Thursday, September 18, 2014

Death Wish

In Syria and Iraq the young are killed by ideologies, by other minds. In America, it is the mind that kills. “Why Do Doctors Commit Suicide?” (NYT, 9/4/14)  was the title of a Times Op-ed piece by a recent medical school graduate, Pranay Sinha. Why would a graduate of a top university who has succeeded in being accredited in one of the world’s most respected professions end his or her life? And it’s not only about medicine. There was a period when Sweden, a country which provided semi-Utopian conditions to its citizens, experienced the highest suicide rate in the world (Sweden no longer heads the list). Can we hypothesize that perhaps a society where outward cares are less an issue becomes more inward turning? And is this not somehow the case with America where the jihad can come from within? In his famous Suicide: A Study in Sociology Emile Durkheim argued that suicide was less evident in highly structured societies. One wonders about the prevalence of suicide in the Taliban controlled portions of Afghanistan, among Boko Haram in Nigeria and naturally ISIS and al-Qaeda controlled territories. However, horrible the idea, can we say that jihad itself, with its hatred of the other, is an insurance against self-annihilation (with the exception obviously of suicide bombers)? And is it possible to conclude that in societies like Sweden and the United States which preach tolerance and freedom, and which demand relatively little social conformity, that the thanatos  or death drive which Freud described as a natural part of life (Todestrieb) is more likely to be unleashed on the self?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


First Issue Cracked (cover art, Bill Everett)
Saying that there would have been no ISIS if the US hadn’t invaded Iraq is little like claiming that Ray Rice wouldn’t have gotten into his current difficulties if he and his wife hadn’t taken the elevator or gone to Atlantic City. The Saddam Hussein regime was tantamount in brutality to Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria and if the US had never intervened it might well have run into problems soon after Arab spring with another revolutionary force that the dialectics of history produced. The opposition might have been Shiite rather than Sunni but Newton’s Third Law, “every action creates an equal and opposite reaction,” is as applicable to politics as it is to science. The fodder for despots and terrorists is chaos and hopelessness and there's enough of that in the Mideast without the United States having to raise a finger in the name of oil or democracy or both. This isn’t the first time in history that we've seen social cohesion and purpose coming out of violence. The rise of fascism in Germany can almost directly be tied to the onerous effects of the Versailles Treaty—which crippled the German economy. Marx said “ the opiate of the masses" and Raymond Aron famously titled his critique of Marxism as The Opium of the Intellectuals. But the fact is that the history of the civilization records the search for varying kinds of anodynes for despair. Some are benign delusions such as the notion there is a meaning and purpose in the universe. But some addictive substances and beliefs can turn people into monsters, as the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov demonstrates. Terrorism is civilization’s crack.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two Eyes for An Eye

Sing Sing’s “Old Sparky"
It’s not to demean the suffering of those who have been POW’s on either side of the fence. But when you read about the latest ISIS beheading, the infamous Hanoi Hilton really seems like the Hilton. Those who have traveled to Poland to see Auschwitz, to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, those remembering Katyn may have thought they have seen the limits of depravity, but human innovation seems to know no bounds where the infliction of pain and suffering are concerned. Of course if you go to Italy and visit one of the Museo della Torturas you will find some pretty inventive contraptions like the Judas cradle, the rack,  head and testicle crushers. Let’s not forget burning at the stake, boiling in oil, bastinado and crucifixion. What is often remarked about pornography can also be iterated about torture: if it’s been said it’s been done and if it’s been done it’s been said. And then there is the infamous torture scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Waterboarding and sleep deprivation might seem mild what’s  compared to the failed death by lethal injection inflicted on a death row inmate in Oklahoma named Clayton Lockett? And then there's mental torture of the kind that was deployed on Lawrence Harvey in Manchurian Candidate and Dostoevsky, who was put up in front of a firing squad for his revolutionary activities and told he was going to die. Is there a limit to human torment, a point beyond which even the most depraved executioner refuses to go? Too bad Tomas de Torquemada, one of the stars of the Inquisition, is not here to answer the question? Does agency lessen pain? Do Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire or people who jump out of windows have something going for them. Would that Jan Masaryk were here to testify about the downside of unwilling defenestration. A scientist until the end Lavoisier reputedly performed an experiment involving his own death at the guillotine, by attempting to blink his eyes after his head was severed from his neck. However, while he may have been successful, he wasn’t able to talk about it. What if the ISIS executioner with the English accent beheaded himself as a way of expressing his anger at the West? Would the pain he felt be less than that which he inflicted on his victims, by virtue of the fact that relief was in his grasp?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Boots on the Ground--The Movie


    Boots On the Ground is a feature length action film. American air strikes have not been able to contain ISIS which has also launched several successful attacks at targets in major European capitals, during one of which over a l00 hostages are captured and air lifted to a brutal ISIS prison near Qatar. The United States will be next.   
    Moses Thomas is a high ranking member of U.S Military Intelligence. In his role he oversees covert missions by both Special Forces and Navy Seals. Moses grew up in Chicago where his brother Ike took a different tact becoming a widely feared leader of the Bloods. Ike is now serving a life sentence at Menard, a maximum security prison. During a long period in solitary confinement Ike has developed a deep faith in God and has also earned a PhD in sociology. He is a leader in the prison where he is routinely consulted by inmates and authorities alike.
    Moses has unsuccessfully been trying to get Ike a reprieve for years, but due to his brutal past, all attempts to get pardons, even by Moses interceding at the highest levels, have failed.
   As the crisis escalates Moses develops a plan which will re-establish American hegemony and empty the prisons. Ike and an army of criminals will raid the ISIS stronghold on the Iraq Syria border where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reputed to oversee operations. The stronghold is deemed practically impregnable and bombproof as it lies at the bottom of a famed archeological dig, a holy Mesopotamian city that lies over a half a mile below the surface of the earth.
    Cut to ISIS teams perfecting work on a tactical nuclear devices which will be used for an attack on Washington along with chemical and biological weapons designed to paralyze populations throughout the country.  In the meanwhile the training of Ike and a task force comprised of thousands of criminals has not gone without glitches. Given the opportunity to be good at being good rather than exceling at being bad, some of the hardened mobsters Ike has recruited still remain loyal to the underworld. At first he's forced to use strongarm techniques to discipline his own men. He’s got to demonstrate who’s boss. This part of the film will resemble the kind of MMA you see in the televised Ultimate Fighting challenges. But once Isaiah has prevailed and weeded out the incorrigible, he’s ready to move.
    There will be a scene right out of Preston Sturges when the gates of all the prisons open and the prisons are emptied with a flip to lines of former bikers, pickpockets, murderers, rapists and mobsters all decked out in the uniform of the the United States Correctional Military! Naturally you will have a WAC unit which will live up to its acronym, but will also be an in house source of intelligence while providing the film’s romantic interests). Remember it was a woman CIA officer who was instrumental in tracking bin Laden.
    Moses introduces Ike and his men into the next level of preparedness which involves having access to the most classified levels of weapons technology. They are training not to strike from the air, but by way of an underground drilling operation. This part of the movie will in some ways resemble Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, with underground drones performing high tech feats. There will be sections which also mirror the Chilean mining disaster when Ike and his crew become trapped in explosions and cave-ins that go undetected by their minders who have neither radar nor sonar connections to the army of criminals.  
   Finally our heroes are prevail against the elements and find themselves on a collision course with their ISIS counterparts. They’re willing and ready to use a mixture of street smarts and advanced weaponry to defeat their foe.
    The tone of the movie will be tongue and cheek and filmed like a 30’s romantic comedy with irises and other old-fashioned visual effects and while ISIS may be defeated, our army of criminals is going end up in jail on V-ME (Victory Middle East Day).
    At the end of the film the disconsolate prison guards who had been put out of work by Isaiah and Moses will be happily restored to their jobs. The prisons will be full and American hedge fund honchos and Silicon Valley billionaires, our latter day Robber Barons, will again be free to reek financial havoc with world markets and bring about the same conditions that helped to create terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda in the first place. No one has learned anything.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Boots on the Ground

mugshot of Whitey Bulger
Sounds like a plan? Let’s take every hardened criminal in a maximum security prison and dump them on ISIS. Let’s plunk the Crips and Bloods down on the Iraq Syria border. We’ll kill two birds with one stone. We’ll empty out our prisons and have a worthy opponent for ISIS. What would be in it for the criminals? Obviously in one scenario they would emerge as heroes who would be freed from of the first law of criminal thermodynamics: if you can’t be good at being good, be good at being bad. All these bad guys could rehabilitate themselves and finally have the chance to become heroes by society’s standards (as opposed to being heroes of the underworld). It may sound like an outlandish idea, but your average hardened criminal is like that strain of bacteria which resists all antibiotics. He’s the true survivor of the fittest having endured not only the brutal life of the streets, but numerous incarcerations in maximum security prisons. If you can survive in a Texas prison, you are going to find ISIS strongholds no more threatening than a jump in the lake. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has been talked as a charismatic leader and organizer, but let’s see how he does when Lieutenant Colonel Whitey Bulger and his organized crime confederates become our boots on the ground. This could well turn out to be the new Ultimate Fighting contest, the new mixed martial art or cage fight to end all fights. The Mob v. ISIS--with the prize being the conquest of the world.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Have you ever considered what would happen if the United States was really invaded? 9/11 was a terrorist attack but there was no follow up. In The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick imagined what the United States would have been like had the Japanese (an the other Axis powers) actually won, a state of affairs that was not entirely out of the realm of possibility before Hiroshima put Japan out of the running for good. During the war German submarines frequently visited the Eastern coast of the United States so the idea that only Europe was directly threatened by German advances was more of a wish than a reality. In his The Plot Against America Philip Roth imagines an alternative history in which Lindbergh was elected president and chose a Chamberlain type policy of appeasement over going to war with the Nazis. On 9/11 the Pentagon was actually threatened and then there was the bombing at the Boston Marathon by the Tsarnaev brothers. But what would an actual invasion be like and how would the American people respond? The Kurdish Peshmerga was thought to be a force to be reckoned with, but it had trouble defending both their capital of Erbil and the enormous dam at Mosul, until the United States started to bombard ISIS positions. And remember that ISIS  currently comprises only approximately l0,000 soldiers (“The rise of Isis: Terror group now controls an area the size of Britain, expert claims,” The Independent, 9/3/14) What will happen when their ranks swell with the poor uneducated denizens of refugee camps who constitute a good proportion of their recruits? You live for 7 years in a Syrian refugee camp and the only graduation diploma you’re going to have is your ISIS membership card. Will the legacy of the Enlightenment with its championship of human rights and individual freedom be any match for the fervor of a new generation of jihadist who could very possibly reach our shores? In Human Smoke: The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilization, Nicholson Baker proposed another alternative history, this time based on real facts and suggesting that lives might have been saved if the Allies had taken a pacificist stance towards the Axis powers. Al-Qaeda recently declared a jihad against India (“Al-Qaeda leader announces India wing,” Aljazeera, 9/4/14) If Gandhi were alive what would he have suggested as a response?