Greatest kook ever

16 November 2004

After the UK elected Winston Churchill and Germany elected Konrad Adenauer, the country of Erasmus, Spinoza, Rembrandt, Van Oldenbarneveldt and De Witt elected Pim Fortuyn as “The Greatest Dutchman Ever”.

Something is truly rotten in the state of the Netherlands…

A word of advice from Germany

12 November 2004

Gerhart Baum was the German (FDP) Minister of the Interior from 1978 to 1982. He was closely involved in combating the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) which terrorised German society in those years. As a minister, he oversaw a considerable restriction of the rights of RAF suspects and their lawyers, and a widening of the powers of the secret service and the police. Not a sissy, in other words, and someone who knows what he is talking about.

Mr Baum spoke interesting words on Dutch television today. “Do not undermine the state of law in order to catch terrorists”, he said, “we tried in Germany, and it did not work.” Because it widened the number of suspects so much, that the police lost track of the real terrorists. The RAF murders, some of them particularly gruesome, held Germany in a state of fear for many years.

Of course, police and intelligence work was necessary to combat the fifty or so unrepenting terrorists, killers, that were active in Germany at the time. Those fifty were hopeless cases anyway. But they could not do what they did without the help of thousands of sympathisers providing them with shelter, information, and other help – people whose sympathy for the RAF only increased because of the harsh measures. “The number of attacks”, said Baum, “went down only when we started doing something we had not been doing before: to look at the causes of terrorism. Only when we began to address the causes, the number of sympathisers decreased, and with it the number of attacks.”

updated update:
Nosemonkey of Europhobia adds eloquently to the case Baum is making with his account of life in Britain under the IRA threat at the time. He is very right to point out that, unlike the USA, Europe has dealt with terrorism before. Some of the more overheated reactions from the US, even if they come from fellow Europeans, might want to take that experience a bit more seriously.

I also forgot to mention another programme shown on Dutch TV yesterday whose message somehow underpinned Mr Baum’s by explaining that many of the security measures taken to protect ports, airports and other major targets are largely symbolic and will never suffice to “seal off” society from terrorist attacks. They may give the impression that the government does what is necessary to protect us, but seen in this light, their practical effect is that of being a nuisance keeping us in a state of fear.

We may have to start getting used to living with the threat of terrorism for a while. There’s another reason to take Mr Baum’s advice seriously.

Values that shake the world: I – Introduction

11 November 2004

Values, values, values – it is the talk of the day. It is the one thing which the political murders of controversial film maker Theo van Gogh and of populist politician Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the unease in European societies with the consequences of immigration, but also the controversy surrounding Rocco Buttiglione and the re-election of George W Bush have in common. Our values, say the protagonists, are “under threat”, and the upsetting events show this is true.

An increasingly frightened and insecure population yearns for solutions. And on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasingly confident political right provides them. But which values are under threat? And, most of all, where are the socially progressives in this debate?

Most of the analysis I see does not do justice to the complexity of the situation. I miss things. For instance, I do not think the Netherlands is or ever was a tolerant country. Indifferent: yes, but tolerant: no.

Secondly, I think we should distinguish between the muslim extremism that originated in the dictatorships in the Middle-East (like Bin Laden’s or Palestinian extremism), and the “new” muslim extremism motivating disgruntled youths who grew up in the West (like the murderer of Van Gogh). Their anger seems to be directed not at western policies in the East, but at western policies at home. If that is true, we are dealing with different problems, requiring different solutions.

Thirdly, “values”, in my view, is a dangerous catch-all term obfuscating our view of what they entail. Modern society, in particular its socially progressive part, have lost track of which values really underpin modern society, and have difficulty formulating them. The modern right has fewer inhibitions refering both to ‘values’ in general and to actual values like ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, or ‘respect for the individual’ – but, it seems, not always in their modern meaning. This confuses the debate, and risks taking it in a direction most people would not agree with.

I have been trying to combine all the elements I just mentioned in one big, comprehensive, analytical essay. Due to time and other constraints, however, I find it difficult to complete that analysis in the foreseeable future, or at least before the whole debate is over. Therefore I have decided to split up the essay into smaller parts which are easier to handle for me and allow me to develop my thoughts over time. It has the additional advantage that the smaller composite parts fit better into the ordinary ‘blog’ format. I may or may not revise or combine the individual parts later. Keep watching this space.

This is part I in a series on values. Next: Part II, Tolerance in the Netherlands.

New Commission: Barroso keeps walking a tightrope

4 November 2004

European Commission president Barroso seems to have finished the new line-up for his team. The changes are minimal:

  • Rocco Buttiglione, the controversial Conservative, is replaced by Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini. Buttiglione remains in his current job as Italy’s Europe minister;
  • the Hungarian candidate Laszlo Kovacs, a Socialist whom the European Parliament thought showed too little affinity with his proposed portfolio, moves from energy to taxation;
  • Latvian Ingrida Udre, a Liberal who also failed to convince the EP of her qualifications, is replaced by veteran diplomat Andris Piebalgs, moving from taxation to energy;

Interestingly, Dutchwoman Neelie Kroes, a Liberal, stays on Competition. She was criticised, mainly by the Socialists and Greens in the European Parliament, for alleged conflicts of interest. Unlike Mr Buttiglione, however, she was never rejected by the EP committee that reviewed her candidacy, although in the high-tension days surrounding the-vote-that-never-took-place, the Conservative EPP group in the EP suddenly withdrew its support for her. To me, this has always looked as a political move, stemming from EPP frustration with the fact that the Liberal group withheld its (pivotal) support for the Commission as long as Mr Buttiglione was in it. Conflicts of interest are, after all, not usually a disqualification in EPP circles.

Anyway, as Mr Barroso announced the new line-up at all, we have to assume that EPP group leader Hans-Gert P÷ttering has changed his mind (again) about Mrs Kroes, probably after a word with Barroso and one or two Conservative government leaders. In the European Parliament, this does not mean that all EPP members will follow P÷ttering and vote for the Commission, but the chances for a majority look better than last time. Mr Barroso keeps walking a tightrope: between giving in just enough to the EP, and changing as little as possible that could upset the Council.

Four more years of chaos

3 November 2004

It looks like the race has been run. Ohio is reporting 2 771 814 vs 2 624 201 votes for Bush (at 99% of precincts counted). Now I know the provisional ballots still have to be counted, but their number is only slightly larger than the difference between the two candidates and it is unlikely that they are 1) all valid votes and 2) all for Kerry. So I have to assume George Bush has won. I’m sure Bin Laden is happy with the result.

Crucial for America’s internal policy, however, is the outcome of the House and Senate elections. They have come firmly in Republican hands. So even if Kerry becomes president, he will still have to work with a conservative Congress. Which makes the thought of a Bush victory all the more worrying…

On the other hand, as Crooked Timber points out, “responsibility without power” for Kerry is probably not the thing to wish for. So under these circumstances (and I cannot believe I am writing this) a Bush victory is probably the least of two evils. At least it will be clear to all who is responsible for the chaos we are going to face. That is, if the wisdom of the American voters can be trusted next time…

Osama wants Bush for president

1 November 2004

Why else would he have popped out of his cave so shortly before the election, knowing that terrorism is the one issue that drives voters to Bush instead of Kerry?

But who do the Americans want for president? We’ll know in, er, 36 hours or so. Or at least we’ll know what the lawsuits will be about…

Net curtain shields Bush site from nosy foreigners

28 October 2004

Non-American net surfers dying to visit the official George W Bush re-election website will be disappointed to hear this is no longer possible. Overseas visitors get a message saying they are “not authorized” to view the site’s contents. A spokesman of the Bush-Cheney campaign says this is for “security reasons”.