Posts Tagged ‘Gaza’

The Ugliest Duckling

March 27, 2015

Recently I had the good fortune to attend a book talk by Dutch sociologist Abram De Swaan (born January 8, 1942). The topic was one that many people would find disquieting, perhaps distasteful, or even repellent: the “modern” phenomenon of mass murder.  But American mass media wouldn’t be very interested in his message, because Mynheer De Swaan isn’t studying mere penny ante schoolhouse slaughter like Sandy Hook or Columbine.  Instead, his attention is focused on organized, large-scale atrocities perpetrated by armed political movements or government regimes, mostly in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Rwanda. Cambodia. Bosnia. The Final Solution. The Cultural Revolution. The Soviet Purges. And so on.  These episodes have generally occurred in the context of widespread social upheaval and generally at the instigation of a regime or state.


De Swaan recommends approaching the mass murder phenomenon while bearing in mind (at least) four levels of social analysis:

  • long-term, perhaps dormant, trends in social transformation occurring at the time
  • political movements and state policies
  • interpersonal interactions in everyday social life
  • psychological/sociological patterns of individual interior “life-of-the-mind”

From this perspective, the groundwork for future atrocity is laid when latent social tensions are redefined by political actors to

  • accentuate social differences and divisions,
  • demarcate boundaries of “compartmentalized” social categories,
  • enact physical/spatial separation of these newly defined social fragments,
  • and accelerate psychological processes of self-identification, projection, internalization, fervent “othering” (and so on) within increasing numbers of the citizenry.

Once these ideological/political projects have achieved an as-yet-undefined level of cultural ubiquity within society, mass murder and atrocity become not only possible, but perhaps likely.

Just to keep the scorecard tidy, De Swaan has proposed four principal categories of mass murder:

  • the victor’s frenzy [ Sri Lanka, Japanese Imperial Army after the conquest of Nanking, etc. ]
  • regime by terror [ Soviet Purges, Cultural Revolution, Khmer Rouge, Hussein Iraq, Assad Syria ]
  • the loser’s triumph [ 3rd Reich after 1942 ]
  • pogrom [ Armenia, 1948 India, Rwanda, Bosnia ]

He’s willing to consider two other possible candidates for mass murder:

  • intentional famine [ is he thinking of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea? ]
  • air war: “strategic” bombing campaigns [ is he thinking of Germany unto Britain, USA/UK unto Germany/Japan, USA unto Iraq, Israel unto Lebanon and Gaza? ]


However, even with such a neat academic typology, mass murder is a messy business.  When confronted with gory horror of truly massive casualty figures, a common human reaction often seems to be one of incomprehension: “How could people do such a thing to their fellows?”  This question is exactly the starting point for the many researchers who have previously examined cases of attempted genocide, mass extermination, and wholesale slaughter.  De Swaan has reviewed the existing academic literature (such as it is) and found it lacking.

The initial wave of research in the 1950’s (understandably) concentrated on the notorious German case (then quite recent) and reached the comforting but none-too-rigorous conclusion that these “evil deeds” were perpetrated by evil men, or at the very least by men in the tenacious grip of “evil”.  Such men must be monsters, and as monsters must be eradicated.  Thus, the Nuremberg trials.  But De Swaan notes that this analysis relies heavily on the concept of “evil” without adequately exploring the full dimensions of what “evil” is understood to be.  Despite the fact that the term “evil” –in the European cultural context– is heavily freighted with a nebulous range of religious and moral meanings, early writers on the topic of mass murder generally limited themselves to defining “evil” as encompassing the perpetrators’ use of intensely cruel and painful methods of torture and killing on a large scale. This approach left the theological-moral/psychological dimensions of mass murder largely unexplored, and thus failed to adequately explain how nominally Christian people (in the German case) were able to engage in these types of behavior.

Soon enough, researchers came to understand that available evidence contradicted the sweeping claims of the “evil monster” thesis: many of the minor cogs in the vast killing machines were demonstrably less than monstrous, and in fact greatly resembled –and behaved like– the average Johan or Jurgen on the street corner.  They were still guilty, but they weren’t monsters. But what, then?

A decade or so later, thanks to the psychology research of Stanley Milgram and others, a slightly more nuanced view emerged: the claim that “ordinary men do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances.”  Under social pressure, under conditions of psychological stress, two-thirds of otherwise peaceable, law-abiding citizens may participate in heinously cruel activities.  Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib.  According to this thesis, you or I could well be given a gentle push down the slippery slope … to become torturers and killers.  Ya nevah know…

As a social scientist, De Swaan is still skeptical:  what about all those people –the thirty-three percent– who wouldn’t go along with Milgram’s experimental program of participating in torture unto death?  How are they different from those who join the parade?  For De Swaan, this is still the preeminent open question.  But empirical data about non-participation doesn’t exist, so it’s necessary to look at the question from the opposite point of view.  Until better evidence becomes available, De Swaan has proposed what he calls a tentative conjecture about the types of people who do participate, drawn from psychological studies of former low-level German functionaries conducted after WWII. What type of person allows himself to become involved in situations where mass murder occurs?  According to De Swaan, many of these men exhibited a set of characteristics that may be related to their participation in mass murder. They were:

  • obedient
  • loyal
  • highly devoted to their families
  • low in their sense of personal agency
  • low in empathy

The gloss above, the earth below.

Reflecting on the personal traits summarized by De Swaan, I was first of all struck by the observation that low agency and obedience are not merely present in these men by simple coincidence –they’re mutually reinforcing states of mind.  If you have a low sense of personal agency, you may well be more inclined to follow the lead of someone else.  But secondly, I was intrigued by De Swaan’s portrayal of these vanquished German warriors as devoted family men.  On the one hand it seems entirely plausible that men of a defeated nation would retreat from public engagement into refuge in intimate family life, but there’s also a much more significant dimension of this mundane observation … hiding in plain sight.  Obedience, deference, loyalty, surrender of personal agency and emphasis on the nuclear family are –in Europe and beyond–  all features of patriarchal culture and ideology.  Time for a causal loop diagram.


So then, could it be that men more deeply invested in patriarchy –with identities and self-perceptions strongly centered on their roles as fathers and patriarchs– are somehow more likely to become participants in organized mass murder when the occasion arises?  More likely to be obedient? More likely to defer? More likely to outsource personal agency to their “superior” in the social hierarchy?

In this context, perhaps it is intensely relevant that patriarchy’s stratified edifice rests on a simple, secret, almost implicit bargain: in exchange for obedient deference to the authority of the state, employer and social patron, patriarchy promises the lowly man a virtually unlimited dominion over his wife and children.  In return for the personal agency he surrenders in the workplace and polis, the petty patriarch is thus enfeoffed to be master of all he surveys within the walls of his domicile.  Were he alive today, renowned patriarch John Dalberg-Acton would undoubtedly take this occasion to remind us that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even at the nanoscale of an otherwise insignificant individual household within a much vaster society.

Should we then consider the possibility that the system and culture of patriarchy itself inexorably contains the seeds of mass murder?  Or should we instead, based on these indications, infer the persistent presence of repeatedly replicated social groups –networks of like-minded men– which use the techniques and mechanisms of patriarchy to maintain a privileged status within society and thereby command a correspondingly disproportionate share of social resources?  Perhaps these are men who are willing to deploy patriarchy’s fundamental tools of coercion and domination to their logical limit: the extinction of human life itself.

Reflect deeply upon this.  It needn’t be a binary choice.



Offensive Lyin’

February 16, 2015

As noted previously, during the Year of the Goat the Grand Duke (Tai Sui) will be presiding over earthly affairs from his cosmic throne in the South-Southwest. He likes things quiet and peaceful (and who doesn’t, after all?), so mere mortals are well advised to avoid disturbing the serene harmony so prized by Tai Sui.

But even after several millennia of object lessons, stupid humans never learn. Here’s a quick look at who’s offending the Grand Duke these days, and why:

Saudi Arabia — Sectarian conflict in Yemen is merely the latest manifestation of blowback from the Cheney-Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Sunnis and Shiites have been skirmishing for centuries in Yemen, in the mountains and on the plains, but this time it’s part of the larger proxy war between Persians and the Sauds. Yemen’s location at the south-southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula means that this noisy, un-civil war is gonna offend Tai Sui in the Year of the Goat. That’s not good news for King Salman.



Russia — Don’t worry about General Winter: Comrade Bear has just a few more days to wrap up his attempted conquest of Debaltseve before all that noise and clamor in the south-southwest of Eurasia disturbs the limited patience of Tai Sui.  It’s probably too late, because the Grand Duke has undoubtedly been getting an earful from his predecessor about the terrible decline of courtesy in the neighborhood. Economic sanctions will be the least of Comrade Bear’s problems if things don’t calm down in a hurry.



Brazil — The party’s almost over, and I’m not talking about carnival in Rio. Through no real fault of its own, Brazil is going to suffer from the uproar to its south-southwest: Cristina Kirchner‘s intriguing media circus will catch the ear of Tai Sui and the consequences won’t be pleasant for Mercosur neighbors. Paraguay may escape unscathed (for once), but Uruguay and Brazil appear to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.



Mexico — First Michoacan, then Guerrero.  President Peña-Nieto may need to follow the example of Comrade Eleven in cleaning the Augean stables of Mexican government.



United States? — So far things are looking pretty good in the south-southwest: Mexican wolves are making a comeback, the clang and clamor of Eagle Ford shale oil drilling rigs is decreasing in the Permian Basin, and a measles outbreak in New Mexico, Arizona and southern California may quiet some of the noisier residents of the region.  But …

Plains All American LP will build two new crude oil pipelines in far West Texas and New Mexico to move Permian Basin production to markets. The company will extend its Avalon pipeline in Loving County 32 miles into Culberson County with a 12-inch line.  Plains All American also will build a 60-mile, 16-inch State Line pipeline to connect Culberson County output to Wink, Texas, along the Texas-New Mexico state line.

Avalon pipeline? Uh oh!  Since “moving earth” and major construction projects in the Grand Duke’s south-southwest realm are surefire ways to irritate the year’s cosmic ruler, this will definitely not turn out well. It’s clear that the U.S. petroleum industry will have to learn its feng shui protocol the hard way.  Which reinsurance provider is currently holding liability policies on Plains All American LP?  Time to double-check your risk management posture!



Israel — Gaza.  Really, need I say more?  Benny Netanyahu will be getting a frigid reception in Washington from everyone except the Republicans on Sheldon Adelson‘s payroll.  In his shame and frustration, he probably won’t be able to resist (once again) turning Gaza rubble into even smaller rubble.  The man suffers from a Masada Complex compounded by chronic funnel vision.  Tai Sui is already annoyed.  It definitely won’t be good for the Jews.



There are probably many other examples around the world where upheaval in the south-southwest during 2015 could lead to retribution from the Grand Duke.  F’rinstance, what does Switzerland mean for Germany this year?  Those listed above are just a few top-of-mind candidates that any feng shui soothsayer would love to point out.  It will be interesting to see what else develops during the Year of the Goat.  Probably a good idea to stay away from SouthbySouthwest this year.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Going Postol

July 16, 2014

Never let the data get in the way of a good story.  Especially when there’s tax money just itchin’ to be spent and military contractors whining to be fed.

The [United States] Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee approved a defense spending bill on Tuesday that would provide $621.6 million for Israeli missile defense, including $351 million for the Iron Dome system that intercepts short-range rockets and mortars. In the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Iron Dome has been successful in shooting down rockets and preventing Israeli deaths.
“It works,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairman of the subcommittee.

Um … maybe not so much. Or at least so says the newly-controversial Dr. Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy at MIT.  In fact, in an inpromptu study that has enraged the usual suspects and their running dog lackeys, Professor Postol asserts that claims of Iron Dome’s success are wrong on both counts:

  • The last time large-scale rocket attacks occurred between Hamas and Israel was in November 2012.  During the November 2012 conflict a large number of Iron Dome interceptor contrails in the sky [were photographed].  These contrails revealed that the Iron Dome interceptor rate was very low —perhaps as low as 5 percent or below.  Collection of the data for July 2014 is still in progress. However, data so far collected indicates that the performance of Iron Dome has not improved.
  • The only meaningful definition of a successful rocket intercept is the destruction of the rocket warhead … [which] is considerably more [difficult] than doing damage to other parts of the rocket —or successfully damaging an aircraft, causing the failure of its mission.  In this particular case of rocket attacks against Israel, the overwhelming number of [Hamas] rocket warheads are in the 10- to 20-pound range.


  • The Iron Dome interceptor has, for all practical purposes, no chance of destroying the warhead on incoming artillery rockets if the interceptor engages the rocket from the side or from the back.  [However,] photographic evidence of aerial contrails indicates that Iron Dome interceptors were mostly chasing or engaging artillery rockets in side-on geometries.
  • Photographs of contrails … from July 2014 indicate that the Iron Domes are behaving erratically —-resulting in continued very low intercept rates. It is clear that the Iron Dome radar tracking and guidance system is not working [correctly], as it is sending Iron Dome interceptors to intercept points that result in the interceptor not being able to achieve the proper geometry for a successful engagement against the artillery rockets.
  • Because of the uncertainties in the exact crossing speed and crossing geometry, even a perfect fuse may fail to put lethal fragments onto the artillery rocket’s warhead.  In addition, unless the distance between the Iron Dome warhead and the warhead of the artillery rocket is small (roughly a meter or so), there will be a greatly diminished chance that a fragment from the Iron Dome warhead will hit, penetrate, and cause the detonation of the artillery rocket warhead.  Thus, [even] a front-on engagement does not guarantee that the Iron Dome interceptor will destroy the warhead on the artillery rocket.
  • Israel does in fact have an extremely effective missile defense: the early warning system that tells people on the ground a rocket is traveling in their direction, and the shelters that are arranged so that individuals can easily get to protection within tens of seconds of warning.  As can be seen by inspecting photographs [of damage from Hamas rockets], even when the rockets happen to hit buildings, the damage tends to be quite localized. This does not mean that individuals in the area of the rocket attack would not be injured or killed if they were close enough to the impact site, but it is very clear that the warheads are not of sufficient size to cause casualties or deaths to those who are properly sheltered.


  • The small size of the Hamas rocket warheads and Israel’s ability to quickly warn populations of these arriving small warheads is an extremely capable defense that works far more effectively than Iron Dome.

There you have it:  Iron Dome may knock the rockets out of the sky (often when they’re already on their way down anyway), but usually doesn’t destroy the (small) explosive warhead.  And those Israeli lives that are being saved?  They’re preserved thanks to an extensive and well-developed civil defense system that emphasizes early warning and nearby bomb shelters for the civilian populace.


Worst of all (from the AIPAC point of view), Prof. Postol obliquely raises the issue of proportionate response to Hamas provocation:

  • In contrast, [Israeli retaliatory] bomb attacks against Gaza in July 2014 use much larger warheads. The exact yields of the bombs are uncertain, but it appears [from photographs of bomb damage that] they are probably in the 1,000- to 2,000-pound category. In these cases, attempts at sheltering the population might well fail, since few shelters can sustain the level of damage that could be inflicted by such large bombs.


Sadly, nobody in Washington seems too interested in preventing Palestinian deaths.  Au contraire.


Now it’s time for AIPAC spammers to “go postol” commenting on this blog.


Turkey Club Sandwich

June 1, 2010

Nobody appreciates the opportunity to indulge in gratuitous moral outrage more than I do, but to my mind the most significant news event of the Memorial Day weekend wasn’t Israel’s murderous sadly tragic assault on the Gaza aid flotilla.   Nope, my money is riding on a seriously underreported incident in the same neighborhood:  a ‘terrorist’ rocket attack on the Turkish naval base at Iskenderun near the Syrian border.   Six of our NATO allies died.

Sadly, Turkish news sources in the English language are as scant as hogs in downtown Tel Aviv, so hyperlinks to the particulars aren’t very numerous.   Coverage in Hurriyet Daily News implies (but doesn’t actually assert) that PKK was responsible, but I have my doubts about that.

Instead, with your indulgence, I’ll briefly trespass on the wild-eyed conspiracy theorist/internet honeypot turf of such luminaries as Wayne Madsen in order to provide some savory food for thought.   What if … (it’s a real stretch, I know) the attack on Iskenderun was actually carried out by Israeli naval commandos?   You know, comrades of those guys who so gallantly distinguished themselves in the maritime interdiction operation being carried out not-so-very-far-away at just about the same time.   Why would Israel do such a thing, a relatively sane person might ask.   Well, there are sound tactical and (less sound) strategic reasons for adopting such a risky course of action:

Tactically:  a diversionary attack on the regional base of a military force that might oppose your primary (interdiction) operation is basic military planning procedure.  In the case of a nominal ally, the Eleventh Commandment applies.

Strategically:  As far as the Likud ‘kosher nostra’ (h/t to Madsen) is concerned, an increasingly-Islamicized Turkey is now an ally in name only.   Likud is furious that the Turkey/Brasil Iranian uranium enrichment proposal has undercut US/Israel sanctions efforts in the United Nations.   Turkey’s role in pushing for ‘nuclear-free Middle East’ language in the recent NPT declaration was another straw on the camel’s back.   Finally, Israeli intelligence probably has what it thinks is firm evidence of Turkish military support for –or involvement in– organizing the Gaza aid flotilla.   In the minds of the beleaguered Israeli government (think of their Masada mindset), this means that Turkey –as a friend of Israel’s enemies– is now also an enemy.

Here in the Western Hemisphere, those who know the truth of the matter probably aren’t inclined to speak about it, even to tell me that I’m waaaaaaaay off base.   Maybe it really was just a coincidental PKK attack.   Maybe not.   I dunno; what do the terms of the NATO mutual defense treaty say about US obligations to respond to an attack on a fellow member?

Oh, and what about that nice Jewish boy playing with fireworks and flammable materials in his Queens garage?   Nothing to see here … move along.   No urgent need for another NYC ‘terrorist’ incident is there?   No, not right now.   Have a nice day.