Thursday, July 26, 2007

Olympic games for the hollow men

As it prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Chinese government has launched an unprecedented intelligence-collection operation targeting individuals and organizations it perceives as a threat. In an article published today in the Taipei Times, I weigh Beijing's security-related efforts against the precedent set by other Olympics, with special focus on the Salt Lake City games, which, following on the heels of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, were unequalled in their militarization; and the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, in which I played a small role as one among many analysis who, every morning, read intelligence reports about and wrote threat assessments on the games.

My brief study reveals something very alarming about Beijing's preparations for the games, as it threatens to force a great number of international intelligence services to participate into China's repression of dissent. Furthermore, in the coming months and as the games approach, Beijing's foreign intelligence agencies are certain to accelerate their collection of intelligence abroad, with targets as varied as Taiwanese, environmentalists and human rights activitsts, to name but a few of Beijing's areas of interest.

Readers can access the full article, titled "Olympic games for the hollow men," by clicking here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Fixed in time

Whether history is taught well or not, its use never fails to determine the kind of world we live in. In places like Serbia, to name but one, the stubbornness of some to not let go of ancient history — or rather, an ancient interpretation of history — has long given rise to conflict, which even to this day, after long years of intervention by NATO, the UN, the EU and others in the alphabet soup of interveners, remains as unresolved as it was on the day before NATO dropped its first bombs on Slobodan Milosevic and his cronies. Without a complete abandonment of a certain view on history, namely that on Kosovo and Milosevic’s justification for doing what he did to reclaim it, it will be impossible for that country to move on.

Similar phenomena exist the world over, with people being taught things about events and people that, upon scrutiny or with the outsider’s advantage of distance, would seem ludicrous. Through reverence for Mao Zedong (毛澤東) to that for Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Robert Mugabe, Yasser Arafat, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler — all, by various versions of history alive today heroes to some — people remained fixed in the past, unable to see events and motivations with enough emotional distance to make judgments of their own. Of course, a pre-digested version of history, which is what is given adherents of the “fixed” historical model, also requires less effort than reaching one’s own conclusions through the study of it.

This is the power of myths and why they manage to survive down the ages, as the ideas and concepts that lie at their core remain untouchable, cannot be questioned. And they are easy. Dangerously easy, bereft of the complexities, of the grey areas, that true history is made of.

When, for example, Palestinian children who can barely walk are taught to hate Israelis and, wearing those cute little military uniforms or explosive belts or mock AK-47s, to revere mass murderers before the camera, or, on the other side of the fence (palpable and metaphorical), when same-age Israelis are taught hatred for Palestinians and instilled admiration for “heroes” with hands as bloodied as those of their Palestinian counterparts/nemeses, it becomes nigh impossible to break the vicious circle of violence because those views, once perpetuated, do not allow for the progression of history, for a fresh take on events ancient and recent. When such history is taught children, it robs them of the possibility of a better world, as if parents were unable to accept that their offspring should be spared the calamities they had to go through.

Sadly, Taiwan is no exception from this rule, and many are those today (including children the same age as the young Israelis and Palestinians mentioned above) who are taught that dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), whose responsibility in the 228 Incident, where tens of thousands of Taiwanese were killed (see “Remembering the 228 Incident,” February 28, 2007) is becoming clearer (to some) by the day and whose role in the subsequent regime of White Terror and thirty-eight years of Martial Law, during which people were imprisoned, disappeared or killed by the thousands, is undeniable, was a savior of the people. Whose savior he was, exactly, is unclear, as he mismanaged China, lost the Civil War to the communists and for all intents and purposes invaded Taiwan, where he imposed a foreign regime on a people, whom he ruled with an iron fist while dreaming of retaking China. This is not to say that the generalissimo did not make a contribution to history, for he certainly did — and under the direst of circumstances, facing both Japanese invasion and communist guerrillas. Heaven knows what would have happened to Taiwan if it had been Mao, and not Chiang, who fled there in 1949. But mythmaking and undue reverence for a very flawed and ultimately morally compromised man does everybody a disservice and in the end robs him of his humanity, of the tremendous moral struggle he faced — and eventually succumbed to, turning him into a tyrant.

It was with those questions in mind that I wrote an article, titled “Revisionism is Taiwan’s big enemy,” published today in the Taipei Times. Readers can access it by clicking here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A dirge for our time

Not since my review of David Kaplan's excellent Fires of the Dragon more than a year ago have I chosen to write about a book for The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, but having just finished reading Salman Rushdie's most recent novel, Shalimar the Clown, I felt compelled to write one.

As with his previous novels, Rushdie's convoluted and idiosyncratic storytelling in Shalimar may be challenging, if not daunting, for readers accustomed to a more standard style. My first attempt at reading it took place days after its North American publication, sometime in the fall of 2005. Back then, weeks after my resignation from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), where I had worked in counterterrorism, Rushdie's angered take on our times proved too much emotionally and I found myself unable to go beyond the very vivid scene of a decapitation.

It was only two years later, with emotional distance and a book about my experiences at CSIS between me and that institution, that I could pick it up again — and what an experience it has been.

Shalimar the Clown is nothing less than a fable for our troubled times, where politics and religion interact, with devastating effect, with the sometimes destructive power of love. It presents Rushdie at his angriest and most unsparing, who offers us scene after scene of the ravages of war, from World War II Strasbourg to the paradise-turned-hell of Kashmir as it gets caught between the Indian-Pakistani war, followed by its own divisive conflict and descent into madness.

Out of this emerge characters — Noman Sher Noman, also known as Shalimar the Clown, and Max Ophuls — who are done and undone, made and unmade, by the defining storms of time eternal: war and love. Rushdie, with the surgeon's expert hand, brings his characters, with all their suffering, anguish and fears, to all-too-real life and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what it is that animates them, that forces them to act in the cruelest of manners. When the opportunity is ripe, those who are shaped by history will, in turn, shape history — or so we think. Ultimately, however, Rushdie presents us with a landscape of inevitable devastation, with parallels between Kashmir and the Philippines, Afghanistan and Los Angeles, making for a very pessimistic plunge into human nature, one in which the very hope of redemption through love is crushed at the very last moment, where the terrorists of the future are formed not by politics — or politics alone — but also by matters seemingly much more simple, such as a wife, seeking unknown, illusioned liberty, running off with the charismatic former Resistance Francaise hero (at times frighteningly reminiscent of real-life John Kenneth Galbraith, whom in the story he actually replaces, before real-life Chester Bowles does so) turned US ambassador to India turned US counterterrorism czar.

The beauty — and, simultaneously, terrible ugliness — of Rushdie's dirge is that it shows the numerous paths leading to madness, from the occupation of one's land by a foreign army to the torturing of loved ones to the lure of intransigent religion to cold, hard politics to matters of the heart. Nothing, mind you, is necessarily teleological and many are those who, even in the face of atrocities, will adopt more peaceful ways to cope, only to die of old age while youth are blowing themselves up for a cause. Some, like Shalimar, become "terrorists" by proxy, drawn not to the cause itself, which takes him down a path familiar to anyone who has read about terrorism in Southeast Asia, but rather to the need to inflict violence, a corridor that leads him to his ultimate act of terror in the US, before the very eyes of a daughter.

Although the novel takes place before the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US (the backdrop to the end of the novel is the 1993 bolbing of the World Trade Center), the undertones of the road there, the seeds of future history being sown, are ever-present, and it is unlikely that this novel, in this form, could have been written absent 9/11 and everything else that ensued. As the novel progresses, as chaos envelops Kashmir, we can see emerge, in the shadows of coalescing networks, the future headline-makers. One can also feel the anger, the fear generated by the religious edict — or fatwa — made against Rushdie himself by Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of The Satanic Verses, yet another iteration of violence against the individual. Anger at the US, at its creation of an inevitable future of violence that should have been anything but inevitable, is also palpable, as epitomized by Max Ophuls himself, who is animated by goodness and evil, with the all-too-human capacity for stupidity and mistakes.

Shalimar the Clown is about violence, is violent itself, and despite its gazing deep into the pit of man's inhumanity to man for the multifarious reasons that we have created for ourselves, it leaves it to the reader to answer the question that Max, pondering the cycle of violence that we have created following the death, in an IRA bombing, of a friend, asks us all. "Perhaps violence showed us what we meant, or, at least, perhaps, it was simply what we did." We can attempt to intellectualize, to comperend the reasons why a person chooses to go down the path to violence, and sometimes the plainness of truth, as he writes, suffers by comparison with paranoid scenarios, but in the end it doesn't mean that we can, or will, forgive.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The shame of democracies

(Readers should note that a slightly different version of this posting appeared in the July 11, 2007, editition of the Taipei Times under the title "Conduct unbecoming the self-proclaimed exporter of democracy," which can be accessed by clicking here.)

If anyone who despises the George W. Bush clique ever needed additional ammunition, it was provided over the past two days with two more examples supporting the argument that in the United States today there are two classes of people: the unaccountable Bushites and the rest.

While countless individuals have been wasting away in jail on suspicions of "terrorist" activity that, if carefully looked at, would not hold water — people whose religion and skin color happen, not by coincidence, to differ from those of white Anglo-Saxons — others, like former World Bank chief and co-architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq Paul Wolfowitz, whose abuse of authority at the World Bank led to his forced resignation, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, US Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, seem to be regulated by a different set of laws.

Wolfowitz, who before his appointment at the World Bank was the second-ranking official at the Pentagon, will now be visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think-tank whose views on the Middle East and the use of force very much reflect those of the Bush administration. Frequent readers of The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato should by now be familiar with my low opinion of that institution. Odd though his World Bank appointment may have seemed, Wolfowitz will now once again find himself among like-minded people, where he will be able to do the greatest damage.

As for Libby, the Cheney aide who was implicated in the “Plamegate” scandal, in which in retaliation for Joseph Wilson’s accusations that Washington was misleading the world during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame (Wilson’s wife) was leaked to the press by the White House, for all intents and purposes ending her career as a covert operative — he, too, has been touched by the hand of injustice. Libby, on the brink of serving a 30-month prison sentence and having lost his appeal to delay the sentence, saw President Bush commute his prison sentence, on the premise that it was “too harsh.” But this wasn’t a pardon, Bush said, as Libby remains “on parole” and will still have to pay a US$250,000 fine for lying and obstruction of justice.

“Libby’s conviction,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war.”

“Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone.”

With Libby’s contacts in Washington and his “damaged” reputation notwithstanding, it shouldn’t be too long before he, like Wolfowitz, lands a job — likely as a visiting scholar — somewhere. In fact, I would be surprised if he didn’t. After all, the like-minded stick together, right? Regarding his fine, given that, as Media Transparency ( shows, the salary range for scholars at AEI, for example, ranges from about US$60,000 a year for virtually unknown researchers to US$200,000 a year for better known ones (the median appears to be US$150,000), that US$250,000 fine suddenly doesn’t seem too formidable.

Would the poor recently landed Ahmed, or the hard-working Carlos, ever be extended that hand of justice? Of course not. What is 2.5 years in jail for a faceless immigrant — even when the charges against him are laughable? But for a ranking official in the US administration? Oh my, 30 months is unconscionably long. After serving their sentence, the Ahmeds and Carloses will be deported and likely fail more imprisonment, if not torture. For the "whites," however, what awaits them are lucrative jobs in comfortable think-tanks in Washington. How just.

Colonialism of the most despicable kind — that based on racism — dear readers, is alive and well.

These, sadly, are not isolated case and US history is replete with similar examples of high-level pardons, commutations and exonerations. Nor is the US alone in this. But this, a legal system that rides roughshod on the general population — and does especially so when it comes to certain groups of people — but spares, if not compensates, crooks, certainly isn’t something supposed healthy democracy should be proud of.