Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Terrorist Kidnappings: Why Don't We Negotiate?

 UN Security Council Chamber by Patrick Gruban

On Monday the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning kidnapping by terrorist and calling for an end to appeasing terrorists through ransom payments or political concessions. UK Ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said of the resolution, "it is... imperative that we take steps to ensure that kidnap for ransom is no longer perceived as a lucrative business model and that we eliminate it as a source of terrorist financing." The resolution does not create any new legal obligations but it does call on Member States to encourage the private sector to adopt relevant guidelines and good practices for responding to terrorist kidnappings without paying ransoms. 

I can understand why the UN would want to adopt such a measure; the UN estimates that Islamist extremist groups have garnered $105 million in ransom money in the last three and a half years. Starving terrorist groups of this source of income would presumably have a significant impact on their operations. And yet I have my doubts regarding this resolution.

The most obvious flaw of the resolution is that no one actually knows whether or not cutting ransom payments will be an effective strategy at countering terrorist activity. For decades, the western, liberal democracies have been staunchly following the creed that we should not negotiate with terrorists for fear of encouraging further terrorism. But terrorist activity persists and no one actually knows whether refusing to negotiate with terrorists has done anything to curtail terrorist attacks. Non-negotiation is not necessarily the best strategy, it's just that we can't think of anything else to do. 

In his book, Globalisation and War, Barkawi argues that a refusal to negotiate with terrorists simply creates a spiral of terrorist attack and harsh reprisal which de-legitimises negotiation and compromise and inspires more violence. Barkawi suggests instead that to counter terror, an effective strategy requires a combination of political and coercive means. Engagement and compromise with those the terrorists claim to represent whittles away at the legitimacy of terror, undermining the incentive to carry out terrorist attacks. We need a softer, 'hearts and minds' approach to terrorism.

A second reservation I have towards this resolution is that it shifts the balance of responsibility away from governments and international bodies and towards the unfortunate individuals who face the horrific decision of whether they should fund terrorists or leave their loved ones to suffer in captivity. It seems unfair that those taken as hostages, and their friends and family back home, are left to suffer at the hands of terrorists because national governments and international organisations can't think of a better method to counter terrorism.

Barkawi may not be correct. Maybe negotiation, compromise and dialogue will do nothing to stop terrorist activity. But I don't think that we should just blindly follow the same policy that we have pursued for years, to little effect, without at least considering alternatives.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Starting the Year as I mean to Continue: filled with cake

My new year's resolution is to go to the gym more (or, you know, at all). I've been pretty keen for a whole week now but all this exercise is making me kind of peckish. The solution? Baking, of course!

My wonderful mother and stepfather gave me a kitchenaid mixer for Christmas and what better way to break it in than with this amazing Oreo cake.

The recipe below is adjusted from a recipe I found on Pinterest. The original called for blueberries but I decided to substitute Oreos instead of fruit because I didn't want to accidentally eat something healthy with my cake...

175grams butter
1 1/2 cups of sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 cups of plain flour
2 packs of Oreos

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Butter a 13" by 9" baking tin.

Cream the butter and the sugar. And the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each one. Add the vanilla essence.

Gently fold in the flour. Add the Oreos, crushed up a little, and mix until just combined. 

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for 45-50 minutes.

When it's done - eat and enjoy!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Bits and Bobs

I hope everyone has had a lovely weekend. I went rock climbing earlier today and I'm now in a whole world of pain. I have never been so grateful that I live in a ground floor flat before - my thighs do not enjoy staircases right now.

I'm afraid I'm a bit sparse on reading suggestions this week.

- Here's an interesting article looking at Downton Abbey and how it punishes the female characters any time they attempt to do something that subverts gender expectations.

- 3D printed cake?! My mind has been thoroughly blown.

- All my friends seem to be either getting married or attending a lot of weddings/ wedding-related gatherings. This all sounds like a lot of effort and is proving ridiculously expensive. Here's a very witty article talking about what it's like attending 18 weddings in one year.

- If I watch a tv programme or a film in which some computer genius must hack a computer system or otherwise do something clever with computers, I always wonder whether the text on the screen actually means anything or whether it's just been made up. My brother is a huge computer nerd and he always mutters grumpily under his breath when computers are depicted inaccurately on screen. I therefore found this article, deciphering the computer code shown in popular films, really interesting. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Warning of What?

I recently read an interesting article over at Slate about 'trigger warnings'. Trigger warnings are tags included at the top of articles warning readers that the article may contain content that could trigger known mental illnesses, such as an eating disorder or post traumatic stress disorder. The trigger warnings allow the reader to decide whether they want to proceed with reading the article or give it a miss to avoid painful relapse or flashback.

The article specifically links these trigger warnings to feminist blogs. I'm not sure why such a correlation would exist (do feminists have more mental disorders or are feminist bloggers just more considerate to those who do?) but I think Slate is wrong to focus just on warnings on feminist blogs without considering the prevalence of warnings on all sorts of media.

Usually, I don't mind a warning when perusing the internet. I appreciate it when fashion blogs warn me whether a particular editorial contains nudity (particularly when I'm perusing while at work) and I appreciate it when news organisations warn me about particularly gory video content before I accidentally traumatise myself. And of course, warnings are not limited to the internet: most murder/ crime shows are accompanied by warnings pertaining to their graphic nature to warn off those with a delicate constitution. However, there are occasions when I'm confronted with a warning which makes me feel somewhat uneasy.

I was recently watching a documentary about Christianity, specifically it was debunking a number of myths about Jesus (for example, the shroud of Turin). The documentary was not particularly salacious or controversial and, to be honest, I probably would have forgotten about the whole thing if the documentary had not been accompanied by a somewhat peculiar warning. At the start of the documentary, and repeated after each ad break, was a title card reading something along the lines of, "warning: contains talk of Jesus." What mental disorder could possible be triggered by discussions of Jesus? Who was this warning supposed to benefit?

If you're non-Christian, you probably don't care what this documentary has to say about Jesus. If you are Christian, you're hopefully unafraid to engage with an academic debate that challenges your beliefs. And if you're Christian but also narrow-minded and uncritical, then you're probably exactly the kind of person who should be watching an informative documentary about theology. People should not be pilloried for their beliefs but neither should those beliefs go unquestioned and no-one should shy away from the opportunity to reassess or reaffirm their opinions. Warning people that there is healthy debate on religion afoot is not indicative of a thriving intellectual discourse in our media.

So, by all means, keep your trigger warnings on your blog posts if you want to discuss eating disorders or rape without exacerbating the trauma of those who have endured them. But we shouldn't have to warn people against intelligent or sensitive debate. When we start seeing warnings like, "warning: contains political views contrary to your own", or, "warning: champions minority opinions", then we know something has gone seriously awry.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Back from a long Winter Break

Merry belated Christmas!

It's been pretty chaotic for me over the last few weeks with Christmas, New Year and moving house (the fourth move in the last year - maybe a new record for me). I just got the internet installed in the new place and now I can start making up for the blog neglect.

I saw 12 Years a Slave last night - it was the most unrelentingly bleak cinematic experience of my life. The whole cinema audience was weeping and gasping throughout. When it ended my friend and I just walked to the bus stop in silence, not really knowing what to say. Go see it immediately! Make sure you take a friend for emotional support.

Not in the mood for psychologically traumatising films? Here's some interesting reading:

- The Coca-Cola polar bear adverts are apparently a lie. This is upsetting to me.

- Skirt lengths, hoodies and Muslim veils - all have been the subject of restrictive, and often controversial, laws. Read about fashion laws and how they've changed from 7th century BC Greece to today.

- A history of the chocolate chip cookie?! Hell yeah!

- I've read a lot of reviews of Martin Scorsese's latest film, Wolf of Wall Street, but this article, arguing that the film doesn't go far enough in criticising the reality of wall street, offers a unique perspective.

- Apparently Danish cinnamon rolls are dangerously cinnamon-y - why did no one tell me that cinnamon was potentially dangerous?! I've been scoffing these bad boys like nobody's business and now I'm genuinely concerned for my future wellbeing.

- I had no idea that academics hid snarky comments in their acknowledgements - these are hilarious! I will now pay far more attention when reading academic journals.

- I've always been amused by how specific some of the Netflix categories are. I regularly get recommendations from the "films featuring a strong female lead based on a book" category (blame Jane Austen). One intrepid film geek undertook the arduous task of analysing the Netflix categories and has written a really interesting article about what these categorisations can tell us about films, Hollywood and how we consume media. I realise it's a pretty niche topic for an article but if you're a film geek, you'll undoubtedly find it fascinating.