Sunday, 27 March 2016

How the West is winning

A typical response by some what you might call 'leftist' types to Isis-inspired terrorist attacks on the West is, after the perfunctory expressions of condolences, 'they (we) had it coming.'

There's a modicum of truth to that. Both overt and covert military operations by Western forces have killed many innocents in the Middle East down through the years, while they have often been poorly planned and with the wrong focus/aim. Thus, to say that some people in those parts hold resentment towards 'us' is no grand revelation.

Isis: They're not Muslims, just terrorists ...
The Middle East's version of the Ku Klux Klan. Photo from Twitter.
Yet, considering the beliefs of the fundamentalists behind the Isis attacks (and some others), no reasons other than we don't subscribe to their way of thinking are needed to wage 'holy war' against the infidels. Follow the path of Muhammad or be damned, there is no middle ground. If they were to get their way, they would return us to the Dark Ages.

In our liberal world, people are entitled to believe in whatever they want to, but they are equally expected to allow others have the same freedom. It’s all about respect and tolerance. What's more, and Western sympathisers of Islamic fundamentalism ought to bear this in mind, secular values, human rights and democracy are generally seen as pillars in progressive societies. For Muslim extremists — as it tends to be for other extremists, too — none of those pillars are given any consideration.

So while we may be cynical, as many are and with some reason, towards Western, nay US, intentions in taking control of the Middle East, it's rather easy to be so from the comfort of a liberal, Western abode, even allowing for the odd terrorist attack and a few fundamentalists of some sort of creed in our own 'camp'.

There was a time, when Christian Europe was in its Dark Ages, the Muslim world was leading the way in terms of mathematical, medical and scientific progress. However, instead of continued, enlightened progression, many Islamic states have been on a course of regression for the last few centuries – politically speaking if nothing else.

The hope must be that moderate, well-educated Muslims, those who align themselves with rational thought and scientific reasoning — that is to say not believing in some archaic warmongering rubbish in an old book — come to the fore.

Liberalism and what you might call Western values aren't about to capitulate just yet. Despite the extremists' efforts, the West is winning, so to put it. We must be careful, though, in such heightened times not to run to the extremes ourselves.
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Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Transmilenio's unholy guardians of the gates

There may be an amount of pointlessness to the following; but hey, this blog is still ongoing so I might as well stick to the programme (I jest, kind of).

For writing about the etiquette deficit of Bogotá's Transmilenio users in the hope of bringing about positive change seems about as useful as those 'how's my driving' stickers the city's buses and taxis display.
The etiquette deficit in Bogotá's Transmilenio transport system ...
Good door-blocking guys, well done ...

This isn't the first time we've focused on the Transmilenio, but rather than another general vent about the system's many ills, here we'll take aim at just one aspect. It might be the start of a small step towards a brighter future — quite literally, if people just moved to the side.

As any regular user of Bogotá's big red buses will know, there exists a hugely annoying habit of commuters standing in front of the (at times) automatic exit and entry doors, the ones that open when a bus arrives that is, so that people can alight and embark. For the uninitiated, at any one station one stopping point can be used for several buses serving various destinations (the infrastructure isn't large enough to allow a separate stop for each route type).

Thus, you have people parked in the middle of these entry-exit points waiting for their particular bus to come along with no intention of getting on the one that has actually stopped, creating a big obstruction for passengers getting off as well as those wishing to get on. Outside of not-so-gentle pushing — which, get this, angers the statue-like, asinine obstructors — there's not much else you can do to get off or on.

Neither politely reminding these people that they're being hugely unhelpful nor getting angry and alerting them to their idiocy works; they just appear to be 'conscientious obstructors' and remain so until their awaited bus shows up.

In mitigation, many of the stations, especially the more popular ones, are just not big enough to cope with the numbers. Yet even in quieter stations and/or at off-peak times the dim-wittedness of obscuring the doorways prevails. A case of every man/woman for him/herself, to heck with the rest. Such things are obviously not part of the 'world's friendliest nation' criteria.

One way to attempt a change in this malignant transport culture is to employ door handlers. These would stand at the doors preventing any passengers from occupying the sacred space in between arrivals. In advance of a bus coming they could announce which one it is (a quick glance up the street should suffice) so that intending passengers can line up and enter; after, of course, those on board have alighted.

(It must be said that at one of the newer stations, Museo Nacional, albeit one with more space and a lesser traffic flow than others, I have seen a similar queuing system in operation, controlled by Transmilenio employees. At rush hour in the busier stations, the formation of those preordained queues would be problematic, though not impossible.)

Another potential solution, or at least an easing of things for those getting off, could be some sort of a double-door operation, one-way off, one-way on.

Failing that, a more radical departure is to implement a mechanism where flesh-piercing spikes would spring up around the door area as soon as a bus leaves. 'You've got to be cruel to be kind' as the saying goes.

Authorities are well aware issues exist with the Transmilenio; most massive public transport systems have flaws. Yet in Bogotá it appears they don't quite know where to apply the solution. A couple of years back women-only station doors were trialled. A nice thought, but not exactly tackling the issue at hand. Women idiotically clog up the doors as much as men, if not more so. It's a bit like dividing a bunch of starving people into gender-based groups and leaving it at that; no food, nothing. Great job.

Perhaps with public transport here the thinking is, in typical Colombian style, 'it gets the job done'. It might be light years away from efficient and comes with a good level of strife, but it works — kind of. And what's more, it's only for us ordinary folk, what else do we expect?

Right, point made; let's start witnessing the changes, not. Back to grinning and bearing it.
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Monday, 7 March 2016

The Spy Wednesday Agreement — ominous for Santos?

In conflict resolution, common practice in both academia and 'real-life' politics is to compare different regions that have experienced or are experiencing violent problems. While no two conflicts are exactly the same, broadly speaking there is a common blueprint to follow to go from war to peace.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sits in the dark at the Presidential Palace in Bogotá.
Dark days ahead for President Santos? (Photo from Facebook.)
In this regard, and as has been written about here before, Northern Ireland's peace process has provided Colombia with plenty of food for thought — in theory if nothing else. In fact, Holy Week has been chosen as the defining moment for Colombia's current peace talks, discussions that have been ongoing for three-and-a-half years. It may be just purely coincidental, but you could see it as a nod towards the agreement that signalled a new, more peaceful direction for Ireland, signed on Good Friday (Viernes Santo) 1998 and named after that historic day.

Yet even the day picked by the Colombian government, March 23rd, in the English religious vernacular in any case, is somewhat ominous: Spy Wednesday. It might be a bit of a stretch to portray President Juan Manuel Santos as Jesus, but it's not stretching it to state that a grand betrayal of the peace deal he seems so desperate to sign may be on the cards; without any miraculous resurrection in the days, months and years to follow.

It comes back to one of those principal points in conflict resolution: that all parties involved see a greater benefit in a new way rather than continuing with the old.

If you look at the Northern Ireland situation in 1998, it's pretty fair to say that the agreement signed promised a better, more 'legitimate' life ahead for the main protagonists involved and their cohorts. In contrast, and this has always been the issue, what brighter, legitimate future can be assured for Farc guerrillas should a 'permanent' peace deal be signed?

For the movement's heads, things might improve somewhat; there may even be some political participation, despite the right-leaning nature of the Colombian electorate. Yet for the foot soldiers on the ground — and this applies for hard-pressed civilian Colombians, too — the money that can be made from underground activities such as illegal mining and narcotics is far more attractive than anything the state and its foreign helpers can provide.

On top of all this, even if Farc en masse accepted a final peace deal, there is still the question of the other, not insignificant guerrilla group, ELN. It hasn't been privy to these exact talks, so there's a chance that its hand could be strengthened at the expense of the Colombian state, a process that has already started according to some reports.

Throw in a still present paramilitary element on the other side of the divide that also profits well from illegal trade and it's not difficult to see the huge problems with 'Santos' Peace', as some Colombians call it.

There aren't too many out there who still see this conflict as a simple 'guerrilla left' versus a government and military that are more right of centre, as its origins may have been. It's more complex than that. As long as large sums of 'easier money' are to be made by illegal methods that neither the national government nor foreign powers seem capable of tackling, a meaningful, lasting peace for Colombia seems a long way off.

A bold new blueprint is needed for conflict resolution here, one that goes well beyond the country's borders.
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