Monday, April 25, 2005

The Agony of War

The Agony of War

By Bob Herbert

Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good." — Simone Weil

"There's no doubt in my mind that the good Lord has his hands full right now." — The Rev. Ted Oswald at the funeral Mass for Marla Ruzicka

In a horrifying incident that occurred in the spring of 2003, an Iraqi woman threw two of her children, an infant and a toddler, out the window of a car that had been hit accidentally in an American rocket attack. The woman and the rest of her family perished in the black smoke and flames of the wreckage. The toddler, whose name was Zahraa, was severely burned. She died two weeks later.

The infant, named Harah, was not badly hurt. She was photographed recently on the lap of Marla Ruzicka, a young humanitarian-aid worker from California who was herself killed a little over a week ago in the flaming wreckage of a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad.

The vast amount of suffering and death endured by civilians as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has, for the most part, been carefully kept out of the consciousness of the average American. I can't think of anything the Bush administration would like to talk about less. You can't put a positive spin on dead children.

As for the press, it has better things to cover than the suffering of civilians in war. The aversion to this topic is at the opposite extreme from the ecstatic journalistic embrace of the death of one pope and the election of another, and the media's manic obsession with the comings and goings of Martha, Jacko, et al.

There's been hardly any media interest in the unrelieved agony of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. It's an ugly subject, and the idea has taken hold that Americans need to be protected from stories or images of the war that might be disturbing. As a nation we can wage war, but we don't want the public to be too upset by it.

So the public doesn't even hear about the American bombs that fall mistakenly on the homes of innocent civilians, wiping out entire families. We hear very little about the frequent instances of jittery soldiers opening fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding men, women and children who were never a threat in the first place. We don't hear much about the many children who, for one reason or another, are shot, burned or blown to eternity by our forces in the name of peace and freedom.

Out of sight, out of mind.

This stunning lack of interest in the toll the war has taken on civilians is one of the reasons Ms. Ruzicka, who was just 28 when she died, felt compelled to try to personally document as much of the suffering as she could. At times she would go from door to door in the most dangerous areas, taking down information about civilians who had been killed or wounded. She believed fiercely that Americans needed to know about the terrible pain the war was inflicting, and that we had an obligation to do everything possible to mitigate it.

Her ultimate goal, which Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is pursuing, was to establish a U.S. government office, perhaps in the State Department, to document the civilian casualties of American military operations. That information would then be publicly reported.

Compensation would be provided for victims and their families, and the data would be studied in an effort to minimize civilian casualties in future operations.

War is always about sorrow and the deepest suffering. Nitwits try to dress it up in the finery of half-baked rationalizations, but the reality is always wanton bloodshed, rotting flesh and the lifelong trauma of those who are physically or psychically maimed.

More than 600 people attended Ms. Ruzicka's funeral on Saturday in her hometown of Lakeport, Calif. Among them was Bobby Muller, chairman of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. A former Marine lieutenant, he knows something about the agony of war. His spinal cord was severed when he was shot in the back in Vietnam.

He told the mourners: "Marla demonstrated that an individual can make a profound difference in this world. Her life was dedicated to innocent victims of conflict, exactly what she ended up being."

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Forgotten Holocaust

Turkey's offer to check the historical documents from the first world war era in both Armenia and Turkey is a prudent step. However, the on going denial of responsibility of possibly systematic killings of as hign as millions of Armenians by the old Ottoman Turks is not conducive. There should also be serious investigation on British role when the British ships anchored in the port but did not intervene in the massacre.


Forgotten holocaust

It is not every day that there is a chance to ponder the significance of events that happened in the distant past, so tomorrow's 90th anniversary of the start of what Armenians call their genocide at the hands of the Turks should not pass unnoticed. This subject cannot be tackled without negotiating a minefield of claim, counter-claim and fury. Many historians believe that between 1915 and 1923 the Ottoman Turkish authorities orchestrated the killing of 1.5 million Armenian Christians. Turkish governments have always insisted that a few hundred thousand died in "spontaneous" violence that constituted neither extermination nor genocide, and that in any case began in wartime, when the Armenians, seen as a fifth column, were fighting alongside Russian forces.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most famous writer, was vilified recently for referring to a million deaths, many of starvation on a long march into exile in the Syrian desert. When France, home to the largest Armenian diaspora community, planned to commemorate the killings, it received threats from Turkey. Henry Morgenthau, then US ambassador to Istanbul, reported "cold-blooded, calculating" slaughter. But American governments speak only of "tragedy" to avoid offending their ally. Armenians, marking the catastrophe in Yerevan and beyond, call it the forgotten holocaust and say Turks should no more be allowed to deny their responsibility than Germans for exterminating Europe's Jews. (Hitler, whose crimes are remembered, once scornfully asked who remembered the Armenians).

With emotions still running so high, it is encouraging that Turkey has asked Armenia to join a commission with unfettered access to the records of both countries, including Turkey's first world war military archives. Armenia rejects this, saying the historical facts are clear. Ankara fears the issue is being exploited by those, especially in France, who oppose Turkish membership of the EU. To some extent, the response is defensive. But whatever their motives, it will be welcome if Turks are now ready to look at their past with a more open mind.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Dear Readers,

In Ian McEwan's recently published novel "Saturday", the protagonist explores his feelings in this contemporary world, "Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It's part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He's a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection." (Page 180)

Many predicts the current crisis in our world to last at least one hundred years, that is a hundred year war, far exceeding most of our contemporary world citizenry's life span, even most of the next generation descendants' lives will be near the end before the "war" ends or transmutes into something else, into more wars of the world of future.

Once Western civilization used to boast its steadfastness in one of the fundamental premises of its cherished judicial system, its unflinching preservation of the motto: Innocent until proven guilty. But the geopolitical world events, violence and wars are changing that ironclad paradigm into a more malleable acceptance of a view where certain groups of a society get excluded from the law of the nation. Constant bombardments of powerful media with its various means and deceptive politicians with power use all familiar and sometimes sweetened miasmas in slowly but surely shaping public consciousness. When The New York Times published the news of two teenage girls' apprehension by the FBI for their alleged involvement in terrorist plots, Fox and other news media grabbed it and played it simultaneously while the Pope was embalmed for a stately funeral.

Not a single evidence been presented publicly by the authority against these teenage girls except the fact that they are Muslim girls. Has it become a crime adopting any particular religion in America these days? Transparency used to be a word used and envisioned by the American founding fathers in judiciary process, where every evidences and counter evidences are barely placed on the table determining the guiltiness or innocence of an individual.

Perhaps the authority knows more but are not divulging their mysterious methods of getting information, since the less public knows about their tattered privacy, the merry it could be for the powerful with official uniforms and also the hackers in the dungeons to go about their regular chores in cracking codes and plucking needles from the straws. Surely questions may arise, how long democracy can survive the assaults to its core?


Guilty Until Proven Innocent

TThe post-9/11 world involves two competing nightmares. One imagines another terrorist attack that occurs because authorities fail to respond to signs of danger. The other is about innocent people who are arrested by mistake and held indefinitely because authorities are too frightened, or embarrassed, to admit their errors. We have to be equally vigilant against both.

Right now, two New York City girls, both 16, have been detained and accused of plotting to become suicide bombers. If there is a real reason to believe that charge, officials are obviously right to have acted. But so far, they have said little about the evidence against the girls, and the girls' friends and families have offered accounts that suggest the charges could be completely false.

At this point, it's impossible not to worry about a potential miscarriage of justice, given the number of previous incidents in which the government has rushed to make a terrorism arrest that turned out to be baseless.

Details of the cases against the two girls - one from Bangladesh and the other from Guinea, and both in the country illegally - are sketchy. According to reporting by Nina Bernstein in The Times, the parents of the Bangladeshi girl went to the police several weeks ago to file a complaint about their daughter's defying their authority. When the dispute was resolved, they tried to withdraw the complaint, but the police proceeded with an investigation.

The police and federal immigration officials searched her belongings and are reported to have found an essay on suicide. According to the family, the essay says suicide is against Islamic law. But detectives went on to question the girl about her political beliefs before arresting her. Even less is known about the investigation of the girl from Guinea. Teachers and students at the high school she attended expressed outrage at the arrest and at the idea that she could be plotting terrorism.

The government calls the girls an "imminent threat," and says it has "evidence that they plan to be suicide bombers." But it has not described the evidence, insisting that national security requires that much of it remain secret. Because the girls are here illegally, they have been put into a deportation system that affords them far fewer rights than ordinary criminal suspects have. There is no definite limit on how long they can be held.

No one wants to leap to conclusions about a government case in such an important area. But the record is not reassuring. Last year, the government wrongly jailed Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer who is a Muslim, for two weeks after the F.B.I. mistakenly matched his fingerprint to one found at the scene of the Madrid train bombing. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department rounded up hundreds of Muslim men who were here illegally and detained them for months, often in deplorable conditions. The department's inspector general later found that the F.B.I. had made "little attempt to distinguish" those with terrorism ties from those without. Shortly after 9/11, federal authorities detained a Nepalese tourist for three months in a tiny cell after he inadvertently included an F.B.I. building in a videotape of the sights of New York for folks at home.

More information about the two girls will no doubt surface over time. If the evidence isn't there, the arrests are very disturbing. The government will have taken 16-year-olds from their families, branded them as would-be terrorists and put them into a frightening legal limbo for no good reason.

Friday, April 08, 2005

One Hundred Years of Uncertainty

One Hundred Years of Uncertainty


JUST about a hundred years ago, Albert Einstein began writing a paper that secured his place in the pantheon of humankind's greatest thinkers. With his discovery of special relativity, Einstein upended the familiar, thousands-year-old conception of space and time. To be sure, even a century later, not everyone has fully embraced Einstein's discovery. Nevertheless, say "Einstein" and most everyone thinks "relativity."

What is less widely appreciated, however, is that physicists call 1905 Einstein's "miracle year" not because of the discovery of relativity alone, but because in that year Einstein achieved the unimaginable, writing four papers that each resulted in deep and formative changes to our understanding of the universe. One of these papers - not on relativity - garnered him the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. It also began a transformation in physics that Einstein found so disquieting that he spent the last 30 years of his life in a determined effort to repudiate it.

Two of the four 1905 papers were indeed on relativity. The first, completed in June, laid out the foundations of his new view of space and time, showing that distances and durations are not absolute, as everyone since Newton had thought, but instead are affected by one's motion. Clocks moving relative to one another tick off time at different rates; yardsticks moving relative to one another measure different lengths. You don't perceive this because the speeds of everyday life are too slow for the effects to be noticeable. If you could move near the speed of light, the effects would be obvious.

The second relativity paper, completed in September, is a three-page addendum to the first, which derived his most famous result, E = mc2, an equation as short as it is powerful. It told the world that matter can be converted into energy - and a lot of it - since the speed of light squared (c2) is a huge number. We've witnessed this equation's consequences in the devastating might of nuclear weapons and the tantalizing promise of nuclear energy.

The third paper, completed in May, conclusively established the existence of atoms - an idea discussed in various forms for millenniums - by showing that the numerous microscopic collisions they'd generate would account for the observed, though previously unexplained, jittery motion of impurities suspended in liquids.

With these three papers, our view of space, time and matter was permanently changed.

Yet, it is the remaining 1905 paper, written in March, whose legacy is arguably the most profound. In this work, Einstein went against the grain of conventional wisdom and argued that light, at its most elementary level, is not a wave, as everyone had thought, but actually a stream of tiny packets or bundles of energy that have since come to be known as photons.

This might sound like a largely technical advance, updating one description of light to another. But through subsequent research that amplified and extended Einstein's argument (see Figures 1 through 3), scientists revealed a mathematically precise and thoroughly startling picture of reality called quantum mechanics.

Before the discovery of quantum mechanics, the framework of physics was this: If you tell me how things are now, I can then use the laws of physics to calculate, and hence predict, how things will be later. You tell me the velocity of a baseball as it leaves Derek Jeter's bat, and I can use the laws of physics to calculate where it will land a handful of seconds later. You tell me the height of a building from which a flowerpot has fallen, and I can use the laws of physics to calculate the speed of impact when it hits the ground. You tell me the positions of the Earth and the Moon, and I can use the laws of physics to calculate the date of the first solar eclipse in the 25th century. What's important is that in these and all other examples, the accuracy of my predictions depends solely on the accuracy of the information you give me. Even laws that differ substantially in detail - from the classical laws of Newton to the relativistic laws of Einstein - fit squarely within this framework.

Quantum mechanics does not merely challenge the previous laws of physics. Quantum mechanics challenges this centuries-old framework of physics itself. According to quantum mechanics, physics cannot make definite predictions. Instead, even if you give me the most precise description possible of how things are now, we learn from quantum mechanics that the most physics can do is predict the probability that things will turn out one way, or another, or another way still.

The reason we have for so long been unaware that the universe evolves probabilistically is that for the relatively large, everyday objects we typically encounter - baseballs, flowerpots, the Moon - quantum mechanics shows that the probabilities become highly skewed, hugely favoring one outcome and effectively suppressing all others. A typical quantum calculation reveals that if you tell me the velocity of something as large as a baseball, there is more than a 99.99999999999999 (or so) percent likelihood that it will land at the location I can figure out using the laws of Newton or, for even better accuracy, the laws of Einstein. With such a skewed probability, the quantum reasoning goes, we have long overlooked the tiny chance that the baseball can (and, on extraordinarily rare occasions, will) land somewhere completely different.

When it comes to small objects like molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, though, the quantum probabilities are typically not skewed. For the motion of an electron zipping around the nucleus of an atom, for example, a quantum calculation lays out odds that are all roughly comparable that the electron will be in a variety of different locations - a 13 percent chance, say, that the electron will be here, a 19 percent chance that it will be there, an 11 percent chance that it will be in a third place, and so on. Crucially, these predictions can be tested. Take an enormous sample of identically prepared atoms, measure the electron's position in each, and tally up the number of times you find the electron at one location or another. According to the pre-quantum framework, identical starting conditions should yield identical outcomes; we should find the electron to be at the same place in each measurement. But if quantum mechanics is right, in 13 percent of our measurements we should find the electron here, in 19 percent we should find it there, in 11 percent we should find it in that third place. And, to fantastic precision, we do.

Faced with a mountain of supporting data, Einstein couldn't argue with the success of quantum mechanics. But to him, even though his own Nobel Prize-winning work was a catalyst for the quantum revolution, the theory was anathema. Commentators over the decades have focused on Einstein's refusal to accept the probabilistic framework of quantum mechanics, a position summarized in his frequent comment that "God does not play dice with the universe." Einstein, radical thinker that he was, still believed in the sanctity of a universe that evolved in a fully definite, fully predictable manner. If, as quantum mechanics asserted, the best you can ever do is predict probabilities, Einstein countered that he'd "rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming house, than a physicist."

This emphasis, however, partly obscures a larger point. It wasn't the mere reliance on probabilistic predictions that so troubled Einstein. Unlike many of his colleagues, Einstein believed that a fundamental physical theory was much more than the sum total of its predictions - it was a mathematical reflection of an underlying reality. And the reality entailed by quantum mechanics was a reality Einstein couldn't accept.

An example: Imagine you shoot an electron from here and a few seconds later it's detected by your equipment over there. What path did the electron follow during the passage from you to the detector? The answer according to quantum mechanics? There is no answer. The very idea that an electron, or a photon, or any other particle, travels along a single, definite trajectory from here to there is a quaint version of reality that quantum mechanics declares outmoded.

Instead, the proponents of quantum theory claimed, reality consists of a haze of all possibilities - all trajectories - mutually commingling and simultaneously unfolding. And why don't we see this? According to the quantum doctrine, when we make a measurement or perform an observation, we force the myriad possibilities to ante up, snap out of the haze and settle on a single outcome. But between observations - when we are not looking - reality consists entirely of jostling possibilities.

Quantum reality, in other words, remains ambiguous until measured. The reality of common perception is thus merely a definitive-looking veneer obscuring the internal workings of a highly uncertain cosmos. Which is where Einstein drew a line in the sand. A universe of this sort offended him; he could not accept, as he put it, that "the Old One" would so profoundly incorporate a hidden element of happenstance in the nature of reality. Einstein quipped to his quantum colleagues, "Do you really think the Moon is not there when you're not looking?" and set himself the Herculean task of reworking the laws of physics to resurrect conventional reality.

Einstein waged a two-front assault on the problem. He sought an internal chink in the quantum framework that would establish it as a mere steppingstone on the path to a deeper and more complete description of the universe. At the same time, he sought a grander synthesis of nature's laws - what he called a "unified theory" - that he believed would reveal the probabilities of quantum mechanics to be no more profound than the probabilities offered in weather forecasts, probabilities that simply reflect an incomplete knowledge of an underlying, definite reality.

In 1935, through a disarmingly simple mathematical analysis, Einstein (with two colleagues) established a beachhead on the first front. He proved that quantum mechanics is either an incomplete theory or, if it is complete, the universe is - in Einstein's words - "spooky." Why "spooky?" Because the theory would allow certain widely separated particles to correlate their behaviors perfectly (somewhat as if a pair of widely separated dice would always come up the same number when tossed at distant casinos). Since such "spooky" behavior would border on nuttiness, Einstein thought he'd made clear that quantum theory couldn't yet be considered a complete description of reality.

The nimble quantum proponents, however, would have nothing of it. They insisted that quantum theory made predictions - albeit statistical predictions - that were consistently born out by experiment. By the precepts of the scientific method, they argued, the theory was established. They maintained that searching beyond the theory's predictions for a glimpse of a reality behind the quantum equations betrayed a foolhardy intellectual greediness.

Nevertheless, for the remaining decades of his life, Einstein could not give up the quest, exclaiming at one point, "I have thought a hundred times more about quantum problems than I have about relativity." He turned exclusively to his second line of attack and became absorbed with the prospect of finding the unified theory, a preoccupation that resulted in his losing touch with mainstream physics. By the 1940's, the once dapper young iconoclast had grown into a wizened old man of science who was widely viewed as a revolutionary thinker of a bygone era.

By the early 1950's, Einstein realized he was losing the battle. But the memories of his earlier success with relativity - "the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light" - urged him onward. Maybe the intense light of discovery that had so brilliantly illuminated his path as a young man would shine once again. While lying in a bed in Princeton Hospital in mid-April 1955, Einstein asked for the pad of paper on which he had been scribbling equations in the desperate hope that in his final hours the truth would come to him. It didn't.

Was Einstein misguided? Must we accept that there is a fuzzy, probabilistic quantum arena lying just beneath the definitive experiences of everyday reality? As of today, we still don't have a final answer. Fifty years after Einstein's death, however, the scales have certainly tipped farther in this direction.

Decades of painstaking experimentation have confirmed quantum theory's predictions beyond the slightest doubt. Moreover, in a shocking scientific twist, some of the more recent of these experiments have shown that Einstein's "spooky" processes do in fact take place (particles many miles apart have been shown capable of correlating their behavior). It's a stunning finding, and one that reaffirms Einstein's uncanny ability to unearth features of nature so mind-boggling that even he couldn't accept what he'd found. Finally, there has been tremendous progress over the last 20 years toward a unified theory with the discovery and development of superstring theory. So far, though, superstring theory embraces quantum theory without change, and has thus not revealed the definitive reality Einstein so passionately sought.

With the passage of time and quantum mechanics' unassailable successes, debate about the theory's meaning has quieted. The majority of physicists have simply stopped worrying about quantum mechanics' meaning, even as they employ its mathematics to make the most precise predictions in the history of science. Others prefer reformulations of quantum mechanics that claim to restore some features of conventional reality at the expense of additional - and, some have argued, more troubling - deviations (like the notion that there are parallel universes). Yet others investigate hypothesized modifications to the theory's equations that don't spoil its successful predictions but try to bring it closer to common experience.

Over the 25 years since I first learned quantum mechanics, I've at various times subscribed to each of these perspectives. My shifting attitude, however, reflects that I'm still unsettled. Were Einstein to interrogate me today about quantum reality, I'd have to admit that deep inside I harbor many of the doubts that gnawed at him for decades. Can it really be that the solid world of experience and perception, in which a single, definite reality appears to unfold with dependable certainty, rests on the shifting sands of quantum probabilities?

Well, yes. Probably. The evidence is compelling and tangible. Although we have yet to fully lay bare quantum mechanics' grand lesson for the underlying nature of the universe, I like to think even Einstein would be impressed that in the 50 years since his death our facility with quantum mechanics has matured from a mathematical understanding of the subatomic realm to precision control. Today's technological wizardry (computers, M.R.I.'s, smart bombs) exists only because research in applied quantum physics has resulted in techniques for manipulating the motion of electrons - probabilities and all - through mazes of ultramicroscopic circuitry. Advances hovering on the horizon, like nanoscience and quantum computers, offer the promise of even more spectacular transformations.

So the next time you use your cellphone or laptop, pause for a moment. Recognize that even these commonplace devices rely on our greatest, yet most puzzling, scientific achievement and - as things now stand - tap into humankind's most supreme assault on the idea that reality is what we think it is.

Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, is the author of “The Elegant Universe,’’ and, most recently, “The Fabric of the Cosmos.”

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Mallam Sile -- a Story by Mohammed Naseehu Ali

This is a story that reads like a pure joy, with its depiction of life of a tea seller, short in stature but tall in heart, and his wife who was like an "elephant", protecting, and caring her too "humane" hubby, confrontations with bullies and the poignant truth it tells regarding standing up on one's own feet against the "evildoers" in Zongo Street of Ghana. A must read.


Issue of 2005-04-11
Posted 2005-04-04

He was popularly known as mai tea, or the tea seller. His shop was situated right in the navel of Zongo Street—a stone’s throw from the chief’s assembly shed and adjacent to the kiosk where Mansa BBC, the town gossip, sold her provisions. Along with fried eggs and white butter bread, Mallam Sile carried all kinds of beverages: regular black tea, Japanese green tea, Milo, Bournvita, cocoa drink, instant coffee. But on Zongo Street all hot beverages were referred to just as tea, and it was common, therefore, to hear people say, “Mallam Sile, may I have a mug of cocoa tea?” or “Sile, may I have a cup of coffee tea?”

The tea shop had no windows. It was built of wawa, a cheap wood easily infested by termites. The floor was uncemented, and heaps of dust rose in the air whenever a customer walked in. Sile protected his merchandise from the dust by keeping everything in plastic bags. An enormous wooden “chop box,” the top of which he used as a serving table, covered most of the space in the shop. There was a tall chair behind the chop box for Sile, but he never used it, preferring instead to stand on his feet even when the shop was empty. There were also three benches that were meant to be used only by those who bought tea, though the idle gossips who crowded the shop and never spent any money occupied the seats most of the time.

Old Sile had an irrational fear of being electrocuted and so he’d never tapped electricity into his shack, as was usually done on Zongo Street. Instead, he used kerosene lanterns, three of which hung from the low wooden ceiling. Sile kept a small radio in the shop, and whenever he had no customers he listened, in meditative silence, to the English programs on GBC 2, as though he understood what was being said. Mallam Sile was fluent only in his northern Sisaala tongue, though he understood Hausa—the language of the street’s inhabitants—and spoke just enough pidgin to be able to conduct his business.

The mornings were usually slow for the tea seller, as a majority of the street folks preferred the traditional breakfast of kókó da mása, or corn porridge with rice cake. But, come evening, the shop was crowded with the street’s young men and women, who gossiped and talked about the “laytes’ neus” in town. Some came to the shop just to meet their loved ones. During the shop’s peak hours—from eight in the evening until around midnight—one could hardly hear oneself talk because of the boisterous chattering that went on. But anytime Mallam Sile opened his mouth to add to a conversation people would say, “Shut up, Sile, what do you know about this?’’ or “Close your beak, Sile, who told you that?” The tea seller learned to swallow his words, and eventually spoke only when he was engaged in a transaction with a customer. But nothing said or even whispered in the shop escaped his sharp ears.

Mallam Sile was a loner, without kin on the street or anywhere else in the city. He was born in Nanpugu, a small border town in the north. He left home at age sixteen, and, all by himself, journeyed more than nine hundred miles in a cow truck to find work down south in Kumasi—the capital city of Ghana’s gold-rich Ashanti region.

Within a week of his arrival in the city, Sile landed a job as a house servant. Although his monthly wages were meagre, he sent a portion of them home to his ailing parents, who lived like paupers in their drought-stricken village. Even so, Sile’s efforts were not enough to save his parents from the claws of Death, who took them away in their sleep one night. They were found clinging tightly to each other, as if one of them had seen what was coming and had grabbed onto the other so that they could go together.

The young Sile received the news of his parents’ death with mixed emotions. He was sad to lose them, of course, but he saw it as a well-deserved rest for them, as they both had been ill and bedridden for many months. Though Sile didn’t travel up north to attend their funeral, he sent money for a decent burial. With his parents deceased, Sile suddenly found himself with more money in his hands. He quit his house-servant job and found another, selling iced kenkey in Kumasi’s central market. Sile kept every pesewa he earned, and two years later he was able to use his savings to open a tea business. It was the first of such establishments on Zongo Street, and would remain the only one for many years to come.

Mallam Sile was short—so short, in fact, that many claimed he was a Pygmy. He stood exactly five feet one inch tall. Although he didn’t have the broad, flat nose, poorly developed chin, and round head of the Pygmies, he was stout and hairy all over, as they were. A childhood illness that had caused Sile’s vision to deteriorate had continued to plague him throughout his adult life. Yet he refused to go to the hospital and condemned any form of medication, traditional or Western. “God is the one who brings illness, and he is the only true healer”—this was Sile’s simple, if rather mystical, explanation.

Sile’s small face was covered with a thick, long beard. The wrinkles on his dark forehead and the moistness of his soft, squinted eyes gave him the appearance of a sage, one who had lived through and conquered many adversities in his life. His smile, which stretched from one wrinkled cheek to the other, baring his kola-stained teeth, radiated strength, wisdom, and self-confidence.

Sile wore the same outfit every day: a white polyester djellabah and its matching wando, a loose pair of slacks that tied with strings at the waist. He had eight of these suits, and wore a different one each day of the week. Also, his head was perpetually shaved, and he was never without his white embroidered Mecca hat—worn by highly devout Muslims as a reflection of their submission to Allah. Like most of the street’s dwellers, Sile owned just one pair of slippers at a time, and replaced them only when they were worn out beyond repair. An unusual birth defect that caused the tea seller to grow an additional toe on each foot had made it impossible for him to find footwear that fit him properly; special slippers were made for him by Anaba the cobbler, who used discarded car tires for the soles of the shoes he made. The rascals of Zongo Street, led by Samadu, the street’s most notorious bully, poked at Sile’s feet and his slippers, which they called kalabilwala, a nonsensical term that no one could understand, let alone translate.

At forty-six, Mallam Sile was still a virgin. He routinely made passes at the divorcées and widows who came to his shop, but none showed any interest in him whatsoever. “What would I do with a dwarf?” the women would ask, feeling ashamed of having had passes made at them by Sile. A couple of them seemed receptive to tea seller Sile’s advances, but everyone knew that they were flirting with him only in order to get free tea.

Eventually, Sile resigned himself to his lack of success with women. He was convinced that he would die a virgin. Yet late at night, after all the customers, idlers, and rumormongers had left the shop to seek refuge in their shanties and on their bug-ridden grass mattresses, Sile could be heard singing love songs, hoping that a woman somewhere would respond to his passionate cries:

A beautiful woman, they say,
Is like an elephant’s meat.
And only the man with the sharpest knife
Can cut through.
That’s what they say.
Young girl, I have no knife,
I am not a hunter of meat,
And I am not savage.
I am only looking for love.
This is what I say.
Up north where I am from,
Young girls are not what they are here.
Up north where I am from,
People don’t judge you by your knife.
They look at the size of your heart.
Young girl, I don’t know what you look like.
I don’t know where to look for you.
I don’t even know who you are, young girl.
All I know is: my heart is aching.
Oh, oh, oh! My heart is aching for you.

Sile’s voice rang with melancholy when he sang his songs. But still the rascals derided him. “When are you going to give up, Sile?” they would say. “Can’t you see that no woman would marry you?”

“I have given up on them long, long ago,” he would reply. “But I am never going to give up on myself!”

“You keep fooling yourself,” they told him, laughing.

The rascals’ mocking didn’t end there. Knowing that Mallam Sile couldn’t see properly, they often used fake or banned cedi notes to purchase tea from him at night. The tea seller pinned the useless bills to the walls of his shop as if they were good-luck charms. He believed that it was hunger—and not mischief—that had led the rascals to cheat him. And, since he considered it inhuman to refuse a hungry person food, Mallam Sile allowed them to get away with their frauds.

To cool off the hot tea for his customers, Sile poured the contents of one mug into another, raising one over the other. The rascals would push Sile in the middle of this process, causing the hot liquid to spill all over his arms. The tea seller was never angered by such pranks. He merely grinned and, without saying a word, wiped off the spilled tea and continued to serve his customers. And when the rascals blew out the lanterns in the shop, so as to steal bread and Milo while he was trying to rekindle the light, Sile accepted that, too. He managed to rid his heart of any ill feelings. He would wave his short arms to anyone who walked past his shop, and shout, by way of greeting, “How are the heavens with you, boy?” Sile called everyone “boy,” including women and older people, and he hardly ever uttered a sentence without referring to the heavens.

He prided himself on his hard work, and smiled whenever he looked in the mirror and saw his dwarfish body and ailing eyes, two abnormalities that he had learned to love. A few months before the death of his parents, he had come to the conclusion that if Allah had made him any differently he would not have been Mallam Sile—and Mallam Sile was an individual whom Sile’s heart, mind, and spirit had come to accept and respect. This created within him a peace that made it possible for him not only to tolerate the rascals’ ill treatment but also to forgive them. Though in their eyes Sile was only a buffoon.

One sunny afternoon during the dry season, Mallam Sile was seen atop the roof of his shack with hammers, saws, pliers, and all kinds of building tools. He lingered there all day long like a stray monkey, and by dusk he had dismantled all the aluminum roofing sheets that had once sheltered him and his business. He resumed work early the following morning, and by about one-thirty, before azafar, the first of the two afternoon prayers, Sile had no place to call either home or tea shop—he had demolished the shack down to its dusty floor.

At three-thirty, after la-asar, the second afternoon worship, Mallam Sile moved his personal belongings and all his tea paraphernalia to a room in the servants’ quarters of the chief’s palace. The room had been arranged for him by the chief’s wazir, or right-hand man, who was sympathetic to the tea seller.

During the next two days, Mallam Sile ordered plywood and planks of odum, a wood superior to the wawa used for the old shop. He also ordered a few bags of cement and truckloads of sand and stones, and immediately began building a new shack, much bigger than the first.

The street folks were shocked by Sile’s new building—they wondered where he had got the money to embark on such an enterprise. Sile was rumored to be constructing a mini-market store to compete with Alhaji Saifa, the owner of the street’s provision store. (And though the tea seller denied the rumor, it rapidly spread up and down the street, eventually creating bad blood between Sile and Alhaji Saifa.)

It took three days for Mallam Sile to complete work on the new shop’s foundation, and an additional three weeks for him to erect the wooden walls and the aluminum roofing sheets. While Sile was busy at work, passersby would call out, “How is the provision store coming?’’ or “Mai tea, how is the mansion coming?” Sile would reply simply, “It is coming well, boy. It will be completed soon, Inshallah.” He would grin his usual wide grin and wave his short hairy arms, and then return to his work.

Meanwhile, as the days and weeks passed, the street folks grew impatient and somewhat angry at the closing of Sile’s shop. The nearest tea shack was three hundred metres away, on Zerikyi Road—and not only that but the owner of the shack, Abongo, was generally abhorred. And for good reason. Abongo, also a northerner, was quite unfriendly even to his loyal customers. He maintained a rigid no-credit policy, and made customers pay him even before they were served. No one was an exception to this policy—even if he or she was dying of hunger. And, unlike Sile, Abongo didn’t tolerate idlers or loud conversation in his shop. If a customer persisted in chatting, Abongo reached for the customer’s mug, poured the contents in a plastic basin, and refunded his money. He then chased the customer out of the shop, brandishing his bullwhip and cursing after him, “If your mama and papa never teach you manners, I’ll teach you some! I’ll sew those careless lips of yours together, you bastard son of a bastard woman!”

As soon as work on the shop was completed, Sile left for his home town. Soon afterward, yet another rumor surfaced: it was said that the tea seller had travelled up north in search of “black medicine” for his bad eyesight.

Sile finally returned one Friday evening, some six weeks after he’d begun work on the shop, flanked by a stern woman who looked to be in her late thirties and was three times larger than the tea seller. The woman, whose name was Abeeba, turned out to be Mallam Sile’s wife. She was tall and massive, with a face as gloomy as that of someone mourning a dead relative. Like her husband, Abeeba said very little to people in or out of the shop. She, too, grinned and waved her huge arms whenever she greeted people, though, unlike the tea seller, she seemed to have something harder lurking behind her cheerful smile. Abeeba carried herself with the grace and confidence of a lioness, and covered her head and part of her face with an Islamic veil, a practice that had been dropped by most of the married women on Zongo Street.

The rascals asked Sile, when they ran into him at the market, “From where did you get this elephant? Better not get on her bad side; she’ll sit on you till you sink into the ground.” To this, the tea seller did not say a word.

Exactly one week after Sile’s return from his village, he and his wife opened the doors of the new shop to their customers. Among the most talked-about features were the smooth concrete floor and the bright gas lantern that illuminated every corner. In a small wooden box behind the counter, Sile and his wife burned tularen mayu, or witches’ lavender, a strong yet sweet-smelling incense that doubled as a jinx repellent—to drive bad spirits away from the establishment.

On the first night, the tea shop was so crowded that some customers couldn’t find a seat, even with the twelve new metal folding chairs that Sile had bought. The patrons sang songs of praise to the variety of food on the new menu, which included meat pies, brown bread, custard, and Tom Brown, an imported grain porridge. Some of the patrons even went so far as to thank Sile and his wife for relieving them of “Abongo’s nastiness.” But wise old Sile, who was as familiar with the street folks’ cynicism as he was with the palms of his hands, merely nodded and grinned his sheepish grin. He knew that, despite their praise, and despite the smiles they flashed his way, some customers were at that very moment thinking of ways to cheat him.

While Sile prepared the tea and food, Abeeba served and collected the money. Prior to the shop’s reopening, Abeeba had tried to convince her husband that they, too, should adopt Abongo’s no-credit policy. Sile had quickly frowned upon the idea, claiming that it was inhumane to do such a thing.

The tea seller and his wife debated the matter for three days before they came to a compromise. They agreed to extend credit, but only in special cases and also on condition that the debtor swear by the Koran to pay on time; if a debtor didn’t make a payment, he or she would not be given any credit in the future. But, even with the new policy in place, it wasn’t long before some of the customers reverted to their old habits and began skipping payments. Then an encounter between Abeeba and one of the defaulters changed everything.

What took place was this: Samadu, the pugnacious sixteen-year-old whose fame had reached every corner of the city, was the tough guy of Zongo Street. He was of medium height, muscular, and a natural-born athlete. For nine months running, no one in the neighborhood had managed to put Samadu’s back to the ground in the haphazard wrestling contests held beside the central market’s latrine. Samadu’s “power” was such that parents paid him to protect their children from other bullies at school. He was also known for having tortured and even killed the livestock of the adults who denounced him. If they didn’t have pets or domestic animals, he harassed their children for several days until he was appeased with cash or goods. Some parents won Samadu’s friendship for their children by bribing him with gifts of money, food, or clothing.

Samadu, of course, was deeply in debt to Mallam Sile—he owed him eighty cedis, about four dollars. Early one Tuesday morning, Mallam Sile’s wife showed up at Samadu’s house to collect the money. Abeeba had tried to collect the debt amicably, but after her third futile attempt she had suggested to Sile that they use force to persuade the boy to pay. Sile had responded by telling his wife, “Stay out of that boy’s way—he is dangerous. If he has decided not to pay, let him keep it. He will be the loser in the end.”

“But, Mallam, it is an insult what he is doing,” Abeeba argued. “I think people to whom we have been generous should only be generous in return. I am getting fed up with their ways, and the sooner the folks here know that even the toad gets sick of filling his belly with the same dirty pond water every day, the better!” Though Sile wasn’t sure what his wife meant, he let the matter drop.

When Abeeba arrived at Samadu’s house, a number of housewives and young women were busily doing their morning chores in and around the compound—some sweeping and stirring up dust, others fetching water from the tap in the compound’s center or lighting up charcoal pots to warm the food left over from the previous night. Abeeba greeted them politely and asked to be shown to the tough guy’s door. The women tried to turn Abeeba away, as they feared that Samadu would humiliate her in some way. But Abeeba insisted that she had important business with him, and so the housewives reluctantly directed her to Samadu’s room, which, like all the young men’s rooms, was situated just outside the main compound.

The usual tactic that the street’s teen-age boys used when fighting girls or women was to strip them of the wrapper around their waist, knowing that they would be reluctant to continue fighting half-naked. But Abeeba had heard young boys in the shop discussing Samadu’s bullying ways and had come prepared for anything. She wore a sleeveless shirt and a pair of tight-fitting khaki shorts, and, for the first time ever, she had left her veil at home.

“You rogue! If you call yourself a man, come out and pay your debt!” Abeeba shouted, as she pounded on Samadu’s door.

“Who do you think you are, ruining my sleep because of some useless eighty cedis?” Samadu screamed from inside.

“The money may be useless, but it is certainly worthier than you, and that’s why you haven’t been able to pay, you rubbish heap of a man!” Abeeba’s voice was coarse and full of menace. The veins on her neck stood out, like those of the juju fighters at the annual wrestling contest. Her eyes moved rapidly inside her head, as though she were having a fit of some sort.

One of the onlookers, a famished-looking housewife, pleaded with the tea seller’s wife, “Go back to your house, woman. Don’t fight him, he will disgrace you in public.” Another woman in the background added, “What kind of a woman thinks she can fight a man? Be careful, oh!”

Abeeba didn’t pay any attention to the women’s admonitions. Just then, a loud bang was heard inside the room. The door swung open, and Samadu stormed out, his face red with anger. “No one gets away with insulting me. No one!” he shouted. There was a line of dried drool on his right cheek, and whitish mucus had gathered in the corners of his eyes. “You ugly elephant-woman. After I am done with you today, you’ll learn a lesson or two about why women don’t grow beards!”

“Ha, you teach me a lesson? You?” Abeeba said. “I, too, will educate you about the need to have money in your pocket before you flag the candy man!” With this, she lunged at Samadu.

The women placed their palms on their breasts, and their bodies shook with dread. “Where are the men on the street? Come and separate the fight, oh! Men, come out, oh!” they shouted. The children in the compound, though freshly aroused from sleep, hopped about excitedly, as if they were watching a ritual. Half of them called out, “Piri pirin-pi!,” while the other half responded, “Wein son!,” as they chanted and cheered for Samadu.

Samadu knew immediately that if he engaged Abeeba in a wrestling match she would use her bulky mass to force him to the ground. His strategy, therefore, was to throw punches and kicks from a safe distance, thereby avoiding close contact. But Abeeba was a lot quicker than he imagined, and she managed to dodge the first five punches he threw. He threw a sixth punch, and missed. He stumbled over his own foot when he tried to connect the seventh, and landed inches from Abeeba. With blinding quickness, she seized him by the sleeping wrapper tied around his neck and began to punch him. The exuberant crowd was hushed by this unexpected turn of events.

But Samadu wasn’t heralded as the street’s tough guy for nothing. He threw a sharp jab at Abeeba’s stomach and succeeded in releasing himself from her grip by deftly undoing the knot of his sleeping cloth. He was topless now, clad only in a pair of corduroy knickers. He danced on his feet, swung his arms, and moved his torso from side to side, the way true boxers do. The crowd got excited again and picked up the fight song, “Piri pirin-pi, Wein son! Piri pirin-pi, Wein son!” Some among them shouted “Ali! Ali! Ali!” as Samadu danced and pranced, carefully avoiding Abeeba, who watched his movements with the keenness of a hungry lioness.

The women in the crowd went from holding their breasts to slapping their massive thighs. They jumped about nervously, moving their bodies in rhythm to the chants. The boys booed Abeeba, calling her all sorts of names for the beasts of the jungle. “Destroy that elephant!” they shouted.

The harder the crowd cheered for Samadu, the fancier his footwork became. He finally threw a punch that landed on Abeeba’s left shoulder, though she seemed completely unfazed and continued to chase him around the small circle created by the spectators. When Samadu next threw his fist, Abeeba anticipated it. She dodged, then grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm with such force that he let out a high-pitched cry: “Wayyo Allah!” The crowd gasped as the tough guy attempted to extricate himself from Abeeba’s grip. He tightened all the muscles in his body and craned his neck. But her strength was just too much for him.

The crowd booed, “Wooh, ugly rhinoceros.” Then, in a sudden, swift motion, Abeeba lifted the tough guy off the ground, raised him above her head (the crowd booed louder), and dumped him back down like a sack of rice. She then jumped on top of him and began to whack him violently.

The women, now frantic, shouted, “Where are the men in this house?” Men, come out, oh! There is a fight!”

A handful of men came running to the scene, followed by many more a few minutes later.

Meanwhile, with each punch Abeeba asked, “Where is our money?”

“I don’t have it, and wouldn’t pay even if I did!” Samadu responded. The men drew nearer and tried to pull Abeeba off, but her grip on Samadu’s waistband was too firm. The men pleaded with Abeeba to let go. “I will not release him until he pays us back our money!” she shouted. “And if he doesn’t I’ll drag his ass all the way to the Zongo police station.”

On hearing this, an elderly man who lived in Samadu’s compound ran inside the house; he returned a few minutes later with eighty cedis, which he placed in the palm of Abeeba’s free hand. With one hand gripping Samadu’s waistband, she used the fingers of the other to flip and count the money. Once she was sure the amount was right, she released the boy, giving him a mean, hard look as she left. The crowd watched silently, mouths agape, as though they had just witnessed something from a cinema reel.

Mallam Sile was still engaged in his morning zikhr, or meditation, when Abeeba returned to the shack. He, of course, had no inkling of what had taken place. Later, when Abeeba told him that Samadu had paid the money he owed, the tea seller, though surprised, didn’t think to ask how this had happened. In his naïveté, he concluded that Samadu had finally been entered by the love and fear of God. Abeeba’s news therefore confirmed Mallam Sile’s long-standing belief that every man was capable of goodness, just as he was capable of evil.

The tea seller’s belief was further solidified when he ran into Samadu a fortnight later. The tough guy greeted him politely, something he had never done before. When Mallam Sile related this to his wife, she restrained herself from telling him the truth. Abeeba knew that Sile would be quite displeased with her methods. Just a week ago, he had spoken to her about the pointlessness of using fire to put out fire, of how it “worsens rather than extinguishes the original flame.” Abeeba prayed that no one else would tell her husband about her duel with Samadu, although the entire city seemed to know about it by now. Tough guys from other neighborhoods came to the tea shop just to steal a glance at the woman who had conquered the tough guy of Zongo Street.

Then one night during the fasting month of Ramadan, some two months after the fight, a voice in Mallam Sile’s head asked, “Why is everyone calling my wife ‘the man checker’? How come people I give credit to suddenly pay me on time? Why am I being treated with such respect, even by the worst and most stubborn rascals on the street?” Sile was lying in bed with his wife when these questions came to him. But, in his usual fashion, he didn’t try to answer them. Instead, he drew in a deep breath and began to pray. He smiled and thanked Allahu-Raheemu, the Merciful One, for curing the street folks of the prejudice they had nursed against him for so long. Mallam Sile also thanked Allah for giving his neighbors the will and the courage to finally accept him just as he was created. He flashed a grin in the darkness and moved closer to his slumbering wife. He buried his small body in her massive, protective frame and soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Arsenic Rooted From Water

This can be an "affordable solution" for Bangladesh and other nations those are facing acute problems of arsenic contaminiation in water.


Arsenic Rooted From Water

Powdered water hyacinth roots rapidly remove arsenic from water

ARSENIC SPONGE The abundant water hyacinth could provide an inexpensive water purification material. USDA PHOTO BY TED CENTER

One of the most problematic weeds in the world could prove useful for cleaning up water supplies contaminated with arsenic.

Principal lecturer Parvez I. Haris and coworkers at De Montfort University, Leicester, England, have shown that dried roots of the water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, rapidly reduce arsenic concentrations in water to levels less than the maximum value for drinking water recommended by the World Health Organization (J. Environ. Monit., published online March 7,

Naturally occurring arsenic contaminates drinking water in many parts of the world, especially in Bangladesh, where more than 60% of the groundwater contains arsenic concentrations in excess of the WHO guideline value. The water hyacinth grows prolifically in ponds, lakes, and rivers in tropical and subtropical regions and is notorious for clogging up waterways and causing other problems.

The De Montfort team took water hyacinth plants from a pond in Dhaka, Bangladesh; dried them in air; and prepared a fine powder from the dried roots. Using atomic absorption spectroscopy, they showed that more than 93% of arsenite [As(III)] and 95% of arsenate [As(V)] was removed from a solution containing 200 µg of arsenic per L within 60 minutes of exposure to the powder. The concentration of arsenic remaining in solution was less than the WHO guideline value of 10 µg per L.

"I'm delighted with the discovery that a plant, regarded as a nuisance, has been turned into a lifesaving material that can help some of the poorest people in the world, not only in Bangladesh, but also in India, Mongolia, Mexico, Chile, and Thailand," Haris says. "It is obvious that an affordable and effective solution to the problem of arsenic in drinking water has to be found using materials that are locally abundant."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Mystery of Body and Soul

A Mystery of Body and Soul

By Philip Clayton

Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page B01

In these strangely subdued days since the news of Terri Schiavo's death, I've begun to understand more clearly why her case transfixed a nation. It isn't only that Schiavo's dilemma has confronted us all with questions about how we will make life-and-death decisions for ourselves or our loved ones. It's that her last days force us to reflect on the very nature of human identity and the value of an individual life.

The backdrop for that reflection is the conflict that underlies so many debates these days -- between science, with its amazingly accurate data and testable theories, and religion, with its focus on the moral and spiritual qualities that make us people in the first place. And, unlike the battle between evolution and creationism, where extreme positions have been staked out, Schiavo's personal story has left many of us feeling tugged both ways.

As a philosopher, my challenge is to know whether it's possible to draw on the knowledge that science provides without selling our souls down the river, as it were. I look for ways of drawing upon these two apparently competing portraits of human identity -- the scientific and the religious or spiritual. I believe it is not only possible to reach a reconciliation but that by doing so we gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human.

The case for science these days is compelling. How could I not wish for the life-sustaining benefits of modern medicine when those I love are injured or ill? Moreover, science is impartial: While religious beliefs can differ wildly, science offers clear, shared criteria for making difficult decisions, such as those that Schiavo's family faced.

The scientific understanding of death has evolved over the past few decades. Until the late '60s, doctors defined death as the irreversible cessation of cardiac and pulmonary function. Then in 1968, a Harvard Medical School committee, struggling with the reality of irreversible comas, introduced the notion of "brain death."

In 1981, with the Uniform Determination of Death Act, brain death joined cardiopulmonary death as a standard medical diagnosis. According to the act, "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead." Over the last 25 years this dual definition of death has been accepted by every one of the 50 states as well as by a number of other countries.

This approach is persuasive because we know that the brain is the seat of conscious awareness, thought and action. James Bernat, a professor of neurology at Dartmouth Medical School, has put it clearly: "The brain is the central generating, regulating and integrating organ of the body, and it is responsible for the unity of the organism." Precise medical criteria exist for diagnosing a permanently nonfunctioning brain, and, as Bernat and his colleagues have noted, "These criteria have since been overwhelmingly validated; no person known to have met them has survived."

Such definitive statements become harder to accept in a case like Schiavo's, where spontaneous respiration and heartbeat continue because of continued activity in the brain stem. A permanent vegetative state represents an irreversible brain failure -- the permanent loss of consciousness and cognition -- but not the death of the body.

The ethicist Jack Freer has described the resulting dilemma: "When [the family] sees a warm body and a beating heart, neurological explanations about brainstem function are often not persuasive." Thus Schiavo's father believed: "She's alive and she's fighting like hell to live, and she's begging for help. She's still communicating, still responding."

Doctors may share a family's grief, but their medical response must be clear: The person who once had wishes and sought to communicate is gone, because the brain structures that produce consciousness have ceased to function.

I am left to wonder whether this "science only" response is enough. Don't philosophical beliefs and value judgments inevitably seep into physicians' statements and families' responses? Bernat and his colleagues famously wrote of cases like Schiavo's: "While such patients have lost their personhood, they are not dead because they have retained most of the functions of the organism as a whole."

Though biology may be able to define the starting and ending points of a life, it cannot fully define the person or determine the values he or she lives by. Where among my synapses and neurons is my love for my daughter or my spiritual quest?

If science is not sufficient to define human identity, shall we give religion the sole authority in such matters? In his encyclical Donum Vitae ("The Gift of Life"), Pope John Paul II says that the human body "cannot be considered as a mere complex of tissues, organs and functions," for it exists in "substantial union with a spiritual soul." The pope told the Pontifical Academy that "the moment of death for each person consists in the definitive loss of the constitutive unity of body and spirit." In Gaudium et spes ("Joy and hope"), Pope Paul VI proclaimed, "Though made of body and soul, man is one."

In addition to the fusion of sperm and egg, the Catholic Church teaches that at the moment of conception, something supernatural happens: God adds a soul. As long as that soul-body union is alive, it is an absolute wrong to take any action that would end its life. No wishes of the family, no concerns regarding the patient's quality of life, no comparative judgments ("Would these medical dollars be better spent on a patient whose condition is reversible?") can alter this obligation.

But is it really necessary to replace the hegemony of science with the hegemony of religion? Must the scientific and the religious approaches be diametrically opposed, fighting their own war to the death?

If the legal battle over Schiavo created this impression, it is misleading. John Paul endorsed the position of Pope Pius XII, who said that it was "for the doctor to give a clear and precise definition of death and of the moment of death." The church's concern is with treatment of the living. Similarly, many doctors, religious or otherwise, would endorse the pope's statement that "the intrinsic value and the personal dignity of every human being does not change, no matter what the specific circumstances of his life." Patients, the pope said, "are and always will be human beings and will never become 'vegetables' or 'animals.' "

We hear most about the extremes, but I'm convinced that most Americans take a more balanced position in between. If the court-appointed neurologists who examined Schiavo concluded that, as neurologist Ronald Cranford reported, "beyond any doubt whatsoever Terri is in a vegetative state," we should not dismiss that evidence. When conscious awareness has gone, the patient's written instructions, or the wishes of the family, take over. The tragedy in Schiavo's case was a divided family.

But, though we listen to medicine, many of us refuse to reduce human identity to the body alone, to what one physician called "nothing but wires and chemicals." Out of that amazing structure we call the brain -- the most complicated natural system yet discovered in the entire universe -- emerges something that is more than the sum of its parts: personhood, human identity.

Some who integrate science and values in this way do so in religious terms, others eschew religious categories and adhere instead to a humanist philosophy. Human life has value and dignity for me, in part, because I believe that it was created and intended by God. But I look for the miraculous in the entire process by which life emerges from nonlife, not in individual miracles at each moment of conception. Similarly, I believe the qualities of personhood -- what religious people call "the image of God" -- emerge slowly during the months leading up to and following birth.

The humanist response is more subtle, amorphous and hence harder to describe. But for many nonreligious people, the sense remains that life is somehow sacred even if it is not grounded in a divine creative act. Something more emerges in life, and something more is lost when it ends, than medicine can ever fathom. Perhaps the value of an individual's life is a product of how we treat him or her.

It's not for religious people to tell doctors when a body has died. But we can say what it means to treat patients humanely and with dignity. As a religious person, I do not strike out in rage at Schiavo's doctors, at the opposing lawyers, or (God forbid!) at any members of her family -- as some of the protesters outside her Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice have apparently done. As her loved ones make preparations to cremate her body and to celebrate her life, I grieve with them, in the words of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Philip Clayton is a professor at Claremont School of Theology and at Claremont Graduate University in California and the author of "Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness" (Oxford University Press).