Excuse Me, My Car’s On Fire

Spring had come at last.  It wasn’t cold outside and it was good driving my convertible again, but it wasn’t really warm so after a while I turned on the heater.

A mile or two down the road I noticed wisps of steam.  I drove on.  The steam grew thicker.  “It would be good to get an oil change, anyway,” I thought.  “I’ll take it to the shop now in case this is smoke.”

The cabin was full of smoke as I turned into the lot so I shifted into neutral, turned off the ignition and cruised the rest of the way.  No flames were to be seen but as I opened the door I said to the mechanic standing outside the office, “Excuse me.  I think my car’s on fire.”

There never were any visible flames, perhaps because the fire truck came quickly, but sadly, the wiring harness was destroyed and the car was totaled.  Thinking about it all later, I decided not to get into such a situation again, and to get out of the car and call 911 if I ever did.

President Kennedy came to a similar conclusion soon after he succeeded President Eisenhower who in his January 17, 1961 farewell address warned (see page 15 of his annotated reading copy or watch him deliver the speech), “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

In President Kennedy’s September 25, 1961 address to the UN he said:  “Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable.  Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”  (See the full speech here)

Then came the October 16–28, 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  One thing had led to another until, very soon, the missiles would have been on their way.  Hundred of millions would have been killed outright.  Life of any kind could have become impossible.

A year earlier Kennedy had said at the UN, “a nuclear disaster, spread by wind and water and fear, could well engulf the great and the small, the rich and the poor, the committed and the uncommitted alike.  Mankind must put an end to war–or war will put an end to mankind.”

jfk war quote

Perhaps the prospect of nuclear disaster still seemed theoretical in 1961.  It became utter conviction after October 1962.  The situation in which he found himself haunted Kennedy from then on.  He strove, in secret dialog with Soviet premier Khrushchev, to wind down the arms race and end the Cold War.

Those of us who lived through the 1960s have not forgotten that lesson.  Well, many of us at least have not.  So it is bewildering and piercingly sad that presidential candidates saying things like the following could now be applauded:

Candidate Cruz: “We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion.  I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”

Candidate Rubio “will destroy terrorists overseas by authorizing whatever tools our commanders need.”

Candidate Trump:  “ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because of the oil that they took away …  I would bomb the shit out of them.”

That’s why we cannot ignore such things as President Obama’s approval of a plan to deploy a new generation of nuclear weapons, over a trillion dollars worth of them.

Perhaps we will not elect a President this year who is eager to launch such weapons.  But the way to bet is, one day we will.

I want my grandchildren and every other child to live long and happily.  That will not happen if we continue to manufacture and distribute weapons of mass destruction.

Sunni vs Shia in Context

Muslims split into two camps, Sunni and Shia, soon after Muhammad died in 632, they have battled ever since, and their violence has spread here.  Is that true?  Should we be afraid?

The Sunni-Shia divide over the succession to Muhammad obscures both what all Muslims accept and significant differences between five Sunni and three Shia schools of law as well as many schools of theology, some of which are accepted by both Sunni and Shia sects.

The seed that grew into today’s conflict was sown in the early 1500s when the Safavids, a Kurdish Sufi mystic order that turned militant, gained control of Iran and established a Shia sect as their empire’s religion to differentiate it from the previous regime, the Sunni Ottoman Empire based in Turkey (see this excellent article for a comprehensive geographic history of the Islamic states.)

Islamic States 1550

Today’s battles do reflect sectarian differences but they are primarily about worldly power.  I’ll say more about those differences and what every Muslim accepts, then review events in the recent past that made the early 1500s split newly relevant.

The Quran, Allah’s words to Muhammad, is the foundation for all Muslims.  There are also Hadiths, reports on Muhammad’s words and actions that correspond to the gospels about Christ’s words and actions.  Some Hadiths are followed by both Sunni and Shia, others only by one or the other.  The major Hadiths happen to have been collected by a Persian Muslim.

The Hadith of Gabriel is the most important and is accepted by both Sunni and Shia.  It includes the mandatory Five Pillars for all Muslims — faith in Allah and Muhammad, five daily prayers performed in a prescribed way, charity (because all things belong to God), fasting (to purify worldly desire), and pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mode of prayer is essentially the same for all Muslims and although the prayer leader in any mosque belongs to one of the Sunni or Shia schools, unlike Catholic or Protestant churches where the fundamentals of practice are different, Muslims of any school can pray in any mosque.

The main Sunni schools of law are Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shaf”i.  They are associated with different territories as with any organized religion:

  • Hanafi has the largest number of followers and is dominant in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, parts of Iraq, India and Bangladesh, and a vast area to the east and north that includes most Russian Muslims
  • Hanbali is strictly traditionalist and is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  The Saudi regime enforces a harsh, fundamentalist form of Hanbali known as Wahhabism
  • Maliki is in Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and NE Saudi Arabia
  • Shafi’i was the most popular school but was superseded by Hanafi under the Ottoman Empire

The major Shia traditions are the Fivers, Seveners, and Twelvers who differ on which of Muhammad’s successors are legitimate.  The Twelvers’ Jaʿfarī is the school of law for most Shia Muslims because Twelvers are a majority in Iran and among the Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Iraq.  They are also a significant minority in Lebanon.

Overall, around 85-90% of Muslims are Sunni, 10-15% Shia.

Sunni Shia Map

Now the events beginning in 1979 that made the Sunni-Shia split newly relevant.

The leading political movement in the Middle East in the 1950s and ’60s was Arab nationalism.  Sunni-Shia distinctions were almost irrelevant then.  The important issues were shared Arab ethnicity, which is different from Turks and Persians, and their long suffering under colonial powers who divided them.

What changed all that was Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrowing the pro-Western shah.  Iran’s theocratic revolution was both popular and anti-monarchist, and the new regime encouraged uprisings in other Middle Eastern nations.  That threatened Saudi influence and their monarchy itself.

Then came the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The Saudi regime supported Iraq’s 1980s war against Iran to preempt revolution by Iraq’s Shias, but Saddam Hussein considered both Saudi Arabia and Iran enemies.  Removing him disrupted the balance between the powers and left a power vacuum in Iraq.

Next the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia in 2010, spread to Syria and other Middle East nations.   Saudi Arabia and Iran, in rivalry for influence, amped up Sunni-Shia sectarianism.  Their power plays, the Saudis’ heavily supported by the US and Israel, greatly increased the violence.

In Syria protests grew into rebellion then civil war.  Rebels, encouraged by US policy to oust President Bashar al-Assad, were armed by the Saudi regime and Qatar.  The Saudi regime wants Assad replaced by a Sunni government because Assad is Alawite, a Shia sect.  They fear a potential “Shiite crescent” from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.  Seeing the civil war recast as anti-Shia, Iran’s regime encouraged Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon to battle the Sunni rebels.

Those rebels include Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham (funded chiefly by Kuwait), and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State.

Israel shares the Saudis’ fear of Iran.  Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of whose chief goals is the elimination of Israel, gets substantial support from Iran.  Sunni group Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, also seeks to establish an Islamic State in what is now Israel.

Meanwhile in Yemen, where civil war also rages, Saudi bombing, justified by greatly exaggerating Iran’s support for Houthi Shia rebels, has greatly worsened the humanitarian disaster.

And meanwhile in Iraq, changes there illustrate how Sunni-Shia strife is not the norm.  Iraq’s population is 75%-80% Arab and almost all Muslim, half to two thirds Shia.  Saddam’s regime was Ba’athist, a movement aiming for a single Arab state that would be Muslim by tradition but more importantly, socialist (see comment.)  Most of Saddam’s government were Sunni.  Shia were oppressed by them, but there was little conflict between Sunni and Shia people until we made Iraq essentially lawless.

Sunni and Shia lived side by side in much of Baghdad, even in 2005.  But as chaos grew, Sunni and Shia began to form self-defense militias, then saw each other as threats.  Neighborhoods in Baghdad that had been mixed were starkly divided two years later.

Baghdad Shia-Sunni Map

The Sunni-Shia split is real enough to excite support for political leaders, but it is their contests for power that are the root of today’s Middle East violence.  Our military interventions to prop up or topple these autocrats are counter-productive and greatly increase the suffering of the people.

Middle East conflict has spread to the USA only in the sense that we replaced the 20th century British and French Empires as the power whose actions aim to dominate the Middle East.

Should we be afraid of the variously named ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State?  It is famous for beheading opponents and now controls most of Syria, but we do not condemn the Saudi regime for beheadings.  Should we then support Syria being ruled by ISIL, a regime similar to Saudi Arabia’s?

No, we should stop being afraid, and we should stop compounding violence.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Race and Religion

Bad results come when concepts obscure reality.  It is individuals who decide what corporations and nations will do, and it is not Arab, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or other aggregate entities but individuals who act in the name of race and religion.

Power-seeking leaders use our delusion that religious and other institutions make decisions to trigger our fears about “other” groups.  It is all too easy to persuade us to fear people we do not know, and fear sparks hatred.  The massacre when India was partitioned is a chilling illustration.

When its ownership changed in 1947, what had been British India was reconfigured into three territories operating as two nations, (1) India, (2) East Pakistan which later became today’s Pakistan, and (3) West Pakistan, which became today’s Bangladesh.

British India was a collection of 565 semi-sovereign principalities.  Those directly governed by the British are shaded pink in the map below.  The yellow shaded ones were subject only to British control over their relations with each other.  You’ll notice the British considered Nepal part of their empire.  Nepal’s kings did not.  They kept Nepal closed even after India became independent.

Indian Empire 1909

Arab and Persian Muslims began coming to the Indian subcontinent almost immediately after Mohammed’s death in 632.  There were military expeditions and trading, and some soldiers and traders married local women, but it was not until the 13th-14th centuries that Islam became an important force in India.

Many principalities became tributary to Islamic sultanates and then, from the early 16th to the mid-18th centuries, almost the whole subcontinent was ruled in prosperity and religious harmony by a Muslim administration, the Turco-Mongol Mughal Empire.

Next came a Hindu warrior regime, the Maratha Empire from southern India.  At that time, Hindu just meant people in India who were not Turks or Muslims.

The mix of Hindus and Muslims varied.  The highest concentration of Muslims was in the West close to Persia and the Ocean route to Arabia, and in the East close to Calcutta, Britain’s primary ocean port.

You might expect a Shia Muslim majority since the greatest number of Muslims is closest to Persia, but 70% – 75% of Muslims in India and 80% – 90% in Pakistan are Sunni.  That’s because the Mughal emperors happened to be from the Sunni tradition.

India Muslim Population 1909

In the late 19th century, many people on the Indian subcontinent were starting to think of themselves more as Indian than as members of one of the local kingdoms.  The British, who followed the Marathas, had begun allowing them into the administration of the continent as a whole.

The 565 semi-sovereign kingdoms still existed when British rule ended in 1947 and there were starkly different views about whether they should be unified into one or two nations.  Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist the following year, was relentlessly against violence and for a single nation with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in unity.

But Hindu leader Savarkar had written in 1923: “We Hindus are … a nation” and by 1937 he was saying: “Indian Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations, regardless of ethnic or other commonalities.”  Then in 1940, Muslim leader Jinnah told cheering crowds: “[We Muslims] are not a minority (but) a nation.”

So, driven by their leaders’ quest for power, India and Pakistan became separate nations.  Appalling riots broke out.  As many as two million people were killed and over fourteen million fled for their lives, half of them Muslims from India to Pakistan, the others Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India.

The Indian subcontinent’s highly diverse population — the 2001 census found 122 major languages and 1599 other languages in India alone — had suddenly been conceptualized as two nations, India with a secular government, Pakistan as an Islamic Republic.

Individuals pursuing power had aligned race and religion with nationalism.  Tellingly, Hindu leader Savarkar was an atheist and Muslim leader Jinnah did no Muslim practice.  It was too late when in 1947, Jinnah called for a secular and inclusive Pakistan.  He had gotten himself a nation by inflaming religious hatred.  Then he could not bring the hatred to an end.

Power-seeking individuals are using the same dark tactics today.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi melded the ideas of nation and religion into the Islamic State.  In response, US Presidential candidates Trump, Cruz and others exhort us to condemn every Muslim as a potential terrorist.

We don’t have to fall for these spurious calls for mass hatred.

 

Let’s Stop Being Terrorized

A year ago we were exhorted to close our borders against Ebola.  Some State Governors went ahead and did so, taking action, they said, when President Obama would not.

Then a friend posted this appalling and spurious image.  What we should really fear, she thought, is Islam.  One in three conservative Republicans already believed President Obama to be a Muslim.

Although fear trumps facts, that particular lie did not have legs.  Islam does not allow such behavior and Ayatollah Khomeini, who died a quarter of a century ago, is not the “current leader of Iran.”

Fear is a helpful survival instinct — we’re safer taking automatic fight-or-flight action with intellect engaging only later.  But there’s a downside.  Because it closes our mind, instilling fear is a powerful way to control us.

Knowing that, politicians are now instilling fear of a much more potent terror, ISIS.  They say it is the true face of a religion that commands its followers to kill all others.  And some Americans think they know exactly what to do about that nightmare.

Mainstream media eagerly participates in the fear-mongering.  Ten days after the recent San Bernardino massacre, the New York Times claimed one of the attackers had years ago publicly committed to terrorism.

The allegation is false, said FBI Director Comey, and the Times provided no evidence, but presidential candidates claimed it as a catastrophic Obama administration failure.

Voters want someone to blame for their struggles, politicians want us to have an enemy because they will get more power if we are fearful, and mainstream media amplifies our fears so we will consume more.  Our emotions are being manipulated.  We are being misdirected.

As I wrote a year ago, while we cannot eliminate infectious disease, a health care system that encourages all with symptoms to get treatment right away would minimize the spread of disease.

And while San Bernardino was horrific and likely was inspired by ISIS publicity, the odds of being killed by terrorists in America are extremely small. Depending on how you define them, there have been 40 mass shootings since 9/11/2001 but only a few were terrorist attacks.

Mass Shootings Map

We cannot anticipate all future mass shootings or other kinds of massacres.  We could not have anticipated Timothy McVeigh killing 168 people with a homemade bomb in Oklahama City twenty years ago, or the drivers who mass murder pedestrians.

We could eliminate many mass shootings, however, including San Bernardino and the massacre in my home town, by removing assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society.

And we could go further.  We could start eliminating the future equivalent of this year’s 355 shootings  in which four or more were injured or killed, and this year’s 33,000 individual deaths and 80,000 hospitalizations from gunshots.

Police work will not end hatred of blacks, Muslims, our government, fellow workers, shooters’ families or others, desire for fame, other people’s money or ending one’s own life, or just plain foolishness.

But we could start eliminating the easy way to kill by removing not only assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society, but all hand guns.  We could even restrict rifles and shotguns.

I do not expect our society will make that choice.  I expect our freedom to own a wide range of weapons will continue to outweigh its costs.  We will choose to continue having mass shootings.

Perhaps we will get a universal health care system one day because our present approach costs far too much.  But our freedom to own guns does not seem something about which we can make conscious choices.

Beset by all these nightmares and more, is there anything we can do as individuals?  As this wise Christian leader wrote when we faced immediate nuclear extinction, we can pull ourselves together and meet our fate doing sensible and human things.

Let’s stop being terrorized by politicians and media people.  Let’s summon the courage to live in the happily generous American way.

Things we do out of fearfulness with which we’ve been infected frustrate and sadden people like this Muslim family that we would not allow to come on holiday and enrage those in other countries like our own “Overpasses for America” people.  That rage is why some want to kill us.

So let’s each of us do the deeply human thing.  Let’s learn how to help each other overcome fear.

TCN, Episode 11 – Corruption and Government

Saddened when I went trekking by all the hardships I saw, I thought: “I know how to devise strategies, what’s a good one for Nepal?”  It was only after many more trips that I saw the root of the problem.

It is easy to see a good strategy for Nepal.  It has over 80,000 MW of hydro-power potential, much of which it could export, and its near neighbor, Bhutan, has made good deals with India to do exactly that.

But Nepal has failed to make such deals and has developed less than 1% of its potential.

Why the difference?  Corruption.  Corruption is when someone uses a position of authority for their personal gain.

But the whole point of having a position of authority throughout Nepal’s history was personal gain.

And that motivation has not changed — see Electricity and Corruption.

Nepal never had what we understand by “government”.  Its administration never was intended to provide services to the people.  It existed to operate a tax farming business owned by Hindu kings and run by a high caste Hindu family.

That ruling elite was a tiny minority within the high caste groups that make up less than a third of Nepal’s diverse population where over a hundred mutually unintelligible languages are spoken.

As these charts from a good article on the topic illustrate, Chhetri and Hill-Brahmin people make up 29% of the 28 million population.  Doma’s Tamang people are one of the larger non-Hindu tribal groups.

Nepalese population by jat

Since Nepal was owned and operated by high caste Hindus for 240 years and the Hindu monarchy fell only seven years ago it is no surprise that the government is still dominated by high caste Hindus.

Nor is it surprising, given the enormous over-representation of high caste men in the government, judiciary, journalism and other positions of influence, that they would have engineered the new Constitution to maintain their privileged position.

Voting in Nepal is along ethnic lines unless that’s trumped by who pays most for your vote.  Brahmin and Chettri subsistence farmers who live in the hills will vote for wealthy Brahmin and Chettri politicians simply because of their caste.

That is why the electoral districts defined in the new Constitution were jerrymandered to include a sufficient number of hill people.

Nepalese Leadership by Caste

Can this culture of “corruption” that makes it impossible for Nepalis to have “government” be changed?

When the new Constitution was announced, Dr. Baburam Bhatterai, Prime Minister from August 2011 to March 2013, split from the Maoist Party that had led the monarchy’s overthrow.  He is forming a new party.  To replace exploitation with government, he says, it is necessary to start anew.

Baburam’s leadership will have some effect but much more will be necessary, and while legislation can sometimes be enacted quickly, cultures only ever change slowly.

Nepal’s politics-for-profit culture will not be changed by those it benefits.  I’m hoping the protests by the Madhesi that make life even harder for all but the privileged few will turn out to have been the equivalent of our civil rights protests half a century ago.

TCN, Episode 4 – Momos and Missionaries

Oct 26 – I’m downstairs as usual this evening in the restaurant at Ti-Se Guest House, my Tibetan Buddhist home during my classes.   Tibetan butter tea is already purifying (hah!) my bloodstream and my veg momos have just arrived.

Momos alone at Ti-Se

The momos are perfect!  As I savor them, five young Nepalis come in with an elderly Korean man and two middle-aged Korean women.  The young Nepalis start talking enthusiastically about a Christian seminar they’ve been attending.  After listening to them with a smile for five or ten minutes, the kind-looking Korean man ceremoniously places a $100 bill in front of each of them.

The conversation continues.  I’m not really listening but I hear mention of David from South Carolina.   Maybe he is one of the three groups of Americans who were here for breakfast on different days last week. They were from the South.

The first group was obsessed with football results back home.  Very loudly obsessed.  I was distressed by their sense of entitlement about dominating the room.

It was only when one responded truculently to being asked what he would do after breakfast by saying he would go to his room and read his bible that their purpose became apparent.  Perhaps they were being careful?  Nepal’s new Constitution makes it illegal to attempt to convert anyone to another religion.

I was pleased they were not around the next day.  Breakfast was peaceful again.  But later that week there was a new group.  Their breakfast conversation was all about the logistics of their plan to spread the gospel here.  They spoke quite loudly making no effort to hide why they are here.

And at the end of the week a third group appeared.  I didn’t pay much attention to them because the presence of Christian missionaries no longer seemed surprising.  It did seem odd that they would all have chosen to stay in a Tibetan Buddhist guesthouse, though.

I asked my Nepali classmate about Christian missionaries.  A few used to come alone or in pairs but more come now, often in groups.  They give money, especially to the poorest who are happy to call themselves Christians to get money.  Nepali culture strongly encourages behaving respectfully to anyone who might give you something .

Then as I walked to my class yesterday morning I realized that Nepalis roaring down the narrow passageways on motorbikes honking at pedestrians also have that sense of entitlement.  My embarrassment about the behavior of my fellow Americans was misjudged.  Furthermore, I recognized the mote in my own eye — prejudice about missionaries.

Where does that prejudice come from?  There’s a story I tell myself.  It’s about people who tell others what to believe.  “This man seized on a concept about his own existence” I say to myself, “and now he’s trying to get others to believe it, too, to make himself feel more safe.”

It is wrong to use power over others.  It’s a form of violence.  But my story about “the kind of people who” means I see a concept of missionaries not real ones.  I make a judgment about them for which I have no evidence and which will in any case, simply because it is a judgment, cause me to act badly.

And last night I encountered my own sense of entitlement.  A mosquito was buzzing round my head as I lay in bed.  From lifelong habit, I felt entitled to kill it.  But I’m a Buddhist now.  I’ve vowed never to do violence even to insects.

I tried to think it through.  The mosquito had to bite me to get its food and that would cause me discomfort.  It would be impossible for me to drive it away and even if I could, it would go on to bite someone else.  My choice, then, was either to end the mosquito’s life or suffer short-lived discomfort.

What I should do was obvious, and I had anyway committed myself to that choice.  But even after I saw the decision clearly, I still kept having to arrest my lunging hand as it tried to end the annoyance.  At last I went to sleep.  Surprisingly, there was no sign of biting when I woke this morning.

Sad to say, I just ate the last momo and the Tibetan tea is finished.  The Korean man went to his room a while ago.  All the others just left with elaborate good byes.  I go to the front desk and ask the young woman if the missionary groups are associated with each other.  They’re not.  The Korean man was giving a week long training class to Christian Nepalis who will spread the gospel.  The loud Americans have gone on a trek.  She doesn’t know what the others are doing now but they all booked separately.

Why can’t we just all agree, I think to myself, to give up violence, stealing and lying?  Why do we have to have all this divisive extra stuff?  Then I remember what I’m struggling to learn in these classes, such complicated visualizations, chanting and whatnot.

It’s easy enough to know that killing and so forth is negative but it’s very hard to stop doing such things.  That’s why we need training programs.

Beyond the Media Hype: Fear and Loathing

It is traditional to express a wish around this time of year.  Mine is that all of us will come to feel this truth more — we are all the same.

It is also traditional to make a personal resolution.  Mine is to continue diligently training myself to act on this truth.  If all of us did, we would “save the world” — we would end suffering.

All the sameThat’s what motivated all these posts I originally titled “Fear and Loathing of…”  Someone I love said, “I wish you’d stop with the fear and loathing” and I knew it was a distressing title but it highlighted what is so dangerous, the fear and loathing our media stimulates.  On reflection, I think it amplifies the emotion so now I’ve renamed them “Beyond the Media Hype…”

Progressives fume about Fox News.  They’re right because 60% of Fox’s statements are mostly or completely false, less than 10% are true and less than 20% are even mostly true.  But it’s not just Fox News.

Politifact Fox

Conservatives fulminate about MSNBC.  They’re also right.  Almost half (44%) of statements there are mostly or completely false, again less than 10% are true, and although the percentage is better than with Fox News, less than 30% are mostly true.

Fox News and MSNBC give us stories to feed our hatred.  Better to watch CNN because fewer than 20% of their statements are mostly or completely false and 60% are true or mostly true.

Politifact MSNBC

But nonetheless, 18% of the statements on CNN are mostly or completely false.  We must not believe everything there.

Politifact CNN

Democracy cannot work when 3 of every 5 statements on Fox News are mostly or completely false, more than 2 of 5 statements on MSNBC are mostly or completely false, and even on CNN, only 3 of 5 statements are true or mostly true.

This is not a theoretical issue.  Falsehoods in the media persuade us that we have enemies, people who are fundamentally different from us, people we must destroy.

We are so easily led  to imagine those who seem different from us in some way are our enemies.  That’s why I originally titled these posts “Fear and Loathing Of/In …”

We fear being swept aside by immigrants, especially Muslims, we fear who knows what violence from Iran, Saudis are beset by conflict with each other that exacerbates our mutual suspicion, and so on and so on and so on.

I will continue to explore Middle Eastern nations and the ethnic, religious and other rivalries that transcend their arbitrarily imposed borders to set the context for a deeper exploration of what is really going on.

But please don’t wait.  We really are all the same — we all want to be more happy.  We all will be more happy if we become more kind, and we will grow more kind as we become more happy.

Chemical Weapons and the Law

Syria is subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which makes the recent use of chemical weapons there a crime.  UN Weapons investigators analyzing evidence collected in Syria need about another week to establish if the weapons were used by Syrian government forces, if Syria’s leader authorized their use or was informed later, if they were instead used by rebel forces, or if more evidence is required to make a judgment.

President Obama says Syria’s leader is responsible for the crime and proposes unilateral retaliatory military action.  Congress is debating whether to authorize that.  Its vote is scheduled for two days hence, before the UN team completes its analysis.  President Obama says he has the authority to take military action even if Congress votes no.

Unfortunately, US governments always have placed their faith exclusively in military power and refused to accept the rule of international law.  President Bush’s UN representative formally excluded the USA from ICC jurisdiction.  President Obama, despite his law degree and Nobel Peace Prize, is acting the same way.

Banning chemical weapons has been a long and tortuous challenge.  The first attempt was the 1925 Geneva Protocol following the use of poison gas in WW1.  Another attempt was initiated following the WW2 Holocaust but was stymied by the Cold War.  In 1962 the US and USSR proposed elimination of all such weapons to the UN but between then and 1971 the US sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of chemical weapons in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which resulted, according to the Vietnam Red Cross, in as many as 400,000 people killed or maimed, and half a million children with birth defects.

We knew Iraqi troops were routinely using chemical weapons against Iran in the early 1980s, and supplied them with a couple of batches each of anthrax and botulism bacteria in 1986.  The Senate unanimously passed the Prevention of Genocide Act in 1988, which would have banned any military assistance to Iraq and import of Iraqi oil, but it did not pass in the House.  We continued to supply Iraq with equipment we knew was for use in their chemical and nuclear weapons programs until Saddam Hussein misjudged our friendliness and invaded Kuwait.

In 1993, the UN called for destruction of all existing chemical weapons, no more manufacture, and an inspection body.  Congress reluctantly ratified that statute in 1997 but then passed legislation so we could refuse inspections.

At last, the genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda sparked the UN in 1998 to initiate creation of an International Criminal Court, an enforcement mechanism.  The court’s independence and jurisdiction were major issues.  Could it be prevented from launching a prosecution by a veto from the US, Russia, China, the UK or France?  Would it require approval to prosecute from the country where a crime was committed?  Could it prosecute if there was already a court proceeding in that nation?   Could it prosecute crimes committed in civil wars?  Could it prosecute crimes committed before it was established?

We said we supported the ICC.  In fact, we worked hard to emasculate it.  We demanded that no US citizen could be indicted without our approval.  We required veto power over any indictment.  We insisted that the ICC could prosecute crimes only in nations that are a party to the ICC Convention.  We said the ICC could have jurisdiction only if national courts failed to act.  We demanded that national security and/or a superior’s orders must be accepted as grounds for defense.

Even though those severe constraints were reluctantly accepted, we voted against creation of the court.  The vote was 120 in favor, 7 opposed and 21 abstentions.  The court would become effective when ratified by the 60th nation.  We worked hard to prevent that.  In 2001, the Senate passed an act that would have prohibited us from cooperating with the ICC in any way, barred military aid to any country supporting the ICC and required us to use any means to release US citizens held by the court.

When in 2002 the 60th nation ratified the ICC and it came into force, we notified the UN that we refused to be a party to the treaty.

At this time 122 nations have ratified the ICC and 31 more, including Russia, have signed but not ratified the Statute, 3 of which, Israel, Sudan and the US, have withdrawn their signatures.  41 other UN member nations have not signed the Statute, including China and India.

Governments of nations that have refused ICC jurisdiction tend to be engaged in activities the ICC might well prosecute, e.g., Israel’s settlements, India and Pakistan’s activities in Kashmir, China’s in Tibet and Xinjiang, ours in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and etc.

The ICC has so far opened investigations only into 8 situations in Africa.  It has indicted 30 people, issued arrest warrants for 21 and has 5 in custody.  The atrocities being committed in Syria should be prosecuted by the ICC and we should be insisting that it do so.  We should consider other options only if the ICC is barred, e.g., by a veto from Russia, from that investigation.

We should stop telling the world we are its judge and executioner and start supporting the international rule of law.

 

The 2nd Amendment, Revolution and Self-Defense

DaveR sent me a Facebook message:  “Thought you might be interested in the article at this link:  One of our traditions — throwing off the shackles of a government that has overstepped its bounds — is at odds with another, the one that accepts the results of elections.”   We agreed to copy our long and lively discussion here.  It raises important points that I hope will provoke more discussion.

I responded: “I hadn’t thought about this idea in the article: “In a democracy the majority determines what the law is and could, at least theoretically, take away the rights of individuals for the sake of the ‘public good.’  In a republic, majority will is held in check by constitutional guarantees that forbid legislation encroaching on individual rights even if 51 percent or 95 percent of the population favors it.”  It seems more complicated in real life.   The right guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment is “encroached upon” by subsequent legislation that defines what “arms” we the people may and may not “bear” and the circumstances in which we may bear them.  In the same way, the definition of “we the people” has been the opposite of encroached upon, i.e., expanded by civil rights legislation.”

Then I got off track with an ignorant assertion:  “I always come back to the same state of bafflement about the 2nd amendment.  Do the folks who believe they need guns to overthrow the government really believe their weapons would make that possible?  Or are they like those in the South who knew in their hearts they would fail but went ahead with the War of Northern Aggression, anyway?”

Correcting my mistake led to the important topic of revolution.  Dave responded:  “Well, the South most certainly did not think it was going to lose the Civil War.  In fact, it very nearly won in the first few years.  Many also truly believed that they would receive political, if not military support from Britain (whose textile industry was utterly dependent on southern cotton in 1860).  Interestingly, part of the reason why they did as well as they did despite the North’s superiority in industry, manpower and infrastructure, was precisely because of their cultural military tradition.  Many in the Southern Armies used their own weapons, horses, and the like for the entire war, which is interesting considering this 2nd amendment debate.  I think the 2nd amendment is actually pretty important, but I am for regulation, background checks, etc.  I most certainly do not support repeal. And as I’ve said before, I choose not to avail myself of this right at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to get rid of it.  As for your last question – it’s a good one.  In the event of a true, justified revolution in this country, would gun ownership make the difference?  I think, yes, it absolutely would.  Partly, because I think a plausible revolution (not just a bunch of 2nd amendment nuts) would engage a broad enough selection of the populace that we’d see a split in the military.  Think about well-documented revolutions and civil wars – the American or the Spanish Civil Wars, for instance, and you see that the arms used were piecemeal at first, but became more professional as time went on.  Do you think the Syrian rebels wouldn’t love to have some AR-15’s?  Have you seen the improvised weapons they’ve been using?  Some are literally held together with duct tape.  And yet, despite air superiority, tanks and chemical weapons, they seem to be slowly gaining ground.  Civil war these days is an urban war, and small-arms make plenty of difference in city streets.  It scares the hell out of me, but I really do sometimes think I’m going to see a 2nd Civil War of some kind in my lifetime.”

I replied:  “The only thing I’m certain about is, I should actually study US history.  My small patchwork of knowledge means I’ll be mistaken if I believe any theories that occur to me.  I try to discard them and usually don’t believe I understand anything about the Civil War.  Thanks for the correction!  I’ll think more about “true, justified revolution” and respond later.  Thanks for making me think, Dave!”

Dave responded:  “The US Civil War was something of an obsession for me growing up.  I’m probably a bit TOO certain about my “facts” about it, though.  Ken Burns’ documentary is always a good place to start, if you’re really interested (and if you have like 12 hours to kill). And thank YOU.”

After giving more thought to the 2nd Amendment and the Constitution in general, I wrote:  “I want legislation and enforcement to reflect our evolving democratically made decisions about what firearm technologies folks in our society can have.  That requires definition of the purpose.  For example, although I do not hunt I do not want to prevent it, so I’d favor legislation that explicitly approved hunting along with what kinds of hunting firearms are authorized.  I would not expect automatic rifles to be authorized for that purpose, for example, or any kind of handguns.  I would favor background checks for all purchasers of such firearms in every market.   I’m not trying to define the legislation here, just the guiding principal.  Starting from that viewpoint, I’d prefer the existing 2nd amendment to be replaced with one corresponding to today’s society and its needs, not the situation almost two and a half centuries ago.  The amendment now reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  We no longer expect to defend our nation by raising an army of civilians supplying their own firearms.  We still have uses for firearms that we want to authorize, but not that one.  You make an excellent point about guerilla warfare. Having thought about it more, I agree that an armed uprising might possibly succeed. That makes me think replacing the 2nd amendment is more important, not just something that would theoretically be good.  I want our society to be made better by the working of democracy.  I don’t want there to be a Plan B where we don’t engage in the democratic process but start a Civil War if things don’t turn out the way we want.  If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.   We would probably also draft the 4th amendment in a different way to make explicit some right to privacy.  Search and seizure was the only relevant technology a couple of centuries ago. No phone, internet, satellite or security cameras, etc.  Or maybe we’d decide that in the interest of public safety, we would forgo any and all privacy.  In the real world, I think we should just keep doing what we’ve been doing about the 2nd amendment all along, ignoring the “shall not be infringed”.  We already don’t allow “the people” to have most weapons used by our military forces.”

Dave responded:  “Again, I largely agree with you.  But I have to ask a question you haven’t addressed yet: When is revolution justified? Is it ever?”

It had been taking me quite a while to figure out what I think about that.  I replied:  “Revolution can become inevitable.  Oppression can become too extreme and too prolonged.  It could happen here.  Our tax and spending policies are making hardship from technology-enabled structural change in the economy a lot more painful.  Wealth is being transferred to the already uber-rich from all others.  I expect we will change direction but there’s no guarantee.  It’s not impossible, for example, that unrest could grow severe enough that some “strong man” could use the moment to seize dictatorial control.  “President Cheney declares martial law in response to ongoing riots in cities throughout the land”.  It seems unreasonable to say revolution in such a case would be unjustified.  But if I interpret “justifiable” to mean I would be willing to kill, I can’t use the word.  In a democracy we get what we deserve.  We could have seen that our government’s actions would, if not altered, lead to revolution and we did not make the necessary effort so, shame on us.  It’s not an exact parallel but my grandfather and his five brothers all refused to fight in WW1.  My grandfather’s objection was philosophical.  I’m more moved by what one of his younger brothers said: “I thought, what would I say to his mother if I killed a German boy, or what would he say to mine if he killed me? Nothing could make it right.”  That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely a pacifist.  Maybe there could be a war or revolution where I’d feel I had to participate.  But what I believe I’d do if I saw revolution coming is try to leave and join some other society, one I could feel better about being part of.”

Dave replied:  “Thank you.  I sometimes wonder what I’d do as well.  I suppose it would really depend on what was happening at the time.  But I do think that the idea that our government is getting away from us is part of what drives the 2nd amendment types, and it makes me less supportive of any effort to repeal the amendment.  You say “If we were writing our Constitution now, and not even thinking about the one we already have, we probably would not include bearing arms as a fundamental human right.”  I wonder: isn’t the right to defend one’s self a fundamental human right?  I feel like I have the inalienable right to defend myself from anyone who tries to interfere with my free will.  I’m not interested in fighting, weapons, or anything like that.  I don’t think I’m particularly paranoid, and I don’t see any immediate threats to my freedom (to my health is another story), but I do see my right to privacy and to not be wrongfully seized being whittled away.  Anyway, if it came down to it, I’d probably choose exile as well. Maybe we’re more cosmopolitans than patriots, Martin?”

I responded:  “Yeah, we must work to stop our government from getting away from us.  I’ve started emailing my Representatives about issues I see as especially important and I intend to pester them increasingly more actively.  It’s a cop-out to tell myself one voice won’t make any difference.  I started my original blog because I felt I didn’t understand enough to give them good feedback.  I feel quite a bit closer now to understanding at least which are the most important issues.  Self-defense is confusing.  The way one expects to go about it may be the key factor.  We’re less likely to be attacked if we project confidence, more likely if we project fearfulness.  We need to learn how to project confidence in a way that is non-threatening.  The confusing part is I really do believe non-violence is the right aspiration.  Ahimsa.  I hope I never find myself in a situation where it would be rational, for example, to wear a handgun in order to deter violence.  I’m really not sure what I would do if my everyday life put me in that kind of situation.  I try never to get into such a place.  It was not my intent but it should have been, for example, to avoid a cool project management gig in Mexico City.  The guy I’d have worked most closely with was shot coming out of his office soon after.  But what if I couldn’t avoid it?  I can say, well, if we hadn’t allowed all those guns to be purchased there wouldn’t be nearly so many in the hands of bad folks and our world would be less dangerous, but it’s too late now. The guns are already out there.”

Topics worthy of more discussion include:

  • When is revolution justified? Is it ever?
  • What are the limits on our right to self-defense?  Are there any?

Armed Revolution and Gun Control

Fairleigh Dickinson University just published the stupefying results of their recent national survey about armed revolution and gun control.  Asked for their opinion about this question: “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties”, 29% said an armed revolution may be necessary.  That’s three in ten of my fellow citizens.  Three in ten!

The survey also shows how belief in the potential need for armed revolution against our government correlates with beliefs about gun control.  Only four in ten (38%) who believe a revolution might be necessary support additional gun control legislation.  Additional legislation is supported by over six in ten (62%) who do not think armed revolt will be needed.

The results also differ by party, with two in ten (18%) Democrats thinking an armed revolution may be necessary versus more than four in ten (44%) Republicans.  That’s a lot of Republicans!  It’s also a lot of Democrats.

The survey also asked if respondents believe that: “Some people are hiding the truth about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in order to advance a political agenda.”  I feel naive to be shocked that a quarter of us does believe facts about the shooting are being hidden.

One of the poll analysts said: “The differences in views of gun legislation are really a function of differences in what people believe guns are for.  If you truly believe an armed revolution is possible in the near future, you need weapons and you’re going to be wary about government efforts to take them away.”  That sounds accurate.

As I wrote here, I once owned a .22 rifle, but not in case I needed to overthrow my government, and I didn’t get rid of it because it would be outmatched by my government’s weaponry.  I always thought democracy was the least bad of all possible arrangements for a large society.  That’s why I vote.

It’s very disturbing that three in ten Americans believe our democratic form of government may have to be overthrown.   It’s downright peculiar that they also believe their firearms could do the job.