Scientists' protest

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

Although the scientific community in the U.S. has largely remained silent on the war, lone voices of protest are beginning to be heard.

THE blatantly illegal, immoral and inhuman war led by the United States against Iraq is driven as much by the arrogance of American technological supremacy as it is by imperialist designs. It has been the U.S.' fond desire and declared intent to demonstrate its technological prowess through the use of high-tech weaponry. It is this arrogance that underlies the choice of catchy phrases such as "shock and awe" to describe the nature of the war.

An astounding range of smart weapons - laser-guided and infrared-guided missiles; Global Positioning System-guided cluster bombs and missiles; precision-guided munitions; miniaturised munitions; `bunker busters'; wind-corrected munitions dispenser; sensor-fused weapons - were used on a country that was totally decapacitated and rendered defenceless by a decade of sanctions. Therefore, a part of the moral responsibility for the war does lie with the U.S. scientific community.

The U.S. scientific community and the various bodies representing it have hardly demonstrated any opposition to the war, save a declaration signed by 41 Nobel laureates in January. The declaration, an initiative by Walter Kohn, a theoretical physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and former adviser to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon, said: "The undersigned oppose a preventive war against Iraq without broad international support. Military operations against Iraq may indeed lead to a relatively swift victory in the short term. But war is characterised by surprise, human loss and unintended consequences. Even with a victory, we believe that the medical, economic, environmental, moral, spiritual, political and legal consequences of an American preventive attack on Iraq would undermine, not protect, U.S. security and standing in the world." Indeed, one could argue against the use of the phrase `preventive war' in the statement. There is no shred of evidence to suggest that Iraq was threatening the U.S. in any imaginable manner.

Richard Dawkins, the well-known British scientist and the author of the famous book The Selfish Gene, wrote in the The Guardian: "Whatever anyone may say about weapons of mass destruction, or about Saddam's savage brutality to his own people, the reason Bush can now get away with his war is that a sufficient number of Americans, including, apparently, Bush himself, see it as revenge for 9/11. This is worse than bizarre. It is pure racism and/or religious prejudice. Nobody has made even a faintly plausible case that Iraq had anything to do with the atrocity. It was Arabs that hit the World Trade Centre, right? So let's go and kick Arab ass. Those 9/11 terrorists were Muslims, right? And Eye-raqis are Muslims, right? That does it. We're gonna go in there and show them some hardware. Shock and awe? You bet."

In this context, a unique form of opposition to U.S. institutions has come from Daniel J. Amit, a well-known scientist of the Racah Institute of Physics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, which he calls "the capital of two people," and of the Instituto di Fisica, University di Roma I "La Sapienza". Sixty-five-year-old Amit is a theoretical physicist of high standing, whose contributions to condensed matter physics, statistical mechanics and field theory are well known. In recent years, he has turned his interests to neurobiology and has made seminal contributions to neural network theory.

In response to an e-mail request from the physics journal Physical Review E of the American Physical Society (APS) on March 21 to a review a paper, Amit sent this curt reply: "I will not at this point correspond with any American institution. Some of us have lived through 1939." His further remarks on April 9 testify to his courage of conviction: "Science cannot stay neutral, especially after it has been so cynically used in the hands of the inspectors to disarm a country and prepare it for decimation by laser-guided cluster bombs. No, science of the American variety has no recourse. I, personally, cannot see myself anymore sharing a common human community with American science." His exchanges with the APS Editor-in-Chief Martin Blume have been reproduced here. Even more remarkable is the fact is that Amit is a Polish-born Israeli and his stand on the Palestine issue, as evident in the correspondence, is equally revealing. It is not known whether his decision to circulate his correspondence widely has resulted in more scientists emulating his novel protest. But in India, at least one scientist has taken inspiration from Amit's act of commitment. Shobha Madan, a Mathematics Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, withdrew her membership from the American Mathematical Society (AMS) and decided not to review any paper for its publications. In an e-mail on April 16, she wrote:

Dear Sir,

With this communication, I wish to withdraw my membership to the American Mathematical Society, and I will not review any more papers for Mathematical Reviews. (There are no reviews pending with me). I have wanted to do this for some time, but was not able to express my reasons clearly enough. Meanwhile I have just read an exchange of e-mails, in which Prof. Daniel Amit has put into words my feelings at this moment in time. I have taken the liberty of attaching the letters in this exchange verbatim, in order to communicate my own reasons for withdrawal. I have no protest against any individual human beings anywhere in the world, even with disagreements, but I do not wish to be a member of, nor contribute to, an American organisation.

Shobha Madan`Science cannot stay neutral...'Dear Dr. Amit,

We have received your email with your decision not to review a paper for us in light of American actions in the Middle East. We recognise that reviewing manuscripts is a voluntary activity, one that you perform as a service to the physics community, and we thank you for your efforts.

Given the voluntary nature of your participation we of course respect your decision to cease, and have made an indication in our database so that no further papers will be sent to you for review until you inform us otherwise.

We ask, however, that you consider the following in hopes that in the not-too-distant future you will decide to review for us again. We regard science as an international enterprise and we do our best to put aside political disagreements in the interest of furthering the pursuit of scientific matters. We have never used other than scientific criteria in judging the acceptability of a paper for publication, without regard to the country of origin of the author. We have done this even in cases where some of us have disagreed strongly with the policies of that country, and we will continue this practice. We believe it is essential that all parties involved make every effort to separate social and political differences from their participation in scientific research and publication. The pursuit of scientific knowledge needs to transcend such issues.

Sincerely, Martin Blume, Editor-in-ChiefDear Dr. Blume, Editor in ChiefAmerican Physical Society

Thank you for your letter of April 8. I would have liked to be able to share the honourable sentiments you express in your letter as well as your optimism in the future role of science and the scientific community. To be frank, and with much sadness and pain, after 40 years of activity and collaboration, I find very little reason for such optimism.

What we are watching today, I believe, is a culmination of 10-15 years of mounting barbarism of the American culture the world over, crowned by the achievements of science and technology as a major weapon of mass destruction. We are witnessing manhunt and wanton killing of the type and scale not seen since the raids on American Indian populations, by a superior technological power of inferior culture and values. We see no corrective force to restore the insanity, the self-righteousness and the lack of respect for human life (civilian and military) of another race.

Science cannot stay neutral, especially after it has been so cynically used in the hands of the inspectors to disarm a country and prepare it for decimation by laser-guided cluster bombs. No, science of the American variety has no recourse. I, personally, cannot see myself anymore sharing a common human community with American science. Unfortunately, I also belong to a culture of a similar spiritual deviation (Israel), and which seems to be equally incorrigible.

In desperation I cannot but turn my attention to other tragic periods in which major societies, some with claims to fundamental contributions to culture and science, have deviated so far as to be relegated to ostracism and quarantine. At this point, I think American society should be considered in this category. I have no illusions of power, as to the scope and prospect of my attitude. But, the minor role of my act and statement is a simple way of affirming that in the face of a growing enormity, which I consider intolerable, I will exercise my own tiny act of disobedience to be able to look straight into the eyes of my grandchildren and my students say that I did know.

With regards Daniel Amit

P.S: I intend to distribute our exchange as much as possible. I authorise and pray that you do the same.

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