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The Arctic is a desert.

In 2007 I moved to China because it was obvious the world was pivoting to Asia. It is just as clear now that the need for natural resources and cheaper trade routes is shifting the gaze of developed and developing nations to the north. The Arctic will be one of the most geopolitically significant regions of the next 50 years. On a personal level, I wanted to see the Arctic region before it changes into whatever is next in its evolution. Climate change, resource extraction and development will drive an increase in population that will have repercussions for the people and the place, thereby altering one of the last frontiers on the planet.

What I have found is a significant lack of understanding of the geopolitical, environmental and spatial constraints inherent in living, let alone exploiting, the Arctic for the majority of governments, corporations and individuals wanting to do so.

I spent the past few months in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Yellowknife is actually subarctic (depending on who draws the line), approximately 250 miles from the Arctic Circle. However, it is close enough to give me a window into the potential changes into the core Arctic region and what would need to occur for the region to develop. Yellowknife is currently a central hub for development, government and the Canadian military for the Northwest Territories, and therefore the Arctic. Diamonds are currently the most significant extractive resource, although many other resources including fish, rare earth minerals and potential oil and gas reserves in the surrounding territory. Its weather is not as consistently extreme as Cambridge Bay, for example, but it was -40C more than a few days this winter. In Yellowknife, I feel as though I am in an environment I have never been before – the Arctic.

Geography and Politics

The Arctic, with a population of about 4 million people, lies between 66.5 degrees N and the North Pole. The region is made up mostly of the Arctic Ocean, which is frozen up to 9 meters in depth for much of the year. By definition, this region is flat and at sea level. The Arctic Cordillera is located in the far north near Greenland, stretching (although unconnected) from Nunavut into northeastern Quebec. The Cordillera is as desolate as it is awe-inspiring. The Arctic Ocean connects to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and therefore can sometimes be traveled via seasonal waterways in the summer. The passages are called the Northwest Passage, between Canada and the United States, and the Northern Sea Route, between Russia and Norway.

It is important to note that the passages through the Arctic may never be open year round, and in fact, unless the water is completely ice free it will continue to be very dangerous to navigate. Environmental models show the Arctic Ocean will eventually be completely free of summer ice in the near future (before 2100 seems to be a general consensus) but this isn’t certain. Vessels with ice-breaking capabilities, which are expensive at small scales, will be necessary until then- least a container ship, or oil tanker, becomes the next Titanic. So although the passages could become important trade routes in the future, they are only truly viable if the region continues to warm significantly – possibly to the point where the environmental catastrophes elsewhere are, well, catastrophic.

Russia, United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark all have territorial claims to the Arctic. The Arctic Council, which started as an environmental protection group but is now evolving into something else (although nobody seems to know exactly what), is made up of eight permanent members including these above countries plus Sweden, Finland and Iceland. These countries are able to vote on issues involving the Arctic (Indigenous groups can’t vote but are permanent participants) , including environmental issues, search and rescue and oil spill prevention. The United Kingdom, France and Germany have “permanent observer” status. China, South Korea, India, Singapore and the European Union are looking to achieve “permanent observer” status in order to have a greater influence on the Arctic  – although again it is not clear how because they cannot vote. The sheer number and strength of the countries currently wanting to involve themselves in a group with no clear mandate, in a region with little current importance to world affairs, underlines the Arctic’s growing importance. Just as the fate of the Middle East must suffer the meddling of many powerful nations because of oil, the Arctic will most likely suffer the same fate as resources become more rare and as the “old” ice continues to melt at its current rate.

The Arctic region is thought to hold over 20% of the remaining hydrocarbon reserves on the planet. This does not include potentially massive quantities of methane hydrate, which are released as the permafrost melts. Methane could be a major source of natural gas in the future as technology improves, and so would increase the amount and importance of the hydrocarbon reserves. Although most of the oil and gas is considered difficult to very difficult to extract, countries are building their influence and infrastructure in the region now because, in the future, most hydrocarbons reserves around the world will be difficult to exploit.

Iron and rare earth minerals are also thought to be in abundance in the Arctic, along with fish, fragile fresh water, diamonds, and other valuable resources yet to be discovered beneath the permafrost and floating icepack of the Arctic Ocean.

Although many prospectors believe the current warming trend will be a boon to resource extraction and other forms of development, I am not as optimistic.

Yellowknife, which is subarctic, has significant problems with development because of the harsh winters and distance from the rest of civilization.  If the planet continues to warm and the core arctic temperatures become more in line with Yellowknife, it will still be a very harsh environment.  In the summer, the Great Slave Lake, a massive body of water at 10,502 square miles, is completely open. Yet open water only lasts 2 to 3 months, and the winters are still extremely harsh – almost unexplainably so for those who have not experienced it.  If the Arctic eventually has temperatures equal to Calgary or Edmonton, it will occur in the context of a much warmer, unstable planet.

The extreme cold affects everything. It makes steel brittle, water and gas pipes buried in the permafrost extremely difficult to fix, machines and technology seize up on a daily basis and the cold literally twists buildings and houses into different shapes. Before I arrived here, I could not conceptualize permafrost. Then, a neighbor’s water main burst. A work crew erected a tent above our street in front of the neighbor’s house and used massive heaters, blowing day and night for weeks, just to thaw the ground enough to fix the small leak. The entire time, the neighbor was without water and the expense of the project was massive. These types of problems happen all day, every day, throughout the winter. I have seen a car axle break in half, new car batteries frozen solid and machines of all types grind to a halt without massive energy expenditures to keep them warm. Engineers from the south do not comprehend the limitations, and so they constantly struggle with conditions for which they have no understanding or training. The more complex the machine, the more likely it is to fail. It is as if an engineer has to accept they are in an alien territory, like the moon, where very little they learned about how things work is applicable. This is a very difficult concept to grasp for those who do not experience it everyday. Trying to explain the Arctic winter to someone in Houston, Texas is like trying to explain the Chinese mentality to someone in, well, Houston, Texas. Houstonians aren’t stupid, they just have no ability to conceptualize the immutables that come with living on an alien planet.

When a machine or piece of technology does fail, and it will, the difficulty and expense of getting anything to the north is oftentimes prohibitive because of the sheer distances involved and lack of transportation infrastructure. All goods, and quite a few services, must be flown in – usually on planes with very small cargo space relative to even one container on a cargo ship. Again, we are talking about Yellowknife. The difficulty in getting items to the Arctic is exponential. There are no roads in the Arctic because they are very expensive to build and maintain. When major building projects are taken on, most of the equipment and supplies must be put on a barge and shipped there. If the supplies do not make the barge, the project must be put on hold until the next year when the ice opens up again. Once the supplies are in an Arctic port, they must be transferred by plane to the building site.

Consider the cost in time and treasure a mining operation incurs when building a runway in order to bring in supplies. Every 1000 feet of runway equals additional construction and maintenance costs.  However, the added length also determines the size of the airplane that can land there – and the amount of supplies that can be brought in on a flight.  At first, the supplies arrive in small increments until the runway is long enough to support larger aircraft.  Without a runway, a company does not have an operation. Once the runway is built, the operation can then begin to bring in supplies to start building a mining site – and eventually run a mine.  However, during the ice break up in early summer (when the ice becomes open water) the mine will be completely cut off from receiving any supplies or equipment until the lake or ocean is free of ice.  If something goes wrong, operations could be forced to suspend for months while waiting on the necessary equipment.

Although climate change is currently causing a severe reduction in the size and depth of the arctic icepack and permafrost, there is no guarantee the change will be uniform or result in warming over the next 50 to 100 years. In fact, even if everyday problems with the harsh environment could be solved through warming, technology – or a combination of both – it is the dramatic and deadly extreme weather events that keep most who live and work in the Arctic awake at night. Blizzards and whiteout conditions not only destroy equipment, but they also create life-threatening conditions for anyone caught out in them. For any work crews working at mining sites or building transportation or other infrastructure, one major weather event could grind the entire project to a halt, sometimes forever.

Conclusion

Eventually, the natural resources in the Arctic could be necessary to keep the world’s economy ticking, and then we will see the real game begin. Governments and Corporations will attempt to adapt to the prohibitive cost currently keeping large-scale development at bay in the Arctic as it becomes more necessary, and cost effective, to do so. It is important to remember that when the Arctic becomes vitally important for its resources, we will have truly gone to the edge of the world to find what we need to keep our economies running. After the Arctic, there is nowhere else to go.

For now, the problems facing corporations wanting to exploit the available natural resources are enough to keep most of the big players from making major investments; those that have, such as oil company Dutch Shell, have been smacked by the very concerns listed above – forcing them to rethink their position in the Arctic.

The impediments to development also currently keep nations from direct confrontation on who will control and benefit from the resources beneath the ice. They are certainly angling for a piece of the action, but there is no need to push too hard – as long as they can at minimum assure a place at the table before the cards are dealt.

Regardless, the Arctic has become a space on the grand chessboard, and that alone is significant. It is one more place that must be considered when looking at the actions of nations as they vie for power and control of the remaining resources on the planet. Understanding what is important not just today, but tomorrow, will help to translate the behavior of enemies and friends alike – possibly allowing for clear communication before it is too late. This is the power of understanding geopolitics and its constraints.

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Per the constitution, Venezuela has called elections for April 14, 2013.  The newly called elections are necessary because President Hugo Chavez died on March 5 from complications from an unnamed cancer, a heart attack or maybe a respiratory infection.  As with all things political, dilution of the truth with half truth and outright lies is the best way to hide in plain sight.  Regardless, Henrique Capriles has come out swinging, calling into question whether or not Chavez died when Maduro says he did.  A fair question, but without proof, irrelevant to what happens next.  In response, Maduro called Capriles a fascist intent on destroying the country.  He also said the United States was culpable in Chavez’s cancer.

The game of thrones kicked up a notch.

The Venezuelans and everyone else has, or should have, a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for the next six months to a year.  The Venezuelan opposition (and some US hawks) may not believe this, but they are wrong.  The last thing anyone needs is major instability in Venezuela with its oil supplies, burgeoning criminal organizations and exhausted population.  Yet, instability and violence is a distinct possibility.  A lot depends on the opposition and how much they are willing to push for victory.  Some of it depends on external pressure, namely from the United States.

The current regime must consolidate power, get through the election, and then figure out who they are and where they want to go – and if they will go there together.  Chavistas also must balance the need for stability with getting as much propaganda value as they can from Hugo Chavez’s death.  The ability to stoke the fires of “revolution” without lighting the match is a dangerous game.  The Chinese play the game very well, but it only takes one miscalculation to set it all ablaze.  Uncontrolled violence could lead to chaos, and there are no winners in that scenario, especially for Venezuelans.

The opposition must decide just how badly they want to burn resources and flirt with open conflict in a fight they don’t have much chance of winning and aren’t prepared to fight.  Henrique Capriles doesn’t have a lot of money for a campaign, he just got beat in a grueling election, and the Chavistas should be energized as all hell.  The tension, and chance for open conflict, could be very high if it becomes a real race.  If Maduro loses, it could go sideways and all bets are off.  Interestingly, it is rumored many in the opposition don’t want to win the upcoming election because it would be better if it all fell apart on Maduro’s watch.  It will be interesting to watch just how hard Capriles goes for victory, but more importantly how much support he garners from the Venezuelan opposition elite.

How much the United States wants to put skin in the game could affect the calculus for the Venezuelan opposition, but in my opinion US involvement at this stage (especially covert) is a potentially catastrophic idea for all concerned.  There is no better way for the Americans to create anti-American blowback, and consolidate the regime, than to meddle in Venezuelan affairs right now – which is what the expulsion of two US Air Force military attachés for espionage was meant to bring attention to.  Unfortunately, the United States has shown absolutely no proof they have learned this lesson in Latin America.

Maduro’s supporters must figure out if he can deliver or if they would be better off striking out on their own.  The transition will be a dynamic situation with many moving pieces and plots.  After six months or so, everyone with interests in Venezuela will have a better understanding of what, and who, Maduro is – and where the country is headed.

It is impossible to know who a second in command truly is until the King is dead. Although Chavistas will overtly hold the line until the elections, covertly the games have begun.  Maduro’s capabilities are somewhat of a mystery, but his ability to become Vice President and maintain his position in Chavez’s inner circle could signify three things – the trust Chavez had in him because he was loyal to the cause, Maduro’s ability to politically maneuver which denotes ruthlessness, or profound weakness that Chavez didn’t feel threatened by.  It will take some time before a true picture emerges.

Maduro and his intelligence apparatus must also spend a lot of time collecting on the second and third tier officers within the Venezuelan military.  Maduro is believed to be closely connected to the Cubans, and so it is likely he will rely on them to run internal intelligence operations.  Most coups come from lower tiered officers because they are typically close enough to see the corruption but unable to stop it, or completely take advantage of it, depending on their desires.  Of particular interest will be officers suspected of connections with the Cartel del Soles and international drug cartels along the Colombian border and Caribbean coast.

Overt intelligence sharing on common enemies is somewhere that the United States could help the Maduro’s administration.  Cuban intelligence will do everything in their power to stop that relationship from developing.  However, increased cooperation with the US (and Colombia) in the drug war would be a significant indicator of where Maduro is at when it comes to the United States – and Cuba.

Regardless of opinions of Chavez, the security situation in Venezuela has drastically deteriorated under his charge.  The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence said in their 2013 study there were 21,692 homicides in 2012, up from 19,336 in 2011, which was the most violent year in Venezuelan history. Venezuela is now the most violent nation in Latin America.  To blame Chavez is simplistic, but he never found an answer to rampant crime and a corrupt police force.

To make matters worse, those in control of all the countless fiefdoms created during Chavez’s tenure will be scrambling to maintain/increase power; making it all the more unstable.

On the economic front, the currency has devalued and it is rumored gas prices may be raised to pay for social programs.  A reduction in social programs may be what is needed to save the economy, but it is also precisely what tends to bring down governments in Venezuela.

In the long term, Venezuela will still face the same problems it always has.  Geographically population centers generally hug the coast, but the interior (Orinoco) is rich in resources, including oil.  PDVSA, the state controlled oil company, is extremely inefficient and in desperate need of technology and expertise they can only get from major foreign oil companies and former PDVSA employees who were exiled when the company was nationalized.  Maduro must follow through with current deals with foreign firms and create more opportunities for future cooperation.  At the same time, the current government must continue to control the majority of profits from oil sales to maintain the social programs that brought them to power.

The biggest wildcard is the Venezuelan people.  The attempts by competing political organizations to manipulate the population to support their agendas is obvious and timeless.  However, the Venezuelan people really want change and they want someone to deliver on what Chavez promised – a social revolution that improved their lives.  The people will need time to determine who has their best interests at heart.  Let’s hope they get time to decide.  Right now, they are dealing with many changes within the context of severe economic and security problems.  Maintaining stability and helping to support the legitimate government of Venezuela is in everyone’s interest.

Mr. Wilson has removed my name from the title and rewritten the blog that led to my decision to defend myself with my previous post.  He also removed the conversation between us in the comments section of his blog and decided to cherry pick from them to better make his case.  I thought about reposting it all here, but have decided against it.  He continues to show a complete lack of understanding as to why someone would take issue with his attack on my character without doing a shred of research, but his readers can decide for themselves if they want to read what he has to say.

Mr. Wilson says I take issue with his “reporting on this.”  I take issue with his lack of investigation or apparent concern for the affect his words have on people and events he does not understand or have knowledge of.  “Reporting” is not what he did.  Writing about another human being in the age of the Internet without understanding the subject is, to me, the worst type of attack.  It either comes from a place of ignorance or malice.  It is there forever with no way to truly defend against it, and Mr. Wilson should know that.  He believed I was fair game because I worked for someone he does not approve of.  I can handle his disapproval.  I cannot abide an attack on my character from someone who has absolutely no idea about me or the event he describes.

I do not expect Mr. Wilson to understand why someone who believes in social justice would work at Stratfor.  What I will say is that I am unafraid to challenge my reality or my understanding of the world.  In fact, my adult life has been nothing more than an attempt to understand.  This is impossible without a willingness to look at all sides, be wrong, and when you are, to shed the old view and create a newer, deeper one.  Stratfor offered another way of looking at the world.  That was enough for me.  Access to information is what I live for, and that is what I got.

There is absolutely no way to understand or analyze anything without attempting to expand the foundation of knowledge from which the analysis arises.  I have lived all over Europe, the Americas, and Asia.  I have worked for nonprofits, think tanks, conservation corps, hedge funds, newspapers, sailboats, bars, hostels, adventure guide companies and public schools.  I count as my friends’ scoundrels, rebels, drug dealers, police officers, sailors, veterans, smugglers, conservatives, spooks, teachers, computer nerds, bankers, religious fundamentalists, anarchists, rednecks, activists, cowboys, lawyers, and many more.  I am currently in the arctic learning as much as I can about the place, the people, and the current problems facing one of the last frontiers on earth.  It is what I do.

I am unwilling to take someone’s word for it and I will learn from anyone willing to teach me.  Reading about something in a book or article should be the spark for further exploration, but not the totality of an investigation.  I want to go there and to experience that node of life that catches my interest.  It is the key to performing empathetic analysis, and apparently, my happiness.  Stratfor was a life experience and I learned greatly from it.  If I work for Stratfor a hedge fund or anyone else, I trust my ability to know when my code of ethics is being challenged, and when I am breaking it.  Sure, there are times when my beliefs are challenged, hell, even lost.  But in the end I know where I stand, and I know right from wrong when the chips are down.

On February 14, 2013 a blogger named Timothy Everton Wilson wrote a blog titled “Stratfor’s Colby Martin posed as fake journalist in Oaxaca, Mexico.”  The “article” was based on an email that was stolen during the Anonymous hack of my former employer, Stratfor, and subsequently posted on Wikileaks.  He also apparently grabbed information and a picture off my Linkedin page.   Although the title states “Stratfor’s Colby Martin,” the truth is that I wasn’t an employee at the geopolitical think tank for another 4 years, which he admits later in the piece.  This little fudge of the timeline does not deter Timmy in his attack of my character.  It made for a title that looked good on twitter.  The title was meant to grab readers at my expense with absolutely no research into his subject beyond Linkedin, regard for my safety or the safety of those who live in danger everyday in places like Oaxaca, Mexico.

Timothy Everton Wilson Looks Sketch

Timmy Wilson readily admits he has no concept of the damage he does to those he falsely accuses, stating he does not “understand what the kerfuffle is about” regarding my anger at having been attacked.  He apparently does not understand that anyone who Google’s my name will now be able to find this article, regardless of its merits, or lack thereof.  Most will just read the title, and my reputation will be damaged.

Timmy also admits he has it wrong in a response to my comments to his blog by stating,  “As a Stratfor employee (don’t know what that means, but neither does he), you referred to “fake press passes.” The reality, as you point out now, was something different.”  Yet he has not offered an apology nor changed the title to reflect this new understanding of the facts.

Even worse, Timmy appears to be living in Mexico where his accusations can end up killing those poor souls he targets.  In fact, it could severely affect my own safety and my ability to travel through a country I love.  His accusations also put in danger all of those wonderful people who have worked with me in development and social justice projects in Latin America.

Nice work Timmy.

Timmy appears to be the guy everyone hates to debate.  He changes his point of attack from sentence to sentence and when he doesn’t know what he is talking about, he just fakes it.  In his response to my comments Timmy states, “Please note: I haven’t accused you of being some sort of spy. You worked for Strafor(sic)!”  He also states “many activists in Latin America might view a former Stratfor analyst who is now (it had actually been since 2002, but Timmy doesn’t care) “heavily involved in social justice, development and education projects in Latin America” with a degree of suspicion.” Yet he also states, “if anything, the email (as well as the others) merely reveals youthful braggadocio” and calls Stratfor’s internal culture “informal intelligence.”  Which is it Timmy, devil or child?

Timmy also states that I am somehow misrepresenting the truth because I say, “We were documenting the protests because after Brad was killed no one was down there to witness what was going on – except for us.”  He responds by saying “That…is…not…true.” Instead of asking me whom “we” are that I am referring to, he once again makes assumptions with absolutely no evidence or even a request for me to clarify my statement.  Of course arguing with a man about the conditions in Oaxaca in 2006 who was not there is futile.

Timmy accuses me of using journalism as a cover for my own purposes without asking me what my purposes were.  The irony is that Mr. Wilson is a freelance journalist who is only a “journalist” because he says so.  Therefore by his logic, if I called myself a journalist in Oaxaca it is impossible to have been “fake.” Unless I was up to no good, which is what Timmy infers by stating, “it is unknown if Mr. Martin was doing freelance intelligence work in Oaxaca.”  In fact, at the time I was writing monthly reports to a list of about 150 readers who would then pass them on to others.  It was my first attempt at blogging.  I was also helping to run a nonprofit I founded in Nebaj, Guatemala called Mayan Hope that offered programs to children with disabilities.  The reason I was in Oaxaca was because I was headed to Nebaj with an emerging giant of social activism, and was in Oaxaca to witness the protests at his behest.  He is no longer with us and so he remains unnamed.  Timmy is lucky as all hell it isn’t him he has to deal with.

Timmy Wilson picked the wrong guy to attack just for the hell of it.  I will not allow him to bully me nor put me in danger without a response.  Everyone is led to believe that by responding to attacks you give them power, and sometimes that is trueMost of the time however, a person has to punch back and keep punching or jackals like this guy descend.  I am willing to go toe to toe with anyone, but I enjoy going against a guy who gets flustered by a well-argued response and says stuff like “Good Christ.  I have extended you a great courtesy,” after disparaging my name.

Oh ya, what is he doing in Guadalajara, Mexico?

In an interview posted on CNBC February 4, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust said she is struck by “billionaire dropouts” individual success.  She stated such people such as Mark Zuckerberg still need support from “legions of people who have training in a variety of fields” (in order to maintain success). She also said “I think we need to think about the institutional context that enables innovation.”

In fact, the institution very rarely enables innovation.  So often system managers such as President Faust push the idea that their institutions are the birthplace of innovation and creativity.   What they really do is train the technicians necessary to run an organization, or system – as she readily admits.  What we need to do is learn how to change existing institutions to enable innovation and visions, and even more radical, create safe havens outside current systems to cultivate a new generation of visionaries.

Borders are fixed and frontiers have disappeared.  The world has become more automated and systemized than ever before.  The obvious need for explorers and visionaries has drastically reduced in the eyes of the majority.  What happens to them?  Are they doomed to a life of unemployment, pharmaceuticals and the belief they are a failure in a society that does not value them?  How do those people who have been leaders throughout human history survive in a world that believes it has no more use for them?

Howard Earl Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Professor Gardner developed a theory he termed, “multiple intelligence.”  In a 1997 interview he said the theory is meant to “document the fact that human beings have very different kinds of intellectual strengths and that these strengths are very, very important in how kids learn and how people represent things in their minds, and then how people use them in order to show what it is that they’ve understood.”

Professor Gardner also said that a system of education ‘that treats everyone the same way is the most unfair education because it picks out one kind of mind, which I will call the law professor mind.  Someone who’s very linguistic and logical –and says, if you think like that, great, if you don’t think like that, there’s no room on the train for you.”  In other words, the law professor is a technician, a systems manager.  He thinks in logical, linear progression.  Everything must be a sum of its parts, and those parts must be put together in order – 2 must follow 1.

I will take Professor Gardner’s statement further.   The educational system is a fractal of a larger system of command and control, as are systems of government, economics, and religion.  In those systems, the technician is both necessary and replaceable.  Following instructions and staying on the well-paved road is absolutely essential for the maintenance of a system, and those who perform these tasks are valued members of our society, as are the systems themselves.  Systems, and those that run them, keep entropic forces at bay and the trains on time.

However, our educational system does very little to support difference.  The institutions are proficient at identifying difference, if only to attach a disorder label to them and medicate the different into “normalcy.”  Not only do they attempt to rehabilitate difference, they also create a self-fulfilling process that elevates those who do excel within the system, and who go on to create more systems that value the same types of thinkers.  By doing so, humanity blunts the tip of the evolutionary spear.

Adventurers, explorers, and visionaries of past epochs have always dragged the rest of humanity with them into worlds unimagined by the masses.  They are the reason we are here at all.  Those labeled different, or insane, have brought humanity our biggest triumphs.  They see what is possible because they are not constrained by what is.  They are not tied to the idea that 2 must follow 1, or that there is a progressive order at all.  Instead, they make leaps in logic beyond the next step because they are not tied to the need for linear progression.  They see into the future, and they take us with them to meet it.

The ability to see connections between seemingly disparate points strikes fear in those who need order to make sense of the world.  The system and its managers do everything in their power to force conformity on those who test the limits of our understanding – and by doing so they limit the possibilities of humanity.

The system did not come first.  First came the spark of creation, an idea born outside a logical progression of thought–a Eureka moment where suddenly there is something where before there was nothing.  If those moments did not occur, humanity would have died out along with every other creature incapable of adaptability and innovation.

If an idea is productive to a people, an organization is built around it.  That organization could be a corporation, a civil rights movement or a religion.  During the creative epoch of an organization, the idea is still alive and pliable.  However, over time, a system is implemented to operate and produce whatever the vision prescribed.  The system becomes the idea, and system technicians are brought in to run it.   The creator of the idea becomes unnecessary and even threatening to the organization itself.  Visionaries, who are by nature a destructive force to the status quo, are seen as a threat.  The system becomes the focus of worship as dogma sets in and only innovations that can be incorporated into the existing structure are acceptable.

So what is there to do?

The answer is to not rely on the system at all.  It takes courage to buck the system and the comforts it provides, but it is the only way to create something new.  Around the world, pockets of adventurers, thinkers, vagabonds, and dreamers band together to challenge ideas and create new ones.

Places such as the Endurable Living Institute are being built to cultivate and support a new generation of revolutionary thinkers.  Artists such as Alfredo Paris show us there are ways to exist and create outside the system.  Outsider Art gives an outlet for those most on the extremes of human thought – those we deem insane.  Rebel thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, Ken Robinson, Douglas Hofstadter, and Jason Kottke (among others) are creating new roads of intellectual curiosity and challenging us to do the same.  Even institutions such as the Kahn Institute are recognizing the need for support of difference, and not the suppression of it.

It seems counter intuitive to think institutions can exist with the purpose of creating thinkers who challenge the status quo, but it is not.  It is the individual and the institution that must desire positive disintegration in order to reach our full potential.  The adventure is no longer the discovery of new places on this earth, but the improvement of our lives upon it.

On January 3, 2013, Jose Rodriguez Jr., the head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism Center from 2002 to 2004 and Director of the National Clandestine Service until 2007, took the unique step of writing an op-ed in the Washington Post in order to inform the public that the new movie, Zero Dark Thirty, got it wrong when detailing treatment of prisoners.  He wrote: “(the movie) mischaracterizes how America’s enemies have been treated in the fight against terrorism.”  He argues very few detainees were subjected to torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and after the detainee became compliant, the techniques were halted.

Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA want to control the narrative of who they are and how they do their jobs.  History is written by the victorious, and Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA’s denial of the use of torture over the past 10 years is an attempt to do just that.  It is done to protect their legacy, ongoing operations, and maybe more importantly, it is an attempt to lay the historical groundwork for future operations.

We are almost forced to take Mr. Rodriguez at his word that Zero Dark Thirty is inaccurate.  This is partly because Mr. Rodriguez himself carried out the destruction of 92 interrogation videotapes in 2005 that consisted of hundreds of hours of footage.  According to a Justice Department inquiry in 2009, these included interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who did receive enhanced interrogation techniques.  The CIA has also classified almost all information relating to torture programs employed by the CIA.  Enough information has leaked to challenge Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA’s assertion that the programs did not amount to torture or that a compliant source was no longer subjected to torture.  In fact, it is the leaking of the information that truly angers the CIA and the United States government, not the torture. Other analysts and media outlets are arguing about whether or not torture worked, or if the movie represents the actual interrogation program.   What is most interesting to me is the decision by Mr. Rodriguez and the CIA (in multiple forums) to publicly decry Zero Dark Thirty as inaccurate regarding torture and how the CIA does business in general.

Considering the infinite number of inaccurate depictions of the CIA currently on DVD or in paperback (many of which show the CIA in a “bad” light), it is very notable this particular movie got such a response.  In fact, we should use a CIA interrogation tactic to view Mr. Rodriguez’s denial.  In the Washington Post op-ed Rodriguez argues, “He (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) denied any knowledge of the courier, but so adamantly that we knew we were on to something.” The strong and concerted insistence that Zero Dark Thirty missed the mark on torture should, at the very least, make us question the denial in the same fashion.  But then, the value of muddying the information is not about convincing others the adversarial information is wrong.  It is about creating enough doubt that the sting of the information is diminished.  Over time, the official story becomes the “real story,” and the truth fades away.

Mr. Rodriguez has a personnel stake in protecting his reputation and not going to jail, as do other officers in the CIA.  However, Obama’s Justice Department already decided in 2011 not to prosecute in 99 of 101 potential cases of detainee abuse by the CIA.  Mr. Rodriguez will probably never see the inside of a cell unless a major public campaign took place, and even then it would be doubtful.  Regardless, a shift in public perception, domestically and internationally, could renew pressure on the CIA and the United States government to acknowledge the use of torture in the war on terror.  At the very least this would greatly reduce the “moral authority” the United States tends to exert.

The depiction of torture in a movie being sold as an accurate portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden could also jeopardize ongoing operations and relationships with assets in the fight against Al Qaeda and other groups deemed enemies of the United States.  By publicly rolling their eyes at the “fiction” of Hollywood, they create doubt in the mind of an asset, or potential enemy, who wavers daily in his intentions towards the United States.

Of course, torture and assassination programs also create blowback.  Instead of scaring our enemies, it recruits more of them.  It is a balancing act.  Create fear in the minds of our enemies (and frenemies) without creating more of them is a constant fight for any counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operation.

Torture is still considered valuable regardless of blowback because intelligence gathering is not always the only objective of an interrogation.  The use of interrogations to instill debilitating fear in a hostile population can be found throughout history.  Torture is psychological pain as much as it is physical, and not just for the subject of the torture.  When torture is used to this end, it is behavior modification through terror.  The message is clear–being an enemy of the United States has horrible consequences.

Now that the heavy fighting is done (for now), the United States must attempt to redirect the historical narrative of the past decade.  It is imperative for the United States to again wear the clock of benign power leading the way in human rights, civil liberties and freedom.  The CIA believes it is in its interests for the international community to accept the narrative, and it is essential for Americans to believe it.  Future operations will depend on how the war on terror is defined today.  A pliant and supportive citizenry is a must when undertaking intelligence operations, interventions or wars.  By keeping the true history of CIA interrogation operations secret, they can control the historical narrative and therefore keep their options open for future operations.  They have set a legal precedent for using torture and at the same time created a myth that it was never employed.

By smoothing over the very rough edges of its history, America changes the perceptions and decisions of its future generations, just as America’s true actions abroad shape the perceptions and decisions of the rest of the world.  The CIA believes it is protecting American interests by covering the truth, but it does not see the long-term consequences.  By not being honest about our actions in this war, American perception of reality grows increasingly different from the rest of the world’s perception of reality. Over time, Americans will not understand, nor be able to predict, the actions of future adversaries because they will not understand from where the actions spring.  As time goes on and officers retire, institutional knowledge of the truth goes with them, just as the phenomenon occurs in the general population.  Before long, CIA officers believe the story they were taught in school.  Put simply, the CIA helps create a false historical narrative, ends up believing it, and then makes decisions based on it – with potentially catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world.

On Friday, December 14 Adam Lanza, 20, broke into a locked up Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and proceeded to murder 26 people, 20 of which were children under the age of 7. All of the victims were shot multiple times, most at very close range. The investigation continues as to why Adam would commit such an atrocity, although public discourse will mostly focus on obvious, direct causality for the attack. We will question his sanity, access to assault weapons, motive, and the inability of his parents or other adults to recognize the threat Adam posed, among others. We will disparage him as a “monster” and the “personification of evil,” placing all of the blame on his parents or on Adam himself. Obviously, Adam was responsible for his own actions regardless of any mental issues, just as his parents and others may bear some responsibility if there were signs of impending violence and nothing was done to get him help. However, Adam wasn’t a monster, and the fault isn’t entirely his. Some portion of the blame falls on us, the society in which he lived.

The United States is a country whose society is based on a system of competition between individuals that can be profoundly unfair and brutal.  We love a winner, and we determine winners in terms of the competition, not in how much value a person adds to the overall wellbeing of society. We are told our society is this way because the world and its natural laws of survival are brutal, and therefore it makes sense that our society is patterned after the same laws of competition and survival. We have somehow forgotten that human beings built inclusive societies such as cities and nations because we have a better chance to survive and prosper together as opposed to on our own. Instead, our system tells us a man is responsible for his own fate, and if he isn’t successful, it is his fault, regardless of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Our system repeatedly tears down the individual as he begins to believe there is no hope and no help. This leaves many of us to live lives of quiet despair. Sometimes, the most vulnerable turn their despair into violence against targets that represent their pain and suffering. To the majority of us it is lunacy; to the individual committing the atrocity it makes perfect sense.

For the most part, Americans love violence in its many forms. In myriad ways, violence defines our culture. The games we play, the movies we watch, and the art we create all reflect this love. We judge some acts of violence as acceptable and other acts of violence as “bad” or “evil,” but it is subjective. A man who kills in the name of his country is a hero while a man who kills in the name of despair is a monster. A problem arises when someone who is mentally unstable and in despair comes to believe that the use of violence is rational and acceptable behavior. How does a society as schizophrenic as ours make clear when violence is acceptable and when it is not, especially to those who are not rational?

The media glorifies violence because it sells. Media ratings go up every time there is a national tragedy such as the Sandy Hook shooting. Therefore, the media has a financial incentive to play up the violence and cover it as long as the ratings are sustained. In a soccer match in Spain when someone runs on the field and acts a fool, they don’t show the replay in order to not bring attention to the act. Obviously, if something as tragic as a school shooting results in the death of 20 children, people have the right to know the facts and how to protect themselves from such violence. However, we must ask ourselves exactly how much attention this type of event deserves, and whether or not the media is perpetrating the violence toward their own end. The talking heads on television should do less cheerleading on issues such as gun control and concentrate on the many studies whose findings state most perpetrators of this sort of violence are looking for notoriety. The more the act and the actor are given attention, the closer other potential attackers come to perpetrating violence themselves.

The reaction and coverage of such a horrific event such as the Sandy Hook shooting has become repetitive. We do not focus on what is important: the deeper reasons for such atrocities, why these atrocities really continue to occur, and how we perpetrate the violence with our own behavior. Even on the other end of the spectrum, tactical details are not discussed openly, and so the educational value of the attack is lost. Instead, we focus on body counts and blame. We have emotional reactions that lead to knee jerk policy adjustments that do little to reduce violence and make the country, and our schools, safer. Yes, it is easier to kill someone with a gun, just as it is easier to kill more people with a semi-automatic. However, taking away the tools for violence does nothing to solve the larger issues at hand. Issues such as gun control and mental health should absolutely be debated, but others, including the ones I mentioned above, need as much time in the national spotlight.

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