Archive for category Terrorism
A day after a brutal attack on not only a French satirical newspaper but on the very notion of freedom of speech, it’s inevitable that haters will turn around and attack all of Islam. Islamophobes have more in common with Islamic extremists than with true lovers of freedom. There have been attacks on Mosques in France, and Muslims again find the neanderthals attacking their religion because a few extremists committed an atrocious attack.
Rather than argue about that, I think it’s important to recognize great Islam has a history that includes tolerance, openness and sophisticated philosophical thought. One of the greats is Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938.
Known primarily as a gifted poet, and knighted by King George V, Iqbar’s religious thinking is something that should be taken seriously in the Muslim world. Iqbar was shaped in part by his time. He lived in India under British rule (in the Punjab province, now part of Pakistan), and saw the exploitation and ruthlessness of colonial control. Yet he studied law in Great Britain and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in Germany.
His religious thinking centers around how to reconcile the religious traditions of Islam in a modern world increasingly dictated by western norms and power.
He held on to deep religious convictions. He believed in God, and felt that Muslims should have a community where religion is public – not a separation of church and state as in the West. That makes sense, given how community oriented Islam is. It is a religious of practice, not just faith. Yet he admired western tolerance, science, and open thought. He was heartened that the West adopted what he saw as Islamic values of freedom and equality.
At one point Muslims had seen Christian Europeans as barbaric and uncivilized. When the crusades took Jerusalem, Muslims were told “convert or die.” Christian Europe lacked the technology, science and sophisticated learning of the Islamic world. Yet by the 1700s that was all changing, and soon the West dominated.
Iqbal was the first to argue for a separate Muslim state in India. He assumed the Muslim state would be an ally of India, even helping protect it from invasion. As a deeply religious man, he believed that the spiritual core of Islam could lead the faithful to liberation and what one might call self-actualization. He believed in a global Ummah, or community of believers.
Yet there was no desire to see other religions as enemies. He accepted that there were other religions, even while believing in a conservative version of his own.
Iqbal is one of many Muslim thinkers who responded to the challenge of the West – how to maintain traditions in a new world, one now defined by globalization. Almost all the great Muslim thinkers refused to go the route of seeing the West as the enemy, the challenge to them was to not let their faith get stifled by modernization and secularism.
The terrorists and extremists are not at all indicative of Islamic traditions or thinking. They are reactionaries, hating the West and fearing change. Sometimes we in the West feed their fear by bigotry, attacks on their religion, or refusal to understand or assimilate. But what we need to do is help the vast majority of peaceful Muslims work through the challenge of adapting to modernism without sacrificing their spiritual faith.
Time is against the extremists. Almost all Muslims are against the extremists, and the nature of Islam and its teachings over the years contradict the extremists.
When I first heard about the Malaysian airlines “missing plane” with 239 on board, I didn’t pay much attention. Air crashes are actually rare, but when they happen everyone notices. There are far more automobile deaths (if you fly, the most dangerous part of the trip is the ride to the airport) and almost nobody notices.
Then things went from dull to really bizarre. The plane’s engines sent out signals that proved the plane was flying at least five hours after it disappeared from radar. The signals didn’t give much data, only proof the plane was still in the air, somewhere. Beyond that, the communication systems with the ground had been manually disengaged, something very difficult to do.
Then the reports said that the plane briefly rose to 45,000 feet, high enough to render the crew and passengers (anyone not prepared) unconscious. That way the hijackers could easily confiscate cell phones from passengers and restrain them – or maybe even kill them. They flew where there was little or no radar, and may have used “terrain masking” and other techniques to avoid detection.
To what end?
Two reactions. The first is politically incorrect – WOW, I’m impressed! The skill to implement such a plan, avoid detection and pull it off is really amazing. This is something from a James Bond film – where the super villain manages some bizarre act of sabotage, like stealing nuclear missiles. I can’t deny a little admiration for someone with the guts and cunning to pull off such a feat. Friedrich Nietzsche would approve.
But of course I am deep down a humanist who does not want terrorists to use this in some nefarious plot, so my second reaction is to hope that, like in James Bond films, there is some 007 like team rooting out the villains, ultimately saving the day.
Theories range from the pilot doing this as an act of protest against the Malaysian government to the first step of some al qaeda like attack, perhaps focused on shutting down Saudi oil ports like Ras Tanura.
We just don’t know. It’s creating a media drama unlike anything else recently. A mystery! Danger! Lives at stake! Conspiracy theories! My favorite – some anti-terror expert in the UK thinks its possible someone with a mobile phone could have taken control of the plane. Think what that would mean for airline safety! Right now it’s a fascinating story to watch unfold. Hopefully it’ll conclude with the passengers freed and little damage done.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century. He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.
The path Mandela took to this position was interesting. He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance. His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party. But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre. 69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.
Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK. Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance. He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals. Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.
On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC. He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.
While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism. With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice. They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location. When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer. Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another. With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.
For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism. Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.
In the eighties the tide started to turn. While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable. Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa. Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.
Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization. The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously. That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.
Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath. The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt. In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism. To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years. He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge. Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly. However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking. An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.
The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society. South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems. Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.
Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments. True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.
Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies. Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent. British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.
What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked. Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man. The haters will never take that away from him. He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be. That is part of his greatness.
Gates was harsh on Republican critiques of the President, ridiculing the idea that we could have flown planes overhead so “apparently the noise” should scare them. Not only would they be undeterred by noise, but Gates noted that given all the missing anti-aircraft weapons, it would have been a stupid decision.
Gates said that he would have made the same choices the President did, and defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There was no military alternative, he insisted; Republican critics that imagine some group could have been flown in on the fly have a “cartoonish” view of what military action is all about.
There is no scandal around Benghazi except for the fact that some Republicans are shamelessly trying to use an attack on America to fish for some kind of partisan jab at the President. Or perhaps they want to hurt Secretary Clinton’s chances to be elected in 2016.
We should come together to learn about what went wrong or right on a tragedy, but not turn it into a political partisan circus – something that the hearings last week obviously became. With wild hyperbole (Sen. Jim Inholfe R-OK, said it was worse than Watergate, Iran Contra and Clinton’s scandals) and claims of a cover up, they use noise and accusations to hide that they have nothing. It is a fishing expedition designed for partisan purposes, nothing more.
The only claim they really have is that maybe some talking points right after the attack didn’t call it terrorism when they knew it was terrorism. They claim it was to somehow protect Obama’s re-election campaign; but given how quickly he came out and labeled it terrorism and got the information out there, that’s a pretty lame argument. It’s also one that has no traction. In the early days after an event when so much is still uncertain, and when the Administration is weighing responses, there are limits to what you want to be public.
So they have that non-attack, absurd claims that the military could respond, smacked down by Secretary Gates who has served for both Obama and Bush, and who knows Obama’s character.
The bottom line is that many Republicans didn’t think Obama would be re-elected, they thought they’d have the Senate, and they don’t like how the media is focusing on how out of touch their message is right now. As pragmatic Republicans try to wrestle power away from the extremists, many want to construct a scandal where none exists. They hope to use that to weaken the President, take the public’s mind off both the pressing issues of the day and how dysfunctional a divided Congress has become.
It will backfire – it already has. The story is old and despite all the hype FOX and the GOP are trying to create, more columns are being written critical of the Republicans in Congress than the President. It has given the late night hosts plenty to mock. Jon Stewart skewered FOX for playing up the hype of yelling fire when there’s not even smoke!
But sadly, this circus is indicative of the political dysfunction that paralyzes the country as our problems mount. Rather than recognizing that the attack was a tragedy that should bring us together and learn how to better defend our embassies, politicians search for partisan gain (and Democrats are not blameless, some claiming that Republican cuts to embassy security allowed the attacks).
This is why we can’t reach compromises and deal with the difficult issues facing the country. It’s spectacle and posturing, rather than hard work and compromise. It is a sign that our democratic institutions are starting to buckle at the hands of ideologues who don’t understand that the founders designed a system to inspire compromise. They were divided t00 – the founders had a variety of different views, and they know that would always be true in a democracy. They compromised, and created a system that requires compromise to function.
Thank you, Secretary Gates for pointing out the absurdity of the charges being made. I hope within the GOP leaders look at the lack of evidence of even a whiff of scandal and recognize that this absurd circus is hurting them, and that real issues facing the country need serious attention.
Trust drives this world.
Think of it, you’re on a crowded expressway with numerous other cars darting between lanes at over 60 miles per hour. You’re trusting that none of these drivers decides “ah, screw this” and spin out to cause a massive wreck. If you cross a crowded street you trust that the cars will stop to let you cross. When you’re at a major event with masses of people you trust that no one is going to try to turn that into an opportunity for mass murder and carnage.
Alas, sometimes that trust is broken.
It’s easy to lose oneself in the sorrow of the Boston bombings, especially the plight of eight year old Martin Richard, who was killed by the explosion as he was there to see his dad cross the finish line in the Boston Marathon. The pictures are horrific – blood, lost limbs, people in agony, not believing how events are unfurling. A day that is joyous – Marathon day, with a Red Sox game in the morning and a Bruins game at night – turns tragic.
Yet the news isn’t all bad. In a tragedy the ability of humans to reach out to each other, help and often act heroically comes into focus, such as these inspiring images from Boston. How people empathize, cry and feel a bond with the victims speaks to a core aspect of human nature: we are connected. We feel that connection. Some people find themselves almost unable to function due to the pain caused by the suffering of others. Some reach out to their loved ones, embracing the reality that they are healthy and together now, regardless of what the future may bring.
Think for a moment – what if it were reversed? What if all those heroes and average folk who strive to help after an event were all willing to kill and destroy for the sake of some abstract cause? What if all those who feel viscerally for the victims and are saddened by the events were supportive of murder and terror? What kind of world would we have?
It’s natural to grieve for humanity at such a time. The senseless violence, the ability of people to turn off their humanity and kill for some ideology or cause – what a sad world! To that I say – not so fast!
If people were truly prone to senseless violence, this would happen all the time. Crowds in sporting events, parade routes, marathons like this are common throughout the country. Security is never adequate to prevent a determined attack. It will happen when people are truly motivated to kill. Yet it is rare.
Instead of grieving for humanity or donning a pessimistic view of the world, the fact that such an event stands out as an exception to the norm should cause us to recognize the deep bonds of social trust and connectivity that define our world. The deaths are tragic – but how many of the 30,000 plus killed each year in traffic accidents are also children? The fact that this kind of event is so rare says something powerful about the essential goodness of humanity.
Moreover, the way people come together, comfort, help and console shows that our angels far outnumber our demons. Boston hospitals are turning away blood donors because so many volunteered. So yes, grieve for the victims, let tears flow for the family that lost their son Martin, feel the sadness of Bostonians grappling with what this means for the city, but don’t become cynical. Don’t cancel travel out of fear, don’t think that evil is common. We notice the terror act, we should also notice how often we come together peacefully.
As we grieve for the victims we should celebrate our angels, whether first responders, people who care for and comfort the victims, blood donors and simply those of us who feel from a distance. Our angels are everywhere, in broad daylight. Our demons are few and hide in the shadows. They do not define us.
If the charge had been made in early 2002 it may have gained traction. Michelle Bachmann and others claimed that Huma Abedin should be investigated for possible links to Muslim Brotherhood. The warning: perhaps she and other Muslim “extremists” have infiltrated the highest ranks of the State Department and US government, putting the country in danger.
Bachmann had no evidence, and ultimately only could point to the fact that back in Saudi Arabia her late father had connections with people who had connections with people who were in an organization with connections with the Muslim Brotherhood. So clearly, she’s a threat. She also probably knows Kevin Bacon.
But in the emotion-laden post-9-11 days, just the hint of the fact a Muslim was high up in the State Department and could potentially be linked to extremists would have had the country atwitter. There probably would have been a series of calls for investigations and warnings of Muslim infiltration of the apparatus of the US government. Unfortunately for Bachmann her call came ten years too late — it was like warning of Communists in the State Department in 1963.
Instead Republicans from John McCain to Jim Sensenbrenner called Bachmann out for her outlandish claim, defending Abedin and noting that it was un-American to make such accusations based solely on her religion or vague ties of acquaintances of her family decades in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood itself professed puzzlement at the charge, noting that it’s having trouble infilitrating even the Egyptian government!
Hopefully this is a sign that the Islamophobia that seemed to grab the country in the 00’s has given way to recognition that Muslim Americans are not all would-be terrorists out to destroy the western way of life. Indeed, the Arab spring has shown Americans that Muslims in the Mideast want freedom and democracy as well.
Still, the fear remains. Behind Bachmann’s outrageous charge is a nefarious organization called the Center for Security Policy, headed by hard core neo-con Frank Gaffney, which has as its primary goal the promotion of a neo-conservative foreign policy. Such a policy seeks to spread American ideals through force if necessary, and sees any indigenous Islamic movement in the Mideast as dangerous. However, even Gaffney has to know that Abedin is no inside threat. What really bothers him and those who still cling to the neo-con dream of an American dominated Mideast is the fact that the US increasingly recognizes that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are not the enemy. Indeed, they are important actors in moving the Islamic world towards modernism. Gaffney and those of his ilk would prefer we see any Islamic organization not overtly embracing western values as a threat.
During the era of knee jerk Islamophobia after 9-11 it was assumed that political Islam was all a variant of Osama Bin Laden’s ideology and al qaeda. Evidence for that claim could always be found using quotes of members of different organizations, even if the quotes were decades old and not aimed at the US. This led to support for a US effort to dominate the region to both bring in an American style democracy and have friendly regimes in control of Persian Gulf oil. That was considered the best way to undercut future terrorism. The Iraq war has shown that such a strategy was folly – it didn’t work and was based on false premises.
Now, however, a more nuanced view dominates. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have a wide range of views, and some quotes and ideas do sound radical. That’s to be expected given the oppression and violence used against them by dictatorial regimes in the past. But these organizations are evolving in a reality where politics is becoming more open. They are no longer just a small group competing against powerful corrupt regimes, but have become a large organization needing public support to try to remake the politics of the region.
As such there is no reason to expect them to be hostile to the US and the West, so long as we are not hostile to them. Indeed, it is in our interest to cultivate a solid relationship with such groups to help them make the transition from being on the outside fringe to governing. This isn’t a new process either. Ever since Robert Michel put forth his view on the “iron law of oligarchy” in 1911, it’s been well known that radical groups moderate when they become part of the system. The Greens in Germany, for instance, went from being radical pacifists and anti-NATO/anti-growth to being part of a German government that fought in Kosovo and embraced pro-market policies to increase growth and competitiveness in Germany.
The neo-cons and other fear mongers will point to parties like the Nazis in Germany and say “see, they didn’t moderate.” But there is no reason to expect the Muslim Brotherhood or other such organizations to behave that way – quite the opposite, in fact.
Change in the Arab world will be gradual, a culture dominated by Ottoman style repression and dictatorship for 700 years doesn’t blossom into a stable functioning democracy overnight. Some states like Saudi Arabia have yet to start the inevitable transition. But with the almost universal rejection of the McCarthy like Islamophobic “warning” of Michelle Bachmann, there is cause to believe that the US can be a positive influence in assisting change, working with a variety of groups in the Mideast to develop a path to democracy rather than fearing our lack of control over the process.
In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force. I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing. The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written. The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means. That made for a lively class discussion!
I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era. For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy. Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust. That is starting to fade away.
Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record. Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world. The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s. They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.
In the 90s this was part of the problem. The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies. It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about. This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.
But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban. Few want to go back to 622 AD. Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West. The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.
It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave. But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West. If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change. Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West. To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.
With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds. In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force. NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.
Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism. Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act. Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time. But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling. Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.
Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power. In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world. We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.
It is the end of the Bin Laden era. Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark. This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important. It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!
President Obama had a good week. He grabbed the headlines by having the state of Hawaii take the extraordinary step of releasing the state “long form” version of his birth certificate, making the ‘birthers’ look petty. At the Correspondent’s dinner he and Seth Meyers skewered Donald Trump who made things worse for himself by showing no humor, sitting stone faced, apparently stewing over all the ridicule. Besides revealing a dark side of Trump’s personality (people who can’t laugh at themselves are almost never good people), he demonstrated that for all his bravado, he knew he’d been, well, trumped. Then on Sunday night the real news of the week came: The United States had killed Osama bin Laden.
I will post more on my thoughts and reactions to this, and what it means to the Mideast. I need some time to mull that over and read more about the operation and the world reaction. Today I’ll just describe what I did in class and reflect on student reactions.
In World Politics we were going to cover the International Court of Justice, ICC, and the sources of international law. I had a power point ready and five minutes before class I was going over notes. I then checked the news and found more detail on Bin Laden’s death. As I got up for class I impulsively left my computer in my office and instead grabbed an old VHS tape from 9-11-01.
I taped this from my television back on that September day. I had just gotten done watching a history channel show about Apollo 13 and was going to start working. I was on a research sabbatical that semester, so I didn’t have class. I flipped to CNN to check the Dow futures and saw that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings. “Holy shit,” I exclaimed, and as quickly as possible put a tape in the VCR. I subsequently captured the second plane hitting, the collapse of the buildings, and much of the rest of the day’s action. I saw initial reports on the Pentagon being hit and the towers collapse as I was doing a step machine work out (I think that 70 minute work out is still my longest on my step machine!) At that point I was getting local New York television on Dishnet, so I was able to follow how they covered the story — it was far more personal than the “national” coverage.
I showed sections of that tape to my students today. The initial reports, the confusion (false stories like a fire on the mall, a car bomb at the state department, a helicopter circling the Pentagon right before the explosion), and the emotion of the commentators was something they’d not experienced. Most students had been only about eight or nine when it happened. Watching it brought me back to that day: Peter Jennings in shocked disbelief when the first tower fell. New York commentators groping for words through emotion after the second fell. When one said “If there are any young children watching this, I…I…I don’t know what to advise you” the class broke up laughing.
The students did not seem all that upset watching it; it’s an historical fact they’ve grown up with, after all. Their reactions to Bin Laden’s death were also lacking passion. They debated whether or not it was legal, a few said they couldn’t celebrate a death, and others said their first reaction was “well, Obama’s got 2012 wrapped up.”
On blogs and facebook friends have expressed thrill and being over joyed by the news. A few others throw out a bitter “so what, is this worth ten years of destruction?” Most students remain dispassionate, discussing policy implications and more vocally questioning the importance of the action. They correctly note that al qaeda is a lot more than “one man.” Many thought celebrating this paralleled celebrations in some parts of the Arab world on 9-11.
I had been a bit surprised by the lack of passion in my class — was this just because it was something they just grew up accepting as part of history? People had quietly chuckled at the “I don’t know what to advise you” comment those rare times I’ve shown this video before, never has there been a loud outburst!
The generation of students now in college are the first to grow up completely in the digital age. The internet and e-mail were commonplace when they were three years old, CDs were becoming obsolete by the time they hit middle school — and many of them already had cell phones by that time. Could it be that information-age children are becoming more dispassionate yet nonetheless thoughtful adults?
There are other explanations. Mainers tend to be relatively even keeled, and students are a unique demographic. We have a good mix of “conservatives” and “liberals,” and the two groups get along well together (that’s also not atypical for Maine). And, of course, there are a lot of people who diss the new generation — they don’t focus on things for long periods of time, or don’t appreciate literature, preferring tweets and factoids instead. Yet having seen how student “personalities” shift slowly over time (there isn’t really a cut off point between ‘generations’) I find myself rather optimistic about the new generation.
It’s not so much that they are dispassionate, but that they are savvy about how to handle information. I see this on facebook debates (one reason I’m one of those faculty who accept student facebook friends is that it’s a window to how this generation thinks). They seem less likely to give in to emotional reaction/over-reaction, and more likely to look at various perspectives of an issue. They tend to be more relativistic in their world view than I would be, but that also translates to more tolerance. I feel they can handle really intense emotional issues without giving in to the anger and passion that often exemplifies my generation. Even issues like abortion seem a bit easier for them to deal with.
It’ll be fascinating to watch how the true digital generation — people who have been on line essentially from birth — turns out. I am optimistic.
Saturday when Jared Loughner opened fire in Tucson at an event hosted by Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he not only seriously injured Giffords (who is still fighting for her life), but in all killed at least six people and injured 18 more. One of the dead was nine year old Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001.
When an event like this occurs, as a political scientist my first thought concerns what this says about our political culture. Ultimately, governments reflect the political culture they are built upon. Democracies cannot function without a public willing to tolerate diverse opinions, accept the legitimacy and necessity of an effective opposition, accept electoral defeat, and hand over power when necessary. There must be an understanding that almost everyone agrees on some core values and ideals of the society, the disagreement is how best to achieve them. Thus democracies require an essential unity of purpose, even if there are disagreements on what achieving that purpose means, and the means on how to do so.
The shooting spree is the latest in a series of events that cause some to think the political culture of the United States is drifting away from stable acceptance of democracy to one poisoned by angry and virulent rhetoric, where the two sides see each other as “the enemy,” unwilling to compromise, yet eager to demonize. If this is the case, it’s a more dangerous threat to stability than any of the other problems we face. If our political culture frays, then democracy can perish.
For example, Sarah Palin had a “target” on Giffords, one of twenty districts identified as being in the “crosshairs.” Talk from the tea party movement often uses the rhetoric of revolution and “hunting down” and “taking out” Democrats. Derision of “liberals” by talk radio hosts caricature the left and mock them, often suggesting that they are dangerous to America’s liberty and core interests. The call to “take back” or even “save” America gets made frequently, as President Obama is even labeled a Keynan born Muslim who wants to destroy America. Glenn Beck sheds tears talking about how the country may be in its last days of liberty and prosperity. He wants “real” Americans to rise up and take it back from the “liberals” whose values are foreign and strange.
Yet President Bush and the Republicans got similar treatment five years ago. President Bush was a fascist, a vampire sucking the blood out of the Republic (cover art for The New Yorker magazine), a criminal President leading us into wars out of a lust for oil profits and expanding the reach of corporations. Calls to “take back” and even “save” America were as common then, but common from the left rather than the right. Our freedom and liberty was in danger from corporate America, whose manipulation through campaign contributions and advertising threatened the essence of our democratic values.
Clearly, there has been an edge to American political rhetoric lately. Yes, one can find numerous examples in US history of campaigns fighting dirty, but the depth and emotional power of the media has made this recent bout seem like there are two visions of America, and no room to compromise. Rather than the focus on personal attacks (which was very common in the past) whole sections of the population have been attacked and demonized because of their perspective on the issues of the day.
Yet for all the fear that we might be slipping into an abyss, with our political culture deteriorating, there is hope. The public is not as politicized as it seems. The extremes may wage ideological jihad, but average folk just want the politicians to come up with some common sense solutions to problems. They may veer left (like they did in 2006 and 2008) and then right (like in 2010), but the extremes of each party are rather small. The tea party movement, in fact, already seems to be petering out. Fox and MSNBC may be yelling at teach other, but even the people who watch them deep down don’t see the other side as “evil.” Politics has become like professional wrestling — we expect the trash talk, but know it’s spectacle.
Still, things can get out of control. When President Clinton was elected in 1992, there was a strong anti-Clinton backlash on the right, as militia movements, “survivalists” and gun rights advocates proliferated. Their rhetoric was extreme, often talking about open revolt or civil war. Yet when one man acted on these ideas, Timothy McVeigh, the “movement” folded. McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, killing 168 people including 19 children, caused people to pause. The idea of killing Americans and having a real civil war is not what anyone outside the fringe of the fringe wants!
I suspect the act of Jared Loughner, arrested for the killings, may be the impetus for another such “let’s pause and settle down” moment. Republicans will have to admit that warnings about domestic terror and violence were legitimate, they can no longer mock those. But Democrats should admit that however irresponsible Sarah Palin’s rhetoric may have been, neither she nor the tea party can be blamed for the attack. People of Loughner’s ilk are driven by deeper demons. The intense rhetoric and anger on both sides creates the conditions that can influence a McVeigh or Loughner to act.
So far, the political reaction has been good. Both President Obama and House Speaker Boehner spoke out unequivocally against such violence, and more importantly, in favor of unity. As Boehner said, an attack on one who serves in Congress is an attack on all. At base Republicans and Democrats are united in wanting to do what’s best for America, even if they have stark disagreements about what that means. As the human stories come out, people will realize that political passions are not worth violence or pain. We’ll remember we’re really on the same side in important matters.
We are 300 million people trying to create a society that is at peace and prosperous. Perhaps this event will bring back some of what the country felt after 9-11-01, recognition that united we stand, divided we fall. And maybe we’ll rethink the ease in which we talk about violence as legitimate political action.
That is why Christina Taylor Green’s death has a symbolism that can unite. She was born on our most tragic day in recent times, and died on what was arguably the most tragic day for US politics since then. Our country unified around the acts that took place the day she was born, but the difficult and trying years since have divided us. Many have forgotten that sense of unity of purpose that we had after 9-11. Perhaps her tragic death can bring us back together, and push aside the anger and animosity of recent years. Maybe then we can start solving the problems facing us, and make sure her death was not in vain.
The irrationality of Islamophobia is easy to demonstrate. There are very, very few Muslim terrorists, and those who are reflect a political problem in Mideast countries under corrupt governments where the youth lack hope, or in rare cases a backlash against western culture. The adherents of Bin Laden are the exception rather than the rule, and they do not adhere to true Muslim doctrine in the eyes of over 99% of the Islamic world. And from the perspective of Muslims, the real mass killing has been done in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza, with Muslims the victims of state terror. The idea that Muslims are more violent or dangerous is simply wrong.
Yet some people find it easy to make collective broadsides against over a billion innocents. Anger over a Muslim day at an amusement park after Ramadan, opposition to a community Center in New York City and weird claims that Arabs are crossing the border disguised as Mexicans to have babies that will become terrorists in 18 years were typical. Calls for ‘internment camps’ and threats to bomb Mecca have faded, however, as most Americans realize that the over the top rhetoric was both irrational and un-American.
Yet there are a few are still at it. The especially kooky Frank Gaffney seems to think if you have anything to do with a Muslim, you’re infected. He claims that conservative groups that work with Muslims are trying to spread shariah law and indoctrinate American conservatives into supporting Islam. Chief among these alleged insidious traitors are Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, and former Bush staffer Suhail Khan. I’m kidding, right? Read it here. He claims that the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), associated with the American Conservative Union (ACU) has the goal of indoctrinating conservatives into giving support to Islam and Sharia law.
Gaffney appears to have a Joseph Goebbels approach to propaganda — tell big and outrageous lies with a sense of urgent certainty, and people will believe (he’s done this before, as the article cited above notes, and almost always with Muslims as the villains). But the idea that American conservatives can somehow be duped into promoting Islam and Shariah law is too far fetched to even be taken seriously. I also am personally upset with Gaffney for threatening the prestige of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where I got my MA. He has a Ph.D. from that school!
But Gaffney’s not the only one. Conservative bloggers are incensed at DC Comics for having Batman choose a French Muslim to head his Paris office. (Batman runs branch offices?) Why could he not have a “real” Frenchman? A good Catholic, or even an atheist? First, French law makes clear that French identity is related to culture, not genetics. And the French have a lot of Muslims whose families have been French for generations; they are “true” Frenchmen and women. These bloggers must be the same people who were miffed that Mecca didn’t get destroyed in the movie 2012!
What kind of bile runs through the veins of a person to make them so hateful towards Islam that they get up in arms over a comic book having a Muslim hero? Muslims fight and serve in the US armed forces, many have died to save their comrades. Are they not heroes? Of course, rationality is not a strong suit with this crowd. Recently an easily recognizable hoax led to massive effort by opponents of the New York City community center to boycott Justin Bieber. First, boycotting an artist (OK, you can quibble with that description of Bieber) over his or her political views is a bit silly — it’s a sign you’re taking this too seriously. But not to take the time to really be sure of it before launching a major boycott drive? Bizarre.
The danger, apparently, is that if we portray Muslims in a kind (I would say, in an accurate) manner, then we’re allowing others to see them as human. If Muslims are seen as human, then suddenly it’s not fair to single them out and vilify 1.5 billion people because of the acts of a few dozen. Like Gaffney, who apparently can’t stand that President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and had Muslim aids, Islamophobes are to the West what Bin Laden is to Islam: an irrational extreme which wants a ‘clash of civilization’ so the “evil” side can be defeated by the “good” side.
I say put the Islamic extremists and the Islamophobes in a room together and let them fight it out. The rest of us can work on things like restructuring the economy and advancing human rights.
Still, there is something both frightening and heartening in all this. It’s frightening that people can let their rationality slip away, and allow fear of the other to take over. And it is fear — hate, prejudice, bigotry and anger all have fear as their root cause. It’s heartening, however, to see that most Americans are rejecting that kind of approach, and that increasingly it’s just the over the top bizarre ones that make the news. Since the misplaced opposition to the Community Center in New York city burst forth, the media has gotten better on explaining the reality of Islam, and countering those wild claims that Muslims wanted to “kill all Christians” and things like that (sort of like how the Nazis said Jews wanted to eat Christian babies).
As it became clear that the man who wanted to build what the Islamophobes originally claimed was a “mosque on the site of Ground zero” to “honor Osama Bin Laden and claim victory” was really a moderate Sufi who has been constantly working for dialogue and cooperation between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, people started to see the hatemongers for what they really are. There is already a mosque at the site of that community center, which is a few blocks from ground zero, not on it. The public started to shrug at that debate, and move away from a fear that somehow Muslims were a danger.
And with caricatures like Gaffney warning that Muslims are trying to take over the conservative movement, and with bloggers waxing indignant about DC Comics daring to have a French Muslim hero, it’ll continue to become obvious that only the crazies see Islam and Muslims writ large as a threat. There are dangerous extremist groups, and Islam is going through a difficult process of defining itself in the modern context thanks to globalization. There are real problems. One can also criticize the militarism and failures of American foreign policy. There is a lot to fix and deal with on all sides. But maybe the craziness is subsiding.