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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Terrorism:Paris and San Bernardino - What I realized

In the days after the Paris attacks I was distracted and had a hard time focusing. At times, I felt sick. I wanted to know the latest updates and had to intermittently unplug from following the news at all.

What happened and what was happening to me?

First, let me state unequivocally that I denounce terrorism. 
Second, I feel that is a pretty severe lack of imagination and empathy that our leaders, pundits, and media can act so totally clueless about terrorism.

Terrorism and guerilla warfare are very close relatives. It does not take much scratching beneath the surface of world events to start uncovering some understandable (mind you not acceptable in my eyes) motives and rationales for these acts.  Asymmetrical warfare has long been the hallmark of groups who are facing a threat that  can not be defeated in any realistic scenario of war in the Geneva Convention mold. 

The United States has employed asymmetrical warfare as a part of our foreign policy which fell short of declared wars. Even in our civil war raiders and guerrillas existed. (Read the wikipedia article here  ). 
Our support of the mujahadeen against the Soviet Union is but one recent example (which brought us Osama Bin Laden). It is really a mystery to me that the same intelligence operators who worked with and trained these asymmetrical experts can be so willfully blind about their causes and the situations which give them rise and drive them to act. Our globe has no shortage of experience with this.  Iraq, Ireland, and Palestine are just a few locations where asymmetrical warfare was or is de rigueur.

So, what conditions create the environment for it and what nudges it into action.
First, there must be a situation where injustices against the group you belong to are apparent. 
Second, there must be an enemy which appears too powerful in the normal arena of war. This can be due to technology, numbers, or due to the preponderance of international backing of one's enemy.
Third, there must be a inability or lack on the part of official political powers to stop the attacks, protect or bring justice.
Penultimately, there must be a definitive erosion of the personal social contract which prohibits killing.
Finally, there must be a trigger to act.

You will notice that poverty is not a part of the narrative I see here. There has been some research supporting the idea that it is not poverty that leads to terrorism. (Here is an article about this from the Wall street Journal of all places-

The confluence of ruling powers in the middle east and around the world who are not overly concerned with justice, along with the West lending technological and political legitimacy to many of them and their oppressive violence could provide a fairly compelling fulfillment of criteria one through three. Even allies such as Pakistan have had a difficult time sustaining their cooperation with us in the face of the killing of innocents and collateral damage from our violence along with everyone's seeming inability to act justly or protect civil society. In pursuing our goals, we claim these casualties are acceptable. Is it a surprise that others will ask us how the collateral damage among their population is different from the collateral damage in Paris or California?

But what about the last two criteria? What could fulfill them?  A sense of the rules of civilization being ignored at one's expense. The loss of a loved one. The killing of innocents. The continued threats and attacks against those you consider to be co-religionaries or fellow citizens. These surely are among the ingredients that can destroy the social contract that underlies the preservation of life. Finally, what might be the trigger? A personal invitation be a leader. An attack like that of the French government on ISIS. A final loss of hope, that the powers that be will begin to act more justly in their eyes. In the internet age, one's neighbors need not be physically close and atrocities experienced in distant locations can have profound affects on sympathetic figures around the globe.

Let us not imagine that Syria and Afghanistan are the equivalent of  Nebraska with Imams preaching Islam rather than Christianity. Bashar Al-Assad is certainly not Pete Ricketts.
Living in a war zone is a hell that only the small percentage of soldiers and refugees can begin to understand. I will not pretend to be an expert on the subject. And a modern war in your own country among your family and friends must be of a hellish intensity of an even greater degree. Those immediately affected by 9/11 can understand this. These experiences likely heighten human sensitivity and speed progression through these steps and creating hearts, minds, and souls that find themselves driven rapidly through this progression toward extremism.

I found it hard to consider the violence that I saw and read about during the attacks. I also found it difficult and upsetting to see the hatred, prejudice with which we responded to the attacks.  It was our response that actually kept me awake at night. This hatred and knee jerk response to start trying to kill whoever we could find knotted my intestines and burrowed into my mind. It is the response one would rightly expect from the henchmen of a garden variety dictator not the United States of America and the French Republic. The increasing volume of the drums of war just echoed in my mind ...throbbing....Don't we have a better response than this. 

I still have to avoid some topics on social media. As someone who knows refugees who have fled war I can't read screeds about stopping refugees. As someone, who has spoken with families who have experienced the time and effort taken for immigration security checks I can't read about religious tests for immigrants. The hate, scapegoating, and fear-mongering give me headaches - like lingering paint fumes that burn when I breathe.  Seeing that the purveyors of these thoughts believe they are offering solutions makes me sad and pains my heart. I have to monitor my exposure to them. The solutions to terrorism is not nearly simple enough to be solved by bombs and more security.

As a human race, don't we have a better response than this.

Next: Can we discuss: "What do politicians mean when they say US national security interest?" and "What should our foreign policy goals be?"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Have you ever heard of the Fermi Paradox?

It is a fascinating mind bender... the basics roughly follow this outline (from a great article at

1) Given the number of stars and the different types of stars, scientists estimate there might be 500 billion billion stars like our sun. That's right 500 billion billion which is quite a few.

2) With a few more calculations we could arrive at an estimated number of 100 billion billion earth-like planets. Given this crazy huge number and given the age of the universe there should be some civilizations advanced enough to communicate with us or at least be noticed by our scientists.

Needless to say we haven't discovered or been contacted by alien life. Why? That is the Fermi paradox.

The article from “Wait But Why” posits a "great filter" - some kind of event that creates a barrier to contact between civilizations or a barrier that actually keeps civilizations capable of contact from developing.

I would like to offer my thoughts on what/how the filter mechanism might be active in the case of homo sapiens.
A type one civilization is one that has the power to harness the power of their own planet. We, the classification posits, are nearing this point. Humanity in its present state has achieved the ability to affect the whole planet. That is certain. We have destroyed vast forests, mined enormous quantities of minerals and oil. We have nearly depleted many of the world’s fisheries. We have built cities, damned rivers, and launched rockets and probes beyond the earth. We created and even used nuclear weapons that have the power to destroy the earth several times over. Yes my friends, our current technology allows us to affect and even destroy the entire earth and all of its ecosystems. We are pushing countless species to the brink of extinction and have already sent many others to the human engineered oblivion we seek to escape.
At our current state of development, we have a limited understanding of the cumulative effect of human population amplified by our technology on the systems of our planet.   In today’s world, we are a great distance from creating methods to govern the outsized effects our species has on the planet. Even now, we all too easily dismiss the effect of individual action regarding our planet and even dismiss the actions of whole countries to try to alleviate some of the damage we are doing to our planet. We are nowhere near achieving coordinated action taken on behalf of all of humanity. We do not yet understand the intricacy and complexity of the systems of our planet. We have not developed enough to be able to protect and sustain them. Dare I say our species has failed to learn to love the earth enough to devote sufficient energy to nurturing our home.
Let us create an equation with the following notations:

Let N be the ability of the Holocene age earth to maintain its equilibrium in the face of shocks to its systems.

Let P be the population of man.

 Let T be the technological level of human civilization.

Let p^T be the shock to earth’s system a given size human population can produce with a given level of civilization.

Let K be the knowledge of the cause and effects of the human produced shocks on the planet.

Let C be the ability to coordinate human action to control the effects of human produced shocks.

So the ability of the earth to maintain its equilibrium could be written as

 ∑ from the dawn of humanity to the present of   N + KCPT -PT

We know that the current maximum value of PT is already greater than N. The human race can create a shock sufficiently great to overwhelm the ability of earth’s systems to self-correct. If the sum of the  difference between our knowledgeable and coordinated action and the human induced negative shocks to the system become large enough to overwhelm the ability of the Holocene earth to maintain equilibrium we will destroy ourselves.

 The great filter represents minimum achievement for science, psychology, spirituality, and politics to protect the future of humanity. It represents our physical ability to heal or atone for all of the damage we have done to our biosphere. Let's call this our particular human psycho/terrestrial filter.

Let's assume in the billions of years that the earth has been in existence our science's ability to "hear" or "see" alien life might, with optimism, cover the last 400 years (if we date it from the discovery of the first telescope in 1608). That is about 1 hundred thousandth of a percent of the time the earth has existed. I would call that a miniscule flash in the history of the earth. We have not had long to "hear" or "see".

The real question is: how long will this window remain open?


Will we have another 400 years to discover alien life or be contacted by it?

On our current course, I don't think we will have a100.

I believe we stand on the precipice of the great filter. It is a dangerous time. We have the ability and knowledge to destroy without the commensurate knowledge and ability to healt. As of right now, I think Agent Smith in the Matrix summed up our current conundrum -

Agent Smith: "I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet."
Are we a virus?

No, we are a form of life with a conscience and an ability to cooperate. How we develop these abilities will determine whether we pass beyond the psycho-terrestrial filter or find ourselves inhabiting a planet which can no longer bear our presence. Unfortunately, we know a virus isn't the only life capable of destruction. Humanity has shown a great proclivity for choosing destruction as a solution to almost any problem.

When we discover the means (likely a combination of political, psychological, spiritual, and technical) to create an equilibrium between our ability to harness and transform our planet and our ability to maintain its biosphere that discovery will be the greatest advance yet of humanity.

The knowledge of our earth and the ability to positively coordinate our actions will be the vehicle that will carry us beyond the psycho-terrestrial filter.

It will be the interplanetary dawn of which science fiction dreams and of which dystopian nightmares despair. This will be the light that allows us to see others in the universe and hear their voices.

Ite missa est.

Go it is the dismissal.

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