Saturday, March 26, 2005

Guantanamo Bay: the decline of American ideals

A little over three years ago, America was rocked by a terrorist attack on its own soil, and by the end of the day, a major landmark was destroyed and nearly three thousand innocent Americans were dead.

As the Japanese can attest, America does not react kindly to an attack on its own soil: America was not just shocked, America was pissed.

When people are angry, we have a natural tendency to overreact, and our outrage at the events of 9/11 was no exception to this. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States government took two short-sighted actions that sapped at the underpinnings of democracy, liberty, and justice in this country. The first was passing the USA PATRIOT act (the topic of a future post). The second was establishing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. While both of these acts may have seemed justifiable in the aftermath of 9/11, in retrospect both of these actions have undermined the basic foundation of what America stands for.

In 2001, the American government was faced with a predicament. They had invaded Afghanistan and had captured a number of Taliban prisoners, but needed somewhere to keep them. They needed a place they controlled, but not somewhere that could be considered part of the United States proper, since that would bring the prisoners under the jurisdiction of the US court system. So, Guantanamo Bay was chosen. Guantanamo Bay is a plot of land that is actually part of Cuba; land that was leased by the US from the pre-Castro Cuban government and which the United States maintains as a military base.

This leads to a fundamental question: what is wrong with the US justice system that they would want to circumvent it by housing these detainees in Guantanamo Bay? Is the US justice system somehow not good enough for them? A more disturbing question is raised by the treatment of some American citizens who were caught up in the war on terror, and who were not sent to Guantanamo Bay because they were American. Why would Americans be jailed in the United States while foreigners are jailed in Guantanamo Bay?

The answers to these questions are very troubling. By sending foreign prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, the United States has evidently adopted two standards of justice: one for American citizens, and a much harsher one for foreign nationals. American suspects get the full protection of the US justice system, while foreign suspects get tossed into the black hole of Guantanamo Bay, where stuff goes in and never sees daylight again. Does this not seem fundamentally wrong? And, if the American government can legally do this to these people, who is next?

One of the protections the American court system provides is called a "writ of habeas corpus", or in plain English, what I would call a "writ of why are you holding this guy in jail?" With a writ of habeas corpus, the government is required to bring the prisoner to the court and demonstrate that they have reason to keep him imprisoned. Guantanamo Bay was specifically constructed to avoid this protection - so the government could hold prisoners there as long as they want without having to justify doing so in a court of law.

Fortunately, the US Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue recently. In July, 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that, because the United States enjoys "complete jurisdiction and control" over Guantanamo Bay, the prisoners there have the right to file for a writ of habeas corpus in American federal courts. This is hopefully only the first step in the unravelling of the government's attempt to circumvent the US courts in Guantanamo Bay .

Guantanamo Bay is an affront to the US justice system, and a slap in the face for all of the brave men and women who have died defending it. In the aftermath of 9/11, Guantanamo Bay may have seemed justifiable, but now that things have settled down a bit, it is something that needs to be reconsidered. If we allow ourselves to undermine the foundation of our own justice system and turn America into a police state, the 9/11 terrorists have won.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Delays in Posting

My apologies for the delay in posting - I've been extraordinarily busy at work for the last week or so. You can look forward to a new post from me later this week.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Canada and the North American Missile Shield

A couple of weeks ago, after much anticipation, the Canadian prime minister Paul Martin announced that Canada would not be participating in the North American Missile Shield project with the United States. While most Canadians did not support this missile shield, I personally find this decision a disappointment for a few reasons.

Reason #1: Canada's longstanding relationship with America

Canada has a very deep and longstanding relationship with the United States. The United States is, by far, Canada's biggest trading partner, but Canada is also the United States' biggest trading partner. Canada and the United States are in a number of treaties together, including NAFTA, NATO, and NORAD.

The relationship between the United States is much like a marriage, or perhaps more like the relationship between Siamese twins. We are next to each other, and will always remain next to each other whether we like each other or not. So, better to do kind things to each other and foster a good relationship than a hostile one.

The United States has a real need for a missile defense shield. Being the sole remaining superpower means that America is also the biggest target. Twenty years ago, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology was with only two countries: the US and the Soviet Union. Today, however, missile technology has progressed in certain "rogue" states like North Korea, and it is expected that within 10 to 20 years, a number of states may have the capability to land a missile armed with a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead into the middle of Los Angeles or New York City. A scary thought indeed....

Canada has less to worry about in this regard: while we have big cities, we do not have a big army, and are not considered a "superpower", and so nobody really hates Canada. So, as the missile shield opponents in Canada would argue, Canada has less to benefit from the missile shield than America.

However, in any good relationship, if one party has a real need for something, it is something the other party should consider going along with just for the sake of furthering the relationship. In the case of the missile shield, all the United States needs is Canada's cooperation.

Reason #2: If Canada participates, Canada has a say in how the system is run

The United States has a legitimate need for the missile shield, and is likely to put it up with or without Canada's help. If Canada helps, Canada gets a say in how the missile shield is designed and how it is used. If Canada does not, Canada has no say in the system.

This is an important distinction, because when an inbound object is detected, someone is going to make a decision as to whether to shoot that object down or not. Ballistic missiles travel at an extremely high rate of speed, and some carry multiple warheads, which are split-off from the main warhead in mid-flight. To successfully disrupt the missile attack, you would want to hit it before it splits off these ancillary warheads. Also, with the extremely high rate of speed of a ballistic missile, the decision as to whether to shoot an incoming object down cannot afford any delay.

Canadian prime minister Paul Martin was quoted by several newspapers as saying, "This is our airspace, we're a sovereign nation and you don't intrude on a sovereign nation's airspace without seeking permission." Let's be realistic here: there are many large American cities that are very close to the Canadian border: New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, etc. A ballistic missile heading over Canada towards one of these cities, traveling in excess of 5 kilometers (3 miles) per second does not give much time to react, and certainly not enough time to wait for it to cross the border before shooting it down. If there were a nuclear missile traveling over Canada headed to New York, does Paul Martin honestly think anyone is going to care whether shooting it down would violate Canada's airspace? Given the choice between seeing New York or Chicago go up in a mushroom cloud or dealing with a little political flak from Canada, anyone in their right mind would choose the option of shooting the missile down.

But, if Canada is involved in the missile shield, Canadians would be active participants in making the decision of whether to shoot down an object over Canadian airspace, and would be quite possible that a Canadian air force officer's finger may even be on the button shooting it down.

If America is going to do this anyway, it is in Canada's interest to have a stake in the matter.

Reason #3: Fairness

For a long time, Canada has not been holding up its fair share of the load in terms of defense spending, preferring instead to spend generously on social programs and rely on the fact that its neighbor to the south would undoubtedly come to its aid if Canada were invaded. For decades, American taxpayers have been shouldering the brunt of Canada's defense needs and have asked for very little in return. Given this situation, how can Canada be justified in turning down this reasonable request from our neighbor?


Canada's decision to not participate in the North American missile shield is classic example of anti-Americanism run amok in Ottawa. Canadians may not like some of the policies of George Bush, and may not like what the United States is doing in Iraq, but they need to be able to look past this to the long-term relationship between Canada and the United States. In three years, George Bush will no longer be president in the US, and things will have hopefully calmed down in Iraq by then, but the American need for this missile shield will be greater than ever.

Fortunately, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Paul Martin himself had stated his support for the North American missile shield during the recent election campaign, however since his Liberal party did not win a majority of the seats in the Canadian Parliament, he must pander to the desires of the other parties in order to avoid a non-confidence motion being passed in Parliament, forcing an immediate election. Thus, while Martin himself may personally support the idea of the missile shield, it would be political suicide for him to try to push it through now.

I sincerely hope that as things calm down in Iraq, the virulent anti-Americanism that seems to have infected Ottawa in recent years will wane, and the Canadian government will look more positively on our assisting America with the missile shield.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Islam, Suicide Bombings, and Denial: The three monkeys strike again

Earlier today, there was a suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq, killing at least 47 people. The suicide bomber blew himself up in a funeral tent setup in the courtyard of a Shia mosque, at the funeral for Hashim Mahmoud al-Aaraji, a professor at Mosul University.

This attack was particularly perplexing when you think about the reasoning behind suicide bombers. Muslims are taught that a martyr (one who dies fighting holy war or "jihad") gets an automatic ticket to heaven, with 72 houris to spend eternity with there as a reward for his actions. What is perplexing is how a man could consider killing dozens of innocent men, women, and children, most of whom are fellow Muslims, at a place of worship (a mosque), at a funeral for a fellow Muslim could remotely be considered jihad. Obviously the bomber must have been convinced of this fact - convinced enough to give up his own life for it, but the reasoning behind it truly baffles me.

It is evident in this case that the bomber was targeting Shia Muslims, but he attacked the funeral for a prominent Shia man in a predominantly Sunni area. The funeral attendees would have likely been a cross-section of Mosul: Professor al-Aaraji's students, co-workers, friends, neighbors, family, etc., and since Mosul has a very small Shia population, the Shia would have likely been a minority at the funeral, even though it was held at a Shia mosque. It is truly perplexing that the suicide bomber would sacrifice his own life for some deluded "holy war" against adherents to his own religion and his own sect.

Islam in Iraq seems to be caught up in the same sectarian hate that infected Christians in Northern Ireland just a few years ago - there is not a lot of difference between the beliefs of Catholics and Protestants (both are Christians) and yet many people in Northern Ireland were killed over these minor differences. The difference between Shia and Sunni is just as small, and yet some people feel a strong enough hatred of the other sect that they would strap explosives to themselves and blow themselves up as long as they can take a few of the other sect with them. Very sad....

Unfortuntely, Islam's attitude towards suicide bombers seems to be caught up in a cycle of denial much like the three monkeys: "hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil".

Remember the three monkeys from my post earlier this week? They're visiting Iraq today...

I remember about two months after September 11, 2001 I had lunch with a Muslim friend of mine who was adament that a fellow Muslim could never have committed such a horrific act. However, the evidence that has emerged since 9/11 makes it quite obvious who committed this act, and my friend reluctantly even has had to admit it. The same type of mentality seems to exist in Iraq - many Muslims find it hard to admit that evil is being done in their name, and they prefer instead to blame the acts on others (America, Israel, etc.).

Unfortunately, by disowning collective responsibility for these heinous acts, the Muslim community is denying themselves the opportunity to fix the underlying cause: militant extremism.

Militant extremism is not just a poisonous ideology, it is a cancer that slowly spreads and eats away at its host. This cancer has infected Christianity in the past, and is currently infecting Islam. By denying its existence, Muslims are doing themselves a disservice by allowing this abomination to continue its evil work unabbetted in their midst. Instead, they should recognize its abhorrent nature, and like any cancer should excise it: cut it out, and completely disown it.

Unfortunately, many Muslims have been slow to disown militancy, suicide bombing, and the like, and the cancer has continued to eat away at Islam. Today's incident was the penultimate example of the fruit of this neglect: a "jihad" suicide bombing by one Muslim against a group of other Muslims, at a place of worship (a mosque), at the funeral for another Muslim. Today's horrific incident in Mosul should be a lesson to everyone as to the fallacy of suicide bombings as some sort of ill-guided "jihad".

Islam needs to learn the same tough lesson that Christianity has had to learn over the past few years: sectarian violence doesn't pay. Muslims need to disown and discourage these types of suicide attacks and sectarian violence in no uncertain terms. Muslims in Iraq and other places need to learn that it is okay to disagree with people on matters of religion: it is more important to put aside minor sectarian differences and learn to live side-by-side with each other in peace.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Ali Sistani for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize

A few weeks ago, I started working on a post about Ali Sistani, but had not gotten around to publishing it. Today, however, I visited Fayrouz's blog and saw a post about a group of exiled Iraqi Christians who have started a petition to nominate Ali Sistani for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. The petition states:

Mr. Sistani gave Muslims all around the globe a good example how to follow peaceful ways to resolve complex social-political challenges that face them, condemning terror and emphasizing to Millions of Muslims to follow rules of law and respect to humane, peaceful methods and civic norms to promote social peace and political-civic peaceful practices in the Iraqi , Muslim and Int’l societies. We deeply believe that the contribution of Ayat-Ullah Ali Al-Sistani has helped Iraqi society to avoid civil and multiethnic violent conflicts that terrorists intended to draw, and by this he has promoted peace and respect to human brotherhood in Iraq, the region, and all over the world- and that is why we believe Al-Sistani deserves the Nobel prize for Peace.
Click here for more information on the petition.

My only edit to this petition would be to delete the word "Muslim": I think Ali Sistani is a good example in general, not just for Muslims, but for Christians, Jews, and everyone else too.

A good excuse to finish and publish my post....

A few weeks ago, I read a very good Newsweek news article on MSNBC about Ali Sistani. On the surface, there is much to like about the man, and very little to dislike. Sistani saved many lives in Iraq last year when he came back from his London hospital bed and calmly defused the explosive situation at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. Sistani has continued to save many lives by discouraging his followers from retaliating against attacks from insurgents. And, more recently, Sistani has given strong support to the recent Iraqi elections, helping to forge together a political party called the United Iraqi Alliance, which won a majority in the elections.

When you look a little deeper into Sistani's background, there is even more to like. Sistani has many followers donating vast sums of money to his cause, and yet he chooses to live a life of austerity in a modest house in Najaf, subsisting on a peasant's diet. On one occasion, when the old air conditioner in his office broke and his followers bought a new one, he insisted that they fix the old one and give the new one to a poor family instead. For a man like Ali Sistani, his actions and goals take their influence solely from his sense of idealism, and not his own self-serving interest.

Ali Sistani seems to be cut from a very differnet cloth than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei and the currently ruling clerics in neighboring Iran. A third of the candidates representing the United Iraqi Alliance that Sistani helped cobble together are women, and he has come out in favor of a woman's right to vote, even without her husband's permission. Sistani has also advocated a separation of mosque and state, publicly discouraging clerics from playing any role in ruling the country.

As a Christian myself, I like seeing people who truly espouse Christian values. And, while Ali Sistani is a Muslim, he is living a life that could be considered a true example of what we call Christian values, and has saved many lives by encouraging his followers to turn the other cheek. In short, an honorable and decent man, who I think is quite deserving of the Nobel peace prize.

For the other Western readers here, I would encourage you to read the Newsweek article about Sistani, and Fayrouz's post, and if you like what you see as much as I did, please click here and join me in signing this petition.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Civilian deaths in Iraq: hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil

Yesterday was an embarrassing day that I'm sure many people in the United States military wish did not happen. For several weeks, terorrists have been holding hostage the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. Yesterday, when they decided to release her, US troops opened fire on the car carrying her to the airport, injuring her and killing Nicola Calipari, the Italian intelligence officer who had just negotiated her release and was accompanying her to the airport. According to Ms. Sgrena, one reason she is even alive to talk about the incident is that, in a selfless act of bravery, Nicola Calipari leaned over her to shield her: he took a bullet for her, and lost his own life in the process.

On the surface, one could easily dismiss this tragedy being caused the actions of a single trigger-happy soldier. In actuality, however, this seems more like the latest case in a disturbingly endemic trend of unnecessary civilian deaths in Iraq.

Last week, Time magazine ran an article called From AWOL to Exile, an article about American military deserters seeking refugee status in Canada. One paragraph in this article bears a remarkable parallel to yesterday's incident:

The incident that eventually spurred Anderson to seek House's counsel took place just before he earned his Purple Heart. While trying to quell a disturbance outside a police station one night, his unit came under heavy attack. Anderson says he saw a car that appeared to be emitting sparks drive into the middle of the melee. Instructed to start shooting, Anderson held his fire--and the car turned out to be carrying only a startled family. Afterward, Anderson claims, his sergeants told him, "'Next time, you open fire, just in case.' Basically they have a standard procedure that if you're fired upon, you fire at everybody that's around." Without commenting on specific rules of engagement, a Pentagon spokesman vehemently rejected Anderson's description of the rules.

Some Iraqi bloggers have reported similar incidents. Back in November, hnk's and Najma's brother-in-law's father was accidentally shot in Mosul by US troops. Hnk wrote a fairly detailed description to the incident:

when Aya's grandfather was killed, he with one of his neighbors were coming back home walking because at that time there were a lot of fire shooting in the area and the americans closed the roads leading to their house. The place in which he got shot in was an opened area and there were no shelters to protect them from fire, there was a shop near by, the shop owner asked them to enter his place till the fire stop but he refused probably because he was worried about his family, he continue to walk, infront of him about 100 m away there was an american stryker, it was in his way home . the American soldiers who were in that stryker shot him in his thight, the bullet cause a severe bleeding, and he fall on the ground , his neighbor and the shop owner tried to take him to the shop but the american soldier shot them, this happen every time they try to bring him to a save place to stop the bleeding , when the fire calm down they took him to a save place and put a bandage over the wound which was bleeding, but they couldn't find a car to take him to the hospital at the proper time, and he died in the way to the hospital from the bleeding. In the hospital they told his family that the bullet has cut the "femoral artery"..

Even after hnk wrote this, some people in her comments section were blaming her brother-in-law's father for being shot, saying it was his fault for walking toward the Stryker armored vehicle, and thinking that a terrorist must have shot him, since it was impossible for a trained soldier to shoot an unarmed man.

In December, my friend Najma wrote a post about another incident, where a Stryker armored vehicle was driving in front of a school bus in Mosul when a roadside bomb went off:

We reached school, the first thing I saw was a classmate crying, I hurried asking what happened and she told me "I saw him dying there! We couldn't do anything" I just didn't know what to ask more and hurried to the class, about 3 other girls were crying and the number was increasing, appearantly, a girl saw a man putting a bomb at the side of the road and before being able to do anything, a stryker passed, nothing happened, a bus full of secondary school students passed and the bomb exploded, the American soldiers got frightened and started shooting randomly everywhere.. The students in the bus lied on the ground, one of them shouted for the others to say al-shahada, he got a bullet and died, a teacher got a bullet too but she didn't die..

All of these incidents seem to point towards an endemic problem of soldiers in Iraq not adequately verifying their target before pulling the trigger. But, here in the United States, the attitude towards civilian deaths seems too much like the three monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil, and say no evil. American soldiers are well-trained professionals, and God forbid they would ever make a mistake.

The American public's attitude towards civilian deaths in IraqPosted by Hello

But, professionals do make mistakes: as any liability lawyer will tell you, doctors make mistakes, dentists make mistakes, even the Ph.D. scientists working at big drug companies make mistakes (Vioxx, etc.). If all these top professionals make mistakes, why can we not allow ourselves to admit that soldiers make mistakes too?

Here in the United States, many people take up the sport of hunting, and many hunters will tell you a story about how they had their finger wrapped around the trigger of their rifle ready to score themselves a deer only to see another hunter walking out of a bush. The extra time that hunter took to make sure what he was shooting at was actually a deer meant the difference between life and death for another hunter.

One problem with American soldiers (and the soldiers in most countries) is they do not get much training or practice in urban warfare, and especially urban policing. Police tend to be well trained in handling urban fire-fight situations, with a lot of focus on identifying hostile targets before shooting at them. However, in a soldier's mentality, friends are those wearing the same uniform they are, and foes are everyone else. A well-trained soldier (by American training standards) is an efficient killing machine - a characteristic that makes them well-suited as a soldier, but ill-suited for urban police work.

Another key problem is that the time for a soldier to adequately verify their target, to ensure the person they are about to shoot is hostile, can mean the difference between life and death for himself. The only surefire way to stop a suicide bomber is to shoot and kill him before he gets close enough to take you to the afterlife with him. However, choosing to shoot prematurely puts the life of innocent civilians at risk. That Iraqi civilian driving his car may not dress the same as an American soldier, and may not look quite the same, but he probably has a wife and children who love him and depend on him, just as much as the soldier's wife and children depend on the soldier.

There is a term for a soldier who risks his own life to protect others: bravery. There is another term to describe a soldier who risks others' lives to protect his own: cowardice. Taking the time to verify a target before shooting is a brave and honorable act. Not taking that time and shooting haphazardly at anyone in the area is an act of disrepute and cowardice. Don't get me wrong, American soldiers are known for their bravery. But, if their orders are to shoot before adequately verifying the target they are shooting at, the soldiers may be brave, but the system they work for is cowardly. Let's fix the system.

Unnecessary civilian deaths in Iraq have been dismissed by the media here for far too long. It is time to do something about it. The best way to prevent mistakes is through effective training. American troops in Iraq need better training in urban combat and urban policing - particularly in target verification - and need to be encouraged to use the training and take the time to verify a target before shooting at it. This may increase the risk to American troops a bit, but better training can mitigate this risk. And, if this increased vigilence causes a significant reduction in the number of innocent Iraqis being killed in the street, and a resulting improvement in relations with the local Iraqi community, maybe it's worth it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Double Standard of Free Speech: American attitudes towards Iraqi bloggers

The Iraq war brought about the advent of a totally new phenomenon: ordinary civilians living in the war zone, publishing their views to the world. What is unique about the Iraq conflict is that many Iraqis learn English as a second language in school (much like Americans learn Spanish and Canadians learn French) and thus can communicate in English on a blog.

Iraqi bloggers have shown themselves to be as varied in their opinions as American bloggers. Some, like Omar and Mohammed at Iraq the Model, are very much in favor of the American military actions in Iraq, while others like Riverbend and Raed Jarrar are very much against. Still others, like my friend Najma, and her family, and Rose in Baghdad tend to be more neutral, not being anti-American but not pro-American either.

What really bothers me about some Iraqi blogs is the insensitive attitude and callous remarks I have seen directed towards them and their authors by some Western readers: it is almost as if some people view Iraqi bloggers as some sort of non-human entities with no feelings or emotions of their own. Some Western readers expect Iraqis to be unfailingly grateful for the actions of America in Iraq, and if the Iraqi bloggers criticize America even occasionally, they are pilloried as being "ignorant", "brainwashed", "baathists", "ingrates", "fools", "traitors", and the like. On the other side, you have the anti-war Western readers who go after bloggers who seem too pro-American: some Iraqi bloggers have even been accused of being CIA plants. Then, you have the trolls who hang out in the comments section and try to pick fights with other readers in total ambivalence to their host's (the blogger's) feelings on the matter at hand.

Some of the criticism Iraqi bloggers have received is just mind-boggling. Riverbend has been the recipient of a lot of criticism, and even the subject of parody sites ("Cry me a Riverbend" and "Cry me a Riverbend II"). There have been some posts trying to guess Riverbend's name and background (since she had the foresight to start her blog under a pseudonym). I can only imagine the volume of hate-mail her and Raed Jarrar get. I know my friend Najma has received a lot of hate mail, some of which has been very hurtful towards her.

What I find really annoying is that if someone expresses the exact same opinion here in America as some Iraqi bloggers have, people usually don't react harshly to it. They may disagree, but do not generally throw around the same hateful epithets I have seen directed at some Iraqi bloggers. For example, there is a busy street corner near where I live that has been the site of weekly anti-war protests every Saturday since the Iraq war started, and each week, there is a counter-protest across the street. And yet, you do not see epithets or insults being hurled back and forth across the street.

We do not expect all Americans to have the same opinion about current issues, why should we expect anything different from Iraqis? And, just because a person may not agree with our viewpoint on a particular issue does not make that person an evil monster. As the French philosopher Voltaire once said, "I may disagree with what you say, but I would fight to the death for your right to say it." This philosophy is deeply engrained in the American psyche and in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. People here apply this philosophy in dealings with other Americans - why, then, can people not apply the same philosophy in dealings with Iraqis and other foreigners? If we all agreed with each other all the time, the world would be a very dull and boring place.