Thinking Aloud: But They’re *Our* Terrorists

Apr. 19, 2014 by Darius 

Today is the 19th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City.  One hundred sixty-eight people died, making the bombing the deadliest terrorist attack in the US until 9/11.  The Oklahoma City bombing was perpetrated by white American extremists who were also military veterans.  Yet today, 19 years later, domestic terrorism still does not get the attention it deserves.

Just last weekend, a white American extremist who was also a military veteran shot and killed three people outside a Jewish community center in Kansas.  It was clearly an act of terrorism: the shooter was a white supremacist targeting civilians with an intent to sow terror.  The incident dominated the news for a few days and is now fading away.

Contrast the Kansas shootings with the Boston Marathon bombing, which was almost precisely one year earlier.  The exact same number of people were killed in each attack.  But the Boston bombings were carried out by a Muslim foreigner, while the Kansas shooting was carried out by an American bigot.  Both attacks were lethal and politically motivated, but only one got serious, long-term attention.  In the aftermath of only one of these attacks were there serious calls to suspend parts of the Constitution.

Why is it that Americans are so blind to the rottenness within our own society?  If someone from outside the country attacks us, we invade countries.  But if someone inside our country attacks us, it’s time to grip our guns and stand our ground.  If the perpetrator is a Muslim immigrant, he must be a terrorist and we need to pull out all the stops.  If the perpetrator is a white American, he must be a nut case and we shrug it off as if to say “so sad but what can we do?”*  Well, actually, there’s a lot we can do.  We just lack the will to do it.


*In case you think this is not true, I have a simple experiment for you: find 10 friends, relatives, or random people.  Ask five of them if they know who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is.  Ask the other five if they know who Paul Ciancia is.  Compare the results.  One is a homegrown terrorist.  One is not.  One faded from view very quickly.  The other is practically a poster child.

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News You Really Need To See: “Twin Shocks Shake Foundation of German Power”

“Twin Shocks Shake Foundation of German Power”

The New York Times, April 19, 2014, p.A4

“If there are two qualities prized by modern Germans, they surely are Ruhe (peace and quiet) and Ordnung (order).  So the past few months have been profoundly unsettling. First, the United States — the very power that helped Germany to its feet after 1945 and instilled democracy in the ruins of Hitler’s Reich — was found to be a less than transparent ally.  The National Security Agency, riding roughshod over concepts of privacy and individual freedom treasured by Germans, had collected huge amounts of electronic data from ordinary citizens and had even spied on the chancellor, Angela Merkel. … Even as anti-Americanism surged, however, the Germans faced a second, more profound shock: The crisis over Ukraine proved that Russia, the giant to the east that Germans know so well from centuries of doing business and waging war, was no longer playing by what Berlin considered the established rules of the 21st century.  By replacing the currency of modern diplomacy — global cooperation, a wariness about using force, a shared trust and belief in agreements — with the swift, forced annexation of Crimea, Russia threatened the very foundation of Germany’s modern power.  As mighty as its economy — the largest in Europe — may be, Germany does not, unlike the United States, Britain and France (or Russia, for that matter), have the military clout of a conventional power.”

Quickie analysis:   Germany suddenly feels very unprotected without an army or being able to trust its biggest ally.  The Dutch, the Belgians, and students of modern world history must relish the irony.

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Thinking Aloud: “What Changes Everything”

Apr. 18, 2014 by Darius 

I recently finished What Changes Everything by Masha Hamilton.  The novel brings together the story threads of a myriad of characters, past and present, affected by the war in Afghanistan.  

What Changes Everything parallels the stories of two very different men.  Todd, an American aid worker, is kidnapped in Kabul.  (This is not really a plot spoiler as the book jacket tells you as much.)  His story is implicitly compared with that of Najibullah, president of Afghanistan in the years after the Soviet withdrawal until civil war and the Taliban takeover.  Najibullah spent years trapped in a UN compound in Kabul, unable to leave officially and unwilling to swallow his pride as leader of his country to escape surreptitiously.  In the end, Najibullah was tortured and killed when the Taliban took Kabul.  (This is also not a plot spoiler as it’s historical fact.)  Masha Hamilton uses Najibullah’s story to demonstrate that in the end, the Americans and other foreigners will leave Afghanistan and return to their lives.  The Afghans don’t have the luxury of being able to leave when it is expedient.  It’s their home, and they have nowhere to return to.

Hamilton also drives home the point in What Changes Everything that while the war in Afghanistan has ripped apart many American lives, Afghans have suffered far more.  When an American nurse whose son lost his legs fighting in Afghanistan visits a Kabul hospital, the Afghan head of the hospital points to an Afghan girl similarly maimed and demonstrates the contrast between the two victims.  While the American soldier will be able to lead something resembling a normal life, the hospital chief says, both bitterly and matter-of-factly, of the girl, “We will be able to get her prosthetics, inshallah.  If the aid does not dry up.  But she will never marry.  She will not go to school.  Her family will feel shamed by her.  She will not have ongoing medical care.  Real recovery for her is not possible.” For how many Afghans is that the case?  No one knows; no one even started keeping records on civilian injuries until 2007.

Hamilton is a former journalist who covered Afghanistan for four years, and her day job is (or was when the book was published) director of communications at the US Embassy in Kabul.  She knows Afghanistan, at least on the level an outsider can, and has seen the tangled and sometimes mangled lives that have intersected there.  What Changes Everything is a poignant interweaving of stories of loss, grief, and recovery, with Afghanistan as their pivot point.

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News You Really Need To See: “One-Fifth of China’s Farmland Is Polluted, State Study Finds”

“One-Fifth of China’s Farmland Is Polluted, State Study Finds”

The New York Times, April 18, 2014, p.A7

“The Chinese government released a report on Thursday that said nearly one-fifth of its arable land was polluted, a finding certain to raise questions about the toxic results of China’s rapid industrialization, its lack of regulations over commercial interests and the consequences for the national food chain.  The report, issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land Resources, said 16.1 percent of the country’s soil was polluted, including 19.4 percent of farmland.  The report was based on a study done from April 2005 to last December on more than 2.4 million square miles of land across mainland China, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. … The study found that 82.8 percent of the polluted land was contaminated by inorganic material.  The most common pollutants were cadmium, nickel and arsenic, and the levels of these materials in the soil had risen sharply since land studies in 1986 and 1990.  The level of cadmium had risen by 50 percent in the southwest and in coastal areas and by 10 percent to 40 percent in other regions, Xinhua reported.  The soil in southern China is more polluted than in the north. … Hunan Province, in central China, has some of the worst soil pollution because it is one of China’s top producers of nonferrous metals.  But it is also a large rice-growing area, producing 16 percent of the country’s rice in 2012, according to one market research company.  Officials in Guangdong Province last year found that some rice had excessive levels of cadmium.  Most of that rice was from Hunan.”

Quickie analysis:   I am coming to the conclusion that The Lorax has not been translated into Chinese.  (By the way, what the article doesn’t say is that China’s total amount of arable land is also shrinking, due to desertification.)  

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Thinking Aloud: Haters Gonna Hate

Apr. 17, 2014 by Darius 

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk earlier this week men in paramilitary uniforms handed out flyers demanding that all Jews register themselves and their property with the authorities.  It isn’t clear who is behind this flyer (whether it’s a genuine instance of anti-Semitic intimidation or whether someone is trying to make the separatists in Ukraine look bad), but it underscores an important point either way.  When trying to harness a right-wing movement, as Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to do in Ukraine, one constantly runs the risk of affiliated extremists wrecking everything.

The flyer circulating in Donetsk is deplorable from all angles.  On its face, it is a return to a time of fear and pogroms best left behind.  From the perspective of supporters of Ukrainian separatists, it is also a public relations nightmare, especially if it is confirmed as genuine.

Vladimir Putin is hardly likely to endorse such an overtly thuggish tactic.  But the entire pro-Russia movement could be in jeopardy because of the stupidity of someone loosely affiliated with his goals.

It wouldn’t be the first time a mainstream campaign was brought down through the actions of a hater on the fringes.  In the US, it happens all the time in political campaigns.  For example, the 2012 Republican candidate for US Senator in Missouri, Todd Akin, made comments about “legitimate” rape that lost the entire Republican Party votes nationwide.  Were Akin’s views those of Mitt Romney or the party as a whole?  Probably not.  But they tarred the entire party nonetheless.

Leftist groups have their wing nuts, to be sure, but racists, anti-Semites, and other haters tend to be attracted to rightist groups.  At times, rightist groups provide an acceptable face for social undercurrents that are, at their heart, reactionary and intolerant.  At other times, rightist groups are undone by affiliates’ ill-advised expressions of their true colors.  The line is a very fine one, often just an incident away.

Even if the flyers in Donetsk were not authorized by a pro-Russia paramilitary group, the fact that people think they could have been says a great deal.

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News You Really Need To See: “Warily, Jordan Assists Rebels in Syrian War”

“Warily, Jordan Assists Rebels in Syrian War”

The New York Times, April 11, 2014, p.A1

“When rebels want to return to Syria to fight, Jordan’s intelligence services give them specific times to cross its border.  When the rebels need weapons, they make their request at an ‘operations room’ in Amman staffed by agents from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.  During more than three years of civil war in Syria, this desert nation has come to the world’s attention largely because it has struggled to shelter hundreds of thousands of refugees.  But, quietly, Jordan has also provided a staging ground for rebels and their foreign backers on Syria’s southern front.  In the joint Arab-American operations room in Amman, the capital, for example, rebels say they have collected salaries as an incentive not to join better-funded extremist groups. …[But] many rebels say they believe that the Obama administration is giving just enough to keep the rebel cause alive, but not enough to actually help it win, as part of a dark strategy aimed at prolonging the war. They say that in some cases their backers even push them to avoid attacking strategic targets, part of what they see as that effort to keep the conflict burning. … While much attention has been focused on Syria’s northern front, where rebels move in freely from neighboring Turkey, the southern region has been far more controlled.  And despite recent reports of an invigorated ‘southern front’ of rebel forces, recent interviews with more than two dozen rebel commanders, fighters and Jordanian and foreign officials painted a picture of a largely stagnant southern battlefield, one that is heavily influenced by outside powers whose main goals are to limit the rise of extremists and preserve stability in Jordan.”

Quickie analysis:   A nice look at how Jordan is controlling the southern front of Syria to preserve its own stability.  (Yesterday, Jordan scrambled fighter jets and destroyed three rebel vehicles attempting to cross the border without permission.)  The message is clear: we’ll help you but only on our terms.  The question of how much we’ll help you remains ambiguous, though. 

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Quick Thought to Amuse and Edify

In my reading lately I’ve come across several Middle Eastern jokes and thought I’d share a few of my favorites.

From Egypt:

“A fox in the Western Desert escaped to Libya and the Libyans asked, ‘Why do you come here?’  The fox said, ‘Because in Egypt they arrest camels.’  The Libyans said, ‘But you are not a camel.’  The fox then said, ‘Of course not, but try telling that to the police!’”

(This is apparently a very old joke, but this version was reportedly told by former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat as a criticism of the police state of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser.  By most accounts, it could still be told today.)

From Saudi Arabia:

“The king decides to check the will of his people.  So he sets up a checkpoint on a busy road.  No one complains.  So he asks his security officers to further test people’s patience by also doing an identity check at the checkpoint.  Still no one complains.  Determined to find the public’s limit of tolerance, the king asks the officer not only to stop the people and check their identities but also to ticket them.  The line of cars grows ever longer on the busy Riyadh road, but still no public complaint emerges from a Saudi.  So the king asks the officer to go one step further and slap those he stops, identifies, and tickets.  Finally one Saudi man goes ballistic.  The ruler asks that his angry countryman be brought before him to explain his outburst.  ‘I have waited for hours in this queue,’ the man tells the king.  ‘If you are going to do this to us, at least get two officers to slap us so the line moves faster.’”

(The source of this joke is Karen Elliot House’s book On Saudi Arabia, p. 31.)

About the region:

 “You know the story of the scorpion who wanted to cross the Suez Canal. He asked a camel if he could ride on his back.  The camel said, ‘If I do and you sting me, I will be dead.’  The scorpion said, ‘I will drown also, so you have every guarantee.’  So the camel took the scorpion on his back and they started across.  In the middle of the Canal the scorpion stung the camel and as they drowned the camel asked, ‘What did you do this for?’  The scorpion said, ‘you forgot this is the Middle East.’”

(This is a joke told by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a meeting with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in May 1973.  The US and USSR were trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to prevent another war between Israel and its neighbors.  It is recounted in the official archives of the US Department of State.)

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