We Are All Paris

The world is a different place today. France is a different place. Paris is a place I barely recognise and I don’t know what will become of it.

The Paris I know is a city of romance. A city of light. A city of cafes and restaurants and history. Of baguettes and croissants and cars with yellow headlights and fantastic public transport. Of iconic monuments and buildings which made it so easily recognisable. A city of art, culture and life. Wonderful life. Now it’s a city splashed with the blood of hundreds of its innocent citizens. Slaughtered randomly, brutally by a small group of depraved fanatics.

Paris will never be the same. It can never be the same. Its citizens aren’t safe. Unfortunately making them safe means making big life changes. It may mean they must live in a constant state of martial law. Police and the army, heavily armed, patrolling the streets, to deter and intimidate. In all likelihood, a permanent presence. It is a tragedy. Absolutely contrary to a country built on liberty, equality and fraternity. France fought a revolution for freedom and democratic principles. And now its citizens, in its capital, can no longer trust anyone or anything. They will always be looking over their shoulders. Looking at each other with fear and doubt. They won’t be able to travel freely and easily. Everywhere they gather in numbers must now involve being searched and delays and difficulties and inconvenience. It’s the price they will have to pay to feel and be safe. It is sad and horrible. Many tears have been shed and will be shed over the coming days, weeks and months. Not just tears for the dead, or the injured or for the survivors. The traumatized survivors who will be forever haunted by what they saw and heard. They will never forget. They can’t forget. There will be tears for what Paris has now become. For the world we now live in.

And not just what Paris has become. This kind of attack can happen anywhere, anytime. In any capital city in any country that dares to take on IS. And it probably will. That is the frightening reality all of us must now face.

As long as the Islamic State exists, nowhere and nobody is safe. Governments have a responsibility to keep their citizens safe. And that will mean all of us making sacrifices, giving up hard won freedoms. It is the price we must pay.

And what will become of the people fleeing oppression who have landed in the thousands in Europe and elsewhere hoping for a new life? We have only just learned that one of the terrorists responsible for the Paris massacres gained entry to France by arriving in Greece pretending to be a Syrian refugee. Countries will begin to close their borders. These poor people will no longer be welcome, permanently displaced. They have run away from oppression only to suffer a form of oppression in some ways much worse than what they have left. It is so unfair and wrong.

There will be change. There has to be change. No doubt the events in Paris has awoken the sleeping giant. Retribution will be swift and, as the French President has already pointed out, merciless. This has galvanized the world and so it should. It will be the coalition of the willing and the unwilling all united with one stated purpose: the annihilation of the so-called caliphate.

The people responsible for the Paris massacres are cowards and bullies. They will pay a terrible price for what they have done. Already there is speculation of a political settlement in Syria, which would clear the decks for a united military approach to IS. A worldwide declaration of War already made in part by the French President.

All of us mourn with the people of Paris. We stand united with them. We share their grief but it must somehow ( and I don’t know how) result in a better world, a safer and kinder world. If it doesn’t, then what has happened will truly be for nothing. And that doesn’t bear thinking about.

You Can’t Negotiate With Religious Extremists

Terrorism left its calling card in Sydney today. I think we all kind of knew it was coming. We just didn’t know the where?, or the when? Both of those questions were answered when a middle-aged fanatical Jihadist, walked into a busy café, in the heart of the city, around 9 in the morning. He was armed with a sawn off shotgun and proceeded to take more than 20 people hostage. What followed was a siege lasting 17 hours. It ended around 2 am, when heavily armed police stormed the café, after hearing the sound of gunshots coming from inside. Minutes later, three people were dead. The fanatical jihadist hostage taker, and two of his hostages, a man aged 34 and a woman aged 38. Australia is fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We knew there would be consequences. The Islamic State publicly vowed revenge against innocent people to be chosen at random. But you can’t stop living your life, just because a group of religious crazies threaten you, or want to attack you for the way you choose to live. Nor should we.

Authorities know quite a bit about the Jihadist hostage taker but I don’t want to waste oxygen talking about him to any significant degree. He was Iranian and a Muslim convert. A self styled cleric who was convicted of sending poison pen letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed during the war in Afghanistan. He was also on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his wife, who was stabbed and set on fire. He persuaded his girlfriend to kill her.   The self-styled Jihadist also faced 40 sexual assault charges after complaints from seven women who attended one of his ‘spiritual healing sessions.’ The Jihadist likened himself, on his own webpage, to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, claiming the police charges against him were laid for “political reasons.” His website also carries a quote, posted earlier this month, stating: “I used to be a Rafidi, but not any more. Now I am a Muslim, Alhamdulillah.” ( Praise be to Allah)

During the siege, this religious fanatic forced his hostages to hold up a black flag, with Arabic writing, against the window of the cafe and record video messages on their mobile phones, listing his demands. The videos were initially posted on YouTube but were immediately removed on the advice of police. Deep down we all knew, right from the very start of this, it was going to end badly. Of course, there will be the inevitable questions: Should this man have been released on bail? Had he been identified as a religious extremist and placed on a watch list? If not? why not? His lawyer described him as a ‘damaged goods individual.’ There will also be scrutiny of how the police handled the siege. We received many public assurances from the New South Wales Police Commissioner, the Premier of New South Wales and the Prime Minister that the police were professionally trained to deal with this type of crisis and we should all have faith that they can bring about a peaceful resolution.

Bring about a peaceful resolution? Are you kidding me? When they said that I began to get very worried. For a start this was not a normal siege by any stretch. Most sieges are an attempt by the hostage taker to achieve some personal advantage. The Jihadist who walked into that café only had two purposes, to die killing innocent people and secondly to create maximum publicity so that when he did, everyone would remember who was responsible and, hopefully, from that time on, live in fear of it happening again. He didn’t care that he would be killed. In fact he was counting on it. You can’t negotiate with people like that. You are wasting your time to even try. But the New South Wales police did try. They didn’t comply with his demands but they tried to negotiate with him. And they waited.

Now I don’t want to sound like some armchair quarterback replaying the calls that were made with the benefit of hindsight. I understand the police had a nightmare on their hands. But I will be honest and say I think it was a serious mistake to wait for the shooting to start before they did any shooting themselves. It might sound harsh but being reactive is too late. The horse has bolted. The hostage taker is already doing what he came to do from the moment he walked into that café. We live in a different world. There are people in it who have no regard for their own life as long as they can take the lives of innocent people. The hostage taker in Sydney made it pretty clear who he represented, and what this was about, right from the start. You don’t negotiate. You wait for an opportunity or, you create an opportunity, to use lethal force against him. You certainly don’t wait until he starts killing people. It’s a harsh lesson that maybe the New South Wales police are about to learn.

Australia’s New Terror Laws And What They Mean

A series of events in Australia in the last few days have quite frankly left me reeling in shock and surprise. The first was an incident where an 18-year- old boy was shot dead by police. Technically he’s a man but I call him a boy. A boy who was foolish and very naïve. A brain washed jihadist. A supporter of ISIL, a Muslim extremist group, which wants to destroy all of us for no reason other than, who we are and how we live. He came to the attention of authorities for some of the things he was saying on social media like wanting to behead police, drape their bodies in the ISIS flag and post the images online. He also made death threats against the Australian Prime Minister.

Very surprisingly and quite ironically the police decided to deal with this by taking a fairly low, key approach. Instead of a dawn raid and arresting him at gunpoint they invited him to come and see them at the police station. They arranged a time and he turned up to be met by two officers outside the station. What happened next will become the subject of an official inquiry. But it appears when one of the policemen tried to shake his hand in greeting, the 18-year-old produced a knife and began hacking at the two policemen. It is believed, one of the policemen fired a single, fatal shot at the 18-year-old. It was both tragic and senseless.

This young boy was seen talking with older men before this incident occurred which supports the idea he was not acting alone. He first came to the attention of police and intelligence authorities, three months ago, because he was part of a small group of men sharing messages, preaching violence and hate. Authorities were concerned he may try to join ISIL in Syria and Iraq so they cancelled his passport.

The second disturbing report was an allegation of a second, separate attack on a serving member of the Australian Army who was walking along the street minding his own business. The catalyst for the attack was the fact that he was wearing the Australian Army uniform. In a recent development, police are now saying the attack didn’t happen but it was enough for Australian Defence Force Chiefs to issue an order for defence force personnel not to wear their uniform in public. Reports of these two incidents coincide with ISIL using social media to call on its supporters to attack indiscriminately. They were told they do not need the authority of a senior Muslim cleric, they should just go ahead and wage jihad and God was on their side. These people seem to be under the illusion we are back in the Middle Ages fighting some sort of mythical crusade. Muslim versus Christian. What is most disturbing is the number of young Muslim men, in Western countries who believe in this nonsense. What worries me the most about these developments is it could end up being a double-edged sword. We need to be worried about radicalised Jihadists but equally we should also be worried about whack jobs who want to attack Muslims for being Muslim. There’ve been reported incidents of vandalism and graffiti but fortunately no violence.

Here is a small reality check.

The vast majority of Muslims in Australia, or anywhere else in the world are not defined by what the Islamic State does in Iraq and Syria. They are peace-loving people who believe in tolerance, benevolence and humanity. As President Obama quite correctly pointed out, No God condones terror.

But there is no denying these incidents frighten people and when people are frightened they lose perspective and forget to think and respond rationally.

And what usually follows is another unfortunate by-product – the rights and freedoms that we have come to expect and accept are suddenly under threat.

The Australian Prime Minister said as much the other day. In a speech clearly aimed at softening up the country he said some freedoms needed to be sacrificed in order to protect the vast majority. He asked Australians to support this shift in what he called the delicate balance between freedom and security. We are only just beginning to find out what this actually means. In Federal Parliament a bill was passed giving Australia’s domestic spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, unprecedented and unfettered power to monitor the entire Australian internet. All that is needed is one warrant. The bill passed with bi-partisan support so the Opposition clearly agrees with the Government. ASIO will be permitted to copy, delete or modify data held on any computer it has a warrant to monitor. It also allows ASIO to disrupt target computers and use innocent third-party computers, not targeted, as a way of accessing targeted computers. Many lawyers and academics are saying this bill goes too far. Australian Attorney-General George Brandis says we all better get used to living in what he called this “newly dangerous age.” It is vital he said to equip those protecting Australia with the necessary powers and capabilities needed to do their job.

That’s all well and good but what about the checks and balances? Where are they? How can we be sure that ASIO won’t abuse these massive new powers? And if you are worried about these questions, and you should be, then what I am about to say should make you even more worried. The bill also allows for journalists, whistle-blowers and bloggers who “ recklessly” disclose information that relates to a special intelligence operation ,to be jailed for ten years. Get this. Any operation can be declared to be “special” by an ASIO agent. It also gives ASIO immunity from criminal and civil liability in certain circumstances. In other words it makes them pretty much untouchable.

Now don’t get my wrong. I am all for giving law enforcement the powers they need to do their job but that doesn’t mean they have an open checkbook. And going after whistleblowers and journalists providing the necessary balance, threatening them with a hefty prison sentence, is not a good thing in a democratic country. It is very much the case of shooting the messenger. Of course with the threat of a ten-year prison sentence hanging over them, whistleblowers will become extinct. I’m sure that is exactly what Governments around the world want to happen. I’m sorry but I don’t trust ASIO not to abuse its powers. Unless we have something or someone keeping a watchful eye out on behalf of us all there is a danger that the so-called cure could end up being far worse than the disease.

We Have No Choice

Australia has thrown its lot in with the United States in the war against the Islamic State but not everyone is happy.

I say war even though it’s undeclared. It’s a war of philosophy and ideas as much as weapons and like or not it is one we have to fight and win.

In a rare moment of lucidity the Australian Prime Minister described ISIS as a certain type of terrorist organization, which hate us not because of what we do but because of who we are and how we live. The PM went on to say that he hoped how we live, and who we are, will never change. Amen to that.

Unsurprisingly, Australia has agreed to an American request to transport arms and equipment to Kurdish fighters battling Islamic militants in Iraq. The country is facing a humanitarian catastrophe and this is our way of averting that catastrophe.

The move has the support of the other major opposition political party in Australia but not everyone thinks this is a good idea.

One independent Member of the Federal Parliament said that Australia had taken sides and if the country wants to be gunrunners for the Kurds at the behest of the United States then we are part of that war.

This particular MP is a former senior intelligence analyst turned whistleblower. He resigned from his analyst position in protest at Australia’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War.

His remarks were strident and some might say intemperate. I must say it took me by surprise. I guess his opposition to this is to be expected but we are facing a very different set of circumstances in Iraq this time around.

He received fairly predictable support from other left wing Members of Parliament who called on the Prime Minister to suspend all current Parliamentary business to debate Australia’s latest military involvement in Iraq.

Some newspaper columnists have waded in castigating the Government for being ready to do Washington’s bidding. The Government was interposing Australia in a country fighting a civil war and clearly taking sides in that conflict.

The main Opposition party in a rare show of bipartisanship supported the Government’s decision. They acknowledged it was not an easy one to make but made for the best of reasons-humanitarian relief to prevent genocide against the beleaguered minorities in northern Iraq. It is a risk but on balance the greater risk would be to allow ISIS to succeed in Iraq.

Australia has already begun dropping relief supplies to an Iraqi town holding out against ISIS but this latest development will place our military and our air force in harms way. In order to make sure the arms get to the right people Australian aircraft will land on Iraqi soil, risking anti-aircraft fire from the Islamic State. We will be giving the Kurdish Peshmerga rocket propelled grenades, mortars as well as different caliber ammunition.

The Prime Minister said that understandably Australia shrinks from reaching out to these conflicts and I am sure plenty of other countries do as well. But the truth is these conflicts reach out to us whether we like or not. He said 60 Australians (that we know of) are involved in terrorist groups in the Middle East. Another 100 are actively supporting those Islamic extremists. With such a significant number of Australians involved with these groups they become radicalized, brutalized and accustomed to kill in the name of God. And so the logic goes if they think it is right to kill in the name of God in Iraq then it stands to reason those same people will think it is right to kill in the name of God in Sydney, London or New York.

Australia is yet to receive a request from the United States to join air strikes against ISIS but if that request comes I am sure it will be regarded favorably.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a global coalition to stop the spread of what he called the cancer of the Islamic State. For me it brings to mind the frequently quoted Edmund Burke homily: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. In this case doing nothing is not an option.

 

Vale James Foley

I read an opinion piece today that made me stop and think. Like all good pieces of journalism should.

It was about the American reporter James Foley who was barbarically murdered by Islamic terrorists who then shamelessly broadcast the deed on YouTube. The intention was very clear. To goad the United States into a ground offensive in Iraq so that they can recruit more young Muslims to the cause.

But Foley’s tragic and senseless death isn’t why I was drawn to the story or even what the story was about. The writer was talking about the incredibly dangerous game that freelance print and photojournalists play in trying to report the news in places that have become too dangerous in the 21st Century.

I say 21st Century because news has never been reported this way in the past. By that I mean freelance journalists are the new frontline troops in the media war to cut costs. They go to these places with little or no budget, backing and sometimes without even basic training. Many times they go without having the endorsement of an established media outlet so they are truly on their own.

It wasn’t always like this. Wars used to be covered by seasoned reporters who worked for long established media organizations that had the budget to maintain correspondents and a bureau in trouble spots around the globe. But those days have long gone especially for the print media and increasingly for television. Replaced by fresh-faced eager reporters who work freelance, so they are paid per story and prepared to take crazy risks to get it. This trend’s been happening overtime for some time But the Libyan conflict in 2011 was in some ways the catalyst. It acted like an irresistible magnet for freelance journalists who offer a much cheaper option for mainstream media wanting to cover that story. Apparently there were so many freelancers working in Libya at the time of the Gaddafi overthrow they outnumbered the rebels on the frontline.

According to those who were there, the freelancers and the rebels along with an ever-dwindling number of staff reporters would advance forward or backward to safety when the Gaddafi forces advanced. One of those freelancers was James Foley.

According to those who knew him, James Foley was courageous and a very nice man to know. He’d been a former reporter for a US military newspaper, before arriving in Libya full of hope, purpose, opportunity and the belief that he might have been immune to the dangers he faced. In fact there was no shortage of like-minded individuals keen to begin earning their stripes war reporting. And there was no shortage of media outlets willing to buy their images and stories. In fact it was a buyer’s market. Many freelancers prepared to work without insurance, expenses or even the airfares to get them home.

And as Libya deteriorated, it became less clear as to who were the good guys and who were not, and freelancers like James Foley had to make judgment calls on who to trust and when to leave. Safety in numbers ended up being the strategy they followed and it resulted in journalists like Foley forming strong bonds with colleagues he worked alongside and who would share a prison cell with him. In 2011, Foley was captured in Libya along with two other freelancers. A South African photographer travelling with them was killed in the incident. This time Foley was lucky. He was freed after 44 days in captivity. But instead of doing some soul searching and taking stock, James Foley plunged on in again to begin reporting from dangerous places. When Libya became yesterday’s news it was replaced by a more dangerous conflict, the civil war in Syria. It was more bloody and unpredictable. Media organizations were again looking for daring tales and images from the frontline and freelancers like James Foley wanted to take up the challenge even if it meant surviving on nothing more than your wits. In late 2012 and mid 2013 the risks began to outweigh the rewards. Working in northern Syria became next to impossible because of the ever-present threat of kidnap.

James Foley’s luck ran out for a second time in late 2012. He and a photographer were captured ironically on the last day of a two-week trip in an area of the country they had visited many times before. Foley’s captor was a local warlord who would later join the Islamic State. Now, I don’t mind admitting I have a major problem with all of this. What I find hard to reconcile is that 11 additional journalists were kidnapped in Syria in the following year yet the demands for freelance work continued unabated. This kind of journalism has no doubt created opportunities but at the same time it has allowed established media organizations to outsource their coverage for a bargain basement price to reporters prepared to take the risk. It’s called all care but no responsibility.

It has meant that freelancers like James Foley end up paying a terrible price. The Middle East may well be the most important story this century. I just don’t happen to think the price being paid for the privilege of reporting the story is worth it.