Archives for April 2012

The trust molecule

Paul J. Zak writes: Could a single molecule — one chemical substance — lie at the very center of our moral lives?

Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men. In our blood and in the brain, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large.

Known primarily as a female reproductive hormone, oxytocin controls contractions during labor, which is where many women encounter it as Pitocin, the synthetic version that doctors inject in expectant mothers to induce delivery. Oxytocin is also responsible for the calm, focused attention that mothers lavish on their babies while breast-feeding. And it is abundant, too, on wedding nights (we hope) because it helps to create the warm glow that both women and men feel during sex, a massage or even a hug.

Since 2001, my colleagues and I have conducted a number of experiments showing that when someone’s level of oxytocin goes up, he or she responds more generously and caringly, even with complete strangers. As a benchmark for measuring behavior, we relied on the willingness of our subjects to share real money with others in real time. To measure the increase in oxytocin, we took their blood and analyzed it. Money comes in conveniently measurable units, which meant that we were able to quantify the increase in generosity by the amount someone was willing to share. We were then able to correlate these numbers with the increase in oxytocin found in the blood.

Later, to be certain that what we were seeing was true cause and effect, we sprayed synthetic oxytocin into our subjects’ nasal passages — a way to get it directly into their brains. Our conclusion: We could turn the behavioral response on and off like a garden hose. (Don’t try this at home: Oxytocin inhalers aren’t available to consumers in the U.S.)

More strikingly, we found that you don’t need to shoot a chemical up someone’s nose, or have sex with them, or even give them a hug in order to create the surge in oxytocin that leads to more generous behavior. To trigger this “moral molecule,” all you have to do is give someone a sign of trust. When one person extends himself to another in a trusting way—by, say, giving money — the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin that makes her less likely to hold back and less likely to cheat. Which is another way of saying that the feeling of being trusted makes a person more… trustworthy. Which, over time, makes other people more inclined to trust, which in turn…

If you detect the makings of an endless loop that can feed back onto itself, creating what might be called a virtuous circle — and ultimately a more virtuous society — you are getting the idea. [Continue reading…]

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Thinking in a foreign language makes decisions more rational

Brandon Keim writes: To judge a risk more clearly, it may help to consider it in a foreign language.

A series of experiments on more than 300 people from the U.S. and Korea found that thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived.

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” asked psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago in an April 18 Psychological Science study.

“It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases,” wrote Keysar’s team.

Psychologists say human reasoning is shaped by two distinct modes of thought: one that’s systematic, analytical and cognition-intensive, and another that’s fast, unconscious and emotionally charged.

In light of this, it’s plausible that the cognitive demands of thinking in a non-native, non-automatic language would leave people with little leftover mental horsepower, ultimately increasing their reliance on quick-and-dirty cogitation.

Equally plausible, however, is that communicating in a learned language forces people to be deliberate, reducing the role of potentially unreliable instinct. Research also shows that immediate emotional reactions to emotively charged words are muted in non-native languages, further hinting at deliberation. [Continue reading…]

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Video: The widening rift in Israeli politics

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Robert Fisk reports on the U.S. legacy in Fallujah

Part One: For little Sayef, there will be no Arab Spring. He lies, just 14 months old, on a small red blanket cushioned by a cheap mattress on the floor, occasionally crying, his head twice the size it should be, blind and paralysed. Sayeffedin Abdulaziz Mohamed – his full name – has a kind face in his outsized head and they say he smiles when other children visit and when Iraqi families and neighbours come into the room.

But he will never know the history of the world around him, never enjoy the freedoms of a new Middle East. He can move only his hands and take only bottled milk because he cannot swallow. He is already almost too heavy for his father to carry. He lives in a prison whose doors will remain forever closed.

It’s as difficult to write this kind of report as it is to understand the courage of his family. Many of the Fallujah families whose children have been born with what doctors call “congenital birth anomalies” prefer to keep their doors closed to strangers, regarding their children as a mark of personal shame rather than possible proof that something terrible took place here after the two great American battles against insurgents in the city in 2004, and another conflict in 2007.

After at first denying the use of phosphorous shells during the second battle of Fallujah, US forces later admitted that they had fired the munitions against buildings in the city. Independent reports have spoken of a birth-defect rate in Fallujah far higher than other areas of Iraq, let alone other Arab countries. No one, of course, can produce cast-iron evidence that American munitions have caused the tragedy of Fallujah’s children. [Continue reading…]

Part Two: The pictures flash up on a screen on an upper floor of the Fallujah General Hospital. And all at once, Nadhem Shokr al-Hadidi’s administration office becomes a little chamber of horrors. A baby with a hugely deformed mouth. A child with a defect of the spinal cord, material from the spine outside the body. A baby with a terrible, vast Cyclopean eye. Another baby with only half a head, stillborn like the rest, date of birth 17 June, 2009. Yet another picture flicks onto the screen: date of birth 6 July 2009, it shows a tiny child with half a right arm, no left leg, no genitalia.

“We see this all the time now,” Al-Hadidi says, and a female doctor walks into the room and glances at the screen. She has delivered some of these still-born children. “I’ve never seen anything as bad as this in all my service,” she says quietly. Al-Hadidi takes phone calls, greets visitors to his office, offers tea and biscuits to us while this ghastly picture show unfolds on the screen. I asked to see these photographs, to ensure that the stillborn children, the deformities, were real. There’s always a reader or a viewer who will mutter the word “propaganda” under their breath.

But the photographs are a damning, ghastly reward for such doubts. January 7, 2010: a baby with faded, yellow skin and misshapen arms. April 26, 2010: a grey mass on the side of the baby’s head. A doctor beside me speaks of “Tetralogy of Fallot”, a transposition of the great blood vessels. May 3, 2010: a frog-like creature in which – the Fallujah doctor who came into the room says this – “all the abdominal organs are trying to get outside the body.”

This is too much. These photographs are too awful, the pain and emotion of them – for the poor parents, at least – impossible to contemplate. They simply cannot be published. [Continue reading…]

Part Three: “He needs multiple surgery outside Iraq. It’s a dysfunctional problem. He has no hearing in his left ear. They told me he has to be six before they can remove cartilage from his chest wall to put in his ear. All operations have to be outside Iraq to beautify the ear and give him his hearing.”

And all the while his father talks, five-year-old Sayef Ala’a sits obediently on the sofa beside us, doing as his father tells him, moving his head to show us the scrappy bit of flesh that constitutes his left ear, tipping his head to one side so we can take pictures of it. Compared to other children with birth deformities, Sayef Ala’a is lucky. He can see, breathe, walk, run, play and listen to his father and friends with his right ear. And he is a little boy of much courage.

“He hasn’t learnt much yet – that’s because he hasn’t been to school,” his father says. “I’m worried he would be bullied at school. He’s a child, but sometimes he comes to me and says he knows he has a deformed ear; but it doesn’t matter, he says, because he has no other problems. He is shy but he doesn’t mind seeing you.” And here the father points at us as we sit beside his son on the sofa. “But no other foreigners come to see him.”

Like others in Fallujah, Sayef Ala’a’s father, who is a businessman, hopes that NGO officials will turn up at his door one day and offer the boy a foreign visa, medical treatment abroad, education. It is a dream that will never be realised – not so long as even the Iraqi government takes no interest in the deformed children of Fallujah. [Continue reading…]

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The politics of sight and inattention to the unseen

David Sirota writes: Would Americans eat less meat, and would animals be treated more humanely, if slaughterhouses were made with glass walls and we all could see the monstrous killing apparatus at work? This is the query at the heart of Timothy Pachirat’s new book Every Twelve Seconds — the title a reference to the typical slaughterhouse’s cattle-killing rate.

Before you think this is a column merely about food, recognize that Pachirat’s question isn’t (only) about the immorality of the cheeseburger you had for lunch. It’s about the larger phenomenon whereby modern society has reconstructed itself to hide so many horrific consequences from view.

Calling this the “politics of sight,” Pachirat’s blood-soaked experience inside a slaughterhouse spotlights only the most illustrative example of how we’ve divorced ourselves from the means of producing violence—and how, in doing so, we have made it psychologically easier to support such brutality. Sadly, billions of factory-farmed animals dying barbaric deaths are just one subset of casualties in that larger process.

Today, for example, free trade policies that promote offshoring allow Americans to enjoy consumer goods at ultra-low prices without having to see that those low prices represent companies taking advantage of the developing world’s poverty wages, environmental destruction and human rights abuses. A veritable slave may have assembled the iPad you are reading these words on, but thanks to the supply chain’s geography and Apple’s lack of transparency, you can easily avoid dealing with the ethical implications of that reality.

Another example: Many Americans drive gas-guzzling SUVs, proudly slapping patriotic declarations on their bumpers. This seems perfectly reasonable, but only because many either don’t live near polluted oil-drilling sites or don’t have to personally experience the ramifications of our petroleum-focused military policies. Ultimately, by separating the consequences of gas consumption from the driver, we’ve created the psychological conditions for fossil fuel consumption to seem like an honorable statement of strength rather than an endorsement of environmental degradation and war. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military mutilating live goats in training exercises

Men gathering in the woods and using tree trimmers to chop off the legs from live goats — it sounds like some kind of barbaric satanic ritual, but in fact it’s a description of training exercises being conducted by the U.S. military ostensibly for the purpose of training medics in trauma procedures.

PETA reports: Each year, more than 10,000 live animals are shot, stabbed, mutilated, and killed in horrific military training exercises that are supposed to simulate injuries on the battlefield. But the training exercises that are taking place in these highly secret courses bear no resemblance to real battlefield conditions — and they don’t help soldiers save the lives of their injured comrades.

In disturbing, never-before-seen undercover video footage leaked to PETA showing a Coast Guard training course in Virginia Beach, Virginia, instructors with a company called Tier 1 Group, which was hired by the military, are seen breaking and cutting off the limbs of live goats with tree trimmers, stabbing the animals, and pulling out their internal organs. Goats moan and kick during the mutilations—signs that they had not received adequate anesthesia.

During this cruel exercise, one Tier 1 Group instructor is heard cheerfully whistling on the video as he cuts off goats’ legs and a Coast Guard participant callously jokes about writing songs about mutilating the animals.

Later in the day, according to the distraught whistleblower who came to PETA, goats were shot in the face with pistols and hacked apart with an ax while still alive.

Cruel exercises like these continue regularly across the U.S. even though most civilian facilities and many military facilities have already replaced animal laboratories with superior lifelike simulators that breathe, bleed, and even “die.”

The Army’s own Rascon School of Combat Medicine at Fort Campbell does not use animals in its training program and has even publicly stated that “[t]raining on [simulators] is more realistic to providing care for a person than training on animals.” The Air Force’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills and the Navy Trauma Training Center also do not use animals to train soldiers.

Department of Defense regulations actually require that alternatives to animals be used when available, but this policy is not being enforced.

Unlike mutilating and killing animals, training on simulators allows medics and soldiers to practice on accurate anatomical models and repeat vital procedures until all trainees are confident and proficient. Studies show that medical care providers who learn trauma treatment using simulators are better prepared to treat injured patients than those who are trained using animals. A leading surgeon with the U.S. Army even candidly admitted in an internal e-mail obtained by PETA that “there still is no evidence that [training on animals] saves lives.”

For all these reasons, the Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training (BEST) Practices Act (H.R. 1417), which would phase out the U.S. military’s use of live animals in trauma training courses in favor of modern non-animal methods, has been introduced in Congress.

Click here to send a message to Washington demanding an end to these cruel practices.

Warning: disturbing images in this video.

AP reports that the Coast Guard defends its practice of using live animals in its combat medical training:

“Animals used in trauma training are supported and monitored by well-trained, experienced veterinary staff to ensure that appropriate anesthesia and analgesia prevent them from experiencing pain or distress,” Lt. Cmdr. Jamie C. Frederick, spokesman for the Atlantic Area, wrote in an email to AP. The Coast Guard would not verify if the video involved its personnel.

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What happens when government is no longer by the people

John Wonderlich describes how the new cybersecurity bill, CISPA, or HR 3523, is terrible on transparency: it dismisses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FOIA is, in many ways, the fundamental safeguard for public oversight of government’s activities. CISPA dismisses it entirely, for the core activities of the newly proposed powers under the bill.

If this level of disregard for public accountability exists througout the other provisions, then CISPA is a mess. Even if it isn’t, creating a whole new FOIA exemption for information that is poorly defined and doesn’t even exist yet is irresponsible, and should be opposed.

If you’re carelessly creating whole new exemptions to FOIA without hearings on the question, that suggests that the public interest isn’t being considered in this legislation. I suspect that (again) government officials have been at the table with industry, and (again) think that the interests of the public at large can be swept aside.

When public interest gets swept aside this isn’t just a familiar story about Washington; it tells us something about the nature of modern democracy: those responsible for serving the interests of the public do not see themselves as members of the public.

The people are an amorphous and somewhat impotent other who are treated as spectators to the workings of government and commerce. They are an occasional irritant, sometimes need to be shown patronizing gestures of deference, but most of the time can be regarded with as much seriousness as a flock of penguins might be viewed — though penguins tend to get more affectionate attention than ordinary people.

Why do government officials and corporate representatives have such a weak identification with the public? Mostly because they are so deeply identified with their work. Who they are and what they do appear to them to be one and the same.

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Is CISPA, SOPA 2.0? The new cybersecurity bill explained

By Megha Rajagopalan, ProPublica, April 26, 2012

Update (4/27): The House of Representatives passed the bill on Thursday by 248-168, with 42 Democrats joining 206 Republicans in backing the measure.

Update (4/26): An earlier version of this story said a proposed amendment by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had helped gain support for CISPA. Schiff’s amendment, which among other things would further define what’s considered a “cyber threat,” is no longer scheduled for consideration.

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, up for debate in the House of Representatives today, has privacy activists, tech companies, security wonks and the Obama administration all jousting about what it means 2013 not only for security but Internet privacy and intellectual property.  Backers expect CISPA to pass, unlike SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act that melted down amid controversy earlier this year. 

Here’s a rundown on the debate and what CISPA could mean for Internet users.

What exactly is CISPA?

The act, sponsored Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., would make it easier for private corporations and U.S. agencies, including military and intelligence, to share information related to “cyber threats.” In theory, this would enable the government and companies to keep up-to-date on security risks and protect themselves more efficiently. CISPA would amend the National Security Act of 1947, which currently contains no reference to cyber security.  Companies wouldn’t be required to share any data. They would just be allowed to do so.

Why should I care?

CISPA could enable companies like Facebook and Twitter, as well as Internet service providers, to share your personal information with the National Security Agency and the CIA, as long as that information is deemed to pertain to a cyber threat or to national security.

How does the bill define “cyber threat”?

The bill itself defines it as information “pertaining to a vulnerability of” a system or network 2014 a definition that opponents have criticized as too broad. The bill gained support after sponsors agreed to allow votes on several amendments they said would make concessions to privacy activists; one aims to narrow the definition of “cyber threat.”

When can data be shared?

Rogers said the amended version of the bill would only enable companies and intelligence agencies to share information related to 1) cyber security purposes; 2) investigation and prosecution of cyber security crimes; 3) protection of individuals from death and bodily harm; 4) child pornography; or 5) protection of the national security of the United States.

Why are privacy activists upset about CISPA?

Privacy activists like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation contend CISPA isn’t specific enough about just what constitutes a “cyber threat.” They say it enables Internet companies and service providers to hand over sensitive user information to intelligence agencies without enough oversight from the civilian side of government. Finally, they say it does not explicitly require Internet companies to remove identifying information about users before sharing.  Opponents contend, for instance, that Facebook or Twitter could share user messages with the NSA or FBI without redacting the user’s name or personal details.

CISPA also protects the private sector from liability even if they share private user information, as long as that information is deemed to have been shared for cybersecurity or national security purposes. Even though sharing is voluntary and not required under the law, privacy activists say the legal immunity CISPA provides would make it easy for the government to pressure Internet companies to give up user data.

What kind of information can be shared?

 Private companies and government agencies can share any information that pertains to a “cyber threat” or that would endanger national security. That could include user information, emails, and direct messages. Companies would be allowed to share with each other as well as the government. The government is not allowed to proactively search company-provided information for purposes unrelated to cyber security, but opponents say this would be tough to enforce. The bill does not place any explicit limit on how long that information can be kept. Several proposed amendments would limit the amount and kinds of information that can be shared, but it remains to be seen which 2014 if any 2014 will be adopted.

Is CISPA basically SOPA 2.0?

No, it’s very different.

SOPA was about intellectual property; CISPA is about cyber security, but opponents believe both bills have the potential to trample constitutional rights. The comparisons to SOPA stem from language in an earlier version of CISPA that referenced intellectual property. That wording was removed early on in response to mounting criticism. SOPA would have strengthened copyright laws, barring search engines and other websites from linking to sites that violated intellectual property regulations. That prompted a First Amendment concern from critics that it would give government the power to block websites wholesale, trampling free speech. CISPA’s liability shield, on the other hand, has sparked a concern based on the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Opponents contend the law would make it too easy for private companies and the intelligence community to spy on users in the name of cyber security.

Why are some of the tech companies that protested SOPA, like Facebook and Microsoft, now supporting this bill?

CISPA gives Internet companies the ability to share threat information with intelligence agencies and receive information back from them, an ability they say would enable them to deal with cyber threats more effectively. It does not compel them to protect users’ privacy (though a variety of proposed amendments aim to add more stringent privacy protections). Companies could not be held liable for divulging a user’s identity or data to the government if the information relates to a “cyber threat.”

What’s the Obama administration’s take?

The White House is backing a Senate bill proposed by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and has threatened to veto CISPA. Officials cite a lack of personal privacy protections. They say CISPA would enable military and intelligence agencies to take on a policing role on the internet, which the administration points out is a civilian sphere.

What is CISPA’s path forward in Congress?

A vote is set for Friday. CISPA has accumulated more than 100 cosponsors and will most likely pass the House. “This isn’t about scrambling to meet 218 votes, we are well past that,” co-sponsor Rogers said during a conference call with reporters. But the Senate is a different story 2014 there, it must compete with the Lieberman cyber security bill and one from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Would CISPA really make us more secure?

It’s unclear.

Some cyber security specialists note that neither CISPA nor other cyber security bills in Congress would compel companies to update software, hire outside specialists or take other measures to preemptively secure themselves against hackers and other threats. CISPA’s backers respond that the bill would forestall a “digital Pearl Harbor,” allowing a freer flow of information for a quicker and more effective response to hackers by both the government and the private sector.


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The legal foundations of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories

Raja Shehadeh writes: Earlier this month, I finally watched “The Law in These Parts,” a documentary by the Israeli film director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, at the 7th International Conference for Popular Resistance. The film describes the legal system that Israel has applied in the Palestinian Occupied Territories since 1967, and it does so exclusively through interviews with members of the Israeli military legal corps who wrote and implemented the system.

I saw the film in the Palestinian village of Bilin, just west of Ramallah. This was a fitting setting for the occasion. In 2007, a local councilor secured a rare judgment from Israel’s highest court that ordered the army to reroute the separation wall and return to the villagers hectares of land that had been taken away from them. The wall was moved only last year, and the residents of Bilin continue their struggle to reclaim more land they say is theirs and was allocated to the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit, on the other side of the rerouted wall. Alexandrowicz’s film was screened in an open area of Bilin only recently returned.

According to the film, one of the first decisions Israel made in the aftermath of 1967 was to declare the territories under its control to be ones it “held” or “administered” rather than “occupied.” This allowed it to claim that it was not bound by the Fourth Geneva Convention — a determination with far-reaching implications. [Continue reading…]

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Why Afghan women risk death to write poetry

Eliza Griswold writes: In a private house in a quiet university neighborhood of Kabul, Ogai Amail waited for the phone to ring. Through a plate-glass window, she watched the sinking sun turn the courtyard the color of eggplant. The electricity wasn’t working and the room was unheated, a few floor cushions the only furnishings. Amail tucked her bare feet underneath her and pulled up the collar of her puffy black coat. Her dark hair was tied in a ponytail, and her eyelids were coated in metallic blue powder. In the green glare of the mobile phone’s screen, her face looked wan and worried. When the phone finally bleeped, Amail shrieked with joy and put on the speakerphone. A teenage girl’s voice tumbled into the room. “I’m freezing,” the girl said. Her voice was husky with cold. To make this call, she’d sneaked out of her father’s mud house without her coat.

Like many of the rural members of Mirman Baheer, a women’s literary society based in Kabul, the girl calls whenever she can, typically in secret. She reads her poems aloud to Amail, who transcribes them line by line. To conceal her poetry writing from her family, the girl relies on a pen name, Meena Muska. (Meena means “love” in the Pashto language; muska means “smile.”)

Meena lost her fiancé last year, when a land mine exploded. According to Pashtun tradition, she must marry one of his brothers, which she doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t dare protest directly, but reciting poetry to Amail allows her to speak out against her lot. When I asked how old she was, Meena responded in a proverb: “I am like a tulip in the desert. I die before I open, and the waves of desert breeze blow my petals away.” She wasn’t sure of her age but thought she was 17. “Because I am a girl, no one knows my birthday,” she said.

Meena lives in Gereshk, a town of 50,000 people in Helmand, the largest of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Helmand has struggled with the double burden of being one of the world’s largest opium producers and an insurgent stronghold. Meena’s father pulled her out of school four years ago after gunmen kidnapped one of her classmates. Now she stays home, cooks, cleans and teaches herself to write poetry in secret. Poems are the only form of education to which she has access. She doesn’t meet outsiders face to face.

“I can’t say any poems in front of my brothers,” she said. Love poems would be seen by them as proof of an illicit relationship, for which Meena could be beaten or even killed. “I wish I had the opportunities that girls do in Kabul,” she went on. “I want to write about what’s wrong in my country.” Meena gulped. She was trying not to cry. On the other end of the line, Amail, who is prone to both compassion and drama, began to weep with her. Tears mixed with kohl dripped onto the page of the spiral notebook in which Amail was writing down Meena’s verses. Meena recited a Pashtun folk poem called a landai:

“My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.”

“I am the new Rahila,” she said. “Record my voice, so that when I get killed at least you’ll have something of me.”

Amail grimaced, uncertain how to respond. “Don’t call yourself that,” she snapped. “Do you want to die, too?”

Rahila was the name used by a young poet, Zarmina, who committed suicide two years ago. Zarmina was reading her love poems over the phone when her sister-in-law caught her. “How many lovers do you have?” she teased. Zarmina’s family assumed there was a boy on the other end of the line. As a punishment, her brothers beat her and ripped up her notebooks, Amail said. Two weeks later, Zarmina set herself on fire. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Dan Ariely on our buggy moral code

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Bin Laden files show al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in close contact

The Guardian reports: Documents found in the house where Osama bin Laden was killed a year ago show a close working relationship between top al-Qaida leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against Nato forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and targets in Pakistan.

The communications show a three-way conversation between Bin Laden, his then deputy Ayman Zawahiri and Omar, who is believed to have been in Pakistan since fleeing Afghanistan after the collapse of his regime in 2001.

They indicate a “very considerable degree of ideological convergence”, a Washington-based source familiar with the documents told the Guardian.

The news will undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban – seen by many as following an Afghan nationalist agenda – might once again offer a safe haven to al-Qaida or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.

One possibility, experts say, is that although Omar built a strong relationship with Bin Laden and Zawahiri, other senior Taliban commanders see close alliance or co-operation with al-Qaida as deeply problematic.

Western intelligence officials estimate that there are less than 100 al-Qaida-linked fighters in Afghanistan, and last year the United Nations split its sanctions list to separate the Taliban and al-Qaida.

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Video: Humanitarian crisis continues in Gaza

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Israeli election talk drowns out Iran debate

Reuters reports: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped heavy hints on Sunday of an early election, shifting the national focus from a former spymaster’s accusations that he could start a rash war with Iran.

The next general election in Israel is not due until October 2013, but a new conscription law that might force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army and an upcoming budget debate could crack open his coalition of religious and nationalist parties.

With opinion polls showing the right-wing leader on track to win another term if an election was held now, speculation has been ripe that Netanyahu will opt to bring the ballot forward.

Meeting with cabinet ministers from his Likud party on Sunday, Netanyahu signaled he was considering an early vote, after having insisted publicly that he would wait until 2013.

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Major U.K. supermarket chain boycotts exports from Israeli West Bank settlements

The Guardian reports: The Co-operative Group has become the first major European supermarket group to end trade with companies that export produce from illegal Israeli settlements.

The UK’s fifth biggest food retailer and its largest mutual business, the Co-op took the step as an extension of its existing policy which had been not to source produce from illegal settlements that have been built on Palestinian territories in the West bank.

Now the retail and insurance giant has taken it one step further by “no longer engaging with any supplier of produce known to be sourcing from the Israeli settlements”.

The decision will hit four companies and contracts worth some £350,000. But the Co-op stresses this is not an Israeli boycott and that its contracts will go to other companies inside Israel that can guarantee they don’t export from illegal settlements.

Welcoming the move, Palestinian human rights campaigners said it was the first time a supermarket anywhere in the west had taken such a position.

The Co-op’s decision will immediately affect four suppliers, Agrexco, Arava Export Growers, Adafresh and Mehadrin, Israel’s largest agricultural export company. Other companies may be affected by the policy.

Hilary Smith, Co-op member and Boycott Israel Network (BIN) agricultural trade campaign co-ordinator, said the Co-op “has taken the lead internationally in this historic decision to hold corporations to account for complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. We strongly urge other retailers to take similar action.”

With strong public support for Palestinians in the UK, this decision by the Co-op is not only good on principal but it may well also prove to be good for business. If in the coming months there is reasonable evidence that this was a smart commercial move, the larger supermarket chains may well follow suit.

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Salafists back liberal candidate in Egypt’s presidential race

The New York Times reports: Egypt’s most conservative Islamists endorsed a liberal Islamist for president late Saturday night, upending the political landscape and confounding expectations about the internal dynamics of the Islamist movement.

The main missionary and political groups of the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, threw their support behind Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a dissident former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood known for his tolerant and inclusive view of Islamic law.

The endorsement goes a long way toward making Mr. Aboul Fotouh the front-runner in a campaign that could shape the ultimate outcome of the revolt that ousted the former strongman, Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Aboul Fotouh’s liberal understanding of Islamic law on matters of individual freedom and economic equality had already made him the preferred candidate of many Egyptian liberals.

His endorsement on Saturday by the Salafis now makes him the candidate of Egypt’s most determined conservatives, too. Known for their strict focus on Islamic law, the Salafis often talk of reviving medieval Islamic corporal punishments, restricting women’s dress and the sale of alcohol, and cracking down on heretical culture.

The decision was announced by officials of the preaching group the Salafi Call and on the Web site of its allied party, Al Nour. Neither group gave a definitive reason for their pick.

But Salafi leaders described their decision in part as a reaction against the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful and established Islamist group that now dominates Parliament. Though more moderate than the Salafis, the Brotherhood also favors the fashioning of an explicitly Islamic democracy in Egypt, and on social and cultural issues the group is closer to the Salafis than Mr. Aboul Fotouh is.

But in television interviews on Saturday night, some Salafis said they believed the Brotherhood’s current candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was weaker than either Mr. Aboul Fotouh or the Brotherhood’s original nominee, Khairat el-Shater. Others said the group was wary of giving a monopoly on political power to the Brotherhood, which recently abandoned its pledge not to seek control of the presidency as well as the Parliament.

Abdel Moneim El Shahat, a spokesman for the Salafi group, acknowledged a big difference with Mr. Aboul Fotouh over his understanding of a verse of the Koran declaring, “There is no compulsion in religion,” which he interprets to mean that the state should not compel people to follow religious rules. But such compulsion “in reality is not possible now” in any case, Mr. Shahat said.

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Mona Eltahawy and Leila Ahmed on women in the Middle East

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You are all suspects now. What are you going to do about it?

John Pilger writes: You are all potential terrorists. It matters not that you live in Britain, the United States, Australia or the Middle East. Citizenship is effectively abolished. Turn on your computer and the US Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center may monitor whether you are typing not merely “al-Qaeda,” but “exercise,” “drill,” “wave,” “initiative” and “organization”: all proscribed words. The British government’s announcement that it intends to spy on every email and phone call is old hat. The satellite vacuum cleaner known as Echelon has been doing this for years. What has changed is that a state of permanent war has been launched by the United States and a police state is consuming Western democracy.

What are you going to do about it?

In Britain, on instructions from the CIA, secret courts are to deal with “terror suspects.” Habeas Corpus is dying. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that five men, including three British citizens, can be extradited to the US even though none except one has been charged with a crime. All have been imprisoned for years under the 2003 US/UK Extradition Treaty which was signed one month after the criminal invasion of Iraq. The European Court had condemned the treaty as likely to lead to “cruel and unusual punishment.” One of the men, Babar Ahmad, was awarded 63,000 pounds compensation for 73 recorded injuries he sustained in the custody of the Metropolitan Police. Sexual abuse, the signature of fascism, was high on the list. Another man is a schizophrenic, who has suffered a complete mental collapse and is in Broadmoor secure hospital; another is a suicide risk. To the Land of the Free they go – along with young Richard O’Dwyer, who faces ten years in shackles and an orange jump suit because he allegedly infringed US copyright on the Internet.

As the law is politicized and Americanized, these travesties are not untypical. In upholding the conviction of a London university student, Mohammed Gul, for disseminating “terrorism” on the Internet, appeal court judges in London ruled that “acts … against the armed forces of a state anywhere in the world which sought to influence a government and were made for political purposes” were now crimes. Call to the dock Thomas Paine, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela.

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