U.S. allowed assassination attempts for leaders like Castro

Part of the post-World War II tactics of the United States included supporting assassination attempts against foreign leaders with Fidel Castro leading the way:

In fact, Cuban intelligence estimated there were precisely 638 attempts on his life – many backed by the US.

The bearded leader is said to have survived exploding cigars, exploding seashells, a poisonous fountain pen and even a mafia-style execution…

“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he would later joke.

But, Castro wasn’t the only one. The Church Committee of the mid-1970s revealed a number of attempts on foreign leaders (from Wikipedia):

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Welsh Dulles‘s plan (approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) to use the Sicilian Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Under recommendations and pressure by this committee, President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (ultimately replaced in 1981 by President Reagan‘s Executive Order 12333) to ban U.S. sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders.

Together, the Church Committee’s reports have been said to constitute the most extensive review of intelligence activities ever made available to the public. Much of the contents were classified, but over 50,000 pages were declassified under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

Despite all the talk of the United States acting as the world’s policeman (and this presumes police act in the public’s best interest), the United States has a sordid past of foreign involvement. It is not just a recent thing. The drone strikes of today can be seen as descendants of these earlier activities. And the legality of it all is still questionable: we are not often officially at war with some of these other nations (at least there has not been an official declaration from Congress) though the activities are said to be against “enemy combatants.”

Sociologist asks why people of Westeros haven’t had an Industrial Revolution

Westeros is consumed by the Game of Thrones but may be missing something else: an Industrial Revolution.

For Dr Peter Antonioni, from University College London, the key puzzle posed by the return to screens this week of the phenomenally popular fantasy series is quite why the people of Westeros have not had an industrial revolution.

Alas, the rest of the story is behind a subscriber wall. Perhaps they are too often stuck in battles that drain their limited resources. Once you get past the first few books, everyone is struggling: the kingdoms can’t raise much more money for troops, the countryside isn’t providing much food, and the average people are scrounging for food. And since these major skirmishes take place every generation or two, there isn’t much time to stockpile needed goods.

What does a US Army version of a US city look like?

The Telegraph looks at a new city created by the US Army in Virgina to be used for training purposes:

The 300 acre ‘town’ includes a five story embassy, a bank, a school, an underground subway and train station, a mosque, a football stadium, and a helicopter landing zone.

Located in Virginia, the realistic subway station comes complete with subway carriages and the train station has real train carriages…

There are also bridges and several other structures which can be transformed into different scenarios.

The $96 million is designed to meticulously “replicate complex operational environments and develop solutions”.

Lots of movies portrays scenes of fighting in American streets, often facing aliens, but I assume the military has some strong ideas about what works and doesn’t work military in the average American big city. How do US cities fare in battle situations? In other words, I assume most American urban planning doesn’t think much about creating defensible positions or providing ways to best move troops and supplies. Instead, it was guided by ideas of how to create certain kinds of streetscapes, how to efficiently move cars through cities, and leaving spaces for both private and public settings.

I wonder if the Army has some advice about how better to plan cities once they start going through exercises.

Sociologist/CIA fellow describes “the paradox of the war on terror”

A recent sociology dissertation asked members of the CIA to describe their work and the “war on terror”:

Nolan, a CIA Graduate Fellow in sociology, produced the ethnography by making observations and interviewing 20 analysts in NCTC’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI) while also working full time as a counterterrorism analyst at Nation Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) from January 2010 to January 2011.

She notes that many analysts feel overwhelmed because “they often were not really sure what their jobs were, and they felt that they had very little understanding of what other people in the organization do.”…

What Anna detailed is the paradox of the War on Terror: The U.S. is fighting, but there are no clear day-to-day objectives. There is an enemy, but it is more of a network than an entity. There is an objective, but there is no clear way to win.

Last year The Washington Post, in a report on the NTCT’s disposition matrix, noted that Obama administration officials believe that U.S. global kill/capture operations “are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.”

I’m not quite sure this is confusing, as the article then goes on to suggest. This is a new kind of operation but the parameters are not entirely unknown. The U.S. is working against social networks, which take time to understand and track. (Think of recent efforts for academics and police to analyze the social networks of gangs.)

However, we could ask whether this new reality matches the kind of bureaucratic structure common in larger organizations. If the objectives change consistently as does the information coming in, it seems like there has to be a corresponding structure that allows smaller units to act somewhat independently and quickly respond to situations. Yet, more smaller and independent units still require coordination so they are not working at cross-odds or important information and actions fall through the cracks.

Similarly, it requires a different mentality from the public who might prefer clearly defined operations. Fighting terrorism is not that. Even when there are “successes,” it can take years to lead to them. “Winning” is not one-time event where a peace treaty is signed but rather the ongoing amount of time citizens in the United States are not threatened. (Americans have some experience with these ongoing wars. See the war on drugs and the war on poverty.)

It seems like there is a lot of room here for sociologists to investigate the war on terrorism, the military, the government, and the responses of the American public. Sociologists may have shied away from military sociology in recent decades but this is a critical component for understanding today’s world…

The “immortal” B-52

Even as technology cycles speed up for smartphones and other devices, there is one remarkable plane that is still flying and might continue to fly for decades more: the B-52.

Don’t be surprised if another generation of the family is in the cockpit before it goes into retirement. The Air Force plans improvements that will keep the plane around till 2040.It’s not quite your grandfather’s B-52. True, its onboard computers are pitifully underpowered antiques and some models still have vacuum tubes — Google that, kids. Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, informs me that “there are dials in the B-52 cockpit that have not been connected to anything for years.”

But the plane has been repeatedly remodeled and upgraded to assure its utility, with new engines and electronics. Soon it will be “getting modern digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks,” according to the Times…

One of its virtues is relatively low cost, which presumably makes the Pentagon more willing to use it. The high price tags on the B-1 and the B-2 Stealth bomber mean the Air Force can’t buy as many of them and has to exercise more caution about putting them in harm’s way.

Another factor is that while more advanced aircraft possess capabilities that are rarely needed, the B-52 is perfectly adequate for most real-world contingencies. MIT defense scholar Owen Cote told me that since the 1990s, “we’ve been essentially continuously at war against smaller powers with weak or nonexistent air defenses, against whom the range, persistence and versatile payloads of the B-52 can be invaluable.”

I saw this story while recently thinking about the amazing aspects of modern car engines: they can be turned on and off thousands of times a year and they generally are expected to last at least 100,000 miles. Car engines are remarkably consistent considering all of the moving parts and the internal combustion taking place. Take the consistency of cars and then apply them to these larger aircraft and the idea that they can last for decades or even a century is remarkable.

Additionally, the end of the column hints that these old aircraft are perfectly fine in most modern situations – not all, but many. I know there is a whole history of bombers not being as flashy as fighter  and we would prefer to be prepared for all circumstances but it does lead me to wonder about claims that we need always need to be creating the best fighter-jets possible…is this a physical manifestation of American exceptionalism?

The fate of veteran’s memorials that lack funding

Big memorials like the a proposed Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C. and the Ground Zero memorial in New York City are big deals, but what happens when more local memorials fall into disrepair due to lack of money and attention? Stars and Stripes looks at the tough times facing smaller memorials:

The corroding monument has challenged the community to maneuver a delicate question: How do we honor those who have served when memorials deteriorate and finances are tight?…

The National Trust for Historic Preservation waged a 2 1/2-year fight to restore the aging Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., when some people proposed replacing it. Far less disagreement surrounded a decision to update the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco after a powerful earthquake in 1989.

In Greensboro, N.C., residents have been grappling with what to do with the city’s own decaying tribute to the soldiers of World War I…

In Michigan’s upper peninsula, the Wakefield Memorial Building once stood as a grand structure overlooking a lake in Wakefield, an old mining town. The memorial, built in 1924 to commemorate the sacrifices of World War I soldiers, was expansive, including a banquet hall, meeting room and theater.

By the 1950s, the community couldn’t afford the upkeep of the building and sold it to a private owner. Over the years, there were attempts to renovate the structure. But it was deemed too expensive and by 2010, the building was demolished.

Sociologists have written some interesting pieces about the creation of memorials, like the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C., but this story suggests another approach to memorials: the middle-life and end-life of memorials. What happens when the generations that built the memorials are long gone? What happens when a community decides it has other financial priorities? What is the expected lifespan of memorials or, in other words, what is the half-life of memorials? It could also raise some interesting questions about how local memorials and memorial events should be. How many individual communities commemorate these important events and are there regional, social class, and racial differences in which communities build and maintain memorials?

Editorial: to lower poverty rate in the US, we need to talk about it first

An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News suggests there is currently a big stumbling block in dealing with record poverty levels in the United States: no one is talking about it.

One argument that has gained currency is that the poor aren’t really poor, because they have refrigerators and cell phones. Here’s another: The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression doesn’t qualify as “circumstances beyond their control.” Instead, people who lose their jobs and can’t find others just aren’t looking hard enough. And the most shocking of all: To punish their parents, it’s OK to let children go hungry and suffer the health and educational ramifications of malnutrition.

That’s how some people think of poverty – if they think about it at all…

Yet politicians of all leanings just don’t want to talk about it, almost certainly taking their cues from the populace at large. In a recent study, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting looked at six months of national political coverage and found that poverty was the subject of less than 0.2 percent of the stories – that is, only 17 out of 10,489.

In order to do something about poverty, we have to be able to recognize it. An organization sponsored by the Center for American Progress called “Half in Ten” (www.halfinten.org) has set a goal of halving the U.S. poverty rate in 10 years by putting it back on the national agenda. First step: “updating” Americans’ understanding of poverty, beginning with the way it is calculated. The current method – used for nearly a half-century – multiplies estimated food costs by three, which doesn’t take into account increased expenses such as housing, transportation and child care – and gives a much brighter picture than the actual reality.

Half in Ten is urging Americans to “tweet” the moderators of the presidential debates using the hashtag #talkpoverty to challenge the candidates on how they would reduce poverty in their first 100 days in office.

The modern era: fighting poverty through Twitter.

I’ve noted this issue before; the major political candidates don’t talk about poverty. They may talk about hardship and economic troubles but they tend to stick to middle-class dreams and helping Americans join this aspirational group. According to the New York Times, the word “poverty” was spoken at a rate of 3 per 25,000 words by Democrats and 5 per 25,000 words by Republicans. In contrast, the phrase “middle class” was used at a rate of 47 per 25,000 words by Democrats and 7 per 25,000 words by Republicans.

At the same time, I wonder if Joel Best’s writings about the possible problems with declaring war on social problems, such as poverty, apply here. How do you keep the momentum of a fifty year war going? How do you know when the US has “won” the war on poverty? One advantage of declaring war on a social problem is that it can draw media attention because of the implications of war. Yet, it sounds like the media isn’t paying much attention either.

New goal in Chicago: no traffic deaths in ten years

The city of Chicago recently set an ambitious goal: there should be no traffic deaths in ten years.

The city of Chicago’s transportation department, headed by commissioner Gabe Klein, has released a new “action agenda” called “Chicago Forward.” It contains a goal that, as far as I know, has never to date been explicitly embraced by a major United States city:

Eliminate all pedestrian, bicycle, and overall traffic crash fatalities within 10 years…

[T]he city will be taking a multifaceted approach to traffic safety that includes engineering local streets to reduce car speeds; improving pedestrian and bike facilities; education; better data collection and evaluation; and increasing enforcement. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is strongly behind such measures even when they are politically unpopular, as was the case with a controversial speed camera bill that the mayor pushed through the City Council last month…

The idea of aiming for zero traffic deaths may be novel in the United States, but in Sweden, it’s national policy. In 1997, the Swedish Parliament passed the Vision Zero Initiative, with the “ultimate target of no deaths or serious injuries on Sweden’s roads.” Currently, the plan calls for an interim goal of reducing deaths and injuries to 50 percent of 2007 figures by 2020.

Has it worked? Zero is still some ways off – 2050 is the target date now — but the absolute number of traffic fatalities in Sweden continues to fall even as traffic is on the rise. And compared to the United States, their numbers are impressive: In 2009, Sweden had 4.3 traffic deaths per 100,000 population, while the United States had 12.3 (the European Union average was 11 in 2007).

I will be curious to see how this all works. Transforming a major city like Chicago in a short amount of time is difficult. Like most American cities, Chicago has sacrificed much for the automobile and even with higher gas prices and more calls for walkable neighborhoods, making quick changes to the transportation grid will require a lot of work. Additionally, traffic safety has a lot of moving parts, such as safety standards for cars, over which Chicago has little control.

I like the comparison to the efforts in Sweden. However, what happens when the target date approaches and the number has not dropped to zero – does someone get blamed, fired, or what? This is a laudable goal but perhaps this could turn into another public war: the war on traffic deaths!

It is hard to argue with safety. However, I imagine someone will raise a question about the possible costs of these measures…what will this war on traffic deaths cost? I also imagine someone could argue that boosting Chicago’s walkability and general pedestrian friendliness would lead to a better quality of life (as well as higher housing values), possibly making Chicago more appealing to younger and older generations who want to live in more urban neighborhoods.

Sociologist as “father of peace studies”

While roughly 400 universities around the world have Peace Studies programs, I don’t know much about how the field started. Therefore, I was intrigued to see that the “father” of this field is a sociologist:

Internationally known as the “father of peace studies”, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung broke new ground in 1959 when he established the Peace Research Institute Oslo. In the past half century, Galtung has published over 150 books, including “The Fall of the U.S. Empire – And Then What?” and mediated in over 150 conflicts between states and nations.

Here is more of Galtung’s story:

In 1940, when Johan Galtung was a young boy of nine, his homeland, Norway, was suddenly invaded and occupied by the Germans. His father, August Galtung, the deputy mayor of Oslo, was placed in a concentration camp by the Nazis.

“I was influenced by the violent madness that afflicted Norway in general and our own small family in particular during World War II. I wanted to find out how all that horror might have been averted; how to change the destiny of all of Europe.”…

Instead of becoming a doctor [like his father and grandfather] fighting the diseases of the human body, however, Johan Galtung became a doctor studying the diseases of war and violence that afflict the human race. He was a pioneer and a trailblazer. When he started his work, there were no “peace researchers” and there was no such field as “peace studies.”…

He is famous as the originator of the concept of “structural violence.” Structural violence is violence caused by the way society is structured, which gives rise to discrimination, oppression, poverty, starvation, exploitation and the violation of human rights. We can see examples of this at all levels, whether within the family or within the international community. There is also what Galtung terms “cultural violence,” the acceptance and legitimization of violence as a necessary or inevitable aspect of human society. Only when these broader types of violence are eliminated can we achieve a positive, active form of peace.

How come I’ve never heard of this sociologist? I realize that peace studies is often a separate department or program but this seems notable.

I’m not surprised that the first few programs began in Europe, a continent that had witnessed hundreds of years of religious and international wars, two major world wars that led to the deaths of tens of millions and vast destruction, and was on the front lines of the Cold War when the first program was founded. Would it seem right if an American or American school had the first peace program given the cultural stereotypes of American aggression, bellicosity, and violence?

Could the downturn in violence, both on an international level and more local level, be at least partly attributable to such academic programs? Studying a phenomenon is important but what causal impact have peace studies programs had on the occurrence of peace and violence?

Quick Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature

I hadn’t looked at much from psychologist Stephen Pinker for a while but I was intrigued by his latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Here are a few comments about this thought-provoking work:

1. Here is Pinker’s argument: we must just be living in the safest era in human history as violent crime is down and wars affect fewer people. If you adjust for the population on earth at the time, World War II barely makes the top 10 (while typically lists put it at #1). Since World War II, fewer people are affected by violence and most people don’t know this.

2. Best argument of this book: this remarkable peacefulness is almost completely under-the-radar and people need to recognize how much safer the world has become. (I’ve noted before the incorrect perceptions regarding crime.)

2a. Pinker marshals a lot of evidence to show the declining trends in violence. In fact, Pinker talks about this for dozens upon dozens of pages. In fact, if you went by the percentage of the book devoted to each topic, you might think Pinker is more of a social scientist who studies violence and who is most interested in how societies and cultures have changed in such a way as to deincentivize violence. Overall, the number of wars have decreased, the number of wars involving great powers has decreased, the number of soldier and civilian deaths has decreased, and the length of wars have decreased. Pinker is, of course, building upon the work of many others but there are a lot of charts and figures here that I find quite convincing.

2b. Several periods were key to this change: the Enlightenment which didn’t necessarily limit violence but brought about ideas and values that eventually contributed and the post-World War II era when the world responded to the horror by promoting international peace and human rights.

3. The catch: Pinker is committed to going beyond a social explanation in the decrease in violence and wants to argue that this has trickled down to individuals. On one hand, you could imagine a number of sociologists making this argument: changes in society and culture influence the choices available to and made by individuals. On the other hand, Pinker wants to go further and even suggest that humans have evolved away from violence. Making this connection between social and individual change is tougher to do and Pinker relies a lot on social psychology experiments such as Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game. The social and cultural change arguments are convincing but taking this next step to the individual level is more problematic. Part of the problem here might be that Pinker is so committed to his own perspective that he is determined to push his points about rationality further than they can go.

4. An interesting issue: Pinker argues that one way in which violence can get out of hand is that it requires a powerful ideology. One type of ideology that Pinker makes clear he does not like is religion which he argues is false and generally contributes to violence. In his historical overviews, Pinker makes clear that religion only contributes to and legitimizes violence and may not do any good. Additionally, the revolutions in values happened solely in the secular sphere and humans today are much more able to be rational (and religion is not that).

Overall, this is an interesting, long book that presents several intriguing arguments. Pinker provides a service in helping to fight the narrative that violence is spiraling out of control and yet has more difficulty in showing how humans have evolved into more rational beings.