July 25, 2006

A Rift in Hamas?

I haven't commented much on the war in Lebanon on this site, mostly because this post written a few days ago still seems valid, and anyway, other blogs are offering better analysis and I've been busy. But here's something to chirp in with. Via Kevin Drum, the Guardian is reporting that some Hamas leaders are looking to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza:
Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have agreed to stop firing rockets at Israel and to free a captured Israeli soldier in a deal brokered by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

The deal, agreed on Sunday, is to halt the rocket attacks in return for a cessation of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, and to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured on June 25, in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners at some point in the future....

This has been accepted by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, and the Hamas political movement but not by Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus. Mr Meshal wields considerable power because he controls funds donated by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The military wing of Hamas, which is holding Cpl Shalit, is particularly dependent on the money from Mr Meshal.
The rift between Haniya and Meshaal seems critical and is worth trying to understand. Before the current fighting in Gaza and Lebanon broke out, Scott Atran of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that Haniya had apparently agreed with Abbas to form "a national coalition that implicitly allows for the coexistence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, following the 1967 borders." Needless to say, this was groundbreaking, if true. But Meshaal, who does indeed control Hamas' military wing, thwarted the plan, and as one Abbas advisor said, "he has repeatedly tried to undermine the Haniya government's authority to negotiate."

The subtext here is that Haniya is very popular among Palestinians, seeing as how he masterminded Hamas' brilliant campaign in last year's elections. And Avi Dichter, Israel's minister in charge of internal security, thinks Haniya is sincere about negotiating—although he's obviously no "moderate". But Meshaal, as the Guardian points out, still controls Hamas' purse strings, and he's emerged the victor in previous clashes with Haniya—among other things, he thwarted the proposed Palestinian legislative elections in 1995, causing Haniya to leave Hamas briefly.

So the prospects for Haniya's latest gambit don't look great, especially so long as Meshaal wants to prolong the war against Israel (unless, of course, Syria and Iran want to ratchet down tensions a smidgen and force Meshaal to accept the deal). But here's the catch: Hamas leaders reportedly told Atran that they're forced to depend on Meshaal so long as the United States and Israel continues to "isolate and starve the Hamas government." Where else, after all, will they get the funds they need to survive?

So perhaps—perhaps—if the United States and Israel abandon their strategy of trying to devastate Gaza in the hopes that Palestinians will abandon Hamas, they could potentially strengthen the hand of the marginally less-militant political wing. This might all just be wishful thinking, but it's a possibility. Speaking of which, Menachem Klein, a professor at Bar-Illan University in Israel, wrote a good piece for Logos about Israel's strategy to cripple Hamas by breaking Gaza's back. He explains how that option won out among others, argues that it's a failed strategy, and has some smart things to say about the general failure of Olmert's plan for unilateral withdrawal from West Bank. I'd recommend the full article.
-- Brad Plumer 5:19 PM || ||

July 21, 2006

Waiting for the Hangman

On the morning of 21 December 1995, [Kimura Shuji] went to visit her condemned son and was told that visiting hours were very busy and to come back at noon. When she returned, she was asked whether she wanted to take her son's body away for burial.
Welcome to death row in Japan. Prisoners are executed by hanging—a process known to produce "gruesome scenes of slow strangulation and even decapitation." And prisoners sitting on death row don't even know when they'll actually die. No one gives them a date. Prisoners aren't told "this day will be your last" until the actual morning of their execution, which can come at any time—days or months or decades after their appeals process is exhausted. Their families aren't notified until after they're dead. Everyone involved lives under the strain of uncertainty.

One prisoner, Oda Nobuo, exhausted his appeals process way back in 1970, and is still under sentence of death—meaning that he has had to wake up, in a solitary cell, every morning for nearly 40 years knowing that he could be executed that day without warning. One former prisoner describes how he was dragged out of his cell by guards one morning, before they whispered nervously that they had the wrong guy, put him back, and went to get some other guy for the hangman's noose. Oops. All of those stories come from a new Amnesty International report: "The Death Penalty in Japan."

Needless to say, spending decades on death row, without knowing when it will all end, is liable to make even the most level-headed inmate insane and suicidal. It's gratuitous torture of the worst sort. And that's doubly true in Japanese prisons, where death-row inmates are forced to live in solitary confinement, cut off from other prisoners and allowed only intermittent outside visits as well as two short periods a week to leave their cells for exercise. Not surprisingly, many prisoners develop mental health problems—although, since Japanese courts often find defendants with mental disabilities to be "mentally competent," many of those on death row where already mentally ill when they came in.

To say this is all quite horrifying seems inadequate. And lest anyone thinks that these prisoners are probably all guilty of sin and deserve what they get, note that Japanese courts convict a staggering 99 percent of those accused of crimes—the highest conviction rate in the developed world. The odds that innocent people are frequently sentenced to death are very, very high.

Indeed, the entire Japanese criminal "justice" system is geared towards speedy conviction. Under the daiyo kangoku system, Japanese police can interrogate suspects in police cells for up to 23 days before transferring them to prison. There are few rules regulating interrogations, and a suspects' access to a lawyer is extremely limited during this time. Amnesty has long documented how the police use beatings, intimidation, and sleep deprivation to extract "confessions" from suspects for crimes they haven't committed. In the 1980s four men were released from death row after it was revealed that they signed such confessions under torture, but even though there's no reason to think this was a special case, death-row pardons are extremely rare.

Here, meanwhile, is a 1998 Amnesty report about Japanese prison conditions for everyone else. Frankly, they're not much better. Prisoners are often beaten severely by guards for minor rule infractions (one such rule: "Avoid leaning against the bedding or sitting on it") and frequently placed in solitary confinement cells where they're forced to kneel on the floor, without moving, for 10 hours a day over a period of months. There are also special "protection cells" where prisoners are kept in handcuffs and tight restraints 24 hours a day—often without good reason. Not that American prisons are much better (and we certainly execute far more people), but the Japanese are quite adept on the cruel and unusual front.
-- Brad Plumer 8:41 PM || ||

July 20, 2006

Happy or Satisfied?

Via Ezra Klein, who had smart things to say about it, New York Magazine has a feature story this month that surveys the latest in happiness research. It's all very fascinating and includes some nifty trivia bits. Surveys show, for instance, that slum-dwellers in Calcutta are happier than homeless people in Fresno—possibly because they have more extensive social networks. Also, people are terrible at predicting what will make them happy. But it's a bit frustrating, because the piece doesn't discuss the question I'm really interested in: What, exactly, is "happiness" in the first place?

Oh, it sounds like a dumb question. But I don't think it is. Presumably we all know what happiness is when we see it or feel it, but defining the thing seems a bit trickier. Is it something like being content or satisfied with the way one's life is going? That doesn't seem right. A person can easily be satisfied with their life and still be emotionally miserable; some people—a "tortured" artist, say—might even make a point of embracing misery. Are they "happy"? That seems counterintuitive. But they still might seem satisfied. We might say that, deep down, they're not truly satisfied with their lives, but to some extent we should probably try to take people at their word.

Likewise, not everyone will necessarily value happiness above all else as a life goal. A soldier in Iraq, say, may not exactly be happy at the moment, but he could conceivably be, in some sense, satisfied with (or proud of) what he's doing, perhaps because he values "serving a cause greater than himself" or whatnot above being happy. Likewise, I personally would prefer to have a job that was fulfilling in some sense, even if the long hours made me miserable, than one that was unchallenging but made me happy on a day-to-day basis (say, a job testing out computer games, or a 10-hour-a-week high-paying gig that gave me ample time to sleep and read on the couch).

So happiness doesn't seem like the same thing as being satisfied with the way your life's going. At the same time, it seems odd to say that it's merely an emotional state. Depression, oddly enough, offers a good example: it doesn't seem odd to say that depressed people can be happy for long lengths of time while still being fundamentally unhappy in some sense. (Of course, maybe this is just because we don't understand depression very well.) Imagine Jane is depressed and Jill isn't—in fact, she usually has a cheerful disposition. But all through February, Jane is dating some wonderful guy and is mostly ecstatic about it. Everything's going well. There are no problems. Jill, meanwhile, is going through a rocky break-up. Kind of glum overall. Lots of sitting on the couch and moping.

At the same time, Jane is predisposed to becoming very upset very quickly should anything go wrong. If the guy she's dating suddenly said something critical, say, she'd become first aggravated and then sad. Or if he was spending time with his ex-girlfriend, she'd become jealous and feel like her world was collapsing. Now none of these things happen, so all's well, but they could, and she's predisposed to react badly to them—her "happiness," then, depends mostly on contingent events. Jane, meanwhile, despite being glum at this point in time, is predisposed to being cheered up rather easily—perhaps, one might say, because she's a fundamentally "happy" person. Is that right? Is Jane "really" happier than Jill?

I guess my take is that, since happiness obviously isn't the same as momentary, contingent pleasures (just because you're enjoying a brownie doesn't make you happy, right?) then it's not necessarily the same as a month-long or even year-long contingent pleasure. Jane probably is "really" happier than Jill. The Stoics, as I recall, warned against letting momentary pains—getting laid off, say—from affecting your overall "well-being". We might say, in an everyday metaphor that's actually quite vivid and telling, "don't let it get to you"—as if there's some central "you," and qualities therein, that can remain fundamentally unaffected no matter how good or bad events at a particular point in time are.

Intuitively, I think, when we talk about happiness we want to talk about some overall emotional state that's "deep" in some sense, that can predispose our other psychological states and moods and emotions, that in some sense determines how we'll react to events (although I guess it's not the same thing as temperament, which also determines how we react to events), and lasts a long while. That, in any case, seems like a good, somewhat more specific, way to talk about happiness. It's not necessarily the same thing as one's mood or even how satisfied a person is at a point in time.

Anyway, I'm probably just making this more difficult and muddled than it needs to be. No one ever accused me of being a clear thinker. But if you look at this sidebar to the New York piece—20 fun tips to be "happier," based on current research—it's hard to figure out what they always mean. "Seligman cites research indicating that children who develop hobbies and interests besides loitering and watching TV are much more likely to be satisfied later in life." But is "more satisfied" the same as "happier"? Satisfied in what sense? Compared to what? This is all too confusing. I'm going back to reading about Hezbollah.

Continue reading "Happy or Satisfied?"...
-- Brad Plumer 4:49 PM || ||
"Prolonged Instability"

A few brief comments on the war in Lebanon. This article by Michael Young in Slate and this piece in The Jewish Week both make what seems to be the most crucial point: Israel simply cannot disarm—or even significantly weaken—Hezbollah through military force alone. Hezbollah is massively popular among the country's large Shiite minority, its rockets are hidden in thousands of homes across southern Lebanon, and even the upcoming "limited" ground offensive by Israel looks like it will be about as effective at uprooting Hezbollah as the flattening of Fallujah was at crushing the Iraqi insurgency. In other words, not at all.

So it's hard to imagine what the end result will be. Presumably Israel will cease its offensive at some point. Lots of civilians will be dead. Hezbollah will still exist, it will still have many of the 13,000 rockets it had before the war began, and it will likely be more popular than ever. The much-weakened Lebanese government isn't likely to confront Hezbollah now (especially if its army ends up fighting alongside the militia while trying to repulse an Israeli ground invasion). An international peacekeeping force might be deployed on the southern border, but if Hezbollah keeps its missiles hidden and refuses to disarm, then this gets us nowhere. No wonder Young predicts that "Lebanon is in for prolonged instability."

An equally likely scenario is that there will be a tentative ceasefire, a loose border agreement that satisfies no one, and no peacekeeping force. Indeed, I have a hard time imagining that the UN will send in a force with a robust mandate to disarm or neutralize Hezbollah as well as the means to do so. Exactly how many countries want to send their soldiers to Lebanon to confront an angry guerrilla army with broad popular support and wealthy patrons abroad? (One Pentagon official claims that one of the Bush administration's ultimate goals is to get French support "to neutralize Hezbollah." Is it really that easy?)

I have no clue what the U.S. should do in this situation. The New Republic's suggestion that we should let Israel "defeat" Hezbollah (how? to what end?) and then "move ruthlessly to prevent Iran" from going nuclear is obviously insane. It would be awfully nice if TNR could focus on something besides proposals to get lots of people killed. As an alternative, it's hard to imagine that the United States would be ill-served by at least trying to open up talks with Iran and Syria, and see where that leads, rather than spend the next decade fighting a proxy war that benefits precisely no one. But one may as well wish for ponies at this point.
-- Brad Plumer 3:28 PM || ||
Nukes and Boobs

Jon Gertner recently visited a few nuclear power plants for the New York Times Magazine and came away glowing. Har har. No, his article's quite excellent, but I'm still not convinced that nuclear power will solve all our problems. Gertner's reporting makes the case that reactors are becoming profitable for energy utilities to build. Fair enough. But is nuclear energy an effective way to help the country as a whole wean itself off carbon-based energy sources and avert global warming? That question doesn't really get an answer.

I'll stand by everything I wrote in this post: Rough calculations suggest that it would cost taxpayers $300-$500 billion, minimum, to help build 220 reactors in the United States and achieve a mere one-seventh of the carbon emissions reductions we need to make by 2050 if we want to do our part to stave off global warming. Every little bit helps, and lowering carbon emissions will require a mix of strategies, but there's a real opportunity cost here: For that same $500 billion (along with untold billions in private investment) we could, presumably, fund a variety of renewable sources of energy that don't require a massive security state to safeguard.

In fact, Gar Lipow has made the case that some renewable energy sources, like solar, can already provide electricity more cheaply than nuclear, especially if the federal government were to help steer money that way. I'm willing to believe that Gertner's right and investors will soon be able to make money off of building new nuclear plants. But at a policy level, it's not at all clear that nuclear power is the most cost-effective substitute for carbon-based energy, even if you ignore all the other problems associated with it.

I'd note one other thing. Gertner interviews Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who says that instead of building new reactors to satisfy our electricity demand, we should just reduce that demand by increasing energy efficiency. Now I'm very much in favor of conserving energy, but I'm also dubious that these schemes work. Check out this graph in the comments to the Oil Drum. Total electricity consumption in the United States has never decreased in the postwar era (except in the industrial sector during the recession in the 1980s), despite the fact that the country continues to become more energy efficient.

Partly that's due to population growth, but my hunch is that even if energy efficiency improves as dramatically as Lovins would like, people will always find ways to use more energy—buying bigger TVs or cranking up the air conditioning—as they get richer. On the other hand, I would have thought the same thing about fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles—namely, that as cars become more fuel-efficient, people just drive more and no energy is saved—but, according to the National Academy of Sciences, CAFE standards really do appear to have helped reduced oil consumption, so Lovins is probably onto something.
-- Brad Plumer 1:43 PM || ||