Monday, November 26, 2012

Fascism’s New Spartan Face

November 26, 2012

In Germany, it was the mysterious visage of imagined ancient Nordic supremacy, a chiseled face both beautiful and determined, intricate and hard.  In Japan, it was the compelling vision of the Samurai tradition; unwavering courage in the face of death, romantic and inspiring and undefeatable in will and resolution.  In Bosnia, it was the false-memory of a Golden Age of dominance from years past, a time or kings and knights when Serbs were the greatest and most respected people in the region.
Fascism has always needed an ideal to look for, a perfect model, accompanied by a scapegoat.  In Greece right now, a fast-growing political party, the “Golden Dawn,” has risen to power under the powerful nationalistic image of Leonidas and the indomitable Spartans.  Their selected scapegoats are immigrants, and they aren’t afraid to show it.
“If an employer wants to blackmail you, he threatens to call Golden Dawn,” said Javet Aslam in a documentary of the movement posted by The Guardian in late October.  A Pakistani community leader, Aslam says that the Golden Dawn thugs aren’t afraid to use violence.  “He gets them to beat you up.  Gangs of fascists often beat up workers who demand their rights.”
For Abu Zeid Mubarak, an Egyptian fisherman, this sort of beating nearly turned deadly.  “There were around 20 of them, all dressed in black.  They kicked my face.  I had to have metal plates implanted.  I spent 27 days in hospital.  Even now, I can only drink liquids and eat yogurt…They blame us for the crisis in this country.  We haven’t created this crisis. We work hard; we earn our money just like the 55,000 Greeks that live in Egypt.  They should find those who kill and steal.  We work to earn our money like anyone else.”
Nikolaos Michaloliakos’ party bears symbolic and visual resemblance to the Nazi Party of Germany in addition to their behavioral similarities to the brown-shirts and black-shirts.  Their flag looks remarkably like a swastika, their shaved heads and black shirts strongly suggesting inspiration from the SS, and their flare-wielding salutes are a spitting image of the gesture we all now associate with the phrase, “Hail Hitler!”
It’s worth noting that this new party isn’t the first to look to their Greek ancestors for inspiration – Hitler was another fan of Spartan government.  Among the first practitioners of eugenics, the Spartans only made up about 10% of the population of Sparta – the rest was a slave class whose members were called “helots,” who were kept in bondage by their ferociously militaristic captors.  The coming-of-age ceremony for young Spartan warriors was to kill a Helot without being caught.
With the backing of the Greek Orthodox Church and the police, the increasingly popular Golden Dawn seems poised to take political control of the entire nation, by election or by force.  While there are plenty of national and international issues to contend with – Syria and Palestine come to mind – it would be a mistake to ignore Greece in our international efforts to restore the economy and work towards a more peaceful global community.
The old saying, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” could not be more necessary and true than it is today.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Speech Codes on Campus

I've been very passionate about protecting free speech for quite a while.  Probably as far back as late August, I've wanted to take an active part in reversing some policies that I see as a threat to a full and complete education.  I was kind of on the fence about it though – school was busy, I was at that time trying to run a club, and generally had other things on my mind, so taking the time to make something happen stayed with me, but wasn't really a priority.

That changed when one of the editors for the school paper that I work for, the Watchdog, approached me and told me that they had decided not to run a story I had written about the violent global reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film.  I wasn't terribly surprised, given the nature of the topic, but it still angered me.  I wasn't angry at the editor though. I was angry at the situation in general, because even though this was probably the most important news story of the whole month of October, the reactions the editor was worried about had a precedent in recent history that was compelling enough to keep that story from being heard on campus.

In 2007, for example, the editor-in-chief of another school newspaper, the Daily Illini, was suspended from school and fired from their job for reprinting four of the twelve Danish cartoons that had been circulating around the world and causing an enormous political uproar.  This would be, by any account, a very important news story for any student with even a vague interest in foreign politics and global affairs, but even talking about it quickly became controversial because people were getting offended.

The problem with the whole situation is essentially this: as a culture, we've been programmed to think that we more or less have a right not to be offended, and that if someone is offended, it’s the fault of the person who is doing the offending and not the fault of the person claiming offence.  What is offence, really?  I don’t really need to explain why this mindset is bad if you've read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” but in case you haven’t it’s because different people are offended by different things, and the sensitivity level varies as much as the number of triggers.  If you try to avoid anything and everything that might offend people, you will inevitably end up with nothing – which costs people the very education they've paid money for.   Regardless, you’ll fail anyhow, because this coddling treatment offends me!

The problem we’re facing here at BC is the institutionalization of this way of thinking through what are called “bias incidents.”

What is a bias incident? As they’re described in the “Don’t Let the Haters Win” pamphlets, which you can pick up in the President’s office, a bias incident is “conduct, speech, or behavior motivated by prejudice or bias toward another person that does not rise to the level of crime.”

For obvious reasons, punishing the unfair treatment of students isn't intrinsically a bad idea.  It’s actually a very good idea, but the way bias incidents are defined unfortunately has a fundamental flaw, which is that they’re subjective.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that whether an action is deemed to be punishable as a bias incident or not is determined by the perception of the victim.  The pamphlet actually lists three factors on what is implied to be a larger list of possible aspects used in determining whether an action is a bias incident, but of the remaining two factors given, one is un-provable (evidence of motive), and the other is plausibly deniable (evidence of connections to known hate groups).  Perhaps it could be argued that connections to hate groups might provide a good foundation for an indictment of discriminatory conduct. In any case, if you look at other instances of censorship on the grounds of bias in other schools, you’ll notice that motives and ties to hate groups almost never play any kind of role in making that determination.  It almost always comes down just to the subjective experience of offended.

Let me explain the connection between bias incidents aimed at student action towards other students, and the censorship of books, videos, speech, etc.  Besides the obvious fact that a book, video, or speech could qualify as a bias incident, maintaining these kinds of rules further cultivates the mentality of entitlement to an unperturbed, unchallenged mind.  The society we live in today is in many ways more sensitive than is healthy for the open dialogue necessary for a functioning democracy to happen.  You can see this in the increased polarization of political parties and religious ideologies.  People have become close-minded because being open-minded means sometimes having to admit that you’re wrong, and that hurts.  We’d rather not do that.

On a related side-note, the culture of entitlement also breeds fear.  Sometimes fear of retribution, but more importantly fear of breaking the increasingly narrow bubble of social norms.  By seeing these kinds of rules, and BC’s dribbling affirmation of inclusiveness plastered in every room and on every club charter and on every syllabus, students become attuned to the language of non-confrontation, and become uncomfortable, even scared, of speaking their mind because it might lead to conflict.  I can’t tell you how many potentially wonderful debates I've almost gotten into with students, only to have them back off because they “don’t want to start a fight.”  A debate isn't a fight – it’s the pinnacle of intellectual and academic stimulation!  It’s the pinnacle of learning, and it's being lost.

To return to the previous point, bias incidents affect the entire student culture, notably student attitudes towards learning materials, even if the language is aimed at interpersonal interaction.  This brings us to one of the biggest specters that looms up whenever subjective standards become objective rules: censorship, and it’s more evil twin, self-censorship.

Do you know what the most banned book in the United States is?  It’s probably not what you think it is… I would have guessed something like “Mein Kampf” or “The Turner Diaries,” but it’s actually J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.  The most painful book to see banned, and another of the most commonly censored, is Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  Under these subjective rules designed to protect students from having their feelings hurt, students are being deprived of what is arguably the most eloquent, beautiful, and powerful counter to racism ever written on the grounds of itself being racist.

Another example: just last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “How Free Speech Died on Campus,” which described how Yale students aren't allowed to wear T-shirts with F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes on them, and certain passages from the Quran aren't allowed to be quoted at Tufts.  In one particularly Orwellian instance from a mere two weeks ago, the Fordham University administration condemned a political club for inviting a controversial speaker, and ambiguously called the invitation a “test” of the school’s speech codes.  After the club caved in and disinvited the speaker, the administration praised itself for its valiant defense of free speech.

Taking a step back from the specifics, you might be asking “How did this whole phenomenon come about?”  The judicial branch is more or less solely responsible in this case.  There are a number of court cases have slowly constricted freedoms of speech over the last century; certainly not just for students, but for students more than anyone else.   In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Hosty v. Carter that for University environments “Hazelwood provides our starting point,” which is a reference to the 1973 Supreme Court case over free speech in high schools, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.  In that 1973 case, the court ruled that the school administration had the right to limit student speech that was “school-sponsored,” and gave among its examples of things that could be censored, material that was “poorly written,” material that “would associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy,” and most insultingly, material that was “unsuitable for immature audiences.”  But even these cases are built on a frame of reference that goes all the way back to 1919, a case that was so influential that you’ll probably recognize the ruling even if you don’t know the case, since it has a habit of coming up quite a lot.

Case in point: at the student open forum for the presidential candidate Dr. David Rule, (who I’m very happy to say will almost certainly be our new president this coming winter quarter), I asked him where he saw the line between first amendment protections and protections for students against bullying, since that was something of a hot topic at those question and answer sessions.  His response was that in his view, first amendment protections aren't absolute, and he gave by way of explanation, the example of how someone can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater because it would endanger other people’s safety.

What he was referencing with that comment was that 1919 Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States, in which the famous Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” By his reasoning, such a use of words would pose a “clear and present danger” that the government has not only the constitutional ability, but the duty to limit.

While the ruling sounds reasonable enough at first glance and standing alone, the background might portray the court’s decision in a slightly different light. Charles Schenck, the secretary of the Socialist Party of America at the time, had been distributing pamphlets to young men of military age urging them to oppose the draft and the American involvement in the First World War.  He was arrested and convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which, among other things, made “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States ... or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy,” a criminal act.  It was arguably one of the worst pieces of American legislation ever passed into law, in terms of undermining the values of free society and diversity of opinion and expression protected and celebrated by our great Constitution.  Schenck appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his 1st amendment rights protected his opposition to the American involvement in the war, which the Supreme Court under Holmes shot down, labeling his speech as allegorically equivalent to shouting fire in a crowded theater.

What’s painfully ironic in hindsight is that there really was a fire… there was an enormous fire on the Western Front, where the United states eventually lost over 115,000 soldiers, and nearly doubled that in wounded.  In casualties, it was the greatest loss of life the Western world had experienced in history, not to be outdone until World War II a few decades later.  Schenck was in this case the real firefighter, and Oliver Wendell Holmes threw him in prison for attempting to alert people to the danger.

So who is to decide what speech is harmful and what speech is good?  Clearly the US Supreme Court shouldn't be the one deciding.  So maybe we should allow Community College administrators to make that decision instead?  Deciding for us adults what we ought to be allowed to write and say?  And by extension to read and hear?

Well, as a paying student and customer of the college, this is my opinion – my judgment if you will, that I think is equally if not more important than the Hazelwood ruling: the bias incident code in its current form is “poorly written.”  It “associates me with a position of neutrality on matters of political controversy,” which is wrong because I actually care about these controversies and have an opinion about them that I have a right to say.  Most importantly, I think that subjective restrictions are “unsuitable for mature audiences.” Particularly educated mature audiences, and especially if they’re paying for the right to read, write, listen, and speak.

As a mere Community College, it isn't really realistic to hope to overturn fatuous Supreme Court rulings, but if those higher up insist on taking full advantage of the censorial power allowed to them by the courts, I would hope we can redirect them to the 2001 case of Kincaid v. Gibson, in which it was ruled that the learning environment of the University is the “quintessential marketplace of ideas, which merits full, or indeed heightened first amendment protections.”  We cannot attain a complete education without coming out from under the sheltering rock and exposing ourselves to different ideas and opinions, even if they might offend the more thin-skinned among us.

If my editor is afraid to publish my writings for fear of retribution, something is wrong.  If my communications teacher can’t show us historical examples of propaganda due to rules best described as puerile, something is wrong.  If our free speech is given lip-service where it matters least – in a so-called free speech zone, (as if one needed a zone in which to maintain their protection under the 1st amendment) – but taken away in the only place where it truly matters, the classroom, something is dreadfully wrong.  And yet, all of these things are true, and we as students are suffering for it, often without even knowing what we've lost and what we’re continuing to lose.

These things aren’t the fault of Bellevue College’s administration or faculty, as far as I can tell. Our vice-president of Diversity is as vocal in her support of free speech as she is in defending students from discrimination, even going so far as to defend a racist message on campus (so long as it’s kept within the “free-speech zone”), and speech code policies have been standard practice across the landscape of our nation’s educational institutions for a while now.  This, however, doesn't make these policies acceptable.  We should get rid of bias incidents.  We should get rid of them completely, or if nothing else, reword them and all of the other rules like them with concrete, objective language that offers protection for students against harassment, assault, and other manifestly and objectively harmful acts.  Removing subjective standards of discrimination won’t somehow increase the amount of bias and hatred on campus, but it will increase student and faculty freedoms to more efficiently and effectively pursue what they came to college to do: get an education.

Remember, bias incidents don’t make colleges safer; they only sterilize the classroom of the very diversity of thought and perspective they were designed to protect.  When you really boil it down, all education is is exposure to new ideas and perspectives, which is precisely what these rules are taking away.  Don’t let the censors win: lets get rid of bias incidents.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eye on Syria

November 6, 2012

On Nov. 4, 1979, a group of college students and rioters overran the U.S. embassy in Iran and held 52 of its American inhabitants hostage all the way through January of 1981.  The incident shocked Americans at the time – it seemed to come completely out of nowhere, with no motive or provocation.
Over the years, the American public has become more educated about our history of involvement in the region.  We’ve learned that Iran elected its very first leader democratically in 1951, a man named Mohammad Mosaddegh.  We’ve learned that the U.S. and U.K. didn’t like Mosaddegh, since his desire to nationalize the oil business in Iran would take away some of the lucrative economic exploitation of the region by western companies.  We’ve learned that in 1953, the CIA and MI6 manufactured a coup d’etat that successfully ousted Mosaddegh and reinstated the hated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  We’ve learned that Ayatollah Khomeini, who overthrew the Shah in a wave of theocratic Puritanism, gained a large part of his following by channeling the anti-western and anti-American sentiments that had been burning for decades; sentiments that were a direct result of the years of undermining and degrading foreign policy from nations abroad.
Suddenly, the embassy takeover seems less mysterious.  In many ways, it mirrors in its complaints and reactions the backlash against another western super-power by an upstart nation just over 238 years ago.  Our own ‘grand revolution,’ called “the American War of Independence” in other parts of the world, was the natural result of the same meddling and exploitive governmental policy we’ve seen in the past century in the Middle East.
Fast forward to the present – the Arab Spring is well under way.  Demonstrations and protests have resulted in governmental overthrows in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and protests in many others.  Violence has, fortunately, not taken a primary role in much of this revolutionary movement, with two notable exceptions: Libya and Syria.  While Libya’s violence was relatively short and painless, as far as violent conflicts go, the battle in Syria has raged on for over 19 months now.  In the battles between the despotic Ba’ath government (the same party headed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq prior to Desert Storm II) and the anti-totalitarian revolutionaries, more than 34,000 Syrians have died.
Given the way things have been going in the region, the Syrian rebels’ victory is inevitable.  More will die, and it will certainly be a bitter struggle, but the citizens of that old and proud nation have had enough, and the international support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Kurdistan will only increase as the human rights violations committed by Bashar al-Assad mount over the coming months.  His regime is in its death-throws.
This poses its own problem, however – the thing about democracy is that the people choose what the government looks like.  When Egypt overthrew its own monarch and exchanged a kingship for democracy, it elected for its government a political party the U.S. doesn’t like very much: the Muslim Brotherhood.  It hasn’t even been two years since the conflict began, and already conservative politicians are publicly voicing their fears and concerns about the Brotherhood, who were only recently removed from a list of terrorist organizations.
Have we learned nothing from Iran?
Among the military organizations fighting for the liberation of Syria is the infamous al-Qaeda.  The extreme variants of Islam are very appealing and inspiring to many people at this point of time, and it is very possible that the Ba’ath party will be replaced with a democratically elected party even less favorable to the U.S. than the current dictatorship, in which case we can all be prepared for the political jargon of imperialism spouting from the lips of our politicians.
Regardless of whether we intervene on the part of the rebels or sit back in silence as the body count rises, we as Americans must remember what true democracy really stands for and respect the hard-won electoral decision of the upcoming Syrian democracy, whatever it may be.  It would be an understatement to say they’ll have earned it, and it would be an insult to all involved parties to relive the self-righteous and arrogant mistakes of the last century.

Waste of a Vote?

October 29, 2012

We can all probably agree that the winner of this year’s presidential election is going to be either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, so what’s the purpose of voting for someone else?  Aren’t you throwing away your vote?  Isn’t voting for a third-party candidate a waste?
Voting for a third-party candidate is not only not a waste, but it’s a very powerful vote – one could say it’s more powerful than a vote for one of the two mainstream candidates.  Serious votes (no, Elmo doesn’t count) for non-partisan candidates are courageous and optimistic, and the most important votes, in my opinion, for three main reasons.
First of all, a vote for a third-party candidate sends a message to our government that is supposed to represent us: you’re not representing me.  Neither party is representing me, and I want something different.  If, for example, you are opposed to the Patriot Act, neither Obama nor Romney will truly represent your informed opinion on the issue.  If you are opposed to an unprovoked invasion of Iran, neither mainstream candidate shares your view.  A vote for someone else tells our policy makers that they don’t have the support they think they have.  If you substantially disagree with both of the main candidates but vote for one of them anyways, you can’t seriously expect a change in policy to match your views anytime in the near future.
Second of all, saying that a non-mainstream vote is a waste – and voting for a Democrat or Republican as a result – is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The claim that voting for the Green Party, the Communist Party or the Libertarian Party is a waste of a vote is not just cynical; it negatively impacts the movement to take these serious political movements seriously.  If people do this knowingly, it’s not even cynicism anymore – it’s ideologically subversive.  Ideas and theories should be argued on merit, free from the browbeating of public opinion and pessimism.
Finally and most importantly, voting against your personal convictions is dishonest.  A vote is a statement of preference that happens to be the foundation of democracy.  It’s sacred, and I don’t use that word lightly.  Not everyone feels this way, and I understand the perspective of someone who votes for one politician over their favorite on the grounds that their favorite won’t win, and the voter really doesn’t want some dreaded other competitive candidate in office.  I can’t bring myself to lie to myself and the government like that (is that not what is happening?), but I can understand and empathize with those who do.  However, when they turn around and say that my vote is a waste, it rubs me the wrong way.  My vote is a waste?  I vote for the candidate that most accurately and honestly represents my values and reflects the methods of governing that I think will best benefit the nation.  If that’s a wasted vote, I don’t know what a real vote looks like.
A vote for Jill Stein is not “basically” a vote for Romney, nor is a vote for Gary Johnson “basically” a vote for Obama.   A vote for Obama is a vote for Obama, and a vote for Romney is a vote for Romney.  With Stein, Johnson, Goode and Anderson, it’s the same story.  Before calling a vote for one of these lesser-known presidential candidates “wasted,” it’s worth considering whether the candidate in question might be better qualified or more in line with your own convictions than whoever it is you intend to vote for, and what your own motivations are for calling their vote inferior or less valuable than your own.
No honest and informed vote is wasted, and our great democracy is richer when represented by a multitude of views and political opinions, not poorer.  What makes it poor is when the variety of voices is diluted and condensed from that pluralistic symphony to a dissonant duet.  A third opinion offered with sincerity is never a waste.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Problem of Partisan Politics

October 23, 2012, The Watchdog

Most of the political candidates vying for your vote nowadays put a great deal of emphasis on their bipartisan methods for solving problems.  To me it comes across as mildly insulting, since many of these so-called champions of nonpartisan politics are or were active in blocking progressive policies advanced by the other side – often in extremely unscrupulous manners.  To my knowledge, the most vicious example involved Republicans adding a clause to a piece of liberal legislation that allowed government employees to watch porn on the job so that they could tear it down.  But I digress.
While the hypocrisy is sometimes painful to listen to, there are things we can learn from this.  It shows that politicians understand voter’s frustration with the lack of progress, but it also shows that voters understand that the two party’s views are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Ultimately, the commonly-espoused idea that one side or the other is completely wrong is itself completely wrong, but to understand why, we have to know a thing or two about the core beliefs and principles behind each ideology.
Thomas Sowell provides an excellent explanation of these differences in his book “A Conflict of Visions,” in which he argues that liberals generally see the world optimistically, while conservatives tend to see the world pessimistically.  Democrats tend to view human beings as essentially good and capable of anything they set their minds to, while Republicans generally view their fellow man more suspiciously and focus more on defending the good aspects of society than building and advancing towards what is lacking.
In terms of social commentary in literature, one could say that liberals focus on works like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” that show the necessity of government regulation and intervention in society to maintain order and to protect citizens from corporations.  The government is a trustworthy force for social progress.  Conservatives, conversely, tend to point toward the issues brought up by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom,” in which he echoes Thomas Jefferson in arguing that sacrificing freedom for security ultimately gives up both.  Government is untrustworthy, and its corruption scales with its size.
As it turns out, both sides are correct.  The food industry in Chicago during Sinclair’s time was awful, and the government regulation spurred by public awareness of those problems resulted in markedly better sanitary and economic conditions, and this action has been mimicked to a similar effect in various contexts around the globe.  On the other hand, we can look back in history and also see Hayek proved right again and again in Russia, Germany, Japan, China, the Middle East and even the United States.  In our country alone, reactionary federal policy has landed us with outrageous acts like the Espionage and Sedition Acts under Wilson, Executive Order 9066 under Franklin Roosevelt, and the recent Patriot Act created by Bush and continued by Obama – all of which have put American citizens in prison or prison camps for no actual crimes.
The difference goes deeper than perception however.  Social-psychology experts studying political tendencies say “…liberals and conservatives do not just see things differently. They are different” (Laber-Warren) .  Their brains are literally wired differently – conservatives focus on threats while liberals zero in on opportunities.  Not only that, but people’s ideological tendencies can be swayed right or left through the addition or subtraction of fear.  More fear leads to more conservative tendencies, while less fear leads to a more liberal outlook.
What this means is that people like Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck are giving a skewed perspective – the other side isn’t stupid or an enemy of freedom.  The behaviors of Obama and Romney in last week’s debates was dichotomizing.  The opinions of commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton are wrong, where Orson Scott Card was right – you can’t truly understand someone and not love them.  Well, maybe “love” is a bit of a strong word for politics, but honest and open-minded understanding is greatly underappreciated in the political arena, and that gap is holding us back from seeing reality without the tinted lens of political ideology and consequently, from getting anything done.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rockets to Rootkits: The Future of Warfare and the Internet

August 10, 2011, Bellevue College

Sometime in the near future, it’s another day at the office for Joseph Smith, an up and coming businessman at a technology firm based in downtown San Francisco.   After driving in to the office and after several cups of coffee, Joseph is ready to tackle his work.  What the coffee doesn’t prepare him for is the virus ticking down in the city’s power-grid controls like a time bomb.  At 6:23pm, the lights go out.  Before he can find a flashlight, Joseph hears the explosion of breaking glass and crunching metal below his window, and looks out to see a car wreck in the nearby intersection beneath now-dark traffic lights.  Toxic fumes from a nearby treatment plant waft towards the city center, only slightly faster than the nuclear fallout from the power plant 15 miles away.

What on earth has just happened?  This may sound like a fantasy only seen in movies like Die Hard, but it is exactly the implied picture of a cyber-attack by China as portrayed by former US counter-terrorism advisor and first Head of Cyber-Security Richard Clarke, who believes that despite our exceptional offensive capabilities, our country’s defenses against cyber espionage and sabotage are dangerously lacking.

Such attacks are capable of powerful blows to vital city infrastructure systems that are made vulnerable by direct or indirect connection to the internet.  When confronted with the figures of American military expenditures, which top the next six highest military spending nations combined (SIPRI), most Americans make the seemingly logical and mathematical assumption that no country on earth could challenge us in direct warfare.  While we do have more jets and tanks than any other country, we are falling far behind in a new form of warfare that is every bit as powerful as land or sea combat, but one in which we are much less prepared defensively.  We cannot fight with jets and tanks against malicious code attacks on infrastructure, cyber-espionage, and botnets .  Over the next few years, we can expect warfare to move from trenches and rockets to Trojans  and rootkits  for three different reasons: cyber-warfare is anonymous, it’s cheap, and it’s super effective.

The phenomenon of waging war online has already introduced new complications to the way that countries must approach national defense in several different ways.  Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The United States had the military might to defend itself purely by intimidation because back then, when one country attacked another, it was transparent; globally, everyone knew with relative certainty who was attacking which country and how.  Mutually-assured-destruction awaited anyone who dared to blatantly attack a super-power or their allies.  This is no longer the case however, because cyber-attacks are by nature nameless.  Many people in the United States still believe that because we have thousands of missiles that can strike any target on the planet, we can immediately retaliate to a cyber-attack with superior force, with the same sort of mutually-assured-destruction mindset for discouraging would-be hackers.  Mutually-assured-destruction is an excellent method of deterrence against conventional attacks coming from an identifiable source, but it is hard to strike back at an opponent you can’t see.  The internet can provide an intelligent terrorist organization, crime network, or hostile foreign country with the ability to fight in what is essentially a global house of mirrors—when a country gets hit, the blow can appear to have come from somewhere anywhere, or even multiple locations.  The victim cannot say who hit them and from where with absolute certainty like they once could, and unlike Enter the Dragon, we cannot simply take Bruce Lee’s approach and shatter all of the mirrors.  One recent example of this kind of attack-origin ambiguity was the discovery of the Stuxnet virus, a worm which specifically targeted Siemens computers that controlled a centrifuge in the Natanz fuel enrichment plant in Iran (Langner).  The virus was designed to slowly crack the centrifuge over several months, and eventually cause it to explode by overriding the electronic fail-safes with false data and preventing the system from noticing any problem.  Discovered in June of 2010, and later decoded in July by the German scientist Ralph Langner, the origin of the virus is still unknown.  Many believe that it is of Israeli or American origin, but an intelligently hidden cyber-warhead can prove extremely difficult if not impossible to track back to its maker, and neither country has taken responsibility for the virus.  This characteristic allows international organizations and governments to utilize the internet to spy on, steal from, and even overtly attack other nations like privateers on the high seas, armed with the shield of plausible deniability to protect themselves from a war with planes and missiles.

With the global economy in the state that it’s currently in, there’s second reason that we can expect countries and organizations to utilize their computers for warfare more often in the coming decade: it’s immensely cheaper to fire off a virus than a missile.  While the logistics of waging a conventional war today usually involve things like fuel for overseas flights and expensive protective equipment and weapons (not to mention the human body cost), the logistical concerns of waging a cyber-war would mainly be about having a solid network, maintaining good computers, and feeding your relatively small army of engineers and tech-support staff with enough sub sandwiches and milk-shakes to keep them happy.  Smaller, perhaps less developed nations that wouldn’t necessarily have the pre-existing resources to sustain this kind of operation would not even have to worry about those needs; they can simply rent out a few foreign hackers and engineers and a botnet to conduct their operation.  Botnets are usually only used by online criminal gangs, mainly for spam distribution, but could easily be used to attack another country with a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS)  attack, as used by the online group ‘Anonymous’ to attack Visa, Amazon, and Mastercard after the companies froze accounts associated with WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange. Alternately, they could be used to attempt to break into a secure system using ‘brute force’—trying hundreds of thousands of passwords (or more) a second in an organized fashion—which could result in access to national secrets or administrative privileges to infrastructural systems like power grids or banks.  Either method could easily, if done intelligently, result in as much damage as blowing up a building with a cruise missile.  To put the cost-ratio in perspective, a single cruise missile is generally estimated to cost between $750,000 and $900,000; the average price to rent a bot-net is a mere $9 an hour, or $67 a day (Danchev).

An important consequence of the low cost-base of digital warfare is the ease of access factor; because it’s so cheap, other countries are no longer the only real threat to the United States.  International organizations, including terrorist organizations, can easily utilize cyber-attack methods to carry out their own goals and missions. Some may even be ahead of what most think of as more powerful nations like the United States in technological proficiency and tip-toeing around the cyber-security systems in place. “We were laughing at Democratic activists” said Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamic extremist and founding director of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam. “We felt they were from the age of yesteryear. We felt that they were out of date. I learned how to use email from the extremist organization that I used. I learned how to effectively communicate across borders without being detected.”  Organizations like Nawaz’s could never hope to afford to buy their own cruise missile, singular, let alone plural. But if they are clever enough, they could inflict the same extent of havoc on a target nation at a minute fraction of the cost.  By economics alone, it is a safe assumption that most organized attacks against the United States in the coming decades won’t be with expensive bombs and guns, but with more cost-effective digital warheads.

Despite economic issues and worries over diplomatic privacy, the military’s first and foremost necessity is effectiveness; secrecy and cost-efficiency come secondarily.  Given a choice between a cruise missile and a virus, it seems obvious that the cruise missile would me a far more effective military tool, if perhaps not the cheapest.  There are a few things wrong with this line of thinking. First and foremost, while the United States has the money to buy expensive military toys, other countries may not, and would probably rely on digital methods of assault that no amount of anti-missile defense systems could ever really have a chance of defending against. There is more to it than that though: the problem with this perceived superiority of the cruise missile over a computer virus, even in an offensive scenario, is that it assumes that the best military target is something physical that you can locate and then proceed to blow up.  Professional militaries often target communication hubs in order to isolate the enemy.  While striking radar towers, radio centers, and phone companies has been extremely successful in the past, modern communication takes place online more often than not.  While it is possible to attack a server with a missile, it might be impossible to do so without civilian collateral damage, and the server will probably have a back-up regardless.  A cheaper, faster, more effective, and discretionary method of accomplishing the mission would be to use a virus that destroys the server, perhaps without even needing to geographically locate where the server is. A DDOS attack that overloads and slows down the server from electron-speed to molasses-speed would also be extremely effective at hampering communication.

Paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations usually have different aims: publicity and terror. While bombing a building or kidnapping and killing people does attract attention and inspire fear, it is often a third-person spotlight. People see and hear about it from the news, online, and from friends and neighbors, and it catches their attention for a while because it is interesting, but violent events don’t stay in your conscious mind as much because they hold little real-world relevance to an average individual.  A terrorist group that manages to electronically seek out and destroy bank records, or that shuts down or vandalizes a mega-website like Facebook or Google, would be generating exposure and sensation of the first-person variety, because what they have done has a real-world, everyday impact on everyone.  Thus, under the right circumstances, electronic attacks are not only as powerful as conventional attacks, but can sometimes actually be more effective than simply dropping a bomb on a building and calling it good.

Many skeptics object that although these are all legitimate claims, cyber warfare may never ‘catch on’.  James Lewis from the Center for Strategic and International studies argues that “there have been no cyber-wars and perhaps two or three cyberattacks since the internet first appeared” (Jackson).  Along the same lines, Foreign Policy’s Zack Keck argues that the effectiveness of the Stuxnet worm is the result of the Iranian facility’s lack of common security precautions, and that we are unlikely to see any copycats in the future, as was predicted by other cyber-security experts and several companies.  Cyber-warfare simply seems to lack the dependability of traditional military operations.  Joseph Smith won’t really have to worry about his San Francisco home being attacked by hackers because those attacks don’t work when proper regulations are followed.  If so, then let us examine a slightly less extreme scenario.

It’s late April and Josephina Smetana is decides to go to the grocery store for some food.   She walks up to the checkout counter with some vegetables and some beef, but after she swipes her card, she is politely informed that her card was denied. Angered and confused, she quickly walks (empty-handed) to the local ATM.  It’s out of service, so she decides to check her account online.  She types in the URL address for her bank, and gets an error message: the bank’s website is experiencing heavy traffic and is inaccessible at this time.  There must be something wrong at the bank!  She types in the URL for several of the local news stations to try to find out why the bank sites are down, only to find the same error message on the news sites.  This is another cyber-attack, similar to the hypothetical one discussed previously in that it targets a nation—slightly different in its method of attack; it’s a DDOS attack instead of a Worm.  The important difference, however, is that this attack isn’t hypothetical.

On April 27th of 2007 the Estonian government removed a politically contentious Soviet memorial statue from WWII.  The following day, the entire nation fell under attack.  The Estonian Defense Minister, Jaak Aaviksoo, described the attack as targeting the online portion of Estonia’s digital infrastructure (Davis). “All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers — the phone books of the Internet — felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.”  Note that Estonia is a modern, developed country, and was not in any noticeable way more vulnerable to cyber-attack than other countries its size, as was implied of Iran by Zack Keck.  Estonia eventually broke the siege and got its systems running again only after temporarily severing all internet connections outside the country, effectively isolating them from the rest of the world. The bot-net attacks finally stopped several weeks after they started.  It is still debated who executed the attacks, most experts believe it was the result of either a ‘hactivist’ Russian gang or a Russian official’s aide acting of his own free will.  If such groups are capable of shutting down an entire country, if only briefly, what could a nation like China do with a coordinated effort?  The effectiveness, cost-ratio, and anonymity of cyber-attacks make them as powerful of tools in the international court as any aircraft carrier or tank, and we can count on seeing far more of them in the future.  The question we should be asking then isn’t: “is cyber-warfare a threat we need to take seriously?”, but rather: “Are we, as a nation, prepared to fight and win a full-out Cyber War?”

Works Cited
  1. Clarke, Richard. Interview. Cyber War. NPR. WNYC, New York. 21 Apr 2010. Web. 5 Aug. 2011.
  2. Danchev, Dancho. “Study Finds the Average Price for Renting a Botnet.” ZDNet. 26 May 2010. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  3. Davis, Joshua. “Hackers Take Down the most Wired Country in Europe.” Wired. 21 Aug 2007. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  4. Gross, Michael. “A Declaration of Cyber-War.” Vanity Fair. Apr 2011. Web.
  5. Hersh, Seymour. “The Online Threat: Should We Be Worried About a Cyber War?” The New Yorker Nov. 2010: 1-7. Web. 2 Aug. 2011.
  6. Hypponen, Mikko. “Fighting Viruses, Defending the Net.” TED. Mar 2011. Web. 2 Aug 2011.
  7. Jackson, William. “The False Cries and Fog of ‘Cyber War’.” Government Computer News. 15 July, 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  8. Keck, Zachary. “Libicki: Stuxnet Isn’t All it’s Cracked Up to Be—But Then Again, Neither is Cyberwar Really.” Foreign Policy. 3 Mar 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  9. Langner, Ralph. “Cracking Stuxnet, a 21st Century Cyber Weapon.” TED. Mar 2011. Web. 2 Aug 2011.
  10. Nawaz, Maajid. “A Global Culture to Fight Extremism.” TED. Mar 2011. Web. 3 Aug 2011.
  11. Neilson, Robert. Sun Tzu and Information Warfare. Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1997. Print.
  12. SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, The.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. 2011. Web. 3 Aug. 2011.
  13. Thompson, Loren. “Cyberwarfare May Be a Bust for Many Defense Contractors.” Forbes. 9 May 2011. Web. 9 Aug. 2011.
  14. Thornburgh, Nathan. “Inside the Chinese Hack Attack.” Time.  25 Aug 2005. Web. 9 Aug. 2011

John Frum: The Making of a God

April 20, 2012, Bellevue College

Anti-Prohibition Against I-502

October 15, 2012, The Watchdog

“Who will say, ‘I just want to smoke it?’”
Bruce Ramsey wrote a charming opinion piece in The Seattle Times last week about the real reason people should support the initiative in November to legalize marijuana, I-502 – not for the taxes, the prisons, or any of the other number of “remarkably impersonal” reasons, but simply because it’s enjoyable to smoke.  “It depends on what you want, revenue or prisoners,” he then added, referring to the bill’s plan to tax cannabis.
While I agree and applaud his beautiful frankness on the issue, it is sadly an overly simplistic view.  Like most pieces of complex and controversial legislature, there is a history that requires revisiting to understand the reasons behind I-502 and why its actual effects will be different from its proposed effects, and ultimately, why I-502 is not a good initiative.
When the United States was founded, hemp was known as an incredibly useful product.  George Washington grew hemp at his home in Mount Vernon and called on other Americans to do the same (there is also some speculation that he and Jefferson might have smoked cannabis).  Hemp can be used to make incredibly strong and biodegradable plastics, effective green fuels, is nearly unsurpassed in nutritional value, and has a well-earned reputation as a general tonic and home cure for a variety of illnesses and disorders.  It was the best source of fiber for textiles, rope and paper for a long time.
In the early 1900s, the chemical and explosive company DuPont discovered a chemical process that allowed them to make paper from wood pulp more cheaply than competitors, who were using hemp.  Not long afterwards however, the hemp industry made some similar breakthroughs that threatened to retake the market from the growing corporate giant.  DuPont had a friend named William Randolph Hearst, who owned the San Francisco Examiner, the New York Journal and New York World.  Through false but repetitive and sensational stories, they convinced a large part of America that “marihuana” caused black and Hispanic men to go crazy and rape white women.  This ultimately culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which essentially made possession and transfer of cannabis illegal in the United States.  That Act has lasted 75 years.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could repeal this backward law?
That’s not what I-502 is going to do.  For starters, the I-502 campaign itself touts that the biggest benefit is the tax revenue.
With the proposed taxes, lawyer and legalization activist Jeffrey Steinborn predicts that prices of pot will jump by 150%, leaving the black market sources not only still a competitive source, but one with the ability to increase their own price for additional revenue.  DUI laws tacked on to the bill will simply take the war on drugs from the suburbs to the streets, where Washington State’s office of financial management predicts “increased costs from additional driving while under the influence administrative actions, arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations.”  In other words, I-502 will put more people in prison, not less, and gangs won’t be financially hurt by any of it.
The initiative gets everything wrong, down to the very spirit in which we should rescind the 1937 Act.  We should be doing it because the law is wrong, not because it’s a beneficial economic compromise.  As a pro-legalization advocate, it pains me to oppose the first serious initiative to rescind a backwards and corporately-biased law, but it seems clear that I-502 not only won’t solve the problem it’s supposed to – it would probably make things worse.

First Presidential Debate

If there is one prediction both parties can agree came true of the first presidential debate in Denver last Tuesday, it’s Senator John McCain’s prediction that both candidates would be too well-prepared to make a major slip-up.
Who won?  Were their facts accurate? Were they too aggressive or too passive? How will this debate influence voters?  A friend of mine joked that the moderator, Jim Leher, lost the debate.
Aesthetically, Mitt Romney came out stronger by far.  In contrast to Obama’s normally powerful and moving speeches like the one he gave at the annual United Nations meeting, the president stuttered, “um-ed” and “uh-ed” too much, and on numerous occasions took on a very defeated-looking body posture – head down, arms in, eyes seemingly closed, a somber expression on his face.  Romney, by comparison, spoke with clarity, precision and emanated energy.  His posture was open and powerful.  One Twitter account said “Romney looked like he got more sleep than Obama,” and it really came out not just in how spoke, but in what they said as well.  Jeff Zeleny wrote in The Seattle Times the day of the debate that the Massachusetts Governor had been practicing his “respectful aggression,” and all of his practice appears to have paid off.
As for the veracity of the two candidates’ claims, both managed to sneak in some half-truths, conjectures, and outright lies.  It might surprise viewers that the two most overly emphasized numbers in the debate – $5 trillion from Obama and $716 billion from Romney – are both misleading half-truths.  Obama’s claim that Romney is going to cut taxes by $5 trillion is an estimate from the Tax Policy Center of the aggregate loss from Romney’s tax plan by 2015 from the loss of estate taxes and a sharp drop in income tax rates. But it fails to take into account Romney’s plan for paying for the loss through the elimination of tax credits, deductions and exemptions.  The figure is adding up the net loss of the tax policy while ignoring the very aspects of the same policy that would (somewhat) counteract the loss.
Similarly, Romney’s obnoxious repetition of the $716 billion cut to Medicare (a number the “Debate Drinking Game” website told viewers to take a shot for every time it was mentioned) is merely a difference in anticipated costs over ten years.  The number is portrayed to be a direct loss for beneficiaries; an emotional appeal to the elderly, sick and family of those who are old or sick.  In reality, the money pulled from Medicare (which may or may not accumulate to $716 billion) not only benefits Medicare patients with better and cheaper health care, but also is offset by $318 billion in payroll taxes over the same ten-year time frame, lowering the effective cost to $398 billion.  That’s excluding its less direct positive economic impact of course, which is expected to exceed $200 billion in federal savings over about a decade.
Ultimately, the debate was Romney’s to win or lose.  Prior to last Tuesday, most polls put Obama in a solid lead – even in swing states – by anywhere from f5 to 15 percent.  The political consensus was that Romney needed a strong win to stand a chance in November.  Given his extremely powerful performance (did I say performance?) on Tuesday, it looks as though the general election will be much closer than most people anticipated.

Anti-Islam film sparks controversy

October 3, 2012, The Watchdog

The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” a concept and value that itself can be traced back to the Enlightenment, to the renaissance, and even to ancient Athens.  This value has become the subject of serious debates in the upcoming annual United Nations meeting in New York, where a coalition of 57 Islamic nations is proposing to pass an anti-blasphemy law in response to an offensive and by all accounts awful movie trailer called “Innocence of Muslims” that portrayed the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, criminal, and a buffoon.  The ordinance, if passed, would oblige all member nations to criminalize the defamation of religion.
The Muslim coalition cites the apparent double standard of free speech as justification for their cause.  For example, in Germany – a country that does not have the same guarantee for freedom of speech that the United States has – holocaust-denial is a criminal offense.  Many members of the group petitioning for the law feel that insults to religion “pose a threat to global peace and security.”  In his address to the United Nations on Wednesday, the president of Egypt and Member of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Morsi said “Egypt respects freedom of expression – one that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”
Morsi’s statement, of course, is in response to Obama’s address given the day before in which he condemned the 14-minute trailer as “crude and disgusting” but defended the values of free expression under which the film and it’s director are protected.  The director of the film has received no less than two hits on him, coming from a Pakistani Cabinet Member and a wealthy Pakistani Businessman.
With the Civil War in Syria is getting worse every day and the tense relations between the World and Iran and Israel, it seems odd that a low-grade amateur hate-film is taking up so much time in the United Nations. However, a quick glance at the past decade reveals it’s merely the next turn of the screw in a pattern of censorship that has been emanating from the Middle East for quite a while.  Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the director and producer of the film under the pseudonym “Sam Bacile,” is following (less artistically) in the footsteps of Salmon Rushdie, Lars Vilks, Theo Van Gogh, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, Matt Stone, and Trey Parker – all people who have been threatened, attacked, or killed for insulting Islam.
Reactionary riots in dozens of city around the globe called for the eviction of ambassadors, official apologies from the American Government, and for the video to be removed.  Many even called for the beheading of Nakoula, as proclaimed in Australia as well as Pakistan.  These riots, though discouraged from using violence, were encouraged by several Middle Eastern governments, and ultimately resulted in the invasion and vandalism of American embassies in Egypt and Yemen.  The American Consulate in Benghazi was also attacked, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including the Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, though these attacks appear to have been in response to the killing of Al Qaeda’s second-in-command and not the film.
In a public debate over the decriminalization of hate-speech in Toronto in 2006, Vanity Fair editor Christopher Hitchens defended freedom of expression against religious censorship.  He argued that not only does censorship remove the freedom and responsibility of autonomy and choosing for oneself what is worth reading and hearing, but that often times “the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship,” and that silencing those whose views are viewed as abhorrent or appalling are the first steps towards oppression.  Parts of Northern Europe that are not protected by free speech clauses like our own are already feeling the effects of this: Dutch Parliament Member Geert Wilders was put on trial for hate speech and “incitement to hate and discriminate” because of his own film “Fitna” – a charge he was later acquitted of.
The whole issue is best described by the comedian Steve Hughes: “What happens if you say that and someone gets offended?  Well they can be offended!  When did ‘sticks and stones may break my bones’ stop being relevant?  Isn’t that what you teach children for God’s sake? [...] How do you make a law without offending people? How do you make an offense to offend people? Being offended is subjective… what offends me may not offend you, and you want to make laws about this?”  The United Nations may be inclined to over the next week, and if passed, we may see more laws threatening or overriding freedom of expression, even here in Bellevue.

Renting Textbooks

Bellevue College students, having long suffered the high prices of new-edition textbooks, are increasingly choosing a new option that saves time, energy and space: renting. Both BC’s own bookstore and websites like are now offering a selection of textbooks to rent for a fraction of the price of purchase. It’s no wonder that book sales are dropping off as text-lending becomes more commonplace.  However, some people have their doubts about whether this is a change for the better or worse.
Some students feel that holding on to textbooks can be useful later on.  “I would not say that renting textbooks is good for classes in your major,” says Joey Chemis, a student of actuarial science.  “You don’t know—often in studying for my actuarial exams or just helping people with their homework […] I had to rely on old mathematics books.  I am glad I purchased and kept every one of my math books.”  College coursework is a valuable and an expensive investment, and the resources found in the textbooks may be the only ties back to the education purchased and toiled over in years down the road, especially in a field of study one plans on utilizing in their career.
There is the financial question too.  While renting course-material is cheaper than buying it outright, book-buybacks and reselling used texts on sites like Craigslist can compensate for the difference.   Sage Kelly, a student of Environmental Science, shared that buying textbooks was better than renting because she was able to purchase her books used and resell them at prices close to what she bought them for. “If you bought it used in the first place, you’re spending less money when you buy then when you rent.”  Not to mention the fact that there is no need to worry about due dates for rentals, which can often coincide with the busiest week of the quarter—finals.
Others say that renting actually saves money, which outweighs any benefits of keeping books.  For example, it’s nearly impossible to buy a new or recent edition textbook and expect to sell it back for a similar price.  Similarly, some textbooks go out of use by professors (often because a new edition came out), and the textbook becomes nearly worthless as a result.  In either case, renting saves substantial amounts of money.  Christopher Pascale, a contributing author for the consumer-education site Suite101, saved over $1,200 in a span of only ten textbooks by renting them instead of buying.  “Using these numbers alone, if a student was able to rent just half of the textbooks she needed over the course of 120 credit hours, she could save approximately $2,500!”  If students aren’t planning on returning to their books in the future, the savings of 50 to 80 percent on course material could easily outweigh the lost privileges of underlining and highlighting the pages.  Given that most classes use relatively new texts, students are more likely to save by renting than by purchasing.
Regardless of the pros and cons, one thing is certain—renting is on the rise.  According to the Book Industry Study Group, 11 percent of students nation-wide now rent their books.  “I’ve had nothing but good experiences renting textbooks,” says John Dazey, a Philosophy major at BC and aspiring lawyer.  The trend seems to indicate that his sentiment reflects most other BC student’s views on the question of whether to purchase or rent textbooks.