Life Goes on After Mali Attack

Girl in Bamako, MaliGiven that we spent almost a week enjoying music from Mali, I figure I ought to say something about the Bamako hotel attack that took place just one week after the attacks in Paris. There are a few things that are worth noting. Note is that this was a terrorist attack. It was apparently carried out by Al-Mourabitoun and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. There were at least 19 people murdered. But I guess we don’t really care because most Americans don’t even know where Mali is, and the people there are used to being killed or don’t value life like we do or something.

Maybe it is that it is an attack by people who don’t look like us on people who don’t look like us. (In fact, that’s not true: it was an expensive hotel and over half of the victims were “white” — but only one was American, Anita Datar — working on family planning and HIV.) According to a BBC report, Mali has been under attack for the last three years — a situation that has been made much worse by the destabilization of Libya. It’s interesting to me especially, because the United States acts so much like Don Quixote. We throw ourselves into situations, make them worse, and then ride off thinking that we have done good. Of course, Don Quixote is insane. And the US is supposedly the most civilized of countries with by far the biggest military in the world.

The four or five gunmen who stormed the hotel were yelling “Allāhu Akbar” (“Allah is great”). So I guess that means Sam Harris was right. This is all about religion. It isn’t a question of a decades long separatist conflict with rebels in north Mali and west Niger. And before the Harrisistas start complaining that The Profit doesn’t say it is only Islam that is to blame, let’s be clear: I don’t think there has ever been a war in which most of the people didn’t feel God was on their side. In the Battle of Lena, both side thought Odin was on their side. Here’s a bit of history for you all: none of it was actually about Odin.

Our response here in the US is, “Not our fault! Close the borders! Hide under the bed! Oh, and keep up that drone program, because it’s working so very well!”

This attack took place on 20 November 2015. I looked back a year after the Paris attacks. So let’s look back at 20 November 2014 from the Global Terrorism Database. There were at least 105 fatalities from 39 attacks. And this isn’t taking into account all the people fighting against them, not to mention our own bombing and drone campaigns. I am almost to the point where I want to throw up my hands and just repeat, over and over, “They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!”

Of course, I fear that most people on all sides of these conflicts would respond the opposite from the way I intend. They would say, “Right on!” I’ve been more than clear over the years that I am not a pacifist. But it is clear that there are ways to make the world better and ways to make the world worse. We all know that the Iraq War destabilized the Middle East and made the world worse. Less known is that after almost 15 years of war, the Taliban have a tighter grip on Afghanistan than when we started. Well played, comrades; well played!

Meanwhile, death is everywhere — random and brutal. And our response here in the US is, “Not our fault! Close the borders! Hide under the bed! Oh, and keep up that drone program, because it’s working so very well!” Meanwhile, the people of Mali get on with their lives. They do not have the luxury to pretend that the world will be safe if only they close their borders.

Yes Donny, These Men Are Going to Hurt Us

Chris ChristieYou know me: Not a Real Man™. In general, I think men who act macho and belligerent are hiding something. They have very small penises or are awful in bed or are gay but too cowardly to admit it. Something. Regardless, it’s all about being terrified. So I’m not at all surprised that the political party of the macho man, the Republicans, should show its true colors and quake at the idea that terrorists kill people. I’m sure they are looking for women to walk in front of them so they lessen the impact of any bomb blast. If they are kidnapped, they won’t need to be tortured to yell, “Do it to Julia!”

It seems to me that the Paris bombings are a bigger media event here than they are there. We really are a nation of cowards. It takes almost nothing to set us off. This is why, with less than 5% of the world’s population, we spend just short of half of all the money on weapons. It’s why Bush’s line was so effective, “Fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” We just want to hide from the threats of the world. And that’s because we have to face such minor threats here. It’s also because we have one political party with an ideology so repugnant to the vast majority of people, the only way it can get power is by fear mongering.

I’ve always consider myself a coward. Yet I have often times gone into very dangerous situations and locations — alone. It’s not because I’m foolhardy. I just trust that (1) threats are usually overblown; and (2) I can usually handle situations. Given what I see among so many American men, I can’t consider myself a coward in an absolute sense — just relative to what I think true bravery would be. So I don’t know what that makes people who are afraid to live near a methadone clinic or a prison or a Syrian refugee family. We need a new word, but I’m afraid it is one that I would ban from this site on stylistic grounds.

“No Donny, these men are cowards.” —Walter Sobchak

The ultimate example of this is Big Chicken — or as I like to think of him, “Governor Shouts a Lot,” Chris Christie. He made the bold statement last week that we shouldn’t let Syrian orphans under five years old in. It’s not clear that he is actually afraid of them. He said, “But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?” Yeah, how would we ever be able to care for children? We just have no experience with that!

After the attacks in Paris, people opened their homes to strangers. The French government is not halting Syrian refugees from entering the country. But here, well, we can’t do that. It’s nice to be humane and all. But when you are vewy vewy afwaid, you just can’t allow it. I’ve been saying this about police for years: if they can’t stop killing unarmed people because they were afraid they might get a paper cut, can we at least cut the crap about them being brave?

The same thing goes for the Republicans (and frankly, a sad number of Democrats too): these men are something far below cowards. If Dante’s Inferno is real, they will spend eternity fleeing in terror from dandelion spores. But unfortunately, in this world, these men have power. And Walter’s assurance to Donny is not appropriate. These guys are going to hurt the whole world unless we fight back. Then they’ll run for their guns and a line of women to hide behind.

Anniversary Post: Einstein’s Second Best Year

Albert EinsteinOn this day in 1905, Albert Einstein published an incredibly important physics paper. It was a very good year for him, but remarkably, not his best. In 1905, he published four papers — any one of which would have made him a huge figure in 20th century physics. He was 26 years old. And, as we know, working a day job. This is used by many people to claim that we don’t need to fund scientific research. Of course Einstein was working a government job. And the people who say that are idiots.

The first paper (9 June 1905) was, “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.” This was the photoelectric paper that posited that energy is quantized. It is the most important paper in quantum mechanics. Interestingly, Einstein never did accept quantum mechanics of the Heisenberg and Schrödinger variety. That’s where the quote “God does not play dice” comes from. Even more interesting is that Max Planck, who did so much to further Einstein’s career, thought that this paper was total junk. And if anyone has the claim to being the father of quantum mechanics, it is Max Planck.

The second paper (18 July 1905) was, “On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular Kinetic Theory of Heat.” It’s a classic of statistical mechanics. It explained Brownian motion as a random walk. I’ll be honest, I’ve never paid much attention to the paper because it seems too obvious to me. Statistical mechanics have always just made sense to me. But it was a huge finding at the time.

The third paper (26 September 1905) was, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” That’s Special Relativity. There was a year of my life when I was quite literally obsessed with it. It made no sense whatsoever to me. I finally realized that the problem was not my understand of Special Relativity but with my expectations. It isn’t a theory meant to explain the universe as I know it. It is meant to explain the motion of bodies moving very fast relative to each other. There is no “intuition” that we humans will ever have for it.

The fourth paper (21 November 1905 — 110 years ago today) is the most important of the papers, “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?” This is also about relativity. It is where we get the famous equation: E = mc². But what’s really important is that it is the first step toward Einstein’s greatest achievement, the General Theory of Relativity. And that, will have to wait for another time.