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Entries for October 2006

October 31, 2006

Rewriting the history about the Iraq war - The US warmongers start hedging

The best indicator that the current Iraq policy has failed is that in the US, many former gung-ho and giddy war advocates have now decided that the war was a mistake and are now desperately casting around for excuses and planning where to lay the blame. And as they do, the policy itself descends into incoherence as people start making different claims about the causes for the war, the current status, and the reasons for the setbacks.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is always sensitive to which way the wind is blowing, said last week that "We're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working." The Washington Post reported on October 5, 2006 that "The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee [Senator John Warner] yesterday offered a stark assessment of the situation in Iraq after a trip there this week, saying that parts of the country have taken "steps backwards" and that the United States is at risk of losing the campaign to control an increasingly violent Baghdad." And a senior US State Department official said in an interview with al-Jazeera on October 23, 2006 that the world was "witnessing failure in Iraq" and that "I think there is great room for strong criticism, because without doubt, there was arrogance and stupidity by the United States in Iraq." Although the last person later said that he had "seriously misspoken," it is clear that he must have been representing a significant point of view within the government.

The always astute commentator Billmon analyses the latest moves by the Bush administration to deflect attention from its Iraq failures by commissioning a "study group" headed by former Secretary of State James Baker to come up with "options" but even Baker characterizes the situation in Iraq as a "helluva mess." Billmon finds that the leaks from the Baker group provide a good example of the vapidity of the current "debate" about what to do about Iraq.

This is just one of the more extreme example of the mental silliness that, in extremis, seems to have grabbed the entire American foreign policy elite by the brain stem. It's an exercise in sputtering incoherence, in which people who've spent most of their professional lives rehearsing their talking points in the green room suddenly discover they have absolutely nothing meaningful to say. But the media echo chamber abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does, and so we're getting a lot of verbiage that basically adds up to nothing.

This nothing is then labeled "the Iraq policy debate."

The current debate as to whether the US should "stay the course" or "cut and run" is obsolete. New York Times columnist Frank Rich argues that perhaps the decision to leave Iraq has already been made and that it is being held off until the elections in order to avoid harming Republican candidates. I am not so sure. After all, the only things that seem to be still on schedule in Iraq are the building by the US of the world's largest embassy and permanent military bases. Those do not look to me like the actions of a government that is about to leave soon. In fact, on this issue there is evidence to take Bush at his word and I am confident that he is committed to staying there until his term of office ends and make it even harder for his successor to withdraw. When Bush talks about "completing the job" in Iraq, the job he is referring to is his presidency, not anything concerning "victory" in Iraq, whatever that might mean.

But what is clear is that as far as the pundits are concerned, they are now past discussing "cut and run" or "stay the course" and are clearly in the "run and blame" stage.

Perhaps the most brazen attempts at rewriting history come from those pro-war agitating pundits who now have come around to the idea that the war was a mistake. While they grudgingly concede that they were wrong about the war, they are now faced with the problem that they don't want to concede that the people who opposed the war from the beginning were right. They have thus begun this elaborate choreographed dance designed essentially to make the case that that although the war has not turned out the way they predicted it would, they were yet right earlier when they supported the war and are also right now when they think it is a bad idea, while those who opposed the war from the outset were wrong then and are still wrong now.

In other words, these armchair warriors claim that they were wrong for the right reasons while those of us who opposed the war were right for the wrong reasons. They assert that they have now come around to thinking it was a bad idea after carefully weighing the facts, while those of us who always thought it was a bad idea are simply irrational oppositionists.

The reason for this carefully staged turnaround is so that when they begin beating the drums of war for the next country on the list to be invaded (Iran? North Korea? Syria?), they will once again be taken as "serious" analysts whose words should be listened to. They are trying to achieve this turnabout by rewriting history and ascribing facts and opinions to their opponents in order to support their position.

For example, some warmongers try to ignore the rationale that was originally given for the invasion of Iraq, that it was on the verge of unleashing mushroom clouds of nuclear weapons. Instead we are now told that the invasion was a noble attempt at bringing democracy to that Middle Eastern country. This changed rationale allows them to portray themselves as advocates for expanding democracy and freedom and to falsely characterize those who opposed the war as people who had contempt for the people of Iraq and either did not care about their democratic rights or condescendingly felt that Iraqis were not ready for democracy.

If some person brings up the pesky question of the missing WMDs, this is responded to by saying that "everyone believed that Iraq had WMDs" and that it was a genuine and universal mistake caused by receiving "faulty intelligence." Thus they themselves cannot be personally faulted. They like to think of themselves as hard-headed realists who were misled by faulty intelligence while antiwar activists are portrayed as naïve and clueless peaceniks who do not really understand sophisticated ideas of geopolitics, terrorism, intelligence gathering and foreign policy but just happened to be right about WMDs by accident.

Take for example, one-time war enthusiast Jonah Goldberg. He has now made an about-face and wrote on October 19, 2006:

The Iraq war was a mistake.

I know, I know. But I've never said it before. And I don't enjoy saying it now. I'm sure that to the antiwar crowd this is too little, too late, and that's fine because I'm not joining their ranks anyway.
. . .
Truth is truth. And the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003.

Bt the main point of his column is not to apologize for his past support and advocacy for a disastrous policy that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives but to assert that those who argued against the war were wrong! I like the phrase "truth is truth" because he then goes on to make a series of false statement about those who opposed the war. The first one is his failure to acknowledge that many of us did know then what he claims he only got to know now.

He ignores the fact that there was plenty of evidence that there were no WMDs to be found. Scott Ritter, a member of the inspection team, had been saying so repeatedly. UN weapons inspection chief Hans Blix had found nothing and his reports had said so. Colin Powell's speech at the UN with his "evidence" had been examined immediately by the overseas press and his claims about the aluminum tubes and Iraq's biological weapons capabilities and factories had been widely discounted in the rest of the world. This was well known and understood by large numbers of people.

Let us also not forget that millions of people worldwide took to the streets to oppose the war. They were not simply mindless peaceniks. They were people who rightly felt that either the war was wrong on grounds of law and morality or that no convincing evidence had been provided that Iraq was an imminent threat or both.

In the debate over the Iraq invasion, it is clear that it was the antiwar forces who were the hard-headed realists, and the pro-war forces who were living in a world of delusion, creating stories they wanted to believe to justify actions they wanted to take.

They should not be allowed to rewrite that history to serve their ends.

Next: Painting antiwar activists as mere partisans

POST SCRIPT: Lancet study of Iraqi deaths

Les Roberts, one of the lead authors of the Lancet study that found over 600,000 Iraqi deaths as a result of the invasion answers questions about the study.

October 30, 2006

Rewriting the history of the Iraq war-The British take the lead

It seems to be clear even to some formerly pro-war agitators that there is no good outcome that can emerge from the Iraq war. The US military presence in that country is not able to fend off the insurgency against it and stop the spiral into violence. In fact, it is now becoming clear that the US presence is actually accelerating the process. The only question that seems to remain is whether the US withdraws from that country in a dignified way, seemingly voluntarily, or whether the withdrawal is a humiliating one, with US troops forced out by a motley combination of irregular forces.

The surest sign that the current US policy in Iraq is a failure is the repositioning of its most ardent advocates. They are beginning to carefully distance themselves from the very thing they once were cheerleaders for, trying to make sure that the inevitable collapse is not laid at their feet.

This process is more advanced and apparent in England. The British Army's chief of staff has come right out and called for the withdrawal 'soon' of all British troops in Iraq, saying that being there is only making things worse.

The chief of the British Army has called for a pullout of British troops from Iraq "sometime soon" and said that post-invasion planning for that war was "poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

Gen. Richard Dannatt told London's Daily Mail newspaper that he had "more optimism" that "we can get it right in Afghanistan."

Dannatt said that Britain's continued presence in Iraq had made the country less secure.
Britain should "get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates security problems," he told the newspaper in an interview published Thursday.

Although this was a deliberate slap at his boss Tony Blair, the British prime minister's authority has been so eroded by this war that rather than reprimand the general for publicly undermining him, he had no choice but to agree, while trying to put the best face on Dannatt's words. Tony Blair, like George Bush, has to have realized that the only thing left for him personally is to wait out the time until he leaves office and leave it to his successor to try and salvage something out of the wreckage that he and Bush have created.

Lord Guthrie, a former British defense chief of staff and described as Tony Blair's 'most trusted military commander' stuck the knife in him even further, charging that even the planners for the invasion of Afghanistan were "cuckoo". He said:

Anyone who thought this was going to be a picnic in Afghanistan - anyone who had read any history, anyone who knew the Afghans, or had seen the terrain, anyone who had thought about the Taliban resurgence, anyone who understood what was going on across the border in Baluchistan and Waziristan [should have known] - to launch the British army in with the numbers there are, while we're still going on in Iraq is cuckoo

Some pro-war voices in Britain have begun to distance themselves from blame by saying that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were good ideas and could have been successful but were botched by the ham-handedness of the American implementation. But Matthew Parris writing in The Times of London says that this convenient scape-goating of the US is wrong headed and that the wars themselves, hatched by the neoconservatives (both in the US and England), were wrong in principle and doomed to failure from the beginning.

It is no small thing to find oneself on the wrong side of an argument when the debate is about the biggest disaster in British foreign policy since Suez; no small thing to have handed Iran a final, undreamt-of victory in an Iran-Iraq war that we thought had ended in the 1980s; no small thing to have lost Britain her credit in half the world; no small thing — in the name of Atlanticism — to have shackled our own good name to a doomed US presidency and crazed foreign-policy adventure that the next political generation in America will remember only with an embarrassed shudder.
. . .
The strategy failed because of one big, bad idea at its very root. Your idea that we kick the door in. Everything has flowed from that.

We were not invited. We had no mandate. There were no “good” Iraqis to hand over to. We had nothing to latch on to, no legitimacy. It wasn’t a question of being tactful, respectful, munificent, or handing sweets to children. We were impostors, and that is all.
. . .
The former hawks of press and politics now scramble for the status of visionaries let down by functionaries. This is a lifeboat that will not float. Let these visionaries understand that occupation is always brutal and usually resisted; that occupying armies are always tactless, sometimes abusive and usually boneheaded; that in the argument between hands-on and hands-off you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; and that the first, original and central cause of the Iraq fiasco was not the bad manners of this or that poor, half-educated squaddie from Missouri, nor the finer points of this or that State Department doctrine of neocolonial administration.

The reason for failure was not the post-invasion strategy. It was the strategy of invasion. Blame the vision, not the execution.

The process of rewriting history that Parris describes as being attempted in Britain is also being attempted in the US. The fact that even war supporters here have realized that the war has been a colossal blunder with no good end in sight can be seen in the way that the various players are now retreating from formerly held positions of cheery optimism and are now carefully trying to rewrite history to make sure the blame does not fall on them.

Next: Attempting to rewrite history in the US.

October 27, 2006

Stupid young men tricks

As readers of this blog must have gleaned by now, I tend to be very wary of blanket generalizations and stereotyping. These tend to be harmful because the differences within groups are usually vastly greater than the differences between groups, making comparisons between individuals in different groups largely meaningless. But there is one generalization of which I am getting more and more convinced and that is the following: All men between the ages of 15 and 25 are idiots.

Ok, that may be a little too strong. But it definitely seems to be the case that men within that age range they have very little idea of the possible negative consequences of their actions.

Recent events have cemented this view. Here are some examples:

Exhibit A:

Howard McFarland Fish, 21, a U.S. citizen from Connecticut and a college student LaFayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania "was detained Friday after customs agents found what they suspected was dynamite in his checked luggage."

He was returning from Buenos Aires. In addition to the dynamite, he had a blasting cap, a homemade fuse and a quarter-pound of ammonium nitrate. And why did he do this?

"The passenger said he had been exploring mines in Bolivia and purchased the dynamite as a souvenir." (my emphasis).

Although the authorities feel that Fish is not involved with terrorism, he has been charged with breaking security laws and could face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

How can any one in their right mind, in these days of almost paranoid fear and security, even think of taking dynamite on board a plane as a souvenir? The only explanation is that Fish is an idiot by virtue of age.

Exhibit B:

A 20-year-old grocery store clerk who authorities say amused himself by posting prank Internet warnings of terrorist attacks against NFL stadiums was arrested Friday on federal charges that could bring five years behind bars.

Jake Brahm of Wauwatosa, Wis., was accused of writing messages that said terrorists planned to set off radioactive "dirty bombs" this weekend at football stadiums in seven cities, including Cleveland. He admitted posting the threat about 40 times on various Web sites between September and Wednesday, authorities said.

Apparently Brahm was having some sort of contest with a friend to see who could post the most scary notice on the internet.

Exhibit C: Myself.

I cannot help but feel a sense of empathy with Fish and Brahm because when I was in that same age range, I was also an idiot. (Some might argue that I still am, but that does not negate the point I am making here.) I recall doing things at that age that now horrify me.

For example, when I was in high school, my friends and I repeatedly went out on a nearby lake in a small leaky rowboat. The boat did not have any life jackets and we could not swim. None of us were even experienced oarsmen and spent much of our time going around in circles. The lake also had snakes and alligator-like monitor lizards that could be up to five feet in length and there were occasions when some in the boat were alarmed by their presence nearby and rocked the boat violently, trying to get away. It would not have taken much to capsize the boat and we would all have been done for.

When I was in college, I also recall how three of us would ride on my friend's Vespa scooter, which barely had room for two, or two of us would ride on my other friend's moped which really could only seat one, with the passenger sitting on tiny rack over the rear wheel. We did not have helmets and Sri Lankan roads were notorious for being congested and full of bad drivers. An accident could have easily happened that could have either killed or maimed us.

Why did I do these things which, looking back, were indubitably crazy? I have no excuse to offer and can only plead insanity by virtue of age.

What is worse was that I did not even think of the things I did as particularly dangerous. I suspect that Fish and Brahm, like me, never gave the slightest thought to the possible dangers of their actions and its adverse consequences.

And the behavior gets worse when young men are in the company of other young men, which seems to have a multiplier effect on stupidity. As someone once said, if you look closely, just before a young man does something particularly stupid, his words are likely to be "Hey guys, watch this!"

Do men have a special idiocy gene that gets turned on at 15 and then gets turned off at about the age of 25?

Maybe this is why military recruiters target this age group. They are the ones who are willing, even eager, to sign on to risk death by being sent to wars at the whim of older men, and to even think of this as 'adventure'. If armies were restricted by international treaties to not have soldiers under the age of 25, we might have far smaller armies and fewer wars.

POST SCRIPT: Bizarro cartoon

The Tuesday Plain Dealer had this funny Bizarro cartoon, illustrating the point I was making on that very same day.

bizarro.jpg

October 26, 2006

Negotiating with terrorists

Recently the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels (the official name being the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) broke down and there has been a rapid escalation of violence with large numbers of casualties on both sides and, inevitably, civilians bearing the brunt of it and being forced to flee their homes.

The US government has been trying to get the warring parties to desist from fighting and get back to the negotiating table, and two senior State Department officials have gone to the region to try and move the negotiation process along.

The United States has said that it strongly supported peace talks between Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers as there was no military solution for the conflict in the island nation.
But the US also asserted that it would not deal with the rebels who use reprehensible and bloody tactics to kill innocent people.

"We believe that there is no military solution for this kind, and we are strong supporters of negotiations," Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told a round table of South Asian journalists.

Meanwhile Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, said that "hostilities must cease and both sides need to exercise maximum restraint." He went on:

"We are pleased that the government and the LTTE are committed to peace talks to go to Geneva and to begin discussions again."

"We think it is important to discuss all the issues. It is also important to begin a process that can lead to a serious negotiation, and eventually, to a political solution with legitimate interest of all the communities: of Tamils, Muslims of Sinhalese," Mr. Richard Boucher told the press.

"It can be accommodated with a unitary Sri Lanka."

Accepting that a military solution was not likely to occur shows a sense of realism, and encouraging talks and negotiations are worthy goals. The reason I highlight them is because the Tamil Tigers have been designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. Hence these actions seem to be in contradiction with the oft-stated US government policy of never negotiating with terrorists or with so-called state sponsors of terrorism.

I have never agreed with that policy. You should be willing to talk with anybody because that is the only way you get to understand your opponents and it may even lead to a non-violent solution.

But it looks like the US policy applies only to selected groups of terrorists. Or perhaps the US government does not talk to certain 'terrorists' not out of any lofty principle, but because it serves their own political interests.

POST SCRIPT: Privacy? We don't need no stinkin' privacy!

Here's a wonderful and short animated cartoon about the NSA wiretapping of phones.

October 25, 2006

And the sycophancy prize goes to . . .

Some time ago I wrote about the laughably feeble attempts to portray George Bush as some sort of intellectual giant. I mentioned John Hinderaker who had written: "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile."

Now White House press secretary Tony Snow tries to better Hinderaker. The New York Times, reporting on a speech he gave quotes him about his boss, says: On the intellectual acumen of his boss: “He reminds me of one of those guys at the gym who plays about 40 chessboards at once.”

This is pathetic. Other commenters have wondered what kind of gym Snow goes to where people get exercise by playing chess. My question is why are these people trying so hard to do the impossible? Rather than being someone who makes Gary Kasparov quake, it is more likely (as Atrios says) that Bush "constantly has to be reminded the "horsey" moves in an "L" shape," and is completely baffled by the mysterious 'castling' move.

The Bush team once had a fairly successful thing going with portraying Bush as a down-to-earth, plain-spoken man who did not have much use for book learnin'. Who had the bright idea that he needed to be reinvented as the heir to Einstein?

The job of president does not require you to be very smart. That is not Bush's problem. His problem is that he is not curious, has poor judgment, is unrelentingly stubborn, petty, and cruel, and seemingly does not want to hear anything disagreeable. Those are not the qualities of which great leaders are made. The reason is that such qualities in a person in a leadership position inevitably attracts around him those who are adept merely at currying favor by saying things that flatter the boss.

Tony Snow's other comments also show how much such people love just to be in the presence of people they think are powerful and will suck up shamelessly to achieve that. The same news report on his speech says:

Yesterday,” Mr. Snow declared, “I was in the Oval Office with the president ——”
He cut himself off, took a perfectly calibrated three-second pause and switched into an aw-shucks voice for dramatic effect: “I just looove saying that! Yeaaah, I was in the Oval Office. Just meeee and the president. Nooooobody else.” The crowd lapped it up.

I find this kind of thing nauseating. It is one thing to admire someone and appreciate the opportunity to meet them. But Snow seems to be less like a close political advisor and more like a twelve-year old in the presence of a sports idol or someone having a crush on a music icon. It is amazing that there are actual grown ups who feel like this about anyone at all. No wonder there are so many people willing to toady up to Bush by telling him just what he wants to hear so that they can continue to remain in his presence.

Any leader who is surrounded by such sycophants is doomed to disaster. Is it any surprise that Bush is clearly the front-runner in the race for the title of worst US president ever?

But once the sycophancy virus grabs hold of any administration, it spreads rapidly throughout the body and this one does not stop just at the White House. According to a news report:

The top US general defended the leadership of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying it is inspired by God.

"He leads in a way that the good Lord tells him is best for our country," said Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Rumsfeld is "a man whose patriotism focus, energy, drive, is exceeded by no one else I know ... quite simply, he works harder than anybody else in our building," Pace said.
. . .
"He comes to work everyday with a single-minded focus to make this country safe," said [Navy Admiral James] Stavridis who was a senior aide to Rumsfeld before taking on the Southcom job.

"We're lucky as a nation that he continues to serve with such passion and such integrity and such determination and such brilliance," said Stavridis, 51.

It is getting truly sad when professional senior military officers are reduced to such public groveling before their bosses. And Pace is the very person whom the rank and file in the military must depend on to give the political leadership the unvarnished facts so that they can make good decisions. What does it say about the military when its top leader turns into a toady?

But on the bright side, we finally know how so many bad decisions were made by Rumsfeld about the Iraq occupation and why things are in such a mess there. It's all god's fault. The buck stops in the sky.

POST SCRIPT: Losing hearts and minds

There is a powerful 8-minute video Iraq-The Real Story by the London Guardian photographer Sam Smith and produced in conjunction with the BBC. It captures the futility of what is going on in Iraq: the fear and weariness and boredom of the US troops dutifully trying to carry out a hopeless mission, and the inevitable breakdown of their efforts at winning 'hearts and minds' of the people of the country they are occupying.

I was shocked to see how the US troops, when they round up people for questioning, write numbers on their foreheads, and make them squat in the sun while they are being interrogated.

I was amazed that there is no one with the US military who has even the remotest knowledge of the mistakes made by colonial occupiers in the past because this kind of behavior is typical of the contempt displayed by colonial forces for the people they were governing. It is precisely this kind of petty humiliation that produces seething resentment and long lasting anger against the occupying force, not only by the people directly subjected to the treatment but by everyone who witnesses it or hears of it.

Those who believe that the day will come soon when "the Iraqis stand up so that the US can stand down" are going to be disheartened by this video. It seems as if the very Iraqi forces that the US is training and nurturing as their surrogates are also aiding the insurgents. And we should not be surprised.

October 24, 2006

Emotional reactions to Darwin

There is no doubt that Darwin's ideas about evolution by natural selection carry a huge emotional impact. For many people the idea that "we are descended from apes" is too awful to contemplate and is sufficient reason alone to dismiss any claim that natural selection holds the key to understanding how we came about. (Of course, we are not descended from apes. The more accurate statement is that apes and humans share common ancestors, making them our cousins, but even this refinement does not take away the stigma that supposedly comes with being biologically related to animals such people consider inferior.)

This unease about being biologically linked to other species is widespread and transcends any particular religious tradition. In Sri Lankan rural areas, one would frequently see monkeys on trees by the side of the road. As children when we were passing them, almost invariably someone would point them out and say things like "Your relatives have come to see you." Similarly, if one said that one was going to visit the zoo, this would also result in the question as to whether one was going to visit one's relatives. This kind of humor among children was commonplace, and reflected a reflexive instinct that humans were superior to all other animal forms, and reinforced the belief that some sort of special creative process must have been at work to produce us.

But if the thought of being related to apes gives some people the creeps, imagine how much worse it will for them to realize that as we go farther back in evolutionary time, we are cousins to all sorts of life forms that might make people even more squeamish.

Reading Richard Dawkin's book The Ancestor's Tale (2004) I found that I myself was not immune from that kind of emotional reaction, even though I have no problems intellectually with accepting natural selection and all its consequences.

For example, I had little difficulty emotionally accepting that the apes and monkeys are my cousins, partly because, I suppose, that idea has been around for a long time and I have simply got used to it. Also a common ancestor to the humans and apes would not look very different from us now and is easier to envisage. But as the evolutionary clock went back in time, and I started imagining what my deep ancestors looked like, I had a variety of reactions.

The idea that I had common ancestors with dogs and cats and horses (those evolutionary branches separated from the human branch at about 85 million years ago (Mya)) did not cause me any problems. I kind of liked the idea that my dog Baxter and I can trace our separate lineages back to a time when we both had a common ancestor. It is clear that our common ancestor would not look much like present-day humans or dogs, but I cannot imagine what it might have looked like apart from having some of the common characteristics shared by dogs and humans, like being four-limbed, warm-blooded, invertebrates.

More annoying was the realization that the branch that led to the rodents like rats, squirrels and rabbits only separated from the human branch at 75 Mya, meaning that those animals that we consider vermin and would not think of having in our houses, actually have a closer relationship to humans (since our common ancestors lived more recently) than those whom we love and welcome into our homes as pets, like dogs and cats.

Somehow, the emotional reaction of finding oneself having common ancestors with dignified and majestic animals like whales (85 Mya) and elephants (105 Mya) is positive while being linked to things like snakes (at 305 Mya) felt kind of icky.

A hard bridge to cross (again I mean emotionally) was accepting that frogs and toads and salamanders shared a common ancestor with me at about 340 Mya, perhaps because I share the common perception that these animals are slimy.

Going back further, I had little negative emotional reaction to realizing that I had a common ancestor with sharks at 460 Mya but the thought that flatworms and I were related at 630 Mya was harder to take. I suppose that this is because sharks are usually perceived as admirable and graceful (if dangerous) animals while I have never liked worms, seeing them as somehow disgusting. Perhaps I will now have warmer feeling towards them, seeing that we are relatives.

Once I got over the emotional hurdle of being able to accept the fact that worms and I have common ancestors, the rest was pretty easy to accept, perhaps because the earlier life forms that our common ancestors took had to be so different that I could not really relate to them (let alone imagine them) in any way. Thus it was a breeze to accept that I am related (however distantly) with sponges, bread moulds, amoeba, and bacteria.

It was amusing to keep monitoring my emotional reactions as I read about the backward evolutionary journey. But like most difficult journeys, taking that first step is the hardest. And now I have a better understanding why many religious people simply cannot take that first step and acknowledge that chimpanzees are our cousins, in fact are the closest cousins we have in the animal kingdom, with our common ancestor living just 6 million years ago. Because once you accept that, then you have embarked on journey whose inevitable end is that you end up as one with a bacterium. It is hard to think of you being created in god's image after that.

Thus I am somewhat sympathetic to those people who find Darwin's ideas hard to stomach and desperately seek to find a more palatable alternative. However, I think their task will prove hopeless, since the basic tenets of evolution are here to stay and so we may as well get used to it.

POST SCRIPT: Ken Miller talk

Ken Miller, biologist at Brown University, expert witness at the Dover, PA "Panda Trial," and author of the book Finding Darwin's God will explain why every college student must vote.


"Trick My Vote: Science, Intellectual 
Courage, and the Battle for America's Soul"
Ford Auditorium, Allen Memorial Medical Library
11000 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland
11:30 a.m. -1:00 p.m.

The talk is free and open to the public.

Call (216) 368-8961 for more information.

I have heard Miller before and he is a very good public speaker. He is a practicing Christian (Catholic), a staunch defender of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and an opponent of efforts to include intelligent design creationism in science curricula.

October 23, 2006

Fighting words

When the dismal history of the Iraq war is finally written, a special chapter of shame should be prepared for the those pro-war columnists and bloggers who, sitting comfortably in their homes and offices in the US, cheerfully egged on this administration to greater and greater heights of folly, cheering the deaths of innocent Iraq and Afghan civilians, downplaying the losses of US troops, attacking all those who opposed the war as terrorist sympathizers, and acting as if they themselves were courageous fighters instead of merely being vocal spectators. Not for nothing have these people been dubbed by blogger Tbogg as the "101st Fighting Keyboarders." The 101st Fighting Keyboarders (also known as 'chickenhawks' or 'Keyboard Kommandos') have an overwhelming sense to constantly reiterate that the fact that they are urging other people to fight is a sign of their own bravery.

The chapter will be long because there is a long list of such people, such as Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, John Hinderaker, Charles Krauthammer, and the list goes on.

As an example of the kind of delusion at work here, take Jonathan Miller writes about Hugh Hewitt who was interviewing Time magazine's Baghdad correspondent Michael Ware on his radio show. I think most people would concede that Baghdad is a very dangerous place to be for anyone, and reporters who are assigned that beat are showing considerable personal courage. Many of them get irritated with people back in the US who insinuate that they are living it up in comfort there while failing to report the "good" news, thus undermining support for the war. When Ware tries to remind Hewitt that the people in the US have little idea of what life is really like in Iraq, Hewitt takes offense.

The third-tier talk show host [Hugh Hewitt] strapped on his kevlar helmet and bravely reported from the front lines of the terror war while interviewing Michael Ware, a Time Baghdad correspondent:

MW: Let's look at it this way. I mean, you're sitting back in a comfortable radio studio, far from the realities of this war.

HH: Actually, Michael, let me interrupt you.

MW: If anyone has a right...

HH: Michael, one second.

MW: If anyone has a right to complain, that's what...

HH: I'm sitting in the Empire State Building. Michael, I'm sitting in the Empire State Building, which has been in the past, and could be again, a target. Because in downtown Manhattan, it's not comfortable, although it's a lot safer than where you are, people always are three miles away from where the jihadis last spoke in America. So that's...civilians have a stake in this. Although you are on the front line, this was the front line four and a half years ago.

I can just imagine how stunned Ware must have been to hear that someone in the Empire State building in Manhattan thinks that he too is bravely facing the war on terror, because a few years ago this was three miles away from what was once the front lines. Jonathan Miller continues:

I am in awe of Mr. Hewitt's bravery. And just a few days ago, we hear, Hugh actually got on a PATH train that went RIGHT THROUGH Ground Zero. Somehow, some way, he survived.

As funny as the above exchange is ("I'm on the front lines, too!") it opens a useful window onto the soul of the Keyboard Kommandos. See, when Hugh Hewitt is ensconced in a cushy office in the Empire State building, he actually imagines himself as a brave soldier on the front lines in the Universal Conflict Against the Evildoers. When he is on the airplane, he is an intelligence officer against fanatical Islamofascists.

These war-loving bloggers are constantly seeking a vicarious thrill. Having committed themselves to an immoral, illegal, and ultimately foolish and disastrous war, they now have to act as if they are also bearing some of its consequences. This is why they are the first to publicize and exaggerate, with an almost palpable shiver of delighted dread, any sign of anything that could be construed as a potential terrorist attack in the US. This enables them to swagger as if they are on the front lines of the war on terrorism while knowing full well that the odds of them personally being hurt or killed by a terrorist attack are minuscule. None of us really loses sleep at night worrying about whether a bomb is going to blow us up. None of us goes to work or school each day worrying if we will be killed by a bomb or sniper before the evening comes. And yet, this is how the people in Iraq live.

These Keyboard Kommandos were wrong about practically everything concerning the Iraq war but are still spewing out nonsense today. It is amazing that anyone still listens to them, let alone gives them prominent public platforms to spread their nonsense.

Paul H. Henry has created a beautiful piece of work that can form the basis of the future chapter to be written on the 101st Fighting Keyboarders. His War of the Words is a five-part series (each about 6 minutes long), with a new part to appear every Thursday. It takes the format of a Ken Burns-type PBS documentary and is very well done. The first three parts are up and can be seen here.

October 20, 2006

Slaughter in Iraq-5

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)
In the part 4previous post I stated that peer-reviewed papers have prima facie credibility and if you want to challenge their veracity, the burden shifts to you to do so. If you want to discredit it, you have to produce contrary data or detect a serious flaw in the methodology, or show that there has been an error in the calculation.

None of these things has been done, at least as far as I have seen. All that the people condemning the study have said is that they do not believe it. I wonder if they have even read the study before condemning it. Take for example, this report from Norman Solomon, about how the media and pundits respond to such estimates. He points out that the present large numbers of casualties were predicted by reputable groups before the war but were dismissed by the media.

While we stare at numbers that do nothing to convey the suffering and anguish of the war in Iraq, we might want to ask: How could we correlate the horrific realities with the evasive discussions that proliferated in U.S. news media during the lead-up to the invasion?

In mid-November 2002 – four months before the invasion began – a report surfaced from health professionals with the Medact organization and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. "The avowed U.S. aim of regime change means any new conflict will be much more intense and destructive than the [1991] Gulf War," they warned, "and will involve more deadly weapons developed in the interim."

At the time, journalists routinely gave short shrift to that report – treating it as alarmist and unworthy of much attention. The report found that "credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48,000 to over 260,000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20,000 deaths. Additional later deaths from postwar adverse health effects would reach 200,000. ... In all scenarios the majority of casualties will be civilians."

During a live TV debate on Dec. 3, 2002, I cited the report's estimates of the bloodshed ahead and then asked: "What kind of message is that from the Bush administration against terrorism and against violence for political ends?"

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to the other guest: "Jonah Goldberg, do you accept that assumption in that report on these huge casualties, including a lot of children, if there were an effort to go forward with so-called regime change in Baghdad?"

Goldberg, a pundit with National Review Online, replied: "Frankly, I don't. I mean, I haven't looked at the exact report, and I think that there are a lot of groups out there that inflate a lot of these numbers precisely because they're against the war no matter what."

Notice that Goldberg had not even read the report, or shown any indication that he had at least read the critiques of knowledgeable people. This kind of behavior is typical for these people. All they do is speculate based on political biases. For Goldberg, the report numbers are too large for him to stomach, so the authors must be having a political ax to grind.

In showing such a cavalier disregard for actual reading documents or citing sources, Goldberg is following in the footsteps of his hero George Bush. Bush said he did not believe the numbers and cited General Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, as supporting him. It is true that Casey said "That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I've not seen a number higher than 50,000. And so I don't give it that much credibility at all." But where did Casey get his own number? According to an AFP report, when questioned as to his source: "Casey said he did not know where he had seen the estimate of 50,000 or whether it was produced by the military." In other words, he simply pulled it out of the air. It is this kind of flim-flam that is practiced by these people, hoping that the public will not notice that they have not provided any substantive critique of the 655,000 figure.

Other people have challenged the latest Lancet as "obviously" political because it was released just before the 2006 elections, and the 2004 study was also released before the elections that year.

I find this a curious argument. The Iraq war is perhaps the biggest issue of the day. Surely the voting public should have the best information on it when they vote for their leaders? It is in fact an obligation of the authors of such studies to try to release it in time for voters to evaluate the numbers and make decisions. The assertion that facts about the war and its consequences should not be given to voters is a bizarre idea. It has appeal only to those who genuflect at the thrones of power, who feel that the "leaders" are all wise and knowing and we, the public have no right to the facts, but must simply defer to their judgments.

The claim of unfair bias can only be justifiably leveled if the authors had (say) obtained very low numbers of deaths (which would have pleased the Bush administration) and deliberately withheld it until after the election. Or if they had cut corners in their data collection and analysis and rushed to print with a flawed paper purely in order to embarrass the administration. But such arguments have not been made by anyone. Instead the critics point to the timing of the release as if that were a sufficient argument against it.

A final point. While a lot of the focus has been on the number of violent deaths, I was disturbed to read in the report that about 53,000 deaths were "due to non-violent causes were estimated to have occurred above the pre-invasion mortality rate, most of them in recent months, suggesting a worsening of health status and access to health care." These deaths rose above the pre-war levels only in 2006. This is a very disturbing but predictable sign. Wars are not only violent, they also let loose pernicious silent killers. They destroy water and sewage systems, they disrupt farming and agriculture, food distribution networks break down, medicines become scarce, hospitals suffer from lack of supplies and electricity, and people cannot earn enough to get food or medicines. All these things lead to serious health problems which last for a long time and whose effects are hard to reverse.

There will come a time when active warfare comes to an end in Iraq. People's attention will shift away. But the breakdown of the health, sanitation, and food networks will remain, becoming a silent killer that will enact its cruel will on the Iraqi people for a long time to come.

October 19, 2006

Slaughter in Iraq-4

(See part 1 and part 2 and part 3.)

The critics of the Lancet study have had just one main argument against it: incredulity. They are like the intelligent design creationists who, because they cannot imagine that life as we know it could have evolved, simply assume that a creator must exist without even looking at the evidence.

Some try and make the case that if the level of deaths are really so high, the media would have reported it. The authors of the study are not idiots. They have considered this question in the light of what we know from other conflicts.

[The figure of 655,000] is far greater than reported by various media accounts and morgue tallies. This is not surprising, as reporting of events from incomplete sources cannot, in any statistically meaningful way, be converted into national death rates. Other than Bosnia, we are unable to find any major historical instances where passive surveillance methods (such as morgue and media reports) identify more than 20% of the deaths which were found through population-based survey methods.

Richard Horton, editor of Lancet writes:

[T]he reason for the discrepancy between these lower estimates and the new figure of 650,000 deaths lies in the way the number is sought. Passive surveillance, the most common method used to estimate numbers of civilian deaths, will always underestimate the total number of casualties. We know this from past wars and conflict zones, where the estimates have been too low by a factor of 10 or even 20.

In the comments to yesterday's post, Eldan Goldenberg refers to a critique of the Lancet study put out in a press release by IraqBodyCount. The main thrust of their comments is that for such a large number of deaths to go under the radar implies massive breakdown of the system. But the Lancet editor seems to be saying that that kind of official undercounting is the norm is such situations, not the exception. It is just that this feature is not highlighted in other situations. Again, the IraqBodyCount critique is not of the study itself but based on the feeling that the figure is 'unreasonable.' But with research, we cannot adjust figures based on the reasonableness. All that surprising results require of their authors is careful scrutiny of the methodology to see if systematic errors have distorted the results. Researchers do not have the luxury of adjusting figures

However, the authors of the Lancet study, like any serious scholars, realize that their study has limitations and reflect on them and their possible effects.

Any collection of information is open to potential bias, and has limitations. All efforts were made to randomly select the households to be included in this survey, but it may have been that households with more deaths or households with fewer deaths were over represented in this survey. The finding that the 2006 results are very close to the 2004 household results suggests this did not occur. As in all surveys, a larger sample would have likely have produced a result with greater precision, although this would have exposed the survey teams to higher risk. In the future, when safety has improved, a large survey will be needed to determine in detail the total implications of the conflict for the people of Iraq.

The households were selected for this survey according to population size we obtained from the Ministry of Planning, but this may not have fully reflected migration within or outside the country. However, it is unlikely that this would have occurred at a scale necessary to affect findings.

Perhaps the greatest potential limitation to this type of survey is the problem people have recalling the date of specific events, especially over several years. Again, the close similarities between the 2004 and the 2006 data suggest this was not a major problem. Households could have concealed deaths from the interviewers, though by promising anonymity to households we tried to minimize this risk. We are certain that households did not report deaths which did not occur, as 92% of households had death certificates for deaths they reported.

Another reason to have confidence in this study lies in the very process of peer review. When papers are submitted to scientific journals, the referees cannot and do not verify the actual data. What they look to see is whether the study has followed good methods and the authors have explored all reasonable alternative explanations before reaching their conclusions. This is especially done when the results are so surprising, as in this case. The editors of Lancet, clearly mindful of the explosive political nature of this paper, sent it to four referees and you can be sure that those referees checked to make sure proper procedures were followed. This does not mean that the results could not be wrong. Peer review has failed in the past to detect errors and is not designed to detect outright fraud. But it does mean that peer-reviewed papers have prima facie credibility and if you want to challenge their veracity, the burden shifts to you to do so. If you want to discredit it, you have to produce contrary data or detect a serious flaw in the methodology, or show that there has been an error in the calculation. I have not seen any criticism along these lines as yet.

The authors of the study also describe how the data was collected.

The two survey teams consisted of two females and two males each with one male supervisor. All were medical doctors with previous survey and community medicine experience and were fluent in English and Arabic. All were Iraqis.

Those of us who wonder how such studies based on surveys can be carried out within a war zone have to give credit to the courage and dedication of the people who did this. I know that people who try to collect accurate information in war zones run great personal risks because what warring factions want to avoid most is any accountability and they resist efforts by people to collect data. This is why fact-finders in conflict zone deserve our greatest respect and admiration. These ten brave Iraqis did not want their names revealed for fear of retribution. The fact that the ten Iraqi doctors were willing to risk their lives to try and get information about their ravaged country did not want to be identified testifies to the dangerous situation they were in and I for one share the sentiments of the study authors when they write: "We express our deepest admiration for the dedicated Iraqi data collectors."

POST SCRIPT: Dawkins and Colbert-What could be better?

Watch a highly entertaining interview of Richard Dawkins by Stephen Colbert about Dawkins' new book The God Delusion

October 18, 2006

Slaughter in Iraq-3

(See part 1 and part 2.)

When I looked at the Lancet study, saw who had done it, how it had been done, and where it had been published, I quickly gained confidence in their number of 655,000 excess deaths since the invasion of Iraq..

The study was based on a survey done between May and July 2006 by a joint team of people at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the School of Medicine of Al Mustansiria University in Baghdad using standard methods. These excerpts from their paper details how they collected the raw data and their analyses.

In this survey, sites were collected according to the population size and the geographic distribution in Iraq. The survey included 16 of the 18 governates in Iraq, with larger population areas having more sample sites. The sites were selected entirely at random, so all households had an equal chance of being included. The survey used a standard cluster survey method, which is a recommended method for measuring deaths in conflict situations. The survey team visited 50 randomly selected sites in Iraq, and at each site interviewed 40 households about deaths which had occurred from January 1, 2002, until the date of the interview in July 2006. We selected this time frame to compare results with our previous survey, which covered the period between January 2002 and September 2004. In all, information was collected from 1,849 households completing the survey, containing 12,801 persons. This sample size was selected to be able to statistically detect death rates with 95% probability of obtaining the correct result. When the preliminary results were reviewed, it was apparent three clusters were misattributed. These were dropped from the data for analysis, giving a final total of 47 clusters, which are the basis of this study. (my emphasis)

The designers of the study seemed to have gone to some lengths to make sure that they had a truly random sample.

A series of completely random choices were made. First the location of each of the 50 clusters was chosen according the geographic distribution of the population in Iraq. This is known as the first stage of sampling in which the governates (provinces) where the survey would be conducted were selected. This sampling process went on randomly to select the town (or section of the town), the neighborhood, and then the actual house where the survey would start. This was all done using random numbers. Once the start house was selected, an interview was conducted there and then in the next 39 nearest houses.

In order to determine trends in the death rate , they split the time up into three periods and the results they obtained were as follows:

For the purpose of analysis, the 40 months of survey data were divided into three equal periods—March 2003 to April 2004; May 2004 to May 2005, and June 2005 to June 2006.

Following the invasion the death rate rose each year.

• Pre-invasion: 5.5 deaths/1000/year
• March 2003-April 2004: 7.5 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 10.9 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 19.8 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 13.2 deaths/1000/year
. . .
The [pre-invasion] rate of 5.5 deaths/1000/year will be considered as the “baseline” crude death rate, making the assumption that without conflict this rate would have continued at this level up to the present time, or even dropped somewhat (most likely).

The post-invasion excess death rate was:

• March 2003-April 2004: 2.6 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 5.6 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 14.2 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 7.8 deaths/1000/year

As there were few violent deaths in the survey population prior to the invasion, all violent deaths can be considered “violent excess deaths.”

The post-invasion violent death rate was:

• March 2003-April 2004: 3.2 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 6.6 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 12.0 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 7.2 deaths/1000/year

Percentage of all (not just excess) deaths due to coalition forces:

• March 2003-April 2004: 14%
• May 2004-May 2005: 21%
• June 2005-June 2006: 16%
• Overall post-invasion: 7.2 deaths/1000/year

Deaths due to unknown forces:

• March 2003-April 2004: 3.2 deaths/1000/year
• May 2004-May 2005: 6.6 deaths/1000/year
• June 2005-June 2006: 12.0 deaths/1000/year
• Overall post-invasion: 7.2 deaths/1000/year

Conclusion

While the actual value may be somewhat higher or lower than this number, the precision of these results is adequate to conclude that loss of life in this conflict has been substantial. (my emphasis)

The authors compare with other major conflicts and rightly conclude that the final figure of over 600,000 excess deaths puts the Iraq war right up there with the others in the scale of violence.

As with other recent conflicts, the civilians of Iraq bear the consequence of warfare. In the Vietnam War, 3 million civilian died; in the Congo, armed conflict has been responsible for 3.8 million deaths; in East Timor, an estimated 200,000 out of a population of 800,000 died in conflict. Recent estimates are that 200,000 have died in Darfur over the past 31 months. Our data, which estimate that 654,965 or 2.5% of the Iraqi population has died in this, the largest major international conflict of the 21st century, should be of grave concern to everyone.

What should be of especial concern is that the number of people killed by the actions of the US and coalition forces is so high. Overall 31% or 186,300 of the violent deaths were attributed to their actions and 13% or 78,130 of the violent deaths were due to air strikes which are still going on at a high rate. For those people who still cling to the fond hope that modern armaments, "smart bombs", and "surgical" strikes have minimized the deaths of civilians, these appalling numbers should make for sober reading. We cannot blithely dismiss this level of death as "collateral damage", the unfortunate and accidental by-product of a well meaning invading force.

But don't hold your breath that the media is going to give the Lancet study the attention it deserves. As Norman Solomon points out:

American news outlets tend to be rather cavalier about the suffering at the other end of the Pentagon's missiles, bombs and bullets. And there's a strong tendency to brand documented concerns as unfounded speculation – a media reflex that suits war-crazed presidents just fine.

October 17, 2006

Slaughter in Iraq-2

(See part 1)

Let us take one by one the "criticisms" that are being made against the Johns Hopkins study about the levels of deaths in Iraq. I put the word in ironic quotes because these are more accurately labeled as attacks, since the word criticism implies a certain level of considered and thoughtful response, which has been totally lacking so far. (The actual paper can be read here (.pdf).)

Bush said in his press conference that the study is "pretty well discredited." Really? By whom? Alas, he does not say. And he cannot say because the study follows pretty standard protocols.

What Bush did was to invoke a standard media manipulation deceptive method by vaguely appealing to people's perceptions of a situation rather than to actual evidence or arguments. People tend to think that when there are public arguments about something, then the issue in question must be in doubt. This was the technique used by the tobacco industry when they were fighting the charge that smoking causes cancer, by the greenhouse emissions producing industries concerning global warming, and by the intelligent deign creationists about the teaching of evolution. They know that if they can create noise around the issue, the public will think that there is genuine doubt and uncertainty and not notice that it is only sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This is what is being done with the current study about deaths in Iraq. When the same Johns Hopkins team did a similar earlier study also published in the Lancet in 2004, they estimated "that at least 98,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous 18 months as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of their country. They also found that violence had become the leading cause of death in Iraq during that period. Their most significant finding was that the vast majority (79 percent) of violent deaths were caused by “coalition” forces using “helicopter gunships, rockets or other forms of aerial weaponry,” and that almost half (48 percent) of these were children, with a median age of 8."

This earlier study was also very damaging to the case for war and Bush and Bush-worshippers everywhere immediately attacked that study the same way they are doing to the new study now, without arguing on the merits of the work but by simply dismissing the results out of hand and saying that since they did not believe it, the study must be flawed. They are now hoping that people will only remember the storm over that 2004 study and interpret that tumult as implying doubts about the quality of the new study. The reality is that they could not discredit it then and have not done so now either.

The fact is that the earlier study was based on sound methodology and that the present study is even better since it has a larger sample size. The methods used are not only not "pretty well discredited," it is standard methodology. A study done by the same team using the same methodology had been accepted by US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush-worshipper and subservient ally Tony Blair when it was used to estimate casualties in the Congo. But there the results did not reflect adversely on Bush and Blair and so they were quite pleased to accept the results unquestioningly.

(Vinod Gundapaneni reminded me in a comment on yesterday's post that the radio program This American Life had a program on the earlier study, looked at how they did it, and made the case that it was credible. It is a highly moving account of the extraordinary efforts the researchers took in order to try and get an accurate count of the casualties, in spite of the dangers they faced. You have to listen to the story to get the full impact. It is galling to listen to know-nothing armchair critics now cavalierly dismissing these studies.)

And Bush's claim that the authors were "guessing" at the numbers is to say something he knows is untrue. If statistical analysis is "guessing", then so is almost every number produced by the federal government. So is every opinion poll.

655,000 is a horrendous number of deaths. It amounts to 2.5% of the total population of that country. It means that 1 in 40 of the people have died violently as a result of the war. To get some perspective on this figure, think of your own circle of family and friends and acquaintances and estimate the impact of the sudden death of 1 in 40 of them. The size of this number is on a scale that puts Iraq well into the category of one of the worst carnages in recent history, raising serious questions of war crimes. And that does not even take into account the number of injured, which would multiply the casualties. I cannot even begin to think of the effects this must be having on the people of Iraq.

It is clear that the Bush regime and its supporters are well aware of the political dangers to themselves if this number is allowed to stand, so we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on the credibility of the study. But if the early indications hold up, this assault will be based on pure sophistry and distortion, rather than engaging in any scientific way with the study itself. In fact, public health experts have gone on the record as praising the study for its care in the face of very difficult conditions.

Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, has called the survey method "tried and true," and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have."

Others have echoed those words:

However, several biostatisticians and survey experts were supportive of the work.
"Given the conditions (in Iraq), it's actually quite a remarkable effort," said Steve Heeringa, director of the statistical design group at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

"I can't imagine them doing much more in a much more rigorous fashion."

He said the study made "minor departures" from the standards generally used in national surveys for choosing what households to interview. Whether those departures, brought on by wartime conditions in Iraq, introduced a bias in the results is impossible to measure from the data alone, he said.

Frank Harrell Jr., chair of the biostatistics department at Vanderbilt University, called the study design solid and said it included "rigorous, well-justified analysis of the data."

And Richard Brennan, head of health programs at the New York-Based International Rescue Committee, said the study's survey approach was typical.

"This is the most practical and appropriate methodology for sampling that we have in humanitarian conflict zones," said Brennan, whose group has conducted similar projects in Kosovo, Uganda and Congo.

"While the results of this survey may startle people, it's hard to argue with the methodology at this point."

In the next few posts, I will look at the actual study and explain why I think it is credible and how the authors should be commended for having taken pains to present as accurate a picture as is possible of a war-ravaged nation.

POST SCRIPT: Giving alcoholism a bad name

We are currently witnessing a string of public figures (Mark Foley, Mel Gibson, Bob Ney) announce that they were going into alcoholism rehab centers immediately after their acts were exposed to public scrutiny. They seem to be trying to make the case that it was the alcohol that caused them to behave the way they did and that they themselves are not really like that.

I was under the impression that what the alcohol did was to remove inhibitions and allow people to act the way they really wanted to act and say what was truly on their minds. It did not seem to be the case that alcohol changed people, it simply revealed them more clearly.

The current crop of celebrity alcohol blamers are giving alcoholism a bad name, ascribing powers to it that it does not have.

October 16, 2006

Slaughter in Iraq

I don't think anyone other than the standard issue Bush cultist will deny that the Iraq invasion has been a disaster on many levels. It has alienated the world, it has enraged Muslim sensibilities, and it has strained the American military to the breaking point. And the worst part is that the administration has nothing to offer other than to "stay the course." It seems clear to me that even Bush and Cheney must have realized that they have no options left, failure stares them in the face, that there is nothing they can do to succeed in Iraq (whatever "success" might mean) and it seems like their only goal is to bluff and try and wait it out until they leave office so that someone else will have to make an ignominious retreat out of that country. This is, in essence, what their "stay the course" policy implies. They can then try and blame their "cut and run" successor for "losing" Iraq. The fact that this policy will result in numerous more pointless deaths mean nothing to such cynical people.

As one after the other of the rationales offered for invading a country that never attacked or even threatened the US ("they had weapons of mass destruction", "they were making weapons of mass destruction", "they were thinking of making weapons of mass destruction", "some guy in the Iraqi government drew a figure of a nuclear bomb" and other changing rationalizations for the war) fell apart, the apologists always had one final after-the-fact rationalization for the war. And that was that the people of Iraq were better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein.

Hence the report that over six hundred thousand people had died violent deaths as a result of the invasion came like a thunderbolt. Even the most extreme estimates of the rate of Iraqi deaths under twenty years of Saddam Hussein's rule came nowhere close to the current rate of dying. And when you consider the uncounted number of injured people, the figures of casualties become staggering.

Like most people, I was stunned by news reports that a new study out of Johns Hopkins University to appear in the British medical journal Lancet had put the death toll as a result of the war in Iraq at 655,000. This number represents those deaths since March 2003 that exceed the number that would have died if the mortality rates before March 2003 had been extrapolated to the present. Of these, about 600,000 had died violent deaths. Since this is a statistical extrapolation based on samples, they provide 95% confidence limits of 400,000 and 900,000. What this means that there is only a 5% chance that the correct number of deaths lies outside this range. Even the lower limit of 400,000 is a staggeringly high number. (Note: The population of Iraq in mid-2004 was 26,000,000 and in Baghdad was 6.5 million.)

I knew that the situation in Iraq was bad. I knew that many people were dying as a result of the lawlessness and the death squads and the suicide bombers and actions taken by the US and coalition forces. Anarchy seems to be reigning in that country. But this number was so huge that my initial reaction had a little incredulity mixed in with the surprise. After all, this was much larger than the figure of about 48,000 currently published by the group Iraq Body Count which seemed to be the source used by President Bush in December 2005 when he estimated the deaths as then being around 30,000.

Although I too was surprised by the number of deaths, I was nevertheless even more amazed at the number of people, including Bush and his supporters, who summarily dismissed the study seemingly simply on the grounds that the number was too large! In other words, because the result is disagreeable, it cannot be believed. They made no attempt whatsoever to criticize the study on its own merits.

Bush said in his press conference on October 11, 2006 that this was "not a credible report" and that the "methodology is pretty well discredited" and "600,000 or whatever they guessed at is not credible." These are quite amazing statements. This is the same person who eagerly swallowed and repeated lies about Iraq's purported nuclear program even though they came from dubious persons such as Ahmed Chalabi who had a vested interest in getting the US to invade Iraq. But suddenly he has acquired the skill and expertise to judge credibility, so much so that he can confidently discount the methods and analysis of a team of veteran public health experts from a prestigious American university who have published their findings in a respected medical journal.

But that was not the only incredible thing that he said at the news conference. He also said "I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate."

This statement implies that the people in Iraq made some kind of free choice to accept a trade off of massive deaths in return for getting rid of Hussein and that they are satisfied with the results. What would it take for him to decide that they were not "tolerating" it? Mass collective suicide? He is deliberately misinterpreting the natural stoicism of people anywhere to try and survive and make do in the face of utter adversity over which they have little control, as "tolerance" for an abominable state of affairs. A state of affairs deliberately caused by his decision to wage an elective war.

Of course, Bush and his pro-war cheerleaders have to try to discredit the Lancet study because the high numbers of deaths involved immediately places this into the category of the first rank of human disasters and war crimes and he knows it. Bush himself is the one who said about Darfur: "About 200,000 people have died from conflict, famine and disease. And more than 2 million were forced into camps inside and outside their country, unable to plant crops, or rebuild their villages. I've called this massive violence an act of genocide, because no other word captures the extent of this tragedy." (Thanks to Jonathan Schwarz for the link.)

If 200,000 deaths in Darfur is genocide, then what does that make Iraq?

I have not written about the Johns Hopkins study earlier because I had not seen it and did not want to go purely by media reports. But it is now public and I will discuss the methods and results in the next few postings.

POST SCRIPT: Who would have thought?

In a 60 Minutes interview, David Kuo, former #2 in the Bush administrations Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, blows the whistle on the fact that the White House actually despised the religious extremists they publicly courted.

In the program Kuo says people in the White House political affairs office rolled their eyes at the evangelicals, called them "nuts' and "goofy" and referred to Pat Robertson as "insane," Jerry Falwell as "ridiculous," and that James Dobson "had to be controlled."

I had thought that this White House had completely lost touch with reality. But at least in this narrow area, they seemed to have called it correctly.

October 13, 2006

Looking for deep ancestors

Richard Dawkins in his book The Ancestor's Tale (2004) tells a fascinating story. He models his book on a journey that, rather than moving through space to a particular destination, is moving in the temporal dimension, going steadily back in time. He calls it a "pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution." He starts with present day humans and follows them back into history. One reason he gives for going back in time instead of starting at the beginning and going forwards as is more commonly done is to avoid a common trap of perception. When you tell the story forwards, it is hard to avoid giving the impression that life evolved purposefully, that human beings were somehow destined to be. This is counter to evolutionary theory that says that evolution is not directed towards any goal. It tells us how the present emerged from the past. It does not tell us how the future will emerge from the present.

Dawkins points out that the another advantage of telling the story backwards is that you can choose any of the current species and go back in time and tell pretty much the same story.

As I have mentioned earlier, we quickly (in just 2,000 years) reach the time when the most recent common ancestor lived and soon after that (about 5,000 years ago) reach a point when all our ancestors were identical.

But this convergence of ancestry is not just for humans, it is for all species. If we go far enough back in time, even my dog Baxter and I share the same ancestor, which I find a very appealing notion.

Anyway, here is a concise summary of the landmarks on this pilgrimage back in time, along with some other landamrks.

About 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution began and about 12,000 years ago saw the beginnings of language. About 160,000 years ago saw the beginning of what we would consider modern humans, and beyond that we start reaching the precursors to modern humans, a famous milestone being the fossil Lucy, dated to 3.2 Mya (million years ago).

As we go further back in time in this pilgrimage, other species start 'joining us' in our journey. What this means is that we reach times at which an earlier species existed which then split into two branches and diverged evolutionarily to what we see now. So if we go back further in time, we should cease to view the pilgrims on the journey as a combined group of humans and other species but instead see the travelers as that earlier common ancestor species. He calls these common ancestors 'concestors'. (Concestor 0 in Dawkins' scheme is the most recent common ancestor of all humans (or MRCA) that I have discussed earlier and who lived just a few thousand years ago.)

Going back in time, at 6 Mya we meet concestor 1 when we join up with the ancestors of chimpanzees. As we go even back further, we (and when I say 'we', I remind you that we should not think of 'us' as humans at this point but as the common ancestor species of humans and chimpanzees) join up at about 40 Mya successively with gorillas, orang utans, gibbons, and finally monkeys. Remember that the 'pilgrims' look different as we pass each concestor point.

Concestor 8 occurs at about 63 Mya when we join up with mammals like lemurs and lorises. (Just prior to this, around 65 Mya, was when all the dinosaurs went extinct.) As you can imagine, concestor 8 would not look much like present-day humans at all.

About 75 Mya, we join up with rats, rabbits and other rodents (concestor 10), at 85 Mya with cats and dogs (concestor 11), at 105 Mya with elephants and manatees (concestor 13), at 310 Mya with snakes and chickens (concestor 16).

At 340 Mya, we make a big transition when join up with the ancestors of amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders (concestor 17). This point marks the first time that animals moved out of the water.

Around 440 Mya we join up with various kinds of fish (concestor 20), and around 630 Mya with flatworms (concestor 27).

After various other species ancestors' join ours, the next big rendezvous occurs at about 1,100 Mya when we join up with the ancestors of fungi, such bread molds and truffles (concestor 34).

Some time earlier than that (passing the connection with amoeba at concestor 35) but before 1,300 Mya (it is hard to pin the date) is when the next major transition occurs when we join up with green plants and algae. This common ancestor is concestor 36.

At about 2,000 Mya we arrive at concestor 38 where every species is now represented by a eukaryotic (nucleated) cell.

At about 3,500 Mya we meet up with our earliest ancestors, the eubacteria (concestor 39), the original form of life.

Dawkins' reverse story can be seen visually, told in a beer commercial in 50 seconds flat to the pounding beat of Sammy Davis Jr. singing The Rhythm of Life. (A minor quibble: There is one way in which this fun visual representation is not accurate. It shows three humans going back in evolution until we join up with ancestors of the present-day amphibians (concestor 17) in identical parallel paths. This is ruled out by the reductio ad absurdum argument written about earlier, where it was established that all present day humans must have had a single common ancestor in any earlier species.)

I must say that this book was an exhilarating journey. To see the whole of the evolution of life going backwards and merging together was a nice new way of seeing the process. Those of you who are interested in the grand sweep of evolution written for a non-specialist will find Dawkins' book a great resource.

POST SCRIPT: The Boxer

A live performance of Simon and Garfunkel singing one of my all-time favorite songs The Boxer

October 12, 2006

My ancestor Pharaoh Narmes again

I began this series of posts saying that I had discovered that there was an 80% chance that I was descended from Narmes, the first pharaoh of a united Egypt. As subsequent posts have indicated, I arrived at this, not by any detailed investigative work in tracking my lineage, but by depending upon the analysis of Douglas L. T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang and published in the journal Nature.

After reading that paper, I became curious about who lived around the time of the identical ancestors and looked around to see if there was a named individual. I knew that writing was discovered around 5,000 years ago, so the time of the IA (identical ancestors) coincided roughly with the time that written records were starting to be kept. So there was a chance that there was a reliable contemporaneous written record of some person from the time of the IA. The chances were also great that the person whose life was recorded was likely to have been a big shot, a king or some such, whom people considered important enough to write about, on tombs and so forth.

I started investigating about who was the earliest named person we knew for sure existed. This ruled out characters from religious books like the Bible because those were written much more recently (around 900 BCE and later) and depended too much on legends and oral traditions that made them unreliable as history.

Marc Abramiuk of the Anthropology department at Case Western Reserve University suggested Narmes as a likely candidate for the honor of being the earliest known and named human being, and since he fitted into the IA period, I claimed that there is an 80% chance that he is my direct ancestor. (If any of you know of other named people who are candidates for the earliest known and recorded human being, please let me know. This is one genealogy search we can all contribute to, since every person we find from that time is likely to be the ancestor of all of us.)

Of course, there is no distinction to the claim that Narmes is my ancestor, since if that is the case, then he is also the ancestor of every other person currently alive. But that's fine by me. I don't want or need exclusive rights to him since having a famous ancestor confers no credit to me. Thinking that we are special simply because we belong to some particular group or are related to some particular individual is a symptom of tribal thinking.

Since I started on this study, I have become curious about the people who lived long ago and a bit surprised at how soon the track goes cold. The origins of written language pretty much sets the upper bound for reliable knowledge. If you think about it, given the vast ages of the Earth and the human beings that inhabit it, it is humbling to think of how little direct information have about our origins in terms of actual historical figures and recorded history, and how amazing it is that we have been able to figure out so much about the deep past using the tools of research and analysis.

This is the power of science, that we can use it to painstakingly reconstruct so much of our distant past by building carefully on what we know from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. That interconnected web of knowledge serves as a filter that allows a lot of the guesswork and speculation and myths about our past to drain away, and leaves behind precious nuggets of hard knowledge.

In the next post in this evolution series, I will look at what we find when we go even further back in time.

October 11, 2006

Sexual selection

In a previous post, I discussed the fact that although all of us have the identical set of ancestors who lived just 5,000 years ago, this does not mean that we have the same genes. The fact that we are different is due to the fact that if most of the mating occurs within a group, then this can result in certain features becoming emphasized. In extreme case, this initial isolated mating pattern can result in a new species being formed that cannot mate with other groups that it could have done in the past.

I had always thought that the two organisms belonged to different species if they were biologically different enough that they either could not produce offspring or, as in the case of mules produced by horses and donkeys, the offspring were infertile and thus not able to reproduce.

But I learned from Richard Dawkins' book The Ancestor's Tale (2004) that two things can be considered different species even if they are perfectly capable of producing fertile offspring. All that is required for them to be considered to be different species is that they are not found to mate in the wild for whatever reason.

Normally, this happens when there is some kind of barrier that separates two groups of the same species so that they cannot mate. "No longer able to interbreed, the two populations drift apart, or are pushed apart by natural selection in different evolutionary directions" (p. 339) and thus over time evolve into different species. But the separation can also occur due to sexual selection.

He gives a fascinating example of this on page 339. He describes experiments done with two species of cichlid fish. The two species live together in Lake Victoria in Africa and are very similar, except that one has a reddish color and the other bluish. Under normal conditions, females choose males of the same color. In other words, there was no hybridization between the two colors in the wild, thus meeting the requirements for being considered different species. But when experimenters lit the fish in artificial monochromatic light so that they all looked dirty brown, the females no longer discriminated among the males and mated equally with both kinds of males and the offspring of these hybrids were fully fertile.

He also describes ring speciation using the example of the herring gull and lesser black-backed gull (p. 302). In Britain, these two kinds of birds don't hybridize even though they meet and even breed alongside one another in mixed colonies. Thus they are considered different species.

But he goes on to say:

If you follow the population of herring gulls westward to North America, then on around the world across Siberia and back to Europe again, you notice a curious fact. The 'herring gulls', as you move around the pole, gradually become less and less like herring gulls and more and more like lesser black-backed gulls, until it turns out that our Western European lesser black-backed gulls actually are the other end of a ring-shaped continuum which started with herring gulls. At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their immediate neighbors in the ring to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, and the ring bites itself in the tail. The herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull in Europe never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way around the other side of the world.

Dawkins gives a similar example of this kind of ring speciation with salamanders in the Central Valley of California.

Why is this interesting? Because it addresses a point that sometimes comes up with skeptics of evolution. They try and argue that there is a contradiction if we had evolved from an ancestor species that was so different from us that we could not interbreed with that species. Surely, the argument goes, doesn't speciation imply that if species A evolves into species B, then must there be a time when the child is of species B while the parent is of species A. And isn't that a ridiculous notion?

The herring gulls and salamanders are the counterexamples in space (which we can directly see now) of the counterargument in time (which we can only infer). What it says is that as descendants are produced, they form a continuum in time. Each generation, while differing slightly, can interbreed with its previous generation, but over a long enough period of time, the two end points of the time continuum need not be able to interbreed.

Thus it is possible for an organism to be intermediate between two species.

Coming back to the question of why we look so different if we all shared common ancestors so recently, it is likely that the kind of selectivity practiced by the cichlid fish has resulted in certain features being shared by groups that interbreed within a restricted domain bounded by distance and geography and culture, although the process has not become so extreme that we have formed into distinct species.

I apologize for boring those readers who had had a much more extensive biology education than I have because all these things which I have been writing about recently on evolution must be well known to them. But I find all this perfectly fascinating and novel.

POST SCRIPT: Amy Goodman in Cleveland

Award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, host of the daily, grassroots, global, radio/TV news hour Democracy Now!, is on a national speaking tour to mark DN!'s 10th anniversary and launch her second book with journalist David Goodman, Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.

WHEN: Saturday, October 14th, 7:00-8:30 PM
WHERE: Student Center,
John Carroll University,
20700 N. Park Blvd (University Heights), Cleveland, OH
DESCRIPTION: Amy Goodman speaks at a free event at the Student Center. Book signing to follow. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War will give a brief presentation before the talk, as part of their collaboration with the Uprise Tour.
TICKETS: Free
MORE INFO: See here for directions.

October 10, 2006

Why we look different despite having identical ancestors

In the previous post in this series, I reported on a paper by Douglas L. T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang and published in the journal Nature that said that if we go back about 5,000 years, the ancestors of everyone on Earth today are exactly the same. This date is called the IA point, where IA stands for 'identical ancestors'.

One question that will immediately arise in people's minds is that if all our identical ancestors lived so recently, how is it that we look so different? If you take four people from China, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and Malawi, they are usually fairly easily distinguishable based on physical appearance alone, using features such as skin color, hair, facial features, etc. How could this happen if they all had identical ancestors as recently as 5,000 years ago?

The answer lies in the fact that while it is true that we all share the same ancestors, it does not mean that we all received that same genetic information from that common ancestral pool.

It is true that each of us gets exactly half our genes from our fathers and half from our mothers. But when we pass on our genes to our children, while each child gets exactly half from each parent, that does not imply that they get exactly one quarter from each grandparent. What is true is that on average each child gets one quarter of the genes from each grandparent.

The reason for this is because when a sperm or egg is formed, the genetic information (say in the egg formed in the mother) that goes into it undergoes a process of recombination in which the genes the mother obtained from her parents get mixed up before the transfer into the egg. It is thus theoretically possible, though unlikely, that a child will have zero genetic information from one of her four grandparents.

Furthermore, as we go down to the next generation, the average genetic information received by a child is now just one-eighth from any given great-grandparent. After many generations, even the average contribution of someone to each descendant approaches zero and it is not hard to imagine that some ancestors will have descendants who inherited none of their genetic information. In fact, as Rohde, Olson, and Chang say, "because DNA is inherited in relatively large segments from ancestors, an individual will receive little or no actual genetic inheritance from the vast majority of the ancestors living at the IA point."

Furthermore, "In generations sufficiently far removed from the present, some ancestors appear much more often than do others on any current individual’s family tree, and can therefore be expected to contribute proportionately more to his or her genetic inheritance. For example, a present-day Norwegian generally owes the majority of his or her ancestry to people living in northern Europe at the IA point, and a very small portion to people living throughout the rest of the world."

So even though we all have the same set of ancestors, the amount of genetic information received from any one ancestor will vary wildly from person to person.

As long as populations remained largely isolated, they could thus evolve different physical characteristics, although even a tiny amount of migration between populations is enough to create the early common dates of the MRCA (most recent common ancestor) and IA.

There are some factors that could shift those dates back further.

If a group of humans were completely isolated, then no mixing could occur between that group and others, and the MRCA would have to have lived before the start of the isolation. A more recent MRCA would not arise until the groups were once again well integrated. In the case of Tasmania, which may have been completely isolated from mainland Australia between the flooding of the Bass Strait, 9,000–12,000 years ago, and the European colonization of the island, starting in 1803, the IA date for all living humans must fall before the start of isolation. However, the MRCA date would be unaffected, because today there are no remaining native Tasmanians without some European or mainland Australian ancestry.

No large group is known to have maintained complete reproductive isolation for extended periods.

It seems to me that these results arguing for the fact that our most recent common ancestor lived about 2,000 years ago and that we all have the same common ancestors who lived just 5,000 years ago are pretty robust.

This has profound implications for origins myths and tribalism. Some people like to have a sense of racial pride by thinking that they represent 'pure' races. This research argues that this view is rubbish. None of us are 'pure'. We are all cousins, and fairly close ones at that.

October 06, 2006

The Supreme Court in the cross hairs

Some people now look to the US Supreme Court to overturn the torture-approving legislation passed last week by the Congress. Some members felt that it was unconstitutional but voted for it anyway, perhaps fearing that they would be charged with being 'soft on terrorism.'

Depending on any single agency to defend fundamental rights on our behalf is a dangerous strategy because those agencies are susceptible to pressure.

Even though the present Supreme Court is already very sympathetic to the idea of giving the administration all the power it wants even when it is skating very close to the constitutional edge, the present administration is taking no chances that the courts will derail its efforts to do what it wants. We already see the administration's efforts to intimidate the court so that it will go along with the administration's wishes or, in the event that it does reject this legislation as unconstitutional, laying the groundwork to ignore the decision of the court.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales already fired the opening salvo last week, by implying that if the courts overrule this legislation, they are imposing their personal views and should expect harsh criticism.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is defending President Bush's anti-terrorism tactics in multiple court battles, said Friday that federal judges should not substitute their personal views for the president's judgments in wartime.

He said the Constitution makes the president commander in chief and the Supreme Court has long recognized the president's pre-eminent role in foreign affairs. "The Constitution, by contrast, provides the courts with relatively few tools to superintend military and foreign policy decisions, especially during wartime," the attorney general told a conference on the judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center.

"Judges must resist the temptation to supplement those tools based on their own personal views about the wisdom of the policies under review," Gonzales said.

And he said the independence of federal judges, who are appointed for life, "has never meant, and should never mean, that judges or their decisions should be immune" from public criticism.

"Respectfully, when courts issue decisions that overturn long-standing traditions or policies without proper support in text or precedent, they cannot — and should not — be shielded from criticism," Gonzales said. "A proper sense of judicial humility requires judges to keep in mind the institutional limitations of the judiciary and the duties expressly assigned by the Constitution to the more politically accountable branches."

Although this warning to the justices was quite blunt, Newt Gingrich, former speaker and supposed seeker for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008, was even blunter. He argued that the government has the right to simply ignore the verdict of the court.

Supreme Court decisions that are "so clearly at variance with the national will" should be overridden by the other branches of government, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says.

"What I reject, out of hand, is the idea that by five to four, judges can rewrite the Constitution, but it takes two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the states to equal five judges," Gingrich said during a Georgetown University Law Center conference on the judiciary.

It takes approval by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the 50 states to adopt an amendment to the Constitution, the government's bedrock document.

Gingrich, a Republican who represented a district in Georgia, noted that overwhelming majorities in Congress had reaffirmed the Pledge of Allegiance, and most of the public believes in its right to recite it.

As such, he said, "It would be a violation of the social compact of this country for the Supreme Court to decide otherwise and would lead, I hope, the two other branches to correct the court."

This notion that someone can somehow divine the "will of the people" is always the one that is used by demagogues to ride roughshod over the institutional checks and balances that have been painstaking built up over the years. The constitution does not recognize the vague "social compacts" that Gingrich refers to. In fact, constitutions are deliberately designed to prevent the temporary passions that can engulf a people at certain times from creating lasting damage. In times of great stress, it may well be the "will of the people" to round up suspects and shoot them without trial, just like they used to summarily lynch black people. The whole point of the rule of law and constitutional protections is to restrain those who would act in the heat of the moment.

People like Gingrich and other enablers of authoritarian regimes like the one currently controlling the White House are always eager to dismantle these constitutional protections because they hinder their ambitions to achieve greater power and control over their people.

I am constantly amazed at how this government is doing the same thing that the Sri Lankan president did following his election in 1977. It is almost as if there is some kind of secret listserv that all authoritarian leaders can sign on to so that they know what they need to do to circumvent constitutional protections and grab more power. That Sri Lankan president too constantly asserted that the "will of the people" supported whatever he wanted to do and proceeded to systematically rewrite the constitution to give him more power. He too set about intimidating the Supreme Court by issuing harsh criticisms of their decisions and organizing demonstrations in front of the judge's homes.

John Dean, who was White House counsel to President Nixon and thus witnessed the authoritarian mindset close up, says in an interview in the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine that this administration, especially Dick Cheney, has been determined to expand presidential powers. He says he "can't find in history any other Presidency that has made it a matter of policy to expand Presidential powers." He adds, "To me the fact that a Vice President can go to Capitol Hill and lobby for torture is just unbelievable. Just unbelievable! I can't even get there mentally."

The interview ends with him saying "I fear for the [democratic] system. And I fear for our liberties."

In order to understand the dynamics of what is going on currently we have to develop a new framework with which to analyze events.

First of all we have to realize that the real enemy of an authoritarian government is not some external threat but the very people it is supposed to be governing. Their real goal is to cow, intimidate, and otherwise subdue their own population so that they will not resist the actions of the government.

In the current case, we are repeatedly told that the enemy the country is facing is terrorism and these kinds of torture legislation are the weapons it needs to fight it. But the actions of this regime are easier to understand if we realize that we, the people, are the real enemy of the administration, and the fear of terrorism is the weapon used to control us.

In order to resist the steady evisceration of basic liberties and the constitution, we cannot depend on our elected representatives or the judiciary to take the lead and fight for those rights. They are too craven to lead. They will only follow. The only way to safeguard civil liberties and constitutional freedoms is by everyone loudly and vocally valuing them, protecting them, and using them. The words of Judge Learned Hand are always worth remembering and repeating:

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

If Judge Learned hand were alive today, I wonder what his verdict would be.

It is quite amazing to me that the Bill of Rights, that shining jewel in the US constitution that is a landmark in the conceptualizing of the fundamental protections that any civilized society should afford its people, is now seen as some sort of quaint anachronism, something that can be dispensed with at the whim of an authoritarian government that claims that it, and it alone, knows what the "will of the people" is.

POST SCRIPT: Exposing the posturers

The Daily Show highlights the hypocrisy and posturing of Senators John "Straight Talk Express" McCain, Lindsey Graham, Arlen Specter, and John Warner on the detainee bill.

October 05, 2006

Constitutionality of torture

Republican senators Arlen Specter and John McCain and Lindsey Graham are media favorites who get a lot of positive attention for seeming to stand up for the right thing even though they almost invariably capitulate to the White House. (McCain in particular has this totally undeserved reputation as a 'maverick' and 'straight talker' and 'moderate' when in fact all he does is talk and does not back it up with action that would make such a reputation truly deserved. To me he seems like any other Bush-kowtowing hardliner.)

He and Specter and Graham have repeatedly choreographed elaborate kabuki dances with the White House which begin by staking a position in seeming opposition to some extreme White House proposal such as torture, and then after 'negotiations' with the White House, celebrate a 'compromise' which essentially capitulates to the Bush administration, giving it almost exactly what it wanted in the first place. So we now repeatedly witness the spectacle of the White House essentially negotiating with itself through these agents, and then all these complicit parties patting themselves on the back for working out a 'compromise', with the media celebrating the 'democratic process at work' and hailing the 'bipartisan' spirit.

Some of the legislators who voted in favor of the torture bill did so even though they thought it was bad legislation, presumably because they thought that the Supreme Court would rule it unconstitutional and thus no lasting harm would be done.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who voted for the bill even after his amendment to preserve certain rights for detainees was defeated, called the proposal "patently unconstitutional on its face,"

Apart from the fact that this is craven behavior and buck passing, there are also serious concerns as to whether this works even as a strategy. Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale and author of Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism, writing in the September 28, 2006 issue of the Los Angeles Times says that this is an extremely dangerous strategy for the following reason:

But the bill also reinforces the presidential claims, made in the Padilla case, that the commander in chief has the right to designate a U.S. citizen on American soil as an enemy combatant and subject him to military justice. Congress is poised to authorized this presidential overreaching. Under existing constitutional doctrine, this show of explicit congressional support would be a key factor that the Supreme Court would consider in assessing the limits of presidential authority. (my emphasis)

This is no time to play politics with our fundamental freedoms. Even without this massive congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants, it is by no means clear that the present Supreme Court will protect the Bill of Rights. The Korematsu case -- upholding the military detention of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II -- has never been explicitly overruled. It will be tough for the high court to condemn this notorious decision, especially if passions are inflamed by another terrorist incident. But congressional support of presidential power will make it much easier to extend the Korematsu decision to future mass seizures.

Though it may not feel that way, we are living at a moment of relative calm. It would be tragic if the Republican leadership rammed through an election-year measure that would haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack.

But it is clear that the White House is not content to merely hope that the Supreme Court upholds this law and has already started on a dangerous strategy to intimidate the Court to go along with this legislation, which I will write about in the next post.

This is a grave moment in this country's history. Jesus' General is a satirical website in which the author adopts the persona of a war-loving (but cowardly), gay-hating (but closeted), Bush-worshiping, devout, intolerant, bigoted Christian in order to write his amusing and whimsical posts. But the passage of this legislation was too much for him to parody and so he gave rein to his serious side (or his 'inner Frenchman' as he refers to it) to reveal his real feelings:

The memorial to the United States I posted yesterday caused a few people to wonder if I'd given up. They were wrong. I was merely doing what I do every day here, expressing the way I felt about the day's events.

Although I expected we'd lose the fight in the Senate, the final result nonetheless brought tears to my eyes. I had witnessed the death of the nation I loved, or more specifically, the murder of a set of ideals, upon which a nation was structured. I felt a need to memorialize that loss.

I target patriotism almost daily with my satire, but it's not a love for country I mock, rather it is the simple-minded nationalism of the right; a patriotism that values symbols over substance; a patriotism that drives legislators who angrily acted to ban flag burning to pass a law gutting our Bill of Rights.

The basic values I love most, the ideals that made me proud to be an American, due process, habeas corpus, the proscriptions against cruel and unusual punishment and the use of coercion to compel confession were destroyed in the name of that kind of patriotism yesterday. Our America, liberal America, died with those ideals.

That's why I mourned.

But today is a new day, a day in which I hope we will all resolve to fight harder than ever to bring our America back.

You should read the whole thing and bookmark the General's site if you have not already done so because he illustrates well how to reveal deeper and serious truths using a light and humorous touch.

POST SCRIPT: Bill of Rights? What Bill of Rights?

Even in these cynical days, I find it hard to believe stories like this.

Attorney David Lane said that on June 16, Steve Howards was walking his 7-year-old son to a piano practice, when he saw Cheney surrounded by a group of people in an outdoor mall area, shaking hands and posing for pictures with several people.

According to the lawsuit filed at U.S. District Court in Denver, Howards and his son walked to about two-to-three feet from where Cheney was standing, and said to the vice president, "I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible," or words to that effect, then walked on.

Ten minutes later, according to Howards' lawsuit, he and his son were walking back through the same area, when they were approached by Secret Service agent Virgil D. "Gus" Reichle Jr., who asked Howards if he had "assaulted" the vice president. Howards denied doing so, but was nonetheless placed in handcuffs and taken to the Eagle County Jail.

The lawsuit states that the Secret Service agent instructed that Howards should be issued a summons for harassment, but that on July 6 the Eagle County District Attorney's Office dismissed all charges against Howards.

If the facts of this story are true, Howards had better watch his step. All the president has to do is declare that he and his son are enemy combatants and they can be shipped off to Guantanamo and never be heard from again. While Guantanamo may have piano wire, I doubt that they will use it to provide piano lessons for his son.

October 04, 2006

No one is now safe from arbitrary imprisonment and torture

In yesterday's post I spoke about the qualitative change that has occurred in this country as a result of the passage of the legislation last week that took away almost all the rights on which a truly free society is built.

Some people may be consoling themselves that these drastic actions will be only taken against "other" people, non-US citizens, and that they themselves are safe. But Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale and author of Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism, writing in the September 28, 2006 issue of the Los Angeles Times warns us not to be so complacent:

Buried in the complex Senate compromise on detainee treatment is a real shocker, reaching far beyond the legal struggles about foreign terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo Bay fortress. The compromise legislation, which is racing toward the White House, authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights.

This dangerous compromise not only authorizes the president to seize and hold terrorists who have fought against our troops "during an armed conflict," it also allows him to seize anybody who has "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States." This grants the president enormous power over citizens and legal residents. They can be designated as enemy combatants if they have contributed money to a Middle Eastern charity, and they can be held indefinitely in a military prison.

Not to worry, say the bill's defenders. The president can't detain somebody who has given money innocently, just those who contributed to terrorists on purpose.

But other provisions of the bill call even this limitation into question. What is worse, if the federal courts support the president's initial detention decision, ordinary Americans would be required to defend themselves before a military tribunal without the constitutional guarantees provided in criminal trials.

Legal residents who aren't citizens are treated even more harshly. The bill entirely cuts off their access to federal habeas corpus, leaving them at the mercy of the president's suspicions.

We are not dealing with hypothetical abuses. The president has already subjected a citizen to military confinement. Consider the case of Jose Padilla. A few months after 9/11, he was seized by the Bush administration as an "enemy combatant" upon his arrival at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He was wearing civilian clothes and had no weapons. Despite his American citizenship, he was held for more than three years in a military brig, without any chance to challenge his detention before a military or civilian tribunal. After a federal appellate court upheld the president's extraordinary action, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, handing the administration's lawyers a terrible precedent.

The new bill, if passed, would further entrench presidential power. At the very least, it would encourage the Supreme Court to draw an invidious distinction between citizens and legal residents. There are tens of millions of legal immigrants living among us, and the bill encourages the justices to uphold mass detentions without the semblance of judicial review.

This act provides a dramatic gauge of how far has this nation's concepts of justice have sunk since the times when the constitution was first drafted (leaving aside for the moment the problem that those noble early concepts of justice did not extend to black people). For example, Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: "Freedom of the person under the protection of the habeas corpus I deem [one of the] essential principles of our government."

Jefferson had little sympathy for those who would suspend these basic rights at the first sign of any trouble saying in a letter to James Madison that he felt that habeas corpus should be preserved even if there is an insurrection or rebellion within the country, which is a far, far, greater threat than anything faced today in the so-called war on terror. He pointed out the history of such suspensions which indicated that it was usually done for the consolidation of power by an authoritarian government rather than for genuine concerns about security, saying:

Why suspend the habeas corpus in insurrections and rebellions? The parties who may be arrested may be charged instantly with a well defined crime; of course, the judge will remand them. If the public safety requires that the government should have a man imprisoned on less probable testimony in those than in other emergencies, let him be taken and tried, retaken and retried, while the necessity continues, only giving him redress against the government for damages. Examine the history of England. See how few of the cases of the suspension of the habeas corpus law have been worthy of that suspension. They have been either real treasons, wherein the parties might as well have been charged at once, or sham plots, where it was shameful they should ever have been suspected. Yet for the few cases wherein the suspension of the habeas corpus has done real good, that operation is now become habitual and the minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension.

It is a sign of how debased the political discussion has become in this country that if Jefferson has spoken such words today, he would be reviled as a wimp and a mollycoddler of Islamojihadifascists (or whatever the current demonizing term being used to make people cower in fear), as 'not supporting the president' by 'giving him the tools he needs to fight terrorists.'

POST SCRIPT: It could be worse, I suppose

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow sums up the current state of affairs.

October 03, 2006

What happened to the 'land of the free'?

Last Thursday saw the day when the US as a nation formally decided that it no longer accepted the basic human rights that have been the foundation of its civil society since the time it adopted the Bill of Rights. In particular, the nation went on record as declaring that habeas corpus was expendable and torture was acceptable. Of course, torture has been practiced in the past by individuals, even individuals acting on behalf of the government. But when those things were revealed most recently at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we could at least try and argue that these were the abhorrent actions of a few 'rogue elements' and 'bad apples' and did not represent the ideals of the people as a whole.

But when the House of Representatives and the Senate last week passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 allowing these things, and when the president signs these practices into law, then we can no longer use such excuses. These people were all elected to their offices and can claim that they represent the people of their regions. Hence by passing this act America, as a nation, has now formally gone on record as saying that the Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions are all expendable, subservient to whatever measures, however extreme, the president deems necessary to fight his 'war on terror.' The American people, through their elected representatives, are in effect giving the president the powers eagerly sought by dictators.

In this Washington Post news report from September 28, 2006 we can read a description of the legislation.

Included in the bill, passed by Republican majorities in the Senate yesterday and the House on Wednesday, are unique rules that bar terrorism suspects from challenging their detention or treatment through traditional habeas corpus petitions. They allow prosecutors, under certain conditions, to use evidence collected through hearsay or coercion to seek criminal convictions.

The bill rejects the right to a speedy trial and limits the traditional right to self-representation by requiring that defendants accept military defense attorneys. Panels of military officers need not reach unanimous agreement to win convictions, except in death penalty cases, and appeals must go through a second military panel before reaching a federal civilian court.

By writing into law for the first time the definition of an "unlawful enemy combatant," the bill empowers the executive branch to detain indefinitely anyone it determines to have "purposefully and materially" supported anti-U.S. hostilities. Only foreign nationals among those detainees can be tried by the military commissions, as they are known, and sentenced to decades in jail or put to death.

At the same time, the bill immunizes U.S. officials from prosecution for cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees who the military and the CIA captured before the end of last year. It gives the president a dominant but not exclusive role in setting the rules for future interrogations of terrorism suspects.
. . .
Tom Malinowski, the Washington office director for Human Rights Watch, said Bush's motivation is partly to protect his reputation by gaining congressional endorsement of controversial actions already taken. "He's been accused of authorizing criminal torture in a way that has hurt America and could come back to haunt our troops. One of his purposes is to have Congress stand with him in the dock," Malinowski said.
. . .
University of Texas constitutional law professor Sanford V. Levinson described the bill in an Internet posting as the mark of a "banana republic." Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh said that "the image of Congress rushing to strip jurisdiction from the courts in response to a politically created emergency is really quite shocking, and it's not clear that most of the members understand what they've done."

The New York Times wrote a primer on the legislation in its editorial on September 28, 2006:

These are some of the bill’s biggest flaws:
Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.

The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.

Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.

Offenses: The definition of torture is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11. Rape and sexual assault are defined in a retrograde way that covers only forced or coerced activity, and not other forms of nonconsensual sex. The bill would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.

There is not enough time to fix these bills, especially since the few Republicans who call themselves moderates have been whipped into line, and the Democratic leadership in the Senate seems to have misplaced its spine. If there was ever a moment for a filibuster, this was it.

The craven Democrats not only did not filibuster this bill in the Senate, some of them even voted in favor of it. In the House, 'liberals' such as Sherrod Brown (now running for the Ohio Senate seat) and Ted Strickland (now running for Ohio governor) also voted in favor of it, thus reinforcing my long-held view that traditional political labels have ceased to have meaning in terms of policy positions that are favored by the pro-war/pro-business party.

(Incidentally, Strickland is also an ordained minister in my old church (Methodist) which suggests that for some 'liberal' clergy, torture is just fine with their idea of what Jesus stood for. The minister in the Methodist Church I grew up in, Rev. Arnold Cooper, passed away last month. He was a wonderful, humane man who had a great influence on me. He would have been revolted at the thought of a fellow clergyman in his church even thinking of condoning torture.)

[UPDATE: I stand corrected by Tom Maley in the comments. He is right that Strickland did not vote for or against the bill, but was absent. I have been trying to see if Strickland has made any statement either way about the bill but have not been able to find any mention of it, not even on his blog. So while his silence on such a major issue is disturbing, Strickland deserves my apologies for not verifying the facts of his vote. I should not have been depending on second-hand information.]

What this action has done is to make us all accomplices in these terrible things, while providing amnesty for those administration officials who actually carry them out. History is not going to judge us kindly.

POST SCRIPT: The Iraq war, lie by lie

The lies of this administration regarding the Iraq war are so numerous that one can be excused for feeling overwhelmed trying to keep track of them. Mother Jones has provided a great indexed timeline here. It is a terrific resource for anyone who cares about unearthing the truth that is being buried under high drifts of official duplicity and uncritical media reporting.

October 02, 2006

Realistic calculation of the date of our most recent common ancestor

In the previous posting, I discussed the calculation of Joseph T. Chang in which he showed that the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all the people living today lived around 1100 CE, while around 400 CE everyone who lived then was either the ancestor of all of us or none of us. The date when this occurs is called the IA (identical ancestor) date.

Chang got these results assuming that the population is constant over time at some value N, that the generations (with each generation lasting 30 years) are discrete and non-overlapping (i.e. mating took place only between males and females of the same generation), and that mating was random (i.e., there was equal probability of any one male in a generation to breed with any female of that same generation.)

What happens to these dates if you relax these unrealistic assumptions? One practical difficulty of going to more realistic models is that exact mathematical calculations become impossible and one has to resort to computer simulations. This was done by Douglas L. T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang and their results were published in the journal Nature (vol. 431, September 30, 2004, pages 562-566).

As a first improvement, they divided the world into ten population centers (or 'nodes'): one each in North America, South America, Greenland, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Indonesian archipelago, and two nodes in Africa and in Asia. Within each subpopulation, they assumed random mating, but allowed for neighboring populations to exchange just one pair of migrants per generation. Their computer models found that the best way to accommodate varying populations was to take a fixed value N equal to the population at the time of the MRCA. They assumed N to be 250 million, which was approximately the global population in the year I CE.

Using this more realistic model, and a generation span of 30 years, they obtained the MRCA date as 300 BC and the IA date as about 3,000 BCE, both still surprisingly recent.

They then constructed an even more sophisticated and realistic model. They broke up the inhabited area into three levels of substructure: continents, countries, and towns. (These were not real places, of course, just models, but they used our knowledge of geography and migrations routes that existed before 1,500 CE to create their models.)

The model allowed for each person to have a single opportunity to migrate from his or her town of birth. Within a country, they could migrate to any other town. If the migrants went to another country, the probability of that occurring decreased with the distance to the new country. To go to another continent required them to go through certain ports, and so on. The model also incorporated our knowledge of the size of ports and when they opened up.

Generations could also overlap in this model and the birth rate of each continent was adjusted to match historical estimates.

After making all these sophisticated adjustments to make their model more realistic, they arrived at what they felt was a reasonable estimate for the MRCA and IA dates. It turns out that the MRCA lived around 55 CE and the IA date is about 2,000 BCE. They also found that our most recent common ancestor probably lived in eastern Asia, not Africa as had been commonly supposed.

So despite going to considerable lengths to simulate a realistic pattern of population growth, mating, and migration, the dates arrived at for the MRCA and the IA are still surprisingly recent.

(If the authors of the paper made their parameters very conservative, they pushed the date for the MRCA only as far back to 1,415 BCE and the IA date to 5,353 BCE.)

A little reflection should persuade anyone that this result that our most recent common ancestor lived as late as 55 CE and in just 2,000 BCE we had identical ancestors has profound implications for the way we view ourselves and our relationship with others. The authors capture the wonder of it all when they end their paper with the following comment:

[O]ur findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the languages we speak or the colour of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who laboured to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

I find this amazing and remarkably encouraging. It should be more widely known. If more people realized how close we are to each other, perhaps we would stop killing one another and treat each other like the fairly close relatives we truly are.