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Brussels Bombs

Belgium may be a boring country, but it still seems extreme for a Belgian politician to say that the country is now living through its darkest days since the end of the Second World War. Can any country really be so lucky that the worst thing that has happened to it in the past seventy years is a couple of bombs that killed 34 people?

That may sound a bit uncharitable, but respect for the innocent people killed by terrorists does not require us to take leave of our senses. What is happening now is the media feeding frenzy that has become almost a statutory requirement after every terrorist attack in the West.

And people do let themselves get wound up by the media-generated panic. Last night at dinner a young man, staying with us overnight in London before taking a morning flight to the United States, openly debated with himself about whether he should cancel his (non-refundable) ticket or not. It was a ticket from London to Chicago that went nowhere near mainland Europe at all.

The airlines are just as prone to panic, cancelling flights into Belgium as if the country had suddenly become a seriously dangerous place. This story will dominate the Belgian media for weeks, and the rest of the Western media for the remainder of this week. Even non-Western media will play it for a day or two. Almost nothing new or useful will be said, and then the frenzy will die down – until next time.

This is a very stupid way of behaving, but you will notice that I am a part of it. No matter what I say about the bombs in Brussels, the fact that I am writing at length about them in a column that appears all over the world contributes to the delusion that they are not only a nasty event but also an important one.

It is the sheer volume of coverage that determines an event’s perceived importance, not what is actually said about it. But if we in the media are compelled to write about an event like the Belgian bombs anyway, what can we truthfully say about it that will not feed the panic?

The first thing, after every terrorist attack, is to stress that the media coverage of the attack is its primary purpose – indeed, almost its only purpose. It’s obvious and it’s trite, but if you don’t actually say it people forget it. Like the health warning on cigarette packets, it should be part of every story on terrorism.

Secondly, we have to put the alleged “threat” of such terrorist attacks into perspective. People rarely do this for themselves, because once events are beyond the range of their daily experience most people cannot distinguish between what is truly dangerous and what is only dramatic and frightening.

It really does help to remind people that terrorism is a statistically insignificant risk – that they are in much greater danger of dying from a fall in the bath than of dying in a terrorist attack – even if that approach conflicts with the journalists’ natural urge to emphasise the importance of whatever they are writing about.

And finally, a little dispassionate analysis quickly deflates the notion that terrorism is “an existential threat” (as British prime minister David Cameron once said). For example, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have been largely confined to French-speaking countries.

Muslim immigrants in France and Belgium mostly come from Arab countries, and especially from North Africa, where French is the second language. Radical Islamism is much weaker in the rest of the Muslim world, so Germany (whose Muslims are mostly Turkish) and Britain (where they are mostly of South Asian origin) generate fewer Islamist extremists than the francophone countries, and face fewer terrorist attacks.

France’s and Belgium’s Muslim citizens are also less integrated into the wider community. French housing policy has dumped most of the immigrants in high-rise, low-income developments at the edge of the cities, often beyond the end of the metro lines. Unemployed, poorly educated and culturally isolated, their young men are more easily recruited into extremist groups.

The point of this sort of analysis is to cut the problem down to size. There is no terrorist army in Belgium, just a bunch of young men making it up as they go along. For example, the Brussells attacks happened four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the gang who carried out the attacks on the Bataclan arena and the Stade de France in Paris last November.

Back in Brussels after failing to use his suicide vest in the Paris attack, Abdeslam was a psychological wreck, and his Islamist colleagues undoubtedly expected that once in police custody he would sing like a canary. So they decided to launch another attack and go to glory before the police kicked in their doors.

Prime Minister Charles Michel issued the usual ritual incantation about Belgians being “determined to defend our freedom,” but Belgium’s freedom is not at risk. Terrorists are not an existential threat. They are a lethal nuisance, but no more than a nuisance.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“And people…time”)

The Russian Solution

6 January 2013

The Russian Solution

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s as if Paul Newman and Jane Fonda had fled the US in protest at something or other – they were always protesting – and sought Russian citizenship instead. Americans would be surprised, but would they really care? It’s a free country, as they say.

Whereas the French are quite cross about the decision of Oscar-winning actor Gerard Depardieu, who received Russian citizenship at the hands of President Vladimir Putin personally last Saturday. A taxi driver in Paris went on at me about it for the whole ride yesterday. (Talking to taxi drivers is how we journalists keep our fingers on the pulse of the nation.)

After 42 years of starring in French films, Depardieu had acquired the status of “national treasure” in the eyes of the public, but he clearly does not reciprocate their loyalty and pride. And hard on the heels of Depardieu’s defection comes the news that actress Brigitte Bardot, France’s leading sex symbol for the generation who are now drawing their pensions, is also threatening to give up her French citizenship and go Russian.

Depardieu, who was described by director Marguerite Duras as “a big, beautiful runaway truck of a man,” is much larger than life – about the size of a baby whale, in fact. He is over the top in every sense: 180 films and TV credits, 17 motorbike accidents, five or six bottles of wine a day by his own reckoning.

He reckons he has paid 145 million euros ($190 million) in taxes since he started work at fourteen, and he doesn’t want to pay any more. France’s Socialist government is bringing in a new 75 percent tax rate for people earning more than one million euros ($1.3 million) per year, and so Depardieu is leaving.

Initially he was just moving to Belgium, to a village 800 metres from the French border that already hosts a number of other super-rich tax exiles, but then French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that his decision was “shabby and unpatriotic.” At this point, the truck ran away again. Belgium was no longer far enough.

When the outraged actor declared that he would ask for Russian citizenship, Putin (who knows how to play to the gallery) announced that he could have it at once. By the weekend it was a done deal. “I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history, your writers,” the actor burbled. “…Russia is a country of great democracy.”

It is also a country with a 13 percent flat tax rate, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin crowed on Twitter: “In the West, they are not well acquainted with our tax system. When they find out, we can expect a mass migration of rich Europeans into Russia.” He had barely finished tweeting when another French celebrity said she was also thinking of moving to Russia.

It wasn’t high taxes that obsessed Brigitte Bardot, however; it was animal rights. She was protesting a court order Friday in Lyon ordering that two circus elephants that have been suffering from tuberculosis since 2010 be put down. “If those in power are cowardly and impudent enough to kill the elephants,” she raged, “then I will ask for Russian nationality to get out of this country which has become nothing more than an animal cemetery.”

It’s always wise, when threatening to flounce out, to make sure first that they really want you to stay, and in BB’s case that may not actually be the case. She is better known to the present generation not as a sex symbol but as a crazy old lady who believes Muslims are “destroying our country” and has been convicted five times for incitement to racial hatred. Some people (including my cab driver) think the Russians would be welcome to her.

But elephants aside, going Russian opens up a huge new opportunity for avoiding burdensome taxation. All those American millionaires who have been condemned by recent events to live under the rule of that foreign-born Muslim Communist, Barack Obama, and pay an appalling 39.6 percent tax on the portion of their annual earnings that exceeds $400,000, have an alternative at last.

They can do exactly what they have been telling anybody who complains about the gulf between the rich and the poor in America to do for decades: they can go to Russia. The only problem is that they will actually have to live there for six months of the year to qualify for the 13 percent Russian tax rate.

Well, actually, there is another problem. Some Russians may not welcome them with open arms. Even the arrival of Depardieu, who is world-famous in Russia as a result of acting in several high-profile Franco-Russian co-productions and appearing in television ads for credit cards from the Sovietski Bank, is being greeted with mixed feelings.

Fellow celebrity Tina Kandelaki, the celebrated host of the celebrity talk show “Details” for the past eleven years, has no reservations about him at all: he can stay in her apartment. “Let’s not divide up Depardieu,” she tweeted. “Simply give him to me.” But a less starry-eyed observer replied: “Haven’t we got enough alcoholics?”

Evidently not.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Initially…enough”; and “It’s always…her”)


Nuclear Madness

21 November 2012

Nuclear Madness

By Gwynne Dyer

After the loss of 10 million American lives in the Three-Mile Island calamity in 1979, the death of two billion in the Chernobyl holocaust in 1986, and now the abandonment of all of northern Japan following the death of millions in last year’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, it is hardly surprising that the world’s biggest users of nuclear power are shutting their plants down.

Oh, wait a minute…This just in! Nobody died in the Three-Mile Island calamity, 28 plant workers were killed and 15 other people subsequently died of thyroid cancer in the Chernobyl holocaust, and nobody died in the Fukushima catastrophe. In fact, northern Japan has not been evacuated after all. But never mind all that. They really are shutting their nuclear plants down.

They have already shut them down in Japan. All of the country’s fifty nuclear reactors were closed for safety checks after the tsunami damaged the Fukushima plant, and only two have reopened so far. The government, which was previously planning to increase nuclear’s share of the national energy mix to half by 2030, has now promised to close every nuclear power plant in Japan permanently by 2040.

In a policy document released last September, the Japanese government declared that “one of the pillars of the new strategy is to achieve a society that does not depend on nuclear energy as soon as possible.” In the short run, Japan is making up for the lost nuclear energy by running tens of thousands of diesel generators flat out, and oil and gas imports have doubled. In the long run, they’ll probably just burn more coal.

The new Japanese plan says that the country will replace the missing nuclear energy with an eightfold increase in renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.), and “the development of sustainable ways to use fossil fuels.” But going from 4 percent to 30 percent renewables in the energy mix will take decades, and nobody has yet found an economically sustainable way to sequester the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The truth is that as the Arctic sea ice melts and grain harvests are devastated by heat waves and drought, the world’s third-largest user of nuclear energy has decided to go back to emitting lots and lots of carbon dioxide.

In Germany, where the Greens have been campaigning against nuclear power for decades, Chancellor Angela Merkel has done a U-turn and promised to close all the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. She also promised to replace them with renewable power sources, of course, but the reality there will also be that the country burns more fossil fuels. Belgium is also shutting down its nuclear plants, and Italy has abandoned its plans to build some.

Even France, which has taken 80 percent of its power from nuclear power plants for decades without the slightest problem, is joining the panic. President Francois Hollande’s new government has promised to lower the country’s dependence on nuclear energy to 50 percent of the national energy mix. But you can see why he and his colleagues had to do it. After all, nuclear energy is a kind of witchcraft, and the public is frightened.

The tireless campaign against nuclear energy that the Greens have waged for decades is finally achieving its goal, at least in the developed countries. Their behaviour cannot be logically reconciled with their concern for the environment, given that abandoning nuclear will lead to a big rise in fossil fuel use, but they have never managed to make a clear distinction between the nuclear weapons they feared and the peaceful use of nuclear power.

The Greens prattle about replacing nuclear power with renewables, which might come to pass in some distant future. But the brutal truth for now is that closing down the nuclear plants will lead to a sharp rise in greenhouse gas emissions, in precisely the period when the race to cut emissions and avoid a rise in average global temperature of more than 2 degrees C will be won or lost.

Fortunately, their superstitious fears are largely absent in more sophisticated parts of the world. Only four new nuclear reactors are under construction in the European Union, and only one in the United States, but there are 61 being built elsewhere. Over two-thirds of them are being built in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where economies are growing fast and governments are increasingly concerned about both pollution and climate change.

But it’s not enough to outweigh the closure of so many nuclear plants in the developed world, at least in the short run. India may be aiming at getting 50 percent of its energy from nuclear power by 2050, for example, but the fact is that only 3.7 percent of its electricity is nuclear right now. So the price of nuclear fuel has collapsed in the last four years, and uranium mine openings and expansions have been cancelled.

More people die from coal pollution each day than have been killed by fifty years of nuclear power operations – and that’s just from lung disease. If you include future deaths from global warming due to burning fossil fuels, closing down nuclear power stations is sheer madness. Welcome to the Middle Ages.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“In a policy…coal”; and “The tireless…power”)


The (Less) Tolerant Netherlands

4 October 2010

The (Less) Tolerant Netherlands

By Gwynne Dyer

If Gert Wilders were some underemployed bigot ranting in a pub, you’d just move away from him. He calls the Islamic veil a “head rag” and says it should be taxed for “polluting” the Dutch landscape. He condemns Islam as “the sick ideology of Allah and Mohammed” and the Quran as “the Mein Kampf of a religion that seeks to eliminate others”. Just another nutcase with too much time on his hands.

But Gert Wilders is no ordinary nutcase. He is a Dutch member of parliament and the leader of the Freedom Party, which came third in last June’s election. It was a pretty impressive third, with 24 of the parliament’s 150 seats, so the other parties cannot ignore him. They won’t be able to ignore him even if he goes to jail, which is quite possible: his trial on five charges of inciting hatred and discrimination began in Amsterdam yesterday (4 October).

He’d probably quite like to be sent to jail for a little while, since that would further undermine the traditional Dutch political order and make Wilders a martyr for many people. (The penalties for inciting hatred are up to one year in prison or a 7,600-euro fine.) And he still wouldn’t lose his parliamentary seat or the leadership of his party: the other party leaders would just have negotiate with him in the prison visiting room.

Wilders first achieved global notoriety in 2008 with the film “Fitna”, which juxtaposed images of suicide bombings with verses from the Quran and depicted Islam as a force bent on destroying the West. After that his Freedom Party got lift-off, and last June it won 15 percent of the vote. In the Dutch political system, that gives him real leverage.

The Dutch political scene is so fragmented that no party has achieved an overall majority in any national election since the First World War. No single party has polled over 30 percent of the vote for more than two decades. It’s a system that often allows small, single-issue parties to wield influence far beyond their numbers – and this time it was Wilders’ Freedom Party that won the prize.

The two traditional conservative parties ended up with only 52 seats between them, which meant that they needed the Freedom Party’s 24 seats even to achieve a paper-thin majority in the Dutch parliament. But how could they sit at the same table with a man who said such cruel and incendiary things about his Muslim fellow-citizens?

They solved their little problem by agreeing that the Freedom Party would vote for the new coalition government, but would not be an official part of it. There was a price to be paid, of course: the new government would pass laws that sharply diminished the rights of Dutch citizens who happen to be Muslim.

Like most extremists, religious or otherwise, Wilders is obsessed with clothing, so burqas are to be banned altogether in the Netherlands if the deal holds. Police officers and other government employees would not even be allowed to wear the Islamic head-scarf. Immigration from non-Western countries would be halved, and the rules on granting political asylum to refugees made much stricter.

New immigrants would have to pay for their own mandatory citizenship classes, and even if they get Dutch citizenship it could be cancelled if they commit any crime within five years. The new citizens would also find it much harder to bring their spouses and children to the Netherlands and reunite their families.

This won’t fully satisfy Wilders, who recently said: “I’ve had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate. I’ve had enough of the Koran in the Netherlands: forbid that fascist book.” But it’s certainly a good start.

How can this be happening in the Netherlands, once seen as a bastion of liberty and tolerance? Have the Dutch all gone crazy? No.

What is happening is the result of an accident that sometimes happens in political systems like the Netherlands, which encourage a proliferation of small parties. The Freedom Party doubled its vote in this year’s election, partly because people are more likely to vote for a protectionist and xenophobic party in the midst of an economic crisis, but it still got only one-sixth of the vote.

That’s the level at which anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim parties have peaked in other Western European countries like France, Belgium and Denmark. It’s actually less than what the predecessor to Wilders’s party, the Pim Fortuyn List, polled in 2002. There are xenophobes everywhere who can inflate a six percent Muslim minority into a threat to the nation’s identity and safety, but they are not all that numerous themselves.

The Netherlands looks as if it has been taken over by the crazies, but what we are seeing is actually a random outcome, unlikely to be repeated, of the strict system of proportional representation. If Wilders can turn this into a free speech issue (and he’s trying), and especially if he goes to prison, then his support may expand beyond the traditional confines of far right, but the Dutch really aren’t nastier than everybody else.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“He’d probably…room”; and “New…families”)