Month: March 2014

My Lai, stand your ground, and rabies

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Reading about the My Lai massacre this morning and it’s got me thinking. The war criminals that killed more than 400 innocents FELT honestly threatened by the civilians. They sincerely believed they were under attack or about to be despite zero evidence, despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary. No reasonable person would have seen these villagers as a threat, but the perpetrators were not reasonable men. There’s a very similar story more recently about an Iraqi massacre by an American soldier. There are a number of parallels here. The use of deadly force is typically based on the fear of harm but what if that standard is too low? What if fear for your life is not a good enough reason to pull the trigger?

Recently there have been a number of people permitted the use lethal force against unarmed “antagonists” Trayvon Martin is perhaps the highest profile victim but there have been others. The key element in these cases is that the perpetrator felt threatened. There is no standard of reasonableness. Only the level of fear. I’m not a legal expert. Perhaps as a matter of law there is a standard rising to the level of a rational observer, I don’t know. But this is not true in practice, nor at the point of the trigger. The feeling of imminent violence was so powerful, that over 900 people in Jonestown chose suicide and murder over enduring their irrational fears.

I think we need a societal refutation of “justifiable fear” and I think we need to build a rational observer. It will be difficult because We lack faith in the the underpinnings of society. Justice, law enforcement, trust in human decency and rehabilitation of “bad guys”. We have lost an essential part of our souls when we see another human as nothing more than a rabid dog in need of a bullet.

It’s an interesting that rabies metaphor. The rabies virus is extremely painful and movement can be difficult. A rabid animal is not mindlessly violent but in extraordinary pain and confusion. Something that bears thinking on.

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The nature of power

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At the end of a long period of an autocratic and repressive regime, Ukrainians stood up and ousted their dictatorial president.  Effectively this swings Ukraine back to the pro-western side of the political fence, perhaps permanently if defense pacts, and trade agreements get signed.  It’s also a slap in the face of Russia.  Russia responded by sending in special forces and seizing an ethnically Russian semi-autonomous region of the Ukraine that’s been handed back and forth between Russia and the Ukraine a couple of times in the last 200 years or so.  Ukraine has no military to speak of and is still rebuilding itself after enduring the brunt of USSR oppression for decades (not to mention the deprivations of the Third Reich).  And Russian tanks strolling across a semi-friendly border and taking charge isn’t outside the Russian playbook, so Ukraine is justifiably worried about a larger invasion.  All of this is in the backdrop about American angst of waning power and influence across the global stage.  Conservatives are lamenting a “weak” president as if a “strong” president could somehow prevent another country from doing whatever it likes.

But what does “Power” mean in the 21st century?  Clearly, Russia thinks that power is having your tanks roll about wherever they like and it’s true.  That is one form of power.  However, it’s an outdated source of power.  In the long run, it’s self-defeating.  Whatever Russia wins by annexing the Crimea, it’ll lose through trade and diplomacy.  I’ll give you an example. Coming up next in human evolution are changes to energy usage.  American oil consumption has flatlined, new energy technologies have been birthed and will be coming online for industrial and commercial use in just a few years. Decades of energy efficiency are starting to make an impact, and the western world is sliding away from fossil fuels in a huge way. Where as Russia is still critically dependent upon them both for use and trade.  In the long term Russia  is headed for a severe recession and when that happens they’re going to need  friends, friends they’ve recently alienated.

This is a microcosm of global shifts.  American companies dominate global industry by absurd margins.  The information technology and infrastructure being used developed now is the basis of wealth both now and in the future.  Even if a product is assembled in a dozen different countries, the wealth that those products generate, largely comes back to an American company.   What great products and services do you see coming out of Russia?  For every foreign made and designed product that Russia purchases, it strengthens their potential rivals.  I’m sure they’d prefer not to do that, but I don’t see the next iPhone being developed in Moscow.  In fact, they’re missing out on the secondary boom that other countries are enjoying in low wage manufacturing.  To attract foreign investment they’re going to need friends, friends they’ve recently alienated.

That’s not to say Russia has no friends.  They do.  They’ve spent years propping up middle east dictators.  It gives them a nice little edge in the region.  But in the long run it’s a disastrous policy.  The Arab Spring, while not as successful as people would have liked, has nicely demonstrated that no matter how well proped the dictators are, the those dictators are becoming increasingly unstable.  Consider Syria.  Not long ago it was a relatively prosperous country.  Even if Assad wins his civil war, which is likely, Assad will spend the next 50 years or more trying to rebuild and be no use to anyone including Russia.  This is especially true since those dictators are dependent on the same global economic forces that are slowly strangling Russia.  Simply put, they will all die together, unless they adopt pro-Western reforms.  To strengthen your geopolitical state you’re going to need friends, friends they’ve recently alienated.

Russia may have “won” the battle for Crimea.  The US has no interest in forcing the issue militarily and short of that there’s little we can do to change Russia’s mind.  Diplomatic and economic sanctions might have some effect but probably not in the short term.  Even if the US wanted to go to war over this, we shouldn’t.  Such a thing would constitute an economic loss for no real benefit.  Doing so would lessen American power and influence.  Put it another way, American got Ukraine, Russia got Crimea.  We got Ukraine economically and diplomatically, Russia had to use its military.  The currency of “power” has shifted away from the military and Russia hasn’t figured it out yet (nor conservative American voters, but that’s a whole other story).  Because this is true, American power is not waning, but waxing and has been 70 years, but you have to look beyond the lines on a map.