Monthly Archives: June 2013

My Open Letter

So I have an idea…I want to send a letter…a letter to humanity.

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One evening many moons ago,  I was casually patrolling the internet  when I happened to chance upon a particular article that caught my eye. The story was about a time capsule opened after a 100 years. I have always been fascinated with time capsules. Little morsels of history flung far into the future, with the intention of revealing present life to future little earthlings.

Jean-Marc Phillipe was also rather taken by the idea. He was the creator and leader of the KEO project until he passed away in 2008. A group of scientists acquired a soon to be defunct Satellite, and now plan to hurl it far into the earth’s atmosphere for 50,000 years, harbouring messages from people of today for our distant decedents.

But as I wrote my entry, I thought by and large the message I had for future humanity, was very much applicable to people today.

So why wait? Why not send a message to humanity right now?

And that is exactly what I intend to do, and hope to provide a platform from which others might also leave their message to humanity. What’s great about this compared to the KEO project, is that anyone can read your open letter, and take some value from it, whether that be the day it’s posted, or many years after your demise. And with the prevalence of blogging I thought it would be a fun little experiment, to see what people had to say to the human race.

Now with a little technical wizardry and whole lot of trial and error, I’ve set up a blog from which to do just that. You might of also noticed the link I put up on the menu bar of my personal new blog.

Send a message to humanity, for the people of today, tomorrow and far into the future.

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I invite you to write a (roughly) 800 word piece as your one message to the world. You can write about whatever you want, you can say whatever you feel. You could just write about yourself, an interesting story that you feel has moral value, or a humanitarian topic that interests you, and you think others ought to know about. You might just want to make people smile, and you are welcome to do so. The idea is that this is your chance to leave your one message. So feel free to make it as dramatic, as poignant and as heartfelt as possible.

Saying that however, there are some rules to what you can post. Although I despise rules, I think this blog should be about spreading what’s best about humanity, and how we can progress as a collective society. I’m a humanist, and I believe that everyone is capable of profound insight. So there will be no room for bigotry or defamation. This is not a platform for spreading hatred or ignorance. It’s not a place to share your religious convictions. There are plenty of places you can do that on the internet, but this won’t be one of them.

I am also asking people to donate £1 or more when they send a letter. To get the ball rolling however, I’m going to waive the fee and pay if myself for everyone who decides to send me a story. I’m unemployed at the moment however, but I suspect it’ll take a while for this to catch on. When I do start taking donations, all the proceeds will go to charity decided via GiveWell (100% of it).

So give me your thoughts on life and humanity, and share them with the world. If you feel uncomfortable you are free to submit anonymously. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how educated you are, nor how eloquent you are. I will also help with editing submitted letters, and hope this will give me a chance to hone my editing/proofreading skills.

It is my belief that everyone is this world has something to teach you. I hope through this platform we can begin to collate the best lessons we’ve all learned in our own little lives. I hope to bring significance to every life lived. I hope to inspire others to bring out the best in themselves and in others.

So without any further introduction, welcome to my new project,  My Letter to Humanity!

note: The website is still under construction, so don’t try and submit a letter through the forms provided, as I haven’t got them working just yet. Hence I would prefer it if you could email me with your entry at suhailp@gmail.com. I hope to read your messages soon! = ) !!

 

The Writer, the Narcissist and the Critic

Note to Reader: This is a reworking of something I wrote for my blog on http://www.writingforums.org/ a while back.

I used to frequently post on this forum for constructive critique and assistance in creative writing, and I suggest any of you who like to write check it out for some useful assistance and like minded people.

One thing I noticed while posting there however was a lot of attention seeking, a lot of unwarranted heavy criticism. But the thing was, I was just as guilty as everyone else there for doing it. It got me thinking – do we as writers, care more for the praise or recognition gained by our creations, than the actual process of creating itself? Do we tend to unjustly hold our work and our abilities up on some elevated podium, with rose tinted glassed, perhaps look upon our creations with more favourable eyes we would the work of others?

I accept that it is difficult to escape one’s own mind, our own trivial desires and aspirations to be adored. Self delusion of one’s own aptitude and importance plagues many of us. For instance, I am subscribed to many blogs of fellow creators, but comment in very few of them. What does this say about me as a person?

Hence, today I hope to write about the narcissistic tendencies of writers and people in general.

I find that many of us are more concerned with our own writing then that of our literary peers. Do a majority of post our work to gain insight into how we may improve our writing? Or merely to stroke our ever inflating ego’s? Perhaps even pertain to some ideal that we are intelligent, we have talent, and seek confirmation of this fact?

I think maybe I might be being a bit cynical of the intentions of the amateur writer here. While even I admittedly don’t take enough interest in other peoples work, and have those narcissistic qualities highlighted above, I think when it comes down to it, I mostly write for fun, for escape, to ward off boredom and loneliness. (Sad times indeed my friend)

Perhaps I’m being a bit melodramatic – it’s a hobby put simply, one which I hope to turn into a career one day. I must by very virtue of the trade start out as an amateur unfortunately. But I like to think of it like this – we are all capable of greatness, while we may  or may not necessarily achieve it in our lives. But in order to achieve greatness, we all require recognition of our efforts, to keep us going along in a protective bubble of delusion, in the hopes one day we’ll be “good enough”. There are many failures along the way, and I think a touch of vanity helps an aspiring anything to overcome these frequent set backs. Nobody starts out as a literary genius, or a masterful artist; Picasso didn’t pick up a paintbrush and just paint a masterpiece. just as CLR James did not write The Black Jacobins in an evening.

What I’m getting at is, they had to believe in themselves, they had to think they had what it took. Because anyone who’s ever achieved anything worth achieving knows that it takes time, it takes effort and it takes perseverance. Sometimes a little ego stroking goes a long way in helping you actually become good at something.

Hence, I don’t think one ought to be to harsh in critiquing the aspiring writer or artist, for it can do more harm than good in my opinion. We all have this innate ability to create this entity, which is essentially an open concept. Always changing in the collaborative eyes of society. There is no set way of doing things, no matter how much you may think there is. While you may have personal preferences or certain beliefs to what you find “pleasurable” art, or how you think we ought to succeed at writing a novel – this is of course your prerogative as a living, thinking, free human being. We all needs time to find our own voice, our style, our message – and personally I’ve needed a lot of reassurance to get where I’m at today.

As an alternative, I put it to you dear reader, that maybe sharing our lovingly crafted works should be less about critiquing the parts you don’t like, but highlighting how something is good, and has this intangible, indefinable “value”. For if we are to define literature as essentially art, then what is its purpose? How do we as human beings, derive pleasure from its inception and creation? I think this is an almost impossible answer to formulate, for if we were to ask everyone on this planet, I’m sure the answers would be unique to every individual queried.

In this regard, I suppose we refrain from harsh critique, and focus more on understanding each other’s work, highlighting strengths, and seeing the stories behind these individual works of art, many of which, along my own that is, are destined to be lost in the great abyss of time. The only rules are that it entertains, it inspires and it has meaning. Sometimes picking over details, being pedantic and too technical is just unnecessary  While criticism can be effective, too much can lead to apathy or despair. I think that we should just give each other’s work the time and attention it deserves, for however brief it may be, and however little contribution we may give.

Edward Snowden and The Five Eyes

Have you ever heard of the “Five Eyes”?

More formally known by the acronym the UKUSA Agreement, The Five Eyes Alliance was first signed in March 1946 by the United Kingdom and the United States. The alliance was later extended to encompass the three Commonwealth realms of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, the dragnet system of data interception has been abused for many years after the Cold War. While project ECHELON, also known as SIGINT has been around for many years, these recent revelations have resurfaced past controversial uses of the program.

Intelligence monitoring of citizens, and their communications, in the area covered by the AUSCANNZUKUS security agreement has caused concern. British journalist Duncan Campbelland New Zealand journalist Nicky Hager asserted in the 1990s that the United States was exploiting ECHELON traffic for industrial espionage.

An article in the US newspaper Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that European aerospace company Airbus lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia in 1994 after the US National Security Agency reported that Airbus officials had been bribing Saudi officials to secure the contract.

In 2001, the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON Interception System recommended to the European Parliament that citizens of member states routinely use cryptography in their communications to protect their privacy, because economic espionage with ECHELON has been conducted by the US intelligence agencies.

The agreement of between the Five Eyes was established for the purpose of sharing intelligence, especially signals intelligence.  Recently there has been a very public leak of evidence suggesting that this system has been systematically abused in order to gain access into private citizen’s information. Such collation of data would be considered unlawful if it were not conducted through intermediately bodies such as the NSA for the GHCQ, and then shared with those in the alliance.

By May last year 300 analysts from GCHQ, and 250 from the NSA, had been assigned to sift through the flood of data. The Americans were given guidelines for its use, but were told in legal briefings by GCHQ lawyers: “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”. When it came to judging the necessity and proportionality of what they were allowed to look for, would-be American users were told it was ‘your call’.

The GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, has been accused of “ominous” spying that goes far beyond the NSA’s data retention program. IT expert Constanze Kurz stated in an interview with German news outlet DW, that it was “surprising to see the extent to which these agencies were able to operate without legal intervention.

The British as well as the Americans have rules for this groundless monitoring – namely that part of the communication has to take place outside of the US or Great Britain. By cooperating, the American and British agencies can now exchange the data mutually. And that amounts to a large percentage of global communication. With the British, we’re talking about over… [20 million gigabytes]… The number of people who are involved there is enormous and actually no longer in acceptable relationship to a democracy.

Through this system of collaboration, the two spy agencies are able to share information on innocent citizens within a supposedly “legal” framework. The GCHQ has had access to the US internet monitoring programme PRISM since at least June 2010. In return for this privilege  it allows the NSA to view the millions of gigabytes of information it collects travelling across the transatlantic cables, collated through it’s eerily similar “Tempora” electronic surveillance program.

The slow trickle of leaks has kept the story very much in the public domain, yet there are increasing efforts to split public opinion over the issue. The common thread of argument used against the leaks is that Snowden is a traitor. This is an irrelevant point – what is important however is that this system of surveillance operates largely in secret and with impunity. Snowden has become increasingly subject to unnecessary and unwarranted attacks on his character. Snowden is no “traitor”, and equally he is no “hero”. He has performed a valuable service to society, and should be commended for his efforts. But as he expressed himself from the very beginning, this should not be about whether we ought to vilify or venerate the ex CIA employee.

But the fact of the matter is, the US is being humiliated in this very public hunt for Snowden, according to commentator Simon Tisdall writing for the CNN.

Every country has its own experience of U.S. bullying. In Britain, the case of Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon, accused by the U.S. of the “biggest military computer hack of all time”, became a cause celebre.

In the end even Britain’s sycophantic Cameron government was obliged, by force of public opinion, to throw out the U.S. extradition demand.

Extra-judicial assassination, drones, killer robots, extraordinary rendition, black ops, wet ops, psy-ops, silly ops… The world is a bit tired of all this American posturing, grandstanding, and self-serving banditry.

Regardless of what we think of Snowden, and whether he is a traitor or whistleblower, lets recap on what’s been leaked so far:

    1. The publication of Snowden’s leaks began with a top secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) sent to Verizon on behalf of the NSA, demanding the cell phone records of all of Verizon Business Network Services’ American customers for the three month period ending in July.
    2. Another secret document published by the Guardian revealed the NSA’s own rules for when it makes broad exceptions to its foreign vs. U.S. persons distinction, accessing Americans’ data and holding onto it indefinitely.
    3. Another leaked slide deck revealed a software tool called Boundless Informant, which the NSA appears to use for tracking the origin of data it collects. While Iran, Pakistan and Jordan appeared to be the most surveilled countries according to the map, it also pointed to significant data collection from the United States.
    4. A leaked executive order from President Obama shows the administration asked intelligence agencies to draw up a list of potential offensive cyber attack targets around the world.
    5. Documents leaked to the Guardian revealed a five-year-old British intelligence scheme to tap transatlantic fibre optic cables to gather data. Much of the data is shared with the NSA, which had assigned 250 analysts to sift through it as of May of last year.
    6. Another GCHQ project revealed to the Guardian through leaked documents intercepted the communications of delegates to the G20 summit of world leaders in London in 2009.
    7. Snowden showed the Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post documents that it said outlined extensive hacking of Chinese and Hong Kong targets by the NSA since 2009, with 61,000 targets globally and “hundreds” in China.
    8. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has said that Snowden provided him “thousands” of documents, of which “dozens” are newsworthy. And Snowden himself has said he’d like to expose his trove of leaks to the global media so that each country’s reporters can decide whether “U.S. network operations against their people should be published.”

(note: thanks to reddit user earlsweatscript for this condensed list)

I think that all these supposedly damaging secrets do not encumber the safety of US or British citizens, but largely impeach on the liberties of people worldwide. What makes spying on foreigners any more moral that spying on your own citizens? And our countries are already doing just this, as has clearly been shown by the leaked information.

We should be worried that these powers are being abused for other purposes. For instance, the US Department of Justice targeted the records of more than 20 phone lines of AP reporters and editors in secret in April and May in an attempt to discover the source of leaked information about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen. Clearly this would stifle future attempts at whistleblowing  especially if leakers are afraid of their own safety and anonymity

We should be worried, not about the supposed terrorist threat, but about our privacy and safety being compromised by our own governments. But there are powers that are ready to stand up to the US government over this grievance. And I’m not talking about countries like Russia. Putin’s statement on the issue was largely political and somewhat ironic, considering his long list of human rights abuses. But Latin American countries are not conceding, and defying the demands for Snowden’s extradition. European countries are joining them also in the fight for truth and justice. Germany and Iceland have expressed their concern over these recent revelations, and Venezuelan president said he would not cow to US threats. It is now suspected Snowden may seek asylum in one of these brave countries, according to a letter to the Ecuador published yesterday.

I understand and appreciate that for a lot of people, it’s hard to care about these kinds of injustices perpetuated by our governments  especially when they seemingly have no direct consequence on our daily lives. With growing inequality, unemployment and the like, people seem to have more pressing concerns than these invasions of our privacy. But it’s important we speak up and be heard, not just for our own sakes, but for our children, for our future, and most importantly, for Edward Snowden. If caught, he could face a life in prison or worse for blowing the whistle on these grave intrusions on internet freedom and privacy.

First they used threat of child porn to curb our internet freedom. Then they used the threat of piracy. Ultimately however it was terrorism that gave them the power to reach into our private lives without proper mandate. Let me be clear however – I am not afraid of being spied on, but I am worried. I am worried for the future of the internet, and the unprecedented freedom it has enjoyed to date.  I am worried about our liberty and ability to have private lives, to associate without government oversight. We must stand up, and make our voices heard if we ever expect to claw back our freedoms, and save the internet from the clutches of these sadistic totalitarian rulers.

 

 

Nonviolence and protesting

Nonviolence and protesting

So I’m sure you’ve all been following the increasingly violent protests breaking out around the world. These last few years have seen many revolutions throughout the Middle East, recently Turkey and now even Brazil. And I suppose it would be rather ignorant to assume that this current trend is different to any other period in history.

Demonstration and revolution are fairly regular events in human society it seems.

Seeing the violence these demonstrations have instigated however, has disheartened me somewhat. I understand that a riot is the physical manifestation of frustration. I am pleased by the push for progress, the desire for equality and secularism. But being a person who believes that we can absolve our problems with democracy, with peaceful civil disobedience means that I still feel we could achieve so much more without the use of aggression.

But this begs the question – why should we adhere to pacifism? It’s a difficult question to answer, because we often find nature to be inherently violent. From the explosive eruptions of distant stars, to the gruesome murder we witness every day in human society. Violence, therefore, is simply a part of nature.

But is this necessarily the case?

I think this is a rather absurd argument against pacifism to be honest. Everything is part of nature, by the very definition of nature. Rape is a part of nature for instance, yet we look upon those who commit such acts as savage monsters, and rightly so of course. But we can see how such behaviour accrued by the impartial force of nature herself.

Another example – killing in nature exists, because protein is a more condensed form of energy. This is just one reason animals will kill one another. You don’t need to spend as much time grazing on grass, and digesting it, than if you were to kill another animal and steal its accumulated energy. And as a direct consequence, most living organisms are programmed through millions of years of evolution, to fight against such aggressors trying to steal our accumulated calories.

Hence violence began in such a manner, through a struggle to survive.

But I make the argument that violence is not necessary to humanity – not anymore at least. And we can find many examples throughout nature where it is pacifism that makes a species successful. Yes, violent action has played an integral role to humanities success to date, but I think it is no longer necessary to the future of humanity. In fact, I believe it is quite the opposite in fact.

Just as violence exists in nature, so too does non-violence.

Reciprocity, mutual benefit, kindness and empathy – this is the future of humanity in my eyes. And I think such qualities are just as inherent to human beings and their success then violence ever was. In modern times, nonviolent methods of demonstration have been a powerful tool for social protest and social/political change. Mahatma Ghandi, César Chávez, Martin Luther King, Leymah Gbowee – all bear testament to the power of nonviolence and civil disobedience.

A recent example stemming from the protests in Turkey, also shows us the power of pacifism. One man stood in Taksim square in defiance of the police crackdown of protestors. Within hours, hundreds had joined him.

Imagine if thousands joined, imagine if the whole nation stood with this man in solidarity? A million people wanting to be heard, is much more powerful than a hundred men with guns trying to silence them.

If we speak loud enough, we will be heard. But if we fight, if we kill, if we destroy in the name of freedom and peace – how does this make us any better than those who wish to oppress us?

What we need is cooperation; we need a common goal to unite under. And we mustn’t be afraid, for the “only thing to fear, is fear itself.”

 

Growing up in poverty

Note to reader: This was my submission to the Guardian International Development Competition. As I did not make the shortlist I thought I’d post it here. 

Nelson Mandela once proclaimed that “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” Last year World Bank President Robert Zoellick announced that the target to halve global poverty had been achieved. Yet critics argue that serious issues with surveys used to support this claim undermine its credibility. To understand how we can better engage the poor youth of today, I spoke to three people who grew up in poverty, to see how it has affected their lives in adulthood.

We begin with a woman named Trisha from the US. Almost a quarter of all children in the industrialised nation grow up in low income families. She tells me she was considered “white trash” growing up on the outskirts of Lubbock, a medium sized city in the state of Texas. While both her parents were well educated, her father began to suffer from poor mental health at the age of four, leaving the burden of child rearing on her mother. This put enormous strain on her, and she would sometime­­s work two or more jobs at minimum wage.

They survived on mostly handouts – “We went to soup kitchens and churches for free meals, and got government food, and some food stamps.” She explains that “anytime anything unexpected happened…there was never any wiggle room, and my mother wrote hot checks to cover them.”

Trisha, now thirty, still lives in a trailer with her husband and two children. “Our car is broken down, and we rarely have extra money for anything.” She confides that at a point, she felt as if her parents “gave up… and just tried to keep things from getting worse…My mother is 65 and working part time as a cafeteria lady, with no retirement to speak of. I don’t want that for me, and I don’t want that for my family. I feel like I’m a little too old to change things…[but] I keep trying to think of ways out of this rut.”

In comparison to Trisha, Hernan is a young man who grew up in Argentina. The countries official poverty rate almost doubled to 47% during the 1989 currency crisis, and continues to fluctuate during the country’s volatile economic cycles. His father was a waiter and drug addict, his mother a housewife. Both had failed to complete high school, which Hernan says motivated him to study and become a scientist.

“The first time I dreamt of becoming a scientist I was 8 or less. I read relativity theory… Not understanding more than a few words, but [that] was enough…Einstein is my all time super hero. I decided to copy, by all means his rebellious [spirit].”

While the poverty rate fell to 16% by 1994, the consequent Tequila crisis left Hernan’s father unemployed. During this time, he “was forced to work in the streets, selling toy cars at the age of thirteen for money.” Despite all the odds however, the young Argentinean persevered, attaining several degrees and a string of well paying jobs. He now works as a computer scientist for Microsoft.

When asked what he found most difficult about growing up poor, he said “Everything cost you more. If you got money, talent doesn’t matter. I made my way through college because I’m somehow gifted at math. So, I always earned financial aids. Some of my friends, with talent for… music, literature or even politics, didn’t get any kind of luck.”

The last person I spoke to is a young man named Aman who now also works with computers. He was born in Bahrain, but moved to the Indian state Kerala at the age of thirteen. The World Bank estimates that around one-third of the total Indian population fall below the international poverty line, while almost two-thirds live on less than $2 a day. Soon after his arrival in Kerala, Aman’s parents divorced, and he ended up living with his amputee father.

“With a single disabled parent and no means of income, my brother and I worked through all of school and college. We rode auto rickshaws, we did door-to-door salesmanship for curry powders, we worked at telephone booths, sold lottery tickets, and for a while I even sold liquor in the black market.” He says he felt ashamed by his poverty, and would go to great lengths to hide the fact he was poor from his peers.

Growing up in a low income family clearly has a dramatic effect on a person later in life, both economically and psychologically. While Hernan and Aman were ultimately able to escape the poverty trap, their struggles were exacerbated by growing up in low income families. Trisha has not been so fortunate, and I can’t help but wonder what she might of achieved if her and her family had been provided with more substantial government aid. If in a nation like the US income inequalities did not exist, every family would earn around $200,000 a year. While in 2012 Gross World Product per capita was approximately $12,400, it is estimated that 1.3bn people globally still live on less than $1 a day.

From speaking to Trisha, Herman and Aman, it is apparent the most important factor to a child’s success is investment in their education. Without support for poor households, children are often forced into work at an early age. Research is clear – poverty is the single greatest threat to child’s well-being. Currently there is a lack of effective policy dealing with the issue, even in developed countries, were income disparities continue to grow. Yet there is promising progress. For instance, a new pilot study at Panthbadodiya in India has shown that supplementing a family’s income at regular intervals can dramatically improve a child’s education, and the family’s general wellbeing. Academic performance improved in 68% of the families, and the time they spent at school almost tripled.

Collectively we can still improve the prospects of those children born into such unfortunate circumstances. As Hernan so eloquently puts it – “Impossible? It’s just a word.”

By Suhail H. Patel

Mass surveillance and the future of the Internet

We are the Guardians of our own privacy. The time for action is now.

In 2001 the US was infamously attacked in an organised strike against the Twin Towers in New York City.

This instigated a decade long war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and began the notorious “War on Terror” against loosely knit extremist group known as Al-Qaeda.

Twelve years later and now the internet, and our privacy is under a similar siege.

After the 9/11 bombings came the Patriot Act. I’m sure many of us have heard of this legislation being passed in the USA, and many of us have taken qualm with its legally binding mandate.

The act was turned into US law thanks to the extensive efforts of U.S. Congress and then-President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. It was intended to “protect our homeland,” said Bush at the time to his fellow Americans.

“It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary.

“Because we value the Constitution.”

What a load of utter bollocks.

And what a tremendously large heap of festering bullshit that has been uncovered in this last week. With the help of a one courageous Whistleblower Mr Snowden, “Who may or may not be a hero”, but still worthy of our praises nonetheless.

So while I am almost certain you have heard of the story, a brief reminder.

The Guardian leaked last week that the US government has been “mining” data from all over the world in an effort to catch “terrorists”. This has been going on for the last 7 years, and it is suspected many innocent American and international citizens have also been spied on.

More specifically they have been using “meta data”, which refers to the tell tale signs left by your internet and phone activity. They’re able to do this through the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” passed in 1978, which gives the US government the power to issue secret warrants for specific items, granted there is reasonable suspicion.

The broader powers used to justify these new intrusions of privacy however, have apparently been derived from a 550-Word Section of PATRIOT Act, and Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act (FAA),  renewed for five years last December.

“Section 215 dramatically broadened the scope of that power. Now the government can seize…any tangible thing. In addition, 215 removed the limitation that it had to be a suspected spy or terrorist whose records were being sought. Now, anyone’s records can be sought.”

Information is collated from the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, who are now facing a battle to maintain trust after leak of the PRISM program.

Indeed, it is a truly harrowing thought to know our privacy has been undermined in such a sweeping program of information collation and retention.

And we ought to be scared.

“The more we accept perpetual government and corporate surveillance as the norm, the more we change our actions and behaviour to fit that expectation — subtly but inexorably corrupting the liberal ideal that each person should be free to live life as they choose without fear of anyone else interfering with it.

“A citizenry that’s constantly on guard for secret, unaccountable surveillance is one that’s constantly being remade along the lines the state would prefer.”

The fact remains that the ability to spy on your citizens like this is a real and seriously dangerous power for any government to have. And if history has shown us anything,  it’s that we cannot trust our governments to do the right thing. They are motivated by self interest – whether that be gaining another term in office, lining their pockets, or maintaining sadistic control over the population.

Sceptics and government sympathisers might contend that I am “pretending as if we are half way to Nazi Germany”. Regardless of if this or is not the case – that’s not my point at all. Simply that if we are to allow this abuse of power to slide, then we are one step closer to realising that horrific reality.

It is my opinion that we should always strive for utopia, we should endeavour to end all injustice in the world. If you are happy with this abuse of power, then you my friend are hindering the progression of society. You are impeding moral progress.

I find it both deeply frightening and somewhat upsetting that we had known about this kind of systematic surveillance for years but done nothing to stop it. In fact, Google head Eric Schmitz warned us about PRISM months in advance. 

Former highly placed intelligence official William Binney foretold this turn of events as early as 2006. There has been growing concern around the world, just how extensive and intrusive this data retention project is.

And it’s getting worse.

Amid Data Controversy, NSA has put the finishing touches on its biggest data farm to date in Utah, costing the US taxpayer $1.2 billion dollars to build, and even more to maintain.

This begs the question, is it all worth it?

“Consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack — by far the biggest in its history — roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S.

Let’s put that in context. That same year in the United States:

  • 71,372 died of diabetes.
  • 29,573 were killed by guns.
  • 13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.”

The number don’t lie – it is irrational to give up this much of our freedoms to fight the supposed terrorist threat.

Should we be afraid of extremist factions in distant lands that are antagonized by our aggressive foreign policy? Or should we be afraid of a totalitarian government that spies on our every move?

But we people are waking up – the time for action is now.

Emerging internet giants such as Mozilla, Reddit, 4Chan have joined coalition of 86 Internet Freedom and Civil Liberty groups asking Congress to end NSA surveillance.

People all over the world are proclaiming this is unjust, this is unnecessary and we simply won’t stand for it. And despite the propaganda, the ingenious slight and hand and trickery used when it comes to convincing us otherwise, the masses will not stand for this invasion of privacy. A senator recently denounced Snowden’s release of documents as an “act of treason”. Yet ironically enough Chinese citizens have called for their government to protect the whistleblower from the US heavy hand against whistleblowers  and I sincerely hope the Chinese government heeds this demand.

The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure as this scandal permeates, and the damaging leaks continue. We have come to know a great deal about the seriously disturbing nature of the US government this last week.  And Information chiefs worldwide are sounding alarm. Recently US senator Dianne Feinstein ordered the NSA to review monitoring program. It is only a matter of time until we abolish this law and system of surveillance.

But what we mustn’t do is resign ourselves to pessimism, we must not capitulate to apathy in the face of adversity. Because if we do succumb to inaction when confronted by these disturbing truths then how are things ever going to get any better?

At the end of the 18th century in San Domingo, a 12 year struggle by a handful of slaves against the might of imperialist Spain, France and England lead to the eventual formation of the first black state outside of Africa in 1804. Three years later the Atlantic Slave trade was abolished. Within a generation slavery worldwide was by and large abolished.

Let me give you those same words that evoked courage in the black rebels of that time, the courage that ended 150 years of oppression, racism and slavery.

“If self interest alone prevails with nations and their masters, there in another power. Nature speaks in louder tones than philosophy or self-interest.

“Those Lightning’s announce the thunder. A courageous chief is only wanted. Where is he, that great man whom nature owes to her vexed, oppressed and tormented children?

“He will appear, doubt it not; he will come forth and raise the sacred standard of liberty.”

You are that courageous chief my friend –  but so am I – we all are in fact. For together we can instigate monumental change in the world, if we stand united, if only we believe we can.

So I implore you, please believe. Because we can’t do this alone, and it won’t be easy. Nothing ever worth doing is. The internet I believe is one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Don’t let it fall into the wrong hands.

-By Suhail Patel

 

The Syrian Conflict – the case against military intervention.

Damascus_by_night

Just another day in Damascus…

 
The situation in Syria…of course many of us claim to know, or have heard some of the many different views about the conflict.

Reporter Paul Danahar puts in like this, that “If you are not confused by what is going on there, then you do not understand it.”

From what I have read and heard, the Syrian Civil war started out as predominately an uprising against poverty, like most violent political revolution.

It started as a movement against dictatorship, oppression, and is often attributed to the Arab Spring  that saw the instatement of the Muslim Brotherhood in nations like Egypt, Libya and Bahrain.

But increasingly it seems the real reasons to why this revolution was started are being lost to the interests of outside influences.

Increasingly it has become a proxy war between UN member states, which can’t seem to agree on what to do about the situation.

And so the real reasons have been lost in the two years of fighting, the bickering between spectating nations, and Syria itself is slowly eroding away while the conflict continues.

The loosely grouped band of rebels, who are at best united against Assad, are all vying for potential control of the country, with some imposing Islamic law on the cities that have been captured.

It has become increasingly a sectarian conflict whose influence will eventually spill beyond the country’s borders.

Does this mean we ought to intervene?

In this modern world we have established a set of unalienable rights that it is often proclaimed we are all entitled to.

I find this interesting because, things like human rights, rules of engagement, international trade laws – all these systems have been created by human beings, for human beings, and the only authority they have comes from human beings and our willingness to adhere to these prevailing systems devised.

Part of what is so important to democracy, and what makes this system work is a right to sovereignty. And just as we apply this concept to the individual, so too must we apply this to a collective nation – and give them the freedom to govern themselves.

While we have a history of colonial rule and paternalism in this nation and the west at large, the UK is no longer an imperialist empire – or at least we claim to no longer be – and Syria is its own nation with its own government and ruling bodies.

However, Syria is not a democracy, and its ruling body is inherently a dictatorship. Does this does this mean we have a right to intervene? Ultimately we would want the same rights for Syrians, as we have for ourselves in this nation. Yet I am almost certain that most of us in the UK would not take to kindly to Syria intervening in our affairs, given similar circumstances.

It is not for us to impose democracy on a foreign nation, just as we cannot impose our own concepts of fairness, of justice on other people. The IMF and worldbank have frequently tried to apply concepts of free markets on developing nations, which caused widespread corruption and increasing inequality.

In this country we claim to believe in democracy, sovereignty; we are entitled to our freedom of speech. And so I put it to you dear reader, that we can persuade, we can coerce through nonviolent means, yet ultimately it is for the people of Syria to be the bearer’s of their own destiny, and it is up to the Syrians to devise their own code of law from which to govern their country.

Assad will fall regardless of western intervention, no dictatorship lasts forever, in fact no empire has been able to stand the test of time. All nations have inevitably been resigned to the same catastrophic fate. This is precisely because we are human, and fallible in this regard. Our knowledge is incomplete, our ability to analyse the long term affects of our actions is poor at best.

We simply can’t see into the future, hence no matter how much we might try to fathom the consequences of intervention, we are always likely to be wrong in our assumptions.

Even if we were to intervene militarily, would we really know what’s good for the people of Syria? Would we really know which faction is best to support, what would constitute the best outcome for the Syrians?

Yes, we can help the people of Syria, but that does not necessarily entail military intervention.

Some politicians, including Obama argue that it if the Syrian government is found to be using chemical weapons the West must militarily intervene further.

I think it is a ridiculous notion that chemical weapons are more deadly than other weapons used in warfare.

The fact remains, chemical weapons such as sarin gas are far less deadly than more typical means of warfare used by modern armies.

A British army bomb disposal expert in a 2007 Register piece said “Far from possessing any special deadliness, chemical warheads are less potent than ordinary conventional-explosive ones.

“If your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you’d be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMD, while ordinary explosives aren’t.”

I think we must be very weary of the chemical warfare argument for intervention, because it is remarkably similar to the WMD argument used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In regards to chemical warfare – while weapons such as Sarin Gas are banned internationally, and rightly so of course, we must ultimately aspire to live in a world where weapons in their entirety are deemed obsolete.

What makes a weapon powerful? What kills a person? Is it the bomb, the bullet, the rifle, or the person pulling the trigger?

If we were all categorically opposed to war, if we all chose not to fight, then all weapons would lose their ability to oppress, kill and destroy. If we chose the path of peace over war, if we simply did not capitulate to fear or paranoia, all these weapons would lose their power to kill and destroy.

We don’t need to intervene with our guns blazing. There is no omen on us to solve the Syrian conflict, a conflict we have helped exacerbate by choosing sides. What we must do is stop arming the world, what we ought to do is stop producing weapons to destroy and harm one another. If we took these steps – the most powerful nations in the world that is – if we were to set a precedent for peace – real peace mind you, then perhaps other nations might follow suit.

I find it utterly ridiculous and hypocritical for Obama to set a red line at chemical weapons, when his administration has laid waste to so many nations. The drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq all bear testament to how destructive his administration has been.

I accept that it is obviously quite difficult to watch what is happening in Syria and it may make us think “something must be done.”

But does this mean we are morally obliged to intervene?

Yet again this is a case of western paternalism and propaganda at work  While nations such as Saudi and Qatar have their own selfish sectarian reasons for intervening, it seems western powers are more concerned with their own safety, their own influence and perception in the international community, then the well being of the Syrian population.

Yet the case against intervention is very clear – whether it be economic or military, directly or through proxy, history has shown our meddling in the affairs of other nations has been largely detrimental to actually causing real tangible change.

For instance, the Iraq war and the infamous “War on Terror” is widely considered a failure, having caused a staggering amount of “collateral damage”, corruption, sectarian violence and anarchy. There is still a great deal of political unrest in the region, despite over a decade of “liberation”.

It was never the US’s job to liberate the people of Iraq.

This shows us that in reality, despite the plethora of conspiracy theories pertaining the US master plan in the region, around the world in fact; in actuality there is seemingly no clear direction to US foreign policy, and this also applies to intervention in Syria.

On the one hand we fight Al-Qaeda, and on the other we supply them with aid, we supply them with training and weaponry. It seems that these groups have their uses to the US military when they are unable to directly intervene.

The fact remains that the US has been helping the very extremists factions they are fighting in Iraq and elsewhere.

A week ago the US state department announced in an annual report that they were continuing to defeat Al-Qaeda and that the organization became less influential.

It seems the US is trying to foster this alliance of convenience.

Because our governments have their own political agendas in mind when deciding what course of action to take, we can’t rely on them to necessarily do the right thing.

Syria is in an important nation, an important ally to western enemies such as Iran, Hezbollah and more loosely Russia. It makes sense that the US would want to oust Assad, to weaken those who pose a threat to it’s unparalleled international influence.

In a meeting between EU member states, an embargo on arms for Syrian rebels was lifted. Britain and France are in favour of supplying weapons to their favoured rebel groups.

In terms of how this might affect the Syrian conflict, I think providing arms to selected groups would not necessarily overthrow the Assad regime.

While I understand and appreciate the desire to want to bring democracy and peace to the nation, so far arming rebels has done little but cause more difficulties for the people of Syria.

The long length of this uprising compared to the other Arab Spring revolutions can be directly attributed by external forces, funding of both sides from different invested groups.

The fact remains, it is an absurd notion thinking that creating more weapons, financing more destruction can bring peace. In fact it is quite the contrary, our meddling in affairs has exacerbated the situation in Syria. It has lain waste to the nation over the course of these last two years.

Bringing more arms into Syria will lead to further bloodshed, it will only bring more hardship for the people of Syria. We need to reach out to Assad and his allies, we need to reach out to all the rebel factions also. What we really need to do is put our ego’s aside, forget about our fears and insecurities and realise we don’t have the solution to this conflict.

Because the last two years have shown that to be honest, nobody does. And you can’t expect to extinguish this flame by lacing it with petrol and hoping for the best.

We can’t arm the rebels with sophisticated military technology and hope things will turn out okay, that democracy and peace will come to Syria. Because that simply hasn’t worked in the past, and only required further intervention to fix the problems we created.

The UN security council is comprised of 5 member states, that account for 77% of the worlds arms trade. Imagine for a second, if production of all these weapons were to suddenly cease.

Imagine if instead of sending more bombs to help destroy Assads forces, we built more hospitals to help the civilians harmed.
Imagine if instead of arming the rebels and taking sides, we provided unconditional asylum to people wishing to flee Syria.
Imagine if we sent carpenters, builders, teachers and doctors, instead of soldiers and other proponents of warfare.

This is the kind of intervention we need to be using. This is the kind of revolution be need to instigate in Syria, and the world in its entirety.

If both the US, Russia and other members of the UN security council collectively agreed to refuse to arm any side of the conflict, to refuse to take any side, at some point the fighting would have to come to an end.

Or we can continue to provide the Syrians with the means to kill one another, to destroy their own homes, till at some point they’d be reduced to carrying out warfare with sticks and stones, the dusty remnants of the once great city of Damascus.

Is that what we really want?

We need to arm people with not weapons, but knowledge, with empathy, with the power to change their own circumstances without the use of force, through democracy and peaceful protest.  We need to help the Syrian people stand united, and we must stand with them all, not one side or the other. Most importantly however, we must not help them kill one another, because this isn’t bringing an end to the fighting. It’s ruining lives, its destroying families and entire generations of Syrians have fallen victim to the destruction of this civil war.

The time for intervention is now – but we don’t need bullets nor bombs, what we need is peace and love. If there are two things we can be certain of; weapons murder, and politics kills. Only we can bring peace, collectively that is, if we stand united we can instigate the kind of categorical change we need to help the people of Syria out of the bloody conflict.

-By Suhail Patel