The glaciers are melting! There's no peace in the Middle East! New York goes dark! Arnold is running for governor! 

The sky hasn't fallen yet, but in places stricken by disaster, it's rather hard to tell.

Gorner valley and Matterhorn, Switzerland: Photograph by Charles Weng

An Infernal August

The eighth month of the Gregorian calendar is meant for the tabloids. Served alongside cheap ice cream, dodgy food-on-a-stick and other guilty pleasures of summer, tales of the lurid, the absurd and the surreal are best indulged at leisure in lieu of real news, while much the world is away on holiday.

This summer, it won't be Bigfoot, Nessie or space aliens to indulge your fancy. You will find the following items instead:

Europe is burning! 40+ Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit) heat wave smothered London, Paris and Berlin. Deadly fires raged from Portugal to the French Riviera, Italy, Sweden and Russia. France reported nearly 10,000 heat-related deaths, mostly amongst the elderly.

America blacks out! A yet-unexplained breakdown in the electrical grid serving northeastern United States and Canada caused power loss in eight states and throughout Ontario. Major cities that went dark included New York, Ottawa, Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland.

Insanity in Iraq! American and British occupation forces are still looking for weapons of mass destruction that their leaders lied about to the world in order to send them to war. Meanwhile, their enemies have just bombed the provisional Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations.

Death wish in Palestine! Palestinian militants continue to order suicidal youths to blow themselves up in Israel, thereby guaranteeing retaliation from the Israeli military, and jeopardizing any prospect for peace, prosperity and statehood for their own people.

California runs amok! Gray Davis, governor of California, is facing a recall election amid a severe budget shortfall. Should more than half of the voters decide to reject Davis in October, all it will take for muscular idol Arnold Schwarzenegger, former child actor Gary Coleman, porn star Mary Carey or any of the 135 official candidates to replace him is to get the most votes. In this case, a simple plurality for victory can be less than 10% of the total vote in America's most populous state.

Had it all been nothing but tabloid content, it might have been tasteless to the extreme, but infinitely more palatable than the real, ugly truth. 

Shocking as the news has been, it is not even a stretch of anyone's imagination.

It is no surprise that summers are getting warmer all over the globe. I've been witnessing it firsthand, finding glaciers melting away in Montana, Alaska, New Zealand and the Swiss Alps. The sweltering streets of London, Paris, Stockholm and Basel in July are quite a match for the sun-baked boulevards of Los Angeles.

It is also no surprise that the current US government is not doing much about global warming, given President Bush's and especially Vice President Cheney's deep background in the oil industry, and entrenchment in the energy sector as a whole. Their flagrantly anti-environmental policies rejected the Kyoto accord to curb production of greenhouse gases, and relinquished control of industrial pollution to the polluters themselves, the energy companies. They censored a report on global warming submitted by their own Environmental Protection Agency. They sought to exploit conserved public property in Alaska and the Californian coast. The primary motivation for the war they waged in Iraq was never about WMDs or, for that matter, the freedom of the Iraqi people; it was for the oil of the Persian Gulf, just as it was back in 1991.

Whatever machinations the current -- or any -- US officials may have towards the Middle East, they shall ever remain crucial arbiters (as well as financial benefactors) in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Give them whatever credit they may claim for the "Road Map" towards peace and eventual founding of the Palestinian state; the directions have always been, in principle, very straightforward.

Canal Hotel, UN headquarters in Baghdad, was destroyed by a bomb on 19 August, 2003. Amongst the 20 people dead was Sergio Vieira de Mello, special UN envoy and head of the UN mission in Iraq. Photo by Suhaib Salem (Reuters).

Utter cowardice and stupidity: All facetious rhetoric aside, this observer is profoundly aggrieved to see that terrorists would attack the very international body that is mostly opposed to the war in Iraq, and is there as a neutral party to monitor human rights abuses as well as to provide humanitarian aid.

       Israel must stop building new settlements in lands they have taken from the Palestinians since 1967. The Palestinians must stop attacking Israel. Both must share Jerusalem as a spiritual and political capital.

Regrettably, the reactionary factions amongst both the Israelis and the Palestinians saw to it that their interests are best served by the status quo. 

The Jewish ultra-orthodox parties, who advocate expulsion of Arabs from Israel, effectively hold the Knesset hostage whenever a coalition government must be formed to run the country. With their incessant acts of vengeance, gangs of Palestinian militants prove their "worth" before their Arab and Iranian sponsors, and compete for turf under a total lack of central leadership.

In stark contrast to the tragic history of the Middle East, the chaotic special election in California seems almost a comic relief, albeit a costly one ($66 million and counting) the state can ill afford. For all its resemblance to a remake of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the spectacle of calculating politicians, deep-pocketed wannabes, fame-craving celebrities, opportunistic lobbyists and God knows who else is nevertheless the sign of a dynamic democracy, one deserving genuine attention from its jaded constituency.

So much is at stake for so relatively little, in terms of number of votes needed for a simple plurality. Thus a lesser candidate can wholeheartedly gather support from his or her core supporters, whatever their cause may be. They need not worry about attacking any particular opponent, kowtowing to the two big parties, or making compromises with opposing special-interest groups. Such a rare opportunity of demonstrative, if ultimately inconsequential, empowerment may never repeat itself [sigh of relief].

The Italians, having elected Fascists, Communists, a porn star and a self-serving media tycoon to their parliament over the recent years, would hardly bat an eye. Should another cast member from Predator make it to a governor's mansion with much cash and charisma but little substance, one can only hope he is just as incompetent to do any real harm to a beleaguered yet resilient state. 

CW, 12 August 2003, revised 19 August 2003

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