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.

Four liberals you can do without

The Thinker by Rodin

In today’s news, we learn that the late conservative “journalist” Andrew Brietbart, who broke a phony ACORN scandal and exposed the sophomoric Craigslist shenanigans of ex Congressman Anthony Weiner, died of heart failure. He already had heart disease when he collapsed walking his dog in Brentwood, California. Some part of me wonders if he had to die because he basically had no heart. I would say he was the epitome of an angry white guy, but there are so many more like him, most recently ex-rocker Ted Nugent, who may wish President Obama dead but after a recent Secret Service interview confessed he didn’t plan to act on his wishes.

There are also annoying liberals out there, liberals so annoying that most of the time I tune them out and I hope most other liberals do as well. I cannot recall a case of a liberal stooping to Andrew Brietbart’s level, who had no problem carefully editing footage to give the false impression that senior Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was a black racist. However, being annoying is nonpartisan trait. Four annoying liberals come to mind to me today, and generally I tune them out.

Cenk Uygur first made a name for himself on mainstream media by landing a show on MSNBC. He established himself on YouTube under the channel The Young Turks. His show was part talk and part lecture but one thing it surely was, was mostly about Cenk and Cenk’s views, which were definitely ultraliberal, and often loopy, if not loony. He was frequently factually incorrect. There is left and then there is so far left of stage you are not just off the stage, but outside the theater in the parking lot. Opinionated is okay, but bombastic makes the hair on my scalp stand up. He is the left’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh with little in the way of self-censorship between his brain and his audience. Apparently he proved a little too much for MSNBC, who put Al Sharpton in his timeslot, presumably because Al was more level headed. That’s how strange Cenk was on MSNBC, but he also comes across as one of those yapping dogs who loves to chew on strangers’ ankles. Cenk has a new gig on Current TV and looks like he may now be getting a distemper shot. I hope this is right and that he has reformed. For right now, I can’t take the chance and anyhow, Current TV is not on my channel list. I plan to give him wide berth regardless.

I used to like Keith Olbermann. This was before I spent a lot of time regularly watching him. Keith does have a certain style and charisma, and he looks great in a suit. Olbermann though is at heart a prima donna. He expects star treatment, even though most of the time he doesn’t deserve it. When after being abruptly fired by MSNBC, Keith moved to Current TV I knew he wouldn’t last there long. For Keith hasn’t yet learned that the world does not revolve around him. He is a man whose passion and ego cannot be repressed for very long. It’s not MSNBC or Current TV that is the root of his problem; it’s Keith. Just why does he go from one job to the next, and is inevitably fired pretty quickly? Is it because “they” are all bad? Or is it because his petulance, pompousness and irritable nature simply become more than any network can bear, and they realize they are better without him? For a start, Keith could use a prescription of Valium, and I suspect it would be a drug he would stay on for life. Rachel Maddow has learned to walk the fine line between being assertive and obnoxious. So can Keith if he ever does the self-examination to realize the problem is not everyone else. I hope instead of pressing lawsuits he has little chance of winning with Current TV, he uses his spare time and piles of cash on a good therapist instead.

Bill Maher also has me reaching to change channels. I realize he is a comedian, but he gives atheists everywhere a bad name. Most atheists I know are actually much kinder, gentler and compassionate people than the so-called Christians I know. Bill gives Christians plenty of reasons to wish atheists to burn in Hell. Mostly Bill is smarmy, and about as much fun to watch as it is to wear a wool sweater without an undershirt. Smarmy though does not begin to describe just how smarmy he actually comes across. Granted, being on HBO gives him the opportunity to exercise his considerable potty mouth. Frankly, I would be embarrassed to be part of his panel. I am hardly a puritan and I can on occasion cuss like a sailor. But I can’t imagine doing it on national television, or with anyone I consider polite company. I assume Bill is not trying to influence those he is chastising. There is no chance of that, of course, but with his constant brilliant professor attitude wherein he deigns to throw a few sarcastic bullets of his great wisdom, he smears the whole left with a taint we do not deserve. Mostly after watching Bill, I want to take a shower using a lot of Ivory soap.

Lastly, and perhaps most of all, I loathe Arianna Huffington. It wasn’t until she was divorced that she decided it was okay to be liberal, but she turned on a dime and gave it all of her time and energy. She used her considerable number of friends, many in Hollywood and the media, to put the Huffington Post online, then proceeded to make it something like the New York Daily News of the online world. It is a largely tawdry place, but its liberal opinions is something of a sideshow now, with stories mostly coming from rebroadcasting articles found elsewhere dressed up with lurid titles and photos. As an entrepreneur, my hat is off to her, for finding a saucy brand that is making her a ton of money. What it is not making is a ton of money for the bloggers who post there, many of who could use a steady income and should be paid for their content. This should be natural if she were a true liberal, which is why I think she is not. Instead her bloggers get paid in exposure and Facebook likes. I never believed Arianna became a true liberal and I doubt she is one now. I think she saw an emerging market and believed that with her alimony and connections she could milk it for all it was worth. This turned out to be a considerable amount, providing you shaft so many of your friends in the online world in the process. I don’t think she is particularly liberal or conservative, but she is pro-Arianna, enjoys having the Arianna brand and gets her thrills from exposure on political talk shows. Mostly, my bullshit detector says she is a phony so I should stay away, which I do. Huff Post is likely to forever stay off my reading list.

What we need are more good guys to offset these four, and there are plenty who deserve more exposure including Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, Fahreed Zakaria, Bill Moyers, Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum. Right now the Keith Olbermanns and Bill Mahers of the left are giving the whole apple barrel a bad stench. I wish more liberals like me would just chuck them.

Iran’s metamorphosis

The Thinker by Rodin

Some of you may have been wondering when I was going to talk about the civil unrest underway in Iran. Like many of you, I have been too caught up in events there to give it much analysis. Moreover, I do not know that much about Iran other than what I know about it from watching the media. Unquestionably, the recent election was rigged. The massive street protests and the predictable crackdown underway are compelling and heart-wrenching to watch, even if the snippets we see are posted days or hours later and taken from hand held cell phone cameras.

I do not know if a new Iranian revolution is imminent or whether a harsh repression by Iran’s clerics will stifle dissent for a generation, such as what happened in Tiananmen Square in China some twenty years ago. I do know that theocracy is not a natural fit for a country that is so well educated and technologically advanced. This means that Iranian clerics, if they were wise, would be working toward measured political accommodation of the people rather than repression.

Unfortunately, when you live in a theocracy you tend to get stilted thinking rather than pragmatism. Just as Pope Benedict cannot see reason when it comes to contraception, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not adjust his notion of pure Islam to accommodate the reality that is modern Iran.

Much of the unrest is a consequence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attempts to turn Iran into a modern state. You cannot build a great state when it rests on the foundation of uneducated minds. It takes engineers, scientists, academics and many learned people to get there. In short, you need a society where education is valued and where modern technology is embraced. Iranians have done a remarkable job of embracing technology. The third most used language on the social networking site Twitter is Persian. Pictures of the rallies in Tehran show a crowd where cell phones were as numerous as the hundreds of thousands of protestors.

It is likely that Shi’ite Islam (as Ayatollah Khamenei interprets it) is not compatible with 21st century technology. Yet, this technology is here to say. Satellite receivers are technically illegal in Iran, but are pervasive nonetheless. Attempts to disrupt unwanted communications only lead to clever ways to circumvent these limitations and, to the extent they succeed, breed anger, hatred and resentment.

There are some societies where the culture accepts a high level of government censorship and control. China appears to be one of them. I am betting that Iran is not one of these countries. Iran is also an overwhelmingly youthful country. For many Iranians, the Iranian revolution is at best a distant memory or happened long before they were born. However, they do understand the present and the power of what they have in front of them, and they like their Internet connections and cell phones. Moreover, Iranians are a very chatty nation, with reputedly the highest number of bloggers per capita in the world. If Khamenei were reading tealeaves, he would be wary, if not very afraid.

It may take a generation or two, but widespread higher education (which has been underway in Iran for a generation) opens minds, broadens perspectives and retards insularity. In the United States, if you look at where the most highly educated people live, you will also find fewer churchgoers and greater tolerance for different ideas, cultures and beliefs. I certainly see it here in the Washington Metropolitan region. We have long been a melting pot of various ethnicities and cultures. Our attitudes are correspondingly relatively progressive.

With this in mind, perhaps our foreign policy toward Iran needs to be rethought. During the last presidential campaign, Senator John McCain was caught on camera (obviously in an unscripted moment) singing “Bomb, bomb Iran”. The implication was that the country was so intrinsically evil that there was no reasoning with Iranians, so we might as well bomb them into submission. It should now be clear that such actions would prove counterproductive, alienating the educated and increasingly liberal components of Iran who are becoming a majority. I am willing to bet that should a new Iranian revolution succeed then the next government will be far less hostile toward Israel. Educated Iranians already understand that the purpose of Ahmadinejad’s fixation on Israel is to cover his own deficiencies as a leader.

Repression may work in Iran for a month, or a year or possibly even a decade. However, the forces that have been unleashed in Iran because of this clearly fraudulent election cannot be kept bottled forever. A newer, more pragmatic and more progressive government will emerge from Iran in time. The United States should practice patience. The Iranian people have come around. In time, so will its government.

The real danger of being liberal

The Thinker by Rodin

I keep hearing from the right wing that liberal ideology is dangerous. Until Sunday, I did not generally associate liberalism with putting your life in danger. Sadly, that is what it has come to. You probably heard about this news story. A man named Jim D. Adkisson, an out of work truck driver, killed two parishioners at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. He also wounded six others. This attack occurred in a packed church with over two hundred congregants. The attack occurred while children were performing a scene for the congregation.

Adkisson survived his attack, but left a four-page letter in his SUV, which he expected to be a suicide note. In it, he said he targeted the church because he “hated the liberal movement” and was “upset with liberals in general, as well as gays.” Moreover, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

[The detective] seized three books from Adkisson’s home, including “The O’Reilly Factor,” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly; “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by radio personality Michael Savage; and “Let Freedom Ring,” by political pundit Sean Hannity.

While the shooting appears random, targeting this particular church was probably not entirely due to its denomination, but likely had to do with some rage toward his ex-wife.

While police said Adkisson did not mention his ex-wife in the note, they said she attended the TVUUC years ago. That’s how he selected TVUUC to unleash his frustrations, police said.

I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any case of a passionate liberal, inspired by ideological books written by the likes of liberal authors like Al Franken, going around killing right wingers for injustices like not supporting gay rights. I doubt that you ever will. Liberals may be wrong, wrong, wrong as noisy pundits like Rush Limbaugh tell us, but we also tend to be nonviolent.

This particular incident strikes close to home because I am a Unitarian Universalist too. It is certainly fair to cast the denomination as liberal. It was in fact one of the major reasons why I joined. More than ten years ago when I started attending services, I simply was not connecting with any liberals in my community. The church gave me a place to be with my own kind and work with others to promote my values. Thankfully, over the last ten years the area where I live has become much more progressive.

Yet, even in the relatively liberal community of Reston, our church has endured some harassment from those who do not share our values. Some years back we were at the forefront of the gay marriage movement. We put out two prominent banners on our property saying simply, “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right”. You would not think that by themselves they would inspire much vitriol. In fact, both were torn down and defaced by those who did not agree with our opinion. The church leadership was concerned enough that they stationed church elders in the foyer during services with their cell phones ready to dial 911.

Unitarians, like Quakers and other denominations, are often at the leading edge of change. Without us, there might still be slavery in the south and women might not have the right to vote. The minister that married my wife and I put his values on the line back in the 1960s when he marched in Selma, Alabama with the late Dr. Martin Luther King. The two congregants who died Sunday are not the only Unitarian martyrs. Among the dozens is the 18th century Unitarian theologian William Hamilton Drummond.

Perhaps incidents like this, as tragic, ugly and thankfully as rare as they are, come with the territory of being a liberal. Jesus was certainly a liberal and you can see what it got him. In general the more liberal you are and the more you express yourself, the more you subject yourself to danger. Yet, while many despise agents of change, without people willing to stand for change it is unlikely that any change would have ever occurred. We progress in part because of liberal denominations like Unitarian Universalism have the moral conviction to stand up peacefully when injustice occurs.

I am convinced that some right wing authors and talk show hosts like Michael Savage are indirectly culpable for these crimes. They pander to our basest prejudices and emotions, which frequently lurk close to the surface. The raw emotions become easier to expose if you are dealing with major life traumas like losing your job, as was true of Adkisson. Some personalities, like Michele Malkin, are clearly fanning the flames of hatred and perhaps help put mentally unstable people like Adkisson over the edge. It is doubtful whether they would be as passionate if their over the edge eloquence did not result in so many listeners and book sales.

In time, Adkisson will be tried. It is quite likely that he will pay for these murders with his life. In this event I already know what the response will be of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church will be. They will be petitioning the governor for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison. The irony is inescapable. In the event the tables were turned, it is unlikely that members of a right wing church would be so compassionate.

It is a shame Adkisson did not sit in the pews and listen for a few services. He might have heard this UU hymn and taken heed:

Come, Come whoever you are;
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving;
Ours is no caravan of despair;
Come yet again come.