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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday's killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant-- he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks "inspired" the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday's attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:
El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. 
Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. 
As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical - reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. 
He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles - earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. 
But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). 
He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 
I'm sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn't sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem-- at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend's killings-- may have been that he went to prison at all:
Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. 
Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen's Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. 
He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. 
The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. 
A reporter who covered Hussein's assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked "just a hardened criminal" rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. 
"Omar, at the trial, didn't seem religious at all. Almost the opposite," Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. "He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him."
Interesting phrasing there, when "religious" in this case means "interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers." That isn't the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That's being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn't that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can't seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn't exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein's previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It's tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion-- claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals-- but I think it's more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That "spectacular" Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I'm afraid-- really, this thought frightens me-- that they're not. That's the banality of evil for you.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brief summary and context of yesterday's violence in Copenhagen

Yesterday a symposium to discuss blasphemy and the meaning of free speech was held at a cafe in Copenhagen called Krudttønden.

In attendance at this meeting was Lars Vilks, a 68 year old Swedish man upon whose head the Islamic State placed a $100,000 bounty for his 2007 depictions of Islamic prophet Muhammad as a "roundabout dog" (As a dog, basically. An Invasion of the Body Snatchers-reminiscent creature standing on four legs with a human head, bearded, wearing a keffiyeh).

According to the BBC,
A description of the event asked whether artists could "dare" to be blasphemous in the wake of attacks by Islamist gunmen in Paris last month against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In an indication of the threat faced by the cartoonist, a note was included on the website saying there was always "strict security" whenever he spoke in public.
Inna Shevchenko of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN was reportedly speaking when the shots were fired. She said later:
I was talking about freedom of speech. I said that sometimes one has the illusion of being able to take advantage of this freedom, but it is an illusion and it is at this moment that we heard a burst of gunfire. 
 According to Jenny Wenhammer, who was in attendance [roughly translated]:
Gunfire when Lars Vilks Committee today held an international meeting in Copenhagen on "Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression". During the Femen International's leader Inna Shevchenko's speech for two hours, then were fired 20-40 shot outside the doors and all started running. The French ambassador was also there to discuss Islam. Vilks was able to escape into a cold room, and Inna fled with others out through the back door.
The French ambassador, Francois Zimeray, tweeted during the attack that he was "still alive in the room." One attendee, however, was not. The shooter reportedly fled the area in a black Volkswagon Polo while pursued by police, leaving behind one murdered civilian, Finn Norgaard, and three wounded police officers.

The shooter, identified later as 22-year-old native Dane Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, wasn't finished.

A few hours later and some miles south in Copenhagen there was another murder outside the Krystalgade Synagogue, of a 37-year-old man called Dan Uzan who was a member of the local Jewish community and was guarding the synagogue while a bat mitzvah was going on inside. Two additional police officers were shot and wounded in their arms and legs.

Copenhagen police reportedly killed el-Hussein last night after he opened fire on them in the Norrebro district. The officers had been staking out the address they had identified as his, and when he returned home he pulled a gun and fired on them. They returned fire and shot him dead.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt did not hesitate to call el-Hussein's acts terrorism, saying
We will defend our democracy. When the Jewish community is attacked, the whole of Denmark is attacked. The Jewish community does not stand alone. We don't know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.
My friend and former colleague Anders Lisdorf, who lives and works in Copenhagen, had this to say:
Our company office is 100 meters away from where the "terrorist" apparently used to live and was shot. I have lived and worked in the area for 10 years. I like the neighbourhood a lot, so first of all I can tell you that most people are not terrorists, but in general very nice and decent people, so I am not afraid to go there tomorrow. 
I can also tell you that you cannot walk in peace with a jewish Kippa there, because you will be harassed by certain Muslim residents and violently so. The Mosques in the area have been known to preach a less than tolerant agenda. It is a poor neighbourhood with the typical problems of such a neighbourhood. The attacker was also involved in gangs and illegal gun possession. 
These problems are everywhere. In Norway it was a fundamentalist nationalist who was the terrorist (Breivik). The real issue is not the west versus Islam, I agree, but to protect tolerance and fight racism. We have to take issue with racists no matter whether they are Western Nationalists, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Naming of names

At work the other day, we got into a discussion about names. Weird family names, bizarre nicknames, the difference (if any) between your given name and the name you have now, and how that came to be.

We talked about how it's impossible to find a name for your child that will ensure he or she won't get picked on in school, and went around the table talking about what horrible mutations of our own names we'd been confronted with in our childhoods.

When it was my turn, I was able to rattle of a list of what I'd thought would be obvious disparaging forms of my own name: Retchin', Witchy, Retch, Bitchy, Bitchen...and that's just for my first name. Coworkers, however, were surprised. Of course they were-- they're all adults. If it had ever occurred to any of them to call me by one of those names, they didn't let on.

Whenever I see someone I care about deliberately referred to by the wrong name, even if it's a variation of their actual name that they just don't use, I think of third grade bullies. That, to me, is the level of maturity displayed by someone who uses this tactic of insult. Frequently it meant just using the dimunitive form of someone's name without their consent-- Mike becomes Mikey, Tom becomes Tommy, Sophia becomes Sophie, Elizabeth becomes Lizzy, etc.

Nothing's wrong with those versions of the names, of course, and sometimes the dimunitive version is even someone's given name. In other case it's chosen as an alternative by the name's owner. The point is, that's the person's actual name. That's what they go by. That's what they expect you to call them.

Warping a person's name into something they do not go by is condescending at best. You know this-- you've heard the tone with which Bob becomes Bobby to someone who doesn't like him. But doing so as a deliberate insult is actually akin to bigotry, I think.

Strong claim? Oh, definitely. But here's something to consider-- your first name at least is, in most cases, a circumstance of bith. In the same way that you were born Canadian or Australian, male or female, white or Latino, ectomorph or endomorph, you are very likely to have been born Jamal or Harriet.

Turning you into Jabba or Hairy-It is, then, pretty much like calling you fat or a ginger, or making fun of your accent. It's insulting a trait that the person (likely) didn't choose, can't do much about, has lived with for his/her entire life, and most importantly has no moral quality whatsoever.  As circumstances of birth don't. If you don't like someone's name, that is an aesthetic judgment, a matter of taste. It says absolutely nothing about how good or intelligent or brave or educated they are. Or aren't.

It's funny that we call these things superficial characteristics, because in reality they go deep. Anything you've lived with for your entire life is going to be personal. Making fun of a lifelong "superficial characteristic" is trying to cut someone to the core over a thing unrelated to character, that they can do nothing about. That sounds an awful lot like bigotry, doesn't it?

That's why I don't think you should make fun of people's names. It's not because I'm opposed to insults-- not by a long shot-- but I'm opposed to that kind of insult.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Calling it justice doesn't make it just

Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's new king Salman
Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters
Apparently in the uproar over beheadings committed by ISIS, some have noticed that America's ally Saudi Arabia has committed quite a few of them as well:
The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors. 
Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries. 
In an article published today, a representative of Saudi government actually attempted a defense of this:
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they were based on "a decision made by a court" rather than ISIS' "arbitrary" killings. . . 
"When we do it in Saudi Arabia we do it as a decision made by a court," he said. "The killing is a decision, I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this."

ISIS regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law.

Al-Turki said that "ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people," adding that "the difference is clear."

 "When you kill somebody without legitimate basis, without justice system, without court, that is still a crime whether you behead them or kill [them] with a gun," al-Turki said, referring to ISIS' killings.
"Arbitrary" means "random, without reason." If ISIS "regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law," then ISIS's killing are not arbitrary-- they are based on Shariah law. When the Islamic State murdered French mountaineer Herve Gourdel in the mountains of Algeria, it was to threaten the French into ceasing airstrikes on the area. That is not arbitrary. When they beheaded beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman, east of Tikrit in Iraq, it was claimed to be in retaliation for the TV station "distorting the image of Iraq's Sunni community." That is not arbitrary.

Is it legitimate? Is it just? No, of course not. It's barbaric and inhuman. But is that because it doesn't take place within a "justice system"? Within a court?

Saudi Arabia's "justice system," as it happens, is also based on Shariah law. As it happens, it also hands down brutal sentences.

Now, Mansour al-Turki does have a point-- when you kill someone without legitimate basis, it's still a crime regardless of how you kill them. Although in Saudi Arabia, it's not at all uncommon for people to be killed by the "justice system" without legitimate basis. But for just a moment, let's look at a case where someone wasn't killed:
A Saudi Arabian man suspects his five year old daughter of losing her virginity. He forces her to get an examination, then brings her home, where he repeatedly rapes her, and beats her to death with a cane and cables. He crushed her skull, broke her back, ribs and left arm, and burned her in several places. The Saudi royal family prevents him from being released after only a few months in jail and a fine, and a court eventually sentences him to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. However, he pays her mother blood money ($270,000 – a boy would have been worth double that price), and is released after only a couple of years.
This case is intended to be in contrast to another case of another person who wasn't killed-- at least, not yet-- but has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a whip, for the "crime" of apostasy. Raif Badawi. According to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme,
Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. . . 
“Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
Barbaric? Yes. Inhuman? Absolutely. Exceptional in any way to Saudi Arabia's "justice system"? Nope.
Whatever the reason for the timing, the wave of executions at the same time as jihadis in Iraq and Syria were beheading captives has brought new scrutiny to the practices of a country whose values are so different from those of its Western allies. 
While Saudi Arabia has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and has deployed its senior clergy to denounce militant ideology, its public beheading of convicts, particularly for non-violent or victimless crimes like adultery, apostasy and witchcraft, is anathema to Western allies. 
“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
So if ISIS were to establish its own courts, and refer to the proceedings of those courts as "justice," and claim that this makes their own barbarism "legitimate," could we expect the Major General Mansour al-Turki to agree?  I suspect not.

I suspect that even he knows that.

Maybe somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that barbarism is in how you kill someone and what you kill them for.

That torture is barbaric regardless, but especially in judgment of the content of a person's speech.

That legality is not morality, and just because an appointed group of human beings in a particular society says that something is wrong, doesn't mean that it is. That appointed groups of people are not, all things being equal, necessarily any better arbiters of morality than any individual human being on his/her own-- and in fact, sometimes they're worse.

That enforcing religious rules as laws may not inexorably lead to barbarism, but it will always punish apostasy over immorality, and therefore the enemies of that faith rather than those of the state.

Okay, yes, he wouldn't agree to that. But nevertheless, the contradiction is clear. Don't even try to defend it, Mansour al-Turki. You cannot.

And neither can we Americans. If Saudi Arabia is our ally, we will be judged by the company we keep.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In the virtue stakes, reverence leaves empathy at the starting line

In France, individual citizens run a satirical magazine, the Charlie Hebdo, which publishes cartoons making fun of Muhammad among countless other current world leaders and historical figures.

In retaliation, terrorists storm the office and murder 12 people at that office, as well as five more at a kosher market. As far away as Sudan, angry mobs attempt to swarm French embassies, and people call upon the government to expel their French ambassador.

In Saudi Arabia, people are imprisoned, tortured, and even beheaded by the government for such victimless offenses as apostasy and "sorcery" on a regular basis. That same government arrests a blogger, Raif Badawi, for blasphemy and he is sentenced to suffer ten years of imprisonment and 1,000 lashes with a whip, at a rate of 50 per week.

In retaliation, Americans trickle out to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Houston and politely wave signs asking for Raif Badawi to be freed. Nobel laureates from various places around the world gather to jointly ask Saudi Arabian academics to join them in vocally condemning Badawi's imprisonment and torture.

Now, I'm absolutely not saying that we should adopt the tactics of terrorists and ransack and pillage Saudi Arabian embassies, or anything like that. I am, rather, asking the following:

Why the hell can't the West seem to muster even a fraction of the same outrage concerning the ongoing torture and murder of human beings for exercising their freedom of speech, as some Muslims are able summon concerning the fact that some people, somewhere in the world, feel that the same freedom protects their right to make the occasional joke at the expense of religion?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Watching Charlie

The manhunt for the terrorists continues.

At least three mosques in various French cities have been attacked.

News sources deliberate whether to repost the covers of various Charlie Hebdo magazines which were offensive to Muslims, unsure whether doing so would be simple news coverage, or construed as support for freedom of speech, or support for the presumed sentiments behind the images, or what. 

No matter what they choose, they will be criticized.

People argue, again, whether criticism of Muslims can be racist even though Islam isn't a race. They argue about whether the Charlie Hebdo images were/are racist. They argue about what satire means. They are argue about hate speech laws. They argue about whether enough Muslims have apologized, authentically and tearfully enough, for crimes committed by people who have no relation to them aside from sharing a religion.

They have all of the same arguments, again and again and again.

Perhaps Charb and the others would be happy these arguments are happening. Perhaps they would see it as something of a tribute toward their efforts to be irreverant, controversial, brave truth-speakers.

Perhaps they would be right.

I don't know. I just feel tired and sad, reading all of this. And yet I can't stop.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The rich and the poor alike are forbidden to stand on dogs

On New Year's Day, a group of photos showed up in my Facebook news feed. It turned out to be a
holiday greeting from Sarah Palin. "Happy New Year!" she said. "May 2015 see every stumbling block turned into a stepping stone on the path forward. Trig just reminded me. He, determined to help wash dishes with an oblivious mama not acknowledging his signs for 'up!,' found me and a lazy dog blocking his way. He made his stepping stone."

No, I'm not Facebook friends with Sarah Palin-- I don't even follow her. The post showed up in my feed because one of my friends had commented on it. I clicked over without any real expectation of finding their comment, but rather to skim the comments the other several thousand people, already by that point, had made. Because if there's one thing the internet hates, it's cruelty to animals. I wanted to see if that hatred could be counterbalanced by political and/or religious affiliation, and my answer was...yes, apparently. At least, for some.

Didn't bother commenting, and didn't think any more about it until I saw this article this morning by Sarah Palin, TODAY contributor (hey, it's what the byline says):
PETA needs to chill. At least Trig didn't eat the dog. 
Where have they been all these years? Maybe enjoying a good steak when their Woman of the Year, Ellen DeGeneres, posted the exact same sweet image of a child with her dog. Or maybe they were off moose hunting when their Man of the Year, Mayor Bill de Blasio, dropped and killed a critter at a political photo op? Who knows what they were doing when their Man of All Time, Barack Obama, admitted to actually EATING dog, and enjoying it! C'mon PETA — where's the beef? . . . 
Again, I'm thankful these double standard bearers proved my entire point in that post: do they think their threats and efforts to shut me down are a stumbling block? Nah, this is a stepping stone for any American with common sense and love for kids and dogs — we just proved the haters' double standard nonsense, and, thus, their irrelevance. 
— Sarah Palin 
P.S. Should Jill Hadassah [Palin's dog] have not enjoyed Trig’s playing with her, guess it would have reminded us another important lesson – sometimes life jumps up and bites you in the okole, but you don't stop moving and baby you just Shake It Off.
"Okole" apparently is a Hawaiian word for "ass" or "butt." I had a moment of wondering why on earth Palin would use a Hawaiian word before realizing-- oh, of course. It's a way for someone who
thinks even "butt" is a bad word to avoid saying it, but be able to express exactly the same sentiments generally expressed using the word, by borrowing it from another language. I guess God doesn't understand Hawaiian.

So I looked up what Ellen Degeneres did, and found myself looking at a site called Conservatives 4 Palin, which was kind enough to host a photo which supposedly appeared on the Facebook account for The Ellen DeGeneres Show six months ago. It shows what appears to be a three (?) year old girl brushing her teeth while standing on top of a large adult labrador, accompanied by the caption "Well, that's one way to reach the sink." That little girl wasn't Ellen's daughter, btw, and the online appears to also have been largely negative.
response to the picture

Whitney Pitcher, author of this article entitled "PETA Woman of the Year Posts Photo of a Child Standing on a Dog," has the grace to note, "My post is neither a condemnation or an approval of the photos shared by Governor Palin or Ellen Degeneres." Which is good, I suppose, because presumably it would be bad form for a web site called Conservatives 4 Palin to say anything that would amount to a "condemnation" of her, even for something so obviously stupid and abusive as allowing a child to stand on the back of the family dog-- a special needs dog, who is "lazy" according to Palin (what, for not getting up when a toddler tries to use her as a stepstool?) -- and then share the photos with the world as part of an exhortation to enjoy their new year.

If Jill Hadassah the dog had in fact objected to a boy (who is now seven years old, according to Wikipedia) standing on her back, stood up, and bitten him in the "okole," what do you think the response would've been? Do you think everyone involved would have learned a lesson that sometimes "life" jumps up and bites you, but you don't stop moving and just Shake It Off? You know, "life." (Hey, they say life's a bitch...) Yeah, me neither.

So I have a few conclusions on this subject:
  • Sarah Palin, and the parents of that little anonymous blonde girl, need step stools. Many of them. In the kitchen, the bathroom, and any other place there's a counter that a small child might need to reach. Maybe a charitable organization can supply them with a couple.

  • PETA needs to stop being the banner organization for giving a damn about animal suffering. They do not speak for everyone with concerns on the subject. They're not even good at representing the cause, themselves. I seriously doubt most of the people expressing concern about the welfare of Jill Hadassah the dog on Facebook had or have any affiliation whatsoever with PETA. The internet, perhaps, is guilty of caring way, way, way too much about animal cruelty, but PETA doesn't speak for the internet in that regard. 

  • Tu quoque, also known as an "appeal to hypocrisy," is a logical fallacy. It refers to an attempt to legitimize, or at least distract from, a critique aimed at yourself by pointing out a similar crime (or endorsement of such) made by the person or group making the criticism.

    Not one word of Palin's essay on Today: Pets amounted to anything like an apology or an acknowledgment of wrong-doing. On the contrary, her standpoint is made abundantly clear: "we just proved the haters' double standard nonsense, and, thus, their irrelevance." She honestly thinks that the arguments of critics (excuse me, "haters") are proven irrelevant by her pointing out the presumed acceptance of said critics haters of a similar crime perpetrated by someone they approve of.

    Of course, we don't even know whether PETA even saw, much less approves of, the photo posted on The Ellen DeGeneres Show's Facebook wall. We don't know whether the people who criticized Palin's New Years wishes post on Facebook ever saw it, much less approve of it. Or de Blasio supposedly shooting a dog. Or Obama supposedly eating one. We certainly don't know whether everybody who thinks it's wrong to allow a seven year old boy to stand on a dog's bag and post "cute" photos of it on Facebook has seen and approve of those things. 

    And if we did, that still wouldn't make it okay. That's what tu quoque means. 
Sarah Palin, take a logic class. Everybody else, class dismissed.