Archive for January 8th, 2007|Daily archive page

The Gray Line of Terrorism

Over ten years ago the news-services were full of stories about the American teenager Michael Fay, sentenced to be caned in Singapore for spray-painting cars. In the American and European media the outrage was huge, “too severe”, “barbaric”, “uncivilized” were some of the adjectives used. Now, in a brave new post-9/11 world, it is not the Singapore government that supports extreme justice but the American government using extreme rendition not to punish but to extract information.

The Chicago Times had a story yesterday about the start of the Italian trial over the rendition, or to stop using newspeak, kidnapping, of Abu Omar, an Egyptian-born Islamic cleric with Italian citizenship.

In a kidnapping case against 26 Americans and five Italian intelligence operatives, including the one-time CIA chief in Rome and Italy’s former top spymaster, Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, will speak to the court through his letter, telling his story for the first time in his own words.

According to Abu Omar’s written account, obtained by the Tribune, he was walking to his mosque in Milan on Feb. 17, 2003, when he was stopped on the street by a man who identified himself as a police officer. The cleric wrote that he was pulled into a van, beaten and taken by plane to Egypt.

This is an interesting case for many reasons. First, no one really disputes the fact that the Islamic cleric Abu Omar is an extremist. He was trying to get people to go to Iraq to fight, what was then, the immanent American invasion. He is self admittedly no friend of either America nor Israel seeing both as a threat to his culture. It still is unclear whether his actions in trying to recruit “foreign fighters” at that time violated Italian anti-terrorism laws.

But that isn’t the point. It has long been established in western cultures that breaking the law to catch criminals isn’t halal – um… kosher – um… legal. But that is what is on trial here. In what the Chicago Times considers to be surprising, the prosecution has produced a 6500 word letter from Abu Omar detailing his kidnapping and imprisonment in Egypt. Before he describes what happened, he feels he must describe his situation,

I record my testimony from within my tomb and gravesite: and my body has weakened and my mind has become distracted and my illnesses have increased and the signs of my death and termination have appeared.

I record my testimony from within my tomb and gravesite: and my facial features have been altered by the screams of the tortured and the sounds of the whips and the hell of the jail cells.

I record my testimony from within my tomb and gravesite: and I am powerless to do anything other than give the highest thanks and loyalty and appreciation to all who have lit a candle light of hope on the road leading to the uncovering of the mystery of my kidnapping from Italy and my imprisonment and torture in Egypt.

He goes on to detail his kidnapping, imprisonment and torture. Among the things he endured were being hung upside down, beatings, electric shocks and rape. This was all done with after an American kidnapping. George W. Bush has so famously claimed, “We do not condone torture, I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.” Attorney General Gonzales later clarified the American position. He explained that the condition for refusing rendition was not absolute but whether the suspect was “more likely than not” to be tortured.

None of those involved have accepted responsibility for what has been done. According to one of Abu Omars wives, she has been offered $2 million to let the story drop. All that was necessary was to claim that the kidnapping never took place. He had gone for a walk and *poof* landed in an Egyptian cell of his own free will. At least she should make a story sound something like that. Oddly she demurred.

One of the more interesting ramifications of the case for the 26 Americans likely to be tried in absentia is international travel, at least in Europe. Should these gentlemen be convicted, European law would require them to be arrested and deported to Italy should they arrive at any EU airport. No vacations in the south of France for them!

More seriously, this does have ramifications on how the world, not just the Islamic world, views the American conflict and the American techniques. The tolerance level that was so high following 9/11 has been reduced to zero. There is no more slack; the get out of jail free card has been played; even in former members of the Iraqi collation.

For Michael Fay, he was found guilty, the sentence was eventually reduced from 6 lashes to 4 partially due to American pressure and, on May 5, 1994, he was caned. He later returned to the US to live a rather unlucky life and caning became a staple in World Wide Wrestling matches. There was little doubt that Fay had committed the vandalism he was convicted of, it was the sentence that western pundits found objectionable – too brutal, uncivilized. His mother claimed it was torture.

In the case of Abu Omar, it is likely he would have tried to help fight any American intervention in Iraq. He might have even cheered the day the Twin Towers fell. The later, while scandalous, is not illegal. The former, while possibly illegal, has never been clearly proven. There is no question of the fact that Abu Omar has been tortured, he however has never been found legally guilty. Omar is still in custody.

The scandal is the American involvement in his torture; America the country that cries foul when other countries enforce their laws.

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New Years Resolutions and Armed Pandas

Ok, I’ll admit it; I do have a rather indifferent approach to punctuation.

Its not as if the invisible punctuation angel with the corresponding devil don’t pop in occasionally with one viciously whispering that I need a comma right there and the other responding with a mental ruler slap and a triumphant hiss “No commas!

I do have a bit of an out. I never actually speak English anymore. Living in Germany allows me to blithely spend my days in what, for some, would be a cacophony of Teutonic grunts and throat clearings. I could also claim a kind of typographic dyslexia, I read what I had planned on writing and not what I actually put to keyboard and monitor. But all-in-all, that isn’t enough.

Thus dear reader I did indeed make a New Years resolution to try to improve. (I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that the resolution wasn’t taken this year and there were neither sevens nor twos nor zeros in the year in question. *Sigh*) But due to the increase in output and the absolute horror with which I read my old posts, I think the time has come (and probably gone) to attempt to rectify this malfeasant situation.

As you might think, I couldn’t turn to a simple grammar book of which I have several. They are dry and boring, the literary equivalent of the archetypical librarian. Sometime last year my search for an appropriate tome, well pamphlet really, was successful; I found what I had been searching for, perfect in tone and size. I am the proud owner of the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Ms Truss, when not scribbling grammatical revolutionary pamphlets and commenting on Radio 4, spends her time producing text for yellow journalistic rags like the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Her approach to grammar is indeed revolutionary. But unlike her more mundane predecessors, she looks to civil disobedience and the disfigurement of poorly punctuated print than dandruffy dissertations. Her book includes a set of stickers, allowing the reader to correct, not just mentally but physically, those poorly written signs and posters. It seems she is not alone; her book has sold over 3 million copies.

It is less the literary jihad and more the writing style that attracted me to this book. Mixing rules; regulations and suggestions with history and humor, the book takes us through a romp of the most important little symbols in written language. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about Ms Truss’s struggles with what she calls her ‘Inner Stickler’; that part of her that leaves her gasping on the train platform like a fish out of water staring at the newest poorly punctuated poster for a film; we see her cry for justice, and with an oddly Marxist color choice, her grasping for a large red marker.

American readers will probably have to adapt to the use of ‘Full Stop’ instead of the more Yankee ‘period’. Many of her sports references will fall flat and almost none of her discussions of popular culture will be truly understood. It is of no matter. I will support any author willing to offer themselves to historic typesetting figures. Here she waxes poetic on the wondrous history of the semicolon.

That imaginative chap Charlemagne (forward-looking [but likely illiterate] Holy Roman Emperor) stirred things up in the 9th century when Alcuin of York came up with a system of positurae at the ends of sentences (including one of the earliest question marks), but to be honest western systems of punctuation were damned unsatisfactory for the next five hundred years until one man – one fabulous Venetian printer – finally wrestled with the issue and pinned it to the mat. That man was Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450 – 1515) and I will happily admit I hadn’t heard of him until about a year ago, but am now absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies.

The heroic status of Aldus Manutius the Elder amoung historians of the printed word cannot be overstated. Who invented the italic typeface? Aldus Manutius! Who printed the first semicolon? Aldus Manutius! The rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that a standard system of punctuation was urgently required, and Aldus Manutius was the man to do it. In Pause and Effect (1992), Malcolum Parkes’s magisterial account of the history of punctuation in the West, facsimile examples of Aldus’s groundbreaking work include a page from Pietros Bembo’s De Aetna (1494) which features not only a very elegant roman typeface but the actual first semicolon (and believe me, this is exciting). Of course we did not get our modern system overnight.

The entire book is a humorous collection of do’s and do-not’s interspersed with personal rage at incorrect punctuation and the cry for vigilante grammatical justice – apostrophic lynchings if you will.

And the title? It comes from one of those obscure grammar jokes. A panda goes into a café, orders a sandwich and calmly eats. After finishing he simply stands up, walks towards the door. Suddenly he pulls a gun and fires two shots into the ceiling before exiting the establishment. The waiter rushes after the panda demanding to know what he was thinking. The panda simply shrugs and tosses a poorly punctuated wildlife book to the waiter. “I’m a panda; ” he says, “look it up.” Puzzled the waiter looks and finds the offending passage. “Panda:” he reads, “Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

So dear readers, please if I severely offend the gods of punctuation in the coming year, please don’t shoot, but do correct me. But use the comments; I wouldn’t want your monitor full of stickers.