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Saturday 2 February 2008
Letters: Britain in Afghanistan
Why should any more British soldiers die for Afghanistan?
Sir: The elected government of Afghanistan supports the execution of a young man for the "crime" of free speech (report, 31 January).
The democratically elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai – and we know that he is democratically elected because our leaders have told us so – condemns our soldiers and marines for "making matters worse" in Helmand Province.
Why, then, are we continuing to spend our treasure and to spill our young people's blood on a people who neither share our ideals, nor appreciate our efforts to help them? Would it be to protect a projected oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Karachi?
By all measures used by ordinary people, we should bring all our troops home. This may not meet with the approval of our Government, but at least I will not face the death penalty for saying so.
A R Boddy
Sir: The publication of three reports on the doubtful progress being made by Nato in Afghanistan highlights yet again the near-impossibility of successful interventionist and colonialist wars, even when accompanied, as in this case, by serious attempts to win "hearts and minds" by reconstruction and development.
Iraq is the prime recent example, but the Russian wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, American actions in Somalia and Vietnam, and Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and its actions in Gaza also stand out. This is no surprise: the surprise is that political leaders should think it can work at all, and that it is worth the cost in money and the civilians and soldiers killed or maimed in the attempt.
The subject of a new French film, Intimate Enemies, is the horrifying guerrilla war for the independence of Algeria (1954-1962) which involved two million French soldiers, and 27,000 French and several hundred thousand Algerian deaths. Many of these French soldiers had fought against the Nazis and in the French colonialist war in Vietnam before their defeat there in 1954. Even the rhetoric is the same: a French newsreel of the time showed Algerian farmers working under the protection of French soldiers, and referred to winning "hearts and minds". Are we never going to learn?
How to tell Muslims from extremists
Sir: I confess I find the logic of Eric Bourne (letter: "Muslims should not be surprised at backlash against atrocities", 31 January) somewhat hard to follow.
He asks: "How can the ordinary British citizen be expected to distinguish between the law-abiding Muslim and the extremist?" Well, presumably in the same manner most of us distinguish between members of the IRA and ordinary citizens of the Republic of Ireland, or between law-abiding UK tourists and the lager-fuelled football yobs who have shamed their nation while abroad, or between pleasant, moderate Christians and their counterparts elsewhere who bomb abortion clinics; namely through the application of common sense.
Mr Bourne tacitly tars all members of a group as deserving of suspicion or abuse on the basis of the actions of a violent fringe minority. One must also inquire, given his contention that Britain is a country that remains "one of the most civilised in the world", at what stage did "foul language" become an acceptable "defence" towards those with whom we disagree ?
Lastly, we are asked, regarding Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, what she has ever done to "bridge the ever-widening cultural gap between what seems to us an alien culture and a way of life which in these islands has endured for centuries". Are we to take it that becoming an MBE and striving consistently through her journalism to promote progressive values, oppose racism and encourage intelligent, compassionate debate is not sufficient?
Sir: I attended the debate in the Cadogan Hall to which Yasmin Alibhai-Brown refers in her article "Why is racial abuse now considered acceptable?" (28 January). Her version of events is totally at odds with my impression of the exchanges that took place.
Yasmin seeks to label anybody who disagrees with her rather extreme views on affirmative action as racists – despite the overwhelming evidence from the USA of the negative effects of such programmes. The reason why there were groans and howls from the audience was that people have become exasperated with the constant playing of the race card by equalities activists as soon as they start losing the argument.
As someone who was a founder member of Anti-Apartheid in 1968 and has always voted for Labour candidates, I have to say that today we expect to see a better level of debate. Nick Cohen, another panellist, gave the rejoinder to her arguments. He made the point that what we really need are effective measures to improve the lot of the underprivileged and poorest in London, irrespective of creed and colour. Where people from minority backgrounds are disproportionately concentrated among the poor and under-privileged, they will benefit commensurately from such policies.
Sir: Like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I attended last week's Evening Standard debate on the London mayoralty. Like her, I also found the yobbish racism of its largely wealthy and middle-class audience extraordinary.
The logic behind the baying appeared to be that racial equality is now solved, but by not admitting it, black and Asian minorities are continuing to stoke racial division and are therefore responsible for any racism that remains. The BNP exploits racial differences deliberately and obviously, but at the other extreme a comfortable middle-class elite appears to justify racism on the grounds that black and Asian people are simply being troublesome in suggesting that British society is not yet as equal as it appears in the Cadogan Hall.
This attitude, held by an audience hand-picked by the Standard to represent influential Londoners, is far more damaging than the less-subtle posturing of the BNP.
The justice we owe the Indonesians
Sir: It is true that the Indonesian people will never have the satisfaction of seeing the dictator Suharto brought to justice (report, 28 January). But there is still a hope for some measure of justice from the international players who were willing to fund his murderous regime – a roll of shame which includes the UK.
The £500m the UK government lent to Suharto was not only used for tanks and planes to shore up his vile reign, but is still being paid off by the Indonesian people, and hobbling their steps towards development and democracy. Civil society groups in Indonesia have long called for the cancellation of this odious debt. To listen to them now – and act on their wishes - would be to make some small amends for our past role.
Jubilee Scotland, Edinburgh
Keeping the brain fit in old age
Sir: In your otherwise excellent cover story (30 January) on advances in neurosciences, there was an unfortunate lapse into the mythology of ageing as an agent of inevitable neurological decline.
Contrary to Professor Blakemore's opinion that success in prolonging the function of the rest of the body is amplifying the burden of brain disease, there is significant evidence that improved brain function accompanies better physical functioning.
Following a comprehensive study of stroke (one of the most devastating neurological illnesses) in Oxfordshire in 1981, a repeat study in 2004 expected to find a 28 per cent increase in strokes due to population ageing: in fact, there was a 29 per cent drop in the occurrence of stroke, indicating fitter and healthier older people.
Frailty is falling among older Americans at a rate of 1.5 per cent a year, and there are some encouraging signs of a fall of the relative incidence of dementia among older people.
Advances in the prevention of brain disease in ageing are as important, if not more important, for all of us as we age, as the very welcome promise of new treatments.
Professor Desmond O'Neill MD
Trinity College, Dublin
Futile legal curbs on prostitution
Sir: Richard Ingrams asks (26 January): "Is it right that women who sell sex should be deemed guilty of an offence?" They are not and never have been. And quite right too. In English law, neither selling nor buying sex is an offence. The state has compromised by criminalising associated activities. These include, on the supply side, running a brothel and soliciting, and, on the customer side, kerb crawling.
Using the criminal law to try to stop prostitution is as futile as using it to try to stop drug use. In both cases the consequences are predictable: it doesn't work; it puts vulnerable people such as prostitutes and drug users at increased risk; it generates a criminal industry controlling supply; and it corrupts law-enforcement agencies employed to police it.
The realistic approach, in both cases, is based on education; health provision; support and alternative opportunities for individuals caught up in these activities; and rigorous enforcement of the laws against violence and coercion.
Chair, Alliance for Green Socialism, Leeds
Kington leaves a gap in my life
Sir: There have always been many reasons for reading The Independent, but Miles Kington's column was the best of all. Whether devouring it eagerly over breakfast, or keeping it to savour in the evening after work, I didn't – couldn't – miss a single one. It seems silly to feel that the absence of a simple newspaper column will leave a gap in one's life, but it's true nonetheless.
And who is there now to ask, in his inimitable way, why in all the obituaries of Miles Kington, there was no mention of his abiding love of the game of cricket?
NORTH SHIELDS, TYNE & WEAR
Sir: I was greatly saddened on reading of the death of Miles Kington. I was an avid reader of Miles in Punch well before emigrating to Australia in 1972. I have many of his pieces in my collection of Pick of Punch, including the final edition, which he edited, as well as all his Franglais books. The high point of my day recently has been reading his column in The Independent, which I will miss.
Miles may have died, but his delightful humour will never disappear from my memory or my bookshelf.
Dr Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Beacon Hill, New South Wales, Australia
Sir: I began reading Miles Kington's column as a teenager about 15 years ago. As I read through the news and comment, I looked forward to the Kington column, knowing it would make me at least smile, and often laugh out loud.
When studying for my degree in theology, I became a particular fan of the United Deities. Over the years, I have also enjoyed the fictional court cases, Albanian proverbs, witty observations and familiar characters such as the resident Welshman and the man with the dog.
Miles Kington's death is a great loss to those who knew his columns, and our thoughts are with those who knew him personally.
Congratulations to The Independent for employing such a brilliant writer.
Sir: What a devastating loss to us all is Miles's sudden death. Like many, I wrote to him several times, in response to his column. He always replied promptly, with further wry comments and anecdotes.
He never figured in honours lists. This was a grievous omission. He warranted a CBE at least – "for services to the cheerfulness and irreverence of the nation". Mornings will never be quite so bright again.
Sir: I have always been a fan of Gormley's Angel of the North; perhaps the proposed new sculpture for Ebbsfleet could be a Satan of the South?
Sir: What a jolly good idea from Norman Shepherd (Letters, 29January) to award a medal to victims of the Blitz. Unfortunately this will presumably have to be mainly posthumous. Survivors among childhood evacuees could qualify for recognition and a medal before they also disappear. Some of us might even be able to stagger past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day.
Sir: My heartfelt thanks to James Purnell for his timely reminder that "innocent until proven otherwise is a guiding principle in this country"(You ask the questions, 28 January). Would Mr Purnell care to advise our Prime Minister and those who run Guantanamo on treatment of suspected terrorists? Unless he was referring only to white, middle-class politicians.
Sir: Checking for quality can bring delightful responses (letter, 31 January). At breakfast, in the restaurant of a hotel in a country producing oranges, the query, "Is the orange juice fresh?" brought the reply: "Yes, sir. Fresh from can."
COLWYN BAY, Conwy
Sir: One factor missing from the debate over wind turbines is their temporary nature. The normal life of a turbine is about 20 years, so allowing for two complete turbine replacements, a windfarm's life could be, say, 60 years: much less than many trees. It should also be recognised that, unlike other forms of power generation, a windfarm can be quickly and cheaply removed, leaving no evidence of its existence when its economic life expires or the technology is superseded. Must we always take the short view?
Sound and pictures
Sir: I am 68, presumably older than Howard Jacobson (26 January), and I never have any difficulty in hearing dialogue in films (or on TV). Perhaps his local cinema needs a new sound system.
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