The Distorted Face of Terrorism

A colleague once told me that arguments were based on beliefs, and beliefs were based on facts. The problem is that what is ‘fact’ can so often be wholly inaccurate, especially in our media-saturated environment where facts could simply be what is more commonly reported.

So therein lies a likely root cause for flawed arguments: inaccurate facts. 

Case in point: the argument that stamping out terrorism lies in targeted measures concerning Muslims, which is based on a belief that Islam as a religion somehow promotes violence as a justifiable means to an end, which is based on the ‘fact’ that most terrorist attack are committed by Muslims.

Well, as this article points out, most terrorist attack aren’t actually committed by Muslims. A Europol report states that less than 2% of terror attacks in 2013 were committed by Muslims while an FBI study looking at terrorism committed in the U.S. between 1980 and 2005 found that only about 6% of attacks were committed by Muslims.

It just seems like most terrorist attacks are committed by Muslims because such attacks receive disproportionately more attention from the media, reigniting narratives on the clash between the West and Middle East again.

So, the next time we offer arguments, let’s critically consider whether the beliefs and facts they rest on are sound.


Sticking to your guns, losing your mind

Watch this video. More than enough logical fallacies to go around. Ad hominem? Appeal to force? Red herrings? False analogies and comparisons?

And perhaps even more fundamentally annoying isn’t so much what this guy says, but how he says/shouts them – how he basically conducts himself as someone who is uninterested in engaging in a civil debate.

Find out more about the myriad issues that surround the gun control debate here. In the words of risk consultant David Ropeik, the “fight isn’t about guns or safety…it is a much more profound and ancient conflict over how society should work, and who decides”.

Syria: Horror of Homs

Catch some gripping video on the situation in Homs, Syria, by a French journalist with commentary from Britain’s Channel 4. A comment from a New York Times blog:

As Jonathan Miller of Channel 4 News observed, “While the world has become used to grainy shaky and gruesome footage and images from Homs fed through whatever Internet connection is available, Mani’s crystal clear and incredible footage gives perhaps the clearest and most frightening account of what Homs has been like for the past three weeks.”

What went through your mind as you viewed scene after scene? How do such visual reports influence audiences worldwide about the situation in Syria, and about President Assad? 

Doomsday Clock: Who’s Keeping Time?

Doomsday Clock Moved One Minute Closer to Midnight

WASHINGTON, DC, January 10, 2012 (ENS) – “Inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change,” prompted the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists today to push the hands of the Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight.

“It is five minutes to midnight,” said the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists group, announcing their decision at a news conference in Washington. “Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed. For that reason, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the clock hand one minute closer to midnight, back to its time in 2007.”

The Doomsday Clock now stands at five minutes to midnight.
(Image courtesy Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2010, when it was pushed back one minute from five to six minutes before midnight. The clock’s hands have been adjusted 20 times since its inception in 1947, when the clock was initially set to seven minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock expresses how close this group of scientists belives humanity is to catastrophic destruction, symbolized by midnight on the clock. The group monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.

“Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock,” said Lawrence Krauss, co-chair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors and a professor with the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics departments at Arizona State University.

“As we see it,” he told reporters, “the major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons, and in fact setting the stage for global reductions.”

“Even though climate change is happening and is getting more urgent as we speak,” warned Krauss, “no comprehensive global action is happening.”

Jiaxing coal-fired power plant in Zhejiang Province on China’s east coast (Photo by zpsohu (Panoramio)

“The global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophe from changes in Earth’s atmosphere,” warned Allison Macfarlane, who chairs the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board and is a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on American’s Nuclear Future, and an associate professor with George Mason University.

“The International Energy Agency projects that, unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification,” said Macfarlane.

“Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy and emissions for 40 to 50 years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect,” she said. “Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late.”

Science skeptics who diminish and discount scientific findings are a “worrisome trend,” said Robert Socolow, a member of the BAS Science and Security Board.

“The world needs the political leadership to affirm the primacy of science or problems will be far worse than they are today, said Socolow, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and co-principal investigator with the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University.

He and the other BAS representatives at the news conference expressed concern that, in Krauss’ words, “politics trumps science” at a time when elections are coming up in the United States, Russia and France and new leadership is soon to take over in China.

Doomsday Clock graph. The lower the graph, the higher the probability of catastrophe is considered to be.(Graph by Fastfission)

Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first U.S. atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock in 1947 using the imagery of apocalypse – midnight – and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion – countdown to zero – to convey threats to humanity and the planet.

While the group is opposed to nuclear weapons, it neither endorses or does not endorse nuclear power. It maintains that nuclear power must be safe and if done well could help with climate change.

The decision to move the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made by the Bulletin’s Board of Directors in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates.

Jayantha Dhanapala is a member of the BAS Board of Sponsors, a former United Nations under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003), and ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United States (1995-1997).

“The world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world’s inhabitants several times over,” he warned today.

United States Trident II (D-5) missile underwater launch (Photo courtesy U.S. Defense Dept.)

“Despite the promise of a new spirit of international cooperation, and reductions in tensions between the United States and Russia, the Science and Security Board believes that the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear, and leadership is failing,” he said.

As a positive signal, Dhanapala pointed to the ratification in December 2010 of the New START treaty between Russia and the United States which reversed the previous drift in US-Russia nuclear relations.

“However,” warned Dhanapala, “failure to act” on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea “continues to leave the world at risk from continued development of nuclear weapons.”

“Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain,” agreed Socolow. “Among these are disagreements between the United States and Russia about the utility and purposes of missile defense, as well as insufficient transparency, planning, and cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states to support a continuing drawdown.”

“The resulting distrust leads nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals,” Socolow warned. “Such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups.”

There are positive signs amidst the challenges, particularly the engagement of people in determining their own future, the group emphasized.

“The Science and Security Board is heartened by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, political protests in Russia, and by the actions of ordinary citizens in Japan as they call for fair treatment and attention to their needs,” said Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Executive Director Kennette Benedict.

“Whether meeting the challenges of nuclear power, or mitigating the suffering from human-caused global warming, or preventing catastrophic nuclear conflict in a volatile world, the power of people is essential,” Benedict said. “For this reason, we ask other scientists and experts to join us in engaging ordinary citizens. Together, we can present the most significant questions to policymakers and industry leaders. Most importantly, we can demand answers and action.”

Environment News Service (Original link here

Is the conception of a Doomsday Clock helpful for cautioning humankind? Or is it simply making us more paranoid or pessimistic about humanity’s future? 

Climate Change and Global Security

No longer can we talk about efforts at environmental change as only pertaining to the sustainability of individual countries when in fact the pressing global problems of poverty and conflict have – at some level – their roots in the devastating effects of climate change. 

Climate Change now seen as a question of Global Security

Once viewed as an issue of interest only to greens or academics, the threat posed by climate change to security is now eyed with deepening concern by politicians and defence chiefs.

Droughts and floods which devastate crops and rising seas which imperil coastal cities will become potent triggers for famine, disease and homelessness, in turn inflaming tensions and leading to unrest, say experts.

Indeed, some suspect that climate change is already an invisible driver of turbulence.

The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur, caused by an exceptional drought that impoverished herding communities and forced them to migrate, has been cited as just such an illustration.

Another example may be this year’s revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where food prices, propelled by devastating heatwaves in big grain-growing countries, fanned hunger, and then anger, among the poor.

“Extreme weather events continue to grow more frequent and intense in rich and poor countries alike, not only devastating lives but also infrastructure, institutions and budgets — an unholy brew which can create dangerous security vacuums,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in July at a Security Council debate.

Climate change “not only exacerbates threats to international peace and security; it is a threat to international peace and security,” he said.

In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon said climate shift “could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments.”

“While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict,” it said.

Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, an envoy for climate and energy security at Britain’s ministry of defence, said climate migration was one of the hidden factors in this equation.

“What happens to those people who lose their land or who lose their livelihood?” Morisetti said at a conference in London last month.

“If they migrate, is it planned, coordinated, manageable migration in a country or between countries? Or is it unplanned mass migration that causes tension?

“If they lose their livelihood because of rising sea levels, rising temperatures, loss of crop yields, do they find a legal livelihood to replace that? Or are they susceptible to recruitment into crime, ultimately (becoming) a five-dollars-a-day AK-47 terrorist?”

Morisetti said the biggest risks were “in the equatorial belt, where we have seen conflict time and time again in the last 40 or 50 years, partly because the countries there and their governments do not have the capacity and the resilience to cope with those stresses and look after their population.”

In a paper published last month by the US journal Science, an international team of researchers said “climate-related resettlement” was already underway in Vietnam’s Mekong delta, along the Limpopo River of Mozambique, in China’s Inner Mongolia, the coast of Alaska and the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea.

Calling for help to ensure fair and orderly migration, they urged changes to national and international law and the involvement of climate-threatened communities in deciding where they would be resettled.

Other factors in the murky interface between climate and security are health — especially through the expansion of mosquito- and water-borne disease — and the amplified risk of hunger and poverty from rising food prices.

Wheat, corn and sorghum have all seen global spikes in the past 18 months, but in the drought-hit Horn of Africa their prices have at times doubled or tripled compared to a five-year average.

Rice in flood-affected Thailand and Vietnam is some 25 percent more expensive than a year ago.

In February, the World Bank estimated 44 million people in developing economies had fallen into extreme poverty through spiralling food prices.

“For the poorest who spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, price rises on this scale can have consequences as families are forced into impossible trade-offs in a desperate bid to feed themselves,” Oxfam said on Monday at the start of the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

Richard Ingham of AFP (link here)

Thankful for the Nice World?

Is our unprecedented level of peace today something to be thankful for? Nicholas Kristof seems to think so, citing how levels of violence, deaths and inequality have gone down over the centuries. If you agree, what do you think are the key reasons that account for this? If you don’t, then how is Kristof’s assessment possibly flawed or employing measurements that are too convenient? 

Are We Getting Nicer?

It’s pretty easy to conclude that the world is spinning down the toilet.

So let me be contrary and offer a reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving. Despite the gloomy mood, the historical backdrop is stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.

War is declining, and humanity is becoming less violent, less racist and less sexist — and this moral progress has accelerated in recent decades. To put it bluntly, we humans seem to be getting nicer.

That’s the central theme of an astonishingly good book just published by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard. It’s called “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” and it’s my bet to win the next Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” Pinker writes, and he describes this decline in violence as possibly “the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.”

He acknowledges: “In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.”

Still, even in a 20th century notorious for world war and genocide, only around 3 percent of humans died from such man-made catastrophes. In contrast, a study of Native-American skeletons from hunter-gather societies found that some 13 percent had died of trauma. And in the 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War reduced Germany’s population by as much as one-third.

Wars make headlines, but there are fewer conflicts today, and they typically don’t kill as many people. Many scholars have made that point, most notably Joshua S. Goldstein in his recent book “Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.” Goldstein also argues that it’s a myth that civilians are more likely to die in modern wars.

Look also at homicide rates, which are now far lower than in previous centuries. The murder rate in Britain seems to have fallen by more than 90 percent since the 14th century.

Then there are the myriad forms of violence that were once the banal backdrop of daily life. One game in feudal Europe involved men competing to head-butt to death a cat that had been nailed alive to a post. One reason this was considered so entertaining: the possibility that it would claw out a competitor’s eye.

Think of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. One academic study found that modern children’s television programs have 4.8 violent scenes per hour, compared with nursery rhymes with 52.2.

The decline in brutality is true of other cultures as well. When I learned Chinese, I was startled to encounter ideographs like the one of a knife next to a nose: pronounced “yi,” it means “cutting off a nose as punishment.” That’s one Chinese character that students no longer study.

Pinker’s book rang true to me partly because I often report on genocide and human rights abuses. I was aghast that Darfur didn’t prompt more of an international response from Western governments, but I was awed by the way American university students protested on behalf of a people who lived half a world away.

That reflects a larger truth: There is global consensus today that slaughtering civilians is an outrage. Governments may still engage in mass atrocities, but now they hire lobbyists and public relations firms to sanitize the mess.

In contrast, until modern times, genocide was simply a way of waging war. The Bible repeatedly describes God as masterminding genocide (“thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth” — Deuteronomy 20:16), and European-Americans saw nothing offensive about exterminating Native Americans. One of my heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was unapologetic: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely in the case of the tenth.”

The pace of moral progress has accelerated in the last few decades. Pinker notes that on issues such as civil rights, the role of women, equality for gays, beating of children and treatment of animals, “the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”

The reasons for these advances are complex but may have to do with the rise of education, the decline of chauvinism and a growing willingness to put ourselves in the shoes (increasingly, even hooves) of others.

Granted, the world still faces brutality and cruelty. That’s what I write about the rest of the year! But let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge remarkable progress and give thanks for the human capacity for compassion and moral growth.

Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times (link here