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.

bin Gone, and good riddance

The Thinker by Rodin

Lately my newspaper has seemed obsolete. Anything of importance, I usually learn about online the night before. Today was a happy exception. My Washington Post totally shocked me by being the first to inform me that our special forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Today as the news ripples across the United States, it is impossible not to feel great joy and catharsis. Anyone age fifteen or older must have the memory of September 11, 2001 seared into our brains. Most of us shared in the experience by watching it unfold on television. Some of us who live in New York City, Washington D.C. or Shanksville, Pennsylvania had a closer encounter with history.

On that date, I was working in Washington D.C. in the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, a building close to the capitol. I first learned of the event when a breathless contractor told me to come to the TV quick where images of a smoldering World Trade Center were projected on a wide screen TV. We stood there open jawed trying to figure out what had happened. After some confusing minutes, we found ourselves outside the building staring out toward the west and seeing plumes of tan smoke rising from the Pentagon. We knew our nation was under attack. Our hearts were all skipping beats as we tried to pull together all the disparate information we were getting, much of it false. (A suicide plane is headed for the Smithsonian castle!) Landlines mostly worked but the cell phone system was overloaded. People were wandering the streets futilely trying to call loved ones on their cell phones. Sirens wailed endlessly. As our vanpool made a premature trip to get us all back home, the smoke from the Pentagon lingered in the air on an otherwise delightfully cloud-free and cool late summer day. We waited for hours in traffic to return to the relative safety of suburbia and embraced spouses and children with real tears in our eyes.

That day was followed by days of silence, not just due to mourning and shock, but also due to the lack of aircraft. We live a few miles from Washington Dulles and the dull roar of airport traffic is constant. The only thing in the air was military fighter jets, relentlessly circling the capital, which were much louder than commercial jets and rattled our windows. Mostly it was surreally quiet. I knew, as all Americans knew, that our national life had been altered fundamentally. I rate only one day in my life of more national significance, and that was when we landed men on the moon for the first time. It is unlikely I will ever be as close to disaster again.

Osama bin Laden’s death certainly does not end the war against al Qaeda, but it does finally release a large national bubble of psychic melancholy that has persisted since that day, which by itself helps in our national healing. Bin Laden’s death is one death that even I can feel happy about. I tend to avoid absolutes, but he was a very evil man. Even if terrorism against us increases as a direct result of his targeted killing, I still will be glad that he is dead, and even gladder that our special forces killed him. Justice was delayed, but nearly a decade later justice was finally meted out.

For a while, maybe a good long while, Americans can feel happy again. It will doubtless be reflected shortly in President Obama’s poll numbers. His high ratings will likely be transitory, although if there are no major crises between now and election day it should probably seal his reelection. The president may not be able to instantly turn around the economy and solve our budget deficit, but unlike George W. Bush, he can capture and kill Public Enemy Number 1. He succeeded by focusing on the problem and making sure our counterterrorism units and special forces had the resources to do the job correctly. Apparently, these things can be accomplished without pompously parading on aircraft carrier decks in a flight suit with a Mission Accomplished banner behind you. Apparently, it takes a sound strategy, executed with viable tactics to kill such an elusive mass murderer, rather than cowboy antics and red state platitudes. It is done through applying intelligence rather than ideology. This would be news to our right wing if they were to absorb it, which they will not.

It turns out our president is one cool and focused dude, much less concerned with pandering to politicians and pundits than working methodically at reaching a goal. I had this impression of him from the start, which is why I voted for him. Maybe America realizes the value of having a strategic president, blessed with intelligence and vision, but especially blessed with dogged tenacity and focus. These qualities eluded George W. Bush.

I hope Americans everywhere today celebrate, and celebrate lustily. There should be no shame in feeling good about killing this man. While the long war on terror will continue, let us justly and unashamedly revel in this symbolic but significant accomplishment.