War against terror, Spy leaks and others

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The war against terror and the Customs official as film critic

Sir: I am co-writer and producer of a Chilean film, Machuca, which is set during the last days of Allende and the first days of Pinochet. The director and co-writer Andres Wood has been sending me rushes, rough cuts and fine cuts on cassette from Santiago. Every single packet has been intercepted and opened and resealed by US Customs. Some have also been opened by our Customs. (Don't they trust each other?)

The reason for this curiosity is straightforward: I am guilty of being born in Saudi Arabia and of having an Arab name.

I had thought they knew enough about me not to bother. I came to this country as a child over 50 years ago, I ran a film quango, the National Film Finance Corporation, worked for two UN agencies, and have been due diligenced to the point where they know more about my private life than I do.

Of course I could be a sleeper, but it would have to be on a heroic Rip Van Winkle scale.

What they made of the leftist and rightist demonstrations, the brutal invasion of a shanty town and the army takeover of a private school, God only knows. But as they have had a sneak preview, I wonder if they could tell me, (a) do they like the film, (b) would they recommend it to their friends, and (c) how strongly they support the crushing of Chilean democracy by the junta and the CIA?

London NW3

Sir: Anyone now in the UK who was involved in any way in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will have found New Labour's political direction over the past year profoundly disturbing.

South Africa's apartheid government set the standard when it came to claiming the ("Christian") moral high ground while: undertaking pre-emptive strikes into sovereign nations, and killing their citizens, in the supposed interests of protecting itself against "terrorists"; relying on inaccurate intelligence in making those strikes; detaining people without trial on suspicion of being "terrorists"; attacking the discretion of, and generally undermining, an independent judiciary; incrementally introducing legislation whose effect was drastically to curtail civil liberties and infringe human rights; appointing sympathetic judges to conduct judicial commissions of inquiry which ignored awkward evidence entirely and exonerated the government from all blame for anything; defending the indefensible.

The apartheid government did, however, unlike this government, set legal limits on the period during which detainees could be held without trial - initially 90 days and subsequently 180 days - and did occasionally deviate from the overwhelmingly race-based criteria which determined who was suspected of being a "terrorist".


Spy leaks discredit Blair's case on Iraq

Sir: One of Tony Blair's attempts to justify his and George Bush's illegal war on Iraq has been to say that he was defending the United Nations.

This was always a spurious argument. However, we now know from the information that Katharine Gun, the intelligence officer, has managed to leak, that the US government was trying to spy on the diplomats of other members of the UN Security Council. Now Clare Short has revealed that Britain was all the while spying on the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Both these embarrassing facts show the reality of Blair's and Bush's contempt for the United Nations. Their failed attempt to use the UN to justify their war against Iraq was another smokescreen for a war they had already decided upon.

Katharine Gun should not have been prosecuted, but given public recognition for her principled service to her country in revealing these disgraceful activities of the American and British governments.


Sir: Clare Short tells us she knew that Britain and the US were spying on UN officials. Was she planning to reveal this before or after Ms Gun had been sent to prison? Unlike Ms Gun, Ms Short seems once again to be exercising her conscience after the fact, for political effect, rather than standing up for her own beliefs when it might still make a difference.

Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

Sir: Gradually and inevitably, the truth is emerging that the knife under which Bush held Blair came from the drawer marked "spooks". With the US and UK secret services joined at the hip, any suggestion of severance would be life-threatening for the weaker partner. Similarly for Australia, and no doubt Spain and other intelligence dependencies. So much for the "coalition of the willing".

Odiham, Hampshire

MMR scare

Sir: I work as an epidemiologist and study side-effects of medicines. In my view, the discussion of MMR in the papers this week largely misses the point and risks further misleading an already confused public.

You imply that it is important to exclude the possibility of a link between MMR vaccine and autism; to show that MMR vaccine is "safe". It is impossible to prove anything is "safe". No one can prove that drinking water, or eating sweets, or reading The Independent does not cause autism. It is impossible to reject the null hypothesis. Water is innocent until proven guilty, and the same is true for MMR vaccine.

The reason that no one would ever set out to test whether drinking water causes autism is that there is no plausible a priori reason to think that it might. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that MMR vaccine causes autism; it is biologically implausible. However, after the publication by Wakefield, this hypothesis has been tested in a number of large studies and none of these has demonstrated an increase in risk. The sad thing is that, because of this simple but profound misunderstanding, there has been an MMR vaccine scare and it is very difficult to undo the harm caused by it.

The flaw in the Wakefield study was that it mainly involved a self-selected group of litigants rather than a truly representative group - not that there was a conflict of interest resulting from his source of funding.

Senior Lecturer in Pharmacoepidemiology
University of Surrey

Sir: It is not reasonable to ask the Prime Minister to say whether or not his son has been vaccinated (letters, 26 February). There are many people, medical officers, GPs and health visitors, whose work includes advising parents on this issue.

There is a small minority of children who doctors judge should not be vaccinated. Some children's injections have to be delayed. It is likely that on occasion, these will be children of politicians or health professionals. Should such parents be asked whether their children have been vaccinated, the answer "No" will be followed by "Why not?" No one should be asked to make public their children's medical records. Also it is doubtful whether the explanation would be believed, so no increase in take-up would follow, rather the reverse. The Prime Minister is right to refuse the set an undesirable precedent.


Sir: As a parent of two young children I am convinced by the arguments in favour of MMR, but I have not the slightest interest in whether Leo Blair has had the jab. After all, I have no confidence in his father's judgement. Anyway: if Tony Blair didn't even bother to find out if the alleged WMD were battlefield or strategic weapons before going to war over them, why should anyone imagine he knows whether or not Cherie has had the children vaccinated?

Lewes, East Sussex

Bigots are to blame

Sir: Walter Grey (letters: "New antisemitism", 26 February) says that until Israel stops pursuing certain policies then Jews "cannot legitimately complain of the 'antisemitic' consequences they are made to suffer". Oh really?

So when Muslims in Britain are attacked and abused because of an association that bigots have made between them and al-Qa'ida or Saddam Hussein, whom do we blame, the racists themselves, or the terrorists who are "causing" Islamophobia?

There is simply no case to be made for antisemitism, Islamophobia or any other form of racism. To imply that somehow Jews are "fair game" because of Israel's perceived misdeeds is a disgraceful notion.

It seems to me that Mr Grey has, inadvertently, put his finger on "the new antisemitism".


Gay marriages

Sir: President Bush supports heterosexual marriage on the grounds that it is good for children and gives society stability. Conversely, he implies, gay marriage is not good for children and does nothing to strengthen society. Perhaps the President's characteristic respect for evidence has, on this matter, let him down.

I have gay friends and relatives some of whom are unofficially "married" and others of whom have started a family. My impression is that their attitude to children and committed long-term relationships is indistinguishable from that of my many straight relatives and friends. Gay men and woman, like heterosexuals, "marry" because of the material and psychological compensations that life with a partner can offer and because the so-called attractions of a single life can over time leave one depleted and lonely. Similarly, they often want children so that they can share with them the good things of their life and because children give an added focus to their relationship. Children also give them access to a network of fellow parents and social institutions such as schools and sports clubs.Gay marriage can be good for children and can strengthen social bonds.

It seems ludicrous to have to make the point that human beings of different sexual orientations basically seek the same satisfactions from marriage and child-rearing and that there is no evidence to suggest that one is better than the other in meeting the challenges they present. But one has to go on making the point if only to strip away the humbug that frequently underlies the pious pronouncements of people like the President.


Sir: Don't worry. America's lawyers will unite to block President Bush's constitutional amendment. They are not going to be cheated out of gay divorces.


Dresden memories

Sir: The bombing of Dresden was, in my view, an unnecessary war crime. Dresden was full of refugees as demonstrated by the letters you have published on this subject. It would not have taken much imagination on the part of "Bomber" Harris and his contemporaries to have known this at the time, so I do not agree with Stanley Saddington (letter, 21 February) that it was right to "pound the Germans".

I would also add in response to Marina Donald (letter, 21 February) that I occupied various locations similar to her as an infant, with similar consolations from my mother, as the London docks and most of the East End burned over our heads, during the London blitz four years earlier. I and my family became refugees in our own country and have never returned to our origins. I believe her experiences. I have heard many such stories. I am not sure we are collectively part of the narrative, just the consequences.

Granada, Spain

Rich rewards

Sir: Michael Portillo earned £15,000 for swapping places for a week with an impoverished single mother for a television documentary (report, 25th February). I can only hope that she earned more.

London SE11

We're all migrants

Sir: My wife has discovered her family, with her maiden name of Greenleaf, are East Anglian; Anglo-Saxons through and through. My family however are economic migrants from the Borders, progressing ever southwards to London via Berwick upon Tweed, Newcastle, Buxton and Manchester, all over a mere four generations. Care should be taken by those too critical of the EU policy on economic migrants, as a tiny scratch on the genealogical surface finds many of us guilty of the same.

Palgrave, Norfolk

Freeze them out

Sir: There is no need to flood our pavements with unwanted chemicals (letter, 25 February). Chewing gum becomes highly brittle when frozen, so all that is needed is a means of applying a small amount of liquid oxygen, which would do the trick and improve air quality at the same time. As for financing this work - slap a tax on the wretched stuff thus making the polluter pay the cost incurred for their anti-social behaviour.

London SE22

Fast flood of litter

Sir: Martin Gorst proposes a litter survey to target manufacturers with the cost of cleaning up the mess they produce (letter, 25 February). Nothing so sophisticated required round here. Since a fast-food outlet opened in my local town about three years ago, the country lanes for several miles around have gradually disappeared under mountains of litter bearing a striking and familiar logo.

Mold, Flintshire

Heavy persuasion

Sir: How can a government which includes Charles Clarke, Gordon Brown and John Prescott tell the rest of us that we are too fat?

London SW5