Thursday, July 25, 2013

It's always America's fault

When I’m not busy being a lawyer, I like to read. A lot. Mostly histories. For decades my main focus has been on World War II, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece. It has turned into the occasional article or even the occasional book, but I do examine as many periods of history as I an get my hands on. You never know what you might learn. And, I’ve found over the years, the more you learn, the more you realize just how much more you have to learn. The more you know the more you don’t know.

A bit worn out on World War II for a bit after finishing the manuscript for my book, I’ve been immersing myself in the details of the Khmer Rouge. For the uninitiated, I’ll give a bit of background.

For a long time the Cambodia (of Kampuchea, which is the name of the country in the local Khmer language) had been run by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was sort of the Southeast Asian version of Alcibiades, the occasionally Athenian general of the Peloponnesian War, immensely popular but corrupt and apt to change sides more often than Arlen Specter. During the 1960s Sihanouk, who was rather anti-American, vowed neutrality in the Vietnam War going on next door – but then allowed the North Vietnam People’s Army and the Viet Cong to operate from bases in Cambodia, which would seem to violate said neutrality. This agreement allowed North Vietnam to supply the Viet Cong by use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through eastern Cambodia, and the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. It also allowed the Central Office of South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese Communist headquarters, to operate in Cambodia. Eventually, the Viet Cong basically took over the border regions of eastern Cambodia.

The US responded to the construction of these Cambodian safe havens with, as one might expect, hostility – the (in)famous bombing of Cambodia. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, with backing from China, responded to Sihanouk’s hospitality by forming in 1968 the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which quickly became armed resistance to Prince Sihanouk. These Communists became known in the local Khmer language as Khmer Krahom – “Red Khmer,” which in French language of post-colonial Cambodia was Les Khmers Rouges – the Khmer Rouge.

(And for anyone who actually doubts the Domino Theory was real, note that after the appearance of communist North Vietnam we got the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the Pathet Lao in Laos. Them’s a lot of dominoes.)

Like most rebel movements at first, the Khmer Rouge were very weak, and depended on the North Vietnam “People’s” Army and the Viet Cong not only for money, training, and equipment, but for soldiers. For years it was the Viet Cong who did most of the fighting against the Cambodian military, which was notoriously ineffective. 

In 1970, while Sihanouk was abroad, his defense minister General Lon Nol seized power. There has been talk that it was a move instigated by the CIA, but there is actually little evidence to support that notion. The coup actually seems to have been initiated by senior government officials and locals in the capital Phnom Penh so they could get US aid – which they would then pilfer to further enrich themselves; the Khmer culture is ambivalent to corruption and crime. To be sure, the US took advantage of the situation to provide material support to Nol, who promised to get rid of the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge. For his part, Sihanouk went to Beijing and threw his support behind the Khmer Rouge rebels who had been trying to overthrow his regime.

Unfortunately, Lon Nol turned out to be an idiot and, after a stroke in 1971, a sick one at that. The US aid intended to go to the Cambodian army usually ended up on the black market with ministers and officers pocketing the profits. At the request of the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese "People’s" Army launched an offensive in 1970 that took half the country. The Khmer Rouge gained recruits from the peasants of Cambodia and no small measure of conscription in the areas that they controlled. So ineffective were Nol’s forces that soon he held only Phnom Penh and the highways – and he was able to hold Phnom Penh against a determined Khmer Rouge attack in 1973 only with the help of US bombing. 

In 1975, after the US left South Vietnam, the situation came to a climax. Phnom Penh’s population had swollen to two million because of the influx of refugees fleeing the fighting and, indeed, the Khmer Rouge itself, about which horror stories abounded. A US consular official in South Vietnam had visited a hill overlooking the border into Cambodia, where he could see plumes from giant fires – lots of fires. He thought these were towns burning because of US bombing, but soon realized it was no such thing. This was the Khmer Rouge at work. They had forcibly evacuated these towns and set fire to them so that their inhabitants would have nothing to which to return. This, a Khmer Rouge policy since 1972, was an ominous sign of things to come.

On April 17, 1975, Nol’s forces suffered their final collapse, Nol fled the country (one of his few instances of good judgment) and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Entering the city came tens of thousands of teenage and even pre-teen troops, all wearing the Khmer Rouge uniform of black pajamas, traditional Cambodian krama used as a scarf to signify rank, and “Ho Chi Minh Sandals” – sandals cut from old tires that were the perfect communist rebel attire inasmuch as they were simple, cheap, durable, and ugly. In contrast to how victorious troops normally behave, they also wore a cornucopia of disconcerting expressions – icy glares, black scowls, fiery anger, unfathomable hatred.

Khmer Rouge troops enter Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. (CNN/Getty Images.)

That very day, at around 1:00 pm, the Khmer Rouge ordered the 2 million people in Phnom Penh to leave immediately. No time to pack or even get together with loved ones because it would only be for a short time – three hours (as if a city of two million could evacuate and return in three hours) or three days (impossible even in that time); they could never quite get their story straight. They said it was on account of an expected US bombing raid. There was no such thing and they knew it. The goal of Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was to go back to the “Year Zero” with no history and create the perfect communist society, free from any foreign influence whatsoever (except the Chinese, of course, who kept supporting the Khmer Rouge). Because in his view the cities were corrupt hives of scum and villainy, so to speak, the cities – all of them – were to be completely evacuated, the people moved to the countryside to build their own houses and grow their own food. Private property was abolished, everything was to be owned by the “Angkar” (“Organization”), as the Khmer Rouge called their government. In reality much of that was left in Phnom Penh was carted off by the Khmer Rouge and sold to Vietnam.

And so the people were forced out. At gunpoint. Everyone, including patients in hospitals. Survivor Haing Ngor tells of being forced to leave a surgical patient behind open on the operating table. Herded like cattle the people were, driven forward into the unknown wilderness, overcome by fear and despair, with little food or water to sustain them. Those too slow or sick to keep up were shot by the Khmer Rouge. Others were so despondent at being stripped of all they owned in the world they committed suicide. Some 20,000 died in this evacuation.

Residents are forced to evacuate Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975. (Documentation Center of Cambodia)

The Khmer Rouge were largely illiterate peasants from the countryside – “Old People,” in the Khmer Rouge vernacular. Stories abound about their unfamiliarity with, and ultimately hostility to, such things as toilets, televisions, and cars. Those who were educated were threats in this atmosphere, and so doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and the like were targeted for execution. So were officers and soldiers from Lon Nol’s army. “New People” – those from the cities – were targeted for special mistreatment. Books were burned; churches, temples, and schools closed and/or destroyed.

Ah, the light in a child's eyes. Khmer Rouge troops celebrate the fall of Phnom Penh. (Roland Neveu/Getty Images)

Bruce Sharp gives the lowdown:
Draconian measures were instituted immediately. Within hours of their victory, they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, and all other cities as well. The Khmer Rouge flouted traditions of diplomatic immunity, political asylum, and extraterritoriality. High-ranking officials of the former regime were executed. Cambodians who had taken refuge in the French Embassy were forced out. Members of the press, for all practical purposes captives within the Embassy, witnessed macabre scenes of horror as the entire city of Phnom Penh, swollen with refugees, was evacuated. Even hospitals were emptied; witnesses saw patients pushed through the streets on hospital beds. An unprecedented atrocity had begun.
It is important to understand the nature of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime was, without question, one of the most disastrous social experiments of the last century. One could make a persuasive case that it was in fact the single worst government in the modern era, combining mind-numbing brutality with astonishing incompetence. History was to begin anew: the Khmer Rouge declared that henceforth Cambodia was to be known as Democratic Kampuchea, and the beginning of their reign was "Year Zero." Determined to convert Cambodia into an agrarian communist state, the Khmer Rouge upended every institution in Khmer society, exterminating millions in a frenzy of executions and criminal neglect for the welfare of its citizens. Enemies, both real and imagined, were executed. Families were split apart as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were sent to communal work groups in the countryside. Currency was abolished. Buddhism, the religion of roughly 95% of the population, was for all practical purposes banned. Angkar, "The Organization," assumed control over virtually all aspects of its subjects' lives.
And so began the “Killing Fields” in more ways that one. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China had nothing on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. This was the first slave state in modern history, possibly in any history. The entire population was slaved to the Angkar. Forced to work in hideous conditions – long working days, no weekends, little food, no medicine or modern medical equipment, little machinery, high production quotas, few if any amenities. Those who could not hold up were executed. People were reduced to little more than animals – scrounging, foraging, stealing to survive. Right out of Orwell’s 1984, children were told to spy on their parents, and anyone suspected of disloyalty was sent to prisons like S-21, a former high school in Phnom Penh also known by its common name Tuol Sleng where the objective was to extract “confessions” from its inmates. Some 20,000 mass graves, with the bodies of over one million people – soldiers and officers under Nol, intellectuals, monks, priests, dissidents – have been found. These were the “killing fields.” Many, many more died because of the aforementioned hideous conditions under which they were forced to work the fields. These, too, were “killing fields.” The true death toll will probably never be known, but the latest scholarship now suggests some three million people died under Pol’s Khmer Rouge.

Ironically, it was their former allies, the Communist Vietnamese ultimately drove them from power. The ancient rivalry between the two countries led to a complete breakdown of relations. Khmer Rouge troops took to invading now Communist Vietnam and massacring civilians. Like a tiger poked with a stick, the Vietnamese replied in angry fashion by in 1979 invading Cambodia. The Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power and installed their own government in Phnom Penh – one of the few instances where a new communist regime was actually good for the country and the people, relatively speaking, anyway, since the Vietnamese proceeded to rape the country. No slouches in the Department of Torture and Oppression themselves, these communist Vietnamese, even they were horrified by what they saw of the Khmer Rouge’s work.  China, who continued to support the Khmer Rouge, invaded Vietnam in response. Now back in the countryside as rebels again, and astonished at just how much the Cambodian people hated them, Pol Pot promised a kinder, gentler Khmer Rouge, in which they, among other things, ditched the black pajamas for jungle fatigues, but few actually bought it. Pol Pot himself died in 1998 without having been brought to justice, completely unrepentant for his actions or those of the Khmer Rouge. In fact, almost none of the Khmer Rouge leadership will be brought to justice:
Today, just two defendants remain in custody: Nuon Chea, the chief Khmer Rouge propagandist and second in command, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state. Both ailing octogenarians, the two men made measured apologies this June when they said they regretted the suffering imposed by the Khmer Rouge while distancing themselves from any decision-making authority.Worries that these and other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders will die before the court can bring them to justice are well founded. So far, the court has tried and sentenced only one of the accused (Case 001): Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, the notorious warden of Tuol Sleng S-21 prison. It was at Tuol Sleng—an emptied Phnom Penh high school and one of 200 “security centers” across the country—that Duch tortured and slaughtered some 14,000 Cambodian inmates, sending the overflow to a nearby killing field, Choeung Ek. In 2012, Duch was sentenced to life in prison.

Khieu Samphan, the intellectual leader of the Khmer Rouge, laughs while his people die at the hands of his boss Pol Pot (Cambodian Information Center).
Why do I bring this up? Well, to me it seems to make an interesting case study.

First, quite a few of the books and articles written about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia during this period blame the United States for the Khmer Rouge takeover. See, e.g., Cambodia: Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud, a French missionary who saw some of the carnage firsthand and wrote his account while the Khmer Rouge was still in power from the accounts of refugees that had made it out of the country; “Distortions at Fourth Hand”
(Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, The Nation, June 6, 1977) and Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge who played Dith Pran in the movie version of The Killing Fields. For that matter, The Killing Fields blamed the US for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Because … well, they’re never quite clear about that. Neither am I.

Did the US form the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US supply the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US train the Khmer Rouge? No, again, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US provide political, intelligence or logistical support to the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam and China.

Did the US fight alongside the Khmer Rouge? No, that was North Vietnam.

So … how exactly is the Khmer Rouge regime the fault of the US?

I’ve heard that the US bombing of Cambodia was responsible because … well, bombing is bad. The bombing drove the Cambodians to support the Khmer Rouge, I guess.

Except, there’s not really any support for that belief. Vietnam suffered far more under US bombing than Cambodia ever did, yet never dove to these depths of depravity. Neither did Laos, another target of US bombing (though the Pathet Lao had their own issues). It was not as if the US did not have every right to bomb “neutral” Cambodia because “neutral” Cambodia was providing safe harbor to the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese “People’s” Army, and the Central Office of South Vietnam, all of whom were fighting the US. As he often did, Sihanouk spoke with a forked tongue.

Is it because of Lon Nol? The US did indeed support Nol – as would anyone else in the Americans’ place. Then again, Nol was actually fighting the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese allies, not effectively allying with them as was Sihanouk. It should be noted that a few years before, Nol was actually elected prime minister, along with a right-leaning parliament that wanted to take a hard line against the Vietnamese intruders.

The US certainly made mistakes during the Vietnam War and in its handling of Cambodia, which bordered on negligence. Nevertheless, to blame the US for the Khmer Rouge is insane and borderline slanderous. The Khmer Rouge were formed in a camp run by those "heroes" of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors, with major support from China. Somehow, the "heroic" narrative of the Communist Vietnamese manages to leave that part out. Moreover, the Khmer Rouge did not gain in popularity from US bombing, but from Prince Sihanouk's throwing his support behind them in 1970. It is these parties who birthed and cradled the Khmer Rouge. Yet, somehow, it's America's fault. It's always America's fault.

Philip Short's Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare and Joel Brinkley's Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land give more balanced views, pointing out US mistakes while placing the bulk of the blame where it belongs. But it will take more than a few books to erase the damage done by decades of misinformation on Southeast Asia, let alone the reflex of some to blame the United Stats for each and every evil in the world, past or present.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Another episode of Who Bombed Syria?

Making the rounds this week is discussion of a massive explosion that took place last Thursday in the Syrian port city of Latakia. Latakia is still controlled by Bashar Assad's government; in fact, it is populated with Alawites. Latakia is also next to the ancient port of Tartus, which is the base for the Russian Mediterranean Fleet. Latakia is his primary entry point for supplies. So what was destroyed? Russian missiles. And who destroyed them? Well, that is an interesting question:
Foreign forces destroyed advanced Russian anti-ship missiles in Syria last week, rebels said on Tuesday - a disclosure that appeared to point to an Israeli raid.
Qassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council, said a pre-dawn strike on Friday hit a Syrian navy barracks at Safira, near the port of Latakia. He said that the rebel forces' intelligence network had identified newly supplied Yakhont missiles being stored there.
"It was not the FSA that targeted this," Saadeddine told Reuters. "It is not an attack that was carried out by rebels.
"This attack was either by air raid or long-range missiles fired from boats in the Mediterranean," he said.
Rebels described huge blasts - the ferocity of which, they said, was beyond the firepower available to them but consistent with that of a modern military like Israel's.
Israel has not confirmed or denied involvement. The Syrian government has not commented on the incident, beyond a state television report noting a "series of explosions" at the site.
According to regional intelligence sources, the Israelis previously struck in Syria at least three times this year to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from President Bashar al-Assad's army to Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Such weaponry, Israeli officials have made clear, would include the long-range Yakhonts, which could help Hezbollah repel Israel's navy and endanger its offshore gas rigs. In May, Israel and its U.S. ally complained about Moscow sending the missiles to Syria. Israel said they would likely end up with Hezbollah. The Lebanese group has said it does not need them.
"Foreign forces," huh? Now who might those forces be? Israel? That seems obvious, but Syria says otherwise:
Al-Qaida was responsible for the massive arms depot explosion in Latakia over the weekend, a Syrian official said on Sunday. Syria denied Israel's role in the incident after Arab media outlets reported conflicting stories on the cause of the blast.
"The attack in Latakia was not carried out from the air or the sea, but by a terrorist group aligned with al-Qaida," a senior Syrian official told Syrian state media. "The group fired missiles of European design that caused large fires in the bases."
But the obvious does seem to be true:
In a recent report from investigative journalist Richard Silverstein at the Tikun Olam blog, confidential sources within the Israeli military establishment revealed to him that the alleged bombing of a weapons depot in the Syrian town of Latakia, – which sits beside the Russian controlled seaport at Tartous – was an Israeli operation, targeting advanced Russian-supplied defensive missile systems (S-300 or Yakhont), an operation that included the direct assistance of opposition militants inside Syria.
Silverstein’s Israeli source specifically states that members of the FSA coordinated with the IDF and engaged in a diversionary rocket attack at the time of the Israeli airstrike. The previous Israeli attack in Damascus; when rebels were on hand to film the event, bears similar hallmarks to the attack in Latakia, yet, contrary to the previous strike, there has been no footage to date of the explosion, and Syrian journalists I have contacted have confirmed that there are no Syrian media reports on recent large-scale explosions in Latakia. The anti-Assad activist the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” has reported briefly on the incident and claimed Syrian soldiers were killed, and the blast could be heard kilometres from the alleged strike-zone.
Even more obvious is the fact that it' s in Assad's interest to deny Israeli involvement lest he look weak to Arabs all over the Middle East. Plus, there is this:
Assad has vowed to retaliate for any new Israeli raids after Israel destroyed Syrian weapons destined for Hezbollah in early May, and if Assad asserted it was Israel this time he would box himself into action he may not want to take.
But Israel has issued warnings of its own. Russia has been sending advanced missiles to Assad. Israel politely asked them to stop:
Israel warned Russia just this May not to arm Syria with missiles.
"At this stage I can't say there is an escalation. The shipments have not been sent on their way yet. And I hope that they will not be sent," said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon last May . But "if God forbid they do reach Syria, we will know what to do."
Though Yaalon's warning was about s300 anti-aircraft missiles, the anti-ship missiles at Syria's port could easily threaten Israeli or American ships operating in the Mediterranean.
Funny, I just heard something about those S-300 missiles:
The Free Syrian Army claimed Monday that the Israel Air Force had destroyed a warehouse holding Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles east of the city of Homs in western Syria. The rebels' claim has not been corroborated by any other independent source.
In a Facebook post titled "The new Israeli strike," the rebels alleged that "the brave Syrian regime has conceded that a new Israeli strike targeted a warehouse containing Russian S-300 missiles and launchers. The facility was located in the al-Qassia camp, near the town of al-Hafa, east of Homs."
The post further insinuated that the attack was meant to stop the Free Syrian Army from seizing the advanced weapons system.
That would seem to be rather odd motivation on Israel's part. Some interesting analysis, if you can get past the obvious anti-Israel bias, from Phil Greaves of Global Research:
The Israeli government has no concern for Syria or its people, it will happily pour fuel on the fire and enable warring factions to shed further needless blood to achieve its desired strategic objectives. As Jonathon Cook noted recently, the “optimal scenario” for the Israel military would be for the Syrian war to totally divide the state, resulting in a de-facto “balkanization”. It makes perfect sense that to achieve this, Israel are in the same position as the United States, they are looking to “level the playing field”.
Actually, Israel is very concerned about Syria. They are sick of having the threat of Syrian invasion just across the Golan Heights. But if they cannot get a Syrian government who will agree not to attack them then the second best solution is to keep the civil war ongoing. The job of the Israeli government is to care for the Israeli people, not the Syrians.
Following recent statements from Russian diplomats vowing to honour advanced weapons contracts, along with claims from Assad that the shipments had begun to arrive in response to the previous Israeli airstrike upon Syria, – which targeted elite Syrian military divisions stationed in the Qassioun Mountains in Damascus – it appears Israel may have acted upon the threat of attacking Russian weapons that “tip the balance” in the region. In reality, the result of Syria acquiring such advanced systems will diminish Israel’s ability to violate its neighbours sovereign airspace at will, and in turn, commit acts of war unhindered.
As if Israel's neighbors have no history of committing acts of war against Israel, eitjher directly or through proxies (cough! cough! Hezbo'allah cough! cough! Hamas). But this is the real juicy part:
The media silence surrounding this alleged attack is disconcerting on several levels. Firstly, if indeed Russian supplied advanced weapons (either the Yakhont Surface to Sea, or the S-300 Surface to Air systems) – that will undoubtedly be accompanied by Russian military personnel – have been attacked, why is Russia silent on the issue? Have Russia given the Israeli’s guarantees that retaliation will not be forthcoming? Aside from this theory, there is the distinct possibility that an emboldened Israeli military now feels it can strike targets within Syrian territory with impunity; particularly considering the half-hearted response from Russia (and the “International Community”) to Israel’s last act of war upon Syria.
Furthermore, if Israel has indeed carried out this strike and knowingly hit targets that Russian troops may be alongside, are Russia even willing or able to retaliate? Lets not forget, a war with Israel is almost a guaranteed war with the United States. Of course, to these powers this is a game of chess, and Israel like to play in the dark. Could Russia and Israel both be engaging in covert strikes against each other? Mysteriously, an Israeli F-16 “crashed during routine training” over the Mediterranean on Sunday, a mere two days after the alleged strike in Latakia; it is no secret Russia has been building a huge Naval presence in the Med.
In summary, if it is true that Israel has targeted Russian advanced systems, and all the implications that follow, Russia and Syria could be remaining silent for three reasons: firstly, out of embarrassment and an unwillingness to appear weak through lack of ability to retaliate; secondly, one of the parties is complicit; thirdly, they plan to retaliate in kind, ie: a covert operation. The only other explanation is that the strike in Latakia simply did not occur.
And so ends another episode of Who Bombed Syria? 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Tunguska explosion caused by meteor

There has been a major development in the investigation into what has become known as the Tunguska Event. For the uninitiated, here is a little background from Wikipedia:
The Tunguska event was an enormously powerful explosion that occurred near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, at about 07:14 KRAT (00:14 UT) on June 30 [O.S. June 17], 1908. [citations omitted] The explosion, having the epicentre (60.886°N, 101.894°E), is believed to have been caused by the air burst of a small asteroid or comet at an altitude of 5–10 kilometres (3–6 mi) above Earth's surface. Different studies have yielded widely varying estimates of the object's size, on the order of 60 m (200 ft) to 190 m (620 ft).[citation omitted] It is the largest impact event on or near Earth in recorded history.[citation omitted] [...]

At around 07:17 local time, Evenks natives and Russian settlers in the hills northwest of Lake Baikal observed a column of bluish light, nearly as bright as the Sun, moving across the sky. About 10 minutes later, there was a flash and a sound similar to artillery fire. Eyewitnesses closer to the explosion reported the sound source moving east to north. The sounds were accompanied by a shock wave that knocked people off their feet and broke windows hundreds of kilometres away. The majority of witnesses reported only the sounds and the tremors, not the sighting of the explosion. Eyewitness accounts differ as to the sequence of events and their overall duration.

The explosion registered on seismic stations across Eurasia. In some places the shock wave would have been equivalent to an earthquake of 5.0 on the Richter scale.[citation omitted] It also produced fluctuations in atmospheric pressure strong enough to be detected in Great Britain. Over the next few days, night skies in Asia and Europe were aglow;[citation omitted] it has been theorized that this was due to light passing through high-altitude ice particles formed at extremely low temperatures, a phenomenon that occurred again when space shuttles re-entered Earth's atmosphere.[citations omitted] In the United States, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Mount Wilson Observatory observed a decrease in atmospheric transparency that lasted for several months, from suspended dust.
Because of the remoteness of the Tunguska region and the chaos caused by World War I, the Communist Revolution, and the Russian Civil War, it was not until 1927, when an expedition from the Soviet Academy of Sciences led by Leonid Kulik finally reached the area. Here is how Wikipedia describes what they found:
The spectacle that confronted Kulik as he stood on a ridge overlooking the devastated area was overwhelming. To the explorers' surprise, no crater was to be found. There was instead around ground zero a vast zone (8 kilometres [5.0 mi] across) of trees scorched and devoid of branches, but standing upright. Those farther away had been partly scorched and knocked down in a direction away from the centre. Much later, in the 1960s, it was established that the zone of leveled forest occupied an area of some 2,150 square kilometres (830 sq mi), its shape resembling a gigantic spread-eagled butterfly with a "wingspan" of 70 kilometres (43 mi) and a "body length" of 55 kilometres (34 mi).[citation omitted]
How bad did it look? This bad:

Picture from Leonid Kulik's 1927 expedition to area of Tunguska Event. (From Ars Technica.)

Note that this was in 1927 -- 19 years after the event.

As Nature magazine points out:
At an estimated 3 to 5 megatonnes of TNT equivalent, it was the biggest impact event in recorded history. By comparison, the meteor that struck the Russian region of Chelyabinsk earlier this year 'merely' packed 460 kilotonnes of TNT equivalent.
What is really scary is, what if this had happened today? In an era of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads? Wouldn't we understandably assume this was a nuclear attack? Because, how would we know?

The Tunguska Event has remained a mystery for over a century because of an almost complete lack of evidence as to a cause. As Nature explains:
Numerous scientific expeditions failed to recover any fragments that could be attributed conclusively to the object. Hundreds of microscopic magnetic spheres have been found in the 1950s and 1960s in Tunguska soil samples, but there is continuing debate about whether they are the remnants of a vaporized meteor. “There’s really not much out there, and nothing that’s definitively Tunguska,” says Phil Bland, a meteorite expert at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

The lack of samples has allowed wild speculation about the cause of the event, with some of the more esoteric explanations invoking antimatter and black holes. But most geoscientists think that part of an asteroid, or perhaps a comet, broke away and fell to Earth as a meteor.
Now, we appear to have found some definitive proof. From Ars Technica:
[A] study in the journal Planetary and Space Science provides, for the first time, evidence that the impact was not caused by a comet. Researchers collected microscopic fragments recovered from a layer of partially decayed vegetation (peat) that dates from that extraordinary summer.
Victor Kvasnytsya from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and his colleagues used the latest imaging and spectroscopy techniques to identify aggregates of carbon minerals—diamond, lonsdaleite, and graphite. Lonsdaleite in particular is known to form when carbon-rich material is suddenly exposed to a shock wave created by an explosion, such as that of a meteorite hitting Earth. The lonsdaleite fragments contain even smaller inclusions of iron sulphides and iron-nickel alloys, troilite and taenite, which are characteristic minerals found in space-based objects such as meteorites. The precise combination of minerals in these fragments point to a meteorite source. It is near-identical to similar minerals found in an Arizona impact.
The samples point to one thing: the Tunguska impact is the largest meteorite impact in recorded history. US researchers have estimated that the Tunguska blast could have been as much as the equivalent of a five megaton TNT explosion—hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast. The meteorite tore apart as it entered the atmosphere at an angle, so that little of it reached the ground intact. That is why all that remains are such small specks that have been fossilised in the Siberian peat.
Nature gives more details:
Kvasnytsya says that Ukrainian scientist Mykola Kovalyukh, who died last year, collected the fragments in 1978 from a peat bog close to the epicentre of the blast. Research on the fragments in the years following their discovery found that they contained a form of carbon called lonsdaleite, which has a crystal structure somewhere between graphite and diamond, and forms under extreme heat and pressure. But the grains also contained less of the dense metal iridium than is typically found in meteorites — the meteor fragments that are actually recovered on the ground — so researchers had concluded that they were terrestrial rocks altered by the impact. The findings, published in the 1980s in Russian, went largely unnoticed by Western scientists at the time.
Kvasnytsya and his colleagues decided to take a closer look at the fragments using a battery of modern analytical techniques. Transmission electron microscopy showed that the carbon grains were finely veined with iron-based minerals including troilite, schreibersite and the iron–nickel alloy taenite. This patterning and combination of minerals is very similar to that in other iron-rich meteorites. “The samples have almost the entire set of characteristic minerals of diamond-bearing meteorites,” says Kvasnytsya.
“An iron-rich, stony asteroid fits with our understanding of Tunguska,” says Collins [Gareth Collins, Earth-impact researcher at Imperial College London]. Over the past 20 years, several modelling efforts have concluded that a stony asteroid was the only culprit that could have produced the effects reported on the ground [citation omitted] . However, a small but significant minority of scientists still backs the comet hypothesis, he adds.
But, of course, there are doubts:
“They’ve got some interesting stuff here,” but the team does not yet have conclusive proof, says Bland. The low levels of iridium and osmium in the samples are “a red flag” that raises doubts that the fragments originated in an asteroid, he says, and the peat sediment in which the samples were found has not been convincingly dated to 1908. “We get a lot of meteorite material raining down on us all the time,” adds Bland. Without samples of adjacent peat layers for comparison, “it’s hard to be 100% sure that you’re not looking at that background”.
However, in mysteries like this, with the technology we have now you will never get proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In my opinion, absent new evidence to the contrary, the Tunguska mystery is solved.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A big effing deal with the potential to get even bigger effing

Ding! Dong! The Douche is gone! Muhammad Morsi has been removed from power:
Tahrir Square erupted in cheers and fireworks moments ago as Egypt’s military deposed President Mohammed Morsi. Egypt’s top general, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, made the announcement on Egypt’s state-run television. The head of state is the chief justice of Egypt’s constitutional court, on an interim basis.
Morsi was elected in Egypt’s first free elections a year ago. He has become unpopular as he has used his power to install radical Islamist rule across Egypt’s government. The demonstrations that turned him out involved millions of Egyptians, in what may have been the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in world history.
Well, let's not get to carried away with the numbers, but they were massive. Even more interesting is this tidbit:
After the Egyptian military announced the end of Mohamed Morsi’s rule flanked by both Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Grand Mufti Ahmed al-Tayeb, Islamists began predicting a purge of their kind in the new democratic Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood was not represented among the opposition leaders joining the leaders of Egypt’s two largest faiths and the powerful military figures.
“It is wonderful to see the Egyptian people taking back their stolen revolution in a peaceful way,” the Coptic pope said in a statement Tuesday.
The grand mufti, not considered conservative enough by the Muslim Brotherhood, said the “people have surprised and inspired the world through its elegant expression of their peaceful demands.”
Indeed, it is. The presence of the Coptic leader beside the army leadership is fascinating. It suggests the army isn't just removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power; they are repudiating what the Brotherhood stands for, which is Islamic supremacy. This possibility is supported by this statement from the army:
The general said their working group arrived at its road map to build an “Egyptian society, strong and stable, that will not exclude any one of its sons.”
This is, as Joe Biden would say, "a big [effing] deal." How this plays out remains to be seen, obviously, but the potential is here for Egypt to move fairly quickly into a Turkish-style government(pre-Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan) with the army guaranteeing that no religious dictatorship develops.

But potentially, and I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, this is a huge [effing] deal, going far beyond Egypt. Think about this a second. You had millions of Muslims protesting in the streets against an Islamofascist terrorist organization in the Muslim Brotherhood. Millions of Arab Muslims. This is a first. A major, major first.

And why were they protesting? Because they saw what happens when an Islamofascist government rules over them, and they did not like it one bit. Yes, you have Islamofascist governments ruling in Iran and (increasingly) in Turkey. But neither Iran nor Turkey is Arab, so their struggles do not register in the Arab world. Egypt is.

So you had an Islamofascist group (a group that is the spiritual parent of and affiliated with al Qaida)being soundly rejected by the very people the Islamofascists claim wanted it. Now the Arab world can see what happens when the Islamofascists rule an Arab country.

Will they take the lesson to heart in Libya? Tunisia? Syria? Gaza?

Could this turn the tables on a vicious political branch of Islam that has been gaining power and prestige in the past quarter century? Yes. Will it? That remains to be seen.

For now, let's just celebrate something good with the Egyptian people. They made a grievous (and rather obvious) mistake, and they corrected it. Be happy for them. And.may it be a first step in restoring peace and prosperity to the Egyptian civilization

Separated at birth?

The Roman Emperor Caracalla:

Took this picture myself at the Capitoline Museum, Rome.
 and Grumpy Cat:

Probably thinking "Caracalla killed 20,000 Alexandrians? GOOD!"

The anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Egypt

are the subject of my latest column for Independent Voter Network. Short story long: when you elect the Muslim Brotherhood, don't be surprised when it acts like the Muslim Brotherhood.