16 November 2015


This happened several days ago. Any delay in composing my thoughts has a number of personal reasons (I had a lot going on), but it also has a lot to do with the general reactions I was observing. Indeed, it is those I wish to comment upon rather than upon the attacks and attackers and their victims themselves. I have a number of loosely connected thoughts, so bear with me if you wish.

Lots of people changed their social status via an app to show concern with a French flag overlaid on their profile. Or associated changes to lighting in various venues around the world. I respect this outpouring of sympathy as an avenue to feel like one has done something. It is well that some people are concerned about the well-being of complete strangers in other places they may never have been. I myself messaged a few of my friends when I first heard of these terrible incidents. I count about 10% of my social circle that has done this change. Most likely they have done other things as well, and some equal number have commented eloquently themselves with calls for help or for local attentiveness if help abroad seems too complicated and impossible.

But as usual with changes in colours on my status, I find the sort of signaling behavior involved unpleasant for my own behavior. It feels hollow and inadequate, and in this particular case, I was further annoyed that we received the ability to do this for attacks in France, but nothing happened for a large attack the day before in Beirut. Suggesting our concern was believed to be very specific. It undoubtedly was. This bothered me in some way. The scope of destruction and carnage may be a factor, but the loss of life via senseless violence anywhere in the world should be a cause for mourning, grief, and sympathy by other human beings, and demand our attention and response if we can. We attach more importance to the lives of those we may feel a degree of connection to, as is natural, and this leads many people who have traveled to Paris (or who wish to) to find sympathy an easy response. More work is required to get to the same level of attention for Lebanese who suffer, or Syrian refugees seeking to escape a much more intense version of violence still than that afflicted upon Paris.

I do not feel people who did much to react to Paris (and to some degree, only Paris) are to blame, or are terrible people if they did not react to news from Lebanon with equal concern. Far from it, as the violence in Syria or Iraq is now regarded as so routine it barely registers news coverage, even as it kills many thousands of people per month, and terrorist attacks in Lebanon used to be routine as well (they are not now and have not been for about 25 years). It is natural that our collective attention should be divided and incomplete to not hear of every event of suffering and horror elsewhere and respond instantly and correctly in all cases. It's just not the path I would choose in how sympathy and assistance should be rendered is to signal a specific cause. My concern is humans more broadly and how we should treat each other.

This is far afield however from some of the more typical reactions I saw as it at least begins with a place of sympathy and concern for the grief and needs of victims and those directly trying to help them. In many cases, people were, as happened after 9-11 here in America, out for blood. Calls for any captured assailants to be tortured, in some cases scarcely veiled. Demands for renewed vigor in attacking ISIS, despite this being unclear as a foreign policy goal that would achieve anything of use in providing security for the French people, or anyone else either. Demands for preventing many thousands of suffering people from reaching safety as refugees, even before any connection to refugees were made, and in spite of the fact that this was unlikely to be refugees fleeing that would be the source of the problem versus people who were familiar with French culture and society and could identify suitable targets for committing violent atrocities that would garner attention and then successfully plan and carry them out. People who had lived in France or at least Western Europe for example. All of this resembled more lashing out and a baser demand for vengeance rather than an appreciation for human suffering and the limits of our abilities to either prevent such suffering or accommodate those who are so afflicted. This too was natural, but I do not forgive it anywhere near as lightly or easily. Perhaps because I have little attachment to fear such incidents as likely to threaten my own existence, or those of friends, I do not see anger as an appropriate response.

One of the most annoying elements of writing at all about international relations and in particular about terrorism as an event within foreign policy is the nature of response tends to be perceived as diametric by the public and by many pundits within the field. We must either go all out to try to kill people using military forces or we are "doing nothing" or perhaps we "look weak" and obviously then "the terrorists win". This is nonsense masqueraded as grand strategy. To the extent that there are at times in history some very terrible people who perhaps may need to be sought out and fought and defeated on battlefields in foreign lands, I agree. That sometimes remains true in international relations that our own security as a nation and that of allies (such as France) depends upon this.

But even accepting this limited position leaves open a number of questions that are not answered by stating that there are threats abroad.

Whether it is ourselves that must do this, or whether someone else could do so? Someone with more local knowledge of the particular group, or more direct interest in the defeat of groups involved, such as in this case, Iran. Whether the use of air power and bombs is an effective measure of applying what amounts to counter-insurgency? I regard this as dubious at best. Are there no soft power measures which may be more helpful? For example, offering aid or refugee to Syrians/Iraqis in a war zone area? Do we even need to engage such forces with military force to defeat them at all, or at the very least, can we protect ourselves from perceived threats abroad with much less effort and achieve the same or even better return on our efforts? And finally, how big is the threat to ourselves really? Just how much should we really be worried about terrorists abroad as a danger to American society? Many seem to regard this as an existential conflict where the doom of America as a country and Western civilization as an ideal is at stake. I do not. Nor do I believe we have much to fear from terrorists that we must defeat them anywhere and everywhere on the globe versus other methods of interdiction to prevent them from making attacks like those carried out in Paris and Beirut last week.

In general, I find myself farther from most people on international relations. The vast majority of human beings have relatively peaceful and serene lives, much more so than at any point in human history, and our goal in such dealings should be the preservation and extension of that peaceful co-existence as much as possible, while preserving our own security and prosperity as best we can. There are specific hotspots on the globe that afflict tremendous violence to life and through destruction of infrastructure the quality and prosperity of those lives that remain (Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, as examples). These attract considerable attention and debate within American foreign policy discussions. It is well that they should as they represent some of the largest sources of human suffering on the globe and they are man-made in origin via violent armed conflict, suggesting man-made resolutions may be possible. Our thinking however is generally too narrow in response (use of force or do nothing) and this often limits our ability to make productive impacts.

What is less clear to me is how or even whether our military can help resolve these conflicts. This is not what they are trained and equipped to do in most cases, and such kinds of warfare can be of the most difficult to conduct properly and intractable to extricate ourselves from that they may not be wise conflicts to intercede directly into anyway as they would result mainly in the overextension of our forces and the diminished ability to prepare for and attend to larger geopolitical threats for which our considerable military forces (and those of our allies) are much better prepared and equipped to defend against.

There are ways to use a military force in what amounts to a soft power demonstration to help bring about local peace within divided factions warring abroad in a foreign land, but none of the fighting in these now unpleasant and terrible places abroad directly threaten our own security, and most even do little to damage neighbouring territory and peoples. They are self-contained bloodshed and can be contained further with military forces, both local and international. The best most military actions and interventions may do is perhaps minimize the abilities of (some) warring factions to directly attack one another by injecting another force of violence into the equation. This is unclear if it provides some benefits in many cases in compelling these factions to seek peace. Indeed, some of these factions seem intent on embittered warfare with their neighbours and rivals despite any limitations in their conventional abilities (ISIS for example has no navy or air power).

We can be gravely concerned with the humanitarian problems such conflicts create, and we can and should do much to ameliorate those. We can be concerned about the diplomatic status of allies nearby and their security near a conflict zone, or whether they may be drawn into such conflicts or feel it necessary to intercede, and we can offer them support and advice on how best to do so. None of that suggests that it is necessary to deploy American forces into these armed conflicts in order to preserve relative peace of billions of human beings, much less the incredibly secure lives of Americans from foreign threats. Nor does it imply that such deployments will in some way secure additional security for Americans, or improve the quality of lives for people on the ground in far flung places about which we often know very little. We can purchase our own security very cheaply, with intelligence gathering about major plots, and common sense measures of security (reinforced cockpit doors on airplanes for instance), without regarding millions of citizens with excessive suspicion, and without invading or bombing other countries and their people or leaders in these crises. That does not mean we have done nothing in response and does not mean we could not do more than we have, or do things differently.

To me it simply means our responses thus far have been unimpressive in their results, and often more damaging to our security or prosperity than they have been helpful for a variety of reasons. For example, discouraging air travel through heightened and excessive security at airports encourages people to drive more. Driving is more dangerous and less productive than flying. Excessively broad (and potentially illegal) surveillance potentially enmeshes hundreds of thousands of Americans in bureaucratic nightmares trying to travel and otherwise attracts unnecessary attention and resources of intelligence organisations trying to identify actual threats, the number of which is much smaller, or diverts resources to combat other dubious national interests that are dubiously related to threats of international terrorism (for instance, the drug war). Material support for police forces using military hardware is granted via concerns over "terrorism" that are extremely unlikely to ever materialize in the vast majority of American cities and towns, and predictably are diverted for other purposes. Invading or toppling unpleasant and horrible regimes in other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) provides an unstable power arrangement over which we exercise precious little influence and control and may as a result be as hazardous and destructive as the previous regimes to the lives of citizens of those nations, and from which we may feel a measure of responsibility and remain entrenched militarily and economically for decades at a time. Each of these measures may have limited points of usefulness. Surveillance and intelligence gathering of potential threats can be done with a warrant, or done without one over foreign nationals and people traveling into these war zones for dubious purposes for example, and at times, the destruction of vile regimes may serve some legitimate humanitarian goal. But these are difficult boundaries to tread over successfully and without considerable pitfalls. The breezy way that they are described as our only and best way forward is troublesome.

Finally. I wish to address the questions over Islam and Muslims that such actions and atrocities, when committed by Muslims (and not by some other agent, as often happens in the US at least and as used to happen with great frequency in France as well), naturally surface and engender. I am troubled here too by the breezy assurance that it is Islam itself that is a significant cause of these concerns, if not "the" cause of our concerns as regards terrorism. There are many, many problems with this line of analysis. To be sure, many organisations and many terrorists who commit acts of horrible violence identify with various statements which are religiously ordered and drawn from religious texts and decrees. I do not believe this is denied. Many billions more people do not commit acts of horrible violence, or even identify with those who carry those out supposedly in their name. This seems like it ought to factor heavily into our analysis.

One reason I suspect it is easy to think and believe otherwise, that any Muslim or at least specific persons of a Muslim country of origin may be a threat, is that we do not have many Muslims around, and they are often of a fairly invisible nature to Americans (many are fairly well acculturated and Westernized that live in the US). The considerable inconveniences we thus demand to impose upon them actually only impact some small number of people, a few million at most, while then "allowing" the rest of us to proceed unmolested in our daily lives. Such inconveniences are not trivial to individuals but on a societal level they may appear so. We are then left with the uncomfortable work of having to convince a mostly Christian country that these strange people of a "foreign" religion in their midst are not by default a threat and do not deserve to be treated as such with so grand a suspicious attitude. This work is then increased by the notion that many prominent secularists take a specific interest in the violence and extremism of some Muslims and accordingly share in some of these demands. I regard this quest as not rational as a response, and a serious error in logic and thinking, things which secularists ordinarily pride themselves upon. There are a series of problems with it.

It assumes a threat is posed by the doctrines of a particular faith without evaluating the behavior or even the practiced beliefs of those who describe themselves as adherents to it. As a comparison, my evaluation of most Christians is that they have only very limited association with the texts and theology of their beliefs (for better or worse). Muslims are likely little different in my experience as the availability of diverse scholarship in belief, practices of beliefs, and textual emphasis that results carries a similarly varied and otherwise iffy nature. This logic suggests some amount of wariness is appropriate given that we may be unfamiliar and perhaps underestimating the probability of having wacky and dangerous beliefs as opposed to holding fairly benign or even beneficial beliefs. But translating that wariness and unfamiliarity into severe limitations on civil liberties more broadly is not a sensible response. Even where if were a case that many American Muslims were conducting and advocating violent actions, it would be difficult to carry out, and relatively easy and more successful to identify such threats with far more minimal inconveniences made upon those many who did not wade into these waters than are often advocated and supported.

It assumes a threat posed by extremists requires treatment of anyone vaguely similar as a potential extremist. This is a poor use of intelligence and deterrence strategies, profiling of this kind is extremely unlikely to be an effective deterrent to thoughtful terror cells who can easily avoid such efforts, resulting in precisely the same kind of "prevent the last attack" mentality that appears to govern many of our security efforts right now but with the added "benefit" of taking poorly trained and selected bureaucrats and giving them powers to apply ethnic and racial animus with legal force, while generally ignoring anyone who might also pose a threat to security instead. All of this theory behind profiling relies upon assumptions of percentages of people who are like X being much higher than is likely the case. Even the NSA's broad casting of surveillance suggests that there are potentially very few people who are radicalized threats to other Americans living among us, of any kind.

This is also not a source of treatment which is applied to other groups who have violent extremists in their midst. Christians tend not to have to disassociate themselves publicly from the behavior of radical persons and can still call themselves Christians with fairly minimal assessments of hypocrisy and inconvenience of mental gymnastics being imposed upon them. There are not generally calls that people should stop being Christian, or at least that they should acknowledge that their own dogmatic beliefs must include violent actions toward others. As they can and sometimes do too. Similar issues apply with, say, right-wing ideological views that these are not seen as automatically disqualifying to the general public. Perhaps to some left-wing ideological travelers. This seems like a double standard at the very least, if not a sign that this is an incorrect way to response to the actions of radicals is to associate such radicals with everything else related to whatever they radicalized and have weaponized into violent behaviors. All of this should be a factor in our thinking.

Finally it assumes that a threat posed primarily in the form of violence done in unstable Muslim-majority countries is likely to translate to a fairly stable Western democracy with the same level of regularity and for the same reasons as a basis for our efforts as a source of risk (if we do "nothing"). This is extremely unlikely. The expenditure of vast amounts of capital and resources in interdiction of threats and the accompanying potential reductions in the liberty of citizens of all faiths and customs may be regarded as "worthwhile" if it were appreciably reducing the level of violence from one where major terrorist incidents like those of Paris, or Boston, or New York are not only infrequent to one every few years but instead might occur daily. They do not. Such actions are fairly difficult to organise recruit, fund, train, plan, and successfully carry out in a stable Western liberal society. This is one good reason they do not occur with the level of frequency and resulting destruction and mayhem that one finds in Palestine or Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria. Finding disaffected people willing to risk death to inflict death is fairly easy if life is unpleasant, suffering is significant, and it is believed that such actions will help others. In a modern state with a civil government and functioning society, this is not the case. Other options are available to redress grievances. Funding and assembling people to be trained to carry out complicated operations is also something that can be easily detected and tracked. While there are many counter-surveillance tactics and strategies that can make this more difficult, all it requires is one foolish error to attract attention. Meanwhile known sources of radicalism can be monitored and tracked.

Accordingly, this is also all happening in societies with relatively few Muslims living there. Even France is only about 10% Muslim by population. The US is barely over 1%. India may have the only Muslim minority population of note (around 20%) of a relatively modern state. We are thus dealing with societies that may find such people strange and suspicious by nature and thus attract more scrutiny from neighbours, co-workers, local police, and so on. The idea that this extra scrutiny requires official sanction and bureaucratic license strikes me as more dangerous than necessary. The idea that such a tiny percentage of the population can seriously jeopardize our system of jurisprudence, our general values for humanity, and the relative prosperity and well-being of significant numbers of citizens is highly dubious. They can manage to make attacks and even kill some number of people per year. Such actions however are extremely small in number relative to the numbers of Americans who kill themselves or each other in more prosaic ways. This suggests that we have other problems more worth worrying about and attending to as a concern of suffering of our own country than that of terrorism, radicalism, and Islam more broadly.
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