20 years on — who can forget?

I did not post on this yesterday because, as I said, it was actually on the morning of 12 September 2001 (our time) that the news came through. I first heard it on my clock radio, then got out of bed and turned on the TV… The first attack had occurred at 1am our time.

I have recovered, thanks to the Wayback Machine, my blogs (originally on Angelfire) for September and October 2001. Some extracts follow. Links all work.

2001

27 Oct 2001

From The Sydney Morning Herald…food for thought, nice memories and a bonus replay

Hugh Mackay is a regular columnist in the Saturday Herald. I am often in sympathy with what he says, and today’s column is such a case. He articulates much of my own unease in the current climate, with the world as it is and an election coming up here. You may not agree, but still, read it carefully.

– OPINION

BEWARE OF WARMONGERS AND LIES TOO EASILY TOLD

By Hugh Mackay

It is an extraordinary thought that a federal election campaign in a country like Australia – remote, peaceful, tolerant (though decreasingly so), hospitable (though decreasingly so), safe, secure and prosperous – could be hijacked by hatred and fear.

Even more extraordinary is the possibility that an unpopular, divisive, high-taxing government could be returned with an increased majority, mainly because voters were freaked by their fear.

Fear is a complex emotion but it comes in two main forms. There’s “anticipatory fear” where we perceive a threat, know what to do about it and take the necessary evasive action. That happens when you see a dangerous situation looming on the road, or someone threatens you with violence, or you face a difficult challenge like an exam, or a job interview. Anticipatory fear can usually be discharged quickly. We act, and we feel better.

Then there’s “inhibitory fear” where the threat is too great, too amorphous or too appalling for us to know how to deal with it. Because there’s no way discharge the fear through action, we are inhibited rather than energised. The term “paralysed by fear” is a good description of inhibitory fear at work.

The fear generated by terrorism is of that kind. It’s too huge and yet too vague a threat to be dealt with rationally. It comes from shadowy, uncertain sources. It has the potential to pop up in unexpected places and unpredictable ways.

So governments (including our own) try to manage it by reacting as if this is a conventional military threat to which they can respond in conventional military ways. We’re supposed to be hunting Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind the attacks on the US, but, in effect, we have declared war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. We keep saying this is not like any other war, yet our leaders are approaching it as if it is precisely like any other war … right down to the disturbingly jolly television coverage of politicians joshing with the troops they are consigning to battle.

It’s no wonder we are afraid and unfocused in our fear. We’re jumpy about everything because we can’t quite get a handle on what is going on, what will happen next, or even what should happen next. (If the ground forces capture bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cronies, is that it? Do the troops arrest them, turn them over to “the authorities”, and then go home?)

It would be a tragedy for our democracy if the Australian electorate turned out to have been paralysed by fear at the very time when we were supposed to be pondering weighty questions about the character of our society and its future directions.

But it would also be a tragedy if we allowed the fear of terrorism – or even of refugees – to blind us to some other, more specific targets for equally legitimate fears. Let me offer you a few suggestions.

Be afraid of politicians who send us too easily to war.

Be afraid of those who, turning their backs on the entire history of our species, persist in the belief that killing each other solves anything.

Be afraid of those whose rhetoric is carefully designed to make it sound as if war is a noble thing and death in battle is glorious. The truth is very different: history says war is devastating for all concerned and the suffering of those who are killed or maimed, on both sides, is just like any other suffering. Their blood is like your blood; the mud and rubble and excrement in which they writhe are as filthy as any other; their families grieve with the same intensity as any other bereaved family.

Be afraid of those who present a complex truth as if it is simple. Be afraid of a propaganda war against bin Laden and the Taliban untempered by any acknowledgment that the US had encouraged and empowered the Taliban in Afghanistan when Russia was the enemy.

Be afraid of those who refuse, on the grounds of “patriotism”, to examine possible reasons for hostility to the US in certain parts of the world.

Be afraid of politicians prepared to exploit our baser instincts for political gain. Be afraid of the motives of a federal minister recklessly announcing that Australia now ranks third in the world as a terror target, as if our fears needed refuelling … and as if some terrorist had mailed him a hit list.

Be afraid of anyone who tries to justify enmity in the name of religion.

Above all, be afraid of the corrosive and paralysing effect of fear itself. If we allow it to dull the clarity of our focus on the local issues facing us in this election campaign, that will be a huge victory for terrorism.

* * *

14 Oct 2001

Sunday…and news so burdens the heart

The news is grim this morning. If indeed the recent cases of anthrax in the United States are part of the current terrorist program, let it be said at once that any God who tells someone to do such a thing cannot be God.

In a sweeping but in my view accurate generalisation referring to Old Testament prophets, fundamentalist Christians and the likes of Osama Bin Laden, Karen Armstrong in A History of God ascribes a clear link between belief in a highly personal God and attributing one’s own hatred, anger, resentment and other dark forces to the Almighty, thus legitimising them. One’s own welling resentments (or, in a somewhat more positive light, one’s sense of injustice) are projected heavenwards, so that they are no longer your feelings but the will of God. If you are charismatic enough to persuade other people that your anthropomorphic deity really feels as you do, you can then unleash very powerful forces onto the world. I really think there is something to this thesis.

Recently Mitchell told me he was reading the Old Testament for the first time, but was finding himself bogged down in the detailed laws of the Torah, the five books traditionally (and wrongly) ascribed to Moses. The detailed arguments on the origins of the five books of the Torah are well known and accepted by most Christian historians and scholars, and very many Jewish ones. The introductory matter to the Catholic Jerusalem Bible gives a moderately conservative but fair summary of the scholarly position: that the books reach back through oral tradition to the beginnings of Israel, but in the form we know them date from a time some 500 to 800 years after the Exodus. Only the most Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians deny this.

The books are important, however. There are gems within, and the Exodus has, as myth, inspired many an oppressed people, including African Americans in their struggle. Among the gems are laws which still govern our sense of what is just: “Do not deny justice to any poor man of yours in his lawsuit. Keep away from lies. Do not slay the innocent or the just, for I will not forgive the wicked. And do not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eye of the clearsighted and perverts the sentence of the just. Do not oppress a stranger; you know what it is to be a stranger, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt.” (“Stranger” could well be translated as “refugee”.) —Exodus 23: 6-9 [Unless otherwise stated, I am using the rather good Christian Community Bible: Catholic Pastoral Edition, 2 ed, Claretian Publications, Quezon City (Philippines) 1988.]

There are of course laws that are blissfully ignored today: “If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and do not charge him interest.” Exodus 22: 24 Others, probably most, are ignored–thank God: “If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she profanes her father and shall be burned in the fire.” Leviticus 21: 9 “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” Leviticus 20: 27 [1611 King James Version] And in the same chapter, verse 13, “If a man lieth with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” [KJV]

The last one has had a somewhat more enduring influence than the one just before it…

Here endeth the lesson.

10 Oct 2001

Poetry, a letter, and a dizzy old queen…in reverse order 😉

Yes, the dizziness was mine, and literal: I am having it checked out.

The letter was from Shanghai Bob, an ex-student, and is quoted below. It is a really nice letter…

Shanghai Bob’s Letter

Date: Tuesday, October 09, 2001 1:03 AM

Hi Mr W,

It has been a while since we last talked, I’ve been quite busy and believe that you are more busy than I am. However I’ve been reading your Ninglun Diary recently, first just wanted to have a glance but was attracted to your many insights on daily issues, and so read all your September and October diaries. (^_^)

On that terrorist issue, I totally agree with your views, especially on how we should not associate all Muslims to terrorists, just as we cannot call all Americans murderers by the act of Timothy McVeigh.. But sadly, many people (at least some of my friends) have adopted that thought, having very negative views on Muslims on the whole. And some of my atheist friends developed the idea that “if there wasn’t religion, the world would be at peace.” One very atheist friend even said, “religions are utterly stupid and evil, people should stop them.” Much of the world’s ill comes from a lack of empathy, understanding, compassion and respect for differences, and when this develops to a larger scale, it results in larger conflicts like violence and even war. But sadly, this ill is so rooted in every human being (ie. everyone, whether the person is Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc etc etc), that often we just turn out to hurt others without even realising it.

You also wrote that you are a religion seeker today. I remembered before that you told me you were a Buddhist, to what extent do you believe in Buddhism today? Recently, I too am very interested in the many religions of the world, and have searched the net to get to know some of them. My grandma is a Buddhist, so is my uncle and aunt, and so is Xiang. However their beliefs are quite different too. My grandma believes that chant the name of Buddha and scriptures can help bring peace, and good will be repayed for good. My uncle and aunt believe that only the actual practice of cultivation (by sit in meditation) will free people from the cycle of reincarnation, and open up the window of wisdom, and become Buddha after death. (a bit like Falun Gong, though they’re not Falun Gong.) Xiang believes in Tibetan Buddhism, and follows Dalai Lama as his living God. The religion of Buddhism has diverse denominations with its huge amount of scriptures and different doctrines. What is your personal belief in Buddhism? (^_^)

It’s also interesting to know that you were a Christian involved in an evangelical union when you were young. I guess I am likely to face similar problems in understanding the Bible. Many issues like homosexuality (I am not homosexual, but am far from homophobic), and the law of the Old Testament are the difficult areas. But I do trust the love of God, and the wisdom of life that the Bible teaches. I’ve also read articles about Christian Fundamentalism; it gives me the impression that it lacks humility, compassion, understanding and love, which are the essence of the Bible, for “God is love.” 1 John 4:8. Many Fundamentalists also tend to read the Bible out of context, and also tend to take metaphors literally. So these are some areas I will take note.

On whether the Bible is inspired by God or just made up by people, I do not know much. But what amazes me is the Bible’s many accurate prophesies, such as the ones in Isaiah about Christ the Messiah, how he came, how he lived, how he died, everything so specific and so accurate. It’s so accurate that many think it must be written after Jesus but claimed itself written earlier, but last century the Dead Sea scroll was found, and it was a manuscript of the book of Isaiah carbon dated almost 200 B.C. The Bible’s many scientific knowledge is also extraordinary. The Old Testament says that the earth is round and is held in mid space, written many centuries B.C. where people had no idea of what the earth looks like, (it was thought to be flat until only around 300 years ago). But anyway, whether it is really revelation by God or not, it is still an extraordinary and valuable book I think.

It was by reading your Ninglun website that my interests in these subjects are aroused, indeed you’re making a brilliant site! Please do keep up the good work!

Take care, keep in touch.

Your student as always,
Bob

Letter published with Bob’s permission.

2000
Class of 2000: L-R Xiang, Mitchell, me, Shanghai Bob, Zhaonan. 2021: Xiang is now a mathematician, Mitchell is a teacher, Bob is a doctor, and I think Zhaonan studied Engineering.

08 Oct 2001

The world in turmoil…but quiet in Surry Hills

I first heard about the attack on Kabul when I went for the morning paper and saw the special 4am edition of the Daily Telegraph. Well, I guess we all await developments.

I took my copy of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God with me as I set out for Cafe Max to have a quiet morning coffee. It is a calm and dispassionate account of the subject–no, not really dispassionate, as Armstrong clearly has a passion for the idea of God and its evolution in the three major Middle Eastern religions–Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She does also allude to other traditions, such as Buddhism, but her focus is on the diverse monotheistic “people of the Book(s)”.

chris_and_dim
Cafe Max – Madam and Dimmi 2003

I can’t help agreeing with A N Wilson, as cited on the cover: “This is the most fascinating and learned survey of the biggest wild goose chase in history.”

Why on earth have we come to two conclusions: 1) God is absolutely fascinated with the Middle East and 2) He talks to people and makes them write things? This book helps one understand how this came about. Armstrong does believe in God, by the way, but is chary of the idea of literal revelation. She certainly is learned and fairminded.

The book is worth it for a clearer and less hysterical take on Islam, just for starters…

23 Sep 2001

State of the world

On world affairs yesterday, and in the diary for the day before, I raised a few questions. Looking back, I realise how devastated I have been by the events that have unfolded since September 11. One symptom is how the time elapsed since then seems almost a blur, almost unreal. I think I am settling back now, but I still feel a deep apprehension. My unease, combined with the usual end-of-term stresses, may even have impinged on my personal relationships, I suspect: perhaps in the form of leaning on some too heavily as a respite from the gloom.

I recommend looking at this article in Asiaweek, which goes some way towards realism about the way the rest of the world might feel about how the United States responds to September 11. The Economist examines the questions “Who is to blame?” and “Why do they hate us?” rather well. This article is pretty close to what I think; however, I think, while agreeing that the motives of such crazy people may be hard to fathom, that the U.S, policy issues raised in that editorial may have more significance, at least in creating a climate for hatred. Finally, The Atlantic Monthly has some good background articles, one set of which is at the other end of that link.

Religion

I am reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong (a former nun), partly to background current issues, but also to review my knowledge of the Bible, religious history and so on. Illuminating on the three monotheisms–Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

We shall see that Yahweh did not remain the cruel and violent god of the Exodus, even though the myth has been important in all three of the monotheistic religions. Surprising as it may seem, the Israelites would transform him beyond recognition into a symbol of transcendence and compassion. Yet the bloody history of the Exodus would continue to inspire dangerous conceptions of the divine and a vengeful theology… The myth of a Chosen People and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Deuteronomist right up to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that is unhappily rife in our own day. Yet…In all three faiths, (God) has inspired an ideal of social justice, even though it has to be said that Jews, Christians and Muslims have often failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed him into the God of the status quo. [p.28-29]

Mitchell recently said that the religious are often the nicest people on campus, and he is right I suspect; I was in the Evangelical Union myself and like to think I was one of the nicest people on campus in my day 😉 Today I am a religious seeker as much as ever, I think; but I have seen through and beyond the simplifications and circular arguments (and self-satisfaction) of the “simple faith” that believes the Bible is the Word of God because it says it is; Christian theology then becomes a matter of ignoring the embarrassing bits in the Bible, ironing out or glossing over inconsistencies, and getting into more and more desperate trouble trying to sustain the unsustainable. And yet there is in the Bible a core that is absolutely wonderful.

Today I would recommend anyone interested in the Bible should of course read it. But they must learn to see it historically, not as a magic thing, a box of texts all of equal relevance. Guidance may be had from believers and unbelievers alike: David Marr, The High Price of Heaven (Sydney, Allen and Unwin 1999); Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Penguin 1992); Bishop John Selby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (Harper 1991).

17 Sep 2001

An evil man

Much may (I think) rightly be said about the folly of American foreign policy, or its arrogance–and America has sometimes set a nasty hypocritical tone to an outsider like me: supporting corrupt and tyrannical regimes, engineering the downfall of governments they do not like (as in Chile), callously speaking military-talk about “collateral damage”, and so on. On the other hand, this is a country free enough to allow those thoughts to be expressed, as they are by many: Noam Chomsky to name one. Dissent is more viable in America than in most other nations. The world is paradoxical.

On the other hand, having just watched an excellent documentary on ABC (Australian that is) Four Corners on Osama bin Laden: oh my God! What an evil bastard that man is.

I find myself looking again at the model of a post-Cold War world given in Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996) and find it compelling and prescient. I still feel he draws the lines too starkly, and disagree with his proposed policies, except maybe to pull back from insisting on the “Westernisation” (as distinct from “modernisation”) of the rest of the world. Huntington also presents a very flawed view, a straw man view, of multiculturalism, something he does not understand in the way it has been understood in Australia for example. He does not give sufficient credence either to the fact that cultures actually can change, compromise and meet. In a sense he is agreeing with the extremists who so bedevil this world. Nonetheless, it is one of the best available models for making sense of what is occurring at this moment.

12 Sep 2001

Dies irae

Horrible. What more can I say?

When I was seventeen the following poem (I print here the first and last stanzas only) was one we did; ever since it has recurred to me when the world has displayed yet another atrocity:

SEPTEMBER 1 1939

W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

*

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleagured by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.

2021

Do visit The New York World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11 is a moment we must remember — Virginia Trioli. And here is a must read: 9/11 conspiracy theories debunked: 20 years later, engineering experts explain how the twin towers collapsed.

June 2006 really surprises me — 2

Believe it or not I do not spend all my days combing my archives, but with the new month I first checked that I did have a June 2006 archive and then, having found it, surprised myself! So this is the second of up to 3 reposts! I may add in some pics…

Crash-tackling the stereotype

Some of you remember my fifteen minutes of fame in 2002. There had been mutterings around The Mine about “Asians” and “coaching” (cheating?) and not playing Rugby…

How amused I was then last night to get an email from one of my (“Asian”) coachees to say he couldn’t attend this week as he would be playing Rugby League in The Shire.

He’s an athlete too.

As time goes by… Meeting Madam and a Buddhist.

It has been a week for running into people, one way or another. Delenio will know who I mean when I mention that I saw G, a former colleague, especially in many a GPS debate, a couple of days ago. He looks different, healthy and very friendly. He’s pretty much done with teaching and is very much into Buddhism these days. He hadn’t heard about my becoming involved with South Sydney Uniting Church, but could relate to the need for a spiritual home. He certainly seems to have found his, and that is great.

By the way, I do not put great store on the exclusive truth claims of any religion, including my own; as soon as religions seriously go down that track you can be sure they are wrong. But that’s a matter for another day.

Tonight I saw Madam in Elizabeth Street, and this will mean most to The Rabbit, after whom she asked. She was pleased to hear about the English teaching. She is still doing some catering, she tells me, has some Japanese students staying with her, and is enjoying the freedom of not running a cafe. She seems to be over her Bulgarian period. (Mind you, I liked him.)

Her cafe was a bit like Rick’s. If smaller. Much smaller. And there was no piano. But it was as much a haven for all kinds of refugees as Rick’s ever was. I am sure The Rabbit remembers it with as much affection as I do.

Ah, Cafe Max. I haven’t really taken to its replacement.

chris_and_dim
Cafe Max – Madam and Dimmi 2003

Rick’s Cafe Casablanca

I really love the movie Casablanca, which is the same age as I am, or pretty close…

And now it appears, so I saw on ABC’s Foreign Correspondent tonight, that an American named Kathy Kriger has brought it to life in the city the movie celebrated. It looks great, and the Rick’s Cafe website is just a delight. She has a blog too: Salon Privé.

Welcome to my Salon Privé and please take a seat at the table. This is a dinner conversation and all the usual subjects are welcome: politics, food, music, film, design, religion, travel, drink, business, gossip, shopping…ok, even sports. So make sure your glass is topped up, and let’s start the meal…

Do yourself a favour: go there online like me or, if you are very lucky, in actuality. Looks like a great idea beautifully done.

I found this suitably humbling…

I have said quite a bit about refugees and asylum seekers at various times: those links search my Big Archive. But I was suitably humbled by MyScribbles writing about June 20: World Refugee Day.

June 20 was the World Refugee Day. Did anyone notice it? Despite being an Afghan refugee and a member of the largest single refugee group in the world, I didn’t notice it come and go. Although I do not believe in the symbolic efficacy of the day, I do believe that if such days are marked properly with awareness programs, a real change can be brought about in the lives of refugees.

I believe that in an overwhelming number of cases, people become refugees when the profits of a multinational corporation are at stake or when a number of immoral, corrupt leaders play dirty politics on the international arena. However, I also strongly believe in the power of the collaborative strength of the human beings as an agent for real change. Therefore, when a day such as this is used to educate the general public and urge them to take action, it can have a real impact on the lives of the refugee population of the world…

I am not going to improve on this teenager’s statement. Visit his page and read the rest.

Later

MyScribbles’ Refugee Day entry was read aloud at this morning’s service at South Sydney Uniting Church. Vlad had also alluded at some length in his reflection to The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003).

If you go to MyScribbles and read his previous entry, No Radical Islam, Only Radicalized Muslims, you will find a statement that may cause you to do a double-take:

The creation of Al-Qaeda by the United States was a step in the direction of creating one such group. Al-Qaeda not only interpreted Islam militantly, but also used it to radicalize and inspire many Muslims to join them.

But he does have a point. As Wikipedia says:

Sources differ on the origin of the name. Robin Cook, the late British member of Parliament and former foreign secretary, wrote in 2005 that “Al-Qaida, literally ‘the database’, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.” [1] Supporting this most likely origin of the name, Dr. Saad Al-Fagih, a surgeon at Peshawar (where the recruiting happened) explained that creation of the computer database (Al-Qaeda) was necessary to fix problems associated with a lack of documentation about the fighters who were recruited. [2] Some others have said that the name means simply the base as well as claiming that the organization chose its own name.[3][4]

The origins of al-Qaeda can be traced to a few weeks after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when a cadre of non-Afghani, Arab Muslim fighters joined the largely United States and Pakistan-funded Afghan mujāhidīn anti-Russian resistance movement (a guerrilla war against Soviet occupation forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government). Osama bin Laden, a member of a prominent Saudi Arabian business family, led an informal grouping which became a leading fundraiser and recruitment agency for the Afghan cause in Muslim countries; it channelled Islamic fighters to the conflict, distributed money and provided logistical skills and resources to both fighting forces and Afghan refugees.

See also “What is al-Qaeda?” by Jason Burke, and Burke’s book Al-Qaeda: the True Story of Radical Islam (Penguin, rev ed. 2004). The first edition (Tauris, 2003) was called Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror.

Congratulations to my young Afghan friend

On my WordPress dashboard I just noted:

Fastest Growing WordPress.com blogs

1. MyScribbles: Write-ups of an Afghan
2. THEOcracy
3. hot BODS’ abode
4. The Rambling Men
5. Canucklehead
6. Evolving Trends
7. Brechi Reborn

Well done!

See also from this year How 15 years ago my blog reached into Afghanistan and encouraged at least one teenager…

Post Script

In the previous post in talking about Lord Malcolm and Lillian Crombie, I linked to the page I posted at the time of Malcolm’s death, 1 June 2007. Looking at it again I noticed among the many comments this one:

 MyScribbles: Write-ups of an Afghan Says:
June 16, 2007 at 3:54 am May he rest in peace. I offer my condolences to his family and friends.He must be feeling proud of having friends like you who remember him and pay such nice and sincere tributes to him after his passing away.

Yesterday was World Teachers Day

So watch this!

On Facebook yesterday Sydney Boys High — the school I last worked in — posted on the retirement of the Deputy Principal, and on the twenty year service in tandem with Dr Jaggar, the current Principal. I was working at the school until the end of 2005, with an odd job or two between then and 2010.

Dr Jaggar on the right — not sure about the other one!

On Facebook I said:

International Teachers Day conversation 1 at Diggers — with Leo Tobin, who was around the teaching traps down here in the Illawarra even before I was. Many a story we swapped about Wollongong High and Brian Downes, the legendary “Basher” Downes! 50 years of memories.

Conversation 2 — by phone — with Kim Jaggar, Principal of Sydney Boys High on his 21 years in the job there. On ticklish issues like what to do about students running away to join ISIS! (Kim was absolutely brilliant and those kids are now OK and no longer kids!)

So much that man has accomplished in the old place.

On that “ticklish problem” (in 2015) see Bringing it home.

So imagine my feelings when Prime (7) News rather prominently featured this story last night:

TWO brothers blocked from leaving Sydney Airport under suspicion they were heading to fight in the Middle East were award-winning students at the prestigious Sydney Boys High public school.

The boys, aged 16 and 17, were prominent members of sporting teams at the selective school, one of eight Great Public Schools (GPS) in Sydney, with the older brother also excelling academically and in debating…

That is as it appears on the Daily Telegraph website this morning as the Channel 7 version has disappeared. (The front page was devoted to a particularly bizarre murder trial that finished yesterday.) Last night on Facebook I commented:

I hate the way this is being framed. The school is simply NOT one of Sydney’s most exclusive schools. It’s a state school like any other but academically selective, old and (oddly) competes in GPS sport. I went there. I taught there. I know many of the current staff. The principal is undoubtedly the best I ever worked for. I fear that the way this plays in the media will block real understanding of what might have got into the heads of the two brothers, assuming the allegations are accurate. Coincidentally I have blogged recently on matters relating to ten years ago, but can’t and won’t say anything about this latest, except to utterly support the school.

There are also over one thousand students at SBHS. It has a very well developed, supportive welfare system; I was myself on the welfare committee when I worked there.

To cut the long story short, despite media and other pressure, the school supported the students involved. They have both moved on from that flirtation with being jihadis, and are doing well.

9 September brings pause

Yesterday I recalled the wonderful events of September 2000, both here and on Facebook, but of course there was another anniversary concerning the following year. How different an anniversary that one is, even though the events this time were far away. All our lives have been marked one way or another by those events.

Today I will look back at my blog for September 2001, which is still preserved in the Internet Archive. But briefly back to the year before. I was in both years still working at Sydney Boys High. Here I am with members of the Class of 2000.

2000

So last night SBS showed the PBS documentary about George W Bush. Excellent it was too. Certainly brought back those times, confirmed much we had known or thought, but added perspective. There is another episode next week.

That clip is an excellent preface to these preserved memories of mine.

02 Sep 2001

Spring again and another Yum Cha

“Although it is Spring and Father’s Day, it was a bit cool and windy today. A good Yum Cha took place at the East Ocean Restaurant with the Empress (of course), Malcolm, Sirdan, James, PK (with whom I have had some good talks recently), Bob (a rare visitor) and myself. It is interesting as this diary has been faithfully kept for the best part of eighteen months to look back at Yum Chas past: last September for example Sydney was gearing up for the Olympics and was just getting into the mood; we had a couple of Olympic visitors at that Yum Cha.

“Twenty years ago this month myself, Rob (rest his soul), John Hawke and a couple of others began the young writers’ magazine Neos. (Simon H. was there in the background too.) The magazine went on until 1985, attracting a pretty fair reputation, including one Literature Board Grant and Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Award for services to youth. My mother was particularly proud of that. Funnily, it was also a time when my own life was at a low ebb, but I survived.

“It was towards the end of that time that I “came out” at last, and also began my current principal means of employment….

11 Sep 2001

Thoughts of a survivor: Guest article by Ian Smith, the Dowager Empress of Hong Kong [RIP 1953-2010]

“It is difficult to give advice to any one regarding HIV/AIDS. However here are a few thoughts from a long-term survivor.

“Do not panic. This is easy to say, but the best thing you can do, is ignore the virus as much as possible, within reason. If you are on medication, never miss a dose. Always have safe sex to avoid passing the virus to someone else, and keep alcohol and other recreational drugs down. By this I do not mean give everything up, just try cutting down. Think, ‘Do I really need that E tonight?” If you do, take only half, or less. This has the advantage of saving money. It also has the advantage of not damaging your immune system as much….

12 Sep 2001

Dies irae

Horrible. What more can I say?

“When I was seventeen the following poem (I print here the first and last stanzas only) was one we did; ever since it has recurred to me when the world has displayed yet another atrocity:

SEPTEMBER 1 1939

W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

*

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleagured by the same
Negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.

13 Sep 2001

Local but global…Australia and asylum seekers

“In the background as I write the TV here in Sydney is still devoted to full coverage via CNN etc of the horrendous events of a few days back; rightly so. Perhaps later I will dare to say something.

“Meantime the bizarre events surrounding the Australian Government’s treatment of asylum seekers (mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan) continues. Being relatively sane, I do not advocate open borders, but the current saga is odd to say the least. I still smell electoral advantage as a motive: why even Pauline Hanson has complained that the Government has been stealing her policies (and her voters?) The level of public discussion–at least in pubs and on talkback radio–has often been frightening in its ignorance and, indeed, racism….

17 Sep 2001

An evil man

“Much may (I think) rightly be said about the folly of American foreign policy, or its arrogance–and America has sometimes set a nasty hypocritical tone to an outsider like me: supporting corrupt and tyrannical regimes, engineering the downfall of governments they do not like (as in Chile), callously speaking military-talk about “collateral damage”, and so on. On the other hand, this is a country free enough to allow those thoughts to be expressed, as they are by many: Noam Chomsky to name one. Dissent is more viable in America than in most other nations. The world is paradoxical.

“On the other hand, having just watched an excellent documentary on ABC (Australian that is) Four Corners on Osama bin Laden: oh my God! What an evil bastard that man is.

“I find myself looking again at the model of a post-Cold War world given in Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996) and find it compelling and prescient. I still feel he draws the lines too starkly, and disagree with his proposed policies, except maybe to pull back from insisting on the “Westernisation” (as distinct from “modernisation”) of the rest of the world. Huntington also presents a very flawed view, a straw man view, of multiculturalism, something he does not understand in the way it has been understood in Australia for example. He does not give sufficient credence either to the fact that cultures actually can change, compromise and meet. In a sense he is agreeing with the extremists who so bedevil this world. Nonetheless, it is one of the best available models for making sense of what is occurring at this moment…..

27 Sep 2001

Last for a while….

“….Another influence is reading Four Quartets (T S Eliot) again, and finding it actually resonated, as it didn’t when I was eighteen! And Bishop Spong is an inspiration that one can be spiritual without believing one hundred and one impossible things before breakfast, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll. One does not have to subscribe to an infallible teacher, an infallible book; one looks within and perhaps joins with like-minded people. I am still looking…

Some say my teaching is nonsense
Others call it lofty and impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
the nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who have put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that grow deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate towards yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

“That is from the Tao Te Ch’ing, not an infallible book, that offers the best theology: “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

“Taking a break from diarying now for a week–a discipline I am imposing on myself. See you later. Sweet dreams to all my readers, especially you….”

Notice I was still calling it “diarying”, not “blogging!”

Blogging the 2010s — 104 — November 2010 — c

In this month, though by now in Wollongong, I was working on my last assignment as an amateur unpaid journalist on the South Sydney Herald — and it was of national import! I remain proud of my swan song.

In the matter of David Hicks

In 1999-2000 at least two young Australians were wandering about Pakistan. One of them was David Hicks.

david-hicks

The other was M.

m99

Both of them passed through places such as Quetta and Peshawar.

There is a picture of M in an arms bazaar in Peshawar dramatically holding an AK47. Both of them were in the Pakistani part of Kashmir at times. M’s six months in Pakistan (in two stages) was mere travelling; David’s was that and rather more. M took no courses and visited no camps. M has nothing to confess to; David famously confessed in order to be sprung from Guantanamo. I doubt that confession is worth much.

I have been reading David Hicks’s smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[6]smiley-happy005[8]Guantanamo: My Journey (2010).

One telling item concerns the picture of Hicks above, much used to confirm his evil activities. In fact it was taken in Albania where Hicks volunteered for Kosovo, ultimately seeing no action and under the overarching authority of NATO.

CIMG5056

He and some slipper-wearing mates are in fact clowning around with some empty weapons. The picture does not show Hicks in action on behalf of the Taliban in Afghanistan, though that is what viewers of the cropped pic were led to believe. An excellent example of framing changing meaning.

No, Hicks isn’t a hero, but neither is he the demonic supporter of terrorism we were led to believe. Some have no doubts that he is eevil: Miranda Devine for example. On the other hand see two good posts by Irfan Yusuf who knows rather more about the context of Hicks’s activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan than Miranda seems to: COMMENT: Why David Hicks matters … and OPINION: Artful dodger does himself no favours on David Hicks …  The Artful Dodger is John Howard and Yusuf is referring to Howard’s response to being confronted by Hicks on Q&A.

A recent episode of the ABC’s Q&A almost became a battle of the memoirs. John Howard was the sole guest, his appearance fitting very neatly in with his publisher’s promotion schedule. Howard was buoyed by audience responses to his mantras about the economy and his gentle pokes in the eyes of Peter Costello and Malcolm Fraser.
Then, out of the blue, David Hicks’s face appears via webcam. Contrary to the image Howard and others drew of him as a raving terrorist, Hicks calmly and in a dignified manner posed Howard his question.
Hicks wanted to simply understand why his own government showed indifference to his incarceration and torture at Guantanamo. Hicks also wanted to know what Howard thought of military tribunals. Hicks even ended his question with a polite “thank you”. Osama bin Laden would have been pulling his beard out at Hicks’s demeanour toward Howard.
It was obvious that Howard was rattled by Hicks’s very appearance, let alone by questions Howard avoided for so many years in office. At first, Howard played politician by avoiding the question, instead reminding us of how lucky we were to have a free exchange on an ABC that members of his government tried ever so hard to restrict and intimidate.
Howard also reminded us that there was …

… a lot of criticism of that book from sources unrelated to me and I’ve read some very severe criticisms of that book.

Also worth looking at: It’s right to write about Gitmo stay by Cynthia Banham; For the first time, David Hicks tells by Chris Johnston; David Hicks’ journey by Kellie Tranter…..

In the matter of David Hicks — 2

On the 8th I mentioned that I was reading David Hicks’s recently published account of his life. I now find myself preparing a review for the December South Sydney Herald.

In addition to the reviews linked to the earlier post I have been examining other resources on the subject of David Hicks. Any review of his book must include reference to the documentary The President Versus David Hicks. David Stratton:

The troubling documentary ‘The President Versus David Hicks’, which screened on SBS earlier this year and is only now getting a cinema release, is in effect a profile of David Hicks’ father, Terry. Faced with a situation no parent should have to contemplate, his son imprisoned for years by a foreign power which won’t allow his family access, his own government refusing to intervene on behalf of its citizen. Terry Hicks sets off, accompanied by film-maker Curtis Levy, to follow in his son’s footsteps in an effort to find out what happened to him.

We discover that David, a seemingly average Aussie kid from Adelaide, son of a broken marriage and with a failed relationship, and two children, behind him, converted to Islam and determined to fight what he saw as injustice towards Muslims, first in Kosovo, then in Kashmir and finally Afghanistan, where he became increasingly radicalised.

Terry Hicks is a wonderful character, a real Aussie battler, and very tolerant of some of the less attractive things he discovers about his son during his odessy. The film was made before David Hicks was formally charged, but it still raises once again all the questions about justice, respect for international law and the apparent indifference of Australian authorities to the fate of one of their citizens. This is a documentary which every concerned Australian should see…

The letters used in that documentary are glossed over somewhat in the recent book….

There has also been an opportunity to look again at the thoroughly admirable Michael Mori….

I’ve often wondered what became of Mori later. Here is the answer from Wikipedia.

Following Hicks’ departure from Guantanamo Bay to complete his sentence in Yatala Prison, South Australia – on or about May 20, 2007 – Mori was re-assigned as a staff judge advocate, or legal adviser, to the commanders of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. He has twice been passed over for promotion since taking on the Hicks case.[6]

Mori was presented, in June 2007, with an honorary membership of the Australian Bar Association for his defence of David Hicks.[7] In October 2007, he was awarded a civil justice award from the Australian Lawyers Alliance as “recognition by the legal profession of unsung heroes who, despite personal risk or sacrifice, have fought to preserve individual rights, human dignity or safety”.[8]

In September 2010, Mori took the navy to court, alleging that his 2009 promotion was delayed due to bias by the selection board.[9]

Now that guy is a hero!

I also have looked into Lex Lasry QC on Hicks’s trial: David Hicks Trial. The Parliamentary Library has a useful chronology: Australians in Guantanamo Bay…..

In the matter of David Hicks — 3

My South Sydney Herald project continues; the deadline is three days time.

Now I have discovered something about David Hicks’s guilty plea: it was what in US law is known as an Alford Plea: that is, a plea you make when you don’t necessarily believe you are guilty, or in fact believe you are not guilty. Now isn’t that interesting?….

In the matter of David Hicks — 4

This is the article to appear in December’s South Sydney Herald. The blog and the SSH hardly overlap, hence this preview….

Mr Howard vs David Hicks

A friend of mine was in Pakistan at the same time as David Hicks, and in many of the same places: Peshawar, Quetta, Pakistani Kashmir. There’s even a photo of my friend in Pashtun costume holding an AK47. That was a joke photo taken in a Peshawar arms bazaar. My friend went east and met the Dalai Lama. David Hicks went west and met Osama Bin Laden. My friend came home much sooner.

When David Hicks memorably confronted John Howard on Q&A in October he asked two questions: was I treated humanely? and was the Military Commission process fair? Howard answered neither question, applying the airbrush liberally  to what really happened to Hicks between 2001 and 2008.

After distracting us with a motherhood statement about what a great country we have to allow Hicks to bail him up like this, Howard spun first into irrelevance: “Now, having said that, can I simply say that I defend what my government did in relation to Iraq, in relation to the military commissions….” How did Iraq get into this?

He went on: “We put a lot of pressure on the Americans to accelerate the charges being brought against David Hicks and I remind the people watching this program that David Hicks did plead guilty to a series of offences and they, of course, involved him in full knowledge of what had happened on 11 September, attempting to return to Afghanistan and rejoin the people with whom he had trained. So let’s understand the reality of that David Hicks pleaded guilty to.”

TONY JONES: Mr Howard, on this question of him pleading guilty, Mr Hicks says in his own book that his military lawyer, David (sic) Mori, was told by your staff that Hicks wouldn’t be released from Guantanamo Bay unless he pleaded guilty. Was that your position?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I’m not aware of any such exchange but, look, I mean, there been a lot of criticism of that book by sources quite unrelated to me and I’ve read some very, very severe criticisms of that book…

Howard’s late-blooming desire to see Hicks returned to Australia had everything to do with VP Cheney’s visit to Australia in February 2007, when the deal that led to Hicks’s “conviction” was stitched up, and behind that was the 2007 Election. Howard knew the issue was losing him votes.

Colonel Morris Davis, the prosecutor in the case, recalls that in January 2007 he received a call from his superior Jim Haynes asking him how quickly he could charge David Hicks. (Now an attorney for Chevron, Haynes had in 2005 told Davis: “Wait a minute, we can’t have acquittals. We’ve been holding these guys for years. How are we going to explain that? We’ve got to have convictions.”) David Hicks was eventually charged on 2 February 2007, even though the details about how the commissions should be conducted weren’t published until late April. (Interview Amy Goodman and Col. Morris Davis 16 July 2008.)

Davis resigned from the Military Commission after prosecuting David Hicks, stating that “what’s taking place now, I would call neither military or justice.”

Howard assured us that the US had a long tradition of Military Commissions. He failed to mention that this particular Commission had been struck down by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Hamden v Rumsfeld in June 2006 so that what David Hicks was dealing with was a reinvented version, but as much a kangaroo court, to quote a senior British judge, as the previous edition.

More  airbrushing. And there’s more.

David Hicks’s guilty plea was an odd beast, an Alford Plea, something peculiar to US law. It is the plea of guilt you make when you don’t believe you are guilty but do believe the court is likely to find in favour of the prosecution. I may also add that David Hicks was never at any stage charged with or found guilty of terrorism. Some of the charges in Gitmo seem to have been invented specifically to justify the imprisonment of people there. Mr Howard passes over such technicalities.

Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, summed up his view of Guantanamo in an article published in November 2010.

…no intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement. This is perhaps the most astounding truth of all, carefully masked by men such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney in their loud rhetoric–continuing even now in the case of Cheney–about future attacks thwarted, resurgent terrorists, the indisputable need for torture and harsh interrogation and for secret prisons and places such as GITMO.

Curiously, one item in Hicks’s book that even he had doubts about has just been shown to be exactly as Hicks tells it: the existence at Guantanamo of a “Camp NO”, so called because it didn’t officially exist. Murders took place there, according to Marine Sergeant Joe Hickman (Harpers: “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle.”)

Nearly 200 men remain imprisoned at Guantánamo. In June 2009, six months after Barack Obama took office, one of them, a thirty-one-year-old Yemeni named Muhammed Abdallah Salih, was found dead in his cell. The exact circumstances of his death, like those of the deaths of the three men from Alpha Block, remain uncertain.

Those charged with accounting for what happened—the prison command, the civilian and military investigative agencies, the Justice Department, and  ultimately the attorney general himself—all face a choice between the rule of law and the expedience of political silence. Thus far, their choice has been unanimous.

Not everyone who is involved in this matter views it from a political perspective, of course. General Al-Zahrani grieves for his son, but at the end of a lengthy interview he paused and his thoughts turned elsewhere. “The truth is what matters,” he said. “They practiced every form of torture on my son and on many others as well. What was the result? What facts did they find? They found nothing. They learned nothing. They accomplished nothing.”

I have been reading Guantanamo: My Journey very carefully for around four weeks. I have also done a lot of fact checking. I especially recommend the report on David Hicks’s trial by Lex Lasry QC, available on the Internet, which includes the texts of all the charges and the final plea bargain. Hicks had a choice: stay in Gitmo or sign the admissions and go home. What would you do after more than five years? And no, Mr Howard, he was not treated humanely, and no, the system was eminently unfair.

Former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Danna Vale (Liberal, Hughes) got it right as far back as November 2005:

… The longer Hicks is in Guantanamo Bay, his imprisonment without trial will begin to creep like an incongruent shadow, jarring the Australian consciousness

Let’s get real. The case of David Hicks clearly fails the commonsense test. It fails the commonsense test not only in the educated minds of the legal profession, but in the gut feelings of ordinary Australians who believe in a fair go, and who believe that truth and justice and that old hand-me-down from the Magna Carta that says men are innocent until proven guilty, still deserve some currency in our world. Just like you, just like me, as an Australian, he is entitled to a fair trial without further delay. And, after four years in Guantanamo Bay, if the Americans cannot deliver this to David Hicks, in all fairness, we must ask that he be sent home.

In one of the more considered reviews of David Hicks Guantanamo: My Journey (William Heinemann 2010) Sally Neighbour claims that Hicks has airbrushed some parts of his story. At least she has read the book. I too find it difficult to believe he first heard of Al Qaeda after his capture, but endorse his recommendation of Jason Burke’s Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam as the best on the subject.

By contrast look at Miranda Devine’s recent review of Hicks’s book,  a sustained sledge against Dick Smith who assisted financially with David’s defence. Beyond that she descends into emotive claptrap or sheer ignorance, the latter being her inability to believe Hicks became a Muslim by looking up a mosque in the yellow pages and then meeting an imam. She doesn’t seem to have mastered Islam 101: one can become a Muslim simply by repeating “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet” to another Muslim. No course necessary. On this I absolutely believe Hicks, who, incidentally, no longer considers himself a Muslim.

One telling item for Hicks in the book is the famous picture of David with the rocket launcher. We all remember how this was used to demonise him and purported to show him in Afghanistan. It turns out to be cut from a photo taken in Albania of three friends playing around with empty weapons. Yes, he took part in the Kosovo war, but never saw action. Another photo shows him saluting the NATO flag, under which he was really serving then.

Guantanamo: My Journey is a book we need to read. I am glad it has been published. Like Sally Neighbour, there are some things I would like clarified, but I now believe it to be mostly truthful. Hicks was a bit of a fool, you know, even if a desire to aid oppressed people is quite commendable in itself. He was after all a 20-something at the time, and “under-researched” as he now says. He hasn’t killed anyone or engaged in any act of terrorism; everyone admits that.

One of the most valuable features of Guantanamo: My Journey is the extensive footnotes, a marvellously detailed documentation of the material in the book. I wish they had been set in their places at the bottoms of relevant pages rather than being gathered in the back. The book also desperately needs a thorough index.

David was pretty much a pawn. Heroes? Well, I’d nominate David’s father, and Major Michael Mori, his defending counsel, whose career after that suffered. (See The Marine Corps News 20 September 2010.)

PS: not in the article

David Hicks is accurate in his depiction of the Tablighi. I know this because I have taught one and did considerable research about Tablighi Jamaat at the time. With regard to Lashkar-I Taiba, Hicks may have polished the image somewhat, but it is fair to say that what he says about that organisation in the areas he found them may well have been true at that time and place. The organisation was not yet a listed terrorist organisation in Australia. Certainly David’s depiction of the Taliban is much less admiring in the book than it was in his letters home as seen in the documentary The President versus David Hicks. On the other hand Hicks’s explanation about his letters reflecting what he was seeing and reading at the time in the Pakistani press may well be true. It is also notable that Terry Hicks seems to take David’s rhetoric in those letters with something of a grain of salt. The book leaves no doubt about what David feels about the Taliban now. His account of the training he received in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be true but I do have some doubts about this.

Miranda Devine’s characterisation of David’s account of Guantanamo as “whingeing” is quite outrageous. Says more about her than it does about him.

My spellings reflect usage in The Oxford Dictionary of Islam.