Thursday, December 6, 2001 to Thursday, December 20, 2001
F r i d a y ,  D e c e m b e r  2 1,  2 0 0 1
M o n d a y ,  D e c e m b e r  3 1,  2 0 0 1
Tuesday, January 1, 2002 to Monday, January 7, 2002

New Squid on the Block
Friday, December 21, 2001

Excerpts from articles describing the discovery of a deep ocean squid which has unique features:

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An unknown species of squid has been spotted, drifting bat-like through the deep ocean. The mysterious beast's whip-thin arms can grow to six metres in length.

The squid reveals our ignorance of the seas' lower reaches, says marine biologist Michael Vecchione of the National Museum for Natural History in Washington, DC. "It's the biggest ecosystem on the planet, and we know nothing about it," he says.

There have been eight sightings of the creature in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. "These animals are big and really visible, and they're all over the place," says Vecchione, which suggests that "there are a lot of things we haven't discovered."

... The squid's arms are longer than those of any known squid species and held in an unusual position: spread outward from the body and then bent anteriorly.

... "It is very distinctive with the very long skinny arms, with an elbow,'' said Vecchione. "There are 10 appendages there, but they all seem to be pretty much the same. In most squid, two would be tentacles.'' ...

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Airliner Heroes Put the Boot Into Shoe-bomber
Monday, December 24, 2001

Excerpts from article describing the attempted bombing aboard a flight from Paris to Miami, a flight diverted to Boston after the bombing suspect was subdued by passengers and aircraft attendants:

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Charged man is driven from
Boston's Logan Airport

Eric Debry was just dozing off after lunch on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami when suddenly he was awoken by a commotion and a strong smell of sulfur.

The passenger in the seat directly in front of him had struck a match and, in a bizarre bid to bring down the airliner, was trying to ignite a plastic explosive crammed into one of his basketball sneakers.

As flight attendants challenged the man, Debry reached over and grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled his arms back. "I jumped on his shoulder," said the 42-year-old Parisian. "Two other guys came and took his legs."

More passengers joined in the melee high over the mid-Atlantic as the 195-centimetre, 90-kilogram man struggled violently, biting a flight attendant on the hand.

Finally, he was subdued and pinned down by crew members and at least six passengers while two doctors injected him with a sedative from an on-board medical kit.

The crew then went through the cabin collecting about 20 leather belts and used them to secure the man in his seat.

The Boeing 767 - which was carrying 185 passengers and 12 crew - was diverted to Logan Airport in Boston, and for the 90-minute flying time passengers took turns watching the man while the crew showed the film Legally Blonde.

As the airliner neared Boston, two F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to escort it in safely. ...

How a Passenger in Row 29 Plotted the
Destruction of an American Airlines Jet

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Helping Students Understand the World of Religion
Thursday, December 27, 2001

Excerpts from article describing the importance of teaching about the world's religions from an objective secular perspective in public schools:

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Teaching Diversity, Tolerance Takes On Urgency in Schools

Ninth-grader Matt Vasquez, 14, raised his hand in world history class and asked questions that sounded like they belonged in Sunday school: "Why," he asked his teacher, "do we use a cross as a symbol? If Jesus had been crucified on a circle, would we use a circle?"

Kurt Waters responded the way a public school teacher is supposed to, masking his own beliefs and measuring every word: "What do you mean by 'we'?" he asked during the discussion of Christianity at Centreville High School. "When you say 'we,' you mean to say Christians, right? Everybody isn't a Christian."

Teaching about religion is tough terrain for public school teachers, but something that a growing number of educators believe is imperative to help young people understand not only the forces that drive human history but also the diversity in their own neighborhoods.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks generated new interest in Islam, many educators were already seeking ways to teach about religion without proselytizing. Today that effort has become more intense.

... with critics complaining that public schools do too much — or too little — with the subject, many teachers say they fear being accused of showing personal biases by giving more time to one religion than another.

Teaching about religion in public schools has a long, controversial history in the United States, with courts repeatedly asked to rule on whether a particular approach is constitutional.

Supreme Court rulings say that public schools can teach about religion, but not promote it, though for years some educators mistakenly believed that that precluded the introduction of the subject altogether.

At another extreme, emphasis on teaching Western culture in many schools meant that many students learned only about the Judeo-Christian tradition, with little or nothing about non-Western religions.

... Some districts take the teaching of religion a step too far. A few years ago, more than a dozen Florida school districts were offering Bible courses that taught the creation story and other biblical events as history. After the People for the American Way Foundation objected, the state ordered the districts to change the courses. ...

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What Are We Doing, In God's Name?
Saturday, December 29, 2001

Excerpts from article assessing the state of belief in god(s) as considered from the impact the attack on America has had on said beliefs:

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Has God had a good war this year? Has the new century started well for religious belief? As the last closed, politicians were talking about what they called the “faith community”; after September 2001, how is that community doing?

How high, at the end of this strange and shocking chapter, is deism’s stock? The smoke has cleared in New York. Western man has witnessed a mad tragedy actuated by faith. But it is not clear whether for most people this only underlines the need for a true God — to save us from the false ones — or whether gods, all gods, were the problem, not the solution.

Never mind me: I am a convinced unbeliever. But what do my countrymen think?

... Hardly had the dust from the World Trade Centre settled before every responsible leader, from Tony Blair down, was making the point that this was “not about Islam”. We were all but told to believe it was not about religion at all.

We were to understand (variously) that this was about fundamentalist as opposed to mainstream Islam; that this was not even about fundamentalist, but about madcap Islam; that this was nothing whatsoever to do with Islam but the work of pure evil which had “hijacked” a religious argument; or that this was not about Islam properly interpreted, but that unfortunately some Muslims had misunderstood — and it would be helpful if mainstream Islam would condemn a little louder, and so on.

... And so it is with the Christians: sectarian hatred in Ireland (we are variously told) is based on warped versions of Christianity; based on authentic but extreme versions of Christianity; or not based on Christianity at all.

Fair as some of these arguments may be, they spit into the wind of popular understanding. The word which public imagination selects to describe the relationship between a faith which brutalises, and a faith of the same name which does not, is “extreme”.

In the public mind, mainstream religions may exhibit “extreme” (or “fanatical”) versions engendering fierce belief; and “moderate” versions engendering less passionate belief, whose practitioners are therefore prepared to act reasonably. In other words, “extreme” religion is a strong version of the weaker mainstream variety.

Reasonableness in religion comes from a lack of total commitment.

... The logic here makes some unfair jumps. We all know good people whose faith is theologically mild, yet fiercely held. Even in the theological middle it is possible to be passionate and devout.

But that is not the rule. Faith as observed in practice usually supports the popular simplification: the more consuming is a person’s religious commitment, the more likely he is to hold views we think “extreme”.

Tony Blair and the Archbishop of Canterbury may insist all they like that “fundamentalist” versions of faiths do not “besmirch” the mainstream version; the public will see it differently. We will see fundamentalism as the full monty, the mainstream as Religion-Lite.

History suggests the same: the world’s great faiths have tended to be reformed and reinvigorated by sects driven by a zeal to return to basics. You therefore cannot just dismiss fundamentalists as irrelevant weirdos: their beliefs will often be telling you about something hard at the core of the softer, mainstream versions of the religion.

... I hinted at the start that my question — How is religion faring? — was not easy to answer. Nor is it. I write this from America. Here, clear and uncontestable published evidence points to a revival of public interest in religion since September 11, especially in the more evangelical versions of Christianity.

Stronger commitments from some, then, and stronger antipathy from others. Could things be coming to a head? Could we be seeing a polarisation of public attitudes to faith?

For more than a century now the dominant attitude in the Western world has been an apathy which I would describe as covert agnosticism masquerading as weak observance. Is Osama bin Laden flushing this agnosticism out? If so, we may see an increase both in the religious enthusiasm of the minority, and the avowed scepticism of the majority. ...

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  • The Times [link inactive]

Schools of Terror That Taught How to Kill
Saturday, December 29, 2001

Some al-Qaeda documents include
research into nuclear weapons

Excerpts from article describing some of the material used by al-Qaeda operatives to train and propagandize its followers:

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The secrets of Osama bin Laden’s training camps are today revealed by The Times after detailed analysis of documents retrieved from former al-Qaeda houses in Kabul.

Hundreds of papers were found in three schools of terror after the city’s liberation, including a 70-page terror training manual, a pamphlet by bin Laden and an aviation equipment catalogue for a company near Brighton.

Together they give one of the best insights into the organisation and provide proof of its determination to pursue chemical, biological and conventional warfare as well as researching nuclear capabilities. They also provide a glimpse of the group’s everyday bureaucracy and organisation.

... Other documents show the seriousness with which they were investigating weapons of mass destruction. One bundle of papers amounted to a recipe book for producing chemical and biological weapons, such as botulism, ricin and cyanide.

Precise measurements are given in a step-by-step guide to making botulism — producing an end product that would be “sufficient to kill 2,000 people” with “a killing time from three days to six days”.

One section describes how they tested chemical weapons on rabbits when they experimented by dispersing cyanide in the air and by injecting a rabbit with a form of sodium. In both cases the specimen died in minutes.

... Winning over the hearts and minds of recruits was a vital part of the curriculum at the al-Qaeda school of terror, with inflammatory posters, books and pamphlets scattered alongside more technical manuals on classroom floors.

A 12-page leaflet in Arabic, entitled Don’t take Jews and Christians as (our) friends, condemns countries such as Saudi Arabia for seeking military assistance from the West. Its glossy cover shows Saudi Arabia being overrun by Britain, the UN, US and Israel.

The pamphlet rails against the US and its allies because they “spread atheism among its youth and perform foul corrupting acts such as adultery and drinking alcohol”.

In legalistic language it details how these are a “violation of the Koran, the Prophet’s sayings and statements of experts in jurisprudence in the nation”. The argument is reinforced with detailed quotations from the scriptures.

Also found was the cover of a book entitled Declaration of Holy War, subtitled Against the Americans occupying the land of the two Holy Places. Below it names the author: Osama bin Mohammad bin Laden.

Coupled with the other leaflets and books about “Holy War”, a chilling picture emerges of how invective and propaganda was used to convert new recruits from across the Arab world into suicide bombers.

... There are several references in the documents pertaining to ways of harnessing the destructive powers of a nuclear device. One handwritten document, on notepaper from a hotel in Peshawar, discusses the possibility of putting the nuclear warhead on the supersonic missile.

Another shows a partial period table in Russian focusing solely on the nuclear elements necessary to construct a so-called “dirty” nuclear bomb. ...

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  • The Times [link inactive]
How Islam Lost Its Way
Sunday, December 30, 2001

Excerpts from article detailing the failures and successes of Islamic culture and the path to a brighter future for Muslims, based on secular humanism:

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Yesterday's Achievements Were Golden; Today, Reason Has Been Eclipsed

... we must steer by a distant star toward a careful, reasoned, democratic, humanistic and secular future. Otherwise, shipwreck is certain.

For nearly four months now, leaders of the Muslim community in the United States, and even President Bush, have routinely asserted that Islam is a religion of peace that was hijacked by fanatics on Sept. 11.

These two assertions are simply untrue.

First, Islam — like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religion — is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others.

In medieval times, both the Crusades and the Jihads were soaked in blood. Today, there are Christian fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics in the United States and kill doctors; Muslim fundamentalists who wage their sectarian wars against each other; Jewish settlers who, holding the Old Testament in one hand and Uzis in the other, burn olive orchards and drive Palestinians off their ancestral land; and Hindus in India who demolish ancient mosques and burn down churches.

The second assertion is even further off the mark. Even if Islam had, in some metaphorical sense, been hijacked, that event did not occur three months ago. It was well over seven centuries ago that Islam suffered a serious trauma, the effects of which refuse to go away.

Today, Muslims number 1 billion. Of the 48 countries with a full or near Muslim majority, none has yet evolved a stable democratic political system. In fact, all Muslim countries are dominated by self-serving corrupt elites who cynically advance their personal interests and steal resources from their people. None of these countries has a viable educational system or a university of international stature.

Reason, too, has been waylaid.

You will seldom see a Muslim name as you flip through scientific journals, and if you do, the chances are that this person lives in the West.

... Though genuine scientific achievement is rare in the contemporary Muslim world, pseudo-science is in generous supply. A former chairman of my department has calculated the speed of heaven: He maintains it is receding from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light.

... One of two Pakistani nuclear engineers recently arrested on suspicion of passing nuclear secrets to the Taliban had earlier proposed to solve Pakistan's energy problems by harnessing the power of genies. He relied on the Islamic belief that God created man from clay, and angels and genies from fire; so this highly placed engineer proposed to capture the genies and extract their energy.

Today's sorry situation contrasts starkly with the Islam of yesterday. Between the 9th and 13th centuries — the Golden Age of Islam — the only people doing decent work in science, philosophy or medicine were Muslims. Muslims not only preserved ancient learning, they also made substantial innovations. The loss of this tradition has proven tragic for Muslim peoples.

Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because of a strong rationalist and liberal tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites.

But in the 12th century, Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the Arab cleric Imam Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. He damned mathematics as being against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.

Caught in the viselike grip of orthodoxy, Islam choked. No longer would Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect and science in the Muslim world. The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, belonged to the 14th century.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on. The Renaissance brought an explosion of scientific inquiry in the West. This owed much to translations of Greek works carried out by Arabs and other Muslim contributions, but they were to matter little.

Mercantile capitalism and technological progress drove Western countries — in ways that were often brutal and at times genocidal — to rapidly colonize the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.

It soon became clear, at least to some of the Muslim elites, that they were paying a heavy price for not possessing the analytical tools of modern science and the social and political values of modern culture — the real source of power of their colonizers.

... Muslims must recognize that their societies are far larger, more diverse and complex than the small homogeneous tribal society in Arabia 1,400 years ago.

It is therefore time to renounce the idea that Islam can survive and prosper only in an Islamic state run according to sharia, or Islamic law.

Muslims need a secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom and human dignity and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the people.

This means confronting and rejecting the claim by orthodox Islamic scholars that, in an Islamic state, sovereignty belongs to the vice-regents of Allah, or Islamic jurists, not to the people.

... Our collective survival lies in recognizing that religion is not the solution; neither is nationalism.

We have but one choice: the path of secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason. This alone offers the hope of providing everybody on this globe with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Mouse Communication Suggests Language Has Deep Roots
Monday, December 31, 2001

Excerpts from article describing experiments which indicate mouse communication entails squeaks in word-like groups of 3 clearly separated tones:

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The squeaks made by baby mice in the nest are similar to some human infant sounds, new research suggests, hinting that linguistic communication may be based on mechanisms that evolved long ago.

Günter Ehret and Sabine Riecke of the University of Ulm, Germany, recorded the wriggling calls baby mice emit when struggling to reach their mother's teat or falling out of the nest. Mother mice respond to some calls by nest building, changing position or licking pups.

Ehret and Riecke found that mothers react to the calls that contain word-like groups of at least three clearly separated tones, each of a different frequency. Similarly, the human ear can distinguish vowel sounds easily only if they contain three distinct notes.

... The results indicate that a single mechanism may underlie the perception of sounds in all mammals, and may form the basis of human language. "The perception of speech sounds in mammals' auditory system follows evolutionarily old rules," comments Ehret.

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Onions Out, Poppies In and Let the Good Times Roll
Monday, December 31, 2001

Excerpts from article describing the anticipated shift from the farming of food crops to the farming of opium poppies in Afghanistan:

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While there is widespread doubt that anything resembling law and order will bloom in Afghanistan in the next six months, there is no doubt that opium poppies will - in abundance.

"Everyone is planting," says Ashoqullah, a 25-year-old landowner. "In a few months, these fields will be covered in a blanket of spectacular red and white flowers. We'll draw the ooze from the flower bulbs, pack it in plastic bags or small soap cartons and sell it at the bazaar."

In this village, 10 kilometres west of the eastern city of Jalalabad, Ashoqullah licks his lips in anticipation of his future bounty as farmers in the fields behind him slash at white heads of cauliflower and yank fragrant spring onions from the soil. They are rushing to harvest their food crops so they can sow poppy seeds in their place.

The war against the Taliban has, for the moment at least, defeated the war on drugs in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban have been vanquished, so has their ban on cultivating opium poppies.

The prohibition, which carried the threat of a three-month jail sentence, led to a 96 per cent fall in Afghanistan's production of raw opium - from more than 453,500 kilograms in 1999 to 18,500 kilograms this year, according to the United Nations Drug Control Program.

With the demise of the puritanical Taliban, one of the world's poorest countries is expected to regain its standing as the world's leading producer of opium and chief supplier of heroin for Europe.

At the next level of the trade is Mirakbar, who also can barely suppress his glee at his anticipated windfall. The walled, mud-brick fortress in nearby Ghani Khel - known across the region as the opium bazaar - is abuzz with activity as he and about 300 opium merchants ply their trade.

Sticky business ... a poppy
is slit to release the ooze
that will become opium

... For Ashoqullah, the landowner, the logic supporting poppy growing is simple and unassailable. He says most farmers have large families of up to 15 members and cannot support themselves by raising vegetables alone.

With two bags of fertiliser costing $US15 each, a farmer growing poppies can earn 120 times more than he can cultivating food crops on the same tract of land, he says. ...

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We Will Win Nuclear War, Says India
Monday, December 31, 2001

Excerpts from article describing the state of affairs between India and Pakistan and the risk the conflict may escalate to the point of nuclear warfare:

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India boasted yesterday that it would survive a first strike by a Pakistani atomic weapon, but that its neighbour would be wiped out in a swift nuclear counter-attack.

As troop reinforcements continued to pour into the frontier zone, and tens of thousands of people fled border villages, the spectre of all-out war between two nuclear powers prompted America and Britain to intervene directly.

... A serious intervention from the outside world could not come too soon. India is determined to avenge the attack by Islamic militants on the Delhi parliament that killed 14 people, including five assailants, on December 13. Unless Pakistan arrests and hands over those responsible, India seems determined to act unilaterally.

Pakistan says that it has held at least 50 militants and frozen assets and last night Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the head of the group blamed for the attack was arrested for “making inflammatory speeches to incite people to violate law and order”. But India says that is not enough and wants the suspects handed over.

Both countries insisted that they wanted to avoid war. But on the ground they both ordered the biggest military build-up for 15 years in what looked like a prelude to the fourth Indo-Pakistani war since independence in 1947.

... Part of Pakistan’s concern is the increasingly bellicose message from Delhi, whose conventional and nuclear forces are roughly double those of Pakistan. In an interview published yesterday George Fernandes, the Indian Defence Minister, said that his military, from the top down, was eager to fight and that thousands of Indian reinforcements would be in place by the middle of this week.

Speaking after a visit to frontline positions in Kashmir, he told the Hindustan Times: “Everyone is raring to go. In fact, something that actually bothers them is that things might now reach a point where one says there is no war.”

Of greater concern were his remarks about the possible use of nuclear weapons. He warned Pakistan not to consider the use of a first strike, which he said would be tantamount to national suicide. “We could take a strike, survive and then hit back,” he said. “Pakistan would be finished. I do not really fear that the nuclear issue would figure in a conflict.”

However, military experts point out that in the event of a conventional war, Indian forces would heavily outnumber the Pakistanis and could score swift victories. In that case Pakistan’s weapon of last resort would be its atomic bomb. ...

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  • The Times [link inactive]

Afghanistan: After the Storm
Monday, December 31, 2001

Excerpts from article describing a reporter's personal journey into the heart of Afghanistan and its people:

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Afghans are hoping 20 years
of war are behind them

After listening to the horror of the suicide attacks on New York and Washington on the radio on the 11 September I knew the Taleban were finished. Washington would not allow America's most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden, and his hosts, the Taleban, to survive.

... Eight weeks after the 11 September attacks, the Taleban were largely finished, the network of foreign Muslim militants destroyed and the Northern Alliance, particularly the ethnic Tajik faction, Jamiat-e Islami, were resurgent.

... There was euphoria in Kabul when the Taleban were defeated, but also anxiety that the capital had been taken over by another armed faction. ... This is a country yearning for peace. People keep saying, "This is our country's last chance." ...

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