Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Eye for An Eye: Beheading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

A lot of history, as well as the dilemmas of the current world, can be summed up as part of a conflict within the Christian tradition. The same conflict occurs in other religions, and for atheists; I am choosing the Christian wording because it is as good as any, and most Americans have heard it:

Bible, Leviticus 24:19-20: "As he hath done, so shall it be done to him: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth." That is the supposed word of a god, speaking to Moses.

Bible, Mathew 5:38-39: "Ye have heard it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you: That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." That is supposed to be quoting Jesus Christ himself, alleged only son of the one-and-done God.

Well, life is about learning, but when you are dead all your personal learning goes to waste. When I was around twelve my mother was mad at me after mass at Christ the King Church in Jacksonville, Florida. I actually don't remember what I did or said; I may have done something, like missing a beat during some part of the mass. Probably I answered some question of hers in a manner she called "talking back." In any case she slapped me hard on my cheek. It happened to be my left cheek, but in any case I turned the other cheek to her.

She went totally ballistic. Other churchgoers had to restrain her. I was lucky they were there, because my mother had been the only woman marine to actual kill a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat in World War II. Any way, she calmed down, got me, my sister, and my brother (who thought this was terribly funny) into the family car, and drove us home. She did not report the incident to my father, as far as I know, or I would have gotten a second, more measured but more painful beating. My father had been in Marine Corps intelligence [unofficially still was, which is why he was not at Church that Sunday morning with us: he was at his "civilian" job at Sea Land, providing logistical support for the attempt to "recover" Cuba], and knew how to inflict severe pain on people without leaving marks. As he proved many times in domestic life.

So I am basically a turn the other cheek guy, and became a draft dodger and peace protestor during the War in Vietnam, but I can understand anger. I can understand the desire for justice.

The real world is a complicated place. It should not be surprising that after about 3 centuries of post-Jesus pacifism, when the Christian cult had grown large and become the only legal religion within its old enemy, the Roman Empire, turning the cheek began to lose ground. With everyone now a Christian, of course that meant that the criminals were Christians, and businessmen, and power-hungry men. Dial forward to, say 1000 A.D., and Christian armies were fighting Christian armies on a nearly-continuous basis.

There is a split-down-the middle approach that works well in many situations: self defense. When I was older and bigger, age 17, finally when my mother went to slap me I just grabbed her wrist and pushed it back down. Strangely, that was the end of her beating up on me, my older brother (who went on to become a Marine Corps Colonel) and (I believe) my younger sister, though Mother found other ways to try to control us.

Unfortunately often people are unable to defend themselves, even when they try. Or the losses are tragic, as with the Philippines unsuccessful attempt to defend itself against U.S. aggression, or the Vietnamese ultimately successful defensive tragedy, or innumerable other such wars within even just the memories of those currently living. Self-defense requires resources on par with those used by aggressors.

Regarding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the junior member of the Boston Marathon bombers, I think the ethics of the situation are clear, but complex. This was not an ordinary crime, but was part of the War Against Fundamentalist Islamic Groups Not Aligned With the U.S. [because the nation of Saudi Arabia is very fundamentalist, but is aligned with the U.S., so we don't fight them. And for that matter the government of Syria is not fundamentalist, but it is not aligned with the U.S., so there is no good description, except maybe the Pentagon's War to Justify Its Budget].

Prisoners of War (POWs) are to be treated humanely under International Law. They can be held until the war is over, then they must be released. This can be difficult for soldiers in the heat of battle. One moment a guy is trying to kill you, the next he is a POW with human rights. It is hard to remember the rule is reciprocal: you were trying to kill him, if you were captured you'd be the POW with human rights, that hopefully he would honor.

So is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a POW? I would argue yes. So he should be held in prison until the war is over, which will likely be never.

But International Law also says that militaries purposefully or negligently killing civilians is a war crime (or a crime against humanity if in a non-war context). And Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother did not pick a military target. They purposefully chose a civilian target.

Which is back to eye-for-eye. The United States has never hung any of its own soldiers, much less our Commander in Chief, for killing civilians. And we have killed a lot of them, from American Indian tribes (which admittedly was before modern War Crimes treaties were signed) to Japanese to Vietnamese to Iraqis and Somalis and now Syrians.

Under eye-for-eye, it's okay to behead Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Under war crimes law, it is okay to behead Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Under U.S. law, probably another method of execution would be used.

But any form of execution would create another martyr for the crazy-ass interpretation of Islam. It won't do anything to curb the similarly crazy-ass interpretations of Judaism and Christianity.

It won't do any good at all. The most pragmatic thing to do is to get Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to become a peace worker. Let him tour around telling high school students not to be lured into violent cults, like the U. S. Marine Corps or I.S.I.S. Let him tell them to turn the other cheek whenever possible, and to not make self-defense into an excuse for aggression, as so many people are doing today.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Woman in Gold and Austrian Catholics

I was dreading seeing another Holocaust movie, but I thought Woman in Gold (starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, and my favorite up-and-coming Tatiana Maslany) was pretty good.

People forget, and Woman in Gold jogs the memory. But it also avoids some issues.

Maria Altmann (played by Mirren) is an Austrian who fled the country shortly after the Nazi takeover. She decides to try to obtain a picture of her aunt that is hanging in an Austrian museum. As portrayed in the movie neither she nor her family were religious.

The movie, in flashback scenes, makes a point that the Austrians, for the most part, welcomed Hitler and the German takeover. But it does not explain why. And why is very important, if you really want to understand history, instead of just thinking Austrians were just a bunch of vicious thugs.

There were three main components to the why: (1) the aftermath of World War I (2) pan-German nationalism (3) the domination of Austria by the Roman Catholic Church.

Before World War I Austria had been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. World War I was largely a battle between imperialist countries for world domination, and the Empire ended up on the losing side. The victors broke it up into the states of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and portions of other states. Austria had the core of the German speaking population.

Despite Woodrow Wilson's chatter about "national self-determination," the Austrians were forbidden from becoming part of Germany. Many were not happy about that.

Pan-German nationalism then came into play. Hitler himself was Austrian, though he had become a German citizen. Many Austrians did not feel they were being invaded by the Nazis: they felt they were being liberated. The Nazis were by no means the only extremist nationalist group in Austria in the 1930s.

When the Protestant Revolution had shaken up the world, it had left the German-speaking population of Europe divided mainly between two religions: Lutheranism mostly in the north, and Roman Catholicism mostly in the south.

The Roman Catholic Church has always been officially anti-Jewish, but in the religious sense, not the racial sense. Jewish converts to Catholicism were welcome, if somewhat suspect. The Roman Catholic Church in Austria had a tradition of being particularly anti-Jewish, and most of the people who joined the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party had been raised anti-semitic Catholics.

Adolf Hitler himself was Roman Catholic, which made his storm troopers easy to welcome in Austria. Surprised? Most modern Catholics are, because the Church colluded with the U.S. government (particularly the Democratic Party) to rewrite history after Germany was defeated.

So when you see Austrians abusing Jews in Woman in Gold, you can bet that they are Roman Catholics.

The other funny thing about the movie is the hypocritical propaganda about private property. In the courts and in major motion pictures we are constantly reminded about how European Jews, in addition to losing their lives in the Holocaust, also lost their private property. The message is constant: Jewish private property should be returned to Jews.

But don't think about Palestine. Because American Jews, and ex-European Jews that are now Israeli Palestinians, don't want you to think about the private property rights of non-Jewish Palestinians.

If stolen property is to be returned, should not the land and other property stolen from Palestinians during the creation of the State of Israel be returned to the rightful owners?

Don't hold your breath waiting for a major motion picture bringing up that issue. Or a court ruling in favor of the Palestinians.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Albert Einstein, Objective Reality, and Randomness

"No one knows anything. The whole affair would have been a delight to Jesuit fathers."
—Albert Einstein on the first international meeting on quantum physics, Solvay, 1911

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is famous for many things. Mostly, now, he is remembered as the genius who changed scientists' (and other educated peoples') view of the nature of space and time through his theories of Special Relativity and General Relativity.

The second most famous thing about Einstein is that he showed this genius later in life. It is common knowledge that he did poorly in school as a child. This story is beloved by parents who feel their child's self-esteem is more important than actually hitting the books and proving they have done it with good grades. Unfortunately the story is not true. Little Albert's grades were quite good from elementary school to graduate school. [The best Einstein biography for advanced readers, including Philosophy students, is Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein]

The third most famous thing about him was his support for the U.S.A. developing an atomic weapon, followed by his regret that an atomic weapon was developed and used to destroy two cities filled with people in Japan. Albert was a peace activist well before World War I began, and remained so until the end of his life.

Albert Einstein was interested in philosophy from at least as early as his college days. Possibly the fourth most famous thing he was famous for was not being able to reconcile with the science of quantum physics, even though he was one of the inventors and major contributors to that branch of science.

Quantum physics developed slowly. Its origin is usually marked by Max Plank's paper on radiation in 1901, which to jump to a later interpretation said that electromagnetic radiation (including light) comes in energy packages, or quanta. This went along with the ongoing development of the atomic theory, which had shown that electric charge also came in packages, which came to be called electrons. There were many weird things about the new theory, most notably that these light quanta, or photons, and electrons sometimes acted like waves and sometimes acted like particles.

The parts of quantum theory that Einstein could never except had to do with randomness. Einstein wanted to see reality as objective. That does not mean that it is just made up of objects. Rather, he wanted the objects (which could include wave-like objects) to be subject to the laws of causality, as he saw them. A number of results of quantum physics collided with Einstein's view of causality, including the Uncertainty Principle [Heisenberg's] and such random events as the decays of nuclear physics (resulting in radioactivity) and in particular the random timing of transitions of electrons when near an atom that result in electromagnetic radiation.

Younger physicists had no problem accepting quantum physics. They seldom saw it as posing a philosophical problem, much less a science one. Einstein's assumption that to have science you need causality, and specifically causality as defined by Isaac Newton, does not hold much weight today among people with PhD's in physics.

Einstein worked until he was on his death bed to find the underlying causes of quantum randomness and probabilities. Long after his death it was postulated, and is now generally believed, that the proton and neutron consist of smaller entities called quarks (more particle like) and gluons (more wave or force-like). If there were some way to measure the positions and velocities of the particles making up the neutrons and protons of an atom, then perhaps it would be possible to predict when a specific atom of a radioactive element would decay. But it is not likely that these decays are the result of the quarks reaching some particular configuration.

Consider dice and solar flares.

Ordinary fair dice, the kind used in casinos and board games, are governed by classical physics. [If you could make them small enough, say a few atoms across, they might start to display true quantum randomness.] They produces random results as long as they are thrown fairly. In theory (and to a surprising degree in practice) you can predict the results if you can sufficiently control how they are thrown and know enough about the surfaces they bounce against before coming up snake eyes, or boxcars, or whatever.

Einstein wanted atomic physics to work like ordinary dice. That would preserve his classical physics version of causality.

Consider solar flares. Scientist know there are patterns to them, but within the envelopes of those patterns they are random. They are mainly classical physics phenomena. They would be predictable if you knew enough about the matter and energy of the sun that gives rise to them. But how would you know that, in advance? You would need some sort of probe that can survive within the sun and send you detailed information about the pre-flare setup.

In fact there are a lot of things we can't know with certainty, for a wide variety of reasons. That does not mean that reality isn't objective. It is because objective reality is complicated. Very to the power of 30 complicated.

For much of my life I tended to favor Einstein's objections to quantum randomness. At some point, however, I realized the problem was more semantic than scientific. In other words, the problem was with how Einstein defined the words objective and causality.

Randomness in quantum physics doe not mean that anything can happen. The randomness in quantum physics is in envelopes. Just as when you roll a pair of dice you may bet any result from 2 to 12, but get 7's more often than other results, in quantum physics you mostly individual get results around a central number, and statistical results from a large set of data are also typically very close to that number.

That is causal enough for me. I accept probability and the statistical nature of results as part of the objective reality of the universe. In fact I have found that seeing the relationship of randomness to cause and effect has been very helpful to me.

I could tell you a story about a preacher who always introduced himself to potential victims with the words "Look around you. Do you believe that this all could be random?" But I have covered enough for one essay.