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.

Nov 03

A few years ago, I wrote in an “On V Update to Old Ideas” that Eric C and I fall into the “optimist-idealist” camp when it comes to the future of war. Not only do we think war is decreasing over time, we think someday humans will be able to end all war. That makes us optimists.

But it feels strange to describe ourselves as “idealists”. Certainly a view of humanity as fundamentally good is idealistic. But is that inherently unrealistic? We didn’t come to that idea in a vacuum. Rather we found it in in academic research by Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, John Horgan, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko, Michael Cohen and John Mueller, who all wrote that--despite the constant war coverage in the media--the world is actually more peaceful and less violent than at any time in its history. The forces making it less violent and more peaceful, they also tend to argue, will likely continue in the foreseeable future. In essence, our optimistic views aren’t idealistic at all, but founded in a realistic view of contemporary events.

Yet, ironically, some international relations realists stand in front of this academic train yelling, “Halt.” For instance, Frank Hoffman writing on the realist website War on the Rocks, “Plato was Dead Wrong: Embracing Our Better Angels”.

When it comes to debating war, the “realists” like Frank Hoffman may as well be the idealists. Instead of using facts, data or anything empirical, they rely on ideals...an idealism based in a pessimism. To show this, I am going to go through Hoffman’s 2,500 word article and show the (lack of) evidence he uses to support his worldview that the world isn’t getting less violent:

- A misattributed quote. That’s right, the central uniting theme of his article is a “quote” from Plato, an incorrectly attributed quote that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” As we’ve written before, Plato didn’t say this; the unknown George Santayana did. Unfortunately for Hoffman, he googled the phrase to link to it. GoodReads.com doesn’t count as a reputable academic resource. If he had scrolled down, he might have stumbled across our article on “Quotes Behaving Badly.

- No academic citations or footnotes. Yep, after linking to Stephen Pinker, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, Hoffman doesn’t link to a single academic article that argues that war is increasing in frequency. He doesn’t link to them because they don’t exist. Instead, he simply argues that globalization makes interstate war more likely, but can’t provide the data to support this.

- No charts or graphs. As a student of history and business, I know better than most that line graphs can be easily manipulated to prove anything. Hoffman, though, doesn’t even bother because he doesn’t even have the basic data on his side. No amount of chart manipulation will make it seem as if the world is on the verge of cataclysmic war.

- Elevating current news stories to data points. The key to arguing against optimists who say the world is less violent is doubling down on what one sociologist has called, “mean world syndrome”. Because the constant news cycle emphasizes violent and particularly heinous crimes, it makes the world seem more violent and chaotic than it really is. Hoffman absolutely embraces this strategy in his second paragraph:

“Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot. Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept. North Korea’s leadership has offered Disneyland and Starbucks unlimited access to the Hermit Kingdom...the Mullahs in Tehran have renounced clerical rule, asked for forgiveness for storming our embassy, and given us permanent basing rights on their coast.”

And Hoffman wrote this before Russia invaded Ukraine. (The article is from last year.) He takes four data points and says, “See the world is more violent than ever.” Hoffman, like most realists who insist the world is more dangerous than ever, do so by selecting certain current data points and ignoring the rest, all the countries not engaging in wars.

- An anecdote. Hoffman then tells a story how British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Norman Angell and Ivan Bloch all predicted peace and were proven wrong by World War I. He, of course, doesn’t mention the countless people who predicted a nuclear war in the 1950s, only to be proven wrong. The point is, the accuracy of past predictions isn’t evidence either way.

- Appeals to pessimistic beliefs about human nature. To cap off his argument, Hoffman, like most pessimists/realists, relies on the foundational belief that humans are naturally violent and self-interested:

“...human nature and history have not changed.  Better yet, go back and glance at Plato, Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz.  They all recognized that the “better angels of our nature” was mere gossamer.  A realistic appreciation of the human condition, one founded on a few millennia of frequently brutish and violent human history, will always serve as a reminder of the folly of illusory and Utopian thinking.”

For a website founded on realism that allegedly prefers personal experience to ideology as a starting point, Hoffman seems to start with Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz--again, his Plato quotation is completely inaccurate and contrary to much of Plato’s writings--and goes from there. Worse, as John Horgan completely demolished in The End of War, there is hardly any scientific evidence--either genetic, historical, anthropological or cultural--that human nature is fundamentally evil.

Unlike the times of Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz, we now have rigorous social science that can test hypotheses. And the hypothesis that human nature is fundamentally evil has failed.

So there you have it: quotes, single data points, anecdotes, and an over-riding pessimistic belief a la Hobbes that mankind is nasty, brutish and violent. Data is the enemy of the realists, so that doesn’t make them very realistic, does it?

Oct 29

Two weeks ago, Don Gomez, on Carrying the Gun, put out a list of “7 Underrated Milblogs That Can’t Get No Respect” and included us on it. Thanks, Don.

He also threw down the gauntlet that we hadn’t been posting enough. He’s right, but we’re back up to 2 to 3 a week (since last week), and look to continue that pace moving forward. So take that Don; more posts!

Oct 28

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch shoots and kills a rabid dog. Why? Because you can’t rationalize with an animal, especially a crazy animal caught by disease.

Too many Americans--even influential pundits and politicians--feel the same way about Arabs or Muslims, especially the extremists. From Andrew Bacevich in the Washington Post:

"You have to understand the Arab mind," one company commander told the New York Times..."The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face."

Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book "Cobra II," Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: "The only thing these sand n*****s understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it.”

Societies use language to manipulate how we feel about other groups. We use language to dehumanize our enemies. By dehumanizing them, we make them easier to kill. It’s one thing to kill another rational human being with thoughts, emotions, feelings and a family. It’s another to kill a “sand n*****” who can’t be reasoned with.

Muslims (even the so called “islamofascists”) aren’t animals. They aren’t less than human. They aren’t barbarians, primitives or savages. They’re people. We may hate them and what they do. They’re still human.

We’ve been writing about language and hate speech for these last few months not because we’re grammar and usage mavens (though I am). We’re writing about language and war because words matter especially when those words sustain conflicts instead of ending them. Words actively change points of view and perceptions. Words actively shape worldviews. Language affects whether the American military ever tries to adopt population-centric counterinsurgency, or whether it decides that the enemy is an sub-human that must (and can only) be killed.

Take this quote from Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor:

“To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum more difficult. Because right here we’re talking about Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and awful smell of urine and mule dung. Downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.”

This quote makes the masterminds of 9/11 sound like backwards primitives. But Osama bin Laden was anything but. Osama bin Laden, as is commonly known, was a millionaire from a rich, cultured family. He was educated; he was not a primitive. In fact, most terrorists are educated.

Tactically, this misguided belief puts us (the West, if you will) at a disadvantage. Understanding the enemy is the key to winning a war. By not actually knowing your enemy, you can’t defeat them. By labeling all Muslims--or at least, entire nations--as backwards, primitive, savages or barbarians, it destroys all nuance. After the Innocence of Muslims debacle from last year, Slate ran an article on Muslims who support free speech.

But I hate writing about tactics. Just like the debate about torture, it doesn’t matter if hate speech is  ineffective; morally, it’s wrong. That’s all that matters.

Oct 27

(Today's guest post is by John Mikolajczyk. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

If you’ve heard the “Muslims are savages/barbarians from the 6th/7th/12th century” trope before, you’ve probably heard its counterpart, “Why aren’t more Muslims speaking out/protesting/resisting the Islamic extremist tide?” Often paired with the century designation, this talking point asks the reader to consider why there is a seeming lack of push-back against Islamic extremism worldwide and assumes that the apparent silence on the matter hints at complicity.

So why aren’t more Muslims speaking out, protesting or resisting the actions of their so-called brethren? Well, consider that as you read this:

- In Libya, government forces, as well as tribal forces and even former Gaddafi loyalists, are presently dueling with a burgeoning Islamist insurgency. Over 2,000 people have died in such clashes this year alone.

- In Iraq, Iraqi police and military forces from December 2011 to June 2014 have lost at least 6,788 personnel combating an Islamic extremist insurgency. Battling, mind you, the same kinds of terrorists, in some cases perhaps the very same terrorists, US forces fought during their nearly decade long deployment in the region.

- In Syria, Pro-Assad, as well as Anti-Assad forces, have been engaged against Islamic militants for years, with an estimated 10,467 Islamic militants killed in the war as of 9/3/14. Recently over 700 people were in killed in just 48 hours of combat between Syrian government forces and ISIS fighters.

- In Egypt, since the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian military and police forces have been struggling with an Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, suffering “hundreds” of dead in the ongoing conflict.

- In Pakistan, from 2003 to October 2014, at least 5,938 soldiers and police officers have died fighting Islamic militants inside their borders. Like in Iraq, many of these militants are same that were and are currently engaging US forces in the region.

That’s quite an appalling amount of blood to be spilled fighting against people you supposedly agree with. It’s also an incredible amount of fighting, for years nonetheless, to be doing to be called out for not doing enough.

Thus the question posed earlier in this article proves itself not just to be a fallacy, but perhaps the very definition of a fallacy as not only are “good Muslims” suffering the most in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, but also they’ve done the most damage to it.

Muslims worldwide aren’t just speaking out; they’re dying fighting back against something they probably don’t like any more than Americans do.

John Mikolajczyk is currently an office administrator with a government healthcare agency and a part-time bookseller. He graduated in the top 10% of his class from Kean University with degrees in criminology and history. While at Kean, he was a standout Air Force ROTC cadet and student activist. He also received an award for “best undergraduate term paper” for his treatise on the theoretical costs of the Trojan War. In his spare time he enjoys reading, playing video games, creative writing, hiking, and walking his golden labrador.

Oct 23

(Today's guest post is by Daniel Faris. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

Gun control is one of the defining issues of our lifetimes. It ranks alongside climate change, gay marriage, pot legalization, and health care reform in the list of issues that Americans desperately want to see addressed in a productive and realistic way.

And yet, we can’t seem to get any traction on it. I’m as guilty as anyone of using my heart instead of my head to formulate my opinions, but that’s going to have to change--for all of us--before we put this issue to bed.

I have, historically, supported reasonable gun ownership rights. I refuse to believe that we can continue to shape our public policy around the tiniest percentage of American citizens who own guns and kill people with them.

After all, isn’t that what America wants? The Occupy Wall Street movement rallied against the 1% and their privilege, citing America’s growing fondness for giving the tiniest minority--the wealthy--special treatment. Neither can we allow the tiny fraction of violent gun owners to shape our nation’s laws.

However, we all owe it to ourselves to challenge our beliefs. Here’s what challenged mine.

Historical Precedent: The Port Arthur Massacre

As you may or may not know, Port Arthur in Australia was the setting for one of the deadliest shootings in world history; in fact, it remains the deadliest attack of its kind in the entire English-speaking world. In 1996, 26-year-old Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 23 others at the Port Arthur prison colony.

What makes it a truly remarkable event, however, is not the lost life but the overwhelming response of the Australian people; a reported 90% of poll respondents indicated that they favored stricter gun control methods, culminating in what remains one of the most successful gun control overhauls ever.

Just twelve days after the shooting, Australia’s leadership agreed to ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons, and also instituted a buy-back program for those who already owned high-powered firearms. Australia had, more or less overnight, rallied to deliver one of the most comprehensive and consistent gun control packages in recorded history, to nearly universal approval.

There have been no further mass killings since the laws took effect.

Inspiration from an Unlikely Place

When I said my beliefs had been challenged lately, I wasn’t kidding. And the most recent challenge came from an unlikely source: a stand-up comedy special on Netflix. Jim Jeffries, an Australian who now calls America home, is particularly outspoken when it comes to gun control. And he’s not throwing around tired talking points or politically-charged sound bites; he knows what he’s talking about.

He rightfully calls on the evidence that Australia is a demonstrably safer place after instituting this ban, and he does it with the showmanship of a professional entertainer.

More than that, he demonstrates an understanding of common sense that seems to be lacking from America’s current discussions on the subject.

Jeffries points out that the Second Amendment is just that: an amendment. It’s an alteration to an already existing document, so to pretend that it and the rest of the Constitution is somehow immutable is to seriously misunderstand the point of the document. It was designed to be organic, to change according to our shifting perspectives.

He also points out how fallacious it is for die-hard gun owners to cling to the empty argument that personal firearms are for “protection.” Your average gun owner in suburbia has no need for high-caliber protection; Joe Six Pack is not nearly as tempting a target as he might like to believe.

Whatever you happen to believe about guns – and hopefully, like me, you’re at least ambivalent on the subject – you’re making an informed decision. We too readily abandon reason for gut reactions and blind grasping after privileges that were never a part of the original Constitution – a document that too many of us seem to want to deify.

The truth is, this argument is driven by personal arguments rather than practical ones. In much the same way that our dependence on oil will continue, in defiance of reason and progress, until we embrace new technologies like electric and driverless cars, so too will the gun control debate continue to distract us on a cultural level until we decide to act together with the common good in mind.

At the end of the day, I’m not saying that Jeffries is 100% right, or that further study isn’t necessary, or even that the evidence wholly supports the theory that fewer guns would mean fewer crimes. All I’m saying is that, so long as comedians are making points that our lawmakers seem not to have considered, we’re as far away from closure on this issue as we could possibly be.

Daniel Faris is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and a current resident of Harrisburg, PA. If you want to talk politics, you can check out his work at Only Slightly Biased, or you can join his alter ego for discussions about progressive music over at New Music Friday.

Oct 21

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

Last year, Matthew Bradley passed along a link to an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on, well, “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, describes the phenomenon of the “Wrongly Attributed Statement” (or as we call them, “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Naming things!). I really liked the essay…

Until I read the ending.

Corey Robin ends his essay defending this phenomenon as a (sort of) triumph of group think, or in his words, crowdsourcing:

“It's precisely these sorts of affectations—and appeals to authority—that have led me over the years to a greater appreciation of the WAS. I no longer think of it as a simple pain in the neck or desperate appeal to authority. I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—"When bad men combine, the good must associate"—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

“It's good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.”

Nope.

First, Wrongly Attributed Statements, by definition, don’t change the meaning of a quote; they misidentify its authorship. That’s just intellectually wrong and corrupt. Misinformation exists; we don’t need to celebrate or endorse it. Most “Quotes Behaving Badly” (or Wrongly Attributed Statements) violate basic truth by misidentifying the author in an attempt to give the thought greater gravitas. (Think Plato versus George Santayana.) We should try to stamp that misinformation out, not celebrate it. Websites like BrainyQuote, ThinkExist, GoodReads and others, which use algorithms to systematically misidentify the actual authorship of a quote, just need to go. They perpetuate bad information.

Especially in today’s world, when it takes, what, a couple minutes to find the actual authorship of a quote? When Edmond Halley investigated comets, he had to comb through ancient tome after ancient tome documenting every mention of a comet. Today, you can Google search virtually every book that’s ever been written. Sites like Snopes, Quote Investigator, Wikiquote and Google Books make the process of researching and debunking “Quotes Behaving Badly” easier than it’s ever been in human history.    

Worse than that, as the cliche goes, conventional wisdom is just that, conventional. (If I wanted, I could attribute that cliche to Ben Franklin, inventing my own Wrongly Attributed Statement, giving the cliche the imprimatur of intellectual rigor.) Or often flat wrong.

As any reader to our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series know, we don’t just debunk the authorship of quotes; we debunk the quotes themselves. Let’s just look at two examples cited by Corey Robin. First, he cites Plato’s George Santanaya’s quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” as an example of a “Wrongly Attributed Statement”. Yes, it’s misattributed. It’s also wrong. As we’ve written and written, the world is safer than it has ever been; war is decreasing. Though most people reject this thesis, it’s happening. But this fatalistic little maxim denies this reality without using any evidence to support its claim, using the second or third most famous ancient Greek philosopher to give it the veneer of wisdom.

Same with Robin’s example, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." As we wrote before, “It’s banal and, in the hands of demagogues, has probably caused more death than it's saved.” This quote is also useless. Anti-war.com uses this quote and so do far right extremists. So does this sentiment actually send more people to battle than not? Does it actually prevent peace or reconciliation?

We’re going to keep debunking quotes like this, both their authorship and their sentiments. In a rigorous, forward-moving world, it’s not just something people can do; it’s something they should.

Especially academics.