tag: United States



15
Dec 2011

Hey Mister, can we have our drone back please?

Even as western capitalism teeters on the edge of an abyss of debt, tensions between the United States and Iran are increasing… threatening yet another international crisis. I’m pretty convinced that sometime during the next couple of years we will awaken one morning to the news of a “pre-emptive” Israeli strike on Iran. This will almost inevitably drag the United States into yet another war in the region. Which in turn will almost inevitably see British forces (and perhaps some Aussies and others) – even if only a token contingent – killing and dying in Asia once again. What it will do to a global economy already on life-support is anybody’s guess.

It’s a grim prospect and one that will – I’m almost certain – have a far worse outcome than either the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions. Israel’s involvement (and I can’t see them not being involved, given the escalating rhetoric on both sides) will make it a lot more messy than it would otherwise be, and Iran won’t be shocked or awed quite so easily as other recent targets of the US military. On top of that, the rise of political Islam (which I suggested would be a likely consequence of the Arab uprisings) is likely to shift the balance of power in the region and exacerbate any conflict; particularly one that involves Israel.

As I stressed in a piece on the North African revolutions, my problem with the rise of political Islam is nothing to do with Islam specifically and everything to do with the influence of any religious fundamentalism on the political landscape. From my perspective, given their access to massive military might, Israel (with their increasingly Orthodox approach to both domestic and foreign policy) and America (with the rise of the religious right) are far more worrying than any individual Islamic nation. But the ‘clash of civilisations’ that US neoconservatives appeared to relish so much during the Bush years could finally become a reality should Arabic nations that were once relatively secular (despite being brutal dictatorships) shift towards theocracy during a period of US / Israeli involvement in Iran.

It is against this worrying backdrop that one of the most farcical news stories of recent weeks has been playing out. The story began about eight days ago when the US military admitted that it had “lost a drone” over Iran. This alone caused me some degree of consternation. I appreciate that the official US position on Iran is that it’s a rogue state, actively developing Weapons of Mass Destruction, and guilty of destabilising the region. Yet by carrying out military incursions (whether manned or unmanned is surely academic) into Iranian airspace the United States is effectively acting like a rogue state and further destabilising the region. How can it not see this? I guess the big difference is that the US has already developed (and deployed) WMD rather than – allegedly – merely contemplating it.

US drone captured by IranIncidentally, can you imagine the US response if an unmanned Iranian military aircraft had crashed / been brought down while flying over Texas? Seems to me that in this instance, unlike with their decision to send warships through the Suez canal, the Iranians have been a model of restraint.

Still, despite the surely criminal actions of the US military (am I wrong in thinking that sending military aircraft into the airspace of a sovereign nation without prior clearance is a crime?) we were assured by defence analyst Loren Thompson that at least the drone would not be offering up any military secrets… “This is a high-flying unmanned aircraft that malfunctioned and then fell to earth. It’s likely to be broken up into hundreds of pieces”, said Loren.

A couple of days later, however, Iranian news media showed images of the drone. Far from being broken up into hundreds of pieces, the unmanned aircraft appeared in pristine condition. Moreover, claimed the Iranians, it didn’t malfunction but was in fact “hijacked” by their electronic-warfare experts who over-rode the control system and landed the drone intact. The United States is scornful of such a suggestion, but frankly the machine doesn’t look like it recently plummeted to the ground from high altitude… so until we have further evidence either way, I’m leaning towards the Iranian version of events.

I guess this possibility is giving the US military a bout of the heebie-jeebies… “if they can remotely over-ride our drones”, they’re probably wondering, “then what about our cruise missiles? Even worse!… what about the electronic systems on our manned aircraft? Just how safe are they?” I guess this new development has resulted in a lot of late nights at The Pentagon. People with job titles like “Deputy Assistant to the Director of Electronic Warfare” are producing lengthy reports, risk assessments and flow-charts. I wager that in the executive summary of one such report there appeared a statement along the lines of, “Of course, without access to the captured drone, we may never know precisely how – or even whether – the remote flight system was compromised”. And I suspect it was as result of such a statement that the truly farcical element of this story was born.

Ludicrously, the day after the Iranians had displayed the drone on TV, the United States government formally requested that the Iranians return the captured aircraft. It’s pretty unusual for me to actually laugh at something on the internet… lots of smiles but few proper laughs… and it’s even rarer for me to laugh at a story involving a US military incursion into Iran. But upon reading that headline – US asks Iran to return captured drone – laugh I most certainly did. The story gets even better when Hillary Clinton gets involved (and how often can you say that?)…

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she did not think it likely that the drone would be returned.

I have to say that I rarely find myself in whole-hearted agreement with Mrs. Clinton, but on this issue we are definitely of one mind. She went on…

“We are very clearly making known our concerns. We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment, as we would in any situation. Given Iran’s behaviour to date, we do not expect them to reply,” she said.

She said that despite numerous “provocations” from Iran, the US would continue to pursue a “diplomatic approach”.

I hate to perpetuate a lazy stereotype, but the Americans really don’t understand irony, do they?

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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25
Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

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16
Jul 2011

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project

I’ve got a new article up at On This Deity. To be honest, I could easily have written four or five times as much on this subject as it’s something I was obsessed with for quite a while, and it also feeds into my “advanced technology as pathology” thesis. But 12 hundred words is already a lot in these days of abbreviated attention spans.

16th July 1945: The Manhattan Project.

At half past five on the morning of July 16th 1945, The Gadget exploded and the whole world shook. Three square miles of desert sand was melted into glass. A mushroom cloud rose almost 8 miles into the sky and cast a shadow that darkens our world even now. For it was on this day, in the final year of the second world war, that humanity entered the atomic age. A day of infamy. A day to lament. A day on which we should – as a species – collectively reflect on just how far our ingenuity has exceeded our wisdom.

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
Albert Einstein

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27
Jun 2011

On This Deity: 27th June 1905

My new piece is up at On This Deity.

27th June 1905: The Founding of The Industrial Workers of the World.

It is late June 2011 as I write this. The news media – on the rare occasions it’s not discussing the sex lives of professional sportsmen – offers us a running commentary on an Arab Spring, now turned summer. We’re presented with images of disaffected Chinese workers rioting in Guangdong while dissidents with pixelated faces hold secret meetings in cramped apartments. In Peru an alliance between environmental campaigners and indigenous activists has seen its members injured and even killed in an attempt to prevent an expansion of mining in their region. And here, in the relative safety of our liberal democracies, we find ourselves dismayed by the violence, the oppression and the painful struggle for basic rights playing out on our screens and newsprint. And we often forget – because it’s so damned easy to do – just how recently our own nations experienced similar upheaval. And we don’t realise – as the forces of capitalism once again begin to squeeze the worker, marginalise the army of unemployed and bind entire nations with chains of debt – just how close to a return to those days we are, and just how cheaply our acquiescence in this return is being purchased.

One hundred and six years ago today, on June 27th 1905, a couple of hundred anarchists, socialists and vagabond activists gathered in a hall in Chicago for what would later become known as the First Annual Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Like activists in China, Peru, North Africa and elsewhere today they would find themselves targeted by the authorities, imprisoned and even murdered for the crime of disagreeing with those in power. They spoke out. They organised their dissent. Sometimes they withheld their labour. Often they demanded radical change. They united beneath a simple slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all”… a worldview simply incompatible with free-market capitalism; a philosophy which happily externalises all manner of injury in the pursuit of personal gain; a philosophy that dismisses collective responsibility unless there’s a profit to be made commodifying it.

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17
Jun 2011

On This Deity: 17th June 1972

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

17th June 1972: The Watergate Arrests.

On a balmy Saturday evening in Washington DC, Frank Wills was doing his rounds. It was June 17th 1972 and he was working as a security guard in the Watergate complex. During the course of his routine patrol he noticed that several of the doors had tape applied to them in order to prevent them locking. Suspecting that a burglary might be in progress, Wills called the police, little knowing his phone call would become one of the most influential of all time. While that night it would merely result in the arrest of five burglars, it would later set off a chain of events that was to shake the United States to the core, forcing the collapse of a government and the only US presidential resignation in history.

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31
May 2011

On This Deity: 31st May 1996

Check out my new piece over at On This Deity.

31st May 1996: The Death of Timothy Leary.

At 12:44am on the 31st of May 1996, Dr. Timothy Leary sat bolt upright in bed startling the small group of friends and family who had gathered to keep him company during his final days. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer the previous year and it had finally run its course. “Why not?” he asked those keeping vigil. Again, louder, “Why not?” He repeated the question a third time. “Why not?” Then, lying back down, Dr. Leary whispered his final word… “beautiful”… and slipped into death. He was 75 years old.

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24
Mar 2011

On This Deity: 24th March 1989

I’ve got a new piece up at On This Deity

24th March 1989: The Exxon Valdez oil spill.

At four minutes past midnight on March 24th 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Despite not even being in the top 50 global oil spills by volume, the Exxon Valdez disaster quickly came to symbolise the destructive impact of modern industry on the natural environment. The remote location made mitigation and clean up efforts next to impossible (less than 10% of the oil was recovered) and the incredible beauty of the pristine wilderness into which the tanker dumped half a million barrels of crude oil served to magnify the tragedy. Even the more recent Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – though it involved more oil and had a far greater direct human impact – does not compare to the Exxon Valdez spill in terms of the stark imagery it produced, graphically demonstrating humanity’s utter disregard for the planet that supports us.

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19
Mar 2011

On This Deity: 19th March 2003

New article at On This Deity

19th March 2003: The Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On March 19th 2003 US President George W. Bush announced that US and UK armed forces had launched strikes against “targets of military opportunity” in Iraq. It marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom; a disastrous conflict that would drag on for the rest of the decade resulting in massive casualties, a huge economic cost and the further destabilisation of a region already beset by conflict and strife.

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10
Jan 2011

On This Deity: 10th January 1776

Another piece by me over at On This Deity

10th January 1776: Thomas Paine publishes ‘Common Sense’.

At the beginning of 1776 the American Revolution was well underway and growing in intensity with each passing week. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June ’75 had shaken the British army so badly they’d been on the back foot ever since. And by March of 1776 Washington’s advance on Boston would drive the bulk of that army into Canada. Of course, King George would respond with a lengthy military campaign and the War of Independence would continue for some years. In truth though, it was back between Bunker Hill and Boston that American independence became inevitable. Because it was on this day, January 10th back in 1776 that Thomas Paine published Common Sense.

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28
Dec 2010

Wikileaks

The Irish media is still filled with talk of the IMF, the ECB and the bailout. And the snow of course. It’s remarkable when you think about it; there’s almost nothing the Irish government could have done to distract us from the economy. But a few days of frozen precipitation does the job. Suddenly the news is filled with images of kids on sleds and people standing next to snow-covered cars. I’ve not yet encountered anyone combining the two stories, but it’s surely only a matter of time before columnists start talking about the shroud of snow being “appropriately funereal”, or how a blanket has been drawn over the face of the Irish state.

In the rest of the world however, the fate of Ireland is beginnning to fade a little. And although the IMF thing is still getting the occasional headline, it’s more distant… something in the background. It won’t be so bloody distant if we succeed in bringing down the euro, mind. And if I was a citizen of Portugal I’d be getting a bit concerned right about now. Nor should the people of Italy and Spain be feeling too confident.

As I write, a huge amount of private debt is being shifted onto the Irish public. On top of that, we’re being strip-mined of our remaining assets. Goodbye National Pension Reserve fund, hello Wave of Privatisation. And given how fruitful this asset grab is turning out to be, only a fool would bet on it being the last. The Irish acquiescence, along with the failure of any of our neighbours to demand a halt to this daylight robbery, is actively encouraging the “contagion” that everyone claims to fear. The international markets are instruments of tremendous power, and our political leaders are giving them incentives to topple nations. I’ve gone from wondering whether it’s incompetence or madness driving this policy, to realising it’s both. What ‘The Market’ needs right now is a hefty dose of nationalisations to get it back in line. At the same time our political classes could do with a revolution or two in order to teach them some humility. Preferably dramatic but non-violent revolutions (violence tends to breed chaos and with chaos comes a whole host of unintended consequences, and while only a fool insists violence can never be justified, it should always be considered a last resort).

Isn’t this post supposed to be about Wikileaks, though?

Sorry, got a bit carried away with the intro there. Let’s shift our gaze away from Irish matters and take a glance further afield. Ignoring the snow — which is now news across much of Europe and North America — a look at the internet media suggests much of the world is fixated on the Wikileaks saga. And who can blame them? Suddenly the headline “Website sparks war” doesn’t seem entirely fanciful.

As is so often the case lately, I find myself irritated by the polarisation that has emerged as a result of this issue. Two narratives have emerged which reluctantly I find rather simplistic and lacking nuance. And I say “reluctantly” because many of my friends, plus commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect, are promoting one of those simplistic narratives (the “Julian Assange is a hero and the various charges against him are a big American plot” version). The other narrative — less prevalent amongst those I know, needless to say — being the “Julian Assange is a traitorous rapist who seeks to destabilise democratic governments and should be hunted down and shot like the rabid dog he is” version.

Before I get onto the “hero” narrative, let me say a little something about the “villain” Assange. Now, it goes without saying that I don’t know any more about the rape allegations than anyone else. However, there are two points worth noting that cause me some consternation with respect to them. Firstly, the general murkiness of the allegations and the extreme confusion surrounding them makes them — certainly not unique — but definitely atypical in such cases. The charges were dropped, reactivated, dropped and reactivated again. So the current charges are being handled by the third Swedish prosecutor to get involved in the case. It might be argued that this is a result of the difficulty securing evidence and, hence, convictions in this kind of case. All the same, from what I’ve read it is far from normal for such cases to be passed from prosecutor to prosecutor in this manner. A cynic might suggest that two people looked at the case, concluded it had either no merit or that — rightly or wrongly — it simply could not be successfully prosecuted due to a lack of available evidence, but that a third person took up the case for reasons of political ideology or personal aggrandisement.

I should probably take a moment to state clearly (because unfortunately we live in a world where it cannot be taken as read) that if there really is evidence linking Assange to a rape or sexual assault, he should face trial and suffer the full penalty. It is perfectly possible for a person to behave with honour in one area of his life while being depraved in another and the former simply does not excuse the latter.

Nonetheless, one only has to spend a little time reading about the allegations against Assange before confusion and apparent contradiction arise. This may merely be a result of bad reporting, but given how politically charged this whole situation is, I honestly feel one can be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow while at the same time hoping that justice manages to assert itself (in whatever shape it takes).

The second question that gets raised about the rape allegations is one I first saw enunciated by feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, in her article J’Accuse: Sweden, Britain, and Interpol Insult Rape Victims Worldwide. Wolf, who has campaigned for two decades to raise the profile of — and seek justice for — victims of sexual assault views the treatment meted out to Assange in even more cynical terms than I was prepared to…

… Never in twenty-three years of reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned — for any alleged rape, even the most brutal or easily proven.
[…]
… the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation … seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.

Keep Assange in prison without bail until he is questioned, by all means, if we are suddenly in a real feminist worldwide epiphany about the seriousness of the issue of sex crime: but Interpol, Britain and Sweden must, if they are not to be guilty of hateful manipulation of a serious women’s issue for cynical political purposes, imprison as well — at once — the hundreds of thousands of men in Britain, Sweden and around the world world who are accused in far less ambiguous terms of far graver forms of assault.

Anyone who works in supporting women who have been raped knows from this grossly disproportionate response that Britain and Sweden, surely under pressure from the US, are cynically using the serious issue of rape as a fig leaf to cover the shameful issue of mafioso-like global collusion in silencing dissent. That is not the State embracing feminism. That is the State pimping feminism.

It’s a difficult point to argue against. For no matter what you believe about Assange or the crimes he is accused of, it simply cannot be denied that his treatment is completely inconsistent with that of anyone else in the same circumstances. I honestly believe that the authorities in most nations fail to treat sex crimes as seriously as they should do. However, Assange’s experience doesn’t redress that; it merely highlights it further and illustrates the willingness of the judicial systems of Europe to bend to the political will of the United States when it suits them (on a day when “[t]he United States and European nations said the [Khodorkovsky] verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights” an idiom involving pots and kettles springs to mind).

Nonetheless, while the Swedish allegations carry at the very least a whiff of conspiracy and political opportunism, I can’t help but be cynical about Assange’s decision to become “the face” of Wikileaks. A decision that has allowed his personal behaviour to begin overshadowing the work being carried out by Wikileaks. It seems it would have been perfectly possible for Assange to have pursued a different strategy… a small collective of semi-anonymous people (akin to “The Yes Men” perhaps?) could have become the voice of Wikileaks rather than a single figurehead whose personal behaviour — whatever the truth behind the charges — has at the very least opened him up to attack and risked discrediting Wikileaks in the eyes of many.

The sad thing is that what was once a low profile but nonetheless powerful collaborative tool for exposing government and corporate corruption around the world has become one man’s high profile stick with which to beat America. As such it’s less radical and less generally useful. Most worryingly though, it may be starting to inflict some collateral damage of its own.

Because moving away from Assange and the rape allegations there’s a larger issue at stake here. I still possess the remnants of the anarchist idealism of my youth. But it’s long been tempered by a realisation that while information may want to be free, it’s not always in the best interests of people that it should be.

It’s possible, for instance, that the North Koreans already knew China and the United States had discussed — however informally — the desirability of Korean reunification under a Seoul government. But if this is the first they’re hearing about it, then there’s a real possibility Wikileaks might provoke another ship being sunk, or another artillery barrage. Or worse. The politics of the Korean peninsula are complex to say the least, but I don’t think it can be denied that the latest escalation in tension can be at least partly attributed to the actions of Wikileaks. If the publication of these cables turns out to be a contributory factor in a new Korean War can anyone really say that these leaks were worth the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people? It’d certainly take someone seriously committed to anarchism and freedom of information to consider so much death and suffering to be a price worth paying.

Especially when you consider the practical usefulness of the revelations. I mean, who seriously is shocked or surprised by anything they’ve read in the published cables? Or even in the previously published documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? We learnt that US troops callously killed civilians in both nations. There may have been a handful of people in Iowa still resolutely denying that such things happened until that famous video of the gunship firing upon injured civilians hit the internet, but I suspect 98% of those who saw that footage were merely receiving visual confirmation of something they already knew was going on.

Similarly, the news that China and the US were discussing ways of sidelining North Korea, or that the Saudis were agitating for a US attack on Tehran were probably well known by the various parties involved — as well as by most informed members of the public — so the public confirmation merely serves to heighten tension, rather than genuinely inform. And the notion that it will force the US (or China or Saudi Arabia) to moderate their behaviour in the future is beyond naive. It will simply force them to tighten security while simultaneously seeking ways to crack down on internet and press freedom.

Ultimately I find myself deeply ambivalent about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The man appears to be embracing shallow celebrity with a certain eagerness that undercuts his campaign, while the potential usefulness of the website (and the world is indeed improved by a system that facilitates whistle-blowing) is — I would argue — compromised by becoming so highly politicised. It needs to be more discerning, and dare I say it, more responsible, about what it publishes. What was once a facility that could be used to expose government and corporate wrongdoing, has recently become little more than a political powderkeg, helping ratchet up tensions between nations, providing recruitment videos to militant organisations and placing more importance in the ability to access information than in the actual importance of that information.

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