Joho the Blog » 2007 » December

December 31, 2007

Bush and the Cowardly Terrorists

President Bush’s first official response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was to call it a “cowardly” act. Despicable, horrible, anti-democratic, ungodly, of course…for this particular murder we could exhaust the vocabulary of condemnation. But of all the possible negative adjectives, “cowardly,” seems one of the least appropriate. Why did Bush resort to that particular term of opprobrium? And what does it say about how we’re framing the “war on terror”?

Bush routinely characterizes terrorist acts as cowardly. In October, 2000, Bush called the attack on a US destroyer in Yemen cowardly. On September 12, 2001, he called the attacks the day before cowardly. He called the 2002 Bali explosion cowardly. He (through the State Dept.) called the 2003 Mumbai bombings cowardly. In 2004, the White House called the murder of Iraqi Governing Council Chairman Izzadine Salim cowardly. Bush called the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara in 2006 cowardly. Hell, his father called the Pan Am bombing of 1988 cowardly,. and as vice president, in 1983 he called those behind the Lebanese bombing cowards.

But, if cowards are those who shirk their duty out of fear for their own safety, terrorists who blow themselves up are not cowards: They do their (perceived) duty without regard to their personal safety, as everyone from Bill Maher to Peter Preston of The Guardian have pointed out. Even if we believe that they do so because they think they’re going to be rewarded in the afterlife, by that logic we would have to call even the bravest faithful Christian soldier a coward, too. And that clearly wouldn’t be right. You don’t have to be soft on terrorism to think that “coward” is just the wrong term here.

It makes a little more sense when Bush is talking about the terrorist leaders, not the actual suicide bombers. For example, Osama Bin Laden “assures [his followers] that . . . this is the road to paradise — though he never offers to go along for the ride,” Bush said in October, 2005. Of course, Bush himself isn’t at the front of the troops in Afghanistan, and when Bush dared the enemy to “bring it on,” he was safely away from where it might be brought. (Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, has led soldiers in combat.)

So, why hurl the “coward” term at terrorists — leaders and followers — when there are so many other terms they deserve?

Part of it is simple name-calling: We don’t want suicidal terrorism to appear glamorous so we say it’s cowardly. Spin.

And Bush’s special psychology is undoubtedly at work. During the Vietnam war, Bush failed at the same military role in which his father had performed heroically. Characterizing others as cowards perhaps helps Bush Jr. strut past his own weakness. This may be part of Bush’s disdain of “nuance,” which itself may part of a nature that is terrified by temptation and the lure of shadows. But since Bush is not the only one to think of terrorists as cowards — for example, Bill Clinton called the terrorist attack in Yemen cowardly — more is at play than personal psychology.

The best I can figure, Bush and the other leaders who routinely refer to terrorists as cowards are working from a schoolyard metaphor. Terrorists are the kids who whack you on the back of the head and run away instead of putting up their dukes and fighting. They fight the way they do because they lack the courage to stand their ground.

But this is a mistake. Terrorists don’t use terrorism because they’re cowards. They use it because it’s a relatively effective technique for fighting military powers that have overwhelming conventional strength. To fight terrorism, we need to be clear-headed about it, not indulge in a nostalgia that wishes the terrorists would just come out and fight like men because we know how to beat them on yesterday’s battlefield.

Then there’s the plain old machismo of it. Both sides in this struggle have accused the other of being girly-men. Bush in 2005 said that Zarqawi has called Americans “the most cowardly of God’s creatures.” In April 2006, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir in a tape called Bush a coward. How much of our blood has been spent proving America’s bravery…to a bunch of people we keep saying are cowards?

“Coward” is just a word, but there are consequences to our insistence on applying it to people who are out to murder us. It misjudges their motives and worldview, which can lead to us misjudging their intentions and plans. Worse, in a single word it presents our own worldview in which the old frame is still operative: We are fighting a war, wars are fought by armies, armies fight in the open, and soldiers who don’t are cowards. The language of cowardice is thus part of the language of war that is deeply — and perhaps disastrously — inappropriate for the deadly struggle in which we are engaged.

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December 30, 2007

RIAA: Put down that CD and back away slowly

[NOTE Dec. 31: The Washington Post article I based this blog post on is wrong. Thanks, Shelley!] The RIAA continues to ratchet up its claims for what we customers are allowed to do with music. According to this Washington Post article, the RIAA is now claiming in a law suit that a man who has 2,000 legally-purchased CDs is not allowed to copy those CDs onto his computer.

What next? Will the RIAA claim that were not allowed to play CDs loud enough for our neighbors to hear? Listen on speakers because people who did not purchase the CD might listen along? Look at our CDs funny?

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Britain drops “war on terror” rhetoric? Apparently not.

I was quite pleased when I read in a posting to a mailing list that the British government was no longer going to use the phrase “war on terror.” [SPOILER ALERT: The posting was wrong.] The post pointed to an article in the Daily Mail quoted at length by Military.com). It said:

The words “war on terror” will no longer be used by the British government to describe attacks on the public, the country’s chief prosecutor said Dec. 27.

Sir Ken Macdonald said terrorist fanatics were not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless “death cult.”

The Director of Public Prosecutions said: ‘We resist the language of warfare, and I think the government has moved on this. It no longer uses this sort of language.”

London is not a battlefield, he said.

“The people who were murdered on July 7 were not the victims of war. The men who killed them were not soldiers,” Macdonald said. “They were fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals and need to be responded to in that way.”

His remarks signal a change in emphasis across Whitehall, where the “war on terror” language has officially been ditched.


Ah, someone speaking sense! Except it seemed odd to me that the Director of Public Prosecutions would get to decide how the British government is going to characterize issues of defense. So, I checked the Daily Mail site and the best I could come up with was an article from last January in which Sir Ken talked about the language he thinks the government should use, not a decision by the government about the language that it will use.


If you can come up with an actual source for this, I’d be very happy to be acknowledge your superior googling skills and celebrate this one small step towards a sensible approach to peace and security.


(BTW, I think the Military.com article got to posted to the mailing list I’m on via Dave Farber’s high-visibility mailing list.) [Tags: ]

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December 29, 2007

Scrape the Mac down to the metal? (A litany of whines, with a backbeat of love)

Jeez my MacBook is hinky. Basically, nothing works reliably on it. I thought Leopard would fix the problems, and it has brought a little more stablility, but I can’t count on using any app without it vanishing in a puff of kernel errors. My RAM tests ok, the CPU temperature is reasonable, my permissions are good, and I’m working out of a new, clean user account. Even so, I can no longer get advanced apps like Parallels or VMWare to work, and even good ol’ Quicksilver (oh, how I love it) seems to be cross-linked with other apps, sometimes popping up when I open them. The problems do not seem to be app-specific, since even little programs will end randomly. Usually, it’s just an annoyance, but since products like Keynote are too proud to do autosaves every few minutes (on Windows, I have Powerpoint set to autosave every 4 mins), the random puff of disappearance has at times cost me work. Not to mention that in the upgrade to Leopard, GarageBand, iMovie, iPhoto and iTheRest have vanished off my hard drive. Yokes.

So, I think I’m going to back everything up yet again – I am a man of many backups, although none seem to work when I need them – and take it back down to the bare metal: reformat, reinstall, re-hope.

Even so, and I want to be clear about this, I love my MacBook with an ardor that none of the many Windows machines I’ve had has ever inspired, including the big, honking box on which I am now running Vista. Vista is crashing left and right on me in ways that a new operating system with very few programs installed (and most of them Microsoft programs at that) ought not. Plus, everything about Vista requires thought. After all these years, I’m pretty good at Windows, but I don’t want to have to think about it any more. And if I were new to computers, I think I’d find Vista incomprehensible. It’s become Unix-like, which is ironic given that Ubuntu is making Unix/Linux easier every day.

So, I think I’m going to rebuild my Mac from the ground up. Consider it an act of love. [Tags: mac vista ]

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December 28, 2007

2008: The Year of Scale?

The Harvard Business Review blog ConversationStarter asked a bunch of people what they think the issues for managers will be in 2008. Sean Silverthorne has compiled a list.

I wrote about the need to deal with a world in which customers, information and relationships have all scaled.


(Note to self: In 2008, try to use the phrase “got big” rather than “scale.”) [Tags: ]

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December 27, 2007

Trust and cooperation can’t be surged

This quotation from Admiral Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, comes via a terrific post by Dan Bricklin about how trust is built through little steps and tiny interactions. [Tags: social_networks dan_bricklin ]

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GlobalVoices on Benazir Bhutto’s death

Two posts at GlobalVoices1 2 — talk about the reaction from bloggers in the area. [ Tags: ]

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Beginner to Beginner: Getting Nvu to work for a second Mac user

I’ve been having trouble getting Nvu — an open source HTML editor — working for the second user on my Mac (Leopard). It works fine for user #1, but for user #2, it refuses to launch unless I become root in the terminal and launch it from there. After a lot of messing around with permissions and multiple re-installs, I found that while there is no Nvu folder in “/Users/user2/Library/Application Support,” there is in “/Users/user1/Library/Application Support.” Renaming that folder didn’t have any effect. So, finally I copied the Nvu file from “/Users/user1/Library/Application Support” to “/Users/user2/Library/Application Support”. Now when launched from within user2′s desktop, Nvu asks if you want to create a new profile. I said yes and it seems to work.


And here’s an important note: I don’t know what I’m doing. This “tip” may prove fatal. I am especially puzzled by the fact that changing the name of the Nvu folder for user1 didn’t seem to make a difference. I also don’t know why when user2 launched Nvu, it was checking user1′s environment. In short: I’m flying blind here, and my tip” may be the tip of a sharp stick with which you poke yourself in the eye. [Tags: nvu ]

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NIH goes open access

The US National Institute of Health has become the first major US agency to require those who receive public money to make their results available to the public. Within twelve months of publication researchers have to make their articles available at PubMed Central, the National Library of Medicine’s online archive, according to an article at Science Codex.

This news was slashdotted here. [Tags: ]

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December 26, 2007

Rheingold on Habermas

I’m 2 months behind, but I finally got to Howard Rheingold’s post on his brief encounter with Habermas, because I’m trying to understand Habermas without having to actually read his Big Books. When Habermas chose not to answer Howard’s question about how the rise of the Internet affects the public sphere, Howard was disappointed the way only a mentor can disappoint us.

I think some of the commenters on Howard’s post are reasonable when they try to let Habermas off the hook for not responding then and there. OTOH, I wasn’t there and thus don’t know just how dismissive Habermas was. In any case, Howard is right that if you’re interested in democracy and the public sphere — as Habermas obviously is — you need to pay attention to the rise of the Net. (Howard and the commenters list sources I am now about to read.)

But mainly I was so happy to see philosophy engaged via Howard’s demand that it address the important issues of the day and the commenters’ pokings, pullings and elaborations. [Tags: ]

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