Boris Johnson on Russia & NATO: Dishonesty or Delusion?

I listened (on Youtube to a few words spoken by Boris Johnson on Monday at NATO headquarters. 99 words, to be precise:

We share the view that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is not an isolated case, but the latest in a pattern of reckless behaviour by the Russian State. That behaviour goes back many years. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks and its involvement in the Syrian war, Russia has shown itself, the Russian State has shown itself to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values, our values. Those values sit at the heart of NATO and everything that we do, which is why our NATO Allies have shown such strong and undivided support.

I was utterly astonished. I was amazed that it was possible to get so much untruth into such a small package. It was a bit like Hillaire Belloc’s poem, Matilda.

Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes.

Not that Johnson told any actual lies. He knows that to do so is politically foolish. But that does not mean that what he was saying is not utterly untrue.

What Boris actually said

I’ll go through it.

We share the view that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal is not an isolated case, but the latest in a pattern of reckless behaviour by the Russian State. 

Technically speaking, this is correct. Johnson has just been welcomed to the podium by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and is thanking him for his welcome. And the two of them do, indeed, take the same view of the Skripal poisoning.

As for the matter of whether there has been a patter of reckless behaviour by the Russian state, well, I don’t doubt that one could make a good case for it.

But whether the Russian State is, in fact, responsible for the Skripal poisoning is debatable. Does Johnson know something relevant and significant that the public have not been told? If not, it seems to me that he is jumping to a hasty conclusion – one that seems unlikely to me. And that, I think, is less than honest. It’s fair to say “I think the evidence points that way” or “I think it is quite likely.” But Johnson has gone well beyond that.

That behaviour goes back many years. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks and its involvement in the Syrian war, Russia has shown itself, the Russian State has shown itself to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values, our values.

Let’s start with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Technically speaking, Johnson is quite right. It was contrary to international law. But it was done peacefully – three people died. It allowed the people of Crimea self-determination (which is more than Spain is prepared to offer to the people of Catalonia). They had a referendum, in which 96.77% of the people voted in favour of becoming part of Russia – and which is generally regarded as free and fair. Crimea had always been part of Russia until 1954, when the Soviet leadership transferred it to Ukraine. The people of Crimea did not consider themselves to be Ukrainian (most were ethnic Russians whose first language was Russian) and didn’t want to be part of Ukraine – and they were deeply suspicious of the new government in Ukraine which had been enacting laws against the use of the Russian language.

So yes, technically against international law. But on the scale of things, a bit like driving at 50 mph in a zone where the speed limit is 40 – hardly a major crime.

Then there are the cyberattacks. But these are much like the Skripal poisoning. There has been numerous allegations made about Russian cyberattacks in several different countries (see the Wikipedia article), but there is not a single case where we know for certain that the Russian government is responsible – and most of them seem pretty dubious.  And in any case, nobody is alleged to have died from any of them – indeed, it is difficult to see that they have done much harm.

And then there is involvement in the Syrian War. And yes, Russia has been involved in the war in Syria. There is nothing illegal about its involvement. It was invited in by the Syrian government, which was losing territory to Jihadist and other Islamist militias – such as ISIS and al-Qaeda (who operated under various names in Syria. The Russian military helped the Syrian government it fighting back, with the result that the amount of Syria under the control of the Jihadists is now a lot smaller. And yes, the Russian military was responsible for killing people – including civilians – but that is inevitable in modern war.

Boris Johnson says that all this constitutes “reckless behaviour” and shows “a blatant disregard for international order, for international law and values.”

How true is what he says?

It seems to me that it is pretty close to being totally untrue. Yes, there has been some disregard for international law – in Crimea. But that is very minor, and pretty harmless. Indeed, in helping people have self-determination, it could be argued that it was actually helpful. But I think that to talk about “reckless behaviour” and showing “a blatant disregard for international order,” what Johnson says is simply not true – or, at the very least, without any real evidence.


As for showing a blatant disregard for international values, I have no idea what he is talking about. But he then adds “our values”. And he goes on to say

Those values sit at the heart of NATO and everything that we do, which is why our NATO Allies have shown such strong and undivided support.

Which values are these that are at the heart of NATO, its member states, and everything they do?

And this is where it really gets interesting. One of the things that Johnson highlighted was Russian action in Syria. But, as I say, Russia was there at the invitation of the Syrian government, which is perfectly legal. However, two NATO countries, the USA and Turkey, currently have troops stationed in Syria, which is illegal under international law. The Turks have invaded Syria, with allied militia, who, according to veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn of the Independent call “themselves the Free Syrian Army but actually seem closer to al Qaeda and ISIS.”

Indeed, just yesterday, Cockburn reported

“about two thirds of the people have fled from Afrin according to the U.N. About a hundred thousand are registered with the U.N., but the real figure’s probably about twice that. So you know, this is a pretty terrible condition. Particularly as Afrin was one of the most peaceful parts of Syria. It’s a very fertile area, a lot of farming land and so forth, and really nothing had been happening there during the last seven years, and suddenly the whole place is, you know, being devastated. . . . You can see film of these militiamen driving away tractors, looting the shops and so forth. And then we have these videos of the fighters, Arab fighters, saying we’re going to get rid of the Kurds, .. . . So we’re having a demographic change on a big scale in this place. Where the displaced will go, maybe they’ll get to the main Kurdish region. That seems quite likely. . . .You know, they just joined this great sort of swamp of human misery that we have in Syria. “

Furthermore, the war in Syria really got going when outside nations that were hostile to the Syrian government provided opposition militias in an effort to bring down the government – which, to use the words of Boris Johnson, shows “blatant disregard for international order, for international law”. Was Russia involved in that stirring up the war? No – but two NATO countries were. And, surprise, surprise, those two were America and Turkey – who bear a huge part of the blame for what Cockburn calls “this great sort of swamp of human misery that we have in Syria.”

Two anniversaries

It is interesting that just three days before Boris Johnson made these remarks was a significant anniversary – in fact, significant, in a way, for NATO. In 1968 the Vietnam War was raging, and American troops were actively involved in it. NATO, of course, was founded to oppose the Soviet Union, and the growth of communism world-wide, and America was fighting communist forces in Vietnam which were backed by the Soviet Union. On the 16th of March, 50 years ago last week, near the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, at least 300 (and probably over 500) unarmed Vietnamese civilians – men, women, and children – were massacred by American troops. The American military covered up the story. It took over a year for it to come out. (I tell the story here.)

It doesn’t say much for the values of the American military.

But even more significantly, the day Johnson spoke was the 15th anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War, when two NATO countries, America and Britain, invaded Iraq and overthrew the government.

Daniel Larison’s comments on the Chilcot Report into that war are well worth reading.

Among other things, he says

“Many of us saw at the time that the U.S. and British governments were determined to invade Iraq and were simply searching for a pretext that would give them political cover to do so.

Chilcot says of the March 2003 invasion that “military action at that time was not a last resort.” I don’t see how anyone could have ever honestly thought it was. It is not possible for a preventive war to be waged as a last resort, and that is one reason why there is no justification for waging preventive war. The Iraq war happened to be illegal, but more important it was profoundly unjust and unnecessary. There is no excuse for the unprovoked invasion of another country, and that is undeniably what the Iraq war was. That lesson has been almost completely lost on political leaders in Washington and London, and I suspect it will be for a long time.

A few additional things should be said about the Iraq war. I have said them before, but they need to be repeated frequently so that they aren’t forgotten. Even if Iraq had retained its unconventional weapons programs as Bush and Blair claimed, attacking Iraq would not have been justified. Even if the “threat” they identified had existed, it would not have justified the invasion and occupation of another country, the overthrow of its government, and the ensuing years of devastation and bloodshed. As it happened, the pretext for the war was a lie, and the threat was non-existent, but the Iraq war would still have been a colossal blunder and enormous crime regardless.

Lies, claimed threats that were non-existent, involvement in Middle Eastern countries that happened to be illegal, and lessons completely lost on political leaders in Washington and London? That sounds familiar.

Dishonesty or delusion?

But how does it all stack up against the phrases Boris Johnson used?

“A pattern of reckless behaviour?” Check.

“. . . behaviour goes back many years?” Check.

Countries showing themselves”to have a blatant disregard for international order, for international law?” Check.

Johnson may not have technically told any lies, but what he said was so far from the truth that it astonished me.

Dishonesty? Probably. But even more so, I think it is delusion.

For it seems to me that just as self-righteousness and belief in our own personal goodness is part of the human condition – belief in the goodness and rightness of our own country is also part of our human condition – part of tribal loyalty. I think that Boris Johnson – and Tony Blair, and George Bush, and Theresa May and Donald Trump – all share that belief, as do most of us.

And one of the reasons I believe it is delusion is that it fits with the Bible’s most memorable passage about self-righteousness: The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

The point is that people do see themselves as righteous. The Pharisee really believed what he said. He was, in short, delusional.

It is a problem we all face.

And so, perhaps it is me who is deluded. Perhaps Boris Johnson is right, and what I have written above is completely mistaken. If so, I hope I will be prepared to listen when you gently point that out.


The Skripal poisoning 3: The weakness of the UK’s case for blaming Russia

The fact that I have posted 3 posts this week on this subject will tell you that I think it is important. Of course, I’m not the only one – it seems to be the main headline on the BBC News website most of the time as well.

I have updated both my last two posts after posting them, and decided that this time, I would just write a new post with my updated thoughts.

I am still perplexed about why the government, and most politicians, seem to be so confident that the Russian authorities – and, indeed, Vladimir Putin himself – are responsible. What do they know that I don’t?

My question answered

So when the BBC posted a short video yesterday entitled “Poisoned ex-spy: Why does UK think it was Russia?

I pounced eagerly and watched it, to find out what I was missing.

To my surprise, the answer was “not much”.  In fact, it left me thinking “Is that it? They are drawing conclusions from that? Seriously?”

The four factors that the BBC gives are:

1) The Nerve agent involved. Scientists at Porton Down have identified it as what is called a novichok. Now this is a type of nerve agent which was specifically developed by Russia. it was supposed to have been destroyed, but it is possible that they kept some stocks. now that doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove it was Russia, because other countries could have potentially synthesized or made their own copy, but there are other series of issues which point to likelihood. Russian involvement

My comments:

a) To be pedantic, it was not developed by Russia – it was developed by the Soviet Union, and manufactured not in Russia, but in Uzbekistan.

b) that doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove it was Russia, because other countries could have potentially synthesized or made their own copy” – Why didn’t he just say “That doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove…” Why not just “That doesn’t prove”. The fact that it was developed in the 1980s and the recipe has been widely known for years, means it doesn’t prove anything at all. Indeed, it seems to several people that the last thing the Russians would do was use something that was associated with Russia – but something that someone who wanted to make it look like Russia would have chosen to use something like a Novichok.

c) Craig Murray posted the following yesterday. Actually, the whole of his post is very interesting, but I’ll just quote this bit.

I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. …

To anybody with a Whitehall background this has been obvious for several days. The government has never said the nerve agent was made in Russia, or that it can only be made in Russia. The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communiqué issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany.

When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise. My FCO source, like me, remembers the extreme pressure put on FCO staff and other civil servants to sign off the dirty dossier on Iraqi WMD . . . She volunteered the comparison to what is happening now, particularly at Porton Down, with no prompting from me.

Well, it seems to me that the nerve agent at all does not in any way make it look like Russia is particularly likely to be responsible.

The motive: This was a man who was deemed a traitor in Russia- there is a view in Russian intelligence that traitors should be hunted down as punishment and also as a message to others.

My comment. Funny how the BBC omitted to point out that Skripal didn’t need to be hunted down. He was caught and arrested in Russia in 2004, and in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was released in 2010, when he was pardoned by the Russians, and moved to Britain. The Russian government had already punished him and sent a message to others. They had a chance to deal harshly with him – they didn’t. Why, eight years after his release, would they kill him? What did they have to gain? I can’t see it. As I have already argued, it is difficult to see that they had a motive.

Track Record: Russia has a track of going after dissidents and former most famously there is Alexander Litvinenko , a former Russian security officer based in the UK – who was killed in that case by Radioactive polonium. In that case, an an independent public enquiry led by a judge found it highly likely that Vladimir Putin himself had given the orders for that.

My comment: First, notice that the inquiry found that it was “highly likely” that the Litvinenko was killed under Putin’s orders. So we don’t actually know that. To argue that it is highly likely that Skripal was killed by the Russians on the basis of the fact that it was highly likely that Litvinenko was seems pretty weak to me.

Furthermore, as Mary Dejevsky points out, not only is the Russian government’s role in the killing of Litvinenko uncertain, there are key differences between his case and that of Skripal – not least, as I say, the fact that Skripal was arrested, punished, and freed by the Russians, whereas Litvinenko fled the country.

Any other explanation? – So if you put all that together – the means used, the motive, the track record,- that collection of facts is why the government assesses it as highly likely that the Russians were involved. And so far, there’s not really a clear other hypothesis which would explain Sergei Skripal was targeted in Salisbury.

My comment: So, because you can’t come up with another explanation that satisfies you, you jump to conclusions? It seems to me that when someone does this, it if often a sign that they had pretty much made up their mind already.

Political reactions

The evidence that we are being told about, it seems to me, does not look at all convincing at this point. And we are not being told that there is more to come. I actually wonder if the OPCW report will throw much more light on the matter.

But there are three reactions from MPs that I think are worth commenting on.

Iain Duncan Smith said

Russia is as close to being a rogue state as any. It . . . has created a hell on earth in Syria and is, even now, overseeing worse action.”

That is a startling assertion. The terrible things that are happening in Syria are a result of the war there – and the main reason that the war got started and became utterly horrific was the fact that various nations actively supported Islamist rebel groups like ISIS, al-Nusra, and their various accomplices and allied. Those nations that supported the Jihadists – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the USA – are the ones largely responsible for the “hell on earth” that Syria became. Russia was involved in helping the Syrian government fight them. The fact that Iain Duncan Smith blamed Russia tells me that he is someone whose opinion about Russia is utterly worthless.

And, I guess while we are on the subject of states that create “hells on earth” in other countries, which two nations created a hell on earth by their invasion of Iraq in 2003? And guess who was the Conservative Party leader at the time – who supported the invasion? Yes, it was Iain Duncan Smith. In fact, Wikipedia tells us that In November 2001, he was one of the first politicians to call for an invasion of Iraq.

Boris Johnson said

“We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was [Putin’s] decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.”

Well, I don’t – but I think the interesting thing is that Russian’s response was to say that the accusations against Mr Putin were “shocking and unforgivable”.

The word “unforgivable” jumped out at me – since I believe strongly in forgiveness. But I also believe that forgiveness requires repentance. And so I wondered if Boris Johnson would be prepared to apologise if it became clear that Putin probably had not been involved in the decision – or even if it looked increasingly uncertain that he was. One of the big questions about this whole matter is whether the people who are speaking with such vehemence against the Russians at the moment would be prepared to change their minds if the evidence suggests that they are wrong – or if they will never do that, no matter what the evidence points to.

And the matter of evidence brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, who, among other things has said,

“The attack in Salisbury was an appalling act of violence. Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war. It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.

Our response as a country must be guided by the rule of law, support for international agreements and respect for human rights. Our response must be decisive, proportionate and based on clear evidence. “

And he asked the Prime Minister some good questions:

“If the government believe that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies? I welcome the fact that the police are working with the OPCW.

Has the prime minister taken the necessary steps under the chemical weapons convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government under Article IX(2)?

How has she responded to the Russian government’s request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack to run their own tests? Has high-resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent, and has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators? “

It seemed to me like Corbyn was the adult in the room for saying those things. But simply asking those questions got him booed in the Commons.

Despair and Hope

I must confess that at this point, I despair over this country, its political leadership, and its mass media. The hysterical reaction to Skripal’s poisoning shows either complete stupidity, or utter blindness, or shocking dishonesty – or some combination of these things. Oddly enough, I am not sure how much this is shared by the rest of the country. I have not heard many people commenting, but I was told yesterday of a conversation between two teachers in a local high school in which one expressed scepticism about Russian involvement – and the other didn’t seem to disagree.

But I am concerned – very concerned – about our governing classes – and the media, who do a huge amount to shape the way people think. And when I heard that the political leaderships of the US, Germany, and France, were embracing the UK government’s position, it made it even worse.

What am I, as a Christian, supposed to think?

Well – 3 passages from the Bible have come to mind.

1. I suppose Hebrews 11:13 should be obvious, because it appears at the top of this blog:

they admitted that they were aliens and temporary residents / foreigners / strangers on earth.

When I listen to these politicians, I wonder what planet they live on. But perhaps it is me that is out of step, and that I don’t really belong.

2. But those are not the words that actually came to my mind first. Rather, I thought of some words from Psalm 46:6. I thought of them as they are found in Sing Psalms:

“The nations are in disarray”.

Usually, that is translated something like “The nations rage”. The word used literally means to make a lot of noise, and “Nations are in uproar” seems to be a good translation.

What should Christians think?  What does the psalm make of the fact that nations are in uproar? Where is God in all this? The Psalm tells us:

“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

3. In a sense, that is the final word. But I can’t resist adding some words from the prophet Isaiah (2:4):

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

I may despair of our political leaders. But I don’t despair.

Truth, Justice and Naboth: a Biblical incident and politics today

It is an interesting thing that the Bible tells us of a surprising number of miscarriages of justice. When an innocent person is accused and goes on trial, they generally end up being found guilty. Sometimes, we are told about the trial in some detail – as in the trials of Jesus before Herod and Pontius Pilate, or the trial of Stephen before the Sanhedrin. Sometimes we don’t hear anything about the trial. In the case of Joseph, we just hear of the accusation and the imprisonment.

The trial of Naboth

But the Biblical trial I have found myself thinking about most in recent years, as I read the news and consider current events, is the trial of Naboth. The Bible keeps it brief, and leaves the details to the imagination – but the picture it creates in my mind is vivid.

The story, briefly, is that Jezebel, wife of Ahab, the king of Israel, wants Naboth dead. So she sets Naboth up.

“She wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and she sent the letters to the elders and the leaders who lived with Naboth in his city. And she wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.” And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. As it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and set Naboth at the head of the people. And the two worthless men came in and sat opposite him. And the worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones. ” (I Kings 21:8-13)

Basically, the accusations are made, and without investigation of the allegations, or indeed any kind of investigation – with no corroborating evidence – the people who are present decide that Naboth must be guilty of this terrible crime, and he is executed without delay.

And the picture that forms in my mind is of everybody being utterly shocked – and convinced of Naboth’s guilt. After all, he faces not one, but two accusers. What he is said to have done horrifies them. It’s obvious that he must be guilty.

And I keep thinking about this because so often I see this sort of thing in current affairs. If enough allegations are made, people start to believe them – presumably because ‘there is no smoke without fire’. Build up a person as an evil villain – or a country as an evil country – and then when yet another accusation comes in against him (or it), people will believe it. It works every time. Especially if the person is different from us, or the country is foreign – and one which we don’t have a historically good relationship with.

This week in Parliament

Which brings me back to the story of the day. Yesterday, I watched excerpts of Monday’s debate in Parliament about the Skripal poisoning case. The Prime Minister said:

“There are only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on March 4. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.””

The obvious response, it seems to me was “Really?   Surely there could be other explanations that you and I have not thought of?  And where is the evidence that nerve agent came from Russia?  OK, it was developed by the Soviet Union 30 years ago, but the recipe is now known throughout the world.”

But that wasn’t what MPs were saying. Instead there was a chorus of disapproval.  (Do they have inside information that the rest of us don’t have?)

Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative MP:

Russia is as close to being a rogue state as any. It occupies Crimea, it has helped occupy eastern Ukraine, it has created a hell on earth in Syria and is, even now, overseeing worse action. This is a country locking up its members of the opposition. We’ve learnt this lesson before, if we appease a country like this, then we [can] expect even worse.”

Chris Bryant, Labour MP:

I don’t suppose there’s a single member of this house … that is surprised President Putin would resort to violence because he’s done it so many times before. 334 killed in Beslan massacre, 170 killed unnecessarily in the Moscow theatre siege, 299 killed in the M17 airplane that was brought down by the Russians. Countless journalists, countless people who’ve stood up to him as political opponents in other countries around the world, murdered by him, and yes, Sergei Magnitsky.”

Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP

This, if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act by the Russian Federation and this is not the first we’ve seen… Now is the time to call on our allies, to call on the EU which has worked with us so well on sanctions, on NATO and particularly on the US, to ask what they will do to assist us when we are in need?”

Rupa Huq, Labour MP

Business cannot go on as usual. Can the Prime Minister take this opportunity to tighten the loopholes that do exist in the system, concerning money laundering, so that From Russia with Cash, doesn’t turn into From Russia with Blood?”

And on and on it went, with no dissenting voices. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s slightly different take didn’t amount to serious dissent.

I found the whole thing horrifying.

Having made the accusations, and provided no real evidence, the British government asked the Russians to give evidence that they were innocent.  That is a very odd way to pursue truth and justice.  And the task of providing evidence of your innocence when you haven’t been given any real evidence of your guilt sounds pretty challenging.  It’s hardly surprising that the Russians didn’t do.  And so action to punish Russia has been taken.  

Naboth syndrome strikes again.

Truth and Justice

I wrote about this a couple of days ago, with my initial thoughts – see here, if you want to read it. But as my concern and curiosity grew, I kept reading. And what I read disturbed me. I found that there were other people who agreed with me – though, curiously, none were MPs. And they were not exactly well represented in the coverage given by the BBC and the mainstream media.

My basic concerns are the matters of truth and justice. These are things that the Bible puts a high value on. It tells that when God gave his people laws at Mount Sinai, he gave them instructions about dealing with accusations. Hence it speaks (Deuteronomy 25:1) about people coming to court and the judges deciding between them, with the job of acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. God warns his people (Exodus 23:7) “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” And the prophet Isaiah (5:23) rails against those who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right.

And so the facts need to be investigated and assessed carefully – in order to get at the truth. The fact that God had to warn them about false charges, and the fact that Isaiah speaks against those who pervert justice tells us that people are very prone to getting it wrong – and not just because of honest mistakes.

And what happened to Naboth tells us how very true that is.

And human nature has not changed at all since his day.

Truth tellers and inconvenient facts

At the beginning of 2017, I wrote a blog post entitled “A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?

I reflected on the dishonesty in the media, and my search for those who seemed honest.

And I wrote about:

four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.

Since posting my thoughts on the Skripal affair on Tuesday, I discovered that two had expressed opinions on the subject.

The first was Philip Giraldi – a former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer – who has a PhD from the University of London in European History, and spent eighteen years working for the CIA in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain (and is fluent in Turkish, Italian, German, and Spanish).

Giraldi, interviewed by RT, commented:

I think what we are seeing here is she is making a political point.  She essentially is responding to the media in Britain which is going hysterical on this story.  And also I think she is hoping to hurt president Vladimir Putin by making this statement shortly before the Russian elections. She also said “it appears to be.” “It appears to be” is a rather non-specific expression, which means they don’t know. And I would also add that if this were Russian military grade nerve agent, the two people involved in this would be dead and there would be about 100 more people dead in the vicinity of this. So the whole story does not make a lot of sense, and as you say, it invites analysis that says “How would the Russians be so stupid to do something like this if they really intended to do it and keep it secret?”

The second is Craig Murray – former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that intelligence linking the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to al-Qaeda was unreliable, immoral and illegal, as it was thought to have been obtained through torture – and after making these complaints, was removed from his post.

Murray has written a lot on the subject. Yesterday, I linked to his post Russian to Judgement 

One interesting point he makes is that

It is worth noting that the “wicked” Russians gave Skripal a far lighter jail sentence than an American equivalent would have received. If a member of US Military Intelligence had sold, for cash to the Russians, the names of hundreds of US agents and officers operating abroad, the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them. Skripal just received a jail sentence of 18 years, which is hard to square with the narrative of implacable vindictiveness against him. If the Russians had wanted to make an example, that was the time.

The Russians had the opportunity to kill him then. Why wait until after pardoning him, after he has spent 10 years in the UK?

And Murray concludes with the words

“I witnessed personally in Uzbekistan the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives. We should be extremely sceptical of their current anti-Russian narrative. There are many possible suspects in this attack. “

Since then he has published another piece, about the weakness of the evidence with regard to the nerve agent that was apparently the cause of the poisoning.

The evidence that was presented in Parliament, it seems, is far from pointing in the direction that Theresa May says it does.

1) Porton Down has acknowledged in publications it has never seen any Russian “novichoks”. The UK government has absolutely no “fingerprint” information such as impurities that can safely attribute this substance to Russia.
2) Until now, neither Porton Down nor the world’s experts at the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were convinced “Novichoks” even exist.
3) The UK is refusing to provide a sample to the OPCW.
4) “Novichoks” were specifically designed to be able to be manufactured from common ingredients on any scientific bench. The Americans dismantled and studied the facility that allegedly developed them. It is completely untrue only the Russians could make them, if anybody can.
5) The “Novichok” programme was in Uzbekistan not in Russia. Its legacy was inherited by the Americans during their alliance with Karimov, not by the Russians.

On that subject, see also this link by two professors at Sheffield University., which points out that “Synthesis at bench scale of organic chemicals such as the purported “Novichoks” is within the capability of a modern chemistry laboratory.

The narrative falls apart: the hysteria remains

The narrative of Russian government involvement is falling apart all over the place.

Except of course, in the media and among politicians. There, hysteria rules supreme, and interest in looking at the evidence and seeking the truth seems to have disappeared.

And as for justice? Well, it’s Naboth all over again.

It is worth remembering, however, that while, at the time of his trial and condemnation (almost 3,000 years ago), Naboth was the one seen as the evil villain – history has remembered Jezebel as the real criminal. 


Postscript: :  Based on Craig Murray’s latest post, and this Youtube report from RT, it looks like we may be on the way to getting evidence, and it’s all in the chemistry – which seems to be what the British government’s case is based on.   Samples of the chemicals used are being sent to the OPCW for analysis.  Their report should be helpful for getting to the bottom of this.

Russia hysteria hits the UK: Why I remain sceptical about the Skripal poisoning

The narrative of the evil Russians and their involvement in all kinds of malevolence around the world – and especially in Western Europe and America – has had a fresh boost in Britain this month.

On the 4th March, Sergei Skripal a Russian spy, who became a double agent and worked for the British intelligence services, was found slumped on a bench in Salisbury city centre in Wiltshire, together with his daughter Yulia. It quickly became apparent that they had been poisoned, and suspicion immediately fell on the Russian government.

Yesterday, the hysteria got ramped up as, according to the BBC

Theresa May told the Commons that the poison used in the attack was a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia. She said it was part of a group of nerve agents known as Novickok. “Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” she said.

The PM warned that if there was no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.

Apparently, there is no time to waste.

The Prime Minister says that the government is “highly likely” that Russia is responsible. It seems that pretty well everyone in Parliament, and described it as an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom.

I am remain sceptical, which undoubtedly makes me an oddity – or worse. Why?


Why would the Russian government do this? What would they gain from it? It makes no sense, and Putin is not an idiot. He considers his moves carefully, avoids being dramatic, and seems to be a pretty cautious and shrewd operator – compared to some western leaders I could mention.


If the Russian government wanted to do this to punish Skripal for his treachery, why do it now – when Russia hysteria is at its height in the west?


And of course, there is the matter of evidence. The only evidence I am aware of is that the Russian government will not have liked Skripal, and that the agent used to poison him was developed by the Russian government.

The record of Parliament

The fact that this hysteria is largely coming from Parliament should cause us to be very sceptical. Parliament’s record of jumping to conclusions based on intelligence that turned out to be dodgy in recent years has been pretty poor. And when the person being accused is already someone who has been built up as an evil villain, Parliament seems to be particularly keen to jump to conclusions – conclusions that turn out to wrong.

Think for example about Saddam Hussein, Iraq, and the 2003 invasion.

Or think about Gadaffi, Libya, and the British intervention in 2011. Remember what the 2016 Parliamentary report said about it?  Here are three quotes:

1) “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

2) “In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.”

And, perhaps most significantly, the quotation from Amnesty International:

3. “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading.

Sound familiar? The hysteria over the Skripal poisoning looks suspiciously like a case of “Here we go again.”

And the fact that over the past two years, Theresa May has been particularly prone to Russia hysteria, judging by her utterances, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her objectivity.

One final comment

And anyway, if it is so very horrifying for the government of one country to carry out targeted assassinations of people in other countries – especially when they kill hundreds of civilians in the process – why is our government so very friendly with the country which is the world leader in that activity?

And if you want to know which country is the culprit, see here, here, and here.


Since writing the above, I have read this interesting piece on the subject.  Again, he focuses on the question of motive.

For more on the subject, see:

this blog post by somebody who lives in Salisbury, and

this very interesting article by Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, which is where the Soviet Union produced Novichok.   According to Wikipedia:  “Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been working with the government of the United States to dismantle and decontaminate the sites where the Novichok agents and other chemical weapons were tested and developed.”

UPDATE:  I’ve posted further thoughts here.

Don Carson on the danger of idolatry in political allegiance – (and some thoughts of my own)

I’ve recently posted some words of Don Carson on politics, taken from his lectures on Revelation, given around 1995. Today I’ve got some more, based on his comments on Revelation 17:1-2:

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgement of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth have become intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.

After explaining that the great prostitute, is identified a few verses further on as “Babylon the great” and who we are told “sits on seven hills”, is clearly imperial Rome, Carson then comes back to the words about the kings of the earth committing adultery with her, and asks “How do you commit adultery with an empire?”

This is what he has to say:

What is meant, of course, is that Rome saw herself so much as at the center of everything – fostered pagan worship, demanded god swaps, demanded finally that the emperor himself be worshipped as God, almighty, saviour, divine, lord of lords, king of kings. So in that sense that every nation that was allied with Rome was in principle bound up with idolatry. It couldn’t be any other way. And because the whole ethos of the empire was empire first, everybody else second, then to be committed to the emperor, to be committed to the empire, was to be committed to that which was holding itself to be number one over against the living God. It was intrinsically a faithless relationship, it was intrinsically an evil thing. That is what it is really saying.

Now of course it is understandable that the Christians would see it peculiarly that way when their most serious persecution came from this source. But the essence of the idolatry is not that they persecuted Christians; the essence of the idolatry is that they demand the allegiance that should belong only to God so that in principle wherever you find any system of thought or any political structure or any party that demands the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God, you have exactly the same kind of idolatry taking place, and it has taken place many times in world history.

This is basically about the way that people worship many things that we ought not to worship – we make idols of them – and the Bible uses ‘adultery’ as a metaphor for idolatry, because it involves being unfaithful in a relationship.

Idols are not merely statues of gods. In ordinary day to day conversation, we speak of pop idols and sporting idols. I suppose there may be times when ‘idolising” some popular hero may be unhealthy – but rarely does it become so serious as to become what the Bible would consider to be idolatry – largely because those ‘idols’ don’t demand “the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God”. The Roman Empire, and the Roman Emperor did.

Hence Carson’s comment:

“wherever you find any system of thought or any political structure or any party that demands the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God, you have exactly the same kind of idolatry taking place.”

It seems to me that if you look around the world (and if you look at history) for things that demand the kind of allegiance that belongs only to God – you will find that the systems of thought that demand that kind of allegiance are usually classified as religions – e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam – and usually have gods that they do call gods.

Other than that, the only bodies that tend to demand that kind of allegiance are political bodies – sometimes parties, but more often nation states. Most parties, at least in multi-party countries, know that party members can leave – so they rarely make serious demands on them.

In other words, the danger comes from nation-states, which have power over their citizens – like Imperial Rome in the days when Revelation was written.

And I think there is a real danger of allegiance to one’s nation becoming idolatrous. People believe that it is good to be loyal to one’s country. Patriotism is usually considered to be a virtue. But loyalty to one’s country often becomes loyalty to its leaders and their policies – particularly when it comes to their foreign policies. When the leaders of our country are in dispute with the leaders of another country, it is generally considered a patriotic, and hence good, to support the leaders of our country – and bad to support the leaders of the other country.  We tend to believe the utterances of the leaders of our country rather than what the leaders of other countries say.  It is sometimes that we say “my country, right or wrong.” It is more often the case that we just assume that our country is right, because we believe what our leaders say in times of crisis – whether or not there is any evidence for it. And so we do what our leaders demand – no matter how foolish, or even wrong it is.

And once we get to that point, it seems to me that we have crossed the boundary into idolatry – or, to use the Biblical metaphor, spiritual adultery.

Whether Carson would agree, I can’t say, of course.

Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the hypocrisy of the UK and the US

Two closely related stories have been in the news in the last few days.

The first is the ongoing battle over East Goutha, in which the Syrian government has been seeking to retake the rebel-held enclave, leading to more than 900 reported civilian deaths.

Syrian rebels – and their rich friends

Who are these rebels? A useful article in Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, lists them.

1. Jaysh al-Islam, or Army of Islam, a Saudi-backed coalition which aims to replace the Assad government with a Syria based on Sharia, or Islamic law.

2. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, is also known as the covert Syrian version of al Qaeda. The organization believes in using violence to implement an ultraconservative religious doctrine.

3. Faylaq al-Rahmanor is allied with Qatar, possesses American BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, and has allied with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

4. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement: The Harakat al-Din al-Zenki, or the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, is a Sunni Islamist group based in Aleppo. In June 2016, a video of the group circulated showing its members beheading a 15-year-old boy. The video received obvious attention, not only due to the cruelness of the action but also the fact that during that time the United States had financially backed the organization.

5. Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya: The Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant, aims to also form an Islamic state in Syria based on Sharia.

In other words, they are a pretty unpleasant bunch.  Indeed, in practice, these groups are not very different from ISIS – and there is evidence that fighters move to and fro between some of them and ISIS.  And their record in the enclaves they control is pretty horrific – especially towards anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim.

The Syrian government has received a lot of criticism for the number of civilians that it has killed in Ghouta, and there is no doubt that it has killed plenty of civilians – and that its behaviour has been less than impeccable.

However, there are certain things that need to be remembered –

1) The rebels in Ghouta have been indiscriminately bombing civilian areas of Damascus for months.

2) The estimates of the number of deaths in the enclave come via the rebels – and so should be treated with caution.

3) In practice, the rebels are not very different from the forces of ISIS that held Mosul and Raqqa – where US bombing is estimated to have killed a lot more civilians than have died in the recent attack on Ghouta.

4) The Syrian government didn’t start the war. The rebels did, by taking up arms. Indeed, a lot of the rebel fighters are Islamists from outside Syria, and evidence suggests that countries that are hostile to the current Syrian government – e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and yes, even the US – by financing and arming rebel groups – are the ones who started the war – and thus all the civilian suffering that the war caused.  See here, here, and here.

Well,  the American goverment was not slow to criticise the Syrian government’s actions in Gouta.  The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said

“It’s time to take immediate action in the hopes of saving the lives of the men, women, and children who are under attack by the barbaric Assad regime”.

Boris Johnson was only slightly gentler:

The House should never forget that the Assad regime – aided and abetted by Russia and Iran – has inflicted the overwhelming burden of [the] suffering [in Syria]. Assad’s forces are now bombarding the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where 393,000 people are living under siege, enduring what has become a signature tactic of the regime, whereby civilians are starved and pounded into submission.

For countries that were involved in destabilising Syria and causing the war, to then complain about the government killing civilians seems just a little hypocritical. It’s bad enough when they are not only partly responsible for that war, but also armed and funded extremists. The fact that they killed plenty of civilians in Raqqa and Mosul makes the hypocrisy even worse.

But this all pales into insignificance compared to what Saudi Arabia has done to Yemen in the past three years – and the British and American response to that action.

The Prince’s visit

Which brings us back to the second story in the news: the official visit to this past week to the UK of Mohammed bin Salman , the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia – generally acknowledged as the man in real charge of the running of the country – and in particular, it’s foreign policy.

He became defence minister in March 2015, and one of his first acts as was to launch a military campaign in Yemen. In that campaign, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly bombed civilian targets, always blithely denying it or saying it was a mistake – and has imposed a blockade on Yemen which has caused thousands of deaths of hunger and disease among the civilian population.

And on top of its arming Jihadists in Syria, and its actions in Yemen, there was the astonishing story last year of how Saudi Arabia basically lure Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, and then seized him and forced him to resign. 

So – here we have someone who has been involved for years in war crimes in Yemen, supporting Islamist terrorists seeking to overthrow a secular government in Syria, and indulging in the most bizarre and unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of one of a tiny number of democratic countries in the Middle East. And yet he is welcomed to the UK, and treated with great honour.

And that’s not all

And the Saudi government’s behaviour at home is not much better. It is the only country in the world which practices the public beheading of convicted criminals. It forbids its citizens from becoming Christians. It bans the selling of Bibles. And it tolerates no church buildings on its territory.

The government also had close links to the 9/11 hijackers.

In short, Saudi Arabia is a country which has an appalling record at home, as well as an appalling record abroad, among other things supporting Islamic extremists trying to bring down an internationally recognised non-Islamic government; basically lying to the prime minister of another country in order to kidnap him and force him to resign; and imposing a blockade on Yemen which has caused thousands of deaths of hunger and disease. And yet, in the words of the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry,

today the architect of that Saudi intervention in Yemen – crown prince Mohammad bin Salman – will visit Britain, and will receive the red carpet treatment from the Tory government, as if he were Nelson Mandela. This is the man behind the rolling blockade of Yemen’s rebel-held ports, preventing the supply of essential food, medicine and fuel to Yemeni civilians, and – on all the available evidence – breaching international law by using starvation as a weapon of war.

The man who –, in an equally flagrant breach of the Geneva convention, authorised the destruction of Yemen’s agricultural and food infrastructure in the early stages of the war, with systematic air strikes on farms, dairies, food factories and markets.

The real scandal

But the real scandal is the involvement of the British and American governments in Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The UK government has repeatedly supported the Saudi invasion.  Theresa May, speaking to Parliament this week, said

“Their involvement in Yemen came at the request of the legitimate government of the Yemen, it is backed by the United Nations Security Council and as such we support it.”

Well, the first part of that statement is true enough – it is the internationally recognised government that Saudi Arabia is supporting – though the argument seems a little strange considering that Britain and America have had no qualms about bringing down the internationally recognised government of Iraq, and helping to bring down the internationally recognised government of Libya, and, in the case of at least America (and Saudi Arabia as well), trying to bring down the internationally recognised government of Syria.

However, when she said “. . . it is backed by the United Nations Security Council and as such we support it”, her statement was seriously misleading. She was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which was passed in 2015 and recognised the Hadi government, while calling for all Yemeni parties to the conflict to “end the use of violence”. The Security Council did not, in any way, back Saudi involvement in Yemen, which was the impression that the Prime Minister seemed to be attempting to give.

But it is not so much the fact that Saudi Arabia intervened that is the point. It is not even just the war crimes. It is the fact the despite the continual bombing of civilian targets, and despite the fact that the outcry against these war crimes has been going on since early in the Saudi bombing campaign, the UK and the US continue to supply Saudi Arabia with the bombs and weapons for the job – and the US even refuels the Saudi aircraft carrying out the bombing.

And you just know that if it was the Syrian government doing what the Saudi Arabians were doing – the British and American governments would be taking action. Yes, the Syrian government’s offensive in Ghouta is killing hundreds of civilians  (just like as American bombing did in Mosul and Raqqa).

But if Syria were doing what the Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen – the British and American governments would not just be complaining. They would, at the very least, be dropping bombs on Syrian government positions.  


The power of narratives: those myths that people just accept as true

I read three news stories yesterday, all of which had something curious in common. Two (one about the Russians, one about Syria) were fairly normal stories, not exactly out of the ordinary, and widely reported.  The third was unexpected – about the attack on a nightclub in Orlando by an angry Muslim in 2016 – and not so widely reported – but very interesting indeed.


The first was about Boris Johnson, and concerns the suspected poisoning of former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were found unconscious on Sunday.

Despite the fact that we don’t yet know what caused their condition, and the fact that a former MI5 officer could see “no conceivable reason that . . . the Russian state would have been targeting him”,  Boris Johnson decided to fire a warning shot at the Russian governmentand said that “the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian involvement. Johnson added that he was not pointing fingers at this stage, but described Russia as “a malign and disruptive force”.

Ah yes, the “Russian menace”. We have heard endless accusations and allegations in the past two years about Russia being involved in all kinds of malign and disruptive behaviour, but I have seen virtually no evidence for any of them. Compared to the amazingly disruptive (and destructive) behaviour of some other countries I could mention, Russia seems pretty tame.

Syria – and narratives

Second, and also from the BBC, we have a story from Syria, about a ‘Chlorine attack’: “Medics in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area of Syria say they have been treating people with breathing problems after a suspected chlorine attack. ”

Yes, it is yet another allegation of a gas attack by Syrian government forces attacking rebel held areas. We have had a remarkable number of these allegations over the last few years, and the evidence suggests that most of these allegations are pretty dubious. (I’ve covered that here and here.)

But despite the lack of evidence of Syrian government use of chemical weapons, large numbers of people in the west simply assume that these stories are true. And, in the same way, despite the lack of evidence of Russian “malign and disruptive” interference in the affairs of other countries, large numbers of people in the west simply assume that these stories are true. Evidence, apparently, is not the important thing. The important thing is ‘what everybody is saying’, and what you keep on hearing. If people hear something often enough, from enough sources, then people will simply accept it – as long as those sources are respectable. There is a some truth in the saying that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. But it is much more true that if every politician and media source seems to be repeating the lie, people will believe it.

These days, people often refer to these things as “narratives” – a storyline that people are pushing. It basically means a theory, a hypothesis, something that people believe, about some matter, often something of current interest, something that people are talking about, or something controversial.

The 2016 Orlando nightclub shootings

And that brings me to the third story that caught my attention – which is the one that I think is really interesting: an article in the Intercept by Graham Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain.  It, unlike the two BBC stories, actually uses the word “narrative”. It reports (and you will note that the third word of the article is “evidence” – a good sign!) – 

“NEWLY RELEASED EVIDENCE today calls into serious doubt many of the most widespread beliefs about the 2016 shooting by Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people along with Mateen himself. . . . In particular, Mateen went to Pulse only after having scouted other venues that night that were wholly unrelated to the LGBT community, only to find that they were too defended by armed guards and police, and ultimately chose Pulse only after a generic Google search for “Orlando nightclubs” – not “gay clubs” – produced Pulse as the first search result.

. . . numerous myths continue to persist about Mateen’s actions, particularly regarding his motives in why he attacked Pulse. As so often happens in the wake of mass shootings and terror attacks, media narratives emerge early on, when little is known, and never become dislodged from the public’s mind, even as the formal investigation reveals that there is little evidence to support those initial, still-common media claims — or, as is the case here, overwhelming evidence that strongly negates those beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, Mateen’s alleged motive in choosing Pulse — that he wanted to target and kill LGBTs due to some toxic mix of self-hatred over his own sexual orientation and his fealty to Islam — has been treated as unquestionably true in countless media accounts, statements from public officials, and ultimately in the public mind. But ample evidence now affirmatively casts serious doubt about whether there is any truth to this widely accepted belief about Mateen’s motives in attacking Pulse. While some of this conflicting evidence has been reported in the same media outlets that originally disseminated the narrative that Mateen sought to target the LGBT community, it has been downplayed to the point where few in the public are even aware that the original theories about Mateen’s motives have been undermined.

By repeatedly emphasizing this anti-gay motive, U.S. media reports had the effect, if not the intent, of obscuring what appears to have been Mateen’s overriding, arguably exclusive motive: a desire for retribution and deterrence toward U.S. violence in Muslim countries. This highly dubious “anti-gay” storyline has also created a virtually unanimous climate in Orlando’s community that is demanding the punishment of anyone remotely connected to Mateen . . . .

As is true of most terrorists, Mateen was determined to ensure that the world knew the grievances and causes in whose name he was slaughtering innocent people. . . .

All of [his] statements contain numerous, now-standard grievances about U.S. foreign policy that are commonly cited by Muslims who attack Americans: specifically, the use by the U.S. and its allies of widespread violence against Muslim civilians in the Middle East, and the perceived need to bring violence back to U.S. soil as a means of punishing past violence and deterring future aggression.

Many of Mateen’s statements are filled with the sorts of denunciations of U.S. violence in the region that are typically downplayed, if not outright ignored, when U.S. media examine why radical Muslims attack Americans. Mateen’s statements . . . emphasized one cause: the ongoing killing of Muslim civilians by the U.S.

Critically, what is missing from all of Mateen’s comments — from his online decrees, his talks with police negotiators during the attack, and statements made to his victims and survivors at the club — is glaring and revealing: at no point during the hours of his attack on Pulse did Mateen even mention, let alone rail against, LGBTs. . . .

The same is true of his extensive conversations with law enforcement officials and his Facebook postings . . . “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes,” Mateen wrote on Facebook. “Now taste the Islamic state vengeance. . . . his extensive discussions with police negotiators, . . . focused exclusively on demands that the U.S. . . cease air strikes and the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. “Because you have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people . . . What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. . . .You need to stop the U.S. air strikes. . . . a lot of innocent women and children are getting killed in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, okay?. . . ”

There is no evidence he even knew that Pulse was a gay club. . . . And yet the popular belief persists — often finding its way into official pronouncements, LGBT group materials, and media discussions — that the Pulse shooting represented a deliberate, concerted attack – a “hate crime” – on the LGBT community due to homophobia. . . . it is crucial to understand the truth of what happened, and not to allow a politically valuable narrative . . . to continue to prevail if it is, in fact, false. “

Politically valuable narratives

Note that phrase: ” a politically valuable narrative.” And the narrative, of course, was widely used by politicians.

“Then-candidate Hillary Clinton said during her visit to Orlando that, while an act of terror, the Pulse massacre “was also an act of hate,” adding that “the gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub during Pride Month.” She vowed: “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.””

And not just in America. Here in Scotland, back in 2016, the BBC reported 

“A one minute silence is also to be held in the chamber at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday in memory of the shooting victims. The rainbow Pride flag, a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, has been flying over the Scottish government’s headquarters.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “The #Pride flag will fly at half mast over @scotgov HQ today in memory of those whose lives were taken in #Orlando. #lovewins”.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who proposed to her partner Jennifer Wilson in May, wrote: “News from Orlando is shocking – people from all around the world stand with the LGBTQ community today.”

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who confirmed she was gay two months ago, tweeted: “Scenes from Orlando utterly heart-breaking. The very freedom to love and dance attacked in the most brutal, destructive and senseless way.”

After President Obama had called the shooting “an act of terror and hate”, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie tweeted: “The President speaks for me. We must stand together against this hate.”

The narrative remains

And Greenwald and Hussain sum this up with an important point:

DESPITE THIS MOUNTAIN of evidence that strongly negates the original media-disseminated themes about Mateen’s life and his likely motive in targeting Pulse, the early myths remain lodged in the public mind and even in contemporary news reports. In part that’s because much of the evidence has remained under seal, in part because subsequent media debunking received a tiny fraction of the attention of the early, aggressively hyped inflammatory theories, and in part because there has been no political advantage to challenging the politically moving and useful narrative that the attack on Pulse was a hate crime against gays

And by the way, it seems to me that the reason that narratives get started is that people who like them and find them useful grab them and use them.  We all have a tendency to believe things that we like, and that suit us.   And if something is useful to people who are powerful and influential – e.g. politicians and media figures – then it is likely to be widely reported, and thus widely believed.

Two significant points

There are two things that need to be pointed out here. First, nobody could accuse Greenwald of having any agenda against the gay community: he is married to another man. Second, not only was there no political advantage to challenging the politically useful narrative about Mateen’s motive, there was much advantage in keeping quiet about his real motive. He was unhappy about the fact that America had, by its actions in the Middle East, killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and been responsible for starting wars which killed hundreds of thousands more. And he was probably unhappy that very few Americans were (or are) remotely concerned about this.

And those facts are pretty unpalatable.

I find it worrying that so few Americans – or people in the UK – are remotely concerned over the hundreds of thousands innocent men, women, and children, who have been killed in the Middle East because of the actions of our governments. And yet they are very, very concerned about the few hundred that have been killed in response in Western Europe and America by angry Muslims in recent years.

And it is a response. These attacks pretty well never happened before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We started it. And we, the people, voted in the politicians who did it, and proceeded to re-elect them in 2004 and 2005. We have killed far more innocent Muslims in their countries, than the paltry number of westerners killed by terrorist attacks by Muslims here in the west.

And yet I see very little sign that people are willing to acknowledge that. You certainly don’t get politicians or the media pointing it out – probably because it would not be a popular narrative. Admitting that you are wrong an repenting does not come easily to people.

Will anyone speak?

Greenwald is to be congratulated for highlighting this. For him, of all people, to pen an article that makes uncomfortable reading for the gay community is impressive.

So who should speak up and point out that actually, out nation’s crimes against Muslims are far worse that the crimes of Muslims against us? Who is going to point out that we started it – not them? Who, in countries where people are increasingly speaking out about the evils of Islam, and the dangers of letting in too many Muslim immigrants, will say these unpopular things.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Greenwald, the most appropriate people to do so are those who would be least expected to. Surely it should be those of us who are Christians. Yes, I know about the failings and evils of Islam. Yes, I know about the way Christians are treated in many Muslim lands today. Yes, I think we should speak openly about those things.

But surely Christians, of all people, should be those who believe that admitting that you are wrong, and repentance, are both good things.

Don Carson on political power, democracy, and human nature

Last week I posted some words of Don Carson on politics, the loss of our Christian heritage, and how to respond, from his lectures on Revelation – which I understand were given in about 1995.

Today, further thoughts from Don Carson on politics. He is speaking here about the fact that over the previous 60 years, there had been a big change in the world view of Americans. “And”, he says, “it’s all come about bit by bit, bit by bit, bit by bit. “

[Today] there is an assumption of human goodness.

When the founding fathers wrote the constitution of this country, whether they were deists or theists, one of the things they believed in formidably, to a man, was that human nature is depraved. And the reason why they wanted a democracy, was so that you could turf the blighters out every so often. They saw democracy as merely a way of not letting too much power get into any one person’s hand for too long, a way finally of stopping too much evil accumulating in one person. They believed what Lord Acton said in Britain the century before: “All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We don’t believe that today. We so believe in goodness, that as a result, politician after politician after politician from every party and every western democratic nation speaks of “the great wisdom of the ‘x’ people in this country” – in America, ‘American’; in Canada, ‘Canadian’, in Britain, ‘British’, whatever.

The great wisdom of the American people? Thomas Jefferson thought that? You’ve got to be joking. He didn’t think anything of the kind. He just wanted to make sure that all the sinners amongst the American people had a way of getting out corrupt sinners who were powerful at the top. But nobody believes that today. It’s all gone.

His comments are similar to the well-known words of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Or, to put it another way, the great thing about democracy is not that it enables people to choose their rulers; it is that it allows them to remove their rulers without bloodshed and revolution.

Removing rulers is at least as important as installing them, because of the very strong human tendency to abuse power. Lord Acton’s dictum is very apt.

The point Carson is making is that we should not trust politicians – and that people like Acton and Thomas Jefferson and the American founding fathers strongly believed that.

And that, it seems to me, is remarkably topical. Why? Because of some widely quoted words from the indictment issued by Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling into the American presidential election.  (See my post on the subject, here.)  It says of one of the organisations indicted:

“By in or around May 2014, the strategy included interfering with the 2016 US. presidential election, with the stated goal of spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

Note those words: spreading distrust towards the candidates.

It seems to me that according to Don Carson – and also, I suppose, to Lord Acton, Thomas Jefferson, and the American founding fathers – that is an entirely proper thing to do. American democracy, if Carson is correct – and I am sure he is – is based on the fact that we should not trust political candidates. These Russians, in other words, were doing exactly what Jefferson and the founding fathers believed should be done. The fact that Mueller believes that this is a problem is an indication of just how far the world view of modern Americans differs from that of the founding fathers.

Far from attacking or seeking to undermine the tradition of American democracy, what these Russians were seeking to do was strengthen it. And, since it is acknowledged that the things that they were saying is generally factually accurate, they were, in fact, performing a very useful service to the American people.


Who could possibly take exception to that?

Well, to use a couple of Carson’s favourite words, I suspect that the “corrupt blighters” wouldn’t like it at all.

Russia and the Mueller indictments: this gets weirder – and possibly more dangerous

Last week, 13 Russians and three Russian companies were charged with interfering in the US 2016 election, in a major development in the FBI investigation. The charges were made by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling.

According to the BBC’s reportthe 13

“posed as Americans, opened financial accounts in their name, spent thousands of dollars a month buying political advertising, purchased US server space in an effort to hide their Russian affiliation, organised and promoted political rallies within the United States, posted political messages on social media accounts that impersonated real US citizens, promoted information that disparaged Hillary Clinton, received money from clients to post on US social media sites, created themed groups on social media on hot-button issues, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, operated with a monthly budget of as much as $1.25m (£890,000), and financed the building of a cage large enough to hold an actress portraying Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform.”

Whew! That’s a lot. Though, to be honest, none of it seems particularly evil.

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s man in Washington, adds a some more information:

“They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump. They also used social media, investigators say, to rally support for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.”

Rather oddly, it didn’t end on election day.

“After the election of Donald Trump in or around November 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used false US personas to organise and co-ordinate US political rallies in support of then president-elect Trump, while simultaneously using other false U.S. personas to organise and co-ordinate US political rallies protesting the results of the 2016 US presidential election.

Which has suggested that this is about sowing discord, rather than supporting Trump.

(In fact “56% of “Russian-linked Facebook ads” appeared *after* the election. 25% were seen by no one.”

And, most significantly of all,

“Defendants, together with others known and unknown to the grand jury, knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the US Department of Justice and the US Department of State in administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities.”

Wow! Conspired to defraud the United States? That sounds serious.

And yet . . .

Having read what the BBC had to say, there were four things that struck me about this:

1) There was no mention of collusion with anyone in Trump’s campaign, or any American.

2) There was nothing about the alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails.

3) There are no indications anywhere in the indictments that any of the Russians involved were acting in any way on behalf of the Russian government.

4) This whole narrative about sowing discord and “‘spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” is just bizarre. Even without any Russians, during any election there is a lot of scepticism about candidates, and about the political system in general (and rightly so – in fact, probably not enough) – and there are plenty of people who actively spread distrust toward other candidates.

And a lot of politicians are promote discord by feeding on an “us versus them” narrative – whether it is going after “the rich” or “foreigners” or “immigrants” or whoever.

And anyway, the really funny thing about this is that it has been widely admitted that the things that the Russians were saying in their Facebook adds were generally factually accurate

Which, of course, is probably a lot more than can be said for the utterances of most of the candidates.

5) And most important, I had a question: What did these Russians do that was so illegal? Well, apparently they pretended to be Americans to open Paypal accounts. Not exactly the end of the world, is it?

But the big one seems to be that foreign citizens expressed opinions about American election campaigns. Author Leonid Bershidsky, who prominently writes for Bloomberg, remarked: “I’m actually surprised I haven’t been indicted. I’m Russian, I was in the U.S. in 2016 and I published columns critical of both Clinton and Trump without registering as a foreign agent.”

The implication of the indictments is that foreign nationals are criminally prohibited from expressing views about a US election, even as private citizens, unless they register as foreign agents.

But there are certain things that the BBC does not tell us – things that make make this very interesting, and raise some rather, . . . er, interesting possibilities.

Which brings me to those three unexpected possibilities.

1) Could FBI and Justice Department officials be put on trial?

That question is raised by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and is based on comments made last weekend by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes in a televised interview which received surprisingly little publicity. Adam Schiff, another member of the Intelligence Committee had said that Nunes’ goal was “to put the FBI and DOJ on trial.”

When asked about this, Nunes responded

“If they need to be put on trial, we will put them on trial. The reason Congress exists is to oversee these agencies that we created. . . .DOJ and FBI are not above the law. If they are committing abuse before a secret court getting warrants on American citizens, you’re darn right that we’re going to put them on trial.”

McGovern comments:

“The stakes are very high. Current and former senior officials — and not only from DOJ and FBI, but from other agencies like the CIA and NSA, whom documents and testimony show were involved in providing faulty information to justify a FISA warrant to monitor former Trump campaign official Carter Page — may suddenly find themselves in considerable legal jeopardy. Like, felony territory. . .

A denouement of some kind can be expected in the coming months. Stay tuned.”

In other words, it is possible that criminal charges could be brought against government officials who were investigating the Trump campaign.

2) Was this operation basically commercial, rather than political?

The Mueller indictments mention two of the Russians involved

“opening of accounts under false names at U.S. financial institutions and a digital payments company in order to receive and send money into and out of the United States to support the Organization’s operations in the United States and for self-enrichment. Defendants and their co-conspirators also used the accounts to receive money from real U.S. persons in exchange for posting promotions and advertisements on the organisation – controlled social media pages. Defendants and their co-conspirators typically charged certain U.S. merchants and U.S. social media sites between 25 and 50 U.S. dollars per post for promotional content on their popular false U.S. persona accounts, . . . “

This is important. These Russians were making money and that was part of their aim.

Philip Giraldi comments:

Note particularly the money laundering and for-profit aspects of the Internet Research scheme, something that would be eschewed if it were an actual intelligence operation. There is some speculation that it all might have been what is referred to as a click-bait commercial marketing scheme set up to make money from advertising fees. Also note how small the entire operation was. It focused on limited social media activity while spending an estimated $1 million on the entire venture, with Facebook admitting to a total of $100,000 in total ad buys, only half of which were before the election. It doesn’t smell like a major foreign government intelligence/influence initiative intended to “overthrow democracy.” 

When Giraldi speaks of “some speculation that it all might have been what is referred to as a click-bait commercial marketing scheme set up to make money from advertising fees” he is referring to an article by a German blogger who has looked into this in some detail, and, based on the words of the indicted quoted above, and his own research, concludes:

“There you have it. There was no political point to what the Russian company did. Whatever political slogans one of the company’s sock-puppets posted had only one aim: to increase the number of followers for that sock-puppet. The sole point of creating a diverse army of sock-puppets with large following crowds was to sell the ‘eyeballs’ of the followers to the paying customers of the marketing company. . . .

Again – this had nothing to do with political influence on the election. The sole point of political posts was to create ‘engagement’ and a larger number of followers in each potential social-political segment.

Giraldi says

“Assuming the indictment is accurate, I would agree that the activity of the Internet Research Agency does indeed have some of the hallmarks of a covert action intelligence operation in terms how it used some spying tradecraft to support its organization, targeting and activity. But its employees also displayed considerable amateur behaviour, suggesting that they were not professional spies, supporting the argument that it was not a government intelligence operation or an initiative under Kremlin control. “

Incidentally, note the phrase “Assuming the indictment is accurate”, for Giraldi also comments

“The theme of Russian subversion is repeated throughout the indictment without any compelling evidence to explain how Mueller knows what he asserts to be true, suggesting either that the document would have benefited from a good editor or that whoever drafted it was making things up. “


3) Is this leading to war?

Jerrold Nadler, an American member of congress, responded to the Mueller indictments by saying that what Russia had done was the equivalent to the Japanese attack on America at Pearl Harbour.

NADLER: My reaction to the news is this is absolute proof of what we knew all along and what the president has denied, namely that we were attacked. This is a very serious attack against the United States by a hostile foreign power, an attack against our election process, our entire governing process. We know that the attack is continuing. And that our intelligence agencies tell us that it’s going to certainly continue through the next election. And the president and the Republicans in the House for that matter refuse, refuse to do anything about protecting us from an attack. Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react. That’s the equivalent.

HAYES: It’s a bit of a different thing.

NADLER: No it’s not.

HAYES: They didn’t kill anyone.

NADLER: They didn’t kill anyone but they’re destroying our democratic process.

HAYES: Do you really think it’s on par?

NADLER: Not in the amount of violence, but in the seriousness, it is very much on par. This country exists to have a democratic system with a small d. That’s what the country’s all about. This is an attempt to destroy that.

I must confess, when I hear that kind of talk, I roll my eyes. “Destroying our democratic process? “Is he serious? And never mind the fact that America has regularly interfered in elections in other countries.

And Nadler is not alone in talking like this, as Glenn Greenwald points out in an article entitled “A Consensus Emerges: Russia Committed an “Act of War” on Par With Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Should the U.S. Response Be Similar?

Greenwald is seriously concerned about this. those who keep declaring the U.S. to be “at war” with Russia, and especially those who invoke the worst attacks in U.S. history when doing so, all while refusing to state what they think should be done in response” are “beating the drums of war”, and being “reckless and cowardly.”

This is pretty scary. Even more scary is the fact that last weekend in Munich at the Global Security Conference, America’s National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster said ““As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence [that Russia meddled in the American election] is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain, whereas in the past it was difficult to attribute.”

Considering that there was no evidence at all in the indictments that the Russian government, was involved, McMaster’s statement was at, at best misleading, and at worst, utterly dishonest.

In my opinion, Americans should be scared. Not of Putin or the Russians – but by the fact that someone like Donald Trump is president, and that someone like H.R.McMaster is his national security advisor, and that someone as obviously unhinged as Jerrold Nadler is in congress.

As for the Mueller indictments – well, I may be wrong, but they strike me as being paranoid and xenophobic hysteria.

The indictments, of course, will never be tested in a court of law – because Russia will not be extraditing any of Russians concerned. Mueller knows that. So the ridiculousness of it will never be challenged in court. Accusations have been made, and people will simply believe them. And the narrative about “conspiracy to defraud the United States” and the resulting xenophobia will remain.

And in the end, this whole thing is about foreign policy. In particular, it is about relations between America and Russia. And that is something that is important. Indeed, too important to be tacked on to this post, which is why I hope to come back to it next week.

Don Carson on politics, the loss of our Christian heritage, and how to respond

(Yesterday, I was listening to Don Carson’s eighteenth lecture on Revelation  – given in 2005.  [Edit: The Gospel Coalition gives the date as 2005.  I suspect that this is a mistake, and that they were actually given about 10 years earlier.] This struck me as worth quoting.)

“One of the things that troubles me about American society, . . . I include Canada in this – and Western European Christian society to some extent, but it is stronger here because of America’s particular heritage . . .

There is a great deal of anger on the American right at the moment. Let me just say a little bit about it, because it is troubling. It’s hard to know what to do. If you want to make a lot of money with a Christian book in this country, write a book that says what’s wrong with America listing all the bad things that you possibly can on the left. Demonize the left. It’ll sell like hotcakes on the right.

Do you want to raise money for Focus on the Family, or a whole lot of other institutions that are really good institutions in many ways? If they really want to raise a lot of money in a hurry, let them tell you the worst horror stories of the month. The money flows in.

The reason it does is because there is so much in this society that feels, with a certain amount of justification, that “All those nasties on the left are taking away our heritage. They’re perverting our schools. They’re overthrowing principles of jurisprudence. They’re making the city unsafe.” There is anger. There is anger seething through the whole land.

Contrast that with the first Christians taking the gospel in the Roman Empire. They were nobodies. They didn’t have anybody taking away their heritage. They were out to take over the heritage. They looked around and saw an extremely pluralistic empire, and they said with Caleb, in effect, “Give us this mountain.”

They kept witnessing, kept getting martyred, and so on, and it was a revolution, finally, a spiritual revolution. We can’t do that today, at least we find it very difficult, because we’re so busy being angry all the time that at the end of the day not only do we lose our credibility with people on the left, they start demonizing us back, but we have no energy or compassion left to evangelize.

When you’re busy hating everybody and denouncing everybody and seeking political solutions to everything it’s very difficult to evangelize, isn’t it? It’s very hard to be compassionate, to look on the crowds as though they’re sheep without a shepherd, very hard to look on them like that when they’re taking away my heritage.

Yet, at the same time, because it is a democracy, there are things we ought to be doing to draw the line here and there, even if you understand the laws don’t finally engender justice. They might preserve it for awhile, but finally they’re all broken and you have to change the laws. There are things we ought to be doing. There are faithful things we ought to be doing.

But at the end of the day if you can’t do it with compassion, and gently, and leave the doors open for evangelism, boy, you destroy everything. I think one of the Devil’s tactics with respect to the church on the right today is to make them so hate everybody else that at the end of the day they can’t be believed anywhere, not even in the proclamation of the gospel.”