Category Archives: war on terror

Too easy: Yet more proof the Murfreesboro mosque protest is about bigotry and not security

If you missed the last few posts (see here and here), those protesting the new mosque/Islamic center in Murfreesboro, TN “officially” say they are merely opposed to the legal process used to vet the plan. However, when you look at their rally signs, and the comments made in the commission meeting, there is nothing but anti-Islam sentiments.

Kevin Fisher, the main guy pushing against the mosque proposal, wrote a shitty letter to the Tennessean outlining his case. Among the very few specific “concerns” he lists, he is upset that “there is [no] ref­er­ence to 9/11 on its his­tory sec­tion of its web­site.” (“It” being the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, the group trying to build the new facility.)

He didn’t elaborate on this point, which is odd, as this could mean a few different things. But I’ll make some educated guesses.

First, the reality is that virtually no church with a history section is going to mention 9/11, nor the great majority of other human events that have ever occurred. For theirs is not “History” but rather “a history”—a selective account tailored for a less-than-general purpose. (I hear Muslims don’t list 9/11 on their medical “histories” either.)

The purpose of the Center website could be anything. Maybe it aims to educate new Muslims on events they may not know about yet. (Surely they’ve heard of 9/11.) Or one of a million other things having nothing to do with 9/11.

However, I am almost certain Fisher is not looking for a “history” of any kind. He is looking for a denunciation of 9/11. He wants the Center to state that they don’t support the terror, didn’t have ties to the bombers, etc. If not this, explicitly, he wants some mention of the event because it would show that the Center is not “avoiding the subject,” ashamed to acknowledge it.

But think about how weird this request is: If the Center is truly innocent of supporting 9/11, why should it have any greater obligation to denounce it than anyone else who is innocent of that act? Again, Fisher doesn’t demand this disclaimer of other websites, church or otherwise; he himself has writings online that don’t mention 9/11. How is an innocent Muslim different from an innocent anyone-else?

I contend Fisher demands this disclaimer because he believes that simply being Muslim means that the site indeed “has something to do with 9/11”—that it is someway or another implicated in terror, etc.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying Fisher finds the Muslims guilty. By analogy: Many readers have found themselves in a restaurant sitting with someone who is rude to the server. We are not guilty of this behavior, but we usually feel some responsibility to apologize on its behalf—as if saying nothing would be to condone it. At least, we have more responsibility than someone at another table, or who had the same table last week, or a grocery clerk in Holland.

At best, Fisher is acting like a server who wants this apology and hasn’t gotten it. His request only makes sense on the assumption that the Center Muslims are at least responsible in a way that other Americans are not.

Let me put this another way. Demanding the statement only makes sense if Fisher is unprepared to accept such a statement in the first place. Think about it: If Fisher were sincerely prepared to accept the Center’s plea of “innocence,” such a plea would be neither necessary nor sufficient. You might take the word of someone who tells you they aren’t a murderer (or a murder-supporter), if, for whatever oddball reason, they brought up the subject. But if you already assume they might be guilty, surely a paltry verbal assurance won’t be enough to make you feel secure: “Oh, you’re not going to chop off my head, you say? Shit, I really thought you might. OK, works for me!” Of course a guilty person will claim innocence; a suspect’s own assurances are worthless for evidentiary purposes.

* * *

This gives further lie to Fisher’s and the other protester’s claims that they are disinterestedly “investigating” the Muslims for security purposes, e.g. “We don’t hate anyone for their religion, we just want to vet them before the mosque gets the go-ahead.” Not so. Fisher’s expectation of a 9/11 disclaimer is insane unless he has already made up his mind that they are “bad guys.” Again, since there is nothing about this group that tells Fisher they are “bad guys” except for the fact that they are Muslim—this is plain and simple religious bigotry.

Murfreesboro Mosque redux: More proof this is about bigotry and not security

Those protesting the mosque plan like to claim they are merely “investigating” the Muslims for security purposes—given the reality of Muslim terror, the war, etc.: “We don’t hate anyone, we just want some answers first; we aren’t saying the mosque can’t be built, we just don’t like that the legal process to determine this was shunted.’

In my last post, I argued that the generally negative tenor of the protest contradicted this claim. Let me add to my earlier examples.

Consider the presence of Israeli flags at the rally. First, Israelis and Muslims probably shouldn’t be viewed as natural “sides,” whereby in supporting one, you automatically go against the other; for there is a third option in the interests of both. But that isn’t the point. The point is that the protester who waves this flag clearly intends it to antagonize neighboring Muslims.

I don’t have a problem with “negative tenor” in principle. I’m not calling for “civility” in political action; that is a tactical, not a moral question. I’m all for antagonizing “the enemy.”

But that’s the problem: Antagonizing local Muslims only makes sense if they are the enemy, when the whole point of “investigating” was to determine that very question. Waving the Israeli flag means the “investigation” is complete in the minds of the wavers.

In fairness, fearing all Muslims isn’t enough to make you a bigot—if all Muslims are in fact dangerous. In that case, your “prejudice” just happens to be an astute observation. (The same logic applies in the saying, “it ain’t really braggin’ if you got it.”)

Obviously, it is empirically false that all Muslims are dangerous. But we don’t even need to prove that because the protesters don’t deny it—at least, not openly. They will each acknowledge that there are, or could be, some peaceful Muslims in the world. They just don’t like the “bad ones.”

But here’s where they slip up. As soon as you admit the possibility that a Muslim, some Muslim, could be un-dangerous, the question emerges: What makes these Muslims dangerous? What specifically are they doing that those “good ones” aren’t?

The protesters can’t answer this question because there isn’t an answer. The Murfreesboro congregants haven’t done anything to warrant being taunted with Israeli flags, etc., besides be Muslim. Logically, any other Muslim in their position “would do”—would warrant the same level of antagonism. The antagonism precedes and is detached from a determination of “danger.”

So the protesters’ claim to “respect all faiths” is bullshit. This is about opposing Islam because it is Islam. This is religious persecution, by definition. Either (a) the protesters are lying about not believing all Muslims are “bad,” or (b) they are prepared to mistreat a Muslim whether they think them to be “bad” or not. There are no other options.

On the Murfreesboro Mosque Protest

I spent 15 years of my recent adult life in Murfreesboro, TN, lately the subject of national media attention. Recently, a local Muslim congregation received permission from the county planning commission to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque on their own property. Some mostly white, Christian residents have protested the plan on the ugliest possible grounds. They filled a commission meeting to complain and held a march/rally in the town square.

Of course the protesters are full of shit and I’m shamed by it. On a high note, some of my comrades have organized “Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom,” which staged a pretty exhilarating counter-protest. (I would say they “won.”)

This post is my response to the episode and to Islamophobia in general.

Kevin is Fishing for a pretext

It seems a Murfreesboro man named Kevin Fisher sparked the drama. He filed a grievance with the state charging that the planning commission failed to properly notify the public that they were considering the plan. His complaint went public and managed to gather steam. He remains the chief organizer and “public face” of the protest.

"Shit for Brains"

Fisher’s on-camera statements have been careful to focus on legal-technical matters—zoning issues, how the construction could negatively impact traffic flows, water tables, home values, etc.

But Fisher is no amateur municipal policy wonk. His letter to the Tennessean [newspaper] briefly notes these logistical concerns before reminding readers of the ongoing War on Terror, which he describes, Sam Huntington-style, as a clash of “ideologies.” Unless this is just a nice historical aside, it appears to be his entire case: ‘We are at war with people who are Muslims; therefore, the new center is a “concern.”’ He never gets any more specific than that. The implication is (can only be) that the mosque—just for being a Muslim entity—may be implicated in some kind of “anti-American” terrorist or otherwise dangerous/illegal activity.

I will argue below that this fear is misplaced. But first:

It is unclear how this security concern is supposed to relate to the “technical” side of Fisher’s complaint. Indeed, he makes zero attempt to relate the two sides in terms of substance. (Unless, that is, disrupting the traffic flow or water pressure is itself the dangerous or illegal activity he suspects the Muslims of plotting.)

I am trying to read his point charitably. I suppose he is attempting a kind of “argument from ignorance”: “We just don’t know what these Muslims may be involved in, so we need to investigate.” By itself, this is pretty weak, since we can never be 100% sure about anyone (therefore, we should investigate everyone). But the point is at least consistent. That is, until you note that none of Fisher’s actual, concrete proposals (also in the letter) have anything to do with crime, terrorism, and the like—they are all about those “technical” issues. Demanding traffic and water studies is an odd response to an abiding, mortal fear—especially since Fisher trusts the “suspects” to conduct the studies upon themselves!

A cover story

Fisher’s whole “schizophrenic” approach only makes sense if the legal concerns are just a cover story—a handy tool for waging what is fundamentally an Islamophobic campaign.

This probably won’t be an “a-ha!” moment for people like my counter-protesting comrades, who already suspect duplicity. But if you read Fisher’s words carefully, he all but admits it: In the letter, he describes the commission meeting (in retrospect) as a chance for people to “address concerns…that had been denied through lack of proper due process.” He adds that zoning, etc. “laws were ignored to stifle public outcry.”

Notice: He doesn’t say that the concerns were over lack of due process; nor that the public outcry was over the ignoring of laws. Rather, the ignoring of due process and the law were bad because they preempted a “concern” and “outcry” existing prior to and having fuck-all to do with those technical matters. (Namely, the fact that the project is run by Muslims, for Muslims.)

I don’t know if Fisher, etc. expect the technical protests to actually stop construction. Maybe the goal is simple harassment. His proposals have yet failed to impress the commission, and are so plainly out of whack with the relevant laws that I wonder if he means them seriously. But the protest alone could induce the mosque leaders to voluntarily back down, as happened a few miles away in Antioch, TN, and in Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville.

What is obvious is that Mr. Fisher doesn’t give a shit about water pressure.

[Sidenote: Not long ago, the same commission approved a plan allowing Grace Baptist Church to build across the street from the proposed mosque site; construction has already begun. The circumstances aren’t identical (no two ever are), but most of the logistical issues would apply here as well. Needless to say, neither Fisher nor anyone else has raised a peep over “undue process,” traffic, etc.]

The rank and file protesters: Islamophobia without tears

Whatever Fisher thinks, a leader or organizer cannot be equated with whatever thing he is leading or organizing. It remains that the protest is very clearly, openly, driven by Islamophobia. Virtually every public comment and rally sign has been directed toward the Muslim identity of the congregation. As one newspaper observed: “Questions of whether the public was given adequate notice about the proposed mosque…quickly turned into attacks on the Muslim faith during the public comment portion of today’s Rutherford County Commission meeting.”

The following is a sampling of protester quotes, culled from local and national newspapers. (Note: I didn’t have to cherry-pick anything, as nobody at the meeting spoke in the mosque’s defense.)

“Everybody knows they are trying to kill us…Somebody has to stand and take this country back.”

“Experience has taught us that a segment of Muslims are very hostile to anyone who is not Muslim…Their Quran is very explicit about how they should treat infidels.”

“We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.”

“Islam is a system of justice [i.e., not a religion – ed.] We’ve got people here who remember Sept. 11, 2001. These people are scared.”

“I’m afraid we’ll have a [terrorist] training facility in Rutherford County.”

“We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, and so I don’t necessarily want them in my neighborhood.”

“Our country was founded through the founding fathers [true by definition, duh – ed.]—through the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ.”

(Note also: If anyone still doubts Fisher’s real concern, his own comment at the meeting simply endorsed the comments that preceded his—in a “Hear that? The people have spoken” kind of way. Of course he agrees with that shit.)

Are these fears reasonable?

If the technical concerns are a lie, at least the lie makes sense. But opposing the mosque because you think Islam is dangerous is plain bizarre. In Murfreesboro, the proof is in the pudding. Nobody is proposing to create a brand-new entity. There is already an Islamic center with a de facto mosque; it has been there for 13 fucking years. It is merely moving locations.

All things being equal, isn’t past behavior the surest indicator of future behavior? We can estimate how the new site would function by looking at the old site. I am not giving away any big secret when I note there have been no terrorist plots, nor other evils of Islamic coloration, emerging from the old location. The congregants have been “good neighbors” all this time.

Granted, the new site will be larger, and if you are already inclined to fear Islam, you will be inclined to oppose its “growth.” However, the expansion follows upon real growth that has already occurred; it isn’t clear it will create it. There aren’t hordes of Muslims not practicing simply because the current facility is overextended. The “bigger” congregation is being served now, only with relative difficulty.

Any such argument against relocation, then, is also an argument for shutting down the original site altogether; for it is just as “Muslim” as the new one. (This is the totalitarian place the protestor logic leads us. And Fisher says its about “let[ting] freedom ring.”)

Arguing against Islamophobia in general

Fear of Muslims should be examined apart from the particular conditions of Murfreesboro, TN.

The popular methodology of Islamophobia has two components: (a) citing naughty things (violence, etc.) done by Muslims, and (b) citing naughty passages from the Quran. I will treat these in turn.

(a)

We can agree with Fisher that the folks “we” are warring against are Muslim. The problem is that they are many other things as well—theists, mammals, beings with noses, etc. Must we be suspicious of everybody who has any feature in common with someone we are at war with? If not, why this feature—religion—rather than any other?

Just as not all Christians are Phalangist assassins or clinic-bombing militia types, not all Muslims are terrorists, medieval obscurants, etc. Citing the bad ones, even many bad ones, needn’t speak to the rest of the group. (This is a pretty elementary point, but frankly, I’m speaking to a pretty elementary argument.)

(b)

Method (b) is somewhat more powerful because it does look to taint Muslims as a group. It goes: ‘Despite their apparent diversity, all Muslims are beholden to the Quran; the naughty statements it contains (injunctions to kill infidels, etc.) are injunctions that hold for all, even the “good” Murfreesboro-type ones. It is their book; therefore, the naughty parts are theirs also.’

This reasoning commits a fatal error in assuming that a religion is reducible to a holy text. It is more correct to say: Islam is a holy book plus an interpretive scheme—a scheme embodied in traditions, auxiliary beliefs, and yet other texts, each with yet other interpretive schemes. This scheme is used to tell the faithful what the text means.

Actually, this expanded definition is still too narrow: There is no “Islam” to speak of, nor is there an interpretive scheme. There are only particular variants of Islam, each coupled with one of many competing interpretive schemes. (A religion is like a language: There is no “English,” just particular dialects of English.)

It follows that, if you want to establish the “danger” of an Islamic group, you have to do better than cite the book; you must show that it is actually interpreted and acted upon by members in a dangerous way. So far as the Murfreesboro believers are concerned, quoting passages that appear to endorse killing non-Muslims fails—because these worshipers simply do not interpret these passages as licensing them, in the present day, to kill non-believers. And that is that.

* * *

Some Islamophobes will go on: ‘OK, perhaps there are different interpretations. But the only proper, consistent interpretation is the “naughty” one; all Muslims are in fact commanded to wage jihad against the infidels, no matter what each interpreter may think. The Quran is not merely taken by some people to endorse violence; it “really” endorses it.’ This is supposed to deprive mainstream Muslims of the means to differentiate themselves from radicals like al-Quaeda, etc.

We don’t have to debate what the Quran “really” says to see that the logic of this argument is piss. The most it could mean is: “Mainstream Muslims ought, logically speaking, to be violent, but they are not.” The important point remains that they are not. (Since when can we equate what a person does with what he ought to do? I may as well tell the judge that, since I ought to have obeyed the speed limit, I am not liable for the ticket.) Perhaps these Muslims can be accused of poor reading; but we cannot call them dangerous.

* * *

Finally, an outsider can find just as many ostensibly dangerous passages in the Bible. For example, in Luke 19:27, Christ says: “Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and kill them in front of me.”

“On its face” (whatever that means), this verse appears to condone murder of “infidels” too. It isn’t much further to say that being “Christlike” means His followers should follow suit. If Muhammad spoke these words, the protesters would be drooling over it.

Christians allege that in context the meaning of this verse is benign. They reserve the right to distance themselves from militia types, etc. by invoking alternate interpretations of the identical text. And they probably have a good point. But it is irrational or worse to deny the same charity to Muslims.

Conclusion

Some “rational” Islamophobes (in the sense of “rational racism”) will say that they are only hedging their bets. They don’t hate anyone, and they aren’t even sure these Muslims are the “bad kind.” They just can’t take that chance.

Let’s test this claim. If a protester is sincerely in this position, we can expect him to behave in a certain way. He would be like a door attendant who has to wand everyone entering the building with a metal detector. The attendant is “investigating” his “suspects”; but this wouldn’t give him a reason to bear animosity toward those he wands. It simply wouldn’t occur to him, right?

But the tenor of the Murfreesboro protest is nothing like this. One marcher was quoted by Channel 5: “Half of [Muslims] will bury a body in their backyard and then drink the water.” Eh? Even if this were true, it has nothing to do with fear of terrorism, much less municipal law. It’s just a mean, egregious, insulting thing to say—nothing we would expect from a marcher merely seeking security. And the majority of the comments and signs are like this.

So: This protest is not the “rational,” disinterested self-defense of the doorperson. It is personal. The protesters aren’t seeking to ensure that their neighbors are the “good Muslims”; they have already presupposed their guilt. This is the only way to explain the persistence of mockery and harassment.

* * *

I direct my final point to the anti-Muslims: Going by numbers provided by our Federal government, the statistical likelihood that your local mosque will prove instrumental in some terrorist activity is far, far less than the chance that your white, nominally Christian neighbor will rob your house or otherwise criminally violate you at some point. So if it is “rational” to bet-hedge the Muslims, it would be all the smarter to protest the guy across the hedge. But you won’t do that—because it’s about something else.

Fuck you with hot sauce.

Horowitz versus Chomsky on the best way to get rid of a dictator

To harp on a theme, I hate those abuses of language which are just cute enough to be dangerous. The latest to come across my digital desk is from an old article in the Jewish World Review, authored by the slimy ex-socialist David Horowitz of FrontpageMag.

Horowitz chronicles an argument between himself and still-socialist sociology prof. Maurice Zeitlin. He sees a contradiction in Zeitlin’s being opposed to both Saddam Hussein and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and others.

This phrase stuck in my gullet:

This cri de couer begs the most important question: What does it mean [for Zeitlin] to oppose Saddam Hussein’s “execrable regime” and at the same time to oppose the effort to change it?

Reread those last five words. I know Horowitz used to have better politics, but this comment is just fucking stupid. Yes, Zeitlin opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was certainly an effort to change the regime. But was it “the effort”? If Horowitz declines my advice that he take a pottery class, can I conclude that he opposes “the effort to improve himself,” rather than just this particular effort? Horowitz’s use of the definite article snakily suggests that Zeitlin rejects not just the invasion, but the very effort—that is, the idea of an effort being exerted at all—to change the regime.

Horowitz’s implication is doubtful in the highest. Zeitlin would not have opposed every imaginable effort to overthrow Saddam. Suppose Saddam had agreed to step down voluntarily. Let us further assume this was done according to some benign process which did not create a chaotic vacuum of power or other seriously bad outcomes. (Maybe S.H. converted to liberal democracy and had himself jailed—or something.) Surely, Zeitlin would not have excoriated Saddam for failing to remain in power. (Below, we will consider another scenario which he would have supported.)

Further, at any given time before 2003, there were other, actual “efforts” afoot to change the regime. (Indeed, the US intervened to crush a few of them.) Would Horowitz consider any of these, in their time, the effort to change the regime, requiring our support on pain of being numbered among Hussein’s apologists?

Add to this plurality of actual efforts any number of potential ones that might have been dreamed up: Suppose that in February of 2003, a crazy billionaire had dropped babies armed with pink umbrellas into Baghdad to fight the Republican Guard and topple the regime. Babies can’t fight with umbrellas, you say?—The billionaire has cast a spell which he feels strongly will allow them to. Surely this is an effort—somebody’s effort—to change the regime. Would it become the effort, then, demanding our allegiance?

In sum: Surely opposing some bad thing does commit to just any old “effort to change” it; just any solution someone can pull out of his ass doesn’t become a referendum on how authentically we oppose the thing needing changing.

The question is, rather: Is it a good effort, a sensible effort; one that can be reasonably assumed to (a) work, and (b) do so in a non-counterproductive way (that is, in a net sense of not creating so many bad, unintended outcomes that the overall outcome, even with the met goal, becomes bad). It should also (c) be better than other possible schemes to accomplish the same outcome.

The 2003 effort to remove Saddam has (a) “worked” in the meagre sense that it did remove him. But is has been (b)  counterproductive in the more important sense of exacerbating all of those factors that supposedly made removing him a good idea. I don’t want to take this space to make that point fully. Just to note:

*Instead of ending one WMD regime, the war has set two others (Iran and North Korea) in motion.

* The war created a jihadist enclave in the one place in the region where that threat had been completely pacified. As I have noted elsewhere, this was not the result of drawing in terrorists from other locations but of making new ones. Terrorist attacks against Westerners have spiked since the invasion. The balance of “our own” reports (Pentagon, State Dept., FBI, CIA, etc.) blame the War on Terror for this.

*The occupiers have killed and jailed far more innocents than Saddam. The Iraqi government remains a police state, complete with nightly curfews in the capital, bans on public assumbly, and the like. It has the worst human rights record in the region and is dollar for dollar its most corrupt.

*The war completed the process, begun with the sanctions, of bombing into the 3rd World what used to be the most technologically, economically and socially advanced nation in the Middle East. It is difficult to think of a welfare index which is not much, much, worse than before the war.

*Skilled human capital needed for reconstruction has fled en masse to the West with the middle class diaspora. The US has wrenched control of domestic oil away from Iraqis themselves toward “production sharing agreements” which get the oil flowing at the cost of redirecting its proceeds away from national development.

* * *

My main point is: (c) Was there another, a better option for removing Saddam? Will there be with the next guy? As Noam Chomsky has many times noted: Thug leaders who enjoy the support of the US are typically overthrown from within—at far less human cost than an outside force would inflict. Examples include Ceaucescu, Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier, Chun Doo Hwan, and Mobutu. In the case of Saddam, the US withdrew economic and diplomatic support on the eve of Gulf War and pinched Iraq with the severest sanctions regime in history. This course of action hurt precisely everyone in Iraq except the regime. It forced the population to cling to Saddam for survival, weakening the possibility for opposition currents to thrive. There is no reason to doubt the typical pattern would have held had the US taken a more “hands off” course.

The flaw in “racial profiling” for terrorists

Watching old footage of Ann Coulter turned up an argument heard in this country many times since 9/11. Coulter begins by citing patterns in the terrorist demographic. She lists bombing attacks in which Americans have died, concluding, “The perpetrators have all had the same eye color, hair color, skin color and half of them have been named Muhammad…This is not racial profiling; it’s a description of the suspect.”

Of course, she is being characteristically cheeky. She advocates “racial profiling” by name on the basis of this demonstrated pattern. In short, a terrorist is more likely to come from x-racial-group than from y or z groups; therefore, we are warranted in searching for terrorists among that group particularly. This might include singling out men fitting this description for random baggage or ID checks in subways, or funneling them through a separate check-in line at airports.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that Coulter’s data on terrorists is correct (though it isn’t); it is the form of the argument that is most suspect. It gives too much weight to the (statistical) relationship of racial groups to one another—that is, to the relative percentages of terrorists within each group. If we’re thinking properly, what should matter instead is the relationship of terrorists to their own racial groups.

The important point is not what percentage of terrorists are ‘middle eastern males with funny sounding names,’ versus males of some other group—but rather, what percentage of ‘middle eastern males with funny sounding names’ are actually terrorists.

Analogy #1: For all I know, men named George are .000003% more likely to be serial killers than men with other names. This would this hardly mean that shaking down a bunch of Georges would be a wise deployment of police resources. Shit, even if 100% of serial killers were named George, those Georges who actually commit serial murder are such a tiny minority among men named George that the strategy would still be suspect.

Analogy #2: Imagine we have a haystack which has some probability of containing a needle. (That is, there is some probability that one of the straws is a needle.) Let this probability match that of a given, random Arabic man’s being a terrorist; drawing a random straw is as likely to yield a needle as “drawing” a random Arabic man is likely to yield a terrorist. Let us assume this method of finding needles is ineffective, counterproductive, even immoral; also, that we have some far better method of finding needles in haystacks—using magnets, X-ray, floating the straw on water so the needle sinks, etc. We still want to root out needles, but have long abandoned the strategy of drawing random straws.

Now, imagine we discover that all along there has been a second haystack nearby which has an even lower probability of yielding a needle than our haystack. Perhaps we discover several more, each with some probability lower than the original, but still more than zero. It has become clear that a needle is more likely to come from the first haystack than from any of the others. Still, it would be irrational in the highest to conclude that we should, on this basis, resume our random straw draws. The simple fact that a less promising haystack exists does not magically make checking this stack a good idea, if it wasn’t a good idea before.

Similarly, the simple fact that terrorists are more likely to come from middle eastern men than from some other group doesn’t mean that the likelihood of randomly finding them among middle eastern men is very good at all.

Conclusion

The obvious question is just how good that likelihood is. I haven’t exactly crunched the numbers; you can do the math if you like. But there are millions of men in the world who fit Coulter’s “profile” and very nearly zero of these commit terrorist acts against Americans. Even fewer do so in those stereotypical ways that profiling would address. Even fewer operate in the U.S., where ours laws can actually penetrate. Clearly, we are dealing with numbers akin to those Georges who commit serial killing. It is quite likely that if we incarcerated every other Muslim male in the world, it would register nothing in practical terms to diminish the odds of the next terror attack. Yes, we can theoretically halve a .000003% chance of something. Getting married later in life will halve one’s chances of committing suicide someday. Buying a second ticket will double one’s chances of winning the lottery. There is shit you could do right now to halve your chances of being brainwashed by a cult or eaten by a mountain lion. Who gives a shit? Differences of this infinitesimal grade should no more drive policy than they drive anybody’s consideration of anything else in the real world.

This is not to mention that radical Islamists come in all “colors” and (duh) will easily work around any profile we make. Plus, racial profiling is counterproductive; it alienates those communities which are most critical for intelligence on the potential attackers that move and live among and gain cover from them. “Profiled” individuals tend to avoid law enforcement as much as possible.

Finally, as with finding needles in haystacks, we have a much better alternative strategy for fighting terrorism. Granted, jihadists will cite a number of gripes against the US if you ask them. Some of these concern cultural factors like our women’s liberation and sexy music and movies. But according to the evidence, these aren’t the “root” reasons they turn to terror. As I’ve argued elsewhere (link below), the violence is a response to US foreign policy in and toward Muslim countries and populations. Thankfully, these concerns are quite reasonable, technically solvable, and are morally “overdetermined”—that is, they should be met for a host of reasons even aside from fighting terror.

[See the last boldface section of the post here.]

Michael Neumann on the meager record of nonviolence as a tactic for social movements

Below I’ve reproduced a chunk of Michael Neumann’s book The Case Against Israel where he discusses the meager record of nonviolence as a tactic for social movements. (FYI: If you read one book on the P-I conflict, make it this one.)

He raises this in the context of defending the Palestinians’ use of violence to resist the Israeli settlements. Still, it’s a good general treatment of nonviolence as a tactic. It is of interest, for example, to the debate between revolutionary socialism versus social-democratic “socialism by ballot.”

In brief, Neumann looks at the “nonviolent trinity” of Gandhi, MLK, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, arguing that, contrary to popular perception, non-violence (or at least non-violence alone) didn’t win the day. Ergo, the historical record doesn’t support the tactic.

[From pp. 130-34]

“No one can say with certainty that…a strategy [of nonviolence] would not work, especially if the Palestinians were prepared to die in large numbers to effect it. But do the Palestinians, or anyone else, have rational grounds for supposing it would work? Such expectations would have to be based on past experience, and the past is not accommodating. Non-violence has never “worked” in any politically relevant sense of the word, and there is no reason to suppose it ever will. It has never, largely on its own strength, achieved the political objectives of those who employed it.”

“There are supposedly three major examples of successful nonviolence: Gandhi’s independence movement, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the South African campaign against apartheid. None of them performed as advertised.”

“Gandhi’s nonviolence couldn’t have been successful, because there was nothing he would have called a success. Gandhi’s priorities may have shifted over time: he said that, if he changed his mind from one week to the next, it was because he had learned something in between. But it seems fair to say that he wanted independence from British rule, a united India, and nonviolence itself, an end to civil or ethnic strife on the Indian subcontinent. What he got was India 1947: partition, and one of the most horrifying outbursts of bloodshed and cruelty in the whole bloody, cruel history of the postwar world. These consequences alone would be sufficient to count his project as a tragic failure.”

“What of independence itself? Historians might argue about its causes, but I doubt any of them would attribute it primarily to Gandhi’s campaign. The British began contemplating—admittedly with varying degrees of sincerity—some measure of autonomy for India before Gandhi did anything, as early as 1917. A.J.P. Taylor says that after World War I, the British were beginning to find India a liability, because India was once again producing its own cotton and buying cheap textiles from Japan. Later, India’s strategic importance, while valued by many, became questioned by some who saw the oil of the Middle East and the Suez Canal as far more important. By the end of the Second World War, Britain’s will to hold onto its empire had pretty well crumbled, for reasons having little or nothing to do with nonviolence.”

“But this is the least important of the reasons why Gandhi cannot be said to have won independence for India. It was not his saintliness or the disruption he caused that impressed the British. What impressed them was that the country seemed (and was) about to erupt. The colonial authorities could see no way to stop it. A big factor was the terrorism—and this need not be a term of condemnation—quite regularly employed against the British. It was not enough to do much harm, but more than enough to warn them that India was becoming more trouble than it was worth. All things considered, the well-founded fear of violence had far more effect on British resolve that Gandhi ever did. He may have been a brilliant and creative political thinker, but he was not a victor.”

“How about the U.S. civil rights movement? It would be difficult and ungenerous to argue that it was unsuccessful, outrageous to claim that it was anything but a long and dangerous struggle. But when that is conceded, the fact remains that Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement was practically a federal government project. Its roots may have run deep, but its impetus came from the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and from the subsequent attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who braved a hell to accomplish this goal are well remembered. Sometimes forgotten is U.S. government’s almost spectacular determination to see that the federal law was respected. Eisenhower sent, not the FBI, not a bunch of lawyers, but one of the best and proudest units of the United States Army, the 101st Airborne, to keep order in Little Rock and to see that the “federalized” Arkansas national guard stayed on the right side of the dispute. Though there was never any hint of an impending battle between federal and state military forces, the message couldn’t have been any clearer: we, the federal government, are prepared to do whatever it takes to enforce our will.”

“This message is an undercurrent throughout the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Though Martin Luther King still had to overcome vicious, sometimes deadly resistance, he himself remarked that surprisingly few people were killed or seriously injured in the struggle. The surprise diminishes with the recollection that there was real federal muscle behind the nonviolent campaign. For a variety of motives, both virtuous and cynical, the U.S. government wanted the South to be integrated and to recognize black civil rights. Nonviolence achieved its ends largely because the violence of its opponents was severely constrained. In 1962, Kennedy federalized the National Guard and sent in combat troops to quell segregationist rioting in Oxford, Mississippi. Johnson did the same thing in 1965, after anti-civil rights violence in Alabama. While any political movement has allies and benefits from favorable circumstances, having the might of the U.S. government behind you goes far beyond the ordinary advantages accompanying political activity. The nonviolence of the U.S. civil rights movement sets an example only for those who have the overwhelming armed force of a government on their side.”

“As for South Africa, it is a minor miracle of wishful thinking that anyone could suppose nonviolence played a major role in the collapse of apartheid.”

“In the first place, the African National Congress was never a nonviolent movement but a movement that decided, on occasion and for practical reasons, to use nonviolent tactics. (The same could be said of the other anti-apartheid organizations.) Much like Sinn Fein and the IRA, it maintained from the 1960s an arms-length relationship with MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), a military/guerilla organization. So there was never even a commitment to Gandhian nonviolence within the South African movements.”

“Secondly, violence was used extensively throughout the course of the anti-apartheid struggle. It can be argued that the violence was essentially defensive, but that’s not the point: nonviolence as a doctrine rejects the use of violence in self-defense. To say that blacks used violence in self-defense or as resistance to oppression is to say, I think, that they were justified. It is certainly not to say that they were nonviolent.”

“Third, violence played a major role in causing both the boycott of South Africa and the demise of apartheid. Albert Luthuli, then president of the ANC, called for an economic boycott in 1959; the ANC’s nonviolent resistance began in 1952. But the boycott only acquired some teeth starting in 1977, after the Soweto riots in 1976, and again in 1985-1986, after the township riots of 1984-1985. Though the emphasis in accounts of these riots is understandably on police repression, no one contests that black protestors committed many violent acts, including attacks on police stations.”

“Violence was telling in other ways. The armed forces associated with the ANC, though never very effective, worried the South African government after Angola and Mozambique ceased to function as buffer states: sooner or later, it was supposed, the black armies would become a serious problem. (This worry intensified with the strategic defeat of South African forces by Cuban units at Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, in 1988.) In addition, violence was widespread and crucial in eliminating police informers and political enemies, as well as coercing cooperation with collective actions. It included the practice of necklacing, with a tire set around the neck of the target and set on fire.”

“Though much of the violence was conducted by gangs and mobs, it was not for that fact any less important politically: on the contrary, it was precisely the disorganized character of the violence that made it so hard to contain. And history of the period indicates that the South African government fell not under the moral weight of dignified, passive suffering, but because the white rulers (and their friends in the West) felt that the situation was spiraling out of control. Economic problems were caused by the boycotts and the administration of apartheid was a factor, but the boycott and the administration costs were themselves, in large measure, a response to violent rather than nonviolent resistance.”

“In short, it is a myth to suppose that nonviolence brought all the victories it is supposed to have in its ledger. In fact it brought none of them.”

“How does this bear on the Israel-Palestine conflict? In that situation, success is far less likely than in the cases we have examined. Unlike Martin Luther King, the Palestinians are working against a state, not with one. Their opponents are far more ruthless than the British were in the twilight of empire. Unlike the Indians and South Africans, they do not vastly outnumber their oppressors. And neither the Boers nor the English ever had anything like the moral authority Israel enjoys in the hearts and minds of Americans, much less its enormous support network. Nonviolent protest might overcome Israel’s prestige in ten or twenty years, but the Palestinians might well suppose they do not have that long.”

“The Palestinians will continue to choose, sometimes violence, sometimes nonviolence, most often a mixture of the two. They will presumably base their choices, as they have always done, on their assessment of the political realities. It is a sort of insolent naivete to suppose that, in their weakness, they should defy the lessons of history and cut off half their options. The notion that a people (in any sense of the word) can free itself literally by allowing their captors to walk all over them is in historical terms a fantasy.”

“In short, the Palestinians had to use violence of some sort: it might not work, but there was at least some historical precedent for it working. This, of course, does not license all types of violent resistance..”

Obama fulfills his first campaign promise—invading Pakistan

On his third day in office, Obama ordered cross-border attacks on Pakistani tribal areas using missile-firing drones. 22 people were killed, including four children. The attacks violate international law and various treaties to which the US is a party (so they’re unconstitutional also). This makes Obama a war criminal.

(It also makes him a poor strategist. Pakistan notes that the attacks have only further endeared the local tribes to al-Quaeda. This is plausible. This kind of effect on local populations by “our” violence is, to my knowledge, predicted or confirmed by every Pentagon study to date on the War on Terror.)

The victims may or may not have had something to do with fighting in Afghanistan. Of course, these “terroristey” types are precisely the sort we lock up in Guantanamo, and the the quality of “evidence” on which the attacks were ordered is precisely the sort we use to put them there. This should prove the token nature of Obama’s effort to shut down Guantanamo: We can kill them but not lock them up? (And really, “shut down” just means relocating the residents to another prison and diverting new suspects to one of the several interrogation camps we aren’t shutting down).

Despite Obama’s inaugural promise to stop executive secrecy, the new White House refused to comment on the attacks.

“In Defense of Bill Ayers”

[Yeah, Bill Ayers blew up a few buildings to stop genocide in Vietnam—and it isn't clear it didn't help do just that. McCain actually killed some people, and while perpetuating genocide in Vietnam. Not because he had to; if he was "following orders," they were orders he volunteered for and was happy to follow.]

From World Socialist Web Site: In Defense of Bill Ayers

Ron Paul: Not antiwar, not progressive (Not that it should matter if he were)

That Ron Paul’s campaign has emerged as a “progressive” option does not change the fact that the man, from a progressive view, has mostly reprehensible positions, and reprehensible (or incoherent, or tepid) reasons for holding his ostensibly un-reprehensible positions. Nor are these irrelevant.

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Ron Paul’s Flaky Antiwar Credentials:

The Votes on Iraq and “Afghanistan”

Not that Ron Paul is “antiwar” in any sense of the phrase activists should find interesting. Certainly, such a stance is not deducible from his congressional record.

Paul’s “Statement Opposing the use of Military Force against Iraq” complains that the vote ceded warmaking powers to the President rather than, properly, to Congress. This reflects that goofy, crude Constitutional fetishism of Paul’s which quibbles over where the “proper authority” for engaging some action technically rests rather than whether whatever is being authorized is actually a good idea. An “antiwar” legislator would oppose ceding warmaking authority to Bush not because it violates some point-of-order clause, but because, damn it, the guy might use it to start a war.

Paul also objects that the Iraq campaign was begun with no clear definition of what it would mean to win it. This reasoning is sympathetic and one can only wish Paul could be counted on to apply it. His antiwar supporters don’t much talk about his 2001 vote to authorize “Military Force Against [the 9/11] Terrorists” in what would become the War in Afghanistan. Like the Iraq resolution, this vote both ceded authority to the President to use “all necessary force”—against whomever he determines, at any later date, committed the 9/11 attacks or gave any kind of aid to those who did—and does not specify what it would mean to win such a campaign. Indeed, how could it?—as it names no targets nor the means to be used to target them. It does not even assume the President had yet made up his mind about who the enemy would be.

Paul regrets, “I voted for the authorization and…the funding, and yet it was completely misused…I was deceived…I didn’t vote to occupy and nation-build.” Paul speaks as though the vagueness of the resolution—that it never says the words “occupation” or “nation-build[ing]” or “regime change” or “war” as opposed to the swift and modest and localized police action he supposedly preferred—is somehow a defense for his voting for it. But its vagueness and wide-open applicability is precisely the problem. It could have been used to start a war or an occupation just because it says nothing to rule out those types of “military force.” You can’t “misuse” something whose use is never specified.

Unlike Paul, Rep. Barbara Lee had the sense and valor to vote against this resolution. Her defense of this decision reads just like (the better sections of) Paul’s 2006 Iraq “Statement”: “…I could not ignore that [the authorization] provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war…It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

This is precisely the thing Paul says he opposes in foreign policy, and he voted for it anyhow. Thus, if we believe him that his reasons for voting “No” in 2003 reflect long-standing principles, we must conclude that these are so flexible as to divest the word “principle” of all its normal meaning. (It isn’t as though his record is loyal to the rest of his stated values: His anti-tax, small government, free competition plank is belied by his heavy support for the same pork-barrel spending and corporate subsidies every other politician goes in for—including a weird coziness with the shrimp industry.)

Worse, by the time of Paul’s 2001 vote there was already so much evidence that Bush wanted the vote to “invade” and “occupy” Afghanistan (for starters) that blindness to this could only be willful. Within 24 hours of the 9/11 attacks, Bush had fingered the Taliban regime as a terrorist “harborer” and recalled the American ambassadors and UN delegates from Afghanistan. Paul knew Iraq had been the administration’s leading official “terrorist state” and held a policy of “regime change” against it, as well as against all the other top official terror sponsors. In fact, Paul believed what the U.S. was already doing to this “terror state” via the no-fly zones was an “occupation.” How, then, might he have been unaware that an “occupation” and “regime change” was off the agenda for “terrorist” Afghanistan? Add to this that Paul had by now heard Bush promise “a long [military] campaign, a determined campaign in a lot of countries.” (He would soon define “a lot” as “more than sixty.”) Secretary of State Powell had reiterated that the war “isn’t going to be solved with a single counter-attack against one individual, it’s going to be a long term conflict.” Bush’s use of mushy “War on Terror” phrasing only underscored this open-ended aspect.

Other Considerations

Ron Paul’s foreign policy is always fundamentally informed by his America First-ism, with all the moral and logical implications this kind of thing ever carries. This is marked by his frequent use of the dismissive phrase “in a foreign land thousands of miles away” to describe whatever situation he is urging us to stay out of. In brief, it isn’t clear how selfishness at the national level should be any more defensible than selfishness as a quality of persons.

Paul has said he does not want to dismantle the global network of military bases, but simply stop making (as many) new ones. Historically speaking, if a dominant military force has a weapon—and bases, among other purposes, are just a complex species of military technology—it tends to use it. Just assuming there is a point to these bases at all, Paul is by no means “anti-interventionist.” And are those “permanent bases” in Iraq the exception, the only ones to be dismantled? Paul hasn’t said so. Will the insurgents stop attacking the bases if we tell them the war is over?; Or are we not to fight them back when attacked? But if we fight back, in what sense will the war have been ended?

None of this need matter, as even regular foreign “interventions” of any scale are perfectly justifiable on straight libertarian principles. Globalization has taken those domestic interests needing of protection from “force or fraud” by the “minimal state,” and flung them across national borders. Not only could most American wars be justified rhetorically as defense of these interests, each was, more or less explicitly, more or less about this in fact. Global capitalism did not emerge without the blunt hammer of military force, nor could it be maintained without it—any more than domestic capital would be safe for five minutes if the threat of protection—i.e., cops, mostly—were removed.

Paul’s resistance to foreign aid rubs against his anti-intervention prejudice. Recalling his fight with Giuliani in the Republican debates, he is quick to note the “blowback” effect whereby a meddling American foreign policy angers its victims to retaliate. But if “just leav[ing]” occupied lands in the Middle East is a necessary condition of remedying this effect, things have gone too far for it to be sufficient. The grievances feeding Islamist anger are widespread in the Muslim world and won’t be satisfied without massive reconstruction and reparations. (This is also required by international law, and human decency.) The dreaded “entanglements” are already in place. A Ron Paul presidency makes reparations unlikely, which makes Islamic terrorism against the U.S. more likely, along with continued “interventions” which in a Paul presidency would be justified for “national self-defense.”

Finally, there is Paul’s racist view, expressed in the debates, that “we don’t understand the irrationality of Middle East politics.” (He attributes this to Reagan, an intervention-aholic who invented the first War on Terror in Central America.) It isn’t clear how, on such a view, Paul could confidently subsitute diplomatic negotiation for force or aid to resolve conflicts in the region. By definition, irrational people can’t be reasoned with. (Further, one might ask, negotiate with what, if not force or aid?)

Capitalism Needs War, and Ron Paul Needs What Capitalism Needs

Finally, as president Ron Paul would do nothing to challenge the free-market policies that make wars inevitable—and even necessary: It is not just that a capitalist “ruling class,” in Marxist terms, desires conflicts to protect its interests; the capitalist system itself requires “interventions” for its smooth functioning.

The story, in simple and short, is two-part:

(a) There is an enormous—and under normal conditions, growing—amount of finance capital in search of investment outlets; capitalist profitability requires that all of this be invested, and the commodities this investment will produce be absorbed by a market at a price covering production costs plus a profit. This is a concern not only of local capitalists but of the nation-state whose health depends on the health of the same domestic economy. But the “home” markets of the big national producers provide neither a means for absorbing these commodities nor sufficient opportunities for investment of the free capital.

Acting as competitors on behalf of local capitals, nation-states seek these conditions abroad: New outlets for capital investment, creating new markets to absorb commodities. And to compensate for the residual that is not invested, or sold, they seek control over raw materials to make production cheaper—just as domestic capitals seek to lower the cost of labor inputs by cutting wages and benefits. However, the world is finite, and so are the opportunities for expansion, while the sums needing investment (ideally) keep growing. Conflicting global interests lead to actual conflict.

(b) Normal consumer goods are a two-fold problem for capitalists: They need, again, to be absorbed in a market, plus they “feed back” into the same productive process they came from as they mentally and physically sustain the workers who consume them to produce another day (and allows them to produce tomorrow’s new workers—their children); this maintains [the growth of] the whole productive “machine” and thus the whole pressure for reinvestment. So one way to offset the pressure for profitability is to find some product which does not need to be absorbed in markets, and which does not “feed back” into the productive process. Heavy arms production, funded through taxes and loans from the state, is one such product. Arms are simply destroyed in use or lay fallow. Of course, these must be employed in the field of battle often enough to justify the state’s expenditure. The arms economy of World War II saved the U.S. from the Great Depression where the New Deal (alone) could not. (War also simply destroys vast amounts of productive capital—factories, crops, etc.—for many local competitors at once, leading to the same effect.)

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Latest sign of the apocalypse

Ron Paul on Issues Beside the War

But it isn’t enough that Paul’s “progressive” followers establish his antiwar credentials. It is not enough even that these credentials be measured favorably against his less progressive views (which includes pretty much the rest of his politics). What Paul would do on non-war related matters must be weighed against what he could actually get away with doing—in a net sense, in a lasting way—on the antiwar front.

A President Paul would liquidate or outsource as much of the good and useful parts of government he could get away with—federal protection for abortion, civil rights legislation, labor regulations, campaign finance reforms, environmental legislation, and Social Security. In turn, he’ll secure tons of tax relief for the wealthiest wealthy. He would work to see Roe v. Wade repealed and has introduced bills to end the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the federal minimum wage, the most prominent and longstanding antitrust laws, federal environmental regulations including all federal regulations on fuel production, and all restrictions on individual or business campaign contributions. In 2006 he voted not to renew the Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregating schools and ending Jim Crow in the South, and he opposes the 1965 Voting Rights Act securing minority access to the polls. (In this vein, Paul even introduced a bill to deny student aid to any student who happens to be Iranian.) (See the voting record here.)

Most of what Presidents “do” has nothing to do with warmaking or peacemaking; and most of what Paul would do as to this majority is glaringly regressive. His record, combined with his meagre antiwar chops, suggest that the damage Paul would do by simply behaving during the presidential phase of his political career as he has behaved in its pre-presidential phase, is not at all clearly better than the best case scenario: A single president, initiating withdrawal from a single (phase of a single) conflict, somewhat earlier than it might have otherwise been initiated; leading to a massive, enduring backlash against “Ron Paulism” by the forces invested in “staying the course.”

Why Progressives Should Not Vote for Ron Paul, Whatever His Antiwar Credentials Look Like: A Sketch

More must be said about these “forces,” as it were, that “govern the governor.” A president, strictly speaking, no more just “makes” policy than those liberal reporters Bill O’Reilley harps upon “make” the news. Ron Paul would be subject to the same hard constraints Ralph Nader (or Karl Marx) would face as president. These constraints explain why those “neocons” Ron Paul says have hijacked our foreign policy haven’t been able to achieve, in eight years of supposed power, even close to their maximal program—attacking Iran and Saudi Arabia and imposing a royal Hashemite dynasty on Iraq. They also explain why historically, in terms of the issue of troop redeployment, a candidate’s word about what he will do is worth precisely nothing in assessing what he will actually do when elected.

These constraints are alternately describable as what Marxists call “material conditions,” or that social “ruling class” of capitalists in the role of responding to these conditions. One of many angles to this basic story is that: A “serious” president—that is, someone for whom the job is not performance art; someone who cares about not running the whole machine into the ground—is concerned about more than one issue, and looks beyond than one “moment” in his political life and the life of his Party. This requires compromise with other politicians and the monied forces that got him (and them) elected. Some of these forces will push for the foreign aid and military assistance which they have always pushed for. In face of these, a strict adherence to “principle” will marginalize Paul and ensure his replacement by someone they can work with. (These “principles” also ensure that Paul will never become President in the first place.)

But if Ron Paul offers no long-term solution to “War,” this still leaves the possibility of voting for Ron Paul as a short-term solution to this particular conflict. I suppose this is what Paul’s “progressive” supporters are up to. But even if he ended the Iraq war, this brings problems of its own, as does support for any “progressive” candidate that does nothing to challenge the (re. capitalist) power base of the major parties.

In short, the whole history of progressive movements shows that those which actually challenge the power base of these parties (and most don’t) have to work outside of them to avoid being co-opted by them (which would ultimately enhance these bases of power and make them harder to tackle the next try around). But successfully working outside of this system requires construction of an alternate social power base or risks being either destroyed by or absorbed back into the dominant one all the same. In this way, working for a progressive candidate (or a progressive movement—like the antiwar movement—which is attached to a candidate) minus the right conditions is always counterproductive in the longer term.

Understanding this dynamic is especially relevant on the eve of an election year and warrants a freestanding post, to arrive in the near.

Christopher Hitchens and his pet retort: Both losers

[Final five paragraphs revised 10-15-07. Thanks be to OCD.]

How Hitchens Loves to Dismiss the Terror Blowback Effect

In crude terms, the “blowback” effect of U.S. policy describes how our more heavy-handed interventions abroad unintentionally create new state enemies and new, often retaliatory violence. Since 9/11, it has been suggested that our policies in the Middle East have “blown back” in the form of the very “terror” we are presently “war[ring]” against. In turn, and increasingly since the London bombings of 2007, the War on Terror (WOT) is cited as a cause of increased anti-Western terrorism around the world.

Left apostate Christopher Hitchens likes to dismiss this type of suggestion by saying it incorrectly “assumes that the root cause of terrorism is the resistance to it.” (This is something of a pet phrase for Hitchens; I heard him give it first on the Lara Ingraham radio show in 2005, in connection with the London bombings, and twice since. (A quick Google search yielded two more references: Ron Reagan show and Scarborough Country)). However, it is far from deserving of the air he gives it.

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On the one hand, Hitchens’ dismissal carries the rhetorical force of a tautology: It appears to merely point out that effects follow causes and not the reverse. When Hitchens says this, then, the implication is that his opponent has stupidly violated this elementary logical principle—as though he has alleged something akin to “the cause of my lunch is the eating of it.” Of course, “resisting” a particular terrorist activity or current could never “cause terrorism” in the sense of going back in time and creating the very current to which it is a response. Such an idea is clearly absurd—but just as clearly not what Hitchens’ targets could be intending.

Barring this insane, “time-warp” interpretation, Hitchens’ retort could only be saying that resistance to terrorism could not possibly proceed in such a way as to create future instances of terror additional to the ones being responded to.

But clearly, this is either (1) false or (2) pointless:

(1) It is hardly a crazy idea to assume that one could resist a thing in ways that created more of that thing. Many people have died “resisting” kitchen fires by dousing them with oil, thereby accelerating the blaze. Would Hitchens dismiss the fire marshal’s warnings against this practice as foolishly “assum[ing] the cause of the blaze is the resisting of it”?

The example illustrates the failure of Hitchens’ pet phrase to distinguish between effective and ineffective forms of “resistance,” implying that just any old response to terrorism will be OK. But methods don’t magically become effective just because a person performs them in response to terrorism; that is, just because someone calls it “resistance” doesn’t mean it actually, effectively “resists” anything.

(2) The only way Hitchen’s point could be valid (and escape the insane, hyper-idealist implication that whatever we call things is what they are) is if he is defining “resistance” as “acts which successfully curb terror.” On this interpretation, Hitchens would be correct that “resisting terrorism” could never be the cause of (more) terrorism. But he gets this at the expense that his criticism becomes trivially true, true merely by definition, saying in essence: “Acts which succeed in curbing terror succeed in curbing terror.” (Well, duh.)

But defining “resistance” in positive terms, and identifying this with WOT, prevents Hitchens from having to actually catalogue and defend those alleged ways in which WOT curbs terror. That it curbs terror is just assumed by calling it “resistance” in the first place. In logician’s talk, Hitchens is begging the very question at issue.

Contra Hitchens: The War is Clearly Increasing Terror

But what about this question, then? Our chosen way of “resisting terrorism”—not the fact that we are resisting it, mind you, but this particular way of going about it, i.e., waging invasions and occupations of whole countries—is indeed multiplying terror:

(i) Terrorist attacks world-wide have spiked since Bush declared war on them. Our government admits this: According to the State Department’s Annual Terrorism Report, the total number of attacks in 2003 hit a 20-year high. This figure increased by more than another 300 per cent in 2004, going from 175 to 651 and killing 1,109 people. (The jump embarrassed the State Department into announcing it would no longer publish such stats in its annual report—when the data was needed more than ever.) The newest State Dept. report records a whopping 11,111 terrorist attacks in 2005, rising to 14,000 in 2006. These figures reflect the full-blown resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq, where nearly half of the incidents have occurred. (Attacks on coalition soldiers are excluded from the count.)

Just three days before the London subway attacks, the Sunday Times (UK) covered a British Home Office/Foreign Office report titled, Young Muslims and Extremism which—contrary to Blair’s public statements—identifies the Iraq war and foreign policy of Western nations toward Muslim ones “as a key cause of young Britons’ turning to terrorism.” Around the same time, no less than three additional studies emerged with parallel conclusions—a second from Britain (ex-military and -intel folks), one from the Saudi government, and one by an Israeli think tank. The last two confirm that some 95% of mujahideen captured or killed in Iraq are post-war recruits who had “never taken part in any terrorist activity prior to their arrival in Iraq.” (The Pentagon predicted this trend as early as 2004 in a report, commissioned by Rumsfeld, declaring the war has increased support for al-Qaeda-like groups.) The latest National Intelligence Estimate details “the rejuvenating effect the Iraq war has had on al-Quaeda” and the increased likelihood of a major attack on the “homeland.”

Recall, pre-war Iraq was the only place in the region where the threat of Islamist terror was completely pacified. Saddam viewed fundamentalism as competition and had long before 9/11 crushed anyone who gave these beliefs political expression. The invasion dismantled and reversed this scenario.

(ii) The Afghanistan war plays its part as well: Nine months after the invasion, the New York Times reported, “Classified investigations of the al-Qaeda threat now underway at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States.” Rather, the war has “complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area.” The diaspora allowed mid-level al-Qaeda operatives to forge bonds with other Islamist groups in the region. These groups, hitherto focused on domestic political matters, were drawn into the world of terrorist networks opposing the United States—thus dramatically increasing the pool from which future terrorists would be drawn. According to one official, “Al-Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps. What we’re seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come.”

(iii) Al-Qaeda’s tactics have explicitly changed due to WOT. In truth, this enemy has not always been frothing to kill “Americans.” “Soft” terror targets, though easier and often containing more people, were passed over in the pre-war years. Instead, U.S. embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, the World Trade Center (which was never expected to kill so many the second time) and the Pentagon were selected. These targets took more preparation and were more dangerous (even suicidal) for the attackers to execute, but each had the symbolic value of representing American power. The New York Times reports that senior al-Qaeda members, angered by the Afghanistan war, met in Thailand in January, 2002, where they “decided to turn from embassies [etc.], which were becoming better protected, to so called soft targets like resorts and schools.” They promptly bombed a nightclub in Bali—a target of no symbolic significance but stuffed to the gills with American tourists.

(vi) Finally, an escalation in the terror we are supposed to be “resisting” is what one would expect from our own intelligence: Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 62, issued in 1998, acknowledged that our military predominance, and our “flexing” it, leads enemies (actual or potential) to turn to “asymmetrical warfare,” or terror attacks, as opposed to the traditional toe-to-toe fighting at which they cannot hope to compete: “America’s unrivaled military superiority means that potential enemies—whether nations or terrorist groups—that choose to attack us will be more likely to resort to terror instead of conventional military assault.” A few months before 9/11, Rumsfeld repeated the basic point in his Quadrennial Defense Review report to Congress.

Contra Hitchens II: Why They Fight (And Why We Don’t Have To)

Saying that our chosen means of “resistance” to terror breeds more terror actually understates the causal connection—precisely because the terrorist activity which we are “resisting” is itself a response to phenomena of a character similar to this same “resistance.” Bin Laden, for instance, has long made clear his grievances in interviews with Robert Fisk. Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror summarizes nicely the main Islamist concerns; to paraphrase:

  • U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Muslim Palestine
  • U.S. and other Western troops in every state of the Arabian peninsula
  • U.S. support for Russia, India, China, Phillipines and Uzbekistan against their Muslim populations and militants
  • U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low
  • U.S. military and economic sanctions on Muslim nations (sometimes through the U.N.): Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Somalia
  • U.S. support for apostate, corrupt, and despotic Muslim governments (often a vehicle for the above concerns)
  • And now, via the WOT: U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; incarceration without trial of thousands of Muslims suspected of being mujahideen; pressure on Muslim governments to track, control and limit Muslim’s donations to charitable organizations; pressure on these governments to tailor school curricula to give a more pro-Western brand of Islam

In his Ingraham interview, Hitchens admits a couple of these as “root causes” of Islamic terror. But he includes others, like pop music, having nothing to do with foreign policy. We might call these “cultural” factors. Along these lines we could add sexy themes and imagery in Western media and the pursuit of materialistic “creature comforts.” This type of thing is what Bush, et. al., have in mind when they suggest the terrorists are motivated by hatred of our “freedoms” or “way of life” rather than foreign policy.

Hitchens prefers to stress the “cultural” aspects of the war with Islamism because it paints the conflict he champions as inevitable: We can’t end trash TV or no-fault divorce, so we have to fight those who would, maybe forever. It is correct that Muslim militants—with much of the Muslim world—would express objection to these more “cultural” phenomena of the West. But according to all of the evidence we have, they aren’t the reasons they leave their families to fight and die. Bin laden, of course, turned his guns from the Soviets to the Americans only when the latter set up shop in Saudi Arabia and made clear they weren’t leaving. Recalling the post-London studies, captured Mujahideen are very vocal about their motivations, and they cite foreign policy concerns uniformly.

Finally, to view “cultural” differences as the “root” problem overlooks the fact that for decades, anti-Western militancy in the Muslim world had a left-secular-nationalist flavor which took scant notice of the decadence, materialism and “freedom” of the West. The U.S. basically squashed this current without changing the policies that fed it: It destabilized or overthrew “Arab socialism” in Syria, Nasser’s Egypt, and Mossadeq’s Iran; supported, with Israel, the fundamentalist Hamas as a counter-weight to the secular PLO in Palestine; and the CIA even gave Saddam lists of suspected “reds” to torture and kill in the 1980’s. These policies left a vacuum for popular Muslim discontent which was filled by today’s reactionary religious forms.

All of this suggests that, not only are the “cultural” gripes of Muslim militants causally anterior to more “tangible” military and economic realities, the former are the expression or reflection of the latter. For an imperfect analogy: Islamists will include cultural concerns in their rhetoric in the same way a white man who is not normally overtly racist will use racial epithets when a black man cuts him off in traffic—though the traffic, and not the guy’s race, is the immediate grievance. He may be a closet racist, but he’s not cursing any and every black person that rides by, just the one that cuts him off. If he stopped being racist, he wouldn’t stop complaining about being cut off in traffic; he would just express it in another way—just as he does now when white people cut him off in traffic. (Maybe he calls them fat, or dumb, or simply the bad drivers they are.) His concern with race just “piggybacks” upon his concern with traffic. By analogy, ending pop music or sexy images by itself would no more curb Islamist militancy than ending racism would stop the angry white guy from road raging.

Lucky for us, what is driving the militancy of “the terrorists” are quite reasonable, morally compelling and technically solvable complaints. On this count and so many others, Hitchens—seriously—would rather be cute than right.