Last week’s lunar eclipse marked the end of the Blood Moon Prophecy — a series of lunar eclipses some keyed into Scripture as apocalyptic signs. With the world still standing, I went for a night stroll in Amsterdam — a place of peace. Dutch nights are cool and calm. You might think of legal pot or the red light district when you think of Amsterdam at night. And the peace of the city comes in part from the side effects of those safe and effective vice policies. But it also comes in large part from its historic neutrality during World War I and World War II. Neutrality left a physical legacy that sets Amsterdam’s architecture apart from that of many other major European cities: the buildings and canals are Western European old without being Western European bullet hole pockmarked.
You don’t have to know the history, I think, to feel the ghosts of relative safety by the water. Drug policy and martial neutrality are narratives I can put on the peace I feel here, without necessarily knowing why I feel it. Psychologists Nisbet and Wilson established in the 1970s that most people don’t know why they prefer one stocking over another, although they’ll usually be more than happy to give you reasons why if ask. So much less do we know what we’re keying on when we make judgments about our environments as more or less safe, people as more or less trustworthy, or decisions as more or less sound.
For whatever reason, I’m grateful that walking Amsterdam, I felt safe enough to return to my old research that I had abandoned following government suppression. Here that I’m finishing my next book, on conducting security research in a surveillance state. And here in Amsterdam that I can walk alone at night without fear, because this is a place of peace.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that it’s here, too, I remember while night-walking a few, long-forgotten conversations with Fred Hitz, the first Inspector General of the CIA. When I told Hitz about domestic CIA law-breaking and lying to Congress about it, he assured me the relevant tapes had already been destroyed. He was nonplused. And he wanted to talk about Operation Ajax.
Ajax was the CIA operation that (with UK cooperation) overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, because he wanted to audit Anglo oil company books and change the terms of trade. The world may or may not be in a spot of trouble right about now, since the U.S. Government helped suppress democratic uprising in Iran and neighboring countries again a few years ago, and now a bunch of people who might have weapons of mass destruction are really mad about that.
America, we have a problem. I kept wanting to talk about how lawlessness is bad, and the first CIA Inspector General kept wanting to talk about how lawlessness is good. Evidence-based procedural justice research suggests I’m right. Lawfulness is good, even if you prioritize security over liberty. Because liberty actually makes security, because trust is what makes people work together for the common good.
To be fair, everybody knows America has never been perfect. As the old saw goes, it’s the worst country in the world — except for everywhere else. Our shared core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have always been in part aspirational. Which is fine — it’s good — because ideas create reality. And we’re working towards making the reality better match the American ideal.
Since Ajax, we’ve banished Jim Crow. But we still struggle with continued racial segregation, the new Jim Crow of the drug war, and racial disparities in criminal justice including death penalty sentencing and police brutality. Heaven knows we can do better. All goodness on earth is aspirational.
Wandering until I find an inviting bar, I stop in for a drink. Something sweet and hot. One of the front-page headlines of the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, under a huge photograph of U.S. and Russian Presidents Obama and Putin, read: “Voetnoot Dictators.” Footnote dictators.
The powerful have always run the world. It’s a tautology. Tautological, too, that the people who seek positions of power will tend to be the people who probably shouldn’t have them — the power-hungry, the psychopathic. Leaders who want to serve instead of being served are rare. But rare events, like blood moons and democratic leaders who serve the public interest, are more common than you might think. Littlewood’s Law says one in a million events happen roughly once a month.
Sometimes, I walk when I’m too angry to do anything else. And I don’t stop until I can list five things I’m grateful for. Not in a forced way, but in a way that feels right. I’ve walked Europe for months now. It’s a timeless place, but it’s getting late. Tonight, I’m grateful for the space and time to finish my book, the changing horizons of boats along the canals — houses that aren’t stationary homes, the full and funny mouthfeel of Dutch to my foreign tongue, newspapers, and this place of peace. Amsterdam, alone at night, on my little island in the reclaimed ocean.
Practicing gratitude is an evidence-based tic. We have to build out from bright spots, to make our own worlds brighter, to bring more of our own light to the world. Eclipses come and go, moons wax and wane. People die. Cities crumble. Empires and civilizations fall. But the spirit of appreciating truth and beauty stays, like a bright spot in a blood moon that doesn’t seem to know it’s shining.