Angelina Jolie is wrong – Islamic State’s use of rape is horrible but familiar

Daily Telegraph, 10 September 2015

Isil’s leaders would like us to think it is the most frightening terror organisation that’s ever existed, but they are by no means the first group of men to use mass rape as a deliberate policy

When Angelina Jolie speaks, people listen. Earlier this week a House of Lords committee was transfixed as the Hollywood star talked about the rape of girls as young as seven in war zones. Jolie is campaigning on the issue of sexual violence and peers listened intently as she accused Islamic State (Isil) of deliberately using rape as the ‘centrepoint of their terror’.

She described Isil as the ‘most aggressive terrorist group in the world today’ and said it’s aware that sexual violence is a ‘very effective weapon’. She recalled meeting a 13-year-old girl in Iraq who had been kept in a room with many other girls and raped repeatedly; even worse, according to the girl, was that the fact that she and her friends were forced to stand in rows and listen as potential buyers argued about what how much they were worth.

Harrowing stories about the sale of women from the Yazidi religious minority have been emerging from Iraq for some time. So has the fact that Isil has openly embraced rape as part of its ideology, encouraging followers to sexually assault non-Muslim women. Last month it emerged that the organisation’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, repeatedly raped the American hostage Kayla Mueller before her death and personally kept Yazidi girls as ‘sex slaves’.

Jolie’s call for a ‘very, very strong response’ to these horrors is welcome. She says the way in which Isil has made rape central to its policy is something quite new – it goes ‘beyond what we have seen before’. But history tells us otherwise: Isil’s leaders would like us to think it is the most frightening terror organisation that’s ever existed, but they are by no means the first group of men to use mass rape as a deliberate policy.

The distinction Jolie tried to make is between rape as a by-product of war and its conscious use as a means of humiliating a defeated group or population. The mass rape of German women as the Red Army advanced at the end of the Second World could be said to fall into the first category; the Russians even raped women inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp, including communist prisoners and women who had themselves fought in the Red Army before capture.

For centuries, this kind of behaviour was tolerated by senior officers, even if some of them disapproved of it. But there have been plenty of instances of rape being officially sanctioned: according to Amnesty International, the Japanese army forced up to 200,000 women and girls into military brothels during the Second World War, where they were known by the appalling euphemism ‘comfort women’. Many were Chinese or Korean, and around three-quarters died as a result of multiple rapes and beatings.

The nature of war has changed markedly since the Second World War, moving away from conflicts between states to ones between religious and ethnic groups. It is this factor which accounts for an increase in the use of sexual violence as a deliberate policy. When people who have lived alongside each other for centuries go to war, they deliberately exaggerate differences between themselves and rival groups; it’s a method of dehumanising erstwhile neighbours who are suddenly recast as ‘enemies’. Rape is a method of ‘ethnic cleansing‘, terrifying civilians into fleeing from their homes and ensuring that they’re too scared to return. That is what’s currently happening to Iraq’s Yazidi population.

The second purpose of mass rape in civil wars is if anything more dreadful. It is a way of humiliating the enemy, using women’s bodies to undermine entire societies; in conservative cultures, women who have been raped are often rejected by their families. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Bosnian Serb units set up ‘rape camps’ where thousands of Muslim women were systematically assaulted.

In 1993, a European Council report accepted that rape was being used in Bosnia ‘with the conscious intention of demoralising and terrorising communities’. Rape has been used for similar reasons in other recent conflicts, including those in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. But it was the Bosnian war that brought about a change in the law; in 2001, mass rape was finally recognised as a crime against humanity.

Against this background, the behaviour of Isil towards women and girls is horrible but familiar. What’s different isn’t the organisation’s deliberate use of rape but the extent to which members enjoy boasting about it. It’s an indication of the way they have embraced mass media, whether they’re publishing execution videos or telling would-be recruits that they’re allowed to rape non-Muslim women. Rape is central to their propaganda, but it doesn’t make them different.

‘Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times,’ the American feminist Susan Brownmiller wrote in Against Our Will. The book was published in 1975, anticipating Isil by four decades. I’ve no doubt that Angelina Jolie means well, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s anything novel or unique about the use of sexual violence by Isil.

Refugee crisis: David Cameron’s idea of ‘British’ values is looking pretty hollow

Independent on Sunday, 6 September 2015

His harsh response to the suffering has left him wanting. This is the biggest test yet of the PM’s character

Talking to David Cameron about the refugee crisis is a bit like discussing human rights with your bank manager. He understands why you’re upset, he really does – his heart bled when he saw those awful pictures. But you’ve already made a generous donation to a refugee charity, so why not leave it to the politicians to get on with creating stable governments in Syria and Libya?

The Prime Minister is of course one of those politicians, even if he sometimes looks like a prosperous company chairman. His election victory in May suggests quite a lot of voters regard him as competent, at the very least, and it’s unlikely that the consequences of the war in Syria were high on their agenda. Until last week, that indifference allowed Cameron’s Government to remain remarkably unscathed by its attitude toward desperate refugees, which could be characterised as a classic exercise in Nimbyism.

The UK Government has given more than £900m towards maintaining refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and neighbouring countries, making it the second-largest aid donor, behind the US, in the world. But conditions in those camps are so dreadful, with families sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, that expecting people to subsist in tents in the Middle East isn’t any kind of solution. Against that background the British response – accepting fewer than 5,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began four years ago – is pitiful, especially at a time when Germany is preparing to receive 800,000 asylum applications.

The only thing that can be said about the British Government’s stance is that it’s consistent, although consistent mean-spiritedness is hardly something to boast about. Last year, Cameron refused to participate in a UN programme to resettle 30,000 people fleeing Syria; instead, the Government set up a vulnerable migrants relocation scheme, designed to help the elderly, the disabled and victims of sexual violence and torture. Plenty of Syrians fall into these categories, but by this June just over 200 individuals had been admitted to the UK under the scheme. The Government has refused to take part in two EU programmes to relocate refugees in Europe, one involving 40,000 people and the other 20,000, arguing that providing legal routes would be a “pull factor”.

After getting away with a policy of naked self-interest for so long, this summer’s escalating crisis has left Cameron floundering. He looked uncomfortable when he had to deal with questions about the grim photographs of a boy’s body on a Turkish beach, tartly reminding journalists that he’s a father himself. That kind of response usually spells trouble for politicians, who are supposed to put policy before personal considerations. Two years ago, Downing Street had to deny that Samantha Cameron, who had recently visited a refugee camp in Lebanon, was influencing government policy on Syria.

It’s unusual to see the Prime Minister so exposed, teetering on the edge of outright irritation as he fends off claims that the UK isn’t doing enough. It’s also a lesson to populist politicians: of all the subjects that Cameron might have been worried about, tough attitudes to refugees must be the one he least expected to trip him up. Only last month it was business as usual, with the Prime Minister describing people trying to get to the UK as a “swarm”, and talking about not allowing them to “break into our country”. He sounded like an angry householder who might, if pushed, dig out that old shotgun he’s been keeping in the under-stairs cupboard.

Now even The Sun is urging the Government to let in more refugees, demonstrating that Cameron has misjudged the public mood. In a tight spot, he fell back on more of the same: he’s announced another £100m to support refugee camps on Syria’s borders, a policy that has already been shown not to work. He’s bowed to pressure and said that the UK will accept “thousands more” Syrian refugees from those camps, but he won’t put a figure on it. He’s also put himself at odds with key European leaders, whose support he will need when he goes into difficult negotiations over the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU.

It’s worth recalling that Cameron has spent years talking about “British” values. It’s a weaselly use of language, designed to appeal to Tory and Ukip voters who want to think of themselves as decent human beings without giving too much away to foreigners; “British” values are for people who think universal human rights are about silly things such as accusing UK soldiers of war crimes and giving council houses to terrorists. Now it’s threatening to rebound, with “British” values emerging as a distinct and lesser species of compassion. What it means, it seems, is paying aid agencies to ensure that people fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs and the black-clothed fanatics of the so-called Islamic State mostly stay away from our country.

What’s even more extraordinary, bearing in mind the indelible stain placed on Tony Blair’s reputation by the Iraq war, is that Cameron hasn’t been called to account for his massive misjudgement over Libya. Once again, a British prime minister sanctioned military intervention without planning for the aftermath; it has created perfect conditions for people-smugglers, putting thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and African refugees at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.

Cameron has always looked like a fair-weather politician: confident, smooth-talking and persuasive as long as things are going well. He’s staked a claim to values in the vaguest possible terms, but now they’re looking decidedly hollow. Few would have predicted it, but the refugee crisis is fast becoming the biggest test of his premiership – and his character. Whether he has the guts to disown his harsh rhetoric and show genuine leadership is another matter.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward murders: killers should not be allowed to set the agenda

Independent on Sunday, 30 August 2015

Victims best remembered before tragedy

When an angry man planned the murders of two former colleagues at a TV station in Virginia last week, he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. The killer filmed the murders, posted a 56-second clip to his Facebook page and tweeted the fact that it was available. Then he killed himself.

The murders were not enough in themselves, in other words, but needed to be understood as the opening act in a process designed to gain the perpetrator worldwide notoriety. The Roanoke killer got what he wanted: thousands of people viewed the video before it was taken down, while anyone who had missed it could have seen stills on the front pages of several British newspapers.

Some showed the killer’s hand with flame emerging from the gun he’s holding; the barrel is aimed squarely at Alison Parker, the TV reporter who died seconds later, just before the killer turned on his second victim, a camera operator called Adam Ward. On its inside pages, The Sun published a horrifying sequence of pictures which showed Ms Parker’s mouth open in an “O” of terror as she realised the peril she was in and tried vainly to run. At least two British newspapers offered links to the killer’s video.

Other British newspapers, including The Independent, made a decision not to publish pictures of the murders. I think they were right: the killer’s modus operandi was an invitation to voyeurism, encouraging individuals with no connection to the victims to indulge a ghoulish curiosity. If one of my friends had just been murdered in this brutal way, I would be horrified to think that footage was being viewed by total strangers on Facebook alongside videos of cute kittens.

But there’s another and arguably even more powerful argument against providing links or publishing stills, which is that it allows the killer to set the news agenda. Last autumn, this newspaper took a stand against publishing images from a video showing the beheading of a British hostage, Alan Henning, by the organisation calling itself Islamic State.

In a memorable front page, The Independent on Sunday pointed out that Mr Henning had been killed on camera for the sole purpose of propaganda. “Here is the news,” it declared. “Not the propaganda.”

The issues raised by last week’s shooting are very similar. “It’s like showing those beheadings,” said Ms Parker’s father, Andy. “I am not going to watch it. I can’t watch it.” Mr Parker isn’t the first relative to highlight the additional anguish inflicted by the knowledge that a murder has been recorded by the perpetrator. The family of James Foley, the American photo-journalist who appeared in the first of a series of IS “beheading” videos last year, appealed to the media not to publish stills showing him in an orange jumpsuit. The impulse to remember loved ones as they were in life, laughing with colleagues and doing their job, is entirely understandable.

But the question raised by the IS videos and a series of mass shootings in the US goes beyond taste and the feelings of relatives. It’s about whether, by indulging the wishes of perpetrators, media outlets are inadvertently making further outrages more likely. The worldwide publicity given to Mr Foley’s murder, when some newspapers published links to the video of his beheading, created a horrible sense of anticipation. More murder videos were released over a period of weeks but IS’s strategists seem to have been prepared for the eventuality that their shock value would gradually diminish. Later footage showed a Jordanian pilot being burned to death and the drowning of a group of prisoners.

Media interest is absolutely central to these murders. In the US, several mass killers have prepared material for the media in advance of their crimes even though they knew they were unlikely to live to see publication. The man who murdered 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 may have assumed that the massacre was sufficiently shocking to seize the attention he wanted, without having to issue a video “manifesto”.

But the Roanoke killer was perhaps the most media-conscious perpetrator to date, providing the first murders to be committed during a live television transmission.

Whether these killings are by a disgruntled individual or an IS assassin, the motive is the same: publicity. One type of murder is an expression of extreme narcissism, the other a piece of propaganda which may also satisfy the vanity of the perpetrator. But the fact that a murder video may be available for a while on websites doesn’t lessen the responsibility of editors and journalists. Precisely because there is an editing process, which determines what is and isn’t important, news bulletins and front pages confer status. And while I have disabled the “autoplay” function on my Twitter account, I couldn’t avoid front pages showing Ms Parker’s murder in my local Sainsbury’s.

This is not about suppressing legitimate stories or even self-censorship. Governments, politicians and multi-national corporations would rather that certain material isn’t published, and it’s the job of editors to resist their efforts to bury bad news. But what’s going on here is an attempt to stage deliberately shocking spectacles and determine how they are reported.

To put it bluntly, some editors are being manipulated into publishing horrific material that furthers the aims of people intent on atrocity. As the IoS wrote last year, the correct word for that is propaganda. We have to report these sickening events, but it isn’t the job of journalists to dance to the tune of merciless killers.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

David Lagercrantz, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press £19.99)

Sunday Times, 30 August 2015

An over-complex, insecure sequel to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy fails to get under our heroes’ skin

Stieg Larsson is one of the world’s best-selling authors. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the success of his Millennium trilogy of crime novels – beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – which was published after his death in 2004. The frustration of publishers and readers alike is not hard to understand, and it’s resulted in a Swedish novelist ‘continuing’ Larsson’s Millennium series.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web sounds like a Larsson title and the cover, which has a young woman peering over her bare shoulder, is an obvious visual reference to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These marketing devices are a clue to the weight of the task faced by David Lagercrantz, who has had to work with another author’s characters, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the hacker Lisbeth Salander, and the expectations of millions of Larsson fans.

Larsson was able to give his imagination free rein not exactly from a position of anonymity – he was well-known as a journalist in Sweden – but without any of the history that bears down on Lagercrantz’s book. It was always clear that the Millennium trilogy had a political purpose, based in Larsson’s left-wing sympathies and his loathing of misogyny.

Lagercrantz tries to incorporate these elements, reminding readers about the dreadful abuse Salander suffered as a child and serving up a plot about the topical (and fashionable) subject of state surveillance. For reasons that aren’t clear until the end of the novel, Salander has hacked into the computers of the US National Security Agency, an organisation made famous by the revelations of the former government contractor, Edward Snowden.

Salander has also been doing some top-secret work for a Swedish professor and expert on artificial intelligence, Frans Balder. He has just returned from the US, where he worked for one of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley. Balder contacts Blomkvist, offering him a sensational story, but he’s murdered on the night they agree to meet. A mute boy who turns out to be a mathematical genius is the only witness, making him a target for the Russians gangsters who are also after the professor’s secrets.

The plot is hopelessly over-complicated, while Lagercrantz’s lengthy expositions on prime numbers suggest he’s trying to compensate for an insecurity about his role as Larsson’s successor. Largercrantz isn’t a bad writer when he’s dealing with his own material; his novel about Alan Turing, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, is a sensitive piece of fiction. But The Girl in the Spider’s Web lurches from dry mathematical formulae to noisy shoot-outs, creating a sense of manufactured urgency.

Most jarring of all is the careless sexism that runs through the novel. Most of the men are suckers for a beautiful woman, going weak at the knees over female characters whom Lagercrantz struggles to describe. Here is Blomkvist, responding to a stranger who picks him up on the street: ‘She was the most wonderful creature he had ever met, and from time to time she gave him a smile that made every paving stone, every breath, sound out a promise that something wonderful and overwhelming was happening’.

Blomkvist’s frequent conquests were a slightly irritating feature of Larsson’s novels but the journalist was never a complete idiot. It’s certainly hard to imagine the original character hearing about a plastic surgeon who sexually assaulted one his female patients and responding with the single word: ‘Oops’. Then there’s the excruciating moment when Salander, escaping from an assassination attempt in the back of a stranger’s car, whips off her shirt to make a bandage and reveals ‘breasts which stood straight out’.

Stepping into a dead man’s shoes was always going to be a challenge. The fault with this attempt is that Lagercrantz sticks so closely to the original formula, never managing to inhabit Larsson’s imagination and fatally inhibiting his own. Reading this book is a bit like buying a designer handbag, only to discover that it’s a carefully-crafted imitation.

Rape on a busy street in Birmingham – why did no one intervene?

Daily Telegraph, 25 August 2015

It is an extraordinary piece of film: a man in a red t-shirt and jeans crosses a road, nonchalantly carrying a near-unconscious woman in his arms. At one point he almost drops her, heaving her upwards as though he’s holding a sack of potatoes. He’s purposeful and intent, and doesn’t look remotely like a Good Samaritan. Moments later, out of sight of the CCTV cameras, the woman is raped.

The incident happened in Birmingham city centre last October but the video has just been released by West Midlands Police, with the victim’s agreement. ‘She hopes that these new images may jog someone’s memory and that their call may make the difference to her attacker being caught or left to roam the streets’, explained Detective Constable Danette Calvey. ‘I implore people to take a good look at the CCTV and focus on the man.’

Allowing the CCTV images to be publicised was a brave thing for the victim to do, not least because seeing herself in such circumstances can only have been extremely distressing. She may also have been aware that the public is not always sympathetic to victims of serious sexual assaults, especially in cases where they have been drinking. Sure enough, some people who viewed the footage apparently thought it more important to focus on her behaviour than that of the man who scooped her off the street in the early hours of a Sunday morning.

We hear these frankly inhuman responses time and time again. But this video demonstrates vividly that ‘why did she allow herself to become so vulnerable?’ is always the wrong question. The incident happened at 4am when people were leaving nearby bars and clubs, not in an isolated country lane; the police wouldn’t have decided to release the images if they didn’t believe that members of the public were in the area and might have seen something. It’s clear even from the slightly indistinct CCTV images that the man was carrying the young woman without any concern for her welfare.

The question of intervention is at the forefront of all our minds after three young Americans, a Frenchman and a British man disarmed a man with an AK-47 on a train travelling through Belgium last week. Obviously it’s easier to recognise malicious intent when someone is carrying a weapon, but surely the sight of a man hurrying across the road with a near-unconscious woman in his arms should ring alarm bells? He doesn’t look like a paramedic, so why did no one challenge him? At the very least, where was he taking her?

The woman who was attacked is 25 years old, which means she belongs in exactly the age group (16 to 34-year-olds) which is most often targeted by sex attackers. Her age, combined with her obvious helplessness – at one point in the CCTV footage, her left arms trails down – should have been grounds for unease.

But research published earlier this year shows that more than a quarter of the public believe that women who are drunk at the time of an assault are at least partly responsible for what happens to them. The research, published by the Office for National Statistics, showed that teenagers and the 55 to 59 age group are less likely to be sympathetic to victims of sex attacks who have been drinking. Bizarrely, among these censorious people, a woman who has committed no crime is held to a much greater level of personal responsibility than the man who takes advantage of her vulnerable condition.

The same people often display a fuzzy and outdated grasp of the meaning of consent. Even though the law is clear that a woman incapacitated by alcohol cannot agree to sex, they persist in claiming it is an issue even in cases where the victim couldn’t possibly give meaningful consent. No sensible person viewing the CCTV footage of the Birmingham incident could imagine that the woman was in a state to agree to anything, which is another reason why the brazenness of her alleged attacker is so shocking.

It has been clear for some time that public attitudes towards sexual violence lag behind those of people working with victims and in the criminal justice system. The latter know that rapists are often both organised and opportunistic, deliberately seeking out places where they are likely to encounter vulnerable women. Far from acting on a momentary surge of lust, they plan ahead and know exactly what they are doing. Mistaken ideas about rape work to their advantage.

What’s highly unusual about this assault is that the moments immediately beforehand were captured by CCTV cameras. The police hope the footage will help catch the alleged attacker, but it should change public attitudes as well. A young woman who’s been drinking heavily is vulnerable and needs protection, not cruel comments from strangers.