Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Why I am not a Charlie

In the aftermath of the shooting of the staff of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris, we are all encouraged by popular sentiment to adopt the phrase "I am Charlie." Unfortunately, in traditional English usage, "I am a [right] Charlie" means "I have done something stupid or thoughtless." Hence, one translates "Je suis Charlie" at one's peril.

No reasonable-minded person could condone the terrible acts of violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, or elsewhere. My main reaction is sadness and sympathy for the victims and the bereaved. What  am concerned with here is the popular reaction to the Parisian atrocities, and this is something that worries me.

I was living in America on 11th September 2001, and the events in New York directly involved some of my students, who were part of the response, and left one of my colleagues mourning a brother who was on one of the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center. I witnessed an immediate change in the social climate of the United States. Overnight and at the following weekend, I struggled to reinvent myself as an expert on terrorism, or at least someone who could say something intelligent and authoritative about it.

The power of mass communication is extraordinary. When it succeeds in coalescing popular sentiment, the results are mind-boggling. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died on 31 August 1997, the writer Ian Jack described the response as "grief police". We all had to grieve—visibly—or face massive public opprobrium. In the aftermath of "nine-eleven", the prevailing slogan was "either you're with us or you're against us." Vigorously, public figures vied to out-patriot each other and out-condemn the vile acts of that fateful day. American patriotism has succeeded in creating a country of extraordinary diversity in which there is remarkably little dissent from the basic principles that launched the nation. This is an amazing achievement, but there are times when the patriotism is taken to ludicrous lengths. I have never been one for putting my hand on my digestive system every time the national anthem is played.

The net effect of "either you're with us or you're against us" was to stifle debate about the motivations behind the terrorist outrages. Publicly to question US foreign policy or actions abroad became physically dangerous, and graphic demonstrations of that danger occurred in my local area. Anyone who was not visibly orthodox ran the risk of becoming the target of militarised, gun-toting thugs who were acting "in the name of patriotism" to police the nation's thoughts and attitudes. At a local town meeting, a Mexican citizen stood up and said, with great courage, that he felt threatened by the American flag. It was a relatively mild admission, but foolhardy nonetheless. For those of us who had grave doubts about US foreign policy, and also some sense of the injustices of Middle Eastern history, it felt as if we were re-experiencing Germany in the 1930s.

Clearly, the hostage-takings and killings in Paris January 2015 have had a deep effect on the French nation's psyche. People feel justifiably outraged and vulnerable to further attacks. As a form of resistance, there has been a surge of support for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It follows a long tradition of political and social mockery. In the dramas of Athens in the fifth-century BC, satyrs, beings that combined elements of man and goat, mocked the heroic events of the past. The plays were lewd and subversive, and thus was born satire. I read English and Italian satirical magazines and I appreciate the ability of satire to illuminate problems in creative and refreshing ways. I rather think the insistent mocking of Mohammed is now in rather bad taste. I also suspect that there are many instances in which modern satire applies double standards : for example, it is rare to see Jews mocked to the extent that Muslims are.

The effect of the Charlie Hebdo affair on Italy is surprising—or perhaps not. Judging by the nightly round of chat shows and televised debates, the country has been shocked almost to the same extent as France has been. Suddenly, Italy seems to have woken up to the realisation that we are all at risk of terrorist outrages, and the main reaction seems to be smarrimento—bewilderment. "Experts" on international affairs and counter terrorism have been dragged in front of the cameras, and have generally acquitted themselves atrociously. Women in hejab have been strategically placed in studio audiences, microphones have been thrust in the faces of inarticulate Muslim street traders in the big Italian cities; the right-wing Northern League has worked night and day to blame it all on immigration (something that required the ingenious application of tortuous logic). Not infrequently, television debates have degenerated into shouting matches, in which the "winner" is the person who manages to bluster loudest and ignore all the other participants.

Charlie Hebdo has intensified the dialogue of the deaf. Events such as this seem to deal a death-blow to the ability to listen to other people's points of view, consider them seriously and reason in a measured way. Many commentators have striven to increase the level of public angst, to make television viewers feel unsafe. Well they might: there is money to be made in the security industry and the way to make it is to ensure that everyone feels unsafe. In supporting Charlie Hebdo, we are supposed to be defending liberal, democratic values of free speech. In this respect, it is a well-known fact that free speech has its limits before it becomes slander and libel. Moreover, free speech is often inconvenient. Marco Travaglio, a highly respectable Italian journalist, went in front of the cameras and, in the Chomskian tradition of giving people chapter and verse, reeled off a long, copious history of occasions on which the Italian Government has censored RAI (the state television channels), often on the grounds that a programme which attempted to probe some wrong-doing was "in bad taste". Travaglio clearly does not suffer from quite the level of selective memory that is so prevalent among others who speak to the television cameras.

The conclusion from all the hubris is that we live in a world of forced consensus. Ordinary citizens, public officials or elected representatives are quite capable of becoming aggressive, to greater or lesser degrees, when faced with apostates who fail to accept what the public regard as a kosher attitude (forgive my archness in mixing religious metaphors!).

I find it unnerving to live in a place in which the debate on terrorism is so immature. It is true that the phenomenon is hard to explain: in a very respectable introduction to terrorism, issued by no less a publisher than Oxford University Press, the learned author seems to struggle to explain why terrorism exists. The fact is that we, the vast majority of people,  who find it utterly abhorrent (and counter-productive, which it most definitely is), do not have the cultural referents to imagine ourselves as terrorists and hence cannot empathise with those who are. A mature debate would see terrorism as a very serious problem, but one that should not be allowed to overshadow other serious threats, including 'natural' disasters and climate change. A mature debate would pay much attention to the roots of conflict in the Middle East, and the role of European countries in fomenting it. Instead we in Europe live in a land of historical amnesia, but the peoples of the Middle East have much longer memories, and that helps explain why they are so often scathing about our pronouncements on terrorism and free speech.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Medice, cura te ipsum

On 23rd November 1980 a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred in southern Italy. It caused 3,006 deaths and 8,841 injuries and damaged 400,000 houses in 630 municipalities. I was one of the survivors left homeless by this event. Almost exactly 34 years later, on 22rd November 2014, I was in Japan when a magnitude 6.8 earthquake occurred near where I was staying. It destroyed 37 houses and injured 57 people. Some 22 people were trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, but all of them were rescued alive. The physical parameters of the two events were remarkably similar, but the states of vulnerability were very different.

I spent December 2014 in central Italy. In mid-month, an earthquake swarm began. At 10:36 a.m. one day, my house rocked and swayed in a rippling motion that was the most precise earth tremor I have ever felt. Well it might have been: the epicentre was almost exactly 10 km away, on a bend in the road that connects two villages, both of which are in the same municipality as my house. This magnitude 4.1 event briefly cut electricity supplies, and it certainly caused a great deal of fear and alarm locally. Schools and offices were immediately closed and many people took to the streets.

This may well have been the first occasion in a millennium in which the area of Tuscany that contains my home was affected by a locally generated earthquake swarm, albeit not one of very high power. We experienced up to 100 earthquakes a day. Although low power events are not in themselves particularly dangerous, they remind one that a swarm could contain at least on event of significantly higher magnitude, as has been the case in many earthquake sequences in peninsular Italy; for example, at L'Aquila in 1703 and 2009, and Ferrara in 1570-4. This causes a very uncomfortable feeling of being exposed to danger. After 34 years the old, familiar sensation of acute sensitivity to vibrations suddenly returned.

My first act was to consult the catalogue of past earthquakes. The map of seismicity is based on the record of previous events, which is, of course, more and more vague the further one goes back in time. On expert suggested to me that to construct a realistic picture of the magnitudes and frequencies one might need a catalogue of 50,000 past events, and this assumes that there is no significant temporal trend in the data. Hence, the record is incomplete and the map is a hypothesis. It suggests that I live in a broad area of medium seismicity, with a local "trough" of lower hazard in the immediate area of the town in which I live.

One item of concern is that the tower of a local church, built in AD 880, leans fairly precipitously (over an occupied house) as a result of an earthquake in 1895. The epicentre for this was 25 km away. As areas of much higher seismicity exist in the Mugello, Garfagnana and Casentino, parts of the Apennine mountains, this begs the question as to what effect seismicity of distant origin would have on local structures such as my house. My home, incidentally, was built in 1909 in unreinforced masonry. It has been strengthened (at my expense), but to make it fully anti-seismic would cost something like 30 per cent of the value of the whole building, a fairly enormous sum.

The catalogue includes a magnitude 5.6 event with epicentre so close that I can walk out of my front door, cross the adjacent park, and look down on it in the valley nearby. This may be the millennial event in the area and details of its effects are sketchy, as it occurred in 1812, before the advent of systematic records of earthquakes. From what is known I deduce, as a rule of thumb, that the risk of significant earthquake damage to my house is about 0.4 per cent per lifetime. The risk of catastrophic damage is too low to be estimated.

I have a family disaster plan, and the local civil protection service has a plan that designates muster areas and prescribes organised assistance in the event of a serious earthquake. In December 2014 information leaflets were widely distributed. Whether this is sufficient is difficult to assess. As a scholar of disasters, I am aware of the need to set a good example, and disseminate information that is comprehensible and valid to those local people who ask me about the situation. However, there are few very useful guidelines about how to prepare for earthquakes in areas of relatively low risk, in which the benefits of expensive or restrictive measures are highly debatable. One can, at least, monitor the progress of seismic events and try to determine whether there is anything in the pattern that would stimulate one to be more active in preparedness. As I write, the swarm continues intermittently with events whose magnitude is lower than 2.5, most of which are imperceptible. May this be the worst we have to deal with!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

HFA2 - Does it Matter?

A decade ago, Dr Alan Kirschenbaum published a book (Kirschenbaum 2004a), in which he put forward the audacious hypothesis that the relationship between, on the one hand, the number and impact of disasters, and, on the other, the founding and promotion of disaster risk reduction* organisations is the opposite of what we usually believe. He argued that the increase in disasters is largely illusory and the result of the need for the organisations to justify their own existence by aggrandising the problem.  He also published a paper that provided a theoretical basis for this hypothesis (Kirschenbaum 2004b). It is not exactly that the organisations cause the disasters, but they make them seem more serious than they are. More than ten years later, I am writing this in the aftermath of shootings and hostage-takings in France, which have been discussed in the mass media as if they are the first sign of the end of civilisation as we know it. The fact is that mass murder by shooting is a common problem in some countries, particularly in the Americas. In the ensuing debate, it is very evident that commentators see the events in France as an opportunity to frighten the general public and advance the position of people who are involved in counter-terrorism. In writing this, I am not endeavouring to minimise the risks associated with modern terrorism, but I am concerned about the attitudes to terrorism prevention, many of which are clearly self-serving and perhaps of dubious effectiveness.

Similar problems exist with other forms of disaster: natural, technological and social. Few attempts have been made to evaluate the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures (Alexander 2011), and even fewer of these have been impartial and independent. In disaster risk reduction generally, the tendency is not to evaluate the effectiveness of organisations, to do so under the starting assumption that the organisations are necessary, or employ self-evaluation. This the OECD's assessment of Italian Civil Protection was conducted largely through self-evaluation (OECD 2010). The results of this are predictably laudatory. Of course, they may be right, but in evaluating, not merely performance, but also the basic need for organisations, much depends on the degree of objectivity and, crucially, the criteria set for evaluation. It is easy to fall into the trap of allowing the latter to be self-fulfilling.

Disaster risk reduction keeps people in employment, including the undersigned. I often wonder about my own effectiveness, but recently I have had doubts about the value of the Hyogo Framework for Action renewal process (UNISDR 2005, et seq.).

Let there be no doubt that the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, set up after the Decade for Disaster Reduction (1990-2000), is a vital organisation that does some essential and irreplaceable work, particularly in encouraging initiatives and disseminating information. The Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015 was launched in Kobe, in the Japanese Prefecture of Hyogo, in the wake of the 1995 earthquake, which at the time was the world's most expensive disaster. The Framework enunciated the general principles on which disaster risk was to be reduced for the next decade. It is now up for renewal (UNISDR 2013).

The preparations for the March 2015 UNISDR world conference on disaster risk reduction have gathered pace like a runaway train on an incline. Organisations from small to large, provincial to international, have been publishing their views on the process. Never in this field has there been such a desire to state the obvious (or at least the well-known) and repeat the message. It may well be that the whole process is unnecessary. Governments that are striving to reduce the risk of disaster would do it anyway: those that are not pulling their weight are unlikely to be influenced. The economics of disaster, and its effect on power structures, provide the imperative to reduce disaster. In considering this, it is as well to remember that national governments are increasingly marginalised by the forces of globalisation in production, migration, trade and the labour market. Where governments can have an effect, participatory governance (i.e popular involvement in democracy) and the rule of law are the determinants of whether the problems of civil society can be tackled effectively (Fukuyama 2014).

There is a "sex of the angels" feeling to the debate about what wording to include in HFA2. Unfortunately, the experience of other treaties, declarations and international programmes (ozone layer, CFCs, climate change, human rights, etc.) is not encouraging. Governments may or may not sign up, may or may not make promises and set targets, and may or may not make an effort to achieve them.

An alternative view is that the impetus comes neither from the national nor the international levels, but from local sources. Surveys suggest that there has been little influence of the global and national processes on local initiatives (GNCSODR 2009, 2011). Fundamentally, it may be that the debate, conducted in international conference centres and national cabinet offices, is detached from the reality on the ground.

Those readers who strongly support the HFA2 process may suggest that I have been unduly negative, indeed cynical, in this assessment. Time will tell whether an international framework for disaster risk reduction is helpful or not, or at least it will tell if we make the effort to find out. Certain developments are inevitable, others are unpredictable. Perhaps I have misunderstood HFA2, but it is not a legally binding treaty, it is a framework. To take a rather puritanical view, the effort that is going into negotiating the wording, the carbon emissions that are produced by international meetings, the struggle to produce a document, might better be spent reducing disaster risk at the local scale. One need not believe Kirschenbaum, but his analysis should stimulate us to think freshly about what is needed and what is worthwhile.

*In 2004 the field was not called 'disaster risk reduction', but there are always dilemmas as to what appellation to use. This is another problem that, fundamentally, does not matter!


ACT Alliance 2014. Sustaining Lives and Livelihoods in the Face of Disasters: Act Alliance Key Asks [sic] on the Post-2015 Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. ACT Alliance, Geneva, 8 pp.

Alexander, D.E. 2011. Sense and sensibility about terrorism. Journal of Integrated Disaster Risk Management 1(1): 1-12.

Fukuyama, F. 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. Profile Books, London, 464 pp.

GNCSODR 2009. "Clouds But Little Rain..." Views from the Frontline. A local perspective of progress towards implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Twickenham, UK, 64 pp.

GNCSODR 2011. "If We Do Not Join Hands..." Views from the Frontline. Local reports of progress on implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action, with strategic recommendations for more effective implementation. Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction, Twickenham, UK, 51 pp.

Kirschenbaum, A. 2004a. Chaos, Organization, and Disaster Management. Marcel Dekker, New York, 328 pp.

Kirschenbaum, A. 2004b. Measuring the effectiveness of disaster management organizations. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 22(1): 75-102.

OECD 2010. Italy: Review of the Italian National Civil Protection System. OECD reviews of Risk Management Policies Vol. 4. Environment and Sustainable Development. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, 173 pp.

UNISDR 2005. Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005-2015. Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 22 pp.

UNISDR 2013. Towards the Post]2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: Tackling Future Risks, Economic Losses and Exposure. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 21 pp.