Sunday, April 09, 2006

Matt McCarten: Spymaster silliness like April Fool's joke

Our secret police dished up a lot of self-serving nonsense last week in the SIS annual report.

Chief spymaster Richard Woods admits his spies can't link anyone to terrorism in New Zealand. But he still warns us we can't be too careful. The best he could come up with is that some people living here have participated in jihad - holy war - in Bosnia. What nonsense! There was no jihad in Bosnia.

Instead there was a genocidal campaign by Serbian-backed militias that slaughtered thousands of Bosnia Muslims - grotesquely claiming they were doing it in the name of Christianity. It was a war of conquest by Serbia in an attempt to absorb Bosnia. The local population took up arms to defend itself against the atrocities carried out by these militia thugs. In this genocidal campaign other Muslims did indeed come and defend Bosnia, as did the United Nations.

A year ago I met one of these men who fought against these militias. He moved here with his children to build a new life. He had lost everything. Most of his extended family had been slaughtered. I assume our spies have him down as someone linked to al Qaeda in Bosnia. After all, he is Muslim and did use a gun to defend his village. Our secret police could find out all they need to know by reading his refugee immigration application.

If there is anyone here with links with al Qaeda - as our head of the secret police implies there is - then surely a visit by the local police and the immigration department can fix that.

But our spymaster neatly side-stepped this obvious solution to dealing to these foreign devils and claims it's more complex than that. Apparently these unknown terrorists could, more sinisterly, be born in New Zealand. This widens the potential terrorists to four million waiting for the right moment to strike. In the SIS report he admits that maybe these local terrorists in waiting haven't actually any link with the al Qaeda head office. But he suggests that Bin Laden may inspire them by example. Because of this possibility, our spymaster warns, we have to be even more vigilant.

That will account for why we have little old ladies at our domestic airports having their nail files confiscated after forgetting they had them in their handbags.

I thought our airport security was merely an act of solidarity with the US after 9/11. But now I see it's all part of our vigilant guardians protecting us from these terrorists hell-bent on our destruction.

I presume our secret police will need even more agents and money to keep watch on us. In their report they proudly claim to have 19 bugging operations under way.

The Prime Minister gets briefed regularly by our spies so she will enjoy the sense of power that comes from being privy to the private affairs of her citizens. I've always thought a country having a secret police is a vanity thing. It's a bit like countries with nuclear weapons. They are of no use but it makes their leaders feel powerful.

Dr Paul Buchanan, of the University in Auckland, is probably the best of our security experts. He ridicules the SIS report as "bureaucratic justification". Buchanan points out the bleeding obvious - that New Zealand has no history of conflict with any Islamic country or group and we haven't taken part in the invasion of Iraq. What he does say is that the report is "outrageously alarmist" and scapegoats Muslims, crying wolf to scare New Zealanders and justify the spies' jobs.

What the SIS report doesn't do is update us on our only identified resident terrorist, Ahmed Zaoui. Remember him? Zaoui is the former Algerian MP sentenced to death by an illegal military regime that overthrew his country's parliament. We currently have him under house arrest. According to our secret police last year, he is our No 1 terrorist threat and must be deported forthwith. Our secret police hinted they had hard evidence proving he was a terrorist.

Our senior politicians swallowed this story hook, line and sinker. Apparently the main basis of their claims was stuff they downloaded off the internet from some right-wing blog website. The mind boggles. No wonder the SIS and our senior politicians don't mention Zaoui any more.

If the SIS report was tabled earlier we could have assumed it was an April Fool's joke and had a good chuckle. But we do have to stop this silliness. Of course citizens need to be protected. We can do better at this if we just abolish the SIS and give their budget to the real police. My local cops may then get the resources they say they need to catch the bugger who stole my laptop.

Deborah Coddington: The worst provincial attitudes

There were no winners in the three-week trial in the High Court at Auckland where Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton were acquitted of raping and sexually violating Louise Nicholas. And contrary to Justice Tony Randerson's caution to the jury, this was a trial of morals.

Like most interested observers, I couldn't sit through the trial but relied on media coverage for accurate reports. We were reasonably well served, save the lapse by TV3's breathless reporter when the jury returned their not guilty verdicts. This, the reporter announced, was "good news". Good news for whom? Certainly not for Louise Nicholas and her supporters.

Justice Randerson's summing up included some vitally important advice to the jury. They had to be completely certain not only that Nicholas did not want sex to occur, they also had to have absolutely no doubt the accused knew Nicholas did not want sex to occur.

On that basis, and so far as this case is concerned, I believe the jury made the right decision. The line drawn by Justice Randerson is, I hope, one which New Zealand rape trials do not cross, lest we become like the United States, where pre-date signed affidavits are requested by men seeking to protect themselves from post-coital remorse in the form of a rape accusation.

There are other cases where there are no doubts over the lack of consent - the Ambury Park rapes, where a girl was abducted off the street, repeatedly raped in the back of a van, urinated on and defiled most horribly.

Or the brutal rape some years back on One Tree Hill, where another young girl was dragged from a car and gang-raped.

Women I spoke with said it was the white muslin dress that left them too unsure to call these men guilty. How could you keep a dress, let alone continue to wear it, when men you considered rapists had stripped it away before violating you?

But without doubt the behaviour and morals of Nicholas, Rickards, Shipton and Schollum were on trial. It was 20 years ago. New Zealand was a different place back then, apparently, in those months between late 1985 and early 1986. We were told it was a time of sexual freedom, experimentation; someone even managed to blame Rogernomics for these people's behaviour.

Hardly. In the late 1960s, when Sir Roger's alternative budget wasn't even on the horizon, some of my college teachers in Waipukurau belonged to "wife-swapping clubs". A box containing members' keys was passed around and whoever's keys were taken was that person's bedmate for the night.

I believe Louise Nicholas; she's got guts. And I believe Rickards, Shipton and Schollum who thought sex with her and her flatmate was consensual. Based on the trial evidence that wasn't suppressed, these people are not evil, or criminal. These two former, and one current, police officers didn't deserve jail, but I don't think they're innocent. At home were wives and partners, raising children, but that didn't stop them slobbering over a silly mixed-up teenager with warped judgment. To their credit, they've admitted they're ashamed of that.

Louise Nicholas said she was sexually abused when she was 12. I have no doubt that in one part of her brain she didn't want sex with three policemen, but another part of her brain was unable to say no and slam the door in their faces.

Psycho-babblers probably call it "learned submissiveness", but abused people have great difficulty summoning the wherewithal to take control.

This was a snapshot of provincial New Zealand behaviour at its worst - seedy, tacky, sordid. For all that we think we're cosmopolitan and sophisticated, with our 21st-century technology, our Oscar-winning film people, and our self-righteous nuclear-free attitude, we haven't shaken off the small-town view that men are mighty and might is right.

This attitude - women are really just gagging for it with any man - is not solely confined to Sticksville. In letters printed in this very publication, I've read tragic words from men blaming Auckland city rapes on women's declining moral standards. What do we expect, these writers opine, when we allow prostitutes on the streets and legalise unions between the same gender?

Yes, there were holes in Louise Nicholas' evidence, such as the dress, flashing her stocking top, the men mysteriously knowing when she was off work. She could have hidden from them, shut the door, moved towns.

But equally they could have left her alone. They were cops who were trained to know right from wrong; people of my generation grew up believing the policeman was our friend.

There are still questions to be answered: did these men ever seek out Louise Nicholas, to say they were deeply sorry for what happened; to say they now realised that though no laws were broken, it was callous to treat a vulnerable woman so badly? And would she have forgiven them if they did? Could they all have moved on?

It's too late for those answers.

Instead, their lives may forever be bound by shame, wrath, vengeance, failure and bitterness. Who knows what wretchedness awaits them now.

Kerre Woodham: Cyber geeks have got it sorted

What a difference a couple of years can make.

I hosted the NetGuide Web Awards last week - it's the second time I've done it. The first time was in 2004, and I was struck by the difference in the mindset of these internet entrepreneurs. This year, I noticed a real swagger among the bright young things. You didn't see that a couple of years ago. They were young and keen and passionate about what they did, but they were self-effacing and didn't really believe other people would find what they did interesting or worthwhile. It was as if they half expected to be told to go outside and kick a ball around.

This year, these kids have got attitude. They looked good, they dressed well, there was loud laughter and cocky acceptance speeches - the industry is demanding attention. And it deserves it. Obviously the likeable Sam Morgan of Trade Me fame is responsible for a large part of the feel-good atmosphere and that's acknowledged by his competitors.

But as Sam himself said, he doesn't believe Fairfax's buyout of Trade Me will remain in the history books as the largest dotcom deal ever made in this country. He knows there are hundreds of internet-savvy kids who've drawn inspiration from his rags-to-riches story and they're not just wanting to emulate his success - they're wanting to top it.

Keep your eye on Dylan Bland, one of the co-founders of online auction site Zillion - he's one to watch for the future. He was in my political science tutorial a few years ago and back then I thought he'd be a winner. Last Thursday night he was, with the rest of the Zillion team, picking up the award for best new site. It was a great night and congratulations to all finalists.

But as a number of the website creators pointed out, there's a vast difference between good sites and bad. While there are some extremely professional, well-maintained and well-serviced sites, there's an awful amount of rubbish out there, too. None more so than in the blogging community. I know Deborah Coddington has already had a crack at blogs, but given the concern expressed by industry insiders about the standard of blogs, it's probably worth giving them another serve.

The one thing most have in common is that they sneer at mainstream media. Not for these free spirits the oppressive hegemony of a multi-national corporation's editorial edicts. Yet most of the blogs draw inspiration from stories that appear in the mainstream media and when on the odd occasion a lackey of the oppressive hegemony offers them a regular writing gig in the stodgy old press, they're in like robbers' dogs - ideals be damned.

Blogs are also, with the odd exception, unbelievably poorly written, full of defamatory statements and misinformation, and attract complete and utter nutters. The bloggers themselves hide behind puerile pseudonyms, as do the rest of their following, and do little more than spread malicious gossip or snipe at one another.

It's going to be very interesting to see how the courts try to control cyber slander - there have been a number of high-profile instances recently where zealots have attempted to undermine the justice system through blogs and emails. At least in the mainstream media there are checks and balances to prevent the worst excesses of poor grammar, bad spelling and downright lies, and if you have an opinion, either as a columnist or a letter writer, you have to identify yourself.

In the olden days, before the internet, poisonous idiots with warped views of the world were pretty much left to wallow alone in their cesspools of ignorance. Within their individual communities, they were unable to find like minds so their rantings remained safely locked inside their heads. Now, there is an international network and given that there's somebody for everybody, even the weirdest of whack jobs will find a kindred spirit if he or she spends long enough in cyber space. It's a shame, really, because there are some great local blogs and a well written, thoughtful and provocative blog is a fine thing to read. It's just a shame that there are so few of them.

Kerre Woodham: Sign language a great lingua franca - bring it on

I know that the passing of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill sounds like something Wayne Mapp, National's spokesman for political correctness, should be leaping up and down about.

But Mapp, and indeed the rest of the country's MPs, with the exception of the two Act members, passed the bill without a murmur. Now, New Zealand Sign Language is accorded the same status as Maori and English and members of the deaf community can request an interpreter when dealing with the justice system and some government departments.

In the past, there have been issues with deaf people being arrested for disorderly conduct when their attempts to communicate were seen as aggressive behaviour. And there have also been reports of a lack of informed consent when it comes to medical procedures because of the absence of sign interpreters.

Advocates of the bill say it's also an acknowledgment of the deaf community and the unique language of sign - although given that there are more than 200,000 deaf or hearing-impaired people in New Zealand, and just 28,000 people who use sign, the deaf community has its work cut out getting everybody to speak the same language.

I love the idea of learning sign - apparently, teaching infants sign language is the latest thing to do. Forget Baby Beethoven - sign's the thing. And the idea of a completely silent language appeals - no more having to endure loud, one-sided conversations from idiots on cellphones; no more being an unwilling audience to conversations involving the removal of gall bladders or the reasons for a marriage break-up.

Apparently you can yell in sign language but if you don't want to hear, you can close your eyes. No, bring it on. It will make a great lingua franca for all the cultures and communities that make up New Zealand.