Second of our nominations for best writer (and their winning article). Here is Alex Parkyn-Smith’s consideration of scientific assassinations from Issue I, published in October 2011.
On Wednesday the 28th September Aws Khalil (also written ‘Khalis’ in some reports) was killed in Homs, Syria. It has been claimed that the death was an assassination; he was the fourth academic to have died since the previous Sunday. The UN reports that the protests in Syria have led to 3000 people losing their lives in the last seven months.
Sources differ in their explanations for the deaths. The divergent perspectives can tell us about the perceived role of science and technology in society and have much wider conceptual ramifications. The state news agency SANA (Syria Arab News Agency) was among those who have suggested that the deaths were at the hands of ‘armed terrorists’. This attribution follows the regime’s assertions. This view is widely disseminated and seeks to shift blame.The more controversial but widely supported view posits the regime as responsible for ‘assassinations’. The Huffington Post reported activist Mustafa Osso’s suggestion that the regime are ‘…trying to sow chaos, fear and terror in the hope that protesters will be cowed into retreat’’. If we explore this position we can begin to unveil the social position of science and technology through the deaths of: a nuclear engineer, a chief surgeon, the Dean of the Department of Petrochemistry at Al-Baath University and a professor for ‘Architecture and Scientific affair[s]’.
The removal of influential figures in the academic and scientific community tells us how important the scientists are for the uprising in comparison to the relatively low value attributed to their skills and knowledge by the regime. The individuals must have support within the community for them to be targeted and their role in the uprising would therefore be seen as threatening because of the credibility and legitimisation they offer to the protest from a western perspective.
It is telling that the regime is willing to sacrifice individuals who have skills that are particularly valuable, such as expertise in nuclear power and petrochemicals. The political power gained from their removal must have been deemed to outweigh their possible technical contributions to the regime; going against President Bashar al-Assad’s assertion that he was ‘not worried’ about mounting opposition.
These judgments and decisions rest on the perception of science. Modern science is inherently democratic in its reductive methodology; which appears as threatening for Assad’s autocracy. Science’s more obvious association is with Europe and the West, which now holds a belief system rooted in the scientific method rather than religion. It is possible that the voice of academics may be listened to more attentively abroad and was therefore threatening. In reality we should pay attention to the voices that will never be heard.
The suppression of the perceived threat of intellect has been all too common over the centuries, from Stalinist purges to the Khmer Rouge’s reformation of Cambodia. This phenomenon is rooted in deep personal and institutional insecurity and is unlikely to disappear.
The old adage, ‘knowledge is power’, or ‘scientia est potentia’ displays the latin root of the word ‘science’ and is a telling suggestion of the true explanation for the deaths of prominent academics in Syria’s popular uprising.
[! Smiths does not take credit for these pictures, which we’ve politely borrowed from The Atlantic who in turn obtained them through the hard work of Reuters News Agency. Before you click through to see the rest though (including images from AP and Agence-France Press), we should remark that some of them are distressing.]