The “War on Terror”

2009 12 27
Sixty one wins for Abdulmutallab

Posted by in: The "War on Terror"

That asshole who tried to blow up a plane with his exploding pants may have failed to actually blow up the plane, but he certainly succeeded in adding an incredible amount of inconvenience to the already absurd process of getting on a plane. Yoon and I flew from Toronto to NYC today. After clearing security, we were all required to go through a second, and much more intensive, layer of screening before boarding the plane. Every single passenger was thoroughly frisked. Every single pocket was gone through. No one could use the washroom or stand up on the flight or put a jacket or a sweater on his or her lap.

There were about sixty passengers on the plane. That’s sixty wins for Abdulmutallab that I personally witnessed, out of tens of thousands past, present and future. Actually, it’s sixty one, if you count the moron in front of us in line who started grumbling about “Goddamn Muslims.”

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2009 05 16
“A hard line on terrorism”

I figure writing the Today’s Papers feature for Slate must be a tough gig. You’ve got to get up well before the sun, read a ton, and summarize it all very quickly. So I don’t want to pick on this too much:

In another disappointment for left-leaning Washington watchers, Obama’s expected announcement that he would continue to try terrorism suspects through the military commissions—which exclude certain types of evidence from consideration by the defense—drew cries of outrage from civil rights groups. Of course, there’s also a considerable political upside for the president as well from conservatives who would rather see him take a hard line on terrorism.

But just notice how loaded that last sentence is. The suggestion is not that conservatives would rather see him take what they regard as a hard line on terrorism. Rather, as stated, the point is that there is a hard line on terrorism (and, by contrast, a soft line), and support for military commissions is part of a hard line position on terrorism (and, by contrast, opposition to them indicates a certain softness on the issue of terrorism).

I really don’t think that support for military commissions implies a hard line on terrorism. It probably has more to do with your attitude to the justice system, and your comfort with a system that is more likely to produce bogus convictions (the inevitable result of the loosening of defendants’ rights, which seems to be the point of military commissions, though it isn’t clear yet exactly how loose Obama wants to be). If anything, trying suspects in the military commissions favoured by most Republicans (and many Democratics) seems to me to indicate a real lack of seriousness about terrorism.

Another problem with the offending sentence above is that it takes the often stated Republican motivation for military commissions at face value. I’m sure that many Republicans sincerely support military commissions on what they see as the merits of the policy, and would have supported them even if a Democratic president had instituted them as part of a response to 9/11. But Republicans are humans, and there are surely other considerations at work here as well: They’re publicly committed to the commissions. Vindication of the policy is vindication of their policy, and will make a difference to the way the legacy of the Bush years will be understood. And of course, Obama’s decision upsets many Democrats, and therefore can be expected to be treasured by Republicans for that very reason. Lydia DePillis, the author of today’s Today’s Papers, isn’t in a position to know the extent to which different considerations are really driving the Republican position, so it’s a shame she chooses the official (flattering) one and presents it in a way that implies that understanding the motivation in this way is natural and uncontroversial.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 09 16
Talking to the Taliban

Graeme Smith is a Canadian journalist currently stationed in Afghanistan who writes for the Globe and Mail. Yoon and I know his sister, Caitlin, a jazz musician now living in NYC. A few months ago, while he was taking a short break from Afghanistan, brother and sister showed up at one of Yoon’s gigs, and then the next evening we all went out for a beer. It was a very pleasant opportunity to pepper someone knowledgeable with questions about Afghanistan.

Anyway, I noticed the other day that Graeme Smith recently won an “Online Journalism Award” for a series on the Taliban, and I just now got around to watching it. I think it’s really very good – far more nuanced and interesting than your average reporting from a war zone. This is especially impressive considering that he’s working in a short-form format – a series of little clips between 4 and 7 minutes long. Anyway, the series is called Talking to the Taliban.

When I last spoke to Graeme I threatened to interview him for this blog. I may get around to that when his book comes out, if I can get my hands on a copy in a timely manner, and he’s still willing.

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2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.

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2007 07 18
On the call for more of the same old rhetoric

Norm links approvingly to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rhetorical responses to terrorism, the upshot of which is that Western leaders fail to engage in enough moral denunciation of terrorism, eschewing this for practical and “logistics-heavy rhetoric about getting to the bottom of each case.” Norm remarks: “Merely to read his proposal brings home how rare a language of forthright public condemnation of terrorist politics now is.”

This strikes me as mostly silly. The most obvious feature of, say, British and U.S. political leader’s responses to terrorism over the last six years has been a cynical attempt to exacerbate and exploit hysteria about possible future attacks in order to push unrelated agendas. If people are now coming to favour a more measured and practical approach to terrorism, surely this ranks as the most obvious reason for it, as opposed to, say, political correctness, which the author puts at the top of his list of explanations. And, contra the author of the piece, we’ve seen plenty of morally loaded language, much of it from bad politicians pursuing rotten agendas who want to obscure that rottenness by fulminating vaguely about evil and whatnot. Neither Norm nor the author bothers to mention the contraction of civil liberties in the U.S., the dishonest selling of the Iraq War, or the massively expanded use of torture and extraordinary rendition by the United States — all policies defended explicitly and repeatedly by hysterical appeals to the threat and insincere and hypocritical moralizing about its nature. I’m guessing these things made a bigger difference to public attitudes than the fear of offending terrorists.
Add to this the fact that terrorists want to terrorize, and one way of thwarting them is to not get too ruffled (which is perfectly compatible with taking the threat seriously). And so on.

Just to be clear, if you want to denounce terrorists as morally reprehensible, by all means go ahead. But it’s pretty weird to offer an analysis of people’s responses to political rhetoric that ignores the political context in which the rhetoric is employed. The context here involves the repeated abuse of the rhetorical tropes in question, so I hardly think it’s irrelevant.

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2006 09 11
A September 11th Post

Five years ago, we had just moved to Brooklyn and were living in an apartment in the South Slope, with a great view of Southern Manhattan. We were up on the roof shortly after the attack. It was very sad. For a long time I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, and after that I became completely, pathologically, obsessed with the news for a long time.

I’ve got my own memories of that day, and the following days, but I never wanted to post them here or anywhere else. I never wanted to participate in any way, even by watching, in any memorials of the event. There are a few reasons for this, but the main reason is that in the intervening days and years the deaths of all those innocents has been repeatedly invoked to manipulate people into all sorts of positions they shouldn’t have adopted: positions on domestic security, civil liberties, and, yes, the Iraq War. I don’t see how to avoid my own private backlash against all this cynicism. At any rate, the backlash means that I will acknowledge, but don’t want to dwell publicly on, how shitty it was for all those innocents to die, or how shitty it felt to watch them die. It’s all just more emotion to be transformed into something mawkish, and then twisted to some ugly purpose.

So I’ll just say that I remember standing on the rooftop in Brooklyn talking to a neighbour, both of us looking at the smoke pouring out of the WTC when both towers were still standing. I don’t remember who it was, probably one of the students at the New School, from the apartment downstairs. Anyway, whoever it was turned to me and said, “Before this is over, you just know a lot of innocent people are going to die.” He meant: before the U.S. is done responding to this, before the insanity this unleashes is over.

This was, I think, not a bad guess about the subsequent hysteria that swept over the country. Rather better than the pundits, at least, most of whom fully participated in it. And certainly better than the politicians who led the way, or who followed behind it.

These same people are still talking. And I just wish they would shut the fuck up.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 08 11
Terrorism and responses to it

I’m going to do something completely different today and endorse this post by Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias points out that a) there are just so many different ways to carry out a terrorist attack, that we’re better off trying to catch people and then taking our chances letting people on planes with their water bottles and so on. b) Since a large part of the point of terrorist attacks is to induce panic and (energy-sapping) hypervigilance, we’re probably better off trying to, you know, avoid panicking and getting hypervigilant.

Yglesias points out how easy it is to carry out terrorist attacks on places other than airplanes. Again, I agree, and I confess that I’m a bit mystified that terrorist groups are apparently still wasting their time with planes. For my part, what I always expected was a car bomb or three in Manhattan. That would induce far more terror and chaos than an airplane bomb, and I find it nothing short of astonishing that no one has tried it yet. It’s certainly what I would plan if I were an evil terrorist type. There are only a few possible explanations for the fact that this hasn’t happened yet:

i) AQ masterminds are really stupid.

ii) AQ planners are caught up in the idea that the attack has to be really spectacular to be worth it. This is inhibiting them, since effective but more modest terrorist attacks are felt to be a threat to their brand of mega-terror. Graduate students struggling to complete a dissertation may recognize the perfectionism-leading-to-failure trap here.

iii) AQ lacks the capability to do such a thing.

iv) The U.S. government has been marvelously effective at stopping all such attacks behind the scenes, but has been too modest to say anything about it.

v) Actually, an attack exactly as I described it is about to happen, and this suspiciously prescient blog post will be used against me later in a court of law.

I’ve got my money on iii. In the meantime, I’ve just decided that it’s better to accept a certain amount of risk in life. Of course I want the authorities to spend a lot of energy trying to stop attacks, and to generally pursue policies that minimize the risk, all other things considered. But, just as I’m willing to leave my apartment once in a while in spite of the elevated risk to my person (I could be hit by a car! I could get a sunburn! I might get mugged!), I would rather live a more normal life at slightly higher risk, than a marginally safer (if that), but paranoid and highly inconvenienced existence.

The same line of reasoning is part of my position against torture, and other immoral counterterrorist measures. I don’t think torture is effective, but even if it were effective, I would rather accept a slightly higher risk of dying in a terrorist attack than allowing the torture of people who might well be innocent – which is what, in practice, allowing a policy, or quasi-policy, of torture inevitably leads to. I suspect that people who disagree with me about this are cowards.

Howls of outrage (6)

2005 09 06
Sounds Familiar

Government officials should be able to take a vacation. But nothing–nothing–of importance to national security should fail to get done because they are on vacation. Surely there’s an easy way to accommodate these two truisms.


“One reason for the slow White House response, said a Republican who has been in contact with several officials, is that so many high-level officials and aides were on vacation. Vice President Cheney, for instance, was in Wyoming and did not return unil Thursday, and Nicolle Devenish, the president’s top communications adviser, is getting married in Greece with a number of mid-level aides in attendance.”

Aug./Sept. 2001:

Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, asked him when he first found out about the report from the FBI’s Minnesota field office that Zacarias Moussaoui, an Islamic jihadist, had been taking lessons on how to fly a 747. Tenet replied that he was briefed about the case on Aug. 23 or 24, 2001.

Roemer then asked Tenet if he mentioned Moussaoui to President Bush at one of their frequent morning briefings. Tenet replied, “I was not in briefings at this time.” Bush, he noted, “was on vacation.” He added that he didn’t see the president at all in August 2001. During the entire month, Bush was at his ranch in Texas. “You never talked with him?” Roemer asked. “No,” Tenet replied. By the way, for much of August, Tenet too was, as he put it, “on leave.”

Oh, and…:

CLARKE: That process probably ended, I think in July of 2001. So we were ready for a principals meeting in July. But the principals calendar was full and then they went on vacation, many of them in August, so we couldn’t meet in August, and therefore the principals met in September [2001].

CLARKE: I was sufficiently frustrated that I asked to be reassigned.

ROEMER: You then wrote a memo on September 4th to Dr. Rice expressing some of these frustrations…A memo comes out that we have seen on September the 4th [2001]….You urge policy-makers to imagine a day after hundreds of Americans lay dead at home or abroad after a terrorist attack and ask themselves what else they could have done. You write this on September the 4th, seven days before September 11th.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 08 16
What the police said

Here is what Jamie Kenny has to say about the de Menezes shooting. The italicized bit is from a news story:

The documents and photographs confirm that Jean Charles was not carrying any bags, and was wearing a denim jacket, not a bulky winter coat, as had previously been claimed.

This information must have been known to the police at the time various �spokesmen� said otherwise. The people responsible for this story should be facing a charge of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Everyone else should remember that, based on this, spokespeople for the police are not reliable sources and that what they say should be distrusted until it is independently confirmed. Additionally, a government casual enough to let public information be put in the charge of the usual gang of mendacious PR people is unlikely to be competent in fghting terrorism because what actually happens is far less important to it than how it can be concealed or spun afterwards.

I have found it very difficult myself to believe that the police were even trying to be honest about the circumstances of the shooting. They made a lot of claims about de Menezes that were picked up by right wing hacks as evidence that de Menezes was to blame in some way, and by the time the truth came out the hacks had moved on, case closed.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2005 08 08
Listening to terrorists

A talk by Jessica Stern.

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2005 07 28
Subway searches

To coin a phrase:

Then there�s the fact that, in its futile attempt to skate just this side of constitutionality, the city is promising that no one can be arrested for refusing to open his bag; he�ll only be asked to leave the subway station. But this leaves a number of unanswered questions, or, as I like to call them, bombertunities.

But how is it working out?

At two other stations police attempted to mitigate the burden of the searches�and perhaps elicit cooperation�by allowing riders who submitted to the search to ride for free. Is this incentive really enough to get a suicide bomber to open his bags? Maybe Al Qaeda�s financial network isn�t as vast as we�d feared.


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2005 07 26
Please . . . no

Has anyone given some thought to the costs and benefits of this policy?

The U.S. military is embarking on a long-term push into Africa to counter what it considers growing inroads by al Qaeda and other terrorist networks in poor, lawless and predominantly Muslim expanses of the continent.

The Pentagon plans to train thousands of African troops in battalions equipped for extended desert and border operations and to link the militaries of different countries with secure satellite communications. The initiative, with proposed funding of $500 million over seven years, covers Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia — with the U.S. military eager to add Libya if relations improve.

The Pentagon is also assigning more military officers to U.S. embassies in the region, bolstering the gathering and sharing of intelligence, casing out austere landing strips for use in emergencies, and securing greater access and legal protections for U.S. troops through new bilateral agreements.

The thrust into Africa is vital to head off an infiltration by international terrorist groups, according to senior U.S. military, Pentagon and State Department officials. The groups are recruiting hundreds of members in Africa and Europe, attacking local governments and Western interests, and profiting from tribal smuggling routes to obtain arms, cash and hideouts, they say. Meanwhile, small groups of Islamic radicals are moving into Africa from Iraq, where Africans make up about a quarter of the foreign fighters, the officials say.

Foreshadowing a new phase in the war against terrorism, the Pentagon plan is to mobilize Africans to fight and preempt militant groups while only selectively using U.S. troops, who are already taxed by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in mustering African forces, the U.S. military confronts not only a highly elusive enemy across a vast, desolate terrain but also the competing agendas of authoritarian African governments and corrupt and chaotic militaries on the ground.

So . . . yeah. If the U.S. trains the troops well in counter-terrorism (very difficult), and the troops don’t use their new skills to further entrench authoritarian regimes, and if the latter should happen, those rebelling against the authoritarian regimes don’t come to associate the U.S. with the repression and provide fresh momentum to the global jihadist movement against the U.S. – (big breath) well, then there are some possible benefits to the policy. Because there clearly are Islamic radicals in Africa, and those radicals might provide assistance to global jihadists that the U.S. has a legitimate interest in combating. (Think of bin Laden in Sudan, or other Al Qaeda figures in Somalia.) It’s not crazy to hope to do something or other about that.

But how plausible is it to think that those conditions will be met? Not very, in my opinion. We’ve been here before, for example with the School of the Americas. (The WaPo piece I quote from above is extraordinary in that it completely omits this obvious historical parallel, even though I’m willing to bet that the reporter had it in mind.)

Let me make a prediction: This will backfire. Soldiers trained by the U.S. will inevitably help to prop up authoritarian regimes, even if it says specifically in their training manuals not to. They will commit atrocities. U.S. administrations will make a show of trying to restrain this behaviour while at the same time lying about the exact connections between troops benefiting from U.S. training and those atrocities. They will fool no one. And even where the connection between the training and the atrocities and the support for authoritarian regimes is fairly remote, the whole thing will look bad. Whatever gains the policy has produced will be eaten away by the damage done to U.S. reputation and influence – reputation and influence that is absolutely necessary to fighting the war on terror. It just won’t be worth it.

This is the way you lose a war of ideas.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 07 23

Posted by in: The "War on Terror"

On Friday, London police shot the wrong guy; they had been following him, he had a heavy coat on and went into the subway. They now say he was not connected to either of the two attacks on London.

Witnesses say police shot him in the head and torso while he was pinned to the ground.

Police say they will still have a “shoot-to-kill” policy toward anyone “who might be a suicide bomber.”

All three of these make my stomach churn. Now, I don’t know the facts in this case; I don’t know how this guy was acting, or what the police tried before shooting him. And obviously, shooting the wrong guy is the worst nightmare of any police officer; this is not something they would have wanted.

But it seems to me that giving a blanket shoot-to-kill authorization, toward anyone a hyper-aware, newly armed officer thinks might be a suicide bomber, is a bad, bad idea. Guys with heavy coats running to catch a subway train, nervous young men with backpacks, brown people talking quietly and looking around, non-English speakers or mentally ill people who won’t respond predictably to police orders — there are a lot of these in London.

Howls of outrage (15)

2005 07 13
Counter-terrorism in Somalia

Not a subject I’ve read much about. I wonder if we’ll be reading more in the future. Here’s the International Crisis Group:

U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia threaten to destabilise the country further and provide a popular platform for the spread of jihadism. A quiet, dirty conflict is being fought out in the ruined capital, Mogadishu, by al-Qaeda operatives, jihadi extremists, Ethiopian security services and Western-backed networks. This shadowy and complex contest waged by intimidation, abduction and assassination has seen some American successes but is producing growing unease within the broader public. Ultimately a successful strategy requires attention to more than the military aspect alone. Containing and eliminating jihadism in Somalia demands patient, sustained support for the twin processes of reconciliation and peace building, until legitimate, functional government is restored.

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2005 07 07
The life of the nation

Jamie seconds this:

This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda.

Which is exactly right. . . unless one of them gets his hands on a dirty bomb and sets it off in a major city. Then we really are truly well and fucked.

Update: On the other hand, this is also a sensible point:

In the next few days, all the nations targeted by extremists have a chance to turn the cowardly crime in London into a major psychological defeat for the jihadist fighters. The casualty figures, however unwelcome, make clear that al-Qaida or its affiliates didn’t get much bang for their buck. In addition, the attack revealed the limits of the terrorists’ technical capabilities. The bombings involved relatively crude and conventional weapons. They were no more sophisticated than the twin African bombings of 1998 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which suggests that for all their claims, the jihadists don’t yet have weapons of mass destruction. And while it’s bad news that the terrorists had a sufficient network in London or perhaps France to carry off this series of bombings, in the absence of follow-up attacks, those networks appear to be small.

I was struck too by how, for all the horror of the attack, it really was, as a terrorist attack, kinda wimpy. Think about it. If you were a terrorist, don’t you think you could do a better job?

So: There really is a chance that a terrorist attack, of a certain kind, could inflict a sort of long-term, paralyzing destruction of our way of life, short of anything we do to respond to it, and we ought to remember that. A dirty bomb is my greatest (realistic) concern now. But the terrorist groups targeting us still don’t seem anywhere near being able to do that. And the greatest danger remains that we’ll do exactly what they hope we’ll do, which is overreact, lash out, clamp down, and destroy ourselves first.

Howls of outrage (8)