Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Big Oil and a few super-rich are pushing a global crisis--Ferrel of MarketWatch

When a commentator on MarketWatch worries about the same things I worry about it makes me think I might not be as crazy as I have feared. Paul B. Farrell [Big Oil’s civilization-ending pollution push: And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s ‘insane’ plan.] is worried that "Big Oil" will "end civilization" because of its powerful financial grip on political affairs around the world.  This is what he says:
  • Are you focused solely on a piece of Big Oil’s estimated $150 billion short-term profits in 2012? Or are you investing for the long term, in a new America, in a sustainable planet for your grand kids, the one our next generation inherits in 2050?
  • [We live in] a sharply polarized America, [there is a] deep gap that divides politicians and voters, conservatives and progressives, occupiers and tea partiers, Big Oil and environmentalists, the Super Rich 1% and the 99% rest of Americans.
  • [N]o matter who’s elected president, [World War IV] now has its own momentum, it will intensify, and will grow deadlier in the next decades as global population explodes from 7 billion today to 10 billion by 2050 and our depleting natural resources can no longer produce enough food for 10 billion.
  • [The US Chamber of Commerce] gets . . . $100 million from deep pockets like Big Oil giants: British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell Oil and dirty-coal giant Massey. And equally significant, more than 50 private and sovereign foreign corporations in India, Bahrain, Germany, Britain, and Canada, all paying dues to the Chamber, money that funds the Chamber’s political ads and lobbyists fighting America’s environmental energy policies, fighting to wipe out regulations that protect the public.
  • [The opposition to this influence from the left] is environmental economist Bill McKibben, author of the 1990 classic, “End of Nature,” and founder of 350.org, a “global grassroots movement” of “thousands of volunteer organizers in over 188 countries.” . . . McKibben’s 350.org says “to preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm.” 
  • [The] Chamber loves Big Oil’s civilization-ending pollution agenda.  . . .  Thomas Donohue, the chamber’s CEO, delivered his annual State of American Business address mocking government “regulations, mandates and higher taxes.”
  • McKibben warns of the chamber’s bias: They were “the biggest political funder in the last election cycle, outspending the Republican and Democratic national committees combined.
  • Donohue claimed America has “1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to last at least 200 years. We have 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to last 120 years. We have 486 billion tons of coal, enough to last more than 450 years, and we need to use more of this strategic resource cleanly and wisely here at home while selling it around the world.”
  • [The response] But then what? The world ends? Yes. Actually much sooner. Because waiting till the last minute is suicidal. ThinkProgress.org columnist Brad Johnson even called Donohue’s speech a “Civilization-Ending Pollution Agenda” where “free enterprise requires a future of accelerated, unending global warming.” . . . 
  • “[S]cientists have long since concluded that to keep the planet’s temperature rise below a disastrous 2 degrees Celsius, the entire globe can burn, at most, an additional 650 billion tons of CO2. Or about one-third” of what the Chamber, Big Oil, Dirty Coal and Hot Gas propose burning.  . . . “Using tables from the government’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, [NASA scientists] calculated that burning those quantities of coal, gas and oil would raise the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 392 parts per million to almost 650 ppm.” 
  • [McKibben:] “For Donohue to recommend blithely increasing it by more than 50% is — well, it’s insane. Every nation on Earth has been conducting negotiations in an attempt to keep CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm; much research indicates we actually need to get back below 350 ppm to stabilize global climate.”  Worse: “Donohue was only talking about American hydrocarbons.” Add in Canada, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait, Venezuela, Norway, China, South Africa, Indonesia, Brazil and more, and “his prescription is fundamentally outrageous, at odds with everything we know,” a doomsday scenario “beyond dumb” that “only the most profound global-warming denier could ever embrace.”
Yes, our civilization could simply overdrive the system it depends on to the point of collapse.  You might think our leaders are too sensible, too rational to allow that to happen.  Well, considering the way they have behaved in the last decade, what would you expect?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The back side of the station in Saudi Arabia: Murder by the State

Tom Friedman has often referred to the Middle East as a fuel station for the Western world.  As long as they pump fuel we’re not concerned about what’s going on out in back of their station:  anything can go on there as long as we get what we want from the pump.  The problem is that what goes on “out back” is inimical to Western values, indeed, values of decency anywhere.  

This I feel confident in saying because it is evident that these regimes are embarrassed for the rest of the world to see what they are doing to their own people.  Syria is in the news these days for abusing its own citizens, its army shooting them down as if they were armed warriors when the people being killed are unarmed.  And Saudi Arabia has piously condemned the Syrians, all the while enforcing rules among it own citizenry that are blatantly unfair and unjust.  
The Nation (http://www.thenation.com) has published a report on the Saudi plan to execute a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy for posting controversial views of the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter in early February.  The political reasons seem transparent and therefore the hypocrisy nauseating.  I copy the article here to emphasize the outrage that this case deserves.  I appreciate having the situation drawn to my attention; the person who sent it to me believes that Mr Kashgari will indeed be executed.  Kashgari, as his name implies, is not of Arab descent so he is an easier target, treated as an insidious influence among the purebred citizens.  Here is the article from the Nation.  [Click on the title able for a link to the source.]  
The Nation:  “The Price of Dissent in Saudi Arabia” February 15, 2012

Saudi Arabia appears determined to sacrifice one of its young on the  altar of domestic politics. At the center of a brewing storm is Hamza  Kashgari, a 23-year-old journalist who faces charges of apostasy and a  potential death sentence for posting controversial views of the Prophet  Muhammad on Twitter in early February. In three short messages, in which  he expressed a mix of devotion, frustration and uncertainty about his  faith, Kashgari has stirred rancor across Arabia. His greatest affront, it seems, was giving voice to doubt. Many in Saudi Arabia share his views, but it is a poisonous environment for those who harbor uncertainty. In a place that demands public conformity to a narrow interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy and servility to religion’s  gatekeepers, Kashgari said too much.

Tens of thousands of self-righteous Saudis responded venomously, including the country’s king, who allegedly personally ordered  Kashgari’s detention. Amid calls for his death, a desperate and  frightened Kashgari tried and failed to flee. An escape to New Zealand, where he hoped to press for political asylum, was interrupted after authorities in Malaysia deported him back to Saudi Arabia. Should Kashgari face formal criminal charges of apostasy, prosecutors will argue that he blasphemed Islam’s most important figure. It is an accusation fraught with peril. Angry clerics serve as gatekeepers of the law and, more important, as dispensers of cruelty masked as justice.

While the most vituperative responses to the Kashgari affair are no  doubt rooted in zealous conviction, the reality is that this episode,  and particularly the government’s support for the case against him, has  little to do with protecting the sanctity of Islam. Rather, the Saudi regime is playing a calculated political game, one that aims to oppress some critics, to outmaneuver others and to bolster its thin claims to religious legitimacy.

While his postings on Muhammad suggest contemplative self-reflection,  Kashgari subsequently confided that he was aware not only of the  potential risk but that by courting controversy he was deliberately testing the limits of his freedom. Before his deportation, he described  his actions  [1] as practicing “the most basic human rights—freedom of expression and  thought…there are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are  fighting for their rights.”

Kashgari was hardly a revolutionary, but his views most certainly were.  The kingdom’s government is intolerant of free speech, especially  anything that challenges political authority. Dissenting religious and  political views, including those expressed by Kashgari, are widely  shared inside the kingdom. Among the droves of death threats and the cries of angry critics, Kashgari also commands a sympathetic following.  Thousands have rallied in his support. And the regime in Riyadh is well aware, particularly in an era of revolutionary upheaval, that a  significant number of its subjects bristle against its authority. Such  sentiment is hard to quantify, and criticism is only safely asserted  anonymously. But the critics are there, most notably in the new social  media. And they have potential power, which the regime grudgingly  understands.

But while Twitter and Facebook have opened avenues for dissent, there  are still significant dangers, something the Kashgari affair makes  painfully clear. The regime is notorious for filling its prisons with  political activists. In November the kingdom sentenced seventeen  activists [2] to long prison terms for daring to demand greater human and  political rights. And there are other pressures at work that inhibit any  public mobilization in support of Kashgari or against the regime. Many  who have called for his death demand   [3] exactly the same for the thousands who support him. Given the power accorded by the regime to extremists, it is enough to shock most into reticence.  Ultimately Kashgari proved vulnerable not because he is alone but because the regime has rendered the price of dissent unbearable. By arresting and threatening him under the cloak of Islamic law, the regime  has also sent a clear message to others like him.

Kashgari’s persecution also marks an effort by Saudi Arabia’s leaders to  shore up support from within the halls of religious authority. The royal  family has long leaned on the country’s senior clerics to stamp its  temporal power with the imprimatur of religious legitimacy. But many in  the kingdom see through the claim. Pious and agnostic alike consider the  royal family corrupt and irreverent. It is commonly held that Riyadh’s  assertion of Islamic authority is spurious, a fiction that the  government peddles as an excuse to protect its personal fortunes and  power. Whether genuine or not, the result has been the empowerment of a  class of religious scholars who are committed to protecting their own  authority.

The Saudi-scholar alliance has proven a devil’s bargain at times. Over  the past three decades these frustrations have generated significant  challenges to the regime, with outspoken clerics periodically targeting  the government for its infidelities. Mindful of this, the kingdom’s  leaders regularly seek opportunities to placate potential critics in the  mosques. In doing so, they have assured the rise of a clerical class  that is simultaneously a pillar of support and a potential threat. An  unfortunate consequence of this arrangement has been the de facto  encouragement of extreme figures at the expense of more reasoned voices.

As the drama surrounding Kashgari unfolded Nasser al-Omar, a  particularly odious scholar with a history of calumny, emerged as the  leading figure in his public persecution. Al-Omar’s radical credentials  are considerable. In the 1990s he was an advocate of an especially  shrill anti-Shiite sectarianism    [4], a sentiment that is deeply entrenched in Saudi society today. More  important, he is part of a generation of scholars that has openly  questioned the fitness of the Al Saud to rule. In a video commentary   [5] that quickly went  viral, al-Omar broke down in tears as he called for Kashgari’s  execution. Al-Omar tapped into widespread sentiment, but his visibility  and the government’s accommodation of figures like him speaks directly  to both the cravenness of the government’s agenda as well as royal  anxiety about the potential for the clergy to rally against the crown.

Hamza Kashgari, then, is a sacrifice the royal family is not just  willing to make, but that its continued power depends on. In the torrent  of invective and recrimination that has swept through Saudi Arabia in  recent weeks, the country’s rulers no doubt find comfort in pitting its  citizens against one another. Better to encourage culture wars than  allow critics to direct their ire toward the seat of power.

*Source URL:* http://www.thenation.com/article/166305/price-dissent-saudi-arabia
[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/13/saudi-writer-mohammad_n_1273081.html
[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/22/saudi-activists-sentences-idUSL5E7MM3J820111122
[3] http://arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article574314.ece
[4]  http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/saudi-arabia%E2%80%99s-sectarian-ambivalence
[5] http://www.you

Global Warming and the Burning of Jerusalem: Metaphor for our times?

I suppose that in every generation folks have worried about what their world was coming to.  Certainly in our time it seems to me there are good reasons to worry about it.  Aren’t terrifying prospects ahead worthy of serious consideration?  I know that to put into words the implications of some of the trends of our times can be disconcerting, especially when we see our leaders deliberately avoiding it, or worse, distorting what information is available so as to resist the kinds of changes necessary to avoid a potential train wreck ahead.
Consider a development in our times whose implications are difficult to assess but must be faced by our world leaders, those of the industrial powers more than any others, if disaster is to be escaped:  global warming.  I use this term deliberately rather than the less terrifying term, “climate change,” in order to stress what seems to me a matter of urgency.  Isn’t this a reality that must be addressed forthrightly?  Let us try to examine the information available to us as we best can, laying aside the various ways that politicians – who necessarily must voice the claims of those to whom they are indebted – have chosen the confuse the issue.   

Here is the dangerous reality as we best know it:
Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester (UK) reported last November (summarized in the Guardian, November 29, 2010) that
  • “the so-called safe limit of [a rise of 2 degrees centigrade] [is] impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet's temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.” In fact,"There is now little to no chance of maintaining [i.e. limiting] the rise in global surface temperature at below 2C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary,"
  • "Moreover, the impacts associated with 2C have been revised upwards so that [a rise of] 2C now represents the threshold [of] extremely dangerous climate change."

The Guardian says that “The scientists' modelling is based on actual tonnes of emissions, not percentage reductions, and separates the predicted emissions of rich and fast-industrialising nations such as China.  [The year] ‘2010 represents a political tipping point,’ said Anderson, but added in the report: ‘This paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our 'rose-tinted' and well-intentioned approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.’” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/29/climate-change-scientists-4c-temperature]

So, bluntly, Anderson and Bows are saying that unless more aggressive measures are taken the world economy as we know it will reach a kind of practical impasse; the implications are too horrific to put into words.  
All of this we have been hearing for years.  That politicians, and other interested groups threatened by this talk, claim that this is contested:  Right now Rick Santorum is mouthing this claim for reasons that seem too obvious to state.  Of course the future is always uncertain, but the scientific evidence is such that the leaders of our world are foolhardy to ignore it. 

So along with this danger of our times is the prospect that our politicians cannot bear to face it squarely for what it is.  Yes, denial is being promoted by wealthy interests – I have read that the Koch brothers are behind the Cato institute which has for years persisitently denied that global warming is a reality.  There is no danger, no need to cut back on CO2 emissions, they keep saying. 

The problem with planning in the public sphere is that it is essentially a political process, for defining the nature of the situation always risks taking decisions that will offend someone’s interests, and the more powerful those interests are the more difficult it is to act against their interests, even if the decision would be best for the society as a whole.  This situation opens possibilities for misreading and misrepresenting situations so grossly that serious dangers ahead could be ignored, with disastrous consequences.  This is the general point of Jared Diamond’s Collapse which recounts several cases in which dangers ahead were not avoided because the societies involved could not adjust their ways of life sufficiently to evade a disaster.   

I have been studying another case, one that should be familiar to the Judeo-Christian community since it appears in the Bible, but as far as I can tell, it has been generally ignored.  I describe the case in some length below because it seems to me so telling for the situation of our times.  The final collapse of the society involved took place in 586 B.C. even though it was eminently predictable -- and was predicted over and over again -- and yet was denied by those in a position to avoid it until there was no escape:   As a consequence, a great city was looted of its treasures, burned to the ground, and left as a desert waste.


In 609 B.C. the King of Judah, Josiah, who had spent most of his reign correcting affairs within his domains, became alarmed by the political scene around him, for a major confrontation of powers was brewing in Syria.  An upstart force of Babylonians and Medians had attacked the army of Assyria, the hegemon of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, and forced them to flee even their capital city, Nineveh.[1]   As the Assyrians were regrouping in Syria to prepare for a decisive re-engagement, Pharaoh Neco II, who had pretentions of own in the region, began leading an Egyptian force from their outpost in Meggido, Palestine, northward into Syria.  But King Josiah took offense to their movements through his domains and even though his capital was more than a day’s march away he assembled an army to interrupt the Egyptians.  Despite Neco’s assurances that he had no designs on Judah Josiah led his troops into battle.  Josiah’s fateful mistake, for he lost his life in the ensuing battle, would allow his kingdom to fall under the control of the outside powers now contesting for dominance in the region, and eventually to suffer a crushing wreckage of the whole kingdom, a collapse that would forever become iconic in the imagination of the survivors and their descendants.

Josiah was replaced by his son Jehoahaz, chosen by the elders of the kingdom who for some reason passed over an older brother.  It would be the last time for many generations that Judah’s elders would choose their own leader.  Jehoahaz was scarcely enthroned when Neco, now the master of Judah, deposed Jehoahaz and shipped him back to Egypt.  And he exacted a severe penalty for Judah’s costly and unnecessary interruption to his military plans[2]: “a hundred talents” [7500 pounds] of silver and “a talent” [75 pounds] of gold [II Chron 36:1; II Kgs 23:31-36]. 

He also replaced Jehoahaz with the older brother, Eliakim, giving him a new name, Jehoiakim, to identify him as a vassal of Egypt.  But Judah’s alliance with Egypt vanished four years later when the Babylonians prevailed over the Assyrians and Egyptians in a decisive battle at Carchemish (605 B.C.).  As the Babylonians began to exercise their claims over all of Syria-Palestine Jehoiakim resisted.  Within the year, however, Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon, sacked the city of Ashkelon in Philistia nearby, and Jahoiakim, now under siege, agreed to swear fealty to Babylon.[3]  Hegemony was still contested in the region, though, as was became clear when the Babylonians failed to invade Egypt in 600 B.C.[4] Jehoiakim took the opportunity to break his commitment to Nebuchadnezzar and re-ally himself with Pharaoh Neco.  As it happened Neco was no help in protecting his subjects when they were harassed by Chaldean, Syrian, Moabite, and Ammonite nomads allied with Babylon [II Kgs 24:2].  Nebuchadnezzar was during this time distracted by the sudden death of his father:  he had to race home to claim the throne from his rivals.  But once ensconced in power he was ready to deal with the perfidious King of Judah.  In spring 597 B.C. he brought a large force into Judah and deposed Jahoiakim, clasping him in chains “to take him to Babylon” [according to II Chron 36:6], although it appears that Jahoiakim died before he got there [II Kg 24:6].  Now he also exacted a price for his trouble, appropriating for himself some of the ceremonial objects from the sacred Jewish temple of Solomon [II Chron 36:5-7].   

Nebuchadnezzar placed Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin (also known as Coniah[5]), still a young man, on the throne in Jerusalem, but Coniah was scarcely in office when the emperor changed his mind (according to Josephus) and came back to replace him.  He was not however, received warmly, and in order to get into the city he had to besiege it.  The writer of the Book of Kings described the event: “At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin [Coniah] the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign …” [II Kgs 24:10-12]. 

This was an occasion for Nebuchadnezzar to make off with more of the wealth of the city.  He “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, …”  [II Kgs 24:13]  Moreover, he “carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.” [II Kings 24:14].  This deportation of the elite, perhaps including the young man Ezekiel, may have benefited the Jews in the long run, as it preserved the learned class, whose descendants would lead the return and reconstruction of the city a few generations later. 

The person Nebuchadnezzar chose to rule the city as his vassal was Mattaniah, Jehoiachin's uncle, whom he renamed Zedekiah.  This time he obliged the new King to swear fealty to him in the name of his own God, Yahweh.  He put him “under oath … that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand” [Ezek 17:13b,-14]. 

But Zedekiah and his advisers in Jerusalem failed to grasp their actual plight.  Enamored with Judah’s former greatness, they had every intention of reestablishing its storied eminence.  The king and his advisors in the city connived to throw off the yoke of their new masters.  There was, however, a small contingent of Jews led by the prophet Jeremiah who warned against rebellion.  They advised the King to consent to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority.  For the time being, the prophet urged, they should accept their vassal status under the Babylonians.  They should live as good citizens until a time when their god Yahweh would restore the fortunes of their people.  It was Yahweh’s decree, he said, that they would have to live under foreign domination for seventy years, a claim that appeared to be unthinkable to the nationalist Jews.

In Zedekiah’s eleventh year the nationalists got their way:  The king sent “ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army” [Ezk 17:15].  And thus he outraged his master.  Once again Nebuchadnezzar led his army back into Judah, this time to settle the matter.  The Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem, depriving it of food and water from the outside.  Briefly distracted by a failed attempt of the Egyptians to dislodge them, they intensified their stranglehold on the city.  The siege lasted for a year and a half, with horrifying consequences.  The writer of II Kings [25:3-7] describes the scene.  On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.  This may have been the situation described in the book of Lamentations, a funeral dirge written somewhat later:  the children “faint for hunger at the head of every street.”  And:  The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. [Lam 4:10].  The author asks, “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?” [Lam 2:20]

In desperation the king and his army tried to flee.  “Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king's garden, though the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon” [II Kg 25:3-7]. 

The Babylonians were not yet finished with this perfidious and incorrigible city.  “Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen” [II Kg 25:8-12]. 

Now the city lay open to pillage.  “What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver.” Whatever could be melted down for weapons was carried off, even the contents of the temple, which for the writer of Kings were sacred objects. “And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service, the fire pans also and the bowls.” The huge works of fine craftsmanship in the temple were likewise carted away.  “As for the two pillars, the one sea, and the stands that Solomon had made for the house of the Lord, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a capital of bronze. The height of the capital was three cubits. A latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were all around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with the latticework” [II Kg 25:13-17].  All these were carried away.

As a final measure, Nebuchadnezzar executed a number of the leading men:  “And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest and Zephaniah the second priest and the three keepers of the threshold, and from the city he took an officer who had been in command of the men of war, and five men of the king's council who were found in the city, and the secretary of the commander of the army who mustered the people of the land, and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. And the king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was taken into exile out of its land” [II Kg 25:18-21]. 

The Experience of Desolation

The emasculation and impoverishment of Judah was total.  Along with the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Holocaust during World War II, this event, the burning of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. was among the most shattering moments in Jewish history.  And yet little has been remarked on how powerfully it affected the moral sensibility of the Jews during the subsequent period of exile.  Even some people who read the Bible, our main source for what is known about the event, have only a vague sense of what happened and what it meant to the Jews of the succeeding generations, even though their writings expose clearly how deeply affected they were by the experience.

The writings of later generations describe the event in emotional terms: 

·       A Psalmist writes as if he had actually seen the destruction of the city and the temple.  “[T]he enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary! 4 Your foes [O God] have roared in the midst of your meeting place; they set up their own signs for signs.  5 They were like those who swing axes in a forest of trees. 6 And all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers.  7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they profaned the dwelling place of your name, bringing it down to the ground.  8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land” [Ps 74:3 b-8]. 

·       Another Psalmist similarly writes as if present to see the temple’s defilement:  “O God, the nations [=heathens] have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.  They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.  We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us” [Ps 79:1-4].

·       The writer of Lamentations,[6] in poetic dirges about these times, described the wreckage after the Babylonians were finished.[7]  [Chapter 1:1] “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!  How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!  She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.  [2] She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.  [3] Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. …. [4b] all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. … [10] The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. [11] All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.  

·       Also, [Chapter 2:9] Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the Lord. [10] The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground. [11] My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city. [12] They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers' bosom.  … [21] In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword…. 

·       [Chatper 4:8] Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood.  [9] Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field.  …

·       The latter part of Isaiah (“Second Isaiah”) similarly describes the country in ruins, as if it were written during this time: [ Isa 64:10] Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

Does this tale have any significance for our present time?  Certainly in the city of Jerusalem there was a failure of foresight. But the political forces within the city of Jerusalem were so powerful that the true nature of the scene could scarcely be put into words.  Political interests clouded insight.  So those in a position to divert the course of events were unable or unwilling to acknowledge what they might have seen ahead. 
Is this the world we live in?  Could the earth burn like Jerusalem?  Is there not a failure of leadership in our time?  How might we force those in power to confront the course of affairs before the options are too narrow to avoid a disastrous collapse of the social order?

[1] Blaiklock 1972: 153.
[2] Neco may have objected to the elders’ decision to choose their own King even though now Judah would be a vassal under his command (Miller/Hayes 1986:402).
[3] The book of Daniel says that it was about this time that Nebuchadnezzar took a group of promising young men, including Daniel and several friends, to Babylon to be trained for his bureaucracy [Dan 1:1-4].
[4] Here I follow Miller and Hayes 1986:406-8); Cf. Blaiklock 1972:155.
[5] I refer to this person as Coniah rather than Jeconiah to avoid confusion with the kings with similar names Jehoiahaz and Jehoiakim.  He is also referred to as Jeconiah.
[6] Scholarly consensus about the time of writing places it during or soon after the events described here.  Chapter 5 seems to describe a situation somewhat later.
[7] By reproducing this poem in this form I violate the acrostic nature of the original, in which the lines begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a form that is of course already invisible in English. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Afshar Massacre, a forgotten horror

The uncertainties of the present situation in Afghanistan, as talks are said to be beginning between NATO and theTaliban have inspired claims that another terrible and all-engulfing civil war could be in the offing.  It's worth remembering how it once was.  Nothing was worse than the civil war of 1992-1996 that made even life under the Taliban seem tame -- the Taliban were at first welcomed by virtually everyone because they brought peace, at least a form of peace.  The terror, the internal divisions, the shifting of alliances, the betrayal of friends and colleagues -- all this could be ahead again for the peoples of Afghanistan if the talks break down.  
The current generation has no idea what it was like. The civil war of 1992-1996 and afterward is scarcely rivaled for its ferocity and cruelty.  Civil wars -- the American Civil War being a famous example -- are the cruelest, meanest of human conflicts.  They are always a blight on human history, on memory, a shame to all the pretenses of the human moral imagination.

KabulPress recently published a long report on one such incident in the war for Kabul:  the Afshar Massacre and Rape of the Hazaras that took place almost exactly nineteen years ago this month (February 1993).  I reproduce it here because the story has been forgotten, and the younger generation has no idea; its' one of the tragic affairs of all Afghan history.  Let us pray that the Afghans will be spared that experience again.  [Click on the title for a link to the source.]

Massacre and Mass Rape in Afshar (February 10-11, 1993)AFGHANISTAN JUSTICE PROJECT  Saturday 11 February 2012 
The Context of the OperationThe Afshar operation of February 1993 represented the largest and most integrated use of military power undertaken by the ISA up to that time. There were two tactical objectives to the operation. First, Massoud intended, through the operation to capture the political and military headquarters of Hizb-i Wahdat, (which was located in the Social Science Institute, adjoining Afshar, the neighborhood below the Afshar mountain in west Kabul), and to capture Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of Hizb-i Wahdat. Second, the ISA intended to consolidate the areas of the capital directly controlled by Islamic State forces by linking up parts of west Kabul controlled by Ittihad-i Islami with parts of central Kabul controlled by Jamiat-i Islami. Given the political and military context of Kabul at the time, these two objectives (which were largely attained during the operation) provide a compelling explanation of why the Islamic State forces attacked Afshar.

Responsibility for the abuses committed during the operationThe forces that launched the offensive in west Kabul on February 10-11, 1993 all formally belonged to the ministry of defense of the ISA. The minister of defense and de facto commander-in-chief of the ISA at the time of the Afshar operation was Ahmad Shah Massoud. He had overall responsibility for planning and command of military operations. He directly controlled the Jamiat-i Islami units and indirectly controlled the Ittihad-i Islami unit. Massoud secured the participation of the Ittihad-i Islami units through agreement with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of the party. Although the Ittihad units had been given Afghan Army formation numbers, commanders in the field took their orders from senior Ittihad commanders and Sayyaf himself. Sayyaf acted as the de facto general commander of Ittihad forces during the operation and was directly in touch with senior commanders by radio. In this sense, Sayyaf shares equal command and control responsibility with the top Jamiat military leadership.Given the pattern of violence and ethnic tension that had preceded the operation, the general commanders could and should have anticipated the pattern of abuse that would result when launching an offensive into a densely populated Hazara majority area.. Furthermore, as fighting took place in an area barely two kilometers from the general command post, and field commanders were equipped with radio communications, the general commander must have known of the abuses taking place in Afshar as soon as they started. Both Massoud, together with his senior commanders, and Sayyaf failed to take effective measures to prevent abuses before the operation commenced, or to stop them once the operation was underway.  While it has not been possible to identify individual commanders responsible for specific instances of execution or rape, the Afghanistan Justice Project has been able to identify a number of the commanders who led troops in the operation. Testimony indicates that both Jamiat and Ittihad troops committed abuses. Although some of the commanders were only involved in legitimate military actions, capturing and securing a designated objective, commanders who took place in the operation on the ground have a case to answer to determine whether they restrained their troops from abuses, or whether they and their men actively participated in the summary executions, rape, arbitrary detentions and other abuses that occurred during the operation.The Islamic State, through Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud and leader of factional ally, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, committed the following military forces to participate in the Afshar operation. 
Jamiat-i Islami commanders and units 
Mohammad Qasim Fahim, director of intelligence, with responsibility for special operations in support of the offensive and participating in planning of the operation. Anwar Dangar, commander of a division level unit of mujahidin from Shakkar Darra, Shamali, named by numerous witnesses as leading troops in Afshar that carried out abuses on the first two days of the operation.Mullah Izzat, commander of a division level unit of mujahidin, from Paghman, named by numerous eye witnesses as leading troops in Afshar that carried out abuses on the first two days of the operation.  Mohammad Ishaq Panshiri, commander of a brigade level unit of mujahidin (lewa) that, according to witnesses, participated in the assault Haji Bahlol Panshiri, commander of a brigade level unit (lewa) that, according to witnesses participated in the assault Baba Jullunder Panshiri, commander of a brigade level unit (lewa) that participated in the assault Khanjar Akhund, Panshiri, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund) that participated in the assault Mushdoq Lalai, battalion level, participated in the assault Baz Mohammad Ahmadi Badakhshani, commander of a division level unit that participated in the assault, attacking from Qargha 
Ittihad-i Islami commanders and units participating in the operation 
Haji Shir Alam, division commander affiliated to Sayyaf, from Paghman, named by numerous eye witnesses as leading troops in Afshar on the first two days when abuses were committed  Zulmai Tufan, commander of the Lewa 597 brigade, named by numerous eye witnesses as leading troops in Afshar on the first two days, when abuses were committed. (Lewa 597 existed before the fall of Dr. Najibullah’s government when it was called Lewa Moradat-Tank). It was in based in the Company area of west Kabul.  Dr. Abdullah, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund) of the Lewa 597, named by several witnesses as leading troops in Afshar on day one and two, when abuses were committed Jaglan Naeem, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund) of the Lewa 597, had stationed troops in Afshar by second day of the operation  Mullah Taj Mohammad, named as participating in planning of the operation  Abdullah Shah, named by several witnesses as leading troops in Afshar and responsible for arbitrary arrests, abductions and other abuses.  Khinjar, who had stationed troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Abdul Manan Diwana, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), named by witnesses as stationing troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Amanullah Kochi, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), had stationed troops in Afshar by second day of the operation  Shirin, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), had stationed troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Mushtaq Lalai, commander of a battalion level unit (ghund), had stationed troops in Afshar by the second day of the operation  Mullah Kachkol, had stationed troops in Afshar by second day of the operation  
Narrative of the operation 
All of the forces that ultimately participated in the fighting on February 10-11, 1993, were already deployed in and around Kabul before the start of the offensive. The main preparations made by the ISA were the conduct of special operations to weaken the Hizb-i Wahdat defenses and deployment of additional artillery for the bombardment. As director of intelligence, Mohammad Fahim had overall responsibility for special operations. His personnel contacted a number of the Shia commanders around Afshar and obtained their commitment to cooperate with the Islamic State offensive.  The most significant new deployment of artillery before the operation was the position on Aliabad Hill. Massoud pre-positioned a Z0 23 gun there, with the detachment of 30 men, to target the area around the Central Silo, Afshar, Kart-iSeh, Kart-iChar and Kart-iSakhi.  The main significance of the massive firepower and the large number of positions from which artillery was used is that they demonstrate the scale and significance of the operation. This was not a raid or skirmish but a full scale battle, in which the Islamic State deployed the combined military resources from the old Soviet era army and the mujahidin against targets within the capital city, all of them located in areas that were primarily residential, with the civilian population intact.  Witnesses who were associated with the military at the time of the operation have provided accounts of the planning and military coordination that Massoud undertook prior to actually launching the operation on the ground. However, this represents only a partial view of the planning, as an operation of this scale must have involved intensive preparations. According to one witness, the top Jamiat commanders, along with selected senior Ittihad commanders (Shir Alam and Zulmai Tufan), and with the main Shia ally, Massoud Hussain Anwari, plus the ISA military advisors, met under the chairmanship of Massoud at Corps headquarters in Badambagh two days before the operation. Another meeting was held in an intelligence safe house in KartiParwan, near the Intercontinental hotel, on the night before the offensive. Massoud used the same house as an operations room for much of the day. There was also a meeting of the Ittihad commanders, under the chairmanship of Sayyaf, in Paghman, one day before the operation. The purpose of these meetings was to instruct key commanders on their role in the ground offensive.The ISA forces commenced a generalized bombardment of west Kabul on the night of February 10-11, 1993, with targets both around the Social Science Institute and Afshar and in the rest of the Shia areas of the city. Troop movement started around 05.00 on February 11, and this is generally remembered as the time of the full commencement of the operation. The first decisive troop movement was from Badambagh to the top of the Radar Hill, part of the Afshar ridge. ISA troops were immediately able to take over positions along the top of the ridge unopposed and the main Hizb-i Wahdat defense posts there were burned and the tanks stationed there immobilized.  A large contingent of both Ittihad and Jamiat forces advanced towards Afshar from the west. The closest point of the front line to the main target of the operation was the Kabul Polytechnic. A Jamiat force advanced along the main Afshar Road, from Kart-iParwan and the Intercontinental Hotel, towards the Social Science Institute, entering Afshar from the east. The ISA forces did not advance along other sections of the front line marking the west Kabul enclave, although they maintained an intense bombardment and had ample forces deployed to maintain a threat of advance.  However, by 13.00 Hizb-i Wahdat’s main defense line along the Afshar ridge was gone and their hold on the Social Science Institute untenable. Mazari and his top commanders fled the Institute on foot. By 14.00 the ISA forces were able to occupy the Social Science Institute, and the forces that had advanced from the east and the west, met up in Afshar, having taken effective control of the area. They deployed in Khushal Mina and Afshar, but made no further advance.  Troops started to secure the area, establishing posts and undertaking a search operation. It was this search operation that rapidly became a mass exercise in abuse and looting, as described in the civilian eyewitness testimony below.  Mazari was able to order the re-establishment of the defense line along the edge of Khushhal Mina, next to the Central Silo and Kart-iSakhi, thus retaining most of the rest of west Kabul. Some of the Afshar residents, basically those considering themselves most vulnerable, managed to flee with the departing Wahdat troops (this factor seems to account for the relatively low number of male youths mentioned in the casualties in the testimony). However, the majority of the Afshar civilian population was in place as the ISA forces took over. Because of the bombardment, active fighting and presence of potentially hostile troops, it seems that many civilians were unable to leave on the first day of the operation. However, a mass exodus took place on the night of the February 11-12. Women and children fled mainly towards Taimani, in north Kabul, and they found shelter in schools and mosques in the Ismaili quarter there. Some old men elected to stay and guard houses and possessions, but testimony indicates that the troops mainly targeted men for arbitrary detention and summary execution, i.e. male civilians were not free to leave the area. Most survivors who fled Afshar described seeing debris and corpses along the way, indicating that they fled after the main battle. By the end of the second day, the bulk of the civilian population had evacuated Afshar and it seems that this exodus was the development that most decisively ended abuses against civilians in the area.  On the second day of the operation, February 12, Massoud convened a meeting in the Hotel Intercontinental which, belatedly, discussed arrangements for security in the newly captured areas. This meeting was attended by top ISA military commanders and political figures, including Rabbani, Sayyaf, Hayatollah Mohsin, Ayatollah Fazl, and General Fahim. ISA did claim a Shia constituency and Hussain Anwari, as a senior ISA commander, was under pressure from Shia civilians to make some arrangements for their safety. The meeting ordered a halt to the massacre and looting and agreed on an exchange of envoys between the warring parties, for identification of prisoners. It also called for a withdrawal of the offensive troops, leaving a smaller force to garrison the new areas.Given the scale of abuses that occurred on the first two days of the operation, before the meeting, it was clearly too late to prevent the main abuses. The meeting also seems to have been ineffective in halting the looting of the area, as the destruction of housing in Afshar happened largely after the meeting. 
The War Crimes: Indiscriminate Attacks, Rapes, Abductions and Summary Executions 
Indiscriminate Shelling and bombardment of civilian areasThe Afshar area was subjected to heavy bombardment during the first day of the operation. The principal military targets would have been the Social Science Institute and the other main Wahdat garrisons. However, the Social Science Institute was never hit. The majority of the rockets, tank shells and mortars fell in civilian residential areas. As the command centers of both the Ittihad and Jamiat forces were within site of Afshar, it appears that the attack was intended to drive the civilian population from Afshar—which it succeeded in doing. The number killed in the assault (not including those summarily executed) is not known. Virtually every witness interviewed by the Afghanistan Justice Project described seeing bodies in the area.Indeed, the shelling and mortar fire was so intense, many residents hid on the first day, and did not try to leave. Although this may have reduced civilian casualties from the bombardment, it left these civilians vulnerable to the abuses that followed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gathering opposition against making a deal with the Taliban.

Rob Taylor of Reuters tells us that a significant movement to prepare for war is forming for fear that the Taliban will be let back in.  Recently I was told that most of the Pushtuns that a contact of mine from Jalalabad has are pro-Taliban.  Not that they like the Taliban but they distrust the government and so lean to the Taliban; they think they will last longest.  Taylor now says the non-Pushtuns of the north and west are unwilling to allow the Taliban back into government.  What does that spell?  A dangerous mix of old grudges and opposing coalitions similar to the days of the late 1990s:  Northern Alliance versus the Taliban.  Only now, more than one observer predicts that if a civil war develops it will be even more terrible than ever for the civilians and the destruction of the only world they know.  Here are some of the statements from the article about an interview with Afghanistan's former spy chief, Amrullah Saleh, plus a few  comments on implications that may not be obvious to the uninformed reader.  [Click on my title above for a link to the source.]
Former Afghan spy chief chafes at peace talks Reuters 6:34am ESTBy Rob Taylor
Amrullah Saleh said ethnic groups coalescing towards a more unified opposition were prepared to fight to prevent a return of Taliban militancy."We want the state to remain pluralistic, not bow to the barrel of a gun," Saleh, a former head of Afghanistan's intelligence service and now a political opposition activist, told Reuters at his heavily-guarded Kabul home.
"If the Taliban, like us, want to come and play according to the script, sure. But if they come with gun-mounted Hi-Lux trucks, no, that means continuation of civil war, of war, and fragmentation of Afghanistan," he said.Saleh's message is likely to strike a chord with many Afghans who feel sidelined by U.S.-initiated negotiations, despite Karzai's belated insistence on control of the process and determination they be Afghan-led. .  .  .
Other ethnic power brokers are also circling each other including Uzbek general Abdul Rashid Dostum and prominent Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq, eyeing a possible common front. .  .  .
Note that these are the main elements of the Northern Alliance who were fighting the Taliban when the Americans joined them to crush the Taliban in October of 2001.  That war had powerful ethnic associations, as the Taliban are almost entirely Pushtuns from the south and east whereas the Alliance was composed of what was then called "Dari-speakers": Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks -- Saleh's ethnic group.   
But Saleh, a strident critic of Karzai's centralized rule and efforts to reach out to the Taliban, said he did not believe the hardline Islamists would ever accept an Afghan government they had implacably opposed as a "puppet," even if some sort of deal emerged to give them a slice of power."Those who are against the Taliban, they are the majority, and this majority is now neglected," he said
"On one side of the table there are some mullahs, on the other side of the table is an American. Where are the Afghans? We feel unprotected, both by Karzai and by the Americans."
Note here his use of the word "Afghans".  The term originally meant the ethnic group we now call Pushtuns:  they called themselves "Awghaan".  Now the word has become ambiguous, sometimes implying all the citizens of Afghanistan, more than half of which are non-Pushtun, and sometimes meaning only the Pushtuns.  Saleh's term "Afghans" here would never be used in this sense by the Taliban or by most Pushtuns -- remember that lots of Pushtuns are anti-Taliban.
Saleh was a former aide to former anti-Taliban hero Ahmad Shah Massoud and his Northern Alliance, .  .  .  .
Taylor neglects to say that Saleh is a Tajik, a fact that in this context is carefully unmentioned but is heavily fraught with memories of Pushtun-Tajiks conflicts in the past.   
He said if war broke out again, it would be worse than the bloody civil war that engulfed the country after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when rival warlords razed much of Kabul in a conflict that left 50,000 civilians dead."Fighting is not a very sophisticated path. It's easy. And (so is) recruiting people to fight in this country where unemployment is more than 50 percent. To believe that only one group can fight is naivete," he said."They should know that when we offer to be part of the solution, they should not underestimate us."
Karzai had been forced into dealing with the Taliban not because of a stalemate in the NATO-led war, Saleh said, but because his government's poor anti-graft record and failure to build a justice system that people had faith in, leading many Afghans to believe the Taliban could do a better job.
"If we talk to the Taliban from a position of strength, where we have bought reform, where we have restored the confidence of the people in our ability to represent Afghanistan, the Taliban become a group, not a force," he said.
This is more than sabre-rattling.  It could happen.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

The changing face of the Taliban?

Barney Ronay has an article in the Guardian [2/11/12] about how the Afghans united in support of their cricket team against Pakistan.
That the Afghans would support their cricket team against Pakistan’s is hardly news.  I have never met an Afghan that trusted a Pakistani, and war and the dealings with Pakistan’s ISI have simply reinforced that opinion.
What was most interesting was the news that the Taliban expressed support for the Afghan team. That is good news on a couple of grounds.  For one thing, it suggests that they identify with the Afghans, not the Pakistanis.  Again, it isn’t much of a surprise, because even though the Pakistanis have supported the Taliban in their fight against the Afghan government they have won little appreciation from the Taliban.  It is no doubt because the ISI have been heavihanded.  That the Taliban are willing to talk to representatives of the Afghan government reveals their distrust of the Pakistan and desire to escape from their control.  Yes, they want the Americans out, but they don't want the Pakistanis in either. 
The other interesting thing about the Taliban support of the cricket team is that it suggests that they have softened their opposition to entertainments like radio and TV.  What about wedding parties and dancing?  One of the little noted results of the extended period of war in Afghanistan may be that the Taliban have begun to accommodate to what the rest of the world is like -- even what other Muslims are like elsewhere.  The Taliban movement began as a rustic opposition to repressive activities of the local warlords but there appears to have been a kind of subtext in the movement:  resentment against innovations from the outside world of many kinds, things that were deemed from Soviet influence; the sense that come practices were godless (as in Soviet) were later transferred to the Americans.  Now, after so many years engaging with outsiders the Taliban may have decided that some of the innovations from the outside world are OK.  Also, they may have come to realize that the Afghanistan peoples deeply resented all the rules they tried to put into place -- enforced by essentially ignorant troops, ignorant of Islam as well as the outside world.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

When money and political posturing clash with science.

The debate about global warming – now called climate change – is driven by conflicting interests.  On the one hand there are climate scientists who are concerned that their projections suggest frightening changes coming upon the earth; on the other are the corporate interests that cannot bear for this to be known because it’s bad for business.  So the moneyed interests have turned the issue into a political flash point. 

Actually the issue is not new among those who have been looking at such things.  As far back as twenty-five years ago one of my colleagues showed me a graph of the amounts of CO2 levels at various times over the last several thousand years, based on ice cores taken from the Greenland icecap.  What struck me then was the noticeable rise in CO2 about 10,000 years ago, which we speculated could have been caused by the invention of slash-burn (or swidden) agriculture.  Neither of us was surprised at the far more dramatic rise in CO2 levels beginning in the twentieth century, the time when the automobile was coming into vogue; the amounts have been rising ever since, and dramatically so recently.  At the time, I had no idea what those rising levels might mean for the planet we live on. 

The consensus of the climate scientists is that the earth is warming at an ever faster pace.  The voices contesting this come from outside the community of scholars specializing in global climate.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call those nay-sayers Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).  Philip Kitcher summarizes their point in his review of “The Climate Change Debates” in Science(vol 328, p. 1230-34, June 4, 2010):  “Opposition to scientifically well-supported claims about  the dangers of cigarette smoking, the difficulties of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, the problems caused by secondhand smoke, and -- ultimately – the existence of anthropogenic climate change was used in ‘the service of political goals and commercial interests’ to obstruct the transmission to the American public of important information.  Amazingly, the same small cadre of obfuscators figure in all these episodes.”  Oreskes and Conway discovered that scientists tied to particular industries, with strong political connections, have played a disproportionate role in debates about contested issues.  Even though they obtained their stature in fields with little pertinence to the issues in question they have posed as experts, many of them paid by “think tanks” devoted to contesting claims that threaten the interests of powerful corporations and political interests.  The attempt has been to shape the way the public thinks about the natural processes that threaten the world.  In fact, it seems certain that any attempt to deny the processes of nature cannot prevail, at least in the long run.  The world operates according to its own mechanisms, whatever we might think about it.  We cannot create a "reality" by mere rhetoric or ostrich-like denial.  

The task of science of course is to faithfully seek an understanding of the world as it is.  Obviously, if the climate experts are right the earth is facing critical developments that will not go away. 

What most climate scientists foresee is indeed worrisome.  If we consider how the dangerous trends in the world can be turned around, to turn back the trend of CO2 production that is causing climate change, we find reasons to consider the situation dire.  That is, there are natural processes and there are social processes.  Anthony Giddens, the sociologist who has joined the debate (The Politics of Climate Change, 2009), puts it this way:  “It will be a colossal task to turn around a society whose whole way of life is constructed around mobility and a ‘natural right’ to consume energy in a profligate way.”  A colossal task, yes.  Turning around a civilization that is hell-bent on carrying on as it always has, driven by institutional conventions that are ensconced and opulently funded will indeed be a Herculean task.  That the system in place will seek to deny scientific findings that threaten it is to be expected.  So why does Giddens add to the above eminently formulated assertion the following codicil: “Yet it isn’t as hopeless an endeavor as it looks”? He provides no evidence to support this claim.  We wonder: Did Giddens reach for a straw to avoid admitting how unlikely such a turn-around is?  It seems obvious enough that what is actually required for the world to transform itself is a huge effort.  So, really, how likely is it?  Minimal.  Is the reality too hideous for Giddens to put it into words? 

Nancy Lindesfarne [Anthropology Today 26(4):1,2 2010] describes the collapse of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, December, 2009:  "No one  ... imagined what shape the Copenhagen Accord would actually take. ... Alone, the heads of five states brazenly decided, in a last minute, back-room fix, to do nothing at all to prevent catastrophic climate change.   These five states are among the world's largest coal consumers.  ... they are all states that would have to change most to address climate change.  In the midst of the global financial crisis, they decided it would just cost too much. ..."  In response to the failure of the Copenhagen talks Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, called for a World's Peoples Conference on Climate Change and affirmed, "We have two paths: to save capitalism, or to save Mother Earth." 

Capitalism or global collapse:  That's an option our world leaders must never have to face.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The price of breaking our own rules

Barry Wingard is a Lt Col, Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the Air Force, has served 28 years and is a war veteran, and in civilian life he serves as a public defender in the city of Pittsburgh.  His statement of the reasons for American problems of remaining in Iraq are so on point that I think it should be more widely read.  However, I wish this had been published in a prominent American paper.  Thankfully, Al Jazeera would publish it.  From the Jan 18, 2012 site: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/01/20121141418247919.html.

Rule of law in full retreat
'How can the US set the standard for equal justice and human rights when its own moral authority lies in ruin?'
Washington DC - President Obama recently announced that, by the end of 2011, all United States military forces will be withdrawn from Iraq.
Reportedly, the US would like to have established some lasting military presence in Iraq (similar to that in Kuwait and other friendly nations); but this scenario was not possible because the US and Iraq could not agree upon the terms of a "status of forces agreement" (SOFA).
Such agreements generally permit the United States to exercise jurisdiction over certain criminal matters involving United States service members, rather than having service members prosecuted by host-nation authorities. So, in essence, the reason the US had to withdraw all its troops is because the Iraqis do not trust the United States' legal system.
And who can blame them?
In recent years, Iraq watched the US' response to the widely-publicised atrocities at Abu Ghraib by prosecuting only the lowest-ranking offenders (with no meaningful accountability at higher levels). Iraq also witnessed a complete lack of accountability when American employees of "Blackwater" allegedly killed dozens of Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square.
These were not exactly shining examples of "American justice in action. 
But perhaps the most obvious reason the Iraqis might be suspect of the American legal system is that, for the past 10 years, the most visible example of "American justice" has been the confinement of Muslims at Guantanamo Bay without a trial of any kind.
Reaping a poisonous cropFor 10 years, the US has clearly demonstrated it applies one set of legal rules to Americans and another to non-Americans. The first set respects due process, the rule of law, individual rights and the concept of innocent until proven guilty.
Unfortunately, the second set involves enhanced interrogation, indefinite detention and a presumption of guilt without any opportunity to prove innocence.
So, having planted the seeds of legal inequality, the US has now begun to reap a poisonous crop. And its inability to negotiate a SOFA with Iraq is likely one of many serious consequences.
While the US continues to characterise its policies in easily-digestible terms for domestic consumption (such as "war on terror" and "homeland security"), the world opinion of the US and its commitment to justice is on decline and has changed forever.
How can the US set the standard for equal justice and human rights when its own moral authority lies in ruin?
The Arab spring has presented opportunities for meaningful change throughout the Middle East. Unfortunately, the US has placed itself in a poor position to extend the hand of friendship or to provide an example for new democracies to follow.
This is especially true for those countries still represented amongst the suffering population of Guantanamo Bay, 95 per cent of whom will never receive a trial or an apology for the treatment they endured or their ruined lives. Why does the US assert its right to hold human beings for life without trial in its never-ending battle against "terror"?
The only justification that I can see is "because it can".
Lt Col Wingard is a military lawyer who represents Fayiz al-Kandari and has served for 28 years in the military. When not on active duty, he is a public defender in the city of Pittsburgh.