Sunday, August 31, 2014

A guide to electronic etiquette

Guidelines for being polite on the Internet.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Nov. 25, 2007.

Being polite in online discussions is as straightforward as being polite in conversation. A good rule of thumb is not to write anything online that you wouldn't say to someone face-to-face. Don't threaten. Don't make sarcastic comments and then, only after the comment has been misconstrued, give the half-apology that you were "only kidding." Don't reveal private information about others. Remember that the people with whom you are chatting may be minors.

It should go without saying that you should not insult other people, whether the invective is schoolyard or highbrow. Criticizing the person who makes an argument, instead of the argument itself, is called an ad hominem attack. This could include calling someone a "liar" or a "Nazi," ridiculing him as "ignorant," "biased," or "bigoted," or dismissing him as "just one of those people." Contrary to what your gut might tell you in the heat of the moment, the other person does not benefit from your scolding. You are not a refining fire introducing his soul to a new enlightened state. You are only ruining the day of another ordinary person who probably already has enough to worry about. Furthermore, an exchange of insults (known as a "flame war") interrupts a forum's discussion flow and irritates third parties who have to wade through it.

In most cases, try to assume that your interlocutor or opponent shares your dream of a better world and just has a different way of approaching the debated issue. Instead of calling him a "bigot," meaning someone who intractably uses degrading stereotypes, try to show why the stereotype is false or hurtful. Often, he will soften his original claim, because he does not actually wish to cause serious offense.

If a rude interloper, who clearly is not dreaming of a better world, is deliberately bothering you, do not attempt to chase him away by berating him with his own brand of hostility. This will only encourage him to respond in kind. Instead, contact the forum moderator and ask to have the inappropriate posts deleted, or use a filter to block the offending users' posts from your vision and encourage other users to do the same. When the poster realizes he is being ignored, he may give up.

For academic or in-depth discussions, be aware of the average knowledge level of the group, and preface your opinions with sufficient background and supporting facts. Talking "over their heads" with jargon is only an exercise in narcissism. Instead of writing to show how smart you are, write to be read. Before you post, ask yourself: is this information useful to anyone? Your readers should be treated deferentially and with gratitude, as they have no real need or obligation to read your post in the first place. They can easily turn you off if they sense your arrogance or are confused by your material.

It is usually challenging to keep track of the written flow of questions and answers in an online discussion. Many people will make apparently disembodied comments such as "I agree" or "I can't believe what I'm reading," with no indication of the topic to which they are referring. A reader could spend hours tracing a sprawling online debate just to determine who is responding to whom about what. It is impolite to expect anyone to do this research. Before posting, take the time to quote or paraphrase the comment that moved you to respond. Attribute it with the author's username and date on which it was originally posted. You might also acknowledge or paraphrase some of the productive debate that has preceded, just as you would want your serious contribution to be acknowledged with at least a virtual head-nod.

Finally, if you wish to be admired, put in the effort to at least spell-check your writing, but do not tell others that you intend to dismiss the substance of their writing simply because they have committed spelling errors. Mocking someone else's dyslexia is elitist, and will lose you the company and insight of some interesting people.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Inside and outside time

In Elizabeth Graver's novel Awake, one passage seems to identify the characters' sense of time as a product of their own lives.
"This should feel wrong," I said, "but it doesn't, quite. It feels normal."
He raised my hand, laced with his, to his mouth. "There's inside of time and outside of time, inside our lives and outside." He kissed my knuckles. "Outside, our hands have always been touching."
Similarly, P. D. Ouspensky wrote:
The whole of time lies within man himself. Time is the inner obstacle to a direct sensation of one thing or another, and it is nothing else. The building of the future, the serving of the future, are but symbols, symbols of man's attitude towards himself, towards his own present.
Writing of commercial fads, Joel Best acknowledged that, whatever the myth of progress toward the future may be, we do not always make such progress.
Whether we envision change in terms of an arrow or climbing a set of steps, our notion of progress suggests that it is irreversible, that it involves moving in one direction--forward or, if you prefer, upward, never backward. One moves toward the future, and away from the past. Assuming that the current institutional fad represents this sort of onward-ever-onward progress is part of the illusion of diffusion.
God, in one of Arthur Miller's works, takes a fatalistic approach toward the future:
You can never change the future. The past, yes, but not the future....The past is always changing--nobody remembers anything. But the future can no more be turned away than the light flowing off the moon.
Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps also had fatalistic assumptions in their expectations, as Primo Levi reported from firsthand experience:
Do you know how one says 'never' in camp slang? 'Morgen frueh', tomorrow morning.
And the past? When was that? Thomas Moore:
I will be writing in my studio and hear my daughter in the next room talking and singing to her large rabbit doll as she wraps a diaper around his soft velvet thighs. To her, the entire past is 'yesterday.' 'Yesterday I went to New York and stayed at a hotel,' she will say, referring to a trip the family took months ago.

Quotes from:

Elizabeth Graver. Awake. USA: Harcourt, 2004. p. 180.
P. D. Ouspensky. A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the psychological method in its application to problems of science, religion, and art. Translated by R. R. Merton. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1997. (Originally published New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931.) p. 144.
Joel Best. Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. p. 132.
Arthur Miller, speaking in the voice of God, Creation of the World and Other Business. Quoted in Art Greer. The Sacred Cows are Dying: Exploding the Myths We Try to Live By. New York: Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1978. p. 76.
Primo Levi. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Translated from the Italian Se questo e un uomo (1958) by Stuart Woolf. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. p. 133.
Thomas Moore. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p. 52.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Beyond theism and atheism: Anatheism

"As the prefix ana suggests, anatheism is about repetition and return," Richard Kearney explains in Anatheism, in which he justifies doubt as the entry point to faith. To get more granular, "There are three basic elements to anatheism: protest, prophecy, and sacrament."

For those who experience it, the aerial view is something like this:

"What comes after God? What follows in the wake of our letting go of God? What emerges out of that night of not-knowing, that moment of abandoning and abandonment? Especially for those who — after ridding themselves of ‘God’ — still seek God?

That is the question I wish to pursue in this volume. And, so doing, I propose the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: those polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history. This third option, this wager of faith beyond faith, I call anatheism. Ana-theos, God after God. Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove. Another idiom for receiving back what we’ve given up as if we were encountering it for the first time. Just as Abraham received back Isaac as gift, having given him up as patriarchal project. In short, another way of returning to a God beyond or beneath the God we thought we possessed."
It is a moment of "freedom of belief" before we choose our path or our side. Even after we take a position, we can always come back to the doorway of doubt, the point of possibility, to reexamine what we believe.

"Anatheism acknowledges the emancipatory force of critical atheism as an integral part of theism, understood as a second faith beyond faith. And it also respects agnostic atheism that remains just that – agnosia, not-knowing — choosing not to make the second move of faith. What anatheism opposes is militant antitheism, which — as in the Reign of Terror or Stalinist persecutions — is just as pernicious as triumphal theism.

Anatheism is a freedom of belief that precedes the choice between theism and atheism as much as it follows in its wake. The choice of faith is never taken once and for all. It needs to be repeated again and again — every time we speak in the name of God or ask God why he has abandoned us. Anatheism performs a drama of decision whenever humans encounter the stranger who, like Rilke’s statue, whispers, “Change your life!” And every moment is a portal through which this stranger may enter."
He writes at length about the ability to embrace the stranger, the Other, and how the openness of the anatheist perspective regarding our understanding of God allows us to be similarly receptive of humans we do not yet understand. Anatheistic "disorientation" implies a readiness to be reoriented, and yet a perpetual willingness to return to disorientation and then be reoriented in a new way.

He also writes about how awareness of the suffering in the world, specifically of the Holocaust, prompts a rejection of "the God of theodicy," that is, a God who obviously exists, can save people, but doesn't...or, probably worse, a God who deliberately plans human suffering as part of a larger design. This kind of theism is barren, since it encourages people to accept suffering and injustice passively and even to defend it as God's will. "Anatheism is not atheism then, but it does agree with enlightened atheism that the God of theodicy is dead."

Rather, the only credible God is one that doesn't have the power to stop our tribal hatreds and cruelties and is consequently waiting for us to learn to approach the Other in peace. Such self-empowerment to create the sanctity we wish to see in the world necessitates an entry point that is a kind of atheism — a healthy, inquisitive, clear-minded skepticism — but does not remain in any rigid ideology, either theist or atheist.

It is from an atheist moment of interiority within the self that we may open out toward the exteriority of the stranger: ‘Only if it starts from me as a separated being and goes as a host to the Other, welcoming the Other as guest, only in this manner can an eternal return within the interiority of the circle of being be escaped. For when I turn to the Other interiority turns into exteriority.’ [John Llewelyn, Emmanuel Levinas: The Genealogy of Ethics (London: Routledge, 1995), 67.] It is in this context that Levinas holds that the gift of Judaism to humanity is atheism — namely, separation from God so as to encounter the other as absolutely other.
He describes the tradition of apophatic theology, which refers to describing God as not-this, not-that, or explicitly refusing to describe God because God cannot be described. To presume to describe God is to exclude certain possibilities. "This is not the last word," he assures us. "It is a cleared space to begin again." It also may be that "the recognition of God as a ‘nothing and nobody’ (ta me onta) enables us to identify with the nothings and nobodies of this world in a movement of loving revolt."

He also attributes to anatheism the fusion of the sacred and secular. He does not mean this specifically in the political arena, but in some other dimensions, such as the sense of duty and virtue and willingness to defend human rights and engage in debate.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why the U.S. government was right to conceal photos of Osama bin Laden’s death

Photos of bin Laden's death are classified as "top secret" by the U.S. government. A federal appeals court has allowed them to remain so.

Originally posted to Helium Network on May 6, 2011. Updated Dec. 11, 2013 and Aug. 22, 2014.

Osama bin Laden lived with his family in this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. He was killed in the home in 2011. Image by: Sajjad al Qureshi © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed at his fortified home in Pakistan by U.S. forces in May 2011, he was buried at sea. This was done to treat the corpse as respectfully as possible in accordance with Muslim custom while avoiding creating a gravesite that might become a "shrine" to the deceased terrorist and would require constant military security. By the time his death was announced on television, the body had already been disposed of. Although President Obama telephoned Pakistan's President Zardari to inform him of the completed operation (according to AAJ News Pakistan Ki Awaz, which reminded readers that tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians had been killed by terrorists in the previous several years), and although some officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton watched a 38-minute video of the raid, the White House declined to release so much as a photograph of the final result of the operation.

Some Americans questioned that media decision. After all, the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan almost ten years previously with the hope of catching or killing bin Laden and it had started to seem like a mission that would never be accomplished. For some people, a photograph would make it seem more real. Understanding that the lengthy video might contain sensitive national security secrets, why couldn't at least a photo be released?

Iran's Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted as saying on May 4 that “The United States forced 10 years of war on three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan), left a million people dead and spent more than 1,000 billion dollars to kill one person...[then they] said they threw his body in the sea. Why did they not allowed an independent expert to examine the body to say if it was bin Laden or not?" (Spelled as such in the article in AAJ News Pakistan Ki Awaz.)

There was no doubt expressed by the White House that they had killed the right man. President Barack Obama said in a "60 Minutes" interview that "we are absolutely certain this was him. We've done DNA sampling and testing." But, he explained, "it is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence...we don't trot out this stuff as trophies." He added that "there's no doubt among al Qaeda members that he is dead." Separately, White House press secretary Jay Carney said it would not be wise to let the photos "become icons to rally opinion against the United States." On May 13, the head of U.S. special forces ordered that anyone who possessed photos should turn them into the CIA or destroy them. This email did not become public until 2014.

A report in November 2012 confirmed that bin Laden did indeed receive basic Muslim funeral rites, including washing the body and reciting some Arabic, before he was buried at sea. It was not witnessed by many people, and deliberately, little documentary evidence was made.

The conservative legal group Judicial Watch argued in federal appeals court in January 2013 that the 52 photographs of bin Laden's corpse should be released under the Freedom of Information Act. On May 21 of that year, the court ruled in the government's favor. The photos are allowed to remain classified as "top secret" and do not have to be released to the public.

The case for withholding the photos

There are two main reasons for withholding the photos: first, their release would antagonize bin Laden's supporters who might launch new attacks, and second, it could seem like a crass celebration of death. On the other side, there are two main reasons for publicizing them: first, a photo would provide irrefutable evidence of bin Laden's death, and second, it would provide some measure of satisfaction to people whom he injured.

There are undoubtedly some radicals in the Middle East who will seize any perceived religious or military affront by the United States as an occasion for violent demonstration. Witness the fallout after a certain maverick American Christian pastor announced he had burned a copy of the Koran in Florida; an angry mob attacked a U.N. building in Afghanistan in retaliation for the pastor's actions, killing dozens of people. News of the death of the leader of al Qaeda could easily spur similar damaging mob violence or organized terrorist attacks. By advertising photographs of the exploit, the United States would be baiting militants.

Besides, many people argue that for Americans to view the photograph of the dead terrorist would smack of a kind of celebration. They feel intuitively that it is crass to celebrate anyone's killing - even a mass murderer who was a lifelong leader of other mass murderers, a man for whose death there were solid moral and practical reasons. It is one thing to dispatch bin Laden and another matter to gloat about it. Some people feel that, as a general rule, we are coarsened culturally when we celebrate the killing of any human being and that this negative spiritual effect cannot be completely eliminated even when the feted corpse is that of Osama bin Laden.

Photos won't convince skeptics

Isn't a photo necessary to prove to the world that bin Laden is dead? No. Those who are not convinced by news reports will not easily be convinced by a photograph either. Those who suspect the government of inventing the narrative of bin Laden's death are exactly the same people who will suspect the government of faking a photograph of his corpse. The people who have provided photos are the ones who are faking it; a hoax photo of bin Laden's corpse was picked up by newspapers in several countries, including Pakistan, in the days after his death.

Many other events have photographic evidence yet are roundly denied. NASA's moon landing in 1969, for example, was photographed yet even today some people claim the photos were faked. Scientific explanations for why the U.S. flag waved in the absence of air, why no stars are visible, and why there is no landing crater have failed to impress these skeptics. A photo of Elvis Presley lying in his coffin was published in the National Enquirer in 1977, but neither has this stopped his ardent fans from believing he still walks the earth to this very day.

As a different sort of example, after a high-profile trial, the 1962 execution of the Nazi Adolph Eichmann was shielded from the public eye, yet there was never any significant group of conspiracy theorists who believed he was set free. So the absence of visual images need not generate skepticism; neither will the presence of these images necessarily cure it.

Incidentally, the body may have been in poor condition and the face might not be recognizable to people without expertise in forensics. "No Easy Day," an unauthorized narrative of the killing written by a Navy SEAL who participated, said that bin Laden was shot in the head, causing part of his skull to collapse. A photo might generate more questions than answers for those who lack the knowledge base or the reasoning skills to interpret it correctly.

Not all skepticism is productive

Some kinds of skepticism are irrational, and it is not necessarily in the national interest to entertain that sort of pseudo-intellectual activity. Consider that when bin Laden was killed, the debate about Obama's birth certificate was fresh in the president's mind. During the 2008 presidential campaign, in response to allegations that he was not born in the United States, Obama revealed an image of his "short-form" birth certificate. For years afterward, detractors claimed it was a digitally altered fake and demanded to see his "long-form" certificate. Seeing that the conspiracy theory showed no signs of losing steam, Obama finally released the long-form certificate just days before bin Laden was killed. Yet again, conspiracy theorists insisted that the certificate was forged.

So, if a quarter of Americans believe that the President wasn't born in the United States and significant numbers believe that he forged his own birth certificate, and if, when the President indulged their demands for more documentation, they continued to disbelieve and harangue him, then why would the President indulge them yet again, less than a week later, when many of these same people demanded photos of a military operation? Why should he not expect that they would also make baseless claims that the photos from Pakistan were forged? There is no satisfying some people. To engage with unreasonable demands on this level would likely only result in negative publicity for the President and create an international embarrassment out of what ought to be seen as a clear military victory.


Would a photograph of Osama bin Laden's body do anything positive for the nation or the world? Maybe. It might provide emotional closure to those who were physically or psychologically scarred by terrorist attacks or who lost loved ones in these attacks. It might be an appropriate gift to service members of the international coalition who volunteered in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and who sacrificed a great deal for the sake of finding bin Laden and bringing an end to his terrorism. It might provide satisfaction to ordinary people who have been frustrated by passively watching years of seemingly fruitless military campaigns overseas and who may feel that, because bin Laden's assassination was funded by their tax dollars, they have a right to see the evidence of his death. It might send a warning to bin Laden's affiliates and admirers.

Then again, it might not accomplish these feel-good results. If anyone actually did see a photo of bin Laden's corpse, they might not feel any of these things. Individuals react differently and sometimes people cannot even predict how they themselves will feel. A photo might not give victims closure for their old wounds, veterans repayment for their service, taxpayers titillation for their dollar, nor terrorists tremors in their boots. It might, instead only give children nightmares and add to a roster of traumatically violent images available for our consumption today. Therefore, caution is warranted.

Two years after bin Laden's death, the hype surrounding the images has declined, but the federal appeals court has allowed the U.S. government to continue to conceal them. It is possible that eventually, at some far-off point in the future, when bin Laden's death seems more like a historic footnote than a current event, the government will release some photos. For the time being, however, especially because these images feed into a dangerous narrative that is used by terrorist organizations, the government's decision to conceal them is reasonable.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Reflections on 'What Atheists Want' by James Metzger

"What Atheists Want" by James Metzger, published on BeliefNet, is one of the best articles on atheism I've read in a while. At least, it happens to be one that closely tracks with and articulates my own position. The second paragraph, in particular, represents what I believe and feel:
"I am not yet convinced that atheism itself delivers good news of the caliber warranting an organized campaign of conversion. I simply find the suggestion that a benevolent deity presides over the cosmos implausible...I have many religious friends, and I really like them just as they are. To ask them to surrender their religious convictions is to ask them to change something fundamental about their very selves – and that, I think, would be a great loss, especially if it should also mean a diminution of their kindness, equanimity, or zest for life."

Theist and atheist beliefs can improve different people's characters and moods and can have these effects at different times in their lives. Belief systems serve complex purposes in our lives as we move toward them or away from them. Two people may express their worldviews in similar language but experience them in radically different ways; vice versa, they may articulate different worldviews, yet live similar lives. Of the people I most admire, some are religious, some are not, and, for some, "It's complicated." I certainly would not want everyone to reflect my own beliefs back at me, for then how would I grow, and how would I help them grow? Still less would I derive joy from imposing my beliefs on others. I enjoy sharing evidence and arguments, and if I have reason to think that one belief system is more correct or useful than another, I will promote and defend it. But I have little interest in telling others what to believe out of the mere desire to feel powerful or right or out of fear that my own mind might be changed. I rather enjoy acquiring new, significant information that leads me to change my mind, and I can appreciate people who are different from myself. I might negatively judge someone who I perceive to be stuck on a particular piece of disinformation or illogic and who I believe ought to be able to see through it and is simply not curious, brave or persistent enough to let go of it. I would not negatively judge someone simply because they use a different set of language, concepts and symbols to describe their understanding of the world.

There is one part of the article I would elaborate on to feel fully comfortable with it. The author writes:
"If Christians are entitled to trust their perception that God exists, then atheists are justified in trusting their perception that God does not exist...Of course, both experiences of reality can’t be correct. They are, in fact, fundamentally incompatible."

Since the article is about humility and admitting the limits of our knowledge, I would amend this statement to point out that, in this scenario, both The Christian and The Atheist might be incorrect. Yes, the same set of metaphysical beliefs can't be true and false at the same time. But what if the metaphysics in question haven't been described well or are beside the point? There are surely more than two possible worldviews. There are not only people who embrace Christianity and those who explicitly reject it. There are also those who were raised Jewish, or Hindu, or Jewish and Hindu, who wrestle with accepting or rejecting those cultural frameworks and assumptions. There are those whose theism and atheism is stable over time and those who change their minds frequently. Remembering the diversity of possible positions is key to maintaining humility. It is easy to see the shortcomings in someone else's worldview, but that does not mean that one's own worldview is any more perfect.

Vesper sparrows in the nest. Kati Fleming, 2013, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.

So, yes, in a binary debate over the factual question of whether God exists, "both experiences of reality can't be correct." But who approves the definition of God within this debate, and who limits the methodologies of finding the answer to those created and lived out by only two human minds? When the field is opened up to diverse human experience, and when the nuance and metaphor of our language is revealed, we often find that our positions are, on some level, compatible with each other. That's how we end up with friends whose belief systems seem opposite to our own on the surface, but who we "really like...just as they are".

Sunday, August 3, 2014

There was no good reason for the US to invade Iraq in 2003

Saddam Hussein did not plan the Sept. 11 attacks, did not associate with Al Qaeda, and did not have hidden WMD. After the US-led war, Iraq today is a more violent place.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Sept. 3, 2007. Updated on Jan. 26, 2014.

There has always been a pervasive misunderstanding that the US invaded Iraq because of the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. One public opinion poll in January 2003 asked Americans: "To the best of your knowledge, how many of the September 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens?" In January 2003, 50 percent of respondents guessed — incorrectly — that one or more of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. The correct answer is "none."

This false belief cannot easily be tied to any false claims made by the Bush administration. Indeed, the Bush administration never explicitly asserted the claim that Saddam Hussein, Iraq's leader at the time, had any connections to the Sept. 11 attacks. (Curiously, nowhere in Bush's 2010 hefty presidential memoir "Decision Points" does he acknowledge the popular misunderstanding to the contrary, let alone take responsibility for intentionally or inadvertently perpetuating it.) Saddam did release a statement four days after the attacks, gloating that "Americans should feel the pain they have inflicted on other peoples of the world," but this is not evidence that he helped organize the attacks.

The reason provided by the Bush administration for invading Iraq — less well comprehended by the American public — was, instead, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it had not declared to U.N. weapons inspectors. After invading Iraq, government officials — including Bush himself — revised their positions and admitted that the weapons probably never existed. One might reasonably conclude, then, that in hindsight there was no good reason to invade Iraq.

Saddam Hussein did not plan the Sept. 11 attacks

Clarification about Iraq's non-involvement was often publicized. Only a month before the poll mentioned above, the U.S. government released a report titled "Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001." The report cited the CIA's dismissal of a claim that "Iraq had formed a suicide pilot unit that it planned to use against British and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf" as "highly unlikely and probably disinformation." It also quoted Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet saying that "we are still working to corroborate" whether the would-be Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta left the U.S. to meet an Iraqi intelligence officer in 2001.

On Sept. 16, 2003, months after the invasion of Iraq,in response to a new public opinion poll showing that 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commented: "I've not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that [Saddam was involved]." The next day, Bush admitted:
"We have no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the 11 September attacks. What the vice-president said was is that he [Saddam] has been involved with al-Qaeda...There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaeda ties."

The lengthy report from the 9/11 Commission, released July 22, 2004, was devoted to an official, bipartisan, comprehensive investigation of the attacks. Only three pages (pp. 334-336) even mention Iraq, and only then to clarify that Bush never tied Saddam Hussein to the September 11 attacks. The report says:
"Responding to a presidential tasking, Clarke's office sent a memo to Rice on September 18, titled 'Survey of Intelligence Information on Any Iraq Involvement in the September 11 Attacks.' Rice's chief staffer on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, concurred in its conclusion that only some anecdotal evidence linked Iraq to al Qaeda. The memo found no 'compelling case' that Iraq had either planned or perpetrated the attacks."

Later in the same passage:
"Secretary [of State Colin] Powell recalled that [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz - not [Donald] Rumsfeld - argued that Iraq was ultimately the source of the terrorist problem and should therefore be attacked. Powell said that Wolfowitz was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11. 'Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with,' Powell told us. 'And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.'"

(Powell resigned in 2004, Wolfowitz left in 2005 to work for the World Bank, and Rumsfeld resigned in 2006.)

Saddam Hussein was not associated with al-Qaeda

In 2002, amidst the run-up to war, William Rivers Pitt and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter published War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You To Know. They argued:

The case for war against Iraq has not been made. This is a fact. It is doubtful in the extreme that Saddam Hussein has retained any functional aspect of the chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons programs so thoroughly dismantled by the United Nations weapons inspectors who worked tirelessly in Iraq for seven years. This is also a fact. The idea that Hussein has connections to fundamentalist Islamic terrorists is laughable — he is a secular leader who has worked for years to crush fundamentalist Islam within Iraq, and if he were to give weapons of any kind of Qaeda, they would use those weapons on him first. * * * The UNSCOM inspectors destroyed, right to the ground, any and all capabilities he possessed to create weapons of mass destruction. He has no connections whatsoever to the terrorists who struck America on September 11th. Saddam Hussein is not capable of acting upon any of the desires, real or imagined. He does not have the horses."
In October 2004, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the Democratic staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee claimed that Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith — whose office shaped intelligence assessments used to justify war — framed Iraq for 9/11. The report was titled "Report of an Inquiry into the Alternative Analysis of the Issue of an Iraq-al Qaeda Relationship." In an underlined sentence, Levin cast doubt on the Bush administration's suggestion of a tenuous connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda organization. He complained that
"Vice President Cheney was still suggesting the possibility of the alleged Atta meeting [with an Iraqi officer] as late as June 2004, even though the IC (Intelligence Community) was already skeptical in late spring of 2002 that the meeting had taken place."

More specifically, as Todd Gitlin wrote in The Intellectuals and the Flag (2006), citing a Washington Post article by Dana Milbank from June 18, 2004:

"On June 17, 2004, Bush said: ‘The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.’ (He went on to cite the charge that Iraqi intelligence officers met with Osama bin Laden in Sudan in the 1990s, as if such contacts were ipso facto proof of collusion.)"
Feith's name was cleared in February 2007 by Acting Defense Dept. Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble's report on pre-war intelligence. The intelligence assessments pointing to a "mature symbiotic relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaeda were, in Gimble's words, "inconsistent" with the consensus view among intelligence agencies. Feith commented in interviews on Feb. 9, 2007 that his office did not produce "alternative" answers but rather a "criticism" of existing intelligence thought to be inadequate. Gimble deemed the department's work "inappropriate," but noted that it was authorized by then-defense secretaries Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and said there was no evidence it was illegal.

Al-Qaeda did not even exist as a significant force within Iraq until Jordanian-born insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden on Oct. 17, 2004. An article published by the Council on Foreign Relations therefore describes the group now known as al-Qaeda in Iraq as having "emerged in the ashes of the U.S.-led invasion."

So why did the US invade Iraq?

The far better substantiated argument against Saddam was that he was a fearsome dictator. As George W. Bush explains in "Decision Points," Saddam attempted to have Bush's father, former president George H. W. Bush, assassinated. Saddam invaded Iran in the 1980s, invaded Kuwait in the 1990s, violated 16 UN resolutions, ripped out the tongues of dissidents, buried tens of thousands of his own people in mass graves, slaughtered Kurds, and used nerve agents against Iranians.

The actual argument in favor of invading Iraq in 2003 was that Saddam was believed to be hiding weapons of mass destruction from U.N. weapons inspectors. However, the weapons were never found, and it is now believed that they never existed.

A renewed inspection by David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, found evidence of two decades of WMD programs but not the weapons stockpiles themselves. Kay testified in January 2004 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that it "turns out we were all wrong." Two months later, Kay — who had by then resigned — said the president "should say we were mistaken." That September, his successor, Charles Duelfer, said Iraq didn't have WMD before the invasion. In March 2005, The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reported that "the intelligence professionals...were simply wrong." In February 2006, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review Report included a chapter on worldwide WMD that did not mention Iraq.

Echoing Kay's words, Bush states flatly in "Decision Points": "Nobody was lying. We were all wrong." He adds: "I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false."

Did anyone see this ahead of time?


There remains no evidence connecting the deposed and executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda's attack on Sept. 11, 2001, nor does any U.S. leader claim that Saddam had any connection to that event. The relatively minor accusation that he may have spoken with al-Qaeda leaders was scuttled. Saddam did not have the weapons of mass destruction that the weapons inspectors were looking for, either.

There are manifold ways to interpret the legacy of the American campaign called "Operation Iraqi Freedom." There have been some gains. For example, since 2004, Iraq is a sovereign state that holds elections.

However, this metric of freedom has come at a high cost. The number of Iraqis who have died violently since the 2003 invasion is hard to estimate - especially as the invasion triggered intra-Iraqi sectarian violence and roadside bombings that are ongoing to this day - but credible estimates range anywhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqi deaths attributable to the war and its aftermath. The dictator Saddam Hussein and his two sons are dead, but today the al-Qaeda flag flies over the city of Fallujah instead. The number of American soldiers who died in Iraq was 4,486. Nearly eleven years on, history is already beginning to judge the merit of the war.

Image: A Civil Affairs Officer gives candy to children
Location: Kubaysah, Iraq, for Operation Moon River, Dec. 31, 2005
Image by: United States Marine Corps, ID 051231-M-4657S-010
© public domain Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, August 2, 2014

On Settling

Thomas Merton said: "The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little." And if one fights the temptation? According to W. Somerset Maugham, "if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it."

How do we square this with the knowledge that the world is flawed, capricious, and limited? That we cannot have the best, the perfect, all the time – or ever?

We must give up artificially inflated and idealized dreams of what the world ought to do to meet our own desires. When we give up unrealistic, unfair expectations, we are better positioned to treat others more fairly and to love and accept more of what, and who, comes our way. This does not mean, however, that we should give up dreams for our own happiness and fail to set goals for bettering and improving our conditions. To do so breeds resentment. The question over whether people should "settle" for a career, marriage, or anything else in life often involves a confusion of these two principles or else a recognition of the difficulty of enacting both simultaneously. How can we be realistic and idealistic at the same time? How can we live in the world, accepting its inherent flaws and pain, and be joyful in doing so, whether we are attempting make it a more compassionate, beautiful place or simply experiencing it as it is?

To make things more complicated, it's hard to explain to others what we are doing. We are coming to terms with the world around us. We are saying "yes" and "no" to it. We are trying to change it. We are living in it, living with ourselves, living with others. And sometimes, when we say "yes," we say "yes" to something that is imperfect. No one – not your coworkers, not your lover, not anyone around you, really – wants to think they are being "settled" for, with all the negative connotations of that word, the way one "settles" for food that is improperly cooked because one needs to eat something and simply lacks initiative to cook something better or get the salt shaker. They may be willing to believe that you've negotiated a sort of deal with them. Even if that's true, however, it places a burden on them to fulfill their end of the bargain, which may be the unspecific and large task of somehow compensating you for whatever you feel you've given them or given up. It's even worse if there isn't the sense of a mutual give-and-take, but simply the intimation that you've lowered your expectations and given up the hope of ever getting what you really want. The resentment will always be there from all sides.

"Settling" is sometimes defined as choosing an option about which one does not feel passionate. This is a questionable definition, since passion does not always lead us to make the best decisions anyway. Sometimes the heart feels that it is settling, but what the heart wanted would have been disastrous, and the choice to "settle" is subsequently revealed as the all-around best choice. This is part of the reason why people feel anxious over the question of settling. No one wants to make a bad choice. The problem is that we don't always know what the best choice is, and whether to go with the heart, the head, a friend's advice, or a coin flip.

We are bad at predicting what will make us happy. (Refer to the 2002 Nobel Prize-winning work of Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman.) Often we believe it's more money, more stuff, that will do the trick. This keeps us on the so-called "hedonic treadmill." We are afraid that getting off the treadmill represents "settling," giving up on the goal of happiness. We don't see that getting off the treadmill might be the beginning of a new, truer way of being happy.

Wendy Plump wrote in Vow about the process – or, rather, the event – of choosing a lover:
This is a person, after all, whom we pluck out of a crowd of possibilities. Magic attends that choice. Or if that word belongs too irrevocably to the World of Disney, then use the word mystery. At any rate, it's a remarkable kind of calculus that makes you look at a field of men or women and quickly zero in on the one person who turns you on most. He could be standing next to someone better looking, smarter, more athletic, richer, in possession of a more interesting physiognomy or at least better hair. And yet it's a rare day that you spend much time on the question "Which one?"
You have already decided. Through some mysterious alchemy, you want this one and not another. Why? I think a definitive answer would ruin it.

Happiness, love and passion are feelings we have in the present moment. We can't store them up or schedule them for the future. When we feel them in the present moment, they are, nonetheless, often related to a sense of fulfillment, which is a consequence of many choices we have made in the past. Carl McCoy wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
This month, commencement speakers across the country are exhorting graduates not to settle. They are urged instead to find their passion – to 'do what you love.' But it's unwise to build a career on the notion that we should all be paid for our passions. Does the doctor love going into the hospital to see a patient in the middle of the night? Does the teacher love trying to control a classroom full of disrespectful children? Not likely. But the work is performed with a sense of purpose that 'love' doesn't capture. Commencement speakers would send more young people into the world likelier to be happy in their jobs if they talked about love as a consequence of meaningful work instead of as the motivation for it.

So, one relevant question is not just how we can feel passionate, but how we can feel fulfilled. We may have to make some carefully negotiated, analyzed choices, apart from the whims of passion, to fulfill our goals. Is this "settling"? It doesn't sound like it.

And, in the final analysis, we don't control the world. The world gives us what it will. We always settle for whatever we get. We have no other choice. Follow your passion, but your lover will die someday, you'll eventually have to retire from your brilliant career, and termites will eat your dream house. Whether it is now or in five hundred years is not the point. It will all eventually get away from us. The question of whether we ought to settle for it is not even posed.

In which case, the question is not about the ultimate and final outcome, but about all the little outcomes – passionate, rational, desired, compromised, loved, settled for – that constitute the journey. Jeanette Winterson wrote in her novel The PowerBook:
My search for you, your search for me, is a search after something that cannot be found. Only the impossible is worth the effort. What we seek is love itself, revealed now and again in human form, but pushing us beyond our humanity into animal instinct and god-like success. The love we seek overrules human nature. It has a wildness in it and a glory that we want more than life itself. Love never counts the cost, to itself or others, and nothing is as cruel as love. There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet.

Merely human love does not satisfy us, though we settle for it. It is an encampment on the edge of the wilderness, and we light the fire and turn up the lamp, and tell stories until late at night of those great loves lost and won. The wilderness is not tamed. It waits – beautiful and terrible – beyond the reach of the campfire. Now and again someone gets up to leave, forced to read the map of themselves, hoping that the treasure is really there. A record of their journey comes back to us in note form, sometimes just a letter in a dead man's pocket.

Love is worth death. Love is worth life. My search for you, your search for me, goes beyond life and death into one long call in the wilderness. I do not know if what I hear is an answer or an echo. Perhaps I will hear nothing. It doesn't matter. The journey must be made.

Thomas Merton, quoted in, quoted in The Week, June 3, 2011. p. 19.
W. Somerset Maugham. Quoted in Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1986. p. 22.
Carl McCoy in the Wall Street Journal, quoted in The Week magazine, June 7, 2013, p. 12.
Jeanette Winterson. The PowerBook. London: Vintage, 2001. pp. 78-79.

"Ніжний ранковий світло" by Balkhovitin - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.