The Other Side of Lockerbie

September 9, 2009

The uproar over the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Megrahi – the Libyan government agent convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland – keeps growing. The Lockerbie bombing killed 180 Americans and 90 others, including several people on the ground in Scotland.

A predominant meme in the media coverage has been “weak politicians don’t have the guts to punish terrorists.”

An editorial in Forbes warns that this is just an indication that Brits are growing soft on terrorism:

The Megrahi story reflects a national weariness in Britain about terrorism, a feeling that agents of violence, in the end, have to be talked to and that even when the most bitter anguish has been suffered the wise politician never says “never.”

FP Passport calls Brown spineless. [Edit: see comments below.] And Fox News’ opinion headlines speak for themselves: “The Ominous Message of the Lockerbie Bomber’s Release” and “Did the White House Green Light Lockerbie Bomber’s Release?” The latter article has a helpful subtitle, “The recent events in Scotland show the futility of treating a war as a criminal justice issue.”

The technical term for all of this is, of course, bullshit.

Yes, there’s economics and politics and oil involved – plenty of reasons the release is convenient to many involved. But given the international (and especially American) furor over the release, there’s very little chance Megrahi would ever have been let go, even on compassionate grounds, if it weren’t for one crucial fact: he might not have done it.

I started this post as a way to share a wonderful piece of long-form journalism by Hugh Miles: “Inconvenient Truths” in the London Review of Books. Miles presents a fairly convincing case that the actual culprit was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC).

Some telling excerpts:

The case against Jibril [of the PFLP-GC] and his gang is well established. It runs like this: in July 1988, five months before the Lockerbie bombing, a US naval commander aboard USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian airbus, apparently mistaking it for an attacker. On board Iran Air Flight 655 were 270 pilgrims en route to Mecca. Ayatollah Khomeini vowed the skies would ‘rain blood’ in revenge and offered a $10 million reward to anyone who ‘obtained justice’ for Iran. The suggestion is that the PFLP-GC was commissioned to undertake a retaliatory bombing.

We know at least that two months before Lockerbie, a PFLP-GC cell was active in the Frankfurt and Neuss areas of West Germany. On 26 October 1998, German police arrested 17 terrorist suspects who, surveillance showed, had cased Frankfurt airport and browsed Pan Am flight timetables. Four Semtex-based explosive devices were confiscated; a fifth is known to have gone missing. They were concealed inside Toshiba radios very similar to the one found at Lockerbie a few weeks later. One of the gang, a Palestinian known as Abu Talb, was later found to have a calendar in his flat in Sweden with the date of 21 December circled…During Megrahi’s trial Abu Talb had a strange role… At the time he was serving a life sentence in Sweden for the bombing of a synagogue… He ended up testifying as a prosecution witness, denying that he had anything to do with Lockerbie. In exchange for his testimony, he received lifelong immunity from prosecution.

…Most significantly, German federal police have provided financial records showing that on 23 December 1988, two days after the bombing, the Iranian government deposited £5.9 million into a Swiss bank account that belonged to the arrested members of the PFLP-GC.

The decision to steer the investigation away from the PFLP-GC and in the direction of Libya came in the run-up to the first Gulf War, as America was looking to rally a coalition to liberate Kuwait and was calling for support from Iran and Syria. Syria subsequently joined the UN forces. Quietly, the evidence incriminating Jibril, so painstakingly sifted from the debris, was binned.

Since Megrahi’s last appeal, many thousands of pages of reports, detailing freight and baggage movements in and out of Frankfurt airport, have been handed over to the defence. Largely in German and many handwritten, the papers were translated by the Crown at the taxpayer’s expense, but the Crown refused to share the translations with the defence and left it no time to commission its own.

Hans Köchler, the UN observer at Camp Zeist, reported at the time that the trial was politically charged and the verdict ‘totally incomprehensible’. In his report Köchler wrote that he found the presence of US Justice Department representatives in the court ‘highly problematic’, because it gave the impression that they were ‘”supervisors” handling vital matters of the prosecution strategy and deciding . . . which documents . . . were to be released in open court and what parts of information contained in a certain document were to be withheld.’

As stated above, this post was prompted by Miles’ piece. In writing however, I was struck by the thought that Miles’ theory – elaborately and methodically presented – reminded me of other conspiracy theories. Not that conspiracy theories can’t be right. (In fact, it seems that conspiracy is at least in some cases a pejorative descriptor for what might really just be a legitimate theory.) But there does seem to be enough evidence to the contrary to make me doubt Miles’ theory as well.

What is important, regardless of Megrahi’s guilt, is that a large number of people in the UK believe Megrahi to be innocent. And the appeals process was still going on. Notably, Megrahi’s release voided his appeal, so the Scottish justice system will never have to judge whether or not it erred.

The various politicians with influence over the decision – Scots, Brits (including Brown), Americans (including Obama), and others – evidently calculated that the risk of the whole thing being revealed as a sham was worse than the political risks invited by releasing Megrahi. The extent of the furor, prompted by his raucous reception in Libya, probably surprised them, but there’s no going back now.


Hasidic Jewish Reggae

September 8, 2009

And I like it:


Arguments Against Gay Marriage

September 6, 2009

I’m not sure how this first came to my attention (h/t to whoever shared this in Google Reader), but it’s a pretty grand summary of the arguments against full equality for gays and lesbians when it comes to marriage:

gayMarriageChart-large

(by Patrick Farley)


Those Other Messiahs…

September 2, 2009

I told a friend recently about Sabbatei Zevi, the apostate messiah who I’ve written about before (in one of my favorite posts). An excerpt:

Understandably, when Sabbetai got to Istanbul, the sultan was pissed. The sultan had him arrested for rebellion and imprisoned in Gallipoli. His followers held faithfully to their hope that this all part of the plan. While he was in prison, Armstrong reports, Sabbetai began signing his letters “I am the Lord your God, Sabbetai Zevi.” No ambiguous “Son of Man” claims here.

But, fatefully, on being brought back to Istanbul for trial, Sabbetai was back in a depressive phase. One has to wonder how history would be different if he had been in a manic, prophetic phase. Forced to choose between death (which might have made him a martyr or a savior) and conversion to Islam, Sabbetai put on the turban and took a second wife as his harem. His followers were crushed.

But while most of them fell away and became disillusioned, a core of the truly dedicated (or delusional) remained:

‘The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Sabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people.’

I find Sabbatei Zevi particularly fascinating because he’s one of only a handful of claimants to the title of messiah who still have followers today (the most notable example being Jesus of Nazareth).

This led me to wonder just how many people have claimed to be the messiah. And, like all great questions that have been asked by humanity, this one has a Wikipedia page to answer it.

This is going to be fun reading!


The Kaczynski Dilemma

May 12, 2009

For some reason that I fail now to recall, I recently went on a pre-9/11 domestic terrorism reading kick on Wikipedia. From Timothy McVeigh to Theodore Kaczynski, Wikipedia is a fascinating read when you’re looking for broad brush-stroke outlines. But the footnotes are where the real nuggets lie.

One footnote, linking to “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” is cited in support of this passage:

Students in Murray’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored study were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student… Instead, they were subjected to the stress test, which was an extremely stressful and prolonged psychological attack by an anonymous attorney. During the test, students were strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions, while facing bright lights and a two-way mirror. This was filmed, and students’ expressions of impotent rage were played back to them several times later in the study. According to Chase, Kaczynski’s records from that period suggest he was emotionally stable when the study began. Kaczynski’s lawyers attributed some of his emotional instability and dislike of mind control to his participation in this study.

Needless to say, I had to read that article. Fortunately, the June 2000 Atlantic article is available online here. Alston Chase summarizes his article as follows:

In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files…

Murray’s experiments were horrifically unethical by today’s standards – and sadly lacking in any clear redemptive value – on a level only attained by Stanley Milgram and a few others. But Chase’s discussion of Murray’s psychological experiments interest me less than his focus on the “prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair.” This atmosphere smelled slightly familiar to me, as my undergraduate education was in certain ways post-dated to the 1960’s: many of the philosophies and prevailing cultural norms that my devoutly Christian professors warned us against seem to have faded into history. Of course, many of the central ideas are there, but they have evolved and cross-pollinated to the point where the counter-arguments seem a bit stale.

Here’s a bit more about Kaczynski’s philosophy (which Chase sees as an all-too-natural outgrowth of ideas ascendent at Harvard during Kaczynski’s undergraduate tenure):

Driving these events from first bomb to plea bargain was Kaczynski’s strong desire to have his ideas — as described in the manifesto — taken seriously.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences,” Kaczynski’s manifesto begins, “have been a disaster for the human race.” They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic, and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature. “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system.”

By forcing people to conform to machines rather than vice versa, the manifesto states, technology creates a sick society hostile to human potential. Because technology demands constant change, it destroys local, human-scale communities. Because it requires a high degree of social and economic organization, it encourages the growth of crowded and unlivable cities and of mega-states indifferent to the needs of citizens.

This perfect storm of philosophy – that science is both all-powerful and soul-crushing – led to a worldview full of despair. “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” Kaczynski wrote. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.” That brutal, grasping despair – if not Kaczynski’s wanton disregard for human life – once held a huge segment of the educated American public captive in a sad cycle:

From the humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there was no hope.

At its core, much of this philosophy is still embraced today. We (speaking general of irreligious Western society) venerate nature in ways that were set aside for hundreds of years in the Industrial revolution, if not longer. We stand in collective awe of the power of science to map our DNA and connect us through the Internet, and recoil in horror from its power to split the atom, mass-produce cluster munitions, and engineer biological plagues. And we, whether we like it or not, we cannot roll back the knowledge of nature and reality yield by science.

Kaczynski’s rage was directed at society, and at technology, and thus he targeted individuals closely associated with the scientific-academic-industrial complex. But the Kaczynski dilemma – how to reconcile our love of nature, our belief in the power of science, and the unavoidable conclusion that the greatest damage caused by nature has been a consequence of our science – can be answered in many ways. Kaczynski solved the dilemma through ironic use of simple technology, by sending bombs to targeted individuals to disrupt the flow of society, and, ultimately, to propagate his beliefs.

If the underlying tenets of Kaczynski’s views hold true, why haven’t more people resorted to his methods? Why aren’t his ideas preached far and wide? (Admittedly, a small anarchist core of disciples exists.) I suggest that the underlying despair has been eroded in part by the moden environmental movement in at least two ways.

First, science used to be synonymos with industrialization. Today, industrial production and the pollution it creates is perceived as being decidedly low tech. Science – especially climate science – is about finding smarter solutions to energy and transportation. While “old science” with its domination of nature is vilified, the new science is embraced as the key to our salvation from an earthly hell.

Second, the environmental movement – here less driven by science than by philosophy – has shifted from a massive scale to an individual one. Whether this shift was intentionally driven by leaders in the field is unclear to me, but it has been effective. Consideration of the world system as a whole can lead one to despair, but individual action can provide redemption. Shifting to consuming less or no meat, to burning less fossil fuel, or blindly acquiring more stuff – all these are personal acts lauded (rightly in my view) by the modern environmental movement. And regardless of whether those actions are effective global solutions (again, I think they are a great start) they are indeed an effective salve for the Kaczynski dilemma.


I Don’t Know You Anymore

May 12, 2009

Hark! Prompted by a fresh deluge of email notifications from spam comments, I no longer tarry but have returned to my blog.

I have a serious post in mind, but first, a silly / sappy / angsty one. Savage Garden’s “I Don’t Know You Anymore” (yes, I may be the only heterosexual male who will admit to liking the often soothing, often angsty, always cliche pop mix of the now- Australian super-duo) here in all of its live concert glory:

And yes, he’s wearing a mesh shirt.


Obama’s Inauguration in Kenya

January 25, 2009

My friends Bobby and Candice evidently couldn’t score purple tickets of their own (they live in Uganda) so they roadtripped to Obama’s father’s home village in Kenya and witnessed the celebrations there:


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