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The Current Transcript for October 3, 2016
Host: Anna-Maria Tremonti
STORIES FROM THIS EPISODE
Listen to the full episode
These kids haven't had a chance to play with toys, in a long time. Kids should be kids, up to the last minute, and, we have betrayed them, the whole world betrayed them.
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: It seems in one way like such a little thing, a stuffed toy, a doll. But think of your own kids as they drag them around, hug them, play with them, and you know how profound and full of pleasure a toy can be. That's why the man you just heard risks his life every couple of months to sneak across borders and frontlines, carrying sacks of toys to Aleppo, to Syrian children stuck in war. He brings other things, medicine, supplies, but along with the effort to save lives he is hoping to preserve a little bit of childhood. His name is Rami Adham, and you'll meet him in just a moment. Now keep the image of Syria in your mind, in Aleppo just this weekend, the main trauma hospital was repeatedly bombed in the besieged eastern part of the city. Aid officials say health care there has been obliterated. It is a tragedy set in motion by myriad events and the aspirations of this man.
[speaking in Arabic]
OSAMA BIN LADEN: We declared a Jihad, a Holy War, against the United States government, because it is unjust, criminal and tyrannical.
AMT: That's Osama bin Laden in translation. And long before 9/11, Osama bin Laden wanted a holy war. Author and journalist Lawrence Wright argues he got what he wanted, a bloody ideological showdown with worldwide implications. The author of The Terror Years joins me in half an hour. And as some look to escape the trauma of our world, others are banking on a brand new world, looking to Mars.
MATT DAMON: So, I've got to make water and grow food on a planet where nothing grows? Wooo. In your face Neil Armstrong
AMT: Is Elon Musk's stated quest for Mars a rich man's folly, a slice of American hubris, or the start of something that will change who we are and how we live? You decide in an hour. I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.
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Toy smuggler risks life to bring hope to Syrian kids
Guests: Rami Adham
[child speaking Arabic language]
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Well that's the voice of a young boy in Syria, describing his family's situation. He asks why Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader has done this to them. Saying he robbed us, he broke our house, we didn't do anything to him. That is a reminder that a generation of Syrian children have had their childhood taken away. But every couple of months in the especially hard hit eastern portion of Aleppo, under ever tighter siege by pro-government forces, the children have a chance to smile like regular kids, thanks to one special visitor. They call Rami Adham the toy smuggler of Syria. Originally from Aleppo, he left for Helsinki, Finland as a teen. In 2012, Mr. Adham, who has six children of his own, needed to do something to help the people of his homeland. And along with medicine and money, he started to bring toys. He's now brought in more than 20,000 toys for Aleppo's children. We have reached Rami Adham at his home in Helsinki. Hello.
RAMI ADHAM: Hello, how are you? Good to talk to you.
AMT: Well, it's good to talk to you. You just tried to get into Aleppo, what happened?
RAMI ADHAM: I travel every two months to Syria, and my main destination is Aleppo, my home city, to deliver aid and meet our orphans. But this time the city has been placed under a very brutal siege by the Assad regime, closing its routes from the south and also from the north. So I have to wait three, four miles from the southern border of Aleppo, and I watched Aleppo devastated from a distance.
AMT: What could you see, what could you hear from there?
RAMI ADHAM: I was lucky to be there at that period of time when the cease fire agreement took place, even though I could hear bombshells and fighter jets flying and hovering in the skies. I witnessed during the six days of cease fire, over 69 bombing that was against the cease fire agreement. But it was comparing to the days before the cease fire, and comparing to the months I have spent in July, August, it was really quiet compared to these times. Back then it was, I could easily count 200 airstrikes on Aleppo daily.
AMT: And when you go in there, what do you have with you?
RAMI ADHAM: I started going to Syria early 2012 to deliver aid. I wanted to help, I wanted to see my people face to face and see what exactly they need. So I try to campaign for my projects inside Finland. Everything I collect, I take it myself to Syria, to conflict zones, where quite rarely international humanitarian or charity organizations do dare to go in. So I find it my own responsibility and duty, and obligation as well too, as Syrian to go there and find a way to reach those people in the most need. I take to Syria all the money I have collected in Finland, and as a father of six I have to always make sure that I do have 700 toys with me.
AMT: 700 toys?
RAMI ADHAM: Yes, about 70 to 80 kilos, it depends on how well I can hustle my way in the airport with the airlines. [laughs]
AMT: And as a father of six, you say that why? Do your kids tell you they have to bring toys?
RAMI ADHAM: Actually, my three year old daughter she gave me that command back in 2012. She told me if you're going to go and meet kids in Syria, you cannot go empty handed. You got to go there with some present with you. I was like what could that be? She said well, you have to take toys with you. You have to give them a gift as a toy. Like you bring to us when you come usually from your travel. And I told her listen, there are there are hundreds of kids in there and I do not have the money to buy every single one of them toy. She said, well, I can give you my toys, you can start with that. And she went, I didn't really took her seriously. She went actually her bedroom, she was there for about 30 minutes, she came back, she collected all her toys that she was playing with, Barbies and all the stuffed toys she has, and she also took all her brothers and sisters toys without permission. [laughs]
RAMI ADHAM: So she put them in an Ikea blue bag, big bag actually, she was dragging it to me and she said here you go. There you go. There's this amount of toys you can take it. And that's what I did.
AMT: So what kind of toys do you bring in?
RAMI ADHAM: In the beginning when I didn't have much with me, I had only my kids toys. So it wasn't much, about 30 kilos, so I was with the limitation. Back then, it was easier, it was Barbies mainly. What my daughter gave me about 35 Barbie and soft toys like teddy bears and Angry Birds and all this kind of stuff, and hero figures like Spiderman, and pretty much whatever my kids has. I have six kids and they got pretty much everything. And so I took that. But then later on, I started thinking of a way, my next trip two months later planning to go, I thought toys from neighbouring families and my friends, and I managed to collect like a thousand toys from all over the place. And I started thinking what exactly the best way for me to pack all these toys, and I came up with the vacuum bag. So I of course immediately took away toys I could not really, that takes a lot of space. Then I stashed everything in a vacuum bag and sucked all the air out. And then the bag was small, it was heavy, but it could take as much as I can, 30 kilos, plus hand luggage, like 25 kilos, I can take it to the plane with me, so that's about 55. And then I have another bag that I can also drag with me, another 10, 15 kilos, so it's all pretty much toys.
AMT: What is it like to give a toy to a child in a place like Aleppo?
RAMI ADHAM: Kids, it's their job to play, it’s their job to have fun. So when they were deprived from security, playgrounds, schools, and also their own toys, and often times their own parents, they were left with no hope. And I think when you go there and you have a toy for them, that they can think that this is their own toy, they can take it with them to the tent or to wherever they are staying. It's just, words could not really do justice to the feeling that is in the air at that time when these hundreds of kids lined up nicely and all waiting their turn to come, so they can, you know, stick their hands in the bag and pick up something they want. And it's just really heartwarming as a father of six. Now I have hundreds of kids inside Syria who I look forward all the time to see them, really, and hand over that toy for them and tell them this is yours, you know, this is your new friend. The least I could do to restore some of their childhood.
AMT: Some of them have probably grown up without even having a toy, given the length of the war.
RAMI ADHAM: That is true, I mean, some of those kids I meet and hand toys to them, they were born in refugee camps. All they know is that tent where they are sleeping and in a very rough circumstances. Imagine, those people have been living in these tents for the past four and a half years.
AMT: And so, when you give a child a toy, what's the look on their face, what do they do?
RAMI ADHAM: You know, usually small kids, younger kids, they jump and they go play with it for a while, and they try to come back and try to get another toy so they can have two toys playing together. But I [chuckles] know they can try outsmart me there.
RAMI ADHAM: You know, trying to say I have not got a toy. I was like, I gave you a toy, you know, you have to leave other toys for the other kids. They said no I did not get a toy. I was like why do you want another toy? She said well, I want another toy so they can play together. I was like I understand, I promise next time I come you'll get another toy. And that's what I do. That's why I keep going there. It's not just one toy. I have a child in Aleppo, she comes once to me, after we finished the toy distribution, she live right close to the quarter we are. And she said I like you to come and show you something and she took me with her. And she asked her mother can he come inside? She said yes, and I went inside and she had nine toys, right lining up together, you know, on the floor. You see all these toys, these are all from you.
RAMI ADHAM: [chuckles] So she's been having a collection. I was like what are you going to do with all these toys? Are you going to play with them all? She said no no no no, once they are 12, I will start make like you, I will go around, see a kid without a toy, I’ll give it to them.
AMT: Aww. Tell me more about some of the kids who stay in your mind and in your heart. For example, this girl Noor, she's a smart girl. She's now 11, probably. I met her when she was nine or eight. She is very nice girl, she tried to always be my right hand. She sometimes talk to the three years olds, or five years old and try to put them in line, and tell them hey, listen, you know, you have to be quiet, have to be nice in the line. And I have also a child in refugee camp that I constantly remember smiling every time I look at her. And I ask her what's your name? She couldn’t answer, she couldn’t reply and then her friend next to her, a little elder girl, she said she cannot talk. I was like oh, why? She's an orphan. OK. Sad to hear that. Where is, what happened to her father? Her friend told me oh they have burned him. Assad's regime came in and they took her father and burned him in front of her. Later that day, after I finished that session, I went to the camp, the guy who takes care of the camp, and I was like do you know that girl Mira? He said yes, of course. I said, is that true, that her father burned in front of her? He said yes, that is true. And she was screaming so hard that day and she lost her voice.
AMT: And so you bring her toys as well?
RAMI ADHAM: Yeah.
AMT: They've seen way too much for any child, haven't they?
RAMI ADHAM: Oh yes, she comes from a three kids family, she have two other brother and sister and she doesn't know where they are. After they killed the father, the mother were taken away. Nobody knows where she is, she could be detained, Assad regime prisons or God knows, killed. But that little girl Mira, she lives with her old grandfather in a refugee camp now.
AMT: So Rami, when you go in, you're bringing money. What else are you doing while you're in there?
RAMI ADHAM: I have three schools inside Syria. I have built three schools in the past three years. So I go visit the schools and see what exactly, meet with the teachers, meet with the staff see what exactly they have been missing or they need.
AMT: Are they in a refugee camp?
RAMI ADHAM: In refugee camps inside Syria, yes ma'am.
AMT: OK, OK. And so you raise money on the outside?
RAMI ADHAM: Yes, in Finland I try to raise money for these schools to keep running these schools. And it's important that those teachers are happy and content, so they can continue coming day in and day out to work and give proper education to these students. It was really the first couple days or three days of my trip, I spent it in refugee camps, because that's where I cross to Syria from Turkey. And then I move on to Aleppo after that, and spend 60 per cent of my time in Aleppo and on the way back I try to tour other refugee camps.
AMT: How do you move over the border? How difficult is that, how dangerous is that?
RAMI ADHAM: Well, in the beginning when I started first to go to Syria, it was very simple because I have a Syrian passport as well, and all I have to do is go to the border and present my passport to the officials in Turkey and show them that I'm going in. Lately, Turkey decided to close all borders with Syria. And of course, for a lot of understandable security reasons. And ever since, I couldn't get in through the regular borders or normally. I was consulting with my local friends in Turkey and they told me I'm really stubborn about this. And they said, well, you've got to go through smugglers. It's a long walk. It's a very rough walk to do. It's through mountains and, you know, jumping over fences. And I got myself a proper guide, he is the smuggler. So that's how I did it first time.
AMT: You walked in with all that stuff?
RAMI ADHAM: Oh yeah, that was the roughest day in my whole life. I died probably 100 times in there, you know, I lost hope, I lost faith, I lost, you know, all the motivation to do that. And I've thought about dropping the bags probably 500 times. I said I'm not going to do this, why on earth I'm going to do that? It was really physically, of course always the fear that you will get caught, probably jailed. So I got my friends waiting for me on the other side so they can take me in and we can move on forward.
AMT: And how dangerous is that? Are there checkpoints, how you maneuver, because the part of Aleppo you're going to is the part, there's a government part obviously, you're not going to that.
RAMI ADHAM: No, no, absolutely. I’m wanted person, I’m wanted in Assad regime.
AMT: So how do you move around to make sure that you don't go down the wrong road?
RAMI ADHAM: My contacts inside Syria, my local people, you know, my friends who I became to know over the past years, they know their way around and I cannot move around there all alone. When I am even Syrian, it's dangerous for everybody from the outside Syria to walk around all alone, because like you said you could wind up, you know, driving into the wrong directions and wind up in Assad regime's lap. So you don't want to do that. Or not even the Assad regime lap, we have ISIS threat as well.
AMT: You are still risking your life. Help us understand why you risk your life to bring in toys?
RAMI ADHAM: Kids do not care how much money you got. Do not care how many thousands you have for their refugee camps. They don't care how many tons of rice or bread you can spread. All they care about is a handle of candies and a toy. And as a father, I see this part of my journey is the most important part by far in Aleppo. And why do I do this? It’s the smiles I get back. It's the beautiful, positive atmosphere that we create, giving them a glimpse of childhood, a glimpse of hope, some joy to their heart. With that, I see it as if I am protecting or preserving or investing in Syria's future.
AMT: Rami, you left Aleppo when you were a teenager, am I right?
RAMI ADHAM: That's true. 17 years old.
AMT: How have you seen the city change? What do you see? Obviously devastation, but talk to me about how you have seen your city change over time?
RAMI ADHAM: I was in Syria before this whole chaos broke out March 2011. It was in the back of my head that I had planned that I would start moved to Aleppo back. That's what I wanted. It was beautiful. It was something that I always wanted to spend my rest of my life in there. Beautiful city Aleppo, it's just something that belongs to the whole world, it's part of humanity, it's a world heritage. Aleppo now is in complete destruction, destroyed overnight. I can't understand how anybody would destroy such a beautiful thing. I wanted to take care of my father, he’s getting old. Now my father died three years ago. He was shot in Aleppo. I managed to get my mother out of Aleppo and now she's here with me in Finland. But my father refused. And he said I will not leave this city, I will die here, I am 72 years old. And then I heard the news. One day he was going to get a haircut, and he was shot by a sniper.
AMT: So you know I listened to you, the man who brings other supplies, but also toys to children in a place where some of the most sophisticated or at least most deadly weapons in the world are ripping through the air. What do you want those world leaders to understand about what you see?
RAMI ADHAM: I have lost faith in the world leaders to be honest with you. If the world has something to offer Syria, they could have done it, not waited six years to get that done. All we want as Syrians is just to live in a free country, every single citizen is respected, treated as human, practicing their basic rights, which is to vote for their leader. But the leader who controlled the city over the past 50 years, this family, this one family, decided to go leaving nothing behind. Decided to destroy everything. And implementing exactly what his supporters are saying, either Assad or we will burn the country. [Speaking Arabic] It means precisely either you accept Assad or we will burn the whole country. And he brought to the country all world's evil, creating ISIS, you know, letting all these thugs and criminals from prison free, 2011, to later form ISIS. A perfect example on how to create a chaos in the country. And he did drive away world's attention on the real fight that he was going through against his own people, so he can prove his point and say I am fighting terrorists. ISIS to us is just the bad face of Assad. This is how it is. Unfortunately, they have villainized our revolution.
AMT: Let me ask you then, when you go home and see your own kids, what do you tell them?
RAMI ADHAM: I show them, we sit down and we watch video clips from the refugee camps, from Aleppo. Happy moments, laughs, you know, this is what I want them to know, that there are still people in Aleppo and Syria wants to live and deserves to live. Don't forget them. They are part of you, part of your heritage. They are part of your people. I wish one day that they could continue this job with me, because believe me, if this ends today, if this whole madness ends today and we are about to build our new Syria, we still have lost one generation. We still need 15 to 20 years to get back on our feet. If this ends today, and it doesn’t look like it is. There is no light, unfortunately, in the end of the tunnel. There is no light.
AMT: Rami, thank you for talking to me. It's important to hear what you have to say.
RAMI ADHAM: Thank you. Thank you very much.
AMT: That is Rami Adham. He was in Helsinki, Finland. If you want to see pictures of him and some of the kids to whom he brings those toys, go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. If you're joining us partway through, you can listen to the podcast anytime. Go to iTunes or go to our site cbc.ca/thecurrent. And let us know what you think, you can write to us from the website or find us on Facebook or Twitter @TheCurrentCBC. And stay with us. The news is next. Fifteen years after the attacks of September 11, the world is engaged in a bloody showdown with self-described jihadists. That could mean that Osama bin Laden got exactly what he wanted. Author Lawrence Wright is my guest in our next half hour, with his book The Terror Years. We'll talk about that. I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
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America now 'security state': Lawrence Wright's The Terror Years tracks rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS
Guests: Lawrence Wright
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, a nice Martian holiday could be closer than you think. Last week, the visionary disruptor Elon Musk revealed his vision for commercial flights to Mars. In fact, he says we could be colonizing the Red Planet or at least heading to colonize the Red Planet by 2022. Before you buy tickets, we'll do a little more investigating into what life on Mars may really be like. That's in half an hour. But first, under the hood of the war on terror.
We are Muslim. We are Muslim who believe in their religion. As both in ideology and practice, and hence we tried our best to establish this Islamic state and the Islamic society.
[crowd shouting in Arabic]
AMT: The voice of Ayman al-Zawahiri on trial in Egypt back in 1982 for the conspiracy that saw the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. That was hardly the last the world would hear from Zawahiri. He became the number two in the terror group known as al-Qaeda. And then it's number one after the US took out Osama bin Laden. And according to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, who has followed al-Qaeda with tremendous insight through the years, it is Ayman al-Zawahiri and his cohort who may be having the last word in the so-called war on terror. Lawrence Wright's latest book is called The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State. And he joins us from Washington, D.C. Hello.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It's good to talk to you again.
AMT: Well, it's good to have you with us. Let's start by going back. What was it like for you growing up as a teenager in Texas?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: [chuckles] Well, it was a different era that's for sure. I remember in 1965, I took a date to the airport. I didn't have any money, so in Dallas, Texas they it wasn’t that unusual to go to the airport, it's actually called Love Field, I don't know if it's for that purpose. We walked down on the tarmac and we went up into an international jetliner that had just come from some exotic port of call, and we sat in the first class section and a stewardess as we called them then brought us a snack and we pretended to be cosmopolitan. And then we went up in the FAA tower and opened up the unlocked door and they said come on kids and we sat down and watched them landing the planes. And that America is so dead, terrorism killed it. I hope it's not forgotten.
AMT: So when you when you talk about the terror years, when do the terror years begin?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: You know, actually for me I wrote a movie called The Siege. It came out in 1998, the same year that al-Qaeda began its assault on America with the bombings at the East Africa embassies, killing 224 people. There was another bombing in South Africa that people don't remember in Cape Town at a Planet Hollywood. Two people were killed and a little girl lost her leg. And the bombers who claim credit said they did it because of The Siege, they took Planet Hollywood because Bruce Willis, one of the co-stars, was a partial owner of that restaurant chain.
So even before 9/11 I had felt scarred by terrorism and it was very shocking for me. You know, I still feel sad to think that I wrote a movie and people died. I don't take responsibility for their deaths. But it was a sobering moment in my life.
AMT: Mm. And of course, before that there was the Oklahoma bombing in the US, Canada had the Air India attack, which was until 9/11, that was the biggest act of aviation terrorism.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yeah.
AMT: But a lot of things changed after 9/11 for Americans.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes. We became a different country, and I'm not saying that we didn't need the protection, but America is now very much a security state. We've been able to shield ourselves from a major attack like 9/11 so far. But I fear that younger people after 15 years, may not know what America was like before our country changed.
AMT: You know, most books after 9/11 focus on Osama bin Laden and you concentrate on Ayman al-Zawahiri. Why is that?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, he was really the brains behind al-Qaeda. He ran his own terror organization in Egypt, al-Jihad. He began his organization to overthrow the Egyptian government when he was 15 years old. So one has to appreciate his lifelong dedication to this cause. He's now, you know, of course the head of al-Qaeda. I sometimes think that we're fortunate to have someone with as little charisma as al-Zawahiri at the head of that organization. But I have to also give him credit, he's endured, he's survived.
AMT: And he's a surgeon by training.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yeah.
AMT: That's worth remembering, because often in the language around leaders of these organizations, our own military or intelligence people speak of them as thugs. And actually they’re people who are highly educated and they're on a mission. Well, al-Qaeda in the early days, you know, bin Laden for instance was an international businessman, Zawahiri a surgeon. There were a lot of technocrats, engineers and so on. But ISIS is culturally different. Zarqawi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the predecessor of the Islamic State, really was a criminal. He was a street thug. His goal was to murder as many Shiites as possible.
AMT: How relevant is al-Qaeda today with the rise of ISIS?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It's still relevant. I think people are mistaken in thinking that it’s extinct. Core al-Qaeda certainly has shrunk and has been overshadowed by the kind of egregious barbarity of ISIS. But affiliates of al-Qaeda, in Yemen and North Africa, and now in India and Pakistan, they're doing very well. They still pose quite a menace to the rest of the world.
AMT: It's been 15 years since the September 11th attacks. Lawrence Wright, where were you when the planes hit the towers and the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: On Tuesday mornings at that time I used to have a breakfast where we all spoke Spanish, so I was talking with my friends and I got back in my car, on NPR I heard the report about a plane hitting the Trade Center. And by the time I got home, you know, the second plane had hit.
AMT: And after those attacks and in lead up to the Second Gulf War, you go to Saudi Arabia. What drew you there?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well I had to go. I had to write about bin Laden and the Saudis weren't going to let me in, it became very clear as a reporter. And finally, I found a job. My job was to mentor these young reporters at the newspaper in Jeddah, which was Osama bin Laden's hometown. I was so fortunate, because normally a reporter like me, you fly into a place, you stay in the Hilton, you make telephone calls and try, you know, you hire a fixer. Instead, I had a job I had to go to work every day. I lived in a middle class Saudi flat, and I had all these young Saudi reporters teaching me far more about their culture than I could ever have learned as a reporter in the Hilton.
AMT: And they didn't say oh, this New Yorker guy who's been trying to get into the country is now a teacher, what’s up?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: [laughing] No, I was totally invisible to them. It was fascinating. I was able to operate completely without anybody monitoring me or anything like that, because I was not an American journalist, I was a part of the Saudi press at that point.
AMT: And so, you're teaching investigative journalism. What did you see of how the media operate in Saudi Arabia?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, you know there are these red lines that are very clear. You don't talk about the religion, the royal family. You have to be very circumspect about anything you say about any company that might have ties to the royal family, as almost all of them do. I was there when the US led the coalition invasion in Iraq in 2003. And my own newspaper, the Gazette, was publishing photographs of children whose heads had been blown off and, you know, there were these diatribes against America in the Saudi press. And one day, the editor called me in and said, you know, they've been told cut it out. And so after that, the tone completely changed, you know. It was no longer anti-American. In a way I was kind of grateful, because it was upsetting to see these heinous attacks on Americans. But on the other hand, as a as a reporter I was upset to see the government step in like that and uniformly turn everything around.
AMT: Hmm. What was that like to train women as journalists in Jeddah?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: There were three young women that I was supposed to mentor, and they worked in an office under the stairwell. I was told that I couldn't see them. And I said I can't mentor them if I can't see them. So they made an exception, and once a week they were allowed to come upstairs. I especially was fond of this one lady named Najiullah, who went to extra lengths to be even more conservative. She wore a niqab, which covered everything except her eyes. You'd see these little gold cats eye glasses that she wore. I remember one time, she had to have an interview in Riyadh and it was before the first plane from Jeddah arrived. So she had to fly in the night before. She flew into Riyadh, and as a single Saudi woman, she was not allowed to stay in a hotel by herself. So she got off the plane and she sat down it in the lobby of the airport and the Riyadh airport closed at about 11 o'clock and the guard came through and said you can't stay here. And she said [chuckles] in her characteristic nausea, well what are you going to do with me? What could he do? He allowed her to sleep on the floor of the mosque in the airport and then he locked up the airport and turned out the lights.
AMT: [chuckles] So incredible. What happened when you tried to get them to investigate a fire at a girls school?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, it was a strange thing. There had been a fire, a number of girls had been killed. They had gone into their girls school, they had as usual taken off their abayas when they came in to the school. Abaya is this black robe they wear over their clothing. And then there was a fire, and they rushed to the exits. The guard who normally guarded the place had locked up the school and gone off somewhere. So they were trapped inside. Some of them jumped to their death and others were able to find a way to get out of the school building, but there was a gate outside the school that they couldn't get out of. And a member of the religious police, the muttawa appeared and he ordered the girls to go back into the burning building to get their abayas. And at least one of them burned to death in trying to retrieve her abaya. I think altogether there were 13 girls killed. And this was a trauma in Saudi society. They were asking themselves, you know, who are we that we would sentence our daughters to death for this? And the Saudi press had been all over it until at some point the minister of the interior said stop it. So they did. And after I was there on the year anniversary, and I said let's explore this. Has anything changed? And I asked Najiullah to investigate. First of all, she said he didn't have access to the library because she was a woman. And she kept inventing, there were ways she might have been able to do it, but finally she said there are some people who don't like knowing about depressing things. And one of those people is me. [laughing] So that was the end of the story.
AMT: So sad, huh?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yeah.
AMT: What connection did you make between terrorism and Saudi views about men, women and sexuality?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I remember one of my reporters took me to the mall and there were two Saudi women coming down the escalator entirely encased in black. Sometimes you can't even tell what direction they're facing when their eyes are also covered. But he looks at them without a trace of irony, and he says to me, check them out. [laughs] I don't know what kind of X-ray vision he has, but that to me epitomized the relationship of young Saudi men to women. They don't know who's under those robes. They don't know their personalities. So, these boys that I was mentoring, and they were all really young, they had so little experience dealing with the female world. It did really mark, you know, a lower degree of understanding about how to navigate the world without having the guidance of women.
AMT: So it's not a coincidence that often extremists who are going to either suicide bomb or somehow lose their life in an attack are promised a whole bunch of virgins in heaven.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Oh yeah. You know, many of the things like wine for instance, you know, the things that are forbidden in the kingdom and in much of Islam are promised in paradise.
AMT: How predictable was it that the American war in Iraq would lead to the kind of upheavals we have seen since it was launched?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Every Saudi I talked to was saying, are you nuts? Iraq of all Arab countries that you would go into, this is the worst. I didn't hear that at all in the United States by policy makers who were so far away from the action. So if you were in Saudi Arabia, you could easily have predicted what was going to happen. Unfortunately, the US had a proclivity to wade into regions we very poorly understand with the idealistic notion that we can change their cultures.
AMT: Well, let's talk a little bit more about ISIS in Syria, because one of the more heartbreaking chapters in your book concerns five Americans who were taken by ISIS. Tell us who they were?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, there was one was taken by al-Nusra and that's Theo Padnos, he was a reporter and a fluent Arabic speaker.
AMT: The only one to get out.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: The only one to get out. Jim Foley was also a reporter. He had actually been captured once before in Libya. Steven Sotloff was another reporter, a young Jewish reporter who had gotten into Syria as well and was taken. Peter Kassig was an aid worker and he was a former Army ranger. During his army days he had gotten medical training and he wanted to try to help people that way. And Kayla Mueller was also an aid worker and perhaps the most idealistic person I've ever encountered in my work. She had done so much good in the world. And they had all been taken at about the same time in around 2012 and held for ransom. Now, their families are very modest American families scattered all over the country. Imagine having a message from ISIS on your computer demanding 10 million, 20 million dollars for your child. And when they turn to the government, the government was of no help to them. And in fact actually threatened them with prosecution if they attempted to ransom their child.
AMT: Because it was illegal to give money to a terrorist organization.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Exactly.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: So imagine somebody telling you that. So--
AMT: [interposing] And they were also quiet, right? They couldn't tell anyone they were afraid.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: ISIS said they were going to kill their children if they told anybody.
AMT: And they were monitoring the news of course, so they would know.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Oh yeah, of course.
AMT: So I have a clip here. James Foley's parents John and Diane spoke to the press about the murder of their son. Let's listen to them.
DIANE FOLEY: So many people were praying for Jim. And I really think that's what gave Jim an usual courage. Jim just could feel the prayers. He was a strong, courageous, loving to the end. We just hardly recognized our little boy. I mean, just, he was just a hero, you know.
JOHN FOLEY: And you know from the videos his last words were I wish I had more time, [sobbing] to see my family.
AMT: Those videos, of course, Lawrence Wright, were the videos of the beheading of James Foley.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. It was a terrible terrible moment. And you know, more Americans saw that than any other, it was the top news story for a five year period. Writing that story was the hardest story I ever wrote.
AMT: I can hear the emotion in your voice.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, they were so alone until David Bradley at The Atlantic, who had previously been able to free Jim Foley.
AMT: Now David Bradley, media mogul, Atlantic magazine, but very influential in Washington.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Oh yeah.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: He's a real mover and shaker, and he arranged for all five family members to come to Washington to have dinner at his house. And they created a strategy to try to reach, at the time, they weren't sure who was holding these young Americans. The tragedy, one after another, they just didn't know how much time they had.
AMT: How did the US government treat the parents of these hostages as one by one they were murdered?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Well, it was a low moment of the Obama presidency. I think we don't have a good strategy about how to handle this. European governments simply ransom their citizens and ISIS has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in income from ransoms. So the principle behind the American policy is we don't do that. And yet, what happens is that our people are killed. Finally the Obama administration has decided that they're not going to keep parents from ransoming their children. But people that might want to contribute to a fund, I mean not every family has 10 million dollars, it’s still unclear whether others who might help them would be charged with material support of terrorism.
AMT: Well, when they were killed, the parents learned from the news too though right? The American officials didn't even contact them.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: And you know, the Sotloffs told me that once a week, at the same time every week, they would get a call from an FBI agent who was assigned to them, but he was calling to find out what they knew. [laughs] So after a while Mr. Sotloff simply let it go to voicemail because he knew that it wasn't going to do any good. One of the frustrating things is that the investigation that Bradley and his team put together uncovered some very promising leads. The FBI ordered them shut down. They wanted to quote, “de-conflict”. And I think that, you know, there might have been a chance to rescue one or more of these hostages had those leads been followed.
AMT: Throughout and despite the deep and understandable emotion, there are questions to ask about why some of those people were in there. The journalists who were taken were freelancers, you know, and that's like mainstream media wasn't going in like that because they knew they were targets.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Bear in mind that this was a new development. When I was writing The Looming Tower and I was, you know, essentially wandering through the Middle East and South Asia alone. I had a sense of immunity. I'm a reporter. Everybody understands that. But what people didn't get when they were going to Syria is that reporters had become targets. These kidnappings were for the most part secret. People were ordered not to talk about it. So there were young reporters on the border of Syria who didn't know that other reporters had been kidnapped.
AMT: That's a very good point, because even when CBC experienced a kidnapping in Afghanistan and The New York Times, there was a decision made by top editors across North America that they wouldn't report on each other's kidnappings because they didn't want to feed into the ransom demands.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: And young reporters who are looking to make a mark, they often rush into conflict situations because that's where the stories are. News organizations were publishing those stories. Steven Sotloff was terribly exposed to danger and he, you know, sleeping outside and drinking rainwater and he was writing for TIME magazine among other publications. And during the entire year in Syria he never made enough money to file a tax return.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I think mainstream publications have now reassessed their use of freelancers. You know, they're conscious of the great danger that these people--
AMT: [interposing] That they're putting the people in. Absolutely.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: But on the other hand, it stops off the flow of news, so we don't know what's going on.
AMT: Yeah, it's a real, it's a dilemma on all sides. What do you think will eventually happen to the Islamic State?
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Oh, I think it will dissolve. I think that there's danger in that too. We should be looking forward to the idea that we can chase them out of Raqqa and out of Mosul. But there are thousands of people in the organization and they're not going to all be killed. They’ll return to their home countries and goodness knows what might happen as a result of that.
AMT: The world has changed though. The way that Americans live their lives today, because of all of this has changed dramatically.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Absolutely. I think that is true of the whole world. We're talking just about current day problems, you know, ISIS and al-Qaeda. But I think that there are problems in the future that are in the form of this immense refugee pool. You know, the entire Palestinian diaspora with 750,000 people. There are five million Syrians alone. Part of a much larger flood of refugees from Afghanistan and Nigeria and Libya. It's just, the world is awash in refugees. UNICEF says that half of them are children and only 20 per cent of them are getting an education. If you are a five year old Syrian child in 2011 when the civil war began, you've already lost your entire elementary education. So what is the future for you? This is despair being the repository of all these drivers that lead people to radicalization. But this is a huge repository of possible terrorism in the future.
AMT: And it's worth remembering that when you talk about the terror years, it goes well beyond North America. The implications, the consequences, and the ripple effects on regular people, even children.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: All over the world. Yes, indeed.
AMT: Lawrence Wright, thank you for your work and thank you for your time.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
AMT: Lawrence Wright, his new book is The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State. He joined us from Washington, D.C. If you want to weigh in on what he's saying, go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. Find us on Facebook. Tweet us, we are @TheCurrentCBC. And stay with us, because in our next half hour, Mars awaits. But is colonizing the red planet the key to the survival of our species? Some say yes, some not so sure. We'll hear about the latest science on moving to Mars, because the larger than life entrepreneur Elon Musk says we or someone could be lifting off in the hopes of settling in there six short years from now. I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM and online on cbc.ca/thecurrent.
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Live on the Red Planet? Scientists simulate Mars mission on Earth
Guests: Sheyna Gifford, Jeremy Hansen, Chris Impey, Hal Niedzviecki
ANNA-MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.
[electronic drumbeat music]
VOICE 1: NASA records show global temperatures have risen steadily over the past 136 years. But there was never a spike in temperature like we saw in 2015. It was more than one and a half degrees warmer than the 20th century average.
RACHEL MADDOW: Hot off the presses, we're breaking this news right here, right now. You're going to think I'm kidding. But the presidential race appears to be tied.
VOICE 3: We just broke a story on the website that Angelina Jolie has filed for divorce from Brad Pitt.
[drumbeat music ends]
AMT: Well if the steady drumbeat of unbearable Earthly news is getting you down, you may turn your mind to the idea of getting away from it all. Far far away from it all. Just last week, the possibility of leaving Earth behind got a bit closer to reality.
[sound of rocket burning]
AMT: Oh yes, that's lift off. That is the sound of a rocket heading to Mars. It's part of a presentation the serial entrepreneur and tech billionaire Elon Musk gave last week unveiling his vision of the future. It is a vision where his company SpaceX rolls out affordable commercial flights to Mars, and one where the human species slips the surly bonds of Earth for redder pastures.
ELON MUSK: History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever. And then there will be some eventual extinction event. The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi planet species, which I hope you would agree that is the right way to go.
AMT: Elon Musk puts the date for human habitation of Mars beginning in 2022. That's when they would lift off. That's not when they'd actually be habitating, and they’d have to get there. Right here in the present, there are some humans with a pretty good idea of what living on Mars would be like. Sheyna Gifford is a scientist in residence at the St. Louis Science Center. She's former chief medical and safety officer for something called the HI-SEAS project, which stands for Hawaiian Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Now, Sheyna Gifford spent a year living in a two story dome placed on a slope of a remote Hawaiian volcano. She had to wear full space suit anytime she went outside. That was all to simulate life on Mars. And she joins us now from St. Louis, Missouri. Hello.
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Good morning Anna-Maria.
AMT: So you lived on the side of a volcano for a year?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Or 366 days.
AMT: And so, and you're in this dome. Could you look outside the dome?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: [laughs] We had a portal, actually we had two portals. But one was a more picturesque view of the other volcanoes, the other looked at our own solar panel.
AMT: And what did you do in there?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Well, we basically lived and worked on Mars. We were a bunch of essentially scientist farmers growing crops, keeping the dome running, as any homeowner will know that's a full time job, plus doing science for ourselves and for NASA. Staying fit and healthy, and then occasionally going outside to explore, do geology tasks or repair something.
AMT: And how many of you were there?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: There were six of us.
AMT: OK. And if you went outside, what did you have to do?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Well you had to don your space suit and radio, communicate with someone who was acting as Mission Control. For safety reasons there were always at least two people in the dome and at least two people going out on an extra vehicular activity. And then you'd have to decompress, go through a decompression cycle of five minutes that was simulated, but it would be similar to on Mars probably. And then you'd go out and go about your business. You can only stay out there for a limited period of time, because of course if you were really in a suit, run out of air and the ability to scrub CO2 out of your suit, you’d need to get yourself back into the dome, recompress the dome environment and then get out of your suit.
AMT: OK, and you said you were farming in there. What were you eating?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Well, we had some shelf stable food that we brought with us and then whatever we could grow or culture. So we had delicious radish greens and hydroponic peas, and we also had, well we tried for potatoes but it didn't work out. [laughs] We had some cheeses and yogurts and bread.
AMT: Hm. So what was the most surprising part of that year for you?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Honestly, the most surprising part to me was all the love and support we got from Earth. It was an incredible outreach, especially after The Martian came out November. But even before, the people of Earth were constantly, they had our backs. We all had blogs and we got nothing but love and support through the blogs. We got lots of email support and tons of interest in terms of public outreach, shooting documentaries, writing emails, making videos for school kids. We were away, a 150 million miles away sometimes in theory, but it felt like Earth was constantly reaching back to us.
AMT: If you were really on Mars, would you be able to send emails and have a blog?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: You would be able to do that through something called the Deep Space Network, which is what we have right now. It's how we get data and information from all of our spacecrafts in deep space back to Earth. Three large dishes are positioned across Earth. We would be able to send information, but there would be a time delay between about four and 20 minutes, depending on where Earth and Mars were in relation to each other.
AMT: Hm. No worse than a bad internet connection. [chuckles]
SHEYNA GIFFORD: [laughs]
AMT: So you did this for a year. Did it ever drive you crazy in there?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: No ma'am, I went to medical school, it's pretty hard to drive me crazy.
SHEYNA GIFFORD: [laughs]
AMT: [chuckles] I don’t know how to come back on that one.
SHEYNA GIFFORD: [laughs]
AMT: Who do you think would be able to handle that kind of thing though?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Well, I mean, we were simulated astronauts. So you choose astronaut-like people to if not enjoy a small contained environment, then at least certainly tolerate it. But you know, you've got people who are pretty much up for anything, adventurous, intrepid, intense. Very easily concentrating people, not very easily distracted people, who wake up every day focus on their work, get the job done. And at the same time can manage to relax and enjoy a life in a, you know, 1,200 square foot building. Although we could get out and explore the environment and go into lava tubes and there were beautiful caves. And it was stark, it was very Mars-like, but there was an intense sort of beauty all its own. So people who appreciate a sort of wilderness unlike any other kind of wilderness, those are the kind of people who sort of survive and thrive in that environment.
AMT: And you wouldn't have had any natural sunlight either, right?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Oh we do. Through the dome or when we went outside.
AMT: When you went outside you'd always be covered.
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Well, you do get sunlight through your visor. And yeah, the dome, that's an interesting question is, you know, the metal structures they always show as being Martian habitats don't let in any natural sunlight. Our dome on the other hand did allow sunlight to sort of glow the dome, almost like half a snow globe if you can imagine that. And the safest place to live on Mars is actually underground in the lava tubes that we believe are there. And those of course wouldn't have natural light, you'd have to pipe it in from the surface. So designing an environment for human beings on Mars is a really interesting question and our space architect Tristan was all about that.
AMT: But there would be no excess consumption, there would be a lot of things you just can't do right?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: You would be more on Mars to become a master of an extreme environments, like the Antarctic or like the Himalayas here on Earth but even more extreme, because the odds of rescue are as you can tell from the movie, slim to none. So, yeah, you have to be moderate in everything you do, you have to be intentional in everything you do from making a cup of coffee, assuming you have coffee, to turning the lights on. Everything is a choice and you have systems to help you guide that choice, you've got systems telling you how much power you have and maybe how much coffee you have remaining in your mission. But you still as a human have to make that choice about that light switch and that coffee in that moment.
AMT: And do you think that regular citizens would want to do that?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: You know, I'm not sure I've met every regular citizen of the planet Earth, but I think that every regular citizen could do it if that was their choice. And that's the other sort of remarkable thing about living on Mars, simulated Mars, you come to understand people can have whatever they want. We simply have to choose. We have to choose to have great education, great health care, choose to be a spacefaring civilization. I think if people want it, much like anything else, they can have it.
AMT: Now Elon Musk sees this as an alternative to human extinction. Do you see that? Do you see a benefit to humanity?
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Well, Elon put it is if you wait long enough there will be an extinction event and statistically he's not wrong. That could be, you know, 10 years or that could be a million years or a billion years. I see it as a benefit to humanity beyond the extinction event Anna-Maria. I see it as a benefit to humanity in truly becoming non-destructive masters of our world. We have to go to Mars, if we go to Mars, and learn to live within the constraints of the environment. There's not a lot we can do to change, even though Elon was very positive. In truth, you can't warm up the planet. There's no way to keep the atmosphere onboard, the core is dead, there's no way to keep oxygen in. So we're going to have to become geniuses at living within that very harsh environment. And as your show pointed out, with the temperature spike on Earth and things changing here, we need that at home too. So becoming geniuses of living in extreme environments is actually something we can't live without, whether or not we have an extinction event.
AMT: OK, well Sheyna Gifford, thanks for weighing in on this. Thanks for your perspective.
SHEYNA GIFFORD: Absolutely, have a great day Anna-Maria.
AMT: You as well. Sheyna Gifford is a scientist in residence at the St. Louis Science Center. She's a former chief medical and safety officer for the HI-SEAS Mars simulation project. She joined us from St. Louis, Missouri. Well, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen is hard at work training for an actual space mission, we caught up with him at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to ask if he thinks exploring Mars is a worthy goal.
JEREMY HANSEN: I think it's a very logical statement to make that humanity should be a multi planetary species, that resonates with me. We know the violent history of our planet and we know that we're only one significant disaster away from being wiped out of the universe as a species. So it absolutely makes sense to have that insurance policy of being a multi planetary species.
AMT: Of course, we asked if he would sign up for a mission to Mars.
JEREMY HANSEN: That's a serious question that you really can't answer until you think you have an actual opportunity to go. I'm married, I have three kids, I have a 12 year old boy, twin ten year old girls. But from a personal perspective, I would love to go to Mars. Mars to me is like this amazing mystery sitting there to be unraveled. And I'd love to be part of the team that helps us start to understand what is Mars’ history. Was there really a lot of water on the surface of Mars like we think there was? Is there still water there today? Those are some really interesting questions to ask, especially in the context of climate change. You know, what can Mars teach us that could help us here on Earth today?
AMT: Well, plenty of scientists share that thirst for knowledge about our closest planetary neighbour. Chris Impey is a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, and the author of Beyond: Our Future in Space. Chris Impey is in Tucson, Arizona. Hello.
CHRIS IMPEY: Hi Anna-Maria, good to be with you.
AMT: Nice to have you with us. When we talk about humans on Mars, how well do we know what it would mean for our bodies?
CHRIS IMPEY: We know pretty well. The rovers that have been there for the last decade or so have told us all about the physical conditions, you know, the thin atmosphere, the extreme cold, the danger of cosmic radiation. So we can anticipate pretty well.
AMT: And how do you imagine humans would evolve on Mars?
CHRIS IMPEY: Well, long term there would be evolution. So Elon Musk of course is floating the nice idea of a vacation for $200,000. But people who live and die on Mars are going to gradually, over a number of generations, sort of move away from the human tree in evolutionary terms. And the smaller the gene pool that you start with and it will be small initially, the more rapid that evolution is.
AMT: So give me an example of what that means.
CHRIS IMPEY: Well, the Martian colonists are going to be living with far less gravity, less than half of the Earth's gravity, so their bodies will probably elongate, their bone mass will go down. They'll be in an extremely artificial, filtered environment in terms of lack of contaminants, so they will probably lose a lot of body hair. They'll also have to be careful, because there are no sort of natural pathogens that their bodies are dealing with, just as we do by being out and about on the Earth. So they will actually be subject to diseases and illnesses that we don't have, just because they're sort of cloistered environment.
AMT: And how quickly will those changes happen?
CHRIS IMPEY: Well, so population biologists have modeled this. And actually there's a number for the minimal colony, if you had enough genetic diversity to not have bad genetic illnesses, it’s about 150. And then also, there's a well-known population bottleneck, which accelerates evolution with a small population like that. So it's going to be a few hundred generations before the Martians, if they have no further contact with us, will actually start to look substantially different. Perhaps not a formally a new species, in the sense that they couldn't breed back with the people on the Earth, but really looking quite different, and metabolically and physiologically quite different as well.
AMT: So you're talking about human colonizers being what, kind of like cyborgs or something?
CHRIS IMPEY: Well, that's an interesting part of it. So the other thing I think will happen is that the Martian colonists partially by necessity and partially by inclination, they’ll be very tech forward people, will use a lot of genetic modification. So they will take the experimental technologies we're developing for genetic modification, genetic engineering and they will adopt them aggressively. In part to survive and ensure their survival, and in part because it will improve their capabilities. So yes, I think, you know, body part replacement, sort of partial cyborg evolution that will happen very rapidly among the Martian colonists, just by the nature of who they are and where they are.
AMT: And do you think at some point humanity would evolve into a new species then on Mars?
CHRIS IMPEY: Eventually, by the formal definition of biology that would happen. That would be thousands of years I'm sure, and it will of course have a big psychological effect, because as the Martian colonists would say no or very little further contact with Earth, and certainly not visiting, they would start to feel different. They would develop their own dialect perhaps, they would develop differently in a number of ways that would sort of just psychologically displace them from the home planet.
AMT: And, you know, we're talking about this in a North American centric context. What if there's another country that wants to do the same thing? What about people wanting to take their earthly territorial fights and wars to Mars.
CHRIS IMPEY: Well, that's a good example because it probably will happen if your previous speaker talked about Antarctica as a sort of model for isolation and living in an extreme place. It's also a model for sort of territorial battles on the Earth over real estate that a lot of people wouldn't think is that valuable. So there is no law that applies to ownership. There was an outer space treaty of 1965 that all the countries of the UN signed that essentially prohibits weaponization of space, and that's a good thing. But there's no law that governs ownership. Anyone can go to Mars, land a spacecraft declare that they own this chunk, and set up essentially their own legal structure. And of course, that could allow good and bad things to happen. So countries can do it, corporations can do it, non-profit organizations, pretty much anyone with the means and the capability, like Elon Musk's company can do it.
AMT: So how farfetched is this? Do you think humans will truly ever be able to live on Mars?
CHRIS IMPEY: I think it’ll happen. I mean, Elon Musk is laying out a stretch goal, and I also, just as a comment, I think he's been painting a false dichotomy between, you know, we die on Earth or we go to Mars. I think we will probably muddle through on Earth, that's our third choice, and we'll do the Mars thing as well in a sort of staged way, because there's a part of humans that have always wanted to explore. Since we left Africa, we moved across the Earth at an incredible clip, you know, and we didn't have to. So the Martian colony will happen. He was talking of a million people. That's an extreme goal. That's a viable colony, building a huge amount of infrastructure, that's I'm sure millennia to get to that point. But this minimal genetically viable colony of dozens or 100 or so people, that it is conceivable within a century.
AMT: OK, well Chris Impey, thank you for your thoughts on this. Good to talk to you.
CHRIS IMPEY: Thanks very much.
AMT: Chris Impey, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He joined us from Tucson, Arizona. Now, colonizing Mars may certainly capture the imagination, but there are other voices. Voices of sober second thought perhaps back here on Earth who argue we should focus our energies on the here and now. Hal Niedzviecki is the author of Trees On Mars: Our Obsession With the Future. He's in our Toronto studio. Hi.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI: Good morning.
AMT: I saw you rolling your eyes.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : I'm an eye roller. That's a bad habit. [laughs]
AMT: What do you think?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : I'm thinking that, you know, in the broad picture, obviously, we have so many problems to address on Earth. None of which can be addressed by going to Mars. In fact, I think going to Mars will probably exacerbate most of those problems. So it's a bit of a whole, you know, it's a bit of an eye rolling proposition this idea of going to Mars and making that a high priority right now, in the face of everything that we are dealing with on this planet.
AMT: What about the argument that we, as humanity, needs a backup plan, another planet?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : Well, that's a pretty ridiculous argument. I mean, you do have 7 billion people on this planet. Elon Musk has said that it would probably cost about 10 billion dollars per person to get people to Mars. So it's not clear how that is a viable mechanism to safeguard humanity. We might be able to put a few people on Mars. They would probably die there and that would be the end of that.
AMT: We have spoken on this program with Canadians who applied to go to Mars. You have done the same thing. What did you discover about what motivates someone to consider this idea?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : That's a really interesting question, because when you think about the broad impact of someone like Elon Musk, this incredibly muscular rich voice who has the megaphone of the world. You see that this trickles down to people and they feel this desire or this call to go to Mars. And it's kind of easy for us to say oh, humanity has always wanted to go new places and conquer new things. That's actually not true. [chuckles] Most people, most of the time have wanted continuity, stability. They’ve wanted to wake up and see that they are in the same place and they will die in that place. So when you look at the people that I spoke to in the Trees On Mars book about going to Mars, for instance Christy Foley who is an Alberta government worker, she talks about that excitement, the need for adventure, the desire to sadly, you know, say goodbye to her husband and her family that she's close with and go to Mars. But to me it sounds very kind of implanted, it's a Hollywood idea, it's not an idea that she would ever have had if you didn't have people like Elon Musk running around saying we've got to go to Mars.
AMT: Well, we just heard our first guest make reference to Mars the movie, with Matt Damon.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : Exactly, those kinds of ideas they’re really pop culture ideas and Elon Musk is a master of popular culture and working the media.
AMT: But at the same time isn't some science fiction in popular culture grounded in the dreams that then eventually take off into something else? Haven't we seen that over time?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : I wouldn't say, I mean, sure, I mean, science fiction is kind of a veiled exploration of reality but I don't think that there is necessarily a meaningful connection between those explorations and what we should actually be doing. For instance, also in the Trees On Mars book I explore the desire to make a Star Trek-like medical device, the tricorder, in which millions of dollars are being spent to make that. When I spoke to some of the people involved in getting that going, I said why do we need the tricorder? You know, is this really an important benefit for humanity? And they had trouble answering that, it was as if no one had ever asked them that question. Just because we imagined it on Star Trek, doesn't mean that we need a lot of people running around going Anna-Maria your life signs are, you know, weak.
AMT: So interesting, and nobody asks why, and you asked why and they were stopped in their tracks.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : They didn’t have a good answer.
AMT: So you're arguing that if you really want to save humanity, you should roll up your sleeves and do things right here.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : Absolutely. I mean, you know, Elon Musk could probably save humanity much better by using his billions just buying up land and leaving it alone. [laughs] That would mean giant carbon sinks instead of I don't know how many billions of whatever the correct scientific term is for releasing carbon into the atmosphere projects of going to Mars are going to do. But, you know, it's a ridiculous idea.
AMT: Do you see this as the hubris of just another billionaire?
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : Yes I do absolutely. I mean, all of the giant billionaire tech people have these fantasies. Richard Branson, he wants to go to space. Jeff Bezos he’s been quoted as saying that he works out every day in anticipation of when he's going to be going out to space. Others are planning to download their minds into computers. They're planning to mess with their DNA. You know, there is this idea that we should use technology to solve all of the problems on Earth and the main problem for them is that they're going to die and they don't like that idea at all. So, you know, Mars is a way to solve that problem. Oh my God, I'm going to die, I need to go to Mars. It doesn't actually make sense. You know, oh my god I'm going to die, I need to invest ten million dollars in making a copy of my brain so it can be stored on a computer and eventually be put into a robot-like character.
AMT: So the way you see it, it's really selfish, it's not about the advancement of mankind, it's selfishness.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : It's a selfishness. Human beings are selfish and that's part of our beauty and it's also part of our great failing. It's what got us here in the first place, in terms of this climate crisis. And going to Mars it's like taking a bus load of cockroaches and driving them into somewhere that has somehow evaded cockroaches. You know, the idea that the human project is eventually going to end, that doesn't bother me, that shouldn't bother anybody. Human beings are no more noble or beautiful than many of the creatures that we have lead to extinction. And I think we have to accept that we have failings, our planet is finite. We will muddle through probably until the sun ends it for us, and that's the way it'll be. And there's probably other intelligences out there on the planet, I mean in the universe.
AMT: They might beat us there.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : Yeah, exactly.
AMT: OK, well, thank you for the reality check. Thanks for coming in.
HAL NIEDZVIECKI : Thanks for having me Anna-Maria.
AMT: That is Hal Niedzviecki, he's the author of the book Trees On Mars: Our Obsession With the Future. And he joined me right here in our Toronto studio. That's our program for today. We began today's show by talking about the children of Syria. The BBC's chief international correspondent New Brunswick born Lyse Doucet has done a lot of reporting on the children of that war torn country. Tracking them, getting to know how many Syrian families live and cope along the way. A few weeks ago, she was reporting a story in Toronto about Canadian sponsors of Syrian refugees when she happened to cross a family she'd last seen in Damascus a couple of years before. This is how it sounded. Her report and the intimate and ecstatic meeting after a couple of years. I'm Anna-Maria Tremonti, thank you for listening to The Current.
LYSE DOUCET: It's so striking just how different the mood is here than much of Europe. But then much about Canada is different, every Syrian family here was carefully vetted and then welcomed by families here in Canada. And they haven't seen the kind of attacks here that have caused fear across so much of Europe. But when you look at this, you have to ask, could this kind of engagement be adopted somewhere else?
LYSE DOUCET: Then suddenly in this crowd, a family I know from Syria.
LYSE DOUCET: It’s so good to see you.
[family and Lyse sobbing]
LYSE DOUCET: Oh my God. Today I wrote to Teemah, I said where’s, how are you? Aww. So cute. Welcome to Canada.
VOICE 1: Thank you.
LYSE DOUCET: Welcome to Canada. [laughs]
VOICE 1: I missed you.
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