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Question Time


‘ . . . And I understand that this weapon scatters its frequently lethal cargo over a wide area ensuring mortal danger to civilians, particularly children. I realize also that the government has sanctioned the use of these armaments in several countries. Therefore I think it essential that the house be given a succinct and lucid picture of such a deployment. I call upon the Prime Minister to describe clearly and accurately the effect of a cluster bomb in an area populated by civilians. Concise and plain language is essential, any descent into florid and opaque rhetoric will result in the detonation of one of the charmingly named ‘bomblets’ I have here.’

Accompanied by a horrified gasp of dismay from the house, the Shadow Secretary of Defence reached into his briefcase and removed the modified device. He continued:

"I’m sure that most of the Right Honourable members will have some idea of the carnage that would ensue were I to remove this pin that, as you can see is already half-way proud from the casing. For those who don’t . . . the Prime Minister is going to explain. I would like to remind him that any deviation from bare facts however slight would be fatal and probably extremely painful. Well sir? We are waiting."

The Prime Minister rose to his feet. His eyes were wide and staring. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. His hands were shaking. Three times he appeared to be about to say something but stopped. Then his chin came up and resolution appeared to infuse through him. This was a man accustomed to passionate debate, a man who had traded verbal blows with some tough opponents. Nevertheless, he had turned a metallic shade of grey. He succeeded in clearing his throat.

“Cluster bombs,” he began. “I . . . ah . . .”

“Prime Minister that is an appalling start,” scolded the Shadow Secretary of Defence. “Breathe deeply and let the words flow. Project and communicate like the orator you are. Capture your audience and take them with you. Hold them in the spell of your clarity. Weave your discursive web of prose and claim the attention of your fellows. Speak as a . . .”

He was interrupted by a sudden scrabble of feet as a young but portly backbencher whimpering with panic attempted to sprint for the exit. Unfortunately neither he nor the debating chambers of the House of Commons were built for feats of athleticism and he rapidly became entangled with a carelessly strewn briefcase. His pinstriped bulk landed heavily and descended a short flight of steps backwards. Winded, he lay there, his terrified gaze firmly fixed on the Shadow Secretary of Defence who peered at him enquiringly.

“I really must insist,” he stated, "that the Right Honourable members remain seated and refrain from abstract dancing. The Prime Minister wishes to share with us his expert knowledge of cluster bombs and I feel it is our duty to give him our complete and undivided attention. Indeed, any further exhibitionist behaviour will be met with grave and disturbing consequences.”

Absently he toyed with the pin protruding from the device cradled in his arms. There was a strange little collective moan from the assembled politicians as he withdrew it a further centimetre.
He focussed once again on the Prime Minister.

“Now sir, you have had time to prepare and I do not think I would be exaggerating if I were to say that 'bated breath' describes to perfection the demeanour of the members gathered here. Look about you Prime Minister. Do you see the faces? Have you ever sensed such unconditional wonder, like children, open, and hungry for information? The floor sir, it is yours, it belongs . . . to you.”

The Prime Minister stared desperately about him, his eyes searching the faces of the opposite front bench, his expression pleading and tinged with fear. He found no solace there, most of the faces had the same appearance as his, and eyes were either directed at the floor or riveted like terrified animals on the Shadow Secretary of Defence. Finally he spoke, his voice a high squeak.

“I think the real question that has to be answered here is . . .”

“Be very careful Prime Minister,” warned the Shadow Secretary of Defence, his voice acquiring a deeper more serious note, “we are not interested in your thoughts on any subject, we are after facts sir, cold hard concrete facts, we are prepared to be shocked, we do not wish you to be gentle with us, we crave accuracy, detail and information, strip away sir, the verbiage, the camouflage, the excess fat, and expose the raw flesh of truth. We are tired Prime Minister, of oratorical evasive action. Prime Minister this is the last time I will ask you. Explain clearly without digression or prevarication the results of detonating a cluster bomb in an area populated by civilians.” His voice had risen throughout this speech and as he finished he appeared to fumble and almost lose his grip on the lethal object he held.

An extraordinary noise escaped from the packed chamber. Voices raised in unison were a regular occurrence in the house but never before had such a unique and primal sound been heard. It was a soft whinny: like a distant choir of horses.

“It is surprisingly heavy,” explained the Shadow Secretary of Defence, “in fact should the Prime Minister delay for much longer I cannot say for certain that I can continue to maintain it in a safe grasp, to drop it would be deeply regrettable as the pin to which I have alluded before is attached to my person by a length of strong fibre . . .”
The rest of his speech was drowned out by a more familiar braying cacophony as the assembled members urged the Prime Minister to commence his monologue, a keening note of fear adding an atonal disharmonic.
Like a footballer with the ball at his feet responding to the swelling roar of the crowd, the Prime Minister took a deep breath and spoke.

“A cluster bomb is a 14-foot weapon that weighs about 1,000 pounds. When it explodes it sprays hundreds of smaller bomblets over an area the size of approximately twenty thousand square metres. Cluster bombs kill civilians because each bomb, rocket, or shell spreads hundreds of smaller bombs over a broad area, guaranteeing civilian casualties when fired into populated areas. The bomblets are bright yellow and look like beer cans. Each bomblet sprays flying shards of metal that can tear through a quarter inch of steel.”

“The area affected by a single cluster bomb is known as the footprint. The failure rate, the unexploded rate, is very high, often around 15 to 20 percent. When bomblets fail to detonate on the first round, they become land mines that can explode by simply touching them. Ninety eight percent of recorded cluster munitions casualties are civilians. Unexploded bomblets may be duds or in some cases the weapons are designed to detonate at a later stage. In both cases, the surviving bomblets are live and can explode when handled,. In effect, the UXOs can function like land mines. These are sometimes called triple-threat weapons because they can explode in the air, on the ground, or later when stepped on or disturbed.

Rapt attention, pure, and total consumed the listening congregation. An electric silence reigned. There were no cries of dissent or fawning agreement, no bored fidgeting on the benches. The Shadow Secretary of Defence was even seen to direct an approving nod in the direction of the Prime Minister, a clear sign of encouragement to which he eagerly responded, like a prize pupil basking in the appreciative glow of his teacher.

Each cluster bomb contains hundreds of bomblets and are fired in volleys. Many cluster bomblets, are brightly colored in order to increase their visibility and warn off civilians. However, the color, coupled with their small and nonthreatening appearance has caused children to interpret them as toys. This problem was exacerbated in Afghanistan when US forces dropped humanitarian rations from airplanes with the same yellow colored packaging as a bomblet. Many civilians died as a result. In Vietnam, people are still being killed as a result of cluster bombs left by the US military. Estimates range up to 300 per year.”

Like a contestant in a talent show who has just bared the essence of his soul, the Prime Minister ceased speaking and directed a yearning stare of hope towards the Shadow Secretary of Defence who was clearly enjoying the lecture.

“I am very pleased, this has been excellent,” he said. “How refreshingly different this session has been. However, I don’t think that you are quite finished yet Prime Minister. I would like you to conclude your scholarly deposition by outlining the UK government’s policy regarding this issue. We require only a brief but concise summing up. You are nearly there sir, your candour has been revelatory please do not spoil it now.”

For a moment the Prime Minister seemed to be on the verge of refusing. A sheen of sweat was easily visible on his forehead. But, a barely perceptible shake of the Shadow Secretary of Defences head convinced him otherwise. He swallowed and then, with an air of cowed obedience spoke once more.

“The UK still retains stocks of Cluster bombs. The UK believes existing humanitarian law is sufficient for the conduct of military operations, including the use of cluster munitions, and no treaty is required. The UK remains committed to improving the reliability of all munitions with the aim of achieving lower failure rates and leaving fewer unexploded ordnance in order to minimise the humanitarian risk."

Word had spread about the interesting situation in the house and movement was discernable here and there as security personnel sought advantageous positions. If the Shadow Secretary of Defence noticed this he gave no sign of having done so. Instead he smiled benevolently at the Prime Minister.

“The aim of achieving lower failure rates,” he quoted. “A little euphemistic Prime Minister but in the blinding light of your previous openness we shall overlook it. You see how easy it is,” he mused, “to drop the useless weight of verbosity and boldly enter the world of spare taut speech, where every word matters and ambiguity is no longer present, where the power of the English language is revealed in all its majesty. Those of us present have been privileged to witness the ability of words to stir the emotions and imagination, to educate and enlighten. We have all learnt something here today. We shall return to our homes enriched with crucial specialist knowledge that can only be imparted by an expert with flair and charisma. A description that after this afternoon's electrifying performance can be bestowed without fear of hyperbole upon . . . the Prime Minister.”

He gazed about the chamber. ”I rather think that following the Prime Ministers masterly dissertation the Right Honourable members expect me to disarm this obscene contraption and surrender myself to justice and inevitable retribution. This I am afraid I cannot do.”

He held up a hand to still the murmur of alarm that hummed through the chamber.

“This action that I have taken here today was meticulous in its planning. Professional and expensive assistance was necessary and I am frankly curious to observe the effectiveness of my tailored – what was that word again? Ah yes . . . munitions.”

With the flourish of a magician concluding a showy trick, he withdrew the pin from the bomblet. There was an impressively loud boom and party streamers flew in every direction. So did a number of members who had begun to stampede like a petrified herd of cattle. After a few seconds they stopped and stared in shocked wonder at the Shadow Secretary of Defence who smiled back at them.

“Just a little bang,” he said.

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