Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Unknown Knowns

"There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know."
— Donald Rumsfeld, Press Conference on the situation in Afghanistan, February, 2002

There are also the unknown knowns, or rather those things known to some but not to others, including those who most may need to know. The possibility cannot be excluded that such unknown knowns apply to the Mexican flu.

We picked up a copy of the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal while passing through the desolate, echoing canyons of Nashville’s international departure lounge at mid-day on Saturday and felt a sudden urge to scream. A two-hour flight and the in-flight wifi system on Delta/Northwest offered a better alternative.

What prodded us to write, at 30,000 feet over Mississippi, en route to Mexico, were the fascinating connections between the four seemingly different stories on the Weekend Journal’s page A2. We started drawing arrows on the page with our pen. Top left was a story under the headline, “Memos’ release upended strategy on past” in which Evan Perez and Jonathan Weisman wander behind the scenes at the White House to parse the intentions of the Obama administration concerning prosecution of war crimes by their predecessors.

The Perez/Weisman story would have it that Obama is adamant in squelching Congressional truth commissions and Justice Dept. special prosecutors while providing full and infuriating disclosure through slow time-release of historical documents and photos. The nuance unreported is that by taking that stance, the White House deflects right wing political heat, including that of Blue Dog Democrats, while stoking the fires of litigation and international prosecutions that will ultimately provide justice for the perpetrators. The President also gets to watch his political opponents slowly twist in the wind, hoisted by their own “maintain the cover-up for the sake of the country” petard. In a nation addicted to breaking-scandal news cycles, that Blue Dog just won’t hunt.

Top right was a story under the headline “U.S. releasing Iraq, Afghan prison photos” although the actual release is still a month away. The release of part of the Pentagon’s trove of abuse photos was ordered by a federal court as part of a case brought by civil libertarians in 2003, pre-Abu Gharib. The decision to let them go public now is part of that fire-stoking thang.

Of course, what we, the scandal addicted, would really like to see is the secret photos that circulated betwixt congressional oversight committees in 2006, showing sexually-explicit abuses of women Abu-Gharib prisoners. Those may never see the light of day, any more than the abuse of children pictures or the CIA’s torture videos. Perhaps they can be viewed through plexiglass frames in a George W. Bush museum in Crawford, Texas, some day, something akin to the Dracula museum in Transylvania.

Lower left A2 was the headline, “Scientists fear people can spread new virus,” over a story reporting the World Health Organization’s concern that A/H1N1 flu represents “a cross of swine, avian and human viruses in a way that hasn’t been seen before” and a warning that it could augur a global pandemic similar to 1918, if not stopped.

Lower right was the continuation of front-page-above-the-fold: “Mexico races to stop deadly flu outbreak.” At press time, the Mexico City outbreak of H1N1 had infected 854 people, of whom 59 died within the preceding 48 hours. H1N1 was already showing up in central Mexican states, Texas and California, and the CDC’s acting director was saying containment was no longer an option. These numbers and locations have since increased, and rumors emanating from workers in Mexico’s hospitals say as many as 1000 fatalities occurred in a single hospital. People are fleeing the city, which has now closed schools, public buildings and places of entertainment. The official number in Mexico at this writing is about about 2000 cases and about 150 people have died.

What ties these four stories together? Donald Rumsfeld.

Rummy was the Stan Laurel to Dick Cheney’s Oliver Hardy in the Ford, Reagan and Bush Administrations, and not only knows where the skeletons are buried, probably did much of the spadework.

Like Forrest Gump, Rummy is an apex of historical confluence, whether bringing a pair of golden cowboy spurs to Saddam Hussein, selling nuclear reactors to North Korea, or reassuring us that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq eventually. Whether Rumsfeld had a role in slipping superthermite girder paint past Marvin Bush at the World Trade Center, secreting nano-tefloned GMO anthrax from a national weapons lab and mopping up witnesses, or downing a light plane that carried Paul Wellstone and his staff, we may never know. Those are known unknowns.

A possible unknown known would be why the H1N1 outbreak came in Mexico City, which, coincidentally (?) was the location where an exposé, in Spanish, of the Rumsfeld Pentagon's secret program to create a bioengineered flu pandemic was published a month before the first case appeared.

Rumsfeld and Giulian at Ground Zero 9-11

As a former chairman and major stockholder of Gilead Sciences, Rummy stands to gain financially from sales of Tamiflu, which, by sheer coincidence, is one of only two anti-viral drugs that H1N1 appears to not tolerate, very odd for a pill genetically designed for avian flu, not swine flu. One might not unreasonably inquire whether the Former Defense Secretary might be building a war chest for his coming legal fees, once the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence starts releasing its findings to The Hague. Perhaps Rumsfeld hopes to stay out of prison long enough to enjoy his huge new fortune, but Tick Tock, old man.

Oh, and Carl Levin, Diane Feinstein and Arlen Specter? Those guys should really get some flu shots.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in Culture Change.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Island of Law’s Souls

"What is the law?"

Browsing the torture authorization memos released last week, and also getting confirmation that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Tenet-Ashcroft-Gonzales-Addington-Bybee-Yoo-Bradbury-Feith-Chertoff-Rizzo-Muller-Hadley-Libby-Holder&your-name-goes-here tortured women and children, such as waterboarding Khaled Sheikh Mohammed 6 times daily for a month, forcing prisoners to stand up for 11 days, or forcing them to line up and masterbate for hours in front of female National Guard troops, or crushing young boys’ testicles, which really shouldn’t be that surprising, because it is just a continuation of the pathology that began when little George would stuff a firecracker up the rectum of a frog, light it and hang around for fun part. Which itself is just the Republican version of throwing a silver dollar across the Delaware, or chopping down the cherry tree, right? If you can paint Reagan as a cowboy hero you can do anything. But Reagan was just into old movies. Dick and George were into racier fare. Now that the CIA cleaned out their hot video collection — the boxed set — you have to go to Crawford, Texas or Jackson Hole to get the screaming in full surround.

Spoke President Barack Obama on April 16, 2009:
In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution…. The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.
Okay, then, so what laws is the United States required to follow?

Geneva Conventions
Article 7. The official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.

Article 8. The fact that the Defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires.
UN General Assembly Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, ratified by the US Senate, placing it on a legal par with a federal criminal statute):
Article 2: countries under the Convention are obliged to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures to prevent acts of torture.”

Articles 5 through 7: it is a well-established principle of state-conditioned universal jurisdiction that a state party to the Convention is obliged to either institute criminal proceedings against the torturer or to extradite the person to another state to stand trial there. The principles of jurisdiction based on nationality or territoriality do not constrain these precepts.

Article 7(1) imposes upon every state that is a party to this Convention a solemn duty to extradite anyone found in its jurisdiction whom is alleged to have committed torture or to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.”

Article 12 requires the parties to the Convention to “promptly and impartially” investigate allegations of torture. Moreover, the state must investigate the prospect of torture practices within its jurisdiction if “there [are] reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture has been committed.”

The prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld in Germany was halted by a judge who said that jurisdiction lay in the first instance with the United States, and absent any indication that the United States would not prosecute, the case was suspended. The German court is now being petitioned by international human rights organizations to re-open that case.

In Spain, the judge who prosecuted Augusto Pinochet this past week defied the Spanish political leadership and kept alive an investigation into whether Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales and other Cheney flaks broke international law when they crafted the illegal interrogation guidelines. High officials are far from exempt, and if you offer a particularly weak link — Gonzales, say — a lenient plea, who knows where it might lead? Defense from these prosecutions are now the rear-guard action Leon Panetta, Dick Armey, Eric Holder and others are frantically entrenching for.

Unfortunately for them, Congress passed the Joint Resolution Regarding Opposition of the United States to the Practice of Torture by Foreign Governments in 1984. That law requires the United States to work with other governments and international NGOs to combat the practice of torture worldwide. It would include CIA surrogate torture cells at black sites in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Syria or elsewhere.

The prima facie documented evidence released this year shows that the ex-President and his Cabinet were directly involved in patently illegal activities, including torture and war crimes.

For the Obama administration to meaningfully reassert the rule of law in the United States, a full investigation and prosecution is required, however — and this is where it gets interesting — it is not necessary for the US to do it. It just can’t obstruct. Our judges have to extradite the defendants, regardless of who they are, to countries which do prosecute. That is what happened to Pinochet. It may be happening again now.

Personally, given the economic mess we are in, I suspect that show trials of historic significance (a la Nuremberg, the Nixon and Clinton impeachments and the O.J. trial) would provide an amusing divertissement that could rescue newspapers, take the spotlight off the Treasury bailout debacle, and maybe even pry a school-and-TV-dulled populace away from American Idol. If they can link in frequent trial updates with dramatic plot twists such as Diebold-rigged presidential elections, energetic-nanocomposite girder insulation, nanocomposite-weaponized anthrax, the mysterious death of Paul Wellstone, and White House death squads operating within the US and abroad, (no tinfoil hats in any of that, these are all matters of public record now), I might even go out and get a new TV myself. That’s entertainment!
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Choices and Voices

"That is considered wisdom, which,
describes the scratch and not the itch."
— Kenneth Boulding

We have been contemplating the direction this blog has taken and whether some kind of shift back to where we began might be in order. Maybe, we wondered, we should bifurcate the word-stream into two tributaries; one political, one practical. Maybe even three tributaries, to account for those wider, weirder occasional stretches of our imagination.

That led to trying to mentally verbalize what the role of this blog is, and in doing that we traversed some interesting territory.

A blog is short for weblog, the itinerary of a surfing safari: locales visited, the waves found there, rocks, shoals and crowds of co-kooks to be aware of, and then some in-gathering synthesis of the overall experience, punctuated with the rare revealed wisdom. Blogs adhering to this tradition are peppered with URLs and recursive notes to earlier safaris.

Blogs have morphed in recent years, slouching in the direction of link-less op-eds, and that trend is growing, not receding, as wood-based newspapers pack-up their greasy old chainsaws in favor of shiny gigawatt server farms (pardon our coal ash, nuclear waste, and salmon kill, nothing but paperless electrons here). At this blog, our electrons began as photons captured in a silicon amber agitating a nearby silver thread enough to disgorge a current of loose particles that moved up a wire to this MacBook our fingers now pound.

“Op-ed,” by the way, meant “opposite the editorial page” in a newspaper. The editorial page was devoted to the paid employees or owners of the publication, and the facing page was for the syndicated columnists and the unpaid opinions of more ordinary people. That blogs are now the dominant news-form speaks volumes of the paucity of wisdom emanating from the inbred journalistic caste. Our Sulzbergers, Ochs, Berliscones and Murdochs have simply lost credibility.

While we have frequently ventured into pristine unsupported opinion here, more often we have tried to leave behind breadcrumbs of web references so that our trail can be retraced by anyone. This is a good practice, and we will probably continue doing that, even if sometimes birds eat the crumbs.

Whether to have this space revert to something resembling an extended Post-Petroleum Survival Guide reference appendix in real time or to follow our Muse into Obamanomics, international torture trials, energetic nanocomposites of superthermite, or other fun subjects is really a false choice. It is all connected. We can’t just look forward, as the Magic President would have it, we need to also look backward and trace the mysterious, winding route that brought us here. Why? Because we may need to retrace that route to find the way out when the room suddenly fills with acrid smoke.

We may need to retrace along legal lines in order to restore the path of justice. Without justice there is no peace. Without peace there is no civil order, or even civil conversation.

We may need to retrace the origins of classical economics, predicated on limitless expansion and resource extraction to learn what limit-bound steady state economics are all about.

We may need to retrace our scientific inquiry and ethical lines in order to avoid geno-nano doom, lest the Singularity be not wafting space fogs but a uniform bubbling grey goo covering our hot rock from shore to shore as it circles our star without us, perhaps waiting for that distant day when the microbes we seeded to Mars return as cosmonauts in search of the oily black line in Earth’s strata we call the Anthropocene.

We may need to retrace 10,000 years back to the development of plowed earth in order to reclaim a proper carbon balanced agriculture/silvaculture/aquaculture, in order to fend off a future otherwise filled with clathrate fireballs and/or the pervasive rotten egg smell sniffed by dinosaurs after the Chicxulub asteroid impact, a particularly odious way to go.

And when we go back that 10,000 years, we may discover that our ancestors took some other wrong turns along the way, and that was really when they left the garden and went into exile, and perhaps, by a process of exploration and rediscovery, we will experience not only our salvation from converging existential catastrophes, but an orders-of-magnitude improvement in our daily lives -- and the way back to the garden.

That, right there, was our punctuation point.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Earthquakes and Icebergs

We tend to look at earthquakes with surprise and fear, rather than as something with a moral dimension. We assign blame to the victims for living too close to an active fault, or to buildings too unsteady, or to fate. We don’t read headlines about the real cause of large earthquake fatalities, which is our population. Somehow prescriptions for that are left lying on the counter while days are spent re-living familiar discussions of building codes and rescue efforts.

With snow falling today back in Tennessee, we are reading about the end of this year’s Antarctic summer.

Satellite imagery from ESA tells the tale -- a final tendril of ice where the main Wilkins ice shelf grips Charcot Island shrinks and shrinks, and then in a death-embracing fingertip farewell, slides away into the deep.

Here, 11 years ago, was Mercer's prediction, in Nature 271:321-325 (1978):
“One warning sign that a dangerous warming is beginning in Antarctica, will be a breakup of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula just south of the recent January 0°C isotherm; the ice shelf in the Prince Gustav Channel on the east side of the peninsula, and the Wordie Ice Shelf; the ice shelf in George VI Sound, and the ice shelf in Wilkins Sound on the west side.”
As other commenters have now observed, Wilkins was the last one mentioned. The rest are already departed.

Last month ocean scientists doubled their estimates for global sea level rise by 2100. Places in Northern hemisphere like New York, Amsterdam and London will be particularly hard hit due to uneven distribution of rising waters by currents, while places like Miami, Houston and Havana may have more time to prepare.

Shortly after this report, President Obama told an audience gathered at Prague:
"To protect our planet, now is the time to change the way that we use energy. Together we must confront climate change by ending the world's dependency on fossil fuels by tapping the power from the sources of energy like the wind and the sun and calling upon all nations to do their part. And I pledge to you that in this global effort the US is now ready to lead."
What the President was silent about was the population earthquake, although its foreshocks are warning us now, if we pause to listen.




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