Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The Problem with Abundance

Think you can never be too rich or too thin? Peter de Jager says think again (at least about the too-rich part).

Keep off the Grass

When I was but a wee lad I saw a politcal cartoon that I did not understand at the time, but it tickled my funny bone so much that I have never forgotten it. It was a picture of then-President Jimmy Carter furiously pounding a sign onto the White House lawn saying, "Keep off the grass". Behind the oblivious Carter the White House itself was quietly levitating into the air.

I think you could draw a similar cartoon about George Bush and the war on terrorism (or the war on drugs). Bush is all huff and bluster, putting up a sign on the White House gate saying, "Trespassers will be prosecuted" while behind him inside the white house two terrorists look at him and say, "I wonder what the sign says."

The fundamental problem with trying to fight a "war on terror" is that most of the time you can't tell who the enemy is until it's too late. Terrorists don't wear uniforms. They look just like everyone else. The entire historical development of "war" is predicated on the assumption that you can tell who it is you're suposed to be fighting. One of the reasons that Viet Nam went south (so to speak) is that it was the first "war" where this assumption didn't hold.

No one in the Bush White House recognizes this, and as a result they are running scared. I could hardly believe my ears when I listened to Bush in the wake of five coordinated terrorist bombings in Baghdad yesterday say with a straight face that this proves we're winning the war on terror because it shows that the "enemy" is getting increasingly "desperate". (I was reminded of the opening scene of Terry Gilliam's movie "Brazil" where the following exchange occurs between a reporter and the Deputy Minister of Information: Reporter: "The bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year." Minister: "Beginner's luck.") Then there's this little gem: "Bush vowed to hunt down the "cold-blooded killers, terrorists" who are conducting the attacks." Hello! You can't hunt them down, Dubya, they're already dead. That's what "suicide bomber" means. And the image of a levitating White House returns to my mind's eye.

It would be funny if it weren't so tragic, because one of the inevitable consequences of insisting on fighting a war against an unseen enemy is that innocent people have their lives destroyed because if you're trying to fight a war and you can't find the enemy you are left with no alternative but to manufacture one.

Shooting the Messenger

And then there is the sad case of Nathaniel Heatwole, the student who snuck box cutters into a airplane to draw attention to ongoing problems in post-9/11 airport security.

The authorities, naturally, are going to lock him up instead of doing what they should do, which is to fire the head of the TSA, get down on their hands and knees, and beg Heatwole to take the job instead, because he obviously understands the problem much better than Admiral James Loy does.

Personally, the fact that there are holes in airport security doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I find it quite encouraging when taken in combination with the fact that there have been no terrorist incidents involving airplanes since 9/11 despite porous security. This means that the terrorists are not as numerous, well organized, motivated, and smart as they could be. This is ultimately our best, indeed our only real protection. The fact of the matter is that if someone wants to do some damage and is willing to die for it there is nothing you can do to stop them. The only protection against terrorism is to build a world where no one wants to be a terrorist. The events of the last two years show that at least in the United States we are not so far from that goal (notwithstanding the odd kook like John Allen Muhammad).

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Talk To Me!

I met these two people on the streets of Manhattan last night. I'm in town for a conference, so I don't have much time to write about the experience (in fact, I'm sitting in a session trying to listen to a speaker posting this via a wireless network), but there are many articles about them on their web site. I have always found that New Yorkers (and Parisians for that matter), despite their reputations, are actually very friendly, and these two are extraordinarily so. My wife and I stood on the street and we just chatted with them for the better part of an hour. If you buy into the theory that wealth is measured by how many friends you have, Liz and Bill are the richest people I know.

Friday, October 10, 2003

The best novel no one has ever read

My pick: "The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers. If like me you like plot-driven novels you will love it.

Don't they have anything better to do?

This just makes me want to puke. They're sending Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong fame) to prison for nine months for selling bongs over the Internet. Don't these people in the Justice Department have anything better to do?

It is not at all clear to me that the world would not be a better place if a few key people (John Ashcroft foremost among them) would get stoned now and again.