Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Facing How 'Death Cults' are Created - and Why

I like David Brooks. Who wouldn't? If Brooks' talking-heads persona is any indication, he is engaging, articulate, very intelligent and not the least bit stuffy. If only we could transplant his personality into Kerry's brain - the Democrats would win a landslide victory in November.

David Brooks is wrong, though. In today's International Herald Tribune, a handwringing piece, the cult of death, beyond reason or negotiation, reiterates the old canards of Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism. We're dealing with people beyond reason, he says, beyond negotiation. The Ossetia school massacre is only the latest confirmation. Those who deny this "have become experts at averting their eyes."
... the death cult is not really about the cause it purports to serve. It's about the sheer pleasure of killing and dying.
The "sheer pleasure of ... dying"? Whoa. Let me get back to that one in a second.
It's about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness. It's about experiencing the total freedom of barbarism - freedom even from human nature, which says, love children, and love life. It's about the joy of sadism and suicide.
In a curious non sequitur, however, having attributed a kind of 'liberation' from human nature among these murderous suicide bombers, Brooks' invokes human nature immediately afterward as the explanation, but without ... well, explanation:
Yet when you look at the Western reaction to the Beslan massacres, you see people quick to divert their attention away from the core horror of this act, as if to say: We don't want to stare into this abyss. We don't want to acknowledge those parts of human nature that were on display in Beslan. Something here, if thought about too deeply, undermines the categories we use to live our lives, undermines our faith in the essential goodness of human beings.
Let me try to explain what Brooks couldn't about this "sheer pleasure of dying." The "sheer pleasure of killing" is perhaps more understandable, and hints at some context for tragedy. After all, the gratifications of revenge have been demonstrated using brain imaging. Revenge is sweet, scientists say. Well, duh: we knew that already. Revenge is the attempt to take the law into your own hands, and exact justice as you personally see it. Revenge motivates many murders. And revenge is common where the law is weak, or seen as irretrievably corrupt.

But ... the "sheer pleasure of dying"?

For this you may need to read the following: 'Black Widows' behind Beslan tragedy. The article leads off describing the Black Widows as an "unknown" group. Further into the article, however, you see that it's been known about for a while.

The name Black Widows surfaced in July 2003 when a Chechen woman, Zarema, was arrested in Moscow with a bomb in her bag. An explosives expert was brought in to defuse the bomb, but it went off and killed him. A Moscow court found Zarema guilty of terrorism and attempted murder and sentenced her to 20 years in prison.

The woman told investigators that she belonged to the Black Widows of Chechnya, a group whose aim is to wreak vengeance on Russians for killing their husbands and children.

Another source said the name of the woman leading the Beslan operation was Khaula Nazirov, a 45-year-old widow from Grozny, the Chechen capital. Her 18-year-old son, 16-year-old daughter, and some other relatives were also part of the operation. They attacked the school because Nazirov's husband was tortured to death in a Russian military camp five years ago, while some of her children's cousins were killed when Russian troops bombed a school in Chechnya some years ago.

David Brooks can't seem to make up his mind whether suicide-bomber massacres are human nature, or liberation from human nature, though he's absolutely sure it's utter unreason either way. Let's be clear: it's all human nature. Even women will kill the children of what they perceive as an enemy people, taking their own miserable lives in the process, if they've endured similar suffering themselves. Why wouldn't they? And as deracinated as this experience might have made them, that doesn't mean the political elements pulling the strings aren't behaving rationally. While we in the West might only see insanity, the Islamic world's first question might be, What have these women suffered, what crimes have been committed against them, to commit such crimes themselves, to inflict such suffering themselves? And islamofascists know it.

Events like Beslan ring like a gong - but in different tones in different parts of the world. For us, it resonates with utter unreason, the atonality of madness. For others, however, to hear of giving up the ghost in an expanding wave of detonated plastic explosive is news that would toll like a bell at a funeral, echoing through mountain valleys and shantytown alleyways: the harmonious and simultaneous gong-stroke of achieving both revenge and blessed relief from horror, suffering, grief. If such an act delays Chechen independence, it still galvanizes Jihad. Chechen is just a battle. It can be lost, and yet be a moral victory. Global Jihad is a world war in the making. Terror can work. It often has.

And don't islamofascists know it. I only wish David Brooks did.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Post-nuke Detective Work

Courtesy of the The Reg, I learn that fallout from a nuclear blast can be IDed even decades later: read their Nevada nuke test fallout turns up in Hertfordshire

You might recall The Sum of All Fears. I haven't read the Tom Clancy novel, and wasn't too impressed with Ben Affleck in the movie version, but it did make me think: Can one determine the provenance of A-bomb fuel after the fact? The movie has Affleck racing against time to prevent the wrong retaliation. Does the physics and chemistry permit such rapid determination? Well, perhaps it does, if you know enough about the material itself.

Hence at least one unsummed fear in nuclear fuels processing when practiced outside the NPT regime: if Iranians or Koreans are refining bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, we won't know its composition unless they open up for full inspections. So if it gets passed to terrorists, we have a problem: with two or more nations refining the stuff, even a full accounting of known materials doesn't permit one to deduce the source by a process of elimination.

For a while, I've been strongly of the opinion - an unpopular one, perhaps, but what else is new with me? - that we should junk the Nonproliferation Treaty. After all, the terms require that cosignatories that already are nuclear-armed reduce their arsenals, yet during much of the term of the NPT, most superpowers only increased those arsenals.

The NPT is a treaty to gradually ban nuclear weapons, not just to establish an oligopoly for the U.N. Security Council. And it hasn't worked, has it? Israel, India and Pakistan haven't signed. States that didn't have nuclear weapons programs of any significance are tarred as violators:
There have been challenges to the NPT. Iraq was found to be in violation of the NPT in 1991. Its nuclear program was neutralized through action by coalition military forces in the spring of 2003 following 12 years of Iraqi noncompliance.
Remember that bit about how Iraq's noncompliance with inpections "proved" that Iraq had a program? Somehow, an alternative hypothesis never bubbled up very high - that Iraq was in such disarray as to make it possible for some people high to think it did have a program, while the ostensible program funding was being diverted to other purposes.

We're facing a very weird danger, here: states near the edge of collapse might have elements with motivations to pretend they have nuclear programs when they don't. And for all we know, Blix and ElBaradei knew of this state of affairs in Iraq not long after renewing inspections, and decided that playing for time was the most humane approach - a drawn-out inspection process might give Iraqi weapons scientists and their families a way to exit the situation other than through Saddam's torture chambers. For, certainly, Saddam would have been very angry indeed to discover that they weren't really working on nuclear weapons.

And how do we know that we aren't facing a very similar situation in North Korea? An unofficial delegation visited North Korea during the time when it was practically boasting of having capability, and were shown what was described to them as an ingot of plutonium. However, nobody was allowed to hold the sample. (Yes, this is safe to do.) A heftable but noncritical sample would have felt warm to the touch. It could have been bluffing to this delegation, but also a show of credibility for a non-existent program for the sake of saving their own skins from their own leadership. Perhaps Kim Jong Il only thinks he has a nuclear program. Or perhaps, under the circumstances, he likes the ambiguity that the Iraq situation created for him: policymakers now have to contend with even more possibilities.

(1) North Korean has bombs
(2) North Korean leadership thinks it has bombs, but doesn't
(3) North Korea is trying to fool everybody into thinking (1)

And you have to make that those propositions rows in a table with columns labeled as follows: The North Korean leadership is

(1) crazy, but wants to be seen as sane
(2) sane, and just doesn't communicate very well
(3) sane, and wants to be seen as crazy
(4) crazy, but also has sane reasons to be seen as even crazier

And at that point, you still haven't summed up the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the current picture. After all, "North Korean leadership" may be an oversimplification - perhaps we just see the iceberg tip of deeper intrigue and a mix of motivations.

How about a treaty that permits proliferation but with monitoring? How about finally ditching the notion that nuclear weapons are somehow inherently immoral? (Or become immoral when in the hands of nations that nobody should like?) What would a likely North Korea response be under those conditions? The answers may still be too ambiguous for comfort.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

I just want someone to hate

I've been following the reaction to Marc Cooper's reaction to Naomi Klein's Bring Najaf to New York. Cooper is indignant, and accuses Klein of being an "apologist" for islamo-fascists.

Well, let's hate Naomi Klein. Or, hey, let's hate George W. Bush. Or let's hate Moqtada al Sadr. For heaven's sake, hate somebody.

"You don't understand how the Fuhrer made us feel!" insisted Eichmann, in his own defense - according to one screenwriter, anyway. And isn't that the important thing? Dispassion can reinforce depression - to be able to feel again provides a basis for action. Rational action? Well, perhaps not, but to move is to live.

Someone posting in Cooper's comment section quoted an interesting bit from one of Moqtada al Sadr's firebrand lieutenants, and in searching for the source, I found it in this interesting New Yorker article, Caught in the Crossfire. Pay special attention to what one of the author's informants calls "the middle level of mind."
The doctor said that he belonged to “the middle level of mind” in Iraqi society, somewhere between the strictly religious masses and the secular élite. “There are many Iraqis like me,” he said. In Iraq, there is nothing unusual about a doctor who loves Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, desires the public whipping of prostitutes, and believes that executed homosexuals got what they deserved. Yet Shaker’s mix of traditional and modern views causes him considerable inner conflict. “I hate Iraq,” he said. “And I love it.” He longs to live abroad, but fears the moral climate outside the country. He is wary of the Western images that appear on his television screen, though he installed a satellite dish on his roof when it was illegal, and dangerous, to own one. He adores his new wife, an independent-minded woman who wears low-cut shirts, but he wants her to start covering her hair and acting like a traditional Muslim woman when she moves to Baghdad. His work fascinates him, but he is concerned that his daily immersion in death will make him less spiritual. “The doctor of forensic medicine deals only with bodies,” he said. “So maybe in the end I will become like you—an existentialist.”
The quote that inspired the search invokes a muslim-world urban legend: that jews had been warned away from the Twin Towers before 9/11, so that none died. Of course, plenty of jews died in that attack - for that matter, the percentage of muslim casualties exceeded their proportion in the U.S. population as a whole. Well, never mind - that just muddies one's thinking, does it not? How can one know what to feel? Strength through hatred, strength through joy - strength wherever you can find it. Your average Iraqi might disparage the relative balance of a channel like Al Jazeera, compared to the more usual conspiracy-theory-ridden fair of other news sources, because they aren't used to news that isn't telling them how to feel, but rather just telling them the facts.

Facts must be of service, after all, and if those you serve aren't interested, or are actually hostile to the facts ... well, someone once said, "unused knowledge is a burden." In Iraq today, disenfranchised Ba'athists - even some who worked for a while with the Occupation - are signing up as functionaries for islamists, both in the Sunni-dominant regions and the Shia-dominant regions. This move is all of a piece in the all-important matter of knowing what to feel, even when that means abandoning the truth. It's a sort of Stockholm Syndrome writ large - society-wide, in fact.

War is captivity. Long in captivity, one can stop feeling, can succumb to depression. Hatred expressed against captors is only expression of impotence, and can at best only earn you blows. But sympathizing with one's captors opens you up to feel again. And from your captors, you can receive a predigested set of feelings to refill your dessicated soul - hatred of your captors' enemies not least among them. Nuance, ambiguity, reason, the withholding of judgment - what attraction or satisfaction can any of those adult cognitive responsibilities hold for a social captive, reduced to a state of child-like dependency and incomprehension in a chaotic world? No, what you want is a conspiracy theory, no matter that it is an improbable one. A conspiracy theory orders your world-view immediately. And it tells you clearly who you should hate. And as for love, how can you not love the theory's messenger in that event, whether your captor-messenger is a George W. Bush, or a Moqtada al-Sadr?

War and economic depression makes hostages of us all. And hostages will side with captors. As a species, we're wired to make the best of bad situations. And that wiring just guarantees that the bad situations will repeat.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Amateur Spy Unearths Amateur Terrorist

Were I not drunk right now, and trying to sober up at Ben's Cafe over a cappuccino, I wouldn't be bottom-feeding on the story of Ryan Anderson AKA Amir Abdul Rashid, national guardsman, tank loader, convert to Islam, convicted of carrying dangerous weapons near a school (boy, the Guard will take anybody these days, not just Lynddie England), and now to be tried for treason. What did he do? He passed information about U.S. tank vulnerabilities, much if not all of it available on the Web, to undercover agents posing as Al Qaeda.

It's worth bearing in mind that George W. Bush has just told us that the War on Terror is essentially unwinnable for reasons that should have some of us yelling "Whoa! Whoa! Nuance! Nuance! That's a French word, ain't it Bubba?" Are we reduced to tail-chasing? Are we reduced to nailing our own utterly ineffectual wingnuts of no particular relevance or risk, because we can't catch the real thing?

The amateur spy has her cheerleaders: Daniel Pipes, for one, lauds Shannon Rossmiller as an "American Hero." Um, that would be "heroine", would it not? Or does that have too much of an opiate echo these days, not to mention being slightly sexist? Well, whatever: she had nothing better to do with her time except bait a wingnut or two into the open, and not even in Arabic. I mean, it would take serious time to learn Arabic, right? Go for the low-hanging fruit - or nut, as the case may be. Rossmiller's a city judge and a mother of three in a town of about 2,700 people, and was recovering from having broken her pelvis. Can you say "bored"? Can you say "I went to law school for a trillion years, and all I got was this lousy backwater job?" I knew you could.

Now, am I out of my tree to think that a guy who posts openly, in English, confessing jihadi sympathies - nay, enthusiasms - has got to be too much of a nutter to be a threat? If you were an Al Qaeda operative, wouldn't you keep a very great distance from such a loudmouth, figuring that he was either an operative or was having his strings pulled unwittingly by operatives? Especially when it's so easy to just pop "M-1 tank" into Google?

I hereby propose some Compassionate Conservatism: find some poor schizoid on the street, get him enrolled in the National Guard (sounds like their standards are way low these days, and probably dropping daily, what with imperial overstretch), post a bunch of Jihadi rhetoric on Islamic nutter websites so that it can be traced back to this poor guy, and let the likes of Shannon Rossmiller, American Hero, pick him up on her insomniac radar. Pretty soon, he'll have have a warm place to sleep and four squares a day without the burden of having to maintain anything like military discipline; he'll have state-appointed counsel for his insanity defense; and, upon being sentenced, will be set up for life: housed, well-fed, medical care, all the reasonable entitlements that much of the civilized world outside America figures is the birthright of even sane citizens. If you're on the streets anyway, why not? I think this proposition would interest quite a few of the gibbering wretches who spare-change you on the way to the office, and maybe even some sane nine-to-fivers earning minimum wage.

OK, I'm way past my italics quota for the day. I'm also feeling sober enough to face my wife. Time to head home. Ta ta.