Friday, February 20, 2015

Distortions in the Debate on Terrorism

The recent discussion about terrorism has been foundering on a particular set of rhetoric. Let me see if I can summarize and then clear up some of the distortions and confusions.

1. "The Obama administration believes all we need to defeat terrorists like ISIS is a jobs program."
This is a reference to comments made by deputy US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf. But it's also a blatant distortion (in particular, it's the "silver bullet" caricature). Harf -- and the Obama administration more generally -- have laid out a program for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Certainly, one component of that program is jobs, but it's only one component: there's also US military action strikes (as Harf said, "We're killing a lot of them. And we're going to keep killing more of them."), US advisors training Iraqi troops, and other forms of aid and cooperation.

So it's false to depict Harf or the Obama administration as saying ISIS or other militants can be defeated with only some jobs programs. But that's exactly what some pundits (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannnity) have been doing. Maybe Obama's policy isn't adequate, that's a fair point to argue. But it's not acceptable to misrepresent that policy, and it's simply false to say that violence has been ruled out in favor of a jobs program.

Remember the Iraq Surge was caricatured by many critics in 2007 as just "sending in more troops", when there in fact it involved significant changes in deployment and objectives for troops, as well as non-military components as well. There was even a jobs component: the US paid the salaries of members of the Sahwa / Sons of Iraq movement, a movement made up of Sunni militants fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), often times militants who had months earlier been fighting alongside AQI against US forces.

Harf and the Obama administration could also be accused of indulging in the "silver bullet" caricature: who has actually said that we can "kill our way out of this war", and that no extra-military strategies are needed?

2. "Islam's scripture and history with violence demonstrate that it is inherently brutal and flawed."
It's certainly true that Islamic history and the Quran contain episodes of horrific violence. But, if violent history and scripture are sufficient reasons to declare a religion inherently brutal, flawed, evil, or false, then every major religion is going to wind up in that bin. Is this really the correct conclusion to reach? No.

Consider, Islam and other religions also have history and scripture involving acts of great justice and compassion; why not take those episodes as showing the essential nature of those religions? The point is, the world's major religions contain both good and bad, and the majority of religious adherents tend to ignore or abstain from the bad.

3. "We shouldn't label terrorist acts "Islamic": such violence is not truly Islamic, and it unfairly demonizes Islam and Muslims."
The Obama administration continually refuses to claim that acts of terror by ISIS and other groups is Islamic, insisting that the violence is not indicative of "true Islam". This raises a complicated (and probably endless) debate about who really is or isn't a proper Muslim. I don't see much hope of settling that issue with Islam any more than any other religion.

But leaving that aside, the fact is that most of the acts of terror done today are done by people who proclaim it in the name of Islam than any other religion. That doesn't mean Islam is inherently violent (see point 2 above), and it's certainly worth noting and investigating why, in current times, people are more likely to commit violence in the name of Islam as opposed to Buddhism or Hinduism or Christianity. Such an investigation might help us understand (see points 4 and 7 below) and prevent acts of terror in the future.

Or, as a caller to Rush Limbaugh's show pointed out Feb. 20, 2015, how is pointing out that some terror is done in the name of Islam any different from pointing out the motives in a hate crime?

As an aside, would the Obama administration ever say the same thing about misbehavior said to be done in the name of the conservative movement or the Republican Party? Would he say that it's not truly done in the name of being a conservative or Republican?

4. "You can't understand evil. Pointing out that terrorists have grievances amounts to saying that terrorism is justified."
Evil is a human behavior. It's frequently cruel and even irrational behavior, but is there any reason we can't understand it just as well (or poorly) as other human behaviors?

Keep in mind, explaining why someone does something in no way means justifying what they did, or saying what they did was right.

Pointing out someone's grievances is a way of understanding that person's motives. Again, you can understand someone's motives for behaving a certain way without arguing that their behavior was moral or good or justified in any way.

For example, I can explain Bernie Madoff's behavior in bilking people out of their money: he wanted to get rich. I've explained his behavior, but at no point have I said what he did was OK.

The same goes for grievances. You can point out the grievances someone has without saying their grievances are legitimate. Even if you believe their grievance is legitimate, you can do so without arguing that they were justified in behaving violently on the basis of that grievance.

Take another example: Craig Stephen Hicks has been charged with the murder of three people in Chapel Hill, NC, over a parking dispute. Suppose we find out he was really treated unfairly in some parking matter: that is, he had a legitimate grievance. Are we therefore committed to saying that it was legitimate for him to act on that grievance by killing three people? No, of course not.

5. "In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama equated Christianity with ISIS."
This is false. Obama didn't "compare" Christianity to ISIS in the sense of saying they're both just as bad. Rather, he made the argument that I made above, saying that if a history of violence (such as ISIS's) is sufficient to declare the religion that violence is related to (Islam) inherently flawed, then the same conclusion must be reached about any and all other religions that also have a history including horrific violence. And Christianity, like every other major religion, has a history that includes horrific violence.

6. "It's wrong to blame poverty for terrorism, because many terrorists (like Osama bin Laden) were rich."
This is something along the lines of "you don't know what it's like to be me" rhetoric. You don't have to poor to be motivated by poverty, any more than you have to be a slave to be in favor of abolishing slavery.

That's not to say that bin Laden was motivated by poverty (let alone that he chose an acceptable way of protesting poverty, even if he was motivated by it). But rich people can be motivated by poverty just as much as poor people.

More, there are certainly poor people who are fighting on the side of ISIS, just like there were poor people fighting on the side of AQI, who were peeled off of AQI (in part) because the US paid them money (see point 1 above).

7. "By blaming poverty for terrorism, you're failing to lay blame where it belongs: with the terrorist."
Again, saying that poverty plays a role in terrorism doesn't mean you're absolving the terrorists.

Does saying Islam plays a role in terrorism absolve the terrorist? No. In either case, you can point to data showing that terrorism is currently more likely to be tied to poverty or Islam or whatever else while at the same time insisting that this is not a justification for terrorism (see point 4 above).

Knowing these connections that terrorism has to other things can help in predicting and thwarting acts of terror. If you know that terrorism is more likely to come from certain affiliations, that can help you figure out how stop it before it happens, in the same way that crime statistics can be used to prevent crime.

No comments: