Friday, January 7, 2011

Why Now?

      The question might be asked; why start a blog, yet another blog, primarily, though not exclusively, dedicated to reason, science and doubt?

       There are several reasons. The state of the world, particularly post 9/11, is a pretty compelling one. Economic, political and environmental stresses are being exacerbated by the drawing of ideological lines based on ancient superstitions and magic. The foreign policy of many nations, the United States included, is being dictated by individuals who believe their personal, private faith in the supremacy of their god over all others gives them carte blanche to pursue whatever political and economic ends they desire. This is no more apparent than in the resource and ideologically rich Middle East, where the militarism of a ancient nomadic bandit tribe is used to justify mass-murder, barbaric and atavistic punishments for relatively trivial crimes, and the systemic oppression of women, discourse and intellectual freedom. This is compounded by the belief of another tribe that a particular piece of real estate was given to them by the sky deity yahweh (commingled with the zorastrian fire-god ahura mazda from Babylon,) and all that they need to do to hold onto it is commit a second genocide on the peoples of Canaan. If this wasn't enough, many of the leaders of the most economically, technologically, scientifically and ideologically successful nation in the history of the world continue to fan the flames of this conflict in their attempts to accelerate the return of a man who died two millenia ago, despite the falsified promises of his return during the lifetimes of his initial followers, the lifetimes of the contradictory authors of his life's story several generations later, and during the lifetimes of people who lived through nearly every arbitrary calendar date that ended in a sufficient number of zeros.

      Believers have been maiming, raping, torturing and murdering one another over whose god is the real one for thousands of years, though this became a particularly potent theme in history with the Israelite's adoption of monotheism from the Zoroastrians during the second Babylonian captivity and the making of belief an exclusionary proposition, “Believe this or suffer the wrath of god,” (always carried out, of course, by gleefully willing human hands.) Whether the torah's account of the genocide perpetuated on the people of Canaan is historically accurate or not, the attribution of this degree of rapine, enslavement and murder to the will of a supposedly loving deity became a recurring theme in subsequent exclusionary monotheisms.

     Since these atrocities seem to be an inevitable fact of human existence (though hopefully not forever), again, the question is, why take up the pen against them now? Besides the obvious fact that those of us who recognize the inhumanity of these crimes are ethically obliged to take a stand against them, there are historical reasons for a greater degree of concern in the present day. September 11, 2001 is often cited in the writings of other rational thinkers more gifted than myself as a watershed moment, not just for the United State's rather clumsy and arbitrary response (justifiable though it was), but also for those of us who recognize that at the most fundamental level, religion was the cause of it. This is one of the few areas where the response of the religious right made a modicum of sense. Many left-wing intellectuals  tried to avoiding stepping on the toes of the faithful (while simultaneously dismissing them, along with religion, as not significant enough to play a role in the real world) by explaining that horror as the result of social, political and economic factors (things they are well studied up on, and thus could sound-off on more easily). The religious right wing, instead, saw it for what it was, an existential clash of civilizations. People have been poor, oppressed, colonized and on the outside looking in since the beginning of civilization; it takes more than that for nineteen men to garner the conviction to cold-bloodily murder three-thousand people they had never met. It takes an unproven promise of eternal gratification, pleasure and bliss in the arms of seventy-two virgins. (Does the virginity get restored as one goes through them, or are the virgins themselves replaced?)

     But 9/11 was a mere wake-up call, the greater danger lies ahead of us. As the wars of the previous century showed, humans now have an unprecedented ability to murder one another, and increasingly, especially with the wars of this young century, to do it from a remote location, without so much as wrinkling one's trousers. The United States' use of mechanical drones and the imam's use of ones of flesh and blood both give wealthy old men the ability to strike at soldiers and civilians thousands of miles away without placing themselves in the slightest degree of danger. Many have called this cowardly, as has been the accusation with many technological advances in weaponry, such as gunpowder, and it does change the psychological dynamic of warfare to a certain degree. When longbows, then gunpowder, were introduced, it was claimed that it would make warfare more common and less conscionable, since one no longer had to look their victims directly in the eye. If only those accusers had the foresight to see the development of tanks, mustard gas, bombers, napalm, ICMBs and Little Boy. All of these, however, still come with a certain amount of accountability. A nation can't roll tanks across its borders, or carpet bomb an adversary's metropolises without attracting a significant degree of international attention. Because of its very nature, drone warfare, both mechanical and biological, decreases the accountability of those who launch the drones, because of the greater likelihood that a drone will escape notice, or in the case of a suicide bomber, eradicate a great deal of the evidence in the successful completion of its duties. Drone warfare combines this lack of public accountability with the above mentioned historical trend of decreasing the private, personal accountability of one's conscience. As the Milgram experiment demonstrated, even the average person is capable of inflicting a great deal of harm when they feel it is their duty, or the sufferer deserves it, and all they have to do is push a button. Right now, the United States is the only nation using drones to a significant degree, and so when there is a drone strike in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the whole world knows who did it. However, it is only a matter of time before these relatively inexpensive weapons are captured or copied by those who would turn them against their creators.

      The other aspect of the accountability issue with drone warfare is that of who qualifies as a combatant and what qualifies as the battlefield. (Outside of the immediate issue of drone warfare, we saw this dilemma crop up during the Bush administration and carry over into the current one, regarding who qualified as an “enemy combatant.”) The example I am about to give was developed in greater detail by P.W. Singer in an article written for Scientific American. Suppose an American drone pilot, flying his vehicle remotely from the Midwest, kills several soldiers in Afghanistan, one of whom happens to have a brother living in the United States, who finds out about his brother's death and, through an elaborate intelligence network or with inside information, is able to discover which pilot killed his brother. If this man were to then track down and shoot the pilot on his way home from work, or in his home, or at the grocery store, would this be an act of murder, or an act of war? If all these events occurred exclusively in Afghanistan, it would undoubtedly be considered an act of war. Does moving the control of the vehicle across national boundaries significantly alter that?

      This is a small example, but one which I hope (along with the potentially greater threat of rogue states or terrorists getting their hands on biological, chemical, nuclear or dirty bombs) illustrates why there is now an even greater urgency than ever to avoid letting ancient superstitions and prejudices determine the foreign, economic or military policy of any nation, let alone the most powerful in history. We now live in a state of constant warfare, as the Times Square Bomber and countless others demonstrate. While this doesn't affect us every day of our lives, in some ways it is historically novel. Ten years after World War II a German could travel to Great Britain, France, Poland or Russia, without a serious fear that he would be killed simply for being German. Ten years after 9/11, that can't be said for Westerners traveling in certain parts of the world today, who although the danger is slight, face the constant threat of kidnapping or worse in many African, southwest Asian or Middle Eastern countries.

      For myself, personally, all of this is underlined by my recent foray into fatherhood. I am the fortunate father of a three-year old girl who is magnificently intelligent, beautiful, funny and precious. For much of my adult life, while I recognized the inherent danger and folly of running the world based on the metaphysical guesses of ancient nomads who hadn't even gotten around to naming the stars yet (and their successors), I felt like the work of confronting these issues was more trouble than it was worth. Today, when I look into my daughter's eyes, and imagine the world she will inherit if the bigots, magicians and hate-mongers have their way, I can recognize that no person of reason can, in good conscience, sit idly by.

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