Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Syria, Chemical Weapons, and More of the Same

Syria is in the news, as usual.

This time, Syria's government seems to have been caught using chemical weapons to kill folks who aren't on the 'approved' list:
The bodies used to be Syrians: civilians who either didn't express enough enthusiasm for Syria's boss, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Chemical Weapons: So What?

An acquaintance of mine asked 'what's the big deal with chemical weapons? Aren't people just as dead if they're shot?' He has a point: dead is dead.

I think part of the issue with chemical weapons is emotional: perhaps thanks to WWI and WWI-era propaganda, and experience, quite a few folks simply don't like chemical weapons.

Another problem with chemical weapons is that they're notoriously hard to control: unless the attacker simply wants to kill a large number of folks in a particular town or city, and doesn't care who dies.

Finally, although it is possible to die slowly from a bullet wound, my understanding is that most chemical weapons tend to subject victims to a prolonged and painful experience before they finally die. It's one thing to kill someone quickly; quite another to torture the victim first. I'll grant that there's an emotional component to this aspect of chemical weapons, too: but I think that torturing innocent people is wrong, even if I felt like doing it.

America, Syria, and Getting a Grip

The American president seems to be deciding that something military should be done about Syria. He's probably right, but I expect many folks who didn't vote for him to start imitating folks who didn't vote for the previous president.

I didn't vote for the current president myself, and strongly disagree with him on many policies: but that doesn't mean that I'll disagree when he does make a little sense.

Radio news said that the president doesn't plan to send in ground forces. Okay: I believe that. I'm concerned that he'll set up a situation where the next president will have to send ground forces into a seriously messed-up situation: but that may not happen.

I'd like to believe that Syria's leadership would decide to start acting nice, if someone would ask nicely. I'm pretty sure that this won't happen.

Syria's boss and his enforcers have manged to act so badly that even their regional allies decided to step back a few paces, metaphorically speaking. In the Middle East, that's saying something. Sadly.

Related posts:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Egypt, Opinions, and Cautious Optimism

Mainstream news from Egypt is like most old-school journalism: death; bloodshed; more death; "the center cannot hold;" and all that.

Now and then a journalist decides that talking to folks who aren't trying to topple a regime, or struggling to hold power, might be a good idea. In this case, I think the results are encouraging:
"Muslim Brotherhood's bid to scapegoat Christians failing, say Egyptians"
Lisa Daftari, FoxNews.com (August 25, 2013)

"As their nation descends into violent chaos, Egyptians are increasingly blaming the Muslim Brotherhood, despite attempts by the Islamist group to scapegoat Christians and the military, according to several sources who spoke to FoxNews.com from Cairo.

" 'The Muslim Brotherhood has lost all sympathy with their points due to their violence,' said a Long Island, N.Y., Egyptian-American, who is in a Cairo suburb for a family wedding.

"The man, a Coptic Christian who asked that his name not be used until he and his family are safely back in the U.S., told FoxNews.com he arrived in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis last weekend, just days after Muslim Brotherhood supporters began clashing violently with security forces. Since then, nightly curfews, angry mobs and closed roads that cut off supplies to restaurants and groceries have made his homeland unrecognizable...."

One Man's Opinion

I could say that this Egyptian-American doesn't count, because he doesn't live in Egypt. Besides, he's a Christian: so I could pick from a broad range of stereotypes.

More to the point, that's just one man's opinion.

I don't blame him for keeping his head down until he was out of Egypt. There's quite a bit of trouble in that country, ever since Egypt's military decided that Egypt didn't need a rogue president. Folks who like the way President Morsi was 'protecting' Egypt from those who disagreed with Morsi's brand of Islamist rule were understandably upset, and by now the body count is over 1,000.

One Woman's Opinion

I do not think that the trouble with Egypt is that they've got Muslims there. I've run into too many folks who follow Islam and think terrorism is a bad idea:
"...A Muslim woman named Nina told FoxNews.com most citizens - Christian and Muslim - are solidly behind the military, which has been criticized by the west for its decisive crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

" 'I am Muslim and I am against terrorism and I support the revolution [which ousted Morsi] and I support all the decisions of the Egyptian army forces,' she said. 'We love Egypt so much and we hope the foreign countries stop misunderstanding about us and the situation now in Egypt.'..."
(Lisa Daftari, FoxNews.com)
Well, that's just one woman's opinion.

Let's see what one of those 'religious' people say:

Another Man's Opinion

"...Even at mosques, the tide seems to be turning against the Muslim Brotherhood, according to one man who spoke from Cairo.

" 'They gather around mosques, from five to 100 of them, to show they are important and the goal is to go and cut off the roads and rally to get more supporters,' he said.

" 'Sometimes during Friday prayers, the sheikh wants to push people to support the Muslim Brotherhood, but modern Muslims are dominant and not deceived anymore with fake words that defending the Muslim Brotherhood is defending Islam,' he said...."
Some Muslims probably still keep themselves isolated from the rest of the world. I think a few folks from any large selection of humanity are trying very hard to stay ignorant. Many of us, though, seem to be willing to learn what's going on outside our neighborhood.

Yet Another Man's Opinion

Finally, Osama el-Quossi, a "former jihadist and Salafist cleric," said that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to blame Egypt's Christians for the current trouble. True, Egypt's Christian minority didn't support Morsi: but quite a few Muslims weren't behind him, either. 'Blame the Christians' doesn't seem to be working:
"...'The Brotherhood lost everything, politically and economically,' Osama el-Quossi told MCN. 'They lost the citizens' sympathy, so they used religion to gain support of ordinary people. '"
(Lisa Daftari, FoxNews.com)

Living in a Big World

Lisa Daftari probably could have found four other folks in Egypt who would obligingly chant "death to the great Satan America," or whatever slogan is in fashion this year. Although I'm fairly sure that she decided to focus on one among many attitudes held by Egyptians, I strongly suspect that she's reporting what many folks feel.

I think many, probably most, folks don't like being shot at or blown up: preferring to raise their families, go to work, and get on with their lives.

Egypt has around 200,000 Internet hosts, 2,000,000 Internet users, and upwards of 83,000,000 cell phones. Since there are about 85,290,000 Egyptians: folks living there are rather well-connected to the rest of the world.

My guess is that many Egyptians, and Americans, and folks around the world, know too much to believe the old fears about 'foreign threats.'

I'm quite certain that the next few decades, and probably centuries, will be difficult. But I'm also cautiously hopeful that the emerging global civilization will be an improvement over the mess we've had so far.

Related posts:

Friday, August 9, 2013

Change, Pakistan, and Captain America: My Take

Steve Rogers is a comic book character brought to life by Marvel Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. In the last scenes of "Captain America: The First Avenger" he runs from a reasonable facsimile of a 1940s hospital room into New York City's 21st century Times Square.

I think Chris Evans does a good job of mimicking the response of a stressed-out WWII soldier fast-forwarding through about 70 years in maybe seven minutes: tops.

Bear with me. This post belongs in this blog.

I remember most of the decades between WWII and today. This is not the world I grew up in. Technology, customs, and social structures have been changing: a lot. I still haven't quite gotten used to the idea of addressing other adults by their first names.

But 'no complaints.' Change happens.

Abram to Anheuser-Busch in One Generation

Growing up in America, I've been spared some culture shock. My ancestral cultures started changing a thousand years ago, picked up the pace five centuries back, and started the industrial revolution.

I remember the first artificial satellite, and the days when computers used vacuum tubes. Change 'normal' for me.

I have a little sympathy for folks who grew up with hand-woven tents and camels: and whose kids probably know about designer jeans and know the difference between iPhone and Android.

They're experiencing more change than I have: and grew up expecting life to go on as it had since before Abram moved out of Ur. Small wonder that some aren't comfortable with today's world.

That's not an excuse for killing neighbors, though.

Killing Pakistanis

(Naseer Ahmed, via Reuters, used w/o permission)

This man was arriving at a hospital in Quetta, Pakistan. He is one of 27 injured outside a mosque today. Nine folks are dead, but they may not have been the attack's target.

Provincial government minister Ali Mohammad Jattack was driving by the mosque when a few folks started shooting - apparently in the general direction of his car. Other folks who had been worshiping at the mosque may have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Reuters says that Pakistanis have been killing each other more often than usual recently, following a new Prime Minister's election. The implication is that there's a cause-effect relationship, which may be true.

The attacks aren't random. Shi'ite Muslims, a minority in Pakistan, get injured or killed by Sunni Muslims who apparently don't approve of Shi'ites. It's pretty obvious that not all Sunni Muslims in Pakistan feel this way, or there wouldn't even be a Shi'ite minority.

Killing Americans

Meanwhile, the American State Department closed offices in Pakistan, and says that Americans who don't need to be in Pakistan shouldn't go there.

I believe news reports that say that the State Department's actions about Pakistan aren't related to the other embassy closings, a few days ago. More accurately, I accept the idea that the same groups or individuals aren't trying to kill Americans in all these places.

In another way, what's going on in Pakistan and elsewhere around the world is part of something the American government stopped calling the war on terror when the current administration moved in.

Whatever we call it, I'm quite certain that those of us who don't mind living in the 21st century still have to be careful.

Making Changes

Folks who quite sincerely hate what's been happening during the last few centuries will probably continue to kill their neighbors, or die trying. I do not think that the most rigidly dedicated supporters of an ancient way of life will change their minds. But their followers, and their children, are another matter.

Quite a few folks in Iraq seemed convinced that foreigners were evil,. or at least decided that being alive was better than disagreeing with an Al Qaeda boss. Then a UN-backed coalition upset the status quo.

Once the 'evil' foreigners killed enforcers who'd been chopping off heads, and started repairing neglected roads and sewage plants: many Iraqis decided that being free was a good idea.

That must have been terribly frustrating for Iraqis who enjoyed the privilege of killing 'bad' neighbors: but no society is perfect for everybody.

Looking Ahead

Naming a similar phenomenon in northern Africa "Arab spring" isn't making the transition from a pre-Magna Carta world into the Information Age easy. But I'm still cautiously hopeful about places like Egypt.

As for what's happening this week in Pakistan: that's bad news for folks who get killed and injured, and hard on their families. It would be nice if everyone in the world would decide to be nice, and try discussing problems instead of killing folks who disagree. That's not gonna happen. Not soon, anyway.

On the other hand, I'm convinced that most folks prefer raising families, going to work, and playing soccer - or whatever the local pastime is - to dodging bullets and cleaning up after suicide bombers.

'Winning the hearts and minds' may be a cliche by now, and simply won't work for diehard xenophobes of any ilk. But like I said, I'm cautiously hopeful. I think most of us can learn that 'foreigners' aren't demonic emissaries, and that 'change' doesn't mean 'destruction.'

Related posts:

"Gunmen in Pakistan kill nine in attack at mosque on Muslim holiday"
Katharine Houreld; (editing, Clarence Fernandez and Robert Birsel; Reuters (August 9, 2013)

"Volence marred the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Fitr in Pakistan on Friday with gunmen killing nine people in the city of Quetta while a guard in the capital Islamabad shot dead a would-be suicide bomber forcing his way into a mosque.

"The United States has ordered non-essential staff to leave its consulate in the eastern city of Lahore because of the threat of attack. It has also warned its citizens not to travel to Pakistan.

"In Quetta, gunmen fired on the vehicle of a politician driving past worshippers leaving a mosque, killing nine people and wounding 27, police said.

"Quetta is capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where several militant groups are active, including the Pakistani Taliban, who claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed 30 people at a policeman's funeral on Thursday.

"Police official Bashir Brohi said Friday's shooting seemed to have been aimed at former provincial government minister Ali Mohammad Jattack, who was passing by in a vehicle, but the motive and perpetrators were not clear.

" 'I was the target,' Jattack told media at the scene.

" 'They killed innocent worshippers belonging to different communities. This is against humanity, it is brutality on the level of animals,' said Jattack, who was not hurt.

"Brohi said most of the victims were coming out of the mosque.

" 'It was an armed attack on the former minister ... it was not an attack on the mosque,' the police official said.

"In a separate attack in Islamabad, a would-be suicide bomber shot dead a guard and wounded three people as he tried to force his way into a Shi'ite mosque, said witness Raza Mohammad....

"...Attacks against Pakistan's minority Shi'ite Muslims, by Sunni Muslim militants, are increasing sharply.

"The attacks on Friday were the latest in a surge of militant violence since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office two months ago, with a string of high-profile incidents in the past two weeks...."

"US withdraws staff from consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, over terror threat"
FoxNews.com (August 9, 2013)

"The State Department has ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel from the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore, Pakistan, and has warned Americans to defer all non-essential travel to Pakistan after a specific threat to that mission, Fox News confirms....

"...'The presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan,' the statement from the State Department read. 'The Government of Pakistan maintains heightened security measures, particularly in the major cities. Threat reporting indicates terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to attack locations where U.S. citizens and Westerners are known to congregate or visit.'

"The personnel drawdown at the Lahore consulate was a precautionary measure and wasn't related to the recent closures of numerous U.S. diplomatic missions in the Muslim world, two U.S. officials told the Associated Press...."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Embassy Closings, Al Qaeda, and Looking Ahead

Embassy closings were in the weekend's news, but I decided to wait at least a day before starting this post. The State Department acting out of "an abundance of caution" is sensible. Jumping to conclusions based on what little I'd seen in the news, not so much.

So far the United States has closed 22 embassies, and issued a travel warning running through August.

England, Germany and France closed their embassies in Yemen on Sunday and Monday.

Canada apparently closed their embassies in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

England is pulling some of their embassy staff from the British embassy in Yemen.

This is a big deal: much more than something to keep folks reading late-summer news.1

Making Points, Making Sense

Taking one set of assumptions, and the fact that the countries with closed embassies are all 'Western,' I could rant about Western capitalistic imperialistic oppression.

Other knee-jerk reactions, coupled with the closed embassies being in Islamic countries, would let me denounce Muslims as being the cause of all problems from Detroit's bankruptcy to Palo Alto's looming parking shortage.

Or I could accuse the 'other' political party of everything from malfeasance in office to high treason.

If I took Frank J. Fleming's advice, I might even get taken seriously:
Since I'm more interested in making sense than making points with diehard followers of some intellectual preference, I'll do 'none of the above.'

Beware Malignant Virtue

I think there's probably a sort of Islamic connection behind the embassy closings and travel warning. The embassies are all in predominantly Muslim countries.

But I don't accuse all Muslims of being part of an Islamic conspiracy to take over the world: partly because many or most of Islamic terrorists' victims are Muslims.

As I've said before: I think Al Qaeda and like-minded outfits have the same sort of relation to Islam that the Ku Klux Klan has to Christianity. Folks with a sort of malignant virtue seem unable to sort out personal preference, cultural values, and eternal principles.

In the short run, executing your neighbors for wearing the 'wrong' clothes or playing soccer may feel good: and may even result in surviving neighbors being 'proper.'

After a while, though, I think folks become dissatisfied with that sort of rigid conformity: even if they had preferred the 'right' clothes and didn't play soccer. Even if the 'proper people' can't be voted out of office, totalitarian regimes don't seem to fare well in the long term. Afghanistan's Taliban was an example.

Looking Ahead

We'll have troubles, as we have for all of recorded history: but I'm cautiously hopeful about the next few centuries and beyond.

That's cautiously hopeful, not naively optimistic. Folks in Egypt are experiencing the sort of occasionally-lethal trouble that goes with changing a society.

Folks who cling desperately to ways of life that were ancient when Abram moved out of Ur won't be happy. Others who prefer being one of a privileged few who control their subjects' lives are almost certainly seeing the end of their era: and, possibly, their lives.

Societies are changing: fast. Too many of us have had a taste of freedom, and know that there's a world beyond our homeland's borders. Worse, for folks who like the status quo, Information Age technology makes communication easy, inexpensive, and nearly instantaneous.

Traditional information gatekeepers have lost control over what 'the Masses' are allowed to see. That's one reason that I'm very concerned about misguided responses to real online threats: and that's another topic.

Related posts:
In the news:

1 Excerpts from the news:
"U.S. extends embassy closures after intercepted al Qaeda message"
Barbara Starr. Chris Lawrence and Holly Yan, CNN (August 5, 2013)

"What started as an unprecedented move to close almost two dozen diplomatic posts for a day has broadened to week-long closures for most of them as the United States mulls the threat of a possible attack.

"A trio of factors prompted officials to extend most of its embassy and consulate closures until Saturday: an intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives, the end of Ramadan, and concerns over several major prison breaks in the region.

"Originally, officials decided to close 22 embassies and consulates this past Sunday -- a day when they would normally be open for business.

"But Sunday afternoon, the State Department extended embassy and consulate closures in 15 of the locations through Saturday, and added four other posts -- all in Africa -- to the list. This brings the total to 19...."

"US to extend some embassy closures over security concerns"
BBC News (August 5, 2013)
"The US says it will keep a number of embassies in north Africa and the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat.

"Twenty-one US embassies and consulates closed on Sunday.

"The state department in Washington said the extended closures were 'out of an abundance of caution', and not a reaction to a new threat.

"The UK said its embassy in Yemen would stay closed until the Muslim festival of Eid on Thursday.

"The decision to close the embassies comes as the US government battles to defend recently disclosed surveillance programmes that have stirred deep privacy concerns.

"Security at US diplomatic facilities also remains a concern following last year's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

"While details of the threats are unspecified, the BBC's David Willis, in Washington, says members of Congress who have been briefed about the intelligence seem to agree it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years - all pointing to the possibility of a major attack, possibly to coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.


"A state department global travel alert, issued on Friday, is in force until the end of August.

"The department said the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack was particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa.

"Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has tried to carry out several high-profile attacks in recent years, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 when a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives sewn into his underwear.

"Months earlier, the group tried to kill the Saudi intelligence chief with a bomb on the attacker's body.

"The UK Foreign Office had earlier announced it would shut its mission in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, until Tuesday.

"Meanwhile, US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad are among those which will reopen on Monday, Washington said.

"But its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday.

"The US state department also added African missions in Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali and Port Louis to the list, meaning a total of 19 US embassies will remain closed this week.

"Embassies closed on Sunday, a working day in the Muslim world, included Amman, Cairo, Riyadh and Dhaka...."

"19 US posts to remain closed this week, as lawmakers say terror threat 'specific' and 'serious'"
FoxNews.com (August 5, 2013)

"The State Department has announced that it will keep 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa closed throughout the week 'out of an abundance of caution' in the wake of terror threats that shut them down.

"Posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa, Tripoli, Antanarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali and Port Louis have been instructed to close for normal operations from Monday through Saturday, department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"The State Department also said some of those embassies were already going to be closed in accordance with local customs marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

"Those authorized to reopen Monday are in Dhaka, Algiers, Nouakchott, Kabul, Herat, Mazar el Sharif, Baghdad, Basrah and Erbil.

"Capitol Hill lawmakers, including top-ranking members of intelligence committees, on Sunday described the terror threat that closed 22 U.S. embassies and consulates across the Muslim region as the most serious one since before the 9/11 attacks and related to specific act or plot.

"Florida Republican Rep. Tom Rooney, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News that U.S. intelligence agents detected a 'very specific' threat and suggested they have known about it for at least several weeks.

"He was among several congressional lawmakers Sunday who said the threat was gleaned from so-called 'chatter' from phone lines, computer outlets, websites and other communication outlets.

"Rooney also said the information is not what intelligence committee members 'see on our regular briefings.'

"The Obama administration's decision Friday to close the U.S. outposts Sunday came the same day as the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert.

"Rooney suggested Sunday the travel warning will not be lifted soon.

" 'If I had plans to travel to certain places in the Middle East, I would probably go ahead and cancel them,' he said.

"Rooney's comments followed Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, telling NBC's 'Meet the Press' that the threats are 'very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.'

"He also described the threats as 'the most serious … I've seen in a number of years.'

"Sources confirmed with Fox News the chatter was picked up over the past two weeks and exceeds anything in the past decade. They also said the extraordinary volume of chatter was preceded by months of 'absolute quietness.'

"The sources said the chatter included Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri demanding that key leaders of the terror network in the Arabian Peninsula step up their activities in the wake of recent killings of top terrorists.

"A Mideast diplomat said al-Zawahiri's 'pressuring' of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to launch new terrorist attacks on American and other Western targets is 'unprecedented.'

"The sources also said the U.S. outpost closings and the travel alert were prompted in part by a series of recent Al Qaeda-led prison breaks that have freed hundreds of operatives over the last month, including one this weekend in Aleppo, Syria. Other recent breaks have been orchestrated in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan and Abu Ghraib, in Afghanistan.

"Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also said the intercepted threats came from 'high-level people' in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

"He told ABC's 'This Week' the information was about a 'major attack.'...

"...The administration's announcements Friday said the Al Qaeda network might target either U.S. government or private American interests.

"The intelligence intercepts also prompted Britain, Germany and France to close their embassies in Yemen on Sunday and Monday. British authorities said some embassy staff in Yemen had been withdrawn 'due to security concerns.'

"Canada also announced it was closing its embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh."

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.