Sunday, December 30, 2007

Revolutionary Scientific

It begins to seem that the world itself is surrendering to the absurd.

That there exists a goodly number of scientifically-trained minds accepting of Darwinian descent - and further, the uncomprehendingly vast existence of a universe of which our galaxy is but a minuscule fraction as a speck of dust is to an immense territory of blank space interspersed at huge intervals with stars and planetary systems - yet still cling to the existence of a Supreme Spirit is mind boggling enough.

That metaphysical ideas of a scientific revolution whereby a belief in the probability of alien life in the universe does not diminish the possibility - nay the reality - of the presence of God supervising and superintending over all leaves one gasping for breath. This thought appears to be led by the discovery of exoplanets; the existence of planets within and outside our galaxy in vast stretches of space, among the uncountable trillions of stars reaching toward infinity.

Among educated planetary scientists, astronomers and biologists world wide there appears to be a silent, unpublic but dedicated belief that other life forms as intelligent as ours - far outstripping ours in all likelihood - exist. What manner of physical presentation those life forms could appear as can only be imagined. How communication could be assumed is also left to the imagination. Not to constrain the hypotheses, however.

This scientific community appears to believe these life forms of high intelligence, purpose and accomplishment would also have an inherent belief in the spiritual, accept the presence of God. Although they might recognize that presence in ways we do not; and name and identify it in a manner unlike ours. To discover, at some future time, the existence of an intelligent life force to challenge our own uniqueness would indeed present a dilemma.

For the present we remain a unique phenomena, a highly intelligent life form that nature has given premiership over other life forms in that we can control our surroundings to a certain degree and manipulate our environment in a manner that complements our lives. Believe in the presence of a Divine Spirit or not, we are capable of producing these results, unlike other creatures on our globe.

We believe ourselves, by and large, to be alone in the universe. Our relationship with God, in this immense universe that stretches for evermore into eternity is a closed one; He and we. But, in fact, these scientists posit the potential for He and a great many other we's.

"The discovery of alien life would be a religious Rorschach test", for all of earth's faiths, from Muslims to Jews and Hindus to Christians, according to Douglas Vakoch, director of the Mountainview, California-based Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. Yep.

And who knew that the Vatican had its very own Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Arizona? Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit priest, one of a dozen astronomers with the observatory, and author of Intelligent Life in the Universe?: Catholic belief and the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life, indicates that this is a quiet topic, not generally discussed. Yes, it would be.

"What Genesis says about creation is true. God did it; God willed it; and God loves it" says Brother Consolmagno. "When science fills in the details of how God did it, it helps us get a flavour of how rich and beautiful and inventive God really is - it might even include other planets with other beings created by the same loving God." Not implacable, erratic Nature.

Curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, David Grinspoon, an avid supporter of the search for alien life, feels that if we do ever reach contact with other intelligent beings in the Milky Way our conversation will revolve around faith and the soul, belief in God. That the alien society will have evolved, like us, a state of science and technology enabling them to travel a "parallel spiritual path".

All this in the spirit of scientific search for the meaning of life, the answer to evolutionary biology and the spirit within us. "Technical advancement without spiritual progress creates a dangerous and unstable condition that will be selected against. Natural selection will favour those worlds where technical and spiritual advancement proceed together." Charles Darwin, are you listening?!

Meanwhile, we send out probes; we carefully, meticulously attune ourselves to the potential, cock an ear and an eye toward the universe, invest in great revolving telescopes to pick up any electronic sound that might possibly suggest existence elsewhere. And we load up Information Earth recordings to reflect the diversity of life upon this planet should some other intelligence encounter those probes.

We send messages of earthly delight; the love of a mother for a child, elegant classical music, the sound of animals and birds, drawings of a man, a woman, a child. Nowhere do we illustrate the manner in which we treat of one another, our ill tempers, our grudging and suspicious inability to live in peace with one another. We send gentle lies out into space.

We take steps to ensure that the revelation that humankind is not at all intelligent is not made known to the possibility of other life forms that might themselves exhibit a deep level of intelligence. Or otherwise.

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Consonant with Religion?

Incredible. All these polls revealing the thoughts and beliefs of people one assumes are sane. They are our neighbours, after all, people whom we know, others whom we do not. Yet we trust in their rational, stable state of mind. And wonder, does a belief in the presence of angels and ghosts resonate with those of a religious conviction? Is one belief contingent on the other? Certainly not, one must assume.

Yet here is the result of a national survey revealing that fully two-thirds of Canadians believe in the presence of angels. Gabriel and Lucifer, one assumes; but one must not assume. Perhaps it's the belief in the presence of putti-like angels, little lovingly-mischievous angelic-winged presences flitting about to be sighted only by those of pure heart and mind.

As decorating devices angel-figures sell handsomely. To complement the real, yet unseen presence?

More, it appears that roughly half of Canadians also believe in spirits and ghosts, while an additional ten percent have convinced themselves that within their homes lurk supernatural beings. There's even a comparison in numbers of believers by region, with Atlantic Canada ranking behind Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan/Manitoba.

Egad, this is not to be believed. In fact, it would appear that to boast of one's home being haunted is seen as a status symbol. Are we a nation of growth-apprehended children delighting in the occult?

Not the basis for certifiable lunacy, but a status symbol. Groan. Women, it would appear, are more susceptible to these beliefs than men; wouldn't you know it. But not by much. And this malady afflicts Canadians of every age group. So you see, we don't necessarily become wiser as we age; merely more afflicted with ghostism.

Sanity, it would appear, eludes us in favour of a mass psychosis of belief in the supernatural. A nation of idiots.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Nuclear Security

There are no guarantees in life. Once a discovery has been made there is no turning back. No stuffing the Genie back into its lamp, and more's the pity.

The reason we have those celebrated Nobel prices, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize, results from the guilt felt by Albert Nobel in unleashing upon the world the power of explosives, realizing his inventions would be used for humanly-inimical purposes, causing him to attempt to make amends to posterity.

Those who worked at Los Alamos to perfect the Atomic Bomb well realized what they were engaged in, but there were those who were forevermore haunted by the real understanding of what they had accomplished, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They rationalized that if they weren't successful, other regimes less stable than that of the United States would attain nuclear fission feasibility.

Now we have a ever-fractious world in which too many diverse countries, stable and otherwise, are in possession of nuclear technology capable of producing nuclear armaments. There are too many countries whose serial administrations are unstable and whose bellicose intentions stated against neighbour states make the world a most vulnerable place in their ownership of nuclear technology.

And here is Pakistan, whose chief atomic scientist, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan went on a rampage of wholesale leakage to the highest bidders, empowering countries like Iran, Libya and North Korea to access nuclear technology. A country whose celebrated prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pledged to give his people Bread, Clothing, Shelter - but not before he brought in an era of nuclear weaponry.

He is long gone, and his ambitious daughter Benazir Bhutto too, has been dispatched. By the very forces she once tolerated, then turned against; the violently-engaged jihadists so liberally funded in Pakistan by Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. Too late for her the realization that the Islamists whom her father's successor, General Zia, brought into the political and religious arena, along with Sharia Law, would defy eventual democracy.

Now a severely destabilized Pakistan, always on the brink of hostilities with India, itself encouraging jihadists doing their blood-letting there and in Afghanistan, holds the world's attention with the horror that might be unleashed should extremists who have fully infiltrated the country's political, military and social hierarchy come to power.

At which time nothing stands between jihadist terrorists availing themselves of nuclear weaponry.

For those "really brave boys killed her". And that's just for starters.

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Finally, Credibility!

And here I thought no one but me took the presence of Satan seriously. Seriously. I always thought when I saw an impish gleam in the eye of someone - anyone - it was the Devil himself looking out and I could anticipate the worst. As invariably happened. As when you're dealing with a recalcitrant child, one determined to proceed with original intent before so precipitously interfered with.

Don't I speak for all of us in acknowledging that the Devil abides in us all? Not in grace, granted, but submerged in our subconscious an engagingly risque devil arousing our sensibilities to outrageous attitudes and rebellions. Urging us to give vent to our darkest compulsions and impulses. Endlessly entertaining in that devilish way we find so appealing and frustrating in the young.

But here's the Vatican and the Pope's exorcist-in-chief calling the devil's bluff. A new initiative is underway in response to what the Roman Catholic Church sees as youth plunging into Satanism. For when Cardinal Ratzinger was not yet Pope Benedict XVI, he was in charge of The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And he knows.

That very ecclesiastical department dealing with the promotion and safeguarding of Roman Catholic beliefs. And, Father Gabriele Amorth, exorcist-in-chief explains to us that "Pope Benedict XVI believes in the existence and danger of evil", from the time he was in charge of that bastion of exorcism. Well, yes, he would.

And this is of course very serious business, for as the good Father declaims further: "Too many bishops are not taking this seriously and are not delegating their priests in the fight against the Devil. You have to hunt high and low for a proper, trained exorcist." A fascination with the occult and the underworld has prompted this re-awakening to the dangers of Lucifer's reign.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, it would appear, defines exorcism as "the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places of things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice". To rid an infested individual is a highly delicate task, but being possessed of a diabolical presence is anathema to the church.

Lest one be in any doubt whether one is possessed of demonic influences, consider these signposts:
  • Speaking or understanding languages, which the person has never learned;
  • Knowing things the person has no earthly way of knowing;
  • Physical strength beyond the person's natural physical makeup;
  • A violent aversion to God, the virgin Mary, the cross and other images of Catholic faith.
That description gives me great pain. It appears someone has been snooping about, enumerating many of the very precise and particular talents I exhibit from time to time, and some of my predilections as well. Shared, I hasten to add, by a good many other women I am aware of in the exercise of their femaleness.

Father Amorth brings forth his recollections of the Pope: "I remember a meeting we exorcists had with the Holy Father last year, in which he implored us to follow our mission as exorcists". This exercise is not for just anyone, however. For under Canon Law 1172 while it is stated that all priests can perform exorcisms, success is assured only with a select few.

Easily understood, since the rite of exorcism requires a rare understanding and dedication, the ability to perform under great stress and existential pressures, involving a series of approved gestures and quite specific prayers invoking the powers of God. Only thus can a halt be effected to the demon influencing its victim.

Plans are afoot, ensuring that each bishop have at his disposal a group of priests assigned to his diocese trained in exorcism, ready and capable of taking action against "extreme Godlessness".

Is there anywhere I can hide, I wonder?

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Friday, December 28, 2007

You Can Run, But You Can't Hide...

It was her imperative to run for office. Yet again. She was compelled. The inheritor of her own destiny. Earmarked for greatness by the inheritance of the family's political dynastic rule. Meant to be, and she succumbed to the need to immerse herself in her country's need. It was her calling; her country's struggle was her own. She would bring Pakistan toward the light of reason and democracy.

Although when she had the opportunity the will somehow eluded her, and she was content to rule that fractious ethnic, religious cocktail of humanity in the traditional way to which it had become accustomed, albeit from a secular perspective. She was, after all, "the daughter of Pakistan". Corruption linked to her regime an unfortunate byproduct of which she claimed complete innocence.

No one can deny her accomplishment as a charismatic leader, a determined woman who succeeded in making history herself as the first female leader of a Muslim country. Leading it imperially, in contradiction of being the "chair for life" of a populist party whose purpose it was to bring inclusiveness and justice to all of Pakistan's population.

Her idea of democracy strangely at odds with her iron intention to single-handedly retain her position as head of her party, even at a geographic remove, during her self-imposed exile. An exile ensuring she would not be arrested, brought to trial and incarcerated for corruption. Accused of taking 1.5-billion from the state with the active connivance of her husband.

Whom she had elevated to minister of investment during her second government term. It was his wheeling and dealing and entitlements to healthy percentages of all government transactions that tainted her, while enriching the family's coffers carefully placed in accounts abroad.

She had the trust of the immense lower classes of her country for her promises to deliver them from need. Educated abroad, Harvard and Oxford-graduated, completely at home in the West, but utterly dedicated to her eastern heritage, her native tongues lapsed oddly enough - just as her real connection with the real need of the people she represented slipped in urgency.

During her governance Pakistan encouraged the rise of the Taliban, permitting the setting up of fundamentalist religious institutions and the madrassas that turned out countless jihadists. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban felt very at ease and were made to feel comfortable on the border regions. Her brothers met with Yasser Arafat and under his tutelage, formed the Pakistan Liberation Army, an acknowledged terror group.

On her return from exile, she was ecstatic to be home once again, and energized by the love and hope evidenced through her presence by the humble people who supported her. "This has strengthened me to do what I can to save Pakistan by saving democracy, which is so essential to giving people safety, security and better prospects", she claimed.

But then, democracy never had existed in Pakistan. And how she imagined she offered safety and security to her people while actively encouraging the presence of extreme religious elements, and jihadists is beyond imagining. It was only in her later incarnation, her most recent attempts to return as head of government that she spoke of aspiring to wipe out terrorists in her country.

And in the process gained their enmity and dedication to her obliteration as a force within the country, and as a living human soul. Not that they represented her only enemies. Besides al-Qaeda and the Taliban she was definitely unloved and appreciated by other fundamentalist Islamists within the administration and the intelligence services. Not to mention Pakistan's military with which she had been at odds.

She was encouraged to return by a White House effort to have her share governance with Pervez Musharraf, with the intention of installing, through her intervention, democratic rule. The U.S. continued to agitate and prevail upon Musharraf to restore normalcy and to lift the state of emergency he declared after the massive bombing in October that killed 140 people and wounded hundreds of others during Bhutto's triumphant return procession.

As though democracy, instantly declared, would turn the fortunes of the country around. Democracy: freedom from oppression, freedom of expression - supplanting the reality on the ground in politically-fractured, theocratically divided Pakistan. Emerging societies, underdog societies look at the prosperity of the West and imagine themselves sharing in the possibilities.

An immediate solution to their pressing problems. Not so simple: when the U.S.S.R. imploded, all its constituent parts panted for democracy, believing it would bring them wealth and opportunity. Instead it bred civil chaos and opportunities for sharp-minded businessmen; the rise of the oligarchs and political charlatans, beggaring the country in the process.

Democracy did not quite prove to be the therapeutic road to capitalist success everyone imagined it would be. The potent mixture currently evident in Pakistan where fully one-third of its society is comprised of acutely fundamentalist Islamists, squaring off against a relatively small secular-minded educated class, and a larger moderately-inclined and lower-class Muslim population portents ill for the future if no way is found for reasonable accommodation.

The polarizing interests, the threat of continuing divisions of deeper dimensions threatening complete destabilization of the society, the continued poking interventions of the West to meet their own needs in the geography make for a very frail-appearing and trouble-prone future. That all the security trotted out to ensure Benazir Bhutto's safety was insufficient unto the day leads many to despair for that future.

It's when things appear at their bleakest sometimes and fearful expectations are expressed at the highest level of concern, that human relations somehow find a way to surmount the misery of despair and defeat. We sit and wait.

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"Chairperson For Life"

Gone the life. The Pakistan People's Party will either dissolve with this latest loss - having had in its history only two leaders; Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and she herself - or they will allow themselves to be led by another who possibly may attempt a trifle more determinedly to deliver what she did not - "Bread, Clothing, Housing".

So many hopes were hitched to her powerful aspirations. Her death has laid bare the desperation of the poor of the country. Those whom she pledged herself as a voice to demand their due. When news of her death reached the street the response was "Long live Bhutto!" She did not, however, live very long. Disappointing them in this as much as her inability to deliver them from poverty.

She was the acclaimed and beloved voice of the oppressed of her country. And with her death a dementia of grief propelled mourners into the streets to riot, to slash and burn and bellow their defiance of fated destiny. Destroying, in the process, public property, edifices and structures owned by government in answer to some of their needs.

She was their champion, their hero, their hope for the future. Believers, all. She had already had two opportunities to alleviate their pain, but they still trusted she would finally make good her promises. Despite her life of privilege, her autocratic rule, her political maneuverings that seemed to leave no opportunity to prosecute their case, they still trusted.

The common people of Pakistan eking out a living for themselves and their families, entrusting their future prospects to a woman who lived in accustomed luxury, loved the finer things of life, built a breathless marble monument to her father in their heartland, while somehow managing to overlook the vagueness of accomplishment as compared to promises pledged in their support.

Their adoration of her presence and her promises, their enthusiasm for her stated purpose, thrilled her. Their devotion to her and their loud expressions of approval, of gratitude, of hope, and the huge crowds that came out to hear her riveting speeches pleased her no end, gave her the attention she craved and the energy that spurred her to carry on.

She spoke passionately of the rights of women, spoke of herself as the champion of the poor. A defender of their rights in a country that gave them no rights, she pressed for democracy as the solution to all of the country's ills and disequilibriums. A feminist, a socialist, a democrat, and an enigma. Champion of the poor, the uneducated, her extravagance unremarked.

Speaking an ethos of liberalism she ruled as an autocrat. Speaking impassioned disaffection for the plight of the poor, she did little to advance their cause. Speaking of her anger at the presence of fundamentalist jihadists, she tolerated and even encouraged the infrastructure that led to their increase in numbers.

A humble patrician, a patriot whose destiny was irrevocably wound around her country's advance into the 20th century, she was convinced only her leadership would surmount all difficulties. A zealot, a messianic figure of determined conquest. Her ambition to lead damped down her fears of mortality.

She knew how vulnerable she was; her conviction gave her courage to face what she felt would not be the inevitable for her. She faced it, and it was.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Fanatical Faith

Faith, like everything else, requires sensibly moderate reflection. Not that a believer needs to be tepid in his spiritual response to the ideology and ethos of the particular religion. But there is a need to be respectful of the religion in the sense that to divine from the precepts and teachings set out in that religion's sacred texts an urging that runs counter to all moral and ethical behaviours both inside and outside religion must be avoided by all reasonably intelligent adherents.

Yet the fact is that believers of any religion are capable of violently anti-social reactions. We've seen that happening in Burma, and who would ever believe that Buddhists, those most gentle of religious practitioners could command viciously inhumane performances on the part of their rulers? The Taliban didn't think twice about destroying ancient and revered Buddhist statues.

In modern Christianity there has latterly emerged groups and individuals whose reaction to abortion goes beyond accepted Christian practise. Those infected by a severely impaired complex of having been conscripted by God Almighty to wreak revenge on "child killers" murder abortion-providing doctors.

The world observed the unsettling spectre of Catholics and Protestants forming terror groups to prey on one another, blowing up civic infrastructures, and private homes and murdering innocent people for what they represented; a sect other than their own and thus ripe and ready for pitiless slaughter.

Fundamentally Orthodox Jews have not been immune to the catastrophic belief among the faithful that God calls upon them to strike in His name. There are rare, but dreadful instances of late, calling to mind the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the murder of Muslim worshippers by a mentally unstable Jew, in Hebron.

Indira Ghandi's trusted Sikh bodyguard assassinated her in revenge for her having ordered an attack on their most sacred shrine, the Golden Temple at Atritsar to put down an insurrection. A similar tragic end was in store for her son. Sikh extremists set a bomb that brought down Air India Flight 182. Japanese Buddhist fundamentalists used sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway.

And, most famously of all in our common latter-day history, the airplane suicide attacks of 9-11 when Islamist jihadists wreaked their final deadly revenge on thousands of Americans, demonstrating breathtaking initiative dedicated to hatred and bloodlust in their searing detestation of the West.

We have not-too-distant memory of Pol Pot and his murderous regime, Stalin and his, although those were ideology-driven. The bloody turmoil between Bosnians and Serbians, the Muslim state of Sudan horribly victimizing their own citizens in Darfur. And the tribal, political, religious wars in Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere on the Dark Continent.

Finally, back to Islam, where terror-inspiring, death-delivering jihadists prey on their own in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. All religions somehow manage to breed fundamentalist malcontents, certifiable psychopaths all to eager to take upon themselves the dreadful hand of God's commands to kill.

Inspired by their vision of what God requires of believers, moral compass completely absent and replaced with a new version owing its morality to the interpretation of God's word that most suits their bloody purposes, they accuse, swoop and avenge in the name of Allah. And although some rare members of all the world's religions somehow manage to corrupt the original message, it is Islam that has produced and continues to produce the bulk of terror.

Righteously fundamental, rigid in their belief, they cling passionately to the conviction they do God's will. Their zealotry knows no boundaries, believing that God stands behind them, urging them on to do their duty. Theirs is a struggle of belief incarnate. They devote themselves to the divine message that they apprehend for the higher moral purpose fundamental to their belief.

All of which fits nicely into a predisposed fanatical worldview of personalities utterly without social conscience driven by a rigorous religious faith. Delivering death at God's command. For there is no higher power to command otherwise. And God responds handsomely, offering the divine gift of immortality to fevered martyrs.

These are rare, but horribly disturbing instances of a pathology peculiar to a mind on the cusp of disequilebrium, ready to commit atrocious acts of anti-social violence of the first order.

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Imperatives of Trade

A business deal like none other. A social, humanitarian rescue, this trade. You give me one of ours, I'll give you oh, let's see, will a thousand of yours do? This is fair trade, Middle East style. Oh perhaps more specifically, Israel-Palestinian style. Israel, anxious for the return of one of her own - or three, as the case may be - is agreeable to returning hundreds upon hundreds of their own.

Of course, there's perspective at play here, also. A handy one to put in place is the realization that the meagre few Israel remains so anxious to recover represent young men conscripted into her army. Theirs was guard duty; called upon to guard the fractiously porous borders between Israel and her determined attackers. The prisoners that Israel holds were more actively engaged.

Their duty as Palestinians, as the wronged, was to "struggle" against their oppressors. The oppressors, needless to say, wanting nothing better than to withdraw with conditions - that they no longer be the continual victims of viciously bloody attacks. Struggle to be construed as a range of attitudes, intentions and successes. From tossing rocks or mortars, to murder.

Always two sides to any story, and no one is without guilt, granted. The Palestinians have suffered much. Like any other people they deserve their freedom to pursue a goal of satisfaction in life. Exclusive, however, of removing that opportunity from others' potentials. The nub of the matter is, give a little, get a lot. Or, in the instance of very stiff negotiations; give a lot, get what you need to get along.

The terror group Hamas, in control of Gaza, also has control of the whereabouts of IDF Sergeant Gilad Shalit, missing as a result of a cross-border raid into Israel since June of 2006. Mr. Shalit's parents would dearly love to embrace him and look upon his beloved face once again. As would the bereft parents, partners and children of incarcerated Palestinians.

Hamas is adamant it will not release Sergeant Shalit until and unless Israel meets its demand to release about one thousand, four hundred Palestinians currently in Israeli jails. There for all manner of reasons from the relatively minor to the horrendously murderous. One of whom is a potential Fatah PA leader,Marwan al-Barghouthi, currently serving five life sentences for the murder of five Israelis, and the wounding of many others.

There's a possible escape clause here in that Barghouthi has blood on his hands through the ordering of the murders; he did not take part in the actual physical drama, although most Israelis consider him guilty as charged and absolutely not to be considered for discharge. However, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, speaking for the cabinet, thinks otherwise.

"Ultimately we will have to approve a list [of prisoners]. It doesn't matter what title these people are given. What's important is to return the boys home", saidShaul Mofaz, emphasizing that Israel intends to "take every step" to secure the release of Sergeant Shalit and two other Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah guerrillas last year.

Amazing the gap in the valuation of human life, between what we see of Israel's determination and the cleverly-determined bargaining of a terror group who see nothing morally amiss in sending fatefully indoctrinated children out as decoys and would-be suicide bombers against their perceived enemy.

But then that kind of skewed reasoning has its counterpart in the insistence of the Palestinian Authority that Israel cease its expansion plans for a Jerusalem neighbourhood that has been an inseparable part of the State for decades and which Israel fully intends to maintain as an integral portion of the state, negotiations aside.

While at the same time the PA sits on its hands, allowing its terror affiliates to continue lobbing Qassams into Israel.

And then, speaking of lop-sided fairness, there's always the neat little tricks of archaeologically sensitive sites around the Temple Mount being bulldozed by the PA's offshoots, lest any valuable artifacts be discovered that might solidify Israel's claims for prior establishment on the historical record, in a most unequivocal way.

What has been destroyed cannot be recovered, alas.

But let Israel's professional archaeological teams enter mutually sensitive areas in a careful search for antiquities of any derivation, and the Palestinian religious hierarchy cries shrill fouls claiming that Israel is intent on destroying Islamic cultural treasures.

Just business as usual in the geography.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Lost Generation

It is no little thing for a country with a population as small as that of Israel's to lose 40,000 young people. Not through war directly, despite that country's constant state of embattlement but in an indirect way. An attrition due to that continual awareness of war on its periphery of existence. This is a country envisioned and established for the direct purpose of offering a refuge to world Jewry post-Holocaust.

In any country its most prized resources must represent its new generation, its young. In any population children enjoy a very special relationship to the larger population who see a need to protect the young, to encourage and stimulate them and prepare them to take their place in the layer upon layer, generation upon generation that speaks to us of the human experience, the relaying of the torch of life from the old to the new.

In Israel, a country birthed in agony and struggling continually against the adversity of resentment at its presence in a hugely Islamic geography of traditional culture and religious supremacy, there has never been a relaxation of armed services conscription. When young Israeli boys and girls are taken away from the normalcy of everyday life and brought into the hard reality of armed service in protection of their country.

Israel has, of necessity, and through genuinely authentic creativity, sought many methods by which she could make full use of the small parcel of land allotted to her. In the dry, desertified presence of the Middle East her pioneers established agricultural collectives, Kibbutzim, that became successful enterprises, the envy of the world. They succeeded where Communism's collective farms in the U.S.S.R. became spectacular failures.

The success owing to the passionate need of the people to succeed, to ensure survival in a harsh atmosphere, not entirely conducive to passive relaxation in the triumph of nationhood. Their attempts at self-sufficiency, their success at being able to produce agricultural products sufficient to their needs, and enough for export, helped the State, and gave confidence to its people.

Children growing up in these collectives were accustomed to living in a communal atmosphere; everyone's children became as siblings to one another. They thought, behaved and reacted as a collective, for together they succeeded at what they did best. They relied upon one another. Their collective reliance, after all, their ability to selflessly co-operate with one another, was what marked their success.

Their social closeness was endemic to the Kibbutz tradition and reality. Self-reliance, however, suffered, and it was discovered that these Kibbutz offspring were incapable of conceiving and reacting as individuals, bereft of their companion Kibbutz members. That was yet another interesting lesson learned in collective human behaviour.

And here is another lesson to be learned. Young Israelis, conscripted into the Israeli Defence Forces becoming mentally, psychically fatigued beyond endurance. Utterly drained of normal aspirations. Seeking escape from the inevitable in a country truly beleaguered and seeing no other options for its populace than to call upon the young and the untried to protect, exposing themselves to constant danger.

Following their obligations to protect and to wage war when required, including taking up positions at check-points and border entries humiliating to, and deleterious toward normal living conditions imposed upon neighbours from among whose population death stalks Israelis, these young people have chosen to opt out. To completely absent themselves from all that is familiar and should have given comfort to them - their country of birth.

They have found sanctuary other than in Israel, their country of sanctuary for Jews. They have transported themselves to Goan India, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 young people, to live alongside the country's 900 million Hindus and 150 million Muslims. "Our souls need a permanent break from Israel", said a 24-year-old IDF veteran. "We're all runaways. There's nothing for us back in Israel."

They have willingly, desperately, traded in their lives in Israel for the pointlessness of drugged dissipation, frail indolence, and a nihilistic mindset living on a long beachfront below the impoverished mountain villages of Goa. A room with a plank bed and a mosquito net goes for $5 a night, although many choose to sleep under trees.

There are little restaurants with piquant names like Outback Indian Israeli Restaurant complete with Hebrew-speaking Hindus ladling out vegetarian food for a few cents a plate. "People my age come here because Israel is an empty place. The presence of Muslims in India is not a concern. India is not just the world's biggest democracy, it's the world's rowdiest democracy", explained a 30-year-old waiter.

There is, though, resentment of their presence. The locals don't think highly of the youth hanging about, their reliance on recreational drugs, living in utter squalor, and doing nothing of the most utilitarian nature to support themselves. This exodus to India began in 1994 as a perceived temporary escape from reality, post-military experience.

Now, the young people living on the beaches, with no intentions of returning to Israel any time soon, and no apparent thoughts of their future, sit about, embittered, with nothing to look forward to. They have fled, they say, their country's armed turbulence with the Palestinians. And, they also say, the spiritual emptiness of Judaism.

This large, self-disenfranchised demographic represents young people too fragile emotionally, traumatized by the brutality of war, their nebulous requirement to desert morality to the imperative of survival. Not for them the comfort of martyrdom, that young Palestinians resort to. They seek their very own version of Paradise on a sandy beach in India, stoned out of their pain.

Israel: much has been sacrificed for the imperative of national survival.

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Religion As Godsend

There are some who posit that faith has its genesis within our brains as a fundamental cerebral function. Not in just any part of the brain, but that portion associated with the primitive element of the functioning brain. So, is that where the soul resides? Is the soul the mind of an individual hard-wired to cling to belief?

There are researchers who claim that the portion of the brain used for lower cognitive functions also hosts the personal crucible of faith. The very complex thinking, reasoning tool we so depend upon to make us what we are, and to bring us closer to what we aspire to be, clings to the unreason of faith. We are, therefore we believe. Most of us, in any event.

And for those who cling to faith and who believe, who suspend rationality and value mystery and believe in miracles - for by the very act of believing one must believe in miracles - faith, religion, is a huge comfort. It gives hope to the afflicted. It offers serenity to the believer. One achieves an inner state of tranquility, ease of mind through contemplation. Most certainly this reaches its apogee in Buddhism, for to deeply contemplate is to remove oneself from ego, Eros and self.

To believe in a gentle, kindly and humankind-concerned divinity is not necessarily to believe in the god of the Old Testament, that old thunderer promising an apocalyptic cessation in response to humankind's recalcitrant business-as-usual. But this is the god that most people now pray to, turn their trusting eyes toward the heavens, doughtily attempting salvation by the deeds God has called upon them to prosecute in His name, eschewing the darker elements in mankind's collective soul.

And in the process many find peace. Particularly when fearful events overtake normalcy and the future has been dimmed to prospects other than imminent death. The last rites solemnly intoned over a sufferer lends an aura of hope in the hereafter. That same hope elevates the despair of the loved ones left behind toward a belief in eventual reconciliation. We are, as humans, frail creatures, children in need of gentle cossetting, of promises that everything will be put to rights, all problems will be resolved and we will wake from dreadful nightmare to the light of redemption.

So, for those whose need of belief and faith is so great, religion can only be thought of as a beneficently rewarding approach to life on the long journey to death. Who could possibly wish to deprive believers of their invaluable raft on the sometimes buoyant, more frequently storm-tossed sea of life? For them it is not sufficient to believe that the purpose of life is to live as best one can, to enjoy the privilege, and in the process become an individual as close to approaching goodness as one can manage, through inner resources and a sense of responsibility to oneself and one's community.

But we all, believers and non-believers alike, have much to thank religion for. The simple fact is that faith very often does bring out the very best in people; at least as often as it fails the test for others who merely use it as a security blanket with no responsibilities inherent in one's presence upon this earth. Authentically great minds have developed philosophies of ethical demeanor and great moral dimensions with which to guide us through the precepts written for posterity in the name of religion. Philosophically wise and social-behaviourally intellects conspired to control humankind's baser instincts through religious instruction.

But more - artistic expression in celebration of agape, of ecclesiastical longings, of joy in life and belief of God's kind intentions for His fractious flock have resulted in creative geniuses gifting this world with architecture, music, literature and art that owe their creation to their own creators' need to give witness to the greater glory of God. For that purpose, great minds turned to creating dwelling places for their gods. The Temple of Karnak in Egypt, felt to be the largest such dwelling place ever constructed has struck wonder in the hearts of mankind over the aeons gone by.

There were earlier, neolithic structures whose purpose was the same. The Temple of Hera later, at Olympia, the Parthenon; exemplars of classical Greek antiquity in obeisance to the needs of the gods. Angkor Wat in Hindu India; Buddhist stupas; Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, the Byzantine Hagia Sophia, the great mosques of the world of Islam, like the Dome of the Rock. The Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedrals, the Basilica of Saint Peter, and Saint Paul's Cathedral.

All splendid monuments of humankind's appreciation of their gods' influence over the affairs of men. Their culture-reflecting designs of illuminating grace and beauty enrapture the spirit. All of them monumental efforts of creation to reflect the monumentality of the concept of God Himself. In the building of these temples to the Holy Spirit immense physical resources were employed and treasuries were emptied of their wealth to accomplish their completion, over vast periods of time, with one generation initiating the early effort and another completing it.

In Medieval scriptoriums sacred texts were reproduced in fabulous illuminated works of art on vellum, artistic gifts crafted in the name of God. Beautifully sombre iconography, brilliant stained glass depictions of biblical scenes, statues of Christ and the Madonna figures, fine art produced throughout the ages of friezes, statues, dating from 4000 B.C.E. to the recent past fill our museums and fill us with wonder at the beauty created in the name of faith, of religion, of belief in a constant presence looking over humankind.

We derive peace and happiness, whether or not we share faith, in listening to the sublime music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras devoted to the elevation of God in our sensibilities. From early and Gregorian chants to the liturgical dramas, ecclesiastical and liturgical music, hymns, prayers. The incomparable musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach, of Handel's Messiah, of Antonio Vivaldi and a virtual horde of supremely gifted composers who carefully crafted and brought to us the Music of the Spheres.

If for these reasons alone, no one can deny that religion has its place in this world, and through religion we have collectively received incomparable gifts.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Attenuated Resolve

The situation in Darfur has not changed, it remains a blot on the conscience of the world. And the world body still is uncertain how it should proceed, regardless of its duty to protect.

It finds itself in a certain disarray of purpose, of resolve, of certitude. It confronts an implacable administration in Khartoum bitterly resentful of interference in its internal affairs, defensive of its position of authority, contemptuous of an international community with no rights of position in Sudan.

The 26,000 peacekeepers whom the United Nations succeeded in encouraging an hostile Sudanese government to permit entry to join and complement the seven thousand ill-equipped and incapably ineffectual African Union troops whose purpose was to halt the conflict that has victimized hundreds of thousands of poor Sudanese farmers has not materialized.

A mere 6,500 UN peacekeepers are expected to be installed in Darfur; hardly sufficient to insert themselves as defenders of the afflicted Darfurians.

Organization is deficient, and no strategy for successful engagement for the peacekeepers has emerged, despite all the worries, the lectures, the meetings, the desperation. International support has been tepid, despite that the international community looks on with horror at the unfolding contretemps.

The fact that the Sudanese government has been overwhelmingly hostile to intervention and has done everything it can to forestall any, hasn't helped.

"Sudan is saying "yes" and then doing everything in its power to obstruct and undermine the hybrid force", according to Human Rights Watch's Steve Cranshaw. "The Security Council has responded to this defiance with hand-wringing but nothing more. If it continues, the UN's hands will be tied as much as the African Union's have been, spelling disaster for the Darfuri people", said Amnesty International's Africa director.

Sudan's President General Omar Hassan al-Bashir has refused entry to non-African troops to join combined forces, refusing outright offers from Thailand, Norway and Nepal. He is adamant in refusing to provide land or water for the installation of peacekeeping bases within Darfur. He demands notification in advance of all peacekeeping troop movements, insists the UN close all communications systems while Sudan conducts its military operations.

Moreover, Sudan deliberately impedes the delivery of relief supplies to Darfur, while it also tolerates attacks on aid workers. In the wake of the first shock wave of international abhorrence at the situation in Darfur, interest has waned, and the UN has faced difficulties in securing supplies and aircraft from member countries to equip peacekeepers adequately to the task at hand; their mobility handicapped by an unwillingness to become involved.

The news may be old, but the situation remains unresolved, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in refugee camps and still targets for the rampaging Arab Janjaweed militias as well as Sudanese government military. Criminal activity is rampant and violence seems to be expressing itself everywhere. Threatening the stability of neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic.

The hopelessness of the situation as far as the UN is concerned is amply expressed through the words of the UN's head of peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno: "Do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capability to defend itself and that carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the United Nations and tragic failure for the people of Darfur?"

Well, yes. What other choice is there? The attempt to help rescue the situation must be made. Devil the reputation of the UN, forget the prospect of humiliation, what is that compared to 200,000 slaughtered, countless women raped, one and a half million refugees?

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Searching For Comfort

At times of great personal stress, comfort and reassurance help to mitigate overwhelming fears of the unknown, of danger, of impending death. There's an old truism that everyone is agnostic until the Angel of Death's grim visage draws nigh. And so it is with Canadian soldiers posted to Afghanistan in the midst of an internal conflict of resurgent Islamism determined to regain the upper hand.

With neighbouring Iran actively encouraging, training and arming the Taliban, and neighbouring Pakistan having turned a blind eye to al-Qaeda's training camps on its border, the country and its invited protectors from the UN and NATO battle an entrenched enemy, sometimes protected by Afghan hill tribes, against whom the threat of violence and death serves to make them complicit.

Death overtakes routine patrols on the stealthily silent feet of well-hidden Taliban snipers, or alternately through the noisy auspices of ubiquitously-placed IEDs. Soldiers of foreign armies who have been authorized to interact with tribal leaders, to instruct and assist local police forces, to engage in regular patrols, never quite know when the next death will occur.

They live daily with the disquieting realization that their turn can come just around the corner, the next day, a harmless-enough function turned into a death trap. The military chaplain attached to the currently-engaged Royal 22nd Regiment from Valcartier, Quebec reports a high demand for copies of the army-issue camouflage Bibles specifically designed for Canadian forces. And for crosses.

In Quebec, church attendance is at a perilously low ebb for continued maintenance of expensive and little-used buildings. A society once in complete social-religious thrall to the Roman Catholic Church, to one that has managed in short order to separate itself from the Church and instead embrace secularism. Yet belief in the Almighty, however stifled, is ingrained in the consciousness of most people, however they profess.

It is endemic to most societies. And it's a simple fact of life that when all else fails, when people face the most personally catastrophic, or horribly dangerous experiences of their lives they almost instinctively turn inward toward a once-vibrant belief to render them optimism, hope of survival.

At the very least, the comfort of resorting to the familiar, the spiritual belief in an omnipresent, omniscient presence.

"The violence soldiers face in Afghanistan is making them reflect more on their mortality than in earlier missions" according to Major Francois Caron, whose tours in Bosnia and Haiti give him ample opportunity for comparison. "There is a huge difference here from earlier missions when we were patrolling as peacekeepers. I have seen people wearing crosses tell us they pray every night for the safety of the crew."

The unprecedented numbers of Canadian soldiers whose lives have been sacrificed in this theatre of guerrilla warfare, the near-deaths and the traumatic injuries have made a shocking impact on the consciousness of these men whose previous missions as onlookers and peacekeepers hadn't much impact on their personal safety.

Quite unlike the two World Wars when Canadians marched into conflict with disastrous results on their collective mortality.

We've lived since then in an atmosphere of unsettled peace, with the knowledge of wars in far-flung places little impacting on Canadians. Canadians since then, along with their armed forces have only latterly been subjected to the full implications of involvement in a full-fledged atmosphere of take-no-prisoners war.

Where the enemy is elusive, sightings are tenuous, engagements are few but hard fought, and the opportunities to let down one's guard are scarce and could possibly lead to personal disaster. At such times, the comfort of a small tome holding the wisdom of man's belief in God, and the talismanic potential of a protective cross leverage a man from despair into hope.

So be it.

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Now Here's A Conundrum

Another one of those puzzlers, and how to effectively proceed, honourable intentions intact.

In that Egypt, that huge Mideast country with its lost aspirations to be acknowledged as the religious, moral, social and political standard-bearer in the region, now reconciled to its position as being at peace with embattled Israel, and in the good financial bookings of the United States presents insoluble problems. It was Anwar Sadat who made his stunning bid for peace with Israel, and murdered for his efforts, by the Muslim Brotherhood.

And it was his vice-president who ascended to the autocratic head of the country and there Hosni Mubarak has remained ever since as president for the last 26 years. Ruling his fractious country with a steady and determined hand and with no intention of stepping down anytime soon. The United States, so eager to spread the germ of democracy throughout the region, accepts the status quo, and provides Egypt with quite a funding cache.

And is Egypt destined to be ruled forever by its current despot? There is some opposition to the current political state of affairs not by Islamists (though that fundamentalist Islamists chafe against President Mubarak's middle-of-the-road rule is a given) but by a secular candidate with decidedly progressive leanings, Ayman Nour. Mr. Nour is a champion of democratic rule, of free speech, an independent media, the right of assembly, economic opportunities and the separation of mosque and state.

Mr. Nour's agenda clearly reflects that of most Western democracies, a true breath of fresh air. But is Egypt ready for such a transformation, particularly its vast voting public, long accustomed to voting as they've been informed they must for there is no other choice? That's one huge question. Still, when Mr. Nour was grudgingly permitted to stand for election in September of 2005 he somehow managed to garner 7.3% of the vote. Which earned him some very special state treatment.

Mr. Nour had his parliamentary immunity removed, he was beaten and arrested, jailed, tortured and finally charged with the forging of over a thousand voting signatures. He was released on bail thanks to an international outcry, but when his trial concluded he was found guilty of all charges brought against him and sentenced to 5 years' imprisonment. During his trial the prosecution's chief witness against Mr. Nour claimed his testimony was falsely delivered, as he had no choice because his family's safety had been threatened.

The witness, Ayman Ismail Hassan, was also found guilty, alongside Mr. Nour. In prison he suffered torture and finally committed suicide there, by hanging himself. Mr. Nour's lawyers had been denied access to key documents, their questions to witnesses were declared invalid, and it was no little wonder the state was able to declare Mr. Nour guilty as charged. Since his imprisonment petitions for his release have steadily gone nowhere. The U.S. House of Representatives involved itself in trying to secure this man's release.

Mr. Nour is in extremely poor health as a diabetic suffering from heart disease and retinal disease, both by-products of long-term diabetes. The dreadful interrogations he was submitted to, along with the physical abuse traditionally meted out to political prisoners have not served to improve his already frail health. Those who support him internally, along with very high-profile international supporters have been unable to secure his release; he remains, quite simply, a threat to the current administration.

Mind, so is the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood, once outlawed post-Sadat assassination, then later legalized, has many followers in the country anxious to drag Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamist administration through means foul and fouler. The Muslim Brotherhood has champions throughout the Middle East; their jihadist mentality succeeded in producing Hamas as one of their offshoot affiliates, in their "struggle" toward regional fascist Islam.

And there's the rub: international experts on the Middle East situation caution that what happened in the Palestinian Authority could be repeated elsewhere, when push comes to shove. Democracy in action in the Middle East doesn't quite play out as Western interests anticipate it might, not when there are sufficient members of the voting public in the Arab street who support Islamic fundamentalism. That old adage, to be careful what you wish for applies here in flying colours.

So, really - what to do? Egypt, like Jordan and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are fighting their own internal battles against fervent jihadism, violent terror groups in their midst. Theirs is the front line against Islamic terrorism. And here's another puzzler; they're often also enablers of the very groups that cause such great concern world wide. They're conflicted within their borders and conflicted in their options and selections.

Take Egypt's peace agreement with Israel, which concluded with the proviso that Egypt not station armed forces on their common border. Yet, when Israel unilaterally pulled back from Gaza and Egypt was enlisted to patrol the Egypt-Gaza border, an exception was obviously in order. So Israel has become reliant upon Egypt to ensure that smuggling across the border into Gaza does not occur. But that smuggling does occur; the smuggling of gunmen, of arms, of supplies, even of sought-after terrorists who slip over into Gaza from their permanent positions elsewhere in the region.

What's more, the smuggling occasionally occurs with the practical physical assistance of Egyptian soldiers stationed on the border for the express purpose of ensuring it doesn't happen. The area is criss-crossed with tunnels, most of which escape detection even by alert and suspicious patrols. Smuggling of people and armaments through Egypt into Gaza is a thriving business; so thriving in fact that Hamas has undertaken to charge a protection fee of thousands of dollars upon enterprising smugglers.

The helpful Egyptian police have been instrumental in assisting Hamas terrorists to cross illegally into Gaza, conveniently creating an opening in the border fence for that purpose. Egyptian border police have also assisted in the transporting of weapons from the Sinai through tunnels under the Philadelphi Route which was entrusted to them by Israel, and from there into the PA within Gaza. The IDF knows all this because the surreptitiously clandestine enterprise was videotaped.

Yet Israel has seen the benefits of exercising caution, by determining it would not be in their best interests to alienate Egypt by exposing this underground development to the light of day, although the temptation to inform the U.S. is certainly there, as an indication that Egypt's claims that it is engaged in trying to find a just solution between Israel and the PA are to be taken with a grain of salt. And Israel is in dire need of all the help it can get, even from an overtly hostile political-public environment in a country that has signed a peace treaty with it.

Yet despite its decision to withhold information on Egypt's collusion, it became obvious that the truth emerged from some interested source. the result being that the U.S. Congress decided to hold back part of the United States' $1.3 billion allocation to the country on condition that Egypt take verifiable steps to "detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels leading from Egypt to Gaza".

And of course Egypt is more than a little infuriated with Israel as a result: "We are not revealing a secret when we say that the pro-Israel lobby has played a role in issuing this decision to achieve its well-known objectives and interests" claimed Hossam Zaki, Egypt's foreign ministry spokesman.

Speaking of tangled webs, nothing is ever quite as it seems on the surface in the Middle East.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Wait'll I Tell Your Father!

God does not know everything and never has known everything.
Maurice Maeterlinck, My Idea of God

That tired old ploy of mothers fed up with their children's inattention, with their children's intentional naughtiness. Knowing better, but because she has admonished them more than sufficiently, often enough, to no avail. Finally relinquishing responsibility because, exasperation aside, she finds herself incapable of arresting their interest, of threatening their self-interest sufficiently to ensure they will heed her.

However reluctantly, she succumbs to the inevitable - in a two-parent family - of referring to the Authority figure, the Patriarch, the Powerful One, the Dominant figure. The male. That somehow manages to rivet the careless, the care-free, the minds of the young. To be answerable to He Who Thunders. Who is also capable of offering physical punishment. Who, in any event, the young don't wish to disappoint. Because, after all, he matters.

Like father, like son : every good tree maketh good fruits.
William Langland, Piers Plowman

And, in a sense, that's the story, the history of human development through the family structure. The woman gives care and attention, the man disciplines. Either through physical domination or through the heavy censure of his disapproval and all that it may entail, from ordinary entitlements withheld to the withholding of fatherly attentions most prized.

That's the scenario on the minutest scale of human interaction of a family unit. And wasn't it ever thus?

When divine souls appear, men are compelled by their own self-respect to distinguish them.
Emerson, Journals

How about this type of transaction in human relations considered on a larger, much larger scale? The dominant social figure, for example, placing himself forward in a position of authority taken on as a leader, a political figure, a trusted or a feared presence. One whose personal charisma, wealth or social or traditional cultural standing exalts him over all others. A dictator, benign or otherwise. A cultural icon. A religious figure of great respect. A member of traditional nobility.

With me as leader, ye men, control your anxieties;
under my guidance, let ship and crew run straight.
(Me duce damnosas, homines, conpescite curas;
Rectaque cum sociis me duce navis est.)
Ovid, Remediorum Amoris.

This is human nature, to obey the instructions and injunctions and demands of one of superior standing. On whom all others learn to depend. For protection from harm from the world outside one's tribe. For direction on modes of accepted behaviour fitting in with the majority culture. For judicial assistance in disputes. For meaningful connections throughout life.

Reason and calm judgement, the qualities specially belonging to a leader.
(Ratione et consilio, propriis ducis aribus.)
Tacitus, History

Transpose that to a higher level. Introspectively cerebral minds conceive of an even higher authority whose trusted presence taken on faith - a hard-wired need within human consciousness - would lead the collective toward a relationship leading to social control. Ascribe all natural phenomena to the presence of a truly superior, unseen, but overwhelmingly powerful Presence.

It is expedient there should be gods and, since it is expedient, let us believe that gods exist. (Expedit esse deos, et, ut expedit, esse putemus.)
Ovid, Ars Amatoria

We believe, therefore He exists.

God whose gifts in gracious flood
Unto all who seek are sent,
Only asks you to be good
And is content.
Victor Hugo, God Whose Gifts in Gracious Flood

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Life and the Universe

Life and the Universe show spontaneity;
Down with ridiculous notions of Deity!
Churches and creeds are lost in the mists;
Truth must be sought with the Positivists.
Mortimer Collins, The Positivists

Why is it that world religions practised today by the faithful who invest their spiritual hopes and trust in the vision of an omniscient, all-powerful deity has more resonance, is more plausible than a pagan belief in a panoply of gods? Why is it more acceptable to believe in a single, overarching entity, the fervid belief in monotheism as opposed to a pantheon of gods? Fact is, the Christian church itself has clung to a hierarchy of gods, with its reliance on a Trinity.

As organized religions of the present day go, we have convinced ourselves that this singular entity, this Holy Spirit has granted us dominion over the beasts and the fowl of this world. Why would ours be an anthropologically selective Spirit other than He is of our own design? It took some fairly clever and intelligent human beings to fashion a spiritual figure who would have dominion over humankind, and to convince that we were fashioned in His image.

We have not succeeded in unravelling nature's mysteries, so we ascribe them to the arcane, the supranatural, the presence of a superior, supreme presence. Ancient philosophy owed its wisdom to the study and observation of human tendencies and emotions - while at the same time ascribing them to those of the gods in whose visage we were fashioned. Themselves exemplars of the very worst human emotional tendencies, fraught with anti-social manners.

Religion should extinguish strife,
And make a calm of human life;
But friends that chance to differ
On points which God has left at large,
How fiercely will they meet and charge,
No combatants are stiffer!
Cowper, Friendship

Personalizing the god figures with all the emotions, traits and characteristics - for good and for ill - that nature has endowed humankind with. The ancients, steeped in the wisdom of philosophy, worshipped their perceptions of a panoply of gods, themselves falling victim to the same emotional vulnerabilities they lectured their disciples and their human creatures against.

If mankind must recognize a creator, a protector, a prolonger of life on earth, it is nature, more specifically the presence nature herself owes her dominion to - the sun, the warming, life-giving centre of our presence within the universe. What are we, after all, without the sun's warming, life-giving, life-enhancing rays? Give credit where it is due. We are here by the singular grace of nature.

The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamen was actually the world's first monotheist, upsetting two thousand years of Egyptian belief in polytheism. He, like Moses, like Christ, like Muhammad, felt himself guided by God to declare His supreme deity. Tutankhamen's god was the God of the Solar Disk, Aten - the Eternal Light. Whose purpose was to guide mankind's way within the universe. His vision lasted a handful of years.

Our redemption is in our own incapable hands. Socrates was a wise and humble man, whose spirit and soul were wedded to pagan belief. Christ, yet another ancient philosopher, engaged with the bedazzled conviction he was a demi-god. Humankind's susceptibility enslaved it to the idee fixe of the mortal transformed to the immortal. Fearing the finality of death we grope for faith and hope to lead us to everlasting salvation in Heaven - the life hereafter.

Against her foes Religion well defends
Her sacred truths, but often fears her friends . . .
But most she fears the controversial pen,
The holy strife of disputatious men.
George Crabbe, The Library

So too does the Hebrew god of Moses promise much to His believers. Yahweh is a god of thunder and vengeance declared against those who would take His name in vain as did the poetic philosophers of ancient vintage whose child of the inventive human mind He is. Yahweh is a vestige of a tribal deity, representative of pre- and post-biblical Jewish need. A kingdom of Jewry representative of assorted tribes of triumphant victory and vividly abject slavery in conquest.

Scratch a Muslim believer in Allah by the circumstance of religious dissent or armed conflict and you reveal a tribal warrior of yore. Expressing nature's injunction to her offspring: survival attends the fiercest, the fittest, the adapters. Somehow, along the trajectory of millennia Christians and Jews have managed to shed the vestigial tribalism that gave birth to a tribal god, while Islam's hold on its inspired birth has refused adaptation to the modern era.

God Himself, in his ineffable wisdom, appears content to exhort and to chide. Sitting back to observe human drama unfold as we devour one another in our insatiable greed, anger, blame and the frenzy of our fierce determination to surmount others' ambitions by whatever means given us. Those who are meek of mind and mild of temperament, exhibiting compassion and forbearance are God's true flock.

And they succumb to the predatorily entitled others. Is God, then, representative of a complete moral failure from on high, in His inability, His incapacity, His unwillingness to intervene? A placid sadist? Yours to answer. Does mankind express His purpose, or pervert His purpose through one man-made cataclysm after another?

Men will wrangle for religion; write for it;
fight for it; die for it; anything but -
live for it.
C.C. Colton, Lacon: Reflections

The truth, to be found in the spirit of the faithful, or the minds of those eschewing faith for reasonable doubt. They are legion, we are plentiful. God Himself remains divided. Humanity appears destined to forever battle our most base instincts and emotions. A metaphor for the choice set before us by God and His dark counterpart.

O how far removed
Predestination! is thy foot from such
As see not the First Cause entire.
Dante, Paradiso

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Truth Overtaking Exaggeration

If Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf's message that he was forced to invoke a situation of martial law to apprehend the potential for an violent Islamic insurrection seemed to lack credibility at the time, no one can deny the upsurge in terror activities since that time. It is also likely that he was opportunistic in so doing, enabling himself to order the imprisonment of many of his political detractors, defanging the judiciary, and taking the opportunity to ensconce himself more securely as the sole defender of Pakistan under great duress.

When he agreed to permit Benazir Bhutto to return from exile and to plan their co-operation where each would support the other, her jubilant reception that resulted in a horrendous suicide bombing killing over 150 people served to underline just how urgent the situation was becoming in the country. When she was president, Ms. Bhutto was no more effective in controlling the renaissance of Muslim fanaticism than has, up to now, been President Musharraf. Both looked the other way, unwilling to confront the growing tide of jihad.

Since the decision was made to clean out the Red Mosque and the urban threat their members posed in threatening more secular-minded shop-keepers and the population at large by their fundamentalist denunciations, agitations, and law-breaking violence, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan with their tribal chiefs and Taliban-inspired mullahs have become more restive, outraged at the insult to Islamic Sharia's precepts, and have expressed their anger through a succession of attacks against Pakistan's military.

More latterly a suicide bomber killed 50 worshippers, injuring several hundred more, when a mosque was attacked on the holy day of Eid al-Adha in the trouble-prone North-West Frontier province. Its aim, besides the fall out resulting in the murder of innocent people at prayer, was to assassinate a former minister of the interior in his home town near Peshawar. This was the second unsuccessful attack against the same politician, the first having killed 30 and injured over 50 innocents.

Those are powerful statements of disaffection. "It was like a terrible explosion in the middle rows of the mosque, and then there was only smoke and cries of the people" according to one worshipper who was spared death, but whose memory of the horrible event will no doubt mark the rest of his life. "There is hardly a home today in our village where there is no dead body or injured" said another villager whose uncle and four cousins died in the attack.

Aftab Khan Sherpao was targeted because as interior minister he had directed military operations against al-Qaeda and tribal militants along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Which has been described as the most hostile region in the area; both with respect to its geology, its geographic formations, its formidable mountain terrain, and the tribal people who traditionally live there, fiercely exercising laws unto themselves.

President Musharraf may have exaggerated the threat against Pakistan posed by the ferocious fundamentalism of Islamists when he brought the country temporarily into emergency rule, but events appear now to have accelerated to the extent where his country is truly embattled by the ideology of fascist Islam. And he may represent the only hope for Pakistan to successfully battle that scourge.

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An Indigenous, Alien Minority

Contradictory but how else describe Christian Palestinians? Born in the territories, they are Christian by inheritance and through personal choice. Their status in a majority-Muslim environment is at suspicious arms' length from their Muslim counterparts. Who, it seems, will recognize them as Palestinian, if viewed from the perspective of chafing under Israeli oversight, but who also consider them seriously square pegs in a society that admits to recognizing the valid presence only of round ones.

They've seen their churches desecrated by Palestinian militias, their homes have been summarily optioned at times for use by both Fatah and Hamas militants in the ongoing "struggle against the occupier". There were times when Palestinian Christians' lives were as much endangered as those of Israeli citizens during the Al Aqsa Intifada.

Their numbers in the area around Jerusalem have diminished by ten thousand through emigration, from 50,000 to 40,000 residents. While, as a minority religious group, they have always suffered from persecution in a surrounding culture that admits to no sanctioning of the presence of any religion other than Islam in what are seen to be Arab-Muslim lands, their situation as a barely-tolerated group has been complicated in the last 20 to 40 years because of the ongoing conflict.

And of those 40,000 who remain a good proportion would leave as soon as possible if it were given to them the opportunity to do so; to be accepted as refugees in their countries of choice. Palestinian Christians suffer neglect, they are despised by their Muslim counterparts and are often enough victimized because of their religious adherence. They're effectively caught between Arab Muslim hatred and terrorism targeting Israel, and Israeli defensive manoeuvers.

In a landscape viewed as sacred to so many millions of faithful around the world, those inheritors of the birthplace of Christianity live lives of unease and fear for the future. Yet Santa Claus is scheduled to make an appearance in Bethlehem; at the very least the jolly man's figurines are sold in great numbers near Manger Square, alongside those of the crucified Christ. Islam views Jesus Christ kindly, as a major figure, a great prophet in the Muslim hagiography - but as a Muslim touchstone.

Among Arab Christians there is no monolithic hierarchy of belief, their faith is divided among more than a dozen interpretations of Christianity, many of which appear to be at loggerheads among one another, each viewing the other as a reflection of the light dimmed. Yet it is not necessarily their Muslim brethren they blame for their unsustainable lifestyle, but the oppressive Jewish presence, by default.

Jews may not be in the habit of murdering Arab Christians as Arab Muslims are, but the larger problem is identified as "the occupation and all that it produces - the economic, social, medical and educational hardships." Closures, curfews, checkpoints and the all-encompassing barrier wall that Israel saw itself requiring to protect its citizens from ongoing murderous attacks by fervent "martyrs" have continued to make life untenable for all Palestinians.

The solution may seem simple enough; cease the murderous agitation, the bitter attacks, the ongoing search for better vehicles through which Jewish blood may be successfully shed, and the closures, curfews and checkpoints will be relaxed. Until such time as Israel feels confident that the situation has sufficiently lapsed toward a position where she can entirely ease these constraints while in the process of suing for peace with the Palestinian Authority.

Admittedly, it is not the Palestinian Christians who can influence this sea change in attitude and behaviour, but just as they suffer so too do the Palestinian Muslims. Many of whom also seek to leave their country of origin to settle abroad where they hope to find a more reasonable, more hopeful way of life. It is the greater population of Palestinians who must awaken themselves to the reality that they will only be able to advance their lives when peace finally reigns.

The propaganda fed them by Fatah and Hamas that the entire geography is theirs, to be re-taken in a final successful series of Intifadas or terror raids against Israel should be seen for what it is; a fanatically tribal throwback to earlier eras when opposing populations settled all their grievances with bloodshed. Israel itself must re-think her priorities and settle for less than what she currently occupies.

"When Israelis say that Christians leave because of Muslim pressure, it is not the major factor, however there is some truth to that, too. There is a lack of order and a weak central government in the territories while at the same time there has been a rise of Islamic parties across the Arab world who have the perception that Christians elsewhere have taken Israel's side in the conflict. Islamic parties say that Islam is the solution and this has marginalized Christian Arabs."

A rather succinct summing-up by an Israeli Palestinian Christian dean of academics at the Bethlehem Bible College. Neither side in the conflict - Israel or the Palestinians, can hope to have everything they wish to retain or to achieve before finalizing a peace agreement. On the Palestinian side the first need is to halt terror attacks; on the Israeli side, it is to halt building on land that will have to be restored to 1967 borders.

That done - and would that it were as easily accomplished as it is to state - Arab Christians will find themselves established in either society with the opportunity to continue life as they conceive it should be for themselves and to advance themselves economically, socially and politically.

In the best of all possible worlds. Should that best ever raise its shining head of hope.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Peace In Islam

Rather hard to distinguish from the anger we so often see manifested in those who cling feverishly to Islamic principles that derive from their mangled sensibilities. There's little doubt that the greater Muslim community who claim Islam is a religion of peace believe that to be so. For them Islam represents peace, and its precepts call its followers to that belief, and to exert themselves on behalf of peace.

Yet their holy book is itself a conundrum, a compilation of injunctions to surrender to all that is holy, a reminder of piety - and yet also there remain the temporal reminders of violence inherent in human exchanges. Seems to the uninitiated like a truly conflicted message. Surrender to the will of an imperious yet loving holy spirit. Struggle interpreted as jihad, interpreted as violence against perceived oppressors.

As a religion designed for adoption and adaptation by a largely nomadic, Bedouin society, later enlarged to include greater numbers of tribal hierarchies, tailor-made to reflect an obsession with traditional cultural, geographic struggles. People need guiding principles and values and through a religious source that enumerates the many ways that people can live in harmony, this benefits society.

Yet in a harsh landscape of survival based on possessions, on land and animals to ensure the tribe is able to look after its own, resisting in the process attempts by those with fewer possessions, less land and animals for survival, the religion offers acceptance and support of tribal traditions.

Is that reason enough to consider this ancient history a satisfactory enough explanation for the fact that a people deeply immersed in their religion that instructs every facet of their lives can also exhibit deeply-ingrained animosity toward others accepting of violence? Including others of their locality and ethnic derivation, and religious adherence.

Violence can be directed toward others whose brand of that religion is not compatible with their own. And whose adherence to strict religious principles is deemed not sufficiently strict. How to rationally explain that those who believe deeply in the sanctity of their religion can still manage to engage in bloodthirsty acts of terror against their compatriots?

That the holy sanctity of a mosque can be invaded by followers of one sect of Islam for the purpose of murdering followers of another, unapproved sect? That rabid Islamists who cling to strict interpretations of Sharia law can see themselves doing their duty to Islam by becoming suicide bombers and blasting themselves into the hereafter along with fifty others praying in a mosque to Allah?

The most sacred Islamic holy days are defiled by such actions, yet in the minds of these pious Islamists these are but manifestations of their sacred duty to their religion, to the memory of the Prophet Muhammad, to Allah. One cannot ask by what logic such fanatics arrive at their destination to paradise, since logic has nothing whatever to do with such blind, unswerving faith leading to murder and death.

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Too Political?

Oxford scholar Tariq Ramadan has been critical of the manner in which Islam is being studied in the West. Scholarly study of the complexities, the history, its hagiography, and development has taken unfortunate second place to a more questionable search in the study, that of politics. And, one might wonder, why would that be? Since it would also appear that this unfortunate screening of Islam through the prism of its historical and latter-day politics only took root post 9-11...?

The phenomenon of violent jihad in a modern world surfeit with Muslim aggrievement against the West, the perception of fundamentalist Muslims that the West is in competition with Islam for world domination is nothing new; but it is now manifested beyond the lunatic fringe. A veneer of respectability for that point of view, and the jihadist mentality it manifests has been granted by the often wholesale-seeming thundering of just that from too many mosques.

Muslims are adamant in their idee fixe that the world of Islam is in a perpetual war with that of Christianity for world dominance. Throw in the disdain expressed from those same arcanely-interpreted versions of the Koran by mullahs, ayatollahs and other clerics, many of whom are considered to be highly respected Koranic experts - of the social and religious corruption in the world of the West, their contempt for Jews, and the all-enveloping "infidel" designation and there's one fine formula for politicizing Islam.

In view of the undeniable fact that the world at large - including countries within the Islamic embrace - view the threat of al-Qaeda and its fascistic, death-engrossed mayhem-loving adherents and affiliates as their foremost concern, how could anyone alert to this ongoing concern possibly be so blase about the very fact that Islam has been politicized internally? The choice has been made by so many Muslims in the greater community of Islam to politicize the agenda. why would Western scholars be expected to overlook that fact?

When Iran's revolution from a largely secular Islamic country to a fervently theocratic one took place, the country's Ayatollah Khomeini, still fresh from exile, poisoned the atmosphere of a purely religious celebration of ascendant triumph by encouraging its young pietistic revolutionaries to wage a war of attrition against western interests by violently invading a foreign embassy and holding its diplomacy-protected staff prisoner. Effectively setting off a gradually-emerging spiral of other such events.

Giving inspiration to a moneyed scion of a grand old Saudi dynasty, himself inducted into political jihadist turmoil in Afghanistan doing Islamist battle to oust Russian invaders. Succoured by the West in their intent, and realizing success, he and his cohorts ushered in the advent of rabidly orthodox, cruelly fundamentalist Taliban. Which religious kleptocracy entertained itself by brutalizing the population, and offering safe haven to al-Qaeda. No politics there?

When the annual pilgrimage to Mecca sees Saudi authorities placed on high alert for attacks against worshippers by followers of al-Qaeda, how is that to be construed other than violent politics in action? When a mosque is bombed in a border town in Pakistan by Taliban insurgents and their supporters, murdering tens, maiming hundreds of worshippers is that a political or a religious statement?

Yet Mr. Ramadan decries what he characterizes as the current academic focus on terrorism. This focus on the somewhat scholarly enthrallment with the struggle against radical movements in Islam is simplistic, according to him, reducing the wealth of Islamic theology toward political ideology. This well-studied but little-understood phenomenon, however, is simply an indication that the world of ideas requires a finer understanding of the situation.

The mass psychosis, the pathology of violent blood-letting associated with what is generally held to be a truly corrupt, completely intellectually and religiously bankrupt interpretation of Islam does most certainly require that brilliant scholarly minds delve more deeply into the connection between geography, resurgent tribalism, religious culture and traditions.

What exactly is there in Islam that appears to predispose too many of its restive young men toward vengeance, violence and bloodlust? Or is that too political a query to respond to...?

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Friday, December 21, 2007

That's What We Get For Trusting You...

It's a rather sad story, one repeated time and again. An incautiously naive young person goes abroad and places himself into a vulnerable situation, taking for granted his place in a society not his own. We see it time and again; protestations of innocence of the charges brought against them in totalitarian societies concerned with policing their populations - let alone aliens who may seek to bring the scourge of hard drugs into their precincts.

The sentences are invariably harsh beyond anything relatively minor infractions would bring them in their home countries. And despite the most strenuous diplomatic overtures and governmental efforts of consular officials and politicians reaching out to assist their passport-holders, the end results are often tragic. Lives, young and old gone to waste as they languish for years in a medieval prison system of a far-off country.

On occasion charges levelled against someone merely passing through as an innocent tourist are false, yet that person caught is in no more improved condition than the one who has been incautious enough to attempt to ferry drugs in or out of an alien country. Consider the case of Bert Tatham, a Canadian who worked in Afghanistan as an anti-narcotics officer and adviser for the Afghan government.

En route back to Canada when his assignment was completed, he ventured a brief sight-seeing stopover in Dubai. Where he was searched, and found wanting. A few poppy bulbs were found in his suitcase, carelessly tossed in as an exhibit he planned to use for future lectures in Canada. And in one of his jeans pockets a dusting of hashish was triumphantly discovered, as well. Game over.

He was sentenced to a four-year prison term for drug possession, on the basis of those two bulbs, that sprinkling of hashish; an unfortunate leftover from his exposure in anti-narcotics work in poppy eradication in Afghanistan. Apart from the diplomatic overtures by Canadian government officials, his parents' business contacts also made representation on his behalf, but to no perceived avail. He spent eight long months in jail.

The conditions he experienced there bore no resemblance to an exotic vacation anywhere in the world. He was exposed to physical abuse, and psychological torment. But just as there are more than a few ways to skin a cat (pardon) there are other avenues for pleading forgiveness. All the efforts on this man's behalf to gain his release from custody did not go unnoticed in Dubai; authorities there recognized that they had a potentially prize prop.

The United Arab Emirates have just recently brought Dubai-owned Emirates Airlines into Canada. The Emirates are quite anxious to be awarded unlimited landing rights in Canada. An "open skies" treaty would enable the airline to compete directly against Air Canada and even undercut the national airline service. In addition, the UAE has, with what some might consider to be unmitigated gall, expressed a wish to have Ottawa drop visa requirements for its nationals visiting Canada.

Canadians wishing to take advantage of enticingly low ticket prices to places like Australia, for example, in the inaugural Emirates flight from Canada, were free to do so. Mind, the voyage took somewhat longer than usual. The fact being that Australia-bound Canadians were flown first to Dubai, then on to Australia, making their flight somewhat tediously longer than anticipated. Waste of fuel? Easy to come by in the country that sucks it out of the ground.

Mr. Tatham has now been released. Canada is adamant that no bargaining has taken place to effect even this tardy release, since other foreigners arraigned and sentenced for like offences rarely have spent that long in a Dubai prison. There are bargaining tools and there are human rights promises used for trade leverage. All seems fair in enterprising challenges for trade advantages.

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Good Queen Bess

As monarchs and monarchies go, the very institutions themselves should be relegated to the dustbin of history. They are outmoded, un-modern, unnecessary and a throwback to another era of bygone history entirely. The pomp and circumstances of royalty, the deference, the expense of supporting royal households, seems antithetical to their value.

Yet many countries cling to the tradition of their nobility, of a monarch as the head of state, and constitutional monarchies appear to work well for them.

Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain is no one's idea of a pampered, self-absorbed and egotistical royal. This singularly impressive woman of great character and determination has served her country well over the many years of her reign. At 81 years of age she is one of the longest-serving monarchs in the world today, although not yet quite as long as her namesake.

This is a woman of great common sense; gracious, regal, yet with a common touch. She may very well represent as her current family's most intelligent member. The affairs of state represent her life-work. She was to the manner born and never flinched in her duty, despite the many disappointments of a personal nature that life has offered her.

No one is immune from the reality of personal failures.

This woman is the Commander-in-chief of her country's armed forces, the titular head of the Anglican Church, and the head of state of a powerful country. She has served at the pleasure of her country, and has advised eleven prime ministers in her time, from Winston Churchill to Tony Blair, and now Gordon Brown. She personifies history.

This indefatigable woman carries out over four hundred official engagements each year, conscientiously and fully conscious of her imperial duties.

As an animal lover, she keeps a stable of corgis; ugly, stupid little dogs, but beloved by her nonetheless. As an expert horsewoman and lover of horses her stables house the nobility of the racing world. She is a mother to four children, grandmother to their offspring.

To say that this woman has lived a full life is an understatement of monumental proportions. She has endured, and she is enduringly respected and venerated in her country.

Her son, Prince Charles, is chafing at the bit. Not time yet?

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