Two words that don’t sit well

US President Barack Obama lays a wreath at Ground Zero in New York City.

Language is a powerful tool, even when wielded by those unskilled in its use.

Strange then to see such an accomplished practitioner as Barack Obama learning the hard way that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – and how easy it can be to cut oneself.

The “fog of war”/”blatant lies” arguments about the spin doctoring eminating from the White House are being done to death elsewhere, so instead I’d rather concentrate on the use of two words that are proving to be very subjective in relation to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The first is “hiding”. I think it’s blatantly obvious that, by living in the heart of the Pakistani military community, bin Laden wasn’t “hiding” from everyone -some maybe, but certainly not everyone.

To continue to use this term is to validate Pakistan’s ludicrous claims that they didn’t know where he was these past five years, when he was living cheek by jowl with some of their top military brass.

Whatever he was doing – being “shielded”, “protected”, “under house arrest” – “hiding” wasn’t it.

If the first step to wisdom is, as the Chinese proverb says, to call things by their proper names, then we must stop saying that bin Laden was “hiding” in Pakistan.

Only then will we be able to get to the bottom of who knew what, who was trying to protect him, for how long and why.

Then there is the second is the word that rang around the world as the echo of the shots that killed him faded away- “justice”. Just as George W Bush misused it in the aftermath of September 11, so did Obama now.

Feel free to go ahead and claim your “revenge”, or your “vengeance”, or even claim “victory” (eight years to the day prior to that, Bush leveraged his unique brand of audacity and stupidity to declare “mission accopmplished” in Afghanistan. The troops are still there), but don’t claim that “justice has been done” when you’ve just seen your troops shoot an unarmed man in the face in what amounts to an extra-judicial execution.

Justice implies a moral judgement- that one side is right and the other wrong. Our western democratic sense of what justice is and how it should be administered is what sets us apart, and it was roundly ignored in the the race to ice bin Laden.

There was no trial, no gathering of evidence for presentation “before twelve men good and true”. There was no attempt made to take the fugitive alive. There was a shot to the chest, another to the head and a speedy burial. That, according to President Obama, is justice.

But the president was not for turning, and in an echo of his predecessor’s Wild West rhetoric, he made his claim that justice had been served, and repeated them at Ground Zero.

In speaking directly to an American audience, Obama he said that “justice has been done”, and in that moment he unwittingly legitimised every illegal activity that is or has been undertaken in the war on terror, from Guantanamo and internment to the audacious breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty during the raid to kill their biggest- and by now most irrelevant – enemy.

But there is no “American audience” any more in these matters. The whole world was listening, and many of them didn’t recognise this “justice” he spoke of. Many of them felt ill at ease with how it was meted out too.

But as he mused over the release of the death photos of the most wanted man in the world, Obama was to discover the great advantage of the modern media landscape. There is no quiet acquiescence any more, and those around the world that felt ill at ease were about to make their voices heard.

Because nowadays, what you say and what you do in a position of power can be analysed and pored over and argued until its true meaning in the wider scheme of things becomes apparent.

And the more one looks at the massive amounts of material and statements and pictures, the harder it is to conclude anything other than that this is the first shots of the next US presidential campaign.

This is Obama trying to tell us and the American voters who he really is, even if he is not. But as time goes on, what should have been one of his finest hours as president is in danger of backfiring on him. He could actually have fixed the bad guy, only to find that the folks vote some other guy in as sheriff.

What he and his administration needs to do now is start telling the truth, so enough with the “hiding” and enough with the “justice”, and tell us what really happened, and why.

It’s time to start calling things by their proper names.

The lies that won’t die

President Obama has some friends over to play video games.

I’m not sure what debt this administration feels to the previous one, but Obama is making good on a lot of their promises.

And when he’s not doing that, he’s handing out political pardons to beat the band.

The most insidious of these came yesterday, snuck into the details of the raid on bin Laden’s compound and designed to excuse the most grievous wrong of the 21st century so far.

We were told that the US learned the names of bin Laden’s couriers as a direct result of the methods used at Guantanamo Bay, the implication being that, without torture, they never would have got him.

This, of course, is nonsense. Fanciful rubbish designed to go some way towards repairing Obama’s failed promise to end the torture and close the base, and to excuse the horrendous crimes that were committed there.

This single snippet of information is supposed to be the proof that it was the right thing to do – to deprive simple farmers of their liberty, fly them halfway around the world and then half-drown them. To arrest people on trump-up charges and ritually humiliate and abuse them.

It wasn’t, and it isn’t.

But given the amount of information being released, it should come as no surprise that lies creep in, mostly because we or others desperately want to believe them.

The White House has now retracted the allegation that bin Laden used a woman as a human shield in the moments before his death, but it’s too late and well they know it.

The release of official White House pictures leant a huge gravitas to the event, as president Obama engaged in what amounted to a high-stakes online game of Counterstrike.

But aside from the craven, clumsy attempt to justify Guantanamo, surely the biggest lie of all is that Pakistan knew nothing of his whereabouts – despite the fact that he was living among their military when discovered. It’s like they and the Americans are competing for the biggest lie.

For despite their protestations, they knew full well where he was. bin Laden and his failed ideology still enjoy a good deal of support amongst the hard core in Pakistan, and the government and judiciary have been all to accommodating as they tried to keep the nuclear nation on an even keel.

It’s called realpolitik, and no matter how much we press them, they will still claim innocence.

Next up of course will be the pictures of the corpse of bin Laden, the man who became infamous on September 11 2001 and remained firmly stuck there.

The US will claim that the pictures of his broken face will bring closure to the rumours that he remains alive, but they will be more for the enjoyment of the American voters than the “Arab street”.

The “Arab street” (what an awful term, attempting as it does to assign a single consciousness to the Arab world) is too busy with its own – secular – ¬†uprisings to be bothered by the death of someone who ceased to matter a long time ago.

The US administration would have been better served by sticking to the truth and not attempting to tie up all the loose ends in one fell swoop.

For if the events of September 11 and the subsequent ten years of turmoil have taught us anything, surely it is that the world is not black and white – no matter how much the likes of bin Laden or the Americans try to convince us of it.

Blinded by the lights

Molly Malones Pub, Tallinn

From behind the lights the disembodied voices came, calling the names of songs and laughing. The sweat in my eyes and the spotlights shining in my face make it impossible to see, but I’ve got a microphone, which means I own the room.

The request for “Danny Boy” gets treated with the abuse it deserves, as does the guy requesting it. In a church or a home it’s a beautiful, poignant song; done in a pub, it’s a maudlin, sentimental and depressing dirge that brings out all that is worst in Irish music.

Instead I play the “Wild Rover” and “Dirty Old Town” before taking a break.

As I come down from the stage on that warm summer night in Tallinn, the sweat gets wiped away and finally I can put faces to the hecklers.

Of course, the one whose manhood I questioned over “Danny Boy” is the biggest human being I’ve ever seen, and unbeknownst to me, one of the most dangerous I’ve ever met.

I’m glad he’s smiling, but I get them a round just in case.

At first they are hesitant to say what they are doing in the fledgling nation of Estonia; they say they are civil servants on an exchange program but as the evening wears on the picture becomes clear. These are no ordinary “civil servants” or “military advisors” – I am sitting in the company of a group of US Navy SEALs.

Though that fact in itself was intimidating, in truth, they shortened the week I spent playing in Molly Malone’s Irish Bar, perched on the edge of the square in Tallinn’s Old Town, immeasurably. They adopted me as their troubadour for the week, as if I was sent to entertain them and them alone.

They were a deliberately low-key presence, discipline was the watchword and they were only allowed out every second night, so we’d spend our time with me singing and having the craic on stage before joining them for a few quiet beers afterwards.

When one of them did misbehave he was put “on the dry”- allowed to come to the bar, but not allowed to drink alcohol. Harsh, but fair according to his comrades.

And as the evenings wore on and the drink loosened their tongues, I occasionally got an insight into their bizarre, frightening world.

Many of them had seen action all over the world and would tell the stories with only vague details as to where and when their adventures had taken place. It was like interviewing the guy who wrote Bravo Two Zero as tales of weapons jamming at the most inopportune times were told with gusto.

Their private lives seemed equally dramatic.

One had accidentally killed a man in a bar in Texas, hitting him with such force that the coroner said he was dead before he hit the floor. In the ensuing court case, the judge ruled that the SEAL had acted in self-defence. I didn’t argue, and nor did his unit; he was allowed to rejoin.

But they weren’t just men of violence either. All had degrees, and they told me of cramming sessions about geography, language and culture as some unstable land threatened to tilt the world on its axis and they had to get up to speed quickly.

They told of how they often arrived in these places before the headlines, and were long gone even by the time they were written.

One told me of the mass grave where he unwittingly trod on the skull of a child, and as the anger and fury welled up he had to push it back down again for fear of letting it cloud his judgement later on.

Late on the last night a group of heavies started to follow four of us as we went in search of a late drink, and part of me secretly hoped that they would try to rob us or mug us or start a row. Despite being outnumbered, it would have been interesting to witness the outcome.

The next day they drove me to the ferry in the late afternoon and I headed back to Stockholm.

I never saw them in uniform, and despite their massive physiques, to me they were just normal, intelligent guys on a road trip or a holiday.

I thought about them a lot after that but contact with them gradually faded away. Then came 9/11 and as the second plane struck I remember thinking that somewhere in the world my drinking partners from Tallinn would be loading up and heading off to Afghanistan to chase down whoever had organised this attack.

Their officers in particular were intelligent men, but they didn’t question what they were asked to do. Politicians argued and debated; they just went ahead and did what they were told.

Last night a group of Navy SEALs were told to carry out an operation to catch and kill Osama bin Laden, and I couldn’t help but think whether any of the two dozen or so guys I met in Tallinn were there.

Whatever my own opinions about the various wars, just or unjust, fought in our names, I would hate to think that any of them has been harmed or lost his life doing what he believed was right. Common sense and the type of work they did tells me that this is unlikely.

I find it hard to dismiss deaths on either side as just statistics, collateral damage for use in news reports. I find almost none of them justifiable, no matter who inflicts them. It’s very easy to de-personalise those affected by conflict, and to forget that they too are human beings, made of flesh and blood.

It reminds me of the Swedish economist who argued passionately with me about how war is essential to mankind’s progress. He stopped when I pointed out that for many people, it brings a very abrupt end to any progress they might have made.

Whatever happened in the meantime, I hope they enjoyed their time in Tallinn and the long nights talking about the world and solving its problems as much as I did. It’s a shame we didn’t take notes.

And maybe next time someone calls on me to sing “Danny Boy” I won’t be so dismissive. As long as it’s not at a funeral.