Friday, September 1, 2017

Winter is Coming!

The globally popular television show "Game of Thrones", is a sordid and violent tale of palace intrigue, revenge and brutal power struggle between kingdoms, kings, queens and their associates.
"Winter is coming" is an ominous phrase often used in the show, foreshadowing a dooms day coming. The phrase has become common usage among fans of the show, to signify something sinister to come, mostly in good humor.

For those who may have not seen the series, here is a primer. The lush television mega production is based on the vividly imagined fantastic tales by R.R.Martin in a series of books titled "A Song of Fire and Ice". Loosely borrowed from European fiefdoms of the medieval times, R.R. Martin concocted a rich and layered fantasy universe filled with ornate palaces, lavish landscapes, flying banners, warring horseback armies, magic, dragons and zombies. The central thread runs around a power struggle between royal families, vying to claim their rightful place on the "Iron Throne", which would allow them to rule over the seven kingdoms which constitutes the whole universe of the story. While the kings and queens war, plot, deceive, murder and squabble among each other, to the north there is an army of the dead that is amassing which is all powerful and dominating and threatens to render all that is living obsolete. The series that just completed its seventh season, has been building to a moment, when the army of the dead would arrive at the giant ice wall, the only obstacle standing between the living and the dead.

So the wise John Snow, one of the main characters, tries to convince the warring kingdoms, that it is pointless fighting among each other as the real threat does not care who sits on the Iron Throne. If they do not put their differences aside and face the real enemy, life as they know it would cease to exist. And so he convenes a meeting of all parties and presents evidence that the army of the dead is real, by capturing one of the zombies. While he manages to convince that the threat is real, not all agree to cooperate. One of the factions chooses to find an island and seclude themselves from the danger and another sees an opportunity in the face of impending catastrophe. The final episode of the season ends with the army of the dead breaching the ice wall as winter begins to descend.

As we watch the fourth largest city in America, succumb to trillions of gallons of water unleashed upon it by a hurricane, and scientists and weather forecasters call it a "once in a 500 year flood" one wonders if this is just a freak of nature or is this a new normal. Is "the winter", climatologists have been predicting as the planet warms is already here.

Houston and its surrounding counties have seen their fair share of floods through the years. Partly because of their geographical location in the gulf of Mexico. In 1994 Montgomery county received 20 to 30 inches of rain and was inundated. This time this suburb of Houston received over 50 inches in a couple of days. A survivor of that 1994 deluge, responded to New York Times about this present calamity saying "this is the most catastrophic thing I've seen in my life".

Scientists have predicted for sometime now, that warming oceans can create intense storms which can pack immense amount of moisture and deliver it to land with devastating fury. One of the most significant and telling effects of global warming are abnormal weather patterns that can wreak havoc on population centers that are ill prepared to handle the increasing scale of the impact. While Huston was flooding and the media was focused on Hurricane Harvey, a third of Bangladesh was under water and Nepal, Mumbai and Karachi were dealing with unseasonal cloudbursts leading to hundreds of deaths. Approximately 16 million people in the region were estimated to have been affected by the floods.

Since the industrial revolution, nations have heated the planet by burning coal and other fossil fuels without refrain. Deforestation and other forms of pollution have rendered vast stretches of the planet lifeless. When science began to conclude with strong evidence the impact human activity was having on the globe, the first response was to doubt it. The worst polluting western nations did not want to stifle their economic growth and the developing nations felt it was their turn to pollute as they had to catch up to the west. After much squabbling over decades like the warring families of "Game of Thrones", 198 nations agreed to the non-binding Paris Climate Accord, acknowledging
at least in principle, like the "army of the dead" climate change was real and a real threat to all things living.

In all their wisdom, respecting the knowledge of almost 99% of the scientists of the world, in 2015, leaders signed onto the Paris Climate Accord. Nations agreed to take action to mitigate rising temperatures by enacting sensible regulations in their native countries. Then in 2017, Donald Trump ascended to the office of the American presidency and decided to go against the accord wowing to pull out. His decision was largely governed by his distrust of the scientific data and belief in climate change deniers. He often called climate change a "hoax" during his campaign rallies. The reason he gave though, was that he thought enacting any policies to curtail global warming would come at a great cost to the American economy and its workers.

As Texans clean up after the storm, an estimated 300,000 people have been directly affected by the storm. Many have lost homes and probably their livelihoods as a result. Petrochemical factories, that employ a large number in the area have been flooded and will take weeks if not months to reopen. As people rebuild, many employers will have to let go of people, not knowing when they would return. The economic impact of such a storm will be hard to gauge and will take its toll for years to come. Donald Trump's lopsided economic theory that acting on climate change might stifle economic growth and cost American jobs, is proven wrong with this catastrophic example. Whether it will be acknowledged, is another matter.

Climate change deniers defy logic. As they propose, if actually the climate is not changing as a result of human activity but is only going through a natural cycle, and that cycle will return back to its normal state in the future, then great, we will all be saved. But if that is not the case, and if humans are in fact contributing to an accelerated change in climate and rising ocean temperatures, then does it not make sense to stop being selfish and opportunistic and actively do something about it?

Climate change is a real security threat. Many sensible governments around the world and the US Military have adopted a serious posture in preparing for it. Just like the army of the dead in "Game of Thrones", it is real and it is not selective and it does not see borders. If the human race as a whole does not join hands in stemming its onslaught, life as we know it will cease to exist in the very near future. Hurricane Harvey is again sounding the alarm. It is for us to decide whether we want to unite or perish. It is what it is.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Molotov Cocktail

When Donald Trump was elected I proclaimed it was probably the most unpatriotic act some Americans had committed. They picked the most unworthy and unqualified person to lead the country just because they were tired of establishment politics and politicians. Some of my friends thought my statement was extreme. They said many of his supporters were decent hard working people who thought America was only working for the elites and they saw in Donald Trump a rejection of all that was wrong with Washington. His bellicose brash behavior seemed appealing to a large section of America, as they thought it was at least honest and held a promise of returning America to a time when it was more monochromatic.

And so they took an anarchic self serving approach with a hope that a shake up of the system will yield better results in their favor. Others just hoped that his presidency would lead to a kind of politics that would bring the country back to the "right", as the previous administration had flung it too far to the left. And so they launched a molotov-cocktail at Washington.

In the six months Donald Trump has been president it seems the molotov-cocktail is doing its job, causing unprecedented chaos and dysfunction. And the people hurting most are his supporters and they refuse to see it. Anyone who says they could not see this coming, was either living in a world not anchored in reality or had given up on all rational thought and behavior in a moment a drunken stupor fueled by a compromised media establishment.

To elaborate on the dysfunction and utter jaw dropping behavior that has ensued since Donald Trump entered the White House would be an exercise in futility. His relentless dismantling of everything and anything civil, that the American presidency ever stood for, is there for all to see in every moment of every waking hour. His addiction to Twitter has revealed a disturbing side of a man, exposing a complete lack of intellect and any penchant for analytical thought you might come to expect from a person wielding such power.

Donald Trump is not the first person to have risen to power with such an utter lack of experience or personality. But those sensible who have risen to power have acknowledged their weaknesses and surrounded themselves with smart people to help them lead the way. Donald Trump has failed even in this arena. He has surrounded himself with probably the most inept and ideologically driven personalities whose loyalty is the only thing he values. He has surrounded himself with some generals as well to come across as powerful and decisive. Or maybe to make up for the machismo that he lacks but would like to be known for. Or probably to instill in him a kind of discipline which he internally lacks, and thinks maybe the American public would feel safer knowing people of authority were in his corner.

The six months of turmoil that has dogged the white house has led to a situation which seems to be spiraling out of control, both domestically and internationally. On the domestic side the debacle known as the "repeal and replacement" of the Affordable Care Health has spawned extreme uncertainty in the healthcare system both on the consumer and provider side. With Donald Trump's hurt ego determined on jeopardizing the healthcare of millions of Americans things seem more dire than they should be. His total disregard for the environment and complete apathy towards issues of climate change, is probably the most disturbing trait of a sitting president of a developed nation in this day and age.

In the shadow of this relentless dysfunction, Russia, China and North Korea are flexing their muscle and  challenging American power as they see a vacuum developing. America's allies do not know what to make of the American president and his shenanigans, and are taking less and less of their security for granted. Their faith in America's post war commitment to their security is fast eroding. On the long term probably leading to an arms race and nuclear proliferation. The instability of the American presidency is re-shaping the geopolitics of the planet in a seismic way.

But there is a silver lining to all of this. The president's brash behavior seems to be reaching its limit of tolerance, as the Senate and Congress recently showed, that in the American system of government, power rests equally between the Executive and Legislative branches. They need each other to make sensible legislation to take shape. By defeating the poorly drafted and rushed health care reform bill, imposing further economic sanctions on Russia, endorsing the President Obama's Iran deal, and agreeing to bolster the current health care system while the president openly seeks to dismantle it, the legislators have finally shown some spine. Some have openly come out and made bold statements that they work for the American people and are not willing to do the bidding of the president if they think it is not constructive. Probably more out of fear of a public rejection in the upcoming midterm election than a love of country.

While Donald Trump continues his unhinged journey as the president of America, there is a lot more to come. Those who look for stability and a certain decorum in this leader, will only find things deteriorating. There is no reason for anyone to be surprised anymore about the next shocking thing Donald Trump will say on Twitter or the next sensible legislation he will threaten to repeal or destroy to feed his ego and meet some outrageous campaign promise. Paying attention to Donald Trump's every word and action is what feeds the media and comes across as a witch hunt to his supporters. Which he effectively exploits to keep his head held high within his base. His supporters still feel he is not being given a fair chance to succeed.

While it is important to not take one's "eye of the ball", it is also important to be measured and pointed in his criticism, or America could become a victim of another molotov-cocktail attack in 2020.

It is what it is.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Path to Ruin

On that grisly morning when the Twin Towers fell, a monument was torn down. A monument that took almost five years to build and stood for three decades was brought down by the sheer force of an appetite for destruction. This moment would leave a deep scar on not only Americans but all those who saw it "live" on television across the globe. But what no one saw coming, was it would not be the last monument to fall.

In the past I have written about the shock and deep sorrow I have felt, witnessing ancient monuments being blown to smithereens, by madness spawned by war. In war there is no pause for beauty. All that rises, is an insatiable appetite for total and complete destruction of all that the human spirit creates in the name of beauty.

So this month when I read about the destruction of the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, that same feeling of despair returned. A mosque in all its exquisite beauty and human expression had stood for 800 years calling people to prayer and community, was now but a cloud of dust. According to reports it was leveled up by Islamic State (IS) militants as they retreated Mosul, relinquishing their grip on a city that had been reduced to rubble. Iraq's second largest city now stands in total ruin and the destruction of the mosque was the final flourish. A gash left behind on many, which would probably never heal.

The Islamic State and its members have always had a problem with any expression of beauty. The kind of Caliphate they proposed to build seemed to be based on total fear and domination, devoid of any human spirit. They often quoted the Quran to justify their means and call others to join their ranks. In their demented frenzy as they went about destroying mosques, ancient antiquities in  museums and then the famous Roman ruins in the city of Palmyra, which had stood the test of time for two thousand years, it was not clear what their true motivations were, other than that they found non-Islamic idolatry offensive. By drawing the Shia Sunni line, they justified blowing up Shia mosques. But most of all they craved for international attention by these acts, much like they did with the public beheadings they posted on youtube. To shock was their modus-operandi and for the most part they achieved their psychotic goals.

Not far from Syria in 2001, the Taliban attached dynamite to the imposing 5th century Buddha statues of Bamiyan and reduced them to rubble in a flash. Watching its destruction on video was akin to experiencing the towers fall in my backyard. No matter the deranged ideology that may have led to this unpardonable act, it seems to be a symptom of our times, at least in the war torn regions of the world.

There is nothing unusual or uncommon about monuments being destroyed in war. When the British and Americans carpet bombed Dresden, Germany in 1945, they reduced one of the most exquisite cities in the world to ruin. Known as the "Jewel Box" for its exquisite Baroque and Rococo architecture, the city had stood since the 12th century and was reduced to dust within a matter of days.

On the night of March 9th, 1945, the United States Airforce conducted what is know as "the single most destructive bombing raid in human history". Known as Operation Meetinghouse, 16 square miles of central Tokyo were charred to the ground by relentless B-29 bombing raids. The ancient exquisite city of Tokyo was reduced to ashes.

Since the ignition of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the United States, a generation has grown up only knowing war and destruction. The "war on terror" launched by President George Bush is still ongoing and its repercussions have thrown a large swath of the Middle East into chaos, leading to mass murder and a mammoth refugee crisis not seen since the last great war. Today Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan are on the verge collapse and the American involvement has not ended. Instead of taking responsibility, America is trying to extricate itself by issuing travel bans on people trying to flee the chaos and by pursuing policies that exacerbate matters rather than heal. The current belligerent administration, continues to push policies of confrontation and disengagement rather than coalition building. There is no question the world is a complicated place where global powers lock horns with economic interests and strategic alliances in mind. While we want to hold corrupt regimes accountable for war crimes and human rights violations, the onus has to be greater on super powers to walk the walk just to maintain integrity on the world stage. One thing that has been lost in the fog of war, is any semblance of virtue.

The human appetite to create beauty is limitless but it is always countered in equal measure by its appetite for destruction. What we are beginning to see now, is that the very existence of the human race is proving to be toxic. Human consumerism is devouring everything in its path and is pushing the planet at the brink. As coral reefs bleach by rising ocean temperatures and pollution and the oceans become repositories of plastic, one need not look far to see the impact the human race is having on the one place we call home. The beauty that we create from our imagination, and then destroy by our madness can be restored to a certain extent by peace, much like Dresden was. But the beauty of nature once tarnished by human negligence can never be reclaimed. The recognition of this and only this can save us from the path to ruin.

It is what it is.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Plight of our Times

While contemplating what to write about, yet again terrorist attacks claimed lives of children in Manchester, Kabul and Baghdad. Yemen was on the brink of complete collapse and America upheld its stature as the world's biggest arms dealer by signing a multi-billion dollar deal with Saudi Arabia. Peace in Syria was elusive as ever as the world continued to grapple with the idea of Donald Trump as he dismantles the world order and stifles any hope of a better future for our planet.

Then someone dear to me shared this quote from the book Fourth Uncle in the Mountain - The Remarkable Legacy of a Buddhist Itinerant Doctor in Vietnam which perfectly summed up the plight of our times, and took my breath away.

"In the realm of people, Good and Evil tumble in and out and through each other, 
and so weave the stories of nations. 
Many believe the Good will always overpower Evil, 
but I know that Evil has a marked advantage. 

Evil, according to its nature, stalks the earth like a hungry ghost and preys on us when we have lost heart, while Good sails up to heave without leaving much of a trace at all. 

And so there are those among us who must consciously draw the Good back down to earth, where it may take root and grow strong in our hearts and minds, strong enough to subdue Evil."

It is what it is.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Death Sanctioned

There is something sadistic and perverted about strapping someone to a gurney and injecting them with fluid and watch them descend into death. I always wondered what goes through the minds of those who are invited to view this ghastly ritual, let alone the person sinking. What solace does it bring to those who have lost loved ones to witness the death of the person who brought them misery? What gratification can be drawn from viewing the controlled death of another human being no matter how soulless that individual may have been? People say it brings closure, but at what cost and what purpose? Can the death of another person seared into one's memory ease the pain? I personally have not experienced the murder or rape of a loved one to walk in the shoes of those who have. But I cannot fathom being a spectator to the death of another, to quench my thirst for justice or seek closure. 
Sanctioned death as a form of justice was instituted since murder began and it has always been a spectacle. From  medieval times to the wild west, going to see public executions was a family outing. Even in recent times public executions in totalitarian states were used to instill fear and were often carried out in stadiums or city squares for all to witness. Hanging, stoning, decapitation, burning, boiling, crushing, dismemberment by horses, shooting, gassing, electrocution and lethal injection were some of the methods devised to kill. Death by hanging, shooting and lethal injection is still common around the world.

When the world emerged from the horrors of World War II, the move to abolish capital punishment began to gain ground. Taking someone's life by state sanction was seen as a gross violation of one's human right. As a result most developed nations abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. The United States is the only western nation that continued to put people to death. Out of the 50 states that make up the United States, 31 use the death penalty and so does the federal government. Today there are approximately 2900 inmates on death row across the nation, and 1400 have been executed since 1976.

On April 25, two prisoners were put to death by lethal injection in Arkansas in a single day. A double execution on the same day had not occurred since 2000 in the United States. On April 20th, another inmate had been executed and there were five more to follow. The state of Arkansas had not carried out a death sentence since 2005 and there seemed to be a sudden rush to put eight people to death who were condemned more than a decade ago. The reason, the drugs that are used to carry out the executions, were to expire. The drug of choice Midazolam was hard to come by, and the state was not willing to let it go to waste. So they scheduled to kill eight over a span of eleven days, the fastest pace of executions in decades. In all they managed to execute four. An injunction from a federal judge halted the executions citing, that the method of execution violated the inmates eighth amendment rights, which guaranteed a painless death. And the drugs being used to carry out the executions could not guarantee that. The Judge wrote "If Midazolam does not adequately anesthetize plaintiffs, or if their executions are 'botched, ' they will suffer severe pain before they die". Many drug manufacturers have objected to having their products used in executions and have refused to sell to prisons for this very reason. Previous botched executions by lethal injection around the country had created a climate of bad PR for the drug companies.

 A family member of one of the victims thanked the Arkansas Governor and the Department of Corrections for "flawlessly carrying out" the executions. According to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed one of the executions, the person "lurched and convulsed 20 times during the lethal injection".

All those who were sentenced to die, had no doubt committed horrific crimes. Their public death was no less horrific.

The debate around capital punishment and its use has always been a contentious one. Those who support the death penalty are seen as conservative in their viewpoint and those who oppose liberal. Those who support it offer a narrative which states that it deters crime, and some crimes warrant swift justice. Those who oppose it say, it is inhuman for a state to oversee the death of an individual as murder is murder either way. And statistics show that having the death penalty has not deterred crime and caused any significant dent in the murder rate. Amnesty International, the human rights organization that meticulously documents every execution around the planet, states that "the death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights. It violates the right to life as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment". Also the death penalty disproportionately befalls those who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups, the poor and people with mental illness.

Capital punishment is a popular position to take on the conservative side, as it sends a signal that they are tough on crime and therefore care for society at large. But what creates a criminal is seldom addressed. It is paradoxical that on one hand a gun culture is promoted and endorsed, which to a large extent leads to violent death, and then the death penalty is seen as a solution to deter crime.

The gravest problem with the death penalty is that it is so absolute that it is irreversible. Since 1973, about 150 prisoners have been sent to death, who were later exonerated of their crime. Others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt. Some of those who were executed in Arkansas claimed they were wrongly convicted. DNA testing has exonerated many on death row and it is routinely denied in many cases.

A very important question to ask is, what is achieved in tangible terms by executing someone other than maybe some sense of closure to those violated. An often expressed heartless comment is, "well it saves tax payer dollars". The upkeep of a prisoner is a drain on the system. In reality what saves tax payer dollars is an investment in society that provides better mental health to those in need and not executions. While politicians squabble over health care and gun control, peoples lives are constantly put at risk.  The American prison system is overburdened disproportionately by African American inmates. Violent death from guns in the United States is the highest in the developed world. Investing in addressing these societal problems actually saves tax payer dollars and improves the health of a nation.

The debate on what kind of punishment suits a crime is an old and fierce one, around which complex laws have been formulated. The depraved custom of state sanctioned death is always seen as the final solution to extreme criminality. Two films Dead Man Walking and Into the Abyss, captured the complexity and humanity of a system that puts people to death with great dramatic effect, nuance and weighty introspection. To me the most profound commentary on capital punishment in popular culture was made by Anthony Burgess in his 1962 dystopian novel, The Clockwork Orange. The book follows the life of a deviant, antisocial, delinquent Alex, who engages in "ultra-criminal" behavior. After he is arrested, as an alternative to being executed, he is put through a controversial psychological rehabilitation program to cure him of his criminality. Alex plays along as he is subjected to various invasive experiments and is later proclaimed cured. As he walks out of the prison a free man, he briefly relapses into contemplating images of violence in his mind in front of an applauding audience and says "I was cured, all right"!. What Anthony Burgess conveys, is that the onus of creating a better human being is on all of us. There is no absolute antidote to prevent aberrant human behavior. But the legalized killing of someone for their crime is pointless and barbarous. Rehabilitation may not be totally possible, but for a humane society, it is a goal worth pursuing. State sanctioned executions are unethical and immoral in any society as they only bloody the system. It is what it is.