31 December 2008

28 December 2008

Pitfalls on the Path to Zero

You can take this as an open letter to President-Elect Obama's senior Science Advisor, John P. Holdren, currently a professor of environmental science at Harvard University, and a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). I want to explore an idea he discussed in his Presidential address to the AAAS given last year: the idea that within two decades we can eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. He said:

S&T [Science and Technology] can contribute to achieving such progress in several ways: through technical advances that make verifying weapon-reduction agreements easier (and thus make agreeing to them easier); through other technical advances that make nuclear energy technology less likely to be used for nuclear weaponry and/or more likely to be detected if this happens; through applications of science and engineering to the task of reducing the dangers of accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, as well to the task of obviating any need for nuclear explosive testing of weapons, for as long as these still exist; and through S&T-based integrated assessments clarifying dangers and pitfalls on the path to zero and how to avoid them.

Think of this as a systems analyst offering a 10,000 mile high overview of what Holdren referred to as "those dangers and pitfalls on the path to zero."

I have seven observations to make from that perspective:

(1) In a world in which nobody "officially" has any nuclear weapons, the value of clandestinely having just a few becomes practically infinite. The incentive to cheat becomes irresistible strategic common sense for countries that feel threatened by their neighbors, but are unable to deter them by non-nuclear means. And this cheating could come either through indigenous S&T, or through prices to the likes of an A. Q. Khan network inflating almost without limit.

(2) As the nuclear umbrella of the United States folds up, the thirty-odd countries that are currently under it will take stock of their situation. Some of them will "go nuclear." Thus, although the total number of nuclear weapons may decline, they may be possessed by more and more countries. That is to say, the decline of the arsenals of the great powers may actually increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

(3) As Holdren notes, proliferation to more countries will mean that more countries have nuclear weapons without having experience in controlling and securing them. Let me amplify this point. Our experience helping Russia with nuclear materials protection, control and accounting (MPC&A) indicates that such activities are strongly influenced by geography and culture. As nuclear weapons are developed by more and more countries in response to the decline of the great power arsenals, there will be a wider variety of MPC&A practices for terrorist organizations (of which al-Qaeda is only one) to probe for weaknesses. The chances for terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons may actually increase as we proceed along the path to zero.

(4) In a world where the great power nuclear arsenals decline below some trigger point, secondary powers may decide to sprint to parity or superiority. (Think of Pakistan realizing that it could surpass the US and Russian arsenals by ramping up production for a year or two.) This could lead to very unpleasant consequences, perhaps the best of which is a new multi-polar nuclear arms race.

(5) Suppose that all the forgoing obstacles are overcome, by almost magical means of surveillance and verification that work even with un-cooperative regimes, by preternaturally skillful diplomacy, etc. The result will be a world made safe for unlimited global warfare. Multi-state hot shooting wars, like World War I and World War II, could again be risked without fear of total annihilation. World War II resulted in the deaths of some 50 million people. Indeed, until the invention and shocking use of nuclear weapons, the number of people killed in wars had been rising exponentially. Eliminating nuclear weapons might cause a reversion to the status quo ante - more people might end up being killed in wars in a nuclear weapon free world than in a world with one or two large, stabilizing arsenals.

(6) From the forgoing it should be obvious that eliminating nuclear weapons will not make peace. It works the other way around. Making peace will eliminate nuclear weapons. (How long do you think North Korea's nuclear arsenal would last if there were genuine peace on the Korean peninsula, for example? I mean real peace, like what happened between the East and West Germany.) But eliminating nuclear weapons is conceptually easy. In essence it requires the ability to count. Making peace, by contrast, is hard. It can't be quantified precisely. It can't be measured. So far, it has even eluded precise definition by sociologists, the very people you'd think would be the experts on peace. Yet, if we do not make peace on earth as we eliminate nuclear weapons, we will simply create a less stable and more dangerous world than the one we have now.

(7) Finally, the whole issue of nuclear weapons may be "overtaken by events." What makes anyone think that the atomic nucleus contains the last word on explosive energy release? Of course, the theoretical physics for such a thing hasn't been discovered yet, but the physical limit on explosive energy release is out there for all astrophysicists to see. It's the Big Bang that began our universe. Now it is true that any explosive event more intense than a nuclear weapon will release the same forms of energy (x-rays, gamma rays, etc.) and it can therefore be treated as a nuclear weapon. That's true, technically. But quantity has a quality all its own. Nuclear weapons are about a million times more powerful by weight than chemical explosives. Can we really deal with another factor of a million? Or a million million? World culture is now such that S&T marches on. Genies will keep popping out of bottles they can't be put back in. Peacemaking is not an option. It is a necessity.

All of this is to say that the path to zero will be perilous, and must be tread with great care. Although the necessity of peacemaking tells us that we must start down that path, we do not yet know how to go very far along it, much less how we will finish.

May God help us.

27 December 2008

Canine Holiday Cheer

The most endearing thing about dogs is their capacity for unbounded enthusiasm and pure, unbridled joy.

As in this video, for example.

May joy be yours this Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa season.

25 December 2008

17 December 2008

Widgets and Sermons

Our multi-religion calendar script has achieved widgetude! You can now get it for your blog or website as a widget from WidgetBox.

It just doesn't get any easier than that.

We have also started a new blog, PostSermon, where we will pseudonymously post sermons that anyone submits. It's like PostSecret for those lay people, seminarians, and pastors who would like the venue to say what they really think. Within the wickets of the Revised Common Lectionary of course.

We hope to index the sermons by topic, Lectionary day, pseudonymn, title, and possibly other attributes. We hope for it to become a resource for many purposes, including for professional preachers to find out what people really want/need to hear.

10 December 2008

Honor, Shame and Resurrection

Shrinkwrapped has been blogging about Terrorism and the Narcissistic Trilogy, Part 1 and Part 2. He writes of tribal culture as being failed culture, unable to satisfy the needs of its members who have taken upon themselves the narcissistic injury that their culture is not economically and militarily competitive with Western culture.

The problem, however, is not that the cultures he identifies are tribal. Humans are by nature tribal, and all societies reflect that to some degree. The problem is that the "failed" cultures he writes of are honor/shame cultures in which power is honor and powerlessness is shame. It is the relative powerlessness of these cultures with respect to their neighbors that leads to intolerable shame that must be redressed by terrorist violence. It seems that honor/shame cultures amplify the defects of narcissistic personalities.

Can honor/shame cultures "grow out of" or "get over" their narcissistic injuries? Can they evolve into cultures based on something other than the honor/shame dichotomy? All the sources of Western culture ultimately go back to honor/shame cultures, including that of the ancient Greeks. Somehow the West did so evolve, but only through a series of catastrophes including WWII in which the obsession of the Nazi's with their narcissistic injury (defeat by the Allies in WWI) was thoroughly beaten out of them by the Allies in WWII. That is to say, sometimes cultural change must be brought about by total defeat.

We have only one example of a Middle Eastern honor/shame culture evolving into a successful modern culture - the Jews. But again, theirs is a 2500+ year long history of defeat, occupation, domination, dispersion, and finally an ingathering in their place of origin. That is how much it took to get a people to base their sense of self-worth on something other than their power over others, or even their ability to prevent others from having power over them.

Let us pray that the honor/shame cultures in which Islam has taken root will not require for their awakening an encounter with defeat as total as the Nazis or as prolonged as the Jews.

And then there is the event that stood the contemporary honor/shame culture of 1st century Judaism on its head. The Resurrection of Jesus after his humiliating execution. At the time, it was too much for an honor/shame culture to digest: the idea that the Almighty G-d would become an ordinary man, and suffer himself to be treated so badly simply does not compute in honor/shame cultures. G-d simply cannot be allowed to be humiliated. But Roman culture had already become accustomed to the idea that the right person does not always win, that power and wisdom, or power and righteousness can be two different things. Tragic heroes like Socrates prepared the way for this realization. And so Christianity had a much easier time spreading among the pagan Romans than among the Jews of Israel.

06 December 2008

Second Sunday in Advent

We had the chance to have a world better than the one we live in, and we turned it down. Here are my thoughts on Advent the season in which we Christians wait for what we are (apparently) afraid of.

04 December 2008

On the Making of Muslim Terrorists

Zakisamsudin has posted his thoughts on The Making of Muslim Terrorists. To begin, he points out that they should be called Muslim terrorists, but not Islamic terrorists, because terrorism is not Islamic. I thank him for the distinction.

He then theorizes that Muslim anger originates in fellow-feeling within the Muslim umma, in the desire to alleviate the oppression of Muslims in various places around the world. But I think he overlooks the effect of culture on shaping the outward expression of that desire.

For example, Coptic Orthodox Christians are oppressed in Egypt. The latest outrage has been anti-Christian rioting in Cairo that resulted in a Church being stormed by a crowd of Muslims. Yet, I do not feel motivated to burn a mosque, or to get a gun and shoot into a halal restaurant.

In my culture it is forbidden to make someone pay for a crime he or she did not commit. This came about because we have developed a system of justice in which it is reasonably likely that the individual perpetrators can be found and prosecuted.

In many honor/shame cultures, the system of justice is much more "lightweight." Without an elaborate network of police, judges, courts, and prisons (all very expensive) these cultures leave justice up to clans and families. Since apprehending the perpetrators is more of a problem, the problem is made easier by allowing any of the perpetrator's clan or family to bear the punishment if they can be caught. The idea that revenge can be sought against any and all of the members of another ethnic group, nation, or culture is a modern extension of this old concept.

I'm glad to see that Zakisamsudin has read Ed Husain's The Islamist. But again, the story is not just psychological but the coming together of culture and psychology. Specifically Ed fell into extremism because he was trying to forge an authentically Islamic adult identity that was different from his parents' and dramatically distinct from the cultural identity that was offered by Britishness. He was thus caught between his partial understandings and fantasies of Islamic and Western culture. In his effort to become a man under such circumstances, he went part way down the path of becoming evil. Fortunately for him and for all of us, his God-implanted sense of right and wrong asserted itself, and he turned back. In the end, Ed forms an identity that is simultaneously (1) authentically Muslim after the pattern of his parents and the Islamic scholars they revere, and (2) authentically British with its embrace of free speech, thought, and inquiry, and its sense of honor and fair play.

The point of all this is that Muslim terrorism is not entirely a psychological phenomenon. It must be understood in the context of culture as well. Religion plays a part, too, but more as an identity-badge, not as religion per se. After all, the terrorists' psychology and culture lead them to commit atrocities that are specifically forbidden by their religion, and at the same time to lie to themselves about it. They do that which is forbidden and feel themselves to be holy witnesses, to be martyrs.