Apocalyptic events in Japan have dominated the headlines and news bulletins over the past few days. Footage of nature at its most mercilessly awesome, devastating such an advanced nation, is sobering indeed. Quite properly, it evokes sympathy and desire to help.
But there is also a grave danger that we could take our eyes off a man-made disaster being played out in Libya. Colonel Gaddafi and his cohorts are probably the only people in the world celebrating the tragedy in Japan. For it gives them a hell-sent opportunity to press home their military supremacy over the under-equipped rebels, with genocide on the strategic planner if necessary.
The Arab League's unanimous decision to support a no-fly zone, and to call for support from the UN, is a major development in what is becoming as much a humanitarian race against time as the one taking place in Japan.
That still doesn't mean the West should commit ground troops in Libya without the specific agreement of the UN, and, above all, the rebel leadership in Libya itself. But the case for a no-fly zone to try to prevent Gaddafi from massacring his opponents, and ultimately to remove the tyrant from power, is growing. Even Russia and China could belatedly see the damage in resorting to their power of veto in the Security Council.
But the biggest and deadliest danger is delay. One certainty is that Gaddafi will continue to seize upon the world's concern over Japan as the perfect weapon for ramming home his advantage to murderous effect before time runs out and a no-fly zone is rendered irrelevant.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
It is increasingly clear that the situation in north Africa in general and Libya in particular is of much greater interest to the major European states than it is to our US allies – but that because of reductions in defence expenditure, we Europeans have practically no independent ability to do anything other than wail and wring our hands. We have to beg the US to act on our behalf.
The lesson our leaders should draw from this, but will not, is that we would have a great deal more ability to intervene in a nuanced way if we had British, French and Italian carrier groups at anchor over the horizon from both Tripoli and Benghazi. Even without that, we might achieve much by asking Malta to host our own 16th Air Assault Brigade, along with similar forces drawn from the French Foreign Legion and Bersaglieri, and a substantial air task force to provide transport and cover as required.
The humiliating reality is that we will whine as Benghazi and its people burn, and then we wonder why our transatlantic cousins no longer value their relationships either with us or any other European state.
The notion of "Europe" as any kind of serious world player failed its first test in the Balkans in the 1990s and is about to fail another in Libya; and with each failure our society and its values are further diminished. We are sleepwalking towards catastrophe, just as we did in the 1930s, but with much less hope of surviving the cataclysm.
R S Foster
So the Arab League has voted for a no-fly zone to be enforced over Libya and to denounce the Gaddafi regime. This is surely the time, if ever there was one, for the Arab world to work together and give practical support to the gallant freedom fighters of Cyrenaica by operating this themselves, supplying arms and troops as well if necessary.
There is no reason why the US or the EU should be involved directly, but they could help from the sidelines with communications and logistics. This is the Arab people's chance to assert themselves, without any Western interference, in their legitimate fight for democracy.
Bognor Regis, West Sussex
For the Arab League to claim that Gaddafi lacks legitimacy is akin to the kettle calling the pot black. For the west, in turn, to legitimate a no-fly zone over Libya on the urgings of what are in too many cases despotically-run kleptocracies invites nemesis. Should one of these states resort to violence against its own people, then what?
Winterborne Houghton, Dorset
It's very odd that while the Arab League want a no-fly zone over Libya, its members don't seem to want to risk doing it themselves. They all have air forces. Why are they asking the UK, the EU or even the US to do it for them?
Equality in love and marriage
Harriet Walker (12 March) claims that equality in relationships is an illusion because men are expected to take the initiative, for example in proposing marriage. There is an element of truth to this, but it cannot be applied to all women.
For example, when I proposed to my then boyfriend (now husband) a few years ago a few of my friends were shocked. Some seemed to think me very daring. My grandmothers, by contrast, were very impressed.
Having decided that I wanted to get married, it seemed ridiculous to me to wait to be asked or to drop unsubtle hints, and I was aware that if I did so I would be tacitly upholding a tradition I deplored. When we married, we made sure that the ceremony reflected an equal relationship – I was not given away – and I did not change my name.
I have often been amazed that so many women accept patriarchal traditions where love and marriage are concerned. Articles telling women that they cannot take the initiative only add to the problem. It is still unconventional for a woman to propose but it is hardly a scandal and it is now common for women to ask men out on dates. Equality is to some extent a state of mind; let's not discourage it.
A ridiculous rate of tax
I do have some agreement with Steve Forbes (report, 10 March); the 50 per cent tax rate for top earners is ridiculous – ridiculously low.
It will not bother Mr Forbes, but at least one person in every seven on this planet lives in abject poverty. For these people tax is not the problem. Even in our own (still wealthy) country a person on average earnings would have to work around 40,000 years to receive £1bn. In other words our fictional worker would have had to start when Neanderthals were still around.
Sorry, my mistake. With Mr Forbes and his kind in full flow, they still are.
Haywards Heath, Sussex
Christina Patterson (12 March) draws attention to Mr Forbes's objection to the existing top rate of tax in the UK. Yet the pound in the hand of a beggar is worth infinitely more than it is to most of us.
Far from abolishing the existing top rate, a civilised society ought to adopt progressive taxation rising to a rate above 50 per cent.
Global warming will level off
Professor Guy Woolley observes that there is substantial agreement about the facts of climate change, but disagreement about the use of mathematical modelling where some parameters are not understood (letter, 11 March).
This is a crucial point. A doubling of pre-industrial CO2 concentration can be calculated by fairly simple physics to result in a temperature increase of one degree Celsius or less. The much larger temperature increment given by all of the climate models is only achieved if this small warming increases water vapour concentration, which amplifies the CO2 effect because water vapour is strongly "greenhouse" active.
This would be an acceptable part of the modelling providing that allowance is also made for increased low cloud formation, an inevitable consequence of the enhanced water cycle. Low cloud reflects incoming solar energy back to the cosmos and thus limits the temperature increase. Recent results from satellite radiation budget experiments suggest that this is so; that CO2-driven global warming will be self-limiting, and less than past natural fluctuations of climatic temperature.
Dr John Etherington
King's speech, Queen listens
I have found a footnote to The King's Speech. In his book Ack-Ack (1949) General Sir Frederick Pile, the commander of this country's anti-aircraft defences during the Second World War, describes a visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Bentley Priory, the headquarters of Fighter Command. He mentions "an incident which shows why their Majesties are so tremendously popular".
"All the ATS and WAAF girls were lined up on both sides of the road. Their Majesties sent their car on and walked up between them. As I have said, we were already very late, but their progress was unhurried, and the Queen stopped and talked to one or two girls. Then, as ill-luck would have it, she spoke to a girl who stammered very badly. It seemed an age before this WAAF had answered the Queen, but at last she managed to do so, and I thought Her Majesty would move on. She did not; she asked the girl another question, to show her, I think, that she need not be fussed, and this time the girl answered with less embarrassment. Finally, when the King was already a long way ahead, ready to enter the car, she smiled once more on the girl and followed slowly on. It was a lesson to us all in real kindness."
I wonder if General Pile made the connection. He must have been aware of the King's speech impediment. I would not, however, have expected him to mention it in his book.
Anthony J Cooper
New rules on pilot fatigue
Your leading article (9 March) quotes scientists as saying that "the more tired we get, the more optimistic we get about danger, playing down perils and emphasising the upside of our willingness to take more risks". Your Science Editor notes that these findings have implications for doctors and emergency-service workers.
For three decades, the legal maximum lengths of flight-duty periods and minimum-rest periods for airline pilots and flight attendants in British airlines have been as set forth in CAP 371, a set of rules which balances the need to avoid crew fatigue against the need to maximise crew productivity. The rules are based on many years of airline-operating experience and scientific studies of human behaviour.
But now the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is proposing to introduce new rules that increase maximum-duty periods and reduce minimum rest periods. The process is still in its consultation phase, but, bearing in mind that pilot fatigue is implicated in 15 to 20 per cent of fatal air accidents, it can be concluded that implementation of the new rules might have alarming consequences for airline passengers (and crews).
(Retired Boeing 757 Captain)
A licence for quackery
Last month the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, announced proposals for practitioners of herbalism, acupuncture and other alternative therapies to be regulated by the Health Professions Council, thus allowing them to sidestep the incoming European regulations that will make it illegal for alternative medicine practitioners to supply unlicensed herbal medicines.
The HPC currently regulates 13 healthcare professions, including radiographers, biomedical scientists, paramedics, chiropodists, dieticians and occupational therapists. All of these professions are based on sound scientific principles and "evidence of efficacy".
For some herbal medicines and for acupuncture, there is strong evidence to show that they are no better than any other placebos. Proposals to allow practitioners of quackery to be given the same status as those health professions who use science, evidence and effectiveness as benchmarks will put patients at risk by giving a veneer of legitimacy to ineffective therapies and undermine trust in medical professionals.
Wouldn't it be better for the Government to enforce the laws that already exist? It is already illegal to make claims for any sort of treatment that are unsupported by evidence.
Nothing liberal about Labour
Clearly Steve Taylor (letters, 12 March) was out of place in the Liberal Democrats, and I hope he now feels happier in his new home, the Labour Party. But to justify the move by describing Labour as a party of "genuine liberalism" is, frankly, risible.
Labour is the party that gave us control orders, 90-day detention without trial, ID cards and the DNA database. Top-down centralism and a "we know best" attitude is at its very heart. Labour may be many things, but liberal is not one of them.
The Lib Dems tell us that they will not lose their soul. How can they, when they have already sold it to the devil?
East is west and west is east
Vivienne Cox (letter, 15 March) wonders why Libya isn't classified as part of the "West", as it is due south of Italy.
My understanding is that "East" and "West" were political sides during the Cold War. Thus, Greece is in the West even though it is east of most of Poland (which was in the East, but is now in the West). South Africa was always part of the West, even though it is to the east of the western part of the Middle East.
Cuba is to the west of all of these places, but remains firmly in the East (positioned just south of Miami). China is the easternmost part of the East (lying due west of the US).
Think about it
Your diarist (9 March) finds amusement in critical comments by a Labour insider about a former colleague becoming Thinker in Residence at the government of South Australia. In fact, a previous holder of that post, Professor Ilona Kickbusch, helped to initiate a groundbreaking approach of helping all government departments take health and wellbeing more seriously, with benefits they are now exporting globally via the World Health Organisation. Independent thought in government should be facilitated, not derided.
Perspectives on sparrows and where they flourish
Let them set up home
For some birds, buildings are key to survival and many species nest solely around our own homes ("Birds banned to preserve buildings", 11 March).
As we speak, the breeding season is getting under way across the UK, and the RSPB is receiving endless calls from householders who suspect they have some wild guests in their roofs and attics. The main culprits are likely to be house sparrows and starlings as they are traditionally cavity nesters, and the RSPB is reassuring callers that in most cases it's nothing to worry about, and they are best left to set up home undisturbed.
If you want to go that extra step, you could put up a nest box – it's never too late and even if it's not used for a first step on the property ladder this year, it could be a great starter home next year.
Head of Wildlife Enquiries, RSPB,
Shut out by plastic boards
In his article of 4 March Michael McCarthy speculated on the reason for the fall in numbers of sparrows in the UK. We have 20 to 30 sparrows on the hedge and around the garden each day, along with many large and small birds, including the occasional sparrowhawk.
The sparrows live behind the wooden barge boards at the front of the house and some behind the fascias at the sides. In many properties, wooden barge boards and fascias are being replaced with plastic ones which have a soffit between the board and the wall, preventing access for birds that like to live in crevices in buildings. Houses built in the past 20 years usually have plastic boards.
And yes the sparrows make a mess on the path and the chimney breast. But it's easily washed away and the sight of all those sparrows on top of the 10ft hedge is more than worth it.
Baildon, West YorkshireReuse content