial Day in the USA – has assumed a new significance, and a new enthusiasm from the young.


From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,

From left to right: Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18, Victory Medal 1914-18, Medal for Military Valour, Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918,


For ourselves, remembering a father who died at 46 worn out by terrifying six years of naval service, a cousin who endured tropical diseases for his entire life after incarceration in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, a Grandfather who served in the trenches in World War 1 and another Grandfather who received the DSC for trawling up mines dropped by Zeppelins in Portsmouth Harbour, we have always paused for two minutes at the appointed hour, bought our poppy to wear in our lapel, and subscribed to war casualty charities.

In our view, despite that, we are convinced that the very best way to show our respect for those we commemorate is to state, unequivocally, the old an unarguable truth.

“War will continue until men refuse to fight.”

This list of current conflicts, worldwide, makes very depressing reading. Are we really doing the best we can?

Listen to any old soldier, and simultaneously, along with their sadness felt for their injured or fallen comrades, and their quiet pride in “a job well done”, you will almost always hear them explain how the horror of war was worse than anything they could have imagined. How they often felt they had more in common with the foot-soldiers opposing them than they did with their own leaders. And always, how anything must be tried, and done, before humankind responds to a crisis by turning to arms.

Even the most significant war leader in 20th century history, Winston Churchill, who through sheer force of will saved the world from fascism and rescued democracy in its darkest hour, remarked, “Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”

From their graves, the dead of countless wars cry out to us for attention. “Don’t do it again! Don’t do it again!”

If you are interested to purchase my collection of poems called Read Me – 71 Poems and 1 Story – just head here.

Potentially deadly.

Potentially deadly.

Dungeness and rock crabs in California have been found to contain toxic levels of an acid that can kill.

The authorities in California are advising people to avoid consumption of crabs contaminated by a natural toxin that has spread throughout the marine ecosystem off the West Coast, killing sea mammals and poisoning various other species.

Kathi A. Lefebvre, the lead research biologist at the Wildlife Algal Toxin Research and Response Network, said on Wednesday that her organization had examined about 250 animals stranded on the West Coast and had found domoic acid, a toxic chemical produced by a species of algae, in 36 animals of several species.

“We’re seeing much higher contamination in the marine food web this year in this huge geographic expanse than in the past,” Ms. Lefebvre said.

She said that the toxin had never before been found in animals stranded in Washington or Oregon, and that there were most likely greater numbers of contaminated marine mammals not being found by humans.

The guilty algae’s growth has been exponential recently, largely because of record temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Warm water causes the toxic algae to divide more rapidly and to outcompete other species in the water. The algae then becomes a more prominent element of local plankton, a kind of marine trail mix made up of tiny particles that various species of aquatic wildlife subsist on.

The California Department of Public Health recently advised people to avoid consumption of certain species of crabs because of potential toxicity. Razor clam fisheries in Washington have been closed throughout the summer for the same reason.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the California department said that “recent test results” indicated dangerous levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and rock crabs caught in California waters between Oregon and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that in severe cases can cause excessive bronchial secretions, permanent loss of short-term memory, coma or death in humans, according to the California department’s statement. Milder cases can result in vomiting and diarrhea.

A release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries specified that “commercial seafood remains safe and state public health agencies monitor recreational fisheries for algal toxins.”

Pseudo-nitzschia, the type of algae that produces the acid, is a single-celled organism consumed directly by marine wildlife like anchovies, sardines, krill and razor clams. Those species are then eaten by larger predators, and the acid makes its way up the marine food chain.

This summer, the West Coast experienced the largest algal bloom that scientists have on record. Ms. Lefebvre said that though there was not a lot of monitoring for species that had consumed domoic acid in Alaska, it was likely that the blooms reached the Alaskan coast as well.

Michael Parsons, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University, said there were several hypotheses for why Pseudo-nitzschia produces acid.

“We’re not sure exactly why they do it,” he said. “Maybe it’s meant to keep things from eating them. It might be a result of stress.”

If acid secretion is meant to deter predators, it is clear that it is a failing strategy on the part of the algae. Ms. Lefebvre expressed concern that the acid poisoning of sea life would continue to spread.

“My concern is that we’re going to see an increase in the number and geographic range of marine mammals being affected,” she said.

Or in other words, global warming is killing the seas, and now it can kill you too. And that’s before we even return to the topic of ocean acidification and its affect on our food chain. Or how this news will affect commercial fishers, and restaurants.

But don’t worry, everyone, go back to sleep, go back to sleeeeeeep ….

(NY Times and others)


Pamela Smedley with her mother Betty in 1990

Image copyrightP amela Smedley Pamela (right) reunited with her mother in 1990.

Up until the late 1960s the UK sent children living in care homes to new lives in Australia and other countries. It was a brutal experience for many.

In the winter of 1949, 13-year-old Pamela Smedley boarded a ship to Australia with 27 other girls. She had been told by the nuns from the Catholic home she lived in that she was going on a day-trip. In reality, she was being shipped out to an orphanage in Adelaide and wouldn’t see England again for more than three decades.

“We thought it would be like going to Scarborough for the day because we were so innocent and naive,” says Pamela, who is now in her 70s and still lives in Adelaide.

“The nuns said that in Australia you could pick the oranges off the trees, and I was very excited because I loved oranges.”

Pamela’s unmarried Catholic mother had been pressured to give her up as a baby and so she was sent to live under the care of nuns at Nazareth House in Middlesbrough, Teesside.

Pamela Smedley at Goodwood Orphanage, 1952

Image copyright Pamela Smedley. Pamela Smedley at Goodwood Orphanage in 1952.

The place was cruel and joyless, according to Pamela, and she remembers that when the Reverend Mother asked who wanted to go to Australia, every girl in the home put their hand up.

Once the SS Ormonde set sail for its six-week voyage, the girls soon realised this would be no day-trip. Instead they were allowed to believe there would be families waiting to adopt them.

“We arrived wearing our winter coats and hats and I remember being hit by this stinking 100-degree heat,” recalls Pamela. “I hated it and when we found out we had travelled 10,000 miles just to be put in another orphanage we all just cried and cried.” Anyone who has ever been in Adelaide – a desert city – during summer will have the greatest sympathy with the new arrivals.

Children en route for emigration to Australia

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Children en route for emigration to Australia, the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.

Pamela would spend the next two years at the Sisters of Mercy Goodwood Orphanage, an imposing redbrick Catholic institution, home to about 100 children.

She was one of as many as 100,000 British children to be sent overseas to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries as child migrants between 1869 and 1970.

Run by a partnership of charities, churches and governments, the schemes were sold as an opportunity for a better life for children from impoverished backgrounds and broken homes. In reality, an isolated and brutal childhood awaited many of them.

Pamela was one of an estimated 7,000 children to go to Australia, some as young as four. They were often given the false status of “orphans” to simplify proceedings – and most never saw their homes, or their families again.

Boy on ship

Image copyright Molong Historical Society An estimated 7,000 children were sent to Australia, like this boy

“Child migrants were actively solicited in Australia as a way of building up the white Anglo-Saxon population and to give the growing economy there a boost,” explains Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent.

This was not something which happened under the radar – the vast majority of children were sent to Australia with government funding.

“It is sometimes easy to assume childcare continuously improves and becomes more enlightened, but by the time Pamela went out [to Australia] the child migration schemes were really running against the grain of accepted childcare practice in post-war Britain,” explains Lynch, who is also a contributing curator to a new exhibition around the subject at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.

Upon arrival at Goodwood, all the children’s personal mementos – photographs, letters, toys – were taken from them and they were left with just a Bible. Everyone was terrified of the Reverend Mother, even the other nuns, says Pamela. She recalls the big strap the nun had around her waist which her rosaries would hang from.

“It is what she’d use to beat us – at night she would walk up and down the dormitories and if you so much as twitched in your bed you’d get the strap.”

Child migrants picking peas at the Fairbridge Farm School in the 1950s

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Picking peas at the Fairbridge Farm School in the 1950s.

When she arrived, Pamela remembers defiantly shouting out “God Bless England!” during morning prayers, rather than saluting Australia, for which she received “the thrashing of her life” from the Reverend Mother. Eventually, the nun retired and was replaced with someone much kinder and more progressive, according to Pamela.

Daily life at Goodwood consisted of early prayers, chores and then school, followed by more chores, prayers and an early bedtime of 6pm.

A few hours a day would be spent making the strings butchers use to hang their meat. “It was very coarse string and it made our fingers bleed,” says Pamela. “If you did anything wrong the penalty was an extra 100 strings and the nun in charge would hit us with her walking stick.”

Forced child labour helped schemes like the one at Goodwood to be financially viable, according to Lynch.

Boys working on building site at Bindoon Boys' Town

Image copyright Molong Historical Society The migrant children were often used as cheap labour.

“It would often be presented as an opportunity for children to learn useful skills or a trade but it was much more about providing some economic contribution,” he explains.

Pamela also remembers working in the laundry room and would spend school holidays living with a family and being worked hard throughout her stay. “The two daughters in the family were very good to me but their mother just saw me as free labour,” she explains.

Pamela says that every now and then a priest would come to check up on how the children were getting on. “The nuns would stand right beside us when we were asked questions and toys would appear in time for his inspections, but as soon as he left they were taken away,” she says.

One of the biggest failings of these schemes was that staff were often poorly trained and poorly resourced and very few follow-up checks were made, explains Lynch. Eventually, the Ross Report came out in 1956, as the result of a visit to Australia by a British team of inspectors, commissioned by the Home Office.

“It made grim reading and said that children who’d already had disruptive backgrounds and been subjected to traumatic experience in the UK were really the last people who should be sent overseas,” says Lynch. Reflecting the sensitivity of the subect, confidential appendices, containing the worst of the findings, were not publicly released until 1983.

But despite the report, children continued to be shipped overseas. According to Lynch, the reality became “an uneasy truth” – the Home Office weren’t prepared to publicly go against the Commonwealth Relations Office (who were in charge of the schemes) so they tried to discourage local authorities from continuing to send children overseas instead.

A diary of the voyage to Australia written by one little girl, Maureen Mullins

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Pages from the diary of 12-year-old Maureen Mullins, who emigrated to Australia on SS Otranto in 1952.

“Furthering the British Empire was still very much a priority and there was also a fear of going up against not only the Australian government, but the Catholic Church,” he explains.

The Australian government soon countered the Ross Report with its own glowing review of all the homes under criticism.

Sexual abuse was a harsh reality for many of the children under the care of these schemes, including Pamela, who was assaulted while on the voyage over to Australia and while working at an isolated shearing station, aged 15.

“We were taught never to let a man touch you and that was all I knew- so I believed I was a sinner and would go to hell for it,” she says. When it happened for the first time on the boat, the nuns in Pamela’s charge insisted she was just dreaming. “I was terrified and I still go to sleep with my hands guarding between my legs,” she says.

At the shearing station Pamela had just one weekend off every six weeks and spent her entire first pay on a ceramic miniature English house. “I bought it to remind me of England,” she says.

Desperate to break free of the scheme’s clutches, she got married three days after her 18th birthday. In 1989 she was connected with the Child Migrants Trust, who helped her to be reunited with her mother Betty. For 40 years Betty had believed Pamela was adopted by a loving family in England.

They kept in touch until Betty died, and in 2010 Pamela was one of 60 former child migrants to be flown over to England to hear an official apology from the then prime minister, Gordon Brown.

“I still have nightmares about what happened but hearing the apology gave me a little bit of peace,” says Pamela. “It showed that finally somebody cared about what happened to us.”

Pamela Smedley meeting Gordon Brown after the British government apologised for the migrant programme, 2010

Image copyright Pamela Smedley. Pamela Smedley meeting Gordon Brown after the British government’s official apology in 2010.

(Story from the BBC)

Along with the “Stolen Generation” of aboriginal kids removed from their families and their attempted “whitiefication”, the forced expatriation of British children remains one of the most shameful episodes in British history.

That so many of those children have gone on to be stalwarts of their community is entirely besides the point – so might they have become had they been left with their birth parents or cared for empathetically in their home country. The stagering cruelty of the Churches and the Governments of the time beggars belief.

The same question occurs again and again – “What on earth did they think they were doing?”

And what similar lunacies are still being pursued around the world?

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An ongoing debate about laws to tackle “hate speech” is busily making headlines in the USA in particular, but is a hot topic elsewhere as well.
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We are firmly of the belief that free speech cannot be absolute, in any civilised society.
Defamation laws exist because they protect individuals from being lied about.
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“Jon So-and-So fiddles with kiddies” would, quite rightly, be considered illegal to say or print without proof, as it would damage Jon’s reputation, and possibly cause him to find his safety endangered, too.
“Gays fiddle with kiddies, they shouldn’t be teachers” is, however, acceptable. That’s legal to say in the USA and elsewhere, despite the fact that child abuse in the gay community is way below that in the heterosexual community.
Any gay person driven to suicide by this slur or others, (and sadly there are many of those, especially teenagers), or beaten up as they walk down the street, sacked from their job, or worse – murdered in a gay bashing incident, which happens with tragic regularity – well then, that’s OK, it’s free speech and if it stirs up that sort of reprehensible behaviour, well, you know, we’re sorry, but it’s free speech.
No. That’s too high a price to pay for some spurious “right” to spout bile and filth.
If you can’t see what a ludicrous, Kafkaesque double standard this knee-jerk defence of the right to say anything, anytime really is, then sadly we can help you no further.

A fascinating story has emerged from Syria of the way IS chose to treat a Christian priest and his community, reported by the BBC.

Father Jack Murad

Father Jack Murad spoke to BBC Arabic about his ordeal

Fr Jack told BBC Arabic what happened. He remembers how he and Botros Hanna were blindfolded and had their hands tied, before the car they were forced into sped away to an unknown destination “in the mountains around al-Qaryatain”.

After four days, the two men were blindfolded and handcuffed again, before being forced on a much longer journey.

They ended up in a cell somewhere in Raqqa, IS’s stronghold, where they were kept for 84 days.

The captives were well-fed, given medical treatment and never tortured, Fr Jack explained. But what stood out, he said, was the verbal abuse.

Fr Jack and Botros Hannah were repeatedly called “infidels” and told that they had strayed from the true religion of “Islam” – in particular, “Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam”.

Intriguingly, though, Fr Jack says his captors all seemed curious about his Christian beliefs.

“They would ask about my theology – God, the Holy Trinity, Christ, and the Crucifixion,” he said.

But he thought it pointless trying to answer.

“What’s the point of debating with someone who’s put you in prison and pointing their rifle at you?” Fr Jack asked rhetorically. “When I was forced to respond, I’d say ‘I’m not prepared to change my religion’.”

Death threats

Despite otherwise treating them well, the militants he met would scare prisoners, telling them they would be killed if they refused to convert.

‘For them, my fate for refusing to convert to Islam was death. To frighten us, they would even tell us in detail how we would die. They are truly gifted at using words and imagery to terrorise,” Fr Jack recalled.

The priest said the experience only strengthened his faith, although at the time he expected to be beheaded.

“On Day 84, the last day, an emir arrived, telling us “the Christians of al-Qaryatain have been pestering us about you and want you back, so come on, move.”

Ruins of Mar Elian Monastery (August 2015)

IS militants destroyed Fr Jack’s ancient monastery

‘We went past Palmyra and Sawwaneh, then the car disappeared into a tunnel. We were taken out of the car, and the emir took me by the hand towards a large iron door. He opened it, and I saw two guys from my parish standing there.”

They hugged and then Fr Jack looked up to find an astonishing scene.

“All the Christians of al-Qaryatain, my whole parish, my children were there. I was in shock. They were surprised and happy. They all came to embrace me.”

During his captivity, the town of al-Qaryatain had been captured by IS.

All of them were held captive another 20 days.

Finally, on the 31 August, Fr Jack was summoned before several IS clerics.

They wanted to convey what IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had decided about the fate of the Christians of al-Qaryatain.

Various options were on the table, including killing the men and enslaving the women.

Instead the IS leader chose to give the Christians the “right to live as citizens in territory held by Islamic State”, which meant returning their land, homes, and money in return for conditional IS protection.

‘Land of blasphemy’

Fr Jack told them everything he was asked about the churches and the monastery in al-Qaryatain, but omitted to mention Saint Elian’s grave, hoping he could spare it from destruction.

But it was difficult to fool the IS militants.

“They know everything, every detail.” Revealingly, the priest added “We tend to think of them as uncultured Bedouins. The opposite is true. They’re clever, educated, with university degrees, and meticulous in their planning.”

During his captivity the monastery had been confiscated by IS as a spoil of war during the battle for al-Qaryatain and was destroyed.

The IS clerics read out to him the terms of an agreement between the Christians of al-Qaryatain and Islamic State.


Under the deal, they could travel anywhere inside IS territory as far away as Mosul, but not to Homs or Mahin (which are closer, but outside IS control), “because to them, this is the land of blasphemy.”

Still, Fr Jack managed to leave the IS-held territory. Botros Hanna, the volunteer, also escaped with him.

“The area is a battlefield. On the one hand, the air force is shelling. On the other, we are not safe staying in al-Qaryatain. I felt that as long as I was there, the people would stay. So I felt I had to leave to encourage others to do the same.”

But not many more followed him afterwards.

“In fact many want to stay because they have nowhere else to go. Some can’t accept the idea of being displaced and would rather die at home. Others are convinced the Islamic State, with which they have a contract, will protect them.’

Fr Jack says 160 or so Christians are left in al-Qaryatain.

“They have stayed because they want to. We ask God to protect them because our town is a dangerous battlefield. There is no shelter, nowhere is safe.”

What does this story tell us about IS? On the surface, it tells us that their reality may be more nuanced than we might assume.

Or is that simply what they want us to think?

Did their leadership – who appear to have an excellent grasp of publicity, especially via social media – think that sparing the Christians would receive approving coverage in the rest of the world? Perhaps.

And yet their motivation for such a move is unclear. The “end times” cult that is IS positively welcomes the invasion of their Caliphate as the precursor to the Second Coming of Christ and their eventual triumph over the whole world. In short, they don’t care what we think of them, and have an agenda to provoke us.

Then again, maybe IS is like all organisations, made up of different strands of opinion, and on this occasion a less belligerent faction prevailed.

It is impossible to say, as we can’t ask them. And meanwhile, the slaughterhouse grinds on, and neighbouring countries struggle to deal with millions of people fleeing all the combatants, none of whom are innocent of terrible human rights abuses.

The failure of the world to prevent this entirely predictable mess, and our apparent inability to resolve it, is sobering indeed.

Reporting of Father Jack’s story by BBC Arabic’s Assaf Abboud and Rami Ruhayem

Dramatic stills and videos have emerged of dozens of IS hostages – some covered in blood – being freed from an IS compound in a daring joint-operation raid in Iraq.

This is unashamedly good news for the hostages and their families and friends, not to say the world in general.

But what needs to be said immediately, however, is that a highly decorated US commando died rescuing people he didn’t know, from countries other than his own. He died utterly unselfishly, to prevent a great and murderous wrong.

The world is quick to criticise clumsy, inept or morally questionable US use of force, and so it should be. The lumbering giant of a nation often gets it wrong.

It should be equally fast to praise America and Americans’ preparedness to put their own lives on the line to help others, and, if necessary, to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This is the dramatic moment prisoners were freed from an Islamic State-run compound, just hours before execution. Photo: Euro News

US Special Operations Forces and Kurdish forces stormed the IS-run prison freeing some 70 captives who were apparently facing imminent mass execution.

How that could be known by the US is not clear, although aerial reconnaissance had shown what it was surmised was a newly dug mass grave at the prison, and it was believed that the hostages were to be killed on the morning after the night-time raid.

How that fact was established, however, was unclear, and we speculate that it was probably the result of “on the ground” intelligence, which in itself would have been gathered and transmitted in an incredibly courageous manner.

Of the prisoners freed, more than 20 were members of the Iraqi security forces. Five IS militants were also captured and several others killed, the Pentagon said.

Very sadly, the raid resulted in the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, the first American death fighting ISIL and the first to die in Iraq for some years.



His body was returned to his family on Saturday in Dover, Delaware.

Pentagon chief expects more anti-IS raids after captives freed

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said he expected more similar raids targeting the Islamic State group.

The raid marked an apparent break with the stated role of US forces, who are in Iraq to support government forces but do not directly engage in combat in line with Obama’s “no boots on the ground” policy.

But Carter said it was likely not a one-off, noting that a “significant cache” of intelligence had also been retrieved.


Defense Secretary Carter

Defense Secretary Carter


“I expect we’ll do more of this kind of thing,” Carter said. The significance of this statement cannot be over-estimated.

“One of the reasons for that is that you learn a great deal because you collect the documentation, you collect various electronic equipment and so forth. So the sum of all this will be some valuable intelligence.”


Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, was the first American serviceman to die in action in Iraq since 2011.


“This is combat, things are complicated,” Carter said in discussing the circumstances of Wheeler’s death.

This sort of operation has been extremely rare ever since the vast majority of US forces left Iraq. America is supporting the Kurds with both equipment and training as the Peshmerga have proven to be the most effective fighting force against ISIL in Iraq.

The implication that more raids like this will occur may reflect a belated realisation that ISIL will not be defeated – nor those it persecutes rescued – without the interpolation of American “boots on the ground”, and also that America’s proxies in the area are not necessarily competent in either training, personnel or materiel to effect such actions successfully on their own.

If so, it represents a significant policy change for President Obama, delivered via his Defense Secretary, as the American Government has struggled manfully to avoid further employing American troops in combat to battlegrounds having achieved a near total pull-out from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The extent to which the success of this raid will spark others, whether for hostage rescue or for so-called “decapitation” attacks against key IS personnel, is as yet unclear.

Anyhow, as we contemplate this apparent policy change, and what it might mean for American troops and troops from other Western nations, let us also pause for a moment and think about Sergeant Wheeler. For the real story of this raid is surely his story.

As has been reported, he hailed from a thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma.

Joshua L. Wheeler had a difficult childhood and few options. The Army offered an escape, but it turned into much more. He made a career in uniform, becoming a highly decorated combat veteran in the elite and secretive Delta Force.

“In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.”

That protective instinct was evident from grade school when, as the oldest child in a dysfunctional home, he was often the one who made sure his siblings were clothed and fed. And it was on display on Thursday, when Master Sergeant Wheeler, 39, a father of four who was thinking of retiring from the Army, became the first American in four years to die in combat inIraq.

A father of four. Let us remember their sacrifice too. Let us ponder the pain in their hearts this day.

When Kurdish commandos went on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages, the plan called for the Americans who accompanied them to offer support, not join in the action, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said on Friday.

But then the Kurdish attack on the prison where the hostages were held stalled, and Sergeant Wheeler promptly responded.

“He ran to the sound of the guns,” Mr. Carter said. “Obviously, we’re very saddened that he lost his life,” he said, adding, “I’m immensely proud of this young man.”

A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. So Sergeant Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and with typical disregard for their own safety were the first ones through the hole.

“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” said the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the operation.

Sergeant Wheeler was a veteran of 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan – count them – 14 – with a chest full of medals.

His honors included four Bronze Stars with the letter V, awarded for valor in combat; and seven Bronze Stars, awarded for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone. His body was returned to the United States on Saturday.

He died far from his roots in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, just across the state border from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

So what made Sergeant Wheeler an instinctive hero? We will never know precisely the confluence of his youth and how it affected him.

His mother, Diane, had two marriages to troubled and abusive men, both ending in divorce, said her brother. She had two sons with her first husband and three daughters with her second, and outlived both men. She died last year at age 60.

One of Sergeant Wheeler’s sisters, Rachel Quackenbush, said her parents were “mentally gone.” Family members said that they often got by on some form of government assistance. Later in life, their mother, who was part Cherokee, like many people in the region, received help from the Cherokee nation.

Joshua as a student, and as a soldier.

Joshua as a student, and as a soldier.

It was her brother who held the family together, making sure the younger children ate breakfast, got dressed and made it to school — even changing dirty diapers. On his own initiative, Mr. Shamblin said, he held a variety of jobs, including roofing and work on a blueberry farm, to bring in a few crucial extra dollars.

Sergeant Wheeler’s grandparents, now in their 80s, often took care of the children. “They were the only really stable influence,” Mr. Shamblin said.

Ms. Quackenbush, 30, recalled one of her brother’s first visits home from the military, when she was still a child. He noticed that the pantries were bare, retrieved a gun and left. “He went out and he shot a deer,” she said. “He made us deer meat and cooked us dinner.”

But at Muldrow High School, where he graduated in 1994, people saw no sign of the turmoil at home.

“He was always funny, even mischievous, but always the guy who seemed like he had your back,” said April Isa, a classmate who now teaches English at the high school. “Most of our class was cliques, but he wasn’t with just one group. He was friends with everyone.”

Ron Flanagan, the Muldrow schools superintendent, was the assistant principal at the high school when Sergeant Wheeler attended classes there. “The thing I remember most clearly is that he was extremely respectful to everybody, classmates and teachers,” he said. “He was a good kid who didn’t get in any trouble.”

Mr. Wheeler enlisted in 1995, and in 1997 he joined the Rangers, a specially trained group within the Army.

From 2004, he was assigned to Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which includes Delta Force, the extremely selective unit that carries out some of the military’s riskiest operations. He completed specialized training in several fields, including parachute jumping, mountaineering, leading infantry units, explosives and urban combat.

“He was very focused, knew his job in and out,” said the former officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler. “It is hard to describe these guys. They are taciturn, very introspective, but extremely competent. They are “Jason Bournes”, they really are.”

Joshua had three sons by his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He remarried in 2013, and he and his wife, Ashley, have an infant boy.

“He could never say much about where he went or what he did, but it was clear he loved it,” Mr. Shamblin said. “And even after all that time in combat, there was such a kindness, a sweetness about him.”

On visits home, either to Oklahoma or North Carolina, he focused on his boys and his extended family. Ms. Quackenbush said that when he would have to leave on another deployment, he would claim it was just for training, which she understood was untrue.

“He was exactly what was right about this world,” she said. “He came from nothing and he really made something out of himself.”

And then, last Thursday in the dusty dark of Iraq, Josh’s luck ran out.

We should all consider how lucky we are that men like him are still looking after the weak, the displaced, and the threatened. It is easy to be cynical, or even to resort to a sort of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, when we seek to unpick the news, or to make sense of the geo-politics. But as we today contemplate a family in mourning, even as we gaze in distress as the seeming never-ending morass that is the Middle East, let us also state this simple, shining truth.

One man died last Thursday, but 70 were saved from certain death.


Sleep well, Sergeant. We will not forget you.

justin trudeau


While the scale of the Liberal victory in Canada is as yet unknown, the fact of the win itself makes history, making this “only the second time in Canada’s history that a party has gone from third place in Parliament to first,” as noted by the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher.

The official election gives Liberals a commanding majority of Parliaments 338 seats. Currently it looks like this:

  • Liberals: 127 elected, leading in 186 ridings, 41.5% of the vote
  • Conservatives: 72 elected, leading in 108 ridings, 31.8% of the vote
  • NDP: 14 elected, leading in 33 ridings, 18.4% of the vote
  • Bloc Quebecois: three elected, leading in 10 ridings, 4.6% of the vote

Born while his father Pierre was prime minister, Canada’s new leader Justin Trudeau has taken a circuitous route to power

Just a few months ago, Justin Trudeau was an unlikely contender to be Canada’s next prime minister. Running third in the polls, behind incumbent Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and the resurgent left wing New Democratic party, Trudeau – son of legendary prime minister Pierre Trudeau – was slated as too young (he is 43) and too inexperienced to haul his beleaguered Liberal party out of the electoral mess of the 2011 general election.

That result saw the Liberal party – once the dominant force in Canadian politics – slump to third place for the first time in its history, its worst ever showing with just 34 seats. At that point, Trudeau brushed off expectations that he would succeed outgoing Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, saying: “Because of the history packaged into my name, a lot of people are turning to me in a way that … to be blunt, concerns me.”

His family – he has three young children aged eight and under with his wife Sophie Grégoire – was also cited as a reason not to put himself forward. But by 2012, with other contenders falling by the wayside, the spotlight swung once again to Trudeau, and in October of that year he launched his bid with a rally in Montreal.

His victory in April 2013 was almost embarrassingly comprehensive: he took over the Liberal party with 80.1% of the vote. The national polls – initially, at least – surged in his favour.

But the path to government proved rather rockier. Progressive voters were tempted by Thomas Mulcair’s New Democrats, while Harper’s unpopular Conservative government took heart from the surprise victory – attributed to “shy Tories” – of David Cameron’s party in the UK elections in May.

Trudeau’s appeal to the centre ground risked losing out to both its neighbours.

So what changed? Harper’s tactics, referring to his challenger condescendingly as “Justin” and campaign ads that poked fun at his “nice hair”, found no grip among a section of the electorate that wanted the Conservatives out at all costs because they were simply tired of them, and increasingly saw Trudeau as the best chance of achieving that. Conservative mean-mindedness also saw the Conservatives look out of touch on the world refugee crisis in major urban areas where there were large numbers of recent immigrants.

The long election campaign – the longest, in fact, since 1872, at 78 days – gave the Liberals the time to build on that boost. Trudeau told the Guardian in July that he relished it: “If there’s one thing that recent history in Canada has shown it’s that campaigns really matter. And there’s a tremendous volatility among voters who are just looking for the right alternative.”

Trudeau, for all his dynastic connections that he himself appeared to mistrust, aimed to be that alternative. Almost literally born to the role of prime minister – he was born in 1975, during his father’s second term – he took a circuitous route into political life, trying his hand at teaching, engineering, bungee-jumping coaching, environmental geography, charity boxing and acting, before ousting Bloc Québécois MP Vivian Barbot to become MP for Papineau in the 2008 general election.


Like Jack Kennedy before him, Pierre Trudeau was as famous for his glamorous and headline-grabbing wife Margaret as he was for his own wit and wisdom.

In 2000, at his father’s state funeral, Trudeau delivered a eulogy that stoked whispers of a dynasty that has, indeed, now secured its place in Canadian history: “More than anything, to me, he was dad. And what a dad. He loved us with the passion and the devotion that encompassed his life. He taught us to believe in ourselves, to stand up for ourselves, to know ourselves and to accept responsibility for ourselves.

We knew we were the luckiest kids in the world. And we had done nothing to actually deserve it. It was instead something that we would have to spend the rest of our lives to work very hard to live up to.”

And now, in terms of winning an election, at least, the son has indeed lived up to his illustrious father.

Meanwhile defeated Prime Minister Steven Harper will be treated kindly by history, having proved a stable hand on the tiller for a long period, and having “saved the deck chairs on the Titanic” with a creditable result even in defeat. Clearly there weren’t as many “shy Tories” in Canada as in the UK last May. Long-term incumbency has once again been shown to be a mixed blessing for Governments seeking re-election, especially when the same leadership is presenting itself for re-endorsement. The Conservative Party in the UK, currently riding high in the polls, would do well to pay attention. The result will also buoy those Small-l and Big-l liberals in the UK and Europe who have seen their brand of radical centrism fall out of favour recently.

Clearly the one defining factor in all Western democratic politics is now “volatility”, for good or bad.

Further reading: Five things that will be different in a Trudeau government

(Guardian and our own commentary)

Somali-womanVia Mamamia

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is attempting to send Abyan, the Somali refugee who fell pregnant after allegedly being raped on Nauru, back to the island.

Abyan was brought to Australia earlier this week to have her pregnancy terminated, but according to refugee advocates she may be returned to Nauru as early as this afternoon (Friday afternoon, Australian time).

According the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), the 23-year-old was grabbed from her room at Villawood detention centre this morning.


villawood 720x547

Refugee advocates say Abyan was grabbed from Villawood this morning. Image via Getty.

She has not seen any counsellors, nor been advised of any medical arrangements for her planned termination.

RAC spokesperson Ian Rintoul told Mamamia that he had met with Abyan on Tuesday morning and she had requested to see a counsellor regarding the termination of her pregnancy.

“She is clearly distressed and said that she needed time and wanted to talk to counsellors and doctors about the termination of her pregancy,” he said. “She said she had suffered too much on Nauru and she wanted to have that information before she made that final decision.”

Mr Rintoul said Abyan had received nothing in the way of counselling or the normal medical treatment that would usually be given to a victim of sexual assault.

“Immigration is claiming that Abyan has declined to proceed with the termination, but this has not been confirmed with Abyan herself,” he said. “This attempt to remove her is the most shocking violation of her rights imaginable. It is a vindictive move by the government against someone who has already suffered months of unnecessary trauma on Nauru. This removal to Nauru must be stopped.”



Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Image via Getty.

Abyan’s case first attracted the attention of the media after a video was aired on ABC’s 7.30 program, describing an incident in which she and another 26-year-old Somali woman were raped by two Nauruan men. The second woman, Namjan (not her real name), is currently on Nauru, where the government is threatening her with charges of “false complaint” over the rape allegations.

“She again is very distressed,” Mr Rintoul said. “She is aware of what the government is saying and is most immediately aware of the threats that await her if she leaves her accommodation.

“They are threatening to expose her and to kill her… She said she is very, very afraid.” RAC are urging everyone who has been moved by Abyan’s plight and the situation of refugee women on Nauru to contact the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister and demand that they put a halt to Abyan’s removal.

You can call Malcolm Turnbull’s office on (02) 6277 7700 or Peter Dutton on (02) 6277 7860. Or email them at and

Is this how a civilised country should treat people. What do you think?




If we made this required viewing for all sexually active males everywhere in the world we would make the world a much safer and better place for women. As well as saving a lot of males a great deal of pain and potential punishment, too. As well as helping the sexes just, you know, get on.



Well done Upworthy. Superb.

Show this to every male you know, Dear Reader.


A Male

Whoever we are Wherever we go Yes means yes And no means no

Whoever we are
Wherever we go
Yes means yes
And no means no

PS Dear male population of Australia. Forget this simple video when dealing with my daughter and you will be sorry.

PPS Women who would like to reinforce this simple point when walking down the street are invited to purchase this t-shirt, available in a variety of formats.

Click the link:


Seven dead after Greek coastguard vessel hits migrant boat

The lifeless body of a young child was carried out of the water after a migrant boat sank after colliding with a Greek coastguard vessel.


This the tragic moment a young child’s dead body was pulled from the sea after a Greek coastguard ship collided with a migrant vessel near the island of Lesbos.

At least seven people, including four children, died when the wooden boat travelling from Turkey to Europe sank on Thursday. The boat sank within minutes of the crash with a 30-metre patrol vessel on Thursday morning, in circumstances that were being investigated. Sources said the boat was seeking to evade the patrol vessel.

Three other victims, “a woman, a man and a minor”, were found later, the coastguard said as Greek rescuers backed by a Portuguese ship and an EU border agency Frontex helicopter combed the waters for the missing.

The 31 survivors who were brought to safety had reported a total of eight people missing.


An AFP photographer who witnessed the crash from the shores of Lesbos said the boat went down just two or three minutes after the collision, which took place some two kilometres from land.

The photographer saw rescuers scrambling to pull people out of the water, with a second coastguard vessel and a Frontex helicopter arriving on the scene around 10 minutes later.

The nationalities of the migrants is not yet known but Greece is the primary destination of Syrian migrants fleeing the civil war, via Turkey, trying to find sanctuary in the EU.


Two men carry a woman's lifeless body from the sea after she drowned off the coast of Lesbos. Source: Reuters.

Two men carry a woman’s lifeless body from the sea after she drowned off the coast of Lesbos. Source: Reuters.

Scores of migrants have died making the perilous Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece.

On Wednesday, a woman, a young girl and a baby died after their boat sank off Lesbos. In total, more than 450,000 people have arrived in Greece, most of them fleeing the civil war in Syria. The International Organization for Migration says more than 600,000 migrants have landed on Europe’s shores since January, while more than 3,000 had died or gone missing in the attempt. Approximately 4 million Syrians are internally or externally displaced.

What this latest tragedy underscores, yet again, is the crucial need for the countries surrounding the Middle East to open up more legal channels for people fleeing war and persecution, so that they do not have to risk their lives to reach safety, a point made repeatedly by the UN refugee agency.
Christie Cheramie - rehabilitated, but never to be released.

Christie Cheramie – rehabilitated, but never to be released.

More than three and a half years ago, we wrote about the disgraceful case of Christi Cheramie, a 16 year old sentenced to life without parole for a murder she did not commit. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to find out whether Christi has since been released. (And we would value knowing.)

Now a bi-partisan group of U.S. senators have announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, new criminal justice reform legislation that would end extreme sentences for youth, including life without parole, in the federal justice system at least.

This bill has been in the works for quite some time, and we are thrilled that senators included this provision: we appreciate Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for their leadership of this effort on both sides of the aisle. Thanks also to Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) should be noted for their vital support.

This proposal is consistent with national trends; fourteen states have banned life-without-parole sentences for children. Nine of those have occurred within the last three years, including laws passed this year in Connecticut and Nevada which become effective October 1.

Progress has been painfully slow. Over twenty years after the 1989 UN General Assembly vote to open the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) for signature and ratification by UN member states, the United States remains one of only two UN members not to have ratified it. The other is Somalia. The Convention outlaws life without parole sentences for minors.

The USA is the only country in the world that regularly sentences children to life without parole. Although plenty of other countries, including Australia, the UK and France, have life sentences for juveniles tried as adults, they are subject to review, on the understanding that even the gravest debts to society incurred by adolescents can eventually be repaid.

jail_1716047c“The propriety of the sentence is, in many ways, uniquely American,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

“We are much more comfortable with this idea that somebody is permanently irredeemable or beyond rehabilitation, or that they have forfeited forever their right to be free.” This is the principle of justice as revenge rather than justice for the protection of society or for the rehabilitation of the offender.

Around 2,500 people are currently serving strict life terms for offences committed before they were old enough to vote, serve on a jury, or legally buy cigarettes.

Even if the law explicitly rules our eternal sentences for children, there are ways round the restriction. In Pennsylvania, for example, criminal homicide is excluded from juvenile law. But last October, a ten-year-old was charged with murder, in the adult system, after reportedly confessing to killing a ninety-year-old woman. There are around five hundred people locked up indefinitely for youthful crimes in the state – more than anywhere else.

In the last decade, the American legal system has started to recognise that children tried as adults for serious offences merit special treatment. In a landmark 2005 decision, Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death because, by their nature, they are less culpable than adults.

Teenagers are not adults. A simple principle, but one that is applied patchily.

Teenagers are less able to assess risks and consequences and more susceptible to peer pressure, noted Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion. “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” he wrote.

A 12-year-old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The prison is run by Mississippi Security Police, a private service.

A 12-year-old juvenile in his windowless cell at Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Mississippi. The prison is run by Mississippi Security Police, a private service. Photo: Richard Ross

Five years later, in Graham v Florida, the court held that the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution also prohibits life without parole sentences for minors who commit crimes other than murder, citing emerging neuroscience showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, particularly in areas associated with impulse control.

“What the court has said is that kids are fundamentally different, that their unique characteristics as children have to be accounted for, and that our harshest of punishments are not appropriate.” says Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.

In one landmark case (Miller v Alabama) the Supreme Court decided that mandatory sentences for children should be quashed and the offenders re-tried and re-sentenced. But in states that have begun reviewing old life sentences, (it is a very slow process), many defendants are being re-sentenced, in effect, to life without parole. The Governor of Iowa, for example, simply commuted the sentences of all affected prisoners to a minimum of sixty years, regardless of their crime or the extent of their rehabilitation.

A number of organisations have approved policy resolutions against life-without-parole sentences for children. This body of support illustrates the growing momentum and strong coalition against the use of these extreme sentences for youth.

American Bar Association – resolution enacted February 2015
“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.

American Probation and Parole Association – resolution enacted February 2015
In addition to calling for an elimination of life-without-parole sentences for children, the resolution also recommends that governments, “provide youthful offenders with meaningful periodic opportunities for release” and “acknowledge the mitigating factors of age.”

American Correctional Associationresolution enacted August 2014
The American Correctional Association opposes life without parole for children in this resolution, and also states that, “youthful offenders convicted of serious and/or violent crimes should be held accountable in a way that reflects human rights, values and moral beliefs” and that “youthful offenders have much greater potential for rehabilitation and should be provided every opportunity to heal and rehabilitate.”

National Association of Countiesresolution enacted July 2014
This resolution supports eliminating life without parole and asks that lawmaking bodies across the country do so as well. From the resolution, “We therefore, call upon State Legislatures across the country and the U.S. Congress to enact legislation that abolishes life without parole for children and provides them with meaningful and periodic sentencing reviews. These legislative changes should be applied both retroactively and prospectively so that no child is allowed to have their human rights violated because of when they were sentenced.”

Let us hope that the USA’s legislators put an end to this monstrosity before much longer. After all, the principle is pretty straightforward has been so for centuries.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Merchant of Venice

“If Donald Trump becomes president, that will be the end of the world,” Lawrence told Entertainment Weekly during an exclusive interview promoting The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

Lawrence, 25, apparently regards the possibility of a President Trump as well as her character Katniss Everdeen regards the ruthless President Snow in The Hunger Games, and openly wonders whether the Republican frontrunner’s campaign is indeed legitimate.

“I genuinely believe that reality television has reached the ultimate place where now even things like this might just be for entertainment,” she said. “It’s either that or it’s Hillary’s brilliant idea.”

Two of her Hunger Games costars seemingly agree.

Something of an un-reality show, frankly.

Something of an un-reality show, frankly.

“It’s a publicity stunt,” Josh Hutcherson told EW. “It can’t be real.” Liam Hemsworth, meanwhile, doubles down on Lawrence’s prediction that a Trump presidency could lead to the apocalypse.

“I’ll back you up on that,” he said.

Lawrence added that while Trump’s blunt style might appeal to some voters, his uncensored straight talk leaves her shaking her head.

“I was watching him on the campaign trail and one guy said, ‘I love Donald Trump because he’s saying everything I’m thinking and I just can’t say it because of the PC factor.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You are absolutely right. That’s who I want representing my country, somebody politically incorrect. That will just be perfect.’ ”

A few more people making the same simple point wouldn’t hurt before the world assumes that a great chunk of America has gone stark-staring moon-barking mad.


Pope Francis says he didn’t have the time because he already had a date eating with the homeless. In fact, he is not only going to be eating with them, but serving them. The meal will take place at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C.

Rather than try to write some great prose about this situation, we will simply quote Eric March from the website Upworthy, because he nailed it:

Unlike some of his predecessors, Francis has reminded journalists and world leaders time and time again that the church is for the poor, blasted the global financial system which causes so much poverty in the first place, and called on Catholics across the globe to take action and start lifting up the most vulnerable among them.

He’s also spoken out forcefully against economic inequality.

Including some of the worst, most exploitative labor practices in the world, which create conditions that allow hardship and desperation to thrive.

Blowing off John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi to serve the homeless is pretty much the kind of badassery we’ve come to expect from this pope when it comes to speaking up for the world’s most hard-up.

“Pope Francis is the ultimate Washington outsider. His priorities are not Washington’s priorities,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

“We think we are the centre of the world. We are not the centre of Pope Francis’ world. He is frankly more comfortable in the slums of Argentina than in the corridors of power.”

Frank is also very comfortable trying to get the politicians of this world to understand that Climate change is real, and that it is caused by humanity, and that screwing the planet is not the sort of stewardship God intended us to follow.

We really like this guy. Really like him. He’s our type of Christian, and our type of leader.

We sincerely hope someone doesn’t shoot him, or that he doesn’t have a very convenient heart attack. And no, we’re not kidding.