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Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

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Nairobi conspiracism from a popular Kenyan tweeter

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — “certain people were warned to stay away” as a recurring theme in terror attacks ]
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Conspiracism was, I’m afraid, inevitable: it’s in the air, worldwide. What’s interesting here is the evident local popularity of the guy who posted this tweet:

This was posted early this morning.

Back in August 2012, the Nairobi Wire site ran a piece headlined Twitter Goes Silent As Robert Alai Is Arrested which referred to Robert Alai as the “tweep in chief” — so we can deduce that Alai already had quite a following at least a year prior to the Westgate tragedy. As of this time of writing, he has 88,046 followers: some may be following him for the lulz, but surely not all of them.

Let’s just call this an early indicator of an undertow in the currents rippling around Nairobi and the Westgate Mall event. It is significant (I wouldn’t go nearly so far as to say important) as one small piece of a much larger cultural puzzle. And pattern-wise, it’s a local match for the Jews were warned to stay away meme that circulated after 9/11.

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H/t Laura Seay for pointing us to this “Kenyan Truther” tweet.

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Guest Post: Cheryl Rofer – I Hope the Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Cheryl Rofer, scientist, WMD expert and founder of Nuclear Diner.com and long-time friend of ZP blog, will be cross-posting here today regarding the report “Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action” by Microsoft billionaire, venture capitalist, theoretical mathematician and cookbook author, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold

I Hope The Government Doesn’t Listen to Nathan Myhrvold

by Cheryl Rofer

Shane Harris at Foreign Policy tells us that Nathan Myhrvold, fresh off introducing the world to liquid nitrogen and other expensive innovations for cookery, is now going to straighten out the US government on terrorism. He has produced a thirty-three page paper that he is shopping around Washington to help the government get things right.

Except that Myhrvold does not understand the definition of a threat: intent + capability. And he gets a lot of things wrong.

He has a lot to say about what he calls, and barely defines, “strategic terrorism.” This is apparently intended to be parallel to the strategic nuclear threats of the Cold War. But during the Cold War, both the United States and Russia had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. They still do. The terrorists that Myhrvold discusses do not have weapons that can kill millions of Americans, which seems to be central to “strategic terrorism.” It’s not even clear that they have intent, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. That is only half a threat.

Could they get that capability? Myhrvold is convinced they can, but he offers little in the way of evidence, and some of that is incorrect. Further, he confuses possibility with actuality throughout the paper, slipping easily from might to could to can.

Let’s get the biggest factual error out of the way first. On page 5, Myhrvold says:

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also greatly aided the dispersal of nuclear knowledge and potentially even complete weapons.

Note that potentially. again on page 10:

Today, tremendously lethal technology is available on the cheap. Anyone—even a stateless group—can have the deadliest weapons on earth. Several trends led to this inflection point. One is nuclear proliferation, which in recent years reached a tipping point at which access to nuclear weapons became impossible to control or limit in any absolute way. The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states, and from there, the weapons may spread further into the hands of terrorists. At the same time, the set of ragtag countries that have developed homegrown nuclear devices is large and growing. The entrance to the nuclear-weapons club, once limited to a small number of sophisticated and stable countries, is now far more open.

Myhrvold is simply wrong that “The collapse of the Soviet Union scattered ex-Soviet weapons across many poorly governed and policed states.” He may have heard that when the Soviet Union split into fifteen separate states in December 1991, four of them had nuclear weapons: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. This was a consequence of Soviet basing policy and the rapidity with which the Soviet Union fell apart. Kazakhstan decided it didn’t want to be a nuclear power and sent its missiles back to Russia. It took a bit more persuasion to convince Belarus and Ukraine, but they sent theirs back too. Twenty-two years after the breakup, there is no evidence that any Soviet nuclear weapons are outside Russia.

And the “large and growing” number of “ragtag countries” that “have developed homegrown nuclear devices”? Well, let’s count them. Outside the five nuclear weapons countries enumerated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan that are known to have significant numbers of nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested three nuclear devices; whether they have weaponized any is not known. And, despite Iran’s insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons, some people believe that is the case. That’s all I can think of. Nine is not a large number, nor is it growing particularly rapidly. I’ll leave it to Myhrvold to tell us which of those countries are “ragtag.”

So his assumption that nuclear weapons are easily available to terrorist organizations fails. I’m not as closely acquainted with the issues of biological weapons, but if Myhrvold’s arguments there are equivalent to the ones on nuclear weapons, I’m not worried. Likewise, he cites only one example, Aum Shinrikyo, for the terrorist use of chemical weapons, but there have been no incidents since. And he uses his expansionary sense of capability: If they had been able to disperse the sarin more effectively, more people would have died. But they didn’t; these weapons are difficult to make effective, and small groups, even with expertise, have shown themselves not up to the capability of states.

It’s worth going back to that paragraph from page ten to examine Myhrvold’s rhetorical methods, which persist throughout the paper. The first two sentences are sensational assertions with no specific content. And it is an inflection point – everything has changed! This is a common trope for computer guys, and the rest of us are on to it. Again, no specifics. Then the “facts,” which turn out to be wrong and unsupported. And then the sensational conclusion that the first two sentences told us we would come to.

He provides a number of old chestnuts, again with no support. Many of them have been shown to be doubtful.

  • Terrorists have no home address; therefore retaliation and deterrence are difficult or impossible.
  • “If a nation-state really wants to hurt the United states, why risk reprisal? Why not inflict damage by giving encouragement, resources, and direction to a group such as al Qaeda?”
  • “The quickest path to power for a ruthless and ambitious 21st-century man in many parts of the world is now to lead a stateless terror group.”
  • “The bully pulpit afforded by modern communications has allowed what once would have been isolated fringe groups to knit together into formidable adversaries against the most powerful nations on earth.”

He conflates all terror groups with al-Qaeda and almost asserts that their single goal is to build a caliphate. I say “almost” because throughout the paper, he implies or states pseudo-conclusions loosely connected to earlier statements, not quite willing to own his implications. However, since he includes them, one might assume that they represent his thinking. This method of presentation, however, leaves him ample room to say “I didn’t say that.”

He defines (or, in his loose way, almost defines) tactical and strategic terrorism, presumably attempting a parallel with tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical terrorism – the shooting up of shopping malls and bombing of marathons – can be handled by normal means of law enforcement. Strategic terrorism – which seems to mean actions that can kill millions of Americans – needs Myhrvold’s advice.

The parallel, however, doesn’t work, because strategic nuclear weapons exist, but the capability for a terrorist group to kill millions of Americans doesn’t and isn’t likely to for some time, if ever.

But let’s consider Myhrvold’s advice. It is to centralize and highly fund (ah, now we see why he’s getting an audience in Washington) an organization with a single executive to prevent strategic terrorism.

Business knows best, he says, and this is how business does it. But, whatever the virtues, this has been tried before. Any number of politicians and lobbyists have advocated a special agency with an executive focused like a laser on their preferred goals. Sometimes the agency is formed. It would be helpful if Myhrvold would list the successful examples.

The government is doing many of the things that Myhrvold advocates; he seems not to have researched what is being done and what is not. And some of his (almost) suggestions are scary: we must reconsider whether the dangers from the Bill of Rights outweigh the benefits. Not even that explicitly, his goals of preventing strategic terrorism imply a great deal of surveillance, probably a lot more than the NSA is now being accused of.

Harris says that Myhrvold is talking to people in federal agencies concerned with terrorism, although Myhrvold is shy about saying whom. There are always a few people in federal agencies who are impressed by a Big Name with Big Money. Perhaps they just wanted him to sign their copy of his cookbook. And perhaps some see an opportunity to use Myhrvold’s recommendations to enhance their agency’s budget or reach.

But it’s the sameold sameold: be very afraid, the terrorists are coming to get you! The country seems to be moving past that after twelve long years.

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Pie Jesus, dona eis requiem

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — of Ozymandias, as Shelley’s story-teller friend reminds us, all that remains are “vast and trunkless legs of stone” ]
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I am very fond of the long view, in which each of us becomes (physical) dust and enters (mental) oblivion — not necessarily in that order — see Shelley, Osymandias, best read by the wonderful Eleanor Bron

I take the video below, with its scenes both of a young girl playing a tribute of flowers to the fallen of 9/11 and of Osama bin Laden, set to Fauré‘s plangent and beautiful Pie Jesus, dona eis requiemBlessed Jesus, grant them peace — as truly comprehensible only in that long view, where oblivion meets forgiveness…
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The notes accompanying the video tell us:

Uploaded on May 4, 2011
Pie Jesu (from Requiem by Gabriel Fauré)

Words : Tommaso da Celano (1200 – 1265)
Music : Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924)

Conductor : Michel Corboz
Soprano : Alain Clement
Organ: Philippe Corboz
Berne Symphony Orchestra

Recording on May 1972, in Casino de Berne, Switzerland

Verse :

Pie Jesu Domine (Merciful Jesus) ,
dona eis requiem (grant them rest) ,
sempiternam requiem (grant them everlasting rest) .

Notes:

1) The War in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989)

was a conflict involving the Soviet Union and her puppet against the indigenous Afghan Mujahideen and foreign “Arab–Afghan” volunteers. The mujahideen found military and financial support from a variety of sources particularly Saudi Arabia and the United States.

2) September 11 Attack

The September 11 attacks were a series of coordinated suicide attacks by al-Qaeda led by “Osama bin Laden” upon the United States on September 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 victims include 343 firefighters and 60 police officers died in the attacks.

The United States responded to the attacks, invaded Afghanistan. This war is not over yet.

3) Osama bin Laden (1957 – 2011)

Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. On 1979 he joined the Afghan Mujahideen as a volunteer. After withdrawn USSR, he founded “al-Qaeda” in the war-devastated land and took the decisive action on September 11 2001. U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he had been killed by US armed forces on May 2 2011.

Fauré’s Requiem is one of the classic works of sacred choral music, and Michel Corboz deservedly one of the pre-eminent conductors of that repertoire.

This video, as you may have guessed, comes from the same source as the other examples of strange pairings of music and visuals which I discussed recently in Taylor Swift, Sara Mingardo, JS Bach and a quiet WTF, and I hope brings closure to that piece.

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I tracked down the picture of the young girl. it is titled:

Cazzandra Peterson leaves flowers at Ground Zero in memory of father William Peterson during the 7th annual 9/11 memorial ceremony September 11, 2008 in New York City.

Family and friends of the victims, heads of government and others gathered at the annual ceremony to remember the attacks that killed more than 2,700 people with the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

(September 10, 2008 – Source: PETER FOLEY/Getty Images North America)

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Pie Jesus, dona eis requiem.

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Manhunt: Radicalization, & comprehending the full impact of dreams

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — how do you intercept messages that come via dreams? I’m thinking of al-Balawi ]
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My little graphic (below) may be kidding — but what of reality?

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In the bin Laden documentary, Manhunt, which I mentioned before seeing it here, and discussed briefly here, another passage (at 1.22.31) that is missing from the CNN transcript concerns the dream which radicalized Humam al-Balawi, the Khost bomber. Balawi speaks, the subtitles translate for us:

God blessed me to have this dream. I dreamed I saw Zarqawi. He was in my house. His face was like a full moon. He was busy. Preparing an attack. I wishes I could fight with him. Be killed with him. I am your humble brother from Jordan. I am 32 years old and a medical doctor.

I’m not suggesting there was no prior fertilization of Balawi’s mind and heart, nor that he was influenced by no other drivers: I just wonder what the impact of such a dream would be, given that intense smuggling goes on between our waking and dream lives, of a kind that no intercepts can capture for analysis.

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How powerful can influence can a dream exert?

Consider this example, taken from Marie-Lousie von Franz, On Dreams & Death: A Jungian Interpretation, p. 64:

She sees a candle lit on the window sill of the hospital room and finds that the candle suddenly goes out. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Fear and anxiety ensue as the darkness envelops her. Then, the candle re-lights on the other side of the window and she awakens. She died the same day.

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If I may borrow a bit from some unpublished writings of mine…

Dreams as early indicators:

The western secular paradigm considers dreams to be of little or no significance, and it is therefore entirely possible that intelligence gleaned from the recounting of dreams will seem of little interest to western analysts. In the Islamic view, however, certain dreams are of considered to be of real significance, their importance being indicated by the hadith reported by Bukhari:

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar: Allah’s Apostle said, “The worst lie is that a person claims to have seen a dream which he has not seen.”

— Sahih Bukhari, book 87: Interpretation of Dreams, #167.

One early indicator of a Mahdist tendency in a given population, therefore, would be the presence of dreams about the Mahdi in a given discourse — in jihadist chat rooms, for instance — while the frequency of such mentions would be a useful heuristic measure of the development of such a movement. Thus Yaroslav Trofimov reports [Siege of Mecca, hb. p.50.] that in the run-up to the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque and Ka’aba in Mecca, many followers of Juhayman al-Otaibi, the leader of the raid, dreamed dreams:

Then, one after another, hundreds of Juhayman’s supporters experienced detailed, vivid dreams. Mohammed Abdullah’s sister appears to have been the first, quickly followed by others. In their sleep, they all had the same vision: Mohammed Abdullah standing by the sacred Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, accepting allegiance as the blessed Mahdi amid multitudes of believers. Militants from as far away as Lebanon who never encountered Mohammed Abdullah in person claimed to have had the same dream.

It is worth noting here that while, as Trofimov suggests, much of the dreaming “must have been caused by self-suggestion” this in no way invalidates their significance as indicators. Indeed, Reuven Paz writes of the mediaeval scholar Ibn Sirrin‘s still-popular Interpretation of Dreams that “high selling rates of this book can provide us an indicator for rising apocalyptic notions”. Paz also notes a “sizable number” of jihadis publishing their dreams and visions on Jihadist forums on the web [p.4..

Dream narration of this sort certainly corresponds to hikayat as discussed by Michael Vlahos in his essay Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam — still one of the most necessary pieces I have read on al-Qaeda..

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Closer to home, in one sense, than the siege of the Grand Mosque, is the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. This too had its dream precursors, as we can tell from the video transcript of bin Laden‘s taped meeting of mid-November 2001:

UBL: He [Abu-Al-Hasan Al-Masri] told me a year ago: “I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots!” He said: “So I wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game? Our players were pilots.” He didn’t know anything about the operation until he heard it on the radio. He said the game went on and we defeated them. That was a good omen for us.

Shaykh: May Allah be blessed.

Unidentified Man: Abd Al Rahman Al-Ghamri said he saw a vision, before the operation, a plane crashed into a tall building. He knew nothing about it.

Shaykh: May Allah be blessed!

and notably:

UBL: We were at a camp of one of the brother’s guards in Qandahar. This brother belonged to the majority of the group. He came close and told me that he saw, in a dream, a tall building in America, and in the same dream he saw Mukhtar teaching them how to play karate. At that point, I was worried that maybe the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream. So I closed the subject. I told him if he sees another dream, not to tell anybody, because people will be upset with him.

(Another person’s voice can be heard recounting his dream about two planes hitting a big building).

For your in-depth reading pleasure, see Iain R. Edgar, The Inspirational Night Dream in the Motivation and Justification of Jihad if you can get past the paywall…

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Vlahos quotes Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, on this point — I’ll present my own version of that quote here, because it describes a mindset that, mutatis mutandis, many of our opponents share to this day:

It was commonly held, in all cultures before the modern age, that dreams and visions could open a door into a world other than that of senses. They might bring messages from God; they might disclose a hidden dimension of a person’s own soul; they might come from jinns or devils. The desire to unravel the meaning of dreams must have been widespread, and was generally regarded as legitimate; dreams told us something which it was important to know.

Dreams are “outside the box” of waking reality — and we need to learn to appreciate the force of dream logic, if we want to think outside our own western prejudices, and inside our adversaries’ heads…

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