Thursday, July 28, 2005

Fortress London

  • Blitz spirit, yeah
  • Dunkirk, yeah
  • Resolve, ok
  • Bulldog, bloody-mindedness...alright

Well, we have it, but it isn't 'fun' anymore. I was sick, sick, sick with nerves and suspicion of my fellow Londoners during my tube rides today. We awoke to the news that nine arrests had been made this morning under the Terrorism Act very near my house.

I walked past the thicket of police and reporters and took the Northern line (line of failed bombing at Oval and shooting over mistaken identity at Stockwell). This line is usually very full of people, but today it was nearly empty. People were nervous, people were clearly afraid. Many people were clearly wary enough to stay off the Underground (not me, I'm stupid.) There were very few men of "Asian appearance" on the train today, I guess they're tired of the looks.
There were cops everywhere. Not just your friendly bobby, but people carrying sub-machine guns. Some, I regret to say, don't look like they've had weapons training in a while, don't look like they could run to catch a terrorist (or a bus), and don't really make me feel any better knowing they're walking around packing. But maybe that's the Met's cunning plan to lull the terrorists into a false sense of security. Actually, to be fair, they're out in such numbers that a Deputy Fife type is usually accompanied by a Buford Pusser type who looks like he means bidness.

There were cops everywhere. They're all wearing high visibility jackets. Apparently all police leave has been cancelled and they must be working overtime. When I left the local train station (I decided not to take the Underground home, I'd had enough) I counted six cops, on the platform, the ticket office, standing around outside - I'd never even seen any in the vicinity before. There were cops all over the station near my work including one with a sub-machine gun who stood in a position where he could spray bullets over every platform, should he feel he needed to. I know that's meant to reassure, but I'm not sure it's working.

After last week's shooting of Jean Charles de Menenzes a Brazilian electrician and not a terrorist, it's difficult to know what to think. I still support a shoot to kill policy for suicide bombers, but sadly I realise that they might shoot the wrong person, I just don't know what else we can do. However, people are advising each other not to run in the underground and a photo of this temporary Underground message board supposedly at Notting Hill tube station has been circulating office emails.

I have to admit my nerves are frazzled, but I'll get used to it, I guess. After our neighborhood has been all over the news due to the arrests or extradition hearings of suspected terrorists, I don't know if this is the best time to sell our house. I was also thinking of giving up smoking, but don't know if this is the best time for that either.

I tell you though, since we're in it for the long haul, and since my neighborhood now seems a little dodgy, I'm gonna make a better effort to get to know my neighbours. I had a good start today around quarter to seven on my way home. At the end of my street there are several households with young children and they're often out playing on the sidewalk. We usually don't have much interaction, but today one of them stopped and spoke to me out of the blue - our entire conversation is recorded below:

Kid: Is it evening?
Me: (Shrug) Yeah...(start to look at watch, but realise I don't have an evening hand) sure, it's evening
Kid: Well, Good evening
Me: (Smile) Good evening to you.

A beautiful day in the neighbourhood... terror arrests near me

Well, well, well, after finally compiling and publishing my entry yesterday "My neighbor, the jihadi", I woke up this morning to find that there have been NINE arrests at two addresses in my neighborhood related to the London bombings.
Apparently there are police stationed outside a local halal take-out (halal is the Islamic equivalent of kosher dietary law). I haven't been out yet this morning, so I don't know if it's one that I frequent - a shwarma/ felafel shop. Shwarma is a little like gyros (American) or doner kebab (British), but it's better quality meat. I like the food from my local shwarma joint, and I have stopped in there many times after a night out on the tiles (British for out drinking a lot). I didn't go there when they had signs up for "Not in my name", stop-the-war stuff. I was ok with that (I was equivocal about the war, silly me) but both I and my husband, the Vol-in-Law, were not so happy with the signs that linked that with "Free Palestine". Anyway, when the signs came down, I went back.

Recently, I was in there when some radical looking bloke was holding forth about the evils of this and that. The guy behind the counter, who is big and slow, was serving me as quickly as possibly, casting nervous glances toward the guy, clearly wanting to get me out of there as soon as possible. The staff in there have always treated me well and they know that I'm American. He wanted me gone to avoid potential trouble, probably for me.
Anyway, I'll update this blog later when we know more and I can see what I see on my way to the tube, which frankly I'm not too excited about getting on today. It's Thursday, so it must be bomb day.
News update: a 'neighbour's-eye-view' report of the arrests in The Times
The Vol-in-Law writes:
This morning we woke to the radio news that the police had raided a kebab shop & another address in our immediate area of Tooting in southwest London, arresting 9 suspected terrorists. I escorted my wife the Vol Abroad to the local Underground station, and sure enough it was the dubious-looking takeaway directly opposite that we pass every day but never go into. There were police outside it and the neighbouring street was cordoned off, with police outside an adjacent house too. The press were everywhere. After seeing my wife safely (I hope) into Tooting Broadway underground station I gave a short TV interview to the media expressing relief that it wasn't our favourite takewaway (opposite the raided one) & then came home. It gets closer every day and at this rate the next arrest/incident will be on our street. Good thing we'd decided not to sell our house in the near future...

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

My neighbour, the jihadi

The Babar Ahmad case has been going on for a long time.
He's accused of supporting terror and raising money through a website to support Islamist extremist causes and also for having classified US military documents. The US is seeking extradition of Mr Ahmad and he is fighting it. His house (and his parents' house) is just up the road from me, within easy walking distance.

His supporters have been very good at raising sympathy for him they have a fairly slick website with lots of baby Babar pictures (he was a cutie) and a lot of assertions and few facts about what he’s done (they seem to alibi him by saying he had a full time job, but so what, lots of people have hobbies and outside interests). His supporters have four basic claims, that he's innocent, that if he has done something wrong he should be tried in Britain, that the law under which he's being extradited - a fast track law - is bad law and that if sent to the US he'll be tortured and subject to sexual and other humiliation. I'll address each of these in turn.

Is Babar Ahmad innocent?
Depends what you mean by innocent and exactly what the charges are, but probably not. As part of a BBC documentary series on the "New Al Qaeda" and episode aired Monday night called outlined Babar Ahmad’s activities in running a website which promoted or glorified jihad – including fighting against British and American troops in Afghanistan, and there was lots of high praise for Osama Bin Laden and the 19 9/11 suicide hikackers. It wasn’t clear to me if he actually funnelled money to terrorists, but he certainly used the website to encourage people to give money and provided some hints and tips about where to give the money.

You can read a copy of the US request for extradition here (pdf link) and make up your own mind. And you can read Evan Kohlman's dossier (link to a pdf)
Islamic Awakening's disclaimer says: All material found on IslamicAwakening.Com is for information purposes only. The maintainers do not necessarily share any of the views expressed on IslamicAwakening.Com or on linked sites.
I'll go further and disclaim pretty much the whole dang site - do take a look at some of the forums at Scary stuff.

If he’s so bad, why can’t he be tried in Britain?
This was my original question, too and a pretty pertinent one. There’s a perfectly good legal system here that is in many ways similar to the US system. Yes, there are problems with the legal and criminal justice system here and sometimes it doesn’t seem to deliver the outcomes I might prefer, but you can say that about any system. And given that Mr Ahmad would be tried as a foreign national in the US and given the normal prejudices of humans, Mr Ahmad would be at least marginally more likely to receive a fair trial from a jury of his compatriot peers here in the UK.

To answer the question, there are a couple of reasons why Babar Ahmad might be tried in the US and not in the UK. For one, I’m not clear that he’s committed an indictable offence in the UK. Like the US, there’s a tradition of free speech in this country and even if you write, speak or publish pretty nasty or inflammatory stuff you probably aren’t breaking the law (direct incitement to violence or racial hatred – a topic for another day – are illegal). Some of the matters listed in the indictment are his possession of classified US military materials (not really a crime in the UK), and funnelling money to the Taliban, which was not a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK, but was in the US thanks to Bill Clinton. And then I think there are some website hosting issues , which I couldn’t be bothered to try to untangle. (I did pick up that at one point his site was hosted in Alabama, providing yet another reason to smash them in SEC football) But basically, for technical reasons, this guy may have broken a number of serious US laws, but not so many (or any) UK laws.

Is the fast track extradition law bad law?
The Extradition Act of 2003 does ring alarm bells with me. Babar Ahmad is being extradited under a fast track law which means that he or other terror suspects can be extradited to the US without the US having to produce prima facie evidence. This law applies to extradition requests from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and if you're being generous, you might say that all these countries use common law and have fairly high standards of evidence. And even though there's no requirement for prima facie evidence there does seem to be plenty of evidence and background work on this case see the request for extradition

And on the face of it, since this case has been dragging on since August 2004, it hardly seems that fast track. And there is clearly a right of appeal or due process at least since Mr Ahmad has been in and out of court fighting the extradition. However, apparently the US didn’t agree to the same conditions for US citizens and residents to be extradited to the UK, so if it isn’t reciprocal it does seem there might be something dodgy about this law. Why didn't the UK government demand at least reciprocity?

If sent to the US will Babar Ahmad be tortured?
Well, as a US citizen, I certainly hope not. Not because I care one whit for Mr Ahmad, but because I believe that when my country deals less than fairly with those held in custody they are acting on my behalf and this damages me.

Many of his supporters have worked themselves up into a frenzy saying that he’ll be treated as an enemy combatant and subject to military tribunal. I don’t think that’s been the suggestion of the US government. However, I don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favours by failure to comply with Geneva Convention regarding the prisoners held at Guantanamo and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, etc. I know that his supporters were taking advantage of the US’s damaged image on matters of terrorism and custody. I absolutely deplore the Abu Ghraib abuses of prisoners. I know that many in the US believe that terror suspects and the like have no rights and I've seen people some who claim that foreigners don't have the same rights as citizens, but we are all supposed to be equal before the law. In the current climate, and given some well-known abuses,

I do worry that Mr Ahmad's treatment in the US will be less than what it should be. All Americans should stand against torture and abuse of prisoners and those in custody who have not yet been convicted of any crime, so that people like Mr Ahmad's supporters will have no ground to stand on and because it's just the right thing to do.

So how do I come down on the Ahmad case?
I don’t care for the 2003 extradition law and believe that there should be a requirement for prima facie evidence in extradition hearings -even if means that sometimes these hearings have to be held in camera to protect security or intelligence sources. However in this case I believe that that requirement has actually been met anyway. I don't want prisoners in US custody to be treated badly, we have to be better than that.

But truth be told, despite all my misgivings, I just don't want this guy back in my neighborhood. I wish you good speed to the US of A, Mr Ahmad.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

American Backlash?

One Knoxville reader writes in:
Any insight on the political fallout following the bombings? I'm anxious to see if these acts bolstered Blair's position in Iraq or if it weakened the "coalition of the willing". I realize that the Brits aren't the type to capitulate a la the Spanish but how much blame has been placed on the US. I've read quite a few online articles, but I want to know the grass-roots feel in the Fog.

The Vol Abroad responds:
When it became clear on Thursday what was going on, I was a little nervous about whether this would create a resurgence of some of the rather ugly anti-Americanism that I experienced in London (and from people who really should have known better) in the run-up to the Iraq war. In fact, I would say there really hasn't been - at least not yet, and it doesn't feel like it will. I'm meeting up with a bunch of Texans for drinks on Thursday, so I'll ask around if anyone's sensed anything.

It didn't help that this morning it was revealed that American military personnel were still banned from London (see my earlier post). But that was really annoyance. People felt that it undermined the "C'mon let's all get back to work" feeling that leaders in the city and citizens in the street have been trying to promote. It was also pointed out that US Embassy had told Americans to go about their normal business in London, but to be vigilant.

In response to this, London's Evening Standard published an editorial saying that the US needs to appoint a new ambassador to Britain. The post has been vacant for around a year, guess Gee-Dubya forgot to get us a new one. I wrote to the President around Christmas asking for him to appoint a new one and suggesting Colin Powell (I also said that if that didn't work out, I'd do it. The Ambassador's house in London is SWEET - the backyard is huge and not overlooked by anybody. I could have all the bbq's I want and crank the Lynyrd Skynyrd with no complaints from the neighbours). I didn't get a response from un-curious George, but I don't really want to press the case now. If John Bolton isn't headed for New York, he might be on his way over here instead.

On the Iraq question, most Londoners were against the Iraq war (it was about 50:50 support throughout the rest of the country). Even those who were equivocal (like me) can now see we were lied into war, but I think too many will think "We can't give in to terrorism now" perhaps meaning we can't support withdrawal from Iraq. I might be wrong, but this may solidify Blair's support. Of course, if Iraq wasn't an exporter of terror before... it is now. It would probably remain so even if we left. But my view is that Cheney and chums and Rumsfeld have so mismanaged this and refuse to learn any lessons that Iraq is gonna be a hash whether we stay or go.

Will vigilance help now?
Nope. Vigilance doesn't do a damn bit of good in the face of suicide bombers. Forget suspect packages, I'm sad to say that we can only look out for suspect people. Police now believe that the bombings were carried out by 4 suicide bombers. At least three are British born (of Pakistani origin) and from the Leeds, West Yorkshire area.
I'm afraid the backlash will be against the Muslim community.

But it's time for Muslims to split their 'community' and for some to more explicitly denounce those who foment hatred and violence here (or anywhere). There seems to be a few who are standing up and saying so - and to be fair they've been saying this for a long time. One person, Irshad Manji, who is a liberal (and I sure don't mean this in the perjorative sense), wrote a brilliant piece in the Evening Standard today and she senses some hope that Muslim in communities really are condemning the bombings in London wholeheartedly (which hadn't been the case in the past). Check out Irshad's website.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Granddad blogging: Oral history project

This is a portal to the oral history I recorded with my grandfather. New sections are posted weekly. Go straight to the first post or read more about this project

About this project and my grandfather:
I know I'm not an impartial observer, but my grandfather was an amazing man. He was kind, generous, intellectually curious, funny and ethical. He was eulogised as a great man, not for what he accomplished (which was enough) but for who he was and how he treated everyone he came in contact with, because he was a good man.

He was born in Wilson County, Tennessee in 1917, graduated from the University of Tennessee, taught school, worked for Roosevelt's rural development programs, sold tractors and after he retired sold antiques. He was always busy and thought that we should always be busy, too.

I recorded many hours of oral history with my grandfather several years before he died. He told me about family history, local history, his own views on things and his experiences during WWII.

Like many from our "greatest generation", he never talked about the war. In many ways, I suppose it was something he preferred to forget. In the late 40s and 50s, I'm told it frustrated his wife and children that he kept this part of his life hidden away. But as his grandchildren matured into adulthood (some of us better than others), he began to share the story. His own great-grandmother had lived through the Civil War in occupied Middle Tennessee, and he was frustrated by her reluctance to talk about her experience and imagined all sorts of horrible things. Eventually she told him it wasn't that bad, which he accepted. He told me that he didn't want us to speculate forever about his war experiences, and wanted us to know they weren't that bad. (They were bad enough) So he told me his war experiences which I transcribed and shared with the rest of the family.

My grandfather held truth-telling almost above all other things, but he would occasionally withold some of the details. His war stories nearly always play down his own part, he seems to wander through the war as a detached observer, and maybe that's what it felt like. He describes his fear and never covers himself in glory, though surviving in some of the bloodiest battles of the war as a replacement infantryman must have required bravery and skill.

I have started with the WWII transcripts, because that's where we started recording, but I will also share other stories, some of which cover aspects of Tennessee history that I have not seen recorded. I had promised my grandfather that I would give the recordings and transcripts to the University of Tennessee, which I haven't done (yet), but in the meantime, I am publishing them here.

Posts will be added weekly, on Tuesdays.

WWII posts
Start at the beginning with the first post.
Shipped to war 20 Sept 2005
To the front 27 Sept 2005
First Germans 4 Oct 2005
Under fire 11 Oct 2005
On the move 18 Oct 2005
Into Germany 25 Oct 2005
Taking Prisoners 1 Nov 2005
Tiger Tanks 8 Nov 2005

Tennessee boyhood posts
Horsewhipped 21 Mar 2006
Rooked 28 Mar 2006
Tough Love 11 Apr 2006
Chopping wood 18 Apr 2006
Cleaning up: 9 May 2006
Huntin' and choppin' 16 May 2006

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Friday, July 01, 2005