First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
This Ain't Cops & Robbers
Something strange has happened to American public opinion in the past few weeks.
We still support the war, but somehow the objectives have changed.
When we first started fighting, we were told -- and we believed -- that catching Osama bin Laden would be a Good Thing, but it was not a condition of victory. If we could remove the Taliban from power and then go on to remove from power the other terrorist governments that threaten us, we would have won, whether we caught Osama or not.
But now the public opinion polls show that we're frustrated and impatient that we haven't caught Osama bin Laden. Why? Tracking down one man in the whole wide world -- or simply finding him in the hills of Afghanistan or Pakistan -- is not something that an army can reasonably be expected to do.
And if we did send out search missions, our soldiers would be easy targets for ambushes.
That's not how you use an army. You identify a task that your army can do, which is worth doing, and then you send that army to do it.
Catching Osama would be worth doing. But it's not a thing that an army can do.
Armies are good for destroying other armies, harassing other armies, destroying supply lines, garrisoning entrenched positions, and other strictly military tasks.
Armies are lousy at police work and even worse at intelligence gathering.
Why, then, did we shift our gaze, as a people, toward a militarily meaningless task like finding one criminal?
It was almost inevitable.
The war in Afghanistan looked almost too easy. That's because the Taliban could not hold on to power over the civilian population, so cities fell left and right during the first months of the war.
But when we had a provisional government in place, the Bush Administration was way too happy basking in the glow of high poll numbers. It felt like victory, and they didn't have the sense to spoil the party and point out, with fervor, that we had not yet won the war -- nor even the battle.
Afghanistan was not pacified, and they knew it. The toughest fighting lay ahead -- and we're getting it now. The Taliban has holed up in extremely defensible positions. If we ignore them, they'll come out after we've gone and take back the government. So we have to root them out, which will be bloody, nasty work.
Attacking entrenched positions is devilishly hard. We have the combat tools to do it with historically low casualties -- low, but not zero.
The trouble with our combat tools is that, if Osama is holed up in those caves, chances are very good that he will be killed under circumstances that will make it impossible to identify his body.
Please, remember this -- and remind everyone else. We can achieve victory without catching Osama. And we could catch Osama and still not have achieved victory.
The war will be won when all the terrorist governments have been replaced.
Am I the only one, or does it look to you as though this plan to have a summit meeting between the head of the Palestinian Authority and the prime minister of Israel is just a scam to get Arafat safely out of Israeli-controlled territory to a place where he can run his terrorist campaign with impunity?
My recent piece on the dangers of premature release of bioengineered crops has drawn some criticism from scientist friends of mine.
Naturally, some of them immediately charged me with being a kneejerk Greenpeace Rifkinite anti-science fanatic (though, being friends, they couched this in polite language).
This is standard practice in the American "intellectual" community -- when someone says something you disagree with them, you don't answer what they said, you lump them in with your stupidest opponents and then trot out the standard arguments.
I've seen this over and over. Don't answer the hard questions, just keep answering the easy ones.
Somebody suggests we ought to ban abortions of viable fetuses (i.e., babies) and the pro-abortion lobby accuses them of wanting to kill women who are driven to undergo back-alley abortions. (Never mind how many of the babies thus killed might have grown up to be women.)
Somebody suggests that the only purpose of a handgun is to kill people and there's no reason for civilians to be allowed to own them, especially since the most common victims are family members of the gun owners -- and the pro-gun lobby screams that this is just the "first step" to stripping guns from the American people so we can be ruled over by Communists or Nazis. (Never mind that the scariest members of the gun lobby are, in fact, the modern equivalent of Bolsheviks and Nazis.)
I've written and spoken deriding the bad-to-nonexistent science that pervades the whole global-warming scam. I've never denied that it might be happening (though the real science, as opposed to computer simulations, now points toward a cooling trend), I've only pointed out that we don't have any reliable information about whether it's happening and, if it is, what the cause might be.
But right after saying that at a Jacksonville book fair, a woman came up to me and, after getting her book signed, said, "I don't care what you say, I know global warming is happening."
When I asked her what studies she had read that I had not, she said, "I'm in the sciences," as if that meant that by career alone she knew things that I didn't know. And when I said, "Oh, you work in climatology?" she had to admit she was a technical worker in water environments -- meaning she was a member of the priesthood of environmentalism, but with no special expertise at all in the pertinent sciences.
In other words, it was her religion, and she was a priest, and I had committed blasphemy.
But it had nothing to do with science.
However, among the responses I got to my column was a serious one from a scientist working on the cutting edge of bio-research. He's as outspoken a critic as I am of bad science and bad science reporting, but he pointed out that the Barry Commoner piece I based much of my commentary on seriously misrepresents the actual workings of DNA.
I was happy to have some of the errors corrected, and some of the most immediate fears seem to be misplaced. Certainly the apocalyptic scenarios of the Church of Environmentalism are absurd -- but I always thought they were.
My friend's point is this: If you listen to Jeremy Rifkin and his ilk, nothing bioengineered will ever be safe enough. Never mind that every vegetable, fruit, fungus, or slab of meat you eat has been bioengineered through selective breeding for hundreds or thousands of years.
At the same time, he also agrees with my point: Scientists are as susceptible to social and financial pressures as any other humans, and premature release of inadequately tested living things into our environment is not just possible, it's likely -- though he thinks the potential dangers are not as serious as I think they are.
His solution: Scientists need to do a better job of explaining how their processes work in actual English that real people can understand. Hiding behind the elitist attitude "we're scientists and you're not, so you can't regulate us" will only lead to disaster.
Sadly enough, the people who go into science are only occasionally possessed of the rhetorical gifts that would be required to explain science to ordinary folks. Or the patience, either.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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