Because there is so little worth saving

The Debt Disaster That Wasn't

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The Fiscal Fizzle
An Imaginary Budget and Debt Crisis

Paul Krugman

For much of the past five years readers of the political and economic news were left in little doubt that budget deficits and rising debt were the most important issue facing America. Serious people constantly issued dire warnings that the United States risked turning into another Greece any day now. President Obama appointed a special, bipartisan commission to propose solutions to the alleged fiscal crisis, and spent much of his first term trying to negotiate a Grand Bargain on the budget with Republicans.

That bargain never happened, because Republicans refused to consider any deal that raised taxes. Nonetheless, debt and deficits have faded from the news. And there's a good reason for that disappearing act: The whole thing turns out to have been a false alarm.

I'm not sure whether most readers realize just how thoroughly the great fiscal panic has fizzled -- and the deficit scolds are, of course, still scolding. They're even trying to spin the latest long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office -- which are distinctly non-alarming -- as somehow a confirmation of their earlier scare tactics. So this seems like a good time to offer an update on the debt disaster that wasn't.

About those projections: The budget office predicts that this year's federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It's true that the fact that we're still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow -- but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.

Things are expected to deteriorate after that, mainly because of the impact of an aging population on Medicare and Social Security. But there has been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health care costs, which used to play a big role in frightening budget scenarios. As a result, despite aging, debt in 2039 -- a quarter-century from now! -- is projected to be no higher, as a percentage of G.D.P., than the debt America had at the end of World War II, or that Britain had for much of the 20th century. Oh, and the budget office now expects interest rates to remain fairly low, not much higher than the economy's rate of growth. This in turn weakens, indeed almost eliminates, the risk of a debt spiral, in which the cost of servicing debt drives debt even higher.

About those projections: The budget office predicts that this year's federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It's true that the fact that we're still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow -- but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.

Things are expected to deteriorate after that, mainly because of the impact of an aging population on Medicare and Social Security. But there has been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health care costs, which used to play a big role in frightening budget scenarios. As a result, despite aging, debt in 2039 -- a quarter-century from now! -- is projected to be no higher, as a percentage of G.D.P., than the debt America had at the end of World War II, or that Britain had for much of the 20th century. Oh, and the budget office now expects interest rates to remain fairly low, not much higher than the economy's rate of growth. This in turn weakens, indeed almost eliminates, the risk of a debt spiral, in which the cost of servicing debt drives debt even higher.

Still, rising debt isn't good. So what would it take to avoid any rise in the debt ratio? Surprisingly little. The budget office estimates that stabilizing the ratio of debt to G.D.P. at its current level would require spending cuts and/or tax hikes of 1.2 percent of G.D.P. if we started now, or 1.5 percent of G.D.P. if we waited until 2020. Politically, that would be hard given total Republican opposition to anything a Democratic president might propose, but in economic terms it would be no big deal, and wouldn't require any fundamental change in our major social programs.

In short, the debt apocalypse has been called off.

Taming the Trocar

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Surgeons are required every day to puncture human skin before procedures -- with the risk of damaging what's on the other side. In a fascinating talk, find out how mechanical engineer Nikolai Begg is using physics to update an important medical device, called the trocar, and improve one of the most dangerous moments in many common surgeries.

Miraculous Mycilium

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Science doesn't get any more brilliant or spiritual than this

Back In the Day

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CIA Liked More Than Congress

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Seriously. The CIA gets the same favorability rating as puppies.

Go figure.


Motor City and the UN

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Running out of water in the motor city

In Detroit, a city that borders the largest source of fresh surface water on the planet, thousands of people are being prevented from getting water from their faucets. Pastor David Alexander Bullock, national spokesman for the Change Agent Consortium, discusses with Melissa Harris-Perry.

Libertarian Argument

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from TruthDig

a day ago

BongBong to cul heath

Libertarians aren't shortsighted. The ideal of Libertarianism is "enlightened self-interest", however it is not the purview of the Federal government to do so. Individuals, organizations, state governments instead... yep.

cul heath to BongBong

I'll accept the "self-interest" part. The fact that libertarians think elevating the self over the context of the group is exactly what is short sighted. There is no individual without the group first. The individual is a secondary and post consequence of the group.

The Federal government is just another parenthetical abstraction of a world and then universal scale entity.

The individual is at the most :"obligated" stage of the parenthetical hierarchy, which is not to say it has no purpose or special function, but rather to say that it is not to its advantage to pretend it is somehow elevated or independent of the rest.

That leads to hubris and the erroneous nonsense of "the celebrated self" that Ayn Rand, et al, spout which is great for high school and early college kids to ponder, but eventually must be cast aside to achieve responsible and cooperative adulthood.

The only people who do not pass through those stages appropriately are the sociopaths who are incapable of expressing mirror cell regulated empathy and the resulting expressions of altruism which allows civilization to occur.
The true radical is not the child who must find the captaincy of her own self by initially killing off her world parents and leave home for the great undertaking,but rather the parent who knows the separation is both inevitable and necessary and loving grants the freedom to allow it in order that she may return as a true individual to re-nourish the group that bore her.
So it goes..

BongBong to cul heath

You actually said: "There is no individual without the group first. The individual is a secondary and post consequence of the group."

I am shocked anyone would believe such a thing. Also, our Constitution is our individual protection against exactly such thinking.

cul heath to BongBong

If you are a libertarian, I am not shocked that you are shocked since your entire premise would be the primacy of the individual over the group. Which, as I mentioned before, is the fundamental error of libertarianism. it denies the context of it's own existence, as though the individual could exist in a vacuum. As though a light bulb filament could do away with it's supporting structure and just illuminate the room on its own.

Explain to us how you came to your individuality without the socializing of the group that raised you, gave you a language, an historical cultural context and cross generational knowledge.

Without the group you would be a largely short lived, relatively defenseless mammal with an intelligence akin to our early ancestors.You would not have a name, kin or even the inkling of any goal beyond immediate satiation of thirst hunger, sex or pain avoidance. Your "self" would be rudimentary as well and likely incapable of abstract self awareness.

What we call an individual human being is a construct that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of collective effort...not an automatic product of nature outside of the human social group.

Unless of course you appeal to religious or ideas divine intervention to posit the assumed elevated nature of your self. Then all bets are off and there can be no rational discussion.

P vs NP

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One of the best movies I've seen in my life is called

Traveling Salesman

What would happen if one government learnt how to bypass the world's encryption systems? That's the all-too-timely question asked by Travelling Salesman, a movie that hands the starring role to a mathematical puzzle.

Its title refers to the "travelling salesman problem" -- given a list of cities and the distances between them all, what's the most efficient way that a salesman can visit them all and return home? It's easy to check whether a given answer satisfies the criteria, but finding the best solution without trying every single possibility may be impossible. This puzzle, and others like it, are referred to as P vs NP.

In Travelling Salesman, a quartet of mathematicians solve this problem -- they find a way to shortcut the brute-force process of trying every approach, instantaneously negating the way the world's encryption systems operates. They've been hired to do their work by the United States, but they're confronted with the moral quandary of whether to hand over their research to the government or publish it publicly for the whole world's benefit.

The following is my response to a comment on #13.3

In reply to: some sanity please #13

Hope you were saying that tongue in cheek, because where MJ has been legalized, the black market stuff is flourishing. Legal is taxed and expensive and, according to users, of inferior quality - translation, you can't get as high. Legalizing drugs has been tried in a number of places around the world, including Switzerland where it included Heroin and free needles and it hasn't worked anywhere. The Swiss cancelled the experiment because of increased numbers of users (addicts), higher crime rates (legal and free did not cut down on associated crime), and myriad other problems.

Holland, the country legalization advocates love to cite, has backed way off and limits use to certain areas with a high police presence.

Legalization doesn't solve anything.

In reply to: odc #13.3

Total BS.

per wiki article :

Portugal abolished all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

When it was passed, critics said it would open the country to drug tourists and make the drug problem worse. However, once the results were released from a report called "Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies" by Glenn Greenwald, released by the Cato Institute, came out, the impact of Portugal's new legislation became obvious.

The report found that in the 5 years after drugs were decriminalized, drug use among teens dropped, rates of new HIV infections from sharing dirty needles dropped, and the number of people seeking treatment for addiction more than doubled.

Portugal boasted the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 years of age at 10%.

To put that into perspective, America lifetime marijuana use rate in people over 12 is 39.8%.

Lifetime use of an illegal drug among 7th to 9th graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%,

drug use in older teens fell, lifetime heroin use in 16-18 year olds fell,

new HIV infections in drug users fell 17%,

deaths related to hard drugs were cut by more than half,

treatment for drug addiction rose, as well as saved money on enforcement while increasing funding for treatment.

Portugal's drug usage rates are now among the lowest in the EU for virtually every substance

My comments:

History has clearly demonstrated that prohibitions on both drugs and alcohol cause huge increases in both organized crime violence because of the profit and street crime users resorting to theft and violence in order to pay the high prices.

Prohibition causes lack of control of drug composition and purity causing overdoses diseases from shared needles, loss of gigantic sums of money on totally failed interdiction and eradication policies and massive incarcerations. It is also a major source of the violence problem causing so many immigrant and refugees to flee for their lives into the US

In total, drug prohibition causes far more social problems than it has ever solved here or anywhere it has ever implemented. Smart countries like Portugal and others have learned that lesson and are benefiting from their change in policy.

Vigilantism is the exactly the wrong answer and would cause as many problems as it might temporarily would amount to an ever increasing an on-going war because the refugees would keep coming since they have nothing to lose and Americans would start being jailed for murder or assault by their own government.

It would far more effective and far cheaper to simply remove the War on Drugs policies that are the root of the problem.

But hey, that would call out the politicians and bureaucratic agencies who are currently directly or indirectly benefiting from the prohibition of drugs and from the hysteria pitting one American against another. THEY are our enemy, not the poor flooding over our borders that the simple minded think they can stop by shooting them.

American Right Hates Refugees

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UN pushes for 'refugee' status for migrant children at border

Chris Hayes looks at the ongoing crisis on the border with Congressman Joaquin Castro and Leslie Velez.

The Face of Right Wing America

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It ain't purdy...


Stupid white protestor screaming at immigrant supporter.

The following comment was extracted from an equally brilliant article entitled

July 4th Note to Tea Partiers:
Your Politics Would Baffle the Founding Fathers


Rose Bounds • a day ago

When I was in school, they wanted us all to learn math; and if we couldn't learn math; we needed to learn English. Seriously, I swear that's all they cared about in public school.

I had some advantages most of the people my age did not have; living in Europe for a year (my dad was in the Air Force) and having parents who focused on teaching us to ask questions. But my real advantage was that history was the first subject I loved.

Of course, I grew up and discovered the "history" I'd been taught was total malarcky top to bottom. The only other thing I cared about as a child was justice. (the universe laughs at me) But as I started reading better commentaries on history and started reading the wording of original documents and letters,

I learned that history and the science of law are perhaps the single two most important subjects we can learn. Education for our children has become almost meaningless because we are failing to properly teach true history or law or ethics, (leaving out also the great cultural impact of all religions for fear of offending colloquial dogmas) nor in any way do we allow the voices of our children to be entered seriously into the public discourse. We keep them in the dark and enforce the idea that their voices make no difference and won't be heard.

We do not show the people of history in honest ways nor in context. We do not discuss the world wide discourse and argument of ideas that has always been throughout the generations and which have led us since before Plato's time to question and experiment with the structures that run societies. We tell our children what "freedom" is but we never allow them to discover it.

Likewise, we create laws entirely out of arbitrary agendas, either forgetting or ignoring that law has always been thought to be a science with discover-able and eternal principles that cannot be compromised by the policies of the few for whatever the moment brings.

This ignorance is so pervasive, it will be difficult indeed to revive a truly free society, because a free society necessarily must also be educated in history and the origins of the principles of law.

On Constitutional Originalism

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Why Scalia is basically a fundamentalist.

Originalism in the courts is controversial, to say the least. Jurisprudence stands on precedent, on the stability of the laws, but originalism is hardly the only way to abide by the Constitution. Setting aside the question of whether it makes good law, it is, generally, lousy history. And it has long since reached well beyond the courts.

Set loose in the culture, and tangled together with fanaticism, originalism looks like history, but it's not; it's historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.

To Live in a Good Country

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An idea for the 4th of July

Dryden, the Town that Changed the Fracking Game

by Earthjustice

When the oil and gas industry came to the small town of Dryden, New York, population 14,500, with plans to start fracking, things didn't turn out quite how they expected. Scroll down to find out how a group of neighbors turned the tables on a powerful industry -- and changed the fracking game forever.

The small town of Dryden is located in upstate New York, nestled among farms and rolling hills. Parades down Main Street, picnics at nearby Dryden Lake and the famed annual Dryden Dairy Day -- celebrating community and local farmers -- are all hallmarks of the close-knit town.

Marie McRae has farmed in Dryden for nearly 30 years. She loves her peaceful plot of land. "I tell people that at night, it's so quiet you can almost hear the Milky Way."

In 2007, she was approached by a representative of the oil and gas industry, known as a landman, who wanted to lease her land to drill for gas. She told him no. Over the next year, the landman hounded McRae, approaching her six more times. He told her even if she didn't lease her land, they would still drill. Signing the lease was the only way she could protect her farm, he said. So Marie signed the lease.

She had no idea what would come next. Her lessons and her journey were just beginning.

Deborah and Joanne Cipolla-Dennis are a happily married couple living in Dryden. They had recently moved to town after searching far and wide for a tolerant, rural community where they could build their dream home.

Soon after they had begun construction on their energy-efficient home made with all green materials, they too were approached by the oil and gas industry. The couple refused to sign the lease. Not long after they turned down the industry, they met Marie. Marie shared her story and suggested that they join with her and other neighbors to learn more about the oil and gas industry's plans for their town.

Marie, Joanne and Deborah learned that Dryden was just one of many places being targeted as part of a nationwide oil and gas rush sped along by what was then a little-known technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process involves mixing water and chemicals together and shooting them deep underground to release gas and oil from the bedrock. The process has been linked to air and water contamination, industrial explosions, even earthquakes.

"The more I learned, the more I couldn't believe what I had done by signing the lease. I had to find a way to stop them from coming and ruining our town," McRae said.

"The industry kept saying: 'We have the power; you have none. We are coming. Get out of the way or leave,'" said Joanne Cipolla-Dennis. "At the meetings we were trying to figure out if there was anything we could do. We were like deer in headlights." But word was spreading about a way that towns could fight back. Two lawyers from a nearby town had done some research into New York state law -- and what they found was promising.

"There was a way to help our town, but we had to act quickly."

David and Helen Slottje are a husband and wife team of lawyers who moved from Boston to a neighboring town to Dryden. They learned about fracking and feared that the process would damage their new community. The oil and gas industry had argued that local communities could not regulate industry operations, but after careful research the Slottjes discovered municipalities could use local zoning laws to keep oil and gas industry activity out of communities altogether.

"We couldn't regulate the industry, but we could tell them they couldn't be here at all," said Helen. "It was sort of an 'emperor has no clothes' moment."

The Slottjes explained to Marie and other members of Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition that the first step was to gather signatures on a petition calling for a fracking ban in their town. The petition would show local officials how many people in town were concerned about the process.

"I thought the industry was so powerful and that there was nothing I could do," said McRae. "Then I learned there was something I could do just by talking to my neighbors."

When the petition was delivered and the town board members saw the number of signatures, they knew they had to pay attention. "We had enough signatures to win an election, and that's why our board paid attention to us," said Joanne. The signatures were from all parts of town and from across the political party spectrum

These people are traitor to the American idea.

There's been progress to be sure since the signing of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago today, but states of the old confederacy have to a one reinstituted voter suppression laws and proving once again you cannot fix stupid.

Alex Wagner is joined by Charles Ogletree and Marc Morial to discuss if the U.S. has really moved forward since the institution of the Civil Rights Act.


The Tea Party Illusion

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Is the tea party now in the mainstream?
Is the tea party just a fancy name for the Republican Party?
M-Perry explains how the rift between establishment Republicans and the tea party could just be an illusion.

Avoiding Mosquitoes

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All flying hypodermics need to go extinct.

Why Mosquitoes Bite Some People and Not Others

Why are some people so much more attractive to mosquitoes than others? And what can you do about the pesky little bloodsuckers, especially if you don't want to resort to DEET? (DEET, while effective, is also weakly neurotoxic in humans.)

To start, there are some 150 different species of mosquitoes in the United States, and they differ in biting persistence, habits, ability to transmit disease, and even flying ability.

Mosquitoes of the genus Culex are painful and persistent biters and they will gladly fly into your house to bite you. They bite at dusk and after dark, and they can spread West Nile virus. On the upside, however, they are not strong fliers and won't fly long distances from where they hatched. And, they'd prefer to bite a bird than a human. A common Culex species in the U.S. is C. pipiens, the Northern House mosquito.

Then there's the genus Aedes, which includes A. aegypti and A. albopictus, the Asian Tiger mosquito. The former is not a problem in the U.S.; the latter is. Both can transmit Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever. Aedes mosquitoes feed early in the morning as well as at dusk and into the evening. They might also bite you during the day if it's cloudy or if you wander into a shady place. Fortunately, they probably won't enter your house - but they do prefer biting mammals like humans over other animals, and they are very strong fliers.

One other notable genus of mosquitoes are Anopheles mosquitoes. They are the ones responsible for transmitting malaria. In the U.S., that mostly means A. quadrimaculatus, which lives in the central and eastern U.S., as far north as southern Canada.

But if we have Anopheles mosquitoes, then why don't we have malaria? The answer, in part, is due to climate. According to Andrew Githeko, a Kenyan scientist who studies malaria, malaria only occurs in places where the average temperature is above 18C (64.4F). Below that, the mosquito dies before the parasite matures, and this prevents transmission. In Kenya, he discovered malaria already moving into new areas as the climate warmed. Fortunately, malaria is not endemic to the U.S. as it is in Kenya. And if the U.S. lacks a base of humans and mosquitoes carrying the parasite, then that prevents the spread of the disease.

These different genera and species not only differ in the ways listed above; they also differ slightly in what attracts them to hosts they wish to bite. Mosquitoes use carbon dioxide, heat, moisture, scent, and even vision to locate hosts. When they are sniffing us out, they hone in on a large number of chemicals. A 2000 study identified 346 chemicals from human hand odors, of which 277 were potential mosquito attractants.

The most significant chemicals mosquitoes use to locate us and bite us include l-lactic acid, ammonia, carboxylic acids, and octenol, in combination with one another. In experiments, scientists found that adding l-lactic acid to the scent of an unattractive person made them more attractive to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, and vice versa. Additionally, the presence of carbon dioxide makes A. aegypti mosquitoes more sensitive to human skin odors.

A 1999 study found that malarial mosquitoes were not attracted to fresh human sweat, but found attractive after it was incubated for one or two days. During the two days, bacteria in the sweat multiplied and the pH changed from acidic to alkaline, signifying a decomposition of sweat components into ammonia. The study also notes that malarial mosquitoes flock to the scent of limburger cheese, which resembles human foot odor. Githeko confirms that, indeed, malarial mosquitoes are attracted to chemicals produced by bacteria on one's feet, and they will even bite a pair of smelly socks if you hang them up after wearing them for a few days.

Needleless Insulin Therapy

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FDA Approves Inhalable Form of Insulin

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved a long-delayed inhalable diabetes medication to help patients control their blood sugar levels. The FDA cleared MannKind Corp.'s drug Afrezza, a fast-acting form of insulin, for adults with the most common form of diabetes that affects more than 25 million Americans.

Diabetes is a chronic condition in which the body either does not make enough insulin to break down the sugar in foods or uses insulin inefficiently. It can lead to blindness, strokes, heart disease or death. In type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, the body does not use insulin properly. Type 1 diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. In those cases, the body does not produce insulin. Afrezza, an insulin powder, comes in a single-use cartridge and is designed to be inhaled at the start of a meal or within 20 minutes of starting.


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Lord of the Ring

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Take four minutes from dreary headlines to marvel at the gymnastics of street performer Isaac Hou and the capacity of the human body to thrill and inspire.

Giant Vulva Traps Man

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Sure, I guess most men would want to walk inside.
He's just lucky it was not a case of vagina dentata.

American Student Ends Up Trapped in Giant Vagina Sculpture

MAINZ, Germany -- Call it a stimulating study-abroad experience. An American exchange student sparked an "extraordinary rescue mission" when his leg became trapped inside a giant vagina sculpture. "It was a dare," fire department squad leader Markus Mozer told NBC News. "The young man had tried to pose for an unusual photo and climbed into the artwork."


A total of 22 rescue workers with special equipment were deployed to the scene in the southern Germany city of Tuebingen on Friday to free the 20-year-old but a "forceps delivery was not necessary," local newspaper Schwaebisches Tagblatt noted. "We were able to pull the victim out with our bare hands after about 30 minutes," Mozer added. The six-foot replica of female genitalia was installed 13 years ago outside the microbiology and virology department of the city's university clinic. It is worth nearly $200,000.

While armchair warriors in Washington cry "back to Iraq," former combat veteran and military historian Andrew Bacevich says no way.

Cheney of Fools

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Can people really be as bubbled and stupid as Liz and Dick?

Cheneys shock with lack of self-awareness

Rachel Maddow reviews the recent history of failed Liz Cheney political endeavors and marvels at Dick Cheney's apparently lack of awareness of his lack of credibility in offering foreign policy advice, particularly on dealing with matters in Iraq.

Iraq conflict impacts clean energy conversation

Escalating tensions in Iraq dramatically impacted oil prices across the U.S., bringing the clean energy debate to the surface. Ed Schultz and former Governor Brian Schweitzer, D-Mt., discuss.

The new Iraq situation has to be viewed through lens of the conflict between the two major divisions within Islam. Essentially it is a recapitualtion of an ancient political power struggle between the two sects.

I have gotten to the point of thinking that the US should not involve itself at all and should let the two sides work it out even if that means a blood bath.
The Origins Of The Shiite-Sunni Split

LISTEN to NPR Program


by Mike Shuster

It's not known precisely how many of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims are Shiites. The Shiites are a minority, making up between 10 percent and 15 percent of the Muslim population -- certainly fewer than 250 million, all told.

The Shiites are concentrated in Iran, southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. But there are significant Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as well.

Although the origins of the Sunni-Shiite split were violent, over the centuries Shiites and Sunnis lived peacefully together for long periods of time.

But that appears to be giving way to a new period of spreading conflict in the Middle East between Shiites and Sunnis.

"There is definitely an emerging struggle between Sunni and Shia to define not only the pattern of local politics, but also the relationship between the Islamic world and the West," says Daniel Brumberg of Georgetown University, author of Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran.

That struggle is playing out now in Iraq, but it is a struggle that could spread to many Arab nations in the Middle East and to Iran, which is Persian.

One other factor about the Shiites bears mentioning. "Shiites constitute 80 percent of the native population of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region," notes Yitzhak Nakash, author of The Shi'is of Iraq.

Shiites predominate where there is oil in Iran, in Iraq and in the oil-rich areas of eastern Saudi Arabia as well.

The Partisans Of Ali

The original split between Sunnis and Shiites occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 632.

"There was a dispute in the community of Muslims in present-day Saudi Arabia over the question of succession," says Augustus Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History. "That is to say, who is the rightful successor to the prophet?"

Most of the Prophet Muhammad's followers wanted the community of Muslims to determine who would succeed him. A smaller group thought that someone from his family should take up his mantle. They favored Ali, who was married to Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah.

"Shia believed that leadership should stay within the family of the prophet," notes Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "And thus they were the partisans of Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split."

The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.

Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph, but not before violent conflict broke out. Two of the earliest caliphs were murdered. War erupted when Ali became caliph, and he too was killed in fighting in the year 661 near the town of Kufa, now in present-day Iraq.

The violence and war split the small community of Muslims into two branches that would never reunite.

The war continued with Ali's son, Hussein, leading the Shiites. "Hussein rejected the rule of the caliph at the time," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival. "He stood up to the caliph's very large army on the battlefield. He and 72 members of his family and companions fought against a very large Arab army of the caliph. They were all massacred."

Hussein was decapitated and his head carried in tribute to the Sunni caliph in Damascus. His body was left on the battlefield at Karbala. Later it was buried there.

It is the symbolism of Hussein's death that holds so much spiritual power for Shiites.

"An innocent spiritual figure is in many ways martyred by a far more powerful, unjust force," Nasr says. "He becomes the crystallizing force around which a faith takes form and takes inspiration."