Tag Archives: war


Being an American abroad can be difficult sometimes. There’s so much to defend, to explain, to demystify. Now is certainly one of those times; I spent a lot of yesterday failing in my earnest desire to discuss anything but the election.

My British colleagues asked, “Why?”

“Because,” I replied, “They don’t see the news you see.”

The stories that don’t make Fox, or Clear Channel, or the Murdoch press: the death of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the erosion of the case for war, the French as a rational nation with a reasoned viewpoint. Bush the bumbler, Cheney the crook, Rumsfeld the hatchet man. Alert statuses changing from puce to chartreuse to teal whenever there’s an awkward story to bury. Historical analyses of how Saddam Hussein came to power and was kept there; the deaths of Palestinians as well as Israelis; a positive view of Democrats.

“But, but, but, why? I don’t understand.”

“Because you don’t see the news they see.”

I don’t see this news either, but I can make some guesses: Bush the charming, folksy man verses Kerry the cold, stiff intellectual. A judge who feels his allegiance to Christ supersedes his obligation to separate church and state. Gays lining up to marry in coastal states, intercut with deliberately shocking images of Gay Pride parades. World War 2 documentaries, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Reagan days. The 700 Club and Christian radio.

People who voted for Bush were not by definition idiots, or insane, or evil, as many people on the Net have stated in their anger and disappointment. They voted as sombrely, with as much thought, commitment and dedication, as the rest of the electorate. But their priorities, their aspirations, and their worldview are different from that of my Scottish colleagues, so different that there’s almost no explaining it.

The lives they lead – or at least strive for – are classic Norman Rockwell. Small towns of good neighbors, where doors are not locked (or haven’t been within living memory), where children go safely to school and families to church, where people work hard and value honesty and faith above money and power. Marriages last, teenagers don’t get pregnant, no one has affairs or abortions, or suffers from domestic violence. There are no drugs, maybe not even alcohol. Summer vacations are spent at “the lake” (there always seems to be a lake); Christmas and Easter are religious holidays rather than just time off. When jobs are scarce and times are hard, everyone pulls together, and every funeral is followed by a succession of covered dishes. There are a lot of flags, and not just at the Fourth of July parade. Folks have no need to go to foreign places, because America is the best country in the world.

People may not live this way in real life, but a large proportion of Americans wish they did. I do, sometimes. And the Midwest, the farm states, are the custodians of this dream. They see themselves as the moral compass of the nation, the heart of the land. The coastal states are corrupted by their contact with foreign cultures, too much money, and too many intellectuals.

Kerry never spoke their language, though as a combat veteran he had an “in” that his East Coast lawyer image couldn’t ruin. But Bush and his colleagues talk the talk, however little they walk the walk. And the anti-foreigner, anti-intellectual message has been underlined for years by Republican-owned media that panders to its viewership’s biases. (Just as the New York media does, by the way, and the Californian, and the various flavors of British – a news channel that its viewers doesn’t like doesn’t survive.) A Midwestern voter could get up, switch off Fox News, listen to Clear Channel on the way to the polling station, and vote the way his pastor suggested (using copious Bible references), with a clear conscience. It all made sense; all the inputs hung together.

I don’t know how to change the Midwest, or whether it would be a good idea to try. I don’t think anyone has the right to but the Midwesterners themselves. Perhaps the Internet, with its wider spectrum of news available, will broaden views (though it’s equally possible that it will simply consolidate them around a few conservative websites). Perhaps, as with Clinton’s “The Economy, Stupid” message, some unifying problem will cause the heartland to vote for someone who is more palatable to the rest of the nation and the world.

I do know, however, that berating Bush supporters, calling them stupid, or ignoring their reasons for voting as they did will not get their votes in the future. Once the hurt has died down, I hope the rest of us can distinguish between the voters and their candidate. (Just as I distinguish between our soldiers, whom I respect, and the people who sent them to war, whom I criticize.) As an American expat, I may oppose any attempt to pare down our Constitutional rights, may cringe at what Bush says and does on the world stage, and may very well worry for the future he builds. But I’ll still be defending Bush voters to my British friends and colleagues.

E Pluribus Unum

Bookbinding Meets Politics

As part of my desire to encourage a little more civility in American politics, I have decided to give a gift to someone whose politics I disagree with. Specifically, I’m sending a handbound copy of the Constitution to President George W. Bush.

I was going to be sarcastic about it, and say something about the rules of good gift-giving. After all, you’re supposed to give people something that they might find useful, for instance at work, and something that they don’t appear to own already.

But really, that sort of commentary is pretty nasty and counterproductive. And I think this is a matter more for sincerity than nastiness. So here’s the text of the letter I’m sending along with the binding. The language is a little stiff and florid, but the feeling behind it is sincere.

Dear Mr President,

I am an American citizen, although I have been living in the United Kingdom for almost eleven years. Living abroad has given me an interesting perspective on our shared identity as Americans, particularly with regard to our Constitution. It really is a unique and valuable document, one that has made our country what it is today.

I am concerned, therefore, by the ways in which your current policies do not reflect the values enshrined in this foundation of our nation’s law. I know that, as President, you must find a balance between the security of our fellow citizens and the culture of liberty that America values. I am sure you are sincere in the choices you have made. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with those choices, which seem to me to undermine many of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

I am particularly worried by the lack of trials for some citizens suspected of terrorism, the chilling effect that use of “free speech zones” has on the First Amendment rights of people who disagree with you, and the drive to use the Constitution to limit peoples’ freedoms and the states’ rights to legislate with regard to marriage. I am also concerned by our frequent disregard of the Geneva conventions, either by the reclassification of prisoners or by a simple failure to follow its rules.

If we are to be the beacon of liberty to the world that we hope we are, then America must take the lead in defending peoples’ freedoms, both inside and outside of our borders. Peaceful, secure people do not as a rule join terrorist organizations; people who feel that their culture and religion are under attack may very well do so. By working in isolation and appearing to target Islam as a whole, we are the terrorists’ best recruiting incentive.

As a token of my regard for the Constitution and the ideals it expresses, I am sending you the enclosed leatherbound copy of this most important document. I created it myself, using traditional fine binding techniques. If you prefer not to keep it, I would appreciate its donation to an educational institution, where it can inform and educate another generation of Americans.

Very Truly Yours,

Abi Sutherland

I plan to post the book and letter on Tuesday (post offices are closed tomorrow). Normally, I wouldn’t post pictures and binding notes on a gift before the recipient has seen it. But I doubt that President Bush reads this blog, so I’m unlikely to spoil the surprise. (If I have, I’m sorry, George!)

Where’s the Black Squad when we need them?

Q: What do weapons of mass destruction have to do with cot death?

A: In both areas, the “experts” evaluating the evidence and acting on their conclusions have caused enormous devastation. Then, after the fact, that evaluation has proven wrong.

Why? I have an insight that may be useful.

I’ve held a number of jobs in my working life. The three that I’ve spent the longest at, though, are paralegal (2 years), financial auditor (3 years) and software tester (7 years and counting). Though they seem quite varied, they have one common factor: they’re all about the evaluation of evidence.

Lawyers and paralegals, of course, work with evidence all the time: gathering it, presenting it, writing about it. There’s no pretense of neutrality. A trial lawyer’s job (aided by paralegals) is to find evidence that supports one particular view, and to discount evidence that doesn’t.

Financial auditors are, on the surface of it, very different from lawyers. They go into companies at the year end and check the financial accounts those companies produce. Each stage of the audit is made up of tests on certain aspects of the accounts, whether it be a stock count to ensure that the inventory numbers are correct, or a check of reconciliation procedures to allow the auditors to rely on internal financial systems. And for each stage of the audit, we used to state the specific object of the test. I still remember the format.

Object of Test
To accumulate audit evidence that stock valuations are materially accurate and correctly stated in the year end accounts.

The public used to percieve auditors as unbiased and neutral (possibly even stringent and difficult to satisfy), but of course the scandals of recent years (the Maxwell empire, Baring’s, Enron) changed all that. Everyone knows the subtle, unstated pressure that the auditors are under when they go into a company, particularly one which pays the firm’s consultancy arm large fees. It’s almost unheard of for a Big Five firm to refuse to sign off a set of accounts.

Learning about software testing allowed me to see consciously what I knew unconsciously already. The audit process is biased in favour of approval, and any such bias makes an enormous difference to the results obtained. This is a phenomenon that testers are painfully aware of – it’s the reason that software has to be independently tested.

To quote one of the foundational books on software testing (The Art of Software Testing, by Glenford J Myers1):

“Since human beings tend to be highly goal-oriented, establishing the proper goal has an important psychological effect. If our goal is to demonstrate that a program has no errors, then we shall tend to select test data that have a low probability of finding errors. On the other hand, if our goal is to demonstrate that a program has errors, our test data will have a higher probability of finding errors.”

Reread the sample “object of test” above in the light of that quote. What is the goal of the test? Is it to find “bugs” in the accounts, or to establish that they aren’t there? How likely does that make it that we would find errors?

The most successful software testing teams are the ones who take a skeptical, or even hostile, attitude toward code quality. IBM’s infamous “Black Team” took this to extremes, dressing in sinister clothes, cheering when they found bugs, and deliberately striking fear into the hearts of the programmers whose code they tested. The reliability of mainframe operating code is their legacy – we wouldn’t have a hope of achieving “six nines” (99.9999%) availaibility had they not found the bugs they did.

So if bias affects results, how then do we view Professor Meadows and his eponymous Law (“One cot death is a tragedy, two is a coincidence, and three is murder unless proven otherwise.”)? His testimony has jailed women since acquitted of the deaths of their children, and caused authorities to remove babies from their parents, sometimes permanently. Yet statisticians claim that he took a “stamp collecting” attitude toward evidence, including the cases that supported his views and overlooking the others. And given the above axiom, how did he approach the deaths of children, when asked to testify at their mothers’ trials?

How a similar bias could affect the officials of two governments, when considering whether to send in the tanks, is left as an exercise for the student. But it begs the question: will any enquiry that focuses on the evidence, rather than the objectives of the people evaluating that evidence, really explain the conclusions that led to war?

  1. This is listed at $150.00 on Amazon at the moment. That’s pretty expensive, even for a computer book, but this one’s worth it. It’s 177 pages long and has been indispensible since its publication in 1979…quite a contrast to Martin’s Microsoft exam books, which can run to over a thousand pages and are obsolete before the ink dries.

Bad Man

So the finger-pointing about weapons of mass destruction rages on. Did Iraq have any? If so, where are they? If not, why did Saddam Hussein not co-operate with the inspectors? Did the British and American governments mislead their voters about the evidence? Did the intelligence services mislead the governments? We await further information with bated breath.

In the meantime, though, the pro-war lobby has fallen back on Plan B to justify the whole exercise: Saddam Hussein was a Bad Man. He did Bad Things to the people of Iraq. So we were justified in removing him. For short, I’ll call this the Bad Man doctrine.

The Bad Man doctrine is very appealing. It purports to make the world a better place by removing tyrannical regimes and replacing them with kinder, gentler ones. It is illegal, of course, under international law, but so are so many things that go on in politics.

But there are two very fundamental objections that I can see to the Bad Man doctrine.

  1. The first problem is that one country’s Bad Man is another country’s strong leader, doing the difficult thing in difficult times. Who’s the Bad Man in the Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance? We saw this a lot in the Cold War, when the definition of a Bad Man was mostly based on the political and economic ties between his opposition and the country doing the judging. This led to democratically elected but communist leaders like Allende being deposed for capitalist tyrants like Pinochet. Nor were the Soviet policies any more defensible: think Prague Spring, for instance.
  2. The second difficulty is that, even if we can agree a definition of a Bad Man that is more based in the interests of his victims than his politics or personal fortune, what do we do about it? There is no country in the world with the desire or the resources to sort out every murderous regime in the world. The Coalition of the Willing, for disparate reasons, supported the invasion of Iraq. How big a Coalition are we going to get to displace Mugabi from Zimbabwe, or the military junta in Burma? Unless the Bad Man doctrine is enforced consistently, it’s like the loitering and vagrancy laws in some American states – an excuse for pursuing private agendas, or for arresting people on insufficient evidence. We’d have to invent a Really Bad Man doctrine, and then we’d be back at problem one again.

Count me out.

I’d rather we faced the situation and told the truth. If there were no weapons of mass destruction, then the coalition has egg on its face. If there were, then we can debate the legalities of the war as it was presented to us. And if the politicians lied to the people, or the spooks lied to the politicians, then it’s time for some heads to roll.

(Don’t get me started on the Doctrine of Preemption…)

One Year On…

…and we have failed.

The world is not a safer place, as our politicians promised at the time. It’s, if anything, a worse place for most people.

Before I go on, let me say something to those who will be offended and stop reading halfway. Just because someone is critical of, say, your nation, does not mean they’re wrong, or biased. It could mean your nation is on the wrong track. Getting in a huff won’t solve the problem.

Back to the facts.

Palestine, the goad that drives the Islamic world to terrorism, is in a worse state than ever. Israel, driven by the same fears that drive the US, has not taken the terrifying, courageous and necessary leap toward co-operation, and after some brief gestures in that direction, their strongest backers have not pressured them to do so. America, by the way, should take a good look at how dreadful everyday life is for Israeli civilians. This is where the US’s current foreign policy is taking our nation.

The impetus toward war in Iraq continues. Americans seem to want it, and George Bush wants it (to finish what Daddy started, maybe?). Tony Blair, perhaps trying to be more “presidential”, is trying to persuade a skeptical British public that such a war is a good idea. I don’t think he’ll succeed. Will he commit the UK anyway?

Climate change continues, unabated, because the worst polluter has yet another reason not to care. Yesterday it was floods in France and the drought in Africa continues unreported while the richest nation in the world drives its SUVs with the flag at half-mast.

And (lower on the list, since it kills no-one directly) my native land, blinded by fury, has lost hold of its guiding principles. Where is the liberty and justice for all? I await the trials of the people in Camp X-Ray, currently in a most unpleasant legal limbo. I await the restoration of genuine freedom of speech, where the right to say what you like even if it is unpopular is protected. I await the return of the mindset that made America a true beacon of liberty to the world, before she became obsessed, before she discovered that she could do so many things and forgot to ask if she should.

I am filled with sadness for the thousands who died a year ago. But I am also filled with sadness for the thousands who died offscreen, getting up not in comfortable, secure homes but in refugee camps and sun-scorched farms. These people mattered too, and were beloved of their families too. They were innocent, and they were heartbreakingly brave in the face of terrible adversity, but where are their parades and their memorials?

Daylog on Everything2

Daylog on Everything2:

My great-uncle /msged me last night…part of the exercise of contacting all the family (an exercise I know well from my days of living in an earthquake zone). Possibly in reference to my daylog yesterday, he said:

Concentrate on the baby, don’t think of such things.

I can’t.

Everyone in the situation, the airline passengers, the people in the buildings and on the ground, even the terrorists, was some mother’s baby. So are the civillians the warmongers are advocating bombing. Everyone was once as innocent, and as trusting, as the five month old curently creeping across my living room floor. Somewhere deep inside them all, before they died, that core of gentleness remained.

Loving one baby, I cannot help loving them all. Take care, beloved sons and daughters of your mothers.

And a thought strikes me. How much is all of this going to cost, in monetary terms? Billions?

I wish the US had spent those billions before this happened, bringing economic prosperity and justice to more of the world. Writing off third world debt. Feeding the hungry, helping the poor. Thinking beyond its own borders. Being good global citizens.

Would this terrible loss of life have happened then? Maybe, but maybe not. And even if it did, we’d have a much better moral position, even with people who don’t like the US.

Can we start paying the next large sum now, spending the money to create a world with greater justice and honor? Please?

Death and more death.

Death and more death. Destruction. Despair.

When I woke up this morning, I thought, “My mom and dad have been married for 35 years as of today. Today my son is 5 months old.” I looked forward to lunch with my husband, and to maybe hearing from my great-uncle, newly on my web community, E2.

Now it’s all shattered. Looking down at my sleeping baby boy now, I wonder what sort of a world he will inherit, because of today. It makes me want to slap the hawks who are howling for blood on every channel. Revenge won’t bring back the dead, just deepen the hatred that the assailants already clearly feel. Then they’ll strike back, then we will…I don’t want to live like that. I dont want him to live like that.

I bury my nose in his soft, fragrant skin, and wish for this morning again.

The above was my daylog on Everything2. The only other thing I would say is that we, as Americans, must insist that our officials pursue a course of justice, not revenge. The relatives of the people killed will be howling for everyone who might possibly be involved to be bombed to slag, in chorus with a fair slice of the American political spectrum.

This is a bad idea because:

  • Revenge breeds revenge. The allies and relatives of the people we unjustly avenge ourselves on will be out for our blood. I’ve seen enough of that in the news on the Middle East and Northern Ireland.
  • Most US politicians, and many US voters, identify themselves as Christians. Now is the time to put your beliefs in action, guys. Vote to turn the other cheek. Yes, it’s hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a test of our committment, would it?
  • Now is our chance to set an example of civilisation for the world to follow. If the US is to have any credibility but that of the neighborhood bully, we must act responsibly, even in the face of violent provocation.

I don’t hold out much hope that we will pursue such a mature, responsible course.

I got this email from the US Consulate General in Edinburgh:

Dear American:

Following today’s tragedies at the World Trade Center in New York and at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, we encourage all U.S. citizens to maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel, and treat mail and packages from unfamiliar sources with suspicion. In addition, American citizens are also urged to avoid contact with any suspicious, unfamiliar objects, and to report the presence of the objects to local authorities. Vehicles should not be left unattended, if at all possible, and should be kept locked at all times. U.S. Government personnel overseas have been advised to take the same precautions.

We recommend that Americans continue to monitor the media channels for further information and refer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the following websites: www.fema.gov and www.usembassy.org.uk respectively or our toll free information line: 0800-0279890. Please understand that very limited information is available at present.

American Consulate General
Edinburgh, Scotland
September 11, 2001

I do not consider myself at much risk.