Category Archives: History

Crime without punishment

A moment of great rejoicing for human rights activists and champions of the rule of law came at the beginning of this month as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for “crimes against humanity”, having authorized murders, kidnappings, and torture as part of a severe anti-terrorist campaign in the 1990s. Fujimori’s sentencing, one must hope, will send a powerful message to government leaders around the world that maintaining public security is an insufficient excuse for violating fundamental human rights, and that even presidents will be held to account for the crimes they commit in office.

But not in America.

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We’re doin’ it for the kids

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An Afghan woman and her daughter grieve after an air strike in Shindand district last summer. Photograph: Fraidoon Pooyaa/AP

A very interesting article appears today in the Independent, discussing some policy concessions proposed by representatives of the Taliban who have been quietly negotiating with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. Among the proposals: a commitment to refrain from banning the education of girls, measuring the length of beards, or making the wearing of burqas compulsory.

This puts in a new context yesterday’s revelation that President Karzai recently signed a law that codifies the rights of Afghanistan’s Shi’as to be governed by family law based on traditional Shi’a jurisprudence, which (it is believed, since the law itself has not yet been publicly released) prevents women from refusing to have sex with their husbands or leaving the house without their husbands’ permission.

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A fast ride down a narrow valley

Aladdin's Lamp, by John Freely

A prominent literary editor once told me that a good reviewer did not have to like every book that he read, but that he absolutely had to have the capacity to like every book. In this spirit, I make a habit of opening a new book with the greatest optimism and eagerness, convinced that I’ll enjoy both the process of reading it and the comparative chore of writing the review itself.

It doesn’t always come to pass, of course. Fortunately, most books I’ve reviewed have been fascinating and well-written. A minority have turned out to be well-conceived and reasonably well-executed, but significantly flawed in logic or perspective (of course, in some ways these are more fun to review, since they offer more room for argument). But only one book so far has made me want to give up and put it away, and this before I had read even a third of it. To clarify, it’s not an atrocious book at all, but rather one that again and again refuses to rise to its own potential. And that can be a more painful experience than it sounds.

Hooked (and how could you not be)? Then by all means, read on…

Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World
By John Freely
(Alfred A. Knopf; 303 pages; $27.95)

Review published in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 22, 2009)

After nearly eight years of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is hard to say that the American public is much more knowledgeable about the Islamic world than before the war began.

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Signing up


With global economic growth having come to a shuddering halt, credit markets on life support, currencies faltering, and unemployment rates forging upwards, the United States Army is finally enjoying some relief. Overworked and stressed out, its recruiters have started to meet their annual goals with appreciably less effort, as unemployed young men, defeated by the recession, walk into their offices to sign up for what they hope will be one or two tours. “I’m doing this for eight years,” 22-year-old Sean O’Neil told the New York Times. “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I’ll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line.” After an apprenticeship in St. Louis that didn’t pan out, O’Neil had found himself $30,000 in debt; a stint in the military looked like the next best option.

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In the bleak midwinter

"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin

"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin (1890)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti, 1872

The Christmas season is over, and with it my temporary but rich television diet of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman — shows both necessitated and once or twice elevated into rituals of repeated viewings by the involvement of an excited young child. It is all cuddly and positive stuff, of course, with the possible exception of the Grinch, who, despite his alleged role in the “stealing” of Christmas, turns into a benevolent old fellow by the end of the tale, and who is, even at his worst, nothing more dangerous than a grumpy but efficient con-man.

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Come out, come out

Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's Milk

Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Not being a card-carrying progressive — by which I mean only that I’ve long suffered from an instinctive pessimism about what humans are capable of achieving, though it’s a reflex that I’ve gradually gotten better at keeping in check — I’m occasionally struck with a deep sense of amazement (and related feelings of both gratitude and guilt) at the amount of social change that has in fact occurred in the past century. My amazement can be triggered by something as simple as the visual memory of a British pub filled with a thick haze of cigarette smoke (a memory that takes me back only to 1990), an image that feels almost barbaric in comparison with the clear-aired restaurants of today, or by something as shocking — in fact, as forgotten — as the black and white news footage playing behind the initial credits of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which shows gay men being herded out of taverns and, their faces turned away from the cameras, into police paddy wagons. North American society has travelled quite a distance from that time to this.

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The chimera of democratic peace

Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Smoke from an Israeli air strike rises over the Gaza Strip (Photo: Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

To the governments of Israel and of much of the Western world, the current battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a black and white case of democracy versus terrorism. Israel claims that its sole motivation is the reduction of rocket fire from the territory; defence minister Ehud Barak has declared repeatedly that “our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in the southern part of Israel”. There is no tone of tragedy or sadness in this statement and in others like it, only a stern-sounding bureaucratese meant to evoke a sense of determination and cool professionalism. Yet for those who claim to love democracy, especially for those who claim to see it as the solution to the intractable problems of the Middle East and of the world in general, there is a political tragedy going on, for two democracies are at war. Continue reading

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