Monthly Archives: October 2015

Legos not for you, Ai Weiwei

Danish corporation Lego recently refused to sell its famous plastic blocks in bulk to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a dissident whom authorities have physically abused and imprisoned in the past for works of art and statements critical of the regime.

The BBC News article linked below indicates Weiwei tried to order supplies for a new exhibit about political dissidents, but the large multi-national corporation refused.

Lego representatives did not want its products used in political statements, according to the article, though this wasn’t a problem last year, when Weiwei used the colorful blocks to create portraits of international dissident figures for an exhibition in San Francisco. Weiwei suggests Lego’s current stance has more to do with commerce than politics, pointing out that a Legoland theme park will soon open in Shanghai.

More from the BBC below.

— Marcus


Clamping down on freedom

Russia’s secret service will now, it appears, vet additional research papers destined for international journals, beyond restrictions currently in place for science involving military technology. Scientists will endure what appears to be another strike in a series of regressive blows to Russian science that have been occuring since at least 2013.

Requiring security approvals before publishing generates animosity from scientists for a number of reasons: science is a collaborative effort; good science requires independent verification; expertise is often dispersed. The new restrictions indicate a step backward toward cold-war paranoia, away from freedom. As a Russian scientist quoted in the article below emphasizes,

“This is a return to Soviet times when in order to send a paper to an international journal, we had to get a permission specifying that the result is not new and important and hence may be published abroad.”

— Marcus

Between Iraq and a hard place

Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, despite our President’s misgivings, with which there are reasons to agree, may indeed succeed in keeping Al-Assad in power. The logic presented of preserving stability above all else is one I would have agreed with in 2006, when I served in Iraq, and bore witness to the disintegration of civil society that our intervention had created. We had, in our zeal for vengeance after 9/11, in our wishful thinking about the possibility for success of democratic nation-building in a region that had never seen democracy, set off the sectarian “powder keg” of the Middle East. As I interrogated one pissed-off Sunni insurgent after another, all of whom expressed an alarmingly inhuman hatred for Shia Muslims, it was hard not to think, “Good God, they needed Saddam here to keep the lid on this place.”

Putin may pay a heavy price politically if his involvement in Syria doesn’t work out, but tactically, what he’s doing is sound. His forces are bombing the daylights out of the enemies of the regime. This air campaign will cripple any forces trying to hold areas Assad wants to retake. The big test will be Aleppo.

Syria is a hard place, mired in an intractable conflict, facing the reality that the faction making the strongest gains, ISIS, is also the most undesirable: ISIS imposes a social order that is more stifling, more brutal than the hated Assad regime. Millions of ordinary Syrians are now fleeing. We’d be cynical not to hope that Russia’s actions will restore some kind of stability. Perhaps at that point, Assad would be willing to give up power and we’d end up with a Shia version of Sisi in Egypt — same government, different strong-man. But history shows that treachery and barbarism tend to be what passes for conflict resolution in the Middle East, and so I’m not holding my breath that this will be a quick and easy bombing campaign then exit for Russia. Quick and easy was what we thought about Iraq in 2003.

In any event, Russia’s assertions in Syria (and Iraq) are troubling. A possible outcome is the region becoming an area of proxy wars between Iran and Russia-backed Shias and America and Saudi Arabia-backed Sunnis; such a situation would be the source for more instability and chaos, growing support for groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda that feed off popular resentments of foreign intervention. The best case is what I mentioned above: that by destroying Assad’s enemies, we allow him to exit and another leader to come into power whose rule the population is more willing to tolerate.

— Marcus


Zamperini the great

Last year the world lost Olympic athlete and World War II hero Louis Zamperini, whose life Angelina Jolie chronicled in her film Unbroken. Zamperini endured torture at the hands of his Japanese captors, and suffered greatly — psychologically, emotionally — on his return home. Nightmares of his tormentor-interrogator, nicknamed “The Bird”, woke him routinely and Zamperini turned to alcohol to escape his pain. This quote sticks out:

“Pain never bothered bothered me, destroying my dignity stuck with me.”

After years struggling with PTSD, Zamperini become whole again after turning to Christianity and forgiving his tormentors. An interview in the Atlantic prior to his death here contains captivating insights on life and American history from this intriguing man. The Denver Post chronicles his experiences in the story linked below.

— Marcus

James Mitchell is not the guy you want, ACLU

The men who should first be sued by the ACLU are leaders like George Tenet, not instruments of their policy like James Mitchell, a psychologist and retired career airman who has repeatedly stepped forward to clarify his role in waterboarding. Mitchell claims he raised concerns about abuse and excess, and calls the Senate Report partisan because it fails to mention this. Last year, in a Vice interview, he also said:

“I was told that [President George W. Bush] had authorized my action, I was told that the highest law enforcement office in the land had judged those actions to be legal, I was told that the intelligence committees in Congress had been briefed. The interrogations I engaged in were monitored in real time by medical personnel and leadership who could have stopped what I was doing at any time. I was told for years that my activities had saved lives and prevented attacks. And now I’m being denigrated by some of the very people who pushed me to use harsher measures.”

Mitchell also identifies himself as one of the interrogators in the Senate report who were moved to tears when CIA superiors told him to continue waterboarding Abu Zubayda.

In my opinion, James Mitchell, not a reckless man, should not be the scapegoat for the torture policy hatched in the minds of zealots whose positions of power and influence demanded greater wisdom. Mitchell believed he was doing his duty, however foolishly. He and his partner, John Jessen, are not immune from accountability, nor should anyone be for his or her actions in this life, but let’s remember that they would have been replaced instantly had they refused.

With the human species, history shows it’s never been a tough task for leaders to find servants who are willing to brutalize others on behalf of an existing orthodoxy, or to serve a scheme to help achieve a short-sighted goal. Leaders therefore have a special responsibility to honor the laws that govern our nature — and should be the first to account for any dishonorable consequences that result from their decisions.

Below, links to two articles that speak to this matter.

— Marcus