The Language of Blood and Death: Terrorists, Militants, and Attackers Then and Now


Narrating war and terror. A historical perspective.

For those of us in developed societies, it is hard to overstate the importance of words and images and the effect they have on our lives. Although we live in a world in which many people don’t have the time or energy to read much in the way of books or hard news, words and language are as important now as ever before. Whether we’re aware of it or not, those of us in modern, developed societies are immersed in an ongoing narrative that’s constantly swirling about us, informing and transforming perspectives. Actors in over-extended economies desperate to generate infinitely increasing profits focus tremendous energy on creating and broadcasting information to influence how we should feel about ourselves, others, and the world in general. While the Shakespearean stage has never and will never really exist for many of us, an unceasing flood of commercially-generated narrative holds us transfixed in a rush of words, images, and archetypes that are constantly chiseling away at our brains: shaping, directing, urging. We exist within and are caught up in this narrative even though most of us are merely observers and bit players in it.

To better understand the problem with terrorism and mass shootings (or extremism and radicalism) in the world today (and why much of it is either somehow tied to or directed at the developed world), we will look at some examples of the language used to describe these tragic events. To provide a little perspective, it may be useful to compare some of the language used to write about terrorism in the past with that in the present.

The following excerpt describes an Indian attack on a U.S. cavalry troop at the Pine Ridge Agency (Bureau of Indian Affairs) in South Dakota on December 30th, 1890:

Another Indian Battle. Thirty-three of the Hostiles Bite the Dust…“.1

A few paragraphs down:

“The attack was sudden and unexpected, but the cavalry men returned a brisk fire and succeeded in keeping the savages in check until the arrival of a company of infantry… . The Indians were then repulsed with the loss of thirty-three killed. They fled to the hills without stopping to pick up the dead.

“No attempt was made to dislodge them from their position in the hills. The agency is in a state of siege, and another attack is expected at any time unless reinforcements are received soon.”

Even in 1890, The New York Times was a major American newspaper. As was common for the time, the above dispatch is crafted in a way that depicts the Native Americans as savages who attack unexpectedly when their opponents aren’t looking; they are too cowardly or devoid of human feeling to bother to “pick up the dead.” The language reinforces this by refusing to admit that thirty-three Indian men were killed–it merely states “thirty-three killed.” The dispatch also grabs the reader’s attention by painting an exciting and horrifying picture of soldiers alone on the prairie, like set-upon homesteaders, surrounded by ruthless, surging barbarians (essentially the image of Custer’s Last Stand that the media often recycled and played back over and over).

The dispatch’s opening paragraph (not shown above) further corroborates this interpretation by relating that “a number of soldiers [italics mine] were killed and wounded and thirty-three of Two Strikes’ band were killed.” Again, it’s not thirty-three human beings who are killed, as is the case with the soldiers, a term that clearly signifies people. As regards those (i.e., Indians) whom the soldiers kill in what is portrayed as an act of self defense, the human signifier is absent. We are left only with the barest allusion to their humanity through the use of the word “band”, which was commonly used to distinguish different groups of Native Americans at the time. The word is also the root of “bandits” or “bands of outlaws”.

For those who’re interested, Two Strikes was a Brulé chief of the Hinhan Sunwapa band.2

This skirmish occurred one day after another, much bigger, confrontation between soldiers and Native Americans. Known to history as the “Wounded Knee Massacre”, more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota Indian Tribe were gunned down by mounted cavalry and heavy artillery near the Bad Lands of South Dakota. It’s considered the last major battle of the Indian Wars.

The Times evening dispatch that describes the Wounded Knee event refers to it as an “Indian outbreak” that “cost the lives of about 230 Indians and the killing or wounding of 25 or 30 soldiers.” The language clearly implies that the Indians weren’t just responsible for the soldiers’ deaths but were, in fact, the cause of their own, as well. The dispatch then promptly offers a partial list of some of the wounded soldiers, some of whom were mortally wounded while others, such as Lieutenant Kinzie, it diligently informs us, “received but a slight wound in the cord of an ankle.” Noticeably absent from the list is any mention of the Indians who die as a result of this latest outbreak–a term, it is interesting to note, which is associated with the modifier “Indian” instead of something more impersonal (and objective), such as violence (as in, there was an outbreak of violence–a common construction still in use today). By associating “Indian” with outbreak, one is free to imagine whether it connotes something malignant, like a virus or disease.

The New York Times more fully covered this sad event earlier in the day in its morning edition in a piece entitled, “A Fight With The Hostiles. Big Foot’s Treachery Precipitates a Battle.3 In retreat to the Bad Lands, after ongoing struggles with U.S. troops, a group of over 300 Lakota (some of whom included Sitting Bull’s people4) were forced to surrender and give up their arms (an assortment of rifles, pistols, and knives, mostly). The group was composed of men, women, and children, many of whom were starving or in the words of the Times, “suffering for food”. They were all “in a sullen and ugly mood.” In a companion piece on the same page that describes the details of the surrender, we learn a little about its terms:

“Dismounting the latter walked out [i.e., Major Whiteside] (brackets mine) and met the chief [i.e., Big Foot, the Lakota chief] (brackets mine). As they came forward Big Foot extended his hand in token of peace. ‘I am sick,’ he said. ‘My people here want peace and–‘

“Major Whiteside cut him short with: ‘I won’t talk nor will I have any parleying at all. It is either unconditional surrender or fight. What is your answer!’

‘We surrender,’ said the chief.”

Two battalions totaling 500 soldiers surrounded the Indian encampment. Hotchkiss M1875 Mountain Guns (heavy artillery) also encircled the camp and were mounted in positions of command. Fear was running high among the soldiers that the Indians might resist. Lakota braves, led by Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot), were summoned to the center and formed a half circle, squatting. Two companies encircled them. 20 braves were ordered to go back to the tepees to retrieve their rifles so they could surrender them. Only two guns were brought back. A detachment of soldiers immediately searched the tepees discovering thirty-eight more rifles. Just then something happens–there’s disagreement about what exactly–and the next thing Indians and soldiers are firing at one another.

Or in the words of the dispatch’s opening paragraph, “…and a bloody and desperate battle at close quarters followed, in which the Indians were shot down ruthlessly and in which the lives of several soldiers were sacrificed.”

Big Foot’s men, along with their women and children, attempt to flee, but the battery of artillery starts “firing rapidly at them as they run.” The dispatch goes on to relate:

“Soon the mounted troops were after them, shooting them down on the wing on every side.

“They took cover in a ravine and fired back at the soldiers, who replied, picking off the redskins at every opportunity. The Hotchkiss gun was also run up so as to command the ravine, and a withering fire was poured upon the reds.

“The Indians were shot down wherever found, no quarter being given by anyone.”

Big Foot, including many women and children, as well as the braves who tried to protect them, died that day in the snow and were buried in a mass grave at Wounded Knee Creek.

It’s later revealed that not all the braves were even armed with rifles, many of them had only “pistols or knives and clubs.” Apparently this made little difference at the time when it came to depicting the soldiers as heroes. According to the Times: “The members of the Seventh Cavalry have once more shown themselves to be heroes in deeds of daring.” At least 29 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. It was not until 2001 that Congress finally condemned the awards and called for their rescission.

The point of this post is not to rehash the well-known mistreatment and indiscriminant slaughter of Native Americans, which is a well-documented and tragic part of U.S. history. The intent is to demonstrate the type of language (akin to cheap, pulp fiction) that the news media customarily used to describe skirmishes and battles between U.S. forces and Native Americans. This is important because there was a large disconnect between the picture that the news reporting in the 19th Century attempted to draw and the actual facts as they really existed. News reports, like the one above, are clearly so biased that they’re unable to provide an informative and objective version of events. The question I’m posing is whether the bias of contemporary news media distorts reality in similar ways and, if so, how and to what degree? More importantly, what effects do such distortions have on the broader society when repeated over time?

It should also be noted that many Indian Wars’ news dispatches, like the ones above, make little or no reference to the underlying reasons for the conflict. Although these may not have been written to be analysis pieces, the type of language and the way it is used to describe the events, as demonstrated above, preempts the need to ask questions and therefore ends up replacing the analytical function without ever delving into cause and effect. This can be observed in the headline, “A Fight With The Hostiles. Big Foot’s Treachery Precipitates a Battle”. The implication is clear: the battle was caused by hostile reds who were led by a treacherous and cowardly chief. No need to search further for a cause or underlying reasons. Past history, including mass expulsion from ancestral lands, broken treaties, and lack of good faith dealings need not be referenced to properly comprehend the truth. The headlines say it all.

From the standpoint of an oppressor who has stripped an entire continent of indigenous people of virtually everything (land, means of making a living, way of life, etc.), this is strategically and tactically important if the object is to evade responsibility and continue to pursue business as usual. As Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have pointed out, this type of characterization is a way of shifting blame from the victimizer to the victimized, and is still commonly practiced by the Western news media today–albeit in more subtle ways, as discussed below.


Narrating war and terror. Flash forward. Words that kill.

While the language used nowadays is often (but not always) much more politically correct, the media and authority figures are still very adept at demonizing certain groups. The press or politicians may not refer to people as “reds”, “redskins”, or “savages” anymore, but they often repeatedly use language (or its absence) in ways that can imply savagery or barbarism. This repetition is very powerful because it can be used in ways that attach multiple meanings to certain words or phrases. This is not a modern invention and was even a common device throughout the Indian Wars. For example, most people today normally think of “redskin” as an ugly word, but it communicated an array of various meanings to the average white American a century ago that it probably wouldn’t today. This method allows an entire set of mutually reinforcing meanings to be tacitly communicated just by implication through a single word.

Using language in this way is one of the most powerful tools for shaping public discourse and thought. It is insidious and perverts an important human device from what it was originally intended to do: words as symbols for efficiently enabling thought and communication of an accurate–not distorted–version of reality. For mass cultures in the developed world that rely so heavily on communications today, this type of accuracy and efficiency is crucial to the smooth functioning of society. Used in the wrong ways, intentional and continuous distortion can reap terrible consequences.

To more fully comprehend this, it may be helpful to briefly address a point concerning how the human brain works. Scientists have learned in recent years that there are different types of human memory. Procedural (or implicit) memory is distinct from declarative memory (the memory typically associated with learning and what we usually think of as memory). Procedural memory can be thought of as the memory of habit. It is so fundamental to the human mind that it can persist intact in people with Alzheimer’s Disease long after declarative memory has become thoroughly impaired and unreliable.

Habits or routines are formed through the repetition of certain activities. For the average person, routine and habit make up roughly half of daily life. Given enough repetition, even words and their meanings can also become habits in the way that they inform our thinking. Through priming and cuing, one literally can be trained to associate certain ideas and traits with symbols, images, or words. Like Pavlov’s dog, humans are very susceptible to procedural learning.

Behavioral phenomenon, such as “social proof”, is a very powerful means of establishing and spreading what I’ll call for the sake of convenience “word-habits”. Social proof means that people believe those they trust. This can be authority (or famous) figures observed in the media or friends and neighbors with whom one communicates. In today’s world, where we spend so much time absorbing information through our various mobile communication devices, figures in the media who speak to us and those with whom we converse are often seamless activities woven into the fabric of our daily lives.

Once entrenched among groups or in society generally, word-habits (or better yet, “thought-habits”) can be extremely difficult to overcome. This can be further reinforced by what’s known as “motivated reasoning”, another type of behavioral phenomenon that states that people think what they like to think. Procedural memory (habits), social proof, and motivated reasoning can help fix within society certain ways of seeing or experiencing the world. Academics and other writers have sometimes referred to crises created by these processes as “mass hysteria”. Under chronic conditions in which certain modes of thought are accepted by a population for long periods, they can even become ingrained in the culture.

Adolph Hitler used the mass media to exploit this [vulnerability] to the most hideous extent possible. Hitler essentially distilled a range of preexisting ideas and conditions (e.g., natural selection, competition between peoples, historic prejudices, economic and social upheaval, etc.) into a language that intentionally demonized certain groups, most notably Jews. Hitler’s language was repeated over and over by the mass media until it became generally acceptable. Similar to what the phrase “hostile redskin” might potentially imply as a “normal” range of responses, it eventually became permissible to kill or, at least, imprison a “dirty” or “blood-sucking Jew”. Perhaps a bit unpleasant on the one hand, imprisonment was, so the reasoning went, necessary for the protection and self preservation of the German people (in some ways a 20th Century version of what white America felt they needed to do against their own population of “hostiles” in the 19th Century–with certain differences, of course). The motifs and implications of Hitler’s propaganda eventually became so ingrained in the German psyche, that, as with Native Americans, it became permissible not just to imprison but to even kill all manner of people, including women and children as well as the old and the infirm. The fact that this took place in a nation, like Germany, where science and the arts had reached such lofty heights, is not merely ironic but should be remembered always as a warning of the most serious kind.

Unfortunately, it has again become commonplace nowadays to hear about military and police forces killing civilian people. The actors may not be Hitler or even fascists; and there are also differences surrounding much of the killing–at least with respect that carried out by developed nations. But there is a lot of killing going on nonetheless. Yet at bottom at least some of the rationalizations justifying it is quite similar: protect one group of people from the barbarism or savagery of another.

Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was not common in countries like the U.S. to hear politicians and pundits openly talking about who will or should be killed. This changed significantly after the September 11th terrorist attacks. A common metaphor used repeatedly in the ensuing war on terror has involved the image of “hunting”, as in we will hunt you down and kill you. As we all know, hunting is something humans do to animals; or something greater animals (predators) do to lesser animals (prey).

Back in the days before 9/11, it was more common to hear the “good guys” talking about bringing the “bad guys” to justice. There may have been just as much cynicism and intent to kill (as the Persian Gulf War and Vietnam nicely demonstrates), but the unfettered way that authority figures openly talk about the need to kill this person or that person became much more common practice after 9/11.

To help justify the broad and ongoing application of lethal force, as well as the loose talk that supports it, politicians have learned that declaring informal wars can be a useful expedient. As in, the “war on terror” (a war but not really as in the case of the “war on drugs”). The use of the word “war” implies the need to utilize extreme means and even deadly force, if necessary, to defend one’s country. In recent years, the word has been invested with such meaning that it, seemingly on its own, effectively excuses the use of maximum force while allowing an environment in which minimum responsibility is permitted. For example, in an attempt to legitimize the ensuing use of extreme military force, French President Francois Hollande disposed of any qualification after the Paris terrorist attack in November, 2015, and simply declared that France is now at war–much like George W. Bush did 14 years earlier after September 11th (and just prior to the invasion of Afghanistan). After Hollande’s grand declaration, French warplanes quickly joined U.S., British, and Russian counterparts in further bombing into pieces the small, war-ravaged country of Syria.

There is perhaps nothing more illustrative of the self-declared right to kill than what has come to be termed a “drone strike”. It’s surprising how well accepted by the general public this term and the type of action it represents has become. A phrase that did not exist before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it chillingly connotes a robot-like machine that kills human beings by remote control. The operator, like a god on Mount Olympus, rains down death (Hellfire as the CIA has termed it) with impunity on the mortals below (who are supposedly but not always terrorists). Nothing more clearly illustrates the value of life placed on two the roles involved (subject and object). The subject, the drone operator (who, for example, acts on behalf of U.S. or French or British citizens) must be protected at all costs, while the object (terrorists, jihadists, Islamic militants, extremists, etc.) needs to be hunted wherever they are–even if that means in cities full of ordinary civilians. As in the case of the Native Americans, the field of battle can easily extend to individuals’ homes where the hunted (the prey) are thought to reside (or hide).

In a piece cheerleading American boots on the ground shortly after the [“shock and awe”] invasion of Iraq in 20035, David Brooks of The New York Times offers a glimpse into the American perspective on the heroism of its soldiers, on the one hand, and the savagery of the people whose country they had just invaded, on the other:

“Soldiers in all wars are called upon to be heroes, but our men and women in Iraq are called upon to define a new sort of heroism. First, they must endure the insanity of war, fighting off fedayeen ambushes, withstanding the suicide bombings and mortars, kicking down doors and searching homes.”

Aptly capturing the exaggerated sense of patriotism back in those heady days of the war on terror, Mr. Brooks goes on to state that American soldiers “are John Wayne, but also Jane Addams”.

He equally well seizes on the general feeling toward backward, half-savage Iraqis when he writes:

“At spontaneous moments, when order threatens to break down, the soldiers, aviators and marines jump in and coach the Iraqis on the customs and habits of democracy. They try to weave that fabric of civic trust that can’t be written into law, but without which freedom becomes anarchy.”

Or when he relates an incident in which an American soldier brought gifts to an orphanage:

“He brought a pile of toys to an orphanage, but the paid staff at the place rushed the pile to grab the toys for themselves — ‘like sharks in a feeding frenzy’, he writes. He has learned that if he stations himself with an M-16 over the toys, things go smoothly.”

Perhaps the icing on the cake is Brooks’ overt condescension and obtuseness toward the people whose country has just been smashed to pieces by the most powerful military in the world when he offers toward the end of his article the following:

“Another soldier writes of his dismay at seeing Iraqi parents give their kids toy guns as presents after Ramadan. He wonders, Haven’t they had enough death? Don’t they realize how dangerous it is for a kid to wander the street with a piece of plastic that looks like an AK-47?”

Putting aside the utter tragedy that the Iraq War was and is for the Iraqi people, Brooks’ article when viewed purely as a piece writing (particularly when read after the fog of war) would be downright comical if it weren’t so damn pathetic to think that this was written without any irony intended. Yet it nicely summarizes how completely caught up in the prevailing rhetoric of the moment one can become–even a presumably sophisticated and educated individual like Brooks, a long-time columnist for The New York Times.

The problem is not just whether suspected terrorists should be routinely targeted for killing outside the boundaries of law and justice. (Though prior to George W. Bush’s war on terror, there used to be U.S. laws that explicitly prohibited members of the government from engaging in assassinations. These laws have been systematically relaxed under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. Of course, the very idea of war, as embodied in propagandistic lexicon (e.g., “war on terror”), helps to provide the necessary justification on its own–at least from a public relations standpoint.)

But from the standpoint of how we expect the world to value human life, a much more pertinent consideration has to do with the powerful implications that are communicated when bombs are regularly and intentionally fired at inhabited cities just to kill a handful of terrorists. Given enough repetition, the message becomes painfully clear to even the most careless observer: it is more important to kill terrorists than it is to safeguard the lives of the civilians among whom they hide.

The fact that those cities are not Western cities and the civilians are of the same race and religion as the terrorists further exaggerates the message. Is it possible to imagine that the United States would ever think of bombing Belgium in order to kill terrorists hiding out there? Even if the precision were far greater than the precise strike capabilities we’re repeatedly assured is deployed today, it is virtually impossible to imagine such a scenario unfolding in any major Western city. In this case, it’s not words that are directly communicating modes of thought, it is actions–although those actions are often communicated with words and images (or word-images) in news reports.

To label an enemy a “terrorist”, “fighter”, “jihadist” “radical” “attacker” “militant” or “insurgent” is part of the language of modern counter terrorism warfare as practiced today. For all practical intents and purposes, these words, like war, appear to be treated by the media, politicians, and bureaucrats as though they provide all by themselves enough justification to kill: one merely needs to point them at acceptable targets. This, of course, is history repeating itself, as the point made above about the word, “redskin”, demonstrates.

But the language, it’s important to note, is not primarily directed at terrorists. Rather, it’s the population that the authorities are claiming to protect from the terrorists or attackers that must be made to understand that the killing is justifiable and in their interests. All of the words mentioned in the paragraph above have therefore been repeatedly associated with other words (or concepts), like “savage”, “barbaric”, “evil”, “crazy”, “attackers”, “killers”, “extreme”. Branding an enemy as some form of militant or crazy person is not new. In the past, Native Americans were often referred to as “militants”, “hostiles” or “crazed”. More recently, there were black militants–notably, the Black Panthers toward whom extreme lethal force was directed both within and beyond the confines of the judicial system.

Each high profile terrorist attack (or mass killing) that involves middle class white people in developed nations offers a powerful opportunity to reinforce these words and meanings. The crazed or evil killers (i.e., their images, actions or attendant consequences) are brought into public view, so we can be reminded of who the enemy is. It is also highly important to portray the victims in order that the public perceives the evil as intimately as possible with all the attendant feelings: fear, disgust, anger, hatred. It is very much a story replete with good guys, bad guys, and a nice, neat moral, which often implies that it is right and necessary for the good guys to kill the bad guys.

Years of endless war and terror reporting have yielded a number of consequences. It’s increasingly starting to feel as though we fell down the proverbial rabbit hole only to discover that the public dialog had been reduced to the language of fairy tales.

For example, one of the world’s largest religions, Islam, which is practiced by more than one billion people, is perceived by many Westerners to be anti-Christian or even anti-Western. Unfortunately, this perception has deep historical roots. As even school children know, tension between Christians and Muslims dates back to the Crusades or even to the Battle of Roncevaux (which gave birth centuries later to the highly celebrated epic poem, The Song of Roland). Parallels to this 11th Century French work, which glorified Charlemagne’s army of Christian heroes while demonizing the evil, scheming Saracens (i.e., Muslims), can even be found in today’s popular culture. The highest grossing movie of 2014 was American Sniper, which was about Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL, who was the most lethal sniper in American history with over 160 official kills racked up during his tours of duty in the Iraq War. Like Roland, he was a depicted as a hero of epic proportions doing battle with pure evil amid a battlefield thick with corpses.

Years of stoking the fires of fear and hatred with bellicosity have resulted in a toxic environment that seems to border the hysterical at times. There are, for example, news reports of a county school district in Virginia completely closing down and canceling all Christmas holiday festivities due to the large amount of public fury that erupted over a classroom assignment involving Islam and Arabic writing. It’s a huge stretch to portray the assignment as inappropriate. The class covers world religions, including Christian-Judeo religions, and was merely part of the district’s education requirements. As of this writing, there haven’t been any news reports of which I’m aware talking about any backroom Islamic indoctrination or radicalization in connection with this sorry incident.

Like Islam, Native American beliefs were foreign and often threatening to Christians. The following excerpt from a 19th Century news dispatch illustrates this. It concerns the famous Ghost Dance, a ceremony in which Native Americans of the late 1800’s engaged in the desperate belief that Jesus Christ would return to earth, along with the spirits of their ancestors, and restore things to the way they were before the white man came. The media of the time derisively referred to this movement as the “Messiah craze”. In reality, the Ghost Dance was simply a desperate attempt to use a common religion as a way to bridge the historic differences between various Native American tribes in order to rally as many of their peoples as possible to confront a common enemy.

Readers should not, however, take this to mean that the Islamic terrorists with which America and Europe is currently engaged should be compared with Native Americans in general. I have absolutely no intention to broadly compare the two groups in this writing. But, on the other hand, some of the ways in which we depict the terrorists and the Native Americans of the 1800s readily lend themselves to certain comparisons.

The following excerpt communicates well the level of fear that inspired mainstream white America in regard to Native Americans in the 19th Century.

The headline of The New York Times dispatch on November 22nd, 1890, reads: “Indians Ready to Fight6.

“From the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota word comes that the Indians have the agency and surrounding country in a state of terror. The ghost dances, under the lead of Little Wound and other chiefs, are still going on at Wounded Knee Creek and Porcupina.”

A couple of paragraphs down:

“Later news from Pine Ridge says that the dancing Indians at Wounded Knee Creek are growing more boisterous and threatening. When told that more troops were coming they answered scornfully that their Great spirit was advising and encouraging them, and that troops could not stop their dance.”

Then as the dispatch builds to a crescendo of excitement:

“From Eureka by way of Aberdeen, SD, comes a dispatch which says that the settlers of Emmons and Campbell Counties are flocking into that place on account of a well-defined rumor [italics mine] that the Sioux take the warpath tomorrow. Five hundred people from the country are now in Eureka. La Grace, on the Missouri, is completely depopulated.”

The Indians are cast in the role of attacker and the settlers as victims (literally flocks of sheep). Just as it is today, it would have been well known to Times readers in 1890 that it’s permissible to kill an attacker to defend oneself–particularly if they’re depicted as marauding savages. But the problem is fear has a way of turning into senseless paranoia—the quoted passages above drip with it. Paranoia, particularly when it involves death and blood, makes for great television just like it made for great news articles a hundred years ago (and still does). And the media is, especially nowadays when it is more competitive than ever, happy to exploit viewers’ attention wherever and however they can get it. This has serious consequences, particularly given the state of the world today.

Thinking about recent news coverage, is the scenario in the news article about dancing Indians really so far removed from what the press commonly presents today? President Obama, for example, used the paranoia stemming from a failed suicide bombing attempt on a Detroit passenger jet on Christmas Day, 2009, to justify preemptive drone strikes, which, according to Human Rights Watch, ended up killing innocent civilians in Yemen.

After a Muslim husband and wife team, who may or may not have been associated with organized terrorists, shot and killed 14 co-workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino recently, the media starting buzzing with a frenzy of paranoia and speculation about whether and how they might have become radicalized. Was it over the Internet? Did a boyhood friend, like Enrique Marquez, act in cahoots with undercover ISIS operatives to egg them on toward the path of murder? Or maybe they just “self radicalized”– a term it should be noted that, apart from sounding a bit silly (somehow it makes you think of spontaneous combustion), is really quite chilling if one considers the many authoritarian steps it may allow the state to take to prepare itself against notions of self radicalizing citizens. From an Orwellian perspective, the implications are extremely frightening.

In testimony on Capitol Hill recently, FBI Director, James Comey, endeavored to answer lawmakers’ urgent questions on the subject of self radicalizing citizens. Senator Lindsey Graham wanted to know whether a terrorist organization’s involvement with the mass shooting would constitute a “game changer” (presumably in the war on terror). Senator Charles Schumer, who co-authored legislation reining in government surveillance powers six months ago, expressed frustration that the FBI wasn’t aware of the fact that two people talking privately about jihad weren’t on a watch list. (The implication being that the government should be monitoring various types of conversation in order to prevent future terrorist attacks.)

Taking steps to protect society from avoidable and realistic threats is one thing, but allowing security considerations to snowball into paroxysms of paranoia that threaten to undermine the very foundation of our open society is altogether different and smacks of an authoritarianism that even if it were to bring security from terrorists would not be worth it. I’m confident our founding fathers would agree. I think they would be smart enough to realize that we would simply be trading one type of risk for another. As an American citizen, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that I’d rather contend with the possibility of terrorist threats than the certainty of authoritarianism’s stranglehold and all its attendant corruption.

Then there’s the leading Republican presidential candidate’s–Donald Trump’s–now infamous (yet exhaustively broadcast) ultra paranoid statement that America should bar all Muslims from entering the country. (Of course this is only an order of magnitude less than Comey’s recent assertion that the Muslim American community must police itself–not so very different than other similar suggestions regarding targeted groups throughout American history, including, of course, Native Americans.) There are many who claim to be offended by Trump’s rhetoric, yet his campaign has received far more media attention than Bernie Sanders’ (or anyone else’s campaign for that matter, including all other Republican candidates’ and democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton’s), most of whom hold much more moderate stances on the subject of terrorism. Amazingly, it has been reported (as of this writing) that Donald Trump hasn’t spent a dime on campaign advertising yet the total aggregate airtime afforded him far exceeds that of any other presidential candidate’s. All he’s had to do was synthesize the most egregious aspects of American nationalism, prejudice, and xenophobia and give voice to them. Unfortunately, the corporate media has lapped it up by the gallon.

On December 2nd, 2015, Trump even went so far as to state that the U.S. must kill the families of ISIS members (“take out their families” were his exact words)7 in order to adequately protect itself and win the war on terror.

The right of self preservation and defense is clear. But many problems arise when words are extended beyond the boundary of the action to which they supposedly refer. For example, it makes sense to say, “I woke in the middle of the night and shot dead an attacker who was trying to kill me”. But do I have the same right to track down that attacker if he escaped before I could land the lethal blow? If so, where does this right end? My driveway? The moment in which the event occurred? That night? or next year? Am I allowed to go over and burn down his whole house based on the fear that he might attack again? Is this permissible regardless who else it jeopardizes based on a potential event that may or may not happen? If it’s not allowed for me to pursue such a policy as an individual, why is it acceptable for a state? The act of declaring war only clouds the issue and risks legitimizing a policy of outright killing. All in the name of “national security”: a wide ranging phrase which, in the minds of today’s policymakers, often seems to justify almost any range of actions in much the same way that the word “war” does. Where does this end? How can limits be placed on open-ended policies, which, by their very nature, often fly in the face of rationality, morality and basic Western concepts of jurisprudence?

Moreover, how, after pursuing such policies, can I distinguish myself from my attacker? If we both kill without regard for what is right, the definition of who is good and who is bad becomes merely relative.


The Pandora’s Box of the Human Mind

This represents a state of affairs in the Post World War II era in which a line has been crossed that never in any civilized world should be crossed. Like Pandora’s box, once certain logical constructions are introduced to the general population and allowed to wander freely among that vast assortment of human minds, it can be difficult to know where they might journey and into what spirits they might metamorphose. The plight of Native Americans and African Americans are good historical examples of what can happen. To justify genocide or slavery, it was necessary to de-humanize these groups (effectively to make the concept of a red man or black man less than human; to make them dangerous and monstrous even). This helps to explain why The New York Times could relate a story in 1890 in which men, women, and children were mowed down by heavy artillery in heroic terms (an example of literally putting the object of our fear to the sword). As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit, so it may even explain why America is still trying to come to terms with the frequency and ease with which the police continue to kill African Americans–who, within living memory, were also routinely hung from trees by vigilante mobs.

The after effects of this violence can be long lasting in other ways too. Suicide rates, for example, are much higher for Native American young men 18-24 years of age than any other group in America8.

In the years since the tragic September 11th terrorist attacks in New York, the media has been awash in macho, no-holds barred rhetoric about how to deal with terrorists and terrorism. This has its roots in President George W. Bush’s famous “smoke ’em out of their holes speech”, which he gave in the aftermath of 9/11 and zealously declared “we’re at war, there’s been a war declared”. Almost overnight his approval rating shot from below 50% to 90% and, consequently, changed forever the language Western politicians and the press use to communicate with the public about terrorism.

Even democrats responded favorably to the tough rhetoric. ”I’m impressed,” gushed Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House. ”He’s been very strong these last few days9.”

Seeing how popular strong words and images were in a time of fear, the rhetoric quickly soared to new heights. More responsible talk about bringing the terrorists to justice, as Bush originally discussed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was replaced by the language of vengeance and destruction as exemplified by Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech10 in response to the terrorist attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed 20 people (seven of them American) in May, 2003:

”The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it”.

”There’s no treaty can solve this problem,” Cheney went on to say. ”There’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists.”

The language of war and destruction as a response to terrorism continues today and is used in Europe as well. After the horror of the Paris terrorist attacks in November, French President Francois Hollande in a televised address to the nation declared that “What happened last night in Paris, and in Saint Denis by the Stade de France, is an act of war.”

“France, because it was attacked cowardly, shamelessly, violently, France will be merciless against the barbarians of Daesh.”

Hoping to boost his presidential campaign, Florida Senator Marco Rubio summed up what is commonly perceived as the right strategy for dealing with terrorists when he quoted from the movie “Taken” at a speech last May in South Carolina11:

“We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

Not to be outdone, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another presidential hopeful, reassured supporters in Iowa on December 5th, 2015:

“We will utterly destroy ISIS,” he said of the terrorist group also called ISIL. “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!”12

When one considers that these statements come in the wake of millions of Syrian and other Middle Eastern peoples who have been in the news these last months desperately attempting to flee the occupation of the terror group ISIS (not to mention some of the most dire living conditions on the planet), it’s almost incomprehensible to think that a U.S. senator could speak so enthusiastically about carpet bombing the areas where they and millions more like them are trapped. Carpeting bombing is, after all, an extreme type of warfare that kills as indiscriminately as the nuclear bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a country, does the U.S. really want to support policies that flagrantly put millions of people in foreign lands in harm’s way just to protect what, in all likelihood, are comparatively small numbers of Americans13 from the mere possibility of future attacks ? Do serious people really believe that such immoral and unbalanced policies will ever make us safer in the long run? Aren’t unbalanced policies, like these, rather a guarantee of future terrorism? How can any sensible person possibly believe immoral and irrational responses of this sort are the best way to protect ourselves?

Many of the people who scream for heavy handed military responses as a way to protect Americans are also the same who are just as vehemently opposed to spending on social services, such as Medicare (particularly the concept of Medicare for all), Medicaid, Social Security, education, unemployment compensation, etc. For an historical perspective of the entrenched opposition to social services in the U.S., see Nicholas Kristoff’s great little piece discussing some of the hyperbole (e.g., “Cruel hoax”, “lash of the dictator”, etc.) surrounding the creation of Social Security and Medicare.

The United States prides itself on being “the most powerful nation on earth”. Yet increasingly any truth in this statement increasingly seems to refer more to its military strength than anything else. By many other measurements, the U.S. is in pretty bad shape–particularly when it involves questions of the average person’s well-being. The following statistics makes the point.

Despite advancements in medicine, suicide is one of the only ways of dying in America that keeps going up. Every year since 1999, there have been more suicides than the year preceding it. 2013 marked the year when, for the first time there were more than 40,000 (41,149 to be exact) suicides in a single year–far more than what would have been expected from population growth alone. According to the CDC, the suicide rate for Americans has risen by over 30% over the last decade. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not alone in this dismal statistic. Throughout the developed world, self harm is the leading cause of death for people 15-4914. Why aren’t the same politicians screaming for answers about suicide with the same urgency and passion they do for terrorism? Where are the policy and spending initiatives to address a huge problem that dwarfs the number of terrorist-related deaths in the developed world?

America has far more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world, with 133 mass shootings from 2000-201415, resulting in 487 people killed. There has been a total of 45 deaths, since 9/11, related to Islamic extremism on American soil, so most of the mass shootings have had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism. The two countries that come closest to the U.S. for mass shootings is China and Russia with 4 each during the same time period.

As of this writing, NBC reports that since young Adam Lanza stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th, 2012, shooting to death some 20 children with a semi-automatic rifle, 555 more children in the U.S. have died by gunshot (or one every other day since). According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33,599 Americans died from gunshots (many of them suicides) in 2014, which is about the same as 2013 (33,636). Yet Congress is so paralyzed in the face of the powerful gun lobby that, not only is there no legislative action to do anything about gun violence, there’s been a years long ban on merely using federal dollars to finance research into gun-related violence. How many Americans need to be gunned down before we stand up to the gun lobby?

The U.S. also has the highest incarceration rates in the world16. At 500 per 100,000, it is five times higher compared to other developed countries. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Where is the passion to protect the American people from the cause of all these ills? Yet many of the same politicians who vociferated so vehemently against ObamaCare want to bomb the terrorists to oblivion and back just to protect Americans. All this concern and yet how many Americans needlessly suffer and die because they don’t have health insurance, unlike their contemporaries across the border in Canada? According to an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control in 2009: almost 45,000 Americans per year die due to lack of health insurance. This figure is 2 ½ times higher than a similar estimate by the Institute of Medicine in 200217.

All these problems notwithstanding, profits are as healthy as ever for the defense and gun industries. The war on terror tripled military spending from where it was in 2001—virtually instantly changing the lowest post World War II defense expenditures to the highest. The amount of the increase from 2001 – 2003 was so vast that by itself it exceeded the entire military budgets of most countries, including major powers like Great Britain and China18. Of the roughly $700 billion annual defense expenditures, some $400 billion per year was going to private contractors during the golden years of military spending in the 2000s. Given the lack of motivation to do much about the many larger threats to the well-being and health of Americans than terrorists in the Middle East, one has to wonder if those who so fervently call for military action to hunt down ISIS or Al-Qaeda members are more concerned with protecting profits than people. Perhaps it’s assuming too much to think that national security should exist for any other reason than its own self-perpetuation?

But I think it’s more important to ask what it does to the way we perceive the value of human life when elected public figures go around routinely and publicly talking about killing enemies. Not just for three or four years as was the case in World War I and II. But for decades on end, as is the case now (and far longer than even Vietnam). What about the unintended consequences of such loose rhetoric? Even the normally phlegmatic President Obama ratcheted up the death and destruction language recently. After a National Security Council meeting at the Pentagon on December 14th, 2015, Obama announced that the U.S. had flown over 9,000 airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

“ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our message is simple: You are next,” Obama said in a statement that seemed to compete with certain Republican presidential candidates’ rhetoric.

It’s certainly horrible and tragic when civilians are killed by terrorists. But what about when innocent civilians who’re doing nothing more than going about their daily lives are killed by governments engaged in the merciless pursuit of those same terrorists? Is this just? Is it moral? What damage do we do to the soul of our nation when we twist our laws beyond recognition in order to support such recklessness–particularly on such a long term basis? Rhetoric and actions of this type are reminiscent of Custer going off to whip those Indians. Such belligerent swagger is beneath a great nation, let alone a great people.

Which begs the question: will there be anything good left of us by the time we slaughter all the terrorists? Yes, there may be victories. But are they Pyrrhic victories? What must we kill in ourselves to win the war on terror if we continue to pursue the course we’re on?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report for January 2015 states that almost 2,500 civilians have been killed by drone strikes outside the United States’ declared war zones since Obama’s inauguration. Since the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to provide information on civilian casualties from drone strikes, this figure is an estimate at best. This figure also does not include the number of people who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the U.S.-led wars in those areas. Conservative estimates put the total of war-related Iraqi civilian casualties at 165,000; while another low estimate puts the number of war-related Afghan civilian casualties at 26,000. We can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of injuries to civilians in those countries there must be.

As things stand now, the only civilian deaths that appear to matter to Western media are those of Western civilians. To reiterate a fact noted above, the number of Americans killed by homegrown jihadist terrorism on domestic soil totals 45 since 9/11 (including the San Bernardino shootings)19. Although far more people die from conventional murders (there were 16,121 homicides in 2013) the idea of domestic terrorism is obviously far more frightening–or can be more easily exploited in frightening ways. It’s also interesting to note that since September 11th, 2001, 48 Americans have been killed by right wing extremism, yet right wing extremists don’t seem to generate the type of fear and hatred that Muslim terrorists do–rather unusual when one recalls Timothy McVeigh, a Persian Gulf War veteran, who killed 168 people and injured over 600 in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. This horrific attack was McVeigh’s response to the federal government for its handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge confrontations (both of which had nothing to do with Islam or Muslims).

Assuming, however, that 2,500 Middle Eastern civilians killed in drone strikes is accurate, it may make sense to mention that this approaches the number of people who died in New York on 9/11/2001 (2,753). How many countless hours of media have been dedicated to describing in intimate detail the tragedy–both personal and public–of those who died in New York City on that fateful day? How all encompassing was the expressed grief of the world then? Judging by the media coverage, the outpouring of sympathy and tears for the 130 who were killed in the November Paris attacks almost seemed to rival that generated by 9/11. Yet who in the West cries for the innocent men, women, and children civilians who have been killed by drone attacks or died as the result of wayward bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Syria or Libya? It apparently took the death of a 3-year-old Syrian boy washing up face down in the surf of a Turkish beach for the Western media to finally acknowledge the common humanity that we all share with the refugees who, like the Native Americans not so long ago, had no choice but to abandon their homes in a desperate search for peace and safety.

In a comprehensive report of the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, Amnesty International’s, “’Will I be next?’ US drone strikes in Pakistan”, documents dozens of drone strikes that have killed noncombatants, one of whom was a 68-year old grandmother who was surrounded by her grandchildren when blown to bits as she picked vegetables in her garden.

Not only does the Western media routinely under report incidents such as this, but, as Human Rights Watch relates, the U.S. government hardly ever takes any responsibility. Instead, for justification it relies on the concept that it is engaged in a borderless global war in which it can launch attacks at will, anytime, anywhere in order to protect itself from the possibility of future attacks. The only rationale that seems to make any sense of this is that the value of Americans’ lives is so high that a potential threat to them justifies putting Middle Eastern civilian populations in harm’s way if necessary to protect them (or maintain national security). Of the six drone strikes that HRW investigated in Yemen at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians. Despite the fact that this number exceeds the total number of Americans killed by Islamic extremists since 9/11, events such as those in Yemen aren’t even newsworthy most of the time as far as Western media are concerned. A bomb that accidentally misses its intended target in Kabul is treated pretty much the same as a drive-by shooting in Camden–most of the time warranting only a brief mention if mentioned at all. Collateral damage, as its bureaucratically termed, happens nonetheless. Although we don’t hear much about it, we hear enough to know how unimportant these deaths are. The implication made not be loud, but it is clear and effective. Prejudicial words like, “reds” or “redskins”, therefore never need to be used to communicate whose lives matter and whose don’t.

Yet those who would pursue death in the name of safety don’t seem to stop and think what such wanton killing does to the very concept of human life. It’s just assumed that this type of moralizing is too outdated for the supermen who rule the world today.

Too bad the slope of flawed reasoning is slippery on all sides. The consequences of discarding morality can come back to haunt us in varied and mysterious ways. What can be applied here, might also be applied there: when language permits killing in one case, it may (at least to some minds) permit it in others. There is the example of Dylan Roof, a young white man (like Adam Lanza) who walked into an African American church in South Carolina on June 18th, 2015, and killed nine people at point blank range with a .45 caliber hand gun in a bible study after sitting there with them for an hour. 21-year old Roof thought he was protecting white people from the threat of black people. Or 57-year-old Robert Dear who attacked a Planned Parenthood facility on November 27th, 2015, with an assault rifle, murdering three and injuring nine. Like other anti-abortionist-zealots-turned-killers, he thought he was protecting the unborn or, in his words, acting as “a warrior for the babies”.

If only things were as simple as what President GW Bush made them out to be after September 11th when at a national prayer service to the nation’s political and military leadership, as well as to a vast television audience, he vowed that the coming terrorist conflict ”will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”19 It has now been well over 12 years since Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003, which he so pompously gave in a flight suit after a dramatic landing in a Lockheed S-3 Viking fighter jet aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln . As the recent attacks in Paris tragically demonstrates, the war on terror still rages on.

The media, politicians, and police are desperate to know what motivated the shooting in San Bernardino on December 2nd, 2015. Was it terrorism? a workplace dispute? The urge to find a terrorist connection is almost palpable. As though classifying the cause will somehow magically protect society from it happening again. Or, more likely, will merely provide the means to unloose the forces of vengeance that we may further hunt our monster to the ends of the earth.

If we really wanted to stop it, wouldn’t it make more sense to seriously investigate the root causes for Islamic terrorism? Too bad there doesn’t seem to be much serious discussion or analysis about this in the public discourse. There is something utterly amiss with a news media that spends so much energy on stoking fear and asking the wrong questions instead of zealously pursuing truth. If we were to start asking about root causes for anti-Western feelings in the Middle East, we should probably start with the fact that regardless whether the Islamic terrorists are evil or barbaric, they (like many indigenous people throughout the region in general) pretty much all want the same thing: like the Native Americans in centuries past, they want the white man off their land. It’s the fact that that land has something we want that makes raising the question all but impossible. Just as the prospect of leaving half the country to the Native Americans was never to be taken seriously, the issue of not controlling the greatest concentration of oil in the world is utterly non negotiable, as far as Western (particularly U.S.) interests are concerned. It is better to let the masses (Christian, Muslim, Westerner, Middle Easterner, etc.) wring their hands in hatred and grieve for their countrymen, who are sacrificed in the name of national security.

Moral or religious issues aside, the ultimate problem with trying to regulate or sanction killing outside the scope of a real war is that it cannot be done practically. Unilaterally invading countries, accidentally bombing and maiming civilians, humiliating entire populations–all of these things naturally lead to resentment and the desire for retribution. Blood feuds have existed since time immemorial. We can cook up all the fancy theories we want about Islamic radicalization, but things start to make a lot more sense when one starts asking whether what’s motivating the youth in the Middle East to sign up with ISIS is really religious in nature at all. How much of it is driven by the desire for revenge for what they perceive as injustices committed by an over-reaching, foreign military power directed against their people?

Embittered, former Baathists with few other options in life and power-mad clerics exploiting young people for their own ends is another altogether different story that may fit into the bizarre landscape of the post 9/11 world–but it’s not quite this over-simplified, sci-fi notion of Islamic radicalization (a concept which, as it’s currently promulgated, smacks heavily of mid-20th Century anti-Communist hysteria) mesmerizing youth like the spirit of Svengali wafting over the Internet. Simple desire for revenge and retribution may be a more realistic, though less provocative, answer to why the youth allow themselves to be “radicalized”. We in the West would do well to remember that what is justification on one side can also be justification on the other: we have our reasons for killing them; they have their reasons for killing us. As Macbeth reminds, “blood will have blood”.

For Washington or Paris or London to hope to definitively (and finally) win the war on terror by force alone it may be wise to ask whether it will be necessary to kill them all. But what about the stain from all that blood? What will it take to wash it away?


Terrorism as a dialog

As for mass shootings in American society in general, the primary problem is not that there are too many guns (though this is a problem) or that there are too many people with mental health problems (also a problem). The primary problem may be a combination of factors: 1.) American and other western societies have been stripped to the bone by the unquenchable greed of their own economic forces, a condition which has created chronic, widespread unemployment, fear, uncertainty, and instability; and 2.) largely, as a result of the war on terror, these same societies seemed to have steeped themselves in the language of bloodshed and fear in the mistaken belief that doing so will buy time and that somehow, some way, as eventually happened with the Native Americans, the problem of Islamic terrorism will simply fade away as we all some day fortuitously emerge from the shackles of this tyrannical oil age that drives us to such extremes. Thus freed from the addiction to oil, will it then be permissible to speak openly of the current excesses and immorality–just like we cry now for the Native Americans who died over a hundred years ago?

But what will it take for force alone to win the war on terror in the meantime? Must we exterminate all the terrorists? Is this even possible when the underlying conditions that lead to terrorism don’t seem to have even been meaningfully addressed? Or must we so brutally repress and destroy entire populations, that the very idea of resistance becomes meaningless? This was ultimately necessary in the case of all those stubborn Native Americans who refused to integrate and succumb to the invaders’ way of life. Furthermore, as we continue to build out the security state to protect ourselves from terrorism, how many of our most cherished freedoms must be sacrificed? If the shooting of 14 people in California, as terrible as that may be, is enough to make us consider monitoring the thoughts of the whole country, what would we do in the event of another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11? What would be left of our civil liberties? The utter evisceration of all those principles that enable an individual to question and speak against authority is precisely what terrorist groups, like ISIS, want to accomplish. The creation of a thorough security state that slowly bleeds us of not only precious financial resources but also of our humanity is also playing into ISIS’ hands. They know all too well about the temptation of the vast amount of defense dollars necessary to make this happen.

It is a great shame that we’ve allowed terrorism to be defined as a type of war instead of a type of dialog. When the powerless are deprived of processes to address their grievances, some will always resort to any means necessary (a view, it’s interesting to note, that virtually all of the Republican presidential candidates felt comfortable expressing with respect to protecting the American people–i.e., they would do whatever it takes). Much of the history of the Middle East over the last hundred years can be defined by lack of processes for local people to address and solve grievances without outside interference. We have often supported regional leaders who we thought would be more amenable to Western influence; while, at the same time, undermining those who truly represented the will of the people. This, too, parallels the Native Americans’ historic situation and there are numerous other similar examples throughout Central and South America. Widespread and entrenched terrorism of the kind that has grown up in places like the Middle East, Russia, and Asia often grow out of the repression of smaller groups by larger ones. The tragedy of our times is that there doesn’t seem to be any serious attempts to find non military processes for dealing with these problems. How much bloodshed is required to motivate a movement in this direction?

The French journalist, Nicolas Henin, who was captured and held by ISIS for six months before he was freed, is right when he says that the U.S. and Europe are playing into a trap when they refuse to help the refugees who have surged into Europe over the last year. Nothing betrays the extremism of ISIS better than the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians living under their rule. Instead of demagoguery, xenophobia and nationalism, the West should be welcoming them with open arms, for many of the refugees are our truest allies in that they wish to escape the brutality of war and live peacefully among us. Countries, like Canada, Sweden, and Germany have acted courageously and humanely by sheltering them in their hour of need. It is shameful that the U.S., which has played such a huge role in the current crises throughout the Middle East, is not doing the same. Henin is absolutely correct when he warns that refusing refugees and sending them back to be bombed is exactly what ISIS wants. What better evidence do they [ISIS] need to show what little regard we have for human life in those places? What better propaganda do they need to continue to recruit disaffected youths enraged by the ongoing use of force by foreigners in their countries? By welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees, Germany, Sweden, and Canada are waging a much more effective effort against ISIS than the one that merely continues to drop bombs year after year. Yet here, in the U.S., many of the loudest voices want to keep them out. It is a tribute to the insular reality in which many of them exist that they can also wonder incredulously why there seems to be no shortage of young people in the Middle East who fall prey to ISIS’ influence.

Mass shootings, drone strikes, massacres…when will we in the U.S. stop letting businessmen and militarists speak for us? And yes, it is appropriate to insert something about business interests here. Can anyone with a straight face say that the West ever would have poured trillions of dollars into these unceasing wars in the desert if oil didn’t lie beneath the sand? When we will put the world right and start speaking the language of peace and rationality instead of endless, bloody, stupid war? Once we know the answer to that, we can stop asking futile questions about why the world is drowning in bullets and blood–or why they hate us.

In the meantime, on the blood feud rages, for blood will have blood. On and on we endeavor to escape its consequences through the use of superior force. Even though it fuels the fires of terrorism. Extinguishing it will ultimately require a willingness to forego the temptation to use force alone and enter into a dialog that attempts to deal squarely with the problems as they really are. Until then, we run the risk of pursuing a false dialog in which we converse only with ourselves. This strategy will continue to create grotesque environments full of paranoia, over simplified villains, and fear. Should we really be surprised to be haunted by questions why mysterious forces seem to be radicalizing the youth?

To overcome the over-reliance on force as the primary means of combating terrorism, it will be necessary to overcome the vast array of huge economic forces that have grown up to supply the war on terror. When mainstream media and politicians are so subservient to those who wield large sums of money, what hope is there that we can achieve this? To think that the terrorists are not banking on this vulnerability is the height of ignorance and folly. It is in this way that they use the worst in us against ourselves. Must we continue to chain our future to the bombs that we drop on our enemies?

During the December 15th, 2015, Republican debate in Las Vegas, Dr. Ben Carson was asked point blank by the moderator whether he would be able to do what it takes to defeat the terrorists, even if this meant killing children. After a bizarre display of circumlocution, the crowd came to his rescue and started to boo the commentator for asking a question that plainly takes into account the implications of bombing another country–i.e., that it will inevitably result in the deaths of civilians, including children. Re-animated by the crowd, Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, finally answered that he would do whatever was necessary; meaning that he would, in fact, kill children, if elected president. A remarkable career move for a man who once used to make a living trying to save them.

Considering that we now seem to be living in an environment in which the willingness to kill children threatens to become a prerequisite for being president of the United States, it is time to stop and look deep within ourselves. Perhaps we might even ask what self-radicalization even means under such conditions as these.


  1. The New York Times, December 31st, 1890.
  2. Read more at:
  3. The New York Times, December 31st, 1890.
  4. Chief Sitting Bull had recently been killed a couple of weeks earlier in an attempted arrest by police.
  5. “Boots on the Ground, Hearts on Their Sleeves”; The New York Times; David Brooks; December 2nd, 2003:
  6. The New York Times, November 22nd, 1890.
  7. “Donald Trump on terrorists: ‘Take out their families'”; CNN; Tom LoBianco; December 3rd, 2015:
  8. “Racial and Gender Disparities in Suicide Among Young Adults Aged 18–24: United States, 2009–2013”; Centers for Disease Control; Caroline Jiang; Andreea Mitran, B.S.; Arialdi Miniño, M.P.H.; and Hanyu Ni, Ph.D., M.P.H., Division of Vital Statistics; September 2015:
  9. “AFTER THE ATTACKS: ASSESSMENT; President Seems to Gain Legitimacy”; The New York Times; R. W. APPLE Jr., September 16, 2001.
  10. “AFTEREFFECTS: TERRORISTS; U.S. and Saudis Sensed Attacks Were Imminent”; The New York Times; DOUGLAS JEHL and DAVID JOHNSTON; May 14th, 2003.
  11. “Verbatim: Marco Rubio on Terrorists”; The New York Times; May 9th, 2015;
  12. Politico, “Cruz pledges relentless bombing to destroy ISIL” by Katie Glueck, December 5th, 2015;
  13. ISIS lacks the ability to use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S.
  14. “Why Suicide Has Become an Epidemic–and What We Can Do to Help”; Newsweek; TONY DOKOUPIL, MAY 23, 2013:
  15. “U.S. Leads World in Mass Shootings”; The Wall Street Journal; JOE PALAZZOLO and ALEXIS FLYNN; Oct. 3, 2015:
  16. “U.S. Has World’s Highest Incarceration Rate”; Population Reference Bureau; Tyjen Tsai and Paola Scommegna; 2012:
  17. “New study finds 45,000 deaths annually linked to lack of health coverage”; Cambridge Health Alliance; David Cecere; September 17th, 2009:
  18. The New York Times, “California Attack Has U.S. Rethinking Strategy on Homegrown Terror” by PETER BAKER and ERIC SCHMITTDEC. 5, 2015;
  19. The New York Times; “AFTER THE ATTACKS: ASSESSMENT; President Seems to Gain Legitimacy” By R. W. APPLE Jr., September 16, 2001.

Whatever happened to the rebel?


Where do you find the rebel in a world where James Dean travels around on a postage stamp? Or when he’s a corporate CEO sporting a $4,800 leather jacket out for a ride on his Harley1? Or for that matter, the president of a major country, like Vlad “Bad Boy” Putin tearing around Moscow? Or those almighty iconoclasts in Silicon Valley sporting designer jeans and turtlenecks?

Where oh where does one look for the non-conformist when the very idea has been infinitely co-opted by those in power? Or even by brands, for that matter. Yes, don’t take it from me–a mere nobody–highly paid brand consultants will tell you that brands are indeed becoming more like people. Honest, just google that if you don’t believe me. Jungian archetypes have done more for modern advertising than Madison Avenue. It wasn’t enough for Disney to ravage our most beloved fairy tales years ago, our entire collective unconscious as handed down from the very dawn of time must (and has) become one with the empire.

Now go and google the search phrase “12 Master Archetypes” this very minute. You’ll see what I mean. All the brand strategists are selling the same pie, man. Did you know that Honda is the outlaw? So is Virgin. Forget the contradiction; just synthesize: virgin outlaw. You’ve heard of virgin queen? or virgin warrior? yeah, diggit.

So, if the rebel has become a harley-riding CEO or a car company, what then? What happens to the concept behind the word when it’s appropriated and applied to something that turns it into a paradox–or, more precisely, a lie? How to reconcile the disparity? Despite my attempt at humor, it’s a serious question. For this type of trickery has been repeated countless times for countless brands with respect to virtually all of the Jungian archetypes.

When the king takes for himself the mantle of outlaw, he’s effectively denying the rest of us the ability to articulate our opposition to his rule. The outlaw represents liberation. But when control and liberation are united, a void is created and something very crucial to their very identity is denied to those under the ruler’s control. Consequently, those who would challenge the king are stripped of legitimacy. At best, they can only be considered outsiders–assuming they’re to be acknowledged at all. The only legitimate opposition allowed under this type of structure is another, equally or more powerful, king.

Let’s put this in cinematic terms to illustrate the point: Once upon a time, there used to be a stranger who would ride into town from out of nowhere and, though he just wanted to make a nice life for himself and live peaceably among his peers, he’d often have to confront and, ultimately, overthrow, the ruthless powers in charge. Alan Ladd, Henry Fonda, and Jimmy Stewart all come to mind. But nowadays there are precious few instances of this in the pure form as expressed in movies like Shane. The true outsider nowadays is often depicted as some kind of loser instead of a potential hero.

Contrast this with today’s hero who’s almost always the insider. The Harvard educated or CIA-trained, for example. Gone are the days of Jim Rockford, the one-time con turned PI. Somehow the leading dude (or dudette) is almost always closely affiliated with the status-quo. Possibly–in extreme cases of Hollywood unorthodoxy–the hero might be one who had been dismissed from otherwise distinguished service by some stiff of a boss who had been nursing a long-standing envious grudge.

It’s also important to note the iconography of the gun or weapon. The gun is especially pervasive in American cinema. According to a Google search on 10/8/2015, of the 50 most mentioned movies in 2015, almost 40% featured someone wielding a gun or weapon in the advertising images. This doesn’t include those advertisements that didn’t contain  weapons outright but displayed violence in some form, such as in the form of explosions and fire.

The gun, as it’s portrayed in many movies today, is a symbol of potency. It doesn’t just bestow power it symbolizes it in much the same way as the scepter. Furthermore, like any weapon the gun cuts both ways. In the hands of the hero, it’s a symbol of good, while in the hands of his adversary, it expresses hatred and evil. In any event, like Merlin’s staff (or the genie in the bottle) the gun is a transformative instrument. It has the power to shape (or reshape) reality in accordance to the subject’s desires. No matter what the problem is–be it big or small–the gun or its equivalent–is the solution, and the one who wields it is what the action and story centers on. The gun, quite literally, is the center around which so much of Hollywood revolves. It is the light in day as well as the dark in night.

Little wonder, then, that out in the real world far from the City of Angels many Americans, including our children–to whom so much marketing and media is directed–should be so drawn to the icon of the gun. In an age of so much uncertainty, what simplicity and utter clarity the gun brings to the table. In an age when the little guy (especially the outsider) is powerless, without voice, and devoid even of his archetypes (thanks to the gluttony of the powerful), the gun is a kind of salvation. For it makes the powerless powerful and gives respect to the disrespected. But this condition is the heavy price of the gangster mentality: when the powerful deprive the weak of virtue, recourse must ultimately lead to force.

The gun’s power of attraction is perhaps why Hollywood has had such a love affair with Don Corleone and his many stand-ins for so many years. And what a faithful and dutiful mistress she’s been! Frank Lucas, Tony Soprano, good ole Nucky, and on and on. Just line ’em up. What distinguishes these men from two-bit street thugs is primarily the fact that they command an army of other gun waving thugs. Again, the ethic of the insider is paramount here. Like the headhunters of times past (or Napoleon), the more you kill, the more powerful you become.

Hollywood also loves a sharp dressed man, and Hollywood gangsters are often well attired and good looking. To Hollywood, there is often nothing more alluring than a gorgeous guy or gal, well dressed, brandishing a gun in one hand, and sipping a martini (shaken, not stirred) in the other. Unless, of of course, you’re a corporate CEO and about to hop onto your Harley for a cruise around town. And you know, Silicon Valley or no, he’s either packing heat or sometimes pretending to as he roars past those dolts in the Civic. Go, dude, go, you’ve got the power!

It’s totally schizophrenic when the news media protests with shock and dismay every time some kid decides he’s had enough shit and picks up a gun. Why, why, they ask, beating their breasts (as the ratings begin to soar). He must be crazy. Needs meds…or a girl. Poor, evil, sick schmuck.

Sure, maybe he’s alone and alienated, like the highly paid newscasters (i.e., insiders) like to scoff. Maybe even awkward (or is it just Asperger’s?) and a downright outcast. But look at his clothes, man! Only a turd would wear such a gettup. A dead giveaway he’s a loser and that he has no right to own a gun. Black trench coats, c’mon! Looks like he just came out of some 1970’s porno theater in Times Square. A true outsider, if there ever was one.

(You don’t like fresh talk like this, now do you? Sorry to offend. But it was necessary to get some points across quickly or this thing would have gone on for another 1500 words!)

If only those alienated outsiders had some other archetypes with which to identify, they might have known that it is ok to be lonely. Once long ago in a place far, far away, there were people who recognized that this was normal. That it is human to have faults or to be different. That not everyone can or should be beautiful and smart and perfect. That being human is not the same as being a picture on the cover of a magazine with photoshopped eyes. Then again when one is ignored, has no voice, and made to feel like they do not exist, it shouldn’t be too surprising that some of the more vulnerable will succumb to the allure of the magical rod that can change it all in an instant.

How ironic it is that, in this day of mass technology, when we’re steeped in images and much of our lives have been turned into cheap irony for late night laughs, that our leaders are so incredulous over a question the answer to which should be readily apparent. Perhaps if more of us were imbued with the knowledge that the myths and fairy tales of old made available, this would not be the case. We might still have a better framework that we (including our children) could employ to better interpret the world around us. Joseph Campbell recognized this problem decades ago and wrote about it at length.

This societal handicap is best illustrated by the inability of many to understand metaphor. How popular literal interpretations of the bible have become, to give just one example! and how quick politicians and the news media are to reduce thoughtful deliberation to sound bytes. The insider knows that in the world of media form wins out over substance every time. Yet isn’t the chaos in the Middle East a result of this type of black and white reductionist thinking? What childlike belief in easy answers we’ve developed! I can remember well the dark days after 9/11: “Smoke ’em out!” the radio and TV kept saying, over and over. “Kick down the doors and shoot ’em!” As if summoning old Ronnie boy himself, rising from the grave saddled on his great, white steed holding aloft the sword of righteousness.

What a Pandora’s Box this type of thinking opened up.

There are signs all around us. It is irony of almost boundless proportions to think that with so much information available so many of us fail to see them. Sometimes the most vulnerable, like the young or insane, are more subject to the consequences of our collective actions and are like a lightning rod for the external forces pervading society that many of us in more secure positions do not so readily feel. The closer one is to the inside–to the power elite–the less likely one will be critical of the status-quo (the very tit on which they so earnestly suckle).

What a pity that the king turned our myths and fairy tales to gold with his cold, dead touch. Perhaps some of these mass shooters would have had a better chance to understand things as they really are, if he had resisted the temptation and left them alone. But now that the shooter, alone and crazy, has turned the gun on the power structure and media, as was literally demonstrated a couple of weeks ago, in an on-air shooting of a reporter and cameraman, maybe there will be more inclination within the king’s inner circle to not reduce the world to the vapid, cynical plot line that it has become. As the future gradually unfolds, we will see whether clear thinking prevails over greed and the eternal quest for ratings and profits.

Too bad for us all that the line between fiction and reality started to blur long ago at the dawn of the television age. The brand is dead! Long live the brand!

  1. see James Dean Transfigured: The Many Faces of Rebel Iconography by Claudia Springer []

The Triumph of Capitalism, A Poem


The frail old woman’s half bent head, intently searching for bargains, barely rises above the Walmart shopping cart.

Unswervingly, the worn cart jangles down the aisles, one of its front casters not quite touching the floor, futilely spinning.

Like the orgy of shoppers accompanying her, she does not give an inch, steering her way with mechanical, unflinching devotion.

Words are drowned out by tawdry products stacked in screaming profusion in well crafted packages that are sure to outlast their contents.

Her knotty hands grip the handle like talons, tendons threatening to pierce the thin skin as though she were driving or being driven by six white horses.

Through rows and columns of shelves arranged in greedy spreadsheet precision the parade circuits.

Seeking in silent unquenchable yearning to find a daily deal; liberated of any other thoughts.

To fill imagined needs, abstract voids, or, at least, attain bare survival are the clean, pure desires.

Past downtrodden workers mutely restocking shelves the old woman and the wordless, weary parade desperately drives on.

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Thoughts and Visions of Hell: Our Nightmare Planet


Even though we haven’t had a sensational weather event in a while to make the climate question a topic of chatter, I thought it would be important to survey recent disasters using photographs from around the web. I think assembling this information in one place where connections can easily be made offers a powerful statement about the world in which we live. It also raises a number of serious questions. Res ipsa loquitur, as the old judges used to say.

Anyone who’s over 40 can tell you that something feels different about the equilibrium of the climate today compared to when they were much younger. Something doesn’t feel right. Too many super storms; too many records broken in too short a time period. Rain, when it comes, is often erratic.

Many of us instinctively sense that things have changed, and that the change came about too quickly to feel normal. I personally find myself wondering from time to time what happened to the  tranquility that mostly seemed to govern my world a long time ago. Maybe this was just youthful bliss. But I grew up in Brooklyn during the 70’s and 80’s when muggings and heroine addiction were rampant. When mass murderers, like Berkowitz, roamed the earth. Despite this, I can’t get over how, in the middle of my life, it feels like the balance of the world somehow somewhere along the way got fundamentally out of whack.

We don’t have to be scientists to know this. We know it because we feel it in the depths of our being just like we do when we sense someone staring at us. Or when our comfort or security zone is suddenly challenged. A truth undeniable and inescapable grips us, and we suddenly know it in the way we need to know when our survival depends on it. So when pictures of biblical-sized proportions make headlines with a disconcerting regularity, it’s understandable that at least some of us begin to question the natural order of things–the natural order, that is, which we thought use to exist.

I don’t know about you but I don’t need a politician or lobbyist or some caffeinated blogger to tell me that seeing New York City under water is normal. Or New Orleans. Or Philadelphia. Or Atlanta. Just to mention some recent examples.

Nor does it seem normal to read about 70 degree days in Minneapolis in January or that over half the entire U.S. is simultaneously experiencing drought conditions. Or one town after another getting erased from the map by killer tornadoes. Or that almost 10 million acres burned to a crisp last year (in one year)–this hair raising fact on top of a decade of record wildfires that makes the prior 40 years look boring.

But why continue describing in words what can so easily be shown in pictures? So, like I said, I decided to compile some photo galleries of recent natural disasters, the frequency and intensity of which strike me as utterly abnormal–at least with respect to the comparatively calm world in which this 41-year old was born into in what seems like a long, long time ago in a place far, far away.

Note that the gallery below isn’t comprehensive. It’s been assembled to help illustrate the unusual weather that we’ve experienced in recent years. I’ll do my best to update the gallery as events unfold and time permits. Visitors are welcome to email any good photos they feel belong here to: modern (at) modernfolktales (dot) com.

The Global Drought: Vanishing Water

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Extreme water shortages resulting from prolonged, multi-year droughts are squeezing every region of the globe in an invisible grip. Here you’ll see images that bear the marks of its force. As UCL’s Global Drought Monitor vividly shows, nobody is exempt, neither the mighty or the weak. Extreme ongoing droughts are currently ravaging North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

Last year in July, 2012, as parts of the mighty Mississippi evaporated to the point of becoming unnavigable, the National Climatic Data Center reported that, with over 55% of the country affected, the U.S. was undergoing the most widespread drought since the 1950’s. Last June ranked as the 3rd driest month is at least 118 years. Over half the nation is still experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions.

As summer, 2013, looms the mayor of Odessa urged residents on April 14th to pray for rain. It’s ironic, to say the least, that this backdrop, frackers across Texas and the U.S. are zealously blasting billions of gallons of fresh water down into the earth in a frenzied pursuit of oil and natural gas. Further compounding this tragic waste of good water is the fact that much of it is, as a consequence of fracking, being stored deep below the surface in a highly toxic form. This water is being permanently removed from the hydrosphere. Consequently, it will never evaporate again and return to us in the form of rain.

A World in Flames: Wildfires Everywhere

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According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires scorched over 9 million acres across the U.S. in 2012, the most burned of any year on record since 1960 when accurate records began. The only exceptions to this would be 2006 and 2007 when even more acreage burned. Moreover, 8 of the top 10 years during the 52-year period occurred between 2000-2012.

In 2006, the Journal Science reported that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. It concluded that higher temperatures and earlier snow melts played major roles in the increase.

The escalating size and intensity of wildfires is even more amazing when one considers that this development has occurred despite advances in wildfire management and prevention techniques. The average number of fires from 1999-2012 was just under 1.1 million per year while the average between 1960-2012 was almost 5.7 million. But the total number of acres that burned between 1999-2012 was an astonishing 96.4 million, making up a whopping 41% of the total for the entire period! A study published in June, 2012, in the peer-reviewed journal Ecosphere reported that climate change is widely expected to disrupt future wildfire patterns around the world, with some regions, such as the western U.S., expected to see more and more frequent fires over the next 30 years.

Incredible, Insatiable Floods

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Most of us have heard about melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures and how this increases the volume of water, which, in turn, causes sea levels to rise. We need only to look at Hurricane Sandy to realize how dangerous the combination of rising sea levels and major storms (particularly exceptionally low pressure storms) can be—even in places, like major Northeastern metropolises, that haven’t historically been threatened by flooding.

Although storm surge can submerge even the largest cities, erratic and unusual rainfall patterns can also cause severe flooding, particularly in rivershed areas. Variations in global precipitation is highly complex but researchers are starting to document the changes that many millions of people around the world have been experiencing for years. Princeton University researchers published a report in the Journal of Climate in November, 2011, that found that unusual fluctuations in rainfall are affecting more than a third of the planet. In addition to flooding events, erratic precipitation and sunlight impairs photosynthesis, which raises a host of frightening questions, not least of which has to do with the foundation of the food chain.

The Wonderful World of Killer Tornadoes

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At 753 tornadoes, April 2011 was the most active tornado month on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It smashed the previous record of 267 in April 1974. Moreover, the April 25th-28th, 2011, outbreak was the most prolific in history, producing 358 tornadoes, 209 of which occurred in a single 24-hour period on April 27th. The outbreak killed 325 people. That month saw 770 tornadoes, far surpassing the record of 542 set in May, 2003. To put this in perspective: the average number of tornadoes reported annually in the U.S. is about 800.

With damage totaling $2.3 billion, the Joplin tornado of May, 2011, is the costliest on record. Whatever you choose to believe about global warming, I think many people in tornado-prone areas find it hard to sleep well at night on the conviction that nothing has really changed all that much about the frequency and intensity of tornadoes. Particularly if their aware that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in its most recent assessment that the world has been experiencing more violent storms since 1970, a view that isn’t expected to change. Of course, it might just be possible that Mother Nature is conspiring against us and trying to fool us all. Just because she’s too damn liberal and doesn’t happen to like our politics that much.

The Story that Bewitched Us All and Turned Wall Street into a Managed Market


Perhaps one of the most interesting observations history will make in regard to the present bull market is just how much it’s governed by language and not numbers. While this may have always been true to some extent, there are few times in the history of the American stock market when this fact, by itself, so obviously outweighs fundamental and technical considerations.

So clear and present is the power that language, backstopped by no more than mere words, wields over today’s market that I’d even go so far as to describe what it has become as a managed stock market.

You’ve heard of managed economies, of course? Well, let me introduce you to the idea of a managed stock market, a bright red cape waving at the charging bull, luring him on.

As the market indices begin to approach all-time highs, the story that bears the most responsibility for these amazing feats is not so much the one that has to do with underlying economic strength. Or future productivity gains. Nor is it one driven by the prospect of magnificent technological breakthroughs to come.

It’s merely the one that has to do with the Federal Reserve. Like Mr. Draghi’s sister institution in Europe, the Fed has essentially been promising to do “whatever it takes” to ensure financial stability through unheard-of experimental monetary policy. In short, a seemingly resolute commitment to hold down interest rates until the unemployment rate comes down and the economy goes up. Come hell or high water.

But hell and high water comes in many forms. Future inflation being one of them. Volatility another. The question that begs for admittance to the bullfight is the one about an economy that really does pick up steam at some point. Enough say, to spur out-of-control inflation. What will Mr. Bernanke (or the current Fed chair person do then)?

Absurdity notwithstanding, it’s perceived economic weakness that’s underwriting the current market euphoria. Whether you’re a dove or hawk, I think we can all agree that this is the condition that really provides our over-zealous monetary policy with all the rope. But let’s put that on hold for the moment. For now, suffice it to say, the Fed (as well as many market participants) believe we have the luxury of balancing on the razor’s edge of low inflation over a vast roiling ocean of money supply.

As a market observer, I find it fascinating how the low interest rate promise pops up whenever the bull seems about to take a breather. Moreover, how effective it is. Yesterday, on April 10th, for example, as the S&P 500 snorted past all previous milestones, it was the collective belief that the Fed, despite their indications to the contrary a mere couple of weeks ago, will stick to it’s easy money mantra through the end of the year that almost single-handedly drove the market higher. The reason? Highly disappointing employment numbers last Friday. Traders and talking heads reason that since the employment reading came out after last week’s Fed meeting any talk of higher rates will be silenced at the next meeting.

This means we’re in a very curious predicament: in spite of economic negativity, the surging stock market has come to rely on persistently low interest rates coming to the rescue. The idea that a story like this will trump economic signals and move the market higher is by definition perverse. In this upside-down financial reality, bad economic news turns out to be good for investing. Even more amazingly, there have been many instances over the past year or so when the market actually declined just because investors believed that higher rates might soon be riding in on the back of a strengthening economy.

It’s therefore interesting to ask what happens once the collective forces of Wall Street really start to believe that our economy is getting better. That is, when everyone believes that low interest rates will have to be banished. How can a situation that’s become so dependent on low rates survive when conditions change?

The frightening answer is that it won’t. Many people will lose a lot of money. In a market of buyers and sellers (i.e., winners and losers), one side must always pay.

But there are already losers. Right now, extreme low interest rates are being purchased out of the accounts of retirees. Thanks to Mr. Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Board, it’s retirees and savers who are recapitalizing Wall Street. It’s also our pension and funds. And everyone who pays insurance premiums. Or purchases gas or any other petro-chemical or commodity product denominated in weak dollars. Or signs a contract on a house the value of which has been summoned higher by the genie of low mortgage rates. Nowadays money may be produced by phantom printing presses, but we’re all paying whether we like it or not. Incredibly, virtually no public debate about all this has taken place in our ostensible democracy save for what may or may not occur behind the Kafka-like closed doors of the Fed. Unfortunately, none of this institution’s sages are elected.

It’s frightening to wonder what will happen when interest rates do finally increase. What will our massively indebted government need to do in order to offset the effects that a higher debt service will entail? What will happen to the face value of all that long term debt yielding next to nothing?

Almost as scary is the the question that how all those huge economic forces prospering in today’s low interest rate environment will they react to a serious threat of significantly higher rates? What kind of repurcussions on employment will that entail?

Ultimately what the Fed and stock market bulls believe is this: if and when the economy improves enough to warrant weaning off of low rates, the Fed will be in a position to ensure that rates increase in a way that assures financial stability. But will they actually possess this power? Or will the power that they think they wield today vanish tomorrow? Will the find themselves realizing that they kept rates down too low for too long, and that the magic just doesn’t do it anymore? What will happen then? Are we to count on our eternally gridlocked Congress to come to the rescue with fiscal policy?

While it’s easy to make grand promises, there’s no one on earth who can predict the kind of variables the global economy will face a few years down the road when the necessity of finally raising rates may rear its monstrous head. Under such a scenario, how would China react to Japan’s own radical attempts to debase its currency (both countries, by the way, hold enormous quantities of U.S. government debt)? Combined with the looming specter of a weak dollar and a weakening euro, this may pressure the rising dragon to do things it might not otherwise have done. Already, intelligent prognosticators might wonder whether China is using the crazies in North Korea as a proxy to intimidate the region and further assert itself. In other words, North Korea cast as China’s very own mad dog of the Far East. Do we think that we’re the only ones capable of using proxies? Or that the Monroe Doctrine can only be made in America?

More to the point, how do rising tensions among the great and growing powers of the East factor into our faith in our ability to manage low interest rates and the stock market? How much can we rely on economists to predict political outcomes?

When the world’s largest central banks collude in managing global financial markets through monetary experimentation, the magnitude of which the world has never witnessed, how can we possibly put any real faith into the kinds of promises that are currently being made? Let alone our future financial security? Yet that is just what these masters of the universe would have us do. You would think they’d at least have the decency to tell us that it’s precisely our future financial security that may be the price exacted for such a fanatical faith.

If something’s too good to be true, then it’s probably …well, you know…just a pile of bullshit.

The Absence of Morality Since 9-11 is Destabilizing the World


If the post World War II years introduced the law to normative economic analysis in a modern way, it was September 11th that solidified its dominance in legal and policy-making circles. I believe this is one of the reasons why, despite all the tireless talk about God, country, and our duty to the unborn, both the word and concept of morality has been wiped from serious consideration in precisely those areas that need it the most.

Today, truth and morality aren’t much more than bytes of information that can be shaped at will by those who believe they have the power to get away with it. Instead of the Golden Rule, policymakers increasingly rely on ideas whose main aim is to maintain the status quo for the power elite while delivering pre-selected values to the largest quantity of people in the most efficient way possible. Yet, for all the scholarship, mathematical equations, and bright red lines, there is little about these snaking, complex ideas that isn’t open to interpretation. Consequently, what passes for morality has been turned into a matter of subjectivity.

Most of us here in the relatively protected haven of the western world haven’t really grasped yet the full range of the implications this creates. But it’s fundamental to understanding why there’s so much ongoing violence and instability in so many parts of the world nowadays. This condition will continue to destabilize the world for as long as it dominates our thinking. In an age of suicide bombs, weapons of mass destruction, and drones spreading over the land like locusts, this is ultimately a matter of life and death for all of us—even here in the west.

I was living in Brooklyn when the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11. I watched from the rooftop of my apartment building in Park Slope as the long black column of smoke rose up and up from the incinerated remains into the  sky like a charmed cobra. I stared for a long time transfixed as it arched over the city. It reminded me of the amazing perfect double rainbow that encompassed New York after an afternoon thunderstorm only a month or two before.

As the unbroken column of smoke passed right over my head on its way toward the heart of Brooklyn, thoughts and memories of the times I had spent in the Twin Towers also came to mind. My sister’s sweet 16 birthday celebration in Windows on the World years before. Or the announcement on tv in the same venue’s bar only months before that Matt Damon’s and Ben Afleck’s hit movie won an Oscar (a decision—I didn’t mind telling everyone—with which I disagreed).

I breathed the acrid, chemical taste of the smoke like many other New Yorkers that day. The next day, I walked in the dust-filled streets of Downtown Manhattan past melted cars and overturned coffee carts filled with dust and day-old pastries unsold. Block after block devoid of people or life, as though the surface had suddenly been turned upside down. But on the edges of the destruction the untameable city that had always magically seemed to transmute every day chaos into every day life was barricaded and taken over by charged-up cops and army men barking orders over the barrels of large guns. It had only been a year ago when I told some punk on the subway to turn down his stupid boom box. And when some other punk responded that this was New York and there were no rules. From out of nowhere suddenly a troop of camouflaged soldiers whose desert fatigues matched the khaki dust were screaming at me to get the hell out of the area. How angry I was when I yelled over to my compatriot, a reporter taking pictures, that the age of Reagan had returned. And he yelled back in agreement.

Here we are almost a dozen years later still in the age of Reagan. The world is in chaos, and seems to be getting worse by the day. Overpaid technocrats justify killing with jargon and efficiency analysis. Not that this, by itself, is new. But never any mention of the Golden Rule, yet everyone claims to pray to God. Morality has been driven from journalists’ dictionaries. Instead they constantly imply that 9/11 turned us into unwilling supermen. What, at first, was supposed to be a war to defend our existence turned into an endless battle to defend our way of life, which includes dictating to truth and using as much oil as we like. What’s a million Iraqis’ lives compared to 300 million Americans’ right to have cheap plastic crap made in China for a dollar a day?

Perhaps the only thing more horrifying than what I witnessed on 9/11, was the aftermath in the years to come. Yes, like many of the other so-called educated liberals in my neighborhood, a part of me wanted revenge. I confess, part of me thrilled to the revenge talk of President Bush, the son of the man I had often ridiculed for his previous insanity in Iraq. And we feasted on that rhetoric. The only thing that assuages my guilt now is how quickly the warmongering nauseated me. To hear one politician after another speak publicly of hunting people down and killing them. Or kicking in doors as many journalists were fond of saying on tv or the radio. Kicking in doors and shooting people tirelessly repeated everywhere from FOX to NPR. Justice was indeed a warm gun. The politicians in the name of the people have the right to seek and summarily kill. The necessity of courtrooms and juries are left up to bureaucrats to decide. 9/11 bestowed these rights on us. Morality was something that was not and is still not talked about.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when countries like Israel send a fighter jet in to destroy people or a building or a convoy of trucks in a country with which it is not at war. Nowadays, if those who wield power think there is reason to fear for their lives, they have the right to kill even if the threat isn’t imminent. But it’s not morality that gives them this right. The world is too modern for morality. You see, our enemies are too evil for the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule that exists today applies only to our friends. We don’t talk to our enemies. This is the dictate by which we live and often let others die, even if it means sacrificing a few of our own.

The bedrock of 2,000 years of civilization is not good enough any more. Not in our post September 11th world. Our power, our way of life, demands something else. Engineering and business and behavioral theories can be molded to almost any need like plastic in a factory. Law and economics can always be counted on to justify a drone strike. After all, what is the value of one life compared to an entire way of life? How can one tree, or flower or human stand in the way of the pursuit of the greater good as we define it?

It’s a matter of values, isn’t it? But which values and whose values? Our values or theirs? In the absence of morality, everything is subjective. Law and economics professors didn’t read Derrida. Or did they?

Pandora, what will happen when Russia and China launch their own drones? Or France, Germany, Pakistan, or India? What will their law and economics professors allow them to do? We, my America, have already showed them that the right to impose values is underwritten by he who wields the biggest gun. What is the life of a field worker compared to a lawyer? About a quarter million less, I’d say.

Or what should we say when Shiite and Sunni suicide bomb each other to pieces? Which one is right? Each wants the right to assert his truth over the other. In the absence of morality, what basis is there for right or wrong? It’s reduced to a crazed race for power where anything goes as long as it promotes the cause. And he who gets there first controls which side is up. In such a world, even torture has its place. Award winning big-budget Hollywood movies like Zero Dark Thirty tell us so. Even the masters of the Spanish Inquisition couldn’t have so suavely justified themselves.

Or should we be surprised when someone, a kid even, gets hold of a big gun and blasts us and our children to oblivion? Maybe in his own warped way, he’s seeking his own efficient distribution. Where does truth exist in this brave new, post 9/11 world? God can be put up or taken off the shelf and carried around in our brief case whenever we feel like it.

This is the fundamental problem. An ethical system backstopped by a gun can only lead to war and killing without end. Why? The answer is implied in the statement. If you subscribe to the new thinking, then as long as we have the biggest gun, we will do anything to keep it that way. And they, the other side, will do anything to change it. That’s what you call incentive. It’s so fundamental you can scarcely call it game theory, although you can. As long as we have the big gun, you could also probably call the situation Pareto efficient. In the end, acquiring the big gun is something all sides can agree on. But it won’t lead to peace, not a lasting peace.

Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is something we can also agree on. But, in an age, when the now is all that matters, why should the guy with the biggest gun give up anything if he thinks he doesn’t have to? Whose got time for the Golden Rule when our focus should be on maximizing our own interests? In utter selfishness, we finally break through to objectivity—an objectivity as complete and absolute as a bomb blast or the nothingness that comes from it.

Underlying Causes of Mass Shootings in America Seethe Below the Surface


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Since the horror of the Columbine shooting in 1999, there have been 31 school shootings in addition to a number of other mass shootings. Each time one of these tragedies occurs, we understandably engage in a public dialog that asks why. Unfortunately, each time the dialog is cut short by a barrage of ready-made answers that steadily and thoroughly whacks each question away.

Viewed within the context of Columbine, the past six months raise these questions again, since this time period contains three mass shootings that urgently cry out for a level of understanding that transcends these overly simplistic, self-serving answers.

Why, after shooting and killing his mother, did Adam Lanza, 20, walk into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shoot 26 people, 20 of whom were children? How come, three days earlier, Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, opened fire in a Portland, Oregon mall food court with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle? Tragically, two people were killed, but Roberts’ intention was to kill a lot more had it not been for the gun jamming. Or why is James Holmes, a 24-year-old former neuroscience graduate student, believed to have opened fire on an audience in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, CO, with a 12-gauge pump action shotgun?

Based on information currently available, none of these shooters had a criminal history. They were young men, scarcely more than boys, who had their whole lives ahead of them. Their horrifying actions, despite how hackneyed they become after round-the-clock news coverage, threaten to defy explanation. Yet officials and the media seem content to regurgitate the same old list of reasons.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the nation’s largest gun-rights lobbing group, the NRA, said at a Washington news conference recently, that video games and music expose children to too much violence.

Other people have speculated that Lanza’s mother and father divorcing in 2009 somehow contributed to his shooting spree.

A former classmate described him as “weird”. Then there are those who’ve commented on his geeky predilection for  assembling computers. Or his supposed Asperger’s syndrome.

Consolidating this swirling cloud of explanations, Judith Warner, in a column she wrote recently for Time Magazine, summed up the conventional wisdom about Lanza thusly: “…a narrative has emerged of a troubled young man, induced into violence by his preferred choice of media, and failed by an inadequate mental health system.”

Warner notes a recent Gallup poll found far more Americans believing that events like the Newtown tragedy could be avoided through increased federal spending on mental health screening and services than by banning the sale of assault weapons.

If only, the reasoning goes, we had subdued the murderer’s symptoms with a pill, perhaps the tragedy could have been avoided. But this raises the question whether contemporary psychiatric treatment (which, for the most part, has come to be primarily the administration of pills) is capable of solving the conditions that cause the impulse to commit mass murder in an elementary school.

To put it succinctly, are any of these answers good answers? Do they satisfactorily deal with the real questions being raised? How much fact and sound reasoning do all these pre-fabricated answers really hold? And how much of it is based on the need for ready-made answers in a society immersed in round-the-clock speculative news hype hungry for ways to satisfy viewers urge to gawk at the terrifying while also reassuring them that despite it all everything is really all right in the world?

In the end the news media always seem inclined to lead us to sanctuary by employing certain words, like “psychopath” and “evil”, both of which exert powerful implications. The formula is to answer the tragedies with a monster who lurks on the fringes of what is otherwise a safe, good society.

But, in the cases of the 3 mass shootings listed above, is the monster really who we think he is? Might there be more dimensions to what are typically 2-dimensional constructions that seem, after careful consideration, to be created more out of a need to fulfill certain political and social exigencies than to seriously explain a terrifying social phenomenon?

Perhaps Adam Lanza’s second-grade teacher raises the question most poignantly. ABC News reports on 12/23/12 that Lanza attended Carole MacInnes’ second-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary, the very same school where he would slaughter 26 people some 13 years later. MacInnes remembers him as a smart, sweet boy who did not require extra academic attention and behaved normally. Although she never saw him after the second-grade, she recalled that he was a “gentle soul” and can’t understand what drove him to commit mass murder.

Another ABC news report on 12/15/12 interviews a neighbor who knew the Lanza family and describes her as shocked when she learned of the shooting. She considered both Adam and his 24-year old brother to be “very nice boys”.

These descriptions contrast with other post-shooting depictions of Adam Lanza. They also contrast with how we usually characterize the perpetrators of any horrific acts. Again, the question I’m raising is whether the conventional answers are accurate. If they’re not accurate, what purpose do they really serve? Do they really help us to understand why we live in a society populated with murderers who once seemed like “nice boys”?

Moreover, the fact tragedies, like Sandy Hook, continue to occur from month to month and year to year raises its own set of questions about the conventional wisdom. Whatever arguments one can raise in its defense, it must be admitted that  it surely hasn’t been effective in putting an end to these events. Indeed, given the way the media slavishly conforms its reporting to the conventional wisdom in the face of this fact, seems anything but respectful of the victims of these tragedies or to their loved ones.

Just like its loath to seriously talk about the causes of global warming, the media doesn’t seriously question whether there are forces within our society, which are fundamental to its current make-up, creating conditions that are conducive to circumstances that can lead to the shooting in Newtown or Aurora. Rather than discounting them as evil psychopaths, the approach taken in this article asks what the mass shooters are communicating to us about our world? If we’re serious about confronting the causes of these tragedies, shouldn’t we consider whether it’s possible that the message may be more profound than that evil simply exists? If we don’t, then we should be prepared to accept that all our grand declarations of evil-psychopathic monsters effectively become excuses that allow us to avoid making fundamental social changes.

So let’s assume for a moment that psychopathic or evil behavior are merely descriptions and not reasons for events like Sandy Hook or Columbine. This distinction radically changes the conversation, does it not? It shifts the focus from the type of circular thinking that now dominates the public dialog to one that searches for deeper causal roots. Right now the dialog is centered on the fact that evil exists or insanity exists, therefore terrible crime exists. But what are the causes? If it’s that some people go crazy and feel the need to shoot their neighbors, why is it that events, on the scale of and frequency of Sandy Hook or Columbine, are a relatively recent development? Switchblades in school 50 years ago were conceivable; not machine guns.

Yes, there’s been violence in the past, but nothing as senseless, cold-blooded, and widespread as going into a public institution with the intent to kill as quickly as possible as many strangers as possible. Also, the motives for shootings, like Sandy Hook, aren’t obvious. Furthermore, given the frequency of mass shootings over the last decade and the age of many of the perpetrators, deterministic models based primarily on genetic predisposition seem insufficient to fully answer the question why. The only thing that can be surmised about these acts is that they are activated by an intent to lash out at society. Like terrorism, such acts sacrifice individuals but are directed at society itself. Unlike terrorism, there isn’t any political motive, only an intent to destroy.

But we can surmise that the actions of people like Adam Lanza and Eric Harris are communicating something. They are not merely actions. To read them as such is to miss a great deal. And we owe it to their victims to find out what their deaths mean. As painful as it is, this means that we must search beyond the ready-made answers if we’re to have any hope of understanding why these terrible events keep happening. Moreover, it’s crucial that we figure it out because we’ll never adequately solve the problem until we do. We must look within ourselves individually and as a society. Unless we do that, these atrocities will continue. Or they’ll take other forms in the future. The monster (the real monster who cannot be executed or put behind bars) will not go away until he’s captured within the grip of our understanding.

The last 40 years have given birth to quite a history of murders and murderers. The period can be broken into a few different groups based types of killing that received widespread media attention. There were a rash of mass shootings in the 1990’s, much of which occurred at workplaces. Some of the early shootings involved stressed out postal service employees. Hence the adjective, “postal”, being applied to uncontrollable outbursts of violence. Then the phrase, “road rage,” entered the picture to describe incidents of angry drivers shooting at each other—particularly in areas of the country with highly congested roadways, like Los Angeles. Most of the perpetrators involved people well into their adult life.

Going back further into recent history, there were a number of high profile serial killers that caught the limelight in the 1970’s and 1980’s. David Berkowitz (i.e., Son of Sam), the terror of New York and Long Island comes to mind. As does Ted Bundy, a former law student at the University of Utah. Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, sickened the nation in the early 1990’s and was beat to death by a fellow inmate. Dahmer was about 34 at the time.

In the case of each of these men, the question why they did what they did has been generally answered by referencing their obvious severe mental problems. Of course, the more interesting question has to do with what led to the creation of such problems. Indeed, many books have been written on this.

But the question of mass shootings at schools (or malls)  is a little trickier. In 2004, psychologists for the FBI publicly released profiles they pieced together about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenagers who shot their teachers and classmates to death at Columbine High School in 1999. According to the FBI, Harris and Klebold had intended for the attack to be less an ordinary school shooting to take revenge on bullies than an act of domestic terrorism that would make the Oklahoma City bombings look small in comparison. As a 2004 article in Slate puts it, FBI psychologists see Harris as a psychopath who hates inferiority while Klebold is something of a manic-depressive.

But how much does this really add to what we already knew based simply on their actions? As an explanation for Columbine, it doesn’t completely satisfy. Not like one that involves a serial killer who had developed severe schizophrenia as the result of a traumatic upbringing by parents who themselves had mental problems. This offers a basis for explanation that, to a great extent, places the origin for the crime on a condition isolated to the murderer.

Killings, like Sandy Hook or Columbine, require more context to give us some perspective.

After reading some lines from Harris’ journal and web site, I was reminded of the Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfied. Like Harris, Caufield said he lied all the time. While we know that Salinger was employing irony, the comparison may work on other levels. Just as Caulfield was suffocating in a world dominated by fakery and forms, it’s pertinent to wonder how much these influences might have affected someone like Harris or even Klebold. Might Harris’ savage lashing out in his writings be an attempt to cut through a world, which, for many young adults, seems artificial and removed? and touch something that is perceived as more real, more concrete, and less abstract? What’s more real than blood? More absolute than death? However terrible the actions are, it’s important to try to understand the intent behind them. Remember, understanding the intent is not the same as justifying or condoning it.

As for Adam Lanza, his actions seem diametrically opposed of Caufield’s dream to catch the playing children before they unwittingly fell off the edge into the abyss. Yet, to a sick and twisted mind disgusted with the world, how much distance is there really between saving the children from what is perceived to be a terrible experience and killing them before killing oneself?

After reading about Harris’ and Klebold’s grand designs, I also couldn’t help thinking about Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Like Leopold and Loeb or Harris and Klebold, Dostoevsky’s character wanted to commit a great crime. Raskolnikov wanted to prove to himself that he was someone capable of greatness, like Napoleon. That, as Nietsche said, God was dead, and a superman need not be limited by the old constraints of Good and Evil. He would prove that a great act, even if it was morally wrong, was allowed to a great man pursuing great things. In Raskolnikov’s case, his secret “great” act would be offset in the future by the great contributions he would make to the world.

Dostoevsky showed that the nature of a healthy human did not support the superman concept. Unlike, the tactical blunders of Leopold and Loeb, what tripped up Raskolnikov and led to his arrest was the fact that his conscience finally overcame his twisted reasoning. Raskolnikov, despite his grandiose ideas and horrific act, turned out to be a normal person in the end, as evidenced by the fact that he came to realize that he couldn’t go on living without atoning for his crime. The FBI, on the other hand, attempts to present us with the idea that Harris and Klebold were not normal. That, like Bundy or Berkowitz, they were very abnormal and, consequently, incapable of sincerely experiencing remorse.

This, of course, is vastly reassuring because it reminds us that terrible acts are not committed by good, healthy people. It also reassures us that the problem is, by and large, limited to the one diagnosed with the condition; or, least, limited to the conditions that immediately impacted the subject’s life. In other words, mental disorders, like schizophrenia or psychopathology, can (and are) interpreted shield broader society from blame. The horrible actions committed have not been in response to any external stimuli that could have reasonably produced them.

The way the media often explains psychopaths is to basically state that they are damaged people who lack the ability to feel empathy for their fellow human beings or remorse for their actions. In general, this is the way society defines the modern monster: a person who is deficient in some way regardless how brilliant or resourceful he may be. They are often presented as irremediably beyond the reach of help.

The psychopath has become a convenient way to create a scientific term which encompasses the type of human violence that cannot be easily explained. Furthermore, as long as those who are diagnosed as psychopaths are in the minority, it is easy to confine blame to the individual and not society. The psychopath is, therefore, a dead end that allows no further questioning. In effect, the psychopath, as commonly understood, is the proverbial bad apple. As such, it is a reason in itself for a crime and not a behavioral description.

If the psychopath diagnosis attempts to offer a scientific understanding of monsters, the application of the word evil strives to respond to non-scientific questions. How, for example, could God allow this to happen? After all, isn’t America, by and large, a Christian society? And, following colloquial perceptions as promulgated by the media, if the white middle class, such as what is represented in Newtown, CT, isn’t representative of Christiandom in America, what is? For many, this, of course, makes Sandy Hook all the more inexplicable: how could God have let this happen to elementary school children?

The answer’s easy if you believe in evil, as defined by Christian fundamentalists: evil exists. [period]

I could reference a thousand people and articles applying the word evil to the actions or people that caused the Sandy Hook or Columbine or Aurora movie theater shootings. From the President of the United States to local authorities to regular news commentators. They’ve used the word countless times, as is common knowledge, so there’s no point in quoting them.

Evil is also the lens through which terrorist attacks are perceived. The problem is, like the word psychopath, the idea of evil is a dead end that permits no further questions. It’s an ultimate answer backed up by a rich history of associations that span human history. Why does evil exist? Does anyone bother to ask this question beyond the age of 10? Not most people, at any rate. This is probably for the same reason why they stop asking about psychopaths. Isn’t the world convinced that, like genetic abnormalities and bad apples, evil people have always been around and always will?

When politicians and policemen use the words psychopaths and evil to describe horrific situations like Sandy Hook or even September 11th, they’re effectively diverting questions away from themselves or society. Evil and psychopaths are a bright red line between us and them. They are the monsters living beyond the pale of society. They relieve society of having to look inward at itself and allows it to muster its forces to go after the monsters who besiege it. This is the story of Beowulf. This is the story of the aftermath of September 11th. And, as we arm ourselves and further lock down our schools in response to Sandy Hook and Columbine, so, too, is it the story of mass school shootings.

For politicians and policemen, psychopaths and evil are expedients that enable them to fulfill their duties in easy and non-controversial ways. What are you doing to protect us? asks John Q Public. Response: We’re placing more armed policemen in schools. We’re hunting down the bad guys. We’re going to kill them before they kill you.

Words like psychopath, evil, or monster aren’t just used to substitute for root causes, but, through persistent application in the public discourse, become calls to action. The obvious and logical action to many people, particularly in the wake of September 11th, was to take aggressive action. As these descriptions are repeated over and over in the media they cross the line from description to prescription.

To test this hypothesis, ask yourself if you can imagine, at this point in time, any politician suggesting that we ask the question whether society itself might be responsible for producing children who go to school with the premeditated intent to kill? They would be laughed off the air and blamed for shirking their duty, possibly even for cowardice. In today’s media environment, dominated as it is by the logic of psychopaths and evil monsters, the suggestion that society might have some culpability in recent mass shootings is unthinkable. Those in positions of authority seem to believe that it’s far easier for everyone, from victims to mere spectators, to grasp the logic inherent in evil and bad genetics. It’s also far easier to pretend to address the problem by fortifying society with prayer and/or guns.

Again, since Columbine, there have been some 31 school shootings. Yet there hasn’t been any serious public calls for societal introspection beyond blaming violent video games or declaring that we’re not doing enough mental health screenings. To blame violence on TV or the video games amounts to the same thing as labeling someone evil or a psychopath. It’s a dead-end that presupposes (and even implies) that everything else in society is ok. The only thing we, as a society, need to do is make the stories we consume less violent. Problem solved.

But can we, as intelligent, thinking beings, really be persuaded that violent video games create psychopathic monsters capable of carrying out diabolic, premeditated, mass murder? That seems like a stretch, at best. Yet, it is true, that the ideas and images we consume impact our lives and well-being.

Most of us alive today know that the world we live in is full of stresses and uncertainty. TV and movies, among the few refuges we have from our crazy lives, often present us with powerful images of strength, beauty, or cleverness. The stout football player smashing his way into the end zone. The powerful American military bombing it’s adversaries into oblivion half a world away. The beautiful temptress on TV using her allures to get what she wants. The Wall Street guru or the Silicon Valley geek using their charm or mental brawn to amass billions.

These are examples of some of the images that Hollywood creates for our amusement. They all lead to the same implication: this is what it means to be successful in America. If you’re not a star, like us, you’re a failure. you’re dirt. nothing. In a world in which everyone appears to be successful, the worst thing you can be is a failure. Odd man out. all alone. pushed to the fringe.

So we all try our best to squeeze into one image or another. This dynamic is so painfully obvious throughout our so-called great melting pot, particularly in high school—where how you look determines who you are. And how market forces exploit this to ensure a steady flow of sales! All so everybody can look like a magazine cover.

But people like Klebold and Harris, with their trench coat mafia get-up, don’t fit in (whether intentionally or not). Nor the withdrawn Lanza or Holmes with his hair died Joker-orange.

These movie and magazines images are like little pieces of software that are intended to make someone do or believe something. Like the false idols of old, they promise something that can never be delivered. For those who believe in them, disappointment is their only reward. The car, the necklace, the clothes. Once their obtained, the emptiness of their promise is revealed. Any die hard consumer has experienced this feeling. The Faustian pact is once you buy into this mindset, the only thing that ever approximates a feeling of satisfaction is the condition of desiring that which you don’t have. This is the ultimate achievement of an advanced consumer-based society, like ours: ultimately, it is not the attained thing that motivates but the mere desire to have something more. This is perpetual by design.

In this way pornography and drugs are the ultimate consumer items. They provide a glimpse of satisfaction. Yet more is always required as we chase after their allures. One is a logical construction while the other is chemical, but their effect is the same. Ted Bundy knew this all too well when he blamed his murderous desires on pornography. Perhaps it never adequately explained his actions, but his case vividly shows the progressive demands of pornography. Heavy viewers will tell you that they require more extreme porn to reach the same feelings that less extreme examples once produced. It’s well documented that straight people who’re heavy pornography consumers have even turned to gay porn to get their fix. Some even turn to violent porn.

The point I’m making is that the consumer mentality that our economy (and society) has become dependent on is one that believes in the primacy of material things (matter as opposed to spirit) to achieve satisfaction. A century of modern advertising and trillions of dollars spent on producing expertly crafted ads have created the myth that material possessions are an end unto themselves—that the mere possession of matter can somehow sustain an incorporeal state, such as happiness or satisfaction. This is untrue and young people, due to their lack of experience, have the least ability to defend themselves against this fallacy.

Every belief system carries it’s own set of implications. Once we accept the primacy of material possessions, we, in turn, make everything else subservient to this ideal. Including life. Going into a school and mowing down classmates with semi-automatic assault weapons is an expression of this. In a world in which personal importance is dictated by the type of purse or car or clothes one has, what is the value of mere human life? Indeed, the clear implication is that a body without these things is worthless. Is this hard to admit? Isn’t it possible that afflicted people, like Adam Lanza and Eric Harris, provide the answer for us again and again?

Going into a school or office or mall and blasting your fellow citizens to death communicates something else that we should also take notice of. In a world in which most of us live relatively isolated lives from our neighbors and families; in which we have little say or power to change the way our massive, nationalized society operates; in which we feel fortunate just to have a job to pay the bills; in which most of us passively watch world events unfold like a movie or football game; in such a world as this, taking a gun and shooting into society is a clear expression of impotence trying, trying to break through to some reality beyond what, for many, is a stifling vacuum chamber of everyday life. Are we ready to admit that life in the modern, post-industrial world is extreme in many ways and a great hardship for many millions of people? Is it any wonder that some of them, predisposed for whatever reasons, will act out in bloody horrible ways?

The final thing I’d note for now is that what these young men are doing is not simply murdering others. They’re committing suicide directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. The United States of America ranked 1oth for the highest rate of gun deaths in the world in 2009. It is the only developed nation in the top 10. Or the top 15, for that matter. What’s even more startling is the fact that some 60% of these deaths are suicides.

It’s been known for some time that the developed world has a problem with high suicide rates. But it’s less commonly known that suicide rates have skyrocketed for people 5-24 years of age between the years 1950-2003. offers these grim statistics from the Centers for Disease Control:

For ages 5-14, the rate tripled from 0.2 in 1950 to o.6 in 2003. For ages 15-24, the suicide rate more than doubled from 4.5 in 1950 to 9.7 in 2003. For ages 15-19, it also more than doubled from 2.7 in 1950 to 7.3 in 2003. For the 20-24 age group, the rate nearly doubled from 6.2 in 1950 to 12.1 in 2003.

Some of us may find it interesting to correlate another rate with these. That’s the rate of advertising dollars spent on dressing up and photographing increasingly younger and younger people. As the needs of business have grown over the years, the need to increase the size of the marketplace has also increased. The easy way to do this has been to increase the size of the consumer population. Instead of marketing to people well into their adult life, as was the norm in the 1950’s, we’ve started to heavily invest in the way younger people perceive themselves in order that they will buy more consumer goods. The corresponding age of models has dropped to the point where a model in her early 20’s nowadays is too old to practice her profession. We’re putting lipstick and designer clothes on children at increasingly younger and younger ages. Advertisers are reaching over and around parents to have a dialog with children that very intensely affects the way they see themselves and others around them.

The effect, figuratively and literally, is that we are sacrificing our children to the needs of the marketplace. And the only thing the market is concerned with is selling more stuff.

Who should regulate the ideas and values by which children evaluate themselves, other living things, and the world? Parents and educators? Or the marketplace?

Right now, the ready-made answers that our corporate-sponsored media promulgates for atrocities, like Sandy Hook, puts the blame only on individuals and never levels any real criticism at society. It directs our attention to the fallibility of individuals while exonerating society, and hence the marketplace. I place myself in the camp of those who believe in the goodness and sanctity of life over a system constructed for the sole purpose of profiteering. When we, as a society, embrace a system that is predicated on the primacy of consumer goods over all else, we create a very dangerous language and culture in which senseless violence can some times occur. In such a system, it shouldn’t be surprising that evil, psychopathic behavior will boil up from time to time.


Revisiting the Fracking&#8211Earthquake Connection


Here’s the situation in Texas and other parts of the country where fracking for natural gas has come on the scene: it’s producing a hell of a lot of gas, excitement, and money.

Earthquake epicenters examined in the study (red circles), injection wells (squares and + symbols) in use since October 2006, seismic monitoring stations (white triangles), and mapped faults (green lines). Credit: Cliff Frohlich/U. of Texas at Austin.

All of this gas is also producing a hell of a lot of wastewater, which, according to experts is producing a hell of a lot of earthquakes. Earthquakes? Yes, that’s right, earthquakes, as in the kind that shake the ground. According to some geophysicists, it isn’t fracking itself that’s causing earthquakes, it’s all the wastewater being pumped back into the ground for storage.

One of the most troubling concerns about these man-made earthquakes is the fact that they’re happening in places where people rarely, if ever, noticed them before. Timpson, a small town in east Texas, is a good example. On Friday, Dec. 7 at 1:38 p.m, it was shaken by a 2.8 magnitude earthquake only 5 km below the surface.

Although quakes are almost never felt in this part of the country, Friday’s tremblor isn’t the first this year. A  3.7 magnitude earthquake caught everyone’s attention on May 10, 2012. This was followed by an aftershock on May 17 that measured at a magnitude of 4.3.

Scientists at the Stephen F. Austin Geology Department in Nacogdoches have been monitoring earthquakes in the area to determine their cause. Dr. Wesley Brown, an associate professor in the geology department, thinks the earthquakes are being caused by massive amounts of hydrofracking wastewater being pumped into nearby injection wells.

“At the moment we are actually linking them to injection wells that are located close to where the earthquakes are in the Timpson area. We have one a little bit to the north, and [the wells] are north and south of each other,” said Dr. Brown. “The volume, especially for the one in the south is up over 200,000 barrels of water per month.”1

Assuming these are 42 gallon barrels, this equals 8.4 million gallons of water per month.  There are currently over 144,000 injection wells in the U.S. With more than 49,000, Texas holds the majority, by far.2

Apart from the soundness of storing highly toxic water in the earth, human activities that create earthquakes pose a number of serious questions. Unfortunately, these questions may be complicated by the vast amounts of money the nation’s fracking currently yields.

The group Texas Natural Gas Now claims that natural gas, much of it captured through fracking, “contributes more than $100 billion to the Texas economy each year, including product sales, royalties, and property, state, local and severance taxes.”3.

Whether $100 billion outweighs the many costs fracking produces (such as earthquakes) should be seriously examined by federal and state authorities. On the surface of it, it’s apparent that the very process of hydraulic fracturing (i.e., fracking) is an environmentalist’s worst nightmare. It involves drilling holes in the ground thousands of feet deep; dropping and detonating explosives in the holes;  and then pumping in millions of gallons of chemical-laced water (aka “slick water”) to free oil and gas trapped in rock. This process has enabled energy companies to get at oil and gas, which, up until now, has been off limits due to the difficulties involved in obtaining it. Fracking has sparked a drilling boom of staggering proportions in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Though it’s hard to state with precision where millions of gallons of toxic water goes when its forced down under high pressure into a hole thousands of feet deep, it often comes bubbling back up to the surface whence it came. In addition to the chemicals that were added to it before it was originally pumped into the ground, it returns to ground level full of additional extracts and minerals picked up on its journey: salt, heavy metals, radon, etc.

To solve this inconvenience, more holes must be drilled in the ground. These are referred to as injection wells and are designed to hold large quantities of the wastewater. Instead of a few thousand feet, they reach far deeper, often as much as 1 1/2 miles below the surface. The dirty water is pumped back down where, engineers assure us, it won’t escape and contaminate other resources, like, for instance, drinking water.

Whatever your stance on the matter, whether you’re pro-fracking or anti-fracking, the available data makes it pretty clear that a lot of earthquakes are starting to be felt in places where people rarely, if ever, noticed them before.

Before a series of small quakes on Halloween 2008, the Dallas area had never recorded a magnitude-3 earthquake, said Cliff Frohlich, associate director and senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.4

Frohlich analyzed seismic data collected between November 2009 and September 2011 by the EarthScope USArray Program, a National Science Foundation-funded network of broadband seismometers from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Frolich surmises that pumping millions of gallons of wastewater into the ground can have the unintended consequence of causing fault lines to slip, which can produce earthquakes

“You can’t prove that any one earthquake was caused by an injection well,” says Frohlich. “But it’s obvious that wells are enhancing the probability that earthquakes will occur.”5

Other geophysicists seem to think that this explanation makes sense. For example, Oliver Boyd, a USGS seismologist and an adjunct professor of geophysics at the University of Memphis, agrees that, in general, links between wastewater injection and seismic activity are plausible.

“Most, if not all, geophysicists expect induced earthquakes to be more likely from wastewater injection rather than hydrofracking,” Boyd wrote in an email to Life’s Little Mysteries. “This is because the wastewater injection tends to occur at greater depth where earthquakes are more likely to nucleate. I also agree [with Frohlich] that induced earthquakes are likely to persist for some time (months to years) after wastewater injection has ceased.”6

As for the fracking itself, Frolich doesn’t believe that it causes earthquakes.

“Drilling never causes earthquakes,” Frohlich said in a telephone interview [with Reuters]. “Fracking almost never causes earthquakes … While there are probably millions of hydrofracking jobs, only a few have caused earthquakes and they’ve all been little tiny earthquakes.”7

Assuming the geophysicists are right, the question just screaming to be asked is whether it’s wise to pursue a course of action that causes earthquakes. Why on earth would anyone want to do anything that causes earthquakes? Specifically, should we continue to pump billions of gallons of water into “wells” if it’s possible to cause earthquakes?

But Frolich doesn’t appear to be too concerned.

“It’s not entirely clear to me that you need to stop [the quakes],” Frohlich says.8

“My study found more small quakes, nearly all less than magnitude 3.0, but just more of the smaller ones than were previously known. The risk is all from big quakes, which don’t seem to occur here.” [referring to the Barnett Shale.]9

StateImpact Texas reports that Frolich compares the experience of feeling the smaller quakes to witnessing a moderate thunderstorm that might wake you up in the middle of the night with a boom. “It’s actually kind of fun,” he says.10

Yet, as far as we know, thunderstorms are still produced by nature only; they’re not by-products of profit-driven enterprises.

Moreover, what about the what-if factor? Do we know what all the unintended consequences are of producing artifical earthquakes. After all, the state of Texas isn’t a laboratory. It exists in the real world. And the world is incredibly complex, being composed of untold numbers of interconnected life-forms and systems. To unleash forces huge enough to cause earthquakes is to gamble with complexities which we cannot hope to full understand. For example, what if the quakes get more frequent or worse? Do we know for sure that countless billions of gallons of water won’t cause this to happen?

It’s well documented that quakes caused by injection wells can occur long after injecting the water. The 1961 injection well drilled near Denver is a case in point. According to the USGS11 , “an unusual series of earthquakes”erupted in the area soon after.” A year and a half later, on Aug. 9, 1967, a 5.3-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful in Denver’s history, struck. It was followed by a 5.2-magnitude quake in the region that November, according to the USGS.

The biggest earthquake linked to an injection well occurred in Oklahoma last year. It was a magnitude 5.7.

Slick-water fracks were first introduced in the Barnett Shale field, which is a region in Northern Texas that encompasses the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area. The number of wells drilled in the area went from a yearly average of 73 in the late 1990s to 2,500 in 2007.

As of January, 2012, the Railroad Commission of Texas reports that there were 14,661 producing gas wells in the Barnett Shale 24 county area.12

A database search in the Advanced National Seismic System reveals that from January 1, 2000 – January 1, 2006, no earthquakes  were recorded in the Barnett Shale region and east Texas (where a number of injection wells have been drilled). But from Halloween 2008 to the present 59 quakes were recorded (though Frolich’s study found 68 from 2009 – 2011). 23 of these occurred in 2012 alone. The average magnitude was 2.6 and 15 of them registered a 2.9 or greater. 7 of them erupted in 2012. One of them was a 4.8 trembler that struck the town of Timpson in eastern Texas on May 17th. They all occurred close to the surface with an average on only 5 km.

Fortunately, my research hasn’t found that anyone was hurt. Though some homes have been damaged. Fort Worth Weekly recently told the story of the Rosalez family in Cleburne. One of the quakes popped a window out of its frame in their home and damaged their foundation. There are cracks in their walls now, some six inches long.

StateImpact Texas astutely points out that there’s also the question of earthquakes damaging injection wells and oil/gas pipelines.13 As the ground shifts, will the structural integrity be compromised? This is particularly relevant, since Texas isn’t a state that’s known for earthquakes, so it’s unlikely they’ve been designed to withstand them.

As the shale gas boom continues so too will the need for injection wells. The U.S. is literally awash in cheap natural gas. Production was outpacing demand so greatly that some market observers started to question earlier this year if we’d run out of room to put all the gas. Nothing points to the drilling frenzy that grips our country better than this dilemma.

Never fear. The market is seeking to exploit fracking’s largess by coming up with new and better ways to use all the gas. Electric utilities are closing coal plants and opening new nat gas generators. LNG gas terminals are being built to export to markets all over the world. After getting burned in the 1990’s, some brave souls are even starting to pitch CNG vehicles again. Consequently, it’s likely that market forces will continue to demand more and more drilling. Given the huge revenues being produced, policymakers and bureaucrats will come under intense pressure to accept greater risks in return for what are perceived to be lucrative rewards.

But the question remains: What’s going to happen to the trillions of gallons of toxic water that we’re pumping into the ground beneath our feet? Each earthquake should serve as a reminder of this growing ocean sloshing around down there. For the Texas cattle ranchers and farmers who’ve been hard hit by some of the severest droughts on record, this must be a bitter irony.

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Freak Tornado Smashes New Zealand Town


“I saw it coming across the river, the air went very electric and the sky went black. And then the wind started to whistle. This was like a juggernaut roaring through here,” witness Suzanne McFadden told New Zealand’s Newstalk ZB radio.1

Reuters/Reuters – A woman returns a lost dog to its ruined home amid the devastation in the suburb of Hobsonville after a tornado went through the western suburb in Auckland December 6, 2012. REUTERS/Nigel Marple

A violent tornado-like suddenly came out of nowhere yesterday afternoon about about 3pm and wreaked havoc in Hobsonville-Whenuapai, an area of West Auckland. Wind storms of this magnitude are almost unheard of in New Zealand.

Prime Minister John Key described the affected area as “utter devastation”; like something out of “mid-west America.”2

“I can say I have never seen anything like this in New Zealand before,” he said. “It’s far more significant than a very bad storm where you have a few trees down.3

As of this writing, 150 homes have been seriously damaged, many beyond repair.

The storm was ferocious and unexpected, throwing people, animals, and cars up into the air like rag dolls. People were going about their daily business when it struck.

“There were over 200 men working onsite and another 150 at the primary school, including one guy working on the roof,” said Key.

Chris Heywood, the manager of a horse trekking business called The Farmhouse on Sunnex Rd., was in the driveway when the tornado hit.

“The sky just went really black. We started getting flashes of lightning and thunder then it got really bad,” he said.4

“It just felt like someone kicked me in the chest. I was off the ground and spinning in circles.” Heywood went on to say, describing how the storm tossed him into the air.

As he was spinning in the air he hit against something and realized it was the three horses that had been in the stable. Then he noticed his truck was spinning around doing 360s with no one in it.

He was so dizzy he started vomiting. “I thought it was the end of the world,” he said.5


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A Modest Solution to Finally Resolve the Problem of Poor People


* Prefatory Note: For those who’re somewhat reading challenged, this post is intended to be satirical. *

As an American citizen who loves his country and is concerned about its future, I’m proud to admit that I also love money. So much so that I spend hours a day pouring over financial news and sage commentary from our nation’s army of astute economists. Through my constant attention to this barrage of knowledge and, if I may say so myself, my own rather sagacious wealth management, I’ve come to see myself as somewhat of a financial guru. Not formally or professionally, of course, but what I’d humbly refer to as the armchair variety.

Acting in this capacity and spurred on by my love of country (as well as money), I’ve formulated–or, shall we say, distilled–from the global conversation about how to deal with our present economic woes a solution to the problem of poverty. My plan calls for cutting taxes, lowering wages, and slashing government spending.

The first thing to realize is that our real problems are structural in nature. In this regard, we in the developed world must learn from our prosperous friends in China. Even the communists have come to understand that you must pay your workers less than your competitors if you want to be competitive. What could be more fundamental to a healthy capitalist system than that?

This is why the advice from institutions like the U.S. Congress, the World Bank,  and my good friends at PIMCO (rhetorically speaking, of course) are exactly right when they recommend that prosperity challenged regions in the developed world should cut their labor costs. If, to return to health and wealth, our citizens must tighten their belts and go to Walmart a little more often, then good medicine.

But I’ve taken the prescription even further. You see, in our post-modern era where we’re up against the likes of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the developed world has got to understand that poverty is a resource and not a detriment. Poverty isn’t something to be overcome or eliminated but rather used and embraced. What is the miracle of China if not wealth created out of poverty? Gold from lead as it were?

For Europe and America to return to competitiveness, they must, as our experts constantly recommend, find ways to cut labor costs and curtail government spending. The trick, of course, is to do it in a way that doesn’t derail the economy and reduce business’ profitability. Like the Chinese, we need access to a large pool of impoverished people who, despite this fact, can still pull their weight and support the economy.

We also need to drastically reduce government spending. The biggest areas, as we all know, are defense, Social Security, and health care. Yet defense must remain sacrosanct. Today more than ever, we still need protection, as we always have, from the hordes of people beyond our borders who hate and envy us. Who want to destroy our way of life. We must protect our people from those people. Our people must be able to work for the lowest possible pay in conditions of maximum safety.

It’s therefore logical to slash Social Security spending and government financed health care costs, like Medicaid and Medicare. So, in addition to cutting wages to the bone, I’d like to introduce you to my secret weapon in the war for prosperity: the cigarette. Yes, that’s right, the cigarette.

Cigarette smoking is a time-honored tradition rooted in our American heritage and handed down by our forebears. The way it was lambasted by liberals, like the Clintons, in the 1990’s was extremely unfortunate. The way it’s being taxed by our spendthrift government is downright un-American. I submit to you here and now that cigarettes are as American as guns and apple pie. They’re also, as I stated above, the solution to our economic problems.

We all know how much poor people love to smoke. For many, it’s a brief escape from the monotony of their jobs. A way to deal with stress and fatigue. You can probably even recall scenes of them clustered in groups during break times. Think how much better it was for everyone when poor people could smoke without being bothered with high taxes. Without being told it’s bad for their health.

Why not bring back the good old days? I say let the poor man spoke as much as he likes. Instead of taxing him to death, we could put a lot of extra money back in his pocket by eliminating cigarette taxes. President Obama’s so pleased about his payroll tax deduction, which only offers a measly grand or so. Think how much a three pack a day smoker would save if we cut cigarette taxes by 90%? Instead of paying $20 per day, he might only pay $3! That adds up to savings of $17 per day 365 days per year. Over $6,200 per year!

Now that’s what I call a stimulus plan. But wouldn’t higher cancer rates increase health care spending? Not necessarily. My plan would require that Medicare and/or Medicaid list smoking as a pre-existing condition for cancer. Let them smoke as much as they want. In the unfortunate event cancer develops, then no coverage. It’s as simple as that.

I can hear the bleeding hearts already complaining that it would be inhumane to let them die of cancer without treatment. Well, who said anything about no treatment? The pre-existing clause would allow those who fall under it to be treated with the latest in-home hospice care. That way, the dying would be able to spend their last days in the comfort of their own homes, blissfully sedated, and in the company of their loved ones.

Another brilliant feature of the plan involves the fact that many smokers will die prematurely. But just wait until you hear this. I think you’ll agree that this is efficient market-minded thinking at its best. If we increase the retirement age from 65 to 67 or even 70, statistics indicate that most smokers will hardly even need to receive Social Security payments. The benefits are obvious: more money going into Social Security and less going out. The same is true for Medicare and Medicaid. Thus, not only do we cut government spending, but we shore up  America’s sinking entitlement programs for years to come.

Looking at my plan objectively, anyone but a fool or a liberal, can easily see how much sense it makes. In fact, I would even go so far to say that it’s an actuary’s wet dream. Cigarettes, a product so necessary to the lives of poor people, ensures that they work, reproduce, and terminate in ways that fully support prosperity. Now we can predict with greater certainty how much and for how long an entire population of people will tax government benefits. That is, how much they’ll draw from Social Security and Medicare over their lives.

Who would ever have thought that the solution to poverty and government spending could be so cleanly and efficiently solved? Through the salvation of cigarettes, the poor man can once again stand proud in the knowledge that he’s no longer a burden to his country but a contributor. A veritable resource if ever there was one.

There is just one final point I’d like to make. Call it the icing on the cake. In return for their patriotic contribution, I think it’s only fitting that we show our gratitude to poor people by rewarding them in some way. As long as an individual agrees to purchase an  affordable life insurance policy that requires a minimum daily smoking regimen, then his estate would receive a portion of the amount spent on cigarettes over his life plus the prevailing rate of interest during the contract period. This represents the raw beauty and power of a truly market-based approach to solving society’s most pressing problems. Under my plan, everyone, even the poor man, benefits.

The Changing Face of Happiness


For modern man, form increasingly dictates the substance of thought. Recall from the previous post, Happiness is a Balance, that optimum happiness depends on sustaining optimum internal and external conditions. Since forms are human constructions and are therefore imperfect, it stands to reason that an optimum external situation will be one that contains the least possible quantity of forms necessary to achieve this optimum happiness.

Forgive me if this sounds like abstract gibberish, but it conceals what I consider to be a profound realization about modern life: Our ability to be happy is affected, not only by the quantity of certain inputs, but by the way we perceive and value the things in and around us. This introduces the idea of various capacities for happiness, which I seemed to be downplaying before. For example, one who possesses a deeper appreciation for physical beauty would undoubtedly experience greater pleasure when viewing an exceptional painting than one who doesn’t.

But the previous post was attempting to illustrate the concept of optimum happiness. This doesn’t mean that differences in preferences or abilities don’t exist among individuals. It does, however, assume that under optimum conditions each individual has the capacity to potentially experience happiness to the same degree despite these differences. Whereas one who has greater artistic capacities might derive happiness from certain activities, another endowed with more of an athletic drive might feel just as happy in other pursuits. What’s important here are the conditions affecting their ability to fulfill their potential. The happiness principle states that their overall ability to experience happiness will be approximately equal as long as this potential is fulfilled.

This is where the idea of forms comes into play. In addition to obvious physical barriers that can prevent people from reaching their potential, there are any number of perceptual and psychological encumbrances that exist. I’m referring to these as forms.

To illustrate my concept of optimum happiness and how forms can affect it, imagine a great hall filled with people dancing. There’s nothing extraordinary about them. Just regular folk enjoying themselves. Nothing fancy. Count Basie is in the background as everyone swings to the groove. No races or political parties here. No brands, no pretense, no bullshit. The light is dim but not so much that you can’t see the shine in peoples’ smiles, the light in their eyes. It’s a good night and everyone’s feeling the vibe. Everyone has their own space. No one feels jealous or envious or afraid. There’s no need. Not when you’re feeling this good. Are you digging this scene?

Maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced something similar. If you have, then you know that the moments that encapsulate it are about as good as it gets. This is happiness, baby. And you wish it would never end. You’re feeling good. But you’re not feeling good just because of what’s inside you. You also feel good because you know everyone around you is feeling good too. Somehow this contributes to the magic. It makes the happiness deeper. People aren’t just experiencing something; they’re sharing it; and the sharing feeds back into it and adds to the experience. This is the balance I was referring to in the previous post. This is, I think, is an example of optimum happiness. It’s utterly magical. When the evening draws to a close, you can almost feel a sadness–perhaps even a nostalgia–knowing that it’s slipping away and there’s nothing you can do as you fall back toward normal existence.

But let’s hold this scene in our imaginations for a moment. Don’t fall back yet. Imagine you’re still out on the dance floor in the middle of it. Remember, the scene is pure and simple. It’s just you, the other people, the night, and the music. You’re not a person that exists to  be seen or desired by others. You’re simply doing and being. Nobody cares about the clothes or shoes you’re sporting. No sponsors; no labels; no stereotypes. The situation is as devoid of forms as possible. Nobody gives a shit how much money you make or what kind of car your drove here tonight. Situations, like this don’t exist much anymore, but try to imagine that it does. This is freedom from the tyranny of others’ preconceptions. The music is your only guide.

To illustrate how forms can degrade, or even ruin, the quality of happiness in this scene, imagine that we introduced a form to the dancers that didn’t exist before. Imagine that we introduced the idea of classes. The closer to the center of the dance floor one was, the more prestigious they became. Those on the edges were the least prestigious.

Imagine how this would affect the conditions. Now, instead of being equal participants in an atmosphere of joy, each person believes himself to have a greater or lesser share of prestige than those around him. Viewed through this lens, perception changes. Envy, jealousy, fear intrude upon the dance floor. People’s perception of happiness is redirected. The understanding that happiness is coming from the total situation itself is diminished. There’s a force emanating from the center. Now, the goal is to get as close to the center as possible. Presumably, those at the center will feel happier than those who aren’t.

But this is a false happiness. It’s based on the augmentation of ego in that one feels superior to those who are in a more peripheral position. We’ll call this the ego boost. We all know the feeling. When you head gets bigger. Clothes and auto makers rely on the ego boost a great deal. They push it like drug dealers. Many of us get hooked on it. We come to crave it in our daily lives like Starbucks and sugar.

But introducing prestige to the dance hall adds other things too. For one, it adds fear. Fear is a powerful tool because it cuts both ways. Those fortunate enough to be closer to the center feel relieved that they’re not as peripheral as some. This is the form of fear that we usually think of as jealousy. Now you will make sure to guard your position lest it be taken by all those inferior to you. On the other hand, they’ll work harder to stay where they are or advance out of fear that they might loose their position. Fear is both a carrot and a stick whereas the ego boost is pure straight ego heroin.

Where fear goes, her twin sister envy is sure to follow. The potential also exists for not merely fearing the loss of position but envying those who are in what is perceived to be a superior position. Relief and appreciation for what you have can easily loose its value when one considers how much better off others are.

Placing an artificial form, like a prestigious center, in a situation where it never existed completely changed the dynamic that created the balance of happiness (or optimum happiness as I previously referred to it). There’s nothing new here. The purpose of religion has been to help people to maintain this balance while eschewing conditions that will undermine it. The problem with our modern world is that it is making it increasingly difficult to promote the balance. In a world that has become dependent on unlimited economic growth, it eventually becomes irresistible for companies to use whatever means they can to urge people to purchase things they otherwise would not have any need for. Even if this means using fear, envy, and jealousy. Think about how much fewer Mercedes or Prada would be purchased in the absence of prestige.

Happiness is a Balance


Ok, as we left off in the previous post, What does it take to be happy?, Bonnie and Clyde have finally saved up enough loot and have escaped to their tropical paradise. Here we have it: Hollywood’s great formula for happiness: boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy and girl get a lot of money; and, finally, escape from the rat race. Elements of this formula compose many of the advertising messages Madison Avenue constantly bombards us with.

Sex, money, security. What could be more basic? We instinctively yearn for all three. In the modern world, increasingly the assumption is that the most important is money because, given enough of it, one can obtain the other two. Moreover, the conventional wisdom holds that the more money we have, the more we’ll be able to pursue all the things that make us happy. I think if most of us dig down deep enough inside, we’ll be forced to admit that we probably, despite the cliche about money not buying happiness, believe this logic.

For many of us, we pursue money as a proxy for our well-being. As practical creatures, most of our actions in the abstract, specialized worlds in which we live, are guided by the assumption that more money will inevitably lead to more well-being (or happiness). In fact, if you come right down to it, this is the single greatest shared belief of the modern world. More money = more happiness. So ingrained it is, that we may as well call it what it is: Faith (and that, mind you, is Faith with a capital F).

So widespread and unquestioned is this Faith that even the agnostics and atheists among us cling to her breast like suckling babes. But is there truth in Her? Or is it merely emptiness dressed up like a goddess?

Perhaps She’s real enough for people who don’t think. Maybe enough if all you need to be happy is a full belly and a spent condom. But what about the others? Those who seek deeper things in life. The poets and philosophers. Those who seek more. What do people like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, or Kurt Cobain have to tell us? Talented, sensitive people who had all the money, fame, material things anyone could ever hope for? Were they happy? Shall we ask Janis Joplin, Mr. Mojo Rising, and Jimmy Hendrix? Tell us Elvis, were they–were you–happy? If so, when in your life were you happiest?

I submit to you that if all Bonnie and Clyde have when they reach their palm tree island is a sack of loot, that they won’t sustain happiness. The cliche turns out to be right, after all. Money, alone, can’t buy happiness. As a lawyer might say, though money is a necessary condition for happiness, it isn’t sufficient.

The next concept of the happiness principle I’d like to introduce is two-fold. It has to do with the inner and out conditions necessary to bring about a state of happiness:

For an optimum state of well being (or happiness) to exist, it’s not enough for a person to maintain the correct internal balance, they must also co-exist with an external environment in which all necessary factors are present and balanced.

The first part of this means that an individual must possess some balance of resources that, for his particular makeup, are required for optimum well being. I know it sounds like I’m hedging a bit, but, suffice it to say, that the balance will be a little different for each person. For most people, this will involve certain parts health, appetitive satiation, freedom, security, etc.

A condition I’ll call certain attention to and is not always salient in contemporary discourse is the condition under which one is able to fulfill his potential. Particularly nowadays, this is one that is sorely lacking. It is hard to imagine a person achieving optimum happiness in the absence of this condition.

The external aspect of the happiness balance is a little less obvious. It states that even if a person achieves their own internal balance for optimum happiness, it will elude them if they do not exist in an environment in which all of the external conditions are not in balance.

The external balance is less subjective than the internal balance. In many ways, important aspects of this balance have to do with a healthy environment: clean air, clean water, beautiful, flowing, spaces. Space is very important. In short, the things that landscape architects and Japanese artists refer to as harmony. Edward Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in Manhattan, knew how well space, particularly open space, was important to the psychological well-being of people who spent much of their time in close conditions.

Yet one of the most important environmental conditions of happiness has to do with the internal well being of the other human beings around us. The cliche misery loves company is important to note here because happiness loves company too. This leads us to one of the most under-appreciated, yet simplest, truisms of human existence. It is also a paradox that hangs like a dead weight around the necks of the greedy. Simply put, a person, no matter how well balanced their internal conditions are, cannot achieve optimum happiness unless those around them have also achieved it.

For those of you who require an example, consider how difficult it would be for you to feel your happiest if, for example, all of your loved ones were miserable and sad. An extreme example, no doubt. But I would broaden this out to its fullest logical point. Optimum human happiness is not attainable unless every single living human being has achieved their optimum internal balance. The world is far more inter-connected than we suppose. A violent act ripples from one end to the other. A thought, an idea spreads like a virus, programming us, shaping our views, feelings, words, and on and on, rippling back and forth.

This isn’t an entirely foreign concept. It’s been taught in many ways. If Christ would have us remember just one element of his teaching, it would be this. Yet, how much in our day-to-day lives do we consider it? In this way, we’re Cain’s offspring, repeatedly forgetting that the violence we do to our brother comes back to us again and again from one short life to the next.

If we consider a previous concept of the happiness principle, namely that each human being, regardless of ability, possesses equal capacities for happiness, then we must, after considering the foregoing, ask ourselves if we aren’t all bound (each and everyone one of us) to each create the conditions necessary for optimum happiness? Not simply bound morally, but bound because it’s necessary. For ourselves; for everyone.

Finally, if we’re all equal in happiness, who has the right to undermine someone else’s? For the happiness principle says if I hurt you, I also hurt those around you; and in the end I ultimately hurt myself. A circle is a line that is connected at both ends. The world is a sphere and a sphere is a multidimensional circle.

What does it take to be happy?


I think most of the developed world has been having a pretty limited conversation when it comes to formulating questions about the conditions necessary to bring about happiness. I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t think about happiness very much. I believe pretty much everyone believes  they want to be happy. But I think the breadth and scope of modern man’s ideas concerning what will make him happy have been pared down considerably. For many of us, ideas of happiness have been shaped to a great extent by the needs and language of commerce.

The advertising discourse in which we’re immersed informs us that we need more or better, bigger and newer, sexier or stronger. It lures us into the trap of valuing our lives by material possessions.  Before we know it, the yardstick  becomes more like a riding-whip urging us on in the pursuit of more and more until our possessions become synonymous with who we are. At this point, the tangible transmogrifies into a representative of  even the most intangible aspects of our lives, such as our personalities. In other words, the material aspects of our lives become a measure by which we value who we are as people. This can be viewed as the ascendancy of the tangible over the intangible (the psychic, emotional, and spiritual). Children, in our society, learn this lesson very young on the school playground when they’re made fun of or shunned for not wearing the right clothes, shoes, or for not having the latest smartphone.

But it’s all a fake-out. Like idols of times past, we’re fooled into believing that the possession of a certain thing will somehow bring us closer to the idea(s) and underlying reality with which it’s associated. The implication is that the tangible thing will deliver the ultimate intangible we all thirst for–happiness. This view of the world places less emphasis on achieving happiness through the individual’s personal development of their own ineffable qualities, like fortitude or grace, through internal struggle and triumph than the dogged pursuit of material wealth at whatever cost is required. The shift is away from a focus on a spiritual journey balanced between the internal and external worlds to one wholly transfixed on the brass ring the individual apprehends with snorting, bleary-eyed intensity. Consequences be damned. Everything will fall into place once the brass ring is finally grasped.

In time, practice dictates thought; form influences substance: giving rise to the mistake that the outer is the path to the inner. But this misconception isn’t unique to modern times. What’s new is the breadth of the types of physical things that we allow ourselves to be judged by and the extent to which we allow ourselves to be judged. Unfortunately, our judges don’t stay on the playground. Like the Furies of antiquity, they pursue us unceasingly. And there are more places for them to exist than ever before: Facebook, LinkedIn, not to mention the tv that lives in our phones, computers, and automobiles. They surround us on all sides relentlessly encroaching  on what scant refuge remains.

Unless you have certain possessions by certain ages, the Furies claim you’re less worthy than all the countless peers who do. The judgement is self-evident. You either possess the thing or you don’t. You’re either acquitted or found guilty. It’s an excruciatingly bright line. The discourse doesn’t allow for any appeals based on any of the intangibles you possess. It doesn’t matter how noble or generous or kind you are. What matters is whether you make a certain amount of money or have a prestigious job. Then, of course, the car, clothes, house, address, etc., etc, etc. You either have them or not. You and everything that your skin encompasses will be judged by these things and these things only.

For what kind of world would we inhabit if the defendant were allowed to bring arguments about their inner beings into play? Next thing you know they’ll expect you to prize them just because they’re nice. Or magnanimous. But what cost is there to these things? It’s not as though they need to be purchased? These intangible qualities aren’t constrained or regulated by money. Anyone willing to strive for them can possess them in varying degrees. Such a society, as even kings and queens of old knew, has little economic value. We live in a world whose economy literally depends on production and consumption levels that, in turn, require the type of mind-set and motivations outlined above.

So here we are with our material possessions and our misery and little else. We come back to the question of what does it take to be happy? How much and what kind of material wealth is required? Moreover, what else is required? This is a trickier question. Our movies usually end at this point. Thelma and Louise; Bonnie and Clyde have just about made it. Just about to make the big score. Then they can retire to palm trees and paradise. If they can just get there, they can finally consume and have happiness.

So, let’s assume Bonnie and Clyde make it. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they go riding off south of the border into a sun-drenched future. Will the palm trees and sand be enough for happiness? Or can we just as safely assume sunburns and hangovers? What, other than sex, money, and sun, will Mr. and Mrs. Clyde need to be happy? The next post in the happiness principle series will take this up.

Equality in Happiness


The second major concept of the happiness principle holds that all people are equal before the throne of the happiness principle.

This is a radical, perhaps revolutionary statement. It runs contrary to fundamental values inherent in many of the world’s leading contemporary societies. Most of us have been taught to believe that talented, hardworking people can possess more happiness than those less well endowed because they have more resources to purchase the things that will supposedly satisfy their needs and wants. Modern economics has been rooted in this idea for a long time.

As the merchant class came to replace the old nobility, the idea that the most virtuous in society ranked at the top (because of their proximity to God) was replaced by a more technocratic one: those with greater abilities would, like cream, rise to the top of society. Hence, a society ranked by the type of work one performed. Higher level jobs commanded higher pay because they supposedly deliver greater value to society. There is a moral justification that should be noted: those with higher level jobs deserve more happiness because they give more to society than workers below them.

Money may not be able to buy love, but the merchant class’ vision of society definitely believes that it can buy happiness. Capitalism the way it’s practiced today requires this belief in order to function properly. For example, financial exchanges depend on the fiction that profits can infinitely grow because they result from the sale of goods and services that are supposedly demanded by an unquenchable desire for more happiness.  This fiction suspends the disbelief of much of society in general–not just the financial community–even though economists recognize the law of diminishing marginal utility.

It’s essential that most members of society believe the fiction. Just imagine for a moment what would happen to the global economy if everyone suddenly believed that packaged mass marketed foods were no longer desirable and should immediately replace those that are locally produced? Or if everyone stopped watching tv? Either one of these actions would make the recent financial crisis look like a walk in the park.

We’ve just defined two fallacies necessary for developed nations’ economies to continue to function as they have up till now: 1. that markets enable people to perpetually pursue and realize a higher conception of happiness; and 2. that society, by and large, fairly rewards members based on their contributions to it.

But does anyone really believe this claptrap? Show me a man who believes he can buy happiness in a store and I’ll show you one doomed to a life of disappointment. And if society fairly recompensed its members based on the value they bring to it, teachers and social workers would be millionaires.

All people are equal before the throne of the happiness principle.

This means that all human beings, regardless of their physical or mental characteristics pretty much share the same capacity for happiness. Whether someone picks strawberries for a living or someone else trades stocks, they each were born with relatively the same potential to experience happiness. This begs the question whether there are any conditions that justifiably limit a person’s ability to obtain happiness based on social ranking? Furthermore, if both types of workers have equal capacities, what exactly will most significantly impact their ability to experience happiness? What is justifiable on a moral basis? If the acquisition of goods beyond a certain point has no real impact on happiness, isn’t much of our economy and resources wasted on unnecessary production?

These questions will be examined. But first we need to ask about the types of things that make a person happy. That will be the subject of the next post. All we’ve done in this one is allude to some things that don’t.

For now, suffice it to say that as long as conditions affecting all people’s capacity for happiness are equal, there is nothing individuals can do to experience more happiness than their peers. In other words, once an optimum state is achieved in relation to your capacity, the happiness principle won’t let you go beyond. All attempts, no matter how much is consumed or purchased, will be in vain. No matter how many wild parties, exotic places, or sensual pleasures. All will be wasted once a point is reached.

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The Happiness Principle


I’d like to introduce you to the happiness principle. What is the happiness principle you ask? This is a good question and is very likely one of the most important questions you’ll ever ask. For when it comes down to it, what could be more important than your happiness? The only answer I can think of is my happiness, since my happiness is certainly more urgent to me than yours. Or is it?

But I’m jumping ahead. Our happiness, even though we’re strangers, you and I, are really quite dependent on each other, if truth be told. More on this later. For now, let’s get back to fundamentals.

I think its pretty much universally accepted that, when it comes down to it, nothing is more important than happiness. Where would religion be without it? What would be the point of Christianity without Heaven? Buddhism without Nirvana? In fact, I don’t think it’d be too much of a stretch to say that happiness is the whole point of religion. Who’d want to live forever in the absence of happiness? That would be like…well, we all know what that would be called. There’s a four letter word for that and it usually starts with a capital.

So, if we’re all agreed that happiness is extremely important, how come there’s so little of it? C’mon, don’t look so shocked. Be honest with yourself. How much happiness do you see? How many happy faces did you experience today? Maybe the small children playing in the park? But just wait until they grow up a little. They’ll get wise pretty fast.

I think it’s not unreasonable to propose that our second established point here is that even though happiness is the most important resource in the world it’s unfortunately in very short supply. As paradoxical and unseemly as that may seem, it’s the truth.

Now that we’ve cleared up those points, let’s thrust forward to the first major concept of the happiness principle.

1. Human beings are capable of experiencing only so much happiness. No matter what you do, you will not be able to enjoy more than your allotment or rise beyond your capacity.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t do certain things to optimize your ability to be happy. It’s pretty obvious that there are inner and outer forces that can affect your happiness level. Less obvious, however, are the levers and adjustments necessary to create the optimum conditions for happiness. It’s these that’ll be the focus of upcoming posts about the happiness principle.

For now, let’s content ourselves with the idea that we’re, individually speaking, equal in the eyes of happiness. There is only so much happiness that anyone, rich or poor, short or tall, can experience within a given society. I mean society in its broadest possible sense: a defined system in which a population exists, including their physical location, economy, laws, religion(s), art, etc.

You cannot run or hide from the happiness principle. You can meditate or pray and hopefully find your individual, optimum level within the society you may be fortunate or unfortunate enough to inhabit. But that is it. You cannot buy or drink your way out. The happiness principle is a universal law and cannot be denied.

The question is how much and what kind of happiness will the principle allow? Are there different aspects of happiness that should be noted to fully understand and appreciate Essential Happiness? Moreover, what are the conditions necessary to bring this state about? This latter question is where we, meaning the history of our happiness impoverished race, have failed so miserably. This, too, will be covered in the upcoming posts on the happiness principle.

For now, as the poet once sung, don’t worry, be happy.

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Earthquake Warning Signs


Mongolia, China, 2003, Strange Pre-Earthquake Occurrences

A 2003 story in the China Daily relates some strange occurrences just prior to a large earthquake that hit Chifeng, a city in Mongolia. Villagers reported that they saw water spurt more than six feet into the air from a river bed that had been dry for many years.

Cellphone signals were reportedly knocked out for up till 10 hours prior to the quake in an area about 90 miles from the epicenter. Experts speculated the cause may have been interference from “abnormal terrestrial magnetic waves.” Continue reading

The Great Earthquake Debate



A Google search using the words “earthquake trends”1 reveals that earthquakes have been on a lot of peoples’ minds. But it’s not just since Haiti. As one high profile earthquake gives way to another, the Internet clearly indicates that many people are starting to ask questions. It’s interesting to note the different interpretations of what is perceived by many to be an increase in either the frequency or strength of earthquakes in recent years. This post takes a look at some of the popular stories currently circulating about earthquakes. They constitute the common beliefs that many people  share about earthquakes and how they relate to contemporary societies. As such, it is felt that these stories represent modern folktales about earthquakes.

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  1. without using quotes in the actual search []

Kenyans Desperate to Survive Resort to Poaching


Wild Animals in Kenya Threatened by Extinction as Severe Drought Causes Food Shortages

In an article titled, “Kenyans eating wild animals as drought worsens,” The Nairobi Chronicle reported on its blog last September that the drought in Kenya was so bad that people were resorting to hunting bush meat in the national parks. This includes monkeys and baboons, which, until a short time ago, were considered taboo. The situation has gotten so bad that in some parts of the country, frightened monkeys that used to roam freely have taken refuge in the bush, far away from humans. In other parts of the country, gangs of half-crazed baboons have banded together thrashing everything in sight, pounding dogs into “mince meat”. Continue reading

Global Earthquake Trends 1900 – 2010


Killer Earthquakes and Other Problems Beneath the Surface

Silent and unexpected, without warning, they smite with irresistible force. All that dwells upon the surface is subject to the invisible fury of the earthquake. Shacks and mansions, buildings, bridges, and roadways; their permanence rendered illusory. Yet for all its titanic power, the earthquake, unlike other natural forces, does not kill man directly. It exerts itself on the very things that sustain our civilization, causing what normally provides shelter to cave in and crush us.

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The Monster Dialectic


Suicide Bombers

Presidents Obama, Bush, and other politicians routinely call them and their leaders evil. Others say they’re hapless dimwits lured into sacrificing themselves on the altar of jihad for the sake of remuneration or virgins in paradise. There are also theories that they’re trying to rid their countries of what they perceive as military occupations by foreign governments. Who are the suicide bombers and why do they want to kill us so bad they’re willing to blow themselves up? Why are there so many people volunteering to end their lives in such a gruesome way? Continue reading