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.


A Colossal Oops

January 13, 2009

(said the Founding Fathers


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?


Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

mlkbeyondvietnam.jpg

[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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