Friday, November 25, 2005

White Phosphorus in Fallujah

Update: November 28, 2005

This post seems to have a good debate going on in the comments section, so I'm going to move it back up to the top.

To summarize my motives for writing this post. I support the US military 100% and would like to see them successful in their objective of transforming Iraq into a peaceful and prosperous place. However, over the past two years the US forces have sometimes used methods that have been viewed by Iraqis as being heavy-handed or even cruel, and this has turned many Iraqis against them - even Iraqis who had previously been supportive of them. Incendiary weapons are one of these methods that, while they may be useful on the short-term, the long-term negative consequences far outweigh these short-term benefits. I would like to see the US military successful in their objectives, and this is one reason I am disagreeing with their use of harsh methods (like incendiary weapons) that do not serve them well in that aim.

According to a number of news articles, the US forces used napalm on Iraqi troops during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. To quote Colonel James Alles, commander of Marine Air Group 11: "We napalmed both those [bridge] approaches. Unfortunately there were people there ... you could see them in the [cockpit] video. They were Iraqi soldiers. It's no great way to die. The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect."

The usage of napalm against Iraqi troops in 2003 was also acknowledged in this US State Department publication: "First, napalm or napalm-like incendiary weapons are not outlawed. International law permits their use against military forces, which is how they were used in 2003."

While napalm may have been mildly useful during the invasion, the aftereffects are horrible. Each of those Iraqi soldiers immolated or scarred by napalm has a family who probably now hates America, and may even be a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. Which suggests the question, "was the use of napalm really worth it?" - especially when you consider the overwhelming military advantage the US forces had going into Iraq.

The debate regarding Fallujah is about the use of white phosphorus, a substance that is usually used for a smoke screen, but also has the potential for use as an incendiary weapon (on a much smaller scale than napalm). There is no uncertainty about whether WP was used in Fallujah - the key question is whether it was used as a smoke screen or as an incendiary weapon. That is the debate that has been going on in the comments section of this post over the last few days.

Original Post: Sunday, November 20, 2005

Over the past two weeks, there has been a lot of discussion on the Internet about white phosphorus and the American military's admitted use of it in Fallujah. The March/April edition of the US Army's Field Artillery Magazine described their "shake and bake" strategy of using white phosphorus in Fallujah:

WP [White Phosphorus] proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spiderholes when we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosives]. We fired “shake and bake” missions at the insurgents, using WP [White Phosphorus] to flush them out and HE [High Explosives] to take them out. c. Hexachloroethane Zinc (HC) Smoke and Precision-Guided Munitions. We could have used these munitions. We used improved WP for screening missions when HC smoke would have been more effective and saved our WP for lethal missions.

For those of you who are not from North America, the military was making a rather macabre reference to a type of chicken seasoning called "Shake and Bake", where you are supposed to shake the chicken parts together with the seasoning in a bag, then bake it in the oven. In this case, they are referring to the use of a combination of white phosphorus and high explosive rounds: first, they use white phosphorus to "bake" the insurgents out of their hiding places, and then high explosive rounds to "shake" them out of existence.

Some bloggers such as Riverbend, and some media outfits have referred to white phosphorus as a chemical weapon. This is really incorrect: a chemical weapon is a poison that kills by its toxic properties. White phosphorus kills by burning - something that is called an incendiary weapon, not a chemical weapon. And, while the use of chemical weapons are banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which the US is a party), incendiary weapons are not. Perhaps they should be...

Incendiary weapons have been used extensively over the past hundred years. Flame throwers were used by both sides in World War I. In World War II, the Americans developed napalm, a very nasty weapon made of jellied gasoline - jellied to make it stick to its victims and burn slowly so as to do more damage. In the Vietnam War, napalm and other incendiary weapons were heavily used, often with gruesome results. Victims of incendiary weapons rarely die instantly - they either spend a few agonizing minutes feeling their flesh burning away off their bodies, or if they survive, they spend years recuperating from painful and extensive burns.

The gruesome and indiscriminate nature of incendiary weapons is perhaps best embodied by the little girl in the picture at left. Many Americans who were alive during the Vietnam War may rememeber seeing this badly burned little girl's screaming face as she ran away from her burning village naked (after the napalm burned the clothes off her). Fortunately, this particular story had a happy ending - Nick Ut (the Associated Press photographer who took the picture) rushed the girl (named Kim Phuc) to the hospital in his van. Despite having third-degree burns to over half her body, she survived. She spent over a year in hospital and underwent a number of painful surgeries. She is now a Canadian citizen, living in Toronto, and is married with two children. In 1997, Kim Phuc had the opportunity to meet and publicly forgive John Plummer, the former US Air Force officer who had ordered the napalm dropped on her village, and who had been tormented by thoughts of it over 25 years. You can read more about Kim Phuc here.

The horrors of incendiary weapons are well known, and as a result, the United Nations created the Protocol III Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which limits the use of incendiary weapons and prohibits their use against civilians or against military targets in close proximity to civilian populations. The attacks in Fallujah would almost certainly have been covered by this ban, except that the United States has not ratified Protocol III and thus is not bound by it. Thus, they are free to do whatever they want with incendiary weapons like white phosphorus.

However, just because something is legally permissible does not make it a good idea. The US went into Fallujah with greatly superior firepower - did they really need to use incendiary weapons like white phosphorus to achieve their objectives? I think not. Given that answer, was it really a justifiable risk to use these weapons in a built-up area like Fallujah, knowing that they may inadvertently immolate or maim civilians in the area of the fighting? Look at the picture of Kim Phuc and try to imagine her being a Fallujan in 2005 rather than a Vietnamese in 1972, and consider how badly a photograph like that would hurt the US war effort both in Iraq and elsewhere. Even from a purely military perspective, given the political ramifications that could result from such a debacle, the use of white phosphorus seems a foolhardy gamble. And, when you factor in the humanitarian aspects of incendiary weapons (let's face it, being burned alive is not a fun way to die), it seems even more obvious that white phosphorus should not have been used in Fallujah.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Saddam's Trial to Resume Next Week

Saddam Hussein's trial resumes from its 45 day hiatus on Monday and, unless there is another delay, the trial will likely be in full swing when the Iraqis go to the polls on December 15 to elect a new government.

Perhaps the most interesting blog I've seen related to this topic is called Groatian Moment, and is a legal debate by an expert panel on the legal issues surrounding the Saddam trial. Here is the blog's abstract:

As arguably the most important war crimes proceeding since Nuremberg, the trial of Saddam Hussein is likely to constitute a "Grotian Moment" -- defined as a legal development that is so significant that it can create new customary international law or radically transform the interpretation of treaty-based law. This Website features key documents related to the Iraqi Special Tribunal, answers to frequently asked questions, and expert debate and public commentary on the major issues and developments related to the trials of Saddam Hussein and other former Iraqi leaders.

In the opening day of the trial on October 19, the presiding judge, Rizgal Mohammed Amin, earned a lot of praise for his patient and professional nature. Despite courtroom antics like the "My Blankie" incident I wrote about, and Saddam openly challenging his authority, Judge Amin remained calm and handled himself well. Amin's patience will surely be tested with further courtroom antics by the defendants, and it is critically important that Judge Amin keeps his wits about him so as to ensure a verdict that is well accepted by the Iraqi people and by the world community as being fair and just.

Next week will be very interesting indeed.....

Zarqawi Disowned by his Family

The fallout from al-Qaeda's bungled hotel bombings in Jordan just keeps coming...

Yesterday, 76 members of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi published an open letter to Jordan's King Abdullah II, pledging allegiance to King Abdullah, denouncing Zarqawi's terrorist acts, and disowning Zarqawi "until doomsday". Zarqawi, whose real name is Ahmed Fadheel Nazzal al-Khalayleh, is the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group who admitted responsibility for the horrific (and badly bungled) hotel bombings in Jordan two weeks ago.

The letter from Zarqawi's family was published in a large advertisement in a Jordanian newspaper. According to the Associated Press, the signatories on this announcement included Zarqawi's brother and several of his cousins.

The Russian news agency Pravda published a full English translation of Zarqawi's family's open letter to King Abdullah:

Our Lord, his Hashemite Majesty, King Abdullah II, the son of Hussein, may God protect his throne. A greeting of dignity, esteem and admiration from your family and sons in the al-Khalayleh/Bani Hassan tribe in the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. As we pledge to maintain homage to your throne and to our precious Jordan, to sacrifice the dear and the invaluable to you, we denounce in the clearest terms all the terrorist actions claimed by the so-called Ahmed Fadheel Nazzal al-Khalayleh, who calls himself Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We announce, and all the people are our witnesses, that we _ the sons of the al-Khalayleh tribe _ are innocent of him and all that emanates from him, whether action, assertion or decision. Those who dare to carry out such actions in our proud kingdom are not Jordanians and have no link whatsoever to Jordan, didn't drink its water and didn't enjoy its protection, because a Jordanian doesn't stab himself with his own spear and we sever links with him until doomsday.

It just keeps getting better and better...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Real Estate Market: waiting for the big one

Several months ago, I wrote a post titled Housing Boom or Housing Bubble, where I spoke about the overinflated real estate market here in the United States. Many people have argued that since houses have "intrinsic value" in that they provide a place to live, the market cannot crash - to me, this argument lacks merit. I think this market is ripe for a crash.

Personally, I think the housing market here is a bubble reminiscent of the Nasdaq stock market in the late 1990s. In the 1990s, people made lofty references to the "new economy" where stocks went up and never came down, and all this came to an end in the crash of 2001. People over the past few years have made similar references to housing as a market that goes up and never comes down - and I expect these people are in for a major surprise.

Let's consider the mechanics of how a housing market crash might occur.

Stage 1: Gradual Decline

Like any free market, housing prices are governed by a balance between supply and demand. If an imbalance is created between supply and demand, the price adjusts until the demand and supply are equal: if demand outweighs supply, the price goes up, but if supply outweighs demand, the price goes down.

As I mentioned in my prior post, a key factor in the formation of the current housing bubble has been historically low interest rates. However, these interest rates have been creeping up over the past few months, and the demand has been gradually slowing, leading to a leveling-off in housing prices as has been reported in the news media this week. If interest rates contiue to go up, the housing prices will fully level off, and start into a steady but gradual decline as the demand declines in response to interest rates.

Stage 2: The decline accelerates

Once people start to realize the housing market is in a downward spiral, their behaviors in the housing market will start to change. Prospective buyers will realize that if they wait a while longer before buying, they can save money, and prospective sellers will realize that they will earn more money if they sell quickly than if they wait. Thus, in response to this behavior, housing demand shrinks, and housing supply increases, and the rate of decline of housing prices increases further.

Stage 3: Price free-fall

As the price decline accelerates, people start to get emotional. Homeowners who have been accustomed to their wealth increasing every year as their home values go up see the equity in their homes evaporate, and may even find their mortgages under water (owing more to the bank than what their homes are worth). Some of these folks start to panic, and panic selling envelops the market.

Meanwhile, prospective buyers quickly realize that the housing market is in the midst of a crash and demand completely dries up.

This toxic combination of increased supply and near-zero demand results in a price free-fall that continues until the prices fall below the point investors consider a bargain.

Stage 4: Leveling-off

After the market has fallen far enough, some buyers will view the prices as a bargain, and will start to jump into the market, causing the prices to level off. It is quite likely the market may over-correct - dropping below the point it eventually settles down to, then bouncing up a bit as investors start their bargain hunting. After a few more up and down cycles, the housing market settles down to a stable level - far below the level it was at when the bubble was at its peak.

Will this scenario happen? Nobody can be certain. But, with the news developments over the past few weeks, this scenario is seeming more and more likely, and is one major reason I am personally staying out of this market - riding out the upcoming storm in the safety of my rented apartment.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Delays in Posting

Sorry for the delay in posting - I was out of town for few days for a trip to Toronto. I'm back in New York, and expect to be posting again in the next day or two.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Stupid Terrorists!

Update: November 16

It seems, al-Qaeda bungled these attacks even worse than I'd originally thought. A few hours after the bombings, they issued a statement taking credit for the attacks, and announced that there were four suicide bombers, including a husband/wife team. Of course, they didn't realize that the woman's suicide belt had failed to detonate in the attacks and she was still alive. And, according to the Gulf Times (hat tip Natasha Tynes) this little tidbit being made public helped the Jordanians apprehend the woman:

When Al Qaeda issued its statement the day after the Wednesday night bombing, saying that four people, one of whom was a woman, had carried out the operation, the caretaker came to believe that the bombers and the tenants were the same people.Adding to that conviction was the fact that the bombers had said they would be visiting another Jordanian city later that Wednesday and returning the following day. Despite this, the woman returned alone and in a state of agitation last Wednesday night.The caretaker informed the landlord of his suspicions, who in turn gave the Jordanian authorities the passports the four had presented to him to rent the flat.
So, thanks to al-Qaeda's premature bravado, one of their terrorists is in custody and singing like a songbird to the authorities. She's already admitted publicly to the attacks, and has probably given Jordanian intelligence all sorts of useful information about al-Qaeda's operations.

Original Post: November 12

Two days ago, four al-Qaeda terrorist suicide bombers blew themselves up in three hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 57 people and injuring dozens more. In the bloodiest attack, a terrorist blew himself up in the middle of a wedding party in the Radisson SAS hotel, just as the Jordanian bride and groom were entering the room.

Here is the full translation of the first statement the terrorists issued the day after the attacks:

"In the name of God the Beneficent, the Merciful,
Oh God, sharpen the fire and solidify the feet,
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, and prayer and peace on the leader of the Mujahedeen, our Prophet Mohammad, and his descendents and all his colleagues.
At these blessed days, when the lion cubs of Tawheed are wrestling with the tyranny of crusaders blasphemy and the perfidy of the rejectionists [meaning Shiites] on the Land of the Two Rivers writing the epics of glory at a time of wretchedness and alienation, a group of lions from the battalions of Tawheed, most gracious of which are the martyr battalion of Barra Ibn Malik, set out on a new raid against some dens which were planted on the land of Muslims in Amman. After studying and observing the targets, the places of execution were chosen to be some hotels which the tyrant of Jordan has turned into a backyard for the enemies of Islam, such as the Jews and Crusaders, a dirty playground for the traitors of the Nation, and a safe heaven for the intelligence services of the apostates which are running their schemes against Muslims.
Despite the security measures which the traitor, the son of traitor, has provided to protect these dens, the Qaeda in Iraq organization was able to reach its targets and execute the attack. We shall reveal the details of the raid and those who carried it out later, with God's permission.
May the tyrant of Amman, and those with him, of Crusaders armies and the traitorous government of Iraq, know that they are now within the range of fire of the Qaeda of Jihad in the Land of Two Rivers Organization. Let them now have the tidings of what is saddening to them and their masters.
Allahu Akbar, and power and glory to God, His prophet and the Mujahedeen.

The media Section of The Qaeda Organization in the Land of Two Rivers,
November 10, 2005
Perhaps after realizing the Jordanian public was severely pissed off at them, al-Qaeda issued another statement to explain themselves a bit. According to this statement, the suicide bombers had conducted surveilance on the hotels for a month prior to the attacks, and targeted these hotels because they were a "secure place for the filthy Israeli and Western tourists to spread corruption and adultery at the expense and suffering of the Muslims in these countries," and a NATO rear-base "from which the convoys of the crusaders and the renegades head back and forth to the land of Iraq where Muslims are killed and their blood is shed."

What a bunch of idiots.....

Out of all the 57 people killed, only three of them were Americans, at least two of whom were Arab-Americans. Those two Arab-Americans were Moustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima, both of whom were attending the wedding at the Radisson. Moustapha Akkad was a Syrian-born Hollywood producer who was best known for the Halloween series of horror films. However, Akkad was also a proud Muslim who had produced such films as "Mohammed, Messenger of God", and "Lion of the Desert". At the time he was killed, Akkad was producing a film about Saladin, the Muslim general who drove the crusaders out of Jerusalem. He described his motivation for producing this film as follows: "Saladin exactly portrays Islam. Right now, Islam is portrayed as a terrorist religion. Because a few terrorists are Muslims, the whole religion has that image. If there ever was a religious war full of terror, it was the crusades. But you can't blame Christianity because a few adventurers did this. That's my message."

It's a sad irony that these "few terrorists" Akkad was referring to managed to catch up to him while he was producing this film.

Earlier today, al-Jazeera interviewed Mary Nazzal-Batayneh, one of the owners of the Radisson SAS Hotel. She said: "Firstly, news reports have been indicating that the Radisson SAS was specifically attacked because it is an American hotel. I want to make it clear that the Radisson SAS is a Scandinavian chain and owned by Palestinian-Jordanians."

The wedding the terrorists bombed in the Radisson was a Muslim wedding of Ashraf al-Akhras, a Palestinian with roots in the West Bank, and his bride Nadia Alami. The picture at left is a picture from the wedding before the terrorist bomb exploded. Of the 57 victims of this bombing, 27 of them were Palestinians, including 17 from the groom's family. The father of the bride and the father of the groom were both killed in the attacks, and the couple themselves were severely injured.

According to their statements, al-Qaeda launched this attack against "enemies of the faith, Jews and crusaders." So, let's tally up the score and see how well these idiots did against their intended targets:

  • They blew up a Muslim wedding reception in a hotel that is owned by Jordanian Palestinians, and is part of a Scandinavian hotel chain.
  • Almost all (or perhaps even ALL) of the victims of their attacks were fellow Muslims.
  • 27 of the victims killed in the attack were Palestinians with roots in the West Bank, including 17 members of the Akhras clan (the family of the groom in the wedding).
  • They killed a Hollywood producer who was in the middle of producing a movie about an Islamic hero.
  • They only killed 3 Americans (two of whom were the aformentioned Hollywood producer and his daughter).

So, to summarize, these idiots launched a grand attack against "enemies of the faith, Jews, and crusaders" but managed to kill none of those folks. Instead, they killed 57 fellow Muslims and managed to piss off a whole lot of people in Jordan and the Palestinian territories who might have otherwise been behind them.

Wow, what an amazing accomplishment! If al-Qaeda is able to recruit a few more clueless terrorists like these guys, we may not have to worry about them much longer.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Goodbye Nedstat/Webstats4u

I'd like to take an opportunity to apologize to all of my readers for the annoying popups that have been happening on my blog over the past few weeks. These were not my doing.

When I started this blog a year or so ago, I put a Nedstat Basic counter on it to keep track of my site usage statistics. This worked well, and I found it to be a good service. A few weeks ago, I got an email telling me that Nedstat had been sold to another company and was being rebranded as Webstats4U, and the site had a new look and feel. Unfortunately, it seems this was not the only change to the service.

Over the past couple of weeks, I noticed popups when I visited certain blogs (including my own blog) and was starting to worry my computer had become infected with spyware. Then, today, I did a bit of research and found that these popups were being generated by Webstats4U. Here is an article that gives all of the background on it.

I hate popups, and will not condone them on my blog. So, goodbye Nedstat/Webstats4U, and hello Site Meter.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Riots in France: reaping the fruits of neglect

Over the past two weeks, violent riots have occurred across France, with youths from poverty-stricken communities across France torching cars, shops, and buildings.

The violence that has occurred over the past two weeks in France was a long time in coming. Abderrahmane Bouhout, the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, the riot-torn suburb of Paris where much of the violence started, summarized it best: "If French society accepts these tinderboxes in its society, it cannot be surprised when they explode."

Indeed, France has long experienced problems with poor assimilation of its immigrant populations, and is only today starting to reap the poisonous fruit of this neglect. When people are marginalized, and made to feel inferior because of their religion or their skin colour, they become angry and frustrated, and become fertile recruiting grounds for criminal gangs and terrorist groups. The riots in Paris over the past few days have been a cry for help, a bold statement by many disaffected people that France needs to do a better job of assimilating them.

The riots also point to a major failure of some elements of France's social model, and to French society as a whole. Will France learn from these mistakes? That is up to the French to decide. From my perspective, I see three major problems in French society that have led to these riots over the past few weeks:

Problem #1: Xenophobia

The French are a proud people. Too proud, in some cases. Pride and nationalism can easily translate into xenophobia (fear/distrust of outsiders) when taken too far. It was xenophobia that gave Adolf Hitler and the Nazis their moral fuel. It was xenophobia that led the Serbs to massacre thousands of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. And, it is xenophobia that fuels support for extremist groups in France like Jean-Marie Le Pen's "Front National".

A recent study by a French sociologist found that a job applicant with a French-sounding last name was more than twice as likely to be called in for an interview than one with a north-African sounding name. Likewise, recent French laws preventing the wearing of obvious religious symbols in schools have been felt mostly by Muslims girls who are prohibited from wearing hijab to school.

The French need to realize that they cannot have their cake and eat it too. If you let immigrants into your country, you have to make an effort to make them feel welcome and to allow them to become a part of your society. To fail to do so results in marginalization of these individuals, and is one major reason that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have felt so much resonance among them.

Problem #2: French Labor Laws

In France, there are very strict laws geared to provide workplace security for French workers. It is extremely difficult for a company to fire a worker in France - a very different model than we have in the United States, where firing is gererally very straightforward.

An unfortunate side-effect of these strict regulations is that companies in France become extraordinarily cautious about hiring, for fear of being stuck with unwanted workers. As a manager myself who has hired many people, I can relate to the difficulties a French manager might have. For a French manager, a single bad hire could cost thousands of dollars, months of frustration, significant damage to the manager's team's morale, and possibly even harm to the manager's own career. A manager in that type of situation will be extremely thorough in screening candidates, hiring only those people who he feels extremely confident in their ability to succeed. In real terms, this process tends to favor more educated and more experienced workers, since these individuals have a proven track record and present less of a risk.

In this whole process, immigrants have a significant disadvantage. In many cases, they may be less educated than French workers, and additionally, foreign educational credentials and foreign work experience is given less credence than domestic education and experience. Likewise, employers may view an individual with different cultural customs or language difficulties as a larger risk than a native Frenchman - even if both individuals were born in France.

When you combine all of these factors, what results is a permanent underclass; a group of disadvantaged people who cannot provide adequate education to their children, who in turn go on to be disadvantaged themselves, and produce further generations of disadvantaged youth. The frustration and hopelessness of these youth, many of whom are French citizens born in France, erupted into the riots that have been felt over the past two weeks.

Problem #3: Poor City Planning

France's attitude towards city planning has been similar to America's: a problem out of sight is a problem out of mind. Unfortunately, as we have learned here in America, this does not work - it may allow us to forget about a problem for a while, but it does not solve the problem.

Years ago, America and France both made the mistake of creating towering neighborhoods of affordable housing for lower-income people. Unfortunately, the middle classes quickly vacated these neighborhoods, leaving impoverished and crime-ridden ghettos. These ghettos are places devoid of positive role-models for children, as those who become successful quickly leave to find better places to raise their own children, leaving only the local gang leaders as role models.

In the United States, we have made some progress in reducing inner-city crime, and making some of these neighborhoods livable again, particularly here in New York City, where policing initiatives by successive mayors have resulted in significant drops in crime. In some cases like Chicago, many towering and crime-ridden housing projects have been torn down and the residents displaced to other areas. France is yet to take these types of painful but necessary steps.

France's problems were not created overnight, they will not be fixed overnight. However, with time and perseverence, it is possible that they can be fixed. To fix France's problems will require a multifaceted approach, with efforts to both provide better opportunities for immigrant groups, and to integrate these groups within French society. Countries like Canada, Norway, and the United States, each of which have different ways of assimilating their immigrant populations, and yet each of which have done so with success, should be a model that France should look to as it seeks solutions to the quagmire in which it has engulfed itself.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Jordan Blasts

Earlier today, terrorist explosions rocked three major hotels in Amman, Jordan. The Washington Post quoted Jordanian deputy prime minister Marwan Muasher as describing the blasts as "apparent suicide attacks". So far, over 60 people, mostly Jordanians, have been confirmed dead in the attacks - a number likely to rise over the next few hours as victims succumb to their wounds. One of the bombs was detonated in the middle of a wedding party that was taking place in a ballroom in one hotel.

The blasts today had some parallels with the attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which I wrote about a few months back. Like that attack, the motives of the terrorist scum in this attack are extremely perplexing. The suicide bombers gave up their own lives for their cause, and yet all they achieved was the wanton murder of dozens of innocent people, most of whom were fellow Arabs and Muslims, just like the evident perpetrators of this heinous crime.

Which suggests one fundamental question: why? Why would someone want to randomly kill so many innocent people? And why would that person be willing to give up his/her own life in the process? The answers to these questions are beyond any logical comprehension.

My thoughts and prayers tonight are with the victims of these heinous attacks.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Jamaica the Tourists Don't See

Note: I'm back. This is a blog post I wrote a few days ago on my laptop computer, but was unable to get Internet access to post it from where I was staying in Jamaica.

As I write this blog post, I am sitting in Jamaica on the front-porch of my mother-in-law’s house, enjoying the beautiful tropical weather. Jamaica is a poor country, and my wife is from one of the poorer parts of it – a small community in the rural countryside, far away from the tourist resorts and beaches that Jamaica is famous for. In this part of Jamaica, I stand out – as a white person, I am such a small minority here, that if I am here for a week and see more than two or three other people with my complexion the entire time I am here, I am shocked. Since I speak passable Jamaican patois, most Jamaicans I meet here quickly realize I am not a tourist, but do not quite know what to make of me.

The people here in this area do not have much: most houses here are small one or two room dwellings. Few people have cars – commuting to work or shopping is by bicycle or taxi. Meals are often cooked in outdoor kitchens over wood fires or on small indoor gas stoves. Laundry is washed by hand in plastic tubs and hung on lines to dry. Few people here have running water in their homes – they must carry containers down the road to a “standpipe” to fetch water for cooking or drinking.

But, people here are happy, and over the years I have been married to my wife, I have grown to love it here. I have often told my wife if I could find a way to earn even half my salary and live in this place, I would.

I remember a few years ago, I was in Jamaica at Rick’s Café, a popular tourist attraction in Negril, and struck up a conversation with a couple of the tourists. Of course, the tourists and I had gotten to Rick’s Café by two very different ways: I had driven my rental car from my wife’s rural community where I was staying, and the tourists had ridden in a shuttle bus from a 5-star resort. I asked them what they thought of Jamaica, and was surprised when they said, “It was nice once we got to the resort, but I hated the drive here. There was just too much poverty. The one thing I really don’t understand is why there are so many unfinished houses here.”

I remember my surprise at the tourists’ answer to my question, and to their disdain of the areas they had seen – the communities they drove through on the way to their resort probably resembled the one I am sitting in now, and I could imagine their surprise if they saw me sitting here. I have often wondered how some of these tourists’ impressions would be changed if they could spend a few nights in one of those poorer communities, possibly the same type of neighborhood some of the workers in their resorts live in, and get to see how different the lifestyle there is.

Of course, there is also an explanation to the unfinished houses. What most visitors to Jamaica don’t realize is that the unfinished houses are the result of Jamaica’s painfully high interest rates, which make home mortgages painfully unaffordable for most Jamaicans, and foolish investments for those few who can afford them. Thus, people pay cash for houses and build them in stages: building one or two rooms at a time until the house is finished. Since Jamaican houses are generally made of steel-reinforced concrete and not wood, this type of construction is possible, and in many cases, it might take a person 10 to 20 years to finish his house, a bit at a time, while he lives in the parts that are finished, but when he is done building the house, he owns it without owing anything to anyone.

What I love about Jamaica (and particularly this small rural community I am in) is the lifestyle. People here take time to enjoy themselves, and do not get so caught up in the minutiae of day-to-day life as we do in America. Jamaicans tend to live for the moment, and life here takes place at a very different pace than it does in America. I find spending a week here feels like spending a month at home. Of course, most tourists never get to experience this type of lifestyle, and while they may spend a fortune trying to emulate it in the resort, the experience falls far short of the reality.