Arab Culture & The Origins of Much of the Middle Eastern Violence

By Lewis D. Eigen

Most people of the world are constantly puzzled by the repeated provocative violent behavior of the militant Palestinians.  Each and every time, the process has been the same.

  • The Palestinians provoke repeatedly until
  • The Israelis retaliate and attack to prevent the violence
  • The Palestinians militants and civilians suffer highly disproportionate human casualties and heavy infrastructure damage in a society that has too little infrastructure to begin with.

Why, most of the world asks, do the Arab militants keep following the same disastrous pattern?

Complex human behavior have complex, multi-facted causes.  Warped religious ideology, desire to maintain power and control, historical feelings of injustice, and feelings of desperation all contribute.  However there is another cause not given as much attention:  The Arab cultural tradition of interference to limit damage from violence.

When the Prophet Muhammad–also a brilliant political leader and governor–reformed the Arabian Peninsula, he faced a culture where tribal hostilities were the norm and there was virtual constant war.  While he and his teaching advocated war and violence, that was only in limited circumstances.  For the most part, he advocated peace and the peaceful settlement of disputes.  And the mode of settlement, most often advocated and used was mediation–a process that had existed before in the culture but had not been used as much as it could be.  Trying to get anyone to back down in a dispute was very difficult because one of the only methods of prevention that existed was the perception of strength.  Any show of weakness, would invite attack.  This was not unique to Arab culture, but was very pronounced because there were no institutional 3rd parties to protect in a sparsely populated land area–no overall kings, religious authorities, or large business interests who had power and an interest in maintaining peace.

The other prevention device of the time and culture was vengance–the perception that retaliation would take place no matter how long it took.

So once there was serious conflict, it was then very difficult to end it so retaliation cycles and feuds went on for generations.  Muhammad made great use of mediation, and extolled the mediator and the parties participating in mediation in the culture and the religion.

The art of survival there and then became one of participating in mediation once there was any violence but not appearing too willing lest one be perceived as weak.  Peacemakers had to be magnanimous from strength and not appear craven from weakness.  So in the local mediation sessions of the time, the mediators would rarely say, “Have you not suffered enough?  Put an end to your suffering”.  That would not work for the parties had to show that they were willing to suffer so as not to appear weak.  So even if they were getting whopped, they always had the future vengeance card to play if they were willing to suffer.

Already this sounds familiar in the modern Arab Israeli conflict.  The repeated unwillingness to renounce violence now and for the future is the modern manifestation of the unwillingness to give up the major tool the Palestinians have as they are getting whopped, the vengeance card.  And as long as the vengeance card is still on the table, the Israelis only rational response is to arm to the teeth with overwhelming military strength to limit the vengeance of the future to isolated incidents and not wholesale existential threats.

A good example of the cultural playout that became culturally embedded in Arab society is that of Hassan who has perceived that Mustapha had injured him or one of his relatives or his animals.  Hassan usually did not wait for an opportune moment to waylay and quietly murder Mustapha.  It would have no protective effect unless every potential enemy (everyone in the region) knew that Hassan and done the deed.  Typically what happened was that Hassan would bombast and announce his intention to exact justice and revenge upon Mustapha to his relatives and friends and anyone else who might observe his rant.  The word of Hassan’s intention would soon spread throughout the community (tribe, city, region, whatever).  After giving his intentions plenty of time to get around, Hassan would take the largest of his swords or other weapon, brandish it over his head repeating the threats of what he is going to do to Mustapha who by this time had found his largest sword and started his harangue that he did not fear Hassan and “let him come so I can properly dispatch him”.  Both of the belligerents, in their respective harangues were typically very literal about the different parts of the opponent’s body and how he would render each of them.  The more gore, the better.”

Now both Hassan and Mutapha were intelligent men and realized that in the process of implementing their dismemberment of the opponent, they themselves might suffer serious harm or worse.  So they were looking for a way out, but only if that way did not make them look weak, afraid or irresolute which would surely bring disaster and death in the future if it were exhibited.

So Hassan with his relatives, friends, allies and supporters would as openly as possible descend upon Mustapha’s known locations and whereabouts, while Mustapha’s cohort rallied around him.  With everyone having full knowledge of the impending conflict, the peacemakers — usually the elders who were neutral but even the elders on both sides prepared to play their critical part.  As the antagonists approached each other, the peacemakers would begin to restrain them by persuasion and even physically.  Their verbal entreaties were almost always focused on the benefits to the community to avert the battle.  Not losing a fighter that the tribe would need to do battle with the neighboring evil tribe or one who may materialize would be a typical argument.  Saving the wives and children of the opponent from destitution was another.  There was peace and prosperity in the village or tribe, the loss of the productive work of the opponent, and following the Prophet’s desire for peace became an important one.  The immediate object was to have the conflicting parties sit down with the mediators–almost always some prestigious elders.  With the immediate threat of violence, the mediators could then think of clever ways of settling the dispute without bloodshed, and more important to the parties, without either of the appearing weak or fearful.

Now that tradition, for individuals and groups, is what allowed the Arabs to survive and Islam to thrive.  And it still operates strongly in the Middle East.  We can reflect on the contemporary situation and how many of the outside efforts to impose peace run contrary to this tradition.  So when a Western nation says to a delegation of even moderate Palestinians that they should stop the provocative attacks because they will only get more of their fighters killed and it is counterproductive, it goes nowhere.  It is for them a loss of their major responsibility of being able to protect their people in the future.  Even if they made peace with Israel in this way and it held (which they doubt), then the Shiites would sense the weakness and try and take over the Sunni dominance.  Or the neighboring Arab countries would carve up the Palestinian land and/or they would be dominated by those hegemon nations.  Long before the 20th century creation of Israel and the dispute that followed, the Arab countries have been invading, attacking, and destabilizing each other except when they were prevented from doing so by Colonial powers (Western and the Ottoman Empire which “brought peace to the Middle East”).

In the most successful peace achievement in the Modern Middle East–the Egyptian-Israely Peace Treaty, in order to sell it to the Egyptian Parliament and the Public, that nation had to start a surprise war with Israel, do some significant military damage, and get a cease fire before their country was totally destroyed.  But despite the fact that their entire Air Force was wiped out, the war was sold to the Egyptians as a victory for Egypt, but for the fact that a cease fire was imposed by the other countries (the “elders”).  Therefore, they could then be magnanimous and if they got back the entire Sinai Peninsula make a political calculus and make a treaty.  They did not show weakness or fear.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians are weak in almost every facet of life.  Poverty is prodigious; personal and organizational corruption is rampant; governance is incompetent; education is ideological and impractical for the modern world; the military is undisciplined and is not under a unified command; its industry is feeble; and complicating the situation is the fact that there is a de facto civil war and no government that speaks for both of the major political factions.  Without the largess of the United Nations, some of the other Arab counties, and many of the Western nations including the U. S., the Palestinians are saved the ultimate embarrassment of being a failed state, by not being a state at all.

However, in many ways the Palestinians have more potential for a successful modern state. They have a better literacy rate than most Arab countries, and they tend to be much harder and more intense workers than others.  They are less sexist and some of their leaders in politics and other fields have had successful women.  Their contact with Israeli business and industry that was very common before their extremist violence prompted the Israelis to close down the economic ties and cross employment.

On the other hand, they have shown themselves to be very destabilizing to other Arab countries.  When the PLO went too far in Jordan, the Jordanian military ejected them (killing thousands in the process) in the country and they then went to Tunisia where they became a political military force challenging the government itself.  Today, the fertility rate of the Palestinians living in Jordan has propelled them to demographic and political parity with what has become a traditional Palestinian hostile Jordanian population, keeping the entire nation in a state of constant instability.  Other Arab nations will allow Palestinians to work in their country but bar them from citizenship.

In the modern world, the Palestinians (and the rest of the world) suffer as a result of their literal adhesion to customs that were already traditional 1300 years ago.  Considered against the background of history, the Arabs and the Islamic world is not a backward as they appear to be.  Compare Islamic behavior and doctrine of today to that of the Christians in the year 1300.  The Christian world after 1300 years was far more primitive, irrational, immoral, and incompetent than the Moslems of today, their 1300 year birthday.  The Christians were not just beheading some criminals and iconoclasts, but burning thousands at the stake and practicing every kind of torture that man has imagined.  There was no semblance or even lip service to rights or democracy.  And the Islamic science of today while very backward compared with the West was for more advanced than that of the Early Christians of the 14th century. True, they have had the benefit of Western contacts and communications but still as a religion, Islam has not yet gone through a Reformation which took Christianity 1500 years to accomplish.  So the Islamic Arabs of today are a combination of a relatively new religious culture with touches of modernity throughout their society.

So the great dilemma is how to strengthen the Palestinian entity sufficiently so that they can let the mediators do their traditional things and have peace without being and appearing weak and suing for peace.  This is especially difficult when the Palestinian extremists keep attacking and provoking Israel who after a certain amount retaliates and not only have the Palestinians suffered human casualties, but a substantial proportion  of the infrastructure is destroyed.

What some critics call the worst thing about the current pattern, is that the very militant Palestinians, when they decide to try another aggressive provovation, feel that they can say and do anything and the community elders (world opinion) will impose a cease fire before too much damage is done.  They can therefore attack with impunity.  The problem is that it is getting harder and harder for a multipolar world to act swiftly and the Israelis are no longer responding so fast to the entreaties of the “elders”.

However, that is what diplomats–Arab, Israeli, and Western–get paid for.  It is they who must create a formula for Palestinian agreement to peace that does not do violence to the Arab tradition and culture. All else is destined to fail until Islam goes through a Reformation and looks outward as well as inward.  The modern world–even the Islamic part–does not want to wait that long.  In their 2014 debacle, the Palestinians (Hamas in Gaza) fired over 7,000 rockets into Israel while the “elders”were urging the parties to de escalate the violence and urged Israel not to retaliate. At first the mediation not only protected the Gazans from retaliation but rewarded Hamas for their warring activities.  When Israel had enough, the retaliated and resisted the “elders” entreaties for moderation and ceasefire.  Finally, after a decade’s worth of infrastructure was destroyed, about 500 Hamas fighters killed (compared to very few of the Israelis), and a similar number of Gazan civilians killed by the fighting, there finally was a ceasefire.  However, that cease fire could easily have been made much earlier with much less damage.  The “elders” had recommended a cease fire and the Israelis accepted.  But the Arab tradition being what it was, Hamas would not accept.  They were getting beaten so badly, that to accede to a cease fire would, they perceived, make them look unwilling to suffer and continue the cycle of revenge, both of which the cultural tradition told them were more important than anything in the present.  It was a cultural clash between the 21st century and the 14th.

February 15, 2015 at 2:25 PM Leave a comment

Slavery Still Lives & The Slavers Use Israel to Distract


These are the words of Simon Deng, once a Sudanese slave, addressing the recent Durban Conference in NY.

I want to thank the organizers of this conference, The Perils of Global Intolerance. It is a great honour for me and it is a privilege really to be among today’s distinguished speakers.

I came here as a friend of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. I came to protest this Durban conference, which is based on a set of lies. It is organized by nations who are themselves guilty of the worst kind of oppression.

It will not help the victims of racism. It will only isolate and target the Jewish state. It is a tool of the enemies of Israel.

The UN has itself become a tool against Israel. For over 50 years, 82 percent of the UN General Assembly emergency meetings have been about condemning one state – Israel. Hitler couldn’t have been made happier!

The Durban Conference is an outrage. All decent people will know that.

But friends, I come here today with a radical idea. I come to tell you that there are peoples who suffer from the UN’s anti-Israelism even more than the Israelis. I belong to one of those people.

Please hear me out.

By exaggerating Palestinian suffering, and by blaming the Jews for it, the UN has muffled the cries of those who suffer on a far larger scale.

For over fifty years the indigenous black population of Sudan — Christians and Muslims alike — have been the victims of the brutal, racist Arab Muslim regimes in Khartoum.

In South Sudan , my homeland, about 4 million innocent men, women and children were slaughtered from 1955 to 2005.  Seven million were ethnically cleansed and they became the largest refugee group since World War II.

The UN is concerned about the so-called Palestinian refugees. They dedicated a separate agency for them, and they are treated with a special privilege.

Meanwhile, my people, ethnically cleansed, murdered and enslaved, are relatively ignored. The UN refuses to tell the world the truth about the real causes of Sudan ‘s conflicts. Who knows really what is happening in Darfur? It is not a “tribal conflict.”

It is a conflict rooted in Arab colonialism well known in north Africa. In Darfur, a region in the Western Sudan , everybody is Muslim. Everybody is Muslim because the Arabs invaded the North of Africa and converted the indigenous people to Islam. In the eyes of the Islamists in Khartoum, the Darfuris are not Muslim enough. And the Darfuris do not want to be Arabized.

They love their own African languages and dress and customs. The Arab response is genocide! But nobody at the UN tells the truth about Darfur.

In the Nuba Mountains, another region of Sudan, genocide is taking place as I speak. The Islamist regime in Khartoum is targeting the black Africans – Muslims and Christians. Nobody at the UN has told the truth about the Nuba Mountains ….

Do you hear the UN condemn Arab racism against blacks?

What you find on the pages of the New York Times, or in the record of the UN condemnations is “Israeli crimes” and Palestinian suffering.

My people have been driven off the front pages because of the exaggerations about Palestinian suffering.

What Israel does is portrayed as a Western sin. But the truth is that the real sin happens when the West abandons us: the victims of Arab/Islamic apartheid.

Chattel slavery was practiced for centuries in Sudan. It was revived as a tool of war in the early 90s.

Khartoum declared jihad against my people and this legitimized taking slaves as war booty.

Arab militias were sent to destroy Southern villages and were encouraged to take African women and children as slaves.

We believe that up to 200,000 were kidnapped, brought to the North and sold into slavery.  I am a living proof of this crime against humanity!

I don’t like talking about my experience as a slave, but I do it because it is important for the world to know that slavery exists even today.

I was only nine years old when an Arab neighbour named Abdullahi tricked me into following him to a boat. The boat wound up in Northern Sudan where he gave me as a gift to his family. For three and a half years I was their slave going through something that no child should ever go through: brutal beatings and humiliations; working around the clock; sleeping on the ground with animals; eating the family’s left-overs. During those three years I was unable to say the word “no”.

All I could say was “yes,” “yes,” “yes.”

The United Nations knew about the enslavement of South Sudanese by the Arabs. Their own staff reported it. It took UNICEF – under pressure from the Jewish-led American Anti-Slavery Group — sixteen years to acknowledge what was happening. I want to publicly thank my friend Dr. Charles Jacobs for leading the anti-slavery fight.

But the Sudanese government and the Arab League pressured UNICEF, and UNICEF backtracked, and started to criticize those who worked to liberate Sudanese slaves. In 1998, Dr. Gaspar Biro, the courageous UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan who reported on slavery, resigned in protest of the UN’s actions.

My friends, today, tens of thousands of black South Sudanese still serve their masters in the North and the UN is silent about that. It would offend the OIC and the Arab League.

As a former slave and a victim of the worst sort of racism, allow me to explain why I think calling Israel a racist state is absolutely absurd and immoral.

I have been to Israel five times visiting the Sudanese refugees. Let me tell you how they ended up there. These are Sudanese who fled Arab racism, hoping to find shelter in Egypt. They were wrong. When Egyptian security forces slaughtered twenty six black refugees in Cairo who were protesting Egyptian racism, the Sudanese realized that the Arab racism is the same in Khartoum or Cairo. They needed shelter and they found it in Israel. Dodging the bullets of the Egyptian border patrols and walking for very long distances, the refugees’ only hope was to reach Israel’s side of the fence, where they knew they would be safe.

Black Muslims from Darfur chose Israel above all the other Arab-Muslim states of the area. Do you know what this means!!!?? And the Arabs say Israel is racist!!!?

In Israel, black Sudanese, Christian and Muslim, were welcomed and treated like human beings. Just go and ask them, like I have done. They told me that compared to the situation in Egypt , Israel is “heaven.”

Is Israel a racist state? To my people, the people who know racism – the answer is: ‘absolutely not’. Israel is a state of people who are the colours of the rainbow. Jews themselves come in all colours, even black. I met with Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Beautiful black Jews.

So, yes … I came here today to tell you that the people who suffer most from the UN anti-Israel policy are not the Israelis, but all those people whom the UN ignores in order to tell its big lie against Israel: we, the victims of Arab/Muslim abuse: women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, homosexuals, in the Arab/Muslim world. These are the biggest victims of UN Israel hatred.

Look at the situation of the Copts in Egypt, the Christians in Iraq, and Nigeria, and Iran, the Hindus and Bahais who suffer from Islamic oppression. The Sikhs. We — a rainbow coalition of victims and targets of Jihadis — all suffer. We are ignored, we are abandoned. So that the big lie against the Jews can go forward.

In 2005, I visited one of the refugee camps in South Sudan. I met a twelve year old girl who told me about her dream.

In a dream, she wanted to go to school to become a doctor. And then, she wanted to visit Israel. I was shocked.

How could this refugee girl who spent most of her life in the North know about Israel ? When I asked why she wanted to visit Israel , she said: “This is our people.”  I was never able to find an answer to my question.

On January 9 of 2011 South Sudan became an independent state. For South Sudanese, that means continuation of oppression, brutalization, demonization, Islamization, Arabization and enslavement.

In a similar manner, the Arabs continue denying Jews their right for sovereignty in their homeland and the Durban III conference continues denying Israel’s legitimacy.

As a friend of Israel, I bring you the news that my President, the President of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir — publicly stated that the South Sudan Embassy in Israel will be built— not in Tel Aviv, but in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

I also want to assure you that my own new nation, and all of its peoples, will oppose racist forums like the Durban III. We will oppose it by simply continuing to tell the truth! Our truth!

My Jewish friends taught me something that I now want to say with you.

AM YISROEL CHAI !   — The people of Israel lives!

Thank you

August 14, 2014 at 11:19 PM Leave a comment

Illegality of Israeli Settlements? Some Second Thoughts

The oft made claim that the israeli Settlements violate international law is not as clear as many people think. However, the argment is usually made in such a way that the extreme minorities of israelis and Arabs become even more wedded to their extreme positions and behavior. An alternative approach is offered in this article.

Continue Reading May 17, 2014 at 9:32 AM 12 comments

The Israeli Lebanon War: Response to Switzerland

In 2005, after repeated attacks by Hezbollah on  Israeli civillians and repeaed loss of civillian life,  the Israeli’s attacked the Hezbollah strongholds in Southern Lebanon.  The Israelis had asked the Lebanese government to control the attacks coming from their soil, but they did not stop the terrorism.  The purpose of the Israeli attacks and incursion was to degrade the facilities of Hesbollah, to kill as many fighters as possible and to destro make the terrorists realize that Israel would not sumply allow the attacks because the terrorists were striking from Lebanon.  Hexbollah, embeded its fighters and facilities amongest the civillians of Southern Lebanon and often stored their weapons and ammunition in civillian facilities, fired their rockets from civillan private and public institutional property which then made the civillian facilities legitimate military targets according to the International Law and the Rules of War.

 Along with the military destruction, there was extensive Lebanese civillian collatereral damage.  Switzerland immediately called for a cease fire to end the civillian casualties; however, Israel needed time to destroy the Hesbollah facilities.  Lewis D. Eigen sent this private letter to the Swiss Ambasador to the United States, agreeing that it would not be made public for 5 years.  That time has elapsed.  This is the contents of the letter: (more…)

June 23, 2010 at 8:45 PM Leave a comment

Bobby Jindal & Mary Landrieu : Birds of a Feather Oiled Together

by Lewis D. Eigen

Bobby Jindal and Mary Landrieu may  be Louisiana politicians of opposing political parties, but they have become stuck together by the thick oil produced by their current villain–BP.  The oil has so affected them that they squawk in raucous unison exhibiting the logic and intelligence often more typical of the intellectual capability of the Louisiana State Bird, the Brown Pelican. (more…)

June 20, 2010 at 6:16 PM Leave a comment

The Conundrum of Religious Freedom for Jews

Written By

Lewis D. Eigen

The Jewish prisoner flinched at the accusations of the police officer.  Wearing a traditional white and blue Jewish prayer shawl and publicly praying was so offensive to public morality that for the sake of order in the community, the religious authorities and the police officer had to act.  He had nothing personal against the accused, but it was his job to maintain a level of public order and decorum.  So many people had been so offended by the accused that he had to act.  People took their religion very seriously.  God himself had told man how to behave, and this misguided Jew goes out in public and offends most of the serious, fundamentalist religious believers.  It was not just the clerics stirring up hate.  So many people thought that God and they were being mocked by someone who had no respect for the word of God or man’s religious traditions.

The date was November 18, 2009.  The place most of us assume was probably Saudi Arabia or Iran.  That the fundamentalist Moslem bigots would not allow a Jew to pray in public.  That is the so called law in those countries that blatantly flaunt standards of religious tolerance and commonly violate the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But this particular gross denial of Jewish religious rights was not in those countries.  It was not even in a Moslem nation.  Nor a Christian one for that matter.  It took place in the Jewish state of Israel.  The police officers were themselves Jewish. (more…)

May 10, 2010 at 8:47 PM 3 comments

The Louisiana Oil Catatrophe and Our Scientists

 Written By Lewis D. Eigen

“What could they have been thinking?  Starting drilling a hole for oil beginning one mile beneath the surface.  If oil is struck, placing pipes, valves, sensors, connectors, one mile down, would be hard enough, but if anything went wrong–the slightest mistake, a quirk of nature–the likelihood of being able to repair it at such a depth was very low.  Surely, they knew that they were taking an enormous chance by drilling at that depth.  We just do not have the technology yet to do at that depth what we can do in 100 feet of water with human divers and engineers.  Why did they do it?”

After the BP pipeline ruptured and was not able to be immediately repaired, scientists, engineers, technicians, and others all began echoing this refrain in one of its myriad variations.  Why did THEY do it?

The risk was enormous that a major problem could not be repaired easily at a depth of a mile, and might not  be repairable at all.  Yet, some accuse, “BP in its incessant greed for profits to shareholders at any cost, was totally reckless–another case of irresponsible corporate drive for profit, risking and injuring the public welfare for millions of others.

If that argument was literally true, this problem would have easy resolution.  And indeed, already there are executive orders, regulations, and laws coming on line that will curtail this corporate ability to endanger the public in the future.  Unfortunately, the problem is more complex than that, and I am not referring to the balance of risk between the protection of the environment and need for energy and energy independence.

The facet of the problem that will probably receive the least attention and in a sense was and will be most responsible for these problems is science and the scientists.  There is heavy causality here, albeit not necessarily moral responsibility.  The BP catastrophe could never have occurred if the scientists, engineers, and technologically-oriented members of our society had behaved differently.

Let’s start with one of the major “enablers” of the tragedy–The U. S. Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu.  Like most good politicians, the extent of the oil spill problem was hardly known before she started wrapping her rump in armor and cover.  “I was told unequivocally that the drilling procedure and  technology were safe–that this could never happen.”  Landrieu was correct.  She, and other legislators and government officials had been repeatedly assured, privately and in public hearings, that that happened could not happen.  To the degree that the Senator had responsibility, it was not in weighiong the risks improperly, but in believing what she was told.  She is at the head of a long line of others who also accepted the assurances of the industry and the scientists who provided them.

There are unfortunately too many corporate leaders who have little compunction about lying to the public and even Congress in sworn testimony.  The image of the line of tobacco chief executives with their right hands raised under oath, telling the world that cigarette smoking was not addictive is and will be memorable for an entire generation.  Most providers of Congressional testimony however believe what the are saying.  Some who provide testimony for legislative guidance are right, and some turn out to be wrong. There are two commonalities between those two.  They both thought that they were right and they both believed what they said.  So in many case the hapless legislator has to choose–usually with little technical expertise of his or her own.

In the case of the offshore drilling, however, there was almost no scientific / engineering testimony about the likelihood  of successfully and rapidly repairing a major rupture one mile deep in the ocean.  There was no shortage of witnesses  who were opposed to offshore drilling.  The problem is that the linup of witnesses is generally as polarized as our politics have become.  In the case of deep water offshore drilling the nation did not need advocates or opponents as much as it needed testimony about the likelihood of having problems and being able to remedy those problems.  And when the drilling permits were issued, what was needed was review of the safety and contingency plans to determine if they were realistic–not assurance from those scientists and engineers who had a vested interest in going ahead with the drilling (or for that matter those who may have had a vested interested in halting the drilling.)

Virtually, every technorati in our society knew that we were doing deep drilling for oil.  This was no secret from the physicists, engineers, geologists, mathematicians and others.  All those who now ask “What could they have been thinking?” did not themselves ask at the time, “What will they do if once the deposit of oil is punctured by the drill and the pressure begins to be released, there was a small earthquake and the drill hole opened into a fissure? ”  What would they do if the drill itself hit a natural cleveage in the rock and it split apart gushing oil from a large opening rather than a single controlable drill hole?”  What would they do if there was some tectonic plate movement, the drill pipe snapped inside the hole, and the pipe connected to the drilling rig was no longer connected to the broken pipe in the hole?  How would they even find the exact hole?  If they did, what if the pressure was so great that they could not get a new drill bit and pipe into the hole?”  “Or if ‘something’ happened down there, how would they know what it was for sure?”

We do not know exactly what happened (and may never will know), and that is just the point.  What was the plan if something happened and oil was gushing into the ocean 6000 feet felow the waves and no one knew what had happened?  It doesn’t even take a very good scientist or engineer to ask these questions.  Yet if we go back to the national debates about offshore deep drilling, we will not find articles in the professional scientific journals either asking these questions or analysing the contingency plans or lack thereof.  It is reprehensible that politicians have the antipathy toward science that they do, that is not the fault of the contemporary scientists.  They can be faulted however for not sounding out in the organs they control, for not having sessions at local and national meetings dealing with such subjects.

When the facts start to emerge, it is probably the case that Louisiana and the Federal Government required BP and its subcontractors to file all kinds of contingency plans and there were reams of paper submitted making the Health Reform Bill appear tiny by comparison.  The irony is that is it likley the case that BP, the Coast Guard, and the other agencies followed those plans when the problem first became known.  The plans were probably managerially excellent.  Issues of authority and procedures were likely very clear.  That is why the Coast Guard initially deferred to BP.  That was what the contingency plan call for.  But the failure off the cost of Louisiana was probably not managerial.  It was likely scientific and technological.  They plans will likely be castigated and their authors pilloried as by definition the plans were inadequate.  If they were, the oil flow would have been stopped and society would be cleaning up the mess to whatever extent it was.  Instead we are trying to contain an ever enlarging massive pool of oil that is already almost too large for human technological capability.

There are complex reasons that scientists and engineers tend to be silent about public issues that really depend on science and technology.  In the old Soviet Union, and many other countries, scientists who pointed out potential problems in favorite government initiatives were imprisoned if not killed.  In America even, great scientists like the Father of the Atomic Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, were illegally railroaded with trumped up charges, before the government apologized.  Scientists tend, as a result of their discipline, not to opine on much outside of their own narrow field.  They know how complex issues are and how hard it is to achieve a sufficient degree of evidence to pass for truth and how much they study about their own field and still have large knowledge gaps.  The technorati  also know well that whatever may be so today, may not be tomorrow.  They tend not to go looking for issues on which to opine when they have more then enough in their own specialized preview.  But there are decisions which our society must make and a larger and larger proportion of the critical ones depend on scientific and technological concepts and training for understanding and analysis.  Few physicists have any specific experience with oil drilling of any kind.  And most engineers are more experienced building structures over water than under water.  Where we need our scientifically trained subset of society is to examine things like the contingency plans for deep drilling and not conclude whether we should drill or not.  Not even to estimate the risk of deep drilling.  We need to establish a norm where they examine the plans and answer the following to help the rest of us:

  • Does the plan follow and take into account scientific principles or does it assume technologies and capabilities that are yet to be proven reliable?
  •  Is there scientific evidence and testing for the plan functioning or are assumptions made? 
  • Are there risks that have not been addressed?
  •  Are there possible  easier or less expensive ways to achieve the plan objectives as well?
  •  Is the contingency plan based on experimental trials and tests of phases of the plan or would a problem be the first test of the plan?
  •  Does the team responsible for the creation and the implementation of the plan have scientists and engineers in the critical roles of decision making or only businesspeople, managers or politicians?
  •  Do the people who argue that the plan is sufficient have vested interests in the going ahead even if the plan is insufficient?


The present BP crisis offers three stark examples of where such review could have been very helpful.  The BP plan claimed that a “worst case scenario” was a discharge of 300,000 barrels of oil.  The plan claimed that  BP had the resources to protect the shore line and the islands from a 300,000 barrel discharge.  They could disperse and mop it up.  However, even a 1st year physics student could calculate that the hole the size they were drilling could discharge under pressure much MORE than 300,000 gallons in a number of days if it were wide open.  The worst case scenario should have been not only a wide open hole discharging oil under pressure, but a hole that enlarged to many times the size as the result of geological disturbances or a fissure caused by the drill itself.  Under a realistic worst case scenerio,  the company would not have and did not have sufficient resources to handle all the oil that escaped.

A second example is a probabilistic one.  The company and many deep drilling supporters argued when getting the permits that there were 30,000 different wells in the gulf and so the odds were overwhelmingly favorable.  One question that should have been asked is how many wells were 1 mile under water to the well head and another 1800 feet from the sea floor to the oil itself.  Like the “September Song” the examples dwindled down to a precious few.  And what proportion of the 30,000 each year have SOME unexpected and unanticipated happening?  Too many for comfort where we cannot  get our engineers and equipment to the potential problem source easily.

A third example was that BP plans called for a drilling rig with a device under water at the well head, which in an emergency had three different methods of closing off the pipe and cutting off the oil rapidly.  Someone might have asked, exactly how does this supposedly work and what triggers it.  Every machine has a failure rate — what is the probability that the device will work on a specific single occasion.  Did everyone know what the failure rate of the safety device was?  What kind of testing and experience had the device been subjected to?  And was it under the pressure of a mile column of water above it?  Had BP scientists develops and tested the device?  It turns out that they did not.  In this case the rig was rented and it came with the safety device?  And who checked the company which supplied it.  In the end, the safety device itself failed–none of the three safety methods did the trick.  The courts of America will be apportioning blame for that for decades.  Meanwhile, no one asked, what happens is the safety device itself fails at that depth.  Why was there not redundancy–backup systems and backups to the backups?  The way that NASA has for each critical component of a safety system.  A recent engineering  gradutate would have spotted that one.

So my proposal is this.  Every time we embark upon a debate on a policy or practice that depends on science or technology or are about to issue a permit or its equivalent,  both the public and private organizations involved should make ALL the documentation available on the Internet and invite scientists and engineers to review them and post any potential problems that they might see.

There are those who might argue that the government and private company scientists are competent and this is unnecessary.  One answer of course is that often these individuals have institutional positions that they are expected to defend of look at from a vested interest point of view.  But there is a much better rejoinder.  Often scientists and engineers who are NOT expert in the area or very close to it have an advantage of looking at the problem differently and with a point of view that is original.  The best example of this in modern times was the tragic Challenger Disaster.  In the entire history of the human race, there had never been an incident where more and better scientific personpower had engaged in trying to determine what had gone wrong.  Every NASA scientist, engineer,  and technician and their contractors and subcontractors tried to figure it out.  Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent specifically to determine what had gone wrong.  They didn’t do it.  A Presidential Commission was established and one of the appointees was theoretical physicist Richard Feynmin.  He had no experience with spacecraft, rocketry, industrial processes, safety system and the like.  He was a Nobel Prize winner for his mathematical and theoretical physics.  He was also what the committee chair called “a pain in the ass” as he did not understand or revere the NASA or government culture.  However, it was Feynman who figured the problem out, not with any complex equations of theoretical physics, or any experiments, but only be examining the data that EVERY OTHER  PERSON HAD SEEN and applying some principles of physics of which many high school students were capable.  When temperatures go down close to freezing flexible materials get harder and more rigid.  Instead of bending and sealing as they normally did, the soft plastic O rings sealing the fuel lines became rigid and cracked no longer sealing the fuel which leaked and exploded.

Technological tranparency with a national invitation to our technorati to weigh in, not on the politics of these issues, but on the science and technology.

May 2, 2010 at 7:37 PM Leave a comment

Older Posts

Copyright 2014

Enter your email address to subscribe to this Scriptamus and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 15 other followers


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.