Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dinner Party

Last night I went to dinner with the ExoMars people. There were about 40 people in attendance and we had a wonderful time at a local German restaurant. The food was quite tasty and there was everything from a salmon wrap to white asparagus to wienerschnitzel to a delightful "homemade" chocolate pudding. I really enjoyed the meal, and I sat with a group of people from ESA with none of my NASA colleagues around. I'm really glad I did, as we had a great time laughing about the differences between our respective forms of government.

I was regaled with a story about how simple it is to get a drivers license in California compared to Germany where it costs a lot and strict tests are required. "You take a test, pay a small fee, and then you drive around the block with some guy ... in your own car!" The irony of the fact that you take your own car, which you presumably drove to the DMV, to take a test to receive a license so that you can drive your own car ... well, the deadpan delivery from the story-teller was simply hilarious.

We also swapped stories about healthcare, raising children, legal run-ins, crimes that have affected us (oddly enough they had far worse personal stories about legal troubles and crime in the United States than I did, even though I live there!), traffic, drive-through ATMs (Exasperated: "To get money, you don't walk to the ATM, you drive to it!"), and the space program. We laughed about how President Obama promised change, and that's exactly what we seem to be getting, for better and for worse.

The weirdest turn in the conversation occurred when one of the people made the connection between the fact that I don't drink coffee or alcohol and the fact that I grew up and went to college in Utah to the fact that I'm Mormon. Normally, I'd take the opportunity to tell people a bit about what we believe, but one of the people in our group jumped the conversation from me being a Mormon to talking about the Catholic problems with pedophile priests and the unfortunate "torture" that occurred at Guantanamo Bay. It sounded like, but I was never clear on this, that he had heard cases of Mormons also abusing children and participating in this torture, but the conversation was at times difficult to follow (between a noisy room and the accents). As far as I know, those connections do not exist (though, I won't lie and say there's never been a Mormon pedophile or a Mormon torturer), but I don't know what he thinks he knows, and I did not want to risk being perceived as confrontational.

So, I walked away last night having been identified as a Mormon, which I was able to clarify as a Christian religion, but not knowing what the others thought about that fact. It seems to me that Europeans are a decidedly unreligious lot, with a distrust of organized religion (the Catholic church, being the dominant church with which they have experience, in particular), and they didn't seem to want to linger on the topic.

The conversation did swerve to the terrorist problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fact that there does not seem to be a very good solution. It was clear that they did not approve of the way that the United States dealt with the war in Iraq, and especially didn't approve of the fact that the U.S. started it. However, I was able to get them to think about it in ways that I don't think they ever had. In particular, one of them admitted that democracy is the natural enemy of authoritarianism, and that a "civilized" society is poorly equipped to deal with one that engages in terrorism.

We spoke about the challenges of dealing with these people that were captured engaging in acts of terrorism, and about how it isn't really clear if you should treat them as criminals or as war criminals, which they agreed should rightly be treated differently.

I shared with them the plotline of a book I'm reading right now, "The Man With the Iron Heart" by Harry Turtledove. It is an alternative history book, which explores what might have happened had there been an active Nazi underground resistance in the aftermath of World War II, which resorted to what we would now consider terrorist acts. It's very obvious that the author intended the novel to be a parable on modern times, and in it the author explores the challenges of dealing with an armed people that don't go by the "rules of war" and to whom human dignity is not universally applicable. I'm not finished reading it, yet, but I believe the resolution to the book will be that the United States will eventually pull out of Germany, not having the stomach to endure the continual additional deaths of our soldiers for a people that doesn't appear to want our help, leaving them to their own devices which will set the stage for a Nazi resurgence.

They were intrigued by the concepts I outlined, and I think we all agreed that there are no good civilized answers to terrorism. One approach would be to lay waste to the communities who harbor and support the terrorists, but that is not something that "western" civilization endorses, and would make us no better than the Nazis in the end. Education seems to be the key, but that takes time and patience, something which democracies do not excel in.

It was a very interesting night. I made some new friends and enjoyed the stimulating conversation, and I am very glad that I had the opportunity to be here and enjoy the hospitality of my hosts.

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