Hillary Clinton, above the law

The American justice system and Donald Trump

August 12th 2016 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Photograph by Financial Tribune

During the 2016 US Presidential Election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server has been one of several hot button issues. However, it may be the one that is ultimately glossed over more than any other in the face of her bombastic, demagogic competition.

Clinton has been criticized from both the left and the right. Republicans have gone so far as calling her deliberately dishonest and a criminal, while more left-leaning Democrats have used this as a chance to offer their candidate of choice, Senator Bernie Sanders, a second chance — unfortunately for him, to no avail.

A serious threat to national security

As it stands, Hillary Clinton has officially clinched the Democratic nomination, and she will face no retribution for her failures. This, however, does not make the situation any less interesting.

The FBI investigation began in March 2015, when it was uncovered that her and her staff had been using a private email server, which could have created serious security problems were the server to be hacked.

Clinton’s email server was hosted in the basement of her home in Chappaqua, NY, although this information was not disclosed to the State Department at the time. After its stay in her home, the server was then moved to New Jersey, and then to Denver, where it was finally investigated.

While it is highly irregular for Clinton to have her own server, the investigation concluded that it was not actually illegal. And while many claim that her server was undoubtedly hacked by foreign actors, the forensics showed otherwise.

Photograph by CNN

Whether the server was breached or not, it is difficult to deny that its mere existence posed a real security threat. The question then becomes: why was what Hillary Clinton did so wrong? And what does it say about the United States’ criminal justice system?

The FBI investigation’s final recommendation was not to move forward with any criminal prosecution against Clinton. However, it did shed light on her actions, stating that her private server was a legitimate security risk and calling her “extremely careless”. In a statement addressing the conclusion of the investigation, FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI identified 7 separate email threads which contained information which had been classified as “top secret”.

Using a private server for such sensitive emails is in fact illegal, and could have given foreign states or actors access to information that could put US national security into a state of turmoil.

Gross negligence, but somehow not criminal

Despite these findings, the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges against Clinton was justified by the lack of evidence that her actions had been intentional, as well as the lack of any evidence that the server had actually been compromised.

During his statements, Comey did say that Clinton had demonstrated gross negligence, and provided evidence which proved that her amended statement that she had “never knowingly sent or received classified emails” was a lie. This is damning information and, by all rights, she could have faced charges, but she did not.

Although Hillary Clinton’s political tenure is riddled with inconsistency, the criticisms against her never seem to stick. A few years ago, she claimed that her private jet had landed under a thicket of sniper fire in Bosnia, yet a video of the landing shows her smiling, waving, and shaking hands with children upon arrival. Despite having clearly engaged in dishonesty, she simply shrugged it off as a misstatement.

Photograph by John Moore

Clinton seems to be bulletproof from the public’s acrimony, and many critiques of her wrongdoings are immediately labeled as false or exaggerated, when it is clearly not the case. Perhaps this is a product of her Correct the Record campaign, which set out to create thousands of fake accounts on social media in order to push the narrative in her favor.

Her history of foreign policy decision-making is perhaps the most damning of all her missteps. Her attempts at state-building in the Middle East have played a direct role in the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, and she has found herself in league with donors from the Persian Gulf who, while supporting terrorist organizations, were also benefactors of the Clinton Foundation.

During her husband’s tenure as president, she pushed him away from intervening in a genocide in Kosovo to push her healthcare agenda. So why is she fit to be president?

Above the law, or above Donald Trump?

Comey’s testimony illustrated one thing very clearly: Clinton is too big to jail. One could speculate about the multitude of reasons why she was not charged, but the answer is rather simple.

Some have tried to do so by claiming that she has deep-seeded ties to intelligence officials and lies snugly in the pockets of the FBI, whilst others believe she has orchestrated some other grand scheme to avoid the reprisal of the American justice system.

Ruminating on these political motivations would be a fool’s game, and would also be ignoring the larger issue. What this situation really highlights is the way in which the US justice system treats such matters. US politics is somewhat of a “members only” club. Those who are deeply entrenched in it are hard to criticize, and even harder to reprimand. Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of the systematic “armored plating” that exists all over the country.

Photograph by John Moore

Truth be told, in any other election, this may have had more severe consequences for Clinton, but Donald Trump is the best case scenario for her. Throughout the process of the election, his unbridled sexism, racism and mobilization of hate-filled Americans has made him an easy target and a person that this country simply cannot elect. Thus, it is the moral duty of free thinking Americans to keep him out of office, no?

That’s what a majority of Democratic voters would have you believe, and to a certain degree they are right. This dilemma is further explored in Bernie or Bust (TSH).

But, alongside the American justice system, this election cycle has also highlighted the shortcomings of the long-defended American two-party system. Freedom of choice has become the freedom to pick between a sociopathic businessman who represents authoritarian populism, and a self-serving career politician who represents corruption.

These are heavy accusations, but they hold true under any standard of intense scrutiny. Hillary Clinton may be the lesser of two evils in this election, but it is still important to understand who you are voting to lead our country when November comes around.

US Election 2016

Bernie or Bust?

The decisive embers of a progressive America

June 12th 2016 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photographs by Mark Lyons, Jessica Kourkounis, and Jewel Samad

As the Democratic primaries come to an end, a significant movement has been brewing among Bernie Sanders supporters: Bernie or Bust.

Those who advocate this approach argue that if Hillary Clinton is to win the nomination, voters should either write in Bernie’s name, or vote for a third party candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein. A minority of them also believe that voters should turn around and support Donald Trump in order to prevent an “establishment” candidate like Hillary from clenching the presidency, but that debate is for another day.

This piece is neither an argument against Bernie, whose campaign has exceeded all expectations since last year (TSH), nor in support of Hillary. Rather, it is an evaluation of the Bernie or Bust movement.

The flaws in Clinton’s candidacy

At its core, the movement finds its roots in the view that high-ranking officials of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), referred to as the establishment, have forced the election in November to be between “the lesser of two evils”.

Bernie or Bust supporters believe that they do not owe any loyalty to the Democratic Party, and that they are entitled to vote for whichever candidate represents them best. In other words, #sheepnomore.

They also describe the Democratic Party as having engaged in electoral fraud and voter suppression. In their view, the allegations and evidence suggesting manipulation of the primaries, as seen in states like Arizona and New York, represents proof that party elites are bending the will of the people towards their establishment candidate.

Whilst no conclusive investigation has been conducted on this matter, their mind has already been made up.

Photograph by CNN

As far as Hillary Clinton is concerned, the movement has highlighted many aspects of her candidacy that appear rather visibly flawed in contrast to Bernie Sanders.

First, they point to her corporate fundraising networks worth billions of dollars and highlight possible undesirable effects that lobbyists could have on her future administration and policy decisions. This most notably includes her campaign contributions from the oil industry, as well as millions of dollars that she personally received for speeches to financial firms like Goldman Sachs, for which she still refuses to release the transcripts.

As a result, her campaign has been marred with public distrust in her relationship with Wall Street and the question of whether she would be able to regulate the financial industry adequately.

Second, they allocate partial blame to her for the negative consequences of Bill Clinton’s policies in the 90’s, including the controversial 1994 crime bill which increased incarceration rates in the United States disproportionately for African Americans.

Third, they argue that her foreign policy decisions are as “hawkish” as her Republican counterparts. They point to her vote in support of the Iraq War and her actions as Secretary of State as evidence for this assertion.

Finally, they claim that the numerous inconsistencies and policy changes throughout her political career, whether regarding TPP or the minimum wage, show that she is willing to “flip-flop” in order to pander to the electorate and gain more votes.

This suggests that she may not always keep her promises, especially with regards to progressive policy commitments that she made in response to the threat of Bernie’s campaign.

A matter of principle

To many Bernie supporters, Clinton is the epitome of the political elite, a candidate that is overly friendly with corporate lobbyists and inevitably influenced by multinational companies and rich individuals.

They see a United States that is controlled by big money interests, and a middle class that has been shrinking as a result of it. To them, Hillary Clinton is the representative of an America that they want to avoid, rather than a “Future to Believe in”.

Photograph by Matthew Gore

One of the movement’s key objectives is to bring the Democratic Party back to what they view as its rightful place in the political spectrum, the centre-left. They argue that the party has moved towards the right in the last few decades, and that therefore US politics does not have a truly progressive party to represent them.

Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly centre-right in the eyes of Europeans, but now it seems she may even be too centrist for many Bernie supporters. The argument follows that if Hillary wins the presidency, the country will continue to see the Democratic Party shift even further to the right, whereas a Bernie presidency would have a long-lasting progressive influence.

The Bernie or Bust movement doubles down on this idea, arguing that a Trump presidency would be so disastrous that from its ashes and through the movement that is growing at the moment, a genuine progressive party would emerge – a prospect they consider unlikely if Hillary won the election.

The Bernie campaign’s effect

It is important to note at this point that Bernie’s campaign has had a significant impact on public opinion, especially among his supporters.

During her tenure as Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, Hillary Clinton’s favourability varied between 56% to 62%. It currently holds at 41%. Since Clinton has been in politics for more than 35 years, she is on record about most of her ideas and voters have had plenty of time to research her positions and character (having also run for the Democratic nomination in 2008).

Her decline in popularity can be seen as a result of both the Republican apparatus having demonised her in the wake of both legitimate and cooked up scandals like her FBI email investigation and the Benghazi attacks in 2012, as well as Senator Sanders’ campaign narrative.

Diagram – Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings

Bernie’s message offers a binary version of politics in the United States, an “us vs them” paradigm, which allows him to point out the evils of American politics without being considered complicit. This is further aided by his undoubtedly honest character and the steadfastness of his opinions.

His campaign against what he considers elites that control politicians, and a government that serves the wealthy, has turned Democratic voters against Hillary Clinton. To them, she represents all of these evils and more.

By no means is there a lack of arguments against Hillary Clinton, but clear heads do not always prevail during political campaigns, and especially one with such a strong narrative and polarised voter base.

One might wonder what Hillary’s likability would have been if Sanders had fixated less on her Wall Street speeches (which he was initially reluctant to bring up) and more on her policy flip-flops.

If not pro-Hillary, then anti-Republican

The Bernie or Bust movement has rightfully shined the light on some of Clinton’s disagreeable aspects. However, if Bernie’s supporters are revolting against a plutocracy as they say, then they should not stay at home in November.

If the United States is a plutocracy, it is quite clear whose fault that is. It is not the mere consequence of an elite class plotting to screw over the middle class. It is a direct result of misguided economic policies and regressive social ideology adopted by conservative administrations, at both the state and national level.

Bernie points out that the level of inequality is extremely high. It was Reagan’s administration that gave immense and disproportionate tax cuts for the rich in the 80’s and set inequality on an upward trajectory. It is also Kansas’s Republican governor who did the same in 2014, even though trickle-down economics had already been disproved many years ago. It is Republicans that have cut social programs to help the poor such as Medicare and food stamps.

Photograph by Tom Williams

He argues that Wall Street’s reckless behaviour was the cause the financial crisis. It is still part of the Republican Party’s platform today that deregulation of financial markets is beneficial for the economy.

He talks about campaign finance regulations and the corrupting influence of money on politics. It is Republicans who want to appoint a Supreme Court judge like Antonin Scalia, who himself voted in favour of “Citizens United v. FEC”, resulting in the complete removal of limits on political donations.

He argues for universal healthcare and points to the power of insurance companies over government. Republicans not only oppose universal healthcare, but they want to actively repeal the arguably modest scheme that is Obamacare.

He opposes the United States military apparatus and reckless spending. Republicans want to increase military spending and advocate for its frequent use in international operations.

He wants to give a path to citizenship to all illegal immigrants in the country. Republicans want to deport them.

As a campaign message, it may be easier to portray the state of affairs in US politics as the consequence of a greedy elite of officials and corporations, but it must also be understood as the consequence of several decades of flawed policies.

Bernie or Bust voters may rightly believe that Hillary Clinton has too many flaws to gain their vote. Yet, if they really do want to end corruption and elitism in US politics, a Republican, even if he is a muttering buffoon with an anti-establishment agenda, should be the last person they want to see in office.

Democratic platform or Trump presidency?

The Bernie or Bust movement is thus presented with two options: (a) vote for Hillary and attempt to influence the Democratic Party’s platform, or (b) vote against her and endure four years of Trump presidency for the opportunity to fight again in 2020.

Not voting for Hillary in November would inevitably result in a Trump presidency. However, the movement argues that Trump has proven himself to be as ineffective as he is inconsistent. The chaos that exists within the Republican Party, together with expected wins by Democrats in mid-term elections, could be enough to make a Trump presidency powerless and thus with little negative consequence. Then, after four years, the progressive movement would be able to take over the 2020 election and cement a permanent foundation.

The problem with this option is that Trump has aligned himself with very conservative officials, and he is running as the Republican nominee. So even if he himself is not as regressive in real life as his colleagues, the institutions that will carry him to the presidency and help him run the country definitely are, and they will want to see their policies turn into reality.

Photograph by Charlie Neibergall

The other option is to influence the Democratic Party platform and push Hillary towards the centre-left. Sanders has already been given some influence over policy at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July, and there is growing pressure on Clinton to pick progressive hero Senator Elisabeth Warren, a darling of the Sanders movement, as her candidate for Vice-President.

Bernie’s voters would rejoice at the idea of influencing the Democratic candidate, her future administration, and the party platform to introduce their ideas of economic, social, and environmental justice. However, the problem with this option is that the Democratic establishment might not be willing to change it self so easily in order to accommodate Bernie Sanders’ concerns.

If Bernie or Bust voters find themselves unable to trust the Democratic Party to fulfil their progressive objectives, their decision becomes rather complicated.

The November trade-off

There is no doubt that Bernie voters have raised legitimate issues about Hillary Clinton, but come November, he will most likely endorse her candidacy against Donald Trump in the general election.

Some of his supporters must now decide whether they will vote against their conscience and try to influence the party platform, or go through a Trump presidency in the hope of a better Democratic Party in the next election.

Is the cost of a Clinton presidency really higher than that of a Republican one, or does the importance of Supreme Court nominations for progressive legislation supersede all other considerations?


Alien life on Europa, Enceladus, & Ganymede

The search for extraterrestrial organisms on Jupiter and Saturn’s moons

March 24th 2015 | London | Bartu Kaleagasi

Photograph by NASA

“Life is not a miracle. It is a natural phenomenon, and can be expected to appear whenever there is a planet whose conditions duplicate those of the Earth.”

Such were the words of Harold Urey, physical chemist famed for his contributions to our understanding of organic matter. Indeed, ever since humanity’s search for extraterrestrial organisms began, we have found thousands of planets which may have the right criteria to support life, and astronomers predict that there are several billion planets situated in their circumstellar habitable zone –  also known as the ‘Goldilocks Zone’.

Although many have heard of the Drake Equation, a formula estimating the number of intelligent civilisations currently alive in the universe, the more relevant measure in our endeavour to find alien life is the Earth Similarity Index (ESI). This scale, which takes into account several factors including radius, density, escape velocity, and surface temperature, seeks to quantify how similar any given planet or moon’s physical characteristics are to our Earth. Whilst some exoplanets have ranked remarkably high, such as Kepler-438b with an ESI of 0.89 out of 1.00, and Gliese 667 Cc with an ESI of 0.84, most of these are several hundred light years away – well out of our reach for modern technological standards.

What about inside our very own solar system? Well, there are three candidates which have been regarded as serious prospects for extraterrestrial life in recent years: Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. In fact, just last month, NASA announced the exciting news that it had requested $255 million in funding for an exploration mission to Europa. However, according to the ESI, none of these moons rank any higher than 0.3 on the scale; so why are they deemed to hold such potential for life? The answer lies in oceans, geysers, and hydrothermal vents.


Out of all the factors it takes for a planet to support life, the presence of liquid water has always been considered one of the most vital. Many will remember the discovery of water on Mars, which suggested much about the red planet’s distant past. Although many alternative theories propose that other biochemical environments, such as the methane lakes found on Saturn’s moon Titan, could also hold the necessary hydrocarbons to harbour living organisms, our only real precedent for life is what we observe right here on Earth.

According to latest research, under its thick icy crust, Europa is likely to have a vast sub-surface ocean which is kept in liquid form due to tidal heating from Jupiter. Based on information from NASA’s Galileo satellite, it contains up to 3 times as much water as found on Earth, even despite Europa’s smaller overall size.

“Europa’s ocean, to the best of our knowledge, isn’t that harsh of an environment” says astrobiologist Kevin Hand. Indeed, although its ocean could be as deep as 100km, living organisms have been found in places with equally difficult conditions on Earth, such as the famous Mariana Trench. Unlike the outdated view that photosynthesis from sunlight is an essential component of life, scientists have recently concluded that microbial life can survive via chemosynthesis by processing chemicals from hydrothermal vents.

Photograph by NASA

“Europa is a very challenging mission operating in a really high radiation environment, and there’s lots to do to prepare for it” said Beth Robinson, NASA’s chief financial officer. The exploration mission, named Europa Clipper, is set to be launched in the mid 2020s. It will seek to observe the moon’s topography, examine the thickness of its ice crust, and analyse the sub-surface ocean’s ability to sustain life. If NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is finished on time, it will allow Europa Clipper to be sent from Earth to Jupiter in only 3 years rather than the conventional travel time of 8 years.

Perhaps the most unconventional opportunity to obtain a sample from Europa’s ocean will come from its water-rich geysers which can reach 200km in height – twice as high as Earth’s atmosphere. If NASA is able to plan Europa Clipper’s orbital trajectory in a way that allows it to pass by the moon’s southern pole, it could fly directly through a jet of water vapour, collecting water particles and thus avoiding the difficult task of having to land on Europa’s surface altogether.


Saturn’s sixth-largest moon was recently found to be one of the most promising places for life in our solar system outside of Earth, perhaps even surpassing Europa in its prospects for habitability.

In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found plumes of water vapour emanating from Enceladus’s southern pole, reaching heights of 200km, just like those observed on Europa. In 2014, it discovered the existence of a warm sub-surface ocean with an estimated depth of only 10km. Now, in 2015, astrophysicists working on the Cassini mission have just announced that they detected ongoing hydrothermal activity in Enceladus’s ocean – the first of its kind ever to be found besides Earth.

Surprisingly, the scientists behind this discovery explained that they collected this data not by examining Enceladus itself, but by observing the dust found in Saturn’s majestic rings. “We’ve known from quite early on that Enceladus was the source of the material in Saturn’s outermost ring […] based on the ring’s composition” said Sean Hsu, researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Using Cassini’s mass spectrometer, they were able to identify a type of silicon particle which, as far as we know, can only be formed by hydrothermal vents.

Photograph by NASA

According to Andrew Coates, Head of Planetary Science at UCL,  the vital chemistry for life involves carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur. Evidence suggests that Enceladus’s ocean contains many of these, with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane having already been identified. This leaves little doubt that the moon could harbour microbial organisms, and maybe even small aquatic animals.

However, unlike Earth’s hydrothermal vents which are fuelled by the planet’s hot core, Enceladus’s warmth is a result of tidal heating from Saturn, just like that which is observed on Europa. What this means is that Enceladus may not have had the same timeframe of hydrothermal activity as seen on Earth. As we know, life takes millions of years to form, and so it is unclear whether Saturn’s moon would have had enough time to develop and sustain its own organisms. Nonetheless, with an ocean holding about as much water as Lake Superior, Enceladus’s small size makes it a truly exciting place to explore.

Jonathan Lunine, planetary scientist from Cornell University, is currently drafting a proposal to update the Cassini mission by sending a new spacecraft to Saturn with better technology and tools designed specifically to find any signs of life. “If we go back to Enceladus and build upon the Cassini results with the instruments of today, the short answer is, we know that we’ll be able to look for life frozen in the geyser particles, and really nail this habitability question”.


“The solar system is now looking like a pretty soggy place” says Jim Green of NASA. In breaking news last week, Jupiter’s largest moon Ganymede was also found to have a sub-surface ocean, putting it up on the same ranks as Europa and Enceladus.

These findings came about from observations of the moon’s aurora, which are the equivalent of the Northern Lights phenomenon seen here on Earth. Having noticed an unusually low shift in the aurora’s magnetic interactions with Jupiter, Joachim Saur, along with his colleagues from the University of Cologne, found that this was the result of Ganymede’s saltwater ocean which was acting as a separate magnetic source. Just like Europa, Ganymede’s ocean is also predicted to be around 100km in depth. Evidence suggesting the existence of a sub-surface ocean had been spotted in 2002 by NASA’s Galileo probe, but the data was not yet conclusive at the time.


Photograph by NASA

Despite being a moon, Ganymede is around 5,268 kilometers across, making it only 30% smaller than Mars. In fact, if it had formed around the sun instead of Jupiter, it would be massive enough to be classified as a planet. Whether or not life exists on Ganymede will have to be examined in the next decade, but, just like Europa and Enceladus, its potential for habitability is substantial. “Every observation we make takes us one step closer to finding a truly habitable environment” says Heidi Hammel, planetary scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to send a specialised probe to examine Jupiter’s moons in 2022, the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer – also known as JUICE. It aims to collect data from Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto, with emphasis on determining whether or not extraterrestrial organisms could thrive in their respective environments. The mission would take over 8 years and enter Ganymede’s orbit around 2033.

The meaning of life

Whilst many of these exploration projects may seem to be decades away from finding alien life, their importance cannot be overstated. Discovering living organisms outside of Earth would be the single most revolutionary event in the history of mankind.

From a scientific viewpoint, it would allow us to observe life which is completely unfamiliar to us here on Earth, giving immense insight into the possibility of survival in alternative biochemistries. So far, astrobiologists have conventionally assumed that Earth-like conditions, as reflected by the ESI, are the most likely to harbour life. This view could soon be completely overhauled and replaced by a more flexible outlook in our future search for extraterrestrials.

More importantly, the philosophical significance of such a discovery would be immeasurable. Many of our religions, politics, and theories about the meaning of life are based on the assumption that we are alone in this vast universe. Detecting alien organisms within our very own solar system would dramatically change the underpinning structure of our philosophy and directly challenge the teachings of major faiths around the world. As an Epicurean like myself would say, it would prove that we humans are neither special, nor divinely entitled to the nature of our planet that we so often take for granted.

All we can do for now is be patient and wait for the day that every newspaper will print the historic headline “Scientists find alien life”. With many exploration missions in their planning phase this decade, several of which are ready to launch in the 2020s, that day may just come sooner than we all expect.

Geothermal Energy

Harnessing Iceland’s volcanic potential

The science behind the European island’s geothermal resources

March 15th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Askja Energy

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano violently erupted in April of 2010, making international headlines as it grounded international flights on both sides of the Atlantic for several weeks to come.

The tephra produced by the eruption interfered with flight traffic into late spring, but soon settled as the summer tourist season approached. Volcanic activity is commonplace in Iceland, including frequent tectonic changes, occasional smaller eruptions, and a plethora of hot springs and geysers. The tephra produced by past eruptions is usually swept northward by winds, but 2010 proved to be an exception. In centuries past, other Icelandic eruptions have certainly had worldwide effects, particularly in the late 1700s when the atmospheric effects of the eruption of Laki resulted in what the famous Benjamin Franklin, in contemporary writings, described as “the year without a summer”.

Since the 2010 eruption, however, Iceland has seen consistent tourism and expansion of nonstop flights from both Europe and North America. While tourist campaigns particularly emphasize the alluring beauty of Iceland’s volcanoes, the tumultuous landscape offers its patrons much more than just a claim to fame.

The geothermal island

Iceland has been relying on geothermal energy to provide for its needs for decades, and today it is a rare case of a society that is more dependent on renewable resources than it is of traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal. While automobiles and airplanes see a continued demand for petroleum in Iceland, virtually all other sectors of industry and have seen a shift toward renewable energy. While a handful of power plants provide power to the national grid, many renewable energy sites, particularly geothermal ones, operate at the local scale and provide power for farms and households within a certain radius.

Iceland energy

Iceland is situated in a very unique location with regards to geothermal activity. It happens to be a volcanic hotspot which also sits atop the active tectonic rift of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The result of this is what we see today; a terrain where volcanic eruptions occur twice or more every decade and where minor volcanic activity is a daily occurrence.

Geothermal energy has proven to be an especially abundant resource as a result of these characteristics, giving Iceland a unique advantage compared to other regions of the world as far as renewable energy generation is concerned. Whilst many countries have a strong focus on solar, wind, and hydroelectric power generation, Iceland is currently able to provide for over 60% of its energy needs using geothermal energy.

Volcanic hotspots

Other parts of the world have a similar potential for geothermal development, including the Hawaiian Islands and the area surrounding Mount Fuji in Japan.

Yet, none have been able to harness the natural sources of heat and energy in the way that Iceland has. The European island nation currently has 6 geothermal power plants, and many smaller sites that help convert heat from the ground into usable electricity for the national grid. Of these plants, 5 are located on the Reykjanes Peninsula surrounding the capital city of Reyjavik, 2 of them at Svartsengi, and the other 3 near the towns of Reykjanes, Hellisheidi, and Nesjavellir. Most of Iceland’s population of over 300,000 resides in this area, with volcanic activity including some of Iceland’s most famous geysers in the Haukadalur Valley as well as the world renowned hot spring resort called the Blue Lagoon.

Diagram by Christopher Beddow

Iceland’s geothermal energy is tapped by drilling beneath the surface. Often, this does not have to be very deep, as ground temperature rises rapidly near areas with tectonic activity. Groundwater running through these hot earth zones turns to steam, which can sometimes be seen emanating from geysers and hot springs. Many of these geothermal reservoirs have no actual other way of flowing out into open air. Apart from drilling, another method is to provide water externally and let it be heated by geothermal sources in order to produce steam. In both cases, steam is used to power turbines, thus generating an output of energy.

A global outlook?

Geothermal power plants produce a byproduct called brine, a type of contaminated water which must be carefully cooled down and separated in order to prevent it from mixing with freshwater ecosystems. In many places around the world, brine is not handled with care and can present a serious threat to fish, plants, and other parts of the environment. Overall, geothermal plants have a very low rate of carbon emission, often near-zero, but responsible maintenance and handling of byproducts is an essential requirement for it to be considered a truly clean source of energy.

When it comes to percent of clean energy meeting society’s needs, Iceland is a world leader. While its circumstances certainly cannot be replicated at will in other countries, teams from Iceland have been actively working around the globe to help develop other geothermal energy projects insofar as geological conditions permit. There are active volcanic regions on every continent of the Earth, and although they have often been regarded as dangers in the past, many of them hold future potential as abundant energy reserves. North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have all began developing geothermal energy systems, and in some cases Icelandic participation has contributed to their success substantially.

Diagram by Icelandic National Energy Authority

Although geothermal energy can provide an essentially endless supply of power, there are also potential dangers associated with over-development. The geothermal process is in some ways similar to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – which involves drilling into the earth and injecting fluids into shale rock layers in order to fracture the earth and release natural gas deposits. While fracking releases natural gases such as methane and other hydrocarbons, geothermal drilling only releases water vapor. Yet, in both cases, water is injected directly into the rock with the specific intention of causing fractures, which can cause small earthquakes to occur. However, these are often at a magnitude of around 1, which is unlikely to pose any real threat to infrastructure.

21st century prospects

Future geothermal projects in Iceland include the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), which plans to test the practice of boring over 5 kilometers into the earth in order to extract heat from some of Iceland’s largest geothermal reservoirs.

This depth, double that of conventional plants, is ambitious, but perhaps also dangerous. A feasibility report by the IDDP acknowledged the possibility of damage to geological features and formations, to wetlands and sensitive areas, and to local flora and fauna. However, these risks were deemed to be easily mitigated by undertaking the drilling far from roads. This would ensure that any damage is neither noticeable nor of any real social importance. The opposition to this project appears to be relatively silent, there has been very little activism on the issue, which suggests that there are no major concerns about the long-term risk of geothermal drilling to local communities. If all of this is correct, then the IDDP may represent a revolutionary step forward in renewable energy, allowing for much larger-scale extraction of geothermal resources that may further reduce the need for fossil fuels in grid distributed energy.

Photograph by Christopher Beddow

Iceland, while not without its troubles, has recently become one of the world’s wealthiest, most stable, and most energy independent nations, despite being isolated and economically poor only a century ago. This very same isolation has contributed to the need for local energy development, in what is referred to as a spatially segregated system rather than one which is well-integrated with neighboring countries.

As an island, Iceland has found that it is burdened with a more crucial need for self-sufficiency, and geothermal power has played a large part in achieving this. As the European nation continues to improve its own energy ecosystem, it has the noble goal of lending both knowledge and helping hands to other nations in their own endeavor for energy independence.

Geothermal energy as a whole is one of the many beacons of hope in our world’s future, and with sufficient effort and funding it has the potential to make other regions of the world as commendable and remarkable as the beautiful, volcano-covered country of Iceland.

World Population

Immigration waves in the USA and beyond

A symptom, not cause, of a growing and changing world

March 11th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Drew Angerer

Two minutes after midnight on October 12th, 1999, Adnan Nevic was born just outside Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was dubbed “Baby Six Billion”, as his birth marked not only the start of his own life but also the growth of human population beyond six billion worldwide.

Population had been growing rapidly since the industrial age, and today stands at over 7 billion. More than 26 million people have been born in 2015 alone, a result of continuously increasing birthrates. While China and India are the hosts to the world’s largest population, the United States is a distant third. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s birthrate is rising so quickly that it is expected to exceed the US, Brazil, and Indonesia in population by 2050 and reach nearly 1 billion by 2100.

In Nigeria, the reasons for such growth are many: a drop in both adult and infant mortality rates due to medical advancements, a growing economy, and a still fledgling use of contraception, among other factors. This is a typical pattern among countries in a similar situation, both past and present.

The United States, meanwhile, has grown to over 320 million in 2015. The first national census in 1790 recorded a population just shy of 4 million, with a growth rate of 3% per annum. This rate has gradually declined to around 1% today. One year, however, stands out from the others – 2000.

The dot-com boom had reached its peak after 1999, as growth in the internet sector fueled the economy before eventually bursting. Whilst this would have encouraged a higher birthrate, just as economic gains in developing countries have done, this was actually not the case. The net increase in population appears to have had its unique origin not in the country’s birth rate, but in immigration.

Immigration into the US

The year 2000 saw 28.4 million immigrants living in the United States, the largest number  that had ever been recorded. In 1990,  it was below 20 million. Today, it stands at over 40 million. These figures exclude undocumented immigrants, meaning population numbers are even higher in reality. Why did this rate spike so suddenly in 2000, and what drives over a million immigrants to enter the United States every year?

The dot-com boom of the 1990s undoubtedly made the United States an attractive destination for immigration. Economic opportunity appeared to be abundant, and demand for labor increased even despite the American birth rate barely being self-sustaining; that is, falling short of the required rate of 2 children per couple.

Neighboring Mexico supplies a large portion of the population of immigrants, largely due to the ease of movement across their shared border as opposed to having to travel overseas. Overall, 58 percent of immigrants to the US come from Latin America. This concept is commonly portrayed as a simple case of influx of labor into the job market, but this is not necessarily the case.

Emigration away from the US

In examining the reasons for this immigration wave and the momentum thereafter, it can be useful to ask a question about the behavior of another population: American emigrants. Over 800,000 Americans are legal residents in the EU, which is only a few thousand more than the oddly large American resident population in Mexico. Canada, the Philippines, Israel, Japan, and Brazil are among others with resident American populations in the tens of thousands and beyond.

Some of the most commonly cited reasons behind this emigration are business opportunities (oil in Dubai), cheaper economies (housing in Mexico), political atmospheres (freedoms in the Netherlands), religious reasons (Jewish diaspora to Israel), or access to government services (healthcare in Canada).

These reasons change throughout history, such as political emigrants leaving for Canada after the election of George W. Bush, which spiked minutely after the 2004 election, or the thousands who emigrated from the Confederate States of America to Brazil following the end of the Civil War in the 1860s. Even between 1999 and 2010, the economy had changed enough to cause a wave of emigration in search of better conditions.

All of this paints a picture of human migration in general – it happens for a variety of reasons, and tends to happen in waves following particularly significant events.

Economic and political change

The increase in Mexican immigrants in the United States, starting in 2000, can be attributed to people with low economic status seeking a better job market, access to better education and healthcare, a more politically and socially stable atmosphere, and an overall increase in quality of life.

Other immigrant groups may have spiked in different years, including Europeans after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Middle Eastern immigrants – both Muslim and Christian – seeking political and religious freedom in light of regional turmoil that continues today.

Photograph by Getty Images

Many countries around the world have seen similar waves of migration, including the influx of Jewish people into Israel following the 1940s, waves of European migration to such South American countries as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay in the 1800s, and the sudden departure of white South Africans following dramatic political shifts in 1990 marking the end of Apartheid.

In the end, these sorts of population spikes can always be attributed to a catalyst. That catalyst, however, is often difficult to identify in the modern day, as global society is perhaps more dynamic than ever. Such analysis tends to be easier looking back over several decades, as patterns in history become clearer, and yet the details more obscure.

Looking into the future

The most important lesson from examining spikes in population growth such as that in the United States in 2000 is that the reasons for any change in our global society are exceedingly complex. Human movement across boundaries is as old as the species itself, and will continue to be driven by new factors. The rate of Mexican immigration to the US is falling, while the number of Americans living abroad is increasing. This is a microcosm of the world at large, where the cultures, economies, and political institutions are becoming interwoven, spurring both change and conflict.

Worldwide, death rates will fall, longevity will rise, birth rates will increase, and net population will grow and grow. As seen in the United States, a minor challenge such as immigration policy can be over-emphasized and seen as a cause for division.

However, the major challenge is how political, economic, and social conditions will be transformed, preserved, and expanded in order to meet the needs of a human community that is changing and growing faster than ever before.

Nuclear Weapons

The resurgence of a nuclear USA and Russia

Rising tensions as Obama reverses his stance on disarmement

March 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Jewel Samad

“It is now three minutes to midnight.”

So began the most recent press release, dated Jan. 22, 2015, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the latest adjustment of the historic Doomsday Clock. The symbolic clock represents humanity’s proximity to total extinction. Midnight represents a global catastrophe caused by either nuclear war or climate change.

Dating back to its origin in 1947, the closest the clock has come to midnight was three minutes to midnight in 1984, when the United States deployed large numbers of missiles to Western Europe, further intensifying the arms race between the US and Soviet Union. Now, humanity has once again found itself nearing the brink thanks to the resurgence of nuclear weapons.

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, cited recent efforts by the US and Russia to modernise their nuclear arsenals as the reason for the clock’s adjustment. She stated that “global nuclear weapons modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity”.

Obama’s stance on the issue

In the eyes of many, the blame for this push toward human annihilation is the fault of 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, President Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama was given this award six years ago, just months into his presidency, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted how his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations”.

At the time, the committee had every reason to believe this was his true vision. After all, Mr. Obama had given a speech in Prague about six months prior in which he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Now, with the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency on the horizon, America finds itself in the midst of its most intense attempt to advance its nuclear weapons supply in decades. The Obama administration has initiated a program to modernise the almost 2,000 aging weapons of mass destruction that the United States can launch from an array of missiles, submarines and bombers.

According to a report released by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the plan will cost the US $1 trillion over the next 30 years, returning financial expenditures on nuclear weapons to Reagan-era peaks.

Jeffrey Lewis, a co-author of the report and member of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama’s plan is fiscally unrealistic. “There isn’t enough money,” he said. “You are going to get a train wreck.”

For many supporters of disarmament, this incredible reversal in President Obama’s policy is not only a disappointment, but an outright betrayal. In an interview with the New York Times, Sam Nunn, a former United States senator whose writings regarding nuclear disarmament influenced Obama’s previous stance, expressed his confusion.

“A lot of it is hard to explain,” said Nunn. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.”

Russia as a military threat

The factor responsible for this plan of nuclear modernisation that most analysts point to is Russia’s renewed interest in nuclear weapons. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently bragged on state-run television that US missile defense systems “cannot stop” Russian ballistic nuclear missiles. He went on to assert that Russian technology “shows that neither the current, nor even the projected American missile defense system could stop or cast doubt on Russia’ strategic missile potential.”

This posturing has been dismissed by many as merely being hegemonic rhetoric meant to deflect views that the country is becoming weak under a failing economy. “If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re trying to cling to and portray an image of Moscow as a superpower”, said former US ambassador Steven Pifer, “nuclear weapons is the only thing you have left to cite since the economy is suffering badly”.

Photograph by Getty Images

With the price of oil falling from over $100 a barrel at the end of 2013 to under $50 a barrel today, the Russian economy is struggling mightily. A recent series of studies conducted by the Economic Expert Group, a Russian consultancy, show that a $1 drop in the oil price per barrel leads to a massive loss of $2.3 billion in budget revenue.

Furthermore, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Donbass region of Ukraine have exasperated feelings of a “new Cold War”. Recent headlines have even featured mention of Russian spy rings being caught on American soil.

The world’s nuclear future

Sarah Lain, a research fellow and expert on Russia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, believes that Russia’s behavior is bringing about Cold War-esque relations through aggressive attempts to assert dominance, not only internationally, but also domestically.

“A lot of the information and claims from the Russian government are in some ways more directed toward the domestic audience” she says, “given the economic issues, demonstrating strength when there is weakness in domestic management”.

With Cold-War era relations returning to prominence and countries’ reliance on the power of their nuclear weapons arsenals increasing once again, it would seem the world is ticking quickly towards midnight.

National Security and Terrorism

Australia’s Orwellian data retention scheme

Government prepares to pass Data Interception and Retention bill

March 2nd 2015 | Perth | Angadjeet Sanghera

Photograph by Andrew Meares

“We are a free and fair nation, but that doesn’t mean we should let bad people play us for mugs, and all too often they have. Well that’s going to stop.”

These are the words of the Prime Minister Tony Abbott given in a speech on February 14th. ‘The Captain’, as he likes to refer to himself, was discussing terrorism in Australia with direct reference to the horrific actions which took place in the Martin Place siege in mid-December of last year.

“The rise of the Islamic death cult in the Middle East has seen the emergence of new threats where any extremist can grab a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim and carry out a terror attack.”

If you live in Australia you will often hear this rhetoric in the media, and it does not come without purpose. The current government, a coalition of centre-right Liberal Party members and right-wing National Party members, has recently faced unpopularity and backlash for having broken their election promises.

The issue they are now facing is on how to popularise and pass a Data Interception and Retention bill which will make it mandatory for ISPs to retain data for a period of 2 years. This comes only months after a similar law was passed in October last year, allowing ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) to spy on any number of computers with a single search warrant and to charge up to 10 years of jail time for any journalist or whistleblower who discloses information about operations undertaken in relation to the law.

Yet, the government seems to have overlooked the fact that Man Haron Monis, the Martin Place gunman, acted alone. How exactly would data interception help in the apprehension of criminals before a terror attack takes place, if they simply do not communicate their intentions to others?

What the government did know about Monis

According to the Martin Place Siege review, Monis was well known to the authorities. They had come into contact with him on numerous occasions since his arrival in 1996, even receiving calls from him with information related to terror attacks, but these were always deemed to lack credibility.

The Department of Immigration granted Monis a visa, not knowing at the time that his application was filed fraudulently. He had identified himself as a legal consultant to the Managing Director of the Iran Marine Structure Manufacture and Engineering Company; it was later revealed that he had never pursued any legal education or held such a position.

In the week prior to the siege, 18 calls were received regarding Monis, drawing attention to the posts on his Facebook page. The report states that an ASIO analyst with relevant foreign language skills had reviewed his social media presence and found that it did not indicate a desire or intent to engage in terrorism. The report also mentioned that it would not address the method Monis used to obtain an illegal firearm and ammunition, stating that this information may be released in the upcoming coroner’s review.

It seems that the government was aware of the risk Monis posed, yet chose to ignore him as a threat despite all the evidence. It is unclear whether a Data Retention Scheme would have made any difference in this case.

The costs of operating a Data Retention Scheme

It is hard to understand how, in a post-Snowden revelations world, such an idea can even be proposed knowing full well that our information is already shared freely among other member states of the Five Eyes Alliance. All this would do is make it easier and allow for the interception of data to take place on a larger scale.

On top of that, we have no idea who will have to pay the costs of this massive undertaking. When the Vertigan report was released in August 2014, which government had used to justify its plans for a nationwide broadband project, it was shown that they had seriously misunderstood internet usage trends. The report stated that demand for internet speed is expected to rise at a constant rate, despite all other reports stating that demand has been rising at an exponential rate.

What this means is that the data centres which will be required to house all of this data would need constant upgrading as the internet evolves, and with it the amount of data being transmitted between users.

Photograph by Lars P.

iiNet, one of the major providers of internet in the country, recently released an infographic which calculated that a data centre capable of storing 30 petabytes of data a month would cost an entire $130 million a year in electricity, infrastructure and hardware.

And yet, nobody has even come close to commenting on what the cost is going to be of having to pay analysts to break down and decipher the newer and tougher forms of data encryption that are beginning to appear in response to Snowden leaks.

What this means for future generations

Tony Abbott has been known in the past to have said that certain freedoms will have to be “sacrificed” in order to ensure increased security. This means that he understands and acknowledges that government will be infringing on people’s rights, and especially our rights to freedom of speech and expression.

The truth of the matter is that when a society is presented with something like data interception, there is little policing required, because people tend to censor themselves. When the evolution of society is dependent on the youth’s ability to challenge old ideas, the question then becomes: what will happen to society once this ability is taken away?

Space Exploration

Red Earth – can life grow on Mars?

Exploring Martian soil and NASA’s ‘Spuds in Space’

February 20th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow


Photograph by NASA

In the year 2000, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) supported a project called Spuds in Space, where simulated Martian soil called JSC Mars-1 and potato seedlings were transported off the earth on the space shuttle Atlantis.

The idea was to see if the crop would grow in a combination of alien soil and the artificial atmosphere of a space shuttle. The potato would theoretically provide food while also, along with other possible plants, initiating the natural process of cleaning the air from carbon dioxide. This was a small experiment, initiated with the help of middle school students in potato-famous Idaho; its repercussions, however, could emerge decades later in real Martian soil.

The potato has evolved to grow on earth only in certain conditions. Like any plant it has its native environment, as well as a range of regions where it has been successfully introduced. Mars may not be Antarctica or the Sahara Desert, but despite having abundant topsoil it still has more extreme variables than anywhere on earth – more solar radiation, a different atmospheric content, and lower atmospheric pressure. The Spuds in Space project was designed to find out whether or not the potato could be grown in Martian soil with human-controlled conditions such as protection from radiation, adjusted pressure, and an artificial atmosphere. With these measures in place, the only remaining question is whether or not Mars’s red soil itself would capable of nourishing a potato just as well as a field outside of Idaho Falls. The answer lies in an examination of the makeup of Martian soil.

Martian soil

Instruments onboard the Viking lander began collecting information about Martian soil after reaching Mars in the summer of 1976. Over two decades later, the Sojourner lander of the Mars Pathfinder also reached the Martian surface and gathered more up to date readings. In 1998, researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center began to develop JSC Mars-1 soil after determining its properties were very similar to the soil near the famous Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea. This soil is tephra, a layer of volcanic ash which has been an integral part of agriculture in many regions of the world including Polynesia and Iceland.

However, Martian soil can vary greatly in its composition, and it is not all tephra. JSC-1 Mars corresponds very likely to the brightest red areas of the Martian surface. Meanwhile, many other properties of the soil are unknown. Since 2008, it has continued to be tested for nutrients, acidity, and other properties that shape how it may interact with organic compounds and biological organisms. The essential ingredients for life appear to be a combination of these organic compounds – that is, chemical compounds containing carbon with both water and heat. While the surface of Mars is known to reach up to 20 degrees centigrade, the sort of heat involved in biogenesis is more akin to something found in a volcanic environment. Water, meanwhile, was not known to exist on Mars until very recently when the Curiosity rover confirmed that in some places it was notably abundant in the soil.

The low heat on Mars suggests that life may not form on a whim, but what if it were indeed introduced in the form of an already existing Earthly seed? Indeed, there is a possibility that the potato, among other plants, could be grown on Mars if the conditions are compatible.

Photograph by Bryan Versteeg

Atmospheric pressure would have to be controlled much like the pressure in the cabin of an airliner, most likely using a greenhouse-like structure. Plants grow poorly in low pressure areas like that on Mars, even if they are given an earth-like atmospheric content and are protected from high levels of radiation. Providing additional water, whilst difficult, would be made much more convenient if it becomes possible to collect it at volume on Mars itself.

Agricultural prospects

The solution to the potato question, then, lies in engineered adaptation. Explorers to the Americas found that, just like in modern experiments with Martian soil, many of their crops did not comply well with the new environment despite having rich soil. Failure to predict which crops would thrive brought the risk of starvation, but also forced adaptation on the part of humans. Luckily, many were able to experiment with local crops as well as new forms of agriculture often learned from natives. With Mars, modern technology presents the novel approach of modifying plants on a genetic level to adjust to lower pressures rather than undergoing trial and error like in the past. This could serve to eliminate the need for excessive water use and may even pave the way for further modifications involving the types of atmospheric gases a plant can tolerate and the amount of radiation it can withstand – although that is pure speculation at this point in time.

Viking settlers in Iceland triggered a process of ecological changes that lasted until the 20th Century, leaving much of the island’s surface as barren as Mars itself. After NASA’s own Viking landers reached Mars, we have begun a new era of exploration that, this time, comes with a degree of ecological caution as we consider not only the romance of human presence on Mars but the sustainability of such an endeavour. To survive without costly and life-or-death dependency on our home, a human settlement on Mars would most certainly need to develop self-sufficiency in the long term.

Future spuds

Fundamentally, the great promise of the Spuds in Space concept and the research that has come in the nearly two decades following is that humanity is taking careful steps to understand the importance and opportunity of agriculture beyond our planet. Experiments with JSC-1 Mars soil have found that potatoes, among other edible plants, can indeed be grown if the environment is controlled.

There may be no life to be found on Mars just yet, but it appears to be only a matter of time before we set foot onto its surface and, quite literally, seek to take root in a new, red earth.

USA – Saudi Arabia Relationship

Politics trump issues of Human Rights

Obama visits Saudi Arabia amidst renewed tensions

February 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (Reuters)

Photograph by Jim Bourg (Reuters)

On Jan. 26 2015, former schoolteacher Moussa al-Zahrani likely spent much of his morning alone in his jail cell. If he had not already stirred by sunrise, he would have been awoken by prison guards – though he was almost certainly restless due to what awaited him. At that point, he was served his final breakfast and, if he was exceptionally lucky, was slipped a sedative to relax him.

Al-Zahrani had been convicted of sexually assaulting children in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Middle Eastern ally apart from Israel. Despite protests from human rights organizations asserting that a great deal of the evidence against al-Zahrani had been falsified, his execution by beheading was only a matter of minutes away.

Following morning prayers, al-Zahrani was quickly taken from his cell in the city of Jeddah, handcuffed and blindfolded, to his ultimate resting place in an effort to beat the stifling desert heat. In Jeddah, the location is a central square in town, though it lacks the notoriety of Riyadh’s Deera Square, better known by the surrounding citizens by its more ghoulish sobriquet “Chop Chop Square”.

When he arrived at the town square, a crowd undoubtedly gathered. English writer John R. Bradley wrote in his book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside A Kingdom In Crisis” that in this particular area, “executions are the only form public entertainment…apart from football matches”.

He would then be led to the earthy patch in the center of the square. According to Muhmmad Saad al-Beshi, a prolific executioner notorious for allowing his seven children to clean his sword following an execution, it is at this point that the prisoner will acquiesce to the events occurring around him due to a combination of exhaustion and fear.

After all of the preparation has occurred without disturbance, as it did for al-Zahrani, death arrives swiftly for the condemned. “The head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard”, wrote Janine Di Giovanni in Newsweek.

For many, however, the celebration of their death does not end once their head has been removed. A loudspeaker announces the crime for which the deceased has been executed, at which point people begin to applaud.

This macabre practice is nearly identical to the handiwork of the brutal Islamic State. However, Saudi Arabia, as one of the United State’s premier sources for crude oil and a widely cited asset against the war on terror, remains one of America’s closest allies. So close, in fact, that President Barack Obama deplaned the day after al-Zahrani’s execution.

Our so-called “allies”

Long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but especially since their occurrence, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the more complex around the world. Osama bin Laden and 15 of 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks were Saudi nationals, initiating an enormous amount of American backlash against Saudi Arabia.

A 2002 report on terrorist financing conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank that has had more than a dozen Secretaries of State and numerous other high-level politicians on its board, found that “individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem”.

Animosity toward the Saudi Arabians over this issue has persisted even to present day, as recent reports by CNN have been championing new allegations that members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda. In a sworn statement, Zacarias Moussaoui, the man frequently described as the 20th 9/11 hijacker, claimed he was tasked by Bin Laden with creating a digital database of al-Qaeda’s donors. According to Moussaoui, individuals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal Al Saud, the former director-general of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and ambassador to the United States, appeared on that list.

Max Rodenbeck, writing for the New York Review of Books in 2004, concluded that the American public and political system had a mental image of Saudi Arabia as a sort of “oily heart of darkness, the wellspring of a bleak, hostile value system that is the very antithesis of our own. America’s seventy-year alliance with the kingdom has been reappraised as a ghastly mistake, a selling of the soul, a gas-addicted dalliance with death”.

The relationship became so strained that, according to the Washington Post, a stunning proposal was made by the RAND Corporation, a prestigious think tank financed by the United States government, to the Defense Policy Board, an arm of the Department of Defense. In the proposal, it was suggested the United States should consider “taking [the] Saudi out of Arabia” by forcibly seizing the oil fields and delegating control of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca to a multinational committee of moderate Muslims.

“Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies”, argued Laurent Murawiec, the presenter of this idea and a protégé of Richard Perle’s, an advocate of war with Iraq who chaired the Policy Board. “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleaders”. He went on to describe them as “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.

Sentiments of intense hostility were just as prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A survey taken by the Saudi intelligence service of “educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41” taken during Oct. 2001 found that “95 percent” of those surveyed supported the actions taken by Bin Laden.

Even the Saudi Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, repeatedly insisted that the Saudi hijackers from 9/11 were merely dupes in a Zionist plot to incite hatred against Saudi Arabia.

On Oct. 2, 2002, with tensions at an all-time high, President George W. Bush and Congress agreed on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War. It was under that context that a young, fresh-faced man who was a few months away from announcing his first campaign for the United States Senate stepped to the podium in front of the first high-profile anti-Iraq War rally in Chicago.

“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hopes, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

The fiery conviction with which Barack Obama delivered these remarks serve only as a reminder of the naïve idealism that marked his earlier political career, a relic that President Obama likely no longer remembers as he is forced to deal with the complexity of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Balancing barbarism with stability

After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Jan. 23, 2015, it was announced that President Obama would be visiting the country to pay his respects to the leader he praised, mentioning specifically “the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”.

To the United States, Saudi Arabia is a key ally. So key, in fact, that the Obama administration has taken great lengths to assure the Saudi leadership that they are working together. Obama acquiesced to Saudi interests in regards to Egypt’s post-revolution political shift and the two are currently working together on combating the Islamic State as the group pushes toward the Saudi Arabian border.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have also worked together recently to plunge the price of oil, thereby tanking the weak oil-based economies of Russia and Iran. The move boosts both countries’ economies and severely weakens two of their biggest foes. It is a move of economic clout, showcasing just how powerful the U.S.-Saudi friendship is on the global stage.

It is for this reason that issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia have been set firmly on the back burner by the United States. In the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Saudi kingdom has received a great deal of scrutiny for their harsh and brutal retribution against criminals and political dissidents. Blogger Raef Badawi, for the crime of insulting Islam, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, fined $267,000 and ordered to receive 1,000 public lashes.

A recent article in the Washington Post compared the legal punishments doled about by Saudi Arabia with those administered by the Islamic State. The results were shockingly identical. For simple theft, both will amputate the hands and feet of the thief. For adultery while married, the punishment is death by stoning. For blasphemy, acts of homosexuality, treason or murder, the sentence is death, typically by beheading.

Both the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are governed by strict interpretations of Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran. The obvious major distinction, however, is that Saudi Arabia is a close economic and political partner. It is for this reason that the Saudis do not have the president blasting them for what he said were “barbaric” punishments when the Islamic State performed them.

Political strategy

Before making this latest trip to Saudi Arabia, President Obama acknowledged it’s human rights record and, far from the idyllic rhetoric from 2002, asserted that America would have to overlook it for the sake of politics.

“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” he told CNN.

The idea is not new, but the increasingly complex relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, as well as the willful ignorance toward their human rights policy only serves to drive home the fact that modern political strategy does not allow for idealism or helping people. It merely permits or, in some instances, limits those in power to striving to protect national interests and nothing more.

Click here to see BBC’s video on Saudi Arabia.

Scottish Independence Referendum

The United Kingdom’s uncertain future

Scotland prepares to vote on national independence

September 7th 2014 | Brussels | Bartu Kaleagasi

Photo by Stuart Forster

Photograph by Stuart Forster (REX)

In 1707, the Kingdom of Scotland joined the Kingdom of England to form one country: the United Kingdom.

In 2014, this 300-year old union as we know it could come to an end. On September 18th, Scottish residents – including those who only hold EU citizenship – will be voting on a referendum with the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”.

If over 50% of people vote ‘YES’, the UK government has stated that Scotland would “become an independent country after a process of negotiations”. The campaign in favour of Scottish independence has been led by “Yes Scotland“, whilst those who are against the idea of dismantling the UK have been represented by “Better Together“.

Today, for the first time ever, an opinion poll by YouGov predicted that 51% of the electorate would vote ‘YES’, with only 49% voting against Scotland’s secession. However, the latest average of all polls, issued by Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, still suggests that only 45% of people would vote in favour of Scottish independence, with over 55% voting ‘NO’.

Although many Scots are keen to enjoy greater national sovereignty, the question of independence is marred with several issues such as currency adoption, EU membership, oil reserves, and university fees. Yet, Scottish independence has grown to become more than just an economic debate; it represents Scotland’s desire to break free from the influence of Westminster and obtain greater democratic power.


Pound sterling, the official currency of the United Kingdom, is used in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This begs the question: what will Scotland use if it declares independence?

At the parliament in Westminster, New Labour, Lib Dems, and Conservatives have all agreed not to allow Scotland’s continued use of the pound if it decides to leaves the UK. Whilst most unionists support this decision, separatists are in complete disagreement. According to renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz, Westminster is simply bluffing its opposition to economic union with an independent Scotland. He argues that, given how intertwined the English and Scottish economies are, the UK will allow Scotland to continue using the pound regardless of the referendum’s outcome.

Another option, known as ‘sterlingisation’, would be for Scotland to continue using the pound without any explicit permission from the UK. Advocates of this approach, such as the Adam Smith Institute, have cited  the ‘dollarisation’ of nations such as Panama as successful examples of this method. However, unionists have pointed out that the lack of a Central Bank would limit Scotland’s ability to bail-out its financial sector and would also be problematic with regards to EU membership.

As a last resort, Scotland could also either join the euro, or establish its own new currency. Yet, both of these propositions are relatively risky. Adopting the euro, despite its many benefits and historical legitimacy, is not a popular policy in Scotland – mainly due to fears arising from the recent Eurozone crisis. As to the prospect of floating a new currency, it would lead to higher transaction costs with England – Scotland’s largest trading partner – as well as substantial transitional costs in the short-run.

The European Union

EU membership is another area of concern for Scotland’s independence, and several conflicting statements have been made on the issue so far.

Vivian Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, stated that “EU treaties would no longer apply to a territory when it secedes from a member state”. Furthermore, Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, announced that “an independent Scotland would have to apply for membership, while the rest of the UK would continue to be a member”, and reiterated that Scotland joining the EU would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible“. According to this view, if Scotland declares independence, it will have to go through a lengthy and complicated process of accession into the EU.

However, EU court judges and legal scholars have disagreed. Given that there is no case precedent for partial secession of an EU member-state’s territory, it has been argued that EU law takes a pragmatic and purposive approach and would thus amend its treaties to accommodate Scotland’s unique circumstances. According to this view, EU nations would make sure that Scotland retains membership even if it does separate from the UK.


Even if average poll predictions are correct and a majority of Scotland votes ‘NO’ on this referendum, the UK government will still be devolving several powers to the Scottish government.

This agreement, which was reached between the two governments through the Scotland Act of 2012, is a strategic move by Westminster to convince Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. Although it may be true that these powers will be passed on to Scotland, separatists are clearly looking for more independence and greater democracy than what the UK is willing to give up through devolution.

The result

Above all, Scottish independence would be a substantial victory for the nation’s progressive movements. For decades, Scotland’s political representation has been tied down to Westminster’s neo-conservative Parliament. An independent Scotland would offer an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the welfare safety net, prevent the privatisation of the NHS, remove corporate interests from politics, and keep the austerity agenda at bay.

We do not want to see the United Kingdom torn apart, we do not want to see it lose its position as a global superpower, and we do not want to see its 300-year old political union with Scotland take a massive step backwards. However, if an independent Scotland means more democratic representation – which it might – then we fully support whichever decision the Scottish people choose to make on September 18th.