Curiosity might prove the biggest challenge of all

20120806-curiosityThe rover Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral on 26 November 2011 and landed in Gale Crater, Mars, on 6 August 2012. Those of us who spend our days in the whirl of headlines about politics and sport and celebrities may have missed the steady stream of quiet but sensational revelations from the latest robot sent by NASA to investigate Mars, our nearest planetary neighbour.

A month or so ago there was a brief flurry of international media interest after a strange metallic-looking object was discovered. This provoked a wealth of chatter on the Internet, with conspiracy theorists revisiting the wilder realms of speculation. (Afficionados of Internet conspiracies may recall the flurry of posts when NASA pulled this photo from the batch of official photos released from Curiosity just after it landed.)

All of which is fun for techno geeks like me, but misses the crucial point of the Curiosity mission and its potential significance.

Since landing, Curiosity has been picking its way over the arid surface of Mars, attempting to assess whether conditions have ever existed that could have supported microbial life. To that end it has been looking for evidence of any role played by water in the planet’s history, not least of all because it is no secret that this mission has been created with a view to a potential manned exploration and scientists want a better understanding of the Martian environment.

Today, the BBC reported on the incredible discovery of rock that confirms earlier findings from Curiosity that neutral water once existed in the Gale Crater. NASA’s own website  contains this pretty stunning admission: “Curiosity’s analyzed rock sample proves ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.” NASA confidently proclaim that Curiosity is now seeing a trend in water presence on Mars.

Why does all this matter?

Because the revelation that life could exist elsewhere other than Earth strikes at the theological and philosophical heart of thinking that has informed the way we organise our societies for millennia. Everything, from myriad individual personal destinies (tragic and otherwise), to the political, judicial, economic and social organisation of communities, nations and entire civilisations, has been affected by the belief that life has only ever existed here, in this one special place: Earth.

How do the major religions of the world respond if it is proved conclusively that life once existed elsewhere in our Solar System, let alone the Milky Way or the Universe? Could they adapt to accommodate a revelation at least as shattering to established world views as the Copernican revolution – or would they continue to maintain a position like that of the Heliocentrists, becoming increasingly irrelevant and absurd over time?

We might not think it matters – but there was a time when recognition that our Sun orbited the Earth was axiomatic to an assessment of the authenticity of belief. Could those who profess faith adjust to accommodate the enormity of the truth that life once existed elsewhere – and might exist now elsewhere – without seeing the entire edifice of that faith crumble?

I suspect those who claim truth only in the most fundamentalist of interpretations will have the hardest journeys of all.

Ellie and Myth do The Passion – in Port Talbot

My sister, Ellie Williams, has gotten involved with another fantastic project, this time in Port Talbot in Wales. Once again she’s working with her flatmate, Myrddin Wannell, and the international theatre company Wildworks, this time for the National Theatre for Wales. Driven by the actor Michael Sheen, The Passion is a piece of community theatre taking place over three days (22-24 April). Read more about it below!


China and the cruel lesson of the execution of Akmal Shaikh #humanrights #akmalshaikh

Akmal Shaikh - Reprieve

It is a hauntingly normal photograph.

For me, it is a picture of everyday humanity that is about as far as it is possible to get from the sense of dread and horror that must have overtaken Akmal Shaikh upon discovering from his family that he had barely twenty-four hours to live. Following the accounts of events around his final hours, as the increasingly frantic diplomatic scrabbling failed to halt his cruel and unjust execution, I felt a different sort of dread – familiar to me from previous death penalty cases. I have never seen the death penalty as anything other than imhumane – a signature of nations whose values are less civilised than my own. I accept that I might be blinkered in this understanding but I can’t pretend it isn’t so.

In recent days there has been much angry talk of political sovereignty, civilised values, humanity, mercy and the rule of law. Despite my rejection of the death penalty, I agree entirely with the assertion that states are entitled to enforce their laws upon their citizens and those that choose to visit or live within their jurisdiction. Equally, I resent being told by a sovereign state, which does not share my respect for free speech or multi-party representation, that my country has no right to criticise its “judicial sovereignty”.

Actually, it does. And I do.

I would go further and say that there is a moral responsibility on those who share liberal values to speak out in their defence, even if that means criticising other nation states. The alternative is that, in the hot-house of international negotiations, we risk seeing these values – important to our confidence in the legitimacy of our own civil society –  subordinated to priorities of trade and engagement, the manner of that engagement apparently far less relevant than the engagement itself. (I assume that sense of liberal indignation is what led Nick Clegg to make the statement he did following the British Olympic Association’s unsuccessful attempt to contractually gag British athletes from making criticisms of the regime in Beijing during last year’s Olympics – see this article in the Daily Mail.)

And that right is just one element of a tragedy of international misunderstanding between countries whose perspectives on history, justice, sovereignty, liberty and diplomacy are clearly very, very different.

I have no problem stating up front that I see the application of the death penalty to a mentally-ill man as a barbaric act. Reprieve, the British Government, his family and independent witnesses produced a wealth of evidence that Akmal Shaikh was mentally unwell. Reprieve’s report that China had consistently refused a full medical evaluation since April 2009 is particularly shocking. To me, it reveals a regime in Beijing that, contrary to its protestations, is not concerned with a judicial process that fairly recognises the mental capacity of the individual – and that lack of concern is entirely Beijing’s prerogative.  However, Akmal Shaikh’s story, familiar and upsetting, is one of a man made victim twice over: once by traffickers, taking advantage of a mentally incapacitated individual to turn him into a mule; and once by a Government determined to place its domestic propaganda requirements above the requirements of fairness in justice.

I had hoped that the passage of hours and days might lessen the grip of Akmal Shaikh’s execution on my thoughts. However, it hasn’t. Perhaps it has been a conscious mental reaction against a sub-conscious and instinctive desire to obliterate his fate – this awful news story that needs relegating to the back of the mind. However, I find his execution challenging – as a Liberal, as a human being who loves his family, as a man with private dreams and ambitions, as a humanitarian and as a Christian. Also, like others, I was provoked by the disgraceful article by Leo McKinstry in the Daily Mail. McKinstry’s confused and contrary tirade is a potent reminder of the dangers inherent in removing rational, liberal voices from the political conversation. It reads like a cynical and desperate attempt to establish caricatured notoriety as a hard-line social commentator and it brought an old proverb to mind: silence is the voice of complicity. I have no desire to be complicit in McKinstry’s attempts to profit in any way from the execution of a mentally-ill man. And I freely admit that I am also attempting to lay my own particular haunting to rest with words.

Fellow liberals might reflect on the tragic irony that the execution of  Akmal Shaikh was carried out on the anniversary of the birth of William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone,  still years from becoming Prime Minister, used his journey from High Toryism to a radical and reforming Liberalism to condemn the Anglo-China war in 1840 and the opium trade that was its focus. I don’t suppose I was alone in my immediate disbelief when it was reported that the Chinese Embassy in London had released a statement referring to the “Opium Wars” in relation to Shaikh’s execution. I struggled to imagine a comparable situation in Britain where a judicial decision against a foreign national would be influenced expressly by a specific 19th century event.

Yet, part of me knows that, whilst as a country we are not so specific in the way we relate our history to our contemporary decisions, seismic events resonate across decades and shape our perceptions, both as individuals and as a society. No-one would doubt the impact of two World Wars on how we see ourselves or our European neighbours. The Great War began almost a hundred years ago, yet each year we remember its fallen. The Second World War still informs the cod-machismo of pub conversations. With that in mind, it is not so surprising that events to which we were a party, but that hold a different significance in the Chinese national conscious, are remembered vividly after just a further forty-odd years. In that understanding comes another, uncomfortable as it is: defence of liberal values does not preclude the responsibility to understand a state whose values are apparently so different. Quite the reverse, to my mind. Liberalism professes a profound internationalism and that obliges its adherents to understand and to identify, honestly, how a relationship can be developed that prevents a similar tragedy occuring in future. Remembering of course that explanation is not justification, perhaps we should not be so incredulous regarding the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China.

That recognition of the impact of historical events was signalled in the diplomatic phrasing of the two statements issued by the Chinese following Akmal  Shaikh’s execution, neither of which made direct reference to the Opium Wars (but which was made apparent in the Telegraph’s more hysterical translation – see above):

The recognition of threat that China poses to established positions of economic primacy, its self-acknowedged isolation from the world, the incomprehensibility of its vastness of geography and population compared to the United Kingdom, all appear to have helped skew attempts to fully understand China and its emergence onto the world stage.

Fu Ying, the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, made a low-key but significant speech to the English Speaking Union on 14th December 2009 that bears re-reading. It is a recognition by China of the lack of understanding that exists between itself and Western nations:

I wonder if we forget even the basic political differences when it comes to negotiations such as those in Copenhagen? China is not a democracy. It is not the USA. It is not the UK. It is not India. It is not Russia. It does not see internal political competition as positive, however inadequately it is expressed in some countries. It is, still, a self-professed communist country, that retains myriad bureaucratic networks that obscure information and confound individual expression. Even economic reforms are restricted by political caution and the vast inequalities between rural, industrialised and commercialised areas. China, unable to resist the march of technology and the coincidence of interest in averting environmental disaster, is having to learn how to deal on the traditional diplomatic stage, just we are having to re-learn how to deal with China outside of a Cold War paradigm we can control. China speaks a political language that we in the West have forgotten in the twenty years since the Berlin wall came down.

Copenhagen is the starkest evidence of this failure of understanding. Whether Copenhagen failed because of a Western trap, as John Lee asserts, or because China was determined to protect its economic interests at all costs, as Mark Lynas suggests, we do not yet know how to talk to China and explain our priorities – and why those priorities matter.

To my mind, the execution of Akmal Shaikh is an extension of that failure.

As a Liberal, as a human being who loves his family, as a man with private dreams and ambitions, and as a humanitarian, I am appalled by China’s execution of this father of five, the mentally-ill victim of drug-traffickers who was denied access to even a basic evaluation of his mental health.  However, as a Liberal, as a human being who loves his family, as a man with private dreams and ambitions, and as a humanitarian, I believe I need to understand China better, so that, should the opportunity present itself in some small way, I can show more clearly why I adhere to the beliefs I do – and demonstrate their intrinsic value.

As a Christian, quietly sharing the sentiments above, I am left reflecting on the intolerable cruelty of Akmal Shaikh’s lonely and forsaken grave – a cold world away from his wife, five children and the taxi business he used to run in North London.

Akmal Shaikh's unmarked grave - N/A

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