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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Katrina's fundamental problem

When I first wrote about Katrina evacuees being investigated for fraud and prosecuted for looting, I didn't realize what a recurring theme this was.

This week in the news it's charging doctors and nurses with second-degree murder for allegedly euthanizing patients during the hurricane's aftermath. God knows that motive the state is going to supply. I'm sure the hospital staff was just itching to off some annoying codgers — what an opportunity!

Next week we'll probably be tracking down people to pay their share of the Superdome damage bill. Why does there seem to be so much attention paid to the transgressions of the storm victims and so little to how the government at all levels failed the people of the Gulf Coast?

One reason involves of one of my favorite psychological concepts, the "fundamental attribution error." Cribbing from Wikipedia:
1. When I do well it is because I am talented and good. When I do poorly it is not my fault, it is because of the circumstances.

2. When you do well it is because you are lucky or had an unfair advantage. When you do poorly it is because you are bad, unskilled, untalented, of poor character, etc.
To put it another way, we tend to discount external factors when explaining both our own successes and others' failures. I got in that accident because the other car came out of nowhere; you got in that accident because you're a bad driver. The reason it's fundamental is because everyone does it all the time. The reason it's an error is because we are usually wrong.

If you accept the fundamental attribution error, it sure helps explain the world. Then it's human nature to assume people are poor because they're lazy, do drugs because they are weak and fail in school because they're dumb.

Why did those evacuees spend all that money on porn? Because they are con artists and criminals!
Why did those savages loot that store? Because they are bad people!
Why did those doctors kill those people? Because they enjoy "playing God"!

I think the Personal Accounts section at says it all. These are e-mails that were widely forwarded in the days after Katrina. They are purportedly first-hand accounts of what horrible, lazy, dirty people these New Orleans evacuees are.
As they get off the bus, they are greeted and shown to the restrooms — where they pee all over the walls, floors, mirrors, etc. They did not even flush the toilets.

Left the restrooms in a HORRIBLE mess.


Why are all these fat blacks laying around on cots sleeping while white people are lining up by the thousands to SERVE THEM MEALS???

I am sorry but it's starting to piss me off that we're expected to serve these lazy assed "evacuees" indefinitely. Why the hell can't they line up themselves and help unload all these trucks and cars full of FREE stuff?


Upon their arrival here in Salt Lake City, two people immediately deplaned and lit up a joint. During the course of medical evaluations, it was discovered that parents were using their kids to carry loads of looted jewelry (price tag still on), and other items. One third of the people who got off the plane were angry that they didn't get to go to Houston or San Antonio. Over the course of the next 36 hours we received an additional 430 evacuees. Most of these, like their predecessors had to be relieved of illegal items. Additionally, most of them, were the owners of exceptionally prolific criminal records, just like those in the first flight.
The worst part is that lots of people believe these when they arrive in their Inbox and forward them on to everyone they know. It's not hard to find plenty of this on the Web.

A lot of it is simple racism. But it also fits nicely with our fundamental assumption of the worst in people. Deep down, we all want to believe that the people who had to be rescued were just too stupid and lazy to evacuate. So let's make up some stories that confirm our assumptions about what bad people they are! Whew, I feel better already.

One way to be mindful of the fundamental attribution error is to do what I asked in the first two posts — put yourself in their places. From everything I've read, the conditions at the hospital were horrendous, and I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those few doctors who stayed. Do you think there were any training sessions that covered what to do in this kind of situation? The very fabric of society collapsed around them and left hospital staff with hundreds of painful decisions to make. Maybe they made the wrong ones, but doesn't our government bear some culpability for putting them in that situation? The least we can do is have a sober discussion of what happened, rather than charging them with murder.

I'm not arguing that extenuating circumstances give people license to do whatever the hell they want. While factors can mitigate, we're all ultimately responsible for our decisions. But this was the worst fucking natural disaster in United States history. Not to mention the most utter balls-out screw-up of a disaster response you could imagine. Just once, how about we attribute these incidents to the circumstances (literally, an act of God), and not to people's innate character.

What would you have done?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Spirals and spheres

Download all images:     Sphere Maps (268K PDF)

Let's face it—there has been far too much spiraling out of control in the Middle East over the past week to possible cover it all in one blog.

There's no point in repeating here every headline you've read about Israel, Hamas, Hezbollah and Lebanon in the past month.

If you'd like a summary, the BBC does a decent job answering questions and recapping events as they unfold. If you prefer another news source—from Fox News to Al Jazeera—go for it.

At no point in this blog will you see any justification for any nation's behavior, nor will you see a show of support or placing of blame for any actions either side may take. We'll leave that to the other forty million blogs out there.

Instead, you'll see a series of unusual graphics attempting to accomplish two things. First, the international relationships in the area are shown in the abstract (as interacting spheres and lines of varying sizes and colors) to more clearly show who's involved in this brutal escalation.

Second, you'll see a few play-by-plays from the point of view of the average Israeli, which can help explain why things are escalating as they are and what Israel may plan to do in the near future.

Let's start it off simple.

Here's Israel:

Here's Israel a month ago with two of its neighbors: the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza grouped together) and Lebanon:

Note that their relative sizes reflect their approximate "power" compared to Israel, not their actual geographic area.

However, the fact that these spheres touch (or, in the case of Palestine, overlap) reflect that these involve "live" borders—ones that are volatile and thus invite a likelihood of military action.

Their red color represent that they are different from Israel, but not conflictingly opposite (a standard color wheel places orange and blue on opposite sides; I play off such symbolism here).

Though Egypt and Jordan also border Israel, they are currently at peace with Israel and therefore are omitted from these diagrams for simplicity's sake.

Here are Iran and Syria:

Again, the sizes of these spheres represent an approximate level of power relative to the other countries shown.

Their distance from Israel reflects no direct conflict of borders. (In reality, Syria also shares a border with Israel at the Golan Heights, which Israel took over during the 1967 war. But once again, that border does not currently see any destabilizing action, so I show some distance between Israel and Syria to reflect that.)

Their orange/red color reflects that opposition to Israel is an inherent aspect of their national character. Permanent leaders of both Syria and Iran have used opposition to Israel as a common method of solidifying their own power and authority. (As for why Lebanon and Palestine are not defined as such, read on.)

Here are Hamas and Hezbollah:

Since both are organizations rather than countries, they are depicted as semi-transparent (yellow) circles to reflect that they are less clearly defined than nation-states.

However, where they cross over "red" territory, they create an area that represents the tangible existence of each organization—their military and political presence—and, being orange, reflects direct opposition to Israel.

Hamas covers around half of Palestine, reflecting close to 50 percent control of the territories (particularly in Gaza). Where Hamas crosses over with Syria portrays their true leadership, which is headquartered in Damascus.

Hezbollah covers a good deal of Lebanon—their militia runs southern Lebanon, and they are politically active in capital Beirut. Where Hezbollah crosses over with Syria reflects the support they receive from Damascus. Where Hezbollah crosses over with Iran reflects the high quantity of support, funding and military technology they receive from Tehran.

Here's what life was like for almost a year now since Israel pulled out of Gaza (especially since Hamas won elections early this year):

Palestinians occasionally lobbed rockets over from Gaza into Israel, and Israel occasionally conducted targeted operations in Gaza.

Then, the situation turned uglier a few weeks ago:

During a cross-border raid, Hamas-affiliated militants killed a couple of Israeli soldiers and captured one (supposedly at the command of Hamas' Damascus-based leadership).

From that point forward, the next few images show the situation unraveling, with Israel retaliating strongly in Gaza, Hezbollah getting involved (kidnapping another two Israeli soldiers and launching rockets into Israel), Israel conducting a massive operation in Lebanon (air strikes on Beirut and troops moving into the south), and Hezbollah using increasingly sophisticated missiles (likely from Iran) capable of hitting northern Israeli towns, Haifa and a warship.

As you can see, each round of attacks seem to get grander in scale and deeper in territory.

You may also notice that several of the participants (Iran and Syria) have not yet gotten involved directly—instead, they seem to be happy letting organizations based out of their own capitals face Israel in Gaza and Lebanon.

Israel has been responding more and more harshly against civilian targets in Gaza and Lebanon, invoking increasingly harsh criticism from much of the world. Wondering why they'd want to lean so strongly on governments and populaces as well as military targets? Here are a few possibilities Israel may be pursuing:

They're hoping "shock and awe" will drive Hamas and Hezbollah out of Gaza and Lebanon. Israel figures that hitting Hamas/Hezbollah hard on their home turf will destroy their military capabilities and possibly even turn the local populations against them. History has shown that it only makes these extremist organizations more popular in the short term.

They're considering an attack on Damascus (or, less likely, Tehran) to take out the organization heads. Israel may be tempted to strike Hamas' and Hezbollah's leadership in Damascus, hoping to take out key individuals and communications while putting the political pressure on Syria's government to reconsider supporting Hamas/Hezbollah. Doing the same in Iran is also possible, but much less likely (Iran's just too strong and too far away). Unfortunately for Israel, this tactic is more likely to unite its enemies than split them apart.

They're following through with the only strategy that worked in the past: full invasion and occupation. Israeli soldiers remaining in Gaza and southern Lebanon is proven to be terrible for public relations and human rights, yet has proven to reduce terrorism within Israel by a huge margin. But while chasing Hamas and Hezbollah out, they can easily make just as many new enemies among the local populations. Besides, even if they intend to stay only as long as necessary, nobody ever believes Israelis want to leave. "Occupation" has been as strong a terrorist recruiting word as anything.

Later this week, I'll look into what extreme scenarios and solutions would be required to halt this conflict from spiraling even further. (What's more likely: NATO sending troops to southern Lebanon or Ariel Sharon coming out of his coma?) But for now, there are just two other things that can help put the situation in perspective.

Israelis don't see this only as a conflict with these few select countries and organizations—they are always aware of just how outnumbered they are in their own neighborhood, and this view dictates a great deal of their behavior and actions.

The Middle East isn't just for Muslims and Jews anymore—nearly every major global player has something at stake.

After all, we're looking at a complicated conflict in a complicated world. And it's just getting started.
Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.