Saturday, December 24, 2011

Protest Power

Tunisia - December, 2010
Egypt - January, 2011
Yemen - January, 2011
Libya - February, 2011
Morocco - February, 2011
Bahrain - February, 2011
Syria - March, 2011
India - April, 2011
Greece - May, 2011
Spain - May, 2011
England - August, 2011
United States - September, 2011
Chile - September, 2011
Bolivia - October, 2011
Russia - December, 2011

2011 will go down in history as the year that people in large numbers demanded change and said enough is enough. With economies collapsing around the globe faith in governments both oppressive and otherwise was at an all time low. Corruption at all levels of business and government had become unbearable and openly pervasive. The widening wealth gap had reached its limit in many parts prompting people to take to the streets in defiance. Political and socioeconomic pressure in the middle east had run its course and the climate was ripe for agitation which spread instantaneously acquiring a label (most probably coined on facebook or CNN) - "The Arab Spring". There was nothing romantic about this spring. It should have been called "The Red Spring" as blood on the pavement was a common sight and the bleeding has not yet stopped.

As authoritarian violence and protests continue in Egypt and Syria and the Occupy Wall Street movement limps along and the anti-corruption movement in India reaches its whimpering end with political compromise and infighting, one does need to take stock of what did or did not change. A sadistic dictator in Libya met a brutal end, Egypt's dictator was replaced by a gang of others in army fatigue, America relished a temporary high from a relentless shopping spree on Black Friday and Christmas, the European Union band aided itself into next year and the climate talks yet again failed to achieve anything substantial for the planet to improve its cancerous state.

At the end of a year one is supposed to be hopeful and look towards the future with encouragement and positivity. And yes there is plenty of it in the offering, but it is measured. As American troops withdraw from Iraq there is a sigh of relief from those who have sacrificed much too much, but there is also a gnawing uncertainty of a wave of violence engulfing a battered nation yet again. On one hand America has given to the world Facebook and Twitter which have become the most powerful tools for spreading democracy. By providing an unstoppable medium to help organize and be heard, these virtual social networks have truly made the world a better place in some unspeakable terms. On the other hand America is on the verge of making multibillion dollar arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Two nations where democracy has a complicated meaning and is often stifled by oppression and violence. The unholy relationship between war and business never seems to amaze even the most weary.

But nations like China and North Korea have successfully countered the liberating force of the Internet through censorship and brutality. By imprisoning bloggers and harassing their intelligentsia like Ai Weiwei, they have successfully maintained their oppressive grip on their people. Media censorship of the Arab uprisings in China did meet its limited goal. Yet there have been countless unreported protests across the nation almost every day against the autocratic rule. Burma on the other hand showed some progress by releasing Aung Sung Su Kyi and allowing her to rejoin the political process. How genuine and long lasting the change towards democracy in Burma will be, only time will tell.

While we lost a towering figure of democracy in Vaclav Havel we also gained many trail blazers around the world. Nobel peace prize winners Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman fought for women's rights in the darkest of times using non-violence as their chosen weapon. Many other nameless heroes around the world have died protecting and believing that "truth shall prevail" and "truth shall set them free". The latest casualty was Baqir Shah. A doctor in Quetta, Pakistan was gunned down because he refused to lie about the autopsies he carried out that implicated the security forces in open murder. He openly refused to tow the line of the establishment and paid with his life. Record number of journalists and human rights workers have been assassinated across the globe this year. The war crimes committed in Sri Lanka and Indian Kashmir are some of the most abhorrent and have largely gone unnoticed. A blatant example of two democratic nations with deplorable human rights records, where in the name of dealing with terrorism the state apparatus has become the terrorist.

The forecast for 2012 does not look or seem much different than 2011. From where we stand it seems like political and economic strife will continue to dominate the global sphere causing massive upheaval. Real wide ranging and long lasting solutions will remain elusive, as the impotency of the political class grows chaotic and severe. Yes there will be sporting events like the Olympics in London and other entertainment projects that will attempt to keep the human spirit high, but they will only be a temporary distraction. America will reelect or reject President Obama, and banks that have not changed their ways will continue to bankroll their gains on the backs of the dispossessed. The only thing that is certain to change is a real sense in 2012, is the earth's magnetic pole.

So as "Another Year" comes to an end and a new one begins, people power will again show its face on the streets of Moscow, London, New York, New Delhi and anywhere else where there is a sense of disenfranchisement and neglect. There is no way out of this bind without questioning the people who make decisions for us in our absence. So it is with the hope that there will be a demand for meaningful change in the year to come, I bid farewell to 2011. It is what it is.

Friday, November 25, 2011

OK Computer

My first encounter with an Apple computer was when I arrived on an American campus in 1992. Rows of beige colored boxes with six inch screens stared at me in the student center. A keyboard with a strange looking thing attached to it called "the mouse" completed the device. The moment the machine came on, I was greeted by a logo which had a smiley face on it. Within minutes I was in love with this state of the art technology. The rainbow colored apple shaped logo embossed on the bottom right hand corner was elegant and the floppy drive was an act of genius. Printing crisp fonts on an Apple Laserwriter was heavenly. I could not wait to tell my father about this experience. A printer by profession back in India, he was still running a letter press. I announced to him that within a few years printing technology would be undergoing a revolution. A few months later I took a class on how to use the internet. We had to master a range of commands on a computer terminal to access the network. My first download was a set of Pink Floyd lyrics using a browser called Mosaic. It was an act of pure magic.

As I write this entry on my paper thin MacBook Air laptop sitting in my yard with no wires attached, it is astonishing how far we have come from those wired days. As I watch my five year old sit around a table with two of her friends working an iPad as though she was born with it, I can barely imagine what else is in store for her down the road. In two decades computers have come to fit my palm and can talk back, so it seems the future is only going to be incrementally transformational.

One man, Steve Jobs, has been credited to have fast tracked computers to become as essential and rudimentary a component of our lives as a tooth brush. Though Microsoft took computers to every corner of the world, it was Apple that took it from the desk into our palms. Computers today have come to define our very being in the urban landscape. The internet, while still unequal in its access, has changed the way we socialize and communicate. As forecasters predict whats round the corner, one thing is certain, computers will force human evolution into areas even science fiction could not have imagined.

Steve Jobs' death this year was a moment that reverberated across the globe. People did not stop short of comparing him to Edison and Einstein. Magazines, books, documentaries and even feature film scripts were in the offering in abundance to put his life under a microscope. For an intensely private quirky person that he was, to have his life dissected in every news outlet was something of an onslaught. Steve Jobs with all his controversial, erratic and sometimes ego-maniacal behavior did solidify his place in recent history as a visionary. He not only built a successful company and some classy gadgets, he pretty much transformed how we watch, listen and transport entertainment and information forever. But he was no Einstein, maybe he was more of an Edison, but then again Edison was an inventor and a businessman, Steve Jobs was a relentless facilitator. An exceptionally motivated, gifted and driven person who could see his way through technology and design and come up with a product that could blow your mind.

Steve Jobs' passing was felt so widely and so emotionally because he had turned himself into an enigmatic, seemingly self-effacing Rockstar. The myth that had grown around him aided by his lavish product launches, shoes, black T-Shit and jeans and early experimentation with hallucinogenics, had truly reached Elvis proportions. His cancer added another layer and his age made it even more heart wrenching. Much like other Rockstars who died before their time and became cult figures, Steve Jobs' story had all the makings of a quintessential "Made in America" appeal.

Two other important people died this year who largely went unnoticed. They did more for computers and defined the world we live in than anybody could have imagined. They envisioned today's world even before Steve Jobs was conceived, but they were no Rockstars in the way most would like to see them. Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy created the building blocks or the DNA upon which all computers in the world function today. The digital devices that today have become fashion accessories, could not have existed without their seminal work. They in their unique respective way pictured our world decades ago that Steve Jobs in one sense made a reality.

Mathematicians by profession and passion both developed languages by which computers would talk to each other and perform complex calculations. McCarthy created a language called LISP, which is the second oldest high-level programming language that is still in use today. Ritchie created "C" which fundamentally changed the way computer programs are written. Much of all modern software is written in some modified version of that language. All Apple products run on a language called "Objective C" and Microsoft products co-opted C#. Ritchie then went on to create UNIX which forms the basis of all operating systems in all devices mobile or otherwise today.

Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy even though on a basic level worked on creating the digital matter that breathed life into microchips and peripheral hardware, they both shared a very different vision for the future. While Ritchie believed that the microcomputers such as laptops and hand held devices would be the way of the future, McCarthy dreamed of world of terminals remotely hooked up to large mainframe computers. With Cloud computing fast becoming the way of the future, it seems that McCarthy's vision is the one that will prevail. McCarthy also coined the term "Artificial Intelligence" as he was obsessed with making machines talk back, which again seems to be becoming a reality quite rapidly. Recently when the IBM computer "Watson" out did humans and won the popular American quiz show "Jeopardy" a gist of that vision was realized.

The idea of a thinking machine though is far from reach. While we can teach machines to make associations and extrapolate inferences based on statistical data, it is inconceivable to make a machine understand humor and other nuances of human emotion. John McCarthy did attempt to make a thinking machine but later gave up, not because he thought the technology was not there, but he said " we understand human mental processes only slightly better than a fish understands swimming". There in lies a mystery. While humans could create devices that could talk back and perform rudimentary functions that could make our lives convenient and comfortable, to create a robot that could feel, will always be the terrain of fictional fantasy.

Steve Jobs, Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy in their singular way left us a world that is both infinitely complex and simple at the same time. As a result of their work more and more intelligent machines are able to inhabit our world, and we are able to absorb technology and evolve with it quite effortlessly. We are only at the very beginning of that evolutionary process though. The unpredictable uncanny duplicitous nature of humanity to create beauty and cause calamity is ever present. Therefore as machines play significant roles in our lives, what will determine their influence is the extent to which we consciously allow them to intrude our lives. It is what it is.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


"We are the 99%" said one sign. "Regulate Wall Street Now" said another. "Tax the rich" screamed a red one. The word "Revolution" was prominent on many placards and a red flag with Che Guevara's face unfurled in the wind. There was a broadsheet news paper being circulated called "The OCCUPY Wall Street Journal". There were many swaying in a loud drum circle drawing attention from everyone passing by. There was a make shift alter with an idol of Ganesh next to Jesus with people sitting around in seeming meditation. A half naked couple with paint on their body were moving intensely to the drumming. A concoction of cigarette smoke, marijuana, body odor and Halal chicken filled the air. Young men and women were strewn on the floor in sleeping bags and on tarpaulin as though this were the "Burning Man" gathering or a homeless people's convention. Policemen with enough hardware to take down any assault surrounded the park on all sides. Media trucks with their antennae high up against the shiny ornate skyscrapers kept busy. A makeshift kitchen serving donated pizza, wheat grass and vegan creations for the health conscious was active. A woman was talking to Amy Goodman from "Democracy Now" on camera about sustainable farming, eating and living. A group of native South American men and women were dancing to drumming performing what seemed like a Mayan ritual. Then there were men and women intensely locked in debate about the state of the world, America, Capitalism, Marxism, the war and everything in between. This was no carnival or Haight-Ashbury of the 60's, this was and is the "Occupy Wall Street" protest in downtown Manhattan.

The "Occupy Wall Street" protest which is almost two months in the making, has captured the attention of the world by refusing to budge. As it ebbs and flows in numbers, it has also sparked similar protests across the nation and the world. From New York to New Zealand, people have gathered in major capitals to protest against what they see is a failure of the system to deliver the basics. The people involved in the protest are essentially angry and disgusted by what they see is a nexus between government and corporations. What they hope to achieve is immaterial at the moment. What they have done is become an inconvenience that draws attention to a smorgasbord of issues, which are then discussed in the media when there is nothing else to cover in the 24/7 news cycle. From corporate greed, taxing the rich, health care for all, end to war and corruption, they want a return to a version of capitalism that is more equitable. With that message they have been able to galvanize the sentiments of young and old across a wide spectrum, who have seen America's treasures squandered in irresponsible ways at the expense of too many.

2011 will go down in history as the year of the protest. From the spontaneous revolution which overthrew a dictator in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, to the uprising in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, there is unrest and rage in abundance. From the populist Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement in India that almost toppled the government, to the violent street protests in London, Milan, Madrid and Athens, anger against the establishment is real and palpable. From dictators to the corporate glitterati and the political establishment, as the disconnect grows ever so wide and capitalism looses its shine, and people are left with no future, anger rises to the surface. Much like what happened during the French and Russian revolution, there is a sense around the world that some people are getting away with more than their fair share.

As Europe deals with a financial crisis of epic proportion and turns to China (a communist country) for a life line, a long term solution seems elusive. With Spain reporting the highest unemployment rate of 21% in the developed world, it is evident that things are going to get worse for the west before they get any better. While the markets go through volatile fluctuations, it seems like all the parameters that measure economic stability are in a state of chaos. Unemployment is rising across the globe, inflation in a booming economy like India is out of control, housing markets are in a slump, yet Wall Street celebrates profits and big banks in America and elsewhere post quarterly gains, and top executives in England increase their salaries by 50%. The world seems to be operating on an upside down principle of economics. While there is never a shortage of resources to spawn wars, build military hardware and bail out banks, there never seems to be enough to meet the basic needs of the people the governments get elected to serve.

This month the worlds population will reach a record seven billion. By 2025 that number is predicted to increase to eight billion. With only one planet to live off of, the future does not look bright for the human race. Water and food shortages, unemployment, conflict and global warming are predicted to wreak havoc causing mass protests and migration. The strain on the planet is already being felt in Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa, Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu and elsewhere. We as a species inhabit one sphere. But the imaginary borders that divide us and create an illusion that developed nations are immune to the ravages of poverty and destitution are now being challenged. What the present situation demonstrates is that the "third world" has successfully entered the developed world and the "Occupy Wall Street" protest in some manner channels the angst of that burgeoning world.

I think it is still premature to call the "Occupy Wall Street" a movement. Unlike the mass protests of the sixties, which brought civil rights to a nation and an end to a war in a far of land, this protest still struggles to find a singular demand. That is both its strength and its weakness. Much like the Egyptian revolution that overthrew a brutal dictator by largely staying apolitical, but with a clear sense for justice, the "Occupy Wall Street" protest at its core is demanding a level of fairness and accountability. This idea in itself gives it strength and legitimacy and motivates people to endure the bitter cold in the middle of the financial district in Manhattan. Whether this protest will actually evolve into a mass movement, drawing strong leaders and other vested interests, only time and weather will tell.

In the recent past the incestuous collusion between the media, political establishment and corporations has been revealed time and again. The Murdoch/News Corp. scandal is the most recent example. The conglomeration of big business made possible by that collusion threatens healthy competition and corrupts the true nature of capitalism. Capitalism and democracy are often considered to be synonymous. But what we learn from the recent financial collapse is that there is no room for democracy when unbridled capitalism reigns supreme. It is not ironic though that we have seen a form of capitalism thrive in a draconian communist society like China. Undoubtedly aided by a demand for cheap goods and services from the west.

"There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide" said John Adams the sixth president of America. In some ways the "Occupy Wall Street" protest brings to light the early signs of a system that is feeding on itself. When a comatose congress in Washington fails to serve its people in a time of crisis, that is a sign of a democracy failing. A healthy democracy is where through checks and balances and debate, solutions to big problems are arrived at no matter the political price. All they arrive at today in most governments around the world is grid lock and apathy.

To a large extent capitalism and democracy in the west has been a successful experiment. Wealth has been more equally distributed than in most places. But that equation seems to have shifted dramatically over the last two decades, and a kind of oligarchy seems to have emerged. The anger that we see in the streets today is in part a resentment of that fact. What protest movements do is push for change. And change always begins on a minuscule level and then mutates into something consequential. The suicide of a street vendor eventually lead to the overthrow of a dictator in Tunisia. What I noticed at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan was a group of people coalesce around a spirit. A spirit to do something. Even if it just meant banging on a drum or annoying the police or thumbing a man walking in a suit, there was a real desire and a realization that this was an important moment in time. One could dismiss that commitment as youthful indulgence or call them a bunch of whining hippies jealous of the rich and successful, which many openly have. But there is no denying that it is youthful indulgence that motivated Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Nelson Mandela, Wangari Mathai and an old woman in a wheel chair in Oakland to march. It is what it is.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meaning of 9/11

This day in September does not pass lightly for a New Yorker. A decade ago a bright blue sky quickly turned black. Since then every September New Yorkers take pause and distinctly remember where they were on that day. They exchange stories year after year with fellow denizens and visitors who come to pay a visit to the gaping hole that is now rising again.

Ten years later the day was marked with the customary reading of the names of the dead at the site of the catastrophe. Grieving family members chanted names with tears and emotion. This year an impressive memorial appropriately titled "Reflecting Absence" was unveiled. 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 are inscribed in bronze on parapets surrounding twin memorial pools. The two pools are constructed on the footprint of the twin towers. People found the names of their loved ones on the panel and broke down all over again. The sudden and tragic loss of a family member never comes to pass, but for those who died in this horrific act of violence, the pain never seems to surpass.

After the reading of the names at the memorial site, the politicians began to appear on the dais eulogizing with poems and speeches. Past and present presidents, mayors, governors and senators were photographed with somber expressions. A "photo-op" too salient to be missed. As I watched Bush and Obama in the same frame, I wondered what the meaning of this day truly was. What does memorializing the departed mean to those who only bore witness from afar to this terrible tragedy and did not feel some tangible loss? What does it mean to drape oneself in the American flag and talk about patriotism, resilience and freedom, when all 9/11 did was spawn more death and violence? What does it mean to look at the world ten years from that day and observe its true nature? What does an impressive monument such as "Reflecting Absence" do to the human soul?

What most memorials of this nature inadvertently symbolize, is that the human appetite for violence is infinite. When one visits a holocaust memorial one is shaken at the deepest depths, for the evil that was engineered at that time was unfathomable. Then there are countless atrocities that have taken place before and since that have only been memorialized in history books. Millions died when India and Pakistan were separated, there is no memorial that marks that moment. Thousands died in the killing fields of Combodia, a memorial made of skulls reminds of that moment in history. The countless who died in the Gulags of Russia and China and in the forests and villages in Congo, still remain unknown.

The idea behind memorials is to remind generations to come, never to forget and never to repeat. But the human race never relents. A decade after that September day, the dead are still piling up in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since then over thirty plots to attack America have been foiled. People are still willing to give up their lives in the name of violence and the military budgets of countries fighting this so called "war on terror" keep increasing exponentially with no end in sight. Even when the world grapples with the worst financial crisis in a generation.

For America, which is otherwise known as the "land of the free", 9/11 marked a defining moment. In the decade that has followed, the resources spent both human and monetary in the name of "keeping American safe", have reached a criminal level with little or no oversight. In a telling book titled Top Secret America- The Rise of the New American Security State, Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin uncover a whole new security apparatus that has uncontrollably mushroomed in the guise of keeping America safe. In the book the authors reveal the enormous size, shape, mission, and consequences of this invisible universe. According to their investigation, over 1,300 government facilities in every state in America; nearly 2,000 outside companies used as contractors; and more than 850,000 people granted "Top Secret" security clearance, monitor Americans at home and the "enemy" abroad. The result is a system put in place engineered by the infamous "Patriot Act", that puts us in greater danger by creating a "Big Brother" society that is antithetical to the idea of the United States. Americans are living in a quasi police state without an inkling, thanks to 9/11. The notion of being safe has come at the cost of fear and freedom, while we are told it is to protect that very freedom we are at war.

The irrationality of the response to the nineteen individuals who caused mayhem on 9/11, has been disproportionate and misguided to say the least. Volumes have been written and countless have died in futile wars, to prove that fact. Yet the architects remain free to write books and go on talk shows still proclaiming their innocence and sound judgment with audacity. And now nations are bankrupt as a result of these excursions, yet they stay the course. The Jihadists who respond to nations who stay the course, also seem to get stronger and hardened about their ideology, as it has become a way of life. Each day, each side keeps score by killing. This cycle can only reach its natural end, when the will to kill diminishes. As a result risk of another 9/11 taking shape in some corner of the world has not diminished, and so the full purpose of the memorial remains to be materialized.

While New Yorkers grieve on this day every year, they also have moved on and come to accept the new reality they live in. As 9/11 is consigned to the history books, New Yorkers do not need a reminder of what happened here. Everyday they are told "If you see something, say something", and the occasional security alert does not faze anyone even for a moment. While 9/11 means many things to many people, for most New Yorkers who where here, it means one thing and one thing alone - a day of immeasurable loss. A feeling no different from what most people feel around the world, when they lose someone or something dear to a stray bullet or a drone attack.
Yet we must live outside the fear that has been engineered as a result of 9/11. And only when - in the words of the rock band U2 "Where you live, does not decide whether you live or whether you die" - the true meaning of 9/11 will be realized.

It is what it is.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tipping Point

Bad weather is again headline news. As hurricane Irene threatens to batter the eastern coast of United States, the worse is being speculated. People are being asked to evacuate to higher ground, stocking up on emergency food supplies and other essentials is strongly being advised and the 24-hour news channels are conjuring up images of an hurricane Katrina like aftermath. A storm this size has not come up this far north in a hundred years. New York city is shutting down for the first time in its existence and people are preparing for the worst.
Is this mother nature serving us a reminder of its power or is there a human hand aiding her. There is enough research to show that "Global Warming" can lead to warming of the ocean, and even a fraction of an increase in ocean temperature can lead to the formation of hurricanes that can pack more energy than usual. Is this a case in point? Only time will tell.

It is summer in the northern hemisphere and like summer should be, it has been hot. In New York city and most of north eastern United States the mercury has reached record heights. In July the temperatures in New York city reached 104˚F (40˚c). With humidity it felt more like 110˚F (43˚c). Highest recorded in 35 years. Temperatures across the country, especially in the mid-west and north-east have been more than extreme. Airports near Washington and Baltimore hit 105˚F. Philadelphia hit 103˚ degrees, as did Boston. In Abilene, Texas, temperatures have been at or above 100˚F degrees for 40 days this summer. It’s been a little cooler in Savannah, Georgia, where the mercury hit 90˚F for more than 56 days in a row. Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma are coping with their driest nine-month stretch since 1895. Weather has been extreme in other parts of the world as well. 75 mile an hour winds battered southern Australia causing waterfalls to flow skyward. Heavy rains in south-west China tore through villages and fields causing widespread destruction. Millions of people in Pakistan are still reeling from the effects of the mammoth flood that ravaged their nation last year. Extreme weather has become a norm and our parents would attest to that fact. Seasons are not what they used to be.

Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recalculates what it calls climate “normals,” 30-year averages of temperature and precipitation for about 7,500 locations across the United States. The latest figures, released in July, show that the climate of the last 10 years was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the climate of the 1970s, and the warmest since the first decade of the last century. Temperatures were, on average, 0.5 degrees warmer from 1981 to 2010 than they were from 1971 to 2000, and the average annual temperatures for all of the lower 48 states have gone up.

Yet since it snows in the winter some people in this nation and all over the world, think "Global Warming" is still a myth.
Extreme weather patterns have always shaped and reshaped our planet ever since cosmic forces formed our solar system. But it is only now, for the very first time, the planet is being inhabited by 7 billion of us. In pursuit of happiness, life and liberty, an essential human right, the species produces heat trapping green house gases, which inadvertently leads us closer to the destruction of our dreams. The dream of living with all the amenities and comforts of the industrial age we have so skillfully created.
Shifting weather patterns affect a wide range of human activity. Spikes in weather exert energy demand, effect crop productivity, lead to weather-related disasters and cause fish in the ocean to disappear. Weather events like a hot day or a heavy downpour can cost the global economy billions of dollars in crop losses, construction delays, travel disruptions and loss of life. In other words fair weather is what makes us live on this planet in comfort. And if we were to tip that balance, adaptation will not be an option.
Having aspirations to better ones life is a natural instinct and is considered a human right. Pursuit of that human right has lead us away from living in harmony with the planet. High levels of immigration into Europe and America are a product of this desire to live the modern dream. Those who take on the treacherous journey to find another life at the cost of everything, weather can sometimes be the root cause. Food shortages caused by famine, as we are seeing in the horn of Africa today, can lead to mass migration. Bad weather has also been known to cause social unrest and war exacerbating migration as well. Therefore global warming is more than just having a bad day for out door sports, it can be that one thing that could change the course of humanity, like the Atom bomb did more than half a century ago.

While there is very little on the horizon that could arrest the slippery slope we are on, humanity always has faith in solving big problems with innovative solutions. Our technological prowess gives us confidence that any situation could be overcome. When the AIDS epidemic seemed like a deathly halo looming over us, two decades later we seemed to have crippled its spread, at least for the time being in nations that can afford it. This may not be the best comparison, but we seem to believe that we can slow down the process of global warming by changing light bulbs and driving electric cars. Unfortunately there are no big ideas out there to address this Goliath of a problem humanity faces. Very few nations even see this as a serious problem, as they are dealing with more pressing issues at hand. Those that do, are not able to do much due to the usual political bickering. United States and China the biggest polluters of the planet, are trying to shift gear, but the pace is not acceptable. And at a time when the global economy is in a state of free fall, very few nations want to curtail their polluting businesses in fear of cutting their bottom line. Mean while we keep pouring more heat into the atmosphere by fighting wars, having obscene fireworks displays, burning forests and causing explosions in movies for entertainment. So if we are to look for hope where do we begin?
As I post this entry, New Yorkers are bracing for hurricane Irene and taking as many precautions as minuscule humans can. I went to stock up on some essential supplies and found long lines outside grocery stores and empty shelves. Sliced bread was hard to find and batteries were in high demand. As the fury of the storm is speculated and evacuations in low lying areas become mandatory, a dooms day like scenario seems to be at hand. Even though I am outside the immediate flood zone, I am filling my bath tub with fresh water, have an urban survival kit ready and preparing for the phones, internet and power lines to go down for a while. As 65 million people on the eastern seaboard experience Irene's fury in some shape or form, I am hoping she will be kind to the city I live in and love. It is what it is.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Face of Terror

While I was about to post my entry for July, news of a bomb exploding in the middle of Oslo, Norway caught my attention. The images that poured in brought back memories from 1995 when Oklahoma City met such a fate that claimed 168 lives, which included 19 children under the age of 6. I began to dread the reports filtering in. Having visited Oslo a few years ago, I could not bare to think that an act of this nature could occur in a country so homogeneous and peaceful. Like everyone, to my utter horror I soon realized that while the Oslo bombing was catastrophic, it was not all. There was more savagery unfolding on the island of Utoeya. Young boys and girls were being gunned down by a man who had gone mad. By the time it was over 76 people were dead. A delusional fantasist who thought he was changing the world had stopped shooting for reasons that are yet to be known.

Like all events of this nature, the 9/11 attack on Manhattan, the indiscriminate terrorist attacks on Bombay, the Oklahoma City explosion, the shooting of US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the Virgina Tech massacre, they all stir us at our core as the insanity behind the crime is unfathomable and incomprehensible. Often they are committed out of extreme hatred for something, that is driven by a warped ideology that justifies the action. These crimes are most often carried out by young men who somehow stray and find themselves on the fringe of society, alone, devoid of love and messed up.

As we struggle to understand the "why" and the "how", instead of scrutinizing more about yet another somber moment in our lives, I would like to share a NPR interview that stirred me. This interview poignantly summed up what hatred can do, when it blinds us from our humanity. This is a remarkable story of a man who survived an attack on his life in Dallas, Texas after a stranger went on a rampage soon after the 9/11 attacks. Bangladeshi-born Rais Bhuyian was shot and blinded by a young American named Mark Stroman. Stroman killed 2 others on his 'anti-Arab' rampage that day. Rais went on to forgive Stroman, and even campaigned to have his death sentence commuted to life. Stroman was executed on July 20, 2011.

Listening to Rais on the radio was moving and uplifting. It said something about the human spirit that lies within all of us. When, how and whether we chose to act on it in the face of adversity, is what being human is all about. It is what it is.

Click here to see the NPR report.

Monday, June 20, 2011

America Hoodwinked

In 2005, a part of my American dream was realized. I bought a house in Brownstone Brooklyn, New York City. I was an unlikely beneficiary of the "Subprime Lending" scam that was orchestrated on a massive scale by the banks in this country. The scheme that was meant to help Americans own their homes, brought the whole global financial system to its knees. For those who are still unfamiliar with the term "Subprime Lending", it basically means giving mortgages to people who may not have the financial strength to make the payments on the loan. These mortgages are also characterized by low down payments, higher interest rates and less favorable terms in order to compensate for higher credit risk. Many of these loans were handed to people with adjustable interest rates or ARMs. An ARM is where the interest rate would be low and locked for a short term, affording lower monthly payments towards interest only and not principal. After the initial period the interest rate would adjust to an exorbitant and prohibitive amount. And there in lay the devil that submerged homeowners across the country when the value in their homes vanished. Some were swept away and others are still clinging onto their roofs.

The essence of unbridled capitalism and free market is to make a profit most often by selling goods or services. In the real estate and financial industry, profit is made solely by the arbitrary business of speculation, manipulation, hedging and betting. Money is made and lost by exchanging assets that are valued by factors beyond an average persons understanding or control. These two industries brought the country and the world to a grinding halt by virtue of one important but essential nature that drives the business, greed.

Most banks do not lend to self employed people such as myself, as they see us as high risk vagrants, unless you can show you are making a large amount of money. In 2005 when we decided to buy a house, I struggled to get a loan. Most banks found me to be ineligible by a slight margin. Then finally a mortgage company called Countrywide Home Loans, which was the largest company of its kind at the time, came to my rescue. Just with a few phone calls and some faxed documents they decided to take the risk of putting me on their portfolio. My "Jumbo Loan" (a loan amount over $500,000) was approved and a few days later, after some unnerving discrepancies in the loan documents at the closing, I had my own home. By the time I completed the whole process, I had lost all joy of acquiring my very own domain. I had had a nervous breakdown.

The financial tsunami that was gathering steam right under my nose, with me on its back, crested in 2009. Major Wall Street firms such as Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers collapsed. My mortgage company went belly up and was bought by Bank of America. The fraudulent mortgage loans had infected the market, threatening credit and destroying the confidence in the American system. Soon the American government headed by George Bush realized the severity of the problem and found themselves in a tight spot. Their philosophy of deregulation and allowing greed to thrive in the name of false prosperity had reached its logical conclusion. And so they appeared in front of the American public presenting a grave situation calling up visions of the Great Depression. An intoxicated populace that felt their "way of life" was under threat, felt even more nervous. To safeguard freedom and the American way of life the banks had to be injected with tax payer money, other wise there would be "Bread Lines" outside grocery stores within weeks. This was the story that was sold, and like always the "narrative of fear" worked.

Billions of dollars were funneled into Goldman Sachs, Citi Bank, AIG, Bank of America and their friends. The very people who had created this precarious situation had now been told to accept cash or perish. All to calm the market and send a signal that this would ease credit to businesses to resume growing and the economy would regain steam. There was no guarantee that the banks would lend the people's money back to the public, none was expected of them. It was just a charade to regain confidence.

It was quickly realized that the rescue package delivered by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his friends Ben Bernenke and Tim Geithner (present Treasury Secretary) to the banks did not materialize into tangible benefits for the public at large. All they did was bolster the banks so that they would be flush with funds to restart Wall Street. And that they did with great success in the process managing to give themselves record bonuses while the rest of the nation was still struggling to surface from the slump. A reinvigorated Wall Street gave the government machinery good cause to proclaim that they had stalled a financial meltdown, that would otherwise have been catastrophic.

As the new President took charge, there was hope there would be drastic change, almost a reversal, but big slogans amounted to nothing. Ex-bankers continued the line of succession in the key financial posts. Most violators were let go with a slap on the wrist. Political bickering led to more spending and less tax cuts for the wealthy. President Obama enacted the "Stimulus Plan" to spur job growth and enacted the "Foreclosure Rescue Plan" which would help homeowners who were struggling to stay in their houses. The banks were requested to modify the terms of their mortgage loans. Most often a modification would mean lowering the interest rate and waiving all penalties for non-payment. All banks were required to assist applicants, but the standards by which they approved the modifications were arbitrary and lacked federal oversight.

Having voted President Obama into office I thought this was a fine program. Finally change he had promised was actually reaching the citizens in need. Socialism was not just for the capitalist banks, it was also for the people, hurrah. So I applied for a "Loan Modification" with Bank of America. My house was not in foreclosure and I had not defaulted on my payments, but I was struggling and I could use some breathing room to better my financial situation. The Obama program was publicized to help individuals like me as well. My interest rate was not low by any means, and I was hoping to lower it to make my mortgage payment affordable. I submitted my documentation to Bank of America as a self-employed person. My application was accepted. I was delighted.

After months of calling for a clear answer on the status of my application, I received a notice stating they needed additional information. That information was promptly sent. There was no response. After almost a year and a half I was told my application was turned down, because they determined I could afford my home. So I said, if I can afford my house let me at least refinance my loan to a lower interest rate. I was told my income did not qualify for a refinance as the guidelines had changed and the regulatory agencies had become unusually strict in overseeing standards for loan approvals. My outstanding mortgage amount was too big, and my income did not qualify. The agencies that were deregulated by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and the soothsayer of global finance Alan Greenspan seemed to have woken up just in time to inspect my case. At least this is what I think I was told by Bank of America.

Today America carries a national debt of almost 14 trillion dollars, which breaks down to $45,000 per individual citizen. Greece's debt breaks down to about $44,000 per individual. The Congress is yet again raising the debt ceiling to function. Banks and other private enterprises are flush with funds and even bailed out firms such as GE are posting a profit. Wall Street is in a respectable place, but the middle class is rapidly shrinking. Unemployment is high, salaries are low and tax cuts have never been this low in fifty years.

While America was hoodwinked by the banks and their comrades in the government, it is the average person who has had to bear the brunt. Government has proven ineffectual again, squandering people's treasure in corrupt ways using wars and entitlements as an excuse. Democrats cannot bring themselves to consider serious spending reform, Republicans reject higher taxes for the wealthy, and right wing Tea party people would rather see the nation burn than compromise. While America calls out corruption around the world it fails to deal with the corruption that is eating away at its core. A nation that takes pride in its system of justice and demands honor of its public servants, has very few honorable men and women left who really care about the plight of the nation.

As a middle class tax paying citizen, my power is very limited. My American dream of one vote, one voice is a ruse. And time after time I am reminded that very little changes where true power lies. Even now we are told America is the wealthiest nation in the world, we have the largest military and yet more people become poorer everyday in every which way. In a nation born out of the worst excesses of racism and prejudice it becomes more and more unclear where and at what level discrimination takes place. Bias can never be articulated in a nation that is so weary about being sued, that it takes sophisticated steps to safeguard itself. By denying me the ability to refinance my loan, Bank of America can discriminate based on the fact that I am self-employed. But I can never prove it. Same as while America is Hoodwinked no one can prove it, one can only stand by watch and hope for hope. It is what it is.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Justice has been done"

In the cover of darkness four stealth helicopters descend on a compound 60 kilometers north of Islamabad, Pakistan in a garrison town called Abbotabad. Soon there is gun fire and a blaze. A continent away Americans are perturbed when their daily dose of television is interrupted by an imminent broadcast from the White House. Speculation begins and the media men and women begin to do what they do best, chatter. Soon the "Breaking News" headline turns to "Osama Bin Laden has been killed". Moments later a president walks down a red carpet to a microphone and addresses the world. He reveals that a covert CIA operation has borne fruit and Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, is dead. And "Justice has been done." Within minutes a crowd gathers outside the White House gates. USA!, USA! the chanting gets louder and louder. Jubilation is in the air. In New York, where it all began, some people are ecstatic and others finally remove their countdown signs. The wait is over. America's "Public Enemy No:1", "The Face of Evil", is finally gunned down after 9 years and 232 days since 9/11. But his ghost lingers on.

As the details begin to leak through the news cycle, the story of how it went down begins to emerge. The Navy Seal team that descended on the compound made their way to the third floor of a bungalow where they found Osama Bin Laden. They shot him in the head and then carried him away to a waiting helicopter. On the way to him they killed two of his couriers, a son and a woman. A helicopter which was meant to carry Osama's family as hostages, had a malfunction so it had to be blown up. Before the military could be alerted, the Navy Seal team was out of Pakistani Airspace, the whole operation concluded in a precision 40 minutes. They had been training for this for more than a year. After a brief landing in Afghanistan the body of Osama Bin Laden was moved to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea. He was reportedly buried at sea mindful of Islamic religious customs.

The official White House report, which is the only report, first claimed Osama Bin Laden resisted and therefore had to be killed. They then revealed he was unarmed. What emerges from the operation details is that the Navy Seal team was there to carry out an assassination and they succeeded.

Osama Bin Laden for a long time has been the most reviled person in the west. His exploits attained global notoriety, when his suicide bombers attacked the American war ship USS Cole and bombed the US embassies in east Africa. In retaliation when president Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike on his camps in Afghanistan he openly wowed to bring the war to America's streets. His anger against the United States for its presence in his holy motherland of Mecca and Madina, galvanized extremists across the Islamic world to his cause. Even many moderate Muslims in the Arab world gravitated to his call for Jihad as they perceived America to be an imperial power that knew no boundaries and had no honor as it propped up despotic Arab regimes. On 9/11 the epic myth of Osama Bin Laden solidified as the greatest terrorist attack ever, took place in downtown Manhattan. That t0wering act of violence and the chutzpah exhibited made him a larger than life figure. The soft spoken videos that appeared on Al Jazeera, painted him as an Islamic revolutionary. He had become Time magazine's most influential man of the year.

The grotesque crime that was committed on 9/11 unleashed a river of blood. America invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, causing thousands of deaths and Al Qaeda pushed back escalating the orgy of violence. Bin Laden successfully lured America into spending a trillion dollars on a misguided war that reportedly claimed a 150,000 lives. An extremely heavy reckoning for one mans fiendish mission for blood thirsty revenge and destruction.

The story of Osama Bin Laden is no different from that of any other extremist who is driven by a singular ideology. The ideology of seeing the world reconfigured, guided by an archaic and medieval code of mistrust and intolerance of the other. This ideology exists all around the world and some states like North Korea put it into practice very successfully. And every now and then comes an individual who puts it into action in their own psychotic but clever way. For Bin Laden that ideology took some time to form, but once it did, it had to be put into action by any means. Osama Bin Laden had the means, in the form of ancestral wealth, which he showered generously to gain respect and admiration from people from all walks from Afghanistan to Sudan. Politicians, spies, clerics, fanatics and men with guns all aligned themselves to him. He was then able to mobilize young men along with like minded partners such as Ayman Al-Zawahiri, to do his bidding, and that they did with their very lives.

Even though he was being watched closely way before 9/11, it was that monumental act that made him a formidable adversary. The CIA had a whole task force dedicated to tracking and killing Osama Bin Laden. For most he became the most evil man alive and for a sizable lot he became a hero, a man who finally hit back at the imperialists, and pulled it off from a cave.

In this so called "civil society" we live in, the word "Justice" is associated with the idea of laws, and justice is only done when all the evidence is presented for the world to see in the form of hard fact. That is what is done in a democratic society and democratic values know no geographic boundaries. They are the values of higher purpose, arrived at through centuries of injustice, wars, genocide and mass murder. They give credibility to those who uphold them no matter the circumstances.

While most people were elated by the extermination of Osama Bin Laden, there were those who felt that his capture and prosecution would have given America more credibility in the eyes of the world. There are numerous arguments for and against posing a person such as him in a western court of law such as the ICC (International Criminal Court). The primary one being, that putting him on trial would be a logistical nightmare and it would rally more people to his cause and would create an expensive spectacle which is not worthy. The other argument is that, the evidence against him would be very hard to bring to bear in a court of law. But I think putting him on trial would have been a much more worthwhile enterprise than spending a trillion dollars on a war that has brought nothing more than misery. There was also a sentiment expressed that his death brought "closure". Unfortunately "Bin-Ladenism" will be much harder to eradicate and closure will be only momentary.

Osama Bin Laden is certainly not the first fanatic to have walked the earth committed to mass murder. The recently arrested Serbian General Ratko Mladic, had been on the run for sixteen years, and will finally face justice at the Hague. When compared to the Nazis, Bin Laden's agenda is quite tame. Even though the Nazis were a state sponsored machinery, they had similar goals of establishing a society guided by a singular vision of absolute domination through violence and terror. Yet at the end of the war the Nazis were not exterminated in revenge killings. They were put on trial, to show to the world that what evil lies within needs to be examined and rooted out so it does not linger on and disease the human spirit. The Nuremberg trials brought credibility to the western allies and lead to the formation of laws that guide us to a higher mission. Ben Ferencz, US prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials has openly criticized the manner in which Osama Bin Laden was done away with. Not just because it was an assassination and assassinations are illegal under US law, but also because we lost credibility. We acted like one of them. Dealing a blow but also making sure that the cycle of violence would continue for generations to come.

President Obama came through on his campaign promise and emerged as the tough democrat. Heady from the global applause he no doubt thinks he has secured a second term in office. His Attorney General Eric Holder declared the disposal of Osama Bin Laden as an act of national "self defense". While we wait for Al Qaeda's next move, there is already a heightened sense disquiet in the world. The dubious and duplicitous nature of Pakistan's power centers are extremely worrisome. While complicit they feel violated and are carefully playing their chips seeking favor from China as plan B. While hunting down Osama Bin Laden may have been a popular thing to do, it is his ghost that will haunt us for some time to come.

Osama Bin Laden to the people who knew him dearly was "Sheik Osama Bin Laden". The word "Sheik" is used as an expression of deference and respect. His followers are many and that is a fact that cannot and should not be ignored. He is still a hero to many, even though he has killed and maimed thousands of his own kind. But in any Jihad there is collateral damage and people are willing to see it that way as America sees its killing of innocent people as collateral damage. Where and when the killing will end is anybody's guess. The Taliban it seems are coming around to talk peace, while they keep blowing up more and more people where and when they can. For "Justice" to truly be done there has to be equal justice for all. As long as that escapes us, wars and tit for tat killing will be the main stay and extremists will emerge to fill the vacuum. The turmoil shaking the Arab world, which some are calling the "Arab Spring" could be an antidote to extremism. But only if it is allowed to thrive and be nurtured as a long term investment and not a short term reprieve. It is what it is.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Year Later

A year ago on this very day, deep under the ocean a calamity unfolded. Before it was over millions of barrels of black, murky, thick oil had spewed into the Gulf Coast of the United States. An estimated 180 million (the number is still in dispute) gallons of it all had polluted the ocean as the world watched aghast. This was by far the worst industrial disaster engineered by mankind, under water. The unquenchable thirst for oil (which today is trading $180 a barrel) had led humans once again to desecrate the planet, hoping it will heal itself, and continue to be on their side.

A year later as the media casts a dim glare on the catastrophe, there is a sense that it never happened. There is a belief that what seemed so dire then was not after all that bad. Theories that the ocean performed a miracle and disintegrated all the oil with its magical bacteria, the ocean currents swept the oil away and unlike the Exxon Valdez spill twenty years ago, this was spread over a large area and there fore the impact was less, are gaining more acceptance. Only a few birds and fish died, and those that were seen on TV covered in oil were rescued and rehabilitated and not much oil really washed ashore so everyone can get back to fishing and drilling seems to be the direction that is being proposed. The apathy to this catastrophe is so blaring that some scientists and experts have even gone so far as to say that a "true calamity" was actually averted because nature was on our side. Having seen the heart wrenching images as they struggled to cap the well for almost three months, is reason enough to doubt the rosy picture that is emerging out of a carefully managed and disseminated story. Two decades later there is still evidence of oil on the shores of the Prince William sound in Alaska, and the oil that spilled there was a fraction of what gushed into the Gulf.

The impunity with which we pollute the only planet we have, reached a new milestone with this incident. The Bhopal gas tragedy, the Chernobyl disaster and the numerous oil spills in the Niger Delta and elsewhere, have shown us that this impunity we take as a "right" and carry on insensitively and unabashedly until the next disaster strikes. As nothing can come second to man's greed for natural resources.

BP and Haliburton the two companies on whose watch this catastrophe in the Gulf unfolded both posted a profit on Wall Street this year. Despite doling out billions of dollars in the clean up operation and other damages owed to the Gulf coast communities, they were able to make money thanks to rising oil prices. As always, the remuneration to the people most affected by no fault of theirs, has been slow coming, even though 20 billion dollars have been set aside at the insistence of the Obama administration. While all this has been unfolding things have gone back the way they were. Deep water drilling permits are again being issued to oil companies, with the promise of more stringent oversight by the government. Recently the Australian company BHP Billiton was awarded a permit to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, not far from where the spill occurred. Rising oil prices due to the political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa led the Republicans to push congress to resume drilling in the Gulf coast. “We are encouraging offshore exploration and production,” President Barack Obama said during a press conference at the White House “We’re just doing it responsibly.”

As the calamity at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan struggles to find an end, already things in the Nuclear industry seem to be returning to their "business as usual" state. A number of nuclear plants in the United States have had their permits extended by another twenty years, even though their safety records have been checkered. The oldest operating Nuclear power plant in Oyster Creek, New Jersey had its permits extended to 2029, even though it had leaked radioactive waste into the aquifer. The Oyster Creek plant is a boiling water reactor, much like the one in Fukushima, Japan. In February 2011 the Kawaunee Nuclear power plant in Wisconsin had its license extended till 2033. This plant had reported a leak in 2006. Other nuclear plants across the globe have resumed construction, and those who were put on hold are waiting for the dust to settle. India plans to build the worlds largest nuclear power plant on its western coast near a rural town called Jaitpur. Violent protests from the local villagers broke out this week. One protester was shot by the police. India's growing thirst for power to fuel its urban expansion will not relent.

The nexus between industry and government cannot be more evident as in the case of the oil and nuclear industry. On the one hand the Obama administration talks about conservation and moving away from an oil addicted society to a more "green" one and on the other allows oil companies to start drilling in places that is proven to be environmentally risky. The Nuclear industry with the promise of clean energy pushes its way through, expanding and thriving despite all of its apocalyptic failings. The hypocrisy could not be more blatant as the companies flex their muscle and manage to get what they want and the drilling never stops as the thirst for oil and power knows no end.

What we seem to learn from our mistakes, is that we never learn. Humanity's inability to sacrifice the conveniences it has gotten used to at the cost of great harm to the planet, is reprehensible. Politically it is something no government would want to risk, even if it means putting the very public that elected them at grave risk. The idea that by better and more stringent oversight and sophisticated technology we can create a "fail safe" world questions the short sighted audacity of the human spirit. Nature shows us time and again that if we cannot live in harmony with it, it will not allow us to live, but humanity does not seem to get the hint. So as we return to drilling and splitting atoms, the question to ask is at what cost is that acceptable? If the mission, knowing what we know today, is to create a better and safer world for future generations, it feels like that vision has become impaired. It is what it is.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Nuclear Tsunami

Since the moment the earth shook under the ocean off the coast of Japan, the world has been shocked, shaken and stirred by the images pouring out of the island nation. The names of places like Sendai, Fukushima, Tomioka, Narah have become familiar as the scale of the breathtaking carnage is revealed. Black murky water engulfing everything in its path, homes scraped from their foundations crumbling as though made of papier mache, massive ships parked on city streets, homes on top of homes and debris swung as far as the eye can see, a nightmare the Japanese had always prepared for had now come true. The 10 meter high Tsunami wave generated from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake was no ordinary occurrence. According to a leading seismologist Dr.Roger Musson, this was a once in a 1000 year event. What was certain though was that the force of nature was on full unabashed display, reminding us once again where we stand as a species.

In the last few years we have been inundated with images of immense devastation on a regular basis. From the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the Asian Tsunami to the more recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, we have seen human misery on display on an unprecedented scale. What differentiates this calamity from the others is not only its epic scale but also the fact that a natural disaster gave way to the creation of a man made disaster which is proving to be deadlier than what nature had intended.

As we watch the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant descend into certain meltdown, the all too familiar feeling of a catastrophe unfolding causes extreme discomfort. Like watching another giant wave crest on the horizon, and not knowing which way to run, the people of Japan watch and wait as information about the situation gets hazier by the hour. As experts and pundits on television ponder worst case scenarios, mentioning Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, images of men in Hazmat suits screening people in plain clothes, conjure up unnerving visions of a nuclear apocalypse. Ever since the atomic bomb was dropped on this nation a generation ago, the Japanese have pondered a nuclear holocaust in all avenues of their popular culture. Now that vision seems to coming true with panic lurking just under the surface.

Since the moment humans began harnessing energy from splitting atoms, there has always been grave cause for concern. Ever since Enrico Fermi demonstrated the first self sustaining nuclear chain reaction there has been serious debate about its promise versus its danger. Much like the debate surrounding genetic technology and its far reaching impact in an ethical world, nuclear technology has had its strong critics who saw the monster that lay within. That monster was on full display when it scorched Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Everyone including Albert Einstein, who once championed nuclear technology, saw the sheer horror that lay within, when left to man's devious actions. After the savagery of an atomic explosion one would have expected a roll back on nuclear technology. But in direct contradiction to logic, human diabolical duplicity prevailed, and the technology leaped forward making giant strides. Sixty six years later, the planet is now over populated with nuclear bombs and power plants, with more and more nations thirsting to get their hands on this technology. The tiny earthquake prone island nation of Japan has 54 nuclear power plants on its back, the United States has 104, France has 58, Russia has 32, UK has 19, altogether 439 nuclear plants are in operation across the planet.

The proponents of nuclear technology claim it is safe, clean and cost effective and is the only way to feed the insatiable human apetite for energy. The situation unfolding in Fukushima disproves this idea outright, much like Chernobyl did in 1986. No matter how much the scientists and their sponsors prove to the public that nuclear technology is safe, and the advances that have been made in sixty years make it even safer, the nature of this creation is such that if it gets out of its containment the destruction it causes can in no shape or form counter the good it does. While this technology may be "green" by not emitting pollutants into the atmosphere, it makes up for it by producing deadly nuclear waste which has no sustainable way of disposing yet. For the last six or more decades the planet has been swallowing spent fuel rods into its crust as though it were an infinite reservoir. We all have come to know in recent years, that everything on this planet is finite and if we do not take that into account, we lay the foundation for our own doom.

As the vivid descriptions of what high dozes of nuclear radiation can do to the human body are contemplated, what no one is foreseeing are the long lasting effects of such a disaster. The nuclear Tsunami that invisibly washes over people, destroys the body at cellular level causing cancer. The area around the disaster site will not be habitable for hundreds of years to come. The area around Chernobyl two decades later is still a wasteland and anything that grows in its vicinity is poison. And the stories the walking dead of Kiev have told since that blast, are haunting. I dread hearing stories coming out of Japan, especially having seen what they have already been through with the earthquake and the tidal wave.

Watching what is taking place in Japan, I wanted to immediately know how close I was living to a nuclear power plant. I found out that I was just under fifty miles from an aging nuclear plant called Indian Point located in Buchanan, New York. 20 million people live in the vicinity of this plant which went online in 1962. With three reactor cores on location, this plant has had issues in the past, where it has leaked radiation into the atmosphere and water. The supporters of this plant, claim it is safe and has done a phenomenal job in keeping pollutants out of the air while meeting 30% of New York city's gluttonous appetite for electricity. They also say unlike the Japanese reactor this is not in an area of seismic activity or a Tsunami, therefore there is no cause for concern. Both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island incidents were not caused as a result of any natural disaster, but because of human error. So the reason to have a monster inside an aging shell, so close to such a densely populated region is inexcusable. I would rather have Times Square go dark few times a week, than contemplate what the Japanese are facing in my backyard. In contradiction some politicians like the New York governor are calling for the closure of Indian Point, but the nature of humanity is to live on borrowed time. So for the one hundred or so nuclear plants that feed the incessant and infinite need for electricity in the United States, a time of reckoning has come. For the people who live near these contained monsters, the time is here to ask, how safe do you feel and how much are you willing to sacrifice to get your energy via other means.

Yes nuclear power plants provide jobs and energy to millions of people. Seeing what is taking place at the Fukushima Daiichi powerplant one cannot help asking the fundamental question "is it worth it". More nations around the world want this technology. Either claiming to meet the growing need for energy or just as an excuse to build an atomic bomb. Ironically India recently signed a multi billion dollar deal with Japan to purchase nuclear fuel and technology. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are vying do build nuclear power plants, mostly to counter Iran's moves. Israel already possesses this demon as do India and Pakistan. The Germans and the Chinese have suspended their nuclear projects immediately as a result of the present disaster.

As the Japanese catastrophe forces us to examine a dooms day scenario, supporters of nuclear power plants, like Fareed Zakaria are asking us to look at the present disaster in context and not get usurped by the shock value the word "nuclear" conjures up. The age old argument, that more people die in car accidents and coal and oil kill more people than nuclear energy has been effectively used in a short sighted manner. What they do not address are the long lasting effects of a nuclear disaster. Those that linger on for generations, contaminating the food chain and causing ghastly genetic mutations and cancer.

Are we as a people willing and able to honestly look at what we have created in nuclear technology or are we going to continue to live in denial until the next big disaster. From my estimation, the Japanese situation will soon move off the headline. The harrowing stories of the aftermath will shake us to the bone. But we will go back to our old ways until the next disaster, basing the idea of "safety" on the death toll statistic. It is what we always do. It is what it is.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Walk like an EGYPTIAN

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress...
Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and never will."
- Frederick Douglass

On February 9, 2011 while 111 million Americans huddled around their TV sets taking part in the annual great American orgy called the "Superbowl", a continent away 80 million Egyptians were taking part in a different kind of Superbowl. Having spilled into the streets in record numbers for almost two weeks, they were involved in a battle of will against their decrepit leaders to relinquish their oppressive hold on power. They were determined not to die out in a whimper as their Iranian counterparts had in 2009.

While America, the chief sponsor of Hosni Mubarak and his army for the last thirty years stood on the fence, the people of Egypt were unrelenting. Television images sent a clear signal, there was no turning back. It was a moment that needed to be seized and anyone with any humanity could relate to the need for urgency without any ambiguity. Anyone with any moral conscience was one with the people on the street. People power was unequivocally on display. The draw was so strong that people from around the world, who could get away with it, flew into Cairo to be one with this Arab once in a lifetime "Woodstock"/ "Berlin Wall" moment. I for one, having not being able to physically be there, was virtually and psychologically transported to be one with the young and the old, the religious and secular, the male and the female, as they swept, sweat and slept in Tahrir Square, not allowing anything to shake their resolve.

There was a moment, when there was trepidation that the movement would lose momentum. There was doubt if the people would prevail the chess game that was being played by Mubarak and his honchos. Then there was a sudden burst of energy and on February 11th, Egypt was changed for ever. The euphoria was palpable through the radio and television screens all around the world as the dictator flew for cover. In a largely bloodless uprising, the people of Egypt, for the moment, had freed their nation of a criminal regime. As the gargantuan portraits and posters of the dictator came down, the jubilation spread through the streets of Cairo and beyond. So did the doubts of what would happen next, as the military took control.

Western journalists who had been plunging themselves into this story the moment the crowds gathered at Tahrir Square were also jubilant. Their high wire act of reporting from the scene had paid off and they somehow felt they had contributed to the demolition of the regime as well. Unlike their governments, in their professionally narcissistic delusional world, they may have felt one with the Egyptians by taking a beating, but there should be no mistake this was an Egyptian narrative and it is only they who deserved any credit.

When there is a moment in history of this nature, in an attempt to simplify it and understand the mechanics of such a feat, the world always looks for a poster child, such as a Mandela, a Gandhi or a King. In this case there was none and an explanation as to how such a mass uprising would come to pass, was puzzling even to the CIA. And so they called it the "Facebook" revolution, the "Internet" revolution and for a moment the Google boy Wael Ghonim revolution. While they may have all helped in sparking and fueling the movement, all revolutions happen because there is a ripe climate for it, and that climate gets worse because of an El Niño effect. For those who did not know that a climate of high unemployment, poverty, corruption and political repression was brewing for thirty years in Egypt they had to be in a coma. The El Niño this time was sparked by a 26 year old man who set himself ablaze in Tunisia, out of utter desperation. His desperation was very similar to those of countless others in the Arab world. And so the "contagion", as those in power and those who support these repressive regimes called it spread, leading to a Tsunami.

The big western democracies like the United States, United Kingdom and France have always had a double standard when truly pushing for democracy in the Middle East and Africa. They justify their support for the status-quo of repressive despicable regimes, as making calculated choices for opting for stability over democracy. The underlying arrogance that the Arabs and Africans are not evolved enough to enjoy the fruits of democracy and are not ready to handle freedom unless negotiated by the west, is also a deep seeded belief. In 1947 when India rose up against the British and demanded freedom, the western media painted a very bleak future for the fledgling nation. It almost assured that the Indians would not be able to handle their new found freedom without a total implosion. Similar predictions about Egypt were and are being made by some. Then of course there is the dreaded issue of oil and military bases which can never be taken out of any equation where there is conflict. As we see the price of oil shoot up these past few weeks, the short sighted foreign policies of propping up despotic regimes are exposed. During the height of the protests when Tony Blair still called for Mubarak to stay in power and hoped for an orderly transition to democracy, it was a blatant representation of that hypocrisy. When change of this nature is set in motion, there are only two outcomes. Brutality or benevolence. We saw some of both in Egypt, and to the world's surprise the benevolent means of protest espoused by Gandhi and King seemed to have borne fruit.

When in a surprise move Mubarak left Cairo for his luxurious residence built with looted money in the resort town of Sharm-El Sheik it was over. It caught many by surprise as he was known to be a stubborn man. With that launched speculation and fear mongering about the Muslim Brotherhood and other right wing Islamic groups hijacking the situation. Whether that will actually happen, one would have to wait and see. Egypt is not Iran, even if it is, if that is what the people want, then that is what will happen. It is their democratic choice that must be respected, if it happens in a transparent manner. But for once in many decades a fissure seems to have opened that could actually lead to real peace in Palestine and some real solutions for the middle east could emerge. With the sweeping winds of change, the morally corrupt Israeli and Palestinian leadership will have to heed to the demands of the people they have become so accustomed to oppress. Israel maintained its silence when the people over its borders rose up to over throw their dictator, as the dictator was Israel's friend. The only democracy in the region could not find it in its heart to support people power for fear of a collapse of a fraudulent peace treaty that oppresses a million people in Gaza and maintains a superficial balance. So much for a nation that was built out of the worst oppression unleashed on humanity. They decided to be the Switzerland to Germany, out of fear and prejudice, that has been at the core of all policy for the region.

In the euphoric crowd in Cairo, a man carried a sign which read "Two down twenty to go". Wishful thinking maybe, but already the so called "contagion" seems to be rapidly spreading. Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, Jordan and even Iraq have all seen protests spawn as a direct reaction to Egypt and Tunisia. As the television channels Al Aribiya and Al Jazeera and online social networks add oxygen to the flame by showing the brutality of those in power, an "if they can, we can" attitude seems to be gathering momentum. This thirst for change is so infectious and liberating that fear has gripped regimes as far as China, forcing them to censor all their media. And for America, a migraine is developing as the Obama administration contends with how to frame its rhetoric without blatantly exposing its duplicity on issues of global power and influence, which it calls "interests".

How far and how fast this fresh oxygen will spread only time will tell. If the democracies of the world, who pride themselves for their history and openness, do not overtly recognize and encourage what lies at the heart of this yearning for freedom, they will come across as hypocrites. This moment that shatters all Muslim stereotypes of terrorism, long beards and crazy clerics, must be seized. Here is a moment to truly win "hearts and minds", and if we fail, we would have failed all those who brought us to this moment, which we in free nations today so joyously take for granted.

To walk like an Egyptian was to walk like a Russian, Frenchman, Chilean, Indian, Filipino, Cuban and all those who one day realized freedom for all was as essential as a breath of fresh air. Like those before them, the Egyptians got what they deserved, will they get what they want? Only time will tell. It is what it is.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Driving down fourth avenue in Brooklyn on a chilly January morning, I was shaken. The radio broke the news that a United States congresswoman was shot at point-blank range. Soon it was known that the congresswoman was from the Democratic Party and she was shot outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, while holding a public gathering. That information alone was enough for me to arrive at my first conclusion. The toxic political climate that had been brewing over the recently concluded election cycle had claimed its first victim.

Four days earlier, a continent away, another politician was shot and killed. The Governor of Punjab in Pakistan was gunned down by his own twenty six year old bodyguard. The assassin later claimed that he killed the Governor because he was an outspoken liberal in a country that is slowly but steadily being eaten away by extremism and intolerance.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords survived her head injury but six others lost their lives. A day later a mug shot of the assassin, twenty two year old Jared Lee Laughner, was released to the public. The expression on his bald face sent a chill and a picture began to emerge of a man who had supposedly gone insane, but not insane enough to not know his constitutional rights. A few months back Jared had exercised his second amendment right by purchasing a police issue Glock semi-automatic pistol, and then managed to acquire an unusually large amount of ammunition from a local Super Wal-Mart store without raising an alarm. He exercised his ultimate constitutional right guaranteed to every United States citizen by pleading the fifth when he was arrested by the police. The fifth amendment to the United States constitution protects all citizens from self incriminating themselves, when arrested for a crime.

A few days after Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated in Pakistan, a video of his assassin appeared on the Internet. It was recorded soon after the killing. A policeman keeping guard recorded it on his cell phone. In the video Malik Mumtaz Qadri is seen singing a hymn in praise of Allah, pleading him to look after those who work in his favor. The melodic and serene manner in which he recites the song as the policemen around him listen in devotion, is chilling.

Unlike Jared, Malik was hailed as a hero by many hardliners in Pakistan. He was showered with rose petals while a crowd cheered, as he was led away by the police.

While the murders in Arizona launched a debate in America about the need for civility in public discourse, the assassination in Pakistan seems to have had an opposite effect. It has deepened the divide between those who want to see an extreme version of Sharia law take root in Pakistan and those who want to forge a modern nation in the secular vision of their founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In America, only time will tell how long civility will withstand the onslaught of politics.

While there is no comparison between Pakistan and America as nations in terms of their evolution towards democracy, there is one thing they share in common. Both have had a long and checkered history of assassinations. Most assassinations in Pakistan have been politically motivated, while in America lone crazy gunmen looking for national attention, have mostly pulled the trigger.

From all that has been unearthed about Jared Laughner, it seems like he had no overpowering political motivation to attack the congresswoman. The profile that emerges of him, is that of a man who was lost, because he found himself rejected by society at all levels. His parents, friends and family could not fill the void that was left inside of him. The only way he could get every one's attention was to go commit an act that would put him in the spotlight once and for all. And so Jared Laughner joined the long list of assassins who left everyone puzzled and distraught when they resorted to committing a heinous act.

Every time there is an assassination or an attempted assassination, or a massacre, like the ones at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007, the subject of "gun control" enters the national debate, and soon vanishes as the news cycle about the tragedy ends. So yet again, the issue of "gun control" was raised and familiar words were uttered once again by some politicians "guns don't kill people, people kill people".

There is a bizarre and outdated constitutional amendment that rests inside the American constitution that guarantees every citizen the right to bear arms, soon after it grants them the right to free speech, expression and religion. The second amendment reads "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed". This law was enshrined into the document in 1787 when people resolved disputes by drawing muskets that shot little metal marbles, one at a time reaching just a few yards from the gunman. Today America has one of the most efficient police forces in the world and a justice system that for the most part delivers, yet the right to bear arms is still held more sacred and dear, than the right to free speech by many. This strong desire to hold on to an arcane law makes America the most heavily armed society in the world, leading to some of the highest rates of gun violence in the world. In a bizarre turn of events, the sale of the particular gun and magazine extender Jared used in unleashing mayhem that morning, have skyrocketed across America since the incident.

Today the most sophisticated guns are manufactured in the United States and are easily available to buy at stores and online with an ID and a credit card. According to a recently published New York Times article, Federal agents found that about 90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to be traced came from dealers in the United States, most of them in Texas and Arizona. Arizona was where Jared Laughner grew up and later came into possession of a weapon with as much ease as a lollipop. This is something very telling about American society, a culture that has struggled to come to terms with its bloody past, and still struggles to keep violence out of civil society but fails again and again.

January 15th was the day Martin Luther King was born in this country. Every year he is remembered in the United States on this day, and this occasion is marked with a national holiday and a day of service and dedication. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 by a gunman. While the assassin's motivations were never clearly proven, one thing was sure that a bullet wound is what killed Dr. King. Once again it was the bullets that maimed Gabrielle Giffords and killed Salman Taseer. If you take the gun out of the equation, all you are left with is intent. And intent can always be tamed, but a gun can accelerate that intent into action without any hesitation in a heart beat. It is what it is.