Drowning in Blackwater Private security firm has been getting away with murder in Iraq

The suggested retail price of an Iraqi civilian’s life? $8 million. Last Tuesday, Reuters reported that the Iraqi government is asking that amount from Blackwater, the private security firm, to compensate the families of 17 Iraqis killed in a September 16 shootout.

According to an investigation initiated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Blackwater agents “deliberately killed” innocent civilians in Baghdad on Sept. 16. The Iraqi government says the shootings were unprovoked and therefore the contractors must be tried for murder.

Politicians and policymakers can create as many investigative committees as they would like (there are already at least three underway), but it is unlikely the American and Iraqi government will ever agree on how the tragedy unfolded. A lack of accountability is the issue getting lost in this storm of he said, she said. There is no collective agreement because the shooters were not American soldiers and investigation cannot be completed as easily as it would be for an army caravan.

Upwards of 30,000 Blackwater agents are employed in Iraq, protecting diplomats and officials considered to be high-risk targets. After the U.S. Army, private military contractors are the largest non-Iraqi force in the country.

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince defended his employees during a Congressional hearing last week, arguing that those in the convoy on Sept. 16 had lawfully defended the caravan after they were attacked from the crowd. But past episodes have shown that even if Blackwater agents do kill innocents, the repercussions are few in a country where scores die every day.

Last Christmas Eve, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed one of Iraqi Vice President’s bodyguards. The employee was fired and rushed out of the country but he has yet to be charged. Blackwater employees cannot be prosecuted under Iraqi law, ever since U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremner issued an order giving them immunity in the aftermath in the U.S. invasion. Only after the latest incident did Congress pass a law making security contractors in Iraq subject to U.S. law. For every event that the U.S. State Department ignores, they condone Blackwater’s mistakes. These people are performing the duties of soldiers and should be treated as such—that means the same punishment and the same paycheque—but private contractors in Iraq are paid nine times as much as uniformed men and women.

With such a difference in salary, no wonder there is a growing suspicion that the company is not only getting paid to protect American officials, but also to do the dirty work so that the U.S. military can wash their hands clean. Why else would America be willing to turn their head the other way, knowing that Blackwater members are a reflection of the military and Americans in Iraq? The only possibilities are that the command was so distracted and disorganized that they were unaware of the boundaries crossed by the private company, or that they were willing to overlook the lost lives of innocents for the end result a safer environment for U.S. officials. This mindset makes the United States military no different from the terrorists who justify their means by their ends.

There’s an elephant in the investigation rooms in Washington. The reality of the situation is that American forces are heavily dependent on Blackwater. The firm’s employees are highly trained and specialized and the United States simply cannot afford to take over all operations. A report from National Public Radio said that if Blackwater was forced to leave the area, America would need to deploy another 500,000 troops in their place. In an already unpopular war, neither Democrats nor Republicans want to talk about sending more young men and women overseas. While government officials waste their time arguing over who fired the first shot, Blackwater will most likely maintain their status in Iraq because there is no clean alternative. Hopefully, public scrutiny will ensure closer supervision by the State Department, as promised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

When almost every headline reports another casualty, it’s easy to grow numb to the cost of war. The victims in that square in September included a 20-year-old medical student and his mother, brothers, cousins, and children. They were not soldiers, but citizens holding on to every thread of hope and faith to continue with their daily lives in a war-torn country. Had this happened anywhere in West, the world would have stood still. In Iraq however, it seems the culprits can simply drive their armoured SUVs away.

Naked streets get you there fast (and happy)

A European urban street design approach shown to reduce traffic and increase pedestrian space might make its way to Toronto, after being discussed at last week’s Walk21 conference, which aimed to build healthy, efficient walking communities.

Shared streets first appeared in the Netherlands 40 years ago, when Dutch engineer Hans Monderman started designing intersections without traffic signals or markings.

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman said.

“To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

Monderman’s concept supposes that shared streets don’t need signs and markings because people are guided by the physical design of the streets themselves. He suggested that people take fewer risks when unaware of their driving environment and as a result, will drive at slower speeds and use more caution when in traffic.

He argued that removing simple separations and directives from roads forces people and cars to think as they negotiate their way through space.

“When you don’t exactly know who has right of way, you tend to seek eye contact with other road users,” said Monderman. “You automatically reduce your speed, you have contact with other people and you take greater care.”

Shared streets are designed to be part of the public area, not just an outlet for traffic. Vehicles are considered as users who take up space, on equal footing with pedestrians and other road users. Rather than setting cars and pedestrians against each other for street space, shared streets integrate them together as a whole. Therefore, according to the principle, all users have equal access and control of the street.

The idea is to make street users understand that they’re in a shared environment, and then behave accordingly. Since Monderman’s Dutch creation, shared streets—or “naked streets,” as streets are “stripped” of signs and markings—have been making their way all over northern Europe, to the UK and most recently, to the streets of New York City

Searching for privacy

There is something about the relationship of a person and an Internet search engine that should involve complete anonymity. We type in a few words, they belch out a few more. Generally speaking, such an arrangement works well, and we don’t have to worry about whether somebody from the other side of the globe is viewing our house at that instant. Unfortunately, in parts outside of Canada, people do. Google Maps has implemented a “Street View” function, which allows users to zoom close enough to identify faces or license plates. Fortunately, in Canada, where reason and thought process play a much bigger role in politics than they do in the United States, this spiffy new Google feature will require the blurring of faces and other personal objects.

Is blurring really enough? There are always other ways to identify someone, namely by their body type or clothing, or even by where they are located. An eerie camera-happy world is steadily descending upon us, slipping into our streets and our intersections subtly, feeding the concept of privacy to a new technological monster that wants to see everybody in great upclose clarity. We have cameras virtually everywhere. They’re placed strategically on intersections, in schools, in stores, in workplaces, and even in some public washrooms. Our world is bloated with clever ways to monitor and control.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the cameras we encounter on a day-to-day basis and those that would allow us to be seen from hundreds, even thousands of miles away by people we’ve never met. The former protect us from theft, vandalism, and other such threats prevalent in society today, and the latter are there simply for the reason of… wait, what are they there for exactly? Surely purchasing a simple road map at the local hardware store shouldn’t be that hard. And if Google is assuming that people need to zoom in that close to find a location, then their picture of humans in general is unintelligent.

Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act requires all private companies to obtain consent from individuals before making public any image of them, which may affect the Google tool’s introduction to Canada if the images are not sufficiently censored. All this being said, the question remains: is this enough protection? Do we really want our houses, not to mention us, displayed on the Internet, where millions will have access to the images, blurred or not? As individuals, we should maintain strict personto- computer relationships that exist with search engines like Google. We search. They give us results. They don’t publicly display where we live or what we’re doing sitting on a park bench eating an ice-cream.

Wintersleep rise and shine

Tireless east-coast rockers Wintersleep have been a busy band this year. Last week they released a new record, Welcome to the Night Sky, on a new record label, and have just embarked on a cross-country tour with a new bass player.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of news, I guess,” said singer Paul Murphy on the phone from his home in Halifax.

The changes began back in the summer of 2006 when Wintersleep were approached by Labwork, a new record label started as a partnership between indie imprint/institution Sonic Union and EMI Canada. Labwork made Wintersleep their first signees and quickly saw to re-releasing the band’s excellent first two LPs Wintersleep, and Untitled.

So, considering the dual nature of Labwork’s partnership, is the label an indie or a major? “It makes them an indie label with the possibility of major label involvement,” said Murphy over the background din of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. “It’s an indie with perks.”

One such perk was having “Weighty Ghost,” the first single off Welcome to the Night Sky, remixed by Michael Bauer (Coldplay, My Morning Jacket). Another was working with producer Tony Doogan (known for his knob twisting with artists like Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, and David Byrne), who flew from his home base in Glasgow, Scotland to record Welcome to the Night Sky in Halifax.

“He was amazing,” said the always affable Murphy of Doogan. “It seemed like he was an actual member in the band. He knew how to get really good takes out of us.”

For Wintersleep, Welcome to the Night Sky will be their last record with bass player Judd Haynes, who left the band right after recording was finished to spend more time at his job as a graphic designer.

“Going on tour for two months at a time just got to be too much for him, and he knew we would be really busy with this new record,” said Murphy.

Stepping in to fill Haynes’ place on bass is Mike Bigelow (of Holy Fuck) who actually played keys in Wintersleep once upon a time.

Known for being rampant road warriors, I asked Murphy about Wintersleep’s upcoming tour and what he liked least about being away from home. “Right now I can’t think of anything bad about being on tour, I’m just really excited to go back on the road. The best thing, of course, is the show. That’s the reason why you’re there.”

Wintersleep’s fall tour takes them clear across Canada—and back— with two stops in Toronto and one stop in New York City. While they don’t anticipate any trouble crossing the U.S. border this time, Murphy was quick to recount a previous complication that went down a few years back, “We totally got denied access the first time we tried to go across,” he remembered.

“They kept us there for four hours and then took all of our information and finger prints, it was crazy. It felt a little invasive. The worst part was that they didn’t really ask us any questions. They just decided that we weren’t going through and then they kept us there for a really long time and then got rid of us. It was a really odd experience.”

After their fall tour is complete, Wintersleep will turn their attention to touring Japan. The band has just signed a deal with the Japanese rockists at Imperial Records, which should see the quintet travelling across the Pacific early in the new year.

Wintersleep play The Horseshoe Tavern Tuesday October 16.

Harper gets tough on drugs, soft on logic

On October 4, Steven Harper announced a new $64 million antidrug program with an approach to drug use that closely resembles the American “war on drugs.” Given the spectacular failure of the American program, why is Harper refusing to learn from the mistakes of our neighbours?

In his latest speech, Harper said that harm reduction for drug addicts was not a priority for his government and that “no matter how much harm you reduce, if you are a drug addict, you are still going to live a short, miserable life.” This is a terrible oversimplification. Harper assumes that all drug addicts are poor and are attempting to seek help. It is hard enough to convince people go to needle exchange programs or safe injection sites, let alone to rehabilitate them. Some addicts do not even know these places exist. This is why increased promotion of safe injection sites, such as Vancouver’s Insite, HIV testing sites, and health education sites, is necessary. Harper needs to spend money on public awareness of these incredibly crucial resources, not remove their funding or shut them down, both of which are distinct possibilities under his new plan.

Harper promises that someone caught selling even the smallest amount of drugs will face harsh penalties. Frankly, doesn’t the government have better things to devote tens of millions of dollars to than chasing around people dealing a few grams of marijuana? Wait a minute: five years ago, wasn’t there widespread support for legalizing marijuana?

What does Harper plan to do for people with addictions that extend beyond existing structures like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health? The safe drug injection site in Vancouver has proven to be an excellent method of dealing with the city’s drug problem. Providing willing addicts with health information and illness testing, Insite is a prime example of what the country’s drug program should look like. Needle exchanges and other such programs are also reaching ahead and providing the country’s addicts with a proper, healthy way to do drugs, accompanied by information urging them to stop.

You cannot penalize people into not doing drugs, Mr. Harper. Experts will tell you your proposed method is fl awed. What should be happening is the implementation of more safe injection sites and more needle exchanges. These sites may be taboo, but so was condom distribution to the public when that practice was first started. Clean syringes don’t encourage drug use, they just make drug use safe. They save lives.

I’m not suggesting putting needles in every public place, but an increased availability and knowledge of their whereabouts would definitely be an improvement, especially in parts of the country where drug use is known to be high. Without harm reduction and more education, the country’s drug problem will spin out of control, and no amount of money will save it.

Burning questions for Susanne Bier

Susanne Bier, the Danish director of Things We Lost in the Fire, is obsessed with catastrophe. Her best films are devastating slow burns, as characters make impulsive choices derived from their own loneliness and slowly watch the ramifications mount. Few contemporary directors are as effective in dealing with the struggle between the head and the heart.

After directing several successful comedies, Bier made a sudden shift to serious territory with the Dogme 95 film Open Hearts (2002) and the tragic Brothers (2004), both of which received rapturous critical acclaim and surprisingly strong numbers at the box office. In 2006, Bier’s international exposure broadened with After the Wedding, which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

This month sees the release of her first English language film, Things We Lost in the Fire. Benicio Del Toro plays Jerry, a heroin addict who everyone has given up on except for his childhood best friend, Brian (David Duchovny). Brian’s life has turned out better: he’s married to a lovely woman, Audrey (Halle Berry) but he still feels a loyalty to Jerry. After Brian dies suddenly, a lonely Audrey finds herself inviting Jerry to stay with her, and filling her husband’s role as his friend/rehabilitator.

Bier recently discussed making Things We Lost in the Fire with The Varsity.

The Varsity: Thematically, Things We Lost in the Fire reminded me a lot of Brothers and Open Hearts in the way that it deals with loss and loneliness. Despite the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie with someone else’s script, it’s very much in keeping with your sensibilities.

Susanne Bier: You know, I was interested because when I read the script I felt very connected to it, and I felt very familiar with the subject matter, and I was kind of wondering, is it too much like something that I’ve already done? But then I felt that I hadn’t dealt for a very long time with a female lead, which I thought was really interesting. I thought she was a really interesting character, this woman who closes down out of grief, puts all her emotion into the fridge. So I thought that was very interesting, and then I had never dealt with addiction. For somebody [who doesn’t] really have any addictive traits, it’s very fascinating, and it’s kind of scary, but it’s very interesting, and I was very compelled by that. I thought, yeah, I can recognize it.

V: Also, you’ve said in interviews that you have a fascination with the potential for catastrophe, and there’s definitely a lot of that in this film.

SB: I don’t know whether I’m fascinated by it…I think I’m kind of obsessed by it.

V: This is obviously your first film for a major Hollywood studio. Did you find the transition between the Danish film industry and Hollywood to be a challenge?

SB: You come with all the European prejudices of the big evil studios that eat your artistic integrity, and kind of swallow it, and everything that is going to come out of you is going to be popcorn. You have these prejudices, but I met with DreamWorks and I felt that they were very open and very supportive and very interested in making a good movie, and were asking me really relevant questions about the script and were very open to the sort of cast I wanted. It’s a different thing anyway…I came onto the set and I felt it was like a camping site, and it was all the trailers that had to do with the set, lots more makeup artists and hairdressers and strange cappuccinos. There’s a different layer onto it. But as a filmmaker, what you do is the same always. You are telling a story, and you should concern yourself with that, and I decided that I wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by all of it.

V: How did you find working with Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro? I think these are some of the best performances they’ve given.

SB: Movie stars are not necessarily great actors…but these ones are. These are great actors. And they want at all moments to make a deep description of the state of mind they are in, so it was very fun and stimulating. I would rehearse with them every morning. I would rehearse with them before the crew would come onto set, and they would change dialogue, we’d do a whole lot of stuff to it, and that sort of gives the actors a space to be creative and yet maintain their integrity. So when the crew comes, we feel very comfortable with what we’re doing. Benicio came to set every morning having re-written each scene, and most of it was brilliant, and some of it might have been brilliant but did not necessarily work within the story but might have worked for his character. It was like a constant exchange of thoughts.

V: What also struck me about this film was, while I wouldn’t exactly call it “upbeat,” I would say that it’s certainly a little more hopeful than something like Open Hearts, for example. Was this a conscious decision?

SB: This one certainly has a lot of hope in it… it’s not like a conscious decision: “This one is going to be different.” But my purpose with making this movie had to do with the hope. I think it’s very important that you leave the movie and you feel that these people actually might make it, and you might talk to whoever you went with about what’s going to happen to them in a few years’ time. There is a kind of sense of future, which I like.

V: You made very striking use of closeups in the film.

SB: They’re extreme close-ups. They’re almost like wide-shots in that they’re abstractions. Like, you look into an eye and it becomes an abstract image of an eye, because you don’t really see it as part of a face. It gives you, in a positive sense, a weird alienation, and so you kind of know what they feel. Their eyes tell you what they feel and not what they look, and I find it very important in my filmmaking.

V: Both Open Hearts and Brothers are set to be remade in America. What is your reaction to that?

SB: So is After the Wedding. It’s odd, it’s strange… I mean, I hope they’re going to make good movies out of them. It’s a little bit like your baby being adopted by some strange parents. You really hope that the new parents are going to be very nice. So it’s kind of odd. It’s also flattering.

Things We Lost in the Fire opens October 19.

MMP was bound to fail

On October 10, Ontarians had the chance to change this province’s electoral system for the first time in nearly 90 years. But the referendum on proportional representation failed, and Ontarians chose to keep the status quo that’s been in place since 1792. This referendum defeat shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, because from the outset its mismanagement meant it was bound to fail.

Too many Ontarians did not understand what the referendum was about, let alone the differences between the voting system proposed and the one we have now. Those who did realize that Ontario had to choose between two voting systems were unclear on the issue, such as how list members would be selected, if this process of selection would be transparent, for whom or what they would be accountable, and how coalition governments would be formed in legislature.

To address these complicated questions, Elections Ontario set up the “Referendum Ontario” web site (yourbigdecision.ca), but the site did not adequately address voters’ uncertainties about how government under a new system would work. The advertisements put together by Elections Ontario were terribly vague: they did not even make clear that Ontario was holding a referendum on electoral systems. The only message that came across was “Do not let others speak for you.” How were these ads ever going to inform the general public on what the referendum was about? On the whole, Elections Ontario didn’t do enough to educate the public. Out of the $93 million spent on this election, only $7 million was spent on education about the referendum, a scant portion given the historic importance of the vote.

The proposed Mixed Member Proportional system was far more complicated then the one Ontarians are familiar with. There should have been more information distributed about how the MMP system would work before commentary was given on the pros and cons of each system. Unfortunately, the province’s political parties were all too keen to voice their position on the referendum. The Conservatives encouraged Ontario to vote against the referendum, while Green Party leader Frank De Jong tried to whip up support for MMP. The October 1 issue of the Varsity carried an op-ed by federal NDP member Olivia Chow, arguing in favour of the referendum. While every citizen has a right to their opinion, decisions on electoral reform should not be infl uenced by political parties.

The irony of the failure of this electoral reform is that it sought to boost voter turnout. Under the current system, the votes of people living in ridings with high populations mean much less than those living in small ridings. MMP would have meant that every vote would have counted and Ontarians would have had more of a chance to be involved in the democratic process. But the referendum was so poorly publicized that voters didn’t realize the opportunity they were being presented with, and passivity reigned. As things turned out, only 52.6% of eligible voters cast a ballot, a record low for our province. If Ontarians didn’t endorse the new system because they didn’t want it, then that’s truly the public’s choice. It’s another thing if it failed because of ignorance and apathy.

American Ruffalo

Not only is Mark Ruffalo one of the finest actors working today, he’s also probably the most self-effacing.

The former stage actor’s brand of performance is the kind that too often goes unnoticed. Like a chameleon, Ruffalo inhabits the space of a character to an extent that most don’t recognize the actor beneath. Sure enough, audiences end up showering his costars with recognition instead.

Overdue for some awards recognition of his own, Ruffalo has already punched in two memorable performances this year that could serve as his ticket to the Oscars, with stand-out roles in Zodiac and Reservation Road (which opens this Friday). Ruffalo would rather not play favourites. After some arm twisting he leans towards Zodiac, but not for his own purposes.

“For Dave Toschi,” he explained in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, referring to the real-life cop whose life was consumed in pursuit of the elusive, titular serial- killer that he portrayed in Zodiac. “It would be nice to win something in honour of him. He was kind enough to open his life up to me for that part. It would be vindicating for him for something like that to happen, because he had a really rough go at it and really poured his life into it.”

Though he has humble reasons for preferring the performance in Zodiac for awards consideration, Ruffalo didn’t want to downplay his impressive turn in director Terry George’s Reservation Road. In it he plays Dwight Arno, a man who accidentally perpetrates a hit-and-run that takes the life of a 10- year-old boy. Dwight spends the rest of the film ducking the child’s vengeful father, Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix).

Though Ruffalo didn’t realize it at first, the film carries some larger post- 9/11 themes. Ethan, the film’s dramatic centre, emulates his country in his preference to seek revenge rather than working towards healing. It’s an aspect of the film that Ruffalo himself finds extremely satisfying, since he’s no stranger to speaking out against such mentalities.

Many noticed the orange ribbon that Ruffalo was sporting on his wrist during his appearances at TIFF. The ribbon represents the actor’s commitment to an organization called World Can’t Wait, which is lobbying for the impeachment of George W. Bush. Though such an imperative may seem like a waste of time with the U.S. elections impending, Ruffalo insists that the “world can’t wait” even until then.

“It just so happens that as time has gone on I’ve gotten more and more frightened by what I’m seeing happen in the world,” Ruffalo explained, “especially with the United States, and the consolidation of power into our executive branch, and the shredding of our constitution. World policies are being put into motion that are highly destructive and could snowball into really ugly stuff.”

“They have their sights on Iran now,” elaborates Ruffalo. “If we attack Iran, I think it’s going to be very hard for China and Russia to stay out of the fray. I’m not sure that at this point in time the way we’re trying to deal with these problems is actually constructive.”

Ruffalo has his convictions, but convincing the American public to notice the dangerous road they tread seems beyond reach, especially for a selfeffacing award-worthy actor who is barely noticed in his own movies. But then again, maybe we should hold our reservations to see what good fortune awaits both Ruffalo and America.

Reservation Road opens everywhere this Friday.