Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Killer friendly handguns

When university campus goes
bang, bang, bang

From The Statesman

Virginia Tech like most university campuses is a digital beehive. Through blogs, instant messaging, video cell phones, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube, no one should have been left behind but the whole academic community was caught unaware.
Jamal Albarghouti, a graduate student, used his video cellphone to record the panic, when the campus popped up with gunfire. A week before the horrific shooting, the university had received bomb threats and Albarghouti suspected that something untoward might happen. But the proverbial digital brushfire did spread through the campus.

Now we know why last Monday a lone gunman, a 23-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui turned himself into a brutal killing machine on a sprawling peaceful campus with 36,000 students, faculty members and staff. Campus authorities including some of his professors knew that the young man was mentally off the track and suspected suicidal tendencies. “Schools should be places of sanctuary and safety and learning,” President George Bush said trying to offer condolences after the gunman had killed 29 students, three professors (one of them, Dr GV Loganathan, originally a native of India), and finally putting a bullet through his own head that made him unrecognisable. “When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community,” Bush continued. But he refused to yield on the need to enact stricter national gun control laws that will screen out mentally disturbed people from buying handguns and assault weapons.

There are 65 million hand guns in the United States but the gun lobby is strong and the market so huge that during the election year no candidate dare suggest stricter gun laws. Lucinda Roy, a co-director of the creative writing program at Virginia Tech, and the author of the novel “The Hotel Alleluia” wrote in the New York Times that “none of us is safe as long as there are angry young men who yearn to blast a hole in the world.” She is one of the instructors who had observed dangerous tendencies in Cho’s writing and sounded an alarm. But if you take away guns, deranged young men (and women) will have to find some more ingenious methods of killing people.

Cho who is being described as a sociopath, could have strapped a bomb though that would have been much more difficult than concealing a couple of handguns in his pockets. Guns are so user friendly that you don’t have to be a marksman to kill someone. Just point and shoot. A child can do it - and some do it, killing their brothers, sisters, and even parents.

Details of the campus massacre and how it happened are before us now. Why did not the university shut itself when the first shot was fired and two persons got killed 7:15 in the morning? How stupid that the campus security thought that the first shooting was a kind of domestic dispute. Cho went to kill his ex-girl friend, they surmised, but now we know that he had no girl friend. In his video declaration he berated the debauchery of the rich, not lost or spurned love, as one of the reasons of is murderous action.

Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech’s president, expressed his “horror and disbelief and sorrow” but was quick to point out that the gunman at the classroom building was “an Asian male who was a resident of the university.” Pointing out the gunman’s ethnicity was thought to be necessary but he did not explain why the university failed to take more aggressive approach to safeguard the community from someone whose behavior was clinically diagnosed as a mentally disturbed. Virginia Tech rampage has been called the deadliest campus shooting in American history.

Eight years ago two unhinged high school students at Columbine High in Colorado killed 13 students and themselves. The nation was shocked. People mourned and prayed. Then they indulged in collective psychoanalysis and finally came to the same old conclusion, Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

The gunman was brutal, said students who observed him and escaped his bullets. Zach Petkewicz, a student, told CNN, “ Me and two others got up, threw a couple of tables in front of it and had to physically hold it there while there were gunshots going on.” The killer was so determined and single-minded that he “came to our door and tried the handle. He couldn’t get it in because we were pushing up against it. He tried to force his way in and got the door to open up about six inches and then we just lunged at it and closed it back up. That’s when he backed up and shot twice into the middle of the door, thinking we were up against it trying to get him out.” So much pent up rage and hatred could not have been the effect of one small incident.

Did the university respond adequately?

There was a gap of two hours between two shootings. After the first shooting the gunman retuned to his dorm and mailed his video declaration to NBC. Later he walked through the engineering building and went on shooting in the hall and classrooms where he killed most of his victims.

Although students are not allowed to have guns on the campus, the state of Virginia has one the most liberal gun laws in the country. No license or training is required to have a gun and once a background check is done, law enforcement must issue what is called concealed carry permit.

If Cho were an Arab-Muslim, the background check would have been thorough. But who would have suspected a Korean, Japanese or Chinese student to go on a shooting spree?
(ND Batra is the author of Digital Freedom forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The American Handyman

American handyman keeps tinkering

From The Statesman

ND Batra
Last Wednesday, the US Senate passed yet another resolution easing restrictions on stem cell research. Early in the year the House of Representative had passed a similar resolution. But President George Bush will veto the bill again because, he said, it crosses the moral line.

The rest of the world including private research institutions and universities, nonetheless, do not have to follow the dictates of the White House. The American handyman does not need funding from the US government. He keeps tinkering. Stem cell research is too important to be left at the mercy of the White House. Consider this: A few years ago an American woman gave birth to a girl whose genetic system was cleaned up at the embryonic stage to rid her of the certainty of Alzheimer’s disease. Without doing genetic tinkering at the embryonic stage, the girl would have gotten the defective gene of her mother, a thirty-year-old woman with the Alzheimer gene, who was destined to become victim of the disease.

Genes do shape our destiny; nevertheless, now you can eliminate the bad gene and have a different fate on earth, well, to a great extent. What it means is that there’s hope when life seems hopeless and that’s why everyone wants to do what the American handyman (with an MD or Ph.D.) is doing: look to science and technology, not astrology or some holly book, to solve the problem of human suffering and make living better. When in trouble, whom would you call, a cleric or handyman? The procedure as explained by Harvard Medical School professor, Dr Jerome Groopman (Read his latest book, How Doctors Think) in an article he wrote at that time for The Wall Street Journal, seemed very simple. It is called “preimplantation genetic diagnosis” (PGD), a technology that is nothing more than doing quality control before a machine, let’s say, an automobile, is built.

An in-vitro fertility doctor harvests eggs from the prospective mother, mixes them with her husband’s sperms in a petri dish, and lets the embryos grow. At this stage the doctor could select an embryo from the cluster of test tube embryos for the purpose of sex selection of the child (as some do in India and China); or he could go further. He could do genetic testing of all the embryos for a disease and select an embryo that’s free from the defective gene. Just as an automobile quality control engineer would reject a defective carburetor from a car on the assembly line, the fertility doctor in the case of the American woman chose an embryo that had no Alzheimer gene and threw away the rest that were defective, though they too had potential life in them.

If your are thinking whether in the future fertility doctors might develop methods of discovering violence-prone genes that could be eliminated in embryonic stage so that there will be no Hitler or Osama bin Laden, or other human scourges that will be expecting too much from the genetic tinkerer. (That should be the job of social engineers and early childhood educators.)

But this is not the only ingenious work that the American handyman has been doing. Remember how a few years ago he went to space to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the humankind’s spy on the cosmos. American astronauts rode the shuttle Columbia to rendezvous with the Hubble to replace its aging solar wings and upgrade its other instruments, and after two days of chase at 17,000 mph, they finally caught up with the space observatory 360 miles above the earth over the Pacific Ocean.

Using the Canadian-built robotic arm, the astronauts dragged the Hubble to the shuttle’s cargo bay area for repair and renovations, much like marine biologists tug a sick whale to shore to nurse it to health and then release it to do God’s work in the ocean. After hours of working in space, the space-walking handymen installed the new wings that gave the Hubble twenty percent more wattage and enabled its instruments including a new powerful camera and power system to work more efficiently, that’s, “to see the planets, stars and the universe better.” In spite of the leak in Columbia’s cooling system, it was not such a mission impossible because earlier too repairmen had been up into space for a tune up service on the Hubble. This was their fourth service call and the most daring.

I do not see any difference between a genetic handyman repairing an embryo to rid an unborn girl of a breast cancer-causing gene and a space handyman implanting new eyes, heart and nervous system on the old man Hubble, so that we could understand the universe. So I believe: It is absolutely ethical and courageous to transform stem cells into useful body parts. What amazes me the most is the eternal optimism in the United States that the American handyman will make the world a better place.

Perhaps the source of this self-renewing hope is the bastion of the nation’s core value, the free marketplace of ideas, a force so overwhelming that religious fundamentalism seldom raises its ugly head in the United States.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Will Turkey Give Up Kamal Ataturk's Legacy?

Will Turkey Go the Iran Way?

Do Turks have to choose between Islam and freedom? Yes, if they want to join the European Union.

LA Times
"Secular Turks rally to send a message to prime minister
A possible presidential bid by Erdogan, an Islamist party leader, stirs opposition. 'We don't want to become Iran,' one says."

“A nation which makes the final sacrifice for life and freedom does not get beaten.”
~ Kemal Atatürk ~

Friday, April 13, 2007

Free Enterprise and freedom

Freedom is more than free enterprise, otherwise the Chinese people too would have been free.

"When we were told that by freedom we understood free enterprise, we did very little to dispel this monstrous falsehood. Wealth and economic well-being, we have asserted, are the fruits of freedom, while we should have been the first to know that this kind of "happiness" has been an unmixed blessing only in this country, and it is a minor blessing compared with the truly political freedoms, such as freedom of speech and thought, of assembly and association, even under the best conditions."
~ Hannah Arendt ~

Read more about the topic in Digital Freedom (Rowman & Littlefield)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

John Adams on Freedom

"When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking or thinking I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more."
~ John Adams ~

History of freedom is very brief.
Read all about it in Digital Freedom (Rowman & Littlefield)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Engaging Iran

Engaging Iran through diplomacy and more

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Prime Minister Tony Blair will be retiring after the May elections and should be indeed thankful for diplomacy to have succeeded, regardless of any under the table quid pro quo, in the return of fifteen British sailors and marines.

Never did Britain seem so lonely and helpless and wounded during the two weeks of captivity even when Blair talked of a calm and conciliatory approach to get out of the impasse. You might call it a facing saving device on the part of Iran when last week President Mehmoud Ahmadinejad announced to free the hostages as a “gift”, nonetheless, reprimanding Britain for not being “brave enough” to admit that its naval personnel had made a mistake and strayed into Iranian territorial waters, the centuries old disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway which was one of the causes of Iraq-Iran of the 1980s.

Now Iran wants its “generosity” to be reciprocated and is expecting that Britain would open up meaningful channels of communication and would persuade Washington to release five Iranians held in Iraq by the US forces since January. Prolonged hostage crisis or any military action would have aggravated the situation and ruined Blair’s brilliant though controversial political career. Blair escaped Jimmy Carter’s political fate. The blunder the former president made in his desperate attempt in rescuing the American hostages held by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 1979 by launching the operation Desert One (which had to be aborted) in fact prolonged the crisis and humiliated the United States.

The treatment of the captured British sailors and marines, though they were initially blindfolded and cuffed and forced to make confessions, as they told the BBC, was not as inhumane and cruel as it was in 1979 when Iranians seized 66 Americans from the US Embassy in Tehran and held them for 444 days only to release them (the remaining 52) hours after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president on 20 January 1981. The hostage crisis ruined Carter’s presidency; and in spite of the Nobel Peace Prize and global humanitarian work Carter has been doing since he left the White House, the image of his presidency is associated with the blindfolded American hostages in Tehran. In those days, Iran was riding the wave of Ayatollah Khomeini-led Islamic revolution and did not care much for rest of the world, least of all the United States, whom the Iranian spiritual leader denounced as the “Great Satan” and the enemy of Islam.

Times have changed. When the world conference he presided in Tehran on 14 December 2005 to denounce the Holocaust as fiction and his denunciation of Israel as a country that should be wiped out from the map failed to arouse any revolutionary fervour in the Arab-Muslim world, Ahmadinejad must have realised that he is no ayatollah. When the British hostages were being paraded before the media, no Muslim country raised a voice to support Iran’s action. Despite his blustering charm and media swagger mixed with abrasiveness, Ahmadinejad has the charisma of more like that of a used car salesman than a world statesman.

The hostage crisis has not brightened the image of Iran, nor added to Ahmadinejad’s diminutive stature. Iranians need to learn that global networking and diplomacy can be more fruitful in dealing with nations like the United States and Britain than kidnapping and hostage taking, which has become associated with terrorism. But bad national leaders should not be the reason for punishing their people as it tragically happened in Iraq, where to get rid off Saddam Hussein, the whole country has been devastated. I

ran needs to be engaged through diplomacy to be a responsible power in the Middle East, where another conflict will neither change a regime nor anyone’s mind. Although the US stance toward Iran has not softened, European politicians see a door opening for dialogue about the most contentious issue, Iran’s nuclear program for uranium enrichment for which the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution imposing sanctions, asking the country to cease uranium enrichment and reprocessing and open its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The question is how to accept Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without letting it clandestinely transfer the enriched uranium for the development of nuclear purposes. The release of sailors and marines might be construed as a desire, as German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted in Deutsche Welle, to “open the door to further cooperation.”

It might seem that the Bush administration is adamant in not negotiating with Iran unless it meets the precondition that it must stop uranium enrichment processing. But since the elections much has changed in the United States. Congress controlled by Democrats has become increasingly assertive and active in international affairs, as the recent trip of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Syria shows. Despite strong rebuke from the White House, Speaker Pelosi and her delegation went ahead to meet with President Assad of Syria in order to seek cooperation to stabilize Iraq so that American troops could return home.

The American people are not ready for any violent confrontation with Iran; nor are they willing to let Iran keep up with its nuclear weapons program, which necessitates that nuclear and other issues must be solved through diplomatic negotiations. Iranian rulers too seem to be prepared for dialogue if one reads their minds correctly after the hostage crisis.

Don Imus

What to do about Don Imus?

Offensive and outrageous speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Apart from apologizing, which Don Imus has done several times, he should donate one year salary to a charity that serves black women. He should also volunteer for some community service. Imus represents something very deep in American society. He is like "the canary in the coal mine." Do not destroy him.

My new book Digital Freedom: How Much Can You Handle? is forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in August.
ND Batra
Work inprogress: This is the American Way (2009)

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Global View

How do you build trust in the global marketplace?

The challenge for a rising economy is how to go beyond the trust based on family ties, clubs, neighborhood, caste and creed, especially in a diversified and multicultural society like India, so that investors can repose their faith in the system—a system that must be so open and transparent that it creates a spiral of trust. Tatas, Mittals and the Reliance boys are showing the way and building the infrastructure of global trust. There lies the future of India.
Doing business is essentially building social trust, which is a necessary condition for capital investment. Family is the basic unit of mutual trust. Families, whose members trust each other, because of transparency and openness, do well in business, provided they are enterprising and risk-take people. But in the age of globalization, when capital flow swirls like digits, trust cannot be limited to families.
When enterprising families join hands with government, business growth can be rapid in the initial stages, because regulatory constraints and market accountability can be waived to access credit and investment. The rapid economic growth of the South-East Asian tiger economies before the currency collapse in 1997 was not due to the miracle of Asian values but because of the government-family conglomeration of economic interests, contemptuously though rightfully called crony capitalism.
Although crony capitalism is present in every society, it flourishes best where flow of information, both economic and political, is limited. This has been the pattern in most of the Pacific Rim countries. China fits into this pattern at present.
But the protected family-based business system reaches its limits of growth when it needs infusion of technology and capital investment for expansion, which can come from sources outside the family. Investors, especially now when they have many competitive opportunities available all over the world and can electronically transfer their investments instantly, demand sunshine—transparency, openness and accountability.
Investors do not care, for example, whether Ford Motor sells or keeps its prestigious Aston Martin, the James Bond car (with price tags starting at $110,000 for the V-8 Vantage coupe), so long the company gets out of the red. Last year Ford posted a loss of $12.7 billion. The company has to rebuild its trust, even if it has to sell parts of it; or move its headquarters to some other country, as the oil service company, Halliburton is doing.
It is possible to create trust beyond the family-based business system but it can be done only under the supervision of an independent watchdog authority that creates a level-playing field for all. In the United States, the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) monitors business corporations and stock markets. Markets are complex but fragile systems, which thrive not on family ties but on honest and open communication with investors.
Since the market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, corporate America is required by the law to make full disclosures and communicate regularly with the investing public in certain prescribed manners, under the vigilance of the SEC. This has been the foundation of trust, which attracts millions of investors not only in America but also from rest of the world. A Japanese or Chinese would rather invest in Wall Street, where there are checks and balances, than in Shanghai where he may be playing the Russian roulette.
At the heart of the US market vigilance system is the anti-fraud provision (Rule 10b-5), which operates to prohibit insider trading. Insider trading is a serious crime and occurs when knowledgeable insiders in a corporation, who are privy to critical information not available to outside investors, purchase or sell the corporation’s securities, stocks and bonds based on prior knowledge.
To create an equal opportunity field for all investors, whether they live in Mumbai or work in the corporation, material information about the company must be made to the investing public by the release of reports to the financial press and general circulation newspapers promptly, without any attempt to mislead.
But rules and regulations are meaningless unless they are enforced and the violators punished. Take the notorious textbook case of R. Foster Winans, who many years ago wrote a column "Heard on the Street" for the Wall Street Journal, which analyzed market forces that might influence the price of a company's stock (Read his op-ed piece in the Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/opinion/13winans.html). He also noticed that share prices rose or fell significantly after his column appeared. Snared by the temptation of making money on the inside information he collected for the column, he joined hands with a few stockbrokers and a copy clerk from the Journal. Their trading pattern was soon noticed by the SEC, which on investigation, found a conspiracy to commit security fraud through insider trading. The columnist and his co-conspirators were found guilty and sentenced to prison. The SEC and other agencies keep a hawk eye on the stock market, which is the source of America's vitality and worldwide trust in capitalism.
During the past few years so many US company executives have gone to jail. One of them was Martha Stewart of the Living Omnimedia who having served her time in jail for five years for inside trading is back in business and is doing well. The United States is a country of second chance. You fall and rise again.