Monthly Archives: April 2011

The American Right: A Case Study in Lunacy

You might remember back in January the political controversy that raged in the wake of the gun attack on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at an open air constituency clinic outside a shopping mall in Tucson. Nineteen people were wounded by a lone gunman, Jared Loughner, six of whom were killed, the youngest a nine-year old girl, and afterwards there was a good deal of talk that he might have been inspired by right-wing, hate-filled hysteria of the sort available, and at that time reaching a new pitch of intensity on Fox News and talk radio.

There was some basis for this thinking. Loughner had made whacky anti-federal government statements of the sort popular in Tea Party and libertarian circles; attacks and threats against Democrats were ratcheting up (Giffords herself had warned in a TV interview of the consequences of such violent rhetoric) and mainstream figures like Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and Fox’s Glenn Beck had been busy feeding the right-wing’s insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories and addiction to gun violence as the way to confound them.

But the prospect of having to confront the great unacknowledged reality of American life, that one of the two major political traditions in the country was significantly if not largely under the sway of nutballs and psychotics, horrified the mainstream media. After all, having to admit that Grandma might be going a little nutty is one thing but being obliged to concede that insanity is rampant on father’s side of your DNA is an entirely different matter.

But not to worry. Deliverance was on its way and within a few days it arrived in the form of Jared Loughner’s mug shot which clearly showed that the gunman was as mad as a hatter. The sigh of relief from America’s newsrooms was almost audible. Loughner’s violence couldn’t have been political, they sang in chorus, because he was clearly, visibly insane.

Jared Loughner - so crazy he couldn't possibly be right-wing

No doubt about it. The guy was as loopy as they come. But that seemed to me to rather miss the point which is that Loughner was and is no less certifiable than much of the American right-wing. A philosophy that can see ‘death panels’ in proposals to extend health coverage to more people, that is convinced that Barack Obama is a Muslim Marxist, or that Sharia law is about to be imposed nationwide and that Al Qaeda is sending pregnant Muslim woman to America so their offspring can be reared as citizens and ‘sleeper’ human bombs – so-called ‘terror babies’ – is every bit as deranged as someone, like Loughner, who believes that the government uses mind control to brainwash people by controlling grammar.

If more proof for this central, almost defining aspect of Conservative American politics is necessary it can be found by the bucket-load in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s decision to make his long-form birth certificate publicly available earlier this week. The birther phenomenon, the conviction that Obama was born in Kenya, is not a US citizen and therefore ineligible for the White House, is itself evidence of mental instability but the fact that the latest, and most shameless champion of this bit of lunacy, Donald Trump, was riding so high in the opinion polls indicates that political dementia in Conservative America is at epidemic proportions.

(While there can be little doubt that much of the birthers’ bile is fueled by racism and their irritation that an African-American sits in the Oval Office, it is worth bearing in mind that right-wing dementia of this sort first became visible during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Clinton was white and a good ol’ boy from the South, where the anti-Obama lunacy is strongest yet the right-wing leveled charges against Clinton that they have not dared to make against Obama – at least yet. The gravest accusation against Clinton was that he had been responsible for murdering as many as fifty people who might have been about to testify against him or his wife Hillary.)

One symptom of madness is the inability of the lunatic to recognize their own illness and so it is with the birthers. Their refusal to accept the evidence of Obama’s US citizenship, mirrored by the reluctance of mainstream Conservative politicians to bury the issue for once and all, was to be expected but it is only when you actually read what they are now saying that you can properly realise how truly and irredeemably mad these people are and, by extension, how malign are American politics.

Take for example this website, which calls itself “The Patriot Update – A Free Press for the Conservative Revolution”, a Tea party-inclined outfit by the look of it. It starts its coverage of Obama’s birth certificate by saying: “Of course we’d love to put this issue behind us and move onto the important issues facing our nation, but questions still remain.” Of course. And those questions?

Well first there is the fact that the certificate did not reveal the juicy and embarrassing details that followers of “The Patriot Update” expected, like Obama being a Muslim because his father was one, or him being misdescribed as “Caucasian” because his mother was one. The absence of all this is points to dirty work at the White House and an effort to buy time. As “The Patriot Update” put it: “….makes you wonder why this went on so long”.

And what could that reason possibly be? Well of course it was to give Obama the time and opportunity to fabricate the birth certificate. What else could it be? And the evidence? There’s three bits, and here they are:

• Supposedly the original document was in a bound volume (as reflected by the curvature of the left hand side of the certificate), why is the green patterned background of the document’s safety paper seem to be so seamless?

• Why, if Obama was born on August 4, 1961, was the “Date Accepted by Local Reg.” four days later on August 8, 1961?

• The certificate says “African” for Obama’s father’s race when the term used in the 1960’s was “Negro”.

So there you are. No doubt about it, the birth certificate is a fake, Obama is an impostor, and America still faces the threat of ‘death panels’ and a Marxist Muslim plot to impose Sharia law.

Less than 24 hours after “The Patriot Update” posted all this nonsense, no less than 1,064 of its readers had left their comments, enough of them to remove any doubt at all that the only difference between them and Jared Loughner is that he went out and did what they only fantasize about doing. Here are some examples. Read them, remember that people like these nowadays dictate or profoundly shape the policies of America’s second largest political party, and weep.

Len says:

April 28, 2011 at 6:48 am

”We do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Obama said. “We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve.” THIS IS A GRAVE SECURITY ISSUE THAT THIS PRESIDENT AND MANY PEOPLE PLAYED DOWN, THAT WITH THE THREAT OF SHARIA LAW & MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD INFILTRATING POLITICS TO SUBVERT & OVERTHROW CONSTITUTIONAL LAW & GOVERNMENT, IT IS CRITICAL THAT WE HAVE CONSTITUTIONALLY A U.S. NATURAL BORN CITIZEN! What is the matter with us, where is our common sense? Where is the FBI, CIA, our Internal Security to investigate these things?

Obama's 'Kenyan birth certificate'

LD Gray says:

April 28, 2011 at 7:47 am

Is anyone going to prove the Kenyan birth certifate as being a “fake?” The Kenyan birth certificate has an ink impression of his foot – and the President of Kenya said construction of a monument of Obama is underway at Coast Provincial Hospital in Mombasa – where Obama’s Grandmother said she witnessed his birth. His mother was swimming in the ocean when she had cramps and went to Coastal. Check it out on Google: Coastal Providence hospital birthplace of obama -
– that is if Obama hasn’t had the site removed – you can view his Kenyan birth certificate and zoom in by clicking on it.

UncleRickets says:

April 28, 2011 at 8:30 am

The big O cannot be trusted. He says one thing and does another. Proclaims to be a Christian but says nothing of the Resurrection Day (Easter). This birth Certificate is not real. It is a fabrication. He wants to put this silliness behind him because people with resources (Trump) brought it up and he doesn’t want anyone with those resources digging any deeper. When this is all said and done we will have put a Muslim, Kenyan in the highest office of the United States. The reason Congress doesn’t want it to come out is that they would be the laughing stocks of the world. Actions speak louder than words. This president doesn’t act like an American!

JACK3889 says:

April 28, 2011 at 9:18 am


PriklyPete says:

April 28, 2011 at 10:42 am

I’ll volunteer and furnish the bullets and guns!

Ron says:

April 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm

right on dude

Miss Vi says:

April 28, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Count me in – my guns are loaded!!

patriot4life says:

April 28, 2011 at 9:05 am


Donna Eyman says:

April 28, 2011 at 11:49 am

Obama was born with the name Barry Soroeto, so this is definetely a fake. I am outraged that no one seems to be seeing this obvious play on our emotions. His pattern is totally unConstitutional so when are people going to start doing something about it and quite smiling and agreeing?

just myrtle says:

April 28, 2011 at 1:07 pm

It makes not the teeniest, weeniest difference what can be proved against this man, he is America’s King of Kings and he will remain just that. He is a liberal radical Muslim and he has a houseful of political radical liberal muslims to keep him where he is. Enough to have him impeached and tried for treason has already been proved and nothing has been done. There is only one thing that I know of that will stop him, “THE COMING OF JESUS CHRIST OUR SAVIOUR AND THE SON OF GOD”.These radical libersl do not believe in GOD AND HIS SON JESUS CHRIST but to all Christians there is no greater truth or power in the world.

Haters Gonna Hate says:

April 28, 2011 at 10:12 am

I know right, for some reason liberal candidates don’t seem to get scrutinized as harshly as their conservative counterparts. I mean when Bush was asked about his war record, he produced TONS of information, no more questions. The liberal a-holes need to go away. I wish we could hand our whole country over to the major US corporations who then could choose our congress and president. I bet they would get it right! And F..k panda bears, they are not American, quit funding the zoos! Zoos are are a major problem in the US, just in my city alone millions are spent on animals that don’t make money for any businesses, just there for amusement. First windmills are stopping the world from turning, now OBAMA is telling me to get a prostate exam, what next? God Bless Dick Cheney.

Mark says:

April 28, 2011 at 11:03 am

OK, so he finally released his birth certificate. He’s had over two years to hire someone to forge a document that looks real and even if it is, his eligibility is still in question. According to the Constitution, both parents have to be natural citizens of the U.S. His father was may have been naturalized, but was certainly not born here. This seems to be a point that everyone is missing and that’s why he’s taken so long to release it.

Dixie Lee Eubank says:

April 28, 2011 at 11:28 am

I just want to know if Obama think we’re all as stupid as he is. It’s got to be a fake. If not, then why the delay in showing it. Of course, I agree with a lot of the comments. We just need to get that man out of office and try to straighten out all the mess he’s made. His birth certificate is the least of our problems.
Don’t all of those people in Washington realize that all we would have to do, is get rid of Welfare, food stamps and send all the illegas back to were they came from and we would be a rich country. They have just let it get out of hand.

Libya and Gaza: Double Standards in Conflict Reporting at The New York Times

Hats off to The New York Times for being one of the first, if not the first, to report last Friday that Col. Gaddafi’s forces in Libya have been firing cluster bombs into residential neighborhoods of Misurata, the sole city in western Libya still in rebel hands, thereby escalating the possibility of major civilian carnage.

Deployment of the weapon, along with ground-to-ground rockets, represents a significant intensification in the two-month old crisis in Libya sparked by the so-called Arab Spring of democratic rebellions that have surged through the Middle East.

The Libyan uprising, however, is the only one of these insurrections that has seen direct Western military involvement and it was the apparent threat to civilian life of the sort reported this weekend by the NYTimes and other media outlets that brought that about. Following an allegedly bloodcurdling threat from Gaddafi in early March to exact revenge against the citizens of Benghazi, the eastern city that has been the epicenter of the revolt, the United Nations Security Council authorised the use of force to protect civilians.

Justifying US involvement in the NATO-led bombing campaign against Gaddafi’s forces that followed, President Barack Obama said: “If we waited one more day, Benghazi . . . could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.’’

Cluster bombs: a devastating weapon when used against civiians

Gaddafi’s use of cluster bombs clearly increases the danger to Libya’s civilian population. The munitions, which contain many smaller, shrapnel-packed bomblets are designed to shower wide areas with deadly explosives. On the battlefield they can cut down scores of soldiers at a time but in heavily populated urban neighborhoods the weapon can kill and maim on a massive scale. As The NYTimes put it, describing the deployment of the weapon along with rockets:

Both of these so-called indiscriminate weapons, which strike areas with a dense succession of high-explosive munitions, by their nature cannot be fired precisely. When fired into populated areas, they place civilians at grave risk.

The dangers were evident beside one of the impact craters on Friday (in Misurata), where eight people had been killed while standing in a bread-line. Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall.

The NYTimes’ report came just as other media outlets, such as The Boston Globe, were beginning to offer a platform to more skeptical analyses of the rationale for war in Libya. These pointed out that not only did Gaddafi not threaten a civilian massacre in Benghazi – this claim was made instead by rebels – he had offered an amnesty to those who threw their weapons away and even offered rebels an escape route to Egypt. The use of cluster bombs, however, tilts the balance the other way, strengthening the view that Gaddafi is prepared to kill his own people in order to survive.

Nonetheless cynics will be suspicious about this report and its timing. After all, it comes as the Western-led effort in the oil-rich North African state is badly running out of steam and disagreements over tactics and strategy are rife amongst the NATO allies. Gaddafi has also taken advantage of confusion in his enemy’s camp and has forced the rebels to flee from eastern cities they had captured. With the rebels’ rag tag army once more on the run, NATO and its political leadership are facing a humiliating setback at the hands of one of the Arab world’s most eccentric leaders.

Gaddafi and Obama in happier days

By coincidence or not, the three Western leaders spearheading the NATO campaign, Barack Obama, Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, put their names to an Op-Ed which appeared this weekend in major US and European newspapers that appeared to admit for the first time that the aim of the operation was now not just to protect civilian lives but to effect the ousting of the Libyan dictator.

Prior to this Obama, for one, was keen to rule out any charge that he and his allies planned to overthrow Gaddafi. “Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake”, he told the American public last month. It was a stance dictated by the knowledge that doing otherwise would not go down well in the Arab world. It was one thing to drop bombs on Arab cities in the name of humanitarian exigency, but, in the context of Bush’s war in Iraq, an entirely different matter when the goal was to get rid of a government. In the wake of a growing stalemate in Libya, however, that had changed. Now, the trio of war leaders said in their Op-Ed: “Colonel Gaddafi must go, and go for good”.

The cynic will say that the curtain has now been pulled aside to reveal the real motives behind the NATO campaign, for which the expression of humanitarian concern was a convenient cover. The real goal was to extract payback from an Arab leader who was a real thorn in the West’s flesh not that long ago, whether by cocking a snook at the Reagan White House, funding and arming groups like the IRA which came close to assassinating a British prime minister or stirring up trouble in a host of Arab and African countries whose leaders were allies of the West.

Muammar and Tony: the former British PM is on the payroll, says Gaddafis son, Saif

According to this scenario this was too good an opportunity to settle some old scores, notwithstanding Gaddafi’s humbling, not to say embarrassing efforts to ingratiate himself with the West in recent years (his new pals included Tony Blair, who was on the family payroll according to Gaddafi’s son Saif, and Silvio Berlusconi who is said to have got the idea of hosting his now infamous “bunga-bunga parties” from Gaddafi). That Libya also produces the highest grade oil of any Arab state and that the people who are slated to take over from Gaddafi will likely be grateful to the West in all the most suitable and appropriate ways is a bonus, and a big one at that.

Muammar and Silvio: Gaddafi "introduced Italian leader to bunga-bunga parties"

All of this may well be true but to suggest, as some might, that The New York Times story is therefore a very timely and convenient excuse for NATO to escalate the war against Gaddafi would be a good deal more credible if the story itself was dodgy and on the level of say Judith Miller’s notorious aluminum tubes report, a piece of fiction which helped the Bush White House raise the spectre of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein to justify the Iraq war while staining The NYTimes’ reputation, some say indelibly.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The NYTimes reporter, CJ Chivers was able to examine and photograph remnants of three mortars fired last week at Misurata, each filled with twenty-one “submunitions”, i.e. smaller bombs designed to kill people and penetrate armor. He was also able to trace the bombs to their Spanish manufacturer, Instalaza and quoted Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group which verified that cluster bombs were being used by the Libyan government forces.

A young Iraqi victim of American cluster bombs

For good measure, Chivers noted that the United States is not amongst the countries who have signed a Convention barring their use, implying therefore that any attempt by America to make a human rights issue out of all this would sound hypocritical to say the least. (US forces also used the weapon in Iraq, causing sometimes terrible civilian casualties) He also spoke to eye witnesses who had been nearby when the cluster mortars landed and exploded. So all in all a solid, well-reported piece of journalism and an article of which The New York Times can be justifiably proud.

I mention all of this by way of contrast and the contrast is to the same paper’s coverage of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, a military operation that was code named Operation Cast Lead and whose principal victims were also civilians. According to Palestinians sources quoted in the Goldstone Report between 1390 and 1440 people were killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during that two or three week-long incursion and the vast majority, perhaps as many as 75 per cent, were ordinary, non-involved Gaza citizens. Over 100 women were killed and possibly as many as 350 of the fatalities were children. The Israelis have starkly different numbers which claim that the bulk of the dead were militants or combatants but have failed to produce evidence to back up their figures.

The civilian death toll was perhaps not on the same scale that Barack Obama seemed to suggest would have happened in Benghazi but for the intervention of the US and her allies but nonetheless it was large enough to suggest that the aim of the operation was less to punish the Hamas activists who were firing rockets into Israel and more to teach the population of Gaza a brutal lesson for voting Hamas into power and/or continuing to give them support.

The disparity between civilian and military casualties was large enough by itself to warrant the suspicion that this or something like it was the real mission goal and so was the choice of weaponry employed by the Israelis in Gaza’s packed, built up areas where the average population density is some 4,500 people per square kilometer.

The scale of civilian killings in Gaza was sufficiently large to inflame international public opinion and to oblige the United Nations to launch an investigation into Operation Cast Lead. The results of that investigation, the Goldstone Report, have damaged, possibly beyond repair, Israel’s already tarnished reputation for disrespecting the rights of Palestinian Arabs.

There is little doubt that the most controversial and disturbing weapon deployed in Gaza by Israel was white phosphorous (WP), a substance that is used conventionally to generate smoke and provide cover for troop movements. For that reason it is not a banned weapon. But using it in densely populated urban areas is an entirely different matter. Israel claimed it used WP legally, to give her soldiers a smokescreen but on the ground, in the tightly packed streets of Gaza it killed, maimed and terrified civilians.

An unforgettable image of Israels incursion into Gaza: a white phosphorous shell explodes above a Palestinian neighborhood

WP is used in two ways. Encased into artillery shells, it can be fired at ground targets like normal ordnance or it can be fused to explode in mid-air, showering down multiple streams of deep-yellow colored phosphorous embers. The chemical ignites when exposed to oxygen and can only be doused, but not extinguished by a covering of dirt of sand.

The effect of white phosphorous raining down on Gaza’s civilian population was devastating. Doctors interviewed by the Goldstone team spoke of horrifying burn injuries to its victims. WP sticks to the flesh and will burn until all the phosphorous is exhausted. In some cases victims were treated only to return the next day with wounds that were smoking with remnants of WP still burning deep into tissue and sometimes into the bone.

Medical staff learned that the only effective way to treat WP victims was to cut away large portions of flesh around the affected area. Some had limbs amputated, others were burned to death. Although there is little doubt that many more Gazans were killed by conventional weapons the gruesome, indiscriminate cruelty of white phosphorous marked it out as a truly horrifying and repellant weapon.

This is what is like to be on the receiving end of a white phosphorous shell

The Goldstone team indicted Israel for its use of the weapon, saying it had breached Articles 18 and 19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which declare hospitals off-limits during wartime and parts of Protocol One of the Convention, effectively saying that Israel had undertaken military operations while disregarding the consequences for civilians. The Convention bars the use of WP against civilians and while Goldstone didn’t charge Israel with deliberately flouting the law, the report did say that the IDF was “systematically reckless” in its use of the weapon in built-up areas. One member of the Goldstone mission, former Irish Army officer, Colonel Desmond Travers has estimated that some 3,500 white phosphorous shells, containing around 400,000 individual wedges of the chemical were fired by the IDF during the incursion of Gaza.

Specifically, Goldstone’s people found that WP shells had been fired at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency at a time when the UN complex was being used to shelter some 700 civilians – one shell landed near a large oil tank and disaster was averted only by brave and speedy action on the part of staff members – and that the same weapon had been used against two hospitals, the Al Quds in Gaza city and the Al Wafa in the east of the city. The Goldstone report also chronicled the case of the Abu Halima family, about whose harrowing fate it had this to say:

On 4 January 2009, the bombardment reportedly increased as Israeli troops moved into and took control of al-Atatra neighbourhood. The Abu Halima family was sheltering in the home of Muhammad Sa’ad Abu Halima and Sabah Abu Halima in Sifaya village. The house has two floors; the ground floor is used for storage and the living quarters are on the upper floor. According to Sabah Abu Halima, 16 members of her immediate family were sheltering on the upper floor.

In the afternoon, after hearing that a shell had hit the adjacent house of Sabah Abu Halima’s brother-in-law, most of the family moved from the bedroom into a hallway in the middle of the upper floor, where they thought they would be better protected. At around 4.30 p.m., a white phosphorous shell came through the ceiling into the room where they were sheltering.

According to family members who survived, there was intense fire and white smoke in the room, the walls of which were glowing red. Five members of the family died immediately or within a short period: Muhammad Sa’ad Abu Halima (aged 45) and four of his children, sons Abd al-Rahim Sa’ad (aged 14), Zaid (aged 12) and Hamza (aged 8), and daughter Shahid (aged 18 months). Muhammad Sa’ad and Abd al-Rahim Sa’ad were decapitated, the others burnt to death. Five members of the family escaped and suffered various degrees of burns: Sabah Abu Halima, her sons Youssef (aged 16) and Ali (aged 4), daughter-in-law Ghada (aged 21), and Ghada’s daughter Farah (aged 2).

One horrifying consequence of a white phosphorous attack

So how did The New York Times cover the deployment of white phosphorous by the IDF in Gaza? Again by way of contrast, the best way to start answering that question is perhaps to look at how one its European rivals covered the same story. The paper in question is The Times of London. Now this is a paper that is part of Rupert Murdoch’s stable and the people at The New York Times tend to look down their collective noses at anything published by News International. After all,  many of Murdoch’s publications do have a reputation for tabloid-like trashiness, a scant respect for the facts and little in the way of ethical standards: take a look, for instance, at the phone hacking scandal currently embroiling The News of the World in London.

Not all of Murdoch’s children are brats, however, and The Times can sometimes rise majestically to the occasion. Its coverage of Israel’s deployment of white phosphorous was one such instance. The paper’s first story appeared on January 5th under the headline ‘Israel rains fire on Gaza with phosphorous shells’ and two days later, on January 8th, followed that up with a story about the horrifying injuries caused by WP, while noting that the IDF’s official denials that the weapon was in use and identifying the shells as being of US origin: “There is also evidence that the rounds have injured Palestinian civilians, causing severe burns. The use of white phosphorous against civilians is prohibited under international law”. Another story on January 12th provided more detailed evidence of widespread civilian casualties caused by the weapon.

On January 15th, The Times reported that the UNWRA complex in Gaza had been hit by white phosphorous shells and that the UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon had protested to the Israeli government (a counter claim by Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert that his forces had been forced to reply to Hamas attacks was not supported by Goldstone). It continued in terms that left little doubt the paper believed the Israelis to be liars: “The Israeli military has denied using white phosphorous shells in the Gaza offensive, although an investigation by The Times has revealed that dozens of Palestinians in Gaza have sustained serious injuries from the substance, which burns at extremely high temperatures.”

So how did The New York Times compare to its British equivalent? I did a search of the paper’s website and archive and trawled Lexis-Nexis for references in the paper to white phosphorous during Operation Cast Lead. In total there were just five reports and with the exception of the last article, filed after the Israelis had withdrawn from Gaza, the NYT’s references to WP were perfunctory, repeated IDF and Israeli government explanations for its use and made little if any mention of the death and injury caused to Gazan civilians.

The first was a story on January 11th by Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the NYT since March 2008. Although the subject had been well reported by The Times of London and other European newspapers up to a week beforehand, Bronner devoted just one sentence to WP in a report that led with Israel’s warnings to Gaza residents about a planned escalation of its incursion. Although Bronner also reported signs of growing international criticism of Israeli tactics and the dangers posed to Gazan civilians, the reference to WP was a meager one that carried echoes of the IDF’s line on its use. He wrote: “Human rights groups are also concerned about the Israeli use of white phosphorous, which creates smoke on a battlefield, at low altitudes or crowded areas, because it can burn like a kind of napalm.”

The second report came on January 16th, five days later and dealt with the shelling of the UNWRA complex. The article dwelt on Israeli doubts about the UN’s neutrality and complaints about its “institutional bias”, carried the IDF claim that its shelling was in response to Hamas fire and devoted just two paragraphs in a 1600 word article to the use of White Phosphorus.

Bylined Isabel Kershner, the story had this to say about the weapon:

Citing agency representatives who were present during the attack, Mr Gunness (a UNWRA spokesman) said three white phosphorous shells had hit the compound, causing fires that raged for hours, an allegation to which the Israeli military did not respond.

White phosphorous is a standard, legal weapon in armies, long used as a way to light up an area or to create a thick white smoke to obscure troop movements. While using it against civilians, or in an area where many civilians are likely to be affected, can be a violation of international law, Israel has denied using the substance improperly. On Wednesday, Hamas fired a phosphorous mortar shell into Israel, but no-one was hurt.

On January 22nd, the day after Israel withdrew from Gaza, The New York Times carried two pieces on WP, one by Ethan Bronner and Alan Cowell which reported that Israel had established a military investigation “to look into the issue” of alleged misuse of WP following allegations reported in what an IDF spokesman called “the foreign press”. It was the first admission by the paper that Israel’s use of white phosphorous had angered and incensed international opinion.

A second piece, solely by Ethan Bronner, finally put a human face to the consequences of white phosphorous use and reported on the ordeal of the Abu Halima family. Five members of the family, four children and their father, had perished in a WP attack over two weeks earlier and the incident had been widely reported, both in The Times of London and other European outlets, but it was only now that The New York Times was giving the story any coverage.

Ethan Bronner

Bronner quoted Sabah Abu Halima, the surviving widow, at length and also doctors who had treated survivors and had seen the horrific injuries up close. One doctor said that in a few cases the damage done by WP was so acute that “seemingly limited burns led to the patients’ deaths.” Sabah Abu Halima’s grief was so profound, she said she wanted to see Israel’s foreign minister and president “burn like my children burned”.

It was a good piece of reporting that well reflected the horrors visited upon Palestinian civilians by Israeli white phosphorous. But it came far too late, like the horse that bolted the stable. It also smacked of catch up by the Gray Lady, as if someone in the New York HQ had realized that the paper really ought to say something about the matter given the level of international concern over Israel’s behavior in Gaza. But by this stage the horse had galloped several fields away.

It could be said in the paper’s defense that The New York Times was hampered, as was all the media, by Israeli government restrictions on media access to the Gaza war zone. Reporters like Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner couldn’t actually report from the ground, could not see the evidence or lack thereof for themselves and couldn’t get to speak to victims like Sabah Abu Halima, much less look into her eyes as she voiced her allegations. All their reports, bar the second Bronner piece on January 22nd, carried the Jerusalem dateline. Only when the IDF had evacuated could Ethan Bronner get into Gaza to speak to Palestinians.

That all sounds reasonable except for one thing. Like the NYT, The Times of London’s reports were all datelined Jersualem and for its detailed coverage of events on the ground in Gaza the paper seemingly relied on local stringers. And it managed to report in considerable detail both the use of WP and the devastating injuries being caused. So what about The New York Times? Did the paper have someone on the ground in Gaza and if so, why didn’t its coverage match its English counterpart?

Well yes, the paper did have someone on the ground in Gaza. Her name was Taghreed El-Khodary, a Palestinian journalist and she was the paper’s local correspondent, able to go places and speak to people inaccessible to Bronner and Kershner. On January 19th, 2009, she featured in a lengthy readers’ Q&A session reported in the Lede blog on the NYT website where she was asked about evidence that she had seen about the use of WP. She replied, inter alia: “I could find evidence of the use of white phosphorus bombs……As a result, we wrote about the use of the phosphorus. Israel used white phosphorus in densely populated areas.”

Taghreed El-Khodary

Ms El-Khodary may well have written about white phosphorous but if so, her reports about its use, the evidence she had found and her assertion that the weapon was used in “densely populated areas” never appeared in her paper, at least no edition available in any archive that I could search.

In all of this, it may entirely be a coincidence that the NYT’s Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner has what many would see as a major conflict of interest. He is married to an Israeli citizen and his son is a soldier in the Israeli army. Philip Weiss in his Mondoweiss blog reported on The New York Times response when Bronner’s background became known: “When it broke the news last year, Electronic Intifada said that it was a conflict of interest; and the newspaper’s public editor concurred; he said that Bronner should be reassigned to some other beat. The Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller, has kept Bronner in Jerusalem, presumably hoping that the issue dies down and no one says anything about it.” (Taghreed El-Khodary resigned when the NYT refused to reassign Bronner and spoke of her “disappointment” at the paper’s decision). The NYT’s other Jerusalem-based correspondent Isabel Kershner is an Israeli citizen.

Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that such considerations would or could affect how a journalist covers a particular story or how a newspaper should regard his or her stories. But put it this way. If CJ Chivers was a Libyan citizen, or was married to one, and had a son who was fighting for the rebels in Benghazi and all this was known to the world, would The New York Times have been just as quick to publish his story about Gaddafi’s use of cluster bombs, just as confident that it could weather the inevitable controversy?

Martin McGuinness, Informers, the Media and Why Dissident Republicans Still Kill People

This is one of those weeks when I am glad to be in New York and not Belfast. I’ll explain why further down, but it’s not for the reasons that you think.

Last weekend, dissident republicans, i.e. anti-Provisional ones, killed a young member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, using a bomb that was a standard IRA weapon when the Troubles were raging. It was nicknamed by those who developed and used the device ‘an up and under’, an appellation derived from the way it was placed.

Dissident IRA bomb killed policeman in Omagh, Co. Tyrone

An “up and under” was a small bomb, usually packed into a Tupperware-style container that was attached to the underside of a car, usually just beneath the driver’s seat, assuming the driver was the target, and designed to explode while the car was in motion.

It was affixed to the bodywork by a strong magnet and detonated by a mercury tilt switch, essentially a small tube partially filled with mercury that would flow from one end of the tube to the other, thereby completing an electrical circuit, whenever the car was driven on to a gradient.

Once it was flowing, the electric current would detonate a fuse which in turn would set off the main charge. It was the easiest device to place and it took just a few furtive moments to begin the process of hurling someone into eternity. All the bomber had to do was crouch down, slip the package underneath the car and then up into the seat well. Hence the nickname.

The Provisional IRA, whose resourceful engineering department devised this and many other weapons during the Troubles, used this sort of bomb repeatedly. Not only was it an effective weapon that invariably killed but it required little in the way of investment: a few ounces of explosive, some basic intelligence work, one person and a getaway car with driver. One additional bonus was that the hardest bit, placing the bomb, could be done in the middle of the night when the risks of being caught were minimal.

It also terrified those who were its potential targets, mainly RUC officers and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment but also politicians, judges, prosecutors and civil servants whose every day would have to begin with an undignified but possibly life-saving search of the underneath of their vehicles. The bomb was the ultimate psychological weapon, a constant reminder from the Provos to the security establishment that there was a war going on which might tomorrow morning claim their lives, or at least their legs.

Most the weapon’s victims were policemen or UDR soldiers killed as they drove to work in the mornings but there were more prominent casualties as well. John McMichael, the talented UDA leader, was one, killed in the driveway of his Lisburn,

John McMichael, the UDA commander killed by an IRA up and under" bomb

Co. Antrim home by an “up and under” device. His killing, it was widely believed at the time, was carried out by the IRA in retaliation for the assassination bid on Gerry Adams, shot as he was being driven through the centre of Belfast after a court appearance in March 1984.

McMichael was the UDA’s military commander at the time and since he was spotted scouting the courthouse a few minutes before Adams was ambushed, it was assumed, not unreasonably, that he had something to do with it. The Provos bided their time and killed McMichael in December 1987 over three years later.

The timing of McMichael’s death may also have had something to do with an internal inquiry he had launched into fellow UDA member Jim Craig who was

Jim Craig, UDA traitor killed by his own people

killed by his own people a year later. Craig was a UDA traitor and as corrupt as they come. He had been passing on information to the IRA and INLA for some time and was believed, for instance, to have told the IRA where they could best kill Lennie Murphy, the leader of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang who was gunned down by an IRA squad in 1982. Revenge for trying to kill Gerry Adams was certainly one motive for blowing McMichael to pieces but so was the desire to preserve a valuable asset in the UDA.

(The Adams’ shooting had an interesting sequel. The late Tommy Little, who some years later succeeded Andy Tyrie as Supreme Commander of the UDA, told

Tommy Little, learned about the 'top men's agreement'.

me that later on the day of the Adams’ shooting an angry Joe Haughey rang the UDA’s headquarters on the Newtownards Road demanding to know what had happened to ‘the top men’s agreement’. Haughey was an IRA leader from the Unity Flats area, incidentally, who was later charged with, but acquitted of killing Mary Travers, the daughter of Belfast magistrate Tom Travers a few weeks after the attempt on Adams’ life. So why was an IRA commander making angry phone calls to the guys who had just tried to kill his boss? How come he even had their number?

Tommy made some inquiries and discovered that ‘the top men’s agreement’ was just that, a deal between the leaders of the IRA, UDA and UVF that while their respective ‘grunts’ were fair game, none of their leaders would ever be touched. It apparently had been struck sometime in the mid-1970‘s when Belfast’s sectarian slaughter was at its height. Such were the ethical rules of Northern Ireland’s dirty little war: kill the other ranks whenever and wherever you can, but we officer-types are off-bounds! Anyway the Adams’ assassination effort marked the end of the ‘top men’s agreement’, although it is remarkable how many of the ‘top men’ nonetheless came through it all with nary a scrape.)

Gerry Adams (centre, wearing glasses) - John McMichael was killed in retaliation for bid on his life

UDA and IRA had 'top men's agreement' to safeguard their leaders from attack

Nor was the IRA the only republican organisation to use “up and under” bombs. Their most famous victim was the Tory MP, Airey Neave who was killed in 1979 when just such a device placed by the INLA exploded under his car as he was driving up the ramp from the underground car park at the House of Commons in Westminster. The bomb blew off both his legs and he died an hour later in hospital from massive

Airey Neave with Margaret Thatcher

shock and loss of blood. Neave had masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid for the leadership of the British Conservatives and was slated to be her NI Secretary, which would have been good news for Unionists since he was an avid supporter of their cause.

I mention all this to demonstrate that the sort of bomb which killed Ronan Kerr has been around for decades and there is absolutely nothing new or particularly innovative about their use. But what did I read in the following Monday’s Irish Times but this:

British and Irish security and intelligence sources are increasingly concerned at the technical capacity of dissident republican groups following Saturday’s murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in an under-car explosion in Co Tyrone.

They believe the dissidents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their bomb-making capability, while the PSNI has described as ‘substantial’ the device that killed Constable Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic, in Omagh.

The PSNI, Garda and MI5 fear the dissidents are using under-car bombs that are miniature and more difficult to detect.

Reading that brought me back with a jolt to the days when it was often my job to write up such incidents. My abiding memory of that time was that the media, both Irish and British, often felt free, some seemed compelled, to write the most exaggerated, loosely sourced nonsense about such events. The effect was to to paint groups like the IRA in the most lurid of colors so as to emphasize how utterly beyond the pale they were.

In more recent times, both pre and post the St Andrews’ Agreement, there has been a small industry working away with energy and skill to do the same sort of thing with the dissidents, except in their case it is to inflate the perceived threat that they represent.

Before the St Andrews’ Agreement it was mostly Sinn Fein who were in this business and from their viewpoint it made sense. The more they could persuade everyone that only they stood between a fragile peace and a return to the bad old days of the Troubles, the easier it was to extract political concessions from the British and Irish governments and the easier it was to persuade the authorities on both sides of the Border to turn a blind eye to their various, uh, money-raising ventures, like armed robberies and tiger kidnappings on the grounds that such things were necessary to keep the hard men happy and on board.

Post the St Andrews’ Agreement a number of groups have had a vested interest in over-egging the dissident pudding. Some, like this bunch of London-based neocons, are in the business worldwide and especially in the Middle East, of exaggerating terrorist threats but is it not hard to work out either that, in these straitened days, both the PSNI and MI5 have much to gain if we are all led to believe that the dissidents are really, really bad news.

The PSNI and MI5 are, in Northern Ireland, primarily in the anti-terrorist business so the more terrorists they make us think there are and the more fearsome they seem to be, the greater the amount of money, manpower, prestige and bureaucratic clout that will come their way. There are also those, in both these two organisations and in the wider political world, who hope that in such ways Sinn Fein might be persuaded to embrace its Four Courts moment and take the offensive against erstwhile comrades, an event that would, like its Dublin counterpart in 1922, finally seal the peace process beyond any doubt or chance of retreat.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going the other way and minimising the threat posed by dissidents. Clearly they are capable of killing people. It’s just that compared to the Provos and what it was really like during the Troubles, even in the final years, the dissidents are a faint shadow, a mouse beside an elephant in comparison and they just don’t merit the hysterical, exaggeration-laden coverage of the last few days. I’ve seen reports, for instance, that the dissident groups have 600 members between them. In the name of God, that’s more than the Provos had in their ranks in the 1980’s when they nearly wiped our Mrs Thatcher’s entire Cabinet!

Nor am I necessarily getting over-exercised about the behaviour of the PSNI and MI5. It is an immutable law of organisations that they overstate the need for their own existence. In such ways not only do they get to keep their jobs but they get better and bigger ones. I don’t like nor approve of what they do, but neither am I surprised. And as for nudging the Provos to their Four Courts moment, what would you expect?

What really bugs me, and brought me back in this instance with a jolt to the days when I had to report similar events, is that it is no business of the media to indulge these organisations and interests in the way reflected in that Irish Times report. Of course, reporters must give an account of what such people have to say, making clear these are only claims, and balance the report by putting what happened in context. But no more than that.

To highlight what I am trying to say here, that Irish Times report could just as easily have read:

Dissident republicans kill first security force member in two whole years using booby trap bomb technology developed thirty years ago and inherited from Provisional IRA campaign. Security experts believe dissidents have sourced a supply of smaller Tupperware containers. Attack highlights patchy and fitful pattern of violent activity from dissident groups better noted for incompetence, political confusion and propensity to steal money sent from American sympathisers for prisoners’ families.

The reason why reports like the one in the Irish Times that I have just lampooned bug me is that I know that the reporters are fully aware of all this yet it doesn’t stop them. I can’t speak on a first-hand basis for the situation nowadays but when I used to observe this sort of reporting in situ, I was overwhelmingly aware of the real, albeit unspoken reason and I doubt if it has changed that much.

It was as if the journalists were saying:

OK, I strongly suspect we’re being fed mostly bullshit. But if I don’t go along with it I’ll be accused of not taking the threat seriously which means people might think that I secretly sympathise with those responsible because I don’t want to make them look bad. So rather than be labelled ‘a sneakin’ regarder’, I’ll go along with all the hyperbole and that way I’ll keep my job.

That sort of reasoning is part of what I call the Section 31 syndrome, a nasty leftover from the official censorship and its more insidious cousin, self-censorship that was ushered in by the Irish Republic’s broadcasting law of the 1970’s. The law forbad radio and television outlets from broadcasting the voices of members of certain proscribed groups. The IRA and SInn Fein were the principal targets but it had a chilling effect generally on coverage of the Troubles that lasted for many, many years.

The official censorship filtered into the print media and brought Ireland into an ice age of self-censorship that for many reporters was all about professional survival. Journalists were terrified of being labeled a fellow traveler of the IRA while timidity and mediocrity thrived. In my view Section 31 needlessly perpetuated the Troubles because it inhibited real understanding of what was going on. Simple reportage of the “Last night a bomb exploded….” variety almost entirely replaced efforts to explain what persuaded otherwise normal people to do things as extreme as planting the bombs.

The law was repealed at the outset of the peace process but the truth is that by that stage it was unnecessary to do such things by law; the media were perfectly capable of censoring themselves without any urging from the State. They still are and that this sort of behaviour lingers on in the coverage of bombings like that at the weekend is profoundly depressing and for me a reminder of why I was so happy to leave it all behind. And it’s why this week I’m glad I’m here and not there.

On a slightly different tack the killing of Ronan Kerr has brought the Provos a little closer to their Four Courts moment and that’s important because it helps to explain why the dissidents exist and are so intent on keeping a war alive that everyone else regards, correctly, as a lost cause.

The move came from Martin McGuinness who had these words to say to the media in the aftermath of the bomb:

I would say, and I am standing up to be counted, give the information to the police, give it to the Garda in the south if you have it, give it to the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] in the north.

My message is very, very simple: those who are perpetrating these acts, those who are killing our people, need to be apprehended.

These are people who are pledged to destroy the peace and destroy a peace process that many of us have invested much of our adult lives in trying to bring about.

That’s a step up from McGuinness’ comments when dissidents last killed security force members, two soldiers shot dead in March 2009 at an military barracks in Co. Antrim and a PSNI member shot dead in Co. Armagh. That time he called the perpetrators “traitors”. He was roundly criticized by other, non-Provo republicans, and even by some Provos, for his choice of words and that he has gone a stage further this time and called on people to inform is surely significant. It will also spur the dissidents to more violence.

A measure of how significant his words are can be judged by watching, by way of sharp contrast, this extract from a TV interview that McGuinness gave when he was Northern Commander of the IRA and men and women under his command did a good deal more than plant “up and unders” beneath policemen’s cars. “Death”, he agreed with interviewer Peter Taylor, was the fate reserved for those who betrayed the IRA.

Martin McGuinness knows a thing or two about informers. He was centrally involved in the celebrated, not to say infamous case of the Derry informer Frank Hegarty about which you can read more here. The affair ended with Hegarty’s death and a more than lingering belief amongst some at the IRA’s highest reaches that perhaps the wrong informer had been killed.

He also played a part in the more tragic death of IRA informer Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old woman from West Belfast whose offence was, so I have been told, to betray an arms dump containing a single rifle. (Maybe if she had just said that it was an act of anticipatory decommissioning she would have lived. But she didn’t.)

She was killed in July 1994 just a month before the first peace process, IRA ceasefire was called. When the Army Council met to decide, inter alia, whether to confirm her death sentence, IRA and Sinn Fein leaders were faced with a dilemma. Her offence was relatively minor and the war was about to end, so what the hell, maybe she should be spared. But if the leadership let her live then it would have sowed suspicion in the ranks of those in the IRA who still believed the leadership line that the peace process was merely a tactical device to wrong foot the Brits and not a plot to go constitutional. The dissidents-in-waiting, if you like, would have been needlessly alarmed.

And so poor Caroline Moreland was given the thumbs down by those seven men in a room. There was a brief discussion on how to handle her killing. One person suggested that she be disappeared, that is killed, her body dumped in a secret grave and lies told to her family about what had really happened. Who came up with the idea? Well, put it this way, it wasn’t Gerry Adams.

The idea was dismissed by one figure on the Council, someone who was aware that the whole issue of the disappeared of the 1970’s might well return to haunt him and that it would be foolish to add to that problem. And who was that? Well let’s just say it wasn’t Martin McGuinness.

The point about all this history telling is this. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played roles in the development and selling of the peace process that was a little akin to Mutt and Jeff, the good cop, bad cop routine. Adams was the good cop, whose role was to interact with John Hume and be the public face of diplomacy in dealings with governments, the White House and so on. McGuinness’ role, a suitable one since he had the active service record and Adams didn’t, was to be the bad cop, to reassure the IRA grassroots that there would be no sell out while he was running Northern Command and that if Martin backed the peace process then there was nothing to be worried about.

And it worked perfectly, well almost so. Dissident opposition to the Adams-McGuinness strategy did emerge but it came in two waves and because of that the strategy triumphed. The first was led by people like Michael McKevitt, the IRA Quarter-Master General who was close enough to events and the major players to

Micky McKevitt, the first IRA dissident

get suspicious early on about the real deal that was coming down the pike. But his effort to overthrow Adams was frustrated and then when he broke off to form the Real IRA and made common cause with the INLA and the Continuity IRA against the Adams-McGuinness strategy, the venture was torpedoed by the Omagh bomb.

The next wave came many years later and really didn’t gather steam until the Provos agreed to accept and recognise the PSNI in the wake of the St Andrews’ Agreement which brought them into government with Ian Paisley and the DUP. The people involved in this wave were those who had ignored McKevitt’s warnings, and went along with the leadership’s claim that he was just an ambitious malcontent. They chose to stay within the bosom of the Provos, preferring to believe Martin McGuinness’s soothing words rather than the reality unfolding all around them. But when Martin & Co. agreed to back the PSNI they could deny the reality no longer.

Their determination to go back to war appears therefore to be fueled less by any sophisticated plan to destabilize Sinn Fein or the peace deal and more by their anger at being misled and tricked by the Provo leadership, especially the bad cop, Martin McGuinness. They were always wary of Gerry Adams. He was ever the crafty politician, never to be trusted. But Martin was one of their own. How could he lie so treacherously, they cried?

And so their anger at McGuinness is expressed in the killing of Ronan Kerr. Except that’s not the full truth either. The people they’re really angry at are themselves, for being so stupid, except they won’t admit as much. That’s why they’ll keep on planting “up and unders” and why others like Ronan Kerr will die. And it is why they’re not really a threat and why the peace process will likely survive everything they throw at it.