CLOSING NOTES

People

JOHN INTINI January 19 2004
CLOSING NOTES

People

JOHN INTINI January 19 2004

OSAMA’S SHIPPING PERIL

The greatest terrorist threat in 2004 could come from the sea

Peter C. Newman

THE CENTRAL ISSUE of 2004, as it was in 2003, will be our fear of terrorism. Unlike past threats, which could be negotiated or defeated, the radical Islamic pledge to wipe out our way of life requires radical new approaches. My idea, which I dare broach only because this is my belated year-end column, in which heresies and mad suggestions flourish, is simply this: instead of promising the martyrs who blow themselves up heavenly access to 72 virgins, let’s change the rules. Make it one 72-year-old virgin. Hey,

where did all those suicide bombers go?

With all the emphasis on terrorism from the air, surprisingly little planning has been done to prevent maritime attacks on North America’s port cities, which include some of the continent’s largest population centres. On any given day, 40,000 large merchant ships ply the open oceans, nearly all flying flags of convenience, which means that they are bound by minimal regulations. Naval intelligence sources claim that Osama bin Laden owns or controls up to 20 freighters, usually employed in carrying grains and cement, but available for more deadly assignments. One of his ships de-

livered the explosives used to destroy the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Since most of this fleet is at least under cursory observation, the more likely scenario is that al-Qaeda operatives will hijack legitimate merchant ships, cap-

ture or kill their crews, repaint and rechristen the vessels and sail them into North American harbours, carrying weapons of mass destruction. London’s Sunday Telegraph recently reported 1,228 hostile vessel takeovers during the past four years aimed at capturing valuable cargoes. The ships were boarded by a dozen or more pirates, mostly in those choke points where boats have to slow down, such as the narrow Strait of Malacca between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The terrorists’ tactics would follow the same pattern. The Americans have tried to set up a system to monitor shipping but they are only able to keep an eye on two per cent of the containers entering U.S. ports.

Meanwhile, the never-ending post-war

flow of American casualties from Iraq is taxing the ceremonial capacity of the U.S. military. With only 500 buglers on staff, but 1,800 veterans dying each day (anyone with an honourable discharge is entitled to a military funeral), the Pentagon has resorted to what it calls “ceremonial bugles.” People pretend to blow into a special bugle while they turn on a hidden digital musical device. The sound is, according to the armed forces, a “high-quality rendition of taps.” That’s a shortcut I find beyond comment.

On a more cheerful note, Carl Djerassi, the Vienna-born chemistry professor from Stanford University who synthesized the first

WITH all the emphasis on terrorism from the air, surprisingly little planning has been done to prevent maritime attacks on North America’s populous port cities

oral contraceptive 52 years ago, now believes it is about to become obsolete. During a recent lecture at Cambridge University, he predicted that in vitro fertilization will replace lust (but not love) as a means of procreation. “Let’s face it,” he told his stunned audience, “deep friendship and companionship is likely to last a hell of a lot longer than a relationship based mainly on screwing.” (Why did my professors never explain that to me?) At any rate, what the good doctor suggests is that making love is about to officially become a recreational activity. You read it here first.

On a weightier subject, the Islamic world’s greatest economic weakness has been its inability to act as a unified trading block, based on its riches in oil and other commodities.

That would require a single currency, which is precisely what’s in the works. Malaysia has been pushing to promote the gold dinar, the historic currency of the ancient Islamic world, as an instrument of international trade settlement. The Organization of Islamic Conferences has already held discussions of such a fiscal initiative with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco and Iran, which is the closest to adopting the idea. Once these and other Muslim states are signed up, the dinar could rival the dollar and euro as world currencies. “It will give the Islamic nations strength and stability that cannot otherwise be gained,” says Abdalhamid David Evans, a director of Dinar & Dirham International, which is promoting the idea. “It will create a new financial paradigm.” With an American presidential election around the corner, the secret which the Bush people are most anxious to protect is that, win or lose, the U.S. must reimpose the

military draft, abandoned in 1973. There simply aren’t enough eligible recruits volunteering to maintain the Iraqi contingent, plus America’s other growing foreign obligations. Republican Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma, who serves on the pow-

erful Senate Armed Service Committee, came flat out for the idea of making young people do compulsory military service. “There are huge social benefits that come from it,” the senator said. “When I look at the problems of some of our kids in America nowadays, and then I go visit the troops, I see what a great benefit it is to give people the opportunity to serve their country.” U.S. recruiters have been chased out of the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., area where they were trying to sign up members of the First Nations, under the mistaken belief that the 1794 Jay’s Treaty granted dual Canadian/American citizenship to some Aboriginal Canadians. These modern-day bounty hunters also visited reserves across the country in their misguided recruitment drive.

“As a result of our interaction with the U.S. Embassy [in Ottawa], a letter was sent from the director, Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Washington to the vice-chiefs of the U.S. military services, reminding them that their recruiters are to refrain from entering Canadian territory,” declared Foreign Affairs spokesperson Reynald Doiron.

As an alternative to the impractical suggestion for dealing with terrorists that began this piece, I offer the Greeks’ idea of deterrence: an Athens court recently sentenced convicted terrorist Alexandras Giotopoulos to 21 life sentences, to be served consecutively.

Quote of the year, from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “There are known knowns; there are things we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Please don’t bother going over that comment; it makes even less sense the second time around.)

Book of the year: Iron Man, Lawrence Martin’s second volume of his evocative biography of Canada’s favourite political thug, Jean Chrétien. This is the best character study of any Canadian PM, whom Martin describes as a “triumph of instinct, a failure of words ... he was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but a cement mixer.” üfl

Peter C. Newman appears monthly. pnewman@macleans.ca