Monday, September 11, 2006

Learning from 9/11 the Montserrat Volcano crisis and Acts 27

Today is of course the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a case where in the interests of freedom of society, risks were run with potential terrorists [we all know the profile now . . .], and the world paid a stiff price as evil men exploited the vulnerabilities of freedom to murder thousands and plunged the world into a dark night of war that still continues.

Overnight, too, we had some serious developments here in Montserrat. Summarising:

Over the past day or so the volcano here in Montserrat has reached a new, further elevated state of activity as a vent on the Gages Wall has reached the stage of repeated albeit small explosions. A crumbling notch is now in that wall, overlooking Plymouth. Alarms sounded, we heard from the chief scientist at the MVO, and from the Governor yesterday. People living on the flanks of the Belham valley [to the NW] have been put on notice to prepare for evacuation, if in a worst case scenario, there are pyroclastic [hot ash, gas and rock] flows and surges in that valley. That news was certain to be deeply unwelcome, for very understandable reasons, among many living in Isles Bay, Salem and environs.

There was some relatively speaking good news this morning though. In a further development, the MVO head informed the public that the peak of the dome is tilting over towards the North East, and that growth appears focussed there suggesting that the Tar River valley to the NE -- and away from inhabited areas -- is the most likely direction of expected collapses.

Oddly, this issue of society involving itself in potentially high-risk situations and the need to address credible scenarios and balance freedom or convenience with security, is an apt illustration of the situation that developed in Ac 27. For there, Paul, an appellate prisoner on a ship in the Imperial wheat service from Egypt to Rome, had counselled the ship not to sail out of Fair Havens, Crete, precisely because of the risk of winter storms setting in and putting the ship at grave risk:

AC 27:9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them, 10 "Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also." 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.

Duly, a gentle south wind blew up and they thought the were going to be able to sail on to Phoenix. So, they set sail. But, disaster was the result:

Ac 27:14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the "northeaster," swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17 When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

Why was Paul not heeded? Why is it that when I and other hosts of the Let's Talk Radio Talk show raised concerns in the context of warnings by Dr Glen Matteoli of the USA and presentations by Prof Okada of Japan, during the 10th anniversary conference of the Volcano eruption, we were publicly lashed during the weekly volcano update and interviews, as misconstruing the situation, when we called for managing the situation in light of a full fan of credible scenarios? Why is it that even today, many are in denial about the realities of the evolving world in which Islamism is making its third religiously-motivated bid for global power in 1,400 years: the first being from 632 on under Mohammed's early followers, and the second from about 1453 on when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks?

The answers are a bit of a surprise – or, maybe not: we all like to imagine we know more about and are more in control of our circumstances than we really are. Worse, a probability is actually an index of ignorance -- if we knew the outcome for sure, it would be 1 or 0, not somewhere in between. [And acknowledging ignorance is a very humbling exercise for many of us . . .]

So, we tend to dismiss or deny the possibility or even the actuality of unwelcome, uncomfortable or disruptive – but in fact otherwise, quite credible -- scenarios. Sometimes, we call it optimism, sometimes it is just plain wishful thinking, but as a result we too often run risks that we should not, with potential downsides that if we were to look at them in the cold light of day, we would think again before running the risks. (Think about the risks of speeding in a car on a dangerous road.)

So, sometimes, we get caught out: even if the technical experts tell us good news, and the big business classes back them up, and it is the popular feeling. That "democratic" “consensus” in the teeth of unwelcome reality is exactly what happened in Acts 27; to disastrous results. For next time, let's explore these thoughts on the limits of democratic government in a world of sinful, fallible men, a bit further. END


PS: I am experimenting with a new font, Georgia. Let's see if it gives a pleasing result. This is also the third attempt to post, we had two brief power cuts. UPDATE: I did a slight cleanup, and I like the result on screen. The link to the discussion of Islam and that to the lessons on probability should be helpful.

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