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October 03, 2010

Suicide, Cognition, and Political Beliefs

The last entry focused on historical events around VJ day as examples of human behavior that could shed light on contemporary global problems. That humans are a single species with common problems (and a history of repeating the same mistakes) is a theme recently developed by polymath/historian Jared Diamond. My own experience certainly agrees with his point that rapidly evolving technology may seduce us into seeing old problems as unique, and thus amenable to new high-tech solutions. Over the long haul, history seems to depend more on critical decisions about allocation of whatever limited resources humans considered essential at a particular time. An important corollary is that those resources might have varied considerably from one era to another: salt and fresh water were critical to the Roman Empire, while there is no immediate substitute for petroleum in our energy-starved world. Also, recent food riots in Asia were an unexpected response to diversion of American corn into ethanol production.

History has also shown that when serious mismatches develop, affected civilizations may become threatened with a phenomenon Diamond has termed a “collapse,” also that collapses can occur with startling rapidity. In that respect, our modern danger may be unique in only one critical respect: our numbers may have reached an environmental tipping point predisposing to global collapse from which recovery could be historically slow and uncertain.

Suicide is a uniquely human behavior that has always been controversial, but remains surprisingly common. Although variously classified as either mental illness or a sin in Western cultures, it has been praised as valid protest by Buddhists, legitimate defense by others or as valid religious expression by Islamic militants.

The use of piloted aircraft, first by Kamikazes in World War Two, and later the 9/11 hijackers, "weaponized" suicide and greatly expanded the number of potential casualties. In fact, the most significant addition to that combination would be a nuclear weapon, which is what prompted this line of thought.

The first, and only use of nuclear weapons in war was by the United States. 10 days after a vaguely worded warning issued as part of the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was nearly destroyed by a single uranium bomb to encourage the Japanese government to accept "unconditional surrender." After three days of silence from Japan, Nagasaki was attacked on August 9th with a plutonium bomb.

The two attacks succeeded in ways that could not have been anticipated precisely because they were, like the atomic weapons themselves, completely unprecedented. Then another unprecedented event took place: for the first time since Japan began its campaign of military aggression by invading Manchuria in 1931, Emperor Hirohito (Showa) intervened personally to overrule his divided military advisers by surrendering. The result was far more than mere surrender; because of his god-like status as Emperor, a civilian population that had been ready to resist invasion to the death surrendered meekly and cooperated with the American Occupation because he had told them to. That cooperation was sustained through four years of extreme economic privation and extended to acceptance of Douglas MacArthur's one-man rule and his imposition of a Constitution renouncing war.

Ironically, it would be a war on the Korean peninsula would jump-start Japan's delayed economic recovery in 1950. Equally ironically, it was made possible by Truman's decision (fiercely disputed by some Republicans) to resist the invasion of South Korea by Soviet puppet Kim Il Sung. Finally, the current modern dilemma posed by nuclear arms on the Korean Peninsula are all products of several unpredictable decisions made under duress by specific (and very fallible) humans in the last month of World War Two and in June 1950.

The next entry will explain the relationship between this historical analysis and my nine year study of cannabis applicants.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at October 3, 2010 06:45 PM