Thursday, September 29, 2005

(T)error in the skies

Annie Jacobsen's articles in WomensWallStreet, under the extravagant title (trademarked, no less) "Terror in the Skies" described her experiences aboard Northwest Flight 327 in June 2004. Briefly, the behavior of a group of men of Middle Eastern appearance strongly suggested to her that they were conducting a dry run or "probe" for another aircraft-based terrorist incident. Besides that, she felt that the investigation of the incident was inadequate or a downright cover-up.

Her story was much debated in the blog world, although the mainstream media all but ignored it (surprised?). Comments were by no means universally supportive of Jacobsen, even among security hawks. It was pointed out that many of the actions she found threatening were ambiguous; that the men who aroused her suspicions were interviewed by law enforcement officials when they exited the plane, and no grounds were found for holding them. There were other purported anomalies in her story. She was accused of inflating an incident that might have been all in her head into a sensationalistic pseudo-revelation.

I don't know what, if anything, really happened on Flight 327. But Jacobsen has taken the ball and run with it, continuing to research reports of apparent terrorist probes on other flights and trying to sort out the mystery wrapped inside an enigma inside a muddle that is the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Her book in which she ties all her investigations together, titled Terror in the Skies: Why 9/11 Could Happen Again, promises if nothing else to be a cracker of a read.

Thanks to Dymphna at Gates of Vienna, we are told that Jacobsen concludes in her book that aviation security in the United States is "all for show." In support of that claim, she quotes a Federal Air Marshal who whispered in her ear. His statement is worth reproducing in its entirety:
You know how youd go to the airport, before 9/11, and an agent there, somebody who worked for the airlines would say to you, “Did you pack your own bags?” Well, it was all for show. Those agents weren’t trained in detecting whether or not someone was lying. The procedure was there to make the flying public feel good. That’s what happened with 327. They all came running like in the movies, but it was all for show. Who interviewed the men? FAMS [Federal Air Marshals]. We’re not trained in interviewing terror suspects. We don’t know what to look for. And the FBI at the airport? I won’t go there. Who really should have been there? ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Period. ICE. But they weren’t. Why? Because management says probes aren’t happening on airplanes. The guys were there to make the passengers feel good, nothing more, nothing less.

Two years ago, I had a probing incident. It may have been one of the first. After it happened, no one knew what to do, there was no protocol. The guys involved in the incident sailed off into the crowd. What was I going to do? Run up, tap the guy on the shoulder and say, “I almost shot you, now I’d like to interview you?”

Instead, I filed a report about my probing incident. Basically I was told “it didn’t happen." Well, it did happen. Probes have been happening ever since. I doubt anybody ever even remotely considered you’d attract the kind of press you did. But you did. That’s a good thing.
It's hard to conceive a more screwed up aviation security system than the one currently in place. It's the worst of all possible worlds.

A brand new government department, created ab initio, with no experience and all the typical government issues -- random over- and under-staffing; institutional thinking; emphasis on process rather than results; employee unions; affirmative action hiring; sparring among bureaucrats for power and position; and a public relations mentality.

At the same time, it's under the Department of Transportation, in the charge of a hack put in place by the Clinton administration who himself very likely owes his job to the fact that he is Japanese-American and as a youngster was briefly placed in a World War II internment camp.

Sixty-plus years on, Norman Mineta is still grieving over a teddy bear or something that was confiscated from him. So thanks to his version of "Rosebud," security must conform to the sacred principles of political correctness, and no passenger can be acknowledged as being of more security concern than anyone else based on national origin. Hence, the well-known farce of equal-opportunity security clearance is enacted 10,000 times a day at American airports. Mineta has reportedly issued orders that no more than two people of Middle Eastern appearance on any flight may be selected for secondary questioning, which would have meant that on 9/11 eight of the 19 hijackers, at most, would have been stopped. But you can rest assured that your grandmother isn't carrying an explosive charge in her undergarments.

With hundreds of thousands of people flying every day, it should be obvious even to a government drone that it's impossible to apply serious screening to every loving one of them.

The original error is the assumption that airport security can be the main line of defense against aerial terrorist acts. The first line should be control of the country's borders -- knowing who is entering the country and seeing that some do not. The next line should be intelligence gathering and data mining. The next after that should be profiling, which doesn't mean automatically giving every person of a certain ethnicity the full security treatment; it means looking out for people with a constellation of characteristics that suggest they need extra scrutiny. Those people should be questioned, like El Al passengers, by security experts -- not by people who would be shelving groceries if not in a TSA uniform.

The x-ray machines and metal detectors and bomb-sniffing paraphernalia should be the last line of defense, a safety net, not the main deterrent.

What is it about modern governments that makes them so hopelessly incompetent, even in a mission that everyone officially proclaims is second to none in importance? Don't these people fly on planes themselves? Don't they have husbands, wives, children whose lives are at risk? Aren't there any DOT employees with a reasonable amount of job security and clout who can speak publicly, instead of playing Deep Throat, about the expensive, stressful and meaningless "show" of security that airline passengers endure today?

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Astral Zoo

The Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal carried a piece about a ghost hunters' and curiosity-seekers' convention in a haunted building that had been a TB hospital back when there was no reliable treatment for the illness. Many spent their last days and minutes on the physical plane there, and perhaps the spirits of some of them have not, in the current vogue phrase, "moved on."

It's unclear what the, uh, spirit of the event actually was like. Newspapers tend to play stories like this for a hoot; the Courier-Journal's reporter, although she writes as though her mind was open a notch or two, obviously had some fun with it. And that's not an altogether bad thing. I'd rather the mainstream media take the mickey out of the paranormal than treat it as what makes your flesh creep. At least it's not likely to add revulsion to the popular idea of hauntings.

Anyway, I hardly expect a newspaper to carry an in-depth report on the (no doubt highly various) motives that brought people to such a strange convention. Still, on the basis of what's described, I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. Did it occur to any of the organizers that if there were any actual apparitions on site (most psychics would say that "spirits" are something quite different from the energy traces known as hauntings), they might belong to that hapless crew known as earthbound spirits? These are people on the other side who do not realize they're dead, or are so obsessed or traumatized that they hang about the scene of their passing, in extreme cases for centuries.

Their condition seems not to be a happy one.

Did it flicker through the brain pans of any of these "ghost hunters" that their prey, so to speak, might be beings in trouble? That these connoisseurs of the paranormal might have had the kindness to invite to the convention a few soul rescuers?

From the newspaper story, it appears not. If there were actually any spirits present, they seem to have been treated like specimens in an astral zoo.

I salute almost anyone who can entertain the idea that there is more to reality than the world of the senses.

But when it comes our turn to pass over -- and it will come soon, even if you and I live to five score -- I don't think we will find that the curiosity we displayed in our earthly life will be of much account. Rather, it will be mostly our kindness to others, in the body or out, that will determine our state in the world to come, or the next, or then.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Daniel Dunglas Home Deconstructed, Reconstructed

Oliver Kamm is a political scholar and columnist for the Times of London. In a recent article for that paper, "Knock, knock -- is there anyone there who believes this twaddle?" he stepped out of his normal realm. The piece was a diatribe against "popular irrationalism," under which he included everything from alternative medicine to The Da Vinci Code to "communication with the spirit realm."

What wound him up in particular was a newly published biography of Daniel Dunglas Home:
Spiritualism has ... suddenly and surprisingly found a serious chronicler. He is Peter Lamont, whose biography of the Victorian medium, Daniel Dunglas Home, The First Psychic, was published last week. This volume is respectful to its subject almost to the point of hagiography, in a field owing its very existence to admitted fraud. (The first mediums, Kate and Margaret Fox, of Buffalo, New York, produced mysterious rapping and knocks by trickery as a prank to frighten their mother, as Margaret confessed 40 years later in 1888.) In his lifetime, Home was credited among other gifts with the power of levitation: he was reported at one seance to have floated out of a third-floor window and returned by the same route. But his enduring memorial is to have been mercilessly satirised by Robert Browning in Mr Sludge, “The Medium”:
Now, don’t, sir! Don’t expose me!
Just this once! This was the first and only time, I’ll swear,
Look at me, — see, I kneel, — the only time,
I swear, I ever cheated.
Kamm is no fool. His political essays are thoughtful and lucid, displaying no small learning. Although a leftist and supporter of Britain's Labour Party, he will have no business with the anti-American, Israel-hating crackpots who dominate his side of the ideological spectrum today. If there were more like him, "liberal" would not be a curse word in the minds of so many.

It is hard to undertand, then, why he has taken on a subject about which he knows nothing and, apparently, wants to know nothing.

Daniel Dunglas Home (pronounced, incidentally, "Hume" in the Scottish fashion) was the most remarkable physical medium of all time, at least that we know of. The late Brian Inglis wrote of him:
[His] record as a psychic remains unparalled, not just for what he could do through his agency -- or, as he always insisted, what the spirit forces could do through his agency -- but for the way he did it, and for the extraordinary range of testimony about the things he did from America, Britain and may European countries. They were witnessed on hundreds of occasions by kings and conjurors, scientists and socialites, priests and policemen; and although among the witnesses there were many who would have been delighted to trip him -- often they came to seances with that very much in mind -- he was never [emphasis mine] detected in any trickery.
The testimony is such that if it described a skill of which man might be naturally capable, it could not for a moment be questioned. But in Home's case, what happened was often so weird, so unbelievable, that with few exceptions only those who were actually witnesses could bring themselves to believe it, and influential though they were, they could not establish its credibility. Yet on the 'as if' assumption -- that is, the assumption that such manifestations can occur -- the evidence for them provided the most comprehensive and convincing dossier there had ever been.
Mary Rose Barrington, in Psychical Research: A Guide to Its History, Principles & Practices (Ivor Grattan-Guiness, ed.; out of print; sorry, no link) wrote:
Unlike most physical mediums, and especially the fraudulent ones, Home preferred to demonstrate his powers in well-lit conditions, even though light had an attenuating effect. [Sir William] Crookes told how Home said: 'Take every precaution you can devise against me ... I know that the more carefully I am tested the more convinced everyone will be that these abnormal occurrences are not of my own doings'. ...

Addressing a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1894, Crookes recalled some of the dramas he had witnessed, starting with the 'fire test'. Crookes said: 'I once saw him go to a bright wood fire, and, taking a large piece of red-hot charcoal, put it in the hollow of one hand, and covering it with the other hand, blew into the extempore furnace till the coal was white hot and the flames licked around his fingers'. ... One one occasion, Crookes said: 'I was invited to come to him, when he rose 18 inches off the ground, and I passed my hands under his feet, round him, and over his head when he was in the air'. He recalled a sitting (on 30 July 1871) when a glass water bottle and a tumbler rose into the air and floated from one sitter to another, tapping out answers to questions. At this same sitting Home rose slowly six inches into the air and remained there about ten seconds, and the accordion played floating by itself in the air.
Kamm would presumably dismiss Sir William Crookes as a gullible, unscientific witness fallen prey to "popular irrationalism." Sir William, a chemist by training, discovered the element thallium in 1861 and cathode rays (without which, until recently, you could not have watched TV) in 1876. Renee Haynes, in a 1982 book on the SPR, published on its then-100th anniversary, added that Sir William "invented the radiometer and the spintharoscope (which counted the alpha rays emitted by radium) and was the first man to have his house lit by electricity -- he made the bulbs himself. ... Crookes described various tests he carried out -- electrical, mechanical and otherwise -- and said he had personally seen Home levitate three times, that there were many good witnesses to other instances, and stated categorically that certain occurrences such as the movement of material substances and the production of sounds resembling electrical discharges recur under circumstances in which they cannot be explained by any physical law at present known. 'I am certain. My whole scientific education has been one long lesson in exactness of observation.'" Sir William became the president of the Royal Society in 1913.

William Thackeray attended seances with Home in New York and in London. According to Inglis, "When some scientific men reproached him for printing [an article about mediumistic manifestations], Thackeray had replied, 'It is all very well for you, who have probably never seen any spiritual manifestations, to talk as you do; but had you seen what I have witnessed, you would hold a different opinion'; and he had gone on to describe how in circumstances where trickery was impossible he had seen a large and heavy dinner table, covered with decanters, glasses and dishes, rise two feet off the ground. Nobody who had read Vanity Fair or its successors could regard Thackeray as a man easily imposed upon; Home himself, at the end of his career, named him as the most sceptical man he had ever met."

Oliver Kamm dismisses all this, not to mention vast quantities of additional evidence gathered over more than a century of research in psychical phenomena. He writes, "On the only important question of Home’s life — were his feats genuine? — Lamont piles up artful caveats before concluding lamely that 'we do not always know what is going on . . . perhaps we will never know for certain'."

I have not read Lamont's book, and with no context supplied for the quotation, it is hard to know what to make of his remark. I suspect, though, that if the biography is at all fair-minded, he is not questioning the genuineness of the phenomena Home produced, but acknowledging that we don't understand how they occurred or what they mean.

It is quite true that, as Kamm says, the history of psychical research has revealed a great deal of fraud and humbug -- a fact that every serious psychical researcher acknowledges and deeply regrets. (Of course, there have never been any frauds among the political class; a good thing, or Kamm would have no legitimate matter for his essays.) But it is equally true that telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis and the like have been demonstrated hundreds of times under rigorous laboratory conditions, and that mediumship -- while somewhat more controversial, even among parapsychologists -- has been thoroughly investigated by scientifically qualified researchers who have been convinced that, even when all the dubious cases are ruled out, something real and paranormal is happening. (So much for Kamm's ridiculous claim that "Spiritualism [a word he uses wrongly in lieu of psychical phenomena] has ... suddenly and surprisingly found a serious chroncler." The "sudden" chronicling has been going on since the days of Kamm's great-grandfather. Check out some of the links at right under the "Psychic/Spiritual" heading to consider the evidence.)

As to Kamm, I surmise that, under the spell of his undoubtedly highly developed left-brain, cognitive ability, he -- like so many others who worship rationality -- cannot admit that there are other dimensions of consciousness. He equates the non-rational with the irrational. And he thus escapes what William James called "the greatest pain in the world, the pain of a new idea."

The world of pure rationality can be neatly categorized and verbalized, which makes it greatly appealing to so many of the modern intelligentsia who live and move and have their being in a sealed compartment where concepts define reality. But reason by itself is no more than a tool -- important in its own sphere -- that has many practical uses but is inadequate to experience or express the full extent of our being. Limiting the potential of mind to logical manipulation of words, such people are shut off from the sense of the numinous, the mystery of things, wonder. As Lama Anagarika Govinda wrote:
... Knowledge decreases or loses its importance if the sense of wonder has disappeared. People who have lost this faculty are empty and shallow, and their teachings are platitudes in spite of their scientific vocabulary and their pseudophilosophical detachment which sails under the flag of logic and objectivity. A philosophy or religion which tries to deprive man of his inborn sense of wonder by attempting to explain everything or by rejecting everything that cannot be explained, is nothing but an artificial construction of the intellect, and as such it will never be able to influence or to direct life, but will only impede it. It is a blind alley, a river that disappears into the sand. For it is not the business of philosophy, nor that of religion, to explain the world, but to give it depth and meaning and -- most important of all -- to clarify man's position in it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Cage Match: Galloway versus Hitchens

11.24.09 The posting below was the first on Reflecting Light, more than four years ago. Probably no one at all would have read it had not "Michael Blowhard," of 2 Blowhards, given me a plug. (I had been a commenter on 2 Blowhards for some time.) I'm still grateful to him for introducing me to his audience.

As for the posting, I think it was a good enough description of the event. However, I was still rather deluded at the time concerning Iraq, which I now belive was one of the most foolish enterprises a U.S. president ever got us into before the incumbent took the reins. I haven't heard anything about George Gallagher in quite a while, but I doubt my (lack of) esteem for him would be any different today.

But I'm also somewhat less of a Chris Hitchens fan nowadays. His writing was, and is, elegant and thought-provoking, even when I disagree with his points. And he is something of an old-fashioned English eccentric, quite out of phase in personal style with the priggish modern Left, which counts in his favor. Yet a leftist he remains, or a "right liberal" in Lawrence Auster's terminology, and his positions have disappointed me too many times.

It’s hard to understand now that rhetoric was considered a high art form, a basic component of civilized life, from at least the Greek Golden Age (fifth century B.C.) right up to the 19th century. In our time, rhetoric has degenerated into speech making, with all that implies of droning banality. Likewise, we smile knowingly when we’re told that people traveled hundreds of miles to hear Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate one another in the Illinois Senate Campaign of 1858. Those audiences, it’s assumed, showed up because they were stupefied with boredom in their farms and small towns, withering from the lack of satellite dishes affixed to their log cabins.

But the much anticipated debate on Iraq between George Galloway and Christopher Hitchens showed that a round of verbal Mutually Assured Destruction can still be electrifying. Naturally, the respective cheerleaders for Messrs. Galloway and Hitchens, as well as the punditocracy, all found much to deride, and some pronounced the whole business dreary. There was certainly plenty to make anyone cringe, but I don’t know how the great divide over Iraq could have been expressed more vividly, all the ad hominem attacks notwithstanding.

It’s a kick just to see how the two protagonists present themselves. Here is Hitchens, upholding his honor as a dissolute writer, shirt collar unbuttoned, looking like he’s just come off a three-day bender. He often plays nervously with his eyeglasses in his hands, as though not quite sure what to do with either. Still, even when he’s obviously extemporizing or heatedly interrupting to protest criticism, the phrases and sentences are beautifully constructed, the mot juste ready on his tongue.

George Galloway can’t have been better cast as Hitchens’s opposite. No honey tongued smoothie he, his roots in tough, plain-speaking Scotland on display. Yet, attired in what appears to be a cream-colored suit, white shirt and off-white tie, Galloway looks every bit the dandy. You can and should detest his ideas, but you can’t knock the delivery. He has an actor’s sense of timing and gesture, knows how to make a point even if it’s absurd.

The differences only become more pronounced as the event proceeds. Hitchens is devastating in his opening remarks, but seems to wind down gradually during the evening. Galloway begins poorly from a rhetorical standpoint, culminating in his claim that Hitchens, once a political ally, is a butterfly that has devolved into a “slug,” leaving a trail of “slime.” Crude stuff, and I’d like to think even a few of Galloway's supporters in the audience had the sensitivity to be embarrassed at it (but I wouldn’t place any bets on that being so).

Yet Galloway does, to be honest, turn out to be a thumping good defender of the indefensible. I enjoy listening to demagogues, if they are skillful enough; it’s a craft, albeit a dark one, and there’s a low pleasure in seeing it done to a turn. By the close of play, Galloway has Hitchens on the ropes. (Again, you understand, I’m just referring to delivery, not content.)

All in all, the match was nothing like the dry and stylistically impoverished discussions of issues you can watch on PBS. It was more like two hungry, caged tigers, splendid in form, allowed to try to claw each other’s guts out. Purists can decry the level of personal insults both men generated, and by the rules that have made formal debating a synonym for academic tedium, they are right. But Galloway and Hitchens each presented a viewpoint that is widely held, and put their cases strongly, even if the former's was beyond contemptible. You are unlikely to see a more spirited statement of both sides in the controversy that that has driven a wedge through the western world, and whose consequences for the future can hardly be overstated.

C-SPAN2, which morphs into Book TV on the weekends, will re-broadcast the debate on Sunday, September 25.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Is this what building the pyramids was like?

Apologies to my as-yet nonexistent readers for the lack of content so far. I've been working on designing the shell while trying to get my head around HTML tagging, something I've never done before save for those workhorses bold and italic.

Still, the graphics aren't bad to look at if I do say so myself. I'm much happier with them than what Blogger provided. (To give credit where it's due, so far Blogger seems well designed for those like me whose knowledge of computer technology isn't exactly at the cutting edge.)

Fiddling with the look of the site will be put on hold after one more go at it, more real links will be added, and blogging will commence.

Monday, September 12, 2005