The time to negotiate

In William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (act IV, scene III), there is a memorable passage that goes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

As usual, Shakespeare captures well the sense of drama of arriving at some crossroads in one’s life where one can sense that one is on the cusp of events, where subsequent events can unfold in dramatically different directions depending on the decision one makes. Should we seize the moment and take the chance of achieving great success? Or do we, because we fear the consequences of failure, hold back and play safe and thus end up missing the chance for glory?

Part of the reason that quote has resonance with so many people is that we can all recall points in our lives when we were required to make an important decision quickly because events were moving rapidly. Should we go with the flow, take it at the flood, or should we hold back? The consequences of our decisions may not have been as momentous as the rise and fall of nations and armies, but they were important to us nonetheless.

The same holds true for the leaders of nations. It is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and see where bad decisions made at momentous times have led nations and leaders astray. But at the same time, one can learn lessons from those failures. And the lesson that I draw is that the time to negotiate peace and grant concessions to your opponent is when your own side is very strong, your adversary is weak, and it looks like you can easily achieve an outright victory without conceding anything at all to those who oppose you. The more you seem to be invincible, the more you should be willing to negotiate.

But unfortunately, the temptation is strong for those leaders who see themselves as invincible to do just the opposite, to dismiss talk of negotiations and try to achieve a crushing victory. And in doing so, they often fail and in subsequent negotiations have to concede a lot more than they would have had to do earlier.

In Sri Lanka, for example, with its long running ethnic conflict, the older generation of leaders of the Tamil minority were asking mostly for a weak form of federalism for the country, with some form of regional autonomy and equal standing for their language along with the language of the majority. But at that time, the majority Sinhala community had all the power both legislatively and militarily and thus did not feel the need to concede anything significant. When a nascent Tamil insurgency subsequently appeared as a result of the breakdown in the political process, the government still felt it could crush it militarily. But by trying to impose their will by force, they bred an even stronger Tamil insurgency that is now paralyzing much of the country and has fought the government forces to a standstill. In any future peace deal, if it hopes to end the conflict, the majority Sinhala government will have to concede a lot more now than it would have had to do thirty years ago.

The same thing applies to US actions in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. Before the US invaded Afghanistan because of the presence of al Qaeda there, the government of that country tried to negotiate with the US about how to deal with the al Qaeda in their midst but these offers were brushed aside seemingly because the US felt (correctly) that it could easily overthrow the Taliban government militarily. Thus they felt no need to engage in negotiations.

But now the tide has turned and the Taliban is coming back with a vengeance. Now it is apparent to all that the US and NATO forces are stretched thin in that country and are barely hanging on. The recent NATO summit in Latvia could not even drum pledges of support for the 1,000 more troops that the NATO commanders on the ground have been pleading for for months.

It is not unthinkable that the US will soon have to negotiate with the Taliban in the near future. In fact, just last week, the Pakistan Foreign Minister (and Pakistan is the country most intimately involved with Afghanistan and thus most likely to know the true state of affairs there) stunned some NATO foreign ministers by suggesting that “the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and Nato is bound to fail.” He further went on to urge “Nato countries to accept the Taliban and work towards a new coalition government in Kabul that might exclude the Afghan president Hamid Karzai.”

It is becoming increasingly likely that the final resolution of the situation in that country will be on much weaker terms for the US than it might have achieved before the invasion or even just after, when the US was perceived as being strong.

The same thing applies to Iraq. Before that country was invaded, the US was perceived to be strong. Iraq had been weakened by years of harsh sanctions, the UN inspectors had access to that country, and Iraq was no threat at all to anyone. But then the US made the decision to invade, despite the efforts of that country to negotiate to avoid war, and the result is plain to see. US troops in Iraq are now stuck in the middle of events they no longer control and it is not hard to see that the eventual end result in that country is far worse than what might have been achieved by negotiating instead of invading.

Then take the case of Iran. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the Iranian government offered to negotiate with the US, in which they were willing to lay everything on the table. Clearly they were concerned about US strength and the possibility of being the next on the list of the ‘axis of evil’ countries to be invaded. But those overtures were brushed aside. Now the tables have turned. With the US forces stuck in Iraq, it is Iran that is in a position of strength and it is the US that will have to initiate talks with them, and ask them for help is solving the Iraq mess. The US will go into these talks in a much weaker negotiating position than it could have had just three years ago. All Iran has to do is watch from the sidelines while the US position gets weaker by the day.

The same holds true for the Israel-Palestine situation. There was a time when Israel seemed invincible in that region and could have negotiated from a position of strength for a two-state solution that would have included complete withdrawal from the occupied territories and the internationalization of Jerusalem, in return for full recognition and peace treaties with all its neighbors, a viable Palestinian state, and Palestinian acceptance that their refugees relinquish their right to return to their homes within Israel that were annexed when Israel was created.

But instead Israel used their military strength to build more illegal settlements in the occupied territories, trying to create a fait accompli that precludes a two state solution. Like in Sri Lanka, the lack of progress in the political front has led to the creation of a militant alternative. Recent events with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have shattered the myth of Israeli military invincibility and if history is any guide, the powerful sense of injustice and resentment fed by the occupation will breed an increasingly strong resistance to Israeli occupation. Although the power relationships have not been reversed in that situation and Israel is still very powerful militarily, the perception of the balance of power has undoubtedly begun to shift away from Israel.

The lessons seem to be clear. The time to seek negotiations and make deals is when you are strong or perceived as being strong. But alas, it is precisely at moments of such strength that leaders fall for the temptation of thinking that outright military victory can be grasped. And while some kind of military victory can be achieved by the stonger power in the short run, when dealing with peoples and nations which harbor a deep sense of injustice, such victories often turn out to be Pyrrhic, bringing eventual ruin to the victor.

The passage from Julius Caesar which started this essay actually has the speaker urging going for total victory because of perceived military superiority. On the eve of a climactic battle against Mark Antony and Octavius, it is Brutus who says to his ally Cassius:

Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

I can well imagine that the neoconservative advocates of immediately going to war with Iran might find in these words a stirring affirmation of their strategy of invading one country after the next while the US still clings to the remnants of its reputation of strength. But we must remember that Brutus, the person who spoke those resounding words and went for military victory, was ultimately overextended and defeated.

What should be ‘taken at the flood’ is the decision to talk and negotiate a just peace. Otherwise we too risk defeat at the next Philippi.

POST SCRIPT: Real table tennis

Most people in the US think of table tennis as a casual game, going to the extent of giving it the childish name of ping pong. But take a look at the game when played by real experts.

I saw the Chinese national team play in Sri Lanka when I was in college. Our own national team was hopelessly outclassed and only scored points because of the graciousness of the Chinese players who did not want to humiliate their host opponents. But the Chinese team also played exhibition games amongst themselves, like the one in the video, and they completely blew everyone away with their skill, technique, and amazing reflexes.

The Bible as History-5: Why the Bible was invented

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

If much of the history reportedly recorded in the Bible prior to about 600 BCE is false, why were the stories invented? Why did the ancient scribes make up all this stuff? Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper’s article False Testament points out that it is not simply that they were deliberately lying, in the way that would be shameful for any modern chronicler of supposedly factual events. They were not the early equivalents of people who would be currently drubbed out of the historical profession for their actions. Lazare suggests that they were working under a different paradigm, with a different concept of truth.
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The Bible as history-4: How science unearths the past

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The two main tools that are available for trying to piece together the real history of Biblical times are those of literary analysis and archeology. In the former, the analysts carefully examine texts for literary clues as to the dates and places where events are reported to have occurred. In the latter, fieldwork in the area tries to find concrete evidence of the rise and fall and migration of societies. And when the two methods are combined, it becomes possible to reconstruct events and see what Biblical stories hold up and what don’t.
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The Bible as history-3: Enter modern archeology

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 21, 2000, p. A19) describes the surprising results of recent archeological research into the period covered by the Bible. As the tools of archeology developed and became more refined within the past two decades, and archeologists themselves felt no need to have their findings conform to a particular religious narrative, their results went in surprising directions.

So how much of what we believe to be historically true based on the Bible now stands up under the scrutiny of modern archaeological evidence? Very little, it turns out. The Bible is not only a poor source of science and cosmology, it is not even a good source of history.

In the Chronicle article, Tel Avis University archeologist Ze’ev Herzog is quoted as saying: “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.”

The article says that among academics there is broad consensus on most features, although scholars differ about details. Reporting on two recent conferences, it says: “None of the scholars speaking at either conference believe that the Bible’s historical sections can be accepted as literal, accurate descriptions of historical events. They also agree that the extra-biblical evidence for events described in the Bible dwindles the farther back in time one goes. King Ahab of Israel [who reigned around 850 BCE] is well-documented in other inscriptions from elsewhere in the Middle East; the united monarchy of David and Solomon is not. Evidence exists of the rise of the new Israelite nation in the Palestinian highlands during the late Bronze Age [1600-1200 BCE] – the age of the Judges – but it can be interpreted in different ways. There is no external evidence at all for the patriarchs and, in fact, the biblical description contains contradictions and anachronisms that, scholars generally agree, seem to place the patriarchs in the age of the Judges rather than several generations earlier, as the Bible has it.”

Daniel Lazare confirms this modern view in his March 2002 Harper’s article False Testament. He says that the new version of history unearthed by archeologists is quite different from what most people believe.

Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there is no way such a figure could have lived given what we now know about ancient Israelite origins.
. . .
A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.
. . .
Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.
. . .
Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him.
. . .
[A]rchaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of “biblical minimalists” who maintain that he never existed at all.
. . .
The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.
This is not to say that individual elements of the story are not older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586.

I must admit that all this came as a surprise to me, although this knowledge seems to be widespread in the archeological community. And given my past religious training, my interest was piqued by the question of why all this was not more well known and taught as part of routine Bible study.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that I should never have taken the Biblical stories seriously. Religious texts, whatever the religion, are unlikely to be reliable sources of history. Their authors are not disinterested writers. They are usually religious people, perhaps priests and leaders or scribes working under their direction, and are essentially trying to provide a rationale for people to believe in that religion and to provide authority for religious leaders to enforce discipline on their members. It is in their interest to embellish the historical accounts in order to legitimize the status quo, to give people a sense of inevitability about their status, and to provide legitimacy to the priestly class. To do this, they have to create a grand narrative to describe god’s special interest in them, the rules that they must follow, and his dislike for people of other religions.

If we want to know what really happened in the deep past, we must not believe the accounts given in religious texts unless they are confirmed by investigations using the painstaking, evidence-based methods of science.

Next: How scientific analysis of the past works.

POST SCRIPT: We should have known

Observers of soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he was relishing the idea that he was a brilliant thinker will never forget his famous quote:

Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

But as BBC’s Radio 4 points out, while this may sound initially like gibberish, actually Rumsfeld simply did not go far enough.

The Bible as history-2: Why people think much of it is true

Until very recently, I had (like most people) the vague idea that the basic Biblical story of a people being in captivity in Egypt, then somehow escaping and settling in the land that is now known as Israel and Palestine was true. Of course, one had to allow for the fact that the stories may have been embellished over time, with all kinds for spectacular miracles and tales of heroism added in to make it more compelling drama. The stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Sun being made to stand still, and similar miracles all violate well-established scientific laws and cannot be taken seriously except by those who are determined to believe them because they want to.
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The Bible as history-1: The basic early story

There are two views of history. Academic history is that which is painstakingly recreated by historians, trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible events from long ago using source materials as close to the original time as possible along with other kinds of evidence. But then there is the view of history as consisting of that which we remember long after our courses in history have ended. W. C. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman, and Frank Muir humorously recounted the latter kind of English history in their book 1066 and All That, while Dave Barry did it brilliantly for US history in Dave Barry Slept Here, one of the funniest books I have ever read.

The fact is that to the chagrin of historians, most people’s ideas about past events are quite vague and consist of bits of stories they remember from various sources stitched together to provide some sort of quasi-coherent narrative that may differ wildly from the actual sequence of events.

In researching and writing that many-part series about our common ancestors (which you can find by typing in the keyword ‘ancestor’ in the search box) something that surprised me was how few contemporary records exist of what happened earlier than (say) the first millennium BCE. I realized during the course of that research how little I knew for certain about the past and that most of what I knew I had acquired in the course of religious instruction using the Old Testament of the Bible. I began to wonder just how much of the Bible was actually true as history and decided to do a little digging.

Even during the most religious phases of my life, I had never taken the Bible literally as a source of cosmology and other origins. The Genesis stories of how the universe came to be, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark and the like were to be understood as fiction. Of course, like other ‘modern’ religious people, I took these fictional accounts to be metaphors signifying deeper truths about the role of god in the world.

I also did not take the Bible as a source of science. The stories about seas being parted, the Sun made to stand still, and people rising from the dead were bizarre and unbelievable and inconsistent. The miracles were too contradictory of the laws of science to merit serious consideration.

But what about the Bible as history? Once we got past the early creation stories of Genesis, I pretty much accepted that the Bible was recording actual events, although clearly the authors of the texts had spiced up the narrative with miracles and whatnot to make it more compelling and readable.

Before I report on what I found as to the accuracy of the Biblical accounts, here is a brief overview of what most of us probably remember about history as told in the Bible. I will give here just the bare bones history, leaving out all the rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide that fill its pages. People who have not read the Bible themselves and have learned the Biblical stories only from religious teachers and priests may be surprised at all the interesting bits those people left out.

The Old Testament stories can be split up into two parts, before Noah’s Ark and the flood, and after. Almost everyone (other than Biblical literalists who believe that everything in the Bible is strictly true) accept that the Genesis accounts up to and including the flood and Noah’s Ark are mythological. The real claim to history begins with the story of Abraham when, after some serious begatting following the flood, the world had a fairly large population. Out of this population there came this person called Abraham (who possibly originated somewhere in Mesopotamia) who was taken by god to the area known as Canaan (which consisted of land that would be currently called Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza and parts of Lebanon and Syria) and was told by god that his descendants would occupy that land.

After spending some time in Egypt (because of a famine back in Canaan) he returned to Canaan and had sons Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac married Rebecca and had twins Jacob (who later came to be called Israel) and Esau. Jacob had 12 sons one of whom was Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers but prospered there, effectively becoming the pharaoh’s close advisor and a powerful figure. Eventually his whole family joined him in Egypt and lived there and also prospered.

As the Biblical history continues, Joseph eventually died as did the pharaoh who had been his protector, and a new pharaoh ascended the throne who did not look kindly at the Israelites in their midst and started treating them badly. Then Moses came along and took the Israelites back to Canaan, with the Bible describing the route they took. After Moses got the ten commandments from god on Mount Sinai, the Israelites were punished by god for complaining and general bad behavior and spent forty years in the wilderness.

Joshua, Moses’s aide, took over as leader from Moses upon the latter’s death and led the conquest of the land of Canaan. Later on David and Solomon were kings who ruled over major areas of the lands known as Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). This was followed by a whole lot more wars and bloodshed, not to mention rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide.

After that the story gets more complicated and confusing with lots of stuff going on, various kings and prophets coming and going (along with the rampant sex, incest, etc.) until finally the people of Israel go into exile and captivity in Babylon (then ruled by Nebuchadnezzar) in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, king of Persia, the new dominant power in the region, overcame the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament version of history stops around 450 BCE and there is then a gap until the New Testament.

That is pretty much early history as told by the Bible.

Next: Why people think the early Biblical history is largely true.

POST SCRIPT: Suspicions confirmed

On November 14, I wrote inThe October Surprise That Failed? that I suspected that the bombing of the madrassa in Pakistan that killed 82 people was done by the US because they thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri was there. The government of Pakistan has now confirmed that this is the case, despite its earlier insistence that they had carried out the attack. The Sunday Times Christina Lamb reports:

“We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US,” said a key aide to President Pervez Musharraf. “But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again.”

The Americans are believed to have attacked after a tip-off that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, was present.

The lying by the US and Pakistan governments about their actions in these wars has become so commonplace, and so uncaring about the deaths of civilians, that it is amazing that anyone gives them any credence.

No more daft women!

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from April 4, 2006, slightly edited.)

Evan Hunter, who was the screenwriter on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds recalled an incident that occurred when he was discussing the screenplay with the director.

I don’t know if you recall the movie. There’s a scene where after this massive bird attack on the house Mitch, the male character, is asleep in a chair and Melanie hears something. She takes a flashlight and she goes up to investigate, and this leads to the big scene in the attic where all the birds attack her. I was telling [Hitchcock] about this scene and he was listening very intently, and then he said, “Let me see if I understand this correctly. There has been a massive attack on the house and they have boarded it up and Mitch is asleep and she hears a sound and she goes to investigate?” I said, “Well, yes,” and he said, “Is she daft? Why doesn’t she wake him up?”

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Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, slightly changed and updated. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.
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Bush and Vietnam

President Bush finally went to Vietnam this week, after spending his youth trying to avoid going there when that war was going on. Needless to say that this was the source for much humor. Some said that he tried to avoid going this time too but that his father could not get him out of the trip. Others said that he was glad to go since the drubbing his party took at the elections made it awkward for him to have to deal with the new realities in Congress. As Ted Koppel said, Bush joined the Air National Guard to get out of going to Vietnam, but now he is going to Vietnam to get out of being in Washington.

But the curious thing that has been remarked upon is that when Bush was asked what was the lesson of the Vietnam war, he said it was the importance of perseverance. Bush said that what he learned was that “We’ll succeed unless we quit.”

Of course this invites ridicule since it seemed to imply that if the US has stayed on in Vietnam they would have won that war, a rosy view of that war’s history that is only clung to by those who refuse to concede that the US could ever be defeated militarily. The statement also seemed like a diplomatic blunder, to say the least, to tell the people of your host country that you feel that should have devastated their country even more than you did and perhaps should still be bombing them thirty years later.

The lesson that almost everyone else has learned from Vietnam is that one should never get involved in a guerilla war against forces fighting for national liberation.

But perhaps Bush was applying his words to the Vietnamese forces. If so, he was being very perceptive. The North Vietnamese regular army and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front had long realized that all they had to do was persevere and stay fighting. As long as they did not quit, they would succeed because the US would have to leave. And that is exactly what happened.

That is the dynamic of any struggle in which an invading army ends up battling the local population, and it applies to Iraq. All that the Iraqi insurgent forces have to do is to keep fighting. If they do so, they will win even if they never win any single battle, since an invading force cannot maintain its occupation indefinitely in the face of sustained hostility. The famous Tet offensive in 1968 was a military defeat for the Vietnamese but a huge political victory since it dramatically illustrated to the American public that despite having been repeatedly told by their own government that the tide was turning, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and similar clichés about victory in the war being just over the horizon, the Vietnam conflict was still raging, with no end in sight.

One sure sign that things are going badly is when pundits keep looking hopefully over the horizon for good news that never comes. They usually put a time of about six months in the future for when either things will either get better or some decisive decision will have to be taken. It seems like they have decided that six months is just about what the public is willing to tolerate staying with the status quo. The catch is that when the six months is up and no progress has been made, a new six month horizon has to be created. The situation is not unlike parents on a long car journey who repeatedly tell their restless children that they will arrive at their destination in fifteen minutes, in order to keep them quiet.

This ploy has been used so frequently in Iraq by so many people that the six month horizon has even acquired its own name, the Friedman Unit (FU) (coined by Atrios), after that fount of banalities, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was noticed by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has having repeatedly invoked it starting back in November 2003. So we are now six FUs further into the war and still waiting.

But coming back to Bush’s statement about the lessons of Vietnam, why would Bush be advising the Iraqi insurgents to learn from the Vietnamese people on the value of perseverance in order to defeat the US?

A person whose views I greatly respect once suggested that Mikhail Gorbachev may have deliberately set about undermining the Soviet Union and orchestrating its collapse because early in his life he had felt that that kind of social and economic structure was not sustainable and something new had to be put in its place. But that would not happen until the existing order had been dismantled. So Gorbachev quietly went along with official policies until he attained power in that country. Then he deliberately set about instituting policies from the inside that he knew would lead to the eventual collapse of the system.

Inspired by this idea, I thought that maybe Bush and Cheney, for whatever reasons known only to themselves, deliberately set about destroying the US as a world power militarily and economically and in terms of its ability to influence world opinion. They saw that the best way to do that would be to commit its forces to getting bogged down in an unwinnable and unpopular war that would break the US militarily, destroy its economy by spending huge amounts on both the war and counterterrorism efforts (over $500 billion so far and still rising rapidly), and so alienate world opinion that the US became almost totally isolated on the world’s stage, thus putting an end to any ideas of creating a powerful empire.

I am being facetious, I think, but I am not sure because this administration has effectively put an end to irony and satire by exceeding anyone’s imaginings of irrationality. But if that actually had been their plan, Bush and Cheney have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

POST SCRIPT 1: Spreading the word

Australian John Safran, ticked off by Mormon missionaries waking him up early on a Saturday morning to proselytize, decided to get his revenge by traveling all the way across the globe to Salt Lake City and going door-to-door to proselytize for atheism and Darwin.

POST SCRIPT 2: What should be done?

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has the solution to the Iraq problem.

Torture is not fun and games-2

Those who wish to excuse the actions of this administration or minimize the seriousness of torture sometimes take the tack of trivializing it, making it seem as if opponents of torture are making a big issue out of mere playfulness. Take Rush Limbaugh’s response to a caller on his radio show when the events of Abu Ghraib were revealed.

CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men —

LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?

(Of course, one cannot expect classy behaqvior from the likes of Limbaugh, a truly disgusting person who even mocked and caricatured actor Michael J. Fox for making an ad supporting stem-cell research and Missouri senate candidate Claire McCaskill who supports that research. In the ad, Fox courageously revealed the painful to watch, but unfortunately standard, symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease, but Limbaugh ridiculed him and accused him of faking it. McCaskill won a close race and there is much speculation that Limbaugh’s boorish behavior actually tipped the scales in her favor, since decent people resent ill people being mocked. And when that person is as much-liked as Michael J. Fox, the repugnance against Limbaugh was accentuated.)

But one has a right to expect higher standards of behavior from high government officials. And yet, another revealing episode of how torture gets trivialized was when Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by a radio show host and implied that he approved of the form of torture known as “waterboarding.” This word can mean various things, but none of them are good.

According to wikipedia:

Waterboarding is a type of torture used in coercive interrogations or for punishment. In modern practice it simulates drowning and produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe his or her death is imminent while ideally not causing permanent physical damage.
. . .
The subject is strapped to a board and either tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject then is removed from the water and revived. If deemed necessary, the routine is repeated.

The technique characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a “professional interrogation technique”, involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA’s waterboarding technique as follows:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Described this way, it sounds terrible. But the sympathetic radio talk show host who interviewed Cheney put the question to him in this softball way. He said that his

listeners had asked him to ”let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it, if it saves American lives.”

”Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?” Hennen said.

”I do agree,” Cheney replied, according to a transcript of the interview released Wednesday.
. . .
”Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?” asked Hennen.

‘It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president ‘for torture.’ We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in,” Cheney replied. “We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.” (my emphasis)

Notice how waterboarding is trivialized by calling it ‘dunking’, making it seem as if it is equivalent to the childhood game of bobbing for apples, or tossing a friend into a swimming pool, or sports teams dousing their winning coach with a cooler of ice water. The Daily Show had a segment on waterboarding which, while humorous, showed both its dangers and the fact that torture rarely yields any accurate or useful information but merely provides an outlet for the sadistic impulses of the torturers.

The Miami Herald naturally reported that the radio interview exchange implied that Cheney had approved of waterboarding.

Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al-Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called “water-boarding,” which creates a sensation of drowning.

Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn’t regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. “It’s a no-brainer for me,” Cheney said at one point in an interview.

Cheney’s comments, in a White House interview on Tuesday with a conservative radio talk show host, appeared to reflect the Bush administration’s view that the president has the constitutional power to do whatever he deems necessary to fight terrorism.

The U.S. Army, senior Republican lawmakers, human rights experts and many experts on the laws of war, however, consider water-boarding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that’s banned by U.S. law and by international treaties that prohibit torture.

When Cheney was naturally denounced for approving torture, his spokesperson tried, as usual, to issue a non-denial denial, saying that what Cheney understood by “dunking” was not waterboarding. But she also refused to say what he had understood by the term.

Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding or endorsed the technique.

“What the vice president was referring to was an interrogation program without torture,” she said. “The vice president never goes into what may or may not be techniques or methods of questioning.”

This strains credulity. Waterboarding has been the torture technique that has received the widest publicity. To imply that the Cheney and the talk show host and the caller all understood ‘dunking’ to mean anything other than that is preposterous. The very fact that Cheney did not ask for a clarification of what ‘dunking’ meant means that he understood what they were talking about.

That the US government has authorized and condoned torture is now undeniable, with more and more reports coming out confirming this. The German media has reported that “German agents saw US interrogators beat a 70-year-old terror suspect with a rifle butt, requiring the man to receive 20 stitches, and that they viewed documents that were smeared with blood,” all of this occurring in secret US prisons in Europe just two weeks after September 11, 2001.

Only the most willfully blind can deny that torture is being carried out in a systematic manner that has been approved at the highest levels of the US government. What the Cheney interview illustrates is that there is a wink-wink attitude towards it, with the administration coyly refusing to give details about what it does and trivializing whatever is known.

It is disgraceful that we have descended to this. What we have is a paranoid administration that puts even the Nixon White House to shame. They seem willing to do anything and say anything that will serve their purpose. They do not seem to care what the laws or the US constitution or international treaties or conventions or just plain basic human decency say about anything.

I have a simple rule about torture or indeed of any action taken by law enforcement authorities: I do not approve of any action that I would oppose if it were done to me or to a loved one. A question that I would ask Cheney (or any other person who condones these methods) is whether he or she would approve of these methods that he finds ‘no-brainers’ being applied to his own spouse or children or siblings or friends or parents.

The passage of the Military Commissions Act by the US government is a good example of the kind of danger that James Madison warned us about:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

The Military Commissions Act should be repealed. But given that the Democratic Party is also fundamentally pro-war, I am not hopeful that the new Congress will do so.

POST SCRIPT: Science-religion debate

The cover story of the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine is a debate on the topic “God vs. Science,” featuring Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Both are prominent biologists. The former is an atheist while the latter is a practicing Christian. You can read it here.