Saturday, the 5th of September

Talking Points

Tensions boil over in the disputed Himalayas. PHOTO: Bloomberg
  1. A China-India border clash left one dead, prompting retaliation
  2. Typhoon Maysak sank a cattle ship with 43 crew on board
  3. Samsung heir Jay Y. Lee was indicted, but avoided jail
  4. Canada and the Netherlands joined the Myanmar genocide case
  5. The Afghan peace process took a halting step forward
  6. Sudan signed a long-awaited peace deal in Darfur
  7. Facebook announced a pre-vote ban on political ads
  8. Protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, continued unabated
  9. Joe Kennedy III ended a dynastic winning-streak in Massachusetts
  10. Bering Sea winter ice cover hit a 1,000-year low

Deep Dive

A mural to those killed in 2015. AFP

In France, the trial of accomplices to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack has opened. To mark the occasion, the magazine republished the very material that provoked that attack. It might be a last rage against the dying of the light – France's tradition of free speech is no longer the indelible right it once was.

The quill and the assault rifle

In Sunni Islam, visual depictions of the prophets are strictly prohibited. This is doubly true for the principal figure among them, Muhammad. This rule is not drawn from the Qu'ran (which does not make a position explicit) but rather several of the hadiths. In the last two decades satirical and mocking images of Muhammad have cropped up in Europe, most famously in the 2005 Jyllands-Posten controversy (in which one cartoon depicted Mohammad with a bomb in his turban). As protests raged around the Muslim world over the slight, the French left-wing satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo not only republished those cartoons but in subsequent years added their own variations on the theme.

These offensive cartoons proliferated, becoming a source of pride for the fiercely iconoclastic publication. Several in 2012 depicted the prophet, and earned Charlie Hebdo's editor a spot on Al Qaeda's widely-published hit list. But forewarned was not, in this case, forearmed. On the 7th of January 2015, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi walked into the Charlie Hebdo office on Rue Nicolas-Appert. Just as the magazine's staff were sitting in an editorial meeting, the two French Muslim brothers began shooting. Over the course of the next 15 minutes they would murder 12 people and wound 11 more. Among the dead were the editor Stéphane Charbonnier and several high-profile cartoonists. It was the start of a rampage that would leave 17 people dead in two attacks – a portent of the wave of Islamist terrorism that would rock France in the years that followed.

Neither brother would survive the week, though 14 of their alleged accomplices did. This week they went on trial for providing material assistance to terrorists .

A hill to die on

To mark the occasion, Charlie Hebdo republished its offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Some habits die very hard. It drew a barrage of criticism from Pakistan , Egypt, and a number of other Muslim countries (see the above image).

French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in on the debate in a televised tribute to the Charlie Hebdo victims, reminding his constituents of their "freedom to blaspheme". The French have good reason to cherish their principles of free speech. They were laid out in a seminal revolutionary text, the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, in 1789. This sparse tract on human rights was penned by Abbé Sieyès and the Marquis de Lafayette – with a cameo writer's credit to one of America's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. It enshrined an intellectual framework that would later come to define the Republic (if not its semi-regular imperial transformations). And it would also heavily influence the United Nations' own Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Charlie Hebdo's lawyer, Richard Malka had this to say about the current climate, "freedom of expression is threatened today, and no less than it was five years ago. Strangely, the appetite for censorship has migrated from right to left, under the principle of 'no one should be offended'. But to avoid offending anyone, you'd have to live in a cave." Malka's problem is that France increasingly does not agree with the principle that he is lamenting the loss of. When polled as to whether they supported "the right to criticise, even outrageously, a religious belief, symbol, or dogma" only half the respondents agreed. Those who disagreed had an average age of 25, pointing to a significant cultural and demographic trend away from a freedom at the heart of French identity.

Two rubbish Voltaire quotes and one keeper

Whenever fee speech gets challenged in France, you can bet your best bonnet that people will start brandishing Voltaire's witticisms like rapiers. The 18th century French philosopher's most famous contributions to modern discourse are his rallying cry for free speech ("I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it") and an anti-authoritarian barb ("To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise"). Fake news. Unfortunately, Voltaire didn't utter or write either statement. We can thank his biographer for the first, and the American neo-Nazi Kevin Alfred Strom for the second.

In any case, those who furnish Voltaire (mangled quotes and all) to defend the untrammelled free speech miss an important fact; that the man, while a thorn in the side of the Catholic establishment, strived for religious tolerance. Voltaire grew up in a polity that still bore the scars of the Huguenot-Catholic bloodletting which had left 3 million of his countryfolk dead in the 16th century. Indeed, the quote we should commit to memory (and this one has truer provenance) is that "tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage".


Paul Rusesabagina. PHOTO: Bloomberg

A hero's downfall

During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, an estimated 900,000 ethnic Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) were killed by the Hutu Power movement, backed by the government in Kigali. The horror of the violence is hard to overstate as the majority of the victims – men, women, and children – were hacked to pieces with machetes. The wholesale slaughter revived a civil war between the government and the Tutsi-led rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The rebels encircled the capital and eventually defeated an army that was preoccupied with hunting down Tutsis. There are two people who stood out as heroes during the genocide and subsequent downfall of the Hutu government: a hotelier named Paul Rusesabagina (immortalised in the film Hotel Rwanda ) and the RPF commander Paul Kagame.

Rusesabagina managed the Hôtel des Mille Collines in the capital. When the genocide began he shielded displaced Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the building. Through bribes and pleas for clemency, Rusesabagina managed to deter the local Hutu Interahamwe génocidaires from entering the hotel. He's credited with saving 1,200 lives. Following the war, Rusesabagina emigrated to the United States where he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But he continued to be an outspoken critic of the Rwandan government now led by none other than Kagame. The former rebel commander, having brilliantly overcome a far superior force, became the de facto leader of Rwanda in 1994. In 2003, Kagame assumed the office of President and since then he has slowly entrenched himself as an autocrat. He's won widely-criticised elections, most recently taking 99% of the vote in 2017.

But Western powers have come to rely on Kagame's 'strong pair of hands', especially given the unrest next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and so they turn a Nelson's eye to his increasingly dictatorial behaviour. The president's opponents have a habit of being stabbed or shot in exile. This week Rusesabagina paid a terrible price for angering the erstwhile hero: he was snatched from Dubai and flown to Kigali, where he is being held on terrorism charges . Such indictments are a cudgel used by Kagame to stifle any stirring opposition parties, and as such should be treated with great scepticism.

Blood samples being sorted in a US vaccine trial. PHOTO: AFP

A vaccine in November?

This week, the United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) sent a letter to the states: prepare for a coronavirus vaccine by November 1 . The letter encouraged the states to clear regulatory or logistical bottlenecks that would prevent the distribution of a vaccine. A momentous breakthrough. On the greatest public health challenge of our time. Just two days before the 2020 Presidential Election. A coincidence?

Given that the White House's pandemic response has ranged from vastly-incompetent to vaguely-homicidal, this seemed a welcome piece of press. And that, sadly, may well have been the entire point of the exercise. This week US infectious diseases supremo Anthony Fauci told Congress that it is conceivable, but unlikely , that a vaccine will be ready soon.

The three Western vaccine front-runners are AstraZeneca (in partnership with Oxford University), Moderna, and a joint effort between Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech . All have entered stage three (human clinical) trials. GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi are also in the race, and not far behind. AstraZeneca is signalling that it aims to have a vaccine by the end of the year – a mind-boggling feat given the time normally needed for research, development, and testing. The company has already pre-sold tens of millions of doses to the European Union. This all sounds very promising. However, the interim step between the final trials and mass-production is a months-long process of scientific and regulatory review. Developing an effective vaccine is one thing, developing one that is safe is quite another.

The US Food and Drug Administration is in a bind, caught between the limitations of scientific review and the wrath of a president whose reelection may hinge on their findings. The novel coronavirus Covid-19 has infected over 6 million Americans and killed just shy of 190,000 of them. An unsafe vaccine could visit unintended damage on millions more.

The Best of Times

Pretty in pink PHOTO: Ruben Neugebauer

Touch sensitive

Electronic silicon skin capable of detecting both heat and pressure at the same speed as flesh has been developed by a team of scientists out of Melbourne, Australia. Not only does this development raise hopes for even better prosthetic limbs, it also has the potential to serve as an alternative to painful skin grafts. The gift of touch.

The bee's knees

Bee venom has been found to be extremely potent against breast cancer cells — killing 100% of triple-negative and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells within 60 minutes. It does this by infiltrating the cell’s surface, and creating holes in them, causing the cells to die. Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 10-15% of all cases and currently has no clinically-effective targeted therapies.

The Worst of Times

A vision of hell in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: The Telegraph

Saudi preventative detention

This week The Telegraph exposed hundreds, if not thousands, of African migrants who are being held in Saudi Arabian detention centres as a means of preventing coronavirus outbreaks. Photos show dozens of people packed into small rooms with barred-windows — many of them with scars from being beaten with whips and electrical cords. Some have been there for five months, struggling even to get enough water and food to survive.

A hole at the top of the world

A 50-metre-deep crater was discovered in Siberia this week, in yet another physical manifestation of the effects of climate change. As the permafrost melts, methane builds up underground, and eventually an explosion ensues. When it does, copious amounts of methane are released into the air — and, of course, huge holes are left in the ground. Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its heat-absorption. Bad news indeed.

Weekend Reading

The image

Scotsman Andy Murray slumps to a loss at the US Open. Photograph supplied by Evening Standard.

The quote

" I refused these conditions and told them I would only accept a translation with no cut of any sort ."

French economist, Thomas Piketty , who is attempting to have his latest work ‘Capital and Ideology’ sold in China without any cuts. Good luck .

The numbers


- The percentage of anti-vaccine misinformation that social media giants failed to remove from their platforms. Yikes.


- Facebook was also in the news for threatening to cut off Australian users from news on the platform. This figure is the number of clicks that took users from Facebook’s newsfeed to Australian news websites in the first five months of 2020.

The headline

"Most of Scottish Wikipedia was written in garbled Scots by an American teen" Input .

The special mention

Getting high in Los Angeles is a lifestyle choice. Some take it further than others. Our special mention this week goes to the person, whoever and wherever they may be, who flew a jetpack alongside planes at 3,000ft over LAX airport. ‘Only in LA’, said one of the pilots who witnessed the event.

A few choice long-reads

Tom Wharton