Dec 17

We grew up in a decade when foreign policy didn’t matter...at least it didn’t based on news coverage. The Berlin Wall fell--and the Cold War symbolically ended--when we were six; the twin towers fell twelve years later--kicking starting the “war on terror”--the year we graduated we high school. In between, America didn’t really have an enemy to face other than a running back who murdered his wife and white, Christian, anti-government terrorism.

Yes, our generation’s existential crisis was terrorism, perpetrated by non-state actors hiding in caves and deserts. We never got to square off against thousands of armed nuclear war heads. That’s a real enemy.

But good news: The Cold War is back! Russia invaded the Ukraine!

(Unless, once again, their economy finishes them off first.)

And since Russia is back in the news, we thought we’d debunk some of the myths we’ve heard about our former enemy and current rival (going back decades).

Before we start, let’s clarify something: we’re not pro-Russia, pro-communist, or, more accurately, pro-dictatorship. Obviously, Stalin’s Russia was a terrible place, perhaps the most evil country in the history of the Earth. (Yes, our World War II ally was probably “eviler” than Hitler. Nuance!) But lies or myths about that country don’t help the debate.

Endless Clapping

This first anecdote, endlessly repeated, is like the Ur-myth of dictatorship. In short, at the end of a local district conference, there’s a tribute to Stalin and everyone begins applauding for their leader. They keep clapping. And clapping. Eventually, after clapping for much, much too long, one man finally sits down. The next day, the man disappears, presumably sent to the gulag for disobedience or showing initiative.

We first heard this tale in high school in AP European History. It’s origin is pretty clear. It comes from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

On an emotional, communism-is-the-end-of-the-free-world level, this story works perfectly. It’s the ultimate example of bureaucracy and the end of free will. It begs the question: who would want to live in a dictatorship like this?

Except, on a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem that every time a rally or conference was held in Stalin’s Russia, someone else would head to the gulag. Eventually there would be no one left in the state who wasn’t in the gulag. Or meetings would consist of hours or days of clapping until people fell over from exhaustion.

Of course life couldn’t go on like this. The Russian state would have had to develop a solution to this problem.

Turns out, they did: a bell. When it rang, you could sit down. So yes, this story is based on the idea that Russians clapped for long periods of time in honor of Stalin. And people feared being the first to stop clapping. But it’s also not as fatalistic or absurd as the anecdote. More to the point, why didn’t Solzhenitsyn mention the bell? Because it would that have made the anecdote less effective.

Standing in Line for No Reason…

A long time ago, I heard an urban myth that Russia had so many lines that if Russians saw a line form, they would just start standing in it. This interview summarizes it pretty succinctly, “A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. ‘People would just stand in line hoping for something.’”

Again, logically, this anecdote doesn’t make any sense. If you probe slightly, you realize, no one has ever done this. How long would you wait in a line like this? Ten minutes? An hour? Ten hours? What if the line wasn’t moving? More importantly, why wouldn’t you just ask what the line was for?

Like the first myth, there’s probably a basis in reality for this. Lines would probably form quickly when a new product went on sale; shortages were a problem in Russia. And I’m sure some people hopped in line without knowing what was for sale. (But I’m sure they asked what was for sale very quickly.) The exaggeration comes from people just staying in line, waiting, without knowing. That makes no sense.

Strong Leaders

In America’s over-reaction to Putin--the On V position is that invading neighboring countries is one of the largest threats to international order, so America and Europe rightfully imposed sanctions on Russia. But taking control of Crimea is a far cry from Putin planning to invade all of Europe--he was often praised for his strength/dictatorial cunning.

This brought up an old explanation of Putin/Russia: since the time of the Tsars, Russians have simply preferred “strong leaders”. This Slate article from 2006 sums it up nicely:

“Whether it's single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians' long-festering desire for a "strong hand."

Interestingly, “strong leaders” can be code for dictators, tsars or just a really authoritarian president. In any meaning, it makes no sense at all. How can an entire culture simply prefer dictators to democracy? And could you make the same argument for America? Since the Civil War, virtually every president has expanded the power of the executive branch. And for a long time, you could have made the case that Britain and France and Germany and Japan and America needed/wanted/loved strong leaders. Even now you could make the case that certain politicians and people prefer a dictator to messy democracy, and those are developed countries.

Dec 01

(To read the entire "Getting Orwellian” series, please click here.)

To stand out in the crowded field of foreign policy sites, the editors of War on the Rocks, when launching their new website, promised to approach all topics from the perspective of “international relations realism”. I wish them well. Though I tend to come from the other side of the international relations theory spectrum, I find parts of realist theory fantastically useful, particularly the blogging of Stephen Walt.

Part of me also sighed. Seeing the word “realism” reminded me how much I hate that term in national security debates. I wish I had the power to rename that entire branch of international relations theory.

Why? Because “realism” means so much more than just one branch of IR theory. Since I don’t want to take us down an uber-wonky rabbit hole, I want to quickly define realism. Fortunately, War on the Rocks does a good job of that in a post explaining their site:

[realism] is a broad term that encompasses people of many opinions with a variety of party affiliations but all of whom believe in the centrality of fear, honor, and interest as drivers of inter-state affairs. Politics is power. À la Morgenthau, we understand power as “anything that establishes and maintains the power of man over man …. from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.”

See that definition? It isn’t bad and (according to the wisdom of crowds) it defines the discipline fairly accurately.

Except War on the Rocks then precedes to confuse their IR realism with being realistic:

“Our realism is not merely theoretical, but is rather a perspective earned through experience and reasoning. We are not reasoning backwards from a blind ideological position.”

This is the part of the phrase “realism” I hate: some Realists use the name of their sub-discipline like a club on international relations liberalists (like myself), pacifists (like Eric C), Democrats (by Republicans), people who oppose increasing defense spending (by lobbyists or mouthpieces of lobbyists), or the proponents of the hypothesis that the world is increasingly violent.

International relations realists--or anyone using the term “realist” in a foreign policy debate--benefit from the convenient fact that their sub-discipline of international relations happens to share the same etymology as another word, “realistic”. In debate, international relations realists and neo-conservatives both use the phrase “realism” to mean, “grounded in reality” interchangeably with “analysis using power politics as the base”. They take advantage of a rhetorical quirk: in foreign policy terms, the opposite of realism is liberalism; linguistically, the opposite of realistic is naivete (at best) or unrealistic (at worst).

And honestly, “realism” is better than “idealism” in colloquial English. A realist accepts the world for what it is; an idealist aspires to a different world. Idealists are dreamers; realists are men of action. Foreign policy tends towards the latter; the American voting public favors the latter as well.

But that isn’t what “international relations realism” is. Realist IR theory sees the world and nation states in a balance of power struggle...and generally conduct their analysis through that lens. As smart theorists--like my aforementioned favorite Stephen Walt--have written, neither side has won the intellectual war. If they had, there wouldn’t be a debate. Instead, each side has its own data, arguments and intellectual foundations.

But that won’t stop a pernicious breed of IR theorist--and opportunistic politicians and pundits--from claiming the “realism high ground”. To differentiate them, I call them “real-world-ists”. These pundits and politicians love to insist their viewpoints come from “the real world”, especially as opposed to isolated “ivy tower academics”. Bad “realists” mix up their philosophy of IR theory with phrases like, “realist”, “reality” and “realistic”, while criticizing their opponents as “naive”, “unrealistic”, “idealistic” and “head in the sand types”.

I can’t fix this problem, but I can point it out. Embracing one branch of the ideological spectrum of IR theory doesn’t make your beliefs more accurate or descriptive of the real world. Even if your theory is named, “realism”.

Nov 21

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

Last January, knee deep in Google traffic from people searching for the facts about Lone Survivor, some readers started sending us scoops. (Most of which we didn’t have the time to investigate.) One of those scoops came from a soldier who served in Bowe Bergdahl's unit, asking us to spread the word about Bergdahl’s desertion.

We didn’t investigate the matter any further, because Michael Hastings nailed it in a story for Rolling Stone on Bergdahl. (Though Hastings used Bergdahl’s desertion as a platform to criticize the war in Afghanistan in general, which felt out of place.)

It didn’t matter, though, because a few months later, President Obama arranged a prisoner swap with the Taliban for Bergdahl. Surprisingly for myself (Eric C), an avowed liberal, I ended up agreeing with Fox News, spending a week thinking that President Obama really screwed up.

Bergdahl deserted his unit; you just can’t do that. And for Obama to host a Rose Garden ceremony announcing his release, that’s just bad politics. I was actually pretty excited; I don’t find myself agreeing with the far right all that often, so I prided myself on my lack of bias. And as the right worked itself into a lather, I joined them, asking all the tough questions, like…

- Why would we free five prisoners for just one of ours?

- Why send hardened terrorists back to the battle field?

- We negotiated with terrorists?

- Can the President release Taliban/Al Qaeda prisoners?

- Six to eight soldiers died looking for Bergdahl?

- His dad has a terrorist beard?

- Why would Obama call Bergdahl a “hero”?

But then the answers started coming...

Why would we free five prisoners for just one of ours?

Michael C corrected me on this point: I wasn’t looking at the issue from the right perspective. In numeric terms, the deal sucked. But percentage-wise, it’s a really good deal. America got 100% of its prisoners of war back in exchange for less than 1% of theirs.

If you look at it that way, this deal makes sense.

Why send hardened terrorists back to the battle field?

Oops! As Michael C covered yesterday, that just isn’t the case. And as the Afghan Analysts Network and the LA Times pretty clearly debunked, only one of the prisoners we exchanged for Bergdahl could be described as a hardened war criminal. The rest were bureaucrats.

To which you might say, “One war criminal is too many.” But that’s not what the media told us.

We negotiated with terrorists?

We didn’t negotiate with terrorists; we negotiated with an opposing army. We’re at war with the Taliban...of course we’d negotiate with the group we’re at war with.

Others have made this connection before. My connection would be to the larger, philosophical and lexicographical issues we’ve been writing about for months. If America is at war with terrorists--or savages or barbarians or primitives--then we can’t negotiate with them.

Which means these wars will never end.

Can the President release Taliban/Al Qaeda prisoners?

Well, President Bush did it as well. Hmm. Fox News didn’t really mention this. Legally, as Zach Beauchamp at Vox writes, the jury is out and may never come in.

Six to eight soldiers died looking for Bergdahl?

This is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story. Even the Salon article I linked to earlier--which debunked myths about Bergdahl’s release--inaccurately claimed that six to eight soldiers died looking for him.

The New York Times debunks the story pretty handedly:

“But a review of casualty reports and contemporaneous military logs from the Afghanistan war shows that the facts surrounding the eight deaths are far murkier than definitive--even as critics of Sergeant Bergdahl contend that every American combat death in Paktika Province in the months after he disappeared, from July to September 2009, was his fault…

“Two soldiers died during the most intense period of the search after Sergeant Bergdahl’s June 30 disappearance. Both were inside an outpost that came under attack, not out patrolling and running checkpoints looking for him. The other six soldiers died in late August and early September.”

So let me restate that: the information about Bergdahl’s release was so bad that even articles debunking myths about his release contained myths about his release.

His dad has a terrorist beard?

I’m not even going to dignify this one with a response, but The Daily Show handled it pretty well. (Min. 3:00)

Why would Obama call Bergdahl a “hero”?

The myth that started it all and it isn’t even true. I really thought Obama had used those words, but check out the transcript of the event. It’s not there. (I only found this out trying to search for a quote to use against President Obama in the introduction of this post.)

How did I get this impression? Because news reports asked whether Bergdahl was a “hero” or a “traitor”, despite very few people outside of Bergdahl’s hometown using that word.

- The CNN article, “Fellow soldiers sall Bowe Bergdahl a deserter, not hero” doesn’t have an example of someone calling him a hero.

- Howard Kurtz on (Where else?) Fox News, wrote “The president has also refused to walk back the initial casting of Bowe Bergdahl as a hero...” Except the President didn’t need to; he didn’t use that word.

- An NBC News’ headline asked, “Bowe Bergdahl: Is The Freed Soldier a Hero or Deserter?” despite the fact that only his hometown supporters claimed he was one.

- Time’s sub-headline asked, “What began as an uplifting tale of a rescued hero has become a political headache for President Obama. Did the White House oversell the controversial deal for Bowe Bergdahl?” And then didn’t use the word “hero” in the rest of the article.

So you’d be forgiven if you thought Democrats and President Obama were casting Bergdahl as a hero, even though they didn’t. (To be fair, Susan Rice said he served with honor and distinction, but that still mischaracterizes the issue.)

So, if you’re following the tone of this post, I’m no longer on the Fox News side of things on the Bergdahl swap. A Republican party that vehemently disagrees with the President saw an opportunity to score cheap political points, and did everything they could to drive the point home, including misusing and abusing the facts in the case.

Unfortunately, I have feeling the mistakes, distortions and lies will stick in the public’s mind, rather than the truth.

Nov 17

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

Earlier this year, the entire world became (rightfully) enraged when an obscure terrorist organization kidnapped approximately three hundred girls because they went to school.

Since we avoid “chasing the news”, we haven’t written about Boko Haram yet. But this story perfectly connects to many of the things we’ve been writing about recently. Without further ado, six (hopefully unique) thoughts:

1. The world is getting safer...because of technology. In other words, Genghis Khan would not like Twitter.

How many women did Genghis Khan and his army rape and kidnap? I’d guess it was over 300. But without a modern media/social media apparatus and travel technology, his crimes went unrevenged by Europe.

I tend to question most assertions about how the modern world is different than the world of the past, specifically generational biases. The exception to this rule is technology, which can create lasting change. And this crisis, like many others, proves that our interconnected world--both through data and travel--makes getting away with dastardly acts of violence much, much harder. The whole world can observe, judge and, eventually, destroy you.

And that’s exactly what happened to Boko Haram. Even ten years ago, this focus and outrage would not have been possible. (Remember the Second Congo War? No seriously, do you remember the civil war in Congo, because no one does despite the deaths of millions.) Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls and did a pretty good job (with an assist from the Nigerian government) of keeping it quiet. Still the world found out. Then the world turned their attention to their misdeeds and debated how to respond. They even got Americans to care about something that happened in sub-Saharan Africa, a region America often ignores.

At least for a few weeks...

2. Damn, we just cannot keep up with areas of the world where America will go to war.

We’ve been writing about this a lot recently, but how many countries (or stateless terror groups) does America have to fight? In a weird, not really accurate way, we can connect Boko Haram to the Global War on Terror, even though they had nothing to do with 9/11.

But that’s just one incident of at least three this year. Russia invaded Crimea, And then Nigeria became the focus. And when we wrote the first draft of this post, Iraq hadn’t descended into chaos yet again.

So we were going/not going to war in Ukraine, then Nigeria, and now Iraq, in the space of three months, and I haven’t even mentioned the civil war in Syria or Iran’s nuclear program. It feels like a bit much. Does America’s military really have to play a role in each of these conflicts?

3. Does this attention actually help Boko Haram?

At first glance, no. They pissed off America, and America is the boss. The world’s super cop. It’s Superman. I tuned into an episode of PRI’s The World mid-segment discussing Boko Haram, and I heard this:

Marco Werman: Could you argue that this attention could ultimately weaken Boko Haram?

Zeynep Tufekci: The attention within Nigeria and the condemnation could definitely weaken Boko Haram.   

Great, I thought, this focus could take this group down, as I just argued above. But then I heard the next part:

“...could be countered if {Boko Haram] get a new unpopular enemy that they can pretend they're fighting against, or that they can create this 'Oh, look, we're fighting the Great Satan…”

So, ethically, one could make the argument that to save Eastern Ukrainians, innocent Syrians, the Kurds, the Shiites in Iraq, and Nigerian civilians, America’s military must intervene and go to war in Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Nigeria…

Except that every time we do, there are unexpected consequences. Like elevating a terror group to the level of “super terrorists”...

4. Or as Marc Lynch puts it, America shouldn’t give this group primacy.

By going after Boko Haram, we’re legitimizing them on the global stage. We’re giving fanatical young Muslims a new, hipper terrorist group to join. (Though ISIS pushed Boko Haram off the stage pretty quickly.)

The best analogy, to explain this process, comes from Marc Lynch. When The Game attacked Jay-Z (the most powerful rapper in the country, or rap’s “hegemonic” power) Lynch counseled Jay-Z to ignore the attacks. At its best, it would give The Game legitimacy and publicity. For the full take, read the original article and its follow ups, but this snippet summarizes the point:

“My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.”

Can you think of any country (**cough** America **cough**) that needs this advice?

6. Not a trend, just a singular data point.

Well, it depends where you are looking. In Nigeria, the kidnapped girls probably do represent an increase in kidnappings and violence. However, finding accurate data is difficult. FiveThirtyEight received a lot of blowback from their article using media reports of kidnappings to chart the rise, because it failed to account for the growth of media in the country.

On a larger level, it is hard to connect this kidnapping to a larger trend of increasing violence in the world or violence against women. I mean, the world now holds global conferences condemning sexual violence in war, and it has even tried a war criminal (unsuccessfully) for allowing rape by his units. This kidnapping doesn’t represent a growing trend, just a single data point.

Nov 13

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", please click here.)

When the US exchanged five Afghan detainees for U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, the news coverage might have scared you into thinking President Obama made a future terror attack more likely. Senator John McCain called them five “vicious and violent” Taliban who he worries will attack the U.S. again. Dexter Filkins on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast called them “bad guys”. And Bret Stephens on Fareed Zakaria GPS described them as “five hardened Taliban commanders”.

To all the hand wringers terrified that President Obama released five hardened terrorists who want nothing more than to kill Americans as soon as possible, I ask you this: if I can promise you that these five men will never kill Americans in America, will that make you feel better?

Because I promise, right now, that the five Taliban prisoners will never kill anyone in America.

How can I make such a bold promise when the media has breathlessly repeated rumors and leaks from intelligence officials/Congress persons about these dangerous Taliban? For a couple of reasons…

1. Terrorism is not insurgency. Calling the Taliban prisoners “terrorists” is extremely disingenuous, as we have written about before. And mentioned a dozen times since. When Americans think “terrorism” they think non-state groups attacking civilians--the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Oklahoma City, 9/11, the London Subway bombings. Only a smaller group--that has included the State Department, the CIA and the DoD--believe that insurgents fighting U.S. forces in their own countries count as terrorists. Doesn’t it seem odd to call an attack on a soldier deployed to a country in the midst of a civil war an act of terrorism?

Beyond semantics, the former Taliban officials released in the Bergdahl deal have very little interest in attacking the U.S. homeland. Al Qaeda conducted 9/11, not the Taliban. Since 9/11--and even after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and propped up a new government--there hasn’t been a single Taliban terror attack on U.S. soil. There hasn’t even been evidence of an attempted attack. The Taliban wants to govern Afghanistan, not attack the U.S.

2. Oh, and for good measure, terrorism is still incredibly rare. The media’s focus on rare and unusual events skews Americans’ perspective on the frequency of terrorism. Looking at the long term trends, I can say with a fair bit of confidence that there won’t be another terror attack on the U.S. just simply because it is so rare in the first place. (And even rarer for Taliban-led terror attacks.) For good measure, check out how many Americans died by gun violence since Bowe Bergdahl was released. The threat to Americans is gun violence, cancer, traffic accidents and other less shocking events.

3. The intelligence on the “terrorists” wasn’t great to begin with. I wrote an entire series on this, but I’ll be blunter with it this time: everyone in America--starting with President Obama and moving down to Joe Six Pack on the street--needs to question the accuracy of U.S. intelligence. U.S. intelligence isn’t peer reviewed, doesn’t use devil’s advocates, and doesn’t correct past mistakes. It often rushes to judgement and is spun to win the PR news cycle. Of course, this is exacerbated by…   

4. The media using “unnamed intelligence sources”. Too many journalists relied on “off the record” intelligence sources to paint the Guantanamo detainees as hardened terrorists. Without having to put their names to it, these same “unnamed sources” could skew the coverage to support their political viewpoints.

And political pressure often distorts the findings, as we’ve discovered multiple times this century.

5. Only one prisoner could be described as a war criminal. As the Afghan Analysts Network has reported, only one of the five has been linked to war crimes and specific violence. The rest were in civilian posts or not controlling ground troops prior to the U.S. invasion. Many also lack terror or insurgent experience, as opposed to government positions. And again, except for one individual, most lack violent histories.

Of course, you could come to this conclusion when the “intelligence” on the five men was poor in the first place. Most of the intelligence was gathered in the invasion by CIA officers without extensive knowledge (yet) of Afghanistan. Most of it contains unsupported assertions, and the Afghan Analysts Network debunked many of the reports. Yet, we never would have seen these reports except for the unauthorized release by Wikileaks. While an outside group debunked the reports very quickly, it never would have happened internally in the intelligence community.

These were five men involved in an insurgency, who weren’t really fighters in the first place, and terrorism is still incredibly rare. Americans have nothing to worry about.

Nov 10

 To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year so far", click on the articles below:

- The Five Taliban Exchanged for Bowe Bergdahl...In Context

- Genghis Khan Would Hate Twitter and 5 Other Thoughts on Boko Haram

- Eric C Ventures to the (Fox News) Dark Side: 7 Myths About the Bowe Bergdahl Prisoner Swap

 

Unlike 2012 and 2013, foreign affairs has dominated the news this year.

First, the world watched the crisis in Crimea, which expanded to the Ukraine as a whole. We’d love to comment more extensively, but--like Syria last year--we’re not experts on Russia so we’re holding off for now.

Next, Eric C was detachedly fascinated with the kidnapping of school girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. (Detachedly because neither of us breathlessly follow the cable channels, just because they so often get the analysis wrong in the short term. We’d rather read longer articles.) He was fascinated that pundits couldn’t stop talking about Nigeria when it had so little impact on the lives of everyday Americans. Like Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq (now), North Korea, and Egypt in the last few years, as soon as news coverage focused a light on the problem, people in Washington D.C. started discussing intervention.

Earlier this year, Michael C couldn’t stop fielding questions about Bowe Bergdahl. Everyone it seemed, wanted to know, “What do you think?”

At first, his answer was a giant, “Eh.” Most everyone in the military knew/suspected Bergdahl had walked off his base back in 2009. At the same time, Michael C assumed everyone would still want to get Bergdahl back. And no, On Violence was not worried about a Homeland-esque scenario playing out. That’s a fictional television show.

But--as often happens when we both reflect after the fact--some ideas percolated. Like the insistence that the Taliban prisoners released for Bergdahl would become terrorists that would strike the U.S. in the future. Or the idea that the kidnapping in Nigeria represents a growing trend of Islamic militancy. So we stored both events as candidates for "On V’s Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year.

Then Iraq fell apart. (Spoiler alert: that’s our most thought-provoking event of the year. Unless some absolutely devastating catastrophe occurs between now and then.)

When enough news events pack the beginning of a year, sometimes we like to turn them into our, “On Violence Most Thought Provoking Event of the Year So Far”. So this week we have thoughts on Bowe Bergdahl and Boko Haram.

Enjoy.

Nov 06

Usually when we write our updates, we link to the individual articles we are updating. Today, consider all these articles updates to our posts on the statistics of terrorism. By statistics, we mean terrorism’s remarkable rarity in modern life. (And since many of these links are old, we don’t even consider the statistical insignificance of ISIS.)

Putting the Boston Bombing in Perspective

As we wrote back in “Our response to an ‘On the Media’ Question”, terrorism is incredibly rare. (Particularly, check out Chris Hayes’ take.) Due to its rarity, spending large sums of money to stop it makes very, very little economic sense. This Bruce Schneier piece about the Boston Marathon bombings, which re-examines the evidence surrounding the likelihood of terrorism, helps make that case. Even better, Schneier lays out why, from a behavioral and psychological perspective, Americans overreact to rare events like terrorism. (H/T to Andrew Sullivan.) Conor Friederdorf, also at the Atlantic, pleads for similar sanity here.

That won’t stop the main argument that drives terrorism spending, though...

Why Does the Government need to spy on everyone? Because we live in a dangerous world.

This line stuck out to me in an op-ed from last year in the The LA Times by career intelligence analyst Andrew Liepman [bolding mine]:

“But those following the Snowden saga should understand two key points. First, though many things need to be kept secret in today's dangerous world, the line between "secret" and "not secret" is fuzzy rather than stark, and if the goal is security, the harsh truth is that we should often err toward more secrets rather than fewer…”

First, semantically, one can either write “we live in a more dangerous world” or “a less dangerous world”. You can’t write “We live in a dangerous world” because we just live in the world. By writing “dangerous”, he obviously means, “more dangerous than before 9/11”. And as we’ve written about before and will continue to write in the future: this isn’t the case.

The world is safer than it has ever been, and continues to get safer. If you’re going to argue that we need to keep more secrets, not less, you need to prove that the world is more dangerous.

Holy Crap! A Bag!

The guys at Decision Science News tear apart an ad about suspicious bags. Turns out, most abandoned bags (by most, I mean all but around 0.000008% of bags) aren’t dangerous.

This is another example of bad use of language. The ad says “probably” but no sane definition of “probably” means less than 50%, especially not 0.000008%.

Nuclear Terrorism is Unlikely Too

Georgetown University political scientist Keir A. Lieber and Dartmouth College political scientist Daryl G. Press make the case that nuclear terrorism is particularly unlikely, in a paper shared by the Monkey Cage. In short, states are extremely unlikely to give them to non-state actors, read terrorists.

Stopping Every Single Attack Forever

Researching the Boston Bombings, I came across this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Paul Campos describing a hypothetical basketball game against Lebron James, where he would win if he scored a single basket. If the game could go on forever, he would always have a chance to win. So goes terrorism, which explains the Sisyphean task the intelligence, national security and political leaders of our country have embarked when they say the U.S. can, could or should stop every terror attack.

Sep 15

You might have two thoughts after reading the title to this post. First, if you’re a truly dedicated On V disciple, you might be thinking, “Didn’t you already debunk this word three years ago in "Getting Orwellian: Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists’?” Second, you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with the word ‘terrorist’?”   

To the first question, I (Eric C) didn’t remember writing about it. And that post was about the American media applying the word “terrorist” to every combatant in an active war zone. (In short, a soldier/insurgent probably isn’t a terrorist in an active war zone. Especially a civil war.)

To the second question, there’s nothing wrong with using the word “terrorist”, if you’re describing the actions of terrorists. A terrorist is someone who uses extreme acts of violence to achieve political, religious or ideological goals, usually targeting civilians. It’s someone who, outside of warzones, engages in ideological violence. Simple, right?

Except, in a two week span, I saw three anti-democratic world leaders use the word “terrorist” to delegitimize legitimate political opponents.

First, Egypt:

“Egypt is set to put 20 journalists, including four foreigners, on trial Thursday on terror-related charges in a case with ominous implications for freedom of expression under the military-backed interim government.”

The interim cabinet in Egypt labeled journalists--who weren’t using violence--as terrorists. Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? I mean, yes, at times. They were also the ruling government of Egypt before a military coup, which throws the whole thing on it’s head. I mean, a government wouldn’t use terrorism against itself, right? What would that even look like?

Next up, Ukraine:

On January 22nd protesters hungry for action and tired of empty talk from both the government and the opposition clashed with the police, lobbing Molotov cocktails...Russian state television portrayed the protesters as Western-sponsored radicals and terrorists…

“... Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Mr Putin on Ukraine, openly called on Mr Yanukovych to use force against “terrorists” to prevent chaos.

Again, anti-government protesters, some of which were violent, were labelled as terrorists, both by the Kremlin and eventually by the ousted president. But the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. And ethnic Russians, protesting Kiev, eventually used violence themselves. Why didn’t Russia label them as terrorists?

Finally, Syria. As CBS wrote it up in their interview with Bashar al Assad, “Instead of civil war, Assad said, Syria is facing ‘terrorism through proxies,’ referring to foreign backing of the rebellion against his regime.” And that’s completely wrong--wait, no, that may be completely accurate. Islamic extremists associated with terror groups are fighting in Syria. And many of them are backed by Saudi Arabian donors. Then again, some fighters opposing Assad are legitimate freedom fighters engaged in a civil war.

(The amazing thing about the rise of ISIS is how so many of the things we thought we knew about the world since 9/11 had to be reversed. If America had intervened against Assad, we’d have been fighting alongside Sunni extremists (terrorists) who saw fit in the last few weeks to chop off the heads of journalists held hostage. Also, when does a terrorist group become a nation state? Do nation states count as terror groups?)

What matters isn’t that world leaders have misused the word “terrorist”; it’s why. Like every other Kanye album, 9/11 changed the game. Terrorism became America’s first concern, especially internationally. Because America cared so much, and because we hold so much sway, terrorism--instead of larger, economic global progress--became the number one concern of the rest of the world as well. We made it matter.

And now that word is being used against us. We only have ourselves to blame.