The Great Muslim War and what the United States should do about it

The Thinker by Rodin

I was with a group of people discussing politics last night. Principally, we talked about the war in Syria and what the United States should do, if anything. It’s a sticky widget, all right. I don’t envy President Obama’s role as The Decider of this problem. The more we talked about it the more we came to consensus that there is no way to impose peace on Syria at all.

Syria of course is hardly alone in being embroiled in war and sectarian conflicts across the Muslim world. Sectarian violence in Iraq resulted in more than a thousand deaths in May. We haven’t seen this level of violence there in a long time, like since 2006 when our forces were embroiled in the worst of it. Pakistan is rife with a mixture of sectarian and religious violence. In Afghanistan the Taliban are getting more serious again about waging war there. In Lebanon, Hezbollah apparently finds supporting Syria’s President Assad more important than waging war against Israel, and has entered the conflict there. In Egypt, their new democratic government seems autocratic and large-scale violence flares up periodically. In Yemen, the government and elements of al Qaeda duke it out periodically. In the Sahara Desert, al Qaeda temporarily overran Timbuktu, only driven out when French forces came to Mali. In Nigeria, Muslims periodically burn Christian villages and often kill the Christians within them. Iran is not directly at war with anyone, but feeds conflict in Syria and probably in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Muslim extremists periodically wage attacks against Christians in the Philippines. It seems like pretty much the whole Muslim world is at war, or aiding and abetting a war. Of course that’s not literally true. It’s not true in Indonesia, at least at the moment and places like Saudi Arabia are largely free of conflict. Even Turkey is getting civil strife, and it has a well-established democracy. Of course it also has periodic flare ups with ethnic Kurds.

Subtract out conflicts in Muslim countries though and the world otherwise looks pretty darn peaceful. Muslim related religious and ethnic violence however is almost global and scope, reaching from the Philippines in the east to Timbuktu in the west, from former Soviet Republics in the north to the savannas of Uganda in the south. Almost all of it is principally Muslim against Muslim violence. When I consider the scope of the conflict, I feel the need to call it what it is: The Great Muslim War, sort of like World War III. It’s not a world war in the classic sense. There are no clear Axis vs. Allied powers. Except in places like Syria, you usually don’t see tanks and missiles deployed as weapons. It’s mostly Sunni vs. Shia violence, but even within these major branches of Islam there are many ethnicities battling it out. It’s all a huge and confusing mess. Which leads to some questions that I will try to answer in my typical macro-thinking way.

How will this all play out? Most likely it’s going to be a series of decades-long conflicts with few clear winners and losers. In general, those with better armies and more fanatical followers will do better than those without. It’s giving President Assad in Syria the upper hand there at the moment. The most likely effect will be the continued Balkanization of the Muslim world, with communities becoming more polarized by religious and ethnic beliefs. However, given that it is so easy to move between these communities there is no reason to think that as long as one party still has hatred in its soul for the others, it will finish at all.

How will it all end? Again here it is unknown, since each conflict has its own unique elements and animus. It strikes me that it will end slowly when hatred finally gives way to utter exhaustion and simple desire to do something else in life besides wage war. My suspicion is that it really ends when moderates gain control over extremists. The generally apathetic center has to decide, “We got to get rid of these extremists. Every single damned one of them.” And then they do it through various tactics not all of which we will approve of. This process will be long and messy. The overwhelming majority of citizens in a country must decide they will not tolerate it anymore. This will happen while boundaries shift, countries form and reform and the resulting new countries look a lot less diverse than the old ones.

What’s causing it? I don’t claim to be a Muslim scholar, but there are a couple of roots to the problem, some of which are mirrored here in the United States and should be worrisome to us. A lot of it is about religious points 1500 years in the past that really don’t matter and center around whether Muhammad wanted descendants from his family to lead Islam after his death. It’s partly due to the increase in the gap between the privileged and the impoverished. Egypt, for example, cannot support the population that it has, and the plentiful and growing poor lengthen the odds that economic growth can change the dynamic. In general, Egyptians are not ready to accept some unpleasant facts, like they need to stabilize their population to really address long-term poverty. Democracy is a step in the right direction. It provides non-violent means to affect general changes. But it is not necessarily the solution; it just improves the odds of a viable non-violent solution. In implementing a democracy they also get a chance to practice civility toward each other in spite of enormous differences.

What can the United States do? Last night we talked about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict as a “red line” that suggests we should enter the conflict and impose a peace. We largely agreed that it would be stupid to cross this red line. Drawing an unequivocal moral line in the sand usually makes problems worse, not better. Whether a civilian dies as a result of a chemical weapon or a bullet, they will be dead either way. The numbers who have allegedly died from chemical weapons in Syria is a tiny part of the total casualties. Chemical weapons in general are a terribly inefficient way to kill people. We can certainly continue to provide humanitarian aid. Providing weapons is probably not a good idea. It won’t shorten the violence or really bring peace to Syria, unless peace simply means everyone is dead. Humanitarian aid is of course not a solution, just a bandage, but should be ladled out generously.

In short it’s a mess and will be a mess for a long time, with no deterministic exit criteria. Whether we go into places like Syria or stay out, the most likely effect is we won’t be able to control or really do much to change the situation. These conflicts when looked at in the macro sense simply fall beyond the ability of a superpower, or large entities like NATO, to control the outcome. In the short term, staying out of these conflicts keeps the rest of us reasonably safe. In the long term we may end up embroiled in these conflicts ourselves, whether we like it or not. September 11, 2001 was an example of an event deliberately created to force the United States to get more embroiled in these Muslim-related violent conflicts.

My belief is that these conflicts in general will frame the rest of the lives of all of us, even the babies. In the end these Muslim-on-Muslim conflicts can only be solved by the will and determination of Muslims themselves. All we can really do is be careful not to stir the pot and stay the hell out of their way while they continue to pointlessly kill, maim and hate each other.

September 11, 2001 memories

The Thinker by Rodin

Here, slightly edited, is an email I sent out to family later in the day on September 11, 2001, written after I had a chance to collect my wits. Add it to the collective memory archive for that traumatic date.

I thank you all for your concern for my safety. In the back of my mind are always scenarios like the one that happened today. More than once I have stood outside the Hubert H. Humphrey Building where I work and wondered if an Oklahoma City bombing happened whether I would survive. Ours is a weird looking building with the first two floors much smaller than the rest of the building. Much of the building hangs out over the street. And there is metered parking right next to the building so it wouldn’t take much to park a Yellow Rider truck along the street and do another Oklahoma City. Needless to say I am glad I don’t work in the Pentagon anymore for lots of reasons, my own personal safety being only one of them. Had I still been working for the Air Force my office would have been in Rosslyn so I would have been safe. The part of the Pentagon that was hit was on the Heliport Side far from my old office in 3A153. Had I still been there I probably would have escaped but I’m sure I’d be a lot more traumatized.

Terrorism is just a risk of being a federal employee but so far it has been a pretty abstract risk. I figured my particular building was unlikely to be a target but one never knows about these things. HHS tends to be a pretty low-key sort of place and is rarely in the news. But I do work in HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson’s building (most of my agency is actually in another building) so I’m perhaps more vulnerable than most in my agency.

Like most of you I was just sitting at my desk at work when I heard rumors of the World Trade Center explosion from a colleague. I tried to get news on the ’Net but I couldn’t connect to much of anything. The story grew in the telling. I started getting frantic phone calls from Terri. It was after the Pentagon got hit that I felt a more immediate presence. I watched part of it live on MSNBC in a nearby conference room. Terri called with rumors that the White House was hit, which proved unfounded and urged me to come home immediately. There had been no executive decision to release us but my vanpool was leaving so I high tailed it out of there.

Since I work in SW it is not quite as gridlocked and frantic as NW. Still there was a lot of traffic and not much of it moving very quickly as everyone tried to bug out. Intersections were a bit more jammed than usual but people were largely obeying traffic lights. I had to scoot though because I have to walk four blocks to pick up my van. Dan, our crazy vanpool driver, called about 10:15 saying he was leaving. Dan works in the Department of Transportation building in L’Enfant Plaza and parks the van in the garage.

The atmosphere on the streets was something bordering on mild panic. No one was screaming or shouting but lots of federal workers decided they didn’t want to be in their buildings and were out on the streets. Cell phones were everywhere. People tried to hail taxis to take them home with little luck. There were rumors that the Metro was not operating that proved to be unfounded. But at the time I felt lucky to have a van as an escape route.

As we headed west on Independence Avenue we could see plumes of smoke from the fire at the Pentagon, which is not that far away rising, ironically, over the Holocaust Museum. We progressed fairly well on Independence Avenue until it ground to a crawl near the Washington Monument. Dan made a strategic decision at that point to try Constitution Avenue. It’s hard to tell if that was the right decision since that was completely jammed too. Nonetheless we eventually crept out of DC and onto I-66 west, which was stop and go, but with periods of freeway speeds.

The reality of it was hard to miss as we crossed the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. It is actually a glorious day in Washington with clear blue skies, low humidity and temperature in the 70s. From the bridge one could appreciate the massive amount of smoke coming from the Pentagon. It was hard to imagine that so many people were dead or dying over there. I hope at least they died quickly.

Of course we had on the radio all the way back. No one was panicking in the vanpool but there was a lot of concern. I was glad to escape but I also suspected the worst was over. The journey home took about 90 minutes altogether, which wasn’t too bad under the circumstances.

I’m still in the process of analyzing my feelings over this whole thing. I’m sure it will take weeks or months to put it in perspective. It’s one thing to deal with in the abstract and it’s another thing to deal with it in reality. Like most of us caught up in it I didn’t see any mangled bodies or bleeding people. I was largely on the periphery of a crisis, which was fine with me. I fear when all this is over more than 50,000 innocent Americans will have lost their lives, most in New York City. That of course fills me with sadness and a sense of outrage. Embracing my wife after my successful journey home was quite emotional but I felt more than a little sick to my stomach. The last time I really remember feeling this was when we moved into our first townhouse to discover it had flooded overnight. This is a bit of a different experience but the feelings are similar. The uneasiness comes from realizing that security blanket we put around ourselves is mostly an illusion.

And yet something like this was bound to happen. It’s amazing in retrospect it didn’t happen sooner. The plane at the Pentagon shows how simple it is to destroy a good part of our command and control structure. Like with Pearl Harbor I got the feeling we got caught napping as a country. In reality our military has failed utterly to protect us against what are real threats are. All those words about how well protected we are against domestic terrorism I always thought were pretty empty. Rest assured we will bomb some probably innocent victims in return and cause more death and destruction. If the politicians play this right we can turn into another xenophobic Israel with hatred forever coursing through our veins and a feeling of self-righteousness that is still not justified.

The sad reality is that guns, metal detectors and sniffing dogs can’t buy this country national security. If we truly want to minimize this stuff we simply have to be less obnoxious on the international stage. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. But we could learn a lot if we imitated Switzerland. So I’m sad to say I expect more of this stuff, possibly even worse, in our future. All I can do is hope that this federal employee escapes unscathed.

Terri went to donate blood first. Rosie is having an orthodontic emergency I must attend to instead. Hopefully I can donate tonight.

Later that day I wrote in an email:

An online friend of Terri’s probably lost a sister in the World Trade Center disaster.

One interesting observation from these tragedies is it brings home those who really care about you. Terri got a phone call from her childhood friend Frieda. I also got one from Cyndi, our former foster child now approaching the ripe old age of 30. And of course we heard from Terri’s Mom who was very concerned. I guess it’s nice to know that if I’m the victim of one of these things I’ll be mourned. In addition there have been emails from others. All those concerns from parents and siblings were flattering too.

I think both Terri and I have a minor cause of posttraumatic stress syndrome. We were both closer to the action than we would have liked and having fighter jets cruising at low altitudes over your house and workplace leave you feeling creepy and on edge. At some point I suspect the emotional impact is going to hit me and the tears will be flowing. I got as close today to war as I ever want to get.

Terri did manage to give blood but had to wait five hours. They were taking only O- blood since they are universal donors. When they get around to O+ I will be glad to donate.

Threats from within on the Fifth Anniversary of September 11th

The Thinker by Rodin

Has it been five years? The date seems too prominent in my memory for it to be half a decade away already. For most of us Americans, even if we did not live in New York or Washington, the events of September 11, 2001 left a permanent impression in our minds. Move over Kennedy Assassination and Challenger Disaster. The tragic events of this day eclipsed all of them.

I have been in both the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Until I ran out of web space, I hosted pictures of myself and my family on the observation deck of the World Trade Center during the spring of 2000. Far from being bustling, the twin towers seemed serene by Manhattan standards. You could stand in the courtyard, crane your head way, way up and try to see the top floors. Do it for too long and your neck was sure to hurt. They seemed as permanent as the pyramids of Egypt.

Not only have I visited the Pentagon, I worked there for nine years. Perhaps it was just as well that by 1998 I had grown frustrated and left for better opportunities with the Department of Health and Human Services. While the office I worked at there was not one of the ones destroyed (in fact that office relocated to another building a few miles away before September 11th) I could have easily found other work in the Pentagon. So I too could have been one of the 125 deaths in the Pentagon who died that day. Many times when I was enjoying a bit of the bucolic during my lunch hour in the Pentagon’s center courtyard (ironically referred to as “Ground Zero”) I would watch turboprops buzz a few hundred feet overhead on approach to Reagan National Airport. I wondered how air traffic controllers could direct airplanes to fly directly over the Pentagon. One bomb dropped from one of these airplanes could also have wreaked massive havoc to our national security.

On September 11th, 2001 itself I was busy at work in my office in Washington, D.C. At the time I worked on the National Mall at the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services. It was one of our contract employees who told me something about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. We went into one of the conference rooms that had a big screen TV and watched CNN in horror. We heard not only that the Pentagon had been hit, but that other planes were coming our way. Many of us ended up outside. We could see grayish white smoke from the Pentagon crash to our west, waffling up into a surreal crystal clear blue sky. Many people were frantically calling on their cell phones. Few succeeded in getting through. Eventually we just started bugging out of town, thinking that if we could just get home we would at least be safe. (One of the surprising aspects of the day was that Dan, the guy who drove our vanpool, managed to do it at all. It would be the last day he would drive the vanpool. The next day he was in the hospital for tests. Less than a month later has was dead, not from terrorism, but from pancreatic cancer.)

I steeled up my nerves and returned to the office the next day. The truth was that after that terrible day I never felt comfortable working in Washington, D.C. again. My feelings were exacerbated when we moved to another building in Southwest D.C. From my window I could look down on a steady stream of anonymous railroad cars entering and leaving the District. I frequently wondered if any of them would explode outside my window.

So I started looking in earnest for civil servant jobs in the suburbs. My current position with the U.S. Geological Survey here in Reston, Virginia is a direct effect of that day five years ago today. While I feel safe at work again, I do not feel safe like I did before September 11th. I am still occasionally unnerved. Last week, for example, the power went out in our building. My first though was to wonder if some terrorist incident was to blame.

With five years hindsight I can say that I overreacted. I was born during the Cold War. Until it ended some fifteen years ago, I lived with the abstract but very real threat that my life could end at any moment as a result of a nuclear missile strike. For most of us, September 11th made the fears that foreigners could actually kill us here on our home soil very concrete rather than abstract. I also believe that if you were one of the couple million people like me who experienced the attacks firsthand, however removed, the threat became particularly personified.

I have already put together my thoughts on what it would really take to win the War on Terror. Three thousand deaths as a result of three incidents on one day is a lot of people. Although every life lost that day (except for the perpetrators) was precious, five years later it may be helpful to put those deaths in perspective. 3000 deaths were 3000 more Americans than died on our home soil as a result of the Cold War. However, your odds of being one of the victims of September 11th were roughly 1 in 100,000. Those are pretty good odds, even if you work in New York City or Washington. That is why I am one of many advocating we concentrate resources to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. It is an obvious strategy for which this administration has given short shrift. We want to prevent the type of war that kills millions and rips apart a nation on all levels. Our own Civil War is a painful example of what not to do. Had you been alive then, your odds of dying in the war were 1 in 100. When it was over, our country and our economy were in ruins. Perhaps our greatest national security threat is not from outside, but from within.

And speaking of threats from within, what about deaths that we inflict on each other? While they cannot be classified as acts of terrorism, they are equally as lethal. There are 78 deaths from firearms in our country every day. Some are a result of suicide, but most are homicides. If we could cut our firearm death rates to those of Western Europe, we could prevent the equivalent of one September 11th every 43 days.

Arguably, preventable deaths should be equally as tragic as homicides. Nearly as many Americans die of mostly preventable cardiovascular diseases every day (2566) than were killed on September 11th. According to the CDC, tobacco smoking kills 1200 Americans daily. Some would argue these deaths amount to a peculiar form of suicide, since the risks are known and prevention strategies can be adopted. Is a wife’s suffering over the loss of a husband who died of obesity, alcohol or smoking any less than some wife who lost their husband as a result of terrorism? These judgments are hard to make, but I would say no.

On this fifth anniversary, I am still struck by the need to develop an effective strategy for dealings with the terrorist threat. It is clear that our strategy to date has been wasteful, largely ineffective and generally counterproductive. Yet I am also seeing potentially greater threats that we are giving short shrift. While we try to prevent external threats, let us also be mindful of the cancers like poverty, racism and polarization by income or values. They are harder to detect but are far more likely to kill our nation.