Monday, May 2, 2011

Why I'm not celebrating

I’m going to offer my thoughts about what’s been happening as a result of the announcement last night about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. My comments will not be universally popular. As the celebrations in the streets go on, Bin Laden’s well-deserved death doesn’t leave me particularly joyful or contribute in any way to my pride in being an American. My pride in being an American depends on constitutional freedoms that other people around the world envy (and even hate).

I should start off by saying that I have no sympathy for Bin Laden, nor am I sorry he's dead. He chose to live by the sword, and he died by it. Justice of the eye-for-an-eye biblical sort has been served. And I’m not a blanket opponent of the death penalty -- far from it, in fact. Osama’s actions have resulted in thousands of deaths -- perhaps tens of thousands if the final tally were to be completed comprehensively. He certainly can be said to have deserved to die. Of course, in muslim eyes, Osama Bin Laden is now a martyr to the cause of islam. This is untrue, of course. He's the now-dead leader of a terrorist group that has used the defense of islam as an excuse to serve political ends: seeking to install a world-wide muslim theocracy.

But I find the notion of my country sending out "death squads" to commit premeditated murder is not something in which I find cause for pride or celebration. This leaves us on the moral level of right-wing dictators in South America and elsewhere around the world. We're so pleased with our military right now, perhaps without realizing the "might makes right" implications of our government’s actions since 9/11/01. Note that I'm not condemning the warriors -- only the war. It's like in a movie, where if the crime is egregious enough, that justifies any response that might follow. Killing people in movies always seems to be a way to solve problems, but life is not a movie. Death only solves a small class of problems.

Moreover, this "justice" was accomplished without trial. At least the equally nasty dictator Saddam Hussein was given a trial before he was executed -- something neither Saddam nor Bin Laden ever gave their victims. In that sense, we remained on a higher moral plane than Saddam -- before we killed him. I suppose someone will argue that Osama was killed in a firefight, resisting capture. I suspect he was simply murdered but, of course, I have no way of knowing that one way or another. Who would want to give the bastard the forum for his hate that a trial would allow? But for a nation that professes to cherish law and order, summary execution seems rather inconsistent with those principles. People around the world see our actions as not being consistent with the principles we claim to cherish. Our hypocrisy reveals our lies to them, although many Americans are blind to that hypocrisy.

Another rationalization could be that this was an evil person who deserved to die. I'm reminded of the lines from the movie Lord of the Rings:
Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.

There's little doubt in my mind that Osama deserved to die, perhaps many times over if that were possible. Does his death bring back the thousands of people killed as a result of his deeds? Of course not. The biblical god claims vengeance to be his, not belonging in the repertoire of humans [although the bible seemingly contradicts this principle, so choose your point of view]. Mere execution could seem to some to be letting this guy off too easy, of course. At the very least, we could've waterboarded him for a few weeks, right?

Nor can I say I'm particularly happy with our President claiming we're a nation "under god", and asking that his god bless America -- just which god is the one of whom the President speaks? Apparently, he's referring to the god of the bible. Not all of us in the USA believe in the biblical god invoked by the President. It seems the President can't be speaking on behalf of those who don't believe in his god. I guess that means he isn't speaking for me, in particular. Is not the god of the bible the same god (by a different name) claimed by islam? Can god possibly be on both sides of a war? It seems it must be so, since both sides are claiming him (which seems to happen a lot in history). In that case, what sort of god is this, playing both sides? Is this the sort of deity we choose to believe sanctions whatever we do in his name?

It seems we're willing to give up our liberties, sacrifice our youth in wars on foreign soil, and commit murder in the name of justice -- explain to me how these actions are different from the terrorists! One of the goals of the terrorists all along has been to demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of the USA. It seems they're succeeding. I've already discussed this elsewhere.

Recall how we all felt when we heard that Palestinians were celebrating in the streets after the attacks of 9/11/01? We were astonished that any people would actually be celebrating the death of innocent civilians. Osama Bin Laden was hardly an innocent civilian, but he had become a symbol of defiance for muslims around the world who feel persecuted (and they have the innocent civilian deaths to back up their claim). I can well imagine muslim youths lining up to volunteer to be suicide bombers, seeking vengeance for the death of Bin Laden. I'm sure they see our celebrations over the death of Bin Laden in the same way we saw those celebrations in Palestine. Vengeance begets vengeance, not justice. We may be pleased with ourselves for finally taking vengeance on him, but we likely won't be happy with what ensues.

People on both sides of this conflict between islam and the west have allowed themselves to be consumed by tribalism, spurred on by political "leaders" who have used religion and nationalism as tools to demonize the other side, justifying merciless jihad and vigilante "justice" in the process. The death of Osama Bin Laden will not cause terrorism to roll over and die. Our security has not been increased by this act of vengeance. The pain of our losses will not be eased by the absence of this terrible (but increasingly irrelevant) man on the Earth. I can see no cause for celebration, nor any end to the bloodshed and pain of this war on terrorism that employs terrorist tactics (murder and torture, among others) by Americans in retaliation.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ignorance is not bliss

The 27 April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes in the southeastern US clearly has achieved historic proportions. Its death toll has exceeded the so-call Super Outbreak of 03 April 1974. It remains to be seen what the final count of tornadoes and violent (EF4-5) tornadoes will be. It's possible that the "Super Outbreak" has been exceeded. Whatever the final tally turns out to show, it seems obvious that the 27 April 2011 event has achieved its place amidst the most infamous outbreaks in US history.

The media seem to be focused on the "freak" nature of this event, as usual. For those of us who have spent years studying the record of US tornado events, this outbreak is simply a reflection of what's possible as seen in the historical record and, in fact, what's most likely. Some of us have predicted this vulnerability. Events of the sort like 27 April 2011 occur roughly every 20 years or so -- the frequency is not at regular intervals, of course, and each event is different. But the long history of tornadoes in the US makes it clear that large fatality counts result from the infrequent coincidence of violent, long-track tornadoes with populated areas. Although outbreaks of long-track violent tornadoes in the southeastern US are relatively infrequent, the southeastern US is particularly vulnerable: a large fraction of mobile home owners, a relatively high density of communities at risk, a growing population at risk, a relatively low fraction of homes with basements, and so on -- all resulting in a high vulnerability whenever long-track, violent tornadoes occur. Thus, the tragic events of 27 April 2011 were quite predictable, although we couldn't know exactly when or where this would happen.

By studying the historical record, it's possible to anticipate events such as 27 April 2011, although we can't know precisely when they will occur. Despite advances in technology and in the infrastructure devoted to tornado warnings, when violent tornadoes interact with population centers, people will die. The infrastructure dedicated to saving lives in situations involving tornadoes has resulted in roughly a factor of 10 decrease since 1950 in average annual tornado fatalities. But the increase of population at risk has begun to offset this, in part associated with an increasing fraction of people living in mobile homes (where their risk is substantially higher than those living in "stick-built" homes). We've reached the point where the majority of tornado fatalities are those living in mobile homes, and there's a higher percentage of such in the southeastern US than elsewhere.

Thus, as I suggested in the earlier essay, the southeastern US was the most likely location for an outbreak resulting in a large number of fatalies. At times, being right is not a very satisfying situation. But it does underscore the reality that the US remains vulnerable to tornadoes, despite the new technologies and the new warning infrastructure. Even more devastating events are possible in the future. We aren't invulnerable to tornadoes and not likely to be anytime soon.