Chattanooga: The World is a Battlefield

Four marines have reportedly been killed in attacks on two military centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The gunman has been identified by law enforcement officials as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez. The FBI is supposedly treating this, in contrast to the white supremacist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina as a terrorist act—“until it can be determined that it is not.”

There is little doubt that this will be recorded as another instance of domestic or homegrown terrorism, though there is little information available about the gunman. The reaction of the media should also be predictable.  There will be considerable bewilderment about how the gunman was “radicalized,” a reliance on discredited theories and absurd psychological theorizing. There will be even more hysteria than usual about the pernicious influence of radical Islamists. U.S. policies and precedences will remain absent.

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The Charleston Massacre is not Terrorism

At the moment there are few details about the massacre of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. A white gunman in his early 20s entered the church and opened fire. Police are calling the shooting a hate crime.

The routine murder of black people in this country only happens due to the historical devaluing of black life, the legal sanction behind much of that killing, and the impunity all too often granted to the murderers. This is precisely why we need #BlackLivesMatter.

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“Radicalization” and Media Narratives

By now there is a familiar, ritualistic quality to media coverage of homegrown terrorist attacks. Journalists, pundits, and terrorism “experts” pontificate on the religiosity of the perpetrators, explore their background, and wonder in total bewilderment as to how all-American boys could have been responsible for such ghastly acts. The more intrepid journalists try to identify the points at which their subjects transformed into callous terrorists willing to turn against their own country. Sometimes, the terrorists are put on a therapist’s couch while pundits reach into their stockpile of outdated Freudisms and explain their mindsets, taking care to mention one or another personal crisis. The pathological ideology of global Islamism is invoked, the government is blamed for not doing enough, and demands are raised for a strong response. The enemy, in these narratives, is shrewd and he is among us. We must be more vigilant.

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The Endless Cycle of War and Surveillance

Mass surveillance in the United States precedes the War on Terror. Nevertheless, since Edward Snowden’s leaks, it is terrorism that is marshalled as the ultimate threat by government officials and compliant media outlets to justify the need for mass surveillance. In June 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) director Keith Alexander testified before Congress that just two programs–“tracking more than a billion phone calls and vast swaths of Internet data each day”–had thwarted more than 50 potential terrorist attacks. He later admitted that this wasn’t exactly true, after the claim had already been thoroughly refuted.

A different rendition of this argument for mass surveillance suggests that a society under threat by terrorists must strike a balance between its civil liberties and safety. If the state is to have the capabilities necessary to protect us we must compromise on our civil liberties. A bit of privacy must be relinquished in order for the state to become cognizant of potential threats to our safety. On a superficial level, the argument makes sense, even if it exaggerates the terrorist threat.

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British Jihadis

At some 8,000 words Mary Anne Weaver’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, “Her Majesty’s Jihadists”,  is the most detailed attempt yet to “understand the pull of jihad” for Muslims in the UK. The subtitle boldly states that more British Muslims have joined Islamist militant groups than serve in the British military. Why this is so is worth asking, I suppose, though one could alternately ask why so few British Muslims are willing to serve in a military that has, quite literally, been at war in one place or another for more than a century. As Guardian reported last year, “Next year may be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting somewhere – the first time Britain is totally at peace with the rest of the world.” That belated peace was not to be as the British Parliament “voted overwhelmingly” to authorize air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. In our political culture we are not supposed to ask why individuals would willingly risk their lives for geopolitical or corporate aims. Their heroism has to be mindlessly celebrated.

In any case, Weaver’s article does not address that question. It wants to “understand the pull of jihad” for British Muslims. Her article is perhaps less interesting for what it says than for what it leaves out. There are interviews with scholars belonging to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), a man whose three son left to fight in Syria, and Moazzam Begg–an activist and a former prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Weaver begins her investigation by asking Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at ICSR, if he could draw a “typical jihadist profile” for her. Maher explains that the “average British fighter is male, in his early 20s and of South Asian ethnic origin” with “some university education and some association with activist groups.” Some go for humanitarian reasons and others are adventure seekers, “students of martyrdom,” and the “die-hard radicals.”

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Article on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

I have an article in Jacobin on the recent Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) summit held at the White House. It briefly traces the history of the Pakistani Taliban to look at some of the underlying causes of terrorism. An excerpt:

The problem is not that the Obama administration lacks the information to formulate an effective counter-extremism strategy that doesn’t scapegoat Muslims. The problem instead is that the most effective way to reduce the threat of terrorism is to retreat from empire.

It is no surprise that imperial wars and longstanding alliances with authoritarian states responsible for funding right-wing Islamist movements do not reduce the threat of terrorism. This holds true not just for “homegrown” terrorism but also for terrorist groups abroad. Unwilling to abandon policies that continually produce recruits for militant Islamism, the US falls back on blaming an ideology and the community which supposedly harbors it. Hence the focus on Muslims and the battle for “hearts and minds.”

Read the full article at Jacobin.

A War of Ideas: Terrorism and Ideology

For those of us who have ever felt a serious lack of hackneyed and discredited ideas in our political culture, James K. Glassman has done us all a service by writing this article in Politico. Glassman was a former chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors in the George W. Bush administration and is currently a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. With his recent article, he follows an illustrious pedigree on the right that has expressed effusive praise for Obama’s war efforts against The Terrorists.

Specifically, Glassman congratulates Obama for finally appreciating the importance of “ideas” in the War on Terror (as demonstrated by the recent Counter Violent Extremism Summit) and volunteers his own expertise to help the Obama administration formulate a strategy. After all, a “war of ideas” is not like other wars, you see. It relies less on blunt force and more on delicate diplomatic manoeuvring. Fortunately, Glassman is willing to guide us through it.

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New York Times and Pakistan’s Double Game

New York Times editorials are usually a reliable guide to ruling class opinion in the United States. They don’t always echo government pronouncements and there is often disagreement with official government policies. They eagerly suggest alternatives to pursue while pointing out the ramifications current policies may have. Propaganda is of course at its most effective when it is subtle and seems iconoclastic. Such is the nature of New York Times editorials: even as they disagree with official government policies they demarcate the boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

A recent editorial in the newspaper of record concerns US aid to Pakistan. ” Since 9/11,” it reads, “the United States has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars, mostly in military aid, to help fight extremists.” The editorial board, however, has “doubts about the investment,” which they explain as follows: “Doubts about the aid center on Pakistan’s army, which has long played a double game, accepting America’s money while enabling some militant groups, including members of the Afghan Taliban who have been battling American and Afghan troops in Afghanistan.”

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On the Charlie Hebdo Attack

Reading commentaries on the massacre in Charlie Hebdo‘s office I have learned that there is a correct way to respond to the tragedy. One is supposed to immediately condemn the attack, defend the right to blaspheme (some, like Jonathan Chait, would ask us to defend blasphemy itself), and angrily denounce any conversations about the cartoons regularly published by Charlie Hebdo. There are additional comments the inspired and politically astute among us can make: assert the universality of our freedoms, claim that they are under attack by fundamentalists, and applaud the distinctively French tradition of irreverence and “anticlerical spirit that goes far back in French history.”

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements following the attack are fine, eloquent examples of this required response. According to Kerry, “No country knows better than France that freedom has a price, because France gave birth to democracy itself.” The terrorists, continues the Secretary of State, “may wield weapons, but we in France and in the United States share a commitment to those who wield something that is far more powerful. Not just a pen, but a pen that represents an instrument of freedom, not fear.”

These sentiments were echoed by President Obama: “France is America’s oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world. Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended. France, and the great city of Paris where this outrageous attack took place, offer the world a timeless example that will endure well beyond the hateful vision of these killers.”

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