Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The great burning: paleoclimate data puts it all in perspective

I've learned by now to be cautious about the larger policy implications of any single peer-reviewed paper in the scientific literature. There are too many ways for us non-scientists to trip over our relative ignorance of statistical methodology and data processing.

Still, sometimes I can't help myself. The journal Science recently published a review article analyzing the existing body of literature on paleoclimate -- i.e., data about how the Earth's climate behaved in the past. So in this case, I'm not really reacting to just one paper, but rather to a summary of many others. And some rather hideous findings. You can read a summary for policy wonks here. On our current course, the literature suggests, greenhouse gas concentrations one hundred years from now will rival the highest levels ever seen in the history of this planet. At those levels, the Earth's mean annual surface temperature in the past reached about 87 degrees Fahrenheit. That's up from 59 degrees Fahrenheit today.

As often as I read this kind of stuff, I still can't get over how incomprehensibly awful it is. Or how little clue the policy wonk community has about what's really happening. An 87 degree global mean surface temperature will burn human civilization to ashes. It will, according to the article referenced above, make the middle latitudes of the planet literally uninhabitable -- the combination of heat and humidity will cause respiration in the human body to cease. Whatever is left of humanity will be forced to tiny enclaves in Siberia, northern Canada, and Antarctica. With a vast zone of death separating them for thousands of years, until the temperature someday subsides.

But tonight's State of the Union address will talk about taxes, entitlements, and Afghanistan.

Friday, January 21, 2011

History cinema geekery: JFK makes the other guy blink

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The day of his "ask not what your country can do for you" speech. Which explains the mysterious ghost of JFK appearing on the Google home page yesterday. Surrounded by idealistic words and whatnot.

I've been in a movie kind of mood all week, wandering through clips on YouTube, thinking about films I've seen and have yet to see. Pondering how the pop culture ether has shaped my thinking about pretty much everything for my whole life. As important as science and empiricism and academic inquiry are, there's something to be said for stories and art in the way we humans understand our place in the universe.

JFK has always been a great source of stories, both real and fictionalized. Most polls of Americans rate him among our greatest presidents. Because most people remember only the facile image of the vigorous young leader, appearing to be bold and decisive as he delivered his inspiring rhetoric for the cameras. Then pitching forward in an open limousine in Dallas, before a bullet blew his skull and brain to bits. Camelot lost, the king cut down in his prime.

But in fact Kennedy was very much a mixed bag as chief executives go. His personal life was a disaster that almost certainly compromised his ability to serve as president. Fucking the mistresses of mafia dons will do that. So will letting a quack doctor pump you full of amphetamines to heighten thrill-seeking, risk-addictive behavior. Then there are the highly questionable policies. A vast, across the board military buildup that was totally unnecessary. A fixation on the clownish commie dictator in Havana. Reinforcing the stupid and murderous American military expedition in Vietnam.

On the other hand, there are the moments in which this cynical, profane, reckless man showed hints of genuine humanity and greatness -- or seemed to do so. Such glimpses depend greatly upon the eye of the beholder. It's far too easy to take a fleeting moment and inflate it into myth. Myths aren't necessarily bad. They are stories, upon which we story-telling human animals rely to construct the meaning of our existence.

Kennedy's occasional flashes of seeming brilliance enable myth-building and story telling. How "real" the myths and stories are is open to question.

One story goes like this. He set the United States on course to land human beings on another planetary body. Which they did. This alone ranks as possibly the single most astounding achievement in the 200,000 year history of our species. The only greater success would be that of the first humans to explore beyond Africa long ago, a venture that led our race to colonize the far corners of the Earth.

JFK on the need for space exploration, September 12, 1962

Other stories are told. After initial indifference, Kennedy moved slowly but surely toward putting the national government on the side of civil rights for African Americans. He changed the lives of people around the world by creating the peace corps. Some of the medical students I work with served in that organization, gaining insight and wisdom they might not otherwise have found.

And Kennedy decided against going to war with the Soviet Union over Cuba in October 1962. His performance in that crisis may not have been the cool, masterfully orchestrated manipulation of events described by his great hagiographers, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen. But it was good enough. His choices allowed me and a lot of other people to be born in the years that followed. Kennedy created the current historical time line of the universe we know, in which the United States did not, as planned, launch massive air strikes against Soviet forces in Cuba on the morning of Monday, October 29, 1962. Throughout the crisis, many of his advisers pushed Kennedy hard to forget about blockades and back-channel negotiations and just get on with bombing the fuck out of the Russians. He didn't.

One of my favorite movies is an idealized, not entirely accurate, still highly watchable retelling of Kennedy's actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The movie is Thirteen Days, released a decade ago. If you can't stand Kevin Costner, as many people evidently cannot, you will not be able to watch this movie. Costner plays Kenneth O'Donnell, a member of JFK's "Irish mafia" White House inner circle. I kind of like him, actually. Despite the typically bad Costner rendition of an exotic accent.

Bruce Greenwood as JFK does an amazing job blending elements of the president's popular image and actual personality. Cool, sardonic, cautious. The thrill-addict, horn-dog part of JFK's personality is conveniently left out. It's still a magnetic portrayal in an entertaining film. With little touches that make Greenwood's Kennedy feel real. Example: JFK leans forward to make a point and momentarily shudders from a spasm in his back. Greenwood's face and body language, in that flash of time, betray bodily torment kept constantly repressed by sheer will. The real Kennedy, thanks to war injuries and a variety of ailments, endured agonizing physical pain for every moment of his adult life.

Below is a clip from the film. It depicts the first high-seas showdown between the American and Soviet navies, on the morning of October 24, 1962. While my graduate degree in history hasn't made me rich, it does yield a geeky sort of thrill at seeing historical figures on film that most people have never heard of. Dean Rusk, Maxwell Taylor, Robert McNamara, John McCone, Adlai Stevenson, McGeorge Bundy. When I was in grad school, some of them were still alive.

In stories, a President can save the world. It's not like that today. But I like to think there's some wisdom to be found even so, in the stories of how people once made fateful choices, great and small.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"ALERT: Active shooter situation... this is not a drill."

The woman hurried through the door and fumbled it shut behind her, face tightening.

She said: there's a man with a gun in the building. The police say we have to lock the door and not let anyone in. She added: shots have been fired, one person hit, possibly killed.

Minutes later, an emergency text message from the university came through on my phone: "Active shooter situation at UNMH (University of New Mexico Hospital). All Central and North Campus personnel should lockdown until further notice.  Male suspect with small silver handgun." The university web page repeated the message, adding: "This is not a drill."

At the time, I didn't find any reassurance in the phrase "small silver handgun." Instead, my mind honed in on the words "active shooter" and "lockdown." And on the first word-of-mouth accounts: man with gun, running wild in this very building, one person shot and possibly dead.

Before too much time had passed, it became clear that the initial word-of-mouth was ludicrously wrong. The shooter was never in our building. No one had been shot at all. Only a single, random shot had been fired by a stupid, confused man who got in a shouting match with his girlfriend, then ran away.

It all ended anticlimactically with an "all clear" message. Back to the routine.

For a few minutes, though, before anybody really knew anything, I found myself locked in an underground room -- a training facility for doctors to practice on simulated patients -- with strangers who believed, as I did, that we might be in the middle of the next Columbine or Virginia Tech.

After the woman came through the door warning of an armed maniac looking for blood, I grabbed an L-shaped metal machine part of some kind from a nearby table. Trying to imagine myself smashing it into the gunman's skull. Trying.

A random thought interrupted my surreal vision: this will be all over CNN. My parents will find out about it that way. Unless I call them.

This was my second day back at work in the New Year, 2011.

* * * * *

An autumn night, a decade before. My girlfriend was so angry she was shaking. Angry at me.

No, no, no, she spat, not looking at me. It's never justified. Never.

Days earlier, we'd sat together for hours watching television coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. By late afternoon on that day, after seeing countless replays of the planes impacting and the towers collapsing and the Pentagon burning, in an endless surreal loop of video catastrophe, we couldn't take it anymore. We went to grab a burger at an empty greasy spoon restaurant.

A couple sat down in the booth next to us. I overheard a fragment of their conversation. The woman hissed venom from her mouth: we should kill every fucking one of them, she said. No question on that day of who she meant and why.

That evening I stood with my girlfriend at a peace vigil, joining hands with others by candlelight in the haven of the local Unitarian church. The reverend acknowledged that she had no words. But still she asked of the empty quiet presence in that place: let us have peace.

Days passed. The President spoke to Congress and promised vengeance. And that right soon. Before the attacks I had nothing but contempt for the tiny little rodent man from Texas. But I watched him promise retribution and I felt my teeth coming together in satisfaction. Yes. The people who did this have to pay. We know who they are and where they are. And we're coming.

News reports spoke of United States military forces moving into position, bearing down on Afghanistan. Fleets converging on the north Indian Ocean. American troops and supplies moving by rail across the territory of the vanished Soviet empire, toward the mountains and valleys that once claimed so many Soviet dead. The U.S. Secretary of State delivered an ultimatum to the government of Pakistan: cooperate in the coming war, or we're coming for you, too. The leadership of Pakistan bowed.

I greeted the news with approval. My girlfriend did not. We shouldn't go to war, she said.

Well, then, I replied, what should we do?

I don't know. Not war.

They killed 3,000 Americans, I said. We know where they are and if we don't destroy them they'll do it again.

Her reply: eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Just because it was done to us doesn't make it right for us to do it back.

Incredulous me: are you insane?

She was shaking. So angry I thought her face would split open. She said: you have no idea what violence is.

Incredulous me: I don't care. The people who did this have to pay. Getting rid of them is also legitimate self defense. We have every right to protect ourselves.

Her: no, no, no. It's never justified. Never. You wouldn't talk like that if it had been done to you.

Me: Done to you? Like what?

Her: Like being raped.

* * * * *

You have no idea what violence is.

My girlfriend spoke a foreign language. (A) She had been raped; therefore (B) U.S. military action against Afghanistan was wrong. It took me years to understand the logic and experience connecting A and B.

When the American war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, I thought of foreign policy mostly as a cerebral game of strategy. You know, like Risk or chess. Sure, it had ethical and emotional components, to be hashed out in seminars and panel discussions, along with calculations of ends and means, budgets and doctrines, national interest and geopolitical stability.

As a good socialist, I was generally skeptical of U.S. military interventions and favored big reductions in the defense budget. Funding domestic social programs over expensive global military commitments was, to me, good public policy and the right thing to do. Using U.S. military forces to kill people was almost always a bad idea. Except, I always hastened to add, in truly exceptional circumstances.

Like Pearl Harbor. And Auschwitz. And September 11. In catastrophic circumstances like that, it seemed to me, every community of human beings reserves to itself the right of self-defense. Because the nature of the threat leaves no choice other than war. That means killing other human beings, systematically and deliberately, for as long as it takes. Until the threat is removed. It's a horrible thing, I thought, but sometimes unavoidable.

That's the way I thought in the years leading up to September 11. And in the immediate aftermath. Back then I occasionally wrote earnest, measured essays, contemplating the tragic necessity of deadly violence to defend national well-being. The use of military force was just one instrument in the game, and the game was about concepts more than people. The concepts were rendered in the antiseptic language of what C. Wright Mills once called the power elite. The people who run this planet. Presidents, generals, ministers, propagandists, technocrats, executives. When they speak of September 11 and the ensuing war on terror, their language invokes stability, international systems, asymmetric threats, nation-building, counter-insurgency, geopolitics, and the like.

To the woman I slept with on the night of September 11, foreign policy meant something very different. Something that made her muscles tighten and her blood turn to fire and her voice shake with rage.

You have no idea what violence is.

* * * * *

Often, when she slept, her body writhed as if being ripped apart. She whimpered and cried. When she woke up the crying wouldn't stop. Sometimes she woke in a heaving convulsion that ended with a helpless strangling wail of anguish.

By day, in a professional setting, she conducted herself with calm good humor and grace. She smiled at colleagues and when she gave an academic talk she conducted the audience like an orchestra at her command. You had to know her very well to pick up on the tightness that flashed across her face, the fleeting ghost of worry in her eyes.

At night, the professional persona crumbled to dust. She paced and fretted, her body taut, every motion rippling with the energy of accumulated tension. She talked incessantly about every detail of the day. Who said things to her in the professional arena, what was said, how it was said, the range of possible motivations behind the words, the response she gave, whether the response was effective, the range of possible hidden motivations and thoughts underlying the exchange. A never ending hyper-conscious calculus, analyzing in microscopic detail the flow of events in the previous hours. Looking for signs of something that went wrong, or might go wrong, or could conceivably go wrong. Worry seeped into her psyche like acid. Eating her away.

She lived in a constant state of near-paralyzing anxiety that she had learned, over the years, to control. Enough, at least, to get by. To pursue an extraordinarily demanding professional career. To succeed. To do more good in this world than most people will ever dream. But at night when the acid of fear and dread burned its way into her soul nothing could convince her of the success she had achieved or the good she had done or the future that lay before her. She simply ruminated in her private invisible torture chamber of anxiety, and nightmares, and tears.

In the worst hours before dawn, she saw no future at all. She talked about driving to a particular place where she would put an end to her agony for all time. She had it picked out. A nine hundred foot gorge cleaving the Earth on its descent to the Rio Grande.

Then at daybreak she woke up from it all. Her exterior chrysalis of good humor returned and she navigated the sunlight. While inside she waited for night and tears.

Sometimes the veil of agony lifted. I remember sitting with her once by the stillness of a lake in the mountains. Soon we would have to drive back to the city. I said: it will be a shame to go back to the real world. 

No, she replied, to the water and wind and silence and mountains older than time. This is the real world. Here. 

In her childhood, she was raped. Over and over and over again, for a very long time. The details aren't important. She told them to me, at great length, and I listened. It was the only way that I thought I could help. By listening. And so I did, for hours beyond count, over a period of years. To the stories of what it feels like to be a child and be raped. In the course of the telling, I gradually absorbed the emotions underlying her story, maybe because I tried so hard to feel it with her and understand. Her psyche erupted over and through and into me like a storm on the surface of the sun. Sensations in my head of what she must have seen, heard. Smelled. The stench of the men raping her. The power of muscles forcing her down. The shadows over her like demons, without mercy. Taking the soul of a child and burning it as if with hot metal, making the child scream, doing it over and over and over, no matter how much she begged them to stop. 

The child grew up with more than just memories. She carried the mutilation inside her. A spirit burned and mangled, the pain of it searing her in adulthood, even in dreams, every second of every day of her life. As surely as if someone had forced her to the ground and physically burned her face away with a blow torch while she screamed and begged them to stop.

She taught me, at least a little, of what it means to be helpless, wanting only to be loved and cared for, while your body lies at the mercy of absolute power that takes all hope of mercy away.

The child who lived through that experience became a woman and found a place for herself in the world. She was a Wiccan. She beheld living things and saw them blazing with ancient incandescent fountains of light. They were holy spirits to be worshiped and cherished. Hers had been broken when her life was new.

* * * * *

The violence my one-time lover experienced as a child broke her soul and remade it as something else.

In clinical terms, she experienced a long series of "Adverse Childhood Events." ACES, in the jargon of the mental health professions. The term, according to the research of neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and others, refers to extreme traumas inflicted during the critical period when a young human nervous system is still in flux, still being formed. These incidents of extreme violence will fundamentally reshape that child's emotional makeup and cognitive functions from what they would otherwise have been. Forever. Compared to other parts of the population, these children grow up to experience more frequent and intense episodes of anxiety and depression. As adults, they often have difficulty forming relationships. They may be prone to risky behaviors, substance abuse, and suicide. If they don't come to understand themselves and what they went through, they face higher odds than others against leading a happy life.

These effects have been observed in survivors of childhood rape, torture, imprisonment, natural disasters, and war. Those events, almost inevitably, inflict a lifetime of psychic agony on the children who survive them. The agony, in a great many cases, will lead to physical suffering, spiritual devastation, and early death.

This is what my lover meant when she spoke about the American war in Afghanistan after September 11. This is what she was thinking when she lashed back at my theoretically-informed apology for vengeance by saying: you have no idea what violence means. To her, waging a war in Afghanistan meant condemning an unknown number of children to unspeakable violence even greater than what she experienced herself. With even greater effect.

When I spoke of geopolitics and the defense of national interests, she didn't hear the language of the foreign policy elite, in which I had been trained as a graduate student long ago. No. She heard a defense of mutilation and suffering without any conceivable justification. She heard the casual dismissal of atrocities, measured not in casualty estimates but in splatters of blood and internal organs smeared across chunks of shattered rock. Measured, too, by the shuddering night time sobs of the survivors, decades after the bombing stopped.

Remembering her words today, I can't believe she ever spoke to me again.

* * * * *

If you know how to listen, you begin to understand how much violence lives alongside you, in the fabric of  everyday life. Violence, and what it does to people. Not only children, but grown men and women, too.

I know a combat veteran of the American war in Panama. He served in the Marines during that war, in the waning days of 1989. His unit helicoptered into the theater of operations in the opening hours of Operation Just Cause, assigned to seek out and destroy elements of the Panamanian military.

He told me once what it was like. Crawling silent through the jungle soaked in sweat, toward the enemy soldier up ahead in the darkness. Unsheathing a knife, pulling the man backwards off his feet. Slicing open his throat. All in a day's work. Him or me, my acquaintance said. You do what you have to. He did it a great many times.

Years later I traveled with the man and his wife. We stayed in the same room at a hotel in the desert. In the dead night air he woke up shouting, lunging to his feet in a combat crouch, moving like an animal on the hunt. I never saw him move like that before. Never heard that other voice that came from his throat, as he defended himself against phantoms. He wasn't the same person any more. When his wife moved toward him to wake him from the possession, I wondered what I could possibly do if he tried to hurt her. But it was okay. He returned to his waking self. Putting on the persona. Making it through the ensuing day. His marriage eventually disintegrated. From what I can tell, he doesn't really believe in post-traumatic stress disorder. Not for him.

Last year I sat in a conference room alone with an Iraqi physician, listening to his experiences in Baghdad during the shock and awe of 2003 and the civil war after that. In the days leading up to the U.S. attack, he and his wife stayed in the Iraqi capital even when they knew an American onslaught was coming no matter what.

The physician described what it was like when the bombs began raining from the sky and the booms shook the foundations of the Earth and the sky erupted in gigantic flashes of light. Before the bombing, he and his wife imagined they would just stay inside and ride it out. But it was so loud, he told me later. We never imagined what it would be like. The way everything shook, the way your guts sloshed and heaved with the concussions, the way the explosions made that awful godlike thundering crack, the way it just went on and on and on.

The Iraqi doctor's eyes filled with tears as he told the story. In America you watched it on television, he said, but it was different on the ground, living through it. It was so loud and it wouldn't stop and everybody was so afraid and kept screaming. The whole neighborhood and everyone in the city, millions of people, screaming in unison with every rolling slamming quaking shudder of the explosions from the jets and missiles in the sky.

This Iraqi doctor was and is a supporter of the American military presence in Iraq. But he said of that night when the bombs fell: I never heard anything like it. A whole city screaming. In the telling of it, tears came to his eyes.

You have no idea what violence is like. 

* * * * *

A few days ago, for a little while, I believed that I found myself in the midst of the next media friendly mass killing spree by the latest maniac with a gun. Behind a locked door in a room full of strangers I waited to see what would happen. I called my parents and told them I was safe. Just in case this turned out to be as horrifying as my primal Stone Age brain told me it might.

It wasn't. Not for us, in that office on that day. But for others it was, on that day and all the rest. Millions and millions of people. Some of the violence they live through is financed by my tax dollars, earnestly defended by strangers and friends. Carried out by people like the Marine who fought in Panama, against people like the doctor from Iraq. In Afghanistan and elsewhere. Day after day.

It's all justified by the best intentions and the most sophisticated logic. By the insistence, for example, that in Afghanistan we of the West must finish what we started. There is a moral obligation, it is said, and a vital strategic interest. Afghanistan must not fall to extremists. Its people must not be left at the mercy of savages who will use their country again as a base, committing new atrocities against their community and against imagined enemies far away. Against people in the United States and allied countries, governed by institutions which, despite their sins and failures, try mostly to muddle through on the way to a decent life. For their own citizens and for all nations. To the extent, at least, that human imperfections will allow.

That is how the reigning story tells it. The way I once did to a survivor of atrocities, who woke up every day wondering if she should be in the world at all. Our time together ended and we don't speak any more. Sometimes I hear about what she's up to, and I hope she's okay. Back when I knew her, I sometimes tried to tell her how much it meant to me that she told her story. How much it affected me. Or think it did. Maybe I'm not qualified to judge. Even now, I can only know the aftermath of what was done to her. And remember her story. I can't really know what it was like for her. And is.

I do know that I react differently now to justifications of state-sponsored violence. The intellectual part of me still remembers why the official stories once felt true and right. Why I repeated them and believed them in the days after September 11, 2001. Going on a decade later, I can't do that anymore. When someone writes with great earnestness of the necessary war in Afghanistan, I read the earnest defense of subjecting a child to rape. Not some idealized hypothetical child but a real woman that I woke up next to every morning, once upon a time. I read calibrated pragmatism pointing out, with due sobriety and seriousness, that as a child this woman necessarily had to be held down by force while strangers performed the exact spiritual equivalent of burning her face away with a blow torch. The strangers had no choice but to make her scream. And keep doing it to her because, after all, this had to be done, because in the real world, you see, there really is no choice. That's the official story.

To encounter such reasoning is to be told that its mechanistic atrocities will go on forever. Because they always have. This could well be true. The way of things, chronicled across all history, destined to go on forever. If so, there is nothing to be done. Except try to tell the story differently than the authorities would have it. The way it was once told to me, by a woman I once knew. I didn't understand her at first, but I decided to try. And here I am. I did have a choice after all.

The choice didn't make me a pacifist. I can still imagine necessary wars. Grieve for the warriors, like the man who went to Panama and came back hollow. Understand why he did what he did, to survive and come home. On that day when I waited for Columbine in a locked office, I all but prayed for the S.W.A.T. team to blow the shooter's skull to bits.

We live in the world where such things happen, and sometimes must. But I like to think I'm a little less delusional about what they mean. What violence and war really do, to targets and perpetrators alike.