Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Stem Cell Debate

As expected, President Bush vetoed today a Congressional attempt to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. I understand and sympathize with the President's instincts on this issue, but I'm not convinced by the logic of his position.

Basically, the President argues that it is wrong to use federal money to support research that many Americans believe to involve the murder of a human being.

Here's the problem: Fertility clinics generate more embryos in their attempts to help couples conceive than what they eventually use. Once a successful implantation occurs the surplus embryos are usually discarded. Let us, for the sake of argument, stipulate that this is tantamount to killing a human being (parenthetically, we might wonder why those who believe that this is indeed a form of murder have not been more vocal in their opposition to the practice).

Furthermore, abortions produce hundreds of thousands of dead embryos every year. Let's stipulate that this also involves the killing of a living human being. Indeed, let's agree for the sake of discussion that early abortion is the equivalent of murder and should be made illegal.

Now, where are we? We have agreed that dead embryos are often produced in horribly immoral fashion. Does it follow from this that it is wrong to use those embryos, whose lives are forfeit in any event, to help relieve the suffering of others? Not necessarily. It would seem that it's no more wrong to use the tissues of murdered embryos (assuming, still, for the sake of argument that the embryos have been murdered) than it would be morally wrong for a hospital to harvest the organs of an adult homicide victim if consent from the next of kin were granted.

In other words, the morality of the means by which the embryos become available is a separate question from the morality of what can, or should, be done with the embryo once it has become available. It would be morally repugnant, certainly, to produce embryos purely for the sake of harvesting their tissues, but embryos which are sacrificed for other reasons, even for some morally dubious reasons, are not necessarily in that category. They are, at worst, in the same moral category as the homicide victim. It seems that just as we would abhor killing someone to harvest his organs but would not be repelled, perhaps, by the idea of harvesting the organs of someone whose life was otherwise unjustly taken, we should abhor producing embryos simply for the purpose of "farming" them, but not be unwilling to use the stem cells of embryos which have been produced and killed for other reasons.

In sum, the morality of using stem cells extracted from surplus embryos obtained from fertility or even abortion clinics is separate from the question of the morality of how the embryos came to be available. Using the cells for research is not necessarily made morally reprehensible because the way the embryos are obtained is, or may be.

At least that's how I've come to see the matter. Perhaps you have a different view, and if so, I invite you to share your thoughts through our Feedback feature.

Death of Another Butcher

The man responsible for the torture and deaths of two American soldiers has been killed by Iraqi security forces it was announced yesterday. Read the story here. Being shot to death was better than this man deserved.

If you have the stomach for it you can get an idea of why I say that by going here and scrolling to the bottom. I do not advise this unless you're sure you can handle a vision of pure evil and total moral degeneracy.

A Pilot's Diary

Major 'Y', an F-16 pilot in the Israeli Air Force, writes about his experiences of the past several days.

Wednesday 1000:

Returning back to my base from a routine practice mission. Taxiing back to the parking area, I hear "Zanek" (Jump) on the radio. What? I asked myself. Everything was calm when I took off, just one hour ago. By the time I get out of the plane, I hear the roar of the heavy takeoffs. And then another roar, and another. There is something different in the sound of a combat takeoff with a full load of bombs: the takeoff is long, the planes are heavy, the afterburner is used longer - not the light and quick training takeoffs. Something is definitely happening, I say to myself.

I hurry back to the squadron, where the loudspeakers are announcing: "all aircrew into briefing room." The squadron commander gives a short update - two soldiers had been kidnapped, rockets are fired at the north. No more training for today... Everyone must prepare, review procedures and combat tactics.


Major E, my formation leader walks into the briefing room, still in his jeans. He's been called to come ASAP. What's happening? He asks me. I update him, and we brief for our mission quickly. He is concerned about making mistakes, and bombing the wrong targets. He is experienced, and has been around long enough to see mistakes happen and innocent civilians killed. A friend of his, a helicopter pilot once mistook a letter in a target's name, and ended up shooting at the wrong target, killing a whole family. Major E does not want the same thing to happen to us. He emphasizes that there is no rush, that we must check and recheck every coordinate we receive, make sure we understand EXACTLY what we are supposed to target.


The siren blows. We run to the planes, start the engines, power up the systems. Ground crew running around the plane, the tower gives us permission to take off. We are told to head north, to Lebanon. "Get ready to receive targets," announces the flight controller as we approach. Major E and I read back the information, verifying with the flight controller that we have no mistakes. We head to the coast of Lebanon. It looks so small from above - Israel on the south, Syria in the east. I shake myself - no time to enjoy the view... hurry through the switches, procedures, arm the bombs, check the systems, head to the target, follow the range 10-9-8 Pickle! The plane violently rocks from side to side as two bombs fall off each wing, few seconds apart. I look down at the ground - we are flying so high, it's hard to judge where my bombs are going to hit, but the explosions catch my eye.

We head back - "mission complete. 4 direct hits," reports Major E to the controller. The rush and adrenalin gone, thoughts enter my head. I sure wish I hit the "bad guys" and that there were no civilians hanging around the place. Hizballah cynically often uses civilians as a shelter from Israel's bombings.


We land in the base, and are relieved to learn that we went for a Hizbullah post. Probably unmanned. It's strange how the focus in these missions is not to succeed, hit the target precisely, but rather - not to make any mistakes. The message is clear all the way from the Squadron commander to the last pilot. One mistake can jeopardize the whole war, like in Kfar-Kana, in one of the last operations in Lebanon, where artillery bombarded a refugee camp, killing over 100 people, which resulted in international pressure that halted the operation. Hitting the target is expected, no misses are acceptable. There aren't any congratulations for a well-performed mission. Only a hammer on the head if something goes wrong. Personally, I think it's a healthy attitude; it causes the whole system to be less rash and hot on the trigger.

Friday, 5:30 a.m.:

I enter the briefing room after a short night's sleep. I've been called to come last night from home and spend the night in the base. My wife sure wasn't pleased with that, she's worried.

A couple of hours later Major T and I are above Beirut. The damage to the city is evident. The holes in the runway are easily seen. Huge gas tanks are still burning; a dark cloud of smoke is hanging over the whole city. I'm sorry for the poor citizens of Lebanon. As their Prime Minister Seniora said, they are the last to know, but the first to pay.

We head east, to the Bakaa valley, close to the Syrian border. Although we are careful not to get too close to the border and not expecting Syrian action, I keep a careful eye on the warning systems, that will tell me if a missile is launched. This time we have two targets; we later hear reports that the first target had been completely destroyed, while the second hit but not destroyed. Another formation is given the later target.


I join up with a few friends on Tel Aviv beach. We're having some beers, enjoying the breeze and watching the sunset. After a while I say something about how bizarre the situation is - we're here having fun, while whole towns in the north are being bombarded. Wait a minute - they ask me, haven't you been called up? Sure, I reply. Just this morning I dropped two tons of explosives on Lebanon.

One of the important things to note in this pilot's log is how concerned the Israeli pilots are to avoid civilian casualties. That there have been such is a consequence of human fallibility and the contemptible practice of Hezbollah, and Muslim jihadis generally, of using civilians as shields.

Israeli Tactics offers this analysis of Israel's tactics against Hezbollah. According to Haaretz the most intense fighting still lies ahead:

The fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has still not reached its zenith. The Israel Defense Forces' operational plans against the Shi'ite organizations have not yet been carried out. The next two days are the most critical and a lot depends on whether Tehran decides to take a chance and authorize Hezbollah to launch long-range missiles with more powerful warheads. This is a capability Hezbollah still retains, despite the heavy blows it has suffered in the IDF air strikes.

On Sunday, Israel bore witness to the use of more powerful rockets against Haifa, which killed eight people and injured dozens more. The Syrian-made 220 mm rocket has a warhead weighing more than 50 kilograms. Hezbollah was supplied with these rockets as the Syrian armed forces were receiving them off the production lines. The decision to give Hezbollah the rockets was made when it was concluded that the group would be considered part of the Syrian army's overall emergency preparedness.

The risk to Iran is not military, but rather that Hezbollah would suffer such damage that it would no longer be counted as the sole external element of Iran's Islamic Revolution. It is difficult to assess what the Iranian leadership will decide. If it does opt for aggravating the situation, it will certainly encourage the Syrians to become involved in the confrontation, but all indications suggest that Damascus is not eager to get dragged into war.

Israel is also not interested in a third front, so long as Syria does not intervene in the fighting on the side of Hezbollah.

Another option is that Iran will decide that it is not advantageous for Hezbollah to launch "one too many" rockets at Israel's civilians. In the past 24 hours, there has been a slowing in the air strikes against Lebanese national infrastructure. Now attention is focused on Hezbollah infrastructure, including rockets, positions and bunkers, in southern Lebanon, the Beka'a and Beirut.

From a military standpoint, the mobile Fajr rockets pose a special problem because they are more difficult to locate and destroy. On Sunday, the air force concentrated on attacks against regular Katyusha rockets whose range is shorter and many of which have already been launched against towns in the Galilee. But the presence of some 600 Hezbollah storage bunkers, a third of which were prepared for the longer range rockets, makes the task difficult.

Israel will also try to target the 12 most senior members of Hezbollah, who are hiding in bunkers deep in the Dahiya quarter in southern Beirut. These men are strategic targets and they include Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Ibrahim Akil, Imad Mughniye and others. These senior figures constitute the group's equivalent of a General Staff and its political-diplomatic cabinet.

One of the reasons for the repeated attacks against Dahiya is that the Hezbollah's top headquarters are situated there. The area is described by IDF as a "terrorist center" and although the aim is not to harm civilians, the IDF hopes that the permanent residents will leave their homes so that they will not be hurt. A total of 40 targets have been marked in Dahiya, some linked by underground tunnels; one of them is a subterranean factory for special types of ammunition.

What Will the Israelis Find?

We wonder: If the Israelis sweep through the Bekaa Valley, as some analysts predict, will they find Saddam's WMD which are putatively buried there? Is the CIA on top of this?