May 6, 2007

Combatting Those We Can't Understand

Justin Katz

With the news of Russia's slow slide back toward totalitarianism and Rocco DiPippo's observations about life in Iraq prior to the troop surge, I find myself baffled by those who seek not just power, but oppressive power. Writes Rocco:

Before the troop surge began, my friend Nabil's brother-in-law, a resident of Jordan, was shot in the head while he was visiting Baghdad for a week to help with Nabil's wedding plans. He was killed by a terrorist simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

A month prior to that event, Nabil and his parents fled their long-time home when they received a note, wrapped around a 9mm bullet, commanding them to leave their neighborhood in 24 hours or be killed. (Based on what had happened to some of those in Nabil's neighborhood who had ignored similar threats, he knew that he and his family had half that time to gather up a few possessions and leave, if they wanted to live.)

Oh, we can empathize with the various factors that we imagine contribute to a willingness to terrorize and oppress. If the Virginia Tech killer had been a bit more charismatic — we might be tempted to think — he could have been a Hitler or Saddam. But if he had possessed such qualities, the triggers of his atrocity wouldn't have existed and, if he lusted for power (rather than just acceptance), he would have been drawn to those means to power that our society has made to be more efficient and less personally perilous, such as politics, business, and even entertainment.

We can also understand that poverty and economic hopelessness can spur one toward desperate measures, and we can imagine ourselves, in such a state, being wooed by organized revolutionaries. But our society has generated organizations for assistance and political advancement. Moreover, we emphasize the power of information and communication over that of militarization.

We can even understand that, in nations that lack an established democratic rule of law, one has no guarantee that relaxing one's grip on power will not send it slipping into the hands of even more (or at least conflicting) tyrannical forces. But one would expect people in such predicaments to see how much more stable the general power structure is under a free, constitutional regime. (Pakistan's Musharraf comes to mind.) No doubt, being the faction that introduces democracy to a previously totalitarian society is a dangerous, courageous endeavor, but when the United States — and all of Western society (tentatively) — takes an interest, shouldn't that represent an opportunity? To be sure, certain factions will find that they are disadvantaged when it comes to the United States' affections, but the groups of which I'm thinking — those that oppose the West and the reformers whom Westerners woo — don't tend even to consider overtures.

With interest, experience, and time, we can indeed construct a theoretical model of the drivers and boundaries of anything from atomic particles to psychotics, but models are far removed from intuitive understanding. It is one thing to conclude that, in order to deal with insurgents, one must take certain steps. It is another to assess "what would work on me if I were an insurgent." That such a distinction exists at all appears to be a matter of some doubt along certain lines in Western Society.

The missing component, put another way, is the realization that oppressive, terroristic mindsets in other cultures sprout from different branches of human nature's development than the West. This is not to say that Western civilization is immune to similar follies, but that other cultures' versions exist under rules of law (writ large) that are parallel, not subordinate, to our own. Terrorists will not "come to their senses," because their senses are different, and Westerners' refined aversion violence and preference for talk and political maneuvering is not a reasonable predictor of our enemies' behavior.

Of course, some Westerners would object even to my calling hostile groups "enemies." One such, no doubt, would be Dr. Brian Alverson of Barrington, whose fortuitously timed letter to the Providence Journal expresses precisely the mentality that I've been describing:

What the Republican Party doesn't want Americans to realize is there is, in fact, no true war on terror. Terror is not a burly beast aggressor out there. Terrorism has been going on for millennia.

The implication, here, is that people commit acts of terrorism, and if we focus on people rather than actions, we can come to understand them, as Alverson continues:

What our Republican leaders have done is create a world-wide distaste for America, especially among extremist groups. More people want to hurt innocent Americans than ever before, and this is due mostly to our aggressive foreign policy.

One can understand (the train of thought goes on) why these poor people would lash back at America and Americans, and with that understanding, we can construct a solution:

A vote for the majority of Republican candidates is a vote for a continuation of foreign policy that puts our children in harm's way, and increases the likelihood of foreign terrorists on American soil.

The solution, in other words, is to scale back our "aggressive" foreign policy — leaving those whom American interference would turn into terrorists to themselves and, when it's necessary to interact with them, doing so as we do here in the West, with communication and politics. The first question that arises is what we should do when they don't keep to themselves — whether their expansionism amounts to direct attacks (as on 9/11) or to encroachment on our interests overseas. The next, trickier question is whether we have some responsibility to intercede in their affairs when notes begin appearing, wrapped around bullets, in family mailboxes.

As long as America protects either innocents or just its own interests, it will raise the ire of the oppressors of the world, and if it does not offer such defenses, those same would-be tyrants will read its inaction as opportunity. There's a strange gray area of ignorance lingering between our cultural guilt about imperialism, colonialism, and worse practices and our willingness to believe that other cultures have surely reached our degree of refinement. That we have built barriers and controls around human nature does not mean that it does not run more wildly among others.

The grounds for hope materialize with the realization that we can understand others through our shared humanity — and all of the good and evil that give humanity its character. We've a long history to examine of falling before the devil's whispers, and he whispers to us yet. To reformulate my statement above, we can observe how our enemies heed him, and we can model their likely behavior. The difficulty comes in understanding why they are deceived by certain of his lies, and in believing that he may deceive us through our own compassion and empathy.

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Oh my. Justin, please don't consider this a personal attack, but you are in so far over your head that you don't even realize what you're saying.

Where to start? First of all, people who lived in N Ireland between 1970 (give or take) and 2005 would probably disagree with you about terrorism being something that's non-western.

Terrorism is the modern, urban variation of guerilla warfare. One distinction is that the targets are civilian, rather than military. So the French Resistance blew up RR junctions and Menachem Begin blew up the King David Hotel.

Secondly, the strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must. Given that, I am really surprised at your surprise that more people don't grasp the benefits of a free, constitutional regime. If Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, etc had free elections, don't you think they would elect Islamist gov'ts, the way Turkey did? Are you aware that the military in Algeria intervened (with the full approval of the US) to thwart the free and democratic election of such an Islamist gov't? And Hugo Chavez was freely elected. Twice. And returned to power despite a US-sponsored coup that ousted him.

And what about the various dictators that the US has supported--and continues to support--in the pursuit of our nat'l interests? Batista in Cuba (pre-Castro), Diem in S Vietnam, Marcos in the Phillipines...we overthrew the democratically elected gov't of Iran and installed the Shah, whom we propped up for decades as he ruthlessly repressed his people. And then wonder why Iranians don't like us much.

And terrorism is the process of choice of a group that has virtually no power. It is the snake biting the heel of the elephant. So, if it's not as prevalent in the west, it's because we've been the purveyors of police-state empire for hundreds of years.

How do you think the British and French maintained their empires? Why don't they have them now? Because the level of brutality necessary to keep that empire doesn't quite wash with our liberal (old sense) democratic values, does it? If the get-tough tactics advocated in Iraq worked, the British and French would still have their empires. Do you know about the French in Algeria, and why they're not there any more?

Who are these "innocents" we're protecting in Saudi Arabia? Answer: the Royal Family. Why? Because of the oil. You see, without our support, the monarchy would collapse. We know it, the Saudis (the Saud Dynasty, that is), and the people of the country know it. So, given that, you don't see a connection between our foreign policy and why we became a target on 9/11? Bin Laden is a Saudi (in the sense of the country.)

Given our record in Iran, can you say that their hatred for us is irrational? Have you ever heard of SAVAK? That was the Shah's secret police. I know people who fled the Iranian Revolution in 1979; they were on the Shah's side, and they were terrified of SAVAK. These were not nice people, but we supported them for 30 years.

I'm sorry, Justin. You talk about our current level of "refined aversion to violence." Sorry, don't see that. Have you read the comments from What about the NRA folks who advocate that everyone pack a piece? Ever hear of Tim McViegh? Where, exactly, do you find this "refinement"?

You also talk about the

"...strange gray area of ignorance lingering between our cultural guilt about imperialism, colonialism, and worse practices and our willingness to believe that other cultures have surely reached our degree of refinement..."

I'm sorry, but the biggest fog of "ignorance" (your word, not mine) that I see is the refusal to see the connection between what we do and how others react to that.

There seems to be this weird sense of warped Calvinism working here: that America is so thoroughly good that everything we do is also good, even when it's bad. Sorry, I don't buy that. We are what we do, not what we profess. Condi Rice was grousing about Egypt's poor civil rights record (true) back in '05; what happened to that? It got trashed because we need Egypt on "our side." And, to beat a dead horse, there's Saudi Arabia. These are the places we render prisoners to be "interrogated." These are not nice people. And yet, we allow this, we support this, and yet we're not tainted by it? How can that be?

By our standards, anyone supporting a Muslim charity that supports terrorism is a criminal. And yet, we're supporting radical Sunni "freedom fighters" who are working to destabilize the regime in Iran. In other words, we're supporting a group affiliated with Al Qaida in order to overthrow a gov't that doesn't like AQ any more than we do.

So, when talking about "ignorance," (and that is your word, not mine) perhaps you should check to see if there are any beams in your eye before talking about the speck in mine.

As always, my advice is to read some history. Lots of it.

Posted by: klaus at May 6, 2007 9:46 PM

Sorry, Klaus, but I lack the energy this late on a Sunday evening to defend against (non-personal) attacks that I'm merely babbling. Perhpas if you'd held your missive until Monday...

All I can say is that, although it is debatable whether I "even realize what [I'm] saying," it's quite clear to me that you have no idea what I'm saying. I'm willing to lay the great bulk of blame on my imperfect self-expression, but as is often the case, it seems you want to argue with somebody who holds beliefs that I do not and that I endeavored not to parrot. There's always an odd blend, in your comments, of attributing to me positions that I explicitly disclaim and declaring that, in holding those positions, I can't possibly have the first notion of how the world is. Frankly, I've no interest in pursuing discussions along those tricky lines, and I can't imagine that many people do.

Have a good night. Sweet dreams.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 6, 2007 10:09 PM

Actually, one point (against my better judgment) because I'd specifically anticipated the objection:

When I was a kid, it was easy to confuse the acronyms for terrorists in Ireland and the Middle East. But what has happened to the IRA since then? And is there any hope — or under what circumstances would there be any hope — for a similar trajectory among the likes of al Qaeda? When it comes down to it, those are the questions for which I was attempting to state my own contextual assessment. The rest of your comment is just boilerplate.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 6, 2007 10:19 PM
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