Humans and animals — the power and limitations of language

Stassa Edwards writes: In his Apology for Raymond Sebond (1576), Michel de Montaigne ascribed animals’ silence to man’s own wilful arrogance. The French essayist argued that animals could speak, that they were in possession of rich consciousness, but that man wouldn’t condescend to listen. ‘It is through the vanity of the same imagination that [man] equates himself with God,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘that he attributes divine attributes for himself, picks himself out and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures.’ Montaigne asked: ‘When I play with my cat, who knows if she is making more of a pastime of me than I of her?’

Montaigne’s question is as playful as his cat. Apology is not meant to answer the age-old question, but rather to provoke; to tap into an unending inquiry about the reasoning of animals. Perhaps, Montaigne implies, we simply misunderstand the foreign language of animals, and the ignorance is not theirs, but ours.

Montaigne’s position was a radical one – the idea the animals could actually speak to humans was decidedly anti-anthropocentric – and when he looked around for like-minded thinkers, he found himself one solitary essayist. But if Montaigne was a 16th century loner, then he could appeal to the Classics. Apology is littered with references to Pliny and a particular appeal to Plato’s account of the Golden Age under Saturn. But even there, Montaigne had little to work with. Aristotle had argued that animals lacked logos (meaning, literally, ‘word’ but also ‘reason’) and, therefore, had no sense of the philosophical world inhabited and animated by humans. And a few decades after Montaigne, the French philosopher René Descartes delivered the final blow, arguing that the uniqueness of man stems from his ownership of reason, which animals are incapable of possessing, and which grants him dominion over them.

Everyone know what it’s like to forget someone’s name. It could be the name of a celebrity and the need to remember might be non-existent, and yet, as though finding this name might be an antidote to looming senility, it’s hard to let go of such a compulsion until it is satisfied.

From infancy we are taught that success in life requires an unceasing commitment to colonize the world with language. To be lost for words, is to be left out.

Without the ability to speak or understand, we would lose our most vital connection with the rest of humanity.

Montaigne understood that it was a human conceit to imagine that among all creatures, we were the only ones endowed with the capacity to communicate:

Can there be a more formall and better ordained policie, divided into so severall charges and offices, more constantly entertained, and better maintained, than that of Bees? Shall we imagine their so orderly disposing of their actions, and managing of their vocations, have so proportioned and formall a conduct without discourse, reason, and forecast?

What Montaigne logically inferred in the 1500s, science would confirm centuries later.

While Stassa Edwards enumerates the many expressions of a human desire for animals to speak, my sense is that behind this desire there is an intuition about the limitations of language: that our mute companions often see more because they can say less.

We view language as a prism that allows us perceive order in the world and yet this facility in representation is so successful and elegantly structured that most of the time we see the representations much more clearly than we see the world.

Our ability to describe and analyze the world has never been more advanced than it is today and yet for millennia, humans have observed that animals seem to be able to do something that we cannot: anticipate earthquakes.

Perhaps our word-constructed world only holds together on condition that our senses remain dull.

The world we imagine we can describe, quantify, and control, is in truth a world we barely understand.

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Inexperienced Colorado judge sends wrong message to potential ISIS recruits and their families

There is a strange and cowardly convention in American journalism and society at large that treats criminal action as a mark of adulthood.

If an eighteen-year-old gets shot, there is a reasonable chance that he or she will be referred to as a teen, but whoever pulls the trigger is supposedly an adult — and the worse the crime, the more likely a child is going to be tried as an adult.

The United States and many other countries could learn a lot from Germany.

As Andrew Neilson writes: “Germany sentences young adults under either juvenile or adult law based on an assessment of a young adult’s maturity. The courts have a choice based on the person they see before them.”

Any legal process that has the capacity to determine an individual’s guilt should also be able to make a judgment about their level of maturity.

Shannon Conley and Judge Raymond Moore.

Shannon Conley and Judge Raymond Moore

Shannon Maureen Conley is a Colorado teenager who just got sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to go to Syria to join ISIS. Most press reports refer to her as a woman — I guess she entered womanhood the minute she declared jihad.

The gray-haired judge, Raymond P. Moore, who is in his early sixties, conceded that Conley was naive but said at sentencing: “I need to send a message.”

Like most people who use that expression, Moore didn’t spell out exactly what the message was, but given that despite his mature appearance he has only been a judge for less than two years, my suspicion is that he was less concerned about his message than he was afraid of showing any leniency — possessed by a fear that guides the actions of thousands of government officials across America who are terrified of being viewed as soft on terrorism.

Three other Denver teenage girls were stopped in Germany last Fall as they attempted to make their way to Syria where they apparently intended to marry ISIS fighters. They were returned to their parents without facing charges. Presumably the officials involved in that case felt that everyone’s interests would be better served by returning these kids to their homes rather than locking them in prison cells.

No doubt Moore thought he was sending a strong message to potential ISIS recruits, but in doing so he has sent the wrong message to their parents. No one wants to see their child risk their life by going to join ISIS, yet neither do they want to see them thrown behind bars because of naive, ill-informed, and youthful idealism.

Anyone who actually reaches Syria or Iraq and takes up arms with ISIS is willingly entering a war and will suffer the consequences of that choice, but prior to crossing that threshold — and especially if that individual has yet to exercise the autonomy of an adult — they should be shown some kindness.

By failing to follow that course, the Colorado judge has probably made it likely that kids contemplating running off to Syria will take even greater care to avoid detection, and parents who learn about such plans will be more hesitant about alerting the authorities.

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ISIS and the glamour of deadly convictions

McClatchy: Ben Carson stirred controversy last week when he suggested Americans could learn something from the Islamic State terrorist organization. “They’re willing to die for what they believe, while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness,” he told a Republican meeting.

In an interview Monday with McClatchy, the retired neurosurgeon, who is seriously considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, explained his views.

Carson believes ISIS is resolute in its commitment to destroy America: “Do we sit around and wait for them to do that, or do we take them out?”

Carson’s poverty of thought is evident in his cartoonish yet commonplace expressions.

If an ISIS fighter makes a video that appears on YouTube and in which he pumps his fist into the air, promising that America faces destruction, this is a threat that deserves to be taken about as seriously would a threat to destroy the planet by changing its orbit, hurling it towards a fiery collision with the Sun. Just because the threat is made, doesn’t make it credible.

ISIS can neither destroy America nor Europe but it has already and continues to cause an immense amount of destruction in the Middle East — not as much destruction as that wrought by the Assad regime, but it’s no exaggeration to say that ISIS threatens the stability of the whole region and threatens the lives and way of life of everyone within its reach.

How much harm ISIS can do in the West depends much less on the direct capabilities of the group than it does on the way governments and the public react to events such as the Paris attacks.

The issue for the West is not whether it needs to prevent ISIS taking over the world, but what it can do to limit, reduce and ultimately end what can objectively, without hyperbole, be described as a reign of terror.

(The fact that from overuse the phrase, reign of terror, has lost most of its punch, does not render it meaningless. A movement whose instruments of political control are public beheadings, crucifixions, throwing people off tall buildings, chopping off hands, turning women and girls into slaves, and engaging in frequent mass executions, is imposing what must be called a reign of terror.)

In this challenge, the U.S. and its European allies can and should have no more than a supporting role, so this is not a binary choice as Carson presents it, between “taking them out” or doing nothing.

At the same time, anyone who imagines that there might be some kind of purely non-military strategy for dealing with ISIS, seems to be indulging in wishful thinking.

When it comes to purity of conviction, the only group currently involved in the fight against ISIS that seems to be completely clear about what they are fighting for are the Syrian Kurdish men and women in the forces of the YPG.

If, as Carson sees it, the willingness to die and the willingness to kill, are the measure of the depth of someone’s convictions, then ISIS is indeed a force of unparalleled conviction.

The problem in reading the nature of these convictions in this way is that it presupposes that anyone who has formed such an intimate relationship with death, knows both what he is fighting for and what it means to die.

I suspect that large numbers of ISIS’s fighters understand neither and that the focus of their conviction is not a deeply understood cause served by death, but a conviction that killing and dying are inherently meaningful.

That meaning is not derived from self-knowledge or an understanding of life, but instead from a fatuous desire to be praised by others. In other words, death in ISIS, offers a gateway through which young men burdened by the sense of being nobody can (they imagine) instantly become somebody.

This is jihadist reality TV in which its stars make their names and enjoy their 15 minutes of fame on Twitter. It turns video games into real life and its appetite for carnage is no more meaningful than the make-believe carnage that gets churned out of Hollywood.

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NSA on and off the trail of the Sony hackers

After cybersleuth Barack Obama saw the evidence pointing at North Korea’s responsibility for the cyberattacks against Sony, “he had no doubt,” the New York Times melodramatically reports.

He had no doubt about what? That his intelligence analysts knew what they were talking about? Or that he too when presented with the same evidence was forced to reach the same conclusion?

I have no doubt that had Obama been told by those same advisers that North Korea was not behind the attacks, he would have accepted that conclusion. In other words, on matters about which he lacks the expertise to reach any conclusion, he relies on the expertise of others.

A journalist who tells us about the president having “no doubt” in such as situation is merely dressing up his narrative with some Hollywood-style commander-in-chief gravitas.

When one of the reporters in this case, David Sanger, is someone whose cozy ties to government extend to being “an old friend of many, many years” of Ashton Carter, whose nomination as the next Secretary of Defense is almost certain to be approved, you have to wonder whose interests he really serves. Those of his readership or those of the government?

Since Obama and the FBI went out on a limb by asserting that they had no doubt about North Korea’s role in the attacks, they have been under considerable pressure to provide some compelling evidence to back up their claim.

That evidence now comes courtesy of anonymous officials briefing the New York Times and another document from the Snowden trove of NSA documents.

Maybe the evidence really is conclusive, but there are still important unanswered questions.

For instance, as Arik Hesseldahl asks:

why, if the NSA had so fully penetrated North Korea’s cyber operations, did it not warn Sony that an attack of this magnitude was underway, one that apparently began as early as September.

Officials with the NSA and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the report. A Sony spokeswoman had no comment.

On the one hand we’re being told that the U.S. knew exactly who was behind the Sony attacks because the hackers were under close surveillance by the NSA, and yet at the same time we’re being told that although the NSA was watching the hackers it didn’t figure out what they were doing.

If Hollywood everyone decides to create a satire out of this, they’ll need to come up with a modern-day reworking of the kind of scene that would come straight out of Get Smart — the kind where Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, would be eavesdropping on conversation between his North Korean counterparts, the only problem being, that he doesn’t understand Korean.

The Times report refers to the North Korean hackers using an “attack base” in Shenyang, in north east China. This has been widely reported with the somewhat less cyber-sexy name of the Chilbosan Hotel whose use for these purposes has been known since 2004.

If the attackers wanted to avoid detection, it’s hard to understand why they would have operated out of a location that had been known about for that long and that could so easily be linked to North Korea.

It’s also hard to fathom that having developed its cyberattack capabilities over such an extended period, North Korea would want to risk so much just to try and prevent the release of The Interview.

Michael Daly claims that the regime “recognizes that Hollywood and American popular culture in general constitute a dire threat” — a threat that has apparently penetrated the Hermit Kingdom in the “especially popular” form of Desperate Housewives.

Daly goes on to assert:

a glimpse of Wisteria Lane is enough to give lie to the regime’s propaganda that North Koreans live in a worker’s paradise while its enemies suffer in grinding poverty, driven by envy to plot against Dear Leader.

Of course, as every American who has watched the show knows, Wisteria Lane represents anytown America and the cast could blend in unnoticed at any Walmart or shopping mall.

OK. I won’t deny that American propaganda is much more sophisticated than North Korea’s, but when an American journalist implies that Desperate Housewives offers ordinary North Koreans a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans, you have to ask: which population has been more perfectly been brainwashed?

In reality, the dire threat to the North Korean regime in terms of social impact comes not from American popular culture but from much closer: South Korean soap operas.

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The new war: How targeted killing has become the tactic of choice for both governments and terrorists

After Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas in Gaza on March 22, 2004, John Negroponte, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, said that the United States was “deeply troubled by this action by the Government of Israel.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (representing the U.S.’s closest ally in the war in Iraq) went further and said that Israel “is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”

A decade later, so-called targeted killing is no longer a counter-terrorism tactic favored mostly just by the Israelis — it has become a tactic of choice both for the U.S. government and for groups and individuals linked to Al Qaeda.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he entered the White House with the promise of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and closing down Guantánamo Bay, but with no hope of being able to credibly claim victory in the war on terrorism, he opted to replace boots on the ground with drone warfare.

He seemed enamored with the technique’s precision, its futuristic glamor and the fact that it would have an even less impact on the lives of ordinary Americans — lives already far removed from the effects of foreign wars. A drone war was a war that America could conduct with very few Americans needing to leave home or even pay much attention.

War was going to shift from shock-and-awe to background noise with drone strikes occurring like lightening strikes in a storm too distant for any American to hear the thunder.

The use of targeted killing apparently no longer deeply troubled the U.S. government. But the tactic that was supposed to finish off Al Qaeda seems to have had the opposite effect.

The U.S. might at this point retain close to exclusive control over deadly drone warfare but it has neverthless created an easy to imitate model of targeted violence where the claimed legitimacy of the violence is not defined by its instruments or the authority of its perpetrators but simply by the idea that the targets are not innocent.

Following the Charlie Hebdo killings, the unity of “Je suis Charlie” in France is meant to show the terrorists that they cannot win, but in as much as Cherif and Said Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly hoped to be of influence, I doubt very much that they cared about broad public opinion. Their target audience, narrow yet widely dispersed, readily accepts the idea that a war defending Islam can legitimately strike “blasphemers,” security forces, Jewish, and political targets.

Terrorism is redefining itself, shifting away from the use of indiscriminate violence in preference for precision targeting.

Analysts in the media have generally ascribed this shift to a matter of expedience — it’s easier to buy guns than construct bombs. But true as that might be, I suspect the shift has more to do with an ideological shift which springs from the desire to widen the recruiting base of future killers.

Killing innocent people is very hard to justify in the name of any cause. Moreover, to hold ordinary citizens accountable for the actions of their governments isn’t a particularly persuasive argument when universally people feel like they have little influence over the affairs of state.

Just hours before the Kouachi brothers were killed, a Frenchman identified in the media simply as Didier was greeted by one of them at the entrance to the print shop in Dammartin-en-Goele where they had taken refuge. As he left, the gunman said, “Go, we don’t kill civilians.”

This seems to now be central to Al Qaeda’s message: we are not indiscriminate killers.

When President Obama ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, no doubt he believed his decision was legally defensible and morally justifiable, but in the eyes of Awlaki’s supporters this action must have reinforced the notion that anyone can claim the right to kill when they are convinced that their victims deserve to die.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week reiterated what have become frequent warnings about the rising threat from “lone wolf” terrorists — those whose actions are impossible to anticipate.

But the lone wolves are not out committing random acts of violence:

A new ISIS video released last week warned: “We will expand across all of Europe, to France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and also the USA… I say to my brothers, if you see a police officer — kill him. Kill them all.”

(The same video also encouraged killing “all infidels that you see in the streets” — an indication that ISIS still has a predilection for old-school, indiscriminate, mass violence.)

Over the last year, as government and security officials in Europe and North America have made increasingly frequent warnings about the dangers posed by Western fighters returning to their home countries from Syria, bringing the war with them, I have been among those who thought the threat was being exaggerated.

The flow of fighters appeared to be going overwhelmingly in the opposite direction and if a few returned home, it seemed much more likely that their decision would be precipitated by disenchantment with jihad rather than the desire to take their fight to the West.

The evidence now suggests, however, that the official warnings were not the kind of fear-mongering that commonly and cynically gets ascribed to nothing more than the promotion of an ever-expanding national security state.

When 80,000 security personnel get deployed to hunt down two men, it’s easy to argue that this kind of response amounts to a massive over-reaction. To a degree, that seems true, yet police and other domestic security forces do actually find themselves in a situation for which there are neither parallels in conventional law enforcement or even earlier forms of terrorism.

Even so, as Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, said on German public television this week, “we must be calm and master the situation with a sense of proportion. Panic and hysteria don’t help.”

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Criticizing Islam without being Islamophobic

Rally in Lahore, Pakistan, protesting against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

Rally in Lahore, Pakistan, protesting against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

If the text on the banner above had been faked by someone using Photoshop, one might imagine that this was some kind of Islamophobic satire. But it is not. These are Muslims who unwittingly satirize themselves. Nothing that can be said about them is more damning than what they say themselves.

I am not a Muslim, nor a scholar of Islam and thus have no competence to engage in a critique of Islamic doctrine. So when I talk about criticizing Islam, I’m not implying that I think it is doctrinally defective.

Islam, in my view, is just like any other religion, in the sense that it is an amorphous, complex entity, expressed collectively through the lives of everyone who calls themselves a Muslim. Islam equals 1.8 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s population, including as much diversity as the non-Muslim world.

Arguments about “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims, authentic Islam and distorted Islam, radical Islam and moderate Islam, generally involve questions about how Muslims want to represent themselves or how they are represented by others. Like all representations, these have the tendency of projecting uniformity by masking complexity.

In the polarized atmosphere following 9/11 and once again following the Charle Hebdo attacks, at one extreme are those who say that the attacks reveal the true nature of Islam and at the other those who say the attacks and attackers have nothing to do with Islam. Each camp sees the other as promoting a lie.

Among those in the West who see anti-Muslim rhetoric escalating to a dangerous degree, the standard response has been to attribute this to an underlying racism and Islamophobia — both of which are of course clearly in evidence in Europe and North America — but the problem in making this analysis is that it tends to gloss over some glaringly obvious and disturbing facts.

The French gunmen chose as their target, individuals whose only “crime” was that they had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, and having accomplished their goal, loudly declared “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” Even if they were alone in thinking this, it seems undeniable that in their own minds they believed that they were acting in defense of Islam.

But they were not alone. At a small demonstration in Peshawar, Pakistan, this week, protesters chanted “Long live Cherif Kouachi, long live Said Kouachi.” They branded the cartoonists, not the gunmen, as the terrorists. They marched behind a placard which said: “A strong message was needed and they [the Kouachis] delivered it. We salute the messengers. May they live long.”

Expressions of support for the attacks can be found in abundance online.

Today there are again protests across Pakistan against the cartoons in the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo.

But the Lebanese journalist, Nadim Koteich, points out bluntly what should be obvious to Muslims and non-Muslims alike:

Nothing insults Islam more than the Charlie Hebdo massacre.”

In a similar vein, Nervana Mahmoud laments: “We are more offended by cartoons than butcheries, crucifixion, slavery, flogging. That how twisted is our mindset!”

Meanwhile, Raif Badawi, a blogger in Saudi Arabia has received 50 lashes — the first installment in a sentence of 1,000 lashes — for “insulting Islam.”

Badawi’s “crime” is that he has expressed ideas like this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”

While the Paris attacks were widely condemned in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi rulers have been criticized for not condemning the cartoons and so the Badawi case serves as a way they can boost their religious credibility.

“They’re under pressure inside to punish people like him, especially among Salafis. It is a question of the legitimacy of the state. You have to remember those people are very influential at a street level,” Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert with close ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry, told Reuters.

In the West, the popular and visceral response to the Paris attacks was they represented a dire threat to free speech and thus free speech must be vigorously defended.

This then provoked a smaller but fairly vocal “yes, but…” reaction which focused on the need to oppose Islamophobia and to acknowledge that the cartoonists had been unnecessarily provocative.

One of the many problems with this backlash is that it prompts an eminently reasonable question: If now is not the time to be speaking in defense of free speech, when would such a need arise?

Slavoj Žižek refers to “the pathological fear of many Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of Islamophobia,” and I agree that such a fear exists.

Indeed, I would say that the only way a non-Muslim can genuinely show solidarity with Muslims right now is, paradoxically, by taking the risk of appearing Islamophobic.

Rather than treat Islam and Muslims like a delicate fruit which will bruise unless handled with the greatest care, it might actually be a sign of greater respect to assume that this religious tradition and its living representatives have enough resilience to withstand criticism from both the inside and the outside.

(And I’d apply the same argument to Jews and any other group that have a tendency of hiding behind their own sense of victimization.)

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NYT reporters parrot unsubstantiated statements from U.S. counterterrorism officials. What’s new?

A report in the New York Times claims in its opening paragraph:

The younger of the two brothers who killed 12 people in Paris last week most likely used his older brother’s passport in 2011 to travel to Yemen, where he received training and $20,000 from Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, presumably to finance attacks when he returned home to France.

The source of that information is presumably the American counterterrorism officials referred to in the second paragraph.

Reporters Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, too busy scribbling their notes, apparently didn’t bother asking these officials how they identified the money trail.

That’s an important question, because an alternative money trail has already been reported that has no apparent connection to AQAP.

French media have reported that Amedy Coulibaly — who in a video declared his affiliation with ISIS — purchased the weapons, used both by him and the Kouachi brothers, from an arms dealer in Brussels and that he paid for these with:

a standard loan of 6,000 euros ($7,050) that Coulibaly took out on December 4 from the French financial-services firm Cofidis. He used his real name but falsely stated his monthly income on the loan declaration, a statement the company didn’t bother to check, the reports say.

Whereas the New York Times reports receipt of the money and its amount as fact, CNN — no doubt briefed by the same officials — makes it somewhat clearer that this information is quite speculative:

U.S. officials have told CNN it’s believed that when Cherif Kouachi traveled to Yemen in 2011, he returned carrying money from AQAP earmarked to carry out the attack. Investigators said the terrorist group could have given as much as $20,000, but the exact amount has not been verified. [Emphasis mine.]

This isn’t a money trail — it’s speculation. And even if AQAP did put up some seed capital, that was four years ago. In the intervening period, the gunmen seem to have been busy engaged in their own entrepreneurial efforts:

Former drug-dealing associates of Coulibaly told AP he was selling marijuana and hashish in the Paris suburbs as recently as a month ago. Multiple French news accounts have said the Kouachi brothers sold knockoff sporting goods made in China.

Another gaping hole in the NYT report is its failure to analyze the AQAP videos — there were two.

The first video, released on January 9, praised the attacks but made no claim of responsibility. Were its makers restrained by their own modesty? The second video, which does claim that AQAP funded and directed the operation, provides no evidence to support these claims.

The top spokesman for the Yemen branch of al-Qaida publicly took credit Wednesday for the bloody attack on a French satirical newspaper, confirming a statement that had been emailed to reporters last week.

But the 11-minute video provided no hard evidence for its claims, including that the operation had been arranged by the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki directly with the two brothers who carried it out before Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The video includes frames showing Awlaki but none of him with the brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, nor any images of the Kouachis that haven’t been shown on Western news broadcasts for days.

So it seems premature for the New York Times to start talking about how the attacks might:

serve as a reminder of the continued danger from the group [AQAP] at a time when much of the attention of Europe and the United States has shifted to the Islamic State, the militant organization that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq and has become notorious for beheading hostages.

The NYT report also makes a claim that I have not seen elsewhere:

In repeated statements before they were killed by the police, the Kouachi brothers said they had carried out the attack on behalf of the Qaeda branch in Yemen, saying it was in part to avenge the death of Mr. Awlaki.

Are we to suppose that Awlaki was funding an operation to avenge his own death before he had been killed?

Based on the information that has been reported so far — and obviously, new information might significantly change this picture — the evidence seems to lean fairly strongly in the direction that the Paris attacks should be seen to have been inspired rather than directed by Al Qaeda.

And to the extent that Anwar al-Awlaki played a pivotal role in these attacks, the lesson — a lesson that should be reflected on by President Obama and the commanders of future drone strikes — is that Awlaki’s capacity to inspire terrorist attacks seems to be just as strong now as it was when he was alive.

Indeed, the mixed messages coming from AQAP might reflect an internal debate on whether it can wield more power as an inspirational force or alternatively needs to sustain the perception that it retains control over operations carried out in its name.

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Charlie Hebdo promotes radical idea: forgiveness

The Guardian reports: The front cover of Wednesday’s edition of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the first since last week’s attack on its Paris offices that left 12 people dead, is a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

The cover shows the prophet shedding a tear and holding up a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” in sympathy with the dead journalists. The headline says “All is forgiven”.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo magazine who worked on the new issue, said the cover was a call to forgive the terrorists who murdered her colleagues last week, saying she did not feel hate towards Chérif and Saïd Kouachi despite their deadly attack on the magazine, and urged Muslims to accept humour.

“We don’t feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The angle much of the media wants to play on this story is that publishing another cartoon of the prophet Muhammad is yet another provocation.

Britain’s Anjem Choudray wants to up the ante a few notches more and says this is an “act of war.”

But let’s take Rhazoui at her word and see this cover as a call to forgiveness. (During the attack, she was vacationing in her native Morocco.)

Christians can’t make an exclusive claim on forgiveness as a spiritual value, yet there probably isn’t any other religion that makes forgiveness so central to its message.

So here’s the irony: a stridently secular magazine is promoting a message that’s more Christian than anything one regularly hears from the camp that so often sees its Christian culture and Western values threatened by Islam.

The cover image is also a taunt to the media and everyone else who has so vigorously been declaring “Je suis Charlie” for the last week. How do we defend free speech while objecting to its practice?

Yet the image and text are ambiguous. Most viewers will see it without hearing Rhazoui’s interpretation and like Joseph Harker, many will wonder: who is being forgiven?

Is this aimed at the killers – which would be strange because they barely deserve this after their acts of terror, and they are not referenced in the drawing?

More likely, given the image of the prophet, it’s aimed at Muslims in general. But why do Muslims need to be forgiven?

“All is forgiven” can be read as a Christian message in which case it might seem directed at Muslims, but it’s coming from a very secular and satirical magazine so it might be better read as a challenge to the assumptions we make about power dynamics.

The popular response to terrorism — the one that George Bush reflexively tapped into on 9/11 — was that we must fight back. We either crush them or they will crush us.

Ultimately the drive to survive will always be more powerful than the willingness to forgive, but the deception of terrorism is that by its very nature it can never pose a threat as large as the one it assumes.

Our ability to forgive does not depend on us being willing to martyr ourselves, but simply that we retain a sense of proportion.

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Submission

I am powerless and my life is out of control.
I believe a higher power can restore my sanity.
I submit to the will of God, the only power that can guide my life.

OK. I neither believe in God nor am I an alcoholic, but I based the lines above on the first three steps of the twelve-step program created by Alcoholics Anonymous just to convey the fact that submission to the will of God is a practice (or aspiration) that shapes the lives of millions of Americans — people who might not necessarily describe themselves as religious.

Soumission (Submission) is the title of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel — a book which even before its release this week and before the Charlie Hebdo shootings took place, had stirred a huge amount of controversy in France since it depicts a not-too-distant future in which the French submit to Islamic rule.

Given that premise, it’s not hard to see why Houellebecq is being accused of pandering to the fears of the far right — of those who believe in the National Front’s slogan, “France for the French.” But while Houellebecq’s appetite for controversy is undeniable, he says he’s neither trying to defend secularism nor fuel Islamophobia.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Houellebecq says that he thought he was an atheist but was really an agnostic.

Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

The Economist summarizes Soumission in this way:

The novel, which has not yet been translated into English, is narrated by François, a literature professor at the Sorbonne, who drifts between casual sex and microwaved ready-made meals in a state of wry detachment and ennui. Then, in an imaginary France of 2022, a political earthquake shakes him out of his torpor. The two mainstream parties, on the left and the right, are eliminated in the first round of a presidential election. This leaves French voters with the choice between Marine Le Pen’s populist National Front—and the Muslim Fraternity, a new party led by Mohammed Ben Abbes. Thanks to an anti-Le Pen front, Mr Ben Abbes is elected and thus begins Muslim rule.

After a period of disorder, France returns to a strange calm under its apparently moderate new Muslim president; and François, who fled briefly, returns to Paris. But the city, and his university, are unrecognisable. More women are veiled, and give up work to look after their menfolk (helping to bring down France’s unemployment rate). Polygamy is made legal. France embarks on a geopolitical project to merge Europe with Muslim Mediterranean states. Saudi Arabia has poured petrodollars into better pay for professors and posh apartments on the city’s left bank. And his own university has been rebranded the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne. Will François, an atheist, resist, or flee the new regime or compromise with it?

While this sounds like a graphic representation of Islamophobic fears prevalent not only in France but across much of Europe, Houellebecq says:

I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren’t interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you’ll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn’t really see why they’d vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever.

I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.

That hypothesis is central to the book, but we know that it has been discredited for many years by numerous researchers, who have shown that we are actually witnessing a progressive secularization of Islam, and that violence and radicalism should be understood as the death throes of Islamism. That is the argument made by Olivier Roy, and many other people who have worked on this question for more than twenty years.

This is not what I have observed, although in North and South America, Islam has benefited less than the evangelicals. This is not a French phenomenon, it’s almost global. I don’t know about Asia, but the case of Africa is interesting because there you have the two great religious powers on the rise — evangelical Christianity and Islam. I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.

[I]n your book you describe, in a very blurry and vague way, various world events, and yet the reader never knows quite what these are. This takes us into the realm of fantasy, doesn’t it, into the politics of fear.

Yes, perhaps. Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.

Like imagining the prospect of Islam taking over the country?

Actually, it’s not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved.

Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis?

None. No effect whatsoever.

You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France that I just described, in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?

In any case, that’s pretty much all the media talks about, they couldn’t talk about it more. It would be impossible to talk about it more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.

Doesn’t it make you want to write about something else so as not to join the pack?

No, part of my work is to talk about what everyone is talking about, objectively. I belong to my own time.

[Y]our book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.

No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.

You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?

Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear.

[I]f Catholicism doesn’t work, that’s because it’s already run its course, it seems to belong to the past, it has defeated itself. Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.

Some might be surprised that you chose to go in this direction when your last book was greeted as such a triumph that it silenced your critics.

The true answer is that, frankly, I didn’t choose. The book started with a conversion to Catholicism that should have taken place but didn’t.

Isn’t there something despairing about this gesture, which you didn’t really choose?

The despair comes from saying good-bye to a civilization, however ancient. But in the end the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it — or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims. Obviously, as with all religious texts, there is room for interpretation, but an honest reading will conclude that a holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned, prayer alone is valid. So you might say I’ve changed my opinion. That’s why I don’t feel that I’m writing out of fear.

In its crudest expressions, the Clash of Cultures discourse presents a Christian West threatened by Islam, but many of those who reject this narrative use one that is no less polarizing. It presents secular moderates challenged by Islamic extremists — it’s still Religion vs. The Enlightenment, superstition vs. reason.

Much as the West promotes the idea of religious freedom in the context of civil liberties, religion is meant to be a private affair that doesn’t intrude into the social sphere outside the carefully circumscribed territories of church, temple, and mosque. We expect religious freedom to be coupled with religious restraint.

The real struggle, it seems to me, is not ultimately philosophical and theological — it’s not about the existence or non-existence of God. It’s about values.

What count are not values that serve as emblems of identity (often wrapped around nationalism), but instead those that guide individual action and shape society.

We profess values which are libertarian and egalitarian and yet have created societies in which the guiding values are those of materialism, competition, and personal autonomy — values that are all socially corrosive.

Society is relentlessly being atomized, reduced to a social unit of one, captured in the lonely image of the selfie. This is what we’ve been sold and what we’ve bought, but I don’t think it’s what we want.

Spellbound by technological progress, we have neither expected nor demanded that material advances should lead to social advances — that better equipped societies should also be better functioning, happier, more caring societies.

What the false promise of materially sustained, individual autonomy has created is the expectation that the more control we possess over life, the better it will get. We imagine that we must either be in control or fall under control.

From this vantage point, the concept of submission provokes fears of domination, and yet what it really all it means is to come into alignment with the way things are.

Where religion intrudes and so often fails is through the forcible imposition of rigid representations of such an alignment. But submission itself means seeing we belong to life — something that cannot be possessed or controlled.

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Double standards on free speech

Maurice Sinet just turned 86. In 2008 he wrote a column in which he expressed views described by Claude Askolovitch, a high-profile political commentator in France, as being as anti-Semitic. This later resulted in Sinet facing charges of “inciting racial hatred.”

He also received a death threat posted on a Jewish Defense League website, saying: “20 centimeters of stainless steel in the gut, that should teach the bastard to stop and think.”

Sinet, who works under the pen name Siné, got fired from his job but later won a €40,000 court judgment against his former publisher for wrongful termination.

Had he not been fired, he might now be dead — his employer was the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Is there a double standard in the West when it comes to alleged anti-Semitism versus insults to Islam? Absolutely.

To a great extent, the media and those engaged in public discourse police themselves faithfully and fearfully because even if being accused of anti-Semitism doesn’t typically put the target’s life in danger it can certainly destroy someone’s career.

What is overtly a campaign of intimidation continues to be highly effective. Moreover, as an accusation explicit or implied, this is now the weapon of choice for deflecting criticisms of Israel.


But as MJ Rosenberg notes:


Among those concerned that the response to the Paris attacks is a reflection of Western double standards is a sheikh in Australia called Ustadh Mohammed Junaid Thorne. He tweets:


On Facebook the sheikh amplifies:

They were warned and even threatened more than once. On one occasion, their premises was fire-bombed, yet they forbade to learn a lesson. I’m not condoning what happened, but I’m just stating that there must be a line/limit for freedom of speech, and when people or religions are being affected, the boundaries shouldn’t be crossed.

He’s “not condoning” — just implying the journalists at Charlie Hebdo got what they deserved?

Unless you’re among those who believe that an insult warrants an execution, I’d say that focusing on Western hypocrisy right now — real as it is — risks offering excuses for murder.

After the attacks, Maurice Sinet wrote: “It is too much, it’s unbearable, abominable, inhuman. I have no words to describe how devastated and sad I am.”

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How to spot terrorism

ter·ror·ism noun: the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

Yesterday, when asked whether he viewed the Paris attack as an act of terrorism, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told ABC News: “Based on what we know right now it does seem like that is what we are confronting here, and this is an act of violence that we certainly do condemn and if based on this investigation, it turns out to be an act of terrorism, we would condemn it with the strongest possible terms.”

I’m all in favor of avoiding rushing to judgement, but by the time Earnest spoke, as much of the world had already seen video footage of the gunmen conducting their operation and the target of their attack was known, it didn’t require the conclusion of an investigation to establish that this was an act of terrorism. Part of the purpose of the ongoing investigation must be to establish the motives of the suspects and what kind of organizational support they had, but I don’t think anyone in France is trying to figure out whether this was terrorism.

Not long after Earnest was hesitant about using the word “terrorism,” President Obama used it himself — not because of significant advances in the investigation, but most likely because he realized he’d sound like an idiot if he refused to use the expression.

It’s one thing to argue that terrorism is a term too imprecise to be clearly defined in law, yet in everyday language — even that used by a White House press secretary — there should be neither confusion nor controversy in calling yesterday’s bloodbath an act of terrorism.

Moreover, a White House that only two weeks ago exercised very little caution when concluding that North Korea instigated the Sony hacking — even though no hard evidence has been made public to back up this claim and an FBI investigation is still ongoing — seems to attach little value to its own credibility. Either that, or it sees value in confusion.

Lastly, here’s a nitpicky note for Earnest and the many others who believe that religions and other belief systems have tenants. What would those be? The occupants of a belief system?

The correct term is tenetnoun: a principle or belief, especially one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy.

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How to talk about a hashtag without using it. Time for metahashtags?

My heart sank when I saw #KillAllMuslims was trending yesterday. But then I saw how it was being used. Nearly all the tweets were condemning the hashtag with tweets like this:


And this:


Twitter needs to create metahashtags.

They would work something like this: Put a hashtag in front of a hashtag creating a metahashtag like ##KillAllMuslims. The extra hashtag would mean that this is a hashtag about a hashtag.

Metahashtags should be counted separately from hashtags in which case in the current situation it might be apparent that what is trending is conversation about the hashtag; not the hashtag itself.

If anyone at Twitter sees this, why not toss the idea around. The need seems to be real and the coding couldn’t be that difficult — at least in the eyes of someone who writes no code ;)

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Who are the #CharlieHebdo killers?

One of the hallmarks of terrorism is that provokes its audience to prematurely assign meaning.

Today’s brutal attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has swiftly been taken to be an attack on free speech and this meaning seems so obvious, no one pauses to consider whether it is accurate.

The attackers identities remain unknown but there is little reason to doubt that they are Islamic extremists of some description. Exactly who is a detail that is probably of less concern to those whose first need is to condemn violence and to defend free speech.

I neither doubt the sincerity of these condemnations nor the need to defend free speech, but it’s important to try and understand exactly what happened.

A few hours before the attack, the magazine tweeted:

The caption says “Greetings from al-Baghdadi as well” and the ISIS leader is saying, “…and especially health.” The magazine adds, “Best wishes, by the way.”

But Kim Willsher at The Guardian notes this important detail about the timing of the attack:


If the attackers had studied the work schedule of the journalists that carefully, it’s reasonable to infer that this operation was painstakingly planned and its occurrence right after the Baghdadi tweet was either pure coincidence or just a useful pretext.

It’s now reported that the gunmen told a bystander that the attack was carried out by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The gunmen have been described as wearing military dress and armed with Kalashnikovs and a rocket launcher.


Drawing a distinction between AQAP and ISIS may seem like a distinction without a difference. But the two jihadist groups have different objectives and competing interests.

In late November, NBC News reported:

Escalating a war of words between terrorism’s old and new schools, an Islamic scholar with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based offshoot on Friday accused ISIS of “planting … disunity” among the various Islamic extremist factions fighting to topple the Syrian government and rejcted the authority of the Iraq- and Syria-based group’s self-declared caliphate.

Harith Al-Nadhari, a spiritual leader and Shariah law scholar with the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said in a videotape released on YouTube and other social media that the infighting among Syrian rebel groups was “the biggest disaster that hit the Ummah (Arabic for the Muslim community) at this stage.”

He blamed ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, for the divisions, saying that it had exported “infighting and fitna (Arabic for strife) to other fronts,” according to a translation of his comments by Flashpoint Partners, which monitors terrorist group’s online communications.

Al-Nadhari also criticized ISIS for what he described as an overreach by calling for Muslims everywhere to “pledge allegiance to the caliph.”

While AQAP acuses ISIS of sowing discord between Muslims, the Charlie Hebdo attack is clearly aimed at sharpening the divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims and between the East and the West.

To the extent that this message resonates with those whose support for ISIS has become shaky, the attack may serve a strategic goal: to present al Qaeda rather than ISIS as the preeminent defender of Muslims.

An ISIS critic, noting the difference in expressions of concern about deaths in Syria versus those in Paris, tweets:


At the same time, there is also apparently an ongoing effort to use the attack to coral support for ISIS:


Naturally, the conspiracy theorists — yet to agree on their narrative — are busy at work:


Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg tweets:


Many have retweeted a 2012 New Yorker cartoon which depicts the price of capitulating to the opponents of free speech.


And in defense of the satirists, it’s worth noting that as much as they were criticized for being provocative, their sharp statements were not lacking in nuance:


And neither was their critical focus reserved for Islam:


Before too many voices get raised in an unreflective and uninformed defense of Western ideals, let’s hope the gunmen are caught and they are carefully questioned.

An eyewitness description of the attack may turn out to be quite significant:

“Everything happened very calmly, without shouting, without insults.”

That the attackers operated with clinical efficiency suggests that their operation was not only planned meticulously but there was probably as much thought put into anticipating its effect.

That’s why I’m inclined to think that this was designed not simply to send a narrow message — this is the price for insulting Islam — but to have a much wider impact, deepening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims.

It’s largely our choice whether the attack has this effect.

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2014: A year of feminist insurrection against male violence

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” [Source]

Rebecca Solnit writes:

I have been waiting all my life for what 2014 has brought. It has been a year of feminist insurrection against male violence: a year of mounting refusal to be silent, refusal to let our lives and torments be erased or dismissed. It has not been a harmonious time, but harmony is often purchased by suppressing those with something to say. It was loud, discordant, and maybe transformative, because important things were said – not necessarily new, but said more emphatically, by more of us, and heard as never before.

It was a watershed year for women, and for feminism, as we refused to accept the pandemic of violence against women – the rape, the murder, the beatings, the harassment on the streets and the threats online.

Further into her essay, Solnit says:

Sometimes at big political demonstrations – against the war in Iraq in early 2003, for example – the thousands of placards with handwritten statements, jokes, and facts, for all their brevity, constitute a cumulative critique that covers a lot of angles. Social media can do the same, building arguments comment by comment, challenging, testing, reinforcing and circulating the longer arguments in blogs, essays and reports. It’s like a barn-building for ideas: innumerable people bring their experiences, insights, analysis, new terms and frameworks. These then become part of the fabric of everyday life, and when that happens, the world has changed. Then, down the road, what was once a radical idea becomes so woven into everyday life that people imagine that it is self-evident and what everyone always knew. But it’s not; it’s the result of a struggle – of ideas and voices, not of violence.

Strangely, in a piece that runs close to 5,000 words, the women who have been the targets of ISIS’s violence and the women who have been fighting against ISIS earned not a single mention.

Silence leaves a vacuum that can only be filled with speculation, but the reason for this omission seems to be spelt out in the terms by which Solnit describes effective political activism: it is defined by the absence of violence.

But did this Yazidi girl betray feminism by picking up an AK-47?


Since the battle for Kobane began and due to its convenient location right next to the Turkish border gained several weeks of intense international media attention — the battle continues but the media has mostly lost interest — the heroism of Kurdish women has been highlighted.

Zîlan Diyar, a Kurdish guerrilla fighter, wrote last month:

The whole world is talking about us, Kurdish women. It has become a common phenomenon to come across news about women fighters in magazines, papers, and news outlets. Televisions, news sites, and social media are filled with words of praise. They take photos of these women’s determined, hopeful, and radiant glances. To them, our rooted tradition is a reality that they only recently started to know. They are impressed with everything. The women’s laughter, naturalness, long braids, and the details of their young lives feel like hands extending to those struggling in the waters of despair. There are even some, who are so inspired by the clothes that the women are wearing, that they want to start a new fashion trend! They are amazed by these women, who fight against the men that want to paint the colors of the Middle East black, and wonder where they get their courage from, how they can laugh so sincerely. And I wonder about them. I am surprised at how they noticed us so late, at how they never knew about us. I wonder how they were so late to hear the voices of the many valiant women who expanded the borders of courage, belief, patience, hope, and beauty.

The fact that Solnit is not talking about Kurdish women, seems to imply that for her and perhaps many other activists in the West, the use of violence can never be defended.

If this interpretation is correct, this dedication to the principle of non-violence seems to me less a matter of principle than a luxury only available to those whose own lives are not under immediate threat.

I also have to wonder whether those who have chosen to ignore the Kurds, failed to notice that in Rojava — the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria — a political experiment has been underway for the last three years that deserves the interest and support of anyone who believes in the creation of an egalitarian and truly democratic society.

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U.S. imposes sanctions on North Korea while ‘FBI continues its investigation’ into Sony attack

“Ongoing investigation” is a stock phrase frequently used by government officials when they want to duck awkward questions.

“I can’t really comment on that while there is an ongoing investigation …” etc, etc.

When it comes to the Sony hacking however, we’ve entered new political and legal territory.

Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew announced today that, “Even as the FBI continues its investigation into the cyber-attack against Sony Pictures Entertainment,” the U.S. has already decided to impose sanctions on North Korea.

This is like a trial in which midway through the proceedings, the judge interrupts the prosecution and defense and says, “I still intend to complete the trial but first I’ll pass sentence on the accused and then we can continue.”

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration doubled down on Friday on its allegation that North Korea’s leadership was behind the hacking of Sony Pictures as it announced new sanctions on 10 senior North Korean officials and several organizations. Administration officials said the action was part of what President Obama promised would be a “proportional response” against the country.

But White House officials said there was no evidence that the 10 officials took part in ordering or planning the Sony attack, although they described them as central to a number of provocative actions against the United States.

“It’s a first step,” one of the officials said. “The administration felt that it had to do something to stay on point. This is certainly not the end for them.”

I guess the rationale here is that the North Koreans deserve to be punished, because even if it turns out they didn’t commit the crime, this is the kind of thing they would do if they could.

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Is Glenn Greenwald still in bed with Sony?

Five weeks after the Sony hacking story broke, Glenn Greenwald has leapt into the fray with this: “North Korea/Sony Story Shows How Eagerly U.S. Media Still Regurgitate Government Claims.

Wow! American journalists still haven’t broken their habit of mindlessly repeating what U.S. government officials tell them.

Thanks for pointing that out Glenn. Who would have imagined that this still happens in America today?

I guess I missed how media coverage of this story has been so corrupt because I was relying on reporting from hard-hitting alternative investigative news organizations like CBS News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Beast, all of who showed why there were lots of reasons to doubt the official story.

The reason I’ve eagerly awaited Greenwald’s angle on this story is because he has a personal interest in how this all plays out.

The Intercept reported that Sony has scheduled to send a screenwriter to Brazil to meet with Greenwald this month.

Last March, Sony optioned the rights to turn Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide, into a movie. But emails leaked from the November hacking revealed that Sony executives along with George Clooney — a champion of the project — have concluded they can’t successfully compete with Oliver Stone whose own movie based on Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man will get released sooner than anything Sony can produce.

Clooney wrote:

Stone will do a hatchet job on the movie but it will still be the film of Snowdon….and even if we made a kick ass version it would be using all the same story points…

If Stone’s movie — hatchet job or not — turns out to be commercial success, Luke Harding will presumably be reaping some of the rewards even though he had a rather modest stake among those who have tried to own the Snowden story.

Even though the basis of Greenwald’s confidence is now hard to understand, on December 22, The Intercept reported that “he believes the movie is still going forward…”.

As the hacking story has played out in Hollywood, stars including some of those embarrassed by the revelations, have lined up to express their support for Sony’s management. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to perceive this as a shamelessly self-serving exercise designed to shore up future working relations. Even those who spoke out in defense of free speech, accusing Sony of a cowardly capitulation, clearly also had a commercial interest in defending their own movie projects.

In this context, it seems important to understand where Greenwald’s own commercial relationship with Sony currently stands.

This is what his latest post reveals:

[Blank space]

Sometimes, silence can say more than 2,000 words.

The Sony hacking story is a story about Sony and hacking, but for executives who have been doing all they could to ride this out without getting fired, welcome support can come in the form of stories that turn this into something else — a story, for instance, which casts this as yet another episode in the never-ending saga of corrupt journalism subservient to the national security state.

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James Fallows and the chickenhawks

James Fallows writes: Every institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.

At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.

I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.

“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”

I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.

“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam; his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”

[Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.” [Continue reading…]

Mullen says “inconvenienced” — presumably that’s a euphemism for drafted — but Fallows claims that reintroduction of the draft would be “unimaginable.”

Perhaps the draft is not so unimaginable as a policy recommendation as much as it is unimaginable coming from Fallows.

During the Vietnam War, Fallows dodged the draft rather than resisting it, an option he made because, as he wrote in 1975: “What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.”

Having told an examining doctor at his Cambridge draft board that he had contemplated suicide, and having thus been deemed “unqualified” for military service, Fallows said: “I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.”

No doubt that sense of shame would now make it impossible for Fallows to be an advocate for the draft.

But by now dodging this issue, he avoids drilling deeply into the most basic questions about the role of the military in America.

Fallow’s war-weariness and that of many other Americans seems to stem not so much from the fact that the United States has engaged in so much unnecessary war over the last decade or so, than the fact that its military efforts have been such a colossal and expensive failure.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion; Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.

Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

That Fallows views the killing of bin Laden as the “one clear strategic success” — without his intention — goes right to the heart of his polemic on America’s chickenhawk culture.

The celebration of bin Laden’s death is no less cowardly than support for wars triggered by 9/11.

If this killing could have served America in any way, it might conceivably have functioned as the symbolic end to an era. Clearly it did not have that effect.

A strategic success would be defined by its effect — by its ability to forestall undesirable outcomes and create a better future. Killing bin Laden had no such effect. Had he been captured and put on trial, it is conceivable that justice would have been served in a constructive way.

The willingness of Americans to support or acquiesce to a succession of military misadventures after 9/11 flowed very much from the fact that so few people were willing to question America’s need for vengeance. Moreover, America’s need to look strong was the product much less of the magnitude of the threat it faced than of a fear of looking weak.

Fallows hopes that America might be able to choose its wars more wisely and win them, but in that hope lies the most basic fallacy: that war should be a matter of choice.

In a war of true necessity, a nation goes to war because it has no choice. It fights not because it is convinced it will win but because the alternative would be worse than war.

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Understanding the allure of ISIS

The New York Times reports: [Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata] has fought in the shadows most of his 32-year Army career, serving in Special Operations forces and classified military units in hot zones such as Somalia, the Balkans and Iraq. Colleagues say he has displayed bureaucratic acumen in counterterrorism jobs at the C.I.A. and the Pentagon, and diplomatic savvy as a senior American military liaison officer in Pakistan during the turbulent period there from 2009 to 2011.

“He’s the rare warrior who is most comfortable in complexity,” said Stanley A. McChrystal, a retired four-star general and former commander of allied forces in Afghanistan.

Complexity is precisely what General Nagata, by then head of American commandos in the Middle East, wanted in July when he asked a tiny think tank within the military’s Joint Staff, known as Strategic Multilayer Assessment, for help in defeating the Islamic State.

In the past year, the group has produced studies on the security implications of megacities around the world and how to apply neuroscience to the concept of deterrence.

When General Nagata first convened the specialists on a conference call on Aug. 20, he described his priorities and the challenges that ISIS posed.

“What makes I.S. so magnetic, inspirational?” he said. He expressed specific concern that the militant organization is “deeply resonant with a specific but large portion of the Islamic population, particularly young men looking for a banner to flock to.”

“There is a magnetic attraction to I.S. that is bringing in resources, talent, weapons, etc., to thicken, harden, embolden I.S. in ways that are very alarming,” General Nagata said.

During the call, General Nagata alluded to the Islamic State’s sophisticated use of social media to project and amplify its propaganda, and insisted the United States needed “people born and raised in the region” to help combat the problem. [Continue reading…]

No doubt Nagata’s think tank doesn’t include Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt, who tweets:


I guess “etc” is Walt’s CYA caveat, to underline that these are just tweets — not serious political analysis. But still, they seem to sufficiently encapsulate the conventional wisdom which purports to explain why the growth of ISIS should not be perplexing.

Bad leaders, foreign invasions, and deep divisions are certainly important elements that have helped cultivate the ground for ISIS’s growth, yet these don’t provide sufficient explanations for the fact, for instance, that as many of ISIS’s foreign recruits have come from Tunisia as have come from Saudi Arabia. If being freed from the yoke of an autocratic and corrupt regime was going to take away the fuel for extremism, 3,000-plus Tunisians failed to get the message.

A New York Times report in October offered a glimpse into the minds of a few young Tunisians who felt drawn by ISIS:

In interviews at cafes in and around Ettadhamen [a district in Tunis], dozens of young unemployed or working-class men expressed support for the extremists or saw the appeal of joining their ranks — convinced that it could offer a higher standard of living, a chance to erase arbitrary borders that have divided the Arab world for a century, or perhaps even the fulfillment of Quranic prophecies that Armageddon will begin with a battle in Syria.

“There are lots of signs that the end will be soon, according to the Quran,” said Aymen, 24, who was relaxing with friends at another cafe.

Bilal, an office worker who was at another cafe, applauded the Islamic State as the divine vehicle that would finally undo the Arab borders drawn by Britain and France at the end of World War I. “The division of the countries is European,” said Bilal, 27. “We want to make the region a proper Islamic state, and Syria is where it will start.”

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said. “It is an obligation for every Muslim.”

Many insisted that friends who had joined the Islamic State had sent back reports over the Internet of their homes, salaries and even wives. “They live better than us!” said Walid, 24.

Wissam, 22, said a friend who left four months ago had told him that he was “leading a truly nice, comfortable life” under the Islamic State.

“I said: ‘Are there some pretty girls? Maybe I will go there and settle down,’ ” he recalled.

Depending on who they follow on Twitter, young men such as these in Tunisia and elsewhere may now have a less rosy view of life in the new caliphate — reports of deserters being executed en masse, of hundreds of fighters getting slaughtered in Kobane, and of ISIS’s inability to perform the most basic requirements of government in Mosul, should make the group look less appealing. They certainly don’t offer images of a better life.

But ISIS has successfully created an information space within which cult-like groupthink prevails. Young men intoxicated by a dream can easily dismiss bad reports as apostate propaganda. And the effort to promote a counter-narrative is destined to fail if it is seen as an imposition from outside — least of all is there any serious prospect that the State Department will have much success in persuading would-be fighters to think again and turn away.

The only challenge that is going to have any real weight is one that is not only indisputably religiously authentic, but also one that resonates with the social and generational demographic around which ISIS now has its grip.

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