Thursday, April 28, 2005

Are you aware the Bill of Rights doesn’t protect you against other people?

The Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, called the Bill of Rights, defines the relationship between citizens and the government. It sets out some things the Federal Government can’t prohibit (like speech), and defines some things the Federal Government can’t do (like establish an official religion). But saying what the government can or can’t do is different than saying what people can or can’t do.

While the Bill of Rights does define the relationship between citizens and the government, it doesn’t define the relationship between citizens and other citizens. For example, while the Bill of Rights prevents the Federal Government from unduly limiting a citizen’s right to speak, it doesn’t prevent another citizen from limiting a fellow citizen’s right to speak. So, a restaurant can kick you out for discussing a topic the management doesn’t approve of, even though the police would have no power to prevent the discussion in the public space outside. The right of free speech controls what the policeman can do, not the restaurant owner.

So, what about all these civil rights laws? One may ask. They certainly effect the relationship between citizens, and definitely appear to derive from equal protection rights and other aspects the Amendments to the Constitution. Actually, those laws don’t draw their authority from the Amendments to the Constitution at all. They’re based on the 8th Article of the Constitution proper; the provision which grants Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce.

What does civil rights have to do with interstate commerce?

The libertarians have been asking that one for years…

Monday, April 25, 2005

Are you aware it’s ecologically responsible to drill oil in Alaska?

The world has many ecosystems. The Arabian desert is an ecosystem. The South Caribbean is an ecosystem. The west African jungle is an ecosystem. Each of the countries where 80% of the world’s oil comes from: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Algeria, Nigeria, Libya, Venezuela, each one is made up of ecosystems, and each ecosystem is protected (or not) by those countries, though means they control. The Alaskan tundra is an ecosystem as well, protected by our own Environmental Protection Agency.

Assume for the moment that our EPA does a better job regulating industry’s impact on local ecosystems than the comparable regulatory agencies of those other countries (if they even have something like the EPA at all). Now assume that for at least the near future we are going to consume more oil than we currently produce (which is a fact). That means every barrel of oil we don’t take from our own land, under our own system of regulations and oversight, we get from somewhere else, by whatever way they choose to get it, with whatever effect that has.

When people talk about ‘taking responsibility’, they invariably talk about making the choices and overseeing the process. When they talk about ‘delegating responsibility’, they invariably talk about shifting control of the process to someone else.

So then, there's the question: If you have to get oil from somewhere, and you can either get it according to your own standards, or someone else’s, and your standards are higher, which is the more ecologically responsible choice?

It’s an old proverb, ‘If you want something done right, do it yourself’

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Are you aware Organic foods are GM foods?

'GM' stands for Genetically Modified, meaning a plant or animal which has had it's genes artificially modified from it's original. One way of modifying genes is to change DNA manually, then breed the plant or animal with the new genes. That's a new way. A much older way of doing the same thing is to wait for changes in DNA to occur by chance, then breed the plant or animal with the new genes.

Practically everything we eat, our pets, the fibers in our textiles, all are GM products using this older method. Brussel sprouts, for example, didn't exist before 1500. Orange carrots were invented by the Dutch in the 1600s (as a fashion statement, no less). Wheat and corn were originally grass, not very different than lawn grass (which are also GM creations from original wild grass). Through a long process of genetic modification, natural grasses were turned into an artificial food that's lost it's ability to re-produce in the wild. Wheat and corn husks were modified to not let go of seeds (grain) without artificial processing.

Some have noted an anachronism in the Lord of the Rings movies, that tomatoes were a New World food. But it was actually a double anachronism because Tomatoes are actually a New World berry which was the size of a pea in it's natural form, but which had been genetically modified to grow many times it's natural size to become the tomatoes we think of today.

Every breed of dog is a GM product, a modification of the original wolf. I guess you could say every chiuaua, or beagle, or pit bull is a Franken-wolf.

This older process of genetic modification also hazardous, too. Because it relies on random chance, trial and error, one can never be totally sure of the results. Dog owners know well the problems with some breeds of dogs which make them dangerous, but that's just as true of foods. Potatoes were created out of a variety of deadly nightshade, and were originally poisonous. Even today, some new varieties of potatoes developed using the old methods are rejected by the FDA, because that genetic modification technique allowed heightened levels of that original toxin production to re-emerge.

Also like today, 17th century European consumers were overly skeptical of that GM product from the new world, the potato, because they too feared the Americans of that time didn't apply enough care in their GM science. But once they got over that, potatoes became a staple food. Today it's America's most commonly eaten vegetable.

Fact is, produce bought at the organic market is just as artificial and just as genetically modified as anything else being produced today. Modifying DNA to make something better isn't science fiction, or even something new. It's very very old. Older than history itself... Maybe even as old as the fear of new things.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Are you aware human life begins at thought?

I think therefore I am, said Descartes. Plato identified the nature of man as that he thinks. Aristotle called man the Rational Animal. Even as recently as Terry Schivo, the issue wasn't whether her heart still beat, or lungs breathed, it was whether or not she thought. Brain death is death, because even if every other part of the body is still alive, without the mind, it's just flesh.

Consider the case of parasitic twins. That's when one twin is re-absorbed by the other, often resulting in the child being born with apparently an extra arm, or leg. That arm or leg was not part of her original body, but when that part is removed nobody thinks of it as it's own person, with it's own soul. It's just an arm or leg, because there's no mind, no thought. That's why conjoined twins are a totally different matter. When there's another brain involved, another mind, then there's no doubt there's another person there. It's the mind, it's thinking which defines what's a person, and what's just flesh.

We might never know exactly when the mind develops. But we know the ballpark. Modern science has been able to identify that the brain is developed enough to arguably hold a mind within three months of birth, and definitely not within the first three months after conception.

But we don't need science. We have an intuitive understanding based on something much older, and common to all faiths and beliefs. The burial sacrament. All cultures and all religions understand that when someone dies, they should be put to rest. Common sense tells you there's no need to bury the amputated limb of a parasitic twin. There was never a person there, so there's nobody to bury. It's just flesh. Likewise if an embryo was deformed and never developed a head, was just a torso and limbs and organs, there'd be no urge to mark a person's passing. No mind, no person.

Likewise, nobody even considers funerals for early miscarriages. In those first three months when more than a quarter of pregnancies end, the sorrow isn't for the loss of a person who was, it's for the loss of the person who might have been. In our hearts we know that invisible unformed body didn't have time to reach the point of having a first thought, and until that thought, that group of cells, though clearly human, never got the chance to be a person. People start feeling the need to have a funeral for an unborn child only after 5 or 6 months have passed, when people get serious about choosing a name, when it really feels that a new human being is on the way.... at about the same time science tells us the unborn mind might have started to think.

That's no coincidence. Science is just telling us what we already know: Pregnancy begins at conception, but a person begins at thought.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Are you aware there’s no contradiction between evolution and intelligent design?

Think about a pool table. 15 racked balls are struck by the cue ball, then bounce and collide. Say the 8 ball goes in a pocket. Is that random chance? It appears so, but that’s only because we never bothered to map out all the relationships between all the balls bouncing around. But ask any pool player and he’ll tell you, if you racked the balls in exactly the same way, and struck the cue on the same table with exactly the same force in the same direction, you’ll sink that 8 ball on every break.

The development of man on earth is like that 8 ball. The 4 ball is the environment, the 7 ball is the physics of why DNA mutates sometimes, several others are the other species of animals on earth and the ecosystem all of that creates. If you believe in god, or an intelligent design, that’s the person who made the table, chose the weight and size of the balls, and that’s the person who struck the cue. If you believe in science, that’s the relationship of the balls on the table to each other, and the laws of nature which guided their interaction. Two parts of the same game.

If you believe in intelligent design, you don’t have to ignore the other balls bouncing around the table, nor conclude that the 8 ball went in the pocket only because a hand put it there. If you believe in God, it should be clear that God’s a much more subtle and skilled pool player than that.

If you want to study science, to learn the sequence of which ball struck which, and figure out how the 8 ball landed in the pocket after the break, you don’t have to conclude nobody struck the cue. Who called the shot is a totally different question.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Are you aware the Iraq War started in 1991?

I decided to write this after I watched the protests on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. They were protesting Bush for starting the war, and demanding the troops come home. I understood why they were protesting:

All this started with Al-Quida, and Iraq had nothing to do with that. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but we were sanctioning him, and using the military to contain him, so he wasn’t a threat. At least no more a threat than any of the other tyrants we were sanctioning and containing. There was nothing to ‘pre-empt’. There was no justification for war. And now that we started the war, the Iraqis have been resisting us. Tragically, we’ve turned them to join Al-Quida, only making things worse. The only way to fix it is to pull out.

All that makes perfect sense when viewed from the perspective that all this started in 2001 after Bush took office.

But, this didn’t all start in 2001. We were at war with Al-Quida and didn’t know it, but that wasn’t the only war we didn’t know we were in. What happened with Iraq between 1991 and 2003 was very different than what was going on with Libya, or North Korea, or Iran, or any of the other countries who represented threats that needed to be contained.

A siege is a state of war where a military force surrounds and isolates an enemy, cutting off its supplies in an attempt to force capitulation, or to weaken it to the point where it’s leadership collapses or is easily defeated. That’s different than just economic sanctions.

We may not have thought of it this way, but the naval blockade of Iraqi harbors, the aerial blockade of Iraqi skies, the closure of Iraq’s borders, the periodic missile attacks and air strikes, the restrictions on exports which eroded the Iraqi economy, the restriction of imports which eroded Iraqi infrastructure, the effect this had on the civilian population and was intended to have on the ability of the government to govern..... taken together this set of facts defines a state of siege. From 1991 until 2003 Iraq was besieged.

Of course, Saddam Hussein chose to have his country besieged. UN Resolution 687 was the ceasefire agreement which ended the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein accepted it in April, and broke it in June. The total period of peace with Iraq lasted less than 2 months. The ways he broke the ceasefire ranged from threatening UN officials at gunpoint to an assassination attempt on a United States President. The only remedy for breach in the ceasefire agreement was comprehensive economic sanctions. In other words, isolating the country with an army, cutting off its supplies, until the government capitulated. By the terms of the agreement Saddam Hussein accepted, his actions required that his country be besieged.

And, of course, the international community didn’t recognize the situation as ‘a siege’ or ‘war’. Both resolutions 687 and 661 specified that the blockade did not apply to food or medicine or other humanitarian necessities. At the time even comprehensive sanctions were seen as relatively harmless; a peaceful alternative to guns and bombs.

What many only grew to understand after the experiences of Iraq and Haiti and other places that suffered these kinds of sanctions: Allowing food and medicine is irrelevant where the blockade of other supplies prevents the economy from functioning, making it impossible to obtain the medicine or distribute the food.

It seems wrong to think sanctions might be worse than guns and bombs, but you can’t aim sanctions like you can aim a missile. Strangling a nation’s economy robs the society of it’s very ability to provide for its citizens.

In a siege, the priority is the military in order to keep control and maintain a defense, so it’s always the civilian population that suffers first. No matter how good or evil the besieged may be, those who are otherwise granted the greatest protections by the rules of war, those on the margins of society, the very young, the very old, the weak, and sick are the first casualties. That’s what siege does, and that's what these sanctions did.

The effect of the sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq are well documented. In the mid 90's the humanitarian cost grew so high it caused outcry from humanitarian organizations and even the UN itself, but with Saddam Hussein’s continuing violations of the ceasefire, there was not much they or the UN could do. The child mortality rate in Iraq skyrocketed, and Madeline Albright shocked many with her famous statement that the cost of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children was acceptable. She wasn’t being heartless or indifferent. She was just making an objective evaluation of the state of the siege of Iraq. But it sounded heartless because nobody saw what was happening as a war.

Food for Oil succeeded in mitigating the worst damage, but that didn't stop it being a siege. It only made it a less effective siege. Saddam Hussein used Food for Oil for his own ends while the effects of the remaining restrictions continued to destroy Iraq’s infrastructure and society. It caused the UN Food for Oil administrator himself to resign his post in the late 90’s, calling what was occurring the systematic destruction of a people. Regardless of the degree Saddam Hussein is to blame for the continuation of the siege, this is the damage we are reconstructing today.

But by the late 90’s we had grown accustomed to the idea of relatively harmless ‘containment’. The congress passed laws setting collapse of the Iraq Government as the goal of the policy, and nobody noticed. Our Air force traded missiles for anti-aircraft fire with the Iraqis, without anyone even raising an eyebrow to wonder if this was passive containment, or active war.

Actually, this wasn’t ‘containment’, this was two armies trying to fight a contained war.

The distinction is important because, like every single time anyone ever tried to fight a limited war, the Iraq war spread. Trade goes two ways. Not only was Iraq injured by the sanctions, Iraq’s trade partners were injured as well. That had little effect on us in the West, but it amounted to sanctioning Iraq’s neighbors for something they had nothing to do with. As a result, people in the Arab world began to change their attitude from seeing Saddam Hussein as the threat, to seeing the harm the sanctions were causing them as the threat. Added to that, the United States’ responsibility to enforce the ceasefire agreement required them to go back on their promise to withdraw after Kuwait was restored. Christian soldiers who had promised to leave were now staying indefinitely, patrolling Muslim holy ground. To the average Muslim, rightly or wrongly, this could appear no different than any of the previous times western powers planted troops in their countries. They always came saying they only wished to protect, but then stayed to control. The Muslim world was directly effected by what was happening. As with Palestine, they began to identify with the besieged.

Of course, things couldn’t have gone any differently. Saddam Hussein’s actions were defining the international response. The US and the UN were doing the only thing they could do if Saddam Hussein broke the cease fire, and Saddam Hussein kept on breaking the ceasefire.

But nevertheless, dissatisfaction over the situation expressed itself in funds and recruits to Al-Quida. At that time Al-Quida was not considered a terror network. They were still thought of as the freedom fighters who defended Afghanistan from Soviet colonialism. In their frustration and misunderstanding, many offered Al-Quda support to fight what they saw as new colonialism.

As a result, ‘Containment’ became an oxymoron. It was not containing threats, it was generating them. Al-Quida took that support, and used it to go to war with us. Then they did what they did, on that date we all remember.

But that just told us we were a war with Al-Quida. We still didn’t see the Iraq war for what it was, much less that the Iraq war started the Al-Quida war.

So, then there’s the question: Why didn’t anyone just tell us? Why all the smoke and mirrors with secret weapons programs and mysterious ‘links’ and whatnot? I don’t know what the real reason is, but there’s plenty of reasons that fit the bill.

One possibility is because we honestly did think Saddam Hussein had nerve gas and anthrax and all the other things every spy service in the world thought he had. Saddam Hussein broke the ceasefire every time UN inspectors came close to something he didn’t want them to see. We had no way of knowing until after the fact why: He didn’t want to get caught hiding actual weapons, but he also wanted people to think he had them so his enemies would keep a distance. Most of all, he wanted to be able to get the weapons back for real the second the siege lifted. But regardless, all of that missed the point. Saddam Hussein wasn’t being besieged because he had weapons. Lots of countries have weapons. The war dragged on because every time they offered him peace, he broke it.

A more ‘conspiracy theory’ possibility is that the Bush Administration valued establishing a ‘pre-emption doctrine’ over debating a grim history. You can’t pre-empt a war if you’re already at war. The thought might have been that drawing a line in the sand would prevent this happening again. Iraq was a problem that needed solving. If it could be solved in a way that would prevent another Iraq, all the better.

But maybe the simplest explanation is nobody wanted to say anything that might be mistaken as a justification for Al-Quida. It’s a very ugly thing having to admit that you’ve been laying siege to an entire country for a decade. It’d mean being forced to go into all the tragedy and suffering that caused, and every country had a hand in it. Even if it was all Saddam Hussein’s fault, and even considering none of it could possibly excuse what Al-Quida did, the last thing the world wanted to hear after 9/11 was something like that.

Whatever the reasons, we approached the whole issue as though it began in 2001, without any appreciation for the history which lead up to it.

Because of that, wierd things started to happen. The peace movement began to oppose ‘the Iraq war’ in counterproductive ways. Well meaning people offered themselves as human shields to Saddam Hussein, who was the one man in the world working hardest to make wars happen. They stood in front of Iraqi schools and hospitals not realizing they wouldn’t be targeted by missiles, but were targeted by sanctions, and those schools and hospitals would be destroyed if they succeeded in stopping the invasion. Even now these same well meaning people are demanding troops withdraw, when they’re the only thing preventing Iraq’s violence from disintegrating into a Darfur, or a Cambodia, or a Rwanda.

On the other side of things, conservatives who usually only care about private business interests started spending large sums of money freeing people from tyranny. Often from the same tyrants that used to be their business partners.

So, to make sense of all of this, let's take a step back and look at 2003:

The United States was stuck in a war with Iraq, and that war was spawning other wars. It could do three things: Change nothing, Withdraw, or Invade.

Changing nothing would continue to strengthen Al-Quida and similar groups. They lost their bases in Afghanistan, but Al-Quida's recruiting and support was still being fueled by, from their point of view, the foreign occupation of the Muslim holy land. It was also being fueled by the economic hardships the sanctions were forcing upon Iraq's trade partners, as well as the damage the siege was doing to the Iraqi people directly.

The critics who said war with Iraq strengthened terrorism are right, but they should have been talking about the war prior to 2003. Likewise, the critics who warned of ‘quagmire’ were right, except they missed the fact that we were already ten years deep in the quagmire they warned of. Conversely, those who drew links between Iraq and Al-Quida were half-right, too. Though Saddam Hussein had no hand in Al-Quida’s attacks, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. If we let things sit, inevitability the enemies in America’s war on two fronts would join forces, regardless of how much they disliked each other, or whatever 'ties' they may or may not have had, or whatever kind of weapons they might share for more damaging effect. They’d be foolish not to. Finally, what the Anti-War movement never really totally understood, continuing the Iraq war would guarantee the Iraqi people would suffer not just under tyranny, but also under siege, indefinitely.

Then there's Withdrawal. Giving up and going home is dangerous. It invites the enemy to counterattack. It would be gambling that an ambitious warmongering vengeful enemy who has zero respect for human life, humiliated, caged, starved, attacked, who had his own people turned against him, would be OK with just letting bygones be bygones after he won the siege. You can start a war unilaterally, but there’s no such thing as a unilateral peace.

Which leaves invasion. That’s dangerous too, but removing Saddam Hussein means ending the siege. That would end the accidental sanction on Iraq’s neighbors, and it would withdraw troops ‘occupying’ the Muslim countries around Iraq. It would eliminate the strongest of Al-Quida's recruiting arguments. Replacing the Iraq socialist dictatorship with a representative democracy and rebuilding their economy would allow all the troops to leave, proving we are not colonizers. Like everyone else, the neo-cons were half-right, but it’s not about ‘democratizing the middle east’. It’s about ending a decade of war, repairing the damage, then coming home.

The United States and several allies, after Saddam Hussein again broke the terms of a ceasefire he accepted, chose Invasion as the best course. Yes, there’s plenty to criticize about how all that happened, but Iraq isn’t about George Bush. Iraq is about Iraq. Take Bush out of it, and what's left is that the war against Saddam Hussein lasted from 1991 to 2003.

The start of the Iraq war everyone protests so much, was actually the end of the Iraq war.

It’s obvious that the fighting continued, but in 2003 we disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army. The wealth of the country is no longer controlled by Saddam Hussein or any successor of his. Saddam Hussein sits in a jail cell awaiting trial and punishment for the more than twenty years of hell he put his country though. The war with Saddam Hussein is over.

Now, we’re fighting Al-Quida and the other after-effects of decades of suffering. In fighting that war, we forget that Iraq’s 150 thousand security forces represent the largest military contribution of any country currently assisting us. We also forget that the Iraqi government is now elected and legitimate, and want us to stay until they no longer need our 140 thousand security forces assisting them.

In any event, realizing we were already at war with Iraq in the 90's means:

All this started with Saddam Hussein, and Al-Quida was a side effect of that. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, but we were besieging him not sanctioning him, and using the military to contain him was creating more threats. There was nothing to ‘pre-empt’, but the invasion was justified because ending a war is always justified. And knowing that Saddam Hussein started the war, the vast majority of Iraqis haven't resisted us. Tragically, some of them turned to join Al-Quida, but if we help the Iraqis build a free country, things won't get worse, they'll get better. The only way to fix it is to stay as long as it takes, and fix it.