Homicide – Review

David Simon lebanon

Canongate Books (2008), 656 pages

Phibsborough Charity Shop – €1

Homicide, A Year on the Killing Streets is a forensic examination of the work of Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide Unit.  David Simon spent a year sitting in the police offices and going out on patrol with the Homicide Unit.  Such unrivalled access has resulted in an astonishing book.  Simon explores the stresses faced by officers as, despite their best efforts, they become emotionally involved in certain cases.  There are also departmental tensions as there is fierce pressure to solve as many cases as possible.  A cop could be lucky and get three easy cases (“dunkers”) in a row or get caught with a case where there is poor forensic evidence and no witnesses, or at least no witnesses willing to talk to the police.  The most difficult case is the still unsolved sexual assault and murder of a girl called Latonya Wallace.  As the year passes and the case remains unsolved the officers involved are haunted by their failure to bring justice to the girl’s family.

Perhaps the mechanics of interrogating suspects and the subsequent trials are the most interesting parts of the book.  Simon details the subtle game played by interrogators to make sure that suspects don’t avail of their right to have a lawyer present during interviews.  Even though suspects are read their Miranda warnings they are encouraged not to waste time with a lawyer.  This section (pp.201-216) is perfect advice that if you ever have the misfortune to be interviewed under arrest then you’d be a fool to start without a solicitor.Simon goes through a trial in detail with all of its tension and, at times, comedy.  He tells the bizarre story of an inept graveyard manager who buried bodies in the wrong places.  He details the work conducted during an autopsy.  The discussion some police have with a juror following a trial make you question the advisability of the jury system (pp.304-305).

Homicide is an astonishing book.  Despite its length it’s a page turner which is perfectly balanced  between information and analysis.  Although Simon was embedded in the Baltimore Police Department he doesn’t lose his critical faculties, he shows the flaws that are always present in a system designed and run by humans.  Nonetheless Simon shows the humanity that is present in every layer of his story from the wasted drug addict to the judge who passes sentence on the convicted.



Hizbullah – Review

Naim Qassem  lebanon

Translated from Arabic by Dalia Khalil

Saqi (2010, first edition 2005), 463 pages


My only interaction with Hizbullah was seeing a young man with a bucket collecting for them in Beirut.  He was standing beside traffic lights next to a beach in Beirut, Hizbullah’s distinctive yellow flag fluttering in the breeze.  Naim Qassem is Hizbullah’s second in command and, despite reports of his death during the Syrian Civil War, he is very much alive and well (as this article from October 2014 shows).  Hizbullah, The Story from Within is an insider’s account of Hizbullah giving details of its formation, its ideology, and its political, social, and military activities.  Hizbullah, although a Shia group, was once popular throughout the Middle East for its successful battles against the Israeli army.  However Hizbullah’s current involvement in the Syrian Civil War on the side of Bashar al-Assad has resulted in the party being viewed in a more sectarian light and has resulted in a collapse in support amongst Sunni Muslims.

Hizbullah is not an easy read, the prose is dense and turgid.  Qassem attempts the impossible task of justifying Hizbullah’s policies in fundamentalist Islamic terms whilst still remaining open to Lebanese Christian, Sunni, and Druze membership of the party.  For me the apparent openness of Hizbullah’s attempt to portray themselves as non-sectarian always crashes into the brick wall of Hizbullah’s justification of suicide bombings especially when they are used to target civilians.  It seems as if Qassem’s version of Islam (and to a fundamentalist of any religion there are only two versions of a religion; a right version and a wrong version) is used not to see any humanity in his opponents but as a distancing device to justify their annihilation.  Of course Israel is equally bad in this regard as the recent overkill in Gaza has shown.

Qassem believes that Hizbullah should be instrumental in building a “resistance society” whose main aims seem to place Lebanese society in a constant state of military readiness, “Hizbullah’s vision of a resistance society is one in which resistance takes place on all levels, be they military, cultural, political or media; it is resistance by the people and the fighters, by the rulers and the nation; it is resistance with a free conscience.  We consistently advocate building a resistance society and do not believe in resistance groups.” (pp.52-53)  Despite Qassem’s claims that a resistance society would be based on free conscience he doesn’t explain what should happen to the many Lebanese who do not want to be part of a “resistance society”.  Qassem admits that Hizbullah wants to create, “…an Islamic state based on free public choice.” (p.82)  Qassem’s voice is that of fundamentalist in that he sees no contradiction between democracy and a theocracy in a multi-religious state.  Crucially freedom of conscience begins to vanish in relation to military jihad; the leader may be elected but once elected he must be obeyed (p.95).


Hizbullah Flag with Bashar al-Assad Credit: defence24.pl

It is in the issue of martyrdom that I find Hizbullah’s philosophy hardest to take.  I can understand martyrdom in fighting to defend yourself or your country against a threat.  But a main consideration must be trying to survive for the sake your own life as well as for family and friends.  I can find no justification for suicide bombings (or “martyrdom operations” as they are called by their proponents).  Qassem sees suicide bombings as giving Muslims a tactical advantage against superior opposition, “Martyrdom renders the military power threatening death ineffective, for such a menace acts only upon those who fear it, and is powerless in front of those who seek it.” (p.149)  Of course such ideologues of martyrdom rarely see the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing nor do they feel the pain of the victims’ or bombers’ families.  If suicide bombings are so glorious why are many suicide bombers locked into to their bombs or handcuffed to the steering wheels of their vehicles?  Why are immature youths groomed for such a role and why is it that poorer or foreign recruits are more likely to be sent on suicide missions than locals with standing in their community?  I suspect that many of the people involved in organising suicide bombings use them as an outlet for their own psychopathy.  Suicide bombings result in indiscriminate slaughter and I can’t find any justification for them.  Of course Hizbullah’s outlook is inherently anti-Semitic and suicide bombings are seen as a justifiable disruption to the functioning of the Israeli state (p.300).

Qassem states that Hizbullah’s military power will only be used against Israel (p.153) but following Hizbullah’s significant intervention in the Syrian Civil War this has proven to be untrue.  The decision to provide military assistance to the al-Assad regime has reduced Hizbullah’s position from that of the only Shia group popular with Sunni Muslims to being seen as merely another sectarian entity.  While the damage to Hizbullah outside of Lebanon won’t concern them (especially as long as they keep receiving funding and equipment from Iran) it will be interesting to see if they have permanently damaged their status in Lebanon.

Theocracies (such as Iran) or states based on a single religion (such as Israel) are, by their very nature, sectarian and automatically discriminate against religious minorities.  A Muslim in Israel or a Jew in Iran will always feel out of step with the rulers of the state (obviously a Muslim or a Jew might feel outside the mainstream in Ireland but at least there is a constitutional separation of church and state).  Hizbullah have done good work in providing social services and charitable organisations in areas where the Lebanese state has been lacking.  Their military prowess has been seen as vital to reducing the risk of further Israeli incursions into southern Lebanon (and Israel’s history in Lebanon has been shameful).  Nonetheless Hizbullah’s justification of suicide bombings, their desire to remove all Jews from Israel, and their support of Bashar al-Assad, makes it difficult to see how they will improve the political situation in the region in the coming years.


Related Reading

Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk – The best book on the Lebanese Civil War

The Daily Star – Leading Lebanese newspaper

John Charles McQuaid – Review


John Cooney  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

The O’Brien Press (1999), 576 pages

Phibsborough Library

Irish History & Politics 300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland is an in-depth look at the life of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and the enormous power he wielded over Irish society.  McQuaid was an expert administrator and was generous in developing charitable outlets for the Catholic Church in Dublin.  However he was also a bureaucrat in the worst sense of the word.  He would find or create rules to silence his opponents and he was convinced of his righteousness.   Power increased his arrogance, the kind of superiority that sometimes infects school teachers who are used to being listened to and obeyed without question (he had been the headmaster of the elite Blackrock College).  Perhaps, most damningly, McQuaid failed to treat non-Catholics with any form of Christian spirit, instead they offered a chance to highlight his insecurities.  He saw Jews and especially Protestants as a threat to the homogenous Catholic state he wished to be a part of.  As Seán Ó Faoláin noted, “We cannot, to give a homely example, tell our children not to mix with our neighbours’ children on religious grounds, and at the same time expect our neighbours to believe that we have no personal objection to them.” (p.168)

Although McQuaid saw few faults in himself there were those who were suspicious of him.  Some priests were shocked when he was made Archbishop f  Dublin and he was never made a cardinal.  When people stood up to him they found that his control wasn’t as overarching as he thought it was.  The FAI managed to hold an international match against Yugoslavia despite his fierce opposition.  De Valera, although broadly sympathetic to McQuaid, managed to refuse his requests for more Catholic legislation on a number of occasions.  It was only with the election of Seán Lemass as Taoiseach in 1959 that the influence of the Catholic Church began to wane.  A more outward looking Ireland, the slow decline of censorship, and the arrival of television all began to loosen the Church’s grip in society.

Martin Tierney 8

As I was reading John Charles McQuaid I was reminded of a biography of J. Edgar Hoover (J.Edgar Hoover, The Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry).  Like Hoover, McQuaid had an almost voyeuristic desire to find out the intimate details of Irish people’s lives.  He encouraged sympathetic priests and citizens to report any perceived immorality to him.  Like Hoover, McQuaid was fiercely anti-communist to the point of seeing communism (or anything vaguely left wing such as the Mother and Child Scheme) as a threat to Irish society.  Interestingly Hoover sent McQuaid a copy of his book, Masters of Deceit, upon hearing of the Archbishops admiration of the FBI’s anti-communist investigations.  McQuaid also saw sexuality as a threat that needed to be controlled, even in the case of married couples.  Married couples were extolled to have as many children as possible but if they couldn’t (for health reasons) they could not use birth control instead, “…the married pair must use their will-power and prudence and live as brother and sister.” (p.279)  The Church’s bizarrely skewed notion of human sexuality was unfortunately not publicly challenged until the 1970s (although in private many Catholic couples made their own arrangements).  McQuaid, not surprisingly, was on the right wing of the Church during the Second Vatican Council but in the Vatican he was a much smaller fish than he was in Ireland.  He was extremely disappointed not to be made a cardinal and was shocked when the Pope accepted his resignation as Archbishop of Dublin (bishops were supposed to resign at 75) in 1972.  McQuaid never really recovered from his loss of power and status and died in 1973.

Although I would be sympathetic to Cooney’s thesis that McQuaid and the Catholic Church had too much power in 20th century Ireland I would have a number of criticisms of his book.  The most obvious criticism, and this has been mentioned by most reviewers, is Cooney’s claim that McQuaid sexually abused the child of a pub owner in a room above Dublin pub.  The story of the child’s abuse was told by a retired school inspector to Noël Browne in 1988.  The retired school inspector is telling his story second hand, there is no mention of how he knows the pub owner.  Noël Browne, as an enemy of McQuaid’s (he was the Minister for Health during the Mother and Child controversy) could be seen as a suitable source for such a story but likewise Browne would be more willing to suspend his critical faculties when accepting the story.  There are excessive details about McQuaid’s dress (“a black polo pullover, black cap and black clerical coat”) and his drink (“a glass of Jameson’s Red Breast whiskey”) but no details that make the story credible; the abuse victim being identified as the young son of a Dublin pub owner creates any number of possible victims.  It is easy to dislike McQuaid and sometimes our critical faculties can become dulled by dislike.  A third hand tale of one alleged incident of sexual abuse is not enough to warrant its inclusion in this book.  Undoubtedly the publishers saw the publicity benefits from including the story but its inclusion can’t be justified as, for such a well researched book, this incredibly serious allegation lacks any proper evidence.  Obviously sexual abuse allegations are very hard to prove, especially decades after they occurred, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that an author has to prove every fact beyond a reasonable doubt.  But for such an allegation to stick it would be necessary to talk directly to a victim (even if the victim’s anonymity was protected) or at least to build up a pattern of a number of allegations from different reliable sources.


Credit: irishlabour.com

Cooney also suggests that the 1951 invoking of Our Lady as patroness of the Defence Forces, “was a moment in the history of religious fundamentalism that ranks alongside the Ayatollah Khomeini’s crusade to transform Iran into a Muslim state.” (p.288)  This kind of hyperbole might work in a newspaper article but feels out of place in a scholarly biography.  Ireland in the 1950s was far from perfect but opponents of the political or religious ethos of the country were not hanged.  The censorship in Ireland of the period was reprehensible but was nothing on the scale of Iran.  There is no such thing as a perfect democracy but Ireland’s democratic credentials were superior to those of Iran.  Also it is somewhat unfair to compare 1950s Ireland to 1970s Iran, it is unreasonable to expect that all the rights and freedoms we enjoy today should have been automatically available to those living fifty or a hundred years ago.  For many people 1950s Ireland was a horrific place to grow up in but for many (possibly the majority) life in Ireland was as good or as bad as life is now.

Despite my criticisms John Charles McQuaid, Ruler of Catholic Ireland is an important book on twentieth century Ireland and it highlights the disturbing power of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The book shows that leading figures in Irish political and social life (with some notable exceptions) chose to collude with the Church in enforcing its social policy on all of Ireland’s citizens, Catholic or not.  Cooney’s book raises complex questions about the nature of religion, nationalism, and class in Ireland.  These are issues which, although arguably less relevant today, are, nonetheless, important lenses through which to view Irish society.


Related Links

John Cooney Biography – with extensive links to reviews of this book

Ireland vs. Yugoslavia, 1955 – Excellent page with photographs by irishlabour.com website

Blood on the Altar – Review


Tobias Jones  england.png

Faber & Faber (2012), 336 pages

Phibsboro Library

Blood on the Altar, In Search of a Serial Killer tracks the hunt for justice for the murdered teenager Elisa Claps.  The murder of Elisa Claps in the overlooked Italian town of Potenza is not a whodunnit.  Within hours of Elisa’s disappearance the prime suspect is Danilo Restivo.  However following Claps’ murder in 1993  it took another murder, in England in 2002. before Restivo was finally brought to justice.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Blood on the Altar is Jones’ unravelling of the murky web of political connections and social prejudice that allowed Restivo to avoid justice in Italy.  Elisa went to meet Restivo at a local church on a Sunday morning and was never seen again.  When one of Elisa’s family went to the church later that day the priest, Domenica Sabia, had left and he couldn’t gain access to the whole church.  Jones paints Sabia as an entirely disreputable character.  He is arrogant and there are rumours that he had secret gay liaisons with young priests in the upper floor of the church.  Restivo’s father, Maurizio, was head of the local branch of the National Library, a position of social prestige in a small town.  Sabia was friends with the Restivo family and had attended Danilo Restivo’s eighteenth birthday party.  Sabia refused to give permission for the Claps family to thoroughly search the church where Claps was last seen.  Sabia’s nocturnal activities made him a potential target of blackmail.  It emerged that Restivo, when he was 15, blindfolded and tied two other children (age 12 and 14) and cut one of them with a knife.  Restivo wasn’t charged and it was rumoured that Restivo’s father paid off the children’s parents.  Elements in the police who were investigating Elisa’s disappearance were also compromised as Maurizio Restivo had connections with the husband of one of the investigators.  It seemed as if Restivo would get away with the murder of Elisa Claps.


Danilo Restivo Credit: BBC

Unfortunately Restivo’s capture followed the murder of Heather Barnett in Bournemouth in 2002.  Restivo was living across the road from Heather.  Although the British police realised that Restivo was their prime suspect it still took until 2011 for him to be convicted of murder.  Restivo was not the harmless simpleton that was portrayed by his family and himself in police interviews.  In his murder of Heather Barnett Restivo proved himself to be forensically aware (police found a pair of runners in a basin of bleach after the killing) and he had gone to some lengths to construct a believable alibi.  A key part of the case was the discovery of Elisa’s body in the roof space of the church where she was seen with Restivo.  Her body was found to have been left in a similar position as Heather Barnett’s body, and there were signs of Restivo’s hair fetish in the leaving of locks of hair in his victims’ hands.

Jones describes the trial of Restivo in detail.  He shows that Restivo when, for the first time, facing difficult questions about his behaviour, can not adequately account for his movement or actions.  Restivo was found guilty of murdering Heather Barnett and Elisa Claps and is currently serving a minimum 40 year prison sentence.