Monday, November 27, 2006

Review of Charles Townshend: Terrorism

Terrorism is a notoriously unclear subject. It is full of linguistic, moral, social, and legal ambiguities. One wants an introduction that sorts it all about and makes things a little clearer. Charles Townshend's Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction does not do that. These very short introductions are hit or miss, and this one is definitely a miss.

The book basically starts out with some definitional questions and attempts to disambiguate terrorism from other things. moves on to some history, and then to revolutionary terrorism, national terrorism, and religious terrorism. Finally the book has a little to say about counterterrorism and democracy.

This is a superficial book. When reading this, one gets the impression that the author is a specialist is some related field, but clearly not this one. There is detail without background in many cases, and and judgements without context in others. The author makes no attempt to not be snide or hide sympathies for some group or other. The writing at times is not careful, and frankly, I thought the pictures were poorly chosen.

I would go in to detail, but that would make me go back and look at the book to remember what I didn't like about it. This is an exercise I find too painful to be worth it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Worrying story, and photo

There are a number of things that worry me about this article. It is about the recent suicide bombing attempt by a 64 year-old grandmother.

First, its content. When a society finds it normal and acceptable for a woman with 40 grandchildren to blow herself up in a suicide attack (which failed to kill anyone but herself) you know that you are not dealing with a society that can be spoken of in the same moral terms as my own. It is almost laughable to hear the phrase "doing such and such to the Palestinians is wrong". Bad implies the kind of moral judgement that is made about a society similar to our own with similar values such that there is some way to say that what would be bad to do to someone in our society is wrong to do to someone in theirs. This can only be true if there is something about the respective communities that is shared. It is hard to imagine what a community that thinks this is normal has in common with those of us who make western-style moral judgements.

What kind of society can cheer on an old lady who blows herself up?

Secondly, it is now clear that grandmothers are no longer innocent by-standers by default. It used to be assumed that at the very least old ladies were not to be treated as suspicious because who would send an old lady out with a suicide vest? But now we see another Western assumption fade to oblivion. Israel now has to treat even old ladies as suspects.

I suspect that it will be a long time before Israel forgives the Palestinians for making them mistreat old women. Forcing Israeli soldiers to now look at old granmothers as terrorists is inhumane. Hamas is now one step closer to making Israelis have to fight like Hamas does - with no regard for anything, with no modicum of respect for humans, or human dignity. When all is said and done, Israel will have to become a crueller people, and it is incidents like this that are to blame.

Finally, and this is pretty worrying, the picture clearly shows the grandmother/terrorist holding an M-16 that says "IDF" on it in Hebrew (or at least the DF part is visible). This means that the weapon is from the Israeli military. It should be very worrying that Hamas has gotten hold of weapons from the Israeli Army.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel

Including Rafik Hariri, there have been five successful political assassinations in Lebanon in the past year and a half. (Hariri, Kassir, Hawi, Tueni, Gemayel) Then there is the defense minister who survived one car bombing, and a reporter who lost an arm and a leg (literally) in another. Undoubtedly Syria is in one way or another responsible for all of these, just like it was most likely responsible for the assassination of Bachir Gemayel (Pierre's uncle) about 25 years ago.

Syria just resumed ties with Iraq and is reconsolidating its power base in Lebanon after Hizbollah's popular war with Israel. It is now killing off domestic opposition. There are also numerous reports suggesting that Lebanon is again on the verge of a civil war, and of course this is in Syria's best interest. Syria has been fostering the myth that Lebanon would inevitably descend in to civil war without Syrian presence on Lebanese soil. Of course after the Cedar Revolution threatened to show how false that really was, Syria is trying to make it true.

It is important to keep in mind that the last time a Gemayel was assassinated (again, most likely by Syria via Hobeika) it led directly to the Sabra and Shatilla Massacres. (Deja vu?) Syria is undoubtedly trying to recreate that tension in Lebanon. Syria is trying to kill off enough Maronite leaders to provoke them to massacre another few hundred Muslims. If that happens Syria wins two victories. First there is anti-Maronite sympathy, meaning people will be more likely to hate the Lebanese Christians and continue to support the Shites. Secondly, Syria will have an excuse and support to march right back in to Lebanon to "help stabilize the region".

Given the situation in Lebanon, it is unreasonable to expect the Maronites to stay quiet for long. We can expect something really bad to happen to Muslims by Maronites pretty soon. On the other hand that is exactly what Syria wants, and it will ultimately make things worse. The only way to proceed is to go to the heart of the problem and get at the Syrians.

But that is getting harder with Syria being helped by Iran, which seems willing to fight Israel to the last Syrian, Lebanese, and perhaps Iranian. While I don't see a full scale civil war in Lebanon happening anytime soon, I do predict some small scale violence.

This is real bad my friends.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Review of David Knight: Ideas in Chemistry

Knight’s book Ideas in Chemistry: A History of the Science is an interesting survey of the history of Chemistry. It is nice, informal, and very readable. The chapters are broken down in such a way that makes it look like the history of chemistry is a series of new developments, both in terms of chemistry’s discoveries, and also in terms of its methodological evolution. There is a discussion for example of chemistry as a teachable science, discussing the apprentice system, and another chapter on chemistry as a reduced science, addressing chemistry playing second-fiddle to physics. . .

This book does have some shortcomings. Specifically, one does not come away with a feel for the history of chemistry, but rather one leaves with just a taste for it. The book would be a great supplement to a class where there was a fuller story presented, and more coherence to the whole history.

But Knight's book is user friendly, and it is a good outline of the general history of the field from Alchemy to the present. I would recommend it as a quick overview, not a text.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Tripoli Six

The Tripoli Six have gotten quite a bit of news coverage lately. Basically there are five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor accused by Libya of infecting some 400 children with HIV. There is a good chance that if international pressure is not successful, they will end up with the death penalty.

The major evidence for this is that Ghaddafi claims there is no HIV in Libya, so it must have come from outside. These doctors are outsiders, so it must be them. The CIA and the Mossad have been blamed, and Libya has offered to trade their release for the release of a terrorist and $6 Billion.

The charge is obviously bogus, and most likely, the hospital just reuses syringes and is too cheap to test blood for AIDS, so it gets spread around. They have to blame someone so they blame a foreigner. Blaming a Palestinian is also too easy because Palestine is almost Israel.

Groups all around the world are calling for their release, bla bla bla. Zillions of scientists have offered scientific proof that it is highly unlikely that they actually did it. . . As if this matters. It is funny that they go through the motions of actually proving the obvious. The fact that the Libyans are using them as scapegoats is far more obvious than any long-winded bit of scientific evidence of their innocence that a team of doctors can conjure up.

But there is something missing from all these news stories about this affair. First, how did these medical personnel get there? Who are they? And what the hell are they doing in Libya?

One must assume that there are risks that you are taking when you go to work for Ghadaffi. There is no expectation that you will be treated fairly. There is no expectation that you have any type of redress should something go wrong, and there is no expectation that you will be treated fairly.

When I first saw this I assumed that one of the following was going on: (1) Libya needed medical staff, so they advertised, and six people were dumb enough to say to them selves "with medical staff in high demand all over the world, why not work in Libya?" Or (2) they said to themselves "Those poor Libyans. The world hates them for no reason. They spend their money on financing terrorism, so they have no money to train doctors, so I better help them." Or (3) "Screw politics. Their people still need help, they are paying. I'll go to Libya and work."

Look, I have no idea why these people actually went to Libya to work, and I really feel bad for any victims of Ghadaffi. But isn't their reasons for going relevant to how much I should be willing to help? If they went because it was the only place the six of them could find work, then I am feeling very bad. If, and I have no idea whether this is true, they went because they really hate America and the effects of the former American boycott of Libya, and want to do whatever they can to undermine the impact of American sanctions on Libya, then why should I try hard to help them. (Who can't imagine a Palestinian doctor thinking that getting paid well to help Libyans is a great way for him to hate Israel.)

So I really don't know their story. But I would like to. I think it is a very morally relevant factor in my willingness to help. Should I feel bad for them as people, or as victims of Ghadaffi? Who goes to work in Libya? Did they go there because they had little choice or because they really believed that Ghadaffi was a good guy and wanted to help? If they initially put their trust in the good will of the Libyan government, it seems like it is not my job to rectify their bad and possibly malicious judgement.

By the way, here is another interesting thing I noticed: The prestigious journal Nature published an Open Letter to Gaddafi calling for a fair trial. The list of signatories is on Nature's website. They are all Nobel Prize winners in Science. But neither of the two Muslim Noble Prize winners (Salam or Zewail) are listed among the signatories. With 113 Science Nobel prize winners, that is a conspicuous absence.