Why I am not going to “Francophile” my Facebook status…

Over the past 24 hours or so I have watched the world “Francophile” itself in support and recognition of the awful events in Paris. Monuments have been illuminated in red-white-blue and Facebook profiles now consist of once familiar friends peering out between ribbons of colour.

Story Bridge in Brisbane, illuminated in solidarity.

The Story Bridge in Brisbane tonight, illuminated in solidarity.

I am very fond of France. I have many French friends, wonderful memories and few could argue against Paris being truly one of the iconic cities of the World. Indeed, Paris is one of those incredibly special cities that simply cannot belong to just France, it really belongs to people everywhere. Thus, when such unthinkable acts of terror are committed, they are committed against us all.

The problem is that to give credence to ISIS, to call the Paris atrocity an “act of war”, is to do nothing more than further entrench the notion of ISIS’ caliphate (statehood). Only one sovereign entity’s act of aggression against another can establish an “act of war”. By determining those innocent lives lost to be an “act of war”, we simply give ISIS what they want : legitimacy, and implied sovereignty.

Moreover, despite the awful events in Paris, there was no less tragic loss of life in Lebanon, in Kenya. But we did not stop and mourn for those lives because they did not fit within our mental “Champs- Élysées”, the perfect and idyllic boulevards of our western minds. We did not paint our faces those colours. We have not owned the fact that the turmoil and instability in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, is the direct result of decades of self-interested meddling, artificial borders drawn across tribal boundaries and covertly-financed (and not so covert) bipartisanship. We probably didn’t create it, but we made it worse. A lot worse. Those innocent people in Paris didn’t deserve to die – but it can also not be said that there is never a consequence to our actions. For example, it cannot be said that when our own youth flock to Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, that we were not responsible for youth disengagement, for unemployment, for lack of opportunity in our own countries.

We should be defiant, be we should also take responsibility.

This even extends to the idea that we would somehow attempt to “demean” our oppressors by calling them “Daesh“, like taunting a bully in the playground. It is a dangerous game. It is one thing to stoically go on with life and refuse to alter our daily lives in response to terrorism (correctly so), but it is another to mock one’s enemy.

The purpose of this commentary is not to attribute recognition to ISIS. Although, in my opinion, to pretend that it is an artifice is a huge mistake. Similarly, to reduce ISIS to merely a violent hybrid of religious fundamentalism and terrorism is also a mistake, a gross simplification. In the 21st century, we are being forced to reconsider what statehood means and how we respond to “acts of war”. It started with 9/11 and it is – tragically – far from over with Paris (#2).

This is why I will not change my Facebook profile to “tricolour”. Defiance and mourning for our freedom should be muted, and devoid of banners. Only terrorists wave banners, and I personally cannot bear to change the hue of my face again tomorrow.


 

The (now) iconic feature image by Jean Jullien…

 

Tragic but not unnecessary : Bali 9

I want to state two things up-front.

1) I don’t believe in the death penalty.

2) I hate double-negatives, though they serve their purpose sometimes.

Today was a landmark day for international relations with Indonesia following the execution of the “Bali 9” for smuggling heroin. I stayed up late tonight watching the grief and sadness of family, friends and the general community, following the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. My condolences to their loved ones – what a horrible turn of events. I personally think Indonesia did an appalling job of managing communication and process around this awful situation. So much confusion, drama and false hope created.

Typically Indonesian.

The truth is, I am extremely fond of Indonesia and it holds a special place in my heart. I have visited it many times for business and pleasure, from Java to Bali, Flores to Komodo, Labuan to Gillies. I was married to my wife in Indonesia because it was a unique country that enabled Russians and Australians (and a few Canucks) to visit without visas and a lot of immigration hassle. It has stunning landscapes and awesome marine life, it has beautiful and diverse people. It has amazing culture and cuisine.

The problem is that Indonesia has a huge rich-poor divide and a massive drug problem that not only has major domestic impact, but it is a major global trafficking hub. Whilst Indonesia’s policy of death to drug traffickers is primarily reflective of domestic health and criminal issues, countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand enforce an important regional deterrent for the worlds largest source of both cultivated and synthetic drugs. As tragic as this situation is, the people executed today knew that when they engaged in their illicit acts, they were risking a death sentence. It was right there on the landing card. Even Rodrigo Gularte, who was known to be bipolar and schizophrenic (but not of sub-par intelligence), would have known and understood that drug trafficking commands a death sentence.

I do think a firing squad is a bit extreme as far as capital punishment goes, and it is my personal opinion that only God (or whatever force/deity/philosophy you subscribe to) is entitled to take a life. Having said that, it is hard to make a strong argument that a life sentence in an Indonesian jail is either humane or a reasonable burden for a country to undertake that has much more serious problems of poverty and development. Why should some reckless Aussie criminal that blatantly and knowingly broke the law divert resources away from Indonesians? It’s a tough one.

Three sad things happened today:

1) Families lost their loved ones, probably through disproportionate punishment.

2) Global condemnation will likely considerably increase the pressure on Indonesia (and countries that have similar policies) to eliminate such punitive laws. Aid will be cancelled, tourism will wane and ambassadors will be recalled. The risk is that political firepower will dangerously reduce these deterrents, simply to assuage electorates.

3) Australia has damaged its relationship with on of its most important neighbours – perhaps its most important neighbour. When situations like this happen, you don’t recall your ambassador, you keep your ambassador firmly in place and make damned sure the avenues of communication are wide open. This is necessary not only for the families of those who have been executed, but to ensure that the lobbying process is seamless between now and the next tragic event. Only a stupid, unsophisticated, f*cking asinine populist government would do such a thing. I would expect this of Tony Abbott, but I would have expected better of Julie Bishop who is marginally somewhat less of an idiot.

Carr is absolutely correct to condemn this decision.

The component of all of this that has not been properly acknowledged by our mainstream media and government is that these (mostly) men were part of a drug syndicate that was hell-bent on making money out of the wanton destruction of Australian society. They tried to bring almost 20lbs of heroin into Australia with a street value of about $4m bucks. These people wanted to bring drugs (and not for the first time) to this country that would ultimately destroy 1000ds of families and undoubtedly result in plenty of loss of life. These were not nice people.

Now that doesn’t mean that execution is the right remedy, but these are not heroes no matter what their conduct was in their final hours. These are BAD people and i will not personally mourn for them. Their families yes. The Bali 9 – no. No matter how much airplay you give a cute Catholic priest with a charming Irish lilt (like Charlie Burrows) it’s hard to make a case that these people should be forgiven and even somehow deified.

To avoid this situation in the future and protect its citizens from a barbaric firing squad, Australia needs to do one simple thing. Let’s form a treaty with Indonesia that any Australian citizen that is arrested in Indonesia for serious drug possession (and I am not talking a bit of weed late at night on Kuta Beach) will be extradited to Australia and will serve a full life sentence in Australian prison, without any chance of an early parole. We already have plenty of precedent for this – we certainly treat asylum seekers badly, locking innocent people up for years at a time without cause. Australia also has (appropriately) tough extraterritorial laws regarding pedophilia that nobody gets too enraged about. If we can seriously punish some sweaty fat bloke for shagging a 14 year old Thai girl in Pattaya Beach, then we can punish a misguided individual who thinks its ok to sell millions of dollars of heroin to our friends, family and children.

Send Paul Grigson back, Julie. Start the process of saving face and respect Indonesia’s sovereignty through action, not just words. Make a proper deal with Joko so that this doesn’t ever happen again.

 

Detour#1 – India

In a previous post, I committed to myself that that I would occasionally allow life detours. This is #1 for 2015.

I want to state from the outset, that I probably annoyed my wife. I know I left home at a time when Max wasn’t sleeping very well and Zhenya was going to be taking the brunt of some sleepless nights. One of my colleagues sourly commented on my “lack of availability” at the end of last week. I know my team could have used me around when a few intense deliverables were due. But instead, late last week, I went to a wedding.

A Bollywood wedding.

Last year a dear friend of mine invited me to a wedding in India. Not his wedding, but his son’s wedding (the “son” – to protect his identity – is a super guy in his own right) but I really went because Daddio invited me. I am sure I could have said no without offence. I know for sure that there were far more important and special people invited than me (i.e. a very large and interesting family). But I went because I think an Indian wedding is a life experience that should be struck off the bucket list, and even better if that experience comes from nice people that you genuinely like.

These are very nice people.

So, I skedaddled to Bangalore for the weekend. I arrived at my hotel and was immediately “bindied” (first image, below). An hour or so after this happened, I Skyped Max and he asked me “Dadda, do you have an ‘owie’ on your head?” Nope. That red smear on my forehead is apparently a “welcome blessing.” Frankly, the young lady that crouched down and marked my forehead was absolutely stunning and the Catholic in me momentarily hybridized this velvet-skinned specimen of loveliness rubbing ochre on my forehead, with the vague echo of  some sort of ecclesiastical ritual. A kind of Hindu baptism. Rowdy. I don’t mind saying it left me slightly cross-eyed.

Geddit Indiya...

Geddit Indiya…

I settled into my hotel in Bangalore around mid-afternoon as it was starting to get hot and sweaty, and I am not just talking about me. My immediate item of business was to go out and find a Sherwani, the traditional Indian festive dress. This was less easy than I had hoped, mainly because of my “western” frame and stature (i.e. chubbiness). I went to a dozen hole-in-the-wall boutiques selling traditional men’s clothing, with no luck. Nothing really fit me, especially around the midriff. Eventually, I found an enterprising tailor who exclaimed “NO problems, Mr. Chris, we can expand, we can expand!” (accompanied by the necessary side-to-side head waggles).

This is my hero:

The Grand Tailor of Bangalore

The Grand Tailor of Bangalore

A couple of hours later, I walked out with a lot of bling…

bling

The wedding was insane. Rituals. Food. Dancing. When I caught my 2:50am flight to Paris, I was tired but happy. Not drunk though – it’s hard to get hammered at an Indian wedding. Lassi (yoghurt drink) and gavathi chaha (lemongrass tea) is hardly conducive to a crazy, wild night. Unsurprisingly I arrived feeling surprisingly fresh.

I was grateful to be hangover-free…

The nicest thing about the wedding was that it was the union between a high-gotra Brahmin and a north-African Muslim woman. They are such a beautiful couple, but also a testimony to the fact that education and prosperity can overcome any religious difference. Every time our politicians cut funding to education, what they are really doing is making a social pact that they will foster intolerance and prevent the union of people who would be otherwise perfect for each other.

Inspiring.

TSA Pre-Check is Back

A few weeks before Christmas I air-dropped into Turkey for a few meetings. I arrived in Istanbul from Brussels at about midday and I left again late that night. In-out…

The following week I took several US domestic flights and on every single flight I took, there was the dreaded SSSS at the bottom of my boarding pass, that “secret” TSA code for “please give this person extra attention”. Of course, all flyers are randomly selected for additional security checks, it’s part of the the grand schema intended to make our skies safe. In general, I don’t grumble about it and duly submit myself to the prodding, patting, dusting, unzipping (usually of luggage, but not always…) and occasionally a pointed question or two.

Joy.

Joy.

TSE security checks are usually fairly benign but I do remember one time where I had returned to the US from the Middle East and was flagged for additional security clearance. The fact that I was carrying a textbook on the basics of Shari’ah finance and a Qibla on my iPhone home page didn’t really do me a lot of service in the “discussion” about who I was and where I had been. Incidentally, these days, my general viewpoint is that airlines that have an “arrow to Mecca” and a prayer room are a hell of a lot safer than carriers from secular countries and I have a theory that is is somewhat reflected in the price difference for any ticket that involves flying over the Caucasus, MENA or Asia Minor. The proverbial flying Islamic body shield? Hmmmm…. perhaps not given that moderate Muslims seem to be fair game these days too.

… But I digress.

Six or seven times in one week is more than just a coincidence and so I asked a United Airlines service desk whether they could see anything against my frequent flyer number. The agent confirmed that my record was “flagged” and that my TSA Pre-Check status had been removed. A brief discussion with TSA confirmed that there was a process I could go through, including an interview with the FBI, to re-instate my status. Crazy.

I am not exactly sure what happened but today my TSA status is back. Perhaps it was Uncle Sam’s forgiveness from the Christmas season? Perhaps my little venture off the path of travel enlightenment only entitled me to a limited number of rubber gloves? Perhaps it was just a case of a time lock – enough time to have me searched a few times (and irritate a few hundred passengers when the security queue has to be temporarily closed to facilitate my search)? I realize that the US-Turkish relationship has markedly declined in the last decade on the back of war in Iraq and the Armenian Genocide controversy but Turkey is still, in my view, a critical ally of the US and NATO and I am surprised that there is this level of security sensitivity.

Frankly, I am relieved.

If I am honest with you, I wouldn’t have really wanted to explain that I was visiting a Turkish nuclear technologies company. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to explain that my (US) company was hoping to sell nuclear medicine products in places like Turkey and the Middle East. As a Canadian passport holder whenever I arrive back in the US, there is always an intrinsic skepticism about the integrity of people from across the “leaky” northern border and a week in the Australian summer sun had turned my skin a nice dusky “Arab” hue, thanks to my Mediterranean genes. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to understand how half a day in a country touted as the “Land Bridge to Syria” put me on a watch list.

I guess I will never know.

At least the TSA agent in this photograph was kind enough to offer to put on a fresh set of gloves before getting into my trousers. Photo courtesy of JQ (thanks for capturing my irritation on camera)

At least the TSA agent in this photograph was kind enough to offer to put on a fresh set of gloves before getting into my trousers.
Photo courtesy of JQ (thanks for capturing my irritation on camera)

 

I see you, Charlie Hebdo

I have been watching with great sadness, the outpouring of grief and anger in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It has been my blogosphere policy not to write about “Islamic Militant Attacks” because I personally don’t believe that is what they are. I have far too much basic respect for the “other” Children of Abraham to accept that this kind of loveless and an inhumane behavior deifies the Qur’an. I accept that there are extremists that are intolerant of the modern social spectrum, freedom of expression and diversity – but this should not be our default perception of Islam. Nor should we recognize the religious guidons that they bear.

Besides, Islam doesn’t have an extremist monopoly on xenophobia and bigotry. Christianity, Judaism and even “peaceful” Buddhism does a pretty smashing job sometimes too.

I was in Sydney during the “Terror” when a lone gunman walked into the Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Martin Place and took hostages in the name of the Prophet. In fact, our hotel was only a few blocks away from the police cordon and precisely at the time that fateful morning that Man Haron Monis was taking hostages, my son and I walked past the area on our way to Darling Harbour, wondering what was going on with all the police and emergency services (“Look Daddy!”). Frankly, the only thing that sickened me more than the tragic outcome of that hostage situation, was the non-stop media coverage that was given to a lone nutcase with a shotgun. It was relentless and unwavering and only glorified the situation for every other sicko out there thinking of taking a few people down on the way to the Afterlife.

A greater social crime than Man Monis?

A greater social crime than Man Monis?

Inevitably, there will more Charlie Hebdo Massacres and Sydney Terrors. The big question for our society, is are we willing to take an inter-faith view of religious tolerance and understand that in these dangerous times, our Muslim brothers and sisters need protection and care too? These extremist activities are not so discriminatory and neither are the potential hazards of our reaction. During the Sydney siege I watched a Pakistani or Indian hostage run out of the Lindt Cafe and then immediately get down on the ground with his arms around his head – no doubt concerned that the trigger-happy NSW police* would mistake dusky skin for a terrorist. If I was him, I would have been freaking out. Similarly, I was incredibly touched and heartened buy the #Illridewithyou initiative that spontaneously arose, recognizing that there was a real risk of reprisal.

Our society’s tolerance will always be tested in situations like this and while I feel no less for the families of those killed in Paris and Sydney (and many other places before), our response – including media response – should be measured. There will be always be a temptation for reprisal, especially from the shadowy corners of the world that may choose not to even put a face to retribution. Hooded lynch mobs have always existed and we will no doubt see many flaming torches and pitchforks in physical and digital domains. In my view, this is even more dangerous than a few psychopaths with guns.

My final comment is a tribute to the freedom of expression that was epitomized, not without controversy, by Charlie Hebdo. I don’t always agree that freely insulting someone else’s culture or religion should be unconditionally tolerated, but killing people falls very short of measured debate on the merits. Personally, I believe that there is great power in satire. It is simply one avenue that we have to explore the emotive and philosophical issues that polarize our world, often in a very catalytic way. I like to doodle but (unlike others) I don’t really have the talent to visually render the sadness that I feel. Instead I will offer my own satirical tribute in written form with the following recommendation:

Dear Yahya** if you are thinking of buying some artillery and going on a rampage in the name of the Islamic Caliphate, may I offer you a more effective alternative? Do what my fellow Christians and also many of our Brothers from the “Tribe” do (cliché only, no antisemitism please) – go into politics and financial services. You really don’t have to be any smarter (or dumber) than you already are. You’ll get better and more prolonged media coverage for your terrorist activities and you wont just kill a few random individuals, you can destroy the lives of millions for decades. If you are prepared to cash in your gold Rolex Oyster and engage a decent lawyer, you might not even spend time in jail. Best of all you don’t have to wait for the Afterlife for your reward of 72 “dark-eyed maidens”, they are called “interns.” *** 

لا إله إلا الله !

A photo taken from the back of a public toilet door in Sydney the morning of the Terror. This is not an Islamic banner, this is just graffiti. So too must we learn to distinguish mere social vandalism and paint over it as quickly as our grief may allow.

A photo taken from the back of a public toilet door in Sydney the morning of the Terror. This is not an Islamic banner, this is just graffiti. So too must we learn to distinguish mere social vandalism and paint over it as quickly as our grief may allow.

 

*I duly note that, in general, the perception was that the various emergency services and law-enforcement agencies did a very decent job on this occasion…

** Arabic Muslim version of John

*** Sorry ladies, religious satire has no wiggle room for gender issues. Forgive me.

Ugly, Scary Day

I normally don’t pay much attention to Halloween although I suppose when Max gets older it will be more interesting. However, this year Halloween took on a whole different kind of freakshow. I happened to be in San Francisco for some business meetings last Friday and pretty quickly regretted the decision. A perfect storm of a Giants victory parade, rain, a bikers convention (10,000 of them apparently) and Halloween meant that Market St turned into a zoo. By 7:30am there were already people lining up for the parade, booze was flowing and the punch fights had already started.

Downtown San Francisco turned into a bizarre spectacle as the usual orange and black jack-o-lantern hues of Halloween were eerily amplified by the bright orange blaze of giant fans. Probably 1/3 people I saw walking down the street was wearing something orange in solidarity. Indispersed between the baseball caps and jerseys were creepy ghosts, ghouls, zombies and the occasional Dracula. It was almost as though the underworld had crawled out to feast on some kind of orange-hued human plankton.

The undead grazing on hapless baseball fans.

This is what happens when a Giants fan sees a Dodgers insignia...

This is what happens when a Giants fan sees a Dodgers insignia…

‘Frisco is alternative at the best of times. At the worst of times it rapidly turns into an bizarre, ugly and dark place. To wear a Dodgers cap would have been as suicidal as swimming across a pond infested by salt water crocodiles, with the guarantee that some green-haired monster with a third eyeball in the middle of its forehead would devour any uneated strips of flesh left behind to rot.

Had the San Andreas Fault decided to let one rip, I doubt Hollywood could have conjured a more realistic – and supernatural – end of days.

Don't lose your head...

Don’t lose your head, Chris…