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Ebola: two curious questions of language

Friday, October 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- when misunderstandings beget panics, we're not too conceptually far from rumors of wars becoming wars ]
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Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

Hilton Garden Inn, Liberia, Costa Rica

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Language matters.

I know I keep saying this, but it is true, and in the past few days I have run across two cases where false assumptions about the meaning of language have led to erroneous “hearing” of a message, with consequent unfortunate results.

I’ll post the press reports first in each case, then my own comments.

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Red Cross and Rose Cross:

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies recently posted Fighting superstition in Congo’s Ebola zone:

In mid-February, at the peak of the epidemic, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. A local sorcerer accused four teachers of killing people to acquire supernatural powers.

According to him, the four belonged to the Rose-Croix, a Gabonese sect. The teachers – all from the same political party – were lynched by a mob wielding iron clubs and machetes.

Most of the terrified population of Kellé fled in the forest. From this time, a dangerous confusion has developed in people’s minds: Pink-Cross and Red Cross were seen as indistinguishable, all the more so because in the local Lingala language, the word for red and pink is the same.

My suspicion is that the Rose-Croix in question is not “a Gabonese sect” but Rosicrucians in the AMORC tradition familiar to those who chase divine secrets through ads in the back pages of esoteric journals — in this case, under the supervision of Serge Toussaint, Grand Master of the French court of AMORC, who visited Libreville, Gabon in July 2010 to address the Rosicrucian Central African Convention “On the Trail of Light”.

The original Rosicrucians were a key group of intellectuals in the early enlightenment period, best described in:

  • Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and
  • Christopher McIntosh, The Rose Cross and the Age of Reason
  • The Red Cross, or more precisely The International Committee of the Red Cross, is a global humanitarian organization whose founder, Henry Dunant, was one of two recipients of the first Nobel Prize for Peace in 1901, and the Red Cross has subsequently been awarded the Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963.

    Red is not pink, though a rose may be a rose be a rose.

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    Liberia and Liberia:

    Rebecca Gordon, in Ebola & Immigrants and Muslims, Oh My! Operating the Fear Machine, writes of Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM:

    The general has proof that they’re already coming – all the way from Africa. In fact, he says, a U.S. embassy employee in Costa Rica told him about a group of migrants he’d met on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. And where were these migrants coming from, Kelly asked? The embassy worker told him, “Liberia.” Liberians traveling to the United States through Central America. Who knew?

    As it turns out, these folks may well have been from “Liberia,” but they probably weren’t Africans. Chances are they came from Liberia, Costa Rica, the state capital of Guanacaste province there. This from the man in charge of all U.S. military operations in Latin America.

    Gen Kelly’s remarks were reported by DoD News in Kelly: Southcom Keeps Watch on Ebola Situation, October 8, and more widely in Time‘s General: Expect ‘Mass Migration’ to U.S. if Ebola Comes to Central America, October 9. Neither story picked up on the “two Liberias, one in Africa and one in Costa Rica” aspect of the story.

    The two reporters, and likewise the General, were presumably unaware of the Costa Rican Liberia. Rebecca Gordon has worked in and published on Nicaragua, holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. from Graduate Theological, and has a sharp eye for telling detail.

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    And we all have our blindspots. The question is, what can we do about them?

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    Ebola: the Islamic State / Daesh — and before them, Aum Shinrikyo

    Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- once again, the message is "keep calm and carry on" ]
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    The-Ebola-virus

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    First off, a tweet I made this morning, quoting a stunning fact from Scientific American‘s piece today, Where Does Ebola Hide?

    I would like to honor the memory, compassion and courage of those who died, and the compassion and courage of those who worked beside them.

    **

    That said ..

    In a post titled What Would It Take to Bring Ebola Into the U.S. and the NATO Crusaders’ (see image below), a poster on what we’re told is an official IS forum suggested three approaches:

    • infect ISIS fighters in Africa send them to the US to spread the disease
    • bring a bottle of Pepsi filled with the virus from Africa to the US and pour it into the water supply
    • send the virus “in the mail like anthrax”.

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    IS Ebola Threat
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    There thus appear to be be two major ways in which the “terrorists might use Ebola against us” idea can be presented: the first involves getting one or more live IS suicide volunteers into the United States before their symptoms make them easily identifiable; the other involves using a “weaponized” form of the virus in some form of bomb, as in the “Pepsi” and “mail” sugestions above.

    Let’s take a look at each of the two in turn. While we’re at it, we may want to consider the backgrounds of the authorities quoted.

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    Amanda Teckman, author of the paper “The Bioterrorist Threat of Ebola in East Africa and Implications for Global Health and Securityconcludes that “the threat of an Ebola bioterrorist attack in East Africa is a global health and security concern, and should not be ignored.” The Washington Post has quoted Teckman, whose master’s degree is in diplomacy and international relations — so she must surely know, eh?

    Professor Anthony Glees agrees that the strategy might be considered. He says, “In some ways it’s a plausible theory – IS fighters believe in suicide and this is a potential job for a suicide mission. They are sufficiently murderous and well-informed to consider it, and they know that we’ve been remiss in the UK.” Prof. Glees appears to be an expert on the Stasi and intelligence, and is Director at Buckingham University’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies

    They would know, too, right? They’re national security experts, they have what I might characterize as “adjacent authority”.

    And Capt. Al Shimkus (Ret) says the strategy is entirely plausible. He told Forbes, “The individual exposed to the Ebola Virus would be the carrier. In the context of terrorist activity, it doesn’t take much sophistication to go to that next step to use a human being as a carrier.” Capt. Shimkus is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he teaches a course in chemical and biological warfare. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science in Nurse Anesthesia.

    Capt. Shimkus would appear to be better credentialled to discuss the matter than Prof. Glees or Ms. Teckman — but he’s no research scientist working in the field of biological agents.

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    William Schaffner, on the other hand, is an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt. He spoke with Vocativ, who reported:

    Schaffner .. believes it’s doubtful that an ISIS soldier could start an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. The most likely way to spread Ebola would be for an infected fighter to head to an emergency room without telling anyone he’s carrying the disease. That could potentially spread the virus to health care workers, Schaffner says, but even that scenario is far-fetched. Ebola symptoms can surface after just a couple days. By the time a would-be martyr reached the U.S., he’d probably be too ill to make it past customs. “Once the serious symptoms begin, the patient typically becomes too incapacitated and cannot go further,” Chow points out.

    Jack Chow is Distinguished Service Professor of Global Health at Carnegie Mellon.

    Dr Schaffner’s medical credentials, largely oriented to epoidemiology, are available on the Vanderbilt site.

    Dr Chow’s bio is on the Carnegie Mellon site, and includes an MD from UCSF and an MPA in International Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Further:

    Dr. Chow held the rank of ambassador as the Special Representative on Global HIV/AIDS for Secretary of State Colin Powell and as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Health and Science, the first U.S. diplomat of ambassador rank appointed to a public health mission. He led American diplomatic efforts in the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and in countering global infectious diseases and bioterrorism threats.

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    So much for the human delivery system. The weaponized virus method is even less plausible:

    Here in a nutshell is the conclusion drawn in an article titled Ebola Bomb: Possible, But Not So Easy to Make, published in Live Science:

    If some worst-case scenarios are to be believed, then terrorist groups could use the recent outbreak of Ebola in Africa to their advantage. By using the Ebola virus as a biological weapon, the story goes, these groups could wreak havoc around the globe.

    But the idea that Ebola could be used as a biological weapon should be viewed with heavy skepticism, according to bioterrorism experts. Although deadly, Ebola is notoriously unstable when removed from a human or animal host, making weaponization of the virus unlikely, two experts told Live Science.

    The article goes on to quote Dr. Peter Walsh of Cambridge, who believes “A bigger and more serious risk is that a group manages to harness the virus as a powder, then explodes it in a bomb in a highly populated area .. It could cause a large number of horrific deaths”. Dr. Walsh is a biological anthropologist, and thus far the best-credentialled of those arguing or the possibility of an Ebola attack on American or European soil, but the Live Science piece then follows up with some comments from (in my view, in my view) even more persuasive authorities:

    [T]he idea of Ebola being harvested for use in a “dirty bomb” sounds more like science fiction than a real possibility to bioterrorism experts.

    Dr. Robert Leggiadro, a physician in New York with a background in infectious disease and bioterrorism, told Live Science that although Ebola is listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a possible bioterrorism agent, that doesn’t necessarily mean the virus could be used in a bomb.

    “The thing about Ebola is that it’s not easy to work with,” Leggiadro said. “It would be difficult to weaponize.”

    And Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, COO of SecureBio, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear security firm in the United Kingdom, said that claims like Walsh’s are an example of fear-mongering.

    “The chance of the Zaire strai of Ebola being made into a biological weapon is less than nil,” de Bretton-Gordon said, referring to the strain of Ebola that is causing the current outbreak in West Africa. “It’s just not going to happen.”

    And to quote from the Vocativ piece, Here’s one terror threat you can ignore, again, since it’s actually the only article I’ve seen that directly addresses the suggestions made by the IS poster:

    A virus like Ebola survives only through bodily fluids passed on from one person to another. “You can’t just take the virus and pour it in a reservoir, and expect everybody in the city to get sick,” says William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University

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    One other point to consider — and this is where my interest in new religious movements once again proves its revelance to present day situations.

    Aum Shinrikyo.

    Aum’s interest in Ebola virus as a potential weapon was sincere enough that its leader, Shoko Asahara, had gone to Zaire with 40 of his followers in an attempt to obtain samples of the pathogen. Scientific American, in an article last month titled Weaponized Ebola: Is It Really a Bioterror Threat? wrote:

    The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo — infamous for setting off sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995 — also looked into Ebola as a potential biological weapon. In 1992, they sent a medical group of 40 people ostensibly to help provide aid during an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their real purpose, however, was to collect some Ebola virus, as Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted in her 2000 report Ataxia. The effort was a “flagrant failure,” she says. “They did not get their hands on a culture.”

    According to DW Brackett‘s Holy Terror: Armageddon in Tokyo however, Aum Shinrikyo “Minister of Health and Welfare“, biologist Seiichi Endo, nevertheless delivered a speech in Moscow two years later “in which he discussed the use of Ebola as a potential biological warfare weapon”.

    The Scientific American piece concludes:

    Even if Aum Shinrikyo had managed to gather samples of the Ebola virus, it would have been extremely difficult to kill large numbers of people in countries with a strong health infrastructure such as Japan. Once the virus had been identified and patients isolated, the pathogen would have been unlikely to spread widely. Still, any terrorist attempting to stoke fears rather than accrue a high body count could have some modicum of success with Ebola. “When talking about bioterror, it’s more about the terror than it is the bio,” Fauci says.

    So there you have it.

    See also:

    As far as I can tell from the Index, Dr Ian Reader‘s book, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo, does not mention Ebola. It is, however, the definitive study of this religious movement with a penchant for biochemical weaponry.

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    From the caliphate to Ferguson and back, it’s a small world

    Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- starting with the news, closing with Jay Forrester & the impact of systems dynamics on our understanding of cause and effect -- a catchup post ]
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    Clearing the decks grom the last few days, I found this DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ferguson staring out at me from my twitter feed — suggesting just how intricately interwoven our world really is:

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    Souad Mekhennet has a piece titled Even the Islamists of ISIS are obsessing over Ferguson in the Washington Post:

    You can understand if President Obama would rather talk about the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, where he has scored some victories, than talk about the unholy mess in Ferguson, Mo. Surprisingly, though, ISIS militants are following developments in the St. Louis suburb, and some of them would rather focus on that. According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb, where protesters and police have clashed. In it, they see opportunity.

    Here are a couple of ISIS-fan tweets:

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    Look, the point I’m making isn’t about Ferguson, it isn’t about the Islamic State, it has to do with the way that an event in one place whill have myriad unexpected effects downstream. The classic case which really opened my eyes to this was Aum Shinrikyo — the group that released sarin in the Tokyo subway system — sending a planeload of its members to Zaire in an attempt to collect Ebola samples for their biochem weapons labs.

    Someone in a medium size yoga cult in Japan read the New Yorker and learned that Ebola esisted and was lethal, and the next thing you know there’s a religious terror group, led by a guy who reads Nostradamus, Asimov and Revelation — and has been granted a photo op with the Dalai Lama — working diligently to get that capability.

    That was back in the last century, but Ebola’s in the news again these days, and it turns out that epidemiology needs to take into account pervasive belief in some affected corners of Africa that the whole business is a conspiracy designed to imprison Africans in “clinics” — the result being riots against at least one clinic, and blood-stained bedclothes and live virus carriers being dispersed into a poorly protected slum.

    Epidemiology as theorized and modeled should be cleaner than that. But then there are other factors — in the case of polio, there’s CIA use of a vaccination team as cover for an attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA in Abbottabad, resulting in widespread rumors of conspiracy, refusal of vaccinations, and a resurgence of the disease.

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    Big question: how can you figure out the unknown unknowns represented by riots affecting quarantine? words spoken when a mic supposedly off is in fact on? the impact of large scale climate engineering.

    One of the ideas that has most influenced me in my thinking about games, simulations and models over the last dozen or more years comes from Jay Forrester. I’ll quote him from section 4.1, Cause and Effect Not Closely Related in Time or Space, in his 2009 paper, Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century, though I think I first ran across the idea in one of his books, probably Urban Dynamics (1969) or World Dynamics (1971):

    Most understandable experiences teach us that cause and effect are closely related in time and space. However, the idea that the cause of a symptom must lie nearby and must have occurred shortly before the symptom is true only in simple systems. In the more realistic complex systems, causes may be far removed in both timing and location from their observed effects.

    From earliest childhood we learn that cause and effect are closely associated. If one touches a hot stove, the hand is burned here and now. When one stumbles over a threshold, the cause is immediately seen as not picking the foot high enough, and the resulting fall is immediate. All simple feedback processes that we fully understand reinforce the same lesson of close association of cause and effect. However, those lessons are aggressively misleading in more complex systems.

    In systems composed of many interacting feedback loops and long time delays, causes of an observed symptom may come from an entirely different part of the system and lie far back in time.

    To make matters even more misleading, such systems present the kind of evidence that one has been conditioned by simple systems to expect. There will be apparent causes that meet the test of being closely associated in time and in location. However, those apparent causes are usually coincident symptoms arising from a distant cause. People are thereby drawn to actions that are not relevant to the problem at hand.

    That stunned me. But it gets a little worse:

    Comments such as I have just made about cause and effect carry little conviction from being stated in a text. Only after a student has repeatedly worked with models that demonstrate such behavior, and has had time to observe the same kinds of behavior in real life, will the idea be internalized and become part of normal thinking.

    I don’t think that’s quite right, I think we’re now seeing generations arise for whom system dynamics and networked thinking seem progressively more “intuitive” — more in tune with the zeitgeist.

    But the decision makers? As far as I can see, they are largely impervious to the kinds of thinking necessary to navigate our complexly interwoven envirorment.

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    Tisha b’Av and Gaza

    Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- of the Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary, by way of Bamiyan and Timbuktu, the Cordoba Mezquita and Cathedral ]
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    The Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, then and now

    The Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary, then and now

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    Today as I write this, it is Tisha b’Av — the day on which the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem took place in 587 BCE and 70 CR respectively — observed with mourning in the Jewish calendar.

    I have recently been saddened by the destruction of sufi shrines by jihadist forces in Timbuktu and of Shia Husseiniyas in Tal Afar and Mosul. I am saddened by the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples in much the same way that I mourn the destruction of so many other sacred sites across the centuries — most personally in my case, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Afghan Taliban within my lifetime. And I sympathize with those saddened by the imposition of a Christian cathedral in the middle of the Mezquita of Cordoba — and would be saddened yet again should that cathedral be torn down in the name of yet another “conquering” religion.

    It is the habit of conquerors to destroy or reorient the shrines and temples of the conquered in alignment wiuth their own religious beliefs or secular ideologies, and likewise of the conquered to retain their own faith, either adapting it to continue under cover of the newer religion, or maintaining its memory with the hope of its soon revival.

    Cordoba, the Mesquita / Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site

    In the case of the Mezquita or Grand Mosque of Cordoba, the mosque itself was built on the site of a Visigoth church, and still contains its eastern wall in which the mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca is now situated. I tend to share the regret Carlos V expressed when he said of the cathedral built within the mosque:

    You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.

    Be that as it may, history is a palimpsest, and while I can sympathize with the grief Msulims feel at the loss of their great place of prayer in Cordoba, I can also sympathize woith those Christians for whom the cathedral is their place of worship.

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    Likewise, while I can sympathize with how observant Jews feel at the loss of the First and second Temples, commemorated with fasting on this day, I am also vividly aware that on Temple Mount — known to Islam as the Noble Sanctuary — now stand the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, two structures sacred to observant Muslims.

    As we consider the recent events in Gaza — warfare and ceacefires alike — and on the occasion of Tisha b’Av, it is worth remembering that as recently as a little over a year ago, Knesset member Uri Ariel suggested it was time to rebuild the Temple on Temple Mount:

    Perhaps he envisioned the words of the prophet, “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former, saith the LORD of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, saith the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:9).

    “We’ve built many little, little temples,” Ariel said, meaning synagogues, “but we need to build a real Temple on the Temple Mount.”

    Rabbi Richman on Temple Mount

    Indeed, today Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute led a party of Jews up the Mount in commemoration of the two previous Temples, telling reporters:

    Today, on Tisha B’Av, the day upon which the Holy Temple was destroyed, we came together with hundreds of Jews to the Temple Mount to fulfill the commandment of being in the holy place, to pray there for the welfare of the IDF soldiers who are defending all of Israel, and to show that the cycle of endless mourning can only end when the Jewish people are ready to accept responsibility for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. That responsibility rests squarely upon our shoulders. The sages of Israel have taught that the Holy Temple can only be rebuilt once the nation has achieved a level of unity and unconditional love. Throughout the past few weeks, our nation has been witness to a level of unity that is almost unprecedented in memory. This is the type of unity and commitment that will enable our generation, with the help of God and with the will of the people of Israel, to rebuild the Holy Temple.

    Thus Gaza this year is interwoven with Tisha b’Av and the rebuilding of the Temple — on a site already occupied by the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock — in a manner which complicates the overall situation in Jerusalem with the “end times” expectations of not two but three great world religions.

    Grief upon grief.

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    For greater detail on these issues, see my posts Three from Haaretz on the Temple Mount and The most contested piece of real-estate on earth. As I noted in both posts, Gershom Gorenberg‘s book The End of Days is the definitive text exploring these differing apocalyptic expectations.

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    And her maid

    Sunday, July 27th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- the comparative values of single individuals captured by Boko Haram in Cameroon, as illustrated by a report from the BBC ]
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    The point was very nicely observed by Elizabeth Pearson, who tweeted:

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    Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Beeb’s report mention “the wife of the country’s deputy prime minister” and “A local religious leader and mayor” — but you have to wait for paragraph 6 to read “and her maid”.

    What can I say? I both understand and regret the way this works..

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