Dialogue with the Grim Reaper : the Extinction Edition

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“We drive by a fire station on our way to work every day. We see the fire fighters sitting around, doing nothing all day and getting paid for it. We even envy them. We do not think of the times when they are called upon to save lives, putting their own on the line. Some of us believe that we should allocate less resources for fire fighting. Until wild fires devastate whole neighbourhoods.

Likewise scientists employed by the government to track and study pandemics might look as if they have nothing better on hand to do. Until the next big virus comes along….. “ : Barack Obama, on hearing of the Trump administration‘s proposed 2020 budget cuts of $1.5 billion for the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) and $450 millions for the NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

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It is 1598 and a boat from a large sailing ship beaches itself on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean, that we know today as Mauritius. Sailors jump out, wade ashore and begin exploring the surroundings. As they cut through the undergrowth, they see something they haven’t seen before – a huge ugly blunt-beaked bird, standing a metre tall, with brown feathers. The bird seems docile, as if it is domesticated. Having never come face to face with a predator, it makes no attempt to flee, seeming completely unafraid of the visitors.

They name the bird the “Dodo”.

Mauritius is soon transformed by the men from the ship. Over the next two years, more ships arrive and soon there’s no place for the dodo to go. The men slaughter the dodos indiscriminately for their meat and the animals they had brought with them (the dogs and the rats that had stowed away in their crates), they eat the dodos’ eggs. In less than a century, the entire species disappears. The last dodo was sighted in 1688.

At the time no one believed that the dodo could be absolutely wiped out as a species. The word “extinction” hadn’t yet appeared in the world’s lexicons. Why would God create an animal, some thought, only to let it die out?

It took another 150 years for the dodo to be officially declared “extinct”.

Today we know a lot more about what drives animals to extinction. We have also become aware of the pressures that have started to bear down on our own species and it’s fragile longevity. Yet, we think of ourselves as invincible, too smart to go the way of the dodo.

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It is the summer of 1918. Phillis Brown, the daughter of a British army officer, lives in an upscale neighbourhood in the heart of London. When the First World War broke out four years ago, she joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment, where she still works as a nurse, taking care of wounded soldiers returning from the Western Front in France.

In the autumn of 1918, the howitzers finally fall silent across Europe and Londoners begin to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. Phillis hears pre-school children in her neighbourhood singing a strange new nursery rhyme. When I was a kid growing up in India, I was made to sing the same song, quite unaware of what the words really meant…

Ring-a ring o-Rosies, pocket full of posies

A-tishoo!! A-tishoo!!

And we all fall down

I had a bird and it’s name was Enza

I opened the window

And in flew Enza!

As the war is drawing to an end, Phillis notices more and more of the returning soldiers having severe breathing problems. No one has a clue as to what the disease is but whatever it is, its deadly. Some of the soldiers have a dark purple flush spreading all over their bodies. Their lungs are filled with a kind of sticky pus and they gasp and wheeze as they try to breathe, their eyes filled with the kind of terror one feels when one is unable to understand what is happening to him.

The soldiers die in the hundreds, their screams caught inside their choked throats. After that those who come to visit them – their relatives and friends – they begin dying and their friends and relatives and theirs and theirs. Phillis realizes that this a mysterious infection of some kind, which starts with a head cold.

The winter of 1918 is now around the corner when one day Phillis catches a chill, followed by high fever and a dry cough. In order not to infect her family, she moves out and begins living in a nearby boarding house. Two days later aged just 20, one chill evening a week from Christmas, Phillis Brown breathes her last.

It is estimated that 50-100 million people died in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that is now known as the “Spanish flu”. More people died of this disease than all the fatalities from the two World Wars combined.

The COVID-19 infections crossed 1 million worldwide today. There is yet no cure, not even a vaccine for those who haven’t yet got it. How long, before it crosses over from 1 million infections to 1 million kills?

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The COVID-19 pandemic – a common flu with a tweaked DNA that triggers acute respiratory distress syndrome or asphyxiation – makes one wonder about coming close to extinction. You are infected by just being in the same room as an infected person who is simply breathing normally. Contrary to what was known just a few weeks earlier, the COVID-19 does not need someone to cough or sneeze next to you.

The virus, a microscopic parasite that has the ability to survive outside a host body for 3-4 days, deposits itself in the cells that line your throat and lungs and turns them into mini corona virus factories that churn out even more viruses that infect more cells, all the while disguising itself as a normal microbe, one of the many harmless microbes that already live inside you.

Soon your body is hijacked and you don’t even know it. That’s just the incubation period, when there are no symptoms, not even a sore throat or a cough.

5 days into the onset of the infection, your immune system begins to fight the virus. You start getting the chills of fever, perhaps aching muscles, a sore throat and dry coughs too. You begin to lose your sense of taste and smell. Your immune system is now beginning to overreact. It is causing inflammation inside vital organs within your body, filling tiny sacs that hold oxygen in your lungs with water, in much the same manner as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) afflicts alpine climbers. On X-rays, your lungs begin to exhibit dark patches – a sign that pneumonia is setting in. You try to take deep breaths in order to breathe in some air but you only wheeze. Your chest feels like it is in a vice grip.

At this point, if there is no emergency room doctor to insert a tube down your throat and connect you to a ventilator you will see a gaunt man in a cape holding a long scythe hovering near your hospital bed, waiting to snip the thread that connects your soul to your body. If he has his middle finger raised as in the image above, you are history.

When there are millions like you across the world, it is a pandemic and that’s what it is getting to right now.

The good news – so far, natural cataclysms have never wiped us out as a species, although a super-volcano in Indonesia 76000 years ago almost did. The eruption (known as the ”Toba Event”) and the ejection into the Earth’s upper atmosphere of volcanic ash created a 1000-year long cooling cycle that left only a few thousand human survivors in the whole world.

Pandemics too are natural disasters that have the ability to wipe us out as a species but somehow we have managed to survive those as well.

During the beginning of the Dark Ages, 540-542AD, the “Plague of Justinian” decimated the population of the region in and around the Byzantine Empire, around the same time that an Icelandic volcano erupted, blanketing the earth’s atmosphere with ash and bringing on a decades long winter. While the plague remained active for two centuries and took 100 million lives in Europe, the sudden cold caused by the volcanic eruption decimated crops the world over, triggering famines and taking another 100 million lives.

800 years on, around 1350AD, we had the bubonic plague known as the Black Death or Pestilence, in Eurasia,. Within just three years, a third of the world’s population (200 million) had perished.

But just because we’ve never been completely wiped out in the past, doesn’t mean we won’t be in the future. The threat of new potentially deadlier existential threats have appeared over the horizon. Climate change, drug-resistant viruses, nuclear war, large asteroid impact, out-of-control artificial intelligence, super volcanos, coronal mass ejections (solar flares) – these are very real threats of the modern age that could wipe us all out completely.

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Historical record shows that once every thousand years, an event has occurred that has wiped out a sizeable percentage of the human population. Occasionally a mammoth cataclysm like the super-volcano in Toba has brought us a hair-breadth from extinction.

Dr Simon Beard, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge, thinks of himself as an optimist, but in his work he spends most of his time trying to figure out how the world might end. He says that an existential threat does not necessarily mean every last human being will die out. It could instead be something that destroys civilization as we know it. Humanity may just make it but we could be reduced to a handful, surviving at the subsistence level of hunter-gatherers who roamed Africa 100,000 years ago.

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The two above mentioned plague pandemics started at European ports, carried in by merchant ships that had stowaway rats which had plague-infected fleas. In the case of the COVID-19, Chinese scientists suspect the source to be pangolins, a species of ant-eater that is highly sought-after in China for it’s meat and scales.

If only the Chinese would stop eating crazy shit like cockroaches and snakes and dogs and pangolins, maybe the world would be a safer place. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was caused by the Chinese eating civets that in turn had transported the virus from horseshoe bats to humans. Goddammit, who eats civets? We gift our women with jackets lined with civet fur but we have to wait till the Chinese have eaten them first.

If one were to follow the thousand-year thumb rule then it is now time for the next big one. Will it be the COVID-19?

I already know the answer of course, but I am in self-isolation, twiddling my thumbs. I am 65, with lungs damaged by years of smoking. I am a stereotypical COVID-19 virus’s dream victim. I am morose. I am suicidal. I am homicidal. Leave me alone.

 

Polly Two Ten

The discoverer of Polonium, Marie Curie (top right) and the men who were poisoned by one of it’s isotopes, from top left – Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei Skripal and Yasser Arafat
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‘Po’ is a Tamil word that is generally used to express disgusted dismissal. Something like ‘go away, don’t bother me’. Back in university (1973), my girlfriend, a comely Tamil girl, would say it often when she was tired of my kisses and cuddles. Me being what I was back in those early days of long hair, bell-bottoms and awakening body parts, the only test I regularly used to pass with an A+ was the test of sterone.

What am I supposed to do? I am a touchy feely guy.

Po is also the chemical symbol for Polonium, an element discovered by French nuclear chemist, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, in the dying days of the nineteenth century. Named in her honor after her native country, Poland, Polonium is a metal that is so heavy that you’d need both hands and hunch your shoulders, to hold just a fist sized lump. If you see a guy with a crick in his armpits, could be he had been carrying Polonium around. Though, that would make him a schmuck because Polonium is a highly radioactive alpha emitter and you don’t want to have it lying around near you.

Don’t worry about the ‘alpha emitter’ bit. I shall explain what an alpha emitter is, a little later on. Just get yourself a beer, set yoreself down and make sure you can read simple sentences in English.

Placed just ahead of Bismuth in the periodic table, Polonium is known to exist in many forms or isotopes, 33 different isotopes in fact. Don’t know what an isotope is? I’d guessed as much. You cannot possibly know everything I do. 

Isotopes of an element are like siblings from the same parents. All have the same number of protons but behave very differently because they have a different number of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. I’m showing off, you can skip the page if you like. But this is really my blog and if I want ta fill it with isotopes, I will.

Highly radioactive, Polonium continuously loses mass, in a spontaneous process called radioactive decay. Because the numbers of protons and neutrons don’t match in isotopes, they are unstable, or in other words, radioactive. From the moment they are formed, they try desperately to reach a more stable state, by letting go of the excess neutrons and protons so that the number of each in the nucleus match. In this process of trying to reach stability, they form entirely new elements. Polonium, for instance, decays into an isotope of Lead, Pb-206, which is stable, ie: it is not radioactive and therefore will not decay to some other element.

Do you know how I know all this? I am a nuclear scientist, yeah. In fact there’s a charged particle named after me – ”Spunkyon”. Actually that’s not true. I just googled “fun facts about Polonium“. I am the bloggers’ version of a hustler who copies stuff from the internet and puts it in his blog. Nothing, but nothing, in here is original and I take pride in that fact.

There’s more to radioactive decay – like alpha decay, beta decay and gamma decay, but I won’t get into that, knowing how short and severely impaired your attention span is. Besides, I have no idea what they are and you’ll have to wait till I look them up on Wikipedia, which you could do by yourselves of course, but I’d rather you waited till I told you about them, at some later occasion. Remember, the only reliable information is the one that is in Spunkypedia.

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Radioactive decay is remorseless. It happens spontaneously and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make it change it’s mind and stop. Like the famous 1960s nautch girl of Bollywood, Helen and her screen lover, that short, stout guy in skin-tight pants in those old R.D.Burman dance sequences. The moment Helen entered a scene, you knew she was going to take her clothes off and Shorty would soon be writhing around her dancing figure, panting on the shiny nightclub floor…ahha,,ha,,ahha..ha, ahha..ha. No way you could stop them from doing that.

The time it takes for a radioactive isotope to decay down to half it’s original mass is termed it’s half-life. Let’s take Polonium 210 which has a half-life of 138 days. A 10 gm sample will have 5 gms remaining after 138 days, while the rest is converted to Pb-206. After the next 138 days, there will be only 2.5 gms. And so on. Thus, the content of Po 210 will get smaller and smaller exponentially, halving in mass every 138 days.

Of the 33 known isotopes of Polonium, only three are the rock stars – Po-208, 209 and 210. They’re the three evil step sisters. The others’ half-lives are in microseconds. The three sisters stand out with appreciable half-lives and are therefore available for exploitation. Po-208 has a half-life of 2.9 years and Po-209, 103 years And Po-210, 138 days. All three are lethal and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them.

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I’d love to tell you more about all three step sisters but Pierre, my carpool partner, will arrive any moment and I have to get to work, so I’ll focus on only the most scary, the zinger – Polonium 210. As a start, let’s assume Po-210 is female, being toxic and all. So let’s call her PollyTwoTen. I always give objects names. Who knows, maybe they’re alive and it’s us who are dead.

A dull, sinister-grey metal, PollyTwoTen keeps releasing massive amounts of energy spontaneously in the form of intense heat and alpha particles. A lump of Polonium-210 will cast an evil greenish glow and remain really hot, 500°C hot, as it decays to Lead-206. Aside from the sophisticated technology necessary to produce even 10 gms of it, handling and storage of this mother is a branch of nuclear science in itself.

Remember I said I’ll tell you what alpha decay is? Alpha decay is the spontaneous release by a radioactive isotope of high energy alpha particles and alpha particles are sub-atomic particles, each consisting of 2 protons and 2 neutrons joined together in matrimony. Alpha particles are deadly but more of that later.

PollyTwoTen exists in nature in such insignificant concentrations that the metal has to be extracted and that’s done by carefully controlled radioactive decay, either from Uranium-238 or Radium–226, inside a nuclear reactor. The extraction process is high-tech and classified, the technology strictly controlled and available with only a few governments round the world, those that have produced nuclear bombs – US, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. Given the investment necessary and the strictures in place on import and export of Po-210, it is unlikely that any private commercial enterprise will be able to or even be allowed to produce the stuff. Only around 100gms of the metal are produced worldwide every year, mostly in Russia.

Since it has extra neutrons lying around, Polly is used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb, to bombard a lump of Uranium-235 with a blizzard of neutrons to hasten the chain reaction that causes a nuclear detonation. Besides use in a nuclear bomb, Polly210 also finds application in “static eliminators“ that neutralize static electricity build-up in manufacturing set-ups.

Back in the 1960s, PollyTwoTen’s natural ability to radiate heat made the metal invaluable as a heat and power source to keep the electronics inside spacecraft functioning normally in deep space where ambient temperatures hit 2-3º above absolute zero. However, due to it’s short half-life of only 138 days, it was replaced by another hot babe with a much longer half-life of 87.7 years – Plutonium-238. How do you think the Voyager-1, now in interstellar space, 13.5 billion miles from earth – 42 years after launch, is still going strong? It is expected to retain it’s hard-on through 2050.

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In recent decades, Polonium-210 has found a sinister use – assassinations. State-sponsored assassinations. When inhaled or ingested through food or a cut or wound, the alpha particles from Polly will smash through bone and tissue at the atomic level, combining and changing the very molecular cell structure of the organ it strikes, mutating cells, fragmenting nuclei and damaging DNA irreversibly, in a sort of drunken binge. They will start a chain reaction that sees the body gradually turn upon itself when it realizes that it’s now made of something else other than healthy blood and tissue. The process is gradual and terminal and the poor sod who gets the dose is history within a matter of two to three very agonizing weeks.

Among radioactive elements, Polonium is considered the most lethal, but in general, all gamma and alpha emitters are considered lethal, as well as any element that has a short half-life which means that it will emit massive amounts of radiation in a short while. PollyTwoTen is 250000 times more toxic than the most toxic poison, potassium cyanide and a maybe million times more lethal than highly toxic mercury.

Some of us consume Polly willfully. Tobacco contains polonium and inhalation of cigarette smoke causes the polonium to be deposited on the mucous lining of the respiratory tract. It starts emitting alpha particles from there, damaging the linings of cells, leading to lung cancer.

There is a silver lining though – alpha particles released from decaying Po-210 don’t get too far – just a couple of centimetres actually. They can be easily stopped by an ordinary sheet of bond paper or even the epidermis (the outer crust of the human skin), provided it isn’t ruptured, as in a wound. The risk of contamination is minimal, unless it is inhaled or  ingested through food or the blood.

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The story of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko is a well known one. In the 1990s Litvinenko, a lieutenant-colonel in Russia’s internal security agency, investigated corruption and organized crime in Russia that all too often led to the doors of senior bureaucrats. In 1998, he went on TV to denounce the order to assassinate the billionaire dissident, Boris Berezovsky in England. By going public, Litvinenko pissed off the establishment, big time.

Soon Litvinenko was telling anyone who’d listen that the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings were carried out not by Chechen terrorists but by FSB agents, on orders coming straight from the very top. The purpose – to justify the start of a brutal campaign of suppression in Chechnia. Exactly the same strategy the Nazis used to win support for Hitler’s extreme policies, when in 1933 they burned down their own parliament building, the Reichstag.

In 2000, fearing arrest, Litvinenko fled to the UK  where he wrote two damning books further infuriating his erstwhile masters, ‘Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within’ and ‘Lubyanka Criminal Group’. Litvinenko also accused Putin of ordering the now infamous killing of Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.

By constantly levelling serious accusations, Litvinenko stepped over a “lakshman rekha” and signed his own death warrant.

On an overcast November 2006 evening in London, Alexander Litvinenko put on his favourite hunting jacket, kissed his wife, Marina, lightly on her cheek and walked over to Soho to meet longtime ex-FSB buddies, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun for drinks and dinner. Immediately after, Litvinenko started feeling stomach pains and had to be hospitalised, where he initially suffered from severe diarrhoea and vomiting.

The hospital, at first, diagnosed him with a stomach infection and began treatment for it. However, Litvinenko’s condition continued to worsen and doctors discovered that his white blood cell count had plummeted, impairing his immune system. After a while, his skin turned yellow, indicating possible liver dysfunction. Having no clue initially, doctors had him tested for the two most likely causes, hepatitis and AIDS, but both tested negative.

It was when Litvinenko’s hair began falling out in clumps that the attending surgeons realized he was suffering from radiation poisoning. Further tests identified Polonium-210 as the culprit.

14 days after he had taken the first sip from a tea cup at a cafe in Soho, Alexander Litvinenko’s body stopped fighting itself, on November 23, 2006.

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Something similarly sinister is now believed to have befallen Yasser Arafat, the late enigmatic leader of the paramilitary group Al Fatah and Chairman of the PLO. One afternoon in October 2004, Arafat collapsed during a meeting, suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea. An hour earlier he had ingested medications that were routinely imported for him, into the Ramallah Compound on the Gaza Strip, in an ambulance that had to pass through several Israeli check points. Usually the ambulance driver was ordered to remain at the wheel while Israeli border guards opened the rear door of the van and pulled out the box and inspected the medications.

Within hours, Arafat began developing symptoms very similar to Litvinenko’s and as his condition deteriorated, he was airlifted to the Percy Military Hospital in West Paris. His illness galloping unchecked through his body, refusing to respond to treatment, Arafat passed away on November 11, 2004. The French doctors did not suspect radiation poisoning and therefore he was not tested for it. Strangely, these specialists were never questioned and are known to have gone to ground since.

Eight years after Arafat died, Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, with the consent of Arafat’s widow, Suha, launched an investigation to find out if Polonium-210 had been used to kill him. Arafat’s last-worn clothes, his iconic kaffiyeh, his toothbrush and other personal belongings were sent to the Institut de Radiophysique, in Lausanne, Switzerland, which detected unusually high levels of radiation.

In 2012 Suha Arafat had the Palestinian Authority exhume his body for more detailed tests. Samples were sent to three different labs, in Switzerland, Russia and France.  The Swiss test results showed 18 times the normal level of Po-210 in Arafat’s body. Given that 8 years had passed since his death, the initial dose must have been massive. The Swiss report stated that the findings “support the proposition that the death was by poisoning with Polonium-210”.

The French investigations could not confirm the presence of Po-210 in the remains and failed to check for Lead-206, which Po-210 decays to and whose presence would indicate the presence of Po-210. The whole thing stank of political pressure from Israel, which by then had a burgeoning nuclear program and ample opportunity to stockpile Polonium. Incidentally, the Israeli reactor at Dimona was built by French engineers.

That wasn’t the first time that the French buckled under Israeli pressure. Mossad’s wanton assassinations of Iraqi nuclear scientists on French soil in the 1980s with the covert blessings of the french security service, the DGSI, are well documented.

As to the investigations by the Russian lab, the results from Russia were negative. Al Jazeera has quoted an unnamed Russian source alleging that the Russian forensic team had been instructed by the Russian foreign ministry to announce negative results. The source claimed that it was an effort by Putin to distance Russia from the murder. Strange behaviour, given Arafat’s historically warm relations with the Soviets and later on, Putin’s Russia. Political observers surmise that Putin considered Israel to be a bridge to Washington didn’t want to upset the Israelis by publishing findings that pointed to murder.

Israel has vehemently denied having anything to do with Arafat’s death and on seeing the responses from the French and Russian labs and feeling the undercurrents, the Swiss – forever the slithery double-dealing diplomats – receded into the background, making themselves unavailable for further comment.

Arafat had many enemies, both within and without. His longevity, his makeover from terrorist to good guy and his winning the Nobel for peace, his charisma and his secular credentials, all of these attributes were a thorn to the Israelis who were desperately looking for a raison de survivre – extremist groups like the Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad who helped Israel maintain the illusion of a threat of Arab invasion and thereby justify the huge amounts of military aid that they demanded from America. Arafat, with his iconic international stature and the extended olive branch, frustrated them. Israel, like Pakistan, is incapable of survival without external support.

Killing by Po-210 has a major disadvantage – traceability. Every batch has a chemical signature that can be traced to it’s source of manufacture. In the case of Litvinenko, the production source was found to be a Russian nuclear reactor.

In Arafat’s case, the source – suspected to be Israel’s Dimona reactor – was never revealed. Such is the power and political reach of a pipsqueak nation that measures just 250 by 70 miles, one that a modern airliner would take just 7 minutes to cross from east to west.

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Next comes the question ‘why’. Why commit murder with a messy hazardous-to-handle substance that leaves traces all over? Why choose a method that takes two horrible pain-filled weeks to kill?

The answer lies in the question itself. Po-210 is meant by the killers to be discovered. The killer, invariably a sovereign state, is protected by the doctrine of “sovereign immunity” whereby a sovereign state is immune from prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Po-210 is a stark warning from a criminal state to those who rebel or dissent.

To the assassin, Po-210 is a darling because only an amount equivalent to a grain of salt (roughly 3milligrams) is needed to kill the average Joe. The assassin finds it easy to transport the stuff provided he does not himself accidentally ingest it. The victim’s symptoms come on gradually, giving the assassin sufficient time to make good his escape. In the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the assassins (Lugovoi and Kovtun) were safely inside Moscow before the British realized what had actually happened. Another important advantage to the assassin is that an alpha emitter like polonium does not set off radiation detectors in airports and therefore can be smuggled into a country easily.

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Polonium-210 is also believed to have killed several other people, including Marie Curie’s daughter Irene, also a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist like her mother. In 1946, a glass vial containing Po-210 that she was holding slipped from her hand and hit the lab table inches from her, shattering explosively and coating her face with the deadly powder. Irene Curie contracted leukemia shortly thereafter and died at 58 a month later.

Marie Curie herself died from aplastic anemia, brought on by radiation poisoning from being in close proximity to another hottie, Radium, an element she discovered on her way to winning the first of her two Nobel Prizes.

In addition to alpha emission, radium also emits lethal gamma rays that are virtually unstoppable and can penetrate through three metres of concrete. Ironically, today gamma rays are used in radiation treatment to ’burn’ cancerous tumors.

Like polonium, radium too glows naturally. Marie Curie would casually stuff vials of the glowing stuff in her lab coat pocket and repeatedly let it come in contact with her freely. “Radium, my beautiful Radium,” she would be heard whispering to it, as she brought the vial up, to stare at the stuff inside.

Madame Curie had no idea how hazardous radium was. No one did at the time. Today, radiation sickness is an entire branch of medical science.

Mithridatus VI (Part-2)

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Did you read Part-1? If you didn’t – maybe outa sheer apathy or treachery – read it before you read Part-2, or else I’ll banish you to the 5th dimension where you’ll languish for eternity, with only Lex Luther and Mr.Mxyzptlk for company.

I apologize. Didn’t mean to offend your sensibilities. Just thought you needed a lighter moment in the middle of this horrendous Corona Virus outbreak. Honestly, those cute microscopic red and purple balls with green suckers that look like Shrek’s ears, are jerking us all off.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being jerked off, but by a fucking virus????

Mithridatus VI (Part-2)

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“Everything has poison. It is the dosage that decides whether we live or we die…”

– Mithridates VI of Pontus (120-63BC)

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Mithridates-VI

Mithridates VI of Pontus (foreground center), in his ‘toxicology’ lab, about to administer an antidote to a condemned slave, minutes after he has forced the poor wretch to swallow belladona (c 70BC)

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Just as present-day governments commission geological surveys for oil, back in 70 BC, Mithridates VI (a.k.a. ‘Mitsy’ in this blog) had his minions scour the countryside for poisonous plants and minerals, to develop poisons from.

Mitsy had a research facility going that had only one assistant – a herbalist by the name of Crataeus. So guarded was Mitsy about the stuff he was concocting that he had Crataeus’s family locked up under permanent house arrest 24/7, to be executed summarily in case Crataeus betrayed him. Albeit, Crataeus and his family were provided with a fortified palace to live in opulence, not wanting for any pleasure. If Crataeus’s wife wanted one of those well hung nubian slaves to orally stimulate her, she just had to say it.

Mitsy researched all sorts of poisonous herbs, like hemlock, aconite, deadly nightshade (belladonna), castor, hellebore, azalea, rhododendron, realgar (arsenic), mercury and sulphur, to name just a few. He had Crataeus blend and mix the powders and pastes and then fed the concoctions to captured prisoners and slaves. And while some of those unfortunate suckers were monitored for symptoms and duration of survival prior to death, others were put on an antidote regimen, to test the antidotes that he simultaneously engineered.

Countless prisoners and slaves died horrible deaths as a result of Mitsy’s experimentations. By today’s sensibilities, Mithridates would be recognized as a psychotic mass murderer, on par with the prominent Nazis like the infamous bio-weapons expert, Walter Schreiber and endurance medicine researcher, Josef Mengele, physicians who practiced a similar craft during the Second World War.

But those were the times that Mitsy grew up in. A man interprets morality as he sees it. Mitsy recognized his own mother’s treachery when she poisoned his father. Life inside any royal household in those times was an all-pervasive mantle of suspicion, conspiracy, treachery, intrigue and paranoia and Mitsy lived in the midst of that.

In that milieu, poisoning happened to be the preferred method of assassination. There was no such thing as forensic science and poisons left no trace. You could spike a guy’s wine with arsenic and pass the death off as cardiac arrest and no one would be the wiser.

Even when an assassination was carried out in broad daylight before hundreds of witnesses, the justice system in the ancient world perceived it as a crime if the folks that mattered saw it as such. Delivering his corny “Romans, countrymen and lovers, lend me your ears..” monologue in front of thousands of Romans, Brutus convinced them that killing Caesar was the right thing to do.

Wait right there, before you fact check me. The “lend me your ears” bit was from Mark Anthony’s rebuttal monologue, not Brutus’s.

Who gives a shit anyway?

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Prior to 300BC, the civilized world (Southern Europe) had been an oasis of heightened consciousness – of discipline, obedience and the rule of law, the standards set by first the Greeks and then the Romans.

Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, things slid into an age of decadence and greed for the next 300 years, until the 1st century AD with the ascendence of the Julio-Claudian Emperor dynasty (Augustus – Tiberius – Caligula – Claudius – Nero) when everyone who was anyone was either poisoning or being poisoned, making this form of killing a sort of status symbol. You were a nobody if you simply died of old age.

During this period, women of the elite gained some notoriety as poisoners. Noblemen had multiple wives and concubines and these women were all conniving to ensure that the inheritance went to their biological son. Queens did likewise, to ensure that they could rule as regent until little Billy Bob came of age and was crowned the king.

Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia Drusila was quite the Lalita Pawar of old Bollywood movies. She not only orchestrated the poisonings of a number of Augustus’s grandchildren, but she had Augustus himself poisoned, in her single-minded zeal to get her son, Tiberius from a previous marriage, to the throne. Likewise, all across Roman nobility, mothers were poisoning stepsons and encouraging their biological sons to poison their fathers if they lived too long.

Then there was the infamous trio, Canidia, Martina and Locusta, who poisoned their way through the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty and it’s court.

Not much is known about Canidia except that she was a vicious contract killer who poisoned hundreds of Roman noblemen for cash. Canidia is thought to have helped Livia murder Augustus. It was when she began thinking she was invincible and started taking money from both sides, that she met a gruesome end, eviscerated alive and strung up in public. No painless drifting off to death by poisoning for dear Canidia, no siree.

(The dreaded ‘chairman’ of Murder Incorporated, mafia don Albert Anastasia was killed for a very similar reason. If you are a contract killer you don’t profit from both sides, is the moral)

Martina poisoned Tiberius’s nephew and heir Germanicus. A highly competent general posted in Germania, Germanicus was winning battle after battle, expanding Rome’s influence over central and eastern Europe. To his troops and to the Roman populace, Germanicus was the Roman version of Alexander the Great. Unfortunately in ancient Rome it didn’t pay to be more popular than the emperor, unless you could back it up with the Praetorian Guards’ muscle.

Tiberius was getting antsy at all the adulation accorded to Germanicus. So he had Martina recruit a trusted henchman named Piso to poison Germanicus with a special “delayed-action” concoction over a period of 15 days, making it look like he simply took ill and gradually died. Those days contracting an unknown illness and dying from it was commonplace, so no one batted an eyelid.

And then there was Locusta. On the orders of Agrippina the Younger – empress to Claudius, Locusta poisoned his son from his marriage to Messalina, Britannicus, whom he had named after the island he had invaded and annexed – present day Britain.  Agrippina wanted her own biological son, Nero, to be emperor. So, when it began to seem like Claudius would go on forever, she had Locusta poison him too. Nero was crowned and he later signed Locusta up on a lifetime contract as a sorta “court-appointed poisoner”.

If you were a Roman nobleman in the 1st Century AD, you knew better than to fuck with Locusta and the other two.

Alas, Locusta too met with a horrible death. Soon as Nero was dead (assisted suicide), his successor, Galba, had Locusta arrested and slaughtered in public.

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The spread of Christianity did not seem to slow down greed even a bit. By 400AD, the Dark Ages – also known as the Middle Ages or Medieval Period – set in. It was a period of moral recession that wiped out every bit of enlightenment that had been attained through the early Greco-Roman civilization.

Christianity could do nothing to arrest the onset of the Dark Ages. Religion in fact is credited by some, to have been the catalyst which fueled the Dark Ages, rather than being the provider of enlightenment. Christianity brought with it religious bigotry and officially sanctioned oppression and even wholesale genocide by it’s overseers – the Catholic Church, perpetrated in the name of God in much the same way Islamic extremism goes about it’s business today.

It was as if civilization had pressed a reset button and gone back to the wantonness of 5000BC. (The dark ages lasted right up until the Renaissance in the mid-17th century.)

Through all the chaos, poisons and poisoning played a central role in the mayhem of the dark ages. Indeed, a whole dynasty of Catholic Popes, the infamous Borgias of the 15th century, thrived on the art of poisoning. The murderous patriarch of the family, Rodrigo Borgia, battered and slammed his way to the Papacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI. In time, he made his equally murderous son, Cesare – who was running  an organized crime family at the time – a Cardinal.

The Borgias entertained frequently. With word having already spread about their prowess with poisons, guests who were invited to dinner at the Borgia residence considered the invitation a death sentence. Refusal meant almost certain death and so did acceptance of their invitations.

If I had met Jesus Christ personally I would have told him, “Cut it out, Dude. If Pontius Pilate summons you, make that deal with him and shut the fuck up.” Wouldn’t a live Jesus Christ have been better for the future of the world than a dead one?

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Enough about the Romans and Christianity for now. I know how short your attention span is, so let’s get back to Mitsy.

Mitsy was a paranoiac. Those days every monarch had to be one. Fearing being poisoned with some unknown new concoction after he had gained the throne, he set out to perfect a “universal” theriac or antidote. After many tests which wiped out an entire prison population, he finally settled on a universal antidote. He named it Mithridatium and carried it with him in a tiny marble jar wherever he went.

However, the more he solidified his position on the throne, the more paranoid Mitsy got. The assuring presence of mithridatium didn’t help. Mitsy was smart enough to realize that new poisons were being created by others every frigging day and mithridatium needed constant upgrades if it had to remain effective. (Much like the cyber security industry today).

Not satisfied with having the all-in-one antidote, Mitsy began consuming sub-lethal doses of all kinds of poisons with the belief that this would build up his immunity against them. As to how far he was successful is debatable, though the concept of immunity through controlled ingestion is an infallible one.

Mitsy’s work in toxicology gave birth to a new kind of practice, called Mithridatism – protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts.

Mithridatism had been in vogue in other parts of the world as well. In ancient India, legend has it that during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya (320–298 BCE), there was this practice of regularly administering poison in small amounts to specially hand-picked, extremely pretty pubescent young girls as they were growing up, gradually making them immune to poison.

The girls who got the doses were called vishakanyas (visha – poison, kanya – maiden). Vishakanyas found employment with the wealthy elite as assassins. The modus operandi was a simple one. A Vishakanya would be told to seduce a nobleman who had been shortlisted for murder. She would invite the sucker to share a pitcher of wine with her before engaging in sex. Witnessing her drinking from the same pitcher, the victim would surmise it was safe and he would drink too. While she survived, he would die. The moral : when a woman invites you over for a drink, be sure ta fuck her first.

Take it easy, this post is x-rated. Leave your prim and propahness at the door before you enter this blog. Here we talk dirty and have a belly laf over it. Sex is funny.

As a kid in India, I remember watching in awe while a snake charmer nonchalantly shoved his hand inside a sack filled with cobras, drawing one out and toying with it, pressing it’s jaws so they would reluctantly open and you’d see it’s fangs. Sometimes he’d deliver sharp whacks on it’s head with his open palm and you could see the cobra getting pissed it off, it’s head flattening into a broad hood, it’s upper lip quivering as it retracted, baring a purple-pink gum with two large fangs, it’s forked tongue flailing wildly, while it issued a hissing snarl. After a few whacks, unable to stand the humiliation any longer, the cobra would repeatedly lashed out with lightning speed and stick it’s fangs into him.

It was a fucking cobra and nothing ever happened to the guy! I used to wonder why.

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I have covered Mitsy’s death in Part-1, so if you haven’t already read it, go read it before I send over a lactating vishakanya to get you.

The poison Mitsy took as Ptolemy’s forces closed in was not going to be sufficient to kill him, given his lifelong immunization through his own practice of mithridatism. He had to have his bodyguard stick a stiletto in him.

But Mitsy had to have known that the poison wouldn’t kill him. In fact, historians suggest he had secretly developed a deadly fast-acting ‘poison-x’ for which he had deliberately not created an antidote.

So, why didn’t he use that poison when the Romans were closing in?

Here’s what I think happened. Mitsy misplaced the containor and just when he needed it the most, he couldn’t find it. It must have been one of the first instances of shit happening.

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Legend has it that two thousand years after Mitsy committed suicide – around the time Crimea became a part of the Soviet Union in 1921, Russian archeologists unearthed a small earthenware pot that was filled with some kind of a powder, at the site where Mitsy is believed to have taken his life.

When Soviet archeologist left the pot on top of a table and went out for lunch, his cat came in and sniffed around. On his return, Chuchukin found the cat dead under the table and the jar lying on it’s side open.

Minute amounts of the powder found inside the pot were tested and found to contain some of the deadliest herbs known to mankind – aconite, hellebore, belladonna, thorn apple and hemlock. However, 86% by weight was an unknown element that later on proved to be highly toxic thallium, a substance that is now known as the “poisoner’s poison”, since it is colorless, odorless and tasteless.

The pot was rushed to the Kamera (Russian for ‘chamber’), a highly secretive facility within the Active Measures section of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate where research was ongoing to find a poison that could kill quickly and leave no trace. Kamera had begun work in 1921, under Lenin’s Cheka, the Soviet secret police agency which would later transform into the KGB, now known as the FSB.

The lab report on the ingredients of the powder was being prepared when one of the technicians, the man who had gathered up the spilled powder from the table, collapsed from a heart attack. Later on, a pinch the size of a pin head, when administered to an otherwise healthy Sevostlag gulag inmate who was serving a life sentence without parole, killed him within two minutes. An invasive forensic autopsy showed no signs other than that of a heart attack.

That the contents of that little pot unearthed on the shore of the Black Sea were still potent after two milennia was testimony to Mithridates’ prowess as a toxicologist. Little could he have known though, that his ‘magic bullet’ would find use 2000 years later, at the Cheka-NKVD-KGB-FSB juggernaut, (who would then take it even further, to more exotic agents like Polonium-210).

As for Mithridates’ antidotes, Mithridatium is still available at apothecary outlets in present day Italy.

Coveting thy neighbour

There’s something that’s common to best selling authors like Frederick Forsyth, Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, Leon Uris, James Michener and Tom Clancy – they research their subject painstakingly, in order to render a degree of authenticity to their novels.

There was another ‘researcher-novelist’ who was the capo-di-tutti-capi Of them all – Arthur Hailey, who wrote a string of blockbuster novels in the 1960s and 70s that stand tall as classics of research-driven story telling. Wheels is the result of a comprehensive study of the inner workings of Ford, GM and Chrysler. Overload is on the American electricity company ConEd, Moneychangers is about a bank, Strong Medicine – a pharmaceutical company, The Final Diagnosis – a hospital and Hotel – a 5-star boutique hotel.

In Hailey’s novels, each chapter is a seemingly stand-alone mini narrative having its own protagonist but you know all along that in the end, these narratives will fit perfectly together in a shattering cliffhanger of a climax.

In one of Hailey’s best works, Airport, events are quickly escalating inside and around a fictional Lincoln International Airport (based upon his research of Chicago’s O’Hare).

In Airport too, the chapters are seemingly separate narratives that are running side by side.

  • A jobless suicidal loser has boarded a US to Rome flight. A highly experienced demolition expert, he is carrying a briefcase that is rigged with a bomb, the trigger a string attached to it’s handle. He plans to pull the string and end it all while the plane is over mid-Atlantic, so that his wife gets the insurance payout and he ‘redeems’ himself in her eyes.
  • Another airliner that just touched down, took a wrong turn taxiing in. It’s front wheels slid off the asphalt into the soft slushy snow and it is now stranded with its tail and nearly half it’s fuselage sticking into the runway, blocking incoming traffic.
  • A tiny municipality abutting a runway is threatening to sue the airport authorities because pilots are refusing to follow hazardous noise abatement procedures which require airliners to bank steeply away after take-off, increasing the chances of a stall.
  • The airport general manager and his wife are going through a heart wrenching separation. She is having an affair and he is getting cozy with the comely customer relations agent of a major airline.
  • A stewardess has informed the married airline pilot she is fucking that she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby.
  • An old woman is a habitual stowaway who often slinks into a plane while it is boarding and the crew are too busy to notice. She does this whenever she gets lonely and wants to visit a her daughter in Seattle. Early tonight she was caught trying the same thing but she managed to escape and gain entry into the first flight that was boarding, the one to Rome that has the suicidal guy. Her seat is next to his.
  • The worst snowstorm in history is threatening to shut down the airport. A blizzard is raging outside the large panoramic plate glass windows. Winds are in the excess of 60 knots. While a jet liner can take a lot of headwind, it cannot remain steady in crosswinds above 40 knots. Tonight that limit is breached and has rendered all but one runway functional (The one that is blocked by the airliner that plowed into the snow).

Surely, now you can see why Arthur Hailey’s stories turned into blockbusters.

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It usually took Hailey three years to write a book. The first 12 months were spent on researching the subject, the next 6 months he reviewed his notes and the remaining 18 months he sat at his typewriter writing the novel. The result was a plot-driven, character-driven, research-driven masterpiece of fiction.

Arthur Hailey’s distinctive storytelling style first emerged in 1962, with In high places, novel that is a melange of three seemingly separate chains of events. One is the professional and personal lives of the Canadian Prime Minister and his right-hand man who is having an affair with the PM’s secretary. The second is an illegal immigrant who is a stowaway inside a ship docked at Vancouver whose lawyer is trying to gain him entry as a refugee into Canada.

The third storyline is what this post is about. It is the chilling depiction of the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US. Seemingly these three narratives are unconnected but they are, indirectly.

There have been many novels on nuclear armaggedons but let me assure you, In high places is special. Let me start the chills for you –

North America is preparing to defend itself against an imminent nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union, an act of aggression brought on by a paranoid ultra left-wing nationalist Russia which is beginning to recognize that it‘s communist utopia is actually a sham. More nations are turning to the western style democracies than the Soviet system and the Russians have decided it is time to stop the trend.

All intelligence from assets deep within Moscow point toward an attack that will come over the North Pole. A barrage of 10 to 20 R-36 Vovoda ICBMs will launch from Kozel’sk, Pervomaysk, Kostroma and Tatischevo and the 5-minute boost from their first stages will send them soaring 250 kms into space in an elliptic path whose major axis is vertical.

The missiles will rapidly gain altitude to 1200 kms and then fly through space 5265 kms over the North Pole before their noses dip to reenter the earth’s atmosphere somewhere over Canada’s Baffin Island inside the Arctic Circle. They will cross Canadian airspace, still so high up in the upper atmosphere as to be indistinguishable to the naked eye.

Somewhere around Northern Alberta, the ICBMs will bear downward, rapidly losing altitude and diverging toward separate destinations deep within the heart of America.

Each reentry vehicle will have a single 25-Megaton thermonuclear warhead, 1700 times more powerful than the “Little Boy”.

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Let me digress a bit here and enlighten your starved brain. The 1950s and 60s were the decades when the two superpowers carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests of ever increasing yield. In the year before In high places hit the bookstores, the Soviets had detonated the most powerful thermonuclear device ever built – the 50 Megaton ‘Kuz’kina Mat’.

The story goes that when the Americans tested what was for them their most powerful thermonuclear device yet (an H-Bomb code-named Castle Bravo with an yield of 15 megatons), the Soviets gave it a name of their own – Kuzka (”pipsqueak” in Russian).

Khrushchev is reported to have sneered at the American test derisively at a Politburo meeting, “My obirayemsya pokazat’ im Kuz’kina mat!” (That’s it? 15 Megatons? Kuzka!! We are going to show them Kuzka’s mother).

And the 50-Megaton Kuz’kina Mat was born. Officially named “Tsar Bomba”, the 27-ton thermonuclear device was dropped from a Tu-95 strategic bomber from a height of 34000 ft over the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea, north of the Russian mainland. An 800-kg, 17000 sq.ft parachute retarded the bomb’s descent to give the bomber and it’s companion, a Tu-16 observer aircraft, time to get the fuck out of the area.

The blast was so powerful that it shattered windows as far west as Norway and produced an earthquake-like tremor that registered 5.2 in the Richter scale and a shock wave that went round the earth three times. The devastation was so widespread that the Soviets decided against pursuing the program any further. Another Tsar Bomba was never built. Phew!

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Getting back to “In high places” Hailey correctly surmises that the Soviet attack won’t use Kuz’kina Mat-type “airdrop” bombs that have to be dropped from subsonic Tu-95 bombers –  sitting ducks for the US Air Force’s new Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. His plot goes for ICBMs instead.

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The Soviet missile barrage will be swift – 23 times the speed of sound kinda swift. However, it is still expected to give America around 10 minutes to respond – enough time to launch interceptor missiles from their silos in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Since the Soviet warheads are of the contact-detonation type, America doesn’t need the interceptors to be very high yield. Fission-type MIRV warheads with 750 kiloton yields should be sufficient to blow the incoming Soviet ICBMs to smithereens.

The missiles will be transiting Canadian airspace, so the Americans have shared with Canada the results of numerous simulations (done on gigantic IBM mainframe computers of the day), which show that the intercepts will occur over some of the  most industrialized and densely populated regions of Canada – Quebec and Ontario to the east, Alberta in the mid-west and British Columbia on the western seaboard.

The Soviets are expected to target food sources – American food sources. But given the intercepts, those food sources shall unfortunately be Canada’s vast mid-western farmlands that seem to stretch to eternity. A sure way to ensure the demise of a nation is to contaminate its farms.

If the intercepts go through as planned, the central Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be hit with fallout from the intercepts. And in order to ensure that every square mile is blanketed with heavy fallout of highly radioactive debris, the detonation of these warheads is going to be ‘airburst’, set off automatically at a height of 5000 feet.

It’s population decimated, industry shattered and farmlands rendered untouchable for at least a century, Canada as a nation will cease to exist.

The US will not go unscathed but the damage, in the form of contaminated landmass, is expected to be marginal. If at all, only the far corners in the North-West (around Washington state) and the North-East (around Vermont and Maine) will be marred by those deadly wind-blown white flakes that folks will mistake for snow. This is because the wind patterns over Canada are almost invariably lateral – in the east-west direction.

Most major industrial cities and coastal population centers in the US shall remain untouched. One analysis shows that below the 35th parallel, America won’t suffer any radioactive fallout at all.

The Canadian military has always been a toothless, token force and now, as the gloves begin to come off, it looks as if Canada might turn to look like a collateral damage statistic in the Phd thesis of some fresh faced political science graduate student.

There is of course NORAD – North American Aerospace Defense Command – the new US/Canadian joint defense initiative that is supposed to ward off an airborne assault. But this is 1962 and NORAD is still nascent, having been made operational only a year earlier. NORAD’s base of operations is under construction – a sprawling, heavily fortified underground bunker deep inside the Cheyenne Mountain, a 3000-metre triple peak outside Colorado Springs, in Colorado.

NORAD is not yet capable of staving off a thermonuclear first strike that will be so massive that it will be beyond the pale of human understanding.

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Now the good news (if you can call it that). To prevent Canada’s demise, In high places delivers a chilling twist……

America has made Canada a Corleonesque offer, one that Canada cannot refuse – America will annex Canada as an integral part of the US (it’s 51st state), immediately becoming world’s largest country in terms of both, landmass as well as mineral wealth.

In return,  those interceptor missile batteries will be moved north and stationed along the northern Canadian tundra. Now the intercepts shall happen over mostly uninhibited, ice-bound wasteland. Sure, the polar bear and caribou population will be decimated, but shit happens. And thanks again to the lateral wind patterns, hopefully most of Canada will be spared the fallout.

If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil your fun. As is typical of Arthur Hailey, In High Places has many parallel narratives running side by side, each fascinating in its own right, all of them inexorably advancing toward the central Cold War background story and the climax.

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But what if we Canadians did face annihilation and the only choice left was annexation by a Trump-governed America? We would be in a nasty pickle and for that, Canada has itself to blame, for never attempting to go nuclear and never trying to build up its own independent military and firepower.

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Maybe annexation will happen anyway, with or without any external threat. Even before Trump happened, the US annexation of Canada (by force, if required) had already been a reality waiting to happen. A bill is in the US Congress, called ‘Bill to Annex Canada’. It is technically still an active proposal, awaiting deliberation and has been waiting to go into law since it was first tabled – in 1866.

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The other war on Terror (Final Part)

And its one,two,three,four, what are we fightin’ for // Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam // So five,six,seven,eight, open up the pearly gates //  There ain’t time ta wonder why, whoopie!! We’re all gonna die…

”Come on mothers, throughout the land, pack yore boys off to Vietnam // Come on Dads, don’t hesitate, to send off your boys before its too late // Be the first ones in your blocks, to bring your son back in a box”

Country Joe (1972)

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That’s enough country music. Let’s get back to the here and now.

Among US Military combatants, the demographic whose members are the most susceptible to PTSD seemed in the beginning to be the most unlikely,

given the fact that these fighters never have to smell the burning flesh of innocents and the cordite of the battlefield.

Meet the new-age warriors of today – the drone pilots.

Although a soldier, a drone pilot leads a life that is just like ordinary working civilians. He signs in, 9am he sits on a tall straight backed seat in front of a large screen, inside a climate controlled hut at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Thanks to technology, he doesn’t have to be present where the action is.

In the pilot’s right fist is a video game style joystick which controls the flight of an MQ9 Reaper drone, it’s single tail mounted 900-hp Honeywell turbine engine keeping it flying in a lazy figure ‘8’ pattern 20000 ft above an arid Iraqi hamlet. His colleague sitting right next has an almost identical set-up that controls the munitions (which are considerable).

The Reaper got it’s name from the “Grim Reaper” which is a euphemistic term that we use for death. A very apt name indeed and its because of the laser guided AGM-114 Hellfire missile slung under it’s belly that can hit a target with an accuracy of 25cms. Detonated, the high explosive in it’s nose will wipe out everything within 50 metres all around the strike point. At maximum payload capacity, the Reaper can stay aloft for 14 hours at a stretch. This one still has 5 hours to go, having taken off 9 hours prior, from a strip in Djibouti, in the horn of Africa where the CIA has bribed the local government and coerced it into providing space to build a base.

Up front, just below it’s chin, the Reaper has a hyper-sensitive infra-red camera that can detect the heat signature of a human body from an altitude of 4 miles. The camera is not sophisticated enough to tell between a boy playing with a stick and a militant brandishing an AK-47, but those who are flying the Reaper really don’t care. There are no rules of engagement that the drone pilot has to worry about. It’s just a cut and dried two-man chain of command. In under 10 seconds, the pilot will get the go-ahead, “This one looks like a bad guy. He’s moving around suspiciously. Burn the m…ther f…cker.” That’s all that it takes.

A slight pressure from the pilot’s thumb will send down a 100-lb high explosive-tipped laser guided Hellfire missile which will bore down on the target at 1.5 times the speed of sound and annihilate people who have done him, his family or his nation personally no harm. The target will not sense even a whisper, since the projectile is supersonic.

After his shift gets over, the drone pilot will strut out into the dazzling Nevada sun and drive home in the F-350 truck that he has souped up with his considerable overtime pay. He will be filled with a sense of having accomplished something, ie: eliminating a “bad guy”.

At home, the drone pilot has work to do – like taking his kids out for their little league baseball and maybe a slice of pizza after.

ptsd2

“Intrepid” drone pilots, picking targets between swigs of Moka and bites of donuts with sprinklies on them

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“Hey, Bud, I think that was a kid in there.”

“Take it easy. Relax. We’ll say it was a goat…..”

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All within a span of 24 hours, a drone pilot will careen between two vastly different lives –one, in which he will engage in wholesale slaughter where women and children often get vaporized and the other, in which he goes home and leads the life of a typical “all-American family”. Day in and day out.

In the beginning, the drone pilot finds his bizarre bipolar existence thrilling. He develops a sense of playing God, instantly vaporizing people at will. But the adrenaline high is short-lived. All the wanton killing of faceless people thousands of miles away destroys his sense of humanity and ultimately gives way to massive guilt at the enormity of the mayhem that he willingly unleashes. He finds it increasingly difficult to square how what he is doing can “save American lives”.

Like it or not, we all have a moral compass “factory installed” within us. Most drone pilots suffer from a variant of PTSD known as “moral injury”. It is the injury to a person’s conscience and moral values from a morally repugnant act that can induce profound guilt.

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In all fairness, some strong arguments against the ‘just war’ theory also exist.

Many believe that the premise that a morally justified war is psychologically clean and therefore PTSD-free, is a myth.  They argue that there were in fact comparable numbers of the PTSD-afflicted among WW2 vets too. The vets just didn’t know they had it, calling it simply, ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue’. Unaware that PTSD was a sickness that needed treatment, they kept it to themselves and just sort of muddled along, trying to make the best of what post-war life had to offer them.

I still believe that the good guys and the oppressed tend to suffer less from PTSD. What helps them is the moral high ground.

Take the Vietnamese, for example. In those 11 years that they fought the American invaders, nearly 1.6 million gave up their lives. They suffered horrible burns from Napalm and they were consumed by Agent Orange. Countless others died in massacres such as the one at the hamlet of Mai Lai in 1968, when American soldiers went berserk, killing hundreds of innocent villagers. We recall Tây VinhGò DàiBinh TaiTinh SonBình Hòa and last but not the least, ‘Operation Speedy Express’ which was a macabre ‘reverse hearts and minds’ effort that killed 11000 innocent Vietnamese villagers. The list of known massacres committed by the US troops in Vietnam is long and grotesque.

In comparison, the American deaths from the Vietnam War were 52000, lesser by a factor of 1 in 32. The incidences of PTSD among the Americans would naturally be expected to be in the same proportion, but it is just the opposite, as per a research funded by and American non-profit, The American-Vietnamese Friendship Foundation, presented in 2005. The study found that as against 35% for American vets, only 19% of the Vietnamese vets were found to have PTSD.

”American-Vietnamese Friendship Foundation”. Irony, isn’t it? The nation that, by it’s brute power, devastates also has in it people with real guilt, real conscience.

Interestingly, a similar trend was noticed in another study comparing British and American WW2 vets. It was observed that the number of Americans suffering from ‘combat fatigue’ (they didn’t call it PTSD then) was double that of the British. That was believed to be because the British and the Vietnamese had one thing in common. They were fighting for their very survival. Perhaps having a solid reason to fight staved off PTSD in both cases.

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And then there are the holocaust survivors. Most holocaust survivors have rebuilt their lives. Almost to the very last man, they have picked up the pieces and moved on to build successful careers in business and industry wherever they settled after the war. I’m not saying they didn’t have the occasional nightmare. They did, but they chose to look beyond.

When the state of Israel was still young, it was teeming with holocaust survivors. Out of a total Jewish population in 1948 of 806000, holocaust survivors made up 250000, which means that one out if three Israelis was a holocaust survivor – a walking skeleton with a damaged psych.

If any one group of people were expected to suffer from massive long-term PTSD, it was the Holocaust-surviving Jewish settlers in Israeli. Instead, just the opposite happened in Israel. They farmed the arid land, set up its cutting-edge industry and built one of the world’s most feared defence forces. It fought off murderous neighbours on all sides and took the battle into their territory.

Fighting for their survival and building a nation at the same time kept the holocaust survivors in Israel busy and saved their nation from becoming a basket case. Stray incidences of PTSD did begin to crop up in the 1980s, when the holocaust survivors began leading retired lives with very little to occupy them and in some cases, became lonesome, with a spouse dead and nobody to talk to and a tiny percentage of them began having nightmares related to PTSD.

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My elder bro, an intellectual, sent me this excerpt from an essay by an Indian journalist, Mukul Sharma, that kinda resonated somewhere within my head…..

“Does the universe care about what we do or what happens to us or whether we live or die?

If we were to believe hard-core amoral nihilists who say that the universe is just a physical phenomenon with no spiritual component, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose and that there are no consequences to our actions, then the answer is obviously no.

Yet, even if that were true, it certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t care about the universe because, unlike it, we have evolved into sapient creatures that are capable of wonder and love. Meaning, we can infuse it with the same whether it cares or not. In fact, with that kind of involvement on our part, who cares whether it cares or not?

If we were to do that, we could begin living in a basically spiritual universe, ordered by feelings of good and bad; a cosmic

order that would in turn, underpin and motivate all our actions. It would be like a moral force where our actions have definite effects that we carry with us. In this respect, its meaning would then be close to the Hindu concept of Karma.

The notion of a moral universe would also buttress spirituality and form the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism and caring for others. This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what seems suitable if we regard people and living things merely as a collection of atoms, and essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient structures such as rocks soil, mountains or planets”.

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I am an atheist but I believe in a “moral universe”, a universe that distinguishes between good and evil and ultimately rewards morality.

How can we stop a soldier and make him think of  a moral universe? How can we make him ask, “what am I fighting for?’

Mithridatus VI – Hannibal of the East (Part-1)

She slid open a panel in the door of the limo. There was a whole bar in it.

“What’s your poison?” she asked, her eyelids heavy with mascara.

“Life,” I grunted, trying to look tough.

“Oh, that? It’ll kill you. Unless you live it the way I do,” she giggled and reached out and place her hand on my thigh…..

– Excerpt from “No orchids for Miss Blandish” (James Hadley Chase)

 

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Mithridates VI, The Louvre, Paris

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Don’t pay any attention to the blurb on top of the bust. It has nothing to do with the context of this post. I put it there because I used to love Hadley Chase’s writing. Put bluntly, inserting this kinda blurb is called jerking off the reader. I apologize but the temptation was too great. Besides, this is my blog and I’ll do what I want.

Perhaps there is a parallel. The guy this post is all about also did what he wanted. He was one of only a handful who had the chutzpah to thumb their noses at the mighty Roman Republic and bring it close to the brink of collapse. The great Carthagian general, Hannibal (247-182BC) was one and then there was the Thracian slave called Kirk Douglas….. I beg your pardon, I meant Spartacus (109-73 BC).

There was another man whom the world hardly speaks of today – ruler of a tiny state called Pontus on the southern banks of the Black Sea, in present-day Turkey.

Meet King Mithridates VI of Pontus (120-63BC).

Mithridates (I’ll call him Mitsy if you don’t have any objections) is an obscure figure in the history books. I bet you never heard of the guy before. That’s cool, because neither did I. The reason why he does not find prominent mention in history books could be due to the preferences of the historians of antiquity, like Plutarch, Pliny the Elder and others who Were members of the Roman elite and dismissed him as a minor brigand and despot who in the end got what was coming to him.

Another possible reason why Mitsy faded away into obscurity was Spartacus. Around the same point in time, the famous revolt of slaves under Spartacus was unfolding right there in the heart of the Italian peninsula. The slave revolt was a very big deal for the slave owning Romans and naturally, well documented. It was a big deal because at that point in time one out of three inhabitants of the Italian peninsula was a slave.

Imagine that. One outa three humans on the Italian peninsula was a slave. It must have been like today’s Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and those other oil-rich Arab countries with all those hordes of immigrant workers from Philippines, Bangladesh and other third world nations whom they just love to see as objects to treat like shit.

The fact that historians did not afford any prominence to Mitsy does not diminish his greatness in any way. There was a time when he was feared and hailed as the ‘Hannibal of the East’, a sobriquet that he earned by constantly launching lightning attacks on neighboring Roman satrapies and thereby challenging the hegemony of Rome.

Maybe instead of wasting his time writing about inconsequential medieval Germanic princes like Hamlet or treacherous sons like Brutus, if Shakespeare had penned a tragedy on Mitsy’s life, he would be a household name by now.

Mitsy is believed to have directly descended from both, Darius the Great of Persia and one of Alexander the Great’s three Generals, Seleucus I (founder of the Seleucid Empire after Alexander’s death). It’s possible. You have no idea how much fucking was going on among the elite in those days. If you conquered another kingdom, the first thing you did was fuck the king’s wife, his sisters, his daughters  and his sisters’ daughters (and sons). Darius had 365 wives, one for each day of the year. So a mixed Persian and Greek ancestry is entirely possible.

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When he was just 12, Mitsy’s mommy, Queen Laodice VI, had his dad Mithridates V killed by serving him wine with datura mixed in it. Datura is a deadly flowering plant that is otherwise known as ‘devil’s trumpet’.

The king dead, Laodice seized power as regent, since Mitsy and his younger bro, Chrestus, were still minors. Don’t be unduly alarmed. Treacherous queens were more common among the elite than cholesterol. If you don’t believe me, read my post The Power Moms of Ancient Rome (Part-1)

Unfortunately for Mitsy, Laodice favored Chrestus over him. Love for the youngest child is a sentiment that most parents have even today. Take me, I was the darling of my mom, being the youngest. I could do no wrong and I was one huge pain in the ass. But of course, my mother never plotted to poison my two elder bros (though sometimes after they’d beaten me up for being a pest, I wished she had).

Mitsy realized that his mother’s preference for his younger bro could not be a good thing. Being the oldest son, he was the heir apparent, but mommy wanted Chrestus to be king, so she decided that Mitsy had to be done away with. Aren’t you glad to be born in the modern age? Imagine growing up wondering if your bro was going to run an axe through the backa your head in your sleep or if your mummy was going to mix belladona in your birthday cake?

Turns out, Mitsy’s fears were justified. Laodice had indeed been plotting to poison him and word about her machinations somehow got to him. But before his mom could carry out her plan, Mitsy escaped into the wilderness and began living off the land.

After three years of living in exile – around 113 BC – word got to him that his mum was beginning to cozy up with the Roman general, Pompey’s forces. Remember Pompey? One of the famed triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Crassus? That Pompey.

Fortune favors the brave. Resentment at the sellout to the Romans was growing against Laodice and Mitsy chose the day and threw the dice. He returned and the first thing he did was to have his mom and younger bro executed and claim his rightful status as king.

The second thing that Mitsy did upon becoming King was to marry his 16-year old sister, also named Laodice, probably Laodice VII. Marrying sisters was common among kings those days, done to preserve the bloodline and ensure that there wouldn’t be any succession issues anytime, since there wouldn’t be any in-laws. In a weird way, it was taken as being quite normal because the match was made at birth.

This can be another ‘imagine that’ moment but marrying one’s sister is so out of the pale nowadays that I think I’ll just sigh and leave it that.

On second thoughts, I can see that you need an explanation, so I’ll say it anyway – imagine that you have a sister who just got out of rehab, is tens of thousands of dollars in debt, has zero cash on hand, no home, no car, no job and just told you she’s pregnant. Imagine she wants to move in with you and imagine marrying her. In those days back in the Roman times, it would still be okay to marry her, is what I’m saying. Capisce?

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What Mitsy’s mom did was well understood among the elite of the ancient dog-eat-dog world. She had very little choice. She could either be ambitious and ruthless and live a short but spectacular life or she could be passive and be relegated to her chambers to live out a boring ceremonial life and/or be invaded, raped and enslaved and lead a short and torturous life. Either way, life was short in those days. You could consider yourself fortunate if you reached the age of forty unscathed. It is difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine just how much aggression and treachery, subjugation and misery was around in those days.

Obviously Misty’s mom chose short but spectacular. And so did Mitsy. Almost immediately after gaining the throne, he set about expanding his empire. Around him was a vast region of tiny states barely managing to survive against the threat of invasion from Rome as well as those vicious horsemen from the plains. At any given point in time, someone was planning to invade you. The land surrounding Pontus encompassed Anatolia and Asia Minor (today’s Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).

The kingdom of Pontus, superimposed on a region of present-day Turkey on the southern shore of the Black Sea.

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Mitsy began a long series of battles with the neighboring states of Bythnia, Cappadocia, Armenia and Colchis, some of which, like Bythnia, wanted to align themselves with Rome. And he won them all.

Alarmed at Mitry’s empire-building ambitions, Rome declared war on Pontus, throwing into battle three of it’s greatest generals – Sulla, Lucullus and Marius and sparking off the two and half decade long Mithridatic Wars (88-63BC).

Initially Mitsy was on a roll, winning battle after battle against the Roman legions. In the neighboring Roman protectorate of Anatolia, he set about ethnically cleansing the whole population, of all Roman inhabitants, men, women and children, as retribution for Rome’s aggression. The bloodbath lasted a week and in total, 80,000 innocents died at his hands, as per the historian, Clesus. Mitsy was lucky there were no such things as international war crimes tribunals in those days.

Mitsy was, like many rulers of his genre, a creature of the times. He thought nothing of slaughtering civilians, took countless slaves and was particularly brutal toward his enemies, a typical take-no-prisoners kind of guy. On the other hand, he was hailed by Greeks and Persians and the other small states that felt threatened by Rome, as a savior from Roman occupation.

Mitsy likened himself to his illustrious ancestor, Alexander the Great. He had the same ethos as the great Macedonian. While he enslaved when he felt like it, he also freed folk that had been slaves under the Romans and often freed prisoners of war who swore allegiance. He shared his wealth with his troops, cancelled debts, expanded citizens’ rights and tried to bring in the kind of justice system that Alexander had established.

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Eventually however, the Romans got to Mitsy. Betrayed by his own son, Pharnesces II, facing certain defeat at the hands of the legendary Pompey’s forces, he took his own life. (Pharnesces had been promised the keys to Pontus if he turned it into a satrapy, a promise that was not kept in the end).

Mitsy’s first suicide attempt- by poisoning- failed. Through the course of his extensive research on poisons (details in Part-2), he had been consuming all sorts of toxic stuff as a self-appointed test subject and had gradually developed a solid immunity.

Writhing in pain, his immune body refusing to shut down, Mitsy ordered his personal bodyguard to run him through with his pearl-handled stiletto.

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Mithridates VI was a great rebel and fighter but he is remembered the most for the body of research that he carried out throughout his reign on the art of killing by poison as well as finding antidotes to prevent death from poisons.

The 15th century Swiss-German chemist, Paracelsus, is widely believed to be the father of toxicology, but it is actually Mithridates’ scientific experiments with plant, animal, and mineral poisons (and their antidotes) that became a sort of gold standard in the science of toxicology for more than 2000 years.

You won’t believe this but an all-in-one antidote called Mithridatium that Mitsy had perfected around 66BC, is still available at some naturopathy and apothecary outlets in Rome.

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ps : There’s a Part-2 coming up. It’s all about MitridatesVI’s poisonous life. So if you want a Phd in toxicology, hang on, watch this space.

The other war on terror(Part-2)

“I strode up to the stake and examined the dead man, impaled and naked, stripped of dignity. The stake had entered his anus and protruded through his gaping mouth, his face a death mask, frozen in a look of horror. It filled me with a warmth even the best wine cannot bring…”

– Vlad III(1428-1477) – ruler of Wallachia (present day Romania)

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“The Deluge”A depiction of all those who didn’t have a reservation on Noah’s Ark

-Gustave Doré (1866)

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According to the Book of Genesis, God awoke one day and said he’d had enough. Humankind’s misdeeds had grown outa control and something drastic had to be done.

So God decided to return the Earth to it’s pre-Creation watery chaos by flooding it. No one knows why God chose Noah but I have my own theory about it. God must have asked a passing cherub, “Hey, Shorty, so who is the go-to guy down there who can help reset the world, do you know?”

Now, I am surmising what the cherub said but he was in a hurry. He had an appointment at the mechanic’s. The ball joints in his wings were not articulating well. Impatiently he replied,”No”.

“That’s right, Noah!!” God cried. Trust me, that’s real history, oh yeah. I doubt if Noah ever realized how lucky he was, with a name like that. If it had been say, Dick, he’d be toast.

God waited till Noah had finished building his ark and had loaded a pair of every living being for resettlement in a future virtuous utopia and boomed, “Watch this, Noahkins!” and he flooded the earth, killing every living being. Even an earthworm, who had never possessed the capacity to discern between right and wrong and therefore could not have committed any misdeed, drowned.

That’s right, all animals that weren’t on the ark that day, drowned or had their heads smashed against the rocks by the waves and then drowned. FOR NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN.

Three thousand years after the ‘reset’, look at the world today. Where is that virtuous utopia? What was the deluge, but a deliberate and senseless mass-extinction style multicide, a callous act of extreme cruelty?

But hang on. There are among us 4.2 billion suckers – the Abrahamics (Christians, Jews and Muslims) – who believe that it was a good thing God did what he did. Me, I think God had ample opportunity to do things more humanely with love, but instead, he chose annihilation. To this day God has gotten away with it and as long as we have right wing evangelical kooks, mullahs and gurus, it’ll stay that way.

Pray to this God? I wouldn’t, even if you held a fucking gun to my head. I think God is a psychopath. I think God is Republican. 

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At the time of the deluge, Noah is said to have been 500 years old. God must have prescribed Noah some special kinda viagra, because no sooner had the flood waters receded, Noah and his wife must have begun fucking each other’s brains out. They had to repopulate the world with virtuous humans, remember? “Dear, come back to bed. God said fuck. Hurry.” (In Aramaic of course).

Alas, the post-deluge world turned out to be even more blood thirsty. The Book of Samuel details what God commanded King Saul of Israel to do to the Amalekites, a nomadic tribe that had settled in the Negev desert, who minded their own business and had their own religious beliefs. When the Amalekites spotted hordes of Israelis crossing the desert (which they considered their territory) to reach the promised land, they understood it to be an invasion and attacked.

The Amalekites hadn’t known that the Israelis were God’s favorites – his “chosen people”, on their way to “the promised land”. Long story short, God was pissed that his chosen people had been attacked by a bunch of heathens who didn’t even pray to him. According to the Book of Samuel, he roared at Saul, “Destroy all that they have. Do not spare them. Kill both, man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Saul did carry out God’s command but only partially. He killed all the humans and only the sickly animals. He believed that killing perfectly healthy animals that could help with farming and provide much needed nourishment, was itself a sin and he decided to rear them instead. To beg God’s pardon and satiate his blood thirst, Saul offered God a sacrifice or two.

But Saul didn’t know the extent of God’s blood thirst. When God said kill everything, he meant kill everything. Saul’s sacrifices didn’t work. God was apoplectic.

There are many theories on how Saul died (like him committing suicide by falling on his sword, etc) but let me choose the one that is the sexiest…..

On hearing that Saul had disobeyed him, God ordered the then reigning prophet, Samuel, to expel him. Cast out in the wilderness, he was never heard from again. Thus the founder of the State of Israel and it’s first monarch, King Saul, passed into history, a friendless and ragged man.

All three holy books of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Bible, the Holy Quran and the Holy Tora record in gory detail all the times that God has encouraged, exhorted, commanded and rewarded actions of extreme violence.

The Hindu scriptures are not far behind in violence either. Remember the purple God, Krishna, with the deceptively beatific smile and the circular saw with jagged teeth that he balances on his index finger. It flies off on its own and slices off the heads of his enemies and whirls back to his finger. (The fact that the saw hasn’t sliced off Krishna’s finger by accident might indicate it has some sort of advanced docking radar.)

That PTSD took five millennia to be recognized as a problem, is astonishing. Since the Gods are the ones responsible for most of it.

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Participating in gut-wrenching brutality on a day-to-day basis had been commonplace (maybe even the norm), from the first settlement at Jericho right up to the Renaissance. Victorious invaders were expected to rape, enslave, pillage and burn. Absolute ruthlessness was the only way for monarchs to maintain order. Good governance was another word for ruling by terror. Physical and mental trauma must have been part and parcel of daily life.

The great Mongol chieftain, Genghiz Khan, at the gates of the besieged Jin Dynasty city of Xi Xia in 1209, had this to say to his troops….“Nothing should make you happier than to chop off the head of your enemy, burn his temples, snatch away his gold and enjoy his wives and his daughters and savor his despair.”

Genghiz Khan didn’t pause to consider if winning the hearts and minds of the conquered people instead wouldn’t have been a better idea. It might not have even occurred to him.

But then maybe, the common folk in conquered lands in those times hadn’t really known what being governed by a benevolent ruler was. They might have taken Genghiz Khan to be weak if he had shown them any mercy or empathy. Those were brutal times, when mothers had to give up their 6-year old sons to be trained as warriors.

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Genghiz Khan’s armies, during the seige of Xi Xia (1209)

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The Khan practiced what he preached. He was not being unduly cruel as per the perceptions of the time. He was just following the norm through the ages. Annihilation – Genghiz Khan style was by then already a well-established war-craft for 4000 years.

Take Babylon 680BC, when the city fell to the mighty Assyrian King Sennacherib. You wouldn’t want to be there. Sennacherib’s account of the plunder went thus….

“…I leveled the city and its houses from the foundations to the top, I destroyed them, and I consumed them with fire. I tore down and removed the outer and inner walls, the temples and ziggurats built of brick, and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu canal. And after I destroyed Babylon, smashed its gods and massacred its population, I tore up its soil and threw it into the Euphrates so that it was carried by the river down to the sea…”

(Sennacherib’s was a more labor-intensive method of destruction than the ‘Little Boy’ or the ‘Fat Man’, but the effect on the psych of those at the receiving end must have been about the same.)

So much mayhem but do the history books mention any PTSD among the hoi polloi of either Babylon or Xi Xia? Heck, for millennia empires and city-states were constantly rising and falling, plundered by rampaging marauders from the surrounding grasslands. Being treated brutally, having dear ones raped and ravaged right in front of their eyes, seeing blood and gore, these were almost a weekly occurrence in most ‘civilized’ regions of the ancient world.

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I’d imagine that in ancient times, around 95% of the world population must have lived constantly under the threat of serious physical and mental trauma. And yet, we have not turned out severely flawed, have we? In fact, the world on the whole appears to have shaped up quite well over the centuries and we – the descendants of aggressors and victims alike, seem to have not only shaken off the trauma but progressed by leaps and bounds. Today, we go about our lives in a state of peace and prosperity, governed by laws – an existence that Sennacherib or Genghiz Khan could never have imagined possible.

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ps : Hang in there. I’m not done. There’s a Part-3 in the making. Gosh, my genius knows no bounds!

 

The other war on terror (Part-1)

 

“The things you did that haunt you the most…they were the things that you weren’t ordered to do.”

– Clint Eastwood’s character, Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, in “Gran Torino”

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Before I start, let’s just watch this clip from the Oliver Stone film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’. The movie is a true account, based on the life of paraplegic Vietnam vet, Ron Kovic, skilfully played by Tom Cruise…

In the clip, Kovic is being given a hero’s welcome in his neighborhood after his return. Asked to say a few words, Kovic begins warming to his speech, waxing eloquent about how America is doing the right thing in Vietnam and will surely win the war in the end. As he gets to the part about his experiences in Vietnam, a baby in the crowd of spectators begins bawling loudly and Kovic’s voice falters. The voices of crying Vietnamese kids blanket his consciousness and he is overwhelmed by the sheer untruth in the rosy picture he just presented. The stark sounds of Nam, the thaka thaka thaka beat of a Huey’s turbo-shaft engine, come back and swamp him. Kovic just sits there on his wheelchair, trying to form the words but can’t.

Ron Kovic’s sudden meltdown from simply hearing a baby cry was a reaction known as ‘intrusive recall’, an anxiety disorder which in those days hadn’t yet been recognized as an injury that needed treatment.

We now know that condition well, as Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) – the other war on terror.

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Here’s another classic example of PTSD……

“…Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars, man! I had all these guys back there, my buddies. Out here there’s nothing, man, no buddies. Where is everybody?

Remember Joey Danforth? He was always talking about Vegas and he was always talking about this big fuckin’ red ’58 Chevy convertible. ‘We are gonna cruise till the tires fall off, man’, he’d say.

Then we were in this bar in Saigon and this kid comes up, this little kid carrying a shoe-shine box. And he says “Shine, please, shine!” I said no. But he kept askin’ and Joey said “Yeah, okay.” And I went to get a couple of beers. The box was wired and the kid opened up the box, fucking blew his body all over the place. And Danforth, he’s layin’ there, screaming. There’s pieces of him all over me and I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know, my friend, he’s all over me, man! The guy’s fuckin’ insides keep comin’ out and I keep tryin’ ta hold him together! He’s repeatin’ over and over, “I wanna go home, Johnny!” He keeps calling my name! “I wanna go home, Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!” And I’m lookin’ at him and I’m thinkin’, “With what? I can’t find your fuckin’ legs!”

— John J Rambo, Green Beret, in the 1982 film ‘First Blood’

The above may be fiction, but it is a very close representation of the senseless mayhem that is war. Combat veterans always say that it is hard to make civilians understand what they have been through. The following account is of a real Vietnam Vet, taken from a 1971 issue of Time Magazine that I chanced upon….

“The noise, the confusion, the suddenness of the shelling, the deadly invisible snipers, the dank heat, the incessant rain, the terror and with it the desire to stay put even though that could cost me my life. The nearest cover is a large rocky outcrop about a hundred meters’ straight sprint from where we are.

There’s pin-drop silence but we know they are there, behind those trees to the left with their heavy machine guns, waiting. I turn to look at the guy closest to me inside the hollow. Its the Captain. The Captain I looked up to on the parade ground is cowering down there, a flesh wound somewhere on his left arm soaking his tunic through.

The Captain is just a kid out of West Point and he has defecated in his pants. I can tell, because in the close quarters of the ditch, the stench of his filth is intense. He is just sittin’ in there, trying to form words but he can’t get them out. I nudge him impatiently and he lets out a hoarse whisper,” I want to see my Mommy. I want my Mommy…”

I remove his army-issue Colt from his holster and put it to his head and order him to pull himself together and issue the command….“

Close your eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like for the GI who wrote this account. You’ll find it hard if you have been a civilian all your life. Most would look at the captain who had simply snapped, with derision.

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I have an American colleague, Stan, whose late father had been a navigator in B-24 Liberators during the Second World War. He flew over forty sorties and bailed out twice over German territory. The first time, it was very close to the Swiss border and he managed to slip across to freedom and find his way back to his squadron in Malta.

His second jump was in December, 1944. His squadron was on a bombing run over Ulm, an industrial town deep inside Germany that had several large lorry manufacturing plants, belonging to the auto major, Deutz. These factories were believed to be churning out armored personnel carriers for the Wehrmacht.

It was December 1944 and Stan’s dad’s squadron had been told that the Luftwaffe had been completely wiped out and therefore the bombers were flying that night without fighter escort. The planes were carrying 2-ton ‘blockbuster’ bombs that were meant to churn up the air and cause turbulence over the city’s boulevards. The blockbusters would be followed by white phosphorus and thermite incendiary bombs that would the set the rushing air on fire, incinerating everything.

A pair of Messerschmitt-109s suddenly appeared out of nowhere and tore into the lumbering B-24s with their 20mm cannons. The plane that Stan’s dad was in took multiple hits. Both right engines and the complete right wing were chewed up and the fuselage and tail section ripped to shreds. They were going down.

As the big plane tipped its nose for the downward spiral, Stan’s father jumped directly over the city. He suffered a cracked ankle as he hit a stretch of ground that was covered with jagged rocks, right next to a street that was paved with asphalt. It was a grotesque sight straight from hell.

The asphalt had melted and was boiling in the heat of the white phosphorus. Flames were licking up from the bubbling black tar. Here and there, people were stuck in the tar. They were on their hands and knees, trying to extricate themselves. They were stark naked, their clothes having been blown off their bodies by the blast of the firestorm.

Stan’s Dad was immediately spotted and captured and he spent the remaining months of the war as a POW inside a nearby prison camp run by hardened SS-Totenkopfen. Tortured and deliberately starved, he lost 60lbs in the six months that he was incarcerated there. By the time he was liberated at the end of the war, he was barely alive.

Despite being brutalized in the prison camp and witnessing horrifying scenes of death and destruction for five long years, the Stan’s dad survived, regained his health, settled down to a solid family life, went on to build a successful business and finally passed on peacefully in his sleep at the ripe old age of 94, last summer. He had never shown any signs whatsoever of post traumatic stress.

Why does one man succumb to PTSD while another is able to shrug off the horror and move on?

Let me take this a bit further. If one were to compare the horrors of the Second World War with the Vietnam War, there is no question that the WWII was far more horrific. Yet, the surviving Allied military personnel of the Second World War appeared to have weathered it more ably, since we never heard of a rush of PTSD cases among WWII veterans.

I posed this to Stan and he said his father and his buddies saw WWII as a “just war”, one that America had entered reluctantly, only because its allies needed it’s support. The American GIs knew who the enemy was. They knew what they were fighting for and they were proud of that noble goal. The war galvanized and united America and when it was over, it paved the road to unprecendented prosperity and power.

In comparison, the Vietnam War was very different. At the height of the Vietrnam War(1967), the US Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara commissioned a top-secret study that would cover the entire history of American involvement in Indochina, right from the end of WWII. Maybe he wanted to record it for posterity.

The resulting 47-volume document, now famous as “The Pentagon Papers” described in vivid detail an infamous 1964 plan to create NSA-doctored radar images that were made to look like North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacking a US Navy destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. The goal was to conjure up the justification to launch military attacks inside North Vietnam, a sovereign nation that had never done the US any harm.

That NSA subterfuge is now infamous as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It started the Vietnam War.

Deceit doesn’t remain under wraps for long and by 1971, The Pentagon Papers was being serialized and published chapter and verse by the New York Times and the Washington Post. (Check out the 2017 Steven Spielberg movie “The Post” which is centered on the Pentagon Papers).

The exposé left Americans feeling cheated. GIs returned home defeated, riddled with guilt, from the realization that they had been directly involved in the killings of thousands of innocent civilians in a sovereign nation half a world away, one they had no business being in.

Iraq took the Vietnam deceit one step further. Not only did the US participate in a subterfuge designed to fool the world about a non-existent threat, but it showed America to be capable of harboring leaders who might otherwise have been prosecuted and even convicted as war criminals, had they been from another nation, if the existing international treaties on war crimes were allowed to be applied. In terms of the number of diagnosed cases of PTSD, the 2003 Iraq war has even larger numbers which, according to a study, is expected to cost the US exchequer billions to treat over the next two decades.

If weapons of mass destruction had indeed been found in Iraq and if Saddam Hussein was found to be really in bed with Osama Bin Laden, would there have been less PTSD cases among Iraq war veterans, since the 2003 invasion could then be termed a just war?

I don’t know, to be honest, but don’t forget to check out Part-2 which I am still working on. Just relax, get yourself a beer and wait. You have nothing better ta do anyway.

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The Power Moms of Ancient Rome (Part-1)

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The Roman Emperor, Nero, standing over his mother, Agrippina the Younger’s corpse. The painter intended to show Nero grief-stricken, even though in First Century AD Rome, the grapevine had it that, Nero was fed up with her domineering, meddling ways and had had her assassinated by a hired Libyan assassin.

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(If you have the feeling you have seen the above pic somewhere before, I poached it from an earlier post titled,”The impressionists and their genital-envy“. Do read it. It’s all about how impressionists liked to paint bare tits and tiny dicks.)

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Before I tell you about all the power moms of ancient Rome, let’s take a closer look at the emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that the power moms assassinated….

Augustus : 27 BC – AD 14 (First emperor of Rome / Julius Caesar’s stepson) : Most likely poisoned by wife, Livia, so her son from an earlier marriage – Tiberius could be emperor and she could sorta run things for him. Livia Drvsilla was one of the most Machiavellian but astute women of her time, destroying her enemies while managing to retain friendly relations with those of the elite that mattered and that included the Praetorian Guard. Perhaps it was for this reason that she was the only power mom who got away with murder and died a natural death.

Tiberius   : AD 14 – AD 37 (Augustus’s stepson) : Smothered to death with a sofa cushion by a Praetorian Guardsman while another impaled him with a cyanide-tipped spear up his ass. The 1st Century AD historian, Pliny the Elder, however wrote that Agrippina the Elder (granddaughter of Augustus, mother of Caligula) orchestrated the killing. She wanted her son to be Emperor so she could be the power behind the throne. She succeeded, choosing an apt method. Tiberius was known to sodomize light-skinned Tunisian boys, so the cyanide-tipped enema.

Caligula   : AD 37 – AD 41  (Augustus’s great grandson) : Turned out an asshole. Stabbed to death by his Praetorian Guards, because of it. During one of his drunken binges, he made his horse, Incitatus, a Consul. Consul in those days was a position that reported directly to the Emperor, a very big deal. Let me give you a parallel….

Imagine General Kenneth Mackenzie, the guy who head’s America’s CENTCOM (United States Central Command), a military jurisdiction that covers the whole of the Middle East, including West Asia, up to Iran and Afghanistan and in the south, Egypt. Now imagine if these are conquered lands (which they essentially are) and General Mackenzie has the power of life and death over the inhabitants of this vast region. He would then be exactly what a Consul in the Roman Empire used to be and Caligula made his horse a Consul. Wouldn’t you say Caligula was an asshole?

Caligula might still have gotten away with being a jerk but this time his Power Mom, Agrippina the Elder wasn’t around to save his ass. You see, she had already been incarcerated and beaten and starved to death by one of Tiberius’s henchmen, a horrible guy called Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Let me introduce him to you…

If you have been paying attention, the term “Praetorian Guard” has popped up in the text above. The Praetorian Guard was an elite unit whose members initially served as personal bodyguards of Emperor Augustus. Over successive generations however, they gradually expanded and evolved into a powerful entity that owned vast tracts of real estate and farmland, ran businesses, poked their noses into Roman statecraft and foreign policy, assassinated emperors and chose and installed their successors. The Praetorian Guard was much like Saddam’s Republican Guard Corps, Iran’s Quds Force or Putin’s FSB. These modern day parallels didn’t target their masters though. They terrorized all others.

Roman emperors came to depend on their Praetorian Guards to keep them in power and at the same time, they feared their power. The Prefect of the Praetorian Guard in Tiberius’s reign was that guy, Sejanus.

Claudius  : AD 41 – AD 54  (Mark Antony’s grandson) : Perhaps the only just and reformist emperor of ancient Rome (aside from Marcus Aurelius two centuries later). Claudius was the 1st Century equivalent of 15th Century English monarch, King Richard-III. While Dicky was known to be a great king, he was a hunchback who suffered from a spinal condition known today as scoliosis. Naturally his appearance made him a singularly unattractive man. Claudius too looked like a fucking bozo. He had a perpetually running nose and an embarrassing stutter.

The historian, Tacitus wrote that the only thing that saved Claudius from assassination was his apparent harmlessness. After Caligula was killed by the Praetorian Guard, they came looking for him. Fearing a purge, afraid that he would be murdered next, Claudius hid behind the drapes in his bedroom, but the guardsmen found him. Claudius fell to his knees, begging for his life, but amazingly, instead of killing him they bowed and proclaimed him Emperor!

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Claudius, begging for his life and the Praetorian Guard, bowing and swearing allegiance

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The Praetorian Guard expected Claudius to rule as a figurehead but he surprised everyone, turning out to be an astute leader and a great conqueror. Claudius was the Roman Emperor who annexed Britain and gave it it’s name – Britannia. Maybe being handicapped makes one try harder and leads your adversaries to underestimate you, to their detriment.

Being good however didn’t help Claudius in the long fucking run. Claudius was married  to a power hungry siren, Agrippina the Younger, a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, great granddaughter to Augustus, granddaughter to Tiberius, daughter of Agrippina the Elder. As a pastime, Agrippina the Younger financed a lab that developed exotic poisons.

Like her mom before her, Grippy the Younger too had plans for her son, an immoral 17-year old alcoholic prick whippersnapper called Nero. Not content to wait, one moonlit night when Claudius was settling down to dinner, Agrippina fed him a deadly herb called atropa belladonna (known today as ‘nightshade’).

Exit stage up, O great Claudius. Enter stage left : all round asshole – Nero.

Nero        : AD 54 – AD 68  (Claudius’s stepson) : Started of as Claudius’s great-nephew and then adopted as his stepson. Turned out to be a flaming asshole, run through with his own sword by his secretary on his orders. Why? Earlier that day, the senate had declared him ‘enemy of the state’ because he had turned out to be an asshole. And trust me, he really was an asshole. He fiddled while Rome burned to the ground on his orders.

This time, his power mom, Agrippina the Younger, wasn’t there to save his ass. She had already been murdered by him, remember?

The sentence specified being beaten to death by the Praetorian Guard, obviously Nero saw being run through as a quicker and less painful option.

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You saw any of the emperors die in bed of old age? Naah, assassinations were the norm in those days.

Like in the Mafia. Except for Joseph Bonanno and Carlo Gambino, almost all mafia capos were ‘whacked’ and for the same reason – succession. But of course, they weren’t killed by Machiavellian machinations of power moms, like their 1st century ancestors were.

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One particular Roman power mom always fascinated me. Large breasted and exceptionally beautiful, she rose to become one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire.

I am not sure if this woman had large breasts. I just like women in my blog posts to have large breasts and even if they didn’t actually have large breasts historically, my blog endows them with big jugs and if my post says she had large breasts, she had large breasts, period.

While still in her teens, this woman plotted against her own brother, the Emperor Caligula and when discovered, managed to escape execution by seducing him into a ménage à trois with another sister. I like a free thinking flower girl. She married her uncle, Emperor Claudius and attempted to inveigle her way into a position of influence but Claudius was too smart. He kept her at an arms length.

Maybe not too smart. Claudius fell for the cream of poisoned mushroom soup she served one night and he croaked it. With her son, Nero, as emperor she effectively ruled as regent, with the power of life and death over every living soul in Rome.

Meet Julia Agrippina, a.k.a Agrippina the Younger, mother of Emperor Nero, widow to Emperor Claudius and great granddaughter of Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus.

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Let’s back up a bit, to the first Roman Emperor. Augustus, in spite of having fucked thousands of women as Emperor, couldn’t manage to have a son and thereby an heir. A male heir was a big deal. So Augie did the next best thing – he designated his two grandsons as his heirs.

This was millenia prior to the discovery of stuff like penicillin or antibiotics, a time when going down with even a sore throat and a cough could kill you. Pasteurization and refrigeration weren’t even concepts and you could easily end up consuming putrefied meat which could bring you down with salmonella and sure death. Heck, you could die of a stomach ache.

Augustus’s grandsons didn’t survive into the double digits. They most likely died of typhoid and he was left trying to figure out a way to secure his lineage. That was when he adopted Tiberius, his third wife, Livia’s son from an earlier marriage. Tiberius would go on to be emperor during the time Jesus Christ was crucified.

Alas, in ancient Rome signing adoption papers was sometimes akin to signing your own death warrant. Historians agree that, no sooner had the ink on the adoption papers dried, Livia fed Augustus poisoned figs to have Tiberius installed.

Oh yeah, poisons were a big thing in those days. There was no forensic science then. You could poison someone and pass it off as a stomach ache and no one was the wiser. Members of the elite financed and maintained hidden laboratories, churning out ever more exotic poisons.

What separated the men from the boys was the ability to develop antidotes in case you were poisoned. You had to have the resources to pay highly qualified chemists to develop not only the poisons but also their antidotes, just in case. And you had to be rich enough to have a dungeon full of slaves to try your concoctions out on.

The chemists very lavish lives. As long as they produced potent poisons, they were rewarded handsomely, awarded vast estates and armies of Nubian slaves. But often those lavish lives were short ones. A chemist could be executed on suspicion of leaking secrets to adversaries or killed out of spite for a rival nobleman.

One of the more well known chemists of the time was a broad named Locusta. A favorite of Nero, she was executed by his successor, the moment Nero was assassinated.

Aren’t you glad you weren’t there in ancient Rome? Phew!

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Ps : Looking at your depth of intellect and attention span, I gotta end this post. But watch out. There’s more about Agrippina the Younger in Part-2 that your Uncle Spunky is going to tell you all about. As soon as he gets another Stella Artois from the fridge, that is.

Holy Cow!

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Cows are cuddly, I’ll hand you that. Check out a cow at close quarters and her eyes will blow you away, so beautiful are they – large, with long eyelashes, they are trusting, serene, all comprehending – as if she is saying to you, “I know you need my body, for your daily nourishment, your survival. Don’t harbor any guilt that you treat me so – I completely understand….”

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One Sunday, last summer, a colleague and I had to be at work finishing a project that we had to present, Monday. Around 3 pm we were done, when Marie-André said she was going over to her parents’ at St. Bruno, a farming community on Montreal’s south shore. She suggested I come along and check out what a typical Quebec farm looks like from up close. Marie-André’s dad is a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel who rears cattle and sheep. I couldn’t resist the invitation.

The farm has around a hundred cattle and fifty odd sheep and these animals are having a ball. Judging by it’s neatness, one get’s the impression that the farm really knows how to look after the animals. They are healthy and they are organic. And they should be – they are raised exclusively for meat.

Marie-André’s dad went to great lengths explaining that the animals are killed very humanely, without cruelty. “I could have fifty pounds of sirloin, chuck and ribs ready for you to pick up this fall. Pick your animal and I’ll call you when it is all shrink-wrapped and ready,” he said.

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Most folks feel very strongly about animal suffering and yet we all seem to get along fine with the idea that we can kill and eat them. Looking at the cows, lazily grazing across a lush green meadow, I wondered how both those feelings could be held within one’s conscience at the same time. And when I wonder, I Google and therefore this piece.

Sometimes seeking an answer to certain questions have a habit of broadening the issue until it becomes an unmanageable web of myriads of little but yet important angles.

Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, currently a professor of ‘bioethics’ in Princeton University, is also author of Animal liberation. I picked up a copy last summer but left it after fifty pages since it isn’t exactly my kind of reading. But his arguments are convincing.

The central message of the book is that even though there are far more differences, for instance between a chimpanzee and an earthworm, than there are between a chimp and a human, we humans still lump the ape and the worm together as ‘animals’ while we see ourselves as privileged – above all other species. Therefore while we find it not okay to kill a human, it is fine to kill another species of animal.

Singer argues that we should treat killing animals as an ethical issue because there is no ‘red line’ between humans and non-humans. He explains this by going into an analogy, substituting the word ‘species’ with the word ‘race’ – so when a white man looks at another white man and says ‘he is like me, so I’ll treat only him and folks like him as I treat my own’, it should be acceptable and appropriate, but it isn’t – it is racism.

Again, suppose we consider a really intelligent orangutan, like say, Clyde, in the 1978 Clint Eastwood movie ‘Every which way but loose’. Clyde is a trained pet who acts like he is almost human. Orangutans are known to be highly intelligent and display human-like social behavior patterns.

Now if you compare Clyde with say, a child suffering from acute Down Syndrome or a severely cognitively impaired woman stricken by Alzheimers, it is quite possible that the orangutan would trump the human in all those qualities that we pride in ourselves as setting us apart from animals. And yet we would treat that child or that woman with far more deference than we would treat Clyde.

So, do we have to lose any sleep over killing a cow to eat it’s meat? One argument is – no, humans have evolved with mouths, teeth and digestive systems that are specifically designed to eat meat and therefore we should not worry about the morality of it. But some behavioral scientists take exception to this sweeping statement on how we were designed to eat other animals. Since men have evolved to be stronger, should it then be natural for them to dominate over women?

Spreading the net wider, if one went by the ‘evolved to dominate’ assumption, then slavery was a natural instinct, wasn’t it? Of course it was. White folks were better in every way – they were stronger than the impoverished negro villagers of Africa, had better technology, better weaponry, were healthier and better educated. So, the argument that those white folks in America simply evolved to lord it over the Negros would seem quite reasonable, if one went by the evolved-to-dominate theory. But slavery is universally condemned, as it should be.

It is also not true that we need to eat meat, for our sustenance. Any nutritionist will confirm that meat consumption is not absolutely essential. Take India for instance – almost 35% of all Indians, that is around 400 million souls, are vegetarians.

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Now about the morality in killing other animals – how does one justify the killing of animals, on moral grounds?

Peter Singer suggests we consider a hypothesis. He says that, for argument’s sake, let us assume that all lambs and cows are reared on farms like Marie-André’s dad’s, where animals are treated humanely, right up until the time they are slaughtered – painlessly – for food. Let us further assume that up until the last instant, the cow or lamb is unaware that it is going to be killed and is therefore it’s usual happy, normal, cud-chewing self.

So we have put aside the question of cruelty toward those animals and their suffering. In those perfect conditions, is there anything wrong with killing an animal for it’s meat? I don’t really know but the trip to Marie-André’s dad’s farm did throw up interesting arguments…….

When we had come upon him, the old man had been walking a bullock toward the tailgate of a pickup truck that had a tall rectangular wooden enclosure in the back. He had opened the gate of the pen and solemnly herded the animal forward, seeming sombre and deferential toward it. “I’ve done this a million times but it is still saddening,” he said.

“Why so? Guilt – that he has to die?” I asked.

“I guess you could call it that.”

“But wasn’t he just like one of those other faceless animals in your farm?”

He turned sharply, almost as if I had offended him by calling the beast faceless. “I know each one by name. This one is Gucci. She came to us one stormy night in 2011. She has this habit of coming up silently behind and giving you a gentle nudge and then brushing past, as if to say,’ It’s been a while and I’m famished. How about some chow, big guy?’

Chuckling to himself, the old man guided Gucci up a slanting ramp onto the back of the pickup. He stooped to carefully arrange a bed of hay and some fodder and emerged, closing the tailgate firmly behind him. “When you live among them, feed them, look after them, it dawns on you that they all have distinct personalities,” his voice was gravelly, filled with emotion.

Then he said something that sounded strange but which I later realized could be absolutely true – “If humans didn’t rear cows and lambs for meat, milk, leather, etc, these animals might not have existed at all. Given how fragile, harmless and vulnerable they are, they would probably have been rendered extinct by carnivorous predators long ago.”

I was amazed at the idea. “So, maybe, we have done them a favor and they should thank us for letting them live and exist this long at least – is that what you are saying?” My tone must have sounded incredulous.

“Why, of course. At least they have had some existence – comfortable, disease-free lives inside a farm where food is abundant and a vet comes and checks them every now and then. Isn’t it better than not having existed at all? As long as they have no inkling that they’ll be killed and so long as they are killed painlessly, I don’t see why killing them is morally wrong.” he replied.

“So, a lamb is better off living for a year and then being killed for it’s meat, than not having lived at all. Should he thank us for the opportunity?” My incredulity grew and I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.

‘Absolutely,” he replied. “A morally good action is one that maximizes happiness (which we do by looking after the animals’ needs while they are alive) and which minimizes pain (which we ensure, by killing them painlessly).”

By this time, I was willing to take up their invitation to stay for supper, so interesting a man was Marie-André’s father.

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I did stay for supper and the steak was succulent. It had been breathing just that morning. I felt a tinge of guilt eating it. Aren’t animals’ rights – the right to live and not be killed – the same as humans’ rights? Moral philosophers like Peter Singer believe that they are.

Marie-André’s father admits that each cow and lamb behaves differently, as individuals. To someone like me, visiting the farm, they might all look and behave alike but to someone who interacts with them on a daily basis, they are individually identifiable, with distinct personalities. He senses that they have the sentience – the capacity to feel. They respond when called by name and they act in a manner that clearly indicates that they have memories. At times they clearly are happy and playful, says he.

Therefore, judging by the old man’s own admission, what happens to his cows and lambs in the future matters to them and, given a choice, they would like to live as long as they possibly can.

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Jeff McMahan, another moral philosopher who teaches at Oxford, has found a way to draw a line between those animals that should not be killed and those that can be killed without suffering moral injury. He says that there are living beings that are – unlike cows and lambs – unaware of their past, present or future. They do not have a narrative. Like worms, for instance. I have never heard of any moral dilemma attached to the killing of a worm.

McMahan recommends that before we kill an animal, we need to ask ourselves ‘ how psychologically connected is it, to it’s future self?’ The more connected it is, the more morally unacceptable it is – to deprive the animal of that future.

My religion, Hinduism, has never encouraged any debate on animal slaughter, at least not one that I have read about. Hinduism bans killing cows not because it considers killing another living being immoral but simply because Hindu scriptures say cows are sacred, period.

The hypocrisy shows when one considers the fact that, while Hinduism reveres cows and bans cow slaughter, it is totally indifferent about buffalo slaughter, even if buffalos are from the same taxonomic classification as cows. But we know why that is. It’s simple – cows are white and buffaloes are black. Indian society equates white with good/revered and black with bad/inferior.

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A male colleague at work is an avid hunter who believes that hunting must be as humane as possible. Before he skins and cleans his kill, Francois lays his open palm gently on the rump of the whitetail and says,” I apologize for this but it had to be done for my sustenance and that of my family. I promise I won’t waste any of your flesh….” He makes himself believe that without the kill, he and his family would die of starvation.

Francois always takes careful aim so he won’t just wound the whitetail and let it skimp away only to drop from exhaustion and lie dying a mile away, writhing in pain in the thick brush or somehow survive and live out the rest of it’s life a cripple or be set upon and torn apart by a coyote or wolf pack.

Francois doesn’t pull the trigger until he is certain he’ll drop the animal in it’s tracks. With his bolt-action Nosler M48 Patriot cocked, he waits until he has the animal within 15-20 feet, facing broadside. Once he has the animal positioned perfectly, he shoots through the near-side shoulder. The high-powered 129-grain projectile snaps the spinal cord and takes out the upper lung area (and maybe even the forelegs) and exits through the opposite shoulder. It’s hard for even the toughest buck to remain standing after a hit like that. The animal remains transfixed for a few moments – in ‘hydrostatic shock’ – and then collapses in a heap, literally not knowing what hit him.

Francois is the most ‘ethical’ hunter I know. The whitetail might differ though.

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As for me, I have left many habits in my 65-year long sojourn on this planet. I have left smoking, drinking, womanizing, reading porn, masturbating and dreaming of taking Scarlett Johanssen to bed – but I haven’t yet left meat eating.

After supper, as Marie-André’s dad lead me out to my car, I decided to place an order for one of Gucci’s rumps.

I am a sucker for butts. That’s another thing I haven’t left behind.