Guns and Grievances

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Guns look way too cool in our movies

W.J. Astore

The news out of Orlando is shocking.  Another mass shooting in America.  Another 50+ people dead with an additional 50+ wounded.  And then I saw this headline:

“America has 4.4% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of the civilian-owned guns around the world”

The ready availability of guns in America, to include military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips, makes it far easier for shooters bent on murder to kill large numbers of people.  It doesn’t matter what you call these shooters, whether you label them terrorists or lone wolves or crazed lunatics or whatever.  Apparently the latest shooter bought his guns legally, had a grievance against gay people, expressed some last-minute allegiance to ISIS, and then started blasting away at innocent people in a club that was friendly to gays.

Sure, guns alone are not to blame.  The primary person to blame is the shooter/murderer himself.  But (to repeat myself) the guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, and in large numbers.

We live in a sick society, often a very violent one, certainly a disturbed one, one that places enormous stress on people.  Another exceptional headline that I first heard on Bill Maher is that America, again with 4.4% of the world’s population, takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Guns and drugs – the two don’t mix, even when they’re legal.   Americans are over-armed and over-medicated.  Add to that mix the fact that Americans are under-educated, at least compared to our peers in the developed world, and you truly have a toxic brew.

Over-armed, over-medicated, and under-educated: surely this is not what our leaders have in mind when they call us the exceptional nation, the indispensable one, the greatest on earth.  Is it?

 

 

The Right Approach to Terrorism

A replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels tourist attraction, is seen among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels
Replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels attraction, among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels. REUTERS/Yves Herman

W.J. Astore

I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence.  Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat.  Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.  But terrorism was and is nothing new.  We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it.  The question is how best to face it.

Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it.  Restricting liberty is the wrong way.  An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way.  Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way.  Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international).  Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems.  The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).

Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill.  We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop.  The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.

One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985.  Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater.  As Jenkins notes:

“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding.  News coverage focuses on action not words.  Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “

Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.

What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism?  Three big lessons:

  1. Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic.  And don’t exaggerate the threat.
  2. Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want.  They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
  3. Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want.  They want to turn people against one another.  To divide is to conquer.

The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?

Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action.  But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands.  Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote.  Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.

Defeating ISIS: Do We Even Have A Strategy?

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Image showing Jihadi John.  Apparently killed, then quickly replaced by a new “Jihadi John” — a visual metaphor of “progress” in the war on ISIS (AP photo)

W.J. Astore

An overarching strategy for defeating ISIS is simple enough to state:  A concerted effort by regional power brokers to tamp down Islamic extremism while reducing the violent and chaotic conditions in which it thrives.  Regional power brokers include the Israelis, the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks, joined by the United States and Russia.  They should work, more or less cooperatively, to eliminate ISIS.

Why?  Because you never know when a spark generated by extremists will ignite an inferno, especially in a tinderbox (a fair description of the Middle East).  We know this from history.  Consider the events of the summer of 1914.  A Serbian “Black Hand” extremist assassinates an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans (that era’s tinderbox of extremism).  Most of Europe yawned, at least initially.  A small brush fire between the Serbs and the Empire, easily containable, people said.  Yet within weeks European troops were marching in the millions to their deaths in what became World War I.

In today’s Middle East, we’ve been lucky (so far) to avoid the kind of provocation and miscalculation that led to World War I.  But consider the actions of a new president, say a Chris Christie.  During a presidential debate, Christie promised to declare a no-fly zone over Syria and to shoot down any Russian plane that violated it.  It’s the kind of ultimatum that very well could lead to another world war.

Provocations and ultimatums can rapidly spiral among nations that lack uniformity of purpose.  For many of the power brokers engaged in the Middle East, defeating ISIS is either not the goal, or it’s not the primary one. Put differently, there are too many forces involved, working to discordant ends.  Their actions, often at cross-purposes, ensure that entities like ISIS survive.

Let’s take the United States, for example.  Every American politician says he (or she) wants to destroy ISIS.  Yet in spite of this nation’s enormous military strength, we seem to be too weak, psychologically as well as culturally, to deal with Russia, Iran, et al. as diplomatic equals.  The “exceptional” country thinks it must “lead,” and that means with bombing, drone strikes, troops on the ground, and similar “kinetic” actions.  Rather than dousing the flames, such actions fuel the fire of Islamic extremism.

Consider America’s domestic political scene as well.  ISIS is incessantly touted as a bogeyman to fear, most notably by Republican presidential candidates seeking to draw a contrast between themselves and Barack Obama, the “feckless weakling” in the words of Chris Christie.  But the Republican “alternative” is simply more bombing and more U.S. troops.  Making the sand glow is no strategy, Ted Cruz.

Strategy is a synthesis of means, ends, and will.  Currently, the means is military force, with a choice of more (from Obama) or even more (from Republicans).  Our leaders have no idea of the ends at all, other than vague talk of “destroying” ISIS.  The will they exhibit is mostly bombast and fustian.

A nation lacking will, with no clear vision of means and ends, is a nation without a strategy.  And a nation without a strategy is one that’s fated to fail.

School Cops with Assault Rifles: Make My Day — Not

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Keeping American TV “safe” since 1975

W.J. Astore

At Northeastern University in Massachusetts, members of campus security are now routinely carrying military assault rifles in their vehicles. The rationale is that you never know when and where terrorists will strike, so you have to be prepared to outgun them at all times.

Many Americans equate guns with safety — and bigness with value. So, the bigger the gun, the safer you are.  Right?

It didn’t used to be this way.

Back in the 1970s, I remember when the police got by with .38 revolvers. Up-arming the police meant going from .38 specials to .357 magnums.  Of course, these were six-shot revolvers.  Then cops started carrying 9mm handguns with clips that could carry 15-18 rounds.  Now some cops carry .40 caliber semi-automatics, which are more powerful than the 9mm but also more difficult to control.

You might call it the “Dirty Harry” syndrome (that bigger guns are better), except that that’s being unfair to Harry (played so memorably by Clint Eastwood).

As a teen, I was a big “Dirty Harry” fan, so I remember the rationale for Harry’s Smith & Wesson .44 magnum.  He carried it because he was a pistol champion (as he said, “I hit what I aim at”), and because he wanted a round with “penetration” (he noted that .38 rounds “careen off of windshields”). Finally, Harry said he used a “light special” load to limit recoil, saying it was like firing a .357 with wadcutters.  (All of this is from memory, which shows you the impression those “Dirty Harry” movies made on a typical teen interested in guns.)

Soon after Harry started boasting about his .44 magnum, a new TV show aired in America: SWAT (standing for “special weapons and tactics”). Police SWAT teams are now common in America, but they were somewhat of a novelty forty years ago.  I recall that the team carried AR-15 assault rifles along with specialized sniper rifles and shotguns.  They drove around in a big police van and arrived each week just in the nick of time to save the day.  My favorite character was the guy who carried the sniper rifle.

My excuse?  Heck, I was a teenager! What’s disturbing to me is how my teen enthusiasm for guns is now considered the height of maturity in the USA.  So much so that we arm campus police with assault rifles and see it as a prudent and sensible measure to safeguard young students.

The ready availability of guns of all types has created our very own “arms race” in America — an arms race that is being played out, in deadly earnest, each and every day on our streets and in our buildings.  We’ve allowed the cold, bold “Dirty Harry” of the early 1970s to be outgunned not only by today’s hardened criminals but by campus cops as well.

Assault rifles and SWAT teams are part of America’s new normal. Rare in the 1970s, they are now as American as baseball and apple pie.

I don’t think even Dirty Harry would be pleased with America’s new reality.  Make my day — not.

President Obama’s Speech on Terror

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W.J. Astore

My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night.  Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance.  First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering.  Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder.  My wife and I looked at each other.  Are you fearful, honey?  Neither am I.

President Obama himself made many good points.  Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam.  Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA.  Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people).  And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.

These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious.  But he does.  Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.

Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.

Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame.  Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones.  (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)

President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror.  All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards.  Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less.  Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror.  Not such a good idea, right?

Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office.  As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure.  Wrong.  His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within.  Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent.  “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders.  Liberty was.  And liberty entails risks.

A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost.  (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)

The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values.  He was right to talk about human dignity.  He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear.  Now we as Americans need to live up to those words.  And so does he.

 

 

Crazy American double standards on terrorism

Even John McCain (middle) might blanch at being bookended by "warriors" Lindsey Graham (left) and Bill Kristol (right)
John McCain (middle) bookended by “warriors” Lindsey Graham (left) and Bill Kristol (right)

W.J. Astore

In his latest introduction at TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt reveals a remarkable double standard — perhaps craziness is a better term — in the U.S. approach to terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks.  Prominent “conservative” leaders are calling for a major U.S. military invasion of territory controlled by ISIS, even though they know that ISIS has the “home field advantage.”  They know, in short, that such an invasion will be both risky and costly, spreading chaos even further in the region, but they just can’t help themselves: they must “do something,” and the “something” in this case is sending other people’s sons and daughters into harm’s way.

But when it comes to incurring any risk, no matter how remote, to the American “homeland” from allowing refugees fleeing the chaos of the Middle East (chaos partly made by the USA and its previous military interventions, of course) to enter, these same conservative leaders cower.  We can’t let “them” in. Too dangerous!

So, where the U.S. has an overwhelming “home field” advantage, these self-styled warriors retreat into paralyzing timidity.  “Not in my backyard,” they say.  But we sure as hell will send “our” troops into their backyards.  See how brave we are in taking the fight to ISIS?

Here is Engelhardt’s introduction that so clearly highlights this tension:

In Washington, voices are rising fast and furiously. “Freedom fries” are a thing of the past and everyone agrees on the need to support France (and on more or less nothing else). Now, disagreements are sharpening over whether to only incrementally “intensify” the use of U.S. military power in Syria and Iraq or go to “war” big time and send in the troops. The editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, is already calling for 50,000 American troops to take the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa. Republican presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been urging that another 20,000 troops be dispatched to the region for months, offers this illuminating analogy to sports: “I’m looking for an away game when it comes to ISIL, not a home game. I want to fight them in their backyard.”

And don’t forget that increasingly angry sideline discussion about the Obama administration’s plan to let 10,000 Syrian refugees, carefully vetted for up to two years, trickle into the country.  Alternatives proposed include setting up even harsher, more time-consuming vetting processes to insure that few of them can make it, allowing only certified, God-fearing Christian Syrians in while — give a rousing cheer for the “clash of civilizations” — leaving Muslims to rot in hell, or just blocking the whole damn lot of them.

I’m all for Bill Kristol and Lindsey Graham’s warrior fervor.  I wish them every success as they deploy to Raqqa in their “away game” against ISIS.

Terrorism and Threat Inflation: Fear Is the Mind-Killer

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W.J. Astore

Over the last ten years in the United States, more than 280,000 Americans (more than 300,000 by some counts) have died because of guns.  Over that same period, roughly 350,000 Americans have died on the roads in vehicular accidents.  That’s roughly 630,000 Americans dying every decade either in road accidents or by gunshots, which is roughly the number of Americans who died in the horrible carnage of the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, America’s bloodiest war.

In other words, at the hands of guns and vehicles, Americans suffer the equivalent of a civil war-like bloodletting each and every decade.  Is it time to declare war on guns and cars?  (And now roughly 30,000 people each year are dying from drug overdoses related to the abuse of prescription painkillers and other opiates.)

The U.S. media and our leaders prefer to fixate on radical Islamic terrorism, which has accounted for 24 deaths over the same period.  Indeed, by the numbers the White supremacist threat to America is twice as serious as threats from ISIS or other external radical groups.

According to the Washington Times,

“In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the United States by white supremacists and anti-government radicals than by Muslim jihadis, according to a new study.”

“White supremacists and anti-government radicals have killed 48 Americans … versus 26 killings by Muslim radicals, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”

“New America program associate David Sterman said the study shows that white supremacy and anti-government idealists are a major problem, that their growth rate needs to be addressed and that there is an ‘ignored threat’ woven in the fabric of American society.”

Given these numbers and realities, why are America’s leaders so fixated on hyping the threat of radical Islamic terrorists?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on saving lives on our roads? Reducing gun accidents and gun crimes and suicide by guns? On reducing hate-filled radicalism within our own country?

We should be, but we’re not.  Our leaders prefer threat inflation: They believe in making political hay while the foreign terrorist threat shines.  So presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio predictably call for a war on terrorism, for military “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, and (of course) for higher military spending and more surveillance, in the name of protecting America.  Threat inflation knows no political party, of course, with Hillary Clinton joining the chorus of the tough-talkers against terror.

Threat inflation sells.  And threat inflation pays.  This is an important theme in Tom Engelhardt’s latest tour de force at TomDispatch.com, “The National Security State’s Incestuous Relationship with the Islamic State.”  As Engelhardt notes, threat inflation drives a dance of death even as it eliminates grey zones — opportunities for dialog, diplomacy, compromise, forms of accommodation.  It enforces a black and white world of crusaders and jihadists bent on killing one another in the name of righteousness.

Here is how Engelhardt puts it:

the officials of [the U.S. national] security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist “threat,” which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.  Note that, as with so many developments in our world which have caught them by surprise, the officials who run our vast surveillance network and its staggering ranks of intelligence operatives and analysts seemingly hadn’t a clue about the IS plot against Paris (even though intelligence officials in at least one other country evidently did).  Nonetheless, whether they see actual threats coming or not, they need Paris-style alarms and nightmares, just as they need local “plots,” even ones semi-engineered by FBI informers or created online by lone idiots, not lone wolves. Otherwise, why would the media keep prattling on about terrorism or presidential candidates keep humming the terror tune, and how, then, would public panic levels remain reasonably high on the subject when so many other dangers are more pressing in American life?

The relationship between that ever-more powerful shadow government in Washington and the Islamic terrorists of our planet is both mutually reinforcing and unnervingly incestuous.

Of course, Engelhardt knows that terrorism must be fought.  The point is not to lose our collective heads over the (much exaggerated) threat of it.  To cite Frank Herbert’s insight in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”  Yet our media and leaders seem determined to hype fear so as to kill our minds.

As our media and politicians stoke our fear by exaggerating the threat posed by terrorism, ask yourself to what purpose are they attacking your minds.

Hint: It certainly isn’t about keeping you safe.

Terrorism in Paris: A Few Thoughts

The French showed great resolve in 1915. A century later, that resolve yet lives
The French showed great resolve in 1915. A century later, that resolve yet lives

W.J. Astore

The world is still trying to digest the horrifying news from Paris of terrorist attacks by ISIS.  We sympathize with all the victims of terrorism and other forms of violence, and we stand with France and its desire to bring the perpetrators and their accomplices to justice.

Yet we also must be careful not to overreact — not to play into the hands of ISIS and similar terrorist organizations.

French President François Hollande is already on the record as vowing, “We are going to lead a war [against ISIS] which will be pitiless.” But the answer to terrorism is not “pitiless” war.  That’s exactly what terrorists want: they thrive on war and endless cycles of horrifying violence.

I understand Hollande’s rhetorical purpose.  He’s saying: We’re united, we’re tough, we’ll avenge the murder of innocents.  But pitiless war has been tried again and again in history — and it begets more atrocities and more war.

Terrorism is nothing new.  What’s new is the way the West is elevating it into a generational war — another crusade.  We must be very careful not to let the rhetoric of “generational” and “merciless” war become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We must also be careful not to overreact to the threat of terrorism.  In spite of the latest horrifying attacks in Paris, the threat of terrorism remains remote for the vast majority of us.  The answer to the terrorist threat is not more state surveillance, not more military reprisals, not more curtailments of individual freedoms in the false name of security.

What is the answer?  Resolve.  Patience.  Cooperation (e.g. international police work, intelligence sharing, and so forth). And action.  Anger and cries for revenge in the form of “pitiless” war are natural after a profound shock, but they are not smart policy. Injustices committed in the name of “pitiless” war will not bring justice to the victims of the Paris attacks.

Resolve — yes.  Justice — yes.  Courage — yes.  Action — yes.  Pitiless war — no.