Friday, February 27, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

Recent reports coming out of Gaza concern Israel’s use of horrendous new weapons to inflict almost untreatable wounds on the Palestinian civilians, many of them children, who were their victims. A January 18, 2009 article in the London Independent by Raymond Whitaker is titled: “Tungsten Bombs Leave Israel’s Victims with Mystery Wounds.” The bombs in question seem to be a relatively new type of weapon developed in the United States called DIME bombs, DIME being an acronym for “dense inert metal explosive.” Like many military acronyms, the word sounds harmless—a thin dime—in order to disguise the weapon’s fiendish attributes. Instead of containing shrapnel, as traditional anti-personnel weapons did, the DIME bomb is packed with a powdered tungsten alloy that includes cobalt. Where shrapnel can be seen, and hence removed in treating the wound, the powdered tungsten does not show up on X-rays, and so, being virtually invisible, cannot be removed. Its effect inside the body is devastating—causing irreparable harm to limbs and flesh, leading to a huge increase in amputations, and bleeding so severe that even massive doses of anti-coagulant fail to stop it.

Dr Erik Fosse, who has treated large numbers of patients in Gaza with such wounds, said: “It was as if they had stepped on a mine, but there was no shrapnel in the wounds. Some had lost their legs. It looked as though they had been sliced off. I have been to war zones for 30 years, but I have never seen such injuries before.” Fosse then added more details: “All the patients I saw had been hit by bombs fired from unmanned drones. The bomb hit the ground near them and exploded.”

Fosse’s colleague, Mads Gilbert went further, accusing Israel of using Gaza to test new “extremely nasty” explosives. “This is a new generation of small explosive that detonates with extreme power and dissipates its power within a range of 5 to 10 metres,” he said. The narrow range conforms with the fact that DIME bombs are designed to be used where the usual weapons might kill or injure innocent bystanders instead of targeted combatants. They do not spray their deadly cargo widely, as with shrapnel, but focus the tungsten powder narrowly, to presumably hit only the intended target. And part of the reason for their development was to use tungsten to disable hard targets, instead of depleted uranium.

These weapons, not incidentally, were developed in the United States at the US Air Force Research Laboratory. That Gaza was the intended testing lab is indicated by the fact that a huge supply of DIME bombs were reportedly rushed to Israel just before its most recent Gaza offensive. Furthermore, the same weapons were allegedly used in 2006 (see James Brooks: “Warfare of the Future, Today?” Dec. 12, 2006; when Israel initially invaded Gaza after “leaving” it. Both charges lend credence to the accusation that, as in many other cases such as “bunker busters,” Israel has been using Palestine as a live testing ground for weaponry the United States has developed, and clearly intends to use in the future (if it hasn’t done so already in those other middle east testing grounds, Iraq and Afghanistan).

In Brooks’ 2006 article, Dr. Joma Al-Saqqa, of Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital, described what he observed in his patients: no foreign material in the wounds, burning as if from the inside, tissue death, and, in spite of amputation, higher mortality, the effects appearing “radioactive.” Dr. Al-Siqqa added that the interior burning not only affects tissue around bones, it also “burns and destroys internal organs, like the liver, kidneys, and the spleen and other organs and makes saving the wounded almost impossible. As a surgeon, I have seen thousands of wounds during the Intifada, but nothing was like this weapon.”

So now we understand. In response to the “unfair” tactics of resistance fighters in Arab countries who “hide” amongst civilians, as well as the negative publicity that has continued to surround the use of depleted uranium, advanced nations like the United States apply their superior technological skill to develop more “humane” weapons like DIME bombs. These weapons are meant to explode viciously, but “humanely,” by limiting the “collateral damage” they do to a minimum (they are known as LCDs for “low collateral damage.”) That they also pose intractable problems for doctors trying to treat them is simply part of the march of progress. Also part of that march is the scientific evidence that the powdered heavy metal tungsten alloy (HMTA), which is distributed throughout the wound area, is chemically toxic. It damages the immune system, attacks DNA, and is a known carcinogen (lab mice implanted with tiny doses of HMTA developed cancers 100% of the time, according to research cited by Brooks). As Dr. Fosse warned, “These patients should be followed up to see if there are any carcinogenic effects.”

But then, what’s a little cancer, a little immune system damage, a little DNA breakage among neighbors?

Well, one problem is that, as James Brooks reports, the Geneva Convention on Weapons “prohibits the use of any weapon the primary effect of which is to injure by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays.” Which HMTA does.

But even beyond the violations of international conventions, what about the violations of humanity here? What kind of fiends from hell would consider using weapons that not only horribly disable human bodies by slicing off limbs, but disable from the inside as well? Who are the monsters who think up such things? Consider the problem: we need a heavy metal weapon to replace depleted uranium because of the bad publicity we’ve been getting, not to mention the fact that so many of our own soldiers are showing signs of radiation poisoning. And some highly-paid engineering genius says: I know, how about some of the other heavy metals? We can combine them—a little tungsten, a little cobalt, a little nickel—to augment their blast effects, and powder them so as to make them undetectable. Then we can narrow their explosive range and voila—we have a perfect anti-personnel weapon to use in the dense, heavily populated quarters we will be fighting many future wars in. Perfect. And not only do these babies slice off limbs like a laser, CLEANLY and undetectably, they also continue working on the inside with tumors and mutations and such, so the enemy has to expend enormous effort trying to save his people and save his genome. More than perfect! All with the perfect open air laboratory—the Gaza strip, with more pesky humans per square mile than anywhere on earth—to test them in. Beyond perfect.

Our last president used to talk about evil, those evil terrorists who attacked us, a whole Axis of Evil arrayed against us. To this observer, true evil lies in the premeditated attack not on people so much—that has been with us since the beginning—but on the source of life itself. Not in the attempt to slaughter mere bodies, but in the attempt to disable the very code of life. That is what the new weapons, since at least the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have targeted. And it is the shame of nations, the shame of humanity itself, that the most powerful militaries on this planet are devoting their resources, OUR resources, to finding and testing always more lethal ways to do precisely that.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, February 16, 2009

February Miscellany

So many things going on, and so much to comment upon, so this one will be a mix of thoughts, with no attempt to make them cohere.

All the news about the crimes among our major bankers and their cohorts on Wall Street—including the $50 billion Madoff scandal, the billions in bonuses to investment bankers, and the billions given to major banks with no indication that they did anything but use it to buy other distressed banks or simply sock it away—coupled with the growing awareness among Americans that the past 40 years, since Reagan, have seen the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to precisely these scheming bankers and other elites, brings to mind a comment made long ago by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Charles Mann mentions it in his book on the Americas before Columbus, 1491, and it goes like this:

Indians who visited France, Montaigne wrote, “noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They [the Indians] found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.” (Mann, p. 335).

It occurs to me that we could learn a thing or two from those Indians. I think the masses of Americans who are now suffering the loss of their homes, their pensions, their jobs, and their futures because of the outright theft perpetrated by these “geniuses” of Wall Street, ought to be thinking very hard about why they, why WE continue to honor a social compact which promotes obscene levels of wealth and comfort for a very few, and penury for the very many. Why do we, the majority, allow it? Why do we continue to not simply tolerate, but actually celebrate a system that gives immense wealth and power to CEOs and financiers who make nothing, while those who actually do produce the goods and services needed for survival—the farmers, the factory workers, the nurses and teachers and carpenters and truckers—are left begging for crumbs? Left trying to justify a meager raise in their salaries? or health coverage? or child care? or decent schools for their children? And why do we not make plain to those living in McMansions, including our elected representatives, that if something doesn’t change, and soon, they may find their houses, and themselves, going up in flames?
Also economic are some snippets heard on radio station KPFA from a documentary by Adam Curtis entitled “The Trap” (Curtis has also produced, for the BBC but of course not available in our media, a documentary called the “Century of Self” [on the rise of public relations and consumerism], and another called “The Power of Nightmares” [on the rise of religious fundamentalism both here and in the Arab world]). In “The Trap,” Curtis points out how bankrupt the once-reigning economic theory espoused by the Chicago School (free-market capitalism) really has become, partly because the theory upon which it is based—that people act rationally when they make economic decisions—was promoted mainly by John Nash (of “A Beautiful Mind” fame) as game theory. This is the same John Nash who has not only disavowed his theory of rational actors, but has said that when he concocted the theory, he was anything but rational or even sane; he was a paranoid schizophrenic. Thus we have an entire economy based on a theory that is, all things considered, insane. As Curtis points out in the documentary: in tests, only two groups were found to act fully rationally in economic situations—economist themselves, and psychopaths. And of course, as Curtis’ other documentary, the “Century of Self,” points out, those who concocted the ploy that saved capitalism in the 1920s, the pubic relations boys led by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, knew this all too well. They invented advertising and public relations in order to induce consumers to want and buy goods (and wars, dictators, etc.) that were not truly needed, but were desired for subconscious reasons. We now have a global economy based on this insanity: growing numbers of people lusting after what Americans seem to have, an array of useless goods to “satisfy” desires implanted in their overstimulated psyches by constant advertising. The only question that remains is: will the current crisis force Americans to examine the basis of their economic lives, or will the solutions now being offered simply put the diseased patient on life support for a few more years?
One last thought, this after seeing a lovely French film called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2008, directed by Julian Schnabel). Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby, it portrays life for the editor-in-chief of Elle Magazine after he has a massive stroke that leaves him paralyzed with a condition called ‘locked-in syndrome.’ Only one eye and its eyelid are capable of movement. The film begins with the paralysis and takes us through the superhuman efforts by speech therapists and Bauby himself to fashion a system, using blinks of that one eye, to communicate, one letter at a time. Incredibly, not only does Bauby learn how to “say” what he wants and feels, but he is able, after years of effort, to write an entire book, the memoir Le scaphandre et le papillon upon which the film is based. The film takes us through the gamut of emotions, from the initial horror at feeling Bauby’s paralysis (everything is shot through his point of view), to awe and triumph at his eventual publishing success, shortly after which he dies from pneumonia.

What strikes one, aside from the emotions generated, is how different this “medical” story is from our comparable American ones. There is not one technical shot of his brain, or a CT scan, or a bloody, dramatic crisis requiring noble doctors with advanced technology and techniques to save him. The physicians, indeed, are hardly seen, and when they are, they appear as grotesques who sew Bauby’s one non-seeing eye closed. The heroes, if they can be called that, are the therapists, especially the speech therapist. In fact, the person who takes Bauby’s dictation is an editor from his magazine who is sent by the acting head of Elle to help him. She learns how to interpret his blinks, and stays with him as devoted amanuensis to the very end. And what we are left with is not the superhuman capacity of doctors and technologies, as in TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “ER,” but rather the eminently human capacity of language and story telling, the courage and indomitable spirit of humans helping each other despite all odds. It is a telling difference I think—in cultures, in views of what matters, what’s important in life, and where one seeks salvation. In America, it seems, salvation is always sought via some miraculous new technology; in France, at least in this film, via humans and their capacity for an interior life that matters, no matter how apparently ruined the external circumstances.

Lawrence DiStasi