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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.

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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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On Magic: Jane’s and the Jesuits

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a brief note on my own bi-focal vision, with appreciation to Marina Warner ]
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I was just reading Marina Warner‘s recent essay On Magic — and protective magic in particular — and was struck by the phrase:

Calligraphic blazons act as icons, gems are incised with prayers to release their talismanic powers, phylacteries hold tightly wound documents written all over with blessings and invocations…

Calligraphic blazons?

My oh my! Only a click away, IHS, the “global information company” that brings us IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, was tweeting me something or other and naturally, their avatar showed up (above, upper panel) on my screen, then in my eyes (etc), and finally (after a couple milliseconds?) in what Coleridge called the “hooks and eyes” of memory… where they hooked up very nicely indeed with the logo of the Society of Jesus (above, lower panel).

Jane’s and the Jesuits. I mean, they’re both in the security business, right? The Jesuits want to protect us from sin, heresy, and other matters which will make life hot for us in the next world, while Jane’s wants to protect us from VBIEDs, CBRN weapons and other such things — widely considered more pressing — which might make life hot for us in this one.

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Let’s skip the Jesuits and the seculars for a moment, and turn to Judaism and Islam. Marina writes:

Kabbalistic beliefs share common ground in this love of letters as potent, active powers in themselves: “Every word an angel, every letter an angel, and the spaces between them” was a tenet of the mystical Isaac Luria in Prague. According to analogous Muslim practices involving inscription, the right words work even when they’re hidden, indecipherable, or have disappeared altogether: they need only to have made contact, for their presence lingers in the substances where they were once inscribed, transferred by means of the magic operation of writing.

That last is, as cultural anthropologists know, a homeopathic concept — compare this, from the US (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine backgrounder:

The alternative medical system of homeopathy was developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Supporters of homeopathy point to two unconventional theories: “like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people; and “law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.

The thing is, there are two worldviews at work here, and Marina very nicely finesses the pair of them when, discussing the “talismanically protective clothes” in a Paris exhibit of “Ottoman princes’ wardrobes from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries”, she says:

Looked at from one angle, the Turkish practice was rankly superstitious, a fabulous, extreme, and crazy example of human fantasy in the doomed quest for mastery of natural forces. But looked at from another angle, the attempt to activate blessing and security through acts of writing rather than simple speech acts, and then by wearing the texts on one’s body, shows us a new dimension of word power and communicates an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination.

Superstitious, fabulous and crazy in enlightened scientific terms, yes — and yet seen from another angle, an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination…

John Donne opts for both, compressing two worlds into a mere four words:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells…

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Okay and Amen.

I’d now like to broaden the subject from word to world, and to deepen it from magic to sacrament.

In my next, I’ll draw on Tara Isabella Burton‘s suggestion: Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God — and Dana Gioia‘s piece, The Catholic Writer Today. Onwards.

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Pilgrim visas, the Hajj, and MERS-CoV

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- it's all a matter of concentric circles and the integration of the vertical -- ibn Arabi ]
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The concentric circles around the Kaaba ripple out across our world. This means we should be watchful at the intersection of three overlapping regions in a Venn diagram: pilgrim visas, MERS-CoV epidemiology, and pilgrim dispersal.

John Burgess of Crossroads Arabia is the only one I know focusing on the conjunction, see his Saudis Restrict Pilgrim Visas.

The point I’d like to be hinting at here is that whereas MERS-CoV epidemiology is a scientific monitoring and interpretive matter using Science Rules, and visa issues are mostly matters of bureaucracy, the Hajj itself is a matter of the most passionate devotional concern, and a “purely rational” understanding will hardly scratch its surface.

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Those with a mixture of poetry and scholarship in their souls may wish to read Love Letters to the Ka’ba: a presentation of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Tâj al-Rasâ’il to glimpse the Kaaba as seen by the al-Sheikh al-Akbar, Muhyiddin ibn Arabi:

Charles-Andre Gilis has pointed out that in the Islamic tradition the Ka’ba symbolises the centre of every state of Being, as is demonstrated by the tradition recorded by Ibn ‘Abbas according to which there exists a Ka’ba, similar to the one belonging to our world, in each of the seven heavens and seven earths (cf. La Doctrine Initiatique du Pélerinage, Paris, 1982, pp. 45-6). In the introduction to the Tâj, Ibn ‘Arabi refers to the Visited House (al-bayt al-ma’mûr), situated in the seventh heaven, the celestial prototype of the Ka’ba (p. 557).

As Gilis also observes, the Ka’ba is perceived by Ibn ‘Arabi as a manifestation of the divine Essence (Tâjallî dhâtî). However, he situates it, due to its mineral nature, in the lowest level of Being. But it is precisely the inferior character of its external aspect that allows it to sustain the ladder of beings and to identify itself on each level. It is thus described as “celestial constitution, angelic reality, young girl with formed breasts, level of the perceptible realm, and Meccan dignity (at the same time this constitutes an excellent example of the assonances of his rhymed prose: nash’a falakiyya wa haqîqa malakiyya wa jâriya falkiyya wa martaba mulkiyya wa rutba makkiyya) (p. 555).” Ibn ‘Arabi himself is astonished at the number of contradictory aspects that this being is able to bring together: “Oh marvel: divine constitution, simil (mithliyya), angelic, human, superior and inferior in which we find validity and deficiency, multiplicity and scarcity.” (p. 556)

The devotional aspect of the Hajj is orthogonal to the realism of bureaucracies and epidemiology — but not on that account any the less powerful!

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Hysteria about Afghan schoolgirl hysteria

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- Reuters publishes scary stuff, should have checked their facts with WHO epidemiologists first ]
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Last time, it was the Jerusalem syndrome — this time it’s mass hysteria, not poison.

The Reuters article, Afghan girls’ school feared hit by poison gas by Folad Hamdard (upper frame, above) was posted on April 21, 2013, just one week ago.

Its key paragraphs in terms of etiology and blame are these:

As many as 74 schoolgirls in Afghanistan’s far north fell sick after smelling gas and were being examined for possible poisoning, local officials said on Sunday.

While instances of poisoning are sometimes later found to be false alarms, there have been numerous substantiated cases of mass poisonings of schoolgirls by elements of Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative society that are opposed to female education.

and:

Between May and June last year there were four poisoning attacks on a girls’ school in Takhar, prompting local officials to order principals to stay in school until late and staff to search the grounds for suspicious objects and to test the water for contaminants.

Takhar has been a hotbed of militancy and criminal activity since 2009, with groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan active.

One wonders: Does Reuters employ fact checkers?

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One wonders because…

An Editorial Note on the 2012 article Mass Psychogenic illness in Afghanistan (lower frame, above) in the WHO’s Weekly Epidemiological Monitor (Vol 5 # 22, 27 May) reads in part:

This is the fourth year where episodes of suspected mass poisoning of school girls is reported from Afghanistan. Like in the previous years the events are triggered off with one girl developing symptoms of headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and fainting. Often these outbreaks were believed to be the work of political elements in the country who oppose girls education. Reports of stench smells preceding the appearance of symptoms have given credit to the theory of mass poisoning (chemical/bioterrorism). However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far. In the last four years over 1634 cases from 22 schools have been treated for Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) in Afghanistan. There are no related deaths reported.

Reuters is read by a whole lot more people than some WHO epidemiological weekly, eh?

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Luckily, the NY Times at least posted a blog post by Matthieu Aikins writing from Kabul, The ‘Poisoned’ Girls of Afghanistan, by way of alerting us to the WHO report:

I’m willing to bet that there was no poison.

Over the past few years, thousands of girls have fallen victim to waves of alleged poisonings in Afghan schools. The government, media and education activists have blamed the Taliban, and the police in a number of provinces have produced the “guilty” parties, with some of them confessing on national television.

But last July when I investigated the subject for Newsweek, I discovered never-released reports showing that the United Nations, the World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force had investigated the incidents for years and had never found, despite extensive laboratory tests, any evidence of toxins or poisoning — a fact that may explain ISAF’s conspicuous silence on the issue.

I’m glad that’s been cleared up.

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Here’s another DoubleQuote for you:

Of course, the Taliban spokesman was addressing a 2012 outbreak of the same hysteria story, and the “no claim of responsibility” report is from one of this year’s versions.

But why would anyone claim responsibility in any case, if the actual cause is mass hysteria rather than poisoning? There’s history to these things — they didn’t begin in Afghanistan:

The cases the Afghanistan incidents most resemble are the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, in which hundreds of people, mostly schoolgirls, were overcome by fits of mirthless, extended laughter, in what is now known as Tanzania, and the West Bank fainting epidemic of 1983.

The similarities between the heavily studied epidemic in the occupied West Bank and Afghanistan are particularly striking. Both places are in a state of conflict, where political violence is a fact of life, and both have powerful local rumor mills. The incidents follow a similar pattern: First a single report of a bad smell, then a small number of girls come down with symptoms, then it spreads. Local media fueled the rumors and the incidents spread in Afghanistan, just as they did in Israel and Palestine.

Albert Hefez, Israel’s lead psychiatric investigator of the incident, wrote in his 1985 study “The Role of the Press and the Medical Community in the epidemic of ‘Mysterious Gas Poisoning’ in the Jordan West Bank” that Israeli newspaper reports of “poisoning” at the start of the epidemic added fuel to the flames. A front page article in Haaretz on March 28, 1983 even claimed that Israeli military investigators had found traces of nerve gas and quoted “army sources” as saying they suspected Palestinian militants were poisoning their own people in order to blame Israel and provoke an uprising. Palestinian leaders followed up with accusations that Israel had poisoned them in an attempt to drive them from the West Bank.

And such things don’t only happen “abroad” — as detailed in that same NYT blog post I quoted above:

The phenomenon of groups of people falling ill for psychological, rather than physical, reasons is not unknown, nor is it limited to Afghanistan. Moreover, the typical victims are school-age girls. In late 2011, when a group of girls in Le Roy, New York, fell victim to a mysterious twitching illness, medical authorities eventually concluded it was psychogenic.

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Triangulating the Vatican

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- three ways to get a fix on the present status and future needs of the Catholic Church ]
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Perugino, The Entrusting of the Keys to Peter, Sistine Chapel

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I want to make this brief. It seems to me that the most powerful statement of the present situation of the Church was that delivered by John Colet at Convocation in 1512:

You are come together today, fathers and right wise men, to hold a council. In which what you will do and what matters you will handle, I do not yet know, but I wish that, at length, mindful of your name and profession, you would consider of the reformation of ecclesiastical affairs; for never was there more necessity and never did the state of the Church more need endeavors. For the Church – the spouse of Christ – which He wished to be without spot or wrinkle, is become foul and deformed. As saith Isaias, “The faithful city is become a harlot”; and as Jeremias speaks, “She hath committed fornication with many lover,” whereby she has conceived many seeds of iniquity and daily bringeth forth the foulest offspring. Wherefore I have come here today, fathers, to admonish you with all your minds to deliberate, in this your Council, concerning the reformation of the Church.

The full text can be found here, where it is drawn from John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to St. Ignatius Loyola (Fordham U.Pr., 1992). I was pointed in this direction by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who quoted from it in his piece The church after Pope Benedict today.

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By way of comparison, here’s a snippet from this week’s Time report, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us, on the status of another large entity whose purported focus is the common good:

By the time Steven D. died at his home in Northern California the following November, he had lived for an additional 11 months. And Alice had collected bills totaling $902,452. The family’s first bill — for $348,000 — which arrived when Steven got home from the Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif., was full of all the usual chargemaster profit grabs: $18 each for 88 diabetes-test strips that Amazon sells in boxes of 50 for $27.85; $24 each for 19 niacin pills that are sold in drugstores for about a nickel apiece. There were also four boxes of sterile gauze pads for $77 each. None of that was considered part of what was provided in return for Seton’s facility charge for the intensive-care unit for two days at $13,225 a day, 12 days in the critical unit at $7,315 a day and one day in a standard room (all of which totaled $120,116 over 15 days). There was also $20,886 for CT scans and $24,251 for lab work.

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And for a third angle on the upcoming conclave, I would like to offer a brief cull from Anthony Judge‘s tabular listing of cardinals aged 80 and below, in which he identifies those who have some indication of competence in the “social” and “natural” sciences in their Wikipedia biographies.

I have omitted those who had no listing in the natural sciences — mathematics included — and those aged 80, since I understand they will be too old to vote. Of the 116 cardinals that remain, these seven apparently have some acquaintance with what Judge terms the natural sciences, as detailed in the final column:

Of these, Cardinal O’Brien, who appears to have the widest range of scientific disciplines in his background, has recently been the target of accusations of impropriety.

As those who read me regularly are aware, I “come from” the arts rather than the sciences myself. But I cannot help but agree with Anthony Judge’s comment, particularly insofar as it relates to mathematics and the sciences:

It is striking how few disciplines are represented in what amounts to a table of cognitive competence of those from whom guidance in world governance is expected.

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I’m tossing you these three quotes not so much for themselves as for the ripples of thought, the further questions they may raise. Colet’s sermon, for instance, was delivered only five years before Martin Luther “nailed his theses to the door” — or at least sent them to his bishop — thus starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

The aptness of Colet’s sermon to today should give us considerable pause.

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