We are living in Future Shock

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans lived through a frightening week last week. Bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and supporters. Thankfully, none of these exploded. The FBI apprehended a suspect, 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc. Yesterday something far worse happened: eleven people were killed and six injured in an obvious hate crime at a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers was quickly arrested for these crimes.

Both Sayoc and Bowers fit the usual pattern for these criminals today: right wing domestic terrorists and big Trump supporters, although Bowers had some criticisms of Trump. Sayoc’s van was famously festooned with right wing invectives and pictures on almost every window (which restricted visibility so much it was probably illegal). Both Sayoc and Bowers used social media, in Bowers case to basically announce his attack on Jews was imminent. Bowers’ crime might have been prevented if someone had bothered to notice it or if we did not allow people like him to have guns in the first place.

It’s not surprising that most of these incidents are by right-wing domestic terrorists. Statistically these people cause 71% of these domestic terrorism incidents, with just 25% domestically by actual Muslim terrorists. This Anti-Defamation League (ADL) heat map makes abundantly clear who’s most likely to trigger these incidents and they tend to be male, white, Republican, conservative and loners. With yesterday’s latest incident in Pittsburgh, the right wing can now claim 74% of the victims of these incidents. From their social media postings, it’s clear that Trump inspired both Sayoc and Bowers. Trump of course with his advanced case of malignant narcissism disclaims any association with these perpetrators. With a case as bad as his, of course you are going to praise a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who body slammed a reporter as “my kind of guy” and feel no remorse. His narcissism would not be malignant if he felt remorse.

What’s harder for most people to see is that horrendous incidents like these are entirely predictable. What’s new is that we have Donald Trump as a prominent catalyst; no president has ever incited people to violence before. This gives these incidents explicit sanction. To an extent we are all players of this game because we are awash in a world undergoing great change. Certain personality types though are more likely to “go postal” than others: those groups who feel the most threatened. Conservatives at least in theory like things the way they were (and in most cases they weren’t actually the way they were) so are more likely to engage in these crimes, as borne out by the ADL’s heat map.

Trump of course is a master bully. My own personal theory is that he is empowering other former bullies to be bullies again. Curiously, many of these actions actually amount to cowardice of some form. Sayoc’s alleged actions mailing pipe bombs allow him to hurt other people without necessarily being discovered. (He was a particularly inept criminal, leaving fingerprints on his explosives. His crazy van was certainly a red flag and doubtless helped authorities track him down.) Bowers showed up in person with a number of armaments including an assault rifle. When Trump tells people at his rallies that it’s okay to beat up reporters at the rally and he’ll pay their legal expenses, he’s obviously giving explicit sanction to others to act as his proxies. A legal case could be made that Trump is guilty of inciting terrorism.

Change is an inevitable consequence of living. We’ve been plunging headlong into the future at rates that obviously make a lot of people uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with it too. Ironically, conservatives are causing much of the change they are fighting against. For example, if you say that businesses should be able to create any product they want because they are innovators and capitalism is great but not consider the consequences, you end up with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that show us only content that meets our own biases. To deal with their cognitive dissonance, Trump has labeled anything he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and it’s clear that the supporters at his rallies largely agree.

They are obviously wrong. My mother-in-law, a lifelong smoker, never agreed that smoking causes lung cancer, even though the research was overwhelming and she died a painful and somewhat premature death from lung cancer. Climate deniers, principally right-wingers, are doing the same thing. It’s like the lobster getting out of the pot and turning up the heat then jumping back into the pot. It’s counterproductive and makes no sense. And we know it’s only a matter of time, should we live so long, when they will be proven wrong. Our species might die off as a result, but to them this is just more fake news.

Liberals are not entirely blame free either. How much freedom can we promote when many of the consequences of freedom also contribute to these problems? For example, if we want a higher standard of living for everyone without figuring out a way to do it in a sustainable way, we contribute to the destruction of our planet. We can’t always be sure our proposals will actually solve the problem, or fit the circumstances.

I believe that there are larger forces at work. Most of us will carry the values we learn from our parents and pass them on to our children, so it takes generations to change most of these values if they change at all. We also unconsciously carry many of our parents’ issues and anxieties. Unfortunately, we don’t have generations to get it right. Anxiety is actually a rational reaction to a rapidly changing world, but paralysis is not. Unfortunately for conservatives, we can’t go back to the way things were. And unfortunately for liberals, we don’t have the luxury of trying many approaches until we find the right combination. We have only the fierce urgency of now that none of us can escape, with many of us lacking the wisdom for making an informed choice. I hope November 6 proves me wrong.

(For those of you wondering, this blog is not completely dead. I’m feeling the need to continue at least through post 2000, as it seems a good closure point. Ideally I’ll get there on our before December 12, 2018, the end of sixteen years of blogging.)

The roots of terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

Kindling in search of a spark

The Thinker by Rodin

About a month ago, I expressed my alarm with certain members of The Tea Party movement. Since I wrote, my alarm has grown. The FBI conducted a well-publicized raid of the Hutaree Militia in southern Michigan toward the end of March, arresting nine members who seemed dangerously close to attempting armed insurrection.

In fact, militias are popping up all over the place. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports an increase of 363 new “patriot groups” in 2009, an increase of 244 percent from 2008. You can bet these patriot movements are more about locking and loading guns than planting flags in veterans’ cemeteries. Randy Brogdon, a candidate for governor of Oklahoma is calling for the formation of a state militia to presumably protect Oklahomans from some sort of unnatural act, like the U.S. Army occupying the state and instituting martial law. (News to Brogdon: the state already has an armed militia. It’s called The National Guard.)

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin seems to be endorsing the idea of some sort of theocratic, or at least Christian-Judea state, when she actually said:

Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our founding fathers, they were believers.

Ms. Palin clearly has not read her constitution, which explicitly separates church from state and specifically disallows any religious test as a condition of holding office. In fact, separation of church and state was a crucial aspect to our formation as a country, as centuries of witnessing what happened by merging church and state in Europe showed what a bad idea it was.

Just yesterday across the Potomac River, about 75 mostly white men brandishing semiautomatic weapons demonstrated their new right to bear arms in a national park. Who signed this bill into law? Why, the president of the United States. No, it was not the last conservative one, but the new liberal Democratic one named Barack Obama. Strangely, because they apparently inhabit a different world than the rest of us, they are convinced that Obama is trying to take away their right to bear arms. If words were bullets though, the words uttered at this rally would cause PTSD in any survivor of the Oklahoma City bombing who tuned in. Mike Vanderbough, leader of the “Three Percent” movement, had previously called upon followers to break the windows of thousands of Democratic Party offices in response to the passage of health care reform. He enlivened the group by smashing a brick on the stage at Fort Hunt Park. According to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post:

“I was trying to get the attention of people who are pushing this country toward civil war, that they should stop before somebody gets hurt,” Vanderboegh said of his brick-throwing campaign. He then read the philosopher John Locke’s words that there comes a time when people are “absolved from any further obedience” to their government.

The armed citizenry cheered. “This is what the other side doesn’t understand!” Vanderboegh shouted. “We are done backing up! Done! Not one more inch!”

One thing is clear. Democrats will not be starting any new civil war. With these sorts of remarks, the Hutaree Militia example and the increase in so-called patriot movements it is clear that a small minority of Americans is dangerously close to open insurrection. The kindling seems to be stacked. All that is needed is a match. It won’t take much to set these groups off.

They have made it abundantly clear that they feel America is drifting toward socialism, but they seem to be slowly absolving themselves of the need to enact reform through our constitutional system of government. So-called patriot Sarah Palin seems to be encouraging them. When pressed she will doubtless say that she was meant to be taken metaphorically, but it is abundantly clear that some critical mass of these militia members are not playing with a full deck. What are they to think when Sarah Palin says, as she did on April 9th to Southern Republicans to not retreat, but reload. Armed insurrection must be okay, because Representative Michele Bachmann (MN) at a rally also attended by Sarah Palin referred to the federal government as a “gangster government”. I guess the 2008 elections must have been rigged or something but it’s clear if anyone is openly brandishing arms, it’s these “patriot groups” not the Obama Administration.

It sure sounds like many loose-hinged people are piling up reasons for the ends justifying their ready means. Those who do or have held public office, like Palin and Bachman, are being irresponsible and possibly seditious by alluding to unlawful means to change government. No one who calls him or herself a patriot would ever start an insurrection against their own constitutional government. A true patriot values our republican government, in good times and bad. They know that however extreme things might appear at any one time, natural forces will tend to counterbalance other forces in time. That’s why we have elections and three separate but equal branches of government. Republicans will doubtless pick up seats in elections this fall. The only question is how many. If political power is what you yearn for, then insurrection is the worst way to go about it. The vast majority of us are not wingnuts. We value our democracy and the rule of law. While Democrats gaining seats this fall seems unlikely, there is no surer way to make this a reality than by engaging in some serious armed insurrection. Nothing makes property values and portfolios drop faster than a civil war.

President Obama is not a moron, and he realizes these so called patriots are a real threat. He is trying to reduce the threat in two ways. First, he has the FBI working closely with state and local law enforcement officials to figure out which of these groups are truly dangerous by defanging them before they cause loss of life. With so many groups, it is probably impossible to keep up with all of them. Second, he is keeping a low profile and not publicly talking about the obvious threat of domestic terrorism. Perhaps with a bit of luck none of these sparks will catch on this very dry kindling.

The sad reality is that the socialism these groups see is largely a figment of their fevered imaginations, and shows how out of touch they are with reality. Obama has not tightened gun laws. He has loosened them. Health care reform is not socialism, unless doing the same thing nationally that states like Massachusetts did is socialism. If so, Mitt Romney is a socialist. Requiring people to purchase health insurance is no more socialist than the vast majority of states requiring people who drive to buy auto insurance. If anything, health insurance reform enhances personal responsibility. It means that people have to take responsibility for the cost of their health, rather than foisting it off on the rest of us who are insured. It costs each of us insured about $1200 a year to pay in additional premiums to cover these irresponsible people. Why would any of these rugged individuals object to making people carry their own freight?

The truth is that if John McCain had won the presidency, proposed these same things, and enacted these same laws, the opposition would have been largely muted because these laws are actually quite mainstream and look very close to what Republicans were calling for back in the 1990s. What is the difference? Well, Obama is clearly a Democrat and McCain in a Republican. Most of us are not fooled, even if these wingnuts cannot admit it to themselves. The real issue is that Obama is a black man with power. That is the animus driving these people. If something ignites this kindling, it will be the flame of racism, which, sadly, is not yet extinguished in our country.