Sunday, February 27, 2005

Slavery Reparations: the devil is in the details

February in the United States is known as "Black History Month", and as such produces an increase in discussions about reparations for slavery. This concept, while it may seem interesting on the surface, devolves into a totally unworkable conundrum when you try to analyze it further.

The theory behind reparations is relatively straightforward: for hundreds of years, blacks were captured in Africa, forcibly taken to the United States and other countries, and made to work as slaves on plantations. The concept of reparations is that these people's labor should not have been free, and that the descendants of those who gained the benefit from the slaves' labor should repay the descendants of those slaves who performed it. There are some recent legal prededents in favor of this: lawsuits by Jews who were forced to perform slave labor in Nazi Germany.

The main difference with slavery reparations, however, is that the enslavement of Africans in the United States ended 140 years ago while other places (Haiti, Jamaica, etc.) even earlier, and both the perpetrators and victims of slavery are all long dead. This greatly complicates the situation, and introduces four major questions:

Question #1: Who should pay?

The easy answer would be "white people", but things are not that simple. Not all white people participated in slavery. What do we do with the descendants of people who immigrated to the United States after the Civil War was over? What about the descendents of whites in northern states where slavery never took root? What about the descendents of Union soldiers who sacrificed their own lives to end slavery, or the descendents of those who ran the "underground railroad" smuggling slaves to freedom in the North (should they pay or be paid)?

An additional major question is whether a person can be held liable for the actions of his/her ancestors at all. If the answer to this question is no, then the only entities from which slavery reparations could be gathered would be the few corporations that have been around over 140 years and which directly played a role in slavery.

Simply having the US government pick up the tab does not work, because the US government is funded by taxpayers, and all taxpayers would have to pick up the tab, including those who would not otherwise have to pay.

Question #2: How much should each individual pay?

Should the descendents of a major plantation owner who held many slaves pay more than the descendents of a minor bit-player who perhaps owned a single slave? Should the descendents of slaveholders who were kind to their slaves pay less than the descendents of slaveholders who were mean?

In theory, if each slaveholder is equally culpable, would it not make sense that if a slaveholder had many descendents, his/her liability would be more diluted among these descendents than if a slaveholder had only a few descendents? How do we account for descendents who are dead, or who are living outside the jurisdiction of the US legal system (in other countries, etc.)? How would we construct a formula for this?

Question #3: Who should receive payment?

Like the first question above, the easy answer to this question to this question is "black people", but this is really an oversimplification. Not all blacks were slaves in this country. Some came here as immigrants from Africa after slavery ended. Some came as immigrants from other countries (Jamaica, etc.) and their ancestors were never slaves here and thus should not rightfully be paid anything in any settlement.

Another key challenge is proving one's own ancestry. For hundreds of years, slaves were bought and sold as commodities, much like cattle are sold today. And, slaveholders sometimes did not keep good records, or even for those who did keep good records, there are very few paper records that can easily survive 140 or more years.

Many descendents of slaves rely on oral history passed down from generations past for whatever knowledge they may have of their background. For example, the author Alex Haley knew of his ancestor Kunta Kinte (the subject of his book Roots) through oral history. However, oral history is considered by most judges to be "hearsay" and thus not admissible in court. So, even if a person is a descendent of slaves, how is he/she to prove it?

Question #4: How much should each individual be paid?

In the lawsuits for reparations for Jewish slave labor in World War II, the companies who had employed Jewish slave labor were paying money either directly to the victims or to the victim's estates. If we extend this paradigm to reparations for African slavery in America, we would be paying money into the estates of each slave.

So, by extension, the descendents of a slave who had many children should receive less money than the descendents of a slave who had only a few children. But, how do we derive a formula for this? And, what if the descendent of a slave had a will (which is supposed to override an equal distribution among descendents) - how would we account for this? And, how should we account for the prior generations of slaves, since slavery went on for about two hundred years?

Another key question is how do we deal with biracial (mixed) people? Some of their descendents may have been slaves, but some of their descendents may have been slaveholders. It is estimated that at least 30% of black Americans have at least one white ancestor. How should we account for this when some of the person's ancestors were victims and some were perpetrators? Should it matter if that person's white ancestry came from a loving relationship between two people, or from the rape of a black woman by a white slaveowner? And, if it should matter, how can one prove whether the relationship between his/her slaveholder ancestor and slave ancestor was voluntary or not?


You will notice that this post contains a lot of questions and very few answers. You may be able to read each of these questions and suggest answers that might seem to be common sense, but at the same time, you must admit that someone else could make an equally compelling argument in favor of a different answer.

If there is ever any serious attempt at slavery reparations, the whole process would likely degrade into one big argument over the answers to all of the questions I've listed above, along with a plethora of additional questions people may think of to try to get out of paying money, or to get paid more money. In that process, the only real winners would be the lawyers, who would fight this legal fight on behalf of their clients and take the lion's share of whatever settlement money might be there. The losers would be the American public - black, white, and all other ethnic groups - some of whom would pay out money, some of whom would receive a pittance, and all of whom would be the subject of fractious ethnic wrangling.

Slavery was borne from the poisonous ideology that some people are inherently superior or inferior because of the color of their skin. This ideology was wrong 140 years ago, and remains wrong today. Why, then, do some people want to reopen old wounds and try to make people who never personally enslaved anyone pay a group of people who were never personally enslaved? With all the legal wranglings that would undoubtedly be dredged up by this whole process, it leads to the question, "why bother?"

Personally, I think we would all be better served by leaving this whole Pandora's Box closed and instead spending our efforts to ensure that equal opportunities exist for everyone, regardless of our race or ethnic background.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A sad day for democracy: Iranian blogger sentenced to 14 years in prison

Today, Arash Sigarchi, an Iranian blogger who also ran a newspaper in northern Iran was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his blogging activities. Here is a link to a BBC article more information. A few weeks ago, Iran also moved against blogging in general, ordering Iranian ISPs to blog popular blogs and blogging sites.

Democracy and free speech are intertwined concepts. Without freedom of speech, you cannot have a true democracy, since in a democracy people need the freedom to discuss and debate current issues for the democracy to thrive. Thus, today is a sad day for democracy and free speech in Iran and the rest of the Middle East.

However, I do think today is a temporary setback. Trying to stop modernization and communication is like standing on the beach trying to stop a tsunami. You may be able to stand up for a little while, but not very long. I hope that people in Iran will be angry at their government and legal system for trying to deny them their right to access information and communicate with the world, and hopefully this anger may help accelerate positive change in Iran.

Today, I have put up a new link on my sidebar from a blog called Committee to Protect Bloggers. While they are a fairly new blog, I really appreciate what they are doing in this area, please join me in paying them a visit and them a supportive comment.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Lasers and Airplanes (Part IV)

Over the past couple of months, I have put up a number of posts discussing how improbable it is that a laser could be used to cause an aircraft to crash by blinding its pilots.

You can find my earlier posts here, here, and here.

As I mentioned in my previous posts on this topic, to blind a pilot in one eye requires that the laser be shone directly into the pupil of the pilot's eye (a small target about the size of a pencil head) while the pilot is gazing directly at the beam source, while the terrorist cannot see the pilot's eye clearly (due to the cockpit glass), and while the airplane is moving. To cause a plane to crash requires the terrorist to repeat this amazing feat four times (once for each of the pilot's eyes, and one for each of the copilot's).

This week, there was some interesting news. It seems while the FBI was still in a panic over these myserious laser-terrorists, another government department (the US Department of Defense) has been developing a laser warning system to warn pilots they have entered restricted airspace. With this new system, which was scheduled to undergo its final test this past Friday, an aircraft that violates restricted airspace would have its cockpit lit up by alternating red and green laser light - much like the "terrorist" activity the FBI has been investigating lately. To quote the Defense Department, "the lasers are eye-safe and non-hazardous at all ranges."

The FBI really needs to give this laser-terrorist idea a rest. If this whole thing was such a plausible idea, we would have heard about it being used to crash airplanes in hotspot-areas like Iraq or the Palestinian Territories a long time ago. However, this idea is not only implausible, it is practically impossible.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Racism and Foreign Relations (Responses to Comments)

About 12 days ago, I put up a post called Racism and Foreign Relations on which I got a very good comment from Optimistic Cynic, who also has his own blog. I love getting detailed comments like this: it shows that at least one person out there has really thought about what I wrote, and analyzed it enough to produce a well thought-out reply. Certainly deserving of a detailed reply from me:

Optimistic Cynic wrote: Sending troops into the Congo/Rwanda to cleave apart warring ethnic groups would have been a complicated and difficult exercise. Say hundreds of thousands of troops had gone in. Whose troops would they have been? As crass as it might be to suggest the following: who would have paid for them to go? Can a foreign nation be expected to foot a multi-billion dollar intervention when it's interests aren't remotely involved? Who gets to pick which conflicts to solve?

You hit the magic word here: "interests". Countries today do not seem to have "friends", or even "concerns", they simply have "interests". The term "interests" is a purely self-absorbed term, where if something does not have a direct impact on your own life, you do not care even slightly about it.

The business world, especially here in the United States, tends to be a "dog eat dog" world that can be very caught up on "interests". It seems many American companies would do anything to get a little bit ahead, and many American businessmen would gladly screw over their own mothers to make a few dollars.

Personally, I think "interests" are important, but should take a back-seat to honor and integrity. In my opinion, a business that is is profitable, while maintaining a sense of honor and integrity is the epitome of success. Likewise, in foreign relations, we should sometimes look beyond our immediate interests and consider what is morally right.

Optimistic Cynic wrote: Continuing the example - would the interdiction force have been given permission to engage? Would the world have stomached the site of UN blue helmets firing on the native population? How could they have distinguished friend from foe? It is too simplistic to say the world could have stopped it completely.

In a situation like Rwanda, I think the world would have stomached the blue helmeted soldiers shooting a few hundred armed butchers more than they would have tolerated letting the armed butchers slaughter over 800,000 people with machetes. They wouldn't have needed to shoot more than a few hundred - just enough that the rest would get the point that the blue-helmeted soldiers meant business.

In the Rwanda conflict distinguishing friend from foe would not be that hard: foes are people carrying weapons around and murdering people, and neutrals are everyone else. (you don't really have "friends" in a conflict like that, since if one of the people picks up a weapon, he/she becomes a "foe").

Optimistic Cynic wrote: General Dallaire himself will tell you (in his book or hearing him speak) that the UN's lack of rules of engagement sunk the mission. But say the UN's troops had started shooting - how quickly would they have been overrun by the Hutu militias? Once the UN was out of the picture how would resources have been moved into the country to stop things?

The main problem in my opinion was a lack of mandate and adequate resources to fulfil that mandate, not a lack of rules of engagement. If the UN troops had started shooting, they probably would have been overrun, simply because they were not properly equipped for the mandate of stopping the genocide. If you consider the first Gulf War in 1991, where the UN drove Saddam Hussein's Iraq out of Kuwait, troops can be quite effective under a UN banner if they are given the mandate, and the appropriate resources to carry it out. In Rwanda, quite simply, the political will did not exist within the UN to do what was necessary to stop the massacre.

Optimistic Cynic wrote: Having spent some time travelling in Africa, I see the biggest obstacle to Africa's turnaround being lack of good governance. If you don't have a structure to work through and with - it won't matter how much money and effort you put in. Put simply, most of Africa's governments are horribly corrupt and unable to administer the programs we take for granted. Is that a racist thing to say? I don't know. Unfortunately for Africans, their national liberation movements in the 60s were largely Marxist, and not at all suitable for development. Zimbabwe, for example, was self-sustaining food-wise and had a stable government until Mugabe and his thugs took over in 1980. Pour money into most African governments and a few at the top will use that money to further entrench themselves in power - often along tribal or ethnic lines.
In my opinion, what the West needs to do is forgive African debt - but stipulate that moneys saved from not having to pay that debt be spent on education and healthcare. Especially education about AIDS.

Corruption in Africa is a major issue. I am not even slightly suggesting we should hand money over like that. In fact, many African governments have proven themselves quite incapable of managing money. Any debt we forgive them now enables them to borrow more money from some other sucker who they may again expect to forgive their debt later. It boggles my imagination to read news stories about an African leader buying himself palaces or a private presidential jet with donated money while his countrymen are starving.

A key problem with any form of lending is that many African countries balk at the conditions that are often attached to some lending (by the IMF, World Bank, etc.).

Optimistic Cynic wrote: Western nations can also eliminate farm subsides - so sub-Saharan farmers have a crop to sell in the world market. The Doha round of trade talks has made some progress in this area.
I generally agree with you here (you're actually giving me an idea for a future post....).

However, one long-term negative effect of limiting farm subsidies is it would make the United States (and other western countries) dependent on foreign food, much like it is currently dependent on foreign oil. The labor cost in the United States is considerably higher than in most developing countries, and as a result, many American farms would be unable to compete in the absence of subsidies.

An additional problem with eliminating farm subsidies, at least here in the United States, is the country's political structure: the US Senate has two senators from each state, even though the rural states (Wyoming, Idaho, etc.) tend to have smaller populations. And, since there is a large number of these rural states, there are actually more senators representing these rural states than there are from the main urban centers (New York, California, Illinois, etc.). As a result, the likelihood of getting a bill eliminating farm subsidies through the US Senate would be slim to none, and even attempting it would be political suicide for whoever wrote the bill.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Technoholics Anonymous

Posted by Hello

I am Mad Canuck, and I am a techoholic*.....

Two nights ago after I finished putting up my post about the real terrorist nuclear threat, I was a bit worried I might have used a bit more technical jargon in it than I should have, so I asked my friend Najma to have a look at what I wrote to see if it was understandable to someone who has not taken the same university classes in nuclear physics that I did. Here was what she wrote back to me:

Well, I understood everything from the start to here:......... of fissile material along with a neutron reflector and a neutron-emitting initiator, .....And so, I stopped.. But, native English speakers might get it!

No, Najma, I don't think it's your English that is broken, it's mine. Sometimes as a technical guy, it is hard for me to realize I am using too much technical jargon in a post, and I think this last post was one of these occasions. So, for all the other folks out there who may not be too familiar with terms like "fissile material", "neutron reflector", "uranium hexafluoride", etc., please excuse me.

So, to summarize my last two posts (in plain English):
  • Dirty bombs are difficult to produce and do not produce the dramatic effect terrorists crave. So, I do not think a terrorist would consider a dirty bomb worth the effort.
  • Real nuclear bombs, however, do produce a big dramatic effect, and are easier to construct than people think.
  • The most difficult part about making a nuclear bomb is getting the nuclear ("fissile") material to make one. This is why we should all be very concerned when we hear reports about this type of material going missing in places like the former Soviet Union, or being sold by rogue states to terrorist groups.

*Note: No relation to the good people at Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The real terrorist nuclear threat

As I mentioned in my post last week, the US government seems to be overly concerned with the possibility of terrorists using a “dirty bomb” to spread radioactive material over a wide area.

While I do think the threat of a dirty bomb is overblown, the one threat I do not think is overblown is a terrorist building and using a real nuclear bomb. A real nuclear weapon is much easier to construct than most people think: the only hard part is obtaining the material for it.

Modern nuclear weapons are typically an implosion design: with specially-shaped explosive charges called "lenses" surrounding a sphere of fissile material, with the entire assembly resembling a soccer ball with wires sticking out of it. When the weapon detonates, the explosive lenses explode simultaneously, compressing the sphere of fissile material into a supercritical mass. This type of weapon is very complicated to make, since it requires specially shaped explosive charges and precision electronics and detonators to ensure the explosive charges detonate at exactly the same moment to compress the fissile material evenly. If the timing is even slightly off, or if the explosive charges are not shaped quite right, they would only succeed in pulverizing the fissile matter into dust rather than compressing it and making it explode.

However, there is a much simpler design, known as a gun-barrel. In this design, there are two subcritical pieces of nuclear material: one stationery piece, and one moving piece, with the pieces at opposite ends of a gun barrel. To detonate the weapon, an explosive charge at one end of the gun barrel pushes one piece (the "bullet") into the other piece (the "target") forming a supercritical mass, which then explodes. The atomic bomb known as "Little Boy" that was dropped on Hiroshima in World War II was a gun-barrel design, and as the citizens of Hiroshima can attest, this design can be quite effective. A gun-barrel weapon is physically bigger and heavier than one with the same yield that is based on an implosion design, but if you are a terrorist, you don’t care about that.

The problem with terrorists is that some are willing to commit suicide during their attack, and if that is the case, the gun-barrel design could theoretically be simplified by using gravity instead of explosives. All the terrorist needs to do is have two specially-shaped pieces of fissile material and when he is ready to detonate the bomb, drop Piece A into Piece B, and ka-boom.

In short, the technical knowledge needed to build a basic nuclear weapon is widely available - many people who have studied chemistry, chemical engineering, or nuclear engineering could come up with a simple design for a workable nuclear weapon. We should not delude ourselves into thinking terrorists are not smart enough to do this - the 9/11 tragedy was proof to the contrary. In fact, the only difficult thing for a terorrist is getting his hands on enough fissile material to build the weapon. Fortunately for all of us, this is much easier said than done.

To explain the difficulty behind this, let me explain the term “fissile material”. Fissile material is a substance where each atom is inherently unstable. If one of these atoms is exposed to a certain type of radiation, it may absorb an extra neutron causing it to become very unstable and undergo nuclear fission: breaking apart, and releasing large amounts of energy and radiation.

As is widely known, there are two substances that can be used as the fissile material in a bomb: uranium 235 (U-235), and plutonium 239 (Pu-239). Plutonium does not occur naturally: it is produced as a by-product in a nuclear reactor, so is very difficult to obtain. Uranium does occur naturally, but in a mixture of U-238 and U-235 (with a much greater quantity of U-238). U-238 and U-235 are both isotopes of uranium, which means the two behave exactly the same in chemical reactions, except that one is heavier. U-238 is not fissile, so in order to make an atomic bomb, it is necessary to “enrich” the uranium (increasing the concentration of U-235 relative to U-238) to a high degree of purity.

Refining uranium is not easy (and we should all be thankful for this). Since U-235 and U-238 behave the same chemically, it is necessary to separate them by weight. One way to do this is to react the uranium with fluorine gas to produce uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). UF6 is then spun in a centrifuge, causing the gas containing U-238 to move closer to the outside of the centrifuge, while the lighter gas containing U-235 will remain closer to the inside. However, since there is less than a 1% difference in weight between the U-235 based UF6 and U-238 based UF6, this whole process requires specialized equipment and must be repeated many, many times to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium.

It is for this reason that we should all experience a collective shudder whenever we hear stories about nuclear material going missing in places like the former Soviet Union, because in reality, obtaining this fissile material is the only barrier to a terrorist building a nuclear bomb.

So, while I do not think a “dirty bomb” is a major threat, I do think a real nuclear weapon is. Terrorists are often, unfortunately, quite intelligent people and we should not underestimate their ability to assemble a workable nuclear weapon if they are able to obtain sufficient quantities of fissile material. Thus, the US government is right to be worried about terrorists obtaining nuclear material and smuggling this material into the United States. We should all be very concerned about this possibility.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Myth of the "Dirty Bomb"

Over the last two years, a lot of attention has been paid by the news media and various government agencies to the potential of a terrorist using a nuclear "dirty bomb" to spread radioactive material over a large area. The thought is that it is unlikely for a terrorist to be able to obtain sufficient quantities of fissile material (enriched uranium, plutonium, etc.) to produce a workable atomic bomb, and so in lieu of setting off a nuclear blast, a terrorist may find it easier to obtain some used Cesium-137 waste (a gamma emitter used to irradiate food and treat cancer) or other radioactive substance to attach to a small bomb, which would, in theory, spread the radioactive material over a large area.

In reality, however, this type of attack is both impractical and unlikely for three main reasons:

  • Hard to obtain: Radioactive material such as Cesium-137 is difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities to cause real damage. Since 9/11, the difficulty of obtaining this type of material has grown exponentially.
  • Difficult to handle: Cesium-137 is a gamma emitter, which means that the radiation it produces can pass like X-rays through clothing, skin, and even brick walls. Thus, this material requires very skilled handling with specialized equipment to fabricate it into a weapon without injuring or killing its handler.
  • Not enough dramatic effect: Terrorists like to create terror through dramatic events: the Oklahama City bombing was a dramatic event, and so was 9/11. The Madrid train bombings, USS Cole bombing, and African embassy bombings were all dramatic and scary. A dirty bomb does none of this - it spreads a small amount of radioactive fallout over an area, which may slightly increase the statistical number of cancer cases and mutations in that area, and may even cause a few local people to get sick from radiation poisoning. But, there is nothing dramatic about it.

A large conventional bomb or a crude chemical weapon is easier to obtain the raw ingredients for, easier to fabricate, and produces a much more dramatic effect than a "dirty bomb". Consider that the bomb that destroyed the Federal Building in Okhahoma City was a simple concoction called "Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil" (ANFO), the ingredients of which were very easy to obtain: ammonium nitrate is a common fertilizer, and the "fuel oil" component is simple kerosene or diesel fuel. As the citizens of Oklahoma City can attest, even a "crude" explosive like ANFO can be very deadly in large quantities like a truck bomb.

Crude chemical weapons are also relatively easy to make and use, and in any enclosed space can be deadly since an enclosed space concentrates the poison and inhibits it from dissipating. The Aum Shinrikyo terrorists in Japan created havoc in the Tokyo subway system by releasing homemade sarin nerve gas. And, a cruder but much simpler poison-gas weapon can be made by mixing together two common ingredients available at your local grocery store.

In short, while a "dirty bomb" may sound interesting on the evening news, it would be much more difficult to build and much less effective than a conventional explosive or chemical weapon. Why would a terrorist want to go through all this effort when the terrorists in Oklahoma City (Timothy McVeigh et al) were able to buy their bomb ingredients at a local farm supply store and a local gas station? If terrorists were actually that stupid, we would not have to worry much about them, but unfortunately, they are not stupid.

Why, then, is the US government so concerned about the possibility of someone using a "dirty bomb"?

I suspect it might be to distract the American public from the relative ease of building a real nuclear bomb.

Coming next week: "The real terrorist nuclear threat"....

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Racism and Foreign Relations

Last weekend, I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda in the theater (an excellent movie I'd recommend to anyone), which really got me thinking about the way the Western world has tended to handle foreign relations throughout history.

Hotel Rwanda is based on a true story in April, 1994, where nearly a million innocent people in Rwanda were brutally murdered and the world community, which could have stopped it, instead stood by and did nothing.

Perhaps the one quote that adequately summarizes the theme of the whole movie comes from Colonel Oliver (the fictitious character in the movie who represents the real Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire who served in Rwanda). After finding out the UN was not sending more troops, a disgusted Col. Oliver (General Dallaire) retreated to the hotel bar where he told Paul the hotel manager:

You should spit in my face. You're dirt. We think you're dirt, Paul . . . The West, all the superpowers . . . They think you're dirt. They think you're dumb, you’re worthless. You could own this freakin’ hotel, except for one thing. You’re black. You're not even a nigger, you're an African.

A quote that nicely summarizes the theme of the whole movie... and this post.

Throughout much of history, people have been brought up to think that their own ethnicity and culture is superior to all others. People with a different color of skin, people who speak a different language, and people who know God by a different name are somehow less human and their lives are less valuable.

A few hundred years, ago, Europeans deluded themselves that blacks were genetically inferior to themselves, and used this warped rationale to justify the capture and enslavement of countless people for the simple reason of the color of their skin. While slavery has since ended, this warped mentality has been allowed to fester through more recent programs like "segregation" and "apartheid".

In recent years, this poisonous mentality has resulted in the Western world's lack of attention to atrocities being committed in Rwanda in 1994, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in the late 1990s, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and in the present ongoing massacre in Darfur, Sudan. In all three of these African conflicts, news coverage in the West was scant, and intervention nonexistent. Contrast this with the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, when Serbs launched a murderous campaign against Muslims in the name of "ethnic cleansing". Even though the violence in Yugoslavia was not nearly as bad as what was seen in Rwanda in 1994, the response was much greater: Western newspapers were awash with color photographs of victims of the "ethnic cleansing" and NATO responded by bombing the Serbs into submission.

An obvious difference between Yugoslavia and Rwanda is that the victims of the violence in Yugoslavia were white Europeans, and in Rwanda they were just black African "savages". To the Western world, the Africans slaughtered in Rwanda were wild animals, no better than a herd of antelope or a bunch of gorillas.

I have sometimes joked that if there were two news stories on the same day, one about OJ Simpson getting arrested for murder again, and one about a massive earthquake submerging the entire continent of Africa underwater killing everyone, the article about OJ would be on the front page of the newspaper and the Africa earthquake would be relegated to page 23. Unfortunately, while this joke may be a bit of an exaggeration, it is not much of one.

One might ask why we, the West, have a responsibility towards Africa. Part of the reason is that, for all the seeds of harm that Western colonialism has sown within Africa over the past four centuries, we owe it to Africa to help them undo the damage we as a society helped cause. The bigger reason, however, is that we have the resources to do so, and thus we have a moral obligation to assist our brethren in need, just like we did in Yugoslavia. In the words of 18th century English statesman Edmund Burke, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

Unfortunately, the West's dealings with other parts of the world are not much better than our dealings with Africa. Western corporations operating abroad often maintain colonialistic sensibilities: polluting the environment, allowing safety rules to slip, discounting local innovation, and preferring to ship in expatriate managers than to develop local talent. And, unless a disaster in a far-away place is really big (like the recent tsunami) the Western media tends to ignore it, possibly because they feel their readers would not be able to empathize with the victims.

When are we as a society going to get over this collective delusion and realize that all of us are God's children? When we see a crying child on the news, it should not matter to us if that child has brown skin, or if that child is speaking a different language, or wearing different clothes - we should be able to feel empathy for that child just as if he/she was our next-door neighbor.

The word "racism" is a very strong word. Most people cringe when they hear it, and immediately deny having anything to do with it: "I'm not a racist. Never!" And yet, unless we can look at that crying child on the television and think of him/her with the same empathy like we would our own neighbor, we are racist. It is only when we realize this problem within ourselves and make a conscious decision to fix it that it can be eliminated.

Until we as a society are able to eliminate racism from our foreign dealings, the rest of the world will continue to look at us as hypocrites: people who preach good works, and yet fail to deliver.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bush's State of the Union Address: a surprise tearjerker at the end

Last night was George Bush's "State of the Union" address, which for about the first forty-five minutes was the usual partisan blather that State of the Union speeches are infamous for. It was a surreal scene with half of the crowd (the Republicans) vigorously standing and applauding after every point, and the other half (the Democrats) sitting like they were watching a boring movie. Then things got a bit more interesting.

Yesterday was no ordinary State of the Union speech - it just happened to be a few days after the first free elections that Iraq has had in over 50 years: an election that has widely been called a success, and for which many American soldiers and Iraqis have sacrificed their lives to attain. As Bush brought up the topic of the Iraqi election, the camera turned to the crowd showing lawmakers holding up their ink-stained index fingers in a victory sign (they had stained them with an ink-blotter earlier to make a symbolic gesture). Later in his speech, Bush introduced a guest of honor Safia Taleb al-Suheil, an Iraqi woman living in Baghdad who had just cast her first vote there, and who brandished her ink-stained index finger to a round of applause from the house. Ms. al-Suheil was sitting right next to Bush's wife Laura in the visitor's gallery.

The surprise emotional moment in the speech came when Bush told the story of a young American marine named Byron Norwood who had died in combat in Iraq, and introduced his parents, William and Janet Norwood, who were sitting in the row right behind Laura Bush and Safia al-Suheil, and looked like they were fighting back tears during Bush's speech. As they were introduced Norwoods stood, and Safia al-Suheil turned around and embraced Janet Norwood in a long and emotional hug, bringing an extended round of applause from the standing crowd. While unplanned, the symbolism of that hug was quite obvious: Ms. al-Suheil would not have had the opportunity to vote if Byron Norwood and many others like him had not sacrificed their lives to give it to her.

A suitably symbolic climax in what is undoubtedly an historic week.