Tuesday, 8 December 2015

December 9: V-S Day

     I think December 9 is a day we should celebrate with every bit as much solemnity and pride as November 11. On this day in 1979, a United Nations commission declared smallpox extinct. The official endorsement from the World Health Organization wouldn't come for another five months, but neither did the Treaty of Versaille that formalized the end of World War One was almost a whole year after the Armistice, but we celebrate when the shooting stopped, not when the diplomats shook on it.
     Of course, it's a little harder to be clear when the war on smallpox was really won. The last patient was diagnosed in 1977 (he survived), and it's by no means certain that the last wild specimens of the virus were in him; possibly some unidentified infected person was hit by a bus in 1978 or even 1987 and took the last ones with her. We only know we won because enough time went by without any new infections to give us some confidence that it's over. There were no parades or fireworks.
     But even so, it was a truly stunning accomplishment. I mean, we've driven countless species extinct before, but mostly unintentionally and to our detriment. Smallpox was a vicious virus whose only role in the ecosystem, so far as anybody can tell, was to hitch a ride from human to human, killing lots of us in the process. The defeat of smallpox was one of the best things that has ever happened for our species.

     And defeating it took enormous organization, resourcefulness, skill and courage. The last person to be infected? He was a hospital cook who worked with the WHO team working to eradicate smallpox. And the last person to die of smallpox was a medical photographer. So fighting diseases is not without its risks.
     Yet it wasn't only the medical professionals going out and vaccinating people who won this war. There wasn't always enough vaccine to go around, and so it had to be applied strategically. That meant getting good intelligence on where the virus was. New cases anywhere in the world were reported quickly to the team, who would isolate the patient and vaccinate all her contacts. The last natural infection of the deadliest strain (the hospital cook got a somewhat less deadly but still dangerous version) was reported to the authorities by an 8 year old girl, so there were important contributions made by everyone. And that includes everyone who received a vaccination (which can be a scary thing, especially for children).

     So we should all be grateful and celebrate this anniversary, but not just because ending smallpox was a good thing. Deadly infectious diseases like smallpox are kind of like war in that most of us, living in the developed world, haven't directly experienced one, and can scarcely imagine the epidemics of even the recent past. Influenza killed more people in the years of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versaille than the four years of war they ended. Lest we forget.
     We should remember these things so we don't repeat them. When we debate whether or not to get vaccinated against the diseases we're still fighting, we should remember what we're up against, and bravely, proudly, patriotically roll up our sleeve and take that shot. Even if you believe that vaccines can cause autism (they really don't), even if you're afraid of all the (very rare) complications from vaccines, remember that you live free of smallpox because of people who were willing to be vaccinated despite their fear of these strange foreign doctors and their needles. And generations yet unborn may have reason to be grateful to us for a life free of polio, measles, the Guinea worm and other pestilences we might yet defeat.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Fear and Anger

     I sat down to try to write something about the terrorism at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. I wanted to talk about how "terrorism" isn't (or shouldn't be seen as) violence-by-Muslims, but that it's a specific kind of violence, strategically aimed more at provoking a terrified response than at inflicting decisive damage. Terrorism is about the emotional reaction to the violence more than the violence itself, and violence used to intimidate people to change their behaviour (such as deterring them from attending health care services) clearly fits the bill.
     But I also wanted to talk about how maybe the word "terrorism" is itself a bit misleading, because the emotional overreaction that it provokes isn't always purely a terrified one. A natural reaction to fear is anger, and displays of escalating rage are a very common defence: if I can make you more afraid of me than I am of you, maybe you'll leave me alone. I like to call this phenomenon "badass bravado", and you see it all over the place, from politicians boasting about how they're going to get "tough on" criminals or terrorists or foreigners, to Second Amendment crazies fantasizing about how would-be government despots quiver in fear from their mighty home arsenals of small arms. 
      What's especially dangerous about this bravado is that, in believing that one is driven by anger and not fear, one can think that one is immune to the strategy of terrorism. "They want us to be afraid, but I'm not afraid. I'm angry, and I'm gonna kick their asses, not cower in fear!" Yet the objective, at least in the case of DAESh's use of terrorism, is to provoke exactly this kind of response. To be fair, there certainly are uses of terrorism that are intended to intimidate, as well, as the Planned Parenthood example illustrates. But in all cases, terrorism is aimed at getting you to react emotionally instead of rationally.
     There are very good evolutionary reasons for why we have emotions that make us stupid. In a suddenly dangerous situation, being able to react quickly without stopping to ponder if maybe there's a better way to avoid the charging angry bear is important: fight or flight, but whichever you choose it's better if you don't linger over the decision.
     But anger in particular is meant to make us irrational, especially in the badass bravado scenario. We have a strong need not to appear weak before our rivals or enemies, to pose a credible deterrent to any slight or insult they might offer. It wouldn't be, in the immediate situation, rational to escalate to a costly retaliation when the cost of just turning the other cheek is so low, but little insults add up, and in the long run it can be costly to be seen as willing to tolerate little wrongs. And so, being seen as easily angered to irrationally costly vengeance is often worth it. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. made the rationally calculated choice to assure each other not just that they would be able to retaliate to any nuclear attack, but unable to stop themselves from retaliating. Thus was WWIII deterred: by the awareness on both sides that the other side would become irrationally dangerous if provoked.

     So this is what I was trying to organize into yet another blog post about violence, when yesterday I heard about the mass shooting in San Bernardino and threw up my hands in frustration. And anger. So much anger. And maybe a bit of fear, too, but I'll get to that.
     See, the thing that sends me into a seething ultraviolet-hot fury is not the shooters. I'm mad at them, a bit, of course, but they're dead and unworthy of further attention except as data points in trying to understand and prevent future incidents. No, what enrages me is when the Gun Lobby people start blaming the victims, saying that if only they'd been armed, they could have defended themselves and saved lives. 
     That is just plain offensive, but it's something the Gun Lobby does a lot, and if you apply the tiniest fraction of the paranoid creativity that goes into dreaming up false flag explanations for Sandy Hook or ... or... jeez, I can't even remember which of the many other shootings they've tried to claim was a hoax as a pretext to confiscate guns. If you consider the motives of the Gun Lobby with the slightest hint of the skepticism they have for Teh Gubmint and the "liberal" media, it might occur to you that an industry that makes all of its money from the sale of guns and ammo might not be completely free of ulterior motives in their enthusiastic promotion of guns as the solution to gun violence.
     I am reminded of the obscene hypocrisy of tobacco company executives asserting before Congress that they believed tobacco was not addictive, and spending vast sums to challenge the claim that maybe cigarettes weren't very good for you. No, it's not the mere fact that they were lying that was obscene. It's that the lie was so transparently a self-serving lie, because at the very same time they were claiming there was no health risk from smoking, they were also insisting that their advertising wasn't aimed at children or indeed at convincing anyone other than established smokers to switch to their brand. Really? If you believe tobacco is harmless and non-addictive, then what kind of an incompetent moron are you not to be trying to encourage everyone to try your wonderful product?
     The Gun Lobby argument is not quite as inherently self-refuting, but it's close. It's certainly more profoundly immoral, though, because at least with tobacco, dying of emphysema was at worst an unfortunate side-effect of tobacco use that had to be downplayed. With guns, mass-shootings and the fear they inspire actually create more profits for gun manufacturers, because terrified people rush out to buy guns to defend themselves against other terrified people with guns, or to stockpile them before a reactionary government bans them. In other words, it's actually in the Gun Lobby's interests for there to be fairly regular mass shootings.

     So if I'm angry, what's the fear behind it? Well, apart from just being morally outraged that people are dying unnecessarily to keep the money rolling in for the gun industry, there's another pretty terrifying aspect to their rhetoric. A common variation on their blaming-the-unarmed-victim argument is the claim that Hitler disarmed the Jews, as if they could have defended themselves effectively against the state if only they'd had guns. And this offends and frightens me, because the lesson of the Holocaust was not "Don't be like the Jews"; it was "Don't be like the Nazis". There is a guy running for President of the United States, a prime example of badass bravado, who has openly advocated making Muslims wear badges. 
     Sure, I'm not a Muslim. Heck, I don't even live in the U.S. Why should I be afraid?