Kenya begins mourning victims of mall attack, forensic experts try to identify attackers

Survivors of the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi flee the shootings. Image from the Associated Press.

Survivors of the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi flee the shootings. Image from the Associated Press.

Kenya begins three days of mourning today in honor of the victims of a four-day attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the country’s capital. The siege ended yesterday with the announcement by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta that the mall was under the security forces’ control, that 11 people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, and that five of the assailants were dead. The government’s estimate of the death toll at press time was 61 victims; the militant organization known as al-Shabaab, which claims responsibility for the attack, claims a higher death toll of 137. As authorities sort through the rubble, a clearer picture will likely emerge.

Though the identities of the attackers have yet to be confirmed as of press time, Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s foreign minister, told PBS that three Americans and a British woman were among the attackers. Between 10 and 15 assailants are believed to have carried out the attack. Mohamed claimed that young, college-age men from Minnesota are among their number. Since making her statement, there has been speculation about the identity of the attackers, and many news outlets have suggested that the “British woman” in question is 29-year-old Samantha Lewthwaite, widow of one of the terrorists who staged the 2005 London bombings. These accusations are denied by some of Lewthwaite’s friends and associates. Thus far President Kenyatta and American authorities have refused to confirm or deny any speculation on the attackers’ identities, and foreign forensics experts have been called in to determine the facts of the case.

Some of the victims of the attack, however, have been identified at press time. Kofi Awoonor, one of Ghana’s most famous poets, Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a TV and radio personality, and entrepreneur Rajan Solanki are among the more famous victims. Many foreign tourists and businessmen were among the dead, as were six members of Kenya’s security forces.

The attack began Saturday, with the attackers entering through both the front entrance and the parking lot. They fired their guns into the crowd and threw grenades. They took many people hostage, and barricaded themselves as security forces arrived and began to move in. Within 24 hours, 1,000 people were rescued and security forces had retaken control of the surveillance room. By Monday, helicopters were landing reinforcements on the roof, and a fire of unknown origin had broken out, causing part of the roof to collapse. The operation to defeat the assailants was declared over Tuesday.

Eyewitness accounts of the horrors have been pouring in to news outlets around the world. Ben Mulwa recalled that he first thought he was watching a robbery, before the attackers opened fire, wounding him and killing a nearby security guard. Zachary Yach recounts how he thought that someone was throwing pebbles and rocks at a woman sitting near him at a restaurant, until he heard the explosion. He and his family played dead to avoid being detected by the attackers. Zulobia Kassam was sipping her coffee when the first shots were fired, and hid in the back of the cafe until she was rescued by a security officer.

Al-Shabaab is a radical Islamist group operating in Somalia, Kenya’s neighbor that has been in a constant state of anarchy and civil war since 1991. Their stated goal is the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia, and they claim that the attack is retribution for Kenya’s military involvement in their country. Last year, they announced they were allied with al-Qaeda. They have long been known to recruit foreign fighters to their cause. The selection of the mall as a target is symbolic, according to CNN’s Faith Karimi; the mall filled with Western shops and brands represents Kenya’s prosperity and is frequently visited by wealthy shoppers and foreigners. The Guardian reports that counter-terrorist experts believe the attack will strengthen al-Shabaab. The group has been losing ground to the internationally-recognized and foreign-backed Somali government, but the fact that they can organize and carry out such a well-planned terrorist attack will provide a morale boost and propaganda victory, showing that they are far from being defeated. So far, however, Kenya’s authorities have shown no sign of pulling their troops from Somalia.

Awesome People in History: Franz Boas

Franz Boas image from NNDB

You may recall in a recent editorial here on Cat Flag, I briefly mentioned Franz Boas as an Awesome Person in History. This man is virtually unknown outside a few academic circles, which is a real shame, because he helped to create the modern world and reshape our values and beliefs. How? By scientifically disproving racism.

When we talk about racism, we are really talking about a fundamental assumption about human beings: that biological factors of our physical appearance, such as skin color or eye shape, are linked to our intelligence and our behavior patterns. Racists categorize people and then make stereotypes about those people in order to prejudge them without actually getting to know them. Often, they also assume their own “race” is superior to all the others, and interpret the world through this lens. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and North America, racism was so widely accepted that most people, even in the scientific community, treated it as simple, plain fact. In the Cal Poly library, I once read a copy of an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1890s, and it was so strange to read how outright obsessed the encyclopedia was with categorizing each ethnic group and ranking them on some arbitrary racial gradient of “civilization” vs “savagery”.

It was into this world that Boas was born in Germany in 1858. As a Jew, he would have been considered “white”, but would also certainly have been no stranger to the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. In spite of this, he grew up in a fairly privileged position, and was able to go to college. Studying at two universities over the course of his college career, he had a knack for two things: changing his mind on what major he wanted to study, and getting into sword-fighting duels with his peers over perceived insults to himself, his fraternity, or his religion. Eventually graduating from Kiel University with a doctorate in physics, he spent a mandatory year in the German army as all young men were required to do. It was here where he met a young woman named Marie Krackowizer, whom he would eventually marry. Once he got out of the service, he signed up for an Arctic expedition to explore Baffin Island.

Arctic exploration is nothing to sneeze at today, let alone in the 1880s, with no motor vehicles, no electric generators, and no modern medicine. During his year on Baffin Island, Boas and his team frequently faced freezing to death, starving to death, dying of disease, or being killed by the local wildlife.

Yeah, this face looks totally friendly.

Yeah, this face looks totally friendly.

These hardships led Boas to a realization that would shape his future career, and the world with it. Writing in his diary, he mused that if the supposedly “superior” and “civilized” Europeans were struggling to survive, yet the supposedly “primitive” and “savage” Inuit people they encountered were not only able to survive here but make their living here, then perhaps in the particular circumstances of the Arctic it was the Inuit who were the superior ones. Boas began studying and recording the lifestyles, tools, behaviors, and other adaptations of the Inuit people they met, publishing his findings in his book The Central Eskimo when he made his return.

Boas’s study of the Inuit led him to take up anthropology, the study of human cultures, as his new career. Soon, he was signing up for even more expeditions, this time to visit Native American groups that lived along the coast of British Columbia. It was his study of these Pacific Northwest tribes that would come to be his defining achievement.

The peoples of the Pacific Northwest all lived a broadly similar lifestyle, with fairly similar cultures that were based around salmon fishing and whaling. Their material culture, such as their tools, buildings, and famous totem poles, were pretty consistent, with some variation from tribe to tribe, all along the Pacific Northwest coast. Their societies all had a very similar, hierarchical structure. According to the prevailing views of the time, all of this could only mean that the Pacific Northwest peoples all belonged to the same sub-race of Native Americans, and this particular sub-race had a level of intelligence that predisposed them to achieving this particular level of civilization.

But that’s not what Boas found. After careful study of the Pacific Northwest peoples’ skull shape, eye shape, skin color, hair color and texture, languages, and so on, he found that the Pacific Northwest Indians were actually extremely diverse. Far from being all part of some racial category, Boas could only conclude that each tribe had a very different origin and arrived in the area at a different time from a different place. So why such cultural similarities between them? Boas could only conclude that the culture of the Pacific Northwest Indians had nothing at all to do with their race or ancestry, and everything to do with the spread of ideas from person to person and tribe to tribe that were well-adapted to the specific environmental circumstances of the British Columbian coastline.

The way he demonstrated his findings to the public, though, were a bit... eccentric.

The way he demonstrated his findings to the public, though, were a bit… eccentric.

Boas published his theories in such classic works as The Instability of Human Types and The Mind of Primitive Man. He argued that all humans, regardless of race, were fundamentally equal in our physical and cognitive abilities. No one race was inherently superior to any other. Instead, he proposed that the vast cultural differences between, say, Western Europeans, Chinese people, and some African hunter-gatherer tribe were the result of cultural diffusion – the spread of ideas from person to person, and those ideas that were best suited for survival in a given environment “sticking”.

He backed up his theories with mountains of data, not only from his work with Pacific Northwest Indians, but later experiments that found that even “white” people respond differently to different environmental pressures. Boas had immigrated to the United States in 1887, and in the early 1900s he began an experiment on immigrants such as himself. He studied the skull size and shape of thousands of immigrants and native-born Americans of many different races. He found that, regardless of race, the skull shapes of native-born Americans were different, on average, than those of immigrants. This, he argued, was a result of environmental differences between America and Europe, such as diet, pollution, and so forth. Thus, Boas concluded, the human body is shaped not only by ancestry, but environment, and differences that his peers would have categorized as “racial” were often, in fact, environmental.

To say that Boas’s theories were controversial would be an understatement. His ideas were often dismissed because he was Jewish, and his works were among those burned by the Nazis when they took power in the 1930s. Still, he began to gather a following among young anthropology students, many of whom would come to be important and successful scientists in their own right, such as Alfred Kroeber, Margaret Mead, and Claude Levi-Strauss. He was also an influence on the still-quite-young civil rights movement in America, which saw in his theories a justification for abolishing racial segregation. Figures like W. E. B. Du Bois were influenced by Boas’s arguments for tolerance and acceptance of cultural differences.

Although few people today have even heard about Franz Boas, we live in a world shaped by his pioneering scientific work. By refusing to let the prejudices of society blind him and focus only on the hard facts, Boas demonstrated that race really doesn’t matter, and that people are, well, people. He showed that we are shaped more by the environment we live in, both physiologically and culturally, than by some arbitrary genetic ranking system. He pushed for a more inclusive, less judgmental world, where people focus on humanity’s similarities instead of our differences. While he may not have lived to see the fruits of his labor, these ideas proved powerful enough to grow, spread, and take on a life of their own. They created the world we live in today, and I believe all of us are living better lives because of it.

Information from a Native American History class I took in college, supplemented by the sources linked to above.

Morro Bay Volunteers Help Local Families in Need

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.2% of the residents of San Luis Obispo County are below the poverty line. This is startling news for those of us who see our Central Coast home as a pristine paradise. Fortunately, some locals are doing their part to help those in need.

My next-door neighbor volunteers three times a week, helping to distribute food to poor families that struggle to afford adequate meals. I decided to follow him one morning, driving out to the Morro Bay Veterans’ Memorial Building, where tables were set out and a truck full of food from the local food bank was being unloaded. I spoke with some of the volunteers, and learned that they arrive as early as 8:00 in the morning to prepare for the incoming crowd.

The registry of local families who accept the free food has more than 300 names, and I was told any given day will bring 25 to 60 people. Even though the doors wouldn’t open until 10:30, there were already some folks waiting by 9:00! One by one, they would sign in, then wait patiently in line as they made a big circle through the courtyard, taking what they needed – meat, fruit, vegetables, bread, and even over-the-counter medicine! The largest donor is our local Albertson’s, but they also receive food from Trader Joe’s, Cal Poly’s agriculture students, farmers who participate in local farmers’ markets, and even some private individuals. I was told that on the third Friday of every month, an extra delivery is made, this one from the federal government.

Here’s my report on what I saw:

If you want to donate or volunteer to help this program, contact Don Beasley at (805) 704-8532 for further information.

Strange Politics: Congress begins debate on Syria intervention

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey were questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Image by Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey were questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Image by Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Congress may not officially return from its recess until next Monday, but the debate over whether the United States should intervene militarily in Syria has already begun. Already, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has heard testimony from President Obama’s senior aides about what sort of military action is being proposed. As of press time, both Congressional Democrats and Republicans are divided on the issue; you can follow updates on where your Senators stand here and where your Representatives stand here. According to both a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and a joint ABC News/Washington Post survey, most Americans oppose a strike against Syria. However, President Obama insists that a strike is necessary after chemical weapons killed 355 people and sent 3,300 more to the hospital. According to the President, it isn’t just about backing up his own words last year when he called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would prompt a U.S. response. Speaking in Sweden, he said “My credibility is not on the line, the international community’s credibility is on the line… governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.”

The United States claims that it has proof the chemical attack was committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and wants to launch a carefully-targeted missile strike against weapons systems that could deliver a chemical weapons payload, such as artillery units, rocket launchers, and aircraft. Launching missiles at the places where the chemical weapons are manufactured and stored has been deemed too dangerous, as doing so could disperse the chemical agents into the surrounding area. For its part, al-Assad’s regime claims that the chemical attack was actually carried out by rebel forces to gain sympathy from the West and its allies and prompt a strike against the regime.

Threats of an attack have divided not only Americans, but also the international community. Russia and China, both supporters of al-Assad’s regime, have publicly opposed any outside military intervention, claiming the U.S. is jumping to conclusions and that the fallout from a U.S. strike would be far worse for Syria and the rest of the Middle East. Other nations that oppose a strike include Germany, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. However, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have all said they would support and assist the U.S. should we decide to attack. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for military action, but in a very close vote, Parliament decided against it, so if a strike happens the UK will be sitting it out.

All of this wrangling, however, does beg some obvious questions. For example, by publicly debating, any would-be strike will have lost the element of surprise. Wouldn’t this hurt the chances of any strike’s success? According to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the answer is no, waiting won’t jeopardize the mission.

What about the other countries that say they are ready to strike? Why are they waiting for us to take the lead, instead of going ahead and carrying a strike on their own? Well, that’s where the complications of international politics come in.

Almost every country in the world is a member of the United Nations. According to the UN’s charter, its members can’t go to war except in self-defense or if the UN Security Council specifically authorizes military action to respond to a threat against international peace and security. Since both Russia and China have the power to veto any decision the UN Security Council makes, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to happen in this case. However, there is an alternative school of thought among international law experts, who say that military action to prevent crimes against humanity are perfectly legitimate. They point to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in the late 1990s, which didn’t have the approval of the UN Security Council, but when Russia tried to have it declared illegal, they failed, with the UN basically accepting NATO’s justification that it was trying to stop ethnic cleansing. Not everyone accepts this interpretation, and experts debate the legality of any strike against Syria.

All of this, though, is rather academic, because international law isn’t a “law” in the sense that we use it every day. It’s more like the guidelines and rules countries voluntarily agree to abide by so that they can have peace, encourage trade, and co-operate in key areas like environmental protection, fighting criminals and terrorists, and stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You can’t really punish a nation for breaking international law except by going to war with it. There is no world government or mechanism to enforce international law; a country that is powerful enough that you don’t want to go to war with it, or an ally of such a country, could ignore international law whenever they believe they are justified in doing so. A country such as the United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003 even though the war’s critics said it was illegal for it to do so, and gives massive taxpayer subsidies to the U.S. cotton industry to keep cotton prices cheap in direct violation of the World Trade Organization’s free-trade rules.

If the United States leads the way in a military intervention against Syria, it will give such an attack a sense of legitimacy and protect any U.S. allies that participate from some of the backlash, if there is any.

Of course, perhaps one of the biggest questions of all is, why is Congress debating the merits of striking Syria? Can’t the President just order the Air Force and Navy to fire the missiles?

Well, he can if he wants to. Sort of.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but gives the President command of the armed forces. This division of powers may have been meant as a means to keep either branch from becoming too powerful, but in practice it has meant that the United States can be at war in every real sense without being “officially” at war. In fact, only five wars in U.S. history were official, declared wars: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars.

The President can, and has, sent U.S. troops into combat without Congressional approval. This was the case with the Civil War, most of the wars with Native Americans in the western frontier, the Korean War, and the Persian Gulf War. Of course, Congress isn’t exactly a fan of this practice, so in 1973 they passed the “War Powers Resolution”, which states that if the President sends U.S. troops into combat, he must notify Congress within 48 hours, and any military action that is going to last more than 60 days must have Congressional approval. So, if President Obama wanted, and he could somehow guarantee that the U.S.-led strike against Syria would last less than 60 days, he could just give the order.

That isn’t what he is doing, of course. Even though most of his aides wanted to attack Syria right away, Obama decided on Friday to give Congress a say in the matter. According to the Daily Caller, the decision to put the matter before Congress is in response to the knowledge that an attack would be unpopular, and the President’s desire to change minds and build support. Would this mean a declaration of war against Syria? No, actually: the President is only asking for authorization for a small-scale strike that will not include “boots on the ground”. For Congress to authorize military action without formally declaring war also has plenty of precedent, dating as far back as 1798, when Congress authorized President John Adams to send the U.S. Navy against French ships on the high seas.

So, in summary, Syria, our allies, and the rest of the world are waiting for a divided and hesitant U.S. Congress to decide on whether the U.S. military will respond to the recent chemical attack in Syria, because the President decided to leave the decision up to them even though he could order U.S. forces to strike without their approval, and it is unclear whether any strike undertaken by the U.S. and its allies would be legal under international law, which isn’t really a law at all. Talk about some Strange Politics.