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.

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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.


Two Approaches to Unity

January 6, 2009

The Christian Chronicle–long the flagship publication of Churches of Christ, the denomination of Christianity in which I grew up–has an interesting review up of a collection of essays on unity and the Stone-Campbell Movement.

Long story short, the Church of Christ grew out of the Restoration or Stone-Campbell movement, a movement early 19th century American Christianity to “restore the first century church”. One hallmark of the Church of Christ (that in some places has faded as parts of the CoC veer closer to ‘mainstream evangelicals’) has been that believers see their body as the Church. They don’t think there should be division in the church, so calling them a “denomination” is considered an insult. And they often self-identify only as “Christians” and would never start off by saying they’re members of the Church of Christ. Likewise, a publication like the Christian Chronicle is called just that, and not the Church of Christ Chronicle.

This theological identification has frequently been accompanied by a condemnation to hell of anyone outside this fairly narrow (a few million people worldwide) Church of Christ. That (blessedly) is one common tenet of belief that has faded somewhat for many members of the CoC, at least in the US.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of the Christian Chronicle review of One Church: A Bicentennial Celebration of Thomas Campbell’s ‘Declaration and Address’:

The variety of the essays and meditations in the collection will attract some readers and trouble others. The contributors write out of their separate Stone-Campbell contexts, with the authors from each stream speaking in a way that suggests the concerns of their particular tradition. Readers among Churches of Christ — and in a similar way, Christian Churches — may bristle at how widely Session throws open the door to the kingdom.

There are basically two ways to achieve “unity” in an organization where people of differing consciences disagree. The first is to exclude all those with even moderately different views, condemning them as hell-bound outsiders. We could call this the judgmental approach. The other, tolerant approach, is to accept that, faced with imperfect information, people will disagree.


Witnessing History

June 8, 2008

I left my dorm here in Washington, DC at 6:00 am Saturday morning to go with a group of about ten friends to see Hillary Clinton’s “concession speech.” We had one ardent Hillary fan with us (Jon Cardinal) and one to-remain-unnamed McCain supporter, and the rest of us were Obama fans. We were the first ones in line so a number of media outlets interviewed our group.

Jon in particular got interviewed a lot, and he’s good at making sound bites. Here’s video of him being interviewed by Julie Pace of the Associated Press:

That interview paid off–Jon was quoted in the AP piece about the Clinton speech that got picked up by newspapers around the world:

Clinton backers described themselves as sad and resigned. “This is a somber day,” said Jon Cardinal, one of the first in line. Cardinal said he planned, reluctantly, to support Obama in the general election. “It’s going to be tough after being against Obama for so long,” he said.

I had never been to a political rally before, so what the newspapers described as a relatively calm crowd leading up to the event sure seemed exciting to me. Because we were the first ones in we were positioned excellently to shake hands with Hillary, Bill and Chelsea. My friend Andy Cunningham had a nice chat with O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland as well. One of our friends called the group to tell us she had seen us shaking hands with the politicelebrities on CNN as well.


I thought the speech itself was excellent, if a little late in coming. Hillary really does come across so much better in person than she does on TV. I watched the same speech on YouTube afterward and it didn’t seem as authentic as it had in person, so I have to remember to give Hillary a little more thought when watching future speeches. As an Obama supporter, it was also wonderful that this was the one speech I got to go to. Hillary was also able to speak more candidly on several issues that were normally left out of her stump speech: the role that sexism played in the race for one, and gay rights as well.

We waited in line from 6:30 to 10:00, stood pressed against a barrier by die-hard Hillary fans (most of whom were great, some of whom were not-so-great) from 10:00 to 12:45, and finally got out around 2ish. But the experience was well worth it!


The Chinese Media on Tibet

April 14, 2008

Heresy Corner has an excellent little article contrasting the official Chinese media’s account of the Olympic torch relay with the photos that have been dominating Western media. An excerpt:

The Notting Hill Gate in west London greeted the Beijing Olympic torch on Sunday morning with a mini carnival reminiscent of the annual carnival that draws over one million revelers.

People with families and toddlers turned out in the hundreds braving wintry snow to line the streets in Notting Hill Gate and celebrate the Olympic torch.

And a picture:
london olympics protest

Of course, the Chinese media description of the relay locations is actually largely accurate, in the sense that in many locations people turned out to cheer on the flame, including many Chinese who live abroad. So here Heresy Corner has used (though arguably to a much less serious extent) the same tactic as the official Chinese media by showing only photos that match with the story he’s trying to share (ridiculing the Chinese media). The criticism of the Chinese media is legit, but it’s also an interesting observation on how the way the dominant media sources portray an event has a huge impact; Western news coverage that concentrates on the protests is not reflective of everyone’s opinion. But violence is good news for media.

I’m torn on the whole idea of protesting. I think it’s justified, yes, but my pragmatic streak makes me question its effectiveness in getting the Chinese to change their ways. Are we just furthering existing divisions and turning the Chinese youth against America? That’s basically the argument made by Matthew Forney in this op-ed:

Educated young people are usually the best positioned in society to bridge cultures, so it’s important to examine the thinking of those in China. The most striking thing is that, almost without exception, they feel rightfully proud of their country’s accomplishments in the three decades since economic reforms began. And their pride and patriotism often find expression in an unquestioning support of their government, especially regarding Tibet.

As for political repression, few young Chinese experience it. Most are too young to remember the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and probably nobody has told them stories. China doesn’t feel like a police state, and the people young Chinese read about who do suffer injustices tend to be poor — those who lost homes to government-linked property developers without fair compensation or whose crops failed when state-supported factories polluted their fields. . .

Barring major changes in China’s education system or economy, Westerners are not going to find allies among the vast majority of Chinese on key issues like Tibet, Darfur and the environment for some time. If the debate over Tibet turns this summer’s contests in Beijing into the Human Rights Games, as seems inevitable, Western ticket-holders expecting to find Chinese angry at their government will instead find Chinese angry at them.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


In Our Lifetimes

March 27, 2008

bomb

I’ve said to friends on a number of occasions that I think that it’s quite likely a nuclear bomb will go off in a major American (or European) city within our lifetimes. I guess it’s a morbid prediction to make, but as an avid believer in Murphy’s Law, I think it’s a reasonable prediction. No one took the idea of a terrorist attack like 9/11 seriously prior to it actually happening, and today the idea of nuclear terrorism in an American city is so terrible a thought that it’s nearly inconceivable.

Jay Davis has an interesting article in the Washington Post about how the US should respond if/when this occurs. I applaud Davis for thinking in hypotheticals that aren’t often discussed, and his recommendations look good as well.

The appearance of nuclear weapons materials on the black market is a growing global concern, and it is crucial that the United States reinforce its team of nuclear forensics experts and modernize its forensics tools to prepare for or respond to a possible nuclear terrorist attack.

So what do you think. Is this possible? Is this likely?