The Casual Blog

Tag: terrorism

New Jersey epilogue: revisiting Roth and Nabokov

Philip Roth’s childhood home in Newark (the yellow house)

While we were in Jersey City last month seeing our marvelous new granddaughter, one afternoon we drove over to Newark to pay homage to one of our greatest writers, Philip Roth (1933-2018).  We found the street where he grew up and parked across from his old house.  Back in his day, it was a working class Jewish neighborhood, and now it’s a working class Black neighborhood. His boyhood home had a plaque honoring him, but otherwise it looked like the other houses. 

We also went to the Newark Public Library to see the new Philip Roth Room.  The writer bequeathed a significant sum and his own books to the library where he spent many hours as a young reader.  We enjoyed looking through his collection and inspecting various personal items, including his manual typewriter.  The curator was a pleasant woman who knew a lot about Roth and his books.  There were no other visitors on the weekday afternoon we were there, but she was hopeful that visits would pick up after the pandemic.  

The Plot Against America, the unexpectedly timely HBO series about fascists who try to seize power in the U.S., is based on Roth’s novel.  It probably inspired some new readers to try Roth, and I hope more will do so.  His books confer the out-of-body travel pleasures of good realist fiction, along with arresting honesty, naughty humor, and a fierce passion.  The physical Newark he grew up in has changed almost beyond recognition, but the sweet, quirky, hardworking place can still be visited in his books, like The Plot Against America and American Pastoral.

On our trip I also finished re-reading Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov.  I hesitated to re-engage with this famous book, which makes an uncomfortable proposition: that we sympathize with an unrepentant child molester.  There’s moral risk, to say the least.  It casts a hypnotic spell that feels exhilarating as it drowns our sensibilities.  The monstrousness of the narrator is almost obscured by the beautiful and hilarious language.  Nabokov’s close observations of our consumer culture and hypocrisies  cut to the heart.  The book is hard not to love, and also hard to feel entirely good about.

Sally tries to read the plaque. The Roths lived on the second floor.

Having not read Lolita for forty years, I was surprised at how much I remembered, but still, I’d forgotten a lot.  Plus there was a lot I just hadn’t processed initially.  For example, without belaboring the matter, Nabokov makes clear that Humbert H, in addition to being a scholar and old world aesthete, has a history of mental illness, alcoholism, and obsession with violence. 

Side note:  It’s curious how we systematically and unconsciously overestimate the capabilities of language.  Those most accomplished in language may be the most prone to overlooking the vast realm of experience where language is irrelevant, and even counterproductive.  Likewise, intellectuals with strong verbal skills often view  abstractions as superior to the simple and concrete, and easily mistake them for reality.  Thus our leaders zealously pursue reasonable-sounding but impossible goals, such as defeating “terrorism” or “drugs,” at horrific cost.  

But the great works of Roth and Nabokov are a reminder that language can also expand our conceptual world.  Great writers make us question our preconceptions and see new possibilities.  

Butterflies, and constructing terror narratives

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On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles, up Hillsborough Street and back. It was humid. I went slower than usual, and struggled to finish. That afternoon I went out to Cary for my monthly haircut with Ann, and we talked about our families and cars. Then I drove west to Jordan Lake. I stopped at Horton Pond and took some pictures of a spicebush swallowtail (above). (The other butterflies here were taken this week at Raulston Arboretum.) Afterwards, I put Clara in sport mode and had a lively drive on the winding country roads.
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It’s so interesting how intensely we insist on fitting disasters into familiar narratives. After the horrible Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice this week, leading politicians immediately dubbed the act “terrorist,” despite knowing nothing of the driver’s motivations. Now, three days later, there is still no evidence that the driver had any particular ideology, and there’s some evidence that he was just a sad, mentally disturbed, violent loner. Yet the press, including the NY Times, continues to characterize the mayhem as “terrorism” and to raise the alarm on the need to escalate the war on it.

Narratives are our way of making sense of the world. We create meaning by imposing a cause-and-effect ordering on events. But our compulsive drive for understandable narratives can also cause us to see things that aren’t there. When acts of deranged individuals or small, not-very-powerful groups are attributed to a single powerful force of evil, our fear level rises. Strong emotions make us less capable of careful analysis, more susceptible to demagogues, and more liable to overreact and do harm to others and ourselves.
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This is, in fact, what the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, hope: that we’ll react to their crimes by killing innocent people, whose relatives will swear vengeance on us and join the radical cause. Al Qaeda had remarkable success in provoking us this way. Our endless war in the Middle East allowed them to extend their influence and spawned even more bloody-minded imitators.
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In the face of a heinous mass killing, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by grief and fear, and hard not to grab at a handy possible explanation. But more times than not, we can’t really know all the causes of such crimes, and sometimes we can’t pin down any of them. As much as we like stories, we need to accept that some things don’t fit into our familiar narratives. Fear narratives may feel satisfying, but by not exaggerating fear and avoiding overreacting, we are less likely to cause harm, and ultimately safer.
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A flooring experience, kind Canadians, and one good thing about Donald Trump

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This week while the flooring guys installed our new red oak floor, we stayed at the Hyatt Place, an increasingly uncharming unvacation, with nothing excitingly foreign and lacking the sweet comforts of home. With many years of marriage under our belt, Sally and I are good at comfortably sharing space, and we had no worrying collisions or conflicts, but also no room to spread out in the usual way.

We ate lots of local ethnic food (Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Ethiopian, Italian), which was fun, though I regretted eating so much, which is so easy to do in restaurants. I stuck with my resolution of using the hotel gym early every morning, but missed the machines and equipment at my usual gym. I missed making healthy green smoothies for breakfast. I missed my piano and exploring the intoxicating music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy.

But enough kvetching. On Friday evening, we moved back in to our condo, and found that our Latino flooring guys had done good work. We quickly hooked up the lamps and unpacked some essentials, and walked over to Pho Pho Pho for some good Vietnamese food. The dust gradually settled over the next couple of days – really, a lot of dust.
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It was a big week for ISIS mayhem in Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad, which got lots of news coverage, and the epic humanitarian disaster of 65 million refugees and displaced persons continued, with little news coverage. There was one happy NY Times story about Syrian refugees being welcomed by Canadians. Ordinary folk have volunteered by the thousands to help unfortunates get resettled. Those Canadians are especially gifted in the way of kindness and generosity. Too bad they have such cold winters.

We could be moving there anyway if Donald Trump is elected. But happily that’s looking less and less likely, as more of his cons, schemes, and frauds come to light. Also, more and more, it looks as though he isn’t seriously working to win the election, but is primarily running to gratify his vanity and improve his personal bottom line.
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Now that he looks less like a serious threat to the Republic, it’s easier to admit that Trump has done something important and good. He brought attention to an enormous problem, which for many educated, well-off people was almost invisible before. I’m speaking of the distress, fear, and anger of millions of white working class males. It’s now clear that we ignore their welfare at our peril.

The anger and fear aren’t hard to understand. It wasn’t so long ago that these folks could play by the rules and pay a mortgage, go out to eat, go on vacations, and otherwise support their families and have a materially comfortable life. But complex forces, including globalization, automation, and institutionalized corruption have led to job losses, employment insecurity, and wage stagnation. These forces have been well described by Robert Reich (for example, here) and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their book Winner-Take-All Politics (summarized here).

As the working class lost ground over the last few years, I’ve puzzled over why they increasingly voted Republican, while Republican policies were increasingly skewed toward the wealthy and against them. They didn’t seem to notice that Republican tax breaks were mostly going to the super rich, and changes in labor law enforcement and other areas were to their disadvantage. It seemed that they were attracted and distracted by various social issues, such as abortion, affirmative action, guns, gays, and the “War on Christmas.”

Trump has shown that white working class males weren’t so concerned about the conservative social agenda, and weren’t really buying trickle down economics. He has ditched trickle down and generally steered clear of the social agenda issues (except for guns). This demographic may have noted that the Democrats quit doing much to help labor or otherwise serve their interests, and also noted that Democratic elites viewed them mostly with indifference, if not disdain. Most likely they identified with Republicans’ emphasis on rugged individualism, and therefore viewed Republicans as the lesser of the evils.
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In Trump, this population has found an outlet for their boiling frustration and anger. They like his commitment to change. Unfortunately, they are also well pleased and energized by his fantasizing, conspiracy theorizing, and demonizing. But most important, Trump has acknowledged that they exist, and their problems are real. For the first time in a generation, a politician has put their concerns and values front and center.

Like it or not, angry, frightened, downwardly mobile voters aren’t going to go away. In fact, absent major changes, there are going to be millions more of them, as political, corporate, and technological forces continue to take away jobs and the social safety net continues to fray. Democrats need to reconfigure to acknowledge and address their grievances. Bernie made a good start, but we better keep moving forward. If Democrats don’t offer real solutions, someone else will offer imaginary ones. It is all too possible that a future Trump, smarter, better looking, and even more cynical than the Donald, could mobilize their anger into a true nightmare. Think Germany in the 1930s.

Raleigh parks, climate change hopes, and a treatment for Islamaphobia

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For the last several Saturdays, I’ve made a point of visiting the Raleigh parks that I did not already know well. There are several pretty lakes and miles of trails close by. When inspiration strikes, I take some pictures. But mostly I just walk and look, look and listen, listen and breathe deeply. It’s good for the lungs and the head.

This Saturday I drove north a little farther, to Falls Lake. It was mild and overcast when I arrived, but gradually cleared up. I did some hiking and took some pictures, including those here. I also enjoyed driving the long and winding country roads with Clara in sport mode.
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That afternoon there was word that 195 nations at the Paris climate conference had agreed on wording to address global warming. It’s good to know there’s acceptance among world leaders that global warming is real and humans can and must act to address it. Unfortunately, they only agreed to CO2 reductions amounting to half of what is widely accepted as necessary to prevent rising sea levels, droughts, more destructive storms, and widespread food shortages.

In other words, absent further progress, we’re still screwed. But there’s still a chance that we won’t utterly destroy human civilization and much of the rest of the natural world. Perhaps we’ll have a major technological breakthrough, like practical nuclear fusion. Fingers crossed.

One thing barely being discussed is population control. The population of the planet has quadrupled in the last 100 years. I guess this is politically sensitive. But really, isn’t overpopulation a big part of the climate change problem? If we don’t figure out a way to control population growth in a humane way, aren’t we likely to see it unfold in a horrifying way (desperate people fighting for survival against each other and perhaps us)? Viz. the refugee crisis unfolding right now.
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This week was full of anti-Muslim fear and panic, with calls for addressing terrorist threats by extreme measures, including monitoring mosques and barring all Muslims from the U.S. Even more moderate voices saw no alternative to escalating the war against ISIS and other radical groups, and those who questioned this course were increasingly at risk of being branded terrorist sympathizers. But there were a couple of articles pointing the other way, which I flagged on Twitter (@robtiller). There was one by Gwynne Dyer in, of all places, the Raleigh News & Observer of Dec. 10. That evening, when I went to get a link, it seemed to have vanished from the internet, but fortunately I still had the paper copy.

Dyer pointed out that for Americans, the panic at the terrorist threat does not have much basis. In the last 14 years, we’ve had an average of two people per year killed in the U.S. by Muslim terrorists. He calculated that “Americans are 170 times more likely to drown in the bath than to be killed by Islamist terrorists.” This is something public figures feel they can’t mention, because of the extreme dissonance with related facts: more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers killed in this period fighting terrorism, and a trillion dollars has been spent on the War on Terror. Dyer acknowledges that if you live in Arab countries, the terror threat is real and serious, and that western countries fighting ISIS might do some good for some Syrians. But it probably won’t reduce the already tiny risk of terrorist attacks here.
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More leaves, Beethoven ballet, and fear of refugees

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Last week Jocelyn took over her cell phone account, thereby cutting the last part of the financial cord from home. Oh happy day! The timing was good, in that she’d recently gotten a promotion and a substantial salary increase. She asked me for my Verizon password to do the changeover, and I told her I didn’t believe I had one. But she found out that I did, and hacked into it after correctly answering my security question. I was both proud and a little unsettled.

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park and took the trail around the lower lake. It was chilly, still, and very clear. I was looking for leaf colors and patterns, and particularly for some reds and oranges , of which there were only a few. I got close to another great blue heron, but unlike the one last week, this one flew off as soon as I came into sight.

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Saturday evening we had dinner with friends at Sono and then went to see the Carolina Ballet’s Beethoven Ninth program. The dancer we’ve been sponsoring, Alyssa Pilger, was recently promoted from the corps to soloist, and she had good solos in the Beethoven. There’s an ethereal quality to Alyssa’s dancing – light and evanescent – but at the same time commanding and incisive. The Beethoven was powerful, and she delivered, brilliantly.
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The famous choral Ode to Joy at the end of the Beethoven is always inspiring, and the message of the universal brotherhood seemed particularly timely this week, when a lot of U.S. politicians responded to the Syrian refugee crisis by seeking to keep them out. This is disgraceful. I thought the New York Times editorial on Saturday put the problem well:

After the attacks in Paris, the world is again challenged by fear. With every bombing, beheading and mass shooting, the dread spreads, along with the urgency of defeating this nihilism.
But no less a challenge for the civilized world is the danger of self-inflicted injury. In the reaction and overreaction to terrorism comes the risk that society will lose its way.
History is replete with examples of the power of fear and ignorance, to which even the great can fall prey. Franklin Roosevelt calmed a nation in bleakest days of the Depression, but he also signed the executive order imprisoning tens of thousands of American citizens for the crime of Japanese ancestry.
In our time, disastrous things have been done in the name of safety: the invasion of Iraq, spawned by delusion and lies; the creation of an offshore fortress, sequestered from the Constitution, to lock up those perceived as threats, no matter the cost and injustice; an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus, to spy on the people, no matter the futility.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State did not compel us to shackle ourselves to a security state, or to disgrace our values by vilifying and fearing. refugees and immigrants.

Along this same line, Nicolas Kristof had a good column in today’s Times. Kristof calculates that the risk of a refugee turning out to be a terrorist attacker is about 100 times smaller than that the a given resident of Florida will turn out to be a murderer in a ten-year period. He notes, “When we’re fearful we make bad decisions. That was true around World War II, when we denied refuge to European Jews and interned Japanese-Americans. That was true after 9/11, when we invaded Iraq and engaged in torture.”
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My surefire tax cut system, and some thoughts on the military and terrorism

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake, November 15, 2015

Gabe had his birthday this week, and we went out for dinner at An to celebrate. Diane, who’s not been well recently, joined us, and seemed in good form, as did Gabe’s sparky redheaded girlfriend, Clark. I had a lychee cosmopolitan and veggie ramen, and enjoyed everything.

Gabe is about two-thirds through his first semester as an on-line grad student in graphic design at Parsons, and seems to be kicking it. Initially I was dubious about the on-line approach, but it’s working well for him. He’s getting challenging assignments and feedback that keeps him focused and motivated, working really hard. His projects look fantastic. He’s played some of the audio critiques he’s received from teachers and students, and they are trenchant and highly positive.
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Because of the birthday dinner, we missed the Republican debate, which I wanted to catch, because I really would like to understand the Republican mindset better. But from reading the press accounts, it didn’t sound like I missed much that was ground breaking. The candidates all are in favor of lower taxes, and most are in favor of a stronger military.

One exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul was particularly revealing. I strongly agree with Paul on a couple of things (and disagree on many), and could probably agree with Rubio on something. But I was stunned to learn that Rubio wants to raise the military budget by a trillion dollars.

Our current military budget is around $615 billion , so raising by a trillion would be a 162 percent increase. Leaving to one side the obvious impossibility that this could be paid for while lowering taxes, there’s the question of why anyone would think this a good idea. We have the most expensive military in the world by far. Our military expenditures are currently greater than the next seven countries in the world combined. To state the obvious, our relative military power is unparalleled.
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Our military strength is wonderful, in a way, but also useless, in a way. It is of no help at all against a disciplined, determined cell of terrorists. Indeed, it could well be that our military activities of recent decades have inspired and invigorated more terrorists than they’ve destroyed. In any case, there’s no basis for thinking that even massive amounts of bombs and bullets could ever eliminate a fanatical, violent ideology. We’ve already tried that, and it doesn’t work.

I have written before about the havoc wrought by our military misadventures, and I still think there’s a huge disconnect between our ideals and our misdeeds in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. But for argument’s sake, forget all that, and just look at the finances. We’ve spent a huge portion of our wealth on those unnecessary and unsuccessful wars. And we continue to to spend sums that are barely conceivable on them. There’s an interesting graphic showing how we’re hemorrhaging money for military purposes here.

So, for those who believe the most important possible political reform is to lower taxes, wouldn’t it be appealing to take the largest single item of nonrecurring expenses – defense – and cut it by, say, twenty-five percent? Could anyone seriously doubt that there’s at least that much waste and useless spending in the existing defense budget? Admittedly, we might need to think more carefully before embarking on and continuing unnecessary wars, but that would not be a bad thing. So, for my friends who view the issue of lowering taxes as the preeminent public policy, could we agree on this: we’d be better off, in a lot of ways, if we stopped the financial bleeding of an out-of-control military?
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I wrote most of these thoughts before the horrible carnage this week in Paris, where the death toll from 8 suicide attackers now stands at 129. I lived in Paris for several months years ago, and feel a special affection for the city, and like everyone, I’m in the midst of shock and sorrow at the attacks.

We should be outraged. But these strong emotions may lead France and other countries to policies that cause many more deaths and ultimately increase the risk of terrorism, as happened after 9/11. Already President Hollande has characterized the attackers as “a terrorist army” that committed “an act of war,” and Nicolas Sarkozy has called for “extermination” of ISIS. But it wasn’t an army, and we can’t end jihad fanaticism by killing all the jihadists. As I learned in my rescue diver course, in an emergency, the first thing to do is stop, and think.

On Saturday I went out to Cary for a haircut with Ann, my longtime hair cutter, and then went for a walk in Swift Creek Bluffs park. The path was covered with brown leaves, and they crunched as I walked. A few leaves were falling. The colors were mostly yellows, browns, and pale greens.
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The terrification of our intelligence

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We learned this week that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, died. Two years ago. And we didn’t realize it. We’re still in Afghanistan, still waging the longest war in American history (14 years and counting), at a cost of several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, so you’d think this would be something we’d definitely want to know. I realize that getting good intelligence in a hostile land if not so easy, but still, it’s staggering to think we couldn’t figure out that the leader of a foe for which we sacrificed all that treasure and life was defunct.

It raises serious questions, like, are there some other fundamental realities we’re missing? Are there, along with the unsung heroes in our spy corps, too many unexposed incompetents? We seem to have gotten pretty good at spying on leaders of allied nations, not to mention ordinary Americans, but maybe not so great at learning about our declared adversaries. Here’s an idea: why not take the NSA’s mass domestic surveillance division and repurpose it towards actual threats from our enemies?
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Although our enemies keep changing. According to the papers, ISIS is now our main enemy, though I’d note that it has not attacked the United States. They’re definitely fighting against Iraq, our former enemy and now a quasi-client that mostly hates us. They’re also fighting our current enemy Syria, which does not seem entirely a bad thing. Attacking the US is not on ISIS’s priority list. Could they ever be a threat to our physical safety? Sure, just as is possible from any number of countries, but it isn’t now. So why are spending billions fighting them? What are our objectives?

The FBI acknowledged this week that ISIS “has shown no ability to stage significant attacks inside the United States.” But, per a NY Times story, the Bureau is devoting massive resources to detecting and arresting “sympathizers” who express “a willingness to undertake small-scale attacks, such as stabbings and shootings that require little planning.” That is, the FBI has taken on the mission of stopping “shootings and stabbings . . . on a scale that is common in major American cities.” What makes these so important? Why, they’re inspired by ISIS, don’t you see.
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This is part of continuing fallout from our post-9/11 moral panic about terrorism. Those who are victims of mass violence motivated by old-fashioned racism feel slighted that those criminals aren’t usually called terrorists, and they have kind of a point. A mass shooting has come to seem more serious if we call it terrorism. And I would agree that we need to deplore and work to prevent all mass shootings. Footnote: can we talk about better gun control laws?
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On final word about terrorism, and then I’ll stop. Glen Greenwald wrote this week about the prosecution of animal rights activists on charges of “domestic terrorism.” The crime in issue was releasing minks from fur farms. The point of the activity was political protest – nonviolent, mind you – against the cruelty of fur farming. The protesters are facing 10 years in federal prison. Prosecutions of political protesters as terrorists are apparently on the rise. This is ironic, but also frightening. If the actual terrorists, like bin Laden, ultimately make so fearful and obsessed with terrorism that we sacrifice our most cherished civil liberties, they will have succeeded in their destructiveness beyond their wildest dreams.

A word about the pictures: these were taken at Raulston Arboretum on Saturday, August 1, at about 8:30 a.m. It smelled a bit like a barnyard this Saturday, which I’m guessing had to do with application of fresh animal-based fertilizer. There were many small butterflies, most of which did not care to be photographed.
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The neverending war against terrorism: some questions

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Having learned this week that our leaders have committed our military once again to fighting in the Middle East with Islamic fundamentalists that have not attacked our country and so far as is known do not immediately threaten to do so, I’m deeply disturbed. I admit that I have no particular Middle Eastern or military expertise, which, you may say, is a good enough reason to sit down and shut up. And I would agree it is a good enough reason for a bit of humility and for avoiding categorical pronouncements. But I would be remiss if I did not tell you, I have a few questions. They are as follows, colon.

Is it possible that we’ve overestimated the threat of terrorism and terrorists? Could the shocking violence of a few psychotic fanatics have caused us to be overcome with panic and fear, and to temporarily (at least) lose a good part of our capacity for reasoning and sound judgment?

Have we thoroughly considered what it means to send our sons and daughters to kill other human beings without firm evidence that they are mortal threats to us? Are we prepared for the deaths of more of our children, and the permanent physical and mental injury of many others, for objectives that are far from clear?

As for our latest enemies, can we conceive of the anger, despair, and vengefulness of those who survive attacks from our powerful weapons and have seen their families and comrades blown to pieces? Would we knowingly choose to perpetuate a cycle of blood oaths and revenge with no apparent end?

If we thought that yet another Middle Eastern war was ill-considered and likely to yield only further death, destruction and enormous waste of resources, could we stay silent? Have we really lost all hope that our political institutions allow for thoughtful debate and weighing of costs and benefits? If we started articulating to ourselves, and each other, our questions, and demanded that our leaders provide answers supported by evidence and reason, could we change course?
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Warning: contains political content, and flowers

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There was a triathelon in Raleigh this morning, and the route included a road I was planning to take up to Raulston Arboretum to see the blossoms. So no go. I tried again in the late afternoon, and got to see the flowers in some wonderful golden sunlight. I’ve been learning to use the DSLR in manual mode without autofocus, and am just starting to feel comfortable taking full responsibility for the exposure. Most of these photos were taken with my Nikon 60 mm 1:2.8 macro lens. There was no postproduction Photoshopping of any sort. Pretty nice, huh?
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Being the President has got to be a pretty hard job. In addition to being hated with a white-hot hatred by many no matter what you do, your inner critic is also always there. You want to do the right thing, but what is the right thing? And when you’re reasonably sure you know the right thing, what if you can’t do it by yourself? Which of course is always the case.
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I really have many warm feelings for President Obama, and one of things that makes me proud of this country is that we elected him. But I’m so frustrated and disappointed with him. We’re still in Afghanistan, killing and being killed without any reasonably achievable objective, still brutalizing prisoners in Guantanamo, still imprisoning people and destroying families for victimless drug crimes, still running headlong toward climate apocalypse. We’ve instituted a surveillance state with the potential to rival Orwell’s darkest visions.

There are, no doubt, many forces quite separate from the President’s own desires that are driving these horrors and disasters. He probably regrets them. But like it or not, he’s the President, and that’s where the buck stops.
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The President’s speech at West Point this week proposed to reframe our global mission for the foreseeable future as stamping out terrorism. Is this less absurd than fighting to obliterate communism, or more? Is there any chance that we will ever kill every crazy fanatic that would like to do us harm? Does it really make sense to make this our mission?

So, you ask, have I got a better idea to address the real menace of the homicidal religious fanatics? I thought a bit, and had an idea: we change their minds. We get them to see things from our point of view. That would about do it, wouldn’t it? We help them to see that the idea of blowing up people as a suicide bomber and then being a martyr and having the 72 virgins in paradise is just nutty, and so they stop murdering people.
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You see the problem, of course: how do we change their minds? True, we do not currently have the technology to do this. We have amazingly little knowledge of why people think the way they do about the need for Sharia law, jihad, or most anything else. We assume it has to do with their culture and upbringing, with economic disadvantage and resentments, but we can’t frame those out with precision. More important, we have no precise knowledge of how to address and prevent really bad ideas, like racism or religious intolerance, or really bad acts, like suicide bombing.

Or anything else, for that matter. But what if we created a major program with some billions of dollars to figuring this out? And we’re already spending millions and millions to understand the brain and human behavior. If we treated it like the Apollo program, eventually we might get there. Instead of killing terrorists, and thereby creating new terrorists, we’d change their minds.
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This sounded like a good idea, but after a little more thinking, I realized it would probably be disastrous. If we replaced our vast ignorance of the causes of human behavior with perfect knowledge, we’d be even worse off.

Think about it. What if we figured out how to make everyone agree with us? What if our government, or any government, had the necessary tools to prevent opposing thoughts and eliminate all anger? Would that government happily tolerate reasonable people who advocate, say, a major change in abortion policy, or drug policy, or climate policy? Has there ever been a government that happily tolerated opposition? Once we got the terrorists minds under control, who would be next? Overly vocal dissidents?

Code Orange: Superstorm Sandy, climate change, and security threats

When Superstorm Sandy devastated the northeast earlier this week, Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn were caught in New York City. Their planned short fun visit turned into a week-long ordeal. They were staying in SoHo when the storm hit and their hotel lost power and water, and stores, restaurants, and transportation systems all closed down. Thousands of flights, including theirs, were cancelled.

My sweet Tillers eventually made their way to the upper West Side and found a down-market hotel to stay in until LGA came back online and they could get flights out. As I write this, millions are still without electricity, water, food, and transportation, and dealing with enormous personal and financial losses.

I expected that the superstorm would get climate change and what to do about it onto the front page. Could there be any more dramatic example of what rising seas and increasingly severe storms could do to our coastal population centers? Wouldn’t the climate change-deniers find it impossible to deny the reality of such a catastrophe?

But the superstorm showed once again how difficult it is to get this difficult conversation going. It is not an issue politicians or editors, or ordinary people for that matter, usually like to talk about. Why? Because it is disturbing and depressing. We don’t have a comprehensive solution, but we can be pretty sure addressing it will require massive funding and considerable sacrifice. Some are receptive to voices that tell us we don’t need to sacrifice, because science is not 100% certain (which it never is). Humans in general, and Americans in particular, are usually good at recognizing and addressing emergencies like sinking ships and burning buildings. But if we’re not entirely convinced there’s a real emergency that has a direct impact on us, we generally prefer to kick the can down the road, and think about more cheerful things.

While New York was in the midst of the huge storm, it struck me that this disaster could be compared to a terrorist attack, and that it might be a good idea to use that comparison as a conceptual tool. It seems reasonable to think of climate change as a security issue. Massive storms threaten our lives and economy in much the way that bombs do. In terms of financial loss and dislocation, Sandy was far worse all of the terrorist attacks we’ve ever seen.

And the vocabulary of security seems to be one that gets people’s attention and inspires action. We’ve probably gone overboard in exaggerating the threat of terrorist attacks, as I’m reminded every time I get on an airplane, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to address it.

To be sure, as to climate change, an important part of the worry is about the well-being of future generations, and it’s likely that most people give greater weight to the lives of living humans than to future ones. But as Superstorm Sandy showed dramatically, it’s also affecting us today.

Another thing that might help is basic science education. A lot of people don’t understand that science is in an important sense probabilistic. The most accurate conception we can ever form of nature includes a considerable range of uncertainty. There will never be a day when we can say with certainty that climate change was the sole or primary cause of a particular weather event, because of the inherent complexity of the ecosystem. But probabilities are also realities. Once the probability of rain gets high enough, we’ll take along an umbrella. If we can get a reasonable level of scientific literacy, we won’t use lack of complete certainty as an excuse for kicking the can down the road.