Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bombing Libraries and Book Burning in Mosul

"I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and the concern for our future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries." - Dr. Carl Sagan

A series of news reports (here, here, here) recently informed the world that while millions of people were filling themselves with what amounts to intellectual popcorn as they watched the Oscars telecast, the military arm of ISIS in Iraq was busy bombing and burning Mosul's public library.

The library had stood for several hundred years and its collections, stocked with rare materials, were then emptied and publicly burned. ISIS's fascination with both fire and explosive devices show just how dangerous this religious group is to our collective humanity. They stand proud of their achievements in the rape, murder and total destruction of people and communities they have captured.

In fact, rape, murder and destruction are essentially the fulfillment of their religious teaching and values. They believe that by taking such violent action that they are defending their faith and their god.

Why destroy the Library? Why are libraries frequently considered high value military targets by violent mobs and war criminals? It's really an easy answer. Libraries are both sanctuaries and incubators of ideas. 

Libraries are the equivalent of safety zones where people regardless of age, race, orientation, income and social status (or any protected class) can come and learn. Libraries serve as an essential part of and are foundational to democracy. By destroying libraries and their intellectual contents the enemies of peace and humanity are really destroying hope.

Burning books, which is essentially the outcome of viewing ideas as a physical enemy, should be considered a war crime. Not only do those who light the fire assassinate culture but they also kill language, history, identity and thoughts. They viciously kill our human spirit and the human right to freely think, gather, research and speak.

Aside from the Mosul Library being destroyed, this war mongering religious military has also destroyed the Mosul University library as well as other cultural centers and performance spaces.

One of the articles note that after the 2004 invasion of Iraq lead by America's less than brilliant President Bush (PL editor's comments not found in the article), mobs looted the Mosul Library. But wealthy families actually purchased back and recovered the stolen collections making the library whole. There is real pride in community libraries, so much so that (which is noted in the article) as the Mosul library and its contents burned by ISIS just days ago, citizens in the area were crying as if they had lost a family member.

Religious mobs and other fascists have performed acts of terror against libraries in the past.  We can go back to Alexandria if we want to offer examples of Christians destroying world culture or we could, in our time machine, fast forward to Nazi Germany and see how fire was used to censor and destroy books and other library materials prior to the systematic murder of 6 million people. And even today books are burned by communities which view them as dangerous or immoral - all typically because they offend a religious sensibility.

We can be a good, kind, moral and healthy species. Libraries by there mere existence show this to be true. So it is both sad and ironic that the enemies of peace use violence to physically destroy libraries and their holdings.

If we are ever to become free of religious terror then bolstering libraries is an essential part of showing the world that democracy flourishes best when access to ideas and the freedom to know is central and equally valued by governments and people alike. These are the humanistic ideas we must live by and export to the world. We can do it and we will win if we do not let the enemies of peace destroy our hope.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Primate Empathy at the Lincoln Tunnel

Each day I drive though the Lincoln Tunnel on my way to work in Brooklyn. Usually I'm hitting the tolls at about 7:30am which is just about the height of the morning rush hour going into the borough of Manhattan.

There is real traffic density amongst my morning peers; white collar men and women driving BMWs and other high-end vehicles, truck drivers and public transit buses. The assortment and array of vehicles entering the tunnel is just amazing. What is also amazing is that most of the time the trip, while it can be bumper-to-bumper, usually runs very smoothly.

On a typical morning more than twelve lanes of incoming traffic have to scrunch down into two lanes to enter the tunnel.  With competition for a great merge line on my mind (and everyone's mind), the potential for anarchy is intense. However, what usually happens is that all the cars and trucks and other assorted vehicles will let at least one car pass in front, eliminating lanes of traffic and leveling out the flow going into the two-lane tube.

Why is this? Clearly forms of empathy are at work for the behavior of the car drivers to merge smoothly. Since most people have their windows rolled up and drivers aren't speaking to one another, what's happening is the self-managed behavior of letting someone in line in front of you because someone let you in front of them. Essentially, this coordination goes off without any real communication between the drivers except for turn signal lights and waves of "thank you" - a real quiet ballet of driver empathy is being played out.

If I didn't travel everyday in this way, I'd think that this relatively smooth traffic pattern was a fluke. But seeing that my commute is at least 20+ days a month during the heaviest morning traffic, I'd say that I'm seeing human empathy in one of it's highest forms being played out in of all places - the great state of New Jersey.

Now I don't want to affix my humanistic rose colored glasses too firmly. Of course what could certainly contribute to this empathy is the proximity to the toll takers who are all Port Authority police. So we could make the argument that empathy in this situation is monitored by a strong police presence, a camera monitoring system and a set of signs and traffic lights at the front of the tunnel which limits the potential for selfish driver behavior.

And of course like in any social situation there are outliers and rogues. In the case of the tunnel merge there are those individuals who let no one pass, or who try to skip in front of others disobeying the social rules of engagement and who act in ways which are aggressive towards others. But in my experience these are the few and I and others who play by the unwritten rule of "leave no car behind" are the many.

Now no federal, state or local roadway, bridge or tunnel happens by luck. And there are many studies done by governmental, insurance, academic and other groups that research traffic patterns and driver behavior. These are all good and reasoned things because the more we know the better authorities can plan and implement safer lanes and highways.

But the usual sense of compassion being seen at the tunnel entrance should give us hope for the future as more people in the world live in cities and fewer are choosing to live in rural areas. And there certainly are cultural aspects of "fair play" at work at the Lincoln Tunnel. In many cases, if you travel to other countries that are equally congested but less secular, humanistic and democratic you'll find anarchy is the general rule for both drivers and pedestrians when they engage in travel.

So here's to you Lincoln Tunnel and to those who work at and pass through these tubes each day. If you're looking for me I'm the guy daydreaming about our collective humanity with the Darwin emblem on his car's bumper.

Not My Car - But That's the Emblem!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

You Can't Bomb an Ideology into Nonexistence

Hitch. We Really Could Use
You Now.
Last week President Obama sent a draft war powers request to Congress which, if approved, will allow for the continued bombing of ISIL targets and for other military operations against the terror group in both Syria and Iraq.

These traditional military operations, while effective in dismantling elements of the command and control of terrorist groups, do nothing to combat a radical religious ideology and philosophy that makes ISIL and their ilk so dangerous. ISIL and other religious terror groups such as Boko Haram are in fact consistent and severe threats to human and civil rights around the world.

You can't bomb or shoot people into stop believing in blasphemy or the need to make blasphemers pay with their heads. You can't fully stop them from torturing in the name of their god those who they accuse of being infidels and ungodly. You can't wipe out people who believe that it is their right and duty as representatives of their faith to place women and children into sex slavery or force others into servitude, or behead and burn anyone who is seen as an enemy.

The radicals most powerful weapon is to use the twin elements of terror and violence to stifle freedom. We've seen this horror time and again. Most recently in France (less than two months ago) and again in Copenhagen over the past weekend. But as overwhelming as these tragedies are we cannot forget the ongoing religious violence in Nigeria, Niger and Chad, in Sudan, in Libya and in ISIL strongholds against the citizens of Mosul where torture, murder and violence are the most plentiful exports from these regions.

Religious terror and those who lead the charge for such violence may be removed but in a world where it is easy to recruit new jihadists via social media it is equally easy to replace leaders lost through military operations. After the terror attacks of 9/11, we rather naively thought that by wiping out Al-Qaeda that we would vanquish an enemy which seeks to overthrow Western values and replace them with religious law. But in retrospect we've pursued a "whack-a-mole" diplomatic and military policy since these religious terror groups splinter with ease, recombine and each holds the view that modernity is the true enemy of their faith. In the end they see no reason to negotiate with those who they consider Satanists and sub-human.

So while those on the Marxist left may scream that the West had these attacks coming for past imperialist misdeeds they grow silent and refuse to call out other barbaric treatment. The murdering of prisoners, the beheading and burning people alive, the killing of artists and the violence perpetuated against innocent civilians across the world by those who wish to settle their religious disputes with machine guns, immolation and the sword  is real and painful and ignored by those who are by nature anti-capitalist.

This is one reason why Hitchens felt abandoned by the intellectual left who turned a blind eye towards religious fundamentalist violence. Seeing such violent action just as the outgrowth of socio-political-economics while ignoring the bigger picture and the obvious fascism of religious thought that is its own form of imperialism.

We have come to a point in our collective human civilization where the rule of law stipulates that we must be as humane as possible even in times of military conflict. While the idea of traditional wars like WWI & WWII still play out in the minds of those in the West, the enemies of peace who wish to enforce religious laws and perpetuate religious wars are not in any way self-contained or committed to the idea that there are peaceful ways to settle disputes when it comes to faith.

The main reason for this opposition to modernity centers directly on the conflict between western values and a view of the world which is infused with radical religious ideology. This ideology expressly gives the right to any "true believer" what is essentially a civic duty and the authority to avenge any perceived insult to god, a holy book and religious teachings. This is why those who are radicalized will stop at nothing less than the total destruction of Western secular culture. While these may seem like hyperbolic statements I can assure you they are nothing more than warnings based on both the words and deeds of the religious terrorists and their leaders.

When these ruthless terrorists say, as they have in public statements, that they will not stop until they behead President Obama on the White House lawn, they're not lying. Sure they are making propagandist threats but I don't know of anyone who doubts the threats are false. These radicals would have no concern carrying out such a disgusting display of inhumanity. After all, we've seen the play now many times and each time the actors become bolder and more evil.

So we in the West and our allies across the region must stop these religious terrorists with the means at our disposal. This doesn't stop the cycle of war and it certainly doesn't stop young people who have nothing to lose to leave their homes and fight for their religious cause. But if there is no way to reason with a group of people who wish nothing more than to kill or otherwise extinguish everyone who is not like them, then we must use greater force to stop these radicals from killing on a greater and grander scale.

This of course does not exclude diplomacy, civil engineering projects, economic, medical and education efforts, but it does mean we must use a bigger stick when it is prudent to do so AND to do so as often as necessary.

If there is one thing that should make people very concerned it is the thought of religious terrorists obtaining a weapon of mass destruction. Be it a virus or an atom, these religious radicals would not hesitate to use them against all those who they consider their enemies. That essentially means we are all a potential target for terror now.