Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The United Nations, Drones, and Garry Davis

[UPDATE October 17, 2013]

The report of UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson, was released today. Its conclusions include:
In particular, the Special Rapporteur urges the United States to further clarify its position on the legal and factual issues raised herein; to declassify, to the maximum extent possible, information relevant to its lethal extraterritorial counter-terrorism operations; and to release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft, together with information on the evaluation methodology used.
(Read the full 24-page report: Promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism)

IN ADDITION, the report of UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, was also released today. Its conclusions include:
States must be transparent about the development, acquisition and use of armed drones. They must publicly disclose the legal basis for the use of drones, operational responsibility, criteria for targeting, impact (including civilian casualties), and information about alleged violations, investigations and prosecutions.
POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS: 2014: The Year of Transparency (for U.S. Drone Use)?

(Read the full 24-page report: Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions)

[UPDATE: October 16, 2013] Among much speculation that she would be the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Pakistan human rights activist Malala Yousafzai met with Barack Obama at the White House.  Malala explained, "I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fuelling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact." (See Malala Yousafzai warns Barack Obama against Pakistan drone attacks)

This is extremely important, because we are just days away from the report on U.S. drone killings by Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on counter terrorism. (More under "Exhibit B" below.)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon spoke about drones in Pakistan in early August, saying:

"As I have often and consistently said, the use of armed drones, like any other weapon, should be subject to long-standing rules of international law, including international humanitarian law."


"Let me be clear that these new tools, such as unmanned unarmed aerial vehicles, are for information purposes only."

(See: UN chief, during Pakistan visit, says drone strikes must comply with international law)
At an all Parties Conference convened by Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan on in early September, the participants unanimously recommended the initiation of dialogue with all the stakeholders to curb terrorism and taking up the drones issue at the United Nations. The resolution said, in part:
"We are unanimous that the use of drones is not only a continued violation of our territorial integrity but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts of eliminating extremism and terrorism from our country. The Federal Government should consider the possibility of taking the drone issue to the United Nations as drone attacks are a violation of International Law."
The updates above -- taken together with the specific UN investigations discussed below -- hold promise that the issue of drones will get a high priority when the UN meets in its fall session.

EXHIBIT A: UN High Commission for Human Rights

UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights Navanethem Pillay
In May, 2013, the UN High Commission for Human Rights convened in Geneva, and drones were on the agenda:
"In one the strongest indictments yet from a top UN official, the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has stated that lack of transparency in the use of armed drones has created a legal and accountability vacuum. Ms Navi Pillay also said Monday that “measures that violate human rights do not uproot terrorism, they nurture it.” It is for the first time that a top UN official has come out with stern condemnation of US policy on these sensitive subjects."
(See UN official condemns use of armed drones, May 28, 2013.)

The Commission debated a report calling for a ban on killer drones:
"Report author Christof Heyns, a South African professor of human rights law, calls for a worldwide moratorium on the 'testing, production, assembly, transfer, acquisition, deployment and use' of killer robots until an international conference can develop rules for their use."
(See New U.N. Report Calls For The Cessation Of All Military Drone Fabrication, May 4, 2013.)

EXHIBIT B: UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism

UN Special Rapporteur on Counter
Terrorism Ben Emmerson
A report on drone killings will be made to the UN General Assembly in the fall by the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism
"On 24 January 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism Ben Emmerson, launched an inquiry 'into the civilian impact, and human rights implications of the use drones and other forms of targeted killing for the purpose of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency' in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories]. The investigation, carried out by ten UN experts, including Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Christof Heyns, aims at 'determining whether there is a plausible allegation of unlawful killing' in those cases where individuals are killed by drone strikes. The results of these inquiries will be presented at UN General Assembly's next session in October 2013.
(See "Drones War in Yemen": Report presented to UN experts , July 1, 2013.)

EXHIBIT C: UN General Assembly - Fall 2013

The UN General Assembly's 68th Session opens on Tuesday, September 17, 2013. General debate is scheduled for Tuesday, September 24 to Friday, September 27; and Monday, September 30 up to Friday, October 4. (See Schedule of General Assembly plenary and related meetings.)

Dates for specific meetings and reports will be released in the days ahead.

Reuters reports another factor that puts drones in the spotlight at the UN this fall: due to "rules of members states," deployment of a UN surveillance drone in the Congo is expected to be delayed until December. (Full story: "U.N. deployment of surveillance drone in Congo delayed to December" )

Stay tuned . . . .

*   *   * 
Original July 30, 2013 intro to this post:

Garry Davis died too soon.

Garry Davis was a visionary who translated his anguish at participating in mass killing as a bomber pilot in the "Good War" (WWII) into a call for an end to national governments and an end to war. (See Garry Davis, Man of No Nation Who Saw One World of No War, Dies at 91.)

Davis issued himself passport No. 1 for the World Government of World Citizens, and encouraged others to get one, too.

Laugh if you will, but 950,000 people have taken him up on it.

Davis died on July 24. If he had lived a few month's longer, he might have seen a powerful vindication of his antiwar vision. Several arms of the United Nations have already begun to investigate the criminal drone assaults launched by the United States government under President Barack Obama, and it there is a possibility that action will be called for by the full General Assembly when it convenes in late September in New York.

When you go to the UN website, it says, "Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world."

Garry Davis saw that, as long as nations are calling the shots, the way of the world will continue to be "might makes right" and more war. The only solution is to have a higher authority and a higher loyalty. A case in point is the United Nations' role in stopping and prosecuting the crimes of the United States.

Let's hope the UN gives us something Garry Davis would have been proud of.

Related posts

A new U.N. report makes it clear that the U.S. has to report fully on all its drone attacks.

(See 2014: The Year of Transparency (for U.S. Drone Use)?)


Many people will argue that it was only because the U.S. made a threat of force that Syria offered to enter into an agreement on chemical weapons. The sequence of events certainly suggests some relationship between the two.

(See "OR ELSE!" (What the U.S. threat of force against Syria teaches us) )

How do you formulate a statement that can somehow convince the United States to eliminate its threatening nuclear weapons?  How do you formulate the 10th request? Or the 100th? Knowing all the time that the United States is in the position -- will always be in the position -- to say, "No" ?  At what point does it dawn on you that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, because it has the power and the rest of the world doesn't?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States))

Monday, July 29, 2013

When is Christianity Going Back to Being the Religion of "UN-entombment"?

What would Christians think if someone proposed carving out a slice of their Sunday services to worship the God of Entombment?

Wouldn't they think that was absurd?

After all, if Christianity is anything, isn't it the religion of "UN-entombment"?

This became clear to me anew during a thrilling sermon by Will Storm at St. Luke's Logan Square at the 2013 Easter vigil, in which he talked about the many forces wanting to blot out life, like a giant thumb blotting out the sun, saying "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The story of Christ is the antidote to this -- "the sign placed over this world [to be] a limit and an end to its suffering.  A sign that hope is not to be abandoned."
"This is the sign that stands against and triumphs over the gates of hell, which the Holy Spirit cries into our hearts, each by name. This is the sign that occurred in the saving ark, in the deliverance of the Israelites through the Red Sea, in the saving presence within the fiery furnace. This is the sign to which Mary Magdalene was the first witness along with the apostles, the sign to which the church has given testimony to throughout the centuries by its proclamation and its action, by the blood of its martyrs and the works of its saints, by the confessions its has spoken and the hymns it has sung, through its art and writings, through its scriptures and acts of charity, by the immersion of ever new generations in the waters of baptism and the offering of our Lord’s presence in the wine and bread. Throughout our history the Holy Spirit has not ceased to cry until its voice has grown hoarse with this message: Christ is risen!"
So: for Christians anywhere to worship a "God of Entombment" is unthinkable.

Or is it?

Now I'm not going to try to suggest that there is some aspect of Sunday morning worship at my church, or any church, that directly glorifies this God of Entombment. But I do have to ask: haven't we gotten to the point where the values around which we've built our lives -- i.e. "worship" as defined by "what we commit ourselves to" -- have become inextricably mixed with this system of mass incarceration?

This past Sunday, we did a screening and discussion at St. Luke's Logan Square of the film, The House I Live In, dealing with the mass incarceration of 2.5 million people in the United States. It is a powerful indictment of American society. It suggests that we've gone far, far beyond any defensible notion of law and justice. We're now just warehousing people for profit, or worse. And we're all implicated.

After all, do we go day after day without making a single contribution to ending the systemic racism that is fueled in our schools and feeds the system of mass incarceration (aka the "school-to-prison pipeline")? Or maybe it doesn't matter because our kids are getting high quality educations, thank you very much?

Are we content to live in Cook County, home of one of the great hellholes and feeder tombs to the system of mass incarceration, Cook County Jail? Or maybe it doesn't matter because I'll certainly never see the inside of CCJ?

Do we remain blind to the practice of torture via sensory deprivation (aka solitary confinement, "special housing unit (SHU)", "administrative detention," etc etc etc) in Illinois prisons and prisons across the country? Or maybe it doesn't matter because we've got our nice comfortable homes to live in?

Do we find an excuse to sidestep the invitations of organizations like Community Renewal Society (FORCE Project), ALSO, Radical Public Health, Black and Pink: Chicago, Decarcerate Illinois, and many, many others to make a difference? Or maybe it doesn't matter because the job market seems to be working to our advantage just the way it is?

I wonder if this isn't exactly the kind of inconsistency -- inconstancy, faithlessness -- that prophets like Amos and Hosea railed against. Wouldn't they say, "You pretend to 'worship' at Christ's altar while tolerating the entombment of 2.5 million people? I will put an end to your mirth, your festivals, your new moons, your sabbaths, and all your appointed festivals!" (adapted from Hosea 2:11) And "I hate it, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Your offerings are meaningless. Your songs are just noise. The only 'God' you worship is a God of despair and darkness." (adapted from Amos 5:21).

So I ask: can our profession of Christian faith be separated from a determination to end the entombment of men and women in America's prisons?

Related posts

I believe Easter is God's gift to humanity of victory over death, hopelessness and frailty, and I believe that God is alive and in our midst. The witness of the Guantanamo lawyers has confirmed me in those beliefs.

(See Easter Victory: The Guantanamo Lawyers )

Cook County Jail is the perfect example of the nationwide injustice that Michelle Alexander described in her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration, focused principally one people of color, in which "crimes" (often related to drug possession or other low-level offenses) become the mechanism for entrapping people in a cycle of incarceration that is brutalizing and often begins a downward spiral of lifetime discrimination.

(See Free Them All )

I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry))

The Last Supper is a staggering collection of 600 plates that the artist Julie Green has painted with images and notations about the last meals of people put to death in states across the US.

(See Communion of a Different Sort: "The Last Supper" at the Block Museum )

DRONES: Need we fear the government-industrial robot complex?

[Part of the series: 10 Questions to Spur the Drone Debate]

"The government was offering the company a fortune, and threatening it with antirobot legislation in case of refusal. We were stuck then, and we're badly stuck now." (Isaac Asimov, "Little Lost Robot," p. 167)

Not surprisingly, the industrial companies that have developed an addiction to war production are now veering into an addiction to robotic war production. Just yesterday, at a meeting of the Anti-War Committee of Chicago, we were discussing the way in which Boeing has bet the future of the company on the next generation drone and a $1.5 billion contract from the Navy. (More at What If Illinois Became a "War-Profiteer-Free Zone" ?)

The "military-industrial complex" that Dwight Eisenhower warned against has been extended via a government-industrial robot complex.

And, as with the military-industrial complex, the government-industrial robot complex has thoroughly penetrated our country's education and research sector. While reading P.W. Singer's book, Wired for War, I was struck by the problem faced by all robotics researchers: sooner or later all roads lead to military use. Midwestern universities and colleges have a BIG drone problem.

The government calls the shots. If you think it doesn't, and/or that you're not implicated, you're kidding yourself. Four anecdotes come to mind.

First, the talk by a scientist at a conference entitled "The Atomic Age" in Chicago in 2011. "You would think there are some areas of study that the military is not interested in. For instance, I specialize in sand: how it flows, how it piles up, etc. What could be more boring than sand? Well, lo and behold, in 1991 the U.S. invaded Iraq, and suddenly the Army was interested in sand. Guess whose phone started to ring!"  Nothing is immune from military interest; the more useful the technology, the more the military will demand to be involved.

Second, the film Inextinguishable Fire, by Harun Farocki. The film is about napalm, but it could easily be about drones. It shows people who work for a technology company trying mightily to disown the consequences of their company's products. ("I just work in the testing department . . . ." or "Actually, our products have lots of other uses . . . .") We need to start being honest: If you're a cog in the wheel of war, you're responsible!

Third, a story that most people are familiar with: right before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, numerous Manhattan Project scientists signed on to a letter urging President Truman to not use the bomb. We all know how that turned out. (I was reminded of this incident by its dramatization in the powerful opera by John Adams, Doctor Atomic.) The only way to stop governments from using weapons is to make sure they never get access to them in the first place.

Finally, a very similar account by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov recounted, in his biography, the celebration after the successful development by his scientific team of a working hydrogen bomb. "May our bombs only ever explode over test sites, not over cities!" he proclaimed in a toast. This was greeted with withering, profane sarcasm by the political commissar who was presence. "You take care of making us strong, comrade; we'll choose the targets!"

What's the solution? Should we all become Luddites?

It's not clear how to keep the military's hands off robotic and other technologies. But the first step is to open our eyes and open and our mouths and start to be honest about the extent of the problem. What are we prepared to do to keep technologies from being used by the government to injure people?

Let's start debating the drones now. (Here are nine more questions to guide the debate.)

(Page references are to the 1990 Byron Preiss Visual Publications edition of Robot Visions.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Chicago Needs Schools for Education, not for War and Occupation

I was marching with other protesters at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters on Wednesday. In addition to massive teacher layoffs, we were trying to stop the conversion of the Ames School, in the Logan Square neighborhood, into a military academy.

I've urged everyone to raise the alarm about the way our kids are being lured into bearing the burdens of this country's military adventures. It is particularly disgusting to see the way films and video games glorify war and lure young people into combat and violence.

Military Penetration of Chicago Schools

What I didn't realize is the extent of military penetration of Chicago's schools.

An excellent overview is provided by this 2007 segment from Chicago Tonight about Chicago's military schools. At the time of that show:
  • 10,000 Chicago high school students wore a military uniform to class
  • Six (6) full academies: three (3) Army, one (1) Marine, one (1) Navy, one (1) Air Force (approved for 2009)
  • Four (4) other public schools with Army military academies within them
  • Thirty-six (36) traditional Junior ROTC high school programs
  • Twenty (20) middle school programs
Military academies in Chicago are:
Academies include a mandatory Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) instructional component.

Why to say "NO Military School at Ames"

As I see it, there are four big strikes against the military schools.

(1) Making the student into "the problem"

The principal selling point for military academies is "these kids need discipline" -- so let's crack down on them and break the back of their "rebellious ways."

Our young people are not "the problem" -- they are our future. An antagonistic, adversarial approach to young people is simply the wrong way to deal with them.

This is fundamental to being a parent and raising children -- you either understand it or you don't. And I suspect that is why, when Ames parents did a door-to-door community survey, 87% of the 357 persons surveyed did not want a military high school at Ames.

(2) Critical thinking? Fuggedaboutit!

Studies indicate that JROTC programs tend to encourage an uncritical view of American history and emphasize obedience rather than the evaluation of sources and critical thinking. (See Making Soldiers in the Public Schools: An Analysis of the Army Jrotc Curriculum by Catherine Lutz.)

Any way you think about it -- in terms of civics, in terms of economics, or just in terms of plain old responsible and loving parenting -- critical thinking is the most important inheritance we can give to our young people. That's what we need to foster in our schools -- not obedience.

(3) Violence is NOT the solution

At a time when we are struggling mightily to fight against the scourge of violence of all kinds in our community, it is simply unacceptable to legitimize -- nay, glorify -- the use of force and violence as the solution to problems. That is exactly what we do when we convert an academic school into a military school, put kids in uniforms, and start drilling them.

(4) Perverting the definition of "American"

There is a very cynical use of immigration reform to induce recent immigrants to the United States into the military. Putting a military academy in a majority Spanish-speaking neighborhood just serves to reinforce the undemocratic idea that a person has to be a soldier in order to be a full-fledged member of our society.

I guess what I'm struggling most to understand is: if the vast majority of the people in the Ames community don't want a military academy, who is left pushing for it? And why does he think he has any right to override the people in the community?

More information about JROTC can be found on the website of the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY).

Related posts

The interest of the government in organizing and occupying and disciplining every moment of our young people's lives is not benign.

(See "Ownlife" - A Notion Too Dangerous for the State to Tolerate? )

In the old order of things, power places itself on display, and hopes that the population sees fit to obey. In the new order of things, power compels every member of the population to display himself or herself . . .  In the new order of things, the courts are bypassed and the instruments of discipline -- observe, classify, examine -- run rampant.

(See "Surveiller et Punir" Indeed!)

The hardest thing for me to understand about the whole effort to militarize Ames is, why would anyone want to go into a place that is dedicated to community involvement, creativity, and leadership development, and change the focus to "following orders"?

(See Military at Ames? No Sirree Bub!)

Reflecting on America's Split Personality (Moscow Airport Summer Reads)

Sometime in the '70s, my friend Sandy was working as a lawyer in a commercial trial. Long, tedious documents needed to be read into evidence. Sandy, a wonderful raconteur and great wit, made the most of the task by reading them into the record with as much emphasis as possible.

"Your honor!" the defense objected, "What does he think this is? A dramatic reading of Crime and Punishment?"

To which Sandy responded, "Is that a veiled reference to your guilt?"

Edward J. Snowden's lawyer made a similar veiled reference to guilt in Moscow on Wednesday, and he wasn't pointing at his client.

In a much reported development, Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, provided him a change of clothes, and some reading matter, including Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. "I thought it would be pleasant for him to read about just who is Raskolnikov," he said. "I don’t want to say that their internal conflicts are similar, but all the same, I think it’s a world classic and it will be interesting for him."

Well, if he isn't making an analogy to Snowden's internal conflicts, whose conflicts is he alluding to?

People familiar with the novel will remember that, in Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, kills an old woman, a pawnbroker. The entire action of the novel takes place over a few days, and the portrayal of Raskolnikov's mental anguish as he finally confesses to and seeks redemption for his crime is dizzying.

But what the novel is really about is ideology vs. moral instinct. As the notes at the back of my edition of the novel helpfully point out, "Raskol" means 'schism' in Russian." Raskolnikov is torn between the consequences of his ideology and the clear moral instinct he expresses in his dealings with so many of the characters in the novel.

To be sure, Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker -- and her sister, Lizaveta, in what we today might call an incident of "collateral damage" -- because he needs money. Of course, "needs money" is always a relative statement. And Raskolnikov's "needs" are all balled up and confused with a notion of the rights of a "great" man and the importance of the expression of pure will.

In other words, one half of the fractured Raskolnikov personality -- and the murder that it commits -- is about playing God, deciding who gets injured, and acting without regard for the complexity of humankind's moral condition.

The other half of Raskolnikov's personality is characterized by love. He feels a deep love for his sister, and his mother, and his outrage at the difficulties they are in complicate his thinking. Perhaps more impressive, he feels a spontaneous empathy for the family of a poor old bureaucrat who is killed in an accident.

The novel, in other words, is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense. The real question is not whether the crime will be "solved." The novel is about the question, "How can someone -- or some people -- be both monster and messiah at time same time?

* * *

Edward J. Snowden's lawyer didn't give Snowden a copy of Crime and Punishment to help him better understand himself. He gave it to him so he could try to understand where he came from.

He will, if he's anything like me, instantly recognize the instinctively kind and giving Raskolnikov in the world out of which he came.

But he will also recognize a United States that has convinced itself, using the shakiest of reasoning, that it matters more than others, and that it is justified in injuring others to serve its own ends.

For me, this dark side of America was epitomized by the story that came out about a year ago about the Obama administration's drone killing decisions. I was shattered to realize not only that Obama and his associates feel justified in making decision after unilateral decision to kill people, but that they are confident that the American people are reassured by this behavior:
“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go."

"He's a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States."

[T]he control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama's striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.

"After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States."

Who are we? The United States, personified by its "great man" President Obama, is a kind nation that is riven by a belief that it should have the ultimate power over life and death, that every being on earth is somehow of lesser importance.

Like Bradley Manning, Snowden is another American truth-teller who has been left twisting in the wind. He fears he may end up dead, and he is probably right. His lawyer is aware that he needs strength, and he seems to have brilliantly grasped that the most important thing for him to do right now is to reflect deeply on what he's up against. (He would probably encourage Snowden's supporters to do the same.)

So Edward J. Snowden is spending his summer in Moscow with a "good read," trying to get a handle on why the United States is the way it is. We might all do well to ponder the same question.

Related posts

As Sankari explained, when people everywhere unite to fight back against the illegitimate prosecution and persecution of Muslims, they are making an important contribution to the leading edge of resistance against the racist and political repression that affects the African-American community as well as all people of color, with harsh treatment dealt out to undocumented people, LGBT people, women, Muslims, and people involved in the labor, peace, and solidarity movements; and when Muslims join in the broad movement against racist and political repression that affects all these groups, they are contributing to the resistance against prosecution and persecution of Muslims.

(See GUANTANAMO: "Is that who we are?" )

The Gospels are full of provocations to confront this paradox: people are forever saving up and guarding against a future that is never going to come, while throwing away the present that they do have. ("You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" Luke 12:20)

(See Edward J. Snowden: The 365-Day Man )

Today, ALL Americans have been made part of the "kill chain" by high-tech, hyper-modern killing with drones. It's time for us to see that this new type of killing has put ALL of us behind the trigger. The bad news is drones have made all of us more implicated and culpable than ever. But the good news is that the drones also offer up clear pathway to putting a stop to the immoral, dishonorable, unlawful killing.

(See THIS Memorial Day, Honor the Fallen: STOP Drone Killing! )

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Does "God" "care" about the climate crisis?

"The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?" (Amos: 8:7-8)

What would it be like to have a cultural memory of the massive power -- the power to give life, and to threaten -- inherent in Nature?

Would you be happy to have those memories in the past? To be living in a time and place where you could feel like the unchallenged lord of your domain? Or would you have a sense of uneasiness? As if you knew there was something being left unacknowledged? A gnawing feeling that "something's coming" . . . ?

(Oh - and "my deeds"? What have "my deeds" got to do with it?)

* * *

Does "God" -- whatever it is we mean by "God" -- "care" -- whatever it might mean for "God" to "care" -- about the climate crisis?

Does "God" "care" that the ultimate outcome of the damage to the Earth's climate may lead to the end -- not of the Earth itself, nor of life on Earth, but of the existence of the human species on Earth?

* * *

When I was twelve years old, my family spent some weeks in Pennsylvania taking care of my grandfather as he was nearing the end of his life. A friend of the family, Larry, joined us to help out: driving us to the hospital and generally providing moral support.

Larry was a philosophy professor. He was one of the most interesting people I've ever met.

The ride to and and from the hospital was through the beautiful coal-filled mountains of Carbon County in Eastern Pennsylvania. Often, on the rides, we had "philosophical" discussions.

Sometimes on those rides, Larry would try to gently broach the subject of what was happening with my grandfather, and how I was dealing with it. Was I thinking about what might be coming?

Larry had a tremendously gentle manner combined with a fabulous smile.

I specifically remember one of those discussions. Larry posed the problem of whether, if God knows the future, does that mean the future is predetermined. I imagine he was disappointed to discover that this was a question that had never occurred to me, and was not troubling me. In any event, he invited me to consider a God for whom past, present, and future existed in a way similar to the way in which the present exists for us. "So: just as you, sitting there seeing me sitting here, doesn't make me sit here, God's knowledge of all time doesn't make it happen the way it happens."

"Oh," I said.

* * *

In Larry fashion, I wonder: what might the beginning and end of the human species mean for God/Nature/the Universe? I try to analogize my experience to the "experience" of God/Nature/the Universe. In the overall scheme of things . . . ?

For some reason, all I can think of is dodgeball.

Sometime before I got into middle school, there was an "after-school sports" program that we all participated in. Some days the kids from my school, Fairmount, would go play at Washington Avenue School. Some days we would go play at Milton Avenue School. I suppose we had a variety of activities, but what I clearly remember is dodgeball.

Sometimes the kids from our school would win, and sometimes the kids from the other school would win.

There were moments when the cascade of balls was thrilling.

I often had to carry my trumpet case, and that was a pain.

The gym at Milton smelled pukey, actually.

As I think about it, little by little more and more comes back to me . . . specific kids . . . like that big tall kid from Washington who later turned out to be one of my best friends, Ed.

* * *

The ending of humanity due to the destruction of Earth's atmosphere will be bad when it's happening.

* * *

I believe there is value in trying to grasp the meaning of "God" "caring" about the climate crisis. I don't think it's true that there is a big "somebody" out there who is going to come to humanity's rescue. I do believe there is a power in the universe, and we are deeply enmeshed with that power, and that enmeshment becomes more and more manifest as we enter more and more deeply into the crisis.

God / Nature / the universe / the power is full of infinite potentiality. Humanity just has it's eyes closed at the moment.

If Larry were here, I think Larry would say, "Perhaps the meaning of God caring about the climate crisis is that humanity gets to see the future, together with God -- just like you get to see the road out the front window as we drive along this mountain road -- so that humanity can choose its own future."

And Larry would not be pleased, exactly, to find that this question has been troubling me . . . no, that's not true. Larry would be pleased, Larry would be relieved; Larry would smile that smile of his.

Related posts

One of the really interesting things about looking at how Rachel Carson used her writing to wake the world up -- particularly with her prophetic Silent Spring -- is that we can then go back to some of the earliest parts of the Bible and see them as living and urgent. And reading Silent Spring as well as Biblical stories like the account of The Flood points to the urgency of changes that need to be made here and now in the way we all live our lives.

(See Looking at Rachel Carson (at St. Luke's "School for Prophets") )

"Although we know the end from the very beginning," says Walker, "the story is no less compelling to watch." A man, gloriously alone (except for his own reflection) on an ice-covered lake; the soothing pastel colors of the distant sky; and what seems surely to be a circle he is digging around himself with a pick-axe. A perfect parable for our headlong rush toward climate crisis?

(See How Do You Say "Suicide Narcissus" in Chinese?)

Oil companies are valued by the market based on their reserves. The problem with this approach is that the total reserves claimed by the oil companies is FIVE TIMES what can possibly be burned without driving up the temperature of the atmosphere up by a catastrophic amount and, as McKibben puts it, "breaking the planet." How can the value of oil companies be a function of reserves that can never be used?

(See The REALLY Big Short: The Jig is Up with Oil Companies)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Drone to Human: Leave the Thinking to Me

[Part of the series: 10 Questions to Spur the Drone Debate]

In early July, 1988, I was on a business trip in China. On the 4th of July, I was in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, when a brief exchange occured that is etched in my memory.

We were scheduled to visit a leather tannery, and my counterpart from the local office of the China National Native Produce and Animal By-Products Import/Export Corporation (ANIBY for short) met me in the usual white van after breakfast for the long ride to the tannery. We may have been going to Leshan that day; or perhaps to Yaan; or else to one of the other far-flung tanneries I used to visit.

"A missile departs the forward launcher of Vincennes
during a 1987 exercise."
(Source: Wikipedia)

As I climbed into the back of the van that morning, he said to me in Chinese, "Shi Gelei [Scarry]? Have you heard? A U.S. missile shot down an Iranian 747 . . . ."

I couldn't quite parse the sentence. My Chinese was pretty good, but he was saying words weren't making any sense. What was he talking about?

He told me again, slowly, "In the Mideast - Iran - a plane, a 747. The United States. Shot it down."

I repeated the words back to him, putting the meaning together in my mind, as he looked me in the eyes and nodded. "More than 200 people were killed," he said.

Finally, I squinted, shook my head, and replied, incredulous. "No . . . " I said, "How could a mistake like that happen . . . ?"

And then came his response, the part that I have never been able to forget:

"Mistake?" He smiled ironically. "I suppose some people might imagine it was a mistake . . . ."

Map of the Iran Air 655 shootdown
(Source: Wikipedia)

That's how I heard about the two hundred and ninety (290) people who died on Iran Air Flight 655.

It was the 4th of July, I was a long way from home, and I was with people who had a completely independent worldview from the one I was surrounded with when I was in the United States. At that moment, I realized that we Americans are deluded when we imagine that people in the rest of the world assume that we are filled with nothing but good intentions, and that they give us the benefit of the doubt.  At that brief moment in July, 1988, I didn't yet understand why this was so, but it began a journey to try to find out. In the twenty-five years that followed my thinking has gone through a big evolution.

I think of that day often. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I still hadn't quite made the connection between this incident and the work to rein in drone warfare, in which I am so involved, until reading P.W. Singer's book, Wired for War. Singer makes a very important point about the Iran Air Flight 655 case. As he explains it, the Aegis information system that spotted and interpreted the information about that civilian flight, and guided the shoot-down, is exactly the kind of "man-in-the-loop" system that is being used in the drone killings in the Mideast today: in theory, humans are exercising their judgement in the process, but in reality the computer system is viewed as too "smart" to be second-guessed by a human being.

Aegis cruiser "control room": who's controlling who?
(Source: Wikipedia)

I encourage everyone to read Singer on the The Ethical, Psychological Effects Of Robotic Warfare. As he explains:
"Designed to defend Navy ships against missile and plane attacks, the [Aegis] system operates in four modes, from 'semi-automatic,' in which humans work with the system to judge when and at what to shoot, to 'casualty,' in which the system operates as if all the humans are dead and does what it calculates is best to keep the ship from being hit. Humans can override the Aegis system in any of its modes, but experience shows that this capability is often beside the point, since people hesitate to use this power . . . . [In the Iran Air 655 incident] Though the hard data were telling the human crew that the plane wasn't a fighter jet, they trusted the computer more. Aegis was in semi-automatic mode, giving it the least amount of autonomy, but not one of the 18 sailors and officers in the command crew challenged the computer's wisdom. They authorized it to fire."
Multiply this situation by 1,000, and you have the situation in place today with the U.S. drone fleet: skies full of lethal robots theoretically controlled by "pilots" . . . but, in fact, front-loaded with a bias to kill, with little impetus to contradict that bias.

Some people think it's not yet time to worry about drones, because they're "not really making decisions on their own" -- and they're certainly not at the point of trying to out-think humans. People think, "There's still a 'man in the loop,' so what is there to worry about?" In other words, as Isaac Asimov has been very effective at illustrating in his "Robot" series, it is always tempting to think that the culprit we have to be afraid of is the robot:
"I don't like to have Nestor 10 continue to elude us. It's bad. It must be gratifying his swollen sense of superiority. I'm afraid that his motivation is no longer simply one of following orders. It think it's becoming more a matter of sheer neurotic necessity to out-think humans." (Isaac Asimov, "Little Lost Robot," p. 178)
But as Peter Singer's description of the Iran Air Flight 655 case illustrates, the real culprit is the humans "in-the-loop" who have ceased to exercise control.

So . . . what do we need to be more afraid of? Robots with a compulsion to out-think humans? or humans that are afraid to second-guess the robots?

Let's start debating the drones now. (Here are nine more questions to guide the debate.)

(Page references are to the 1990 Byron Preiss Visual Publications edition of Robot Visions.)

Related posts

The article goes on, in what can only be dubbed "dronespeak," to explain away all the deadly consequences of the U.S. drone program in terms of information theory and neurobiology . . . the "swirl of data" . . ."multitasking" . . . "theta" . . . .

(See Drones, Dronespeak, and Death TV: "Intense" )

We can now entrust all the dirty work -- including war -- to robots. (Or can we?)

(See A Modest Proposal: Debate the Drones )

In my opinion, the reason to focus on drones is this: when we focus on drones, the general public is able to "get," to an unusual extent, the degree to which popular consent has been banished from the process of carrying out state violence. (Sure, it was banished long ago, but the absence of a human in the cockpit of a drone suddenly makes a light bulb go off in people's heads.) It takes some prodding, but people can sense that drone use somehow crosses a line. And that opens up the discussion about how our consent has been eliminated from the vast range of US militarism.

(See "Why focus on drone attacks?")