Tag: terrorism (page 1 of 3)

The merits of the concept of terrorism

About a week ago I published a piece with the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) on the analytical and political utility (or lack thereof) of the concept of terrorism.  I cannot reproduce it here in full for Duck readers because the ISN owns it.  But, since I think the topic might be of interest to readers, here is a taste of what I argue in hopes of prompting a discussion:

With high-profile incidents of political violence continuing to make headlines, the time has come to question the labeling of these events as ‘terrorism.’ While politically or ideologically motivated violence remains all too real, approaching events such as these through the framework of ‘terrorism’ does little to help academics or policymakers understand or prevent them. Fourteen years into the Global War on Terror, the political and security baggage that accompanies the label ‘terrorism’ may even undermine such efforts. This is because the term terrorism creates the false impression that the actions it describes represent a special or unique phenomenon. Because this confusion impedes our ability to understand politically motivated violence as part of broader social and political systems, the costs of continuing to use the concept of terrorism outweigh the benefits. The simplest solution to this problem would be for scholars and policymakers alike to jettison the term…

 

FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrRedditShare

Why Foreign Intervention in Nigeria is a Bad Idea

This is the first of two posts about Boko Haram & possible US involvement in Nigerian counterterrorism operations. For the second, see “What is to be done in Nigeria?”. Note: two sentences added shortly after publication to clarify that my concerns encompass the full range of foreign intervention, from direct intervention to operational support to limited strikes to an expanded role in shaping Nigerian policy.

Yesterday, American drones began flights over northern Nigeria in hopes of locating the 276 girls abducted a month ago from a school in Borno State. American and British counter-terror experts are on the ground; Nigeria will attend a French-convened regional security summit. Continued foreign involvement seems likely, especially as the US has confirmed that Boko Haram is a top US foreign policy priority. This kind of concrete international action is an emotionally satisfying response to a particular narrative, one that stresses Nigerian government inaction as the heart of the Boko Haram problem. In this context, the example of the speedy and successful French intervention against Islamists in Mali in 2013 looms particularly large: could foreign intervention work similar magic in northern Nigeria? Might a more limited intervention provide the same kind of low-risk, high-reward opportunity?

There are powerful forces pushing both foreign and Nigerian decision-makers toward action, perhaps limited, perhaps more substantial. As with other advocacy campaigns, the #Bringbackourgirls movement has stressed the solvability of this problem: if “serious” investments were made or if the Nigerian government were “serious” about taking action, Boko Haram would be easily countered. This narrative elides the very serious – and very flawed — counterinsurgency campaign that has been waged in northeastern Nigeria since 2009. But it also likely overstates the likelihood of success even for the most well-implemented, well-coordinated military campaign. And, since more limited intervention is almost certainly what is being considered, the likelihood of concrete gains or definitive successes against Boko Haram is even smaller.

Here are three inconvenient facts that make Nigeria rocky terrain for interventionism.

The Nigerian military is part of the problem.

In addition to garden-variety problems of capacity, training, and provisioning, the Nigerian military has serious human rights problems. Since its deployment to the three states of northeastern Nigeria (Yobe, Borno, and Adamawa) in 2009, reports have consistently documented the military’s involvement in disappearances, masses of extrajudicial killings, and general terrorizing of the civilian population. On top of these clear and widespread human rights abuses, there are sanctioned counterinsurgency tactics, such as the military’s cordon-and-sweep operations in Maiduguri in late 2010, that likely sew local resentment and boost Boko Haram recruiting.

Continue reading

Tuesday Linkage

Editor’s note: this post previously appeared on my personal blog. I’ve been doing links posts on Tuesdays over there for a while now, so I guess I might as well start cross-listing them.

Continue reading

What Terrorist Attacks Don’t Tell Us

This past week, terrorists struck Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist organization, claimed responsibility. Frustratingly, we still know very little about the attackers, their origins, or the Kenyan security forces’ response. And the news about the last just keeps getting worse.

But there has been some analysis of the attacks – by both journalists and academics. In one of the most widely-circulated pieces, Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus suggested that the attacks were a sign of desperation, the last gasp of an organization that had run out of an intra-Somalia game (also, here and here). Another strand of argument suggests that the growing ascendancy of a single Al Shabaab leader, Abdul Abdi Godane, has pushed the organization toward Al Qaeda, toward international jihad, toward further attacks on soft targets abroad (here and here and here). The presumption is, again, that we’re at a critical juncture for Al Shabaab, a moment of inflection at which the organization changes its character and its aims. See my AU colleague Joe Young’s piece at Political Violence @ a Glance for a roundup of some of this.

In this post, I’m going to make some empirical quibbley points about Somalia, and then I’m going to make a couple of substantive points about terrorism / COIN analysis in general. So if you’re not terribly interested in Somalia, you still might want to skip to the end.

Continue reading

Monday morning links

  • The international news continues to be dominated by Saturday’s terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The coverage of the attacks in most major newspapers has been excellent (and peppered with first-person reflections) due to the large number of reporters and photojournalists who are based in Nairobi. Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility via Twitter, and Twitter struggled to deactivate its feeds. The immediate demand was the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia, where they have been assisting AU forces and the interim Somali government since October 2011. More discussion after the jump.
  • Taliban suicide bombers attacked a Christian church in Peshawar yesterday, killing at least 78. It’s the most deadly attack in the history of Pakistan’s Christian community. In Nigeria, government officials announced that Islamist group Boko Haram was responsible for 159 deaths in Borno State, one of the three northeastern states currently under a state of emergency. Boko Haram also allegedly launched a major attack in the capital, Abuja, but eyewitnesses claim that alleged Boko fighters were unarmed squatters.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel scored a huge victory in elections yesterday. The Christian Democrats’ 42 percent of the vote was the strongest conservative showing in over 20 years. There’s some background on the election at the Monkey Cage. Continue reading

Time to Put “Dying to Win” out to Pasture?

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter received his PhD from Georgetown University in May 2013, and was a Fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia during 2012-2013; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. His research focuses on religion and foreign policy; he has also written on terrorism and religious conflict.

In his latest blog post on Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt calls for a re-evaluation of the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. One statement–really a quick aside–caught my attention.

Walt claims that “opposition to foreign occupation and interference is one of the prime motivations behind terrorist activities.” Well he actually says: “Given that opposition to foreign occupation” causes terrorism, and then uses this assertion to justify calling for a reduction in US forces in Muslim countries. And then he specifically mentions “suicide bombing,” and links to Dying to Win, by Robert Pape.

Dying to Win is the book version of an article by Pape in the American Political Science Review, in which he argues that suicide bombing is a rational response to occupation. As I detailed in a blog post a few years ago, there are numerous problems with this argument: Continue reading

Bayes, Stereotyping, and Rare Events

Sadly, many people do not realize that even if the majority of those who engage in behavior X belong to category Y, that does not mean that the majority of people in category Y engage in X.  This point is often made, rightly, with respect to race and violent crime and religion and terror.  But most treatments I’ve seen either imply that anyone who doesn’t understand is a moron, or manage to scare away the target audience by throwing in a pile of math without explaining it.  In this post, I’ll try to actually explain why we can’t conclude that most members of Y are prone to acts of X even if most acts of X are committed by members of Y.  This post won’t insult anyone for being unfamiliar with Bayes’ Theorem, nor will you find much algebra herein.  I’m just going to try to explain, with a relative minimum of technical detail, why we can’t assume that most members of Y engage in behavior X just because most people who engage in X are members of Y.

Continue reading

An Actual Expert on the Caucasus….

Charles King at The Daily Beast:

In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act. Dzhokhar, for example, was reportedly a successful student and championship wrestler in Cambridge, Massachusetts—hardly the typical foreign jihadist. People with family roots in the Caucasus are often perceived in Russia and elsewhere as inherently rebellious and conflict-prone, a line of thinking that has deep roots in Russian culture. That imagery still affects how street crime is reported in Moscow, how Russian security services target people they believe to be potential terrorists, and how Russia’s own often brutal “anti-terrorist operations” play out in the towns and villages of places such as Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, and other republics of the north Caucasus that are little known in the West. The sad truth is that the scenes in Boston early this morning—with SWAT teams in full battle gear, a shootout on the street, and an alleged suspect perhaps wearing an explosive vest or other suicide device—are all too typical in the north Caucasus itself. The difference is that in Russia, these operations are sometimes little more than assassination missions, designed to target alleged terrorists on only the flimsiest of evidence. That is obviously not the case in Boston. But speculating about the brothers’ ethnic origins plays into the worst stereotypes that have bedeviled attempts to bring peace, stability, and good governance to Russia’s southern borderlands.

Continue reading

Brief Notes on 4/15

Boston on lockdown. One suspect dead. One–apparently a CRLS graduate–still at large. The fact is that we still don’t have adequate information for much in the way of meaningful speculation. But I do think it useful to call attention to three related issues: Continue reading

Why I’m not Blogging about 4/15

Because we don’t know enough to engage in anything resembling responsible commentary.

And those things that we can say something worthwhile about–including comparisons with other terrorist attacks past and present, such as what happened on the same day in Iraq; and the socio-political dynamics of the US response so far–don’t exactly demand my input.

Continue reading

Liberalism all the way down? …. six hours on a plane with Judith Butler’s Frames of War

On a plane ride a couple of days ago, I picked up Judith Butler’s Frames of War, perhaps a couple of years after I should have. Though there is a lot of the book that I disagreed with, reading it was a transformative experience. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the subject and content of Megan MacKenzie’s latest post, given Butler’s suggestion that “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” such that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then those lives are never lived or lost in the full sense” (p.1).

Butler spends the book carefully considering the relationship between precarity, violence, and war – considerations that made me think a lot, about the book, about gender/violence more generally, and about the role of reading in our lives as scholars. My thoughts about the book are below the fold, and a separate post about reading is forthcoming.

Frames of War is to me a frustrating combination of absolute and piercing brilliance and letdown …

Continue reading

Negotiating with Terrorists

When governments offer concessions to dissident groups in the midst of a terror campaign, they often see an increase in violence take place afterwards.

For example, between 1968 and 1977, attacks conducted by the ETA claimed the lives of 73 people.  Partial autonomy was granted to the Basque region in 1978, yet despite the fact that this represented a significant shift towards the desired outcome of the ETA, violence increased, over the next three years, the ETA would kill 235 people, and fatality levels remained elevated for decades.

Why then do governments offer concessions?

Continue reading

Foreign Policy to the Fore: Is Romney Below the Bar?

U.S. Consulate in Benghazi 9/12/2012

I heard Dan Drezner in the car on NPR yesterday talking about whether foreign policy might matter in this election. And, last night and today, with the events in Egypt and Libya, he may be more right than even he anticipated.

We may have an incident, in the wake of the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, that will shape the contours of the election and have wider repercussions for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Politically, does it constitute a disqualifying moment for Mitt Romney?
Like Dan, I’ve been of the mind that foreign policy doesn’t matter for most Americans in this election, and that barring a crisis, Mitt Romney only minimally needed to be seen as above the bar to serve as commander in chief. Foreign policy might affect the election on the margins with military families in key swing states.

As Dan suggested in recent posts, Romney did himself even more damage in recent months and during the convention in which he unnecessarily antagonized our closest allies on his foreign tour and then failed to mention our troops in Afghanistan during his convention speech.

Both actions, somewhat minor at the time, may now be overshadowed by Romney’s ill-timed and intemperate rush to blame the Obama administration for apologizing for actions by private actors in the U.S. that might have outraged Muslims (namely a bizarre and crude anti-Muslim propaganda “film” by a mysterious person who claimed Jewish, American, and Israeli roots who appeared to be none of those things). Never mind that the so-called “apology” was a tweet issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo at a time before the protesters’ attacks were launched where the embassy sought to defuse a volatile situation. Never mind that the Obama administration quickly distanced itself from this tweet.

All of this would have been small beer had it not been for the tragic events that unfolded over the night that took the life of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed by a mob apparently outraged by the same film (or, what may have been an pre-planned attack by Islamists taking advantage of the moment to exact revenge for a recent assassination in Yemen).

All of these events remain murky (here’s a timeline) so what’s the sensible thing for a presidential candidate to do in the face of incomplete information? Well, most Republicans issued outrage about the loss of life of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Senator John McCain, for example, along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman issued a statement: “We are anguished and outraged by the death of four citizens of the United States.” Most politicians said something along the lines of President Obama who said that there was “no justification” for the kinds of violence that had occurred in the wake of publicity of the film.

So what did Romney do? Romney issued a statement last night blaming the Obama Administration for what he called a “disgraceful” apology, that is the tweet by the embassy in Cairo:

I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.

Then, this morning, Romney doubled down with a press conference sandwiched in between Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks and the President’s. By this time, it was clear that the events had escalated in the region and between the time Romney issued his first statement and today, the Obama administration had rejected that so-called apology and, more importantly, our Ambassador in Libya and three other Americans were now dead.

Romney’s statement to rally our country at a potentially perilous moment went like this:

“It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values.”

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion.” 

“Apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

The reaction by many in the media as well as a number of establishment Republicans is that this statement was unseemly and ill-timed political opportunism, especially since the situation is dangerous and as we mourn the loss of life (look at my Twitter feed for today for a long list of detractors like Peggy Noonan, David Frum, Ed Rogers, Joe Scarborough, Nick Burns, even Romney flak John Sununu).

Ben Smith captured a number of off the record reactions by Republicans that were scathing (“Bungle… utter disaster…not ready for prime time… not presidential… Lehman moment.” It is certainly too soon to elevate this moment to be more than it is, but the swift condemnation by both the media and many Republican insiders could redound upon those handful of undecideds for whom presidential candidates must at least meet a basic threshold of competency.

Beyond the politics, with the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan especially volatile, the next 24 to 48 hours may determine whether or not this moment is more consequential in terms of U.S. interests in the region. While the Libyan government has repudiated these attacks, Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi was slow to condemn them. Let’s hope the situation settles down and this doesn’t become a bigger issue.

Terrorism and Terrorists: Political, Analytical, and Methodological Issues

Some commentators have suggested posts that pose questions to our readers. I think that the discussion on Peter Henne’s piece, “A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies,” provides just such an opportunity.

In Remi Brulin’s most recent comment, she asks:

… I am very much interested in better understanding why Peter (and others of course) do believe that the distinction between state and non-state “terrorism” is so important and necessary from an analytical point of view. 

For my part, I would tend to think that it could in fact add a lot to our understanding of “terrorism”, of the non-state or state variety. But even if it were not so, even if such difficulties do appear: that is a problem that scholars would deal with at their micro level, at the level of their case studies, of their datasets. I donot see how this can possibly be a reason or argument for defining a whole field of research and expertise.

My flip answer to Brulin is that there’s a significant literature on subjects such as the of targeting civilians, state repression, and mass violence that already engages with “state terrorism.” Some of that literature, I believe, extends its purview to non-state actors. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to begin with a premise, disaggregate some issues, and then throw things open to our readership for their opinions.

Let’s begin with a definition: terrorism is a strategy that seeks to instill fear in non-combatants for coercive purposes. This definition faces problems: what is fear? what is a non-combatant? But, for the sake of argument, let’s begin with a definition that does not render all violence in warfare as terrorism, yet is broad enough to include such disparate activities as nuclear deterrence, torture, collective punishment, and blowing up cafes.

So what is at stake — from an analytical and methodological perspectives — in limiting study to non-state actors that engage in terrorism? Will we learn more or less if we include every possible instances of terrorism in our universe of cases, or will we efface causal processes specific to different kinds of actors and contexts?

PS: for additional related arguments, see Phil Arena’s post on the matter.

Notes: First, Morning Linkage regularly runs Monday-Saturday, but only occasionally on Sundays. Second, due to Labor Day and the start of school last week, there will be no podcast this weekend. Podcasts will resume next week.

A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies

AP

This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he will be a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

With Remi Brulin’s piece on Foreign Policy today, the debate over the “terrorism industry” continues and I am compelled to respond. I guess I am one of these beneficiaries of the terrorism industry. I’ve published in Terrorism and Political Violence and was an employee of a big defense firm before entering academia. And as someone who studies posty topics–religion, identity, rhetoric–with quantitative and neo-positive qualitative methods, I often fall into these debates.

First, the caveats.

Yes, I agree the “war on terror” is a problematic term/campaign. No, I do not support torture of terrorism suspects or indefinite military actions around the world. And yes, I agree that numerous states have committed acts of mass violence against their citizens, and many of these incidents have been enabled by the United States. So I say all this as a fellow traveler; I am just as irritated with the misuse of the term terrorism as the rest of you. And Brulin has done us a service by analyzing the official US discourse on terrorism.

That being said, I’m not sure I’m on board with this issue of “what is terrorism?” There seems to be three prongs. First, as Patrick Porter recently argued here, terrorism is not as great a threat as it has been made out to be. Second, as Porter, Brulin, and others have argued, the focus on terrorism often represents the interests of the state, hawkish think tanks, and corporations. Third, as Brulin most clearly argued, the term “terrorism” is problematic, as it does not encompass state violence against civilians, or “state terror.”

I have issues with all of these claims, primarily their implications for the study of terrorism.

First, debating what constitutes terrorism, rather than studying cases of terrorism, will not help to broaden our understanding of this phenomenon. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “well, I don’t think your definition of terrorism is sufficient” at conferences, I could buy a fancy Belgian beer. Such statements are meant not to improve the study of terrorism but shut it down.

That is not to say definitional debates are useless. Indeed, they can be invaluable in refining our theoretical claims and empirical conclusions. For example, the democratic peace theory was seriously challenged by questions concerning what a democracy really is, as seen in studies by Ido Oren and David E. Spiro.

A similar debate over terrorism could be incredibly helpful. Are there issues in using individual attacks or groups as observations? Can we replicate results from analyses of terrorism using data on state terror? Do models of terrorist behavior–ideologyinternal dynamics, etc.–explain state terror? Answering these questions would be of great value of to everyone involved in this debate. Pointing out that states commit acts of terror too, not so much.

Second, it would not be helpful for scholars to combine non-state and state acts of violence into one overarching concept. Concepts need both a well-defined positive pole and negative pole. It must be clear what the concept covers, and what it does not cover. Expanding a concept too much results in conceptual stretching, which undermines its utility.

Think about it empirically. What would we accomplish by undertaking studies of “terror,” state and non-state? Datasets combining every type of violence would lead to insignificant or–worse–significant but nonsensical results. Case studies that compared state and non-state terror would not tell us much besides “oh, both are pretty bad.” Narrow definitions may be annoying and normatively problematic, but they are the most useful in empirical studies.

Finally, even if terrorism does not threaten to destroy the American way of life, we should still study it. Yes, some terrorism pundits have an agenda. And yes, the threat from terrorism was used to justify two wars. But non-state groups that use violence for ideological purposes exist, and have killed people. It helps to know why, and what we can do about it.

Maybe terrorism isn’t the best term. Personally, I’d be thrilled if we all adopted Tilly’s framework for political violence. But given the dominance of the term in popular and scholarly debates, those of us who would like to see a different approach to “terrorism” should avoid demonizing the counter-terrorism community and pulling down the walls of terrorism studies only to stand in the rubble.

No More Cups of Tea: Terrorism Research and the Law

This is a guest post from Tanisha Fazal, a professor of political science at Columbia University, and Jessica Martini, a human rights and international trade attorney based in New York City.

To conduct research on terrorism and insurgency, it’s best to be able to talk to people.  Combing through incident reports is helpful, but often an informal conversation over a cup of tea is as, if not more, illuminating.  But according to ban on providing “material support” (18 United States Code (U.S.C.) 2339B), buying a cup of tea for a terrorist can land you in [US] jail.  In 1996 the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) prohibited providing “material support or resources” to terrorists, which included providing goods and financing, in addition to intangibles such as training and personnel.  This was expanded in 2001 in the wake of the September 11th attacks, as part of USA PATRIOT Act, and subsequent court decisions interpreting this law, to include “expert advice and assistance” and coordinated advocacy.

As part of the government’s broader counterterrorism strategy, The Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security all have major initiatives and funding today to develop and promote better research on terrorism.  But another element of US counterterrorism – the material support ban – not only directly hinders the conduct of exactly this type of research, but also puts scholars in a position where they risk being fined or even imprisoned for researching terrorism and/or insurgency.
According to the American Bar Association, the material support ban

prohibits “providing material support or resources” to an organization the Secretary of State has designated as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The material support ban was first passed as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The provision’s purpose is to deny terrorist groups the ingredients necessary for planning and carrying out attacks. Congress was concerned that terrorist organizations with charitable or humanitarian arms were raising funds within the United States that could then be used to further their terrorist activities. The provision outlawed any support to these groups, irrespective of whether that support was intended for humanitarian purposes.

The list of foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, contains many groups whose members scholars would like to interview to further their own research.  In addition to the restriction on contacts with FTOs and other entities listed on a number of other US Government lists, there are restrictions on bringing the modern tools of research, such as laptop computers and cell phones – into sanctioned countries like Syria or Iran due to trade sanctions and  export controls.

Prominent NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, The Carter Center, and the International Crisis Group and academic centers such as Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute have protested these restrictions, specifically by submitting amicus briefs (see more such briefs here, here, and here) in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which was an unsuccessful test case challenging the constitutionality on First Amendment grounds of the material support ban.  Ambiguity in the Holder decision creates uncertainty about what is legal when conducting research involving people who may be affiliated with terrorists.  Any resources transferred to these groups – be it a discussion of your broader research that could be translated into advice, or buying lunch for a subject to thank them for taking the time to speak with you – could, in theory “free up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” according to the majority opinion of the court.

The Holder decision is an issue not just for academics, but also for journalists and activists.  Many of the groups co-sponsoring the amicus briefs were engaged in peacebuilding activities with groups such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka.  But the court’s ruling was that training members of these groups in international human rights law was illegal.

The material support ban and export control restrictions serve an important purpose. Terrorists are a proven threat to the US, and we shouldn’t abet them.  But in restricting resource transfers wholesale, we limit our ability to understand and help these groups find alternative means to achieve the ends they currently seek violently.  There are, in other words, important unintended consequences to the law and to the subsequent decision on its constitutionality.

The main danger for scholars is the vagueness of both the law and the court’s decision.  Insofar as academic research tends to stay within the academy, it’s highly unlikely that a terrorism scholar will be prosecuted for buying a cup of tea for an interview subject on the FTO.  But to the extent that scholarship makes it up to the levels of policy debate – which is partly the point of government programs such as the Minerva initiative, as well as foundation and university initiatives such as the Bridging the Gap program – these laws make conducting research on terrorism and insurgency even riskier than it already is.

– Cross-posted from The Monkey Cage

Slow-Motion Srebrenica

The NY Times’ recent article on Obama’s “kill list” of American citizens and others suspected–not convicted–of terrorism includes much disturbing information on what our government is doing in our names.  The entire “kill list” process and Obama’s central role in it has seldom been presented in such detail in a mainstream publication.   It is necessary if ugly reading, even if it is written in something approaching a triumphalist tone. 
The “kill list” involves U.S. targeting of Americans and others for drone death worldwide. This is being done without “due process of law.”  Previously, due process of law has meant that an impartial decision maker hears evidence presented by the executive branch, before an American is convicted of — let alone executed for— a crime.  For the “kill list,” due process of law does not exist.  If the Executive branch, the CIA, or other “intelligence” agencies, suspect you or another American of being a terrorist, your right to due process of law evaporates.  All you receive is review by officials of the same agencies who fingered you in the first place and will okay your killing, ultimately Obama himself. 
Right to defend yourself?  Forget about it.  Right to trial?  No way?  Worry about blowback?  Not a care, for instance, about reaction to the Yemeni family of 8 obliterated by drone days ago.
To me, one of the most unsettling points in the article was the “explanation” for why drone attacks are asserted, by government officials, to kill so few civilians.  It’s simple really:  just redefine the word “combatant.”   Thanks to the Obama administration, it has now been defined down to mean  “all military-age males in a strike zone . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
And of course, Obama is now personally authorizing the assassination of individuals, whether Americans or foreigners, based merely on their behavior—and without their identities being known.  So-called “signature” strikes, make the situation even worse than it first appears.    
All of this reminded me of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995.   Serb military forces under Ratko Mladic rounded up  “all military-age males” in the town, accusing them of support for or participation in attacks on the Serbs.  They then systematically slaughtered about 6,000, with no process of law.  Srebrenica, of course, was roundly and rightly condemned by the world community, not least Obama’s “atrocities czar” and one-time human rights champion, Samantha Power.
With Obama’s drone warfare, we appear to be doing the same thing, albeit over longer periods of time, in smaller batches of butchery, and using remote control weaponry.   As imperial hegemon, it seems, the U.S. is “permitted” to do this, even by those who profess to believe in human rights. 

Oliver North threat-inflates for the next ‘Modern Warfare’: a new Low for the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex

Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.

And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?”

Activision’s Modern Warfare series has a well-known, morally dubious (yet best-selling) record of brutality-celebrating, militaristic, war-glorifying gaming, but invoking Oliver North’s pseudo-gravitas for right-wing street cred must be a new low. Is the first-person shooter genre now politicized too? So Sarah Palin’s ‘Real Americans’ blow away commies and terrorists with extreme prejudice, while you wimpy liberals play girlie games like Final Fantasy or something? The red state-blue state divide has come to your Xbox too. How nice; how healthy for democracy. Is it necessary to remind all those Tea Parties who adore the Constitution that North blatantly, repeatedly violated the appropriations clause of said ‘sacred,’ ‘holy’ end-all-be-all document?

At a time when the President is asserting an unprecedented right to kill overseas Americans without Constitutional protections, we really don’t need yet another wildly overhyped, quick-cut, paranoia-inducing threat assessment. Somewhere neocons are smiling, because I guess we all need our own drone now, right? But this stuff is pummeling our democracy and leading to all sorts behavior, like warrantless wiretaps or the Patriot Act, that we’d never tolerate otherwise and about which we will one day be ashamed.

The irony too is how baldly this ‘documentary’ contradicts the actual social science work on war – you know, from people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about, like Pinker, Goldstein, the democratic peace, nuclear peace, Long Peace, or security community theorists. War seems to be becoming less frequent, less cost-beneficial, more hemmed-in with rules and norms, and less general (i.e., not involving all the system’s big players anymore). If there’s one thing just about everybody in IR today seems to agree on, it’s that the US spends way, way more money on defense than it needs to. But I guess there’s no money in a game entitled ‘Threatlessness,‘ so let’s amp up the fear-factor by rolling out the Gordon Liddy of the Reagan administration to freak out the consumer.

More generally, I find it pretty worrisome just how brutal post-9/11 American geopolitical entertainment has become. I don’t mean violent; many movies and games are violent, even graphically so. Rather I am thinking of the unabashed relish for pro-American killing, the zealous bloodlust that’s morally fig-leafed by American patriotism so as to be defensible to the viewer. The same people who cheered for Rick Perry’s talibanic enthusiasm for the death penalty and waterboarding are thrilled to see the gleeful embrace of pro-American torture, mass-killings, and executions in even mainstream, hugely popular franchises like Modern Warfare, 24, or Transformers.

24 constantly found a way to work in torture by the good guys, as if to say that real men, genuinely committed to America, don’t have time for rules and due process. Lawyers are for sissies and liberals; patriots will gladly go over to Cheney’s ‘dark side’ beat the hell out of anyone, violate any law, to defend America. Modern Warfare 2 became globally notorious by requiring the gamer to participate in a mass atrocity (machine-gunning hundreds of civilians). In Battle: Los Angeles, the American hero performed a battlefield vivisection on wounded opponent. In Modern Warfare 3, the protagonists shoot a defenseless, surrendered enemy in the face even after he has cooperated in giving information. Homefront portrays the execution of parents in front of their screaming child, has the gamer hide under the bodies in a mass grave, and later encourages you not to waste ammunition on enemies on fire after an airstrike. Transformers 3 includes four battlefield executions (because it’s a movie for kids you know) and gives the antagonist the startling, downright revelatory post-9/11 line: ‘We will kill them all in the name of freedom.’ Wow – why not just give Michael Bay a job at some neocon think-tank? EA’s Battlefield 3, in the same year as the US is debating striking Iran, spun up a story of Iranian-sponsored MWD use in Western cities, which then provokes an in-game US invasion of Iran in which the gamer participates. Good lord; Bill Kristol himself could have written that script. And I have no doubt after this paranoid video above that Black Ops 2 will include some gratuitously vicious sequence packaged as ‘defending’ America.

The basic trick in all these the-defense-of-America-requires-cruelty narratives is to structure the story with such extreme bad guys and circumstances that the viewer can morally excuse the American hero for egregious violations of the law or rules of engagement that would otherwise get the cop/soldier/good guy rightfully thrown in jail as a dangerous sociopath. 24’s constant portrayals of torture justified by the wildly unrealistic ticking time-bomb scenario is the most obvious example. So long as Jack Bauer can say he’s trying to save a million people in LA, he’s allowed to do anything – torture, maim, execute civilians, violate due process, steal passwords, etc.

This stuff is tea party nirvana – strong, a—kicking men stand-up for America while liberal sissies at the ACLU worry about lawyers for terrorists. Conveniently the hero’s brutality is shielded/morally excused by some lame narrative fig-leaf about MWDs or alien invasions. But the real point is to show vengeful, post-9/11 killing on behalf of America without feeling guilty about it. This is why it’s terrifying.

So if you wonder why stories about American misbehavior in Afghanistan, like trophy taking or killing squads, get so little attention, consider just how coopted the post-9/11 geopolitical entertainment industry is, constantly presenting America’s opponents as unworthy of any rights, justifiably tortured, and fit to be wiped out with extreme prejudice at all time. Conversely, if you wonder why Apocalypse Now or Platoon are vastly more gripping and engaging, while you can’t even remember the story of last summer Transformers, it’s because in the real world, the moral certainty imparted by the ticking bomb scenario (much less cartoonish alien invasions) almost never happens. Jack Bauer’s 100% certainty in the bomb threat, which justifies his tearing out some Muslim’s fingernails or something, is a narrative figment. Lots of studies of war and intelligence gathering have told us just how much confusion and uncertainty there is. This is the whole reason we have the rules of engagement.

This why Jack Bauer would be in prison for life in the real world, no matter how much the right thinks he should be a role model for GWoT CT. Real world bad guys usually aren’t all wholly unredeemable villains – unlike in the black-and-white, ‘moral clarity,’ tea-party/neo-con dreamworld of Michael Bay, John Milius, Keifer Sutherland, Fox News, and even Peter Jackson. Even after the ’good war,’ de-nazification didn’t lead to mass executions of the Wehrmacht. Someday we’re going to look back on this post-9/11 bloody-minded entertainment with cringe-inducing shame, in the same way we think about Rambo or Red Dawn today.

I don’t want to sound like some boring old dude who doesn’t get this stuff. I like gaming. I waste too much time on it also. I enjoy action movies and FPS’s like Halo; I’ve played Modern Warfare and even Homefront. What unnerves isn’t the thrill of the violence. (That is also morally dubious, of course, but given that it underlines the viewing rush of every action movie ever made, hold that for a moment.) What I find really noticeable and increasingly disturbing is the post-9/11 gleeful depiction of pro-American carnage. 9/11 ‘took the gloves off’ and allowed so many directors – Bay, Milius, Sutherland, the Activision guys –  to unleash their chauvinistic, reptilian id, all their inner xenophobia, cruelty, militarism, war-glorifying machismo, and sheer bloody-mindedness. And the Tea-Party loves them for it.

Every time I see one of these movies in Korea (Battleship and Act of Valor just arrived), or whenever my students tell me how great some new shooter game is, I always wonder what foreigners must think of us and this endless diet of jingoistic movie and gaming violence we produce. One movie after another game of over-the-top violence, huge CGI, American flags waving, uniforms and saluting, troopers barking canned, macho dialogue like ‘Marines never give up,’ killing, and then more killing, flirtation with torture. I understand why my students tell me America is an empire; we sure entertain ourselves as if we are, and foreigners can see this stuff. I know the Tea Party couldn’t care less what foreigners think of us – that’s they whole point, right? And I know that the Pentagon approves Hollywood scripts before it lends its hardware, but I can’t imagine that even the brass really wants only this kind of jingoistic, bloodthirsty pap. Who wouldn’t exchange one Apocalypse Now for all these awful, cruel, rah-rah post-9/11 movies and games? But they gross huge amounts, of course; as will Black Ops 2, I have no doubt. And what self-respecting tea-partier wouldn’t want to help Oliver North’s rehabilitation to credibility?

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

The ISA Drinking Game

The Duck crew getting ready for their
annual meet-up in 2011.

We are now two weeks away from the start of the annual International Studies Association convention in sunny San Diego. In 2010 the Duck developed the APSA drinking game. Here is the ISA version for your conferencing pleasure. (Oh, and if Tom Volgy asks, you haven’t seen me.)


The following, unless otherwise specified, result in the taking of one drink for every observation/sighting at the Annual Conference of the International Studies Association. The Duck of Minerva is not responsible for any liver damage or unfortunate choice of panel questions that may result after participating in this game.

  1. Watching the Feminist and Gender Studies section pick a ‘turf war’ with the Women’s Caucus at the ISA General Counsel meeting. +2 if already 4:45pm.
  2. Less than 6 European scholars in the hotel bar after midnight. +1 if no Brits
  3. Hawaiian shirt.
  4. Kony2012 shirt.
  5. Observing someone take more than 5 chocolates/mints from Keesing’s booth and managing not to speak to anyone. +1 if entire bowl.
  6. Bumping into your former PhD student who now has more publications than you. +1 if still doing PhD.
  7. Panel with discussant who obviously hasn’t read any of the papers. +1 if obviously doesn’t care. +2 if uses time to plug own book.
  8. Invitation to Phi Beta Delta Honor Society event. +1 showing up, +2 showing up by accident.
  9. Someone throwing leftover beads from ISA New Orleans 2010 Conference. +1 if at John Mearsheimer.
  10. Panellist saying “Well, I actually haven’t read the book” and then proceeding to discuss said unread book.
  11. iPad. +1 Samsung Galaxy. +10 Blackberry Playbook. +100 Apple Newton
  12. Performance of Lady Gaga Song at talent cabaret. +1 if in costume
  13. Someone commenting/retorting with “Well, as I wrote on my blog…”. +1 if “as I wrote on my MySpace”, +2 if Brian Rathbun
  14. Watching someone dive behind a table to avoid editor to whom they owe an overdue manuscript. +1 if knock over pile of Cambridge University Press books doing so. +2 if still unsuccessful.
  15. If attendee looking for the International Society of Automation. +1 International Submariners Association (+2 if have own submarine)

San Diego Bonus Round!

  1. Someone proposes holding panel at the Del Coronado. +10 if Tijuana
  2. Presenter eating burrito. +1 if with umbrella drink
  3. Reference to Anchor Man (easy!)
  4. Reference to Demolition Man (hard!)
  5. Reference to Top Gun (sexy! But must include “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and/or volleyball)
  6. Someone wearing their conference badge at 2am or more than a mile from the actual conference site. +1 if in Mexico.

RIP: Habeas Corpus . . . and Normative Power

The news that President Obama plans to sign the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) permitting indefinite detention for Americans accused of supporting terrorism is a sad day for those who believe in basic civil and human rights. Equally, this move calls into question optimistic views about international norms and the power of human rights.

Glenn Greenwald and others cover the threat to basic freedoms in posts that are well worth reading. By comparison, the import for scholars of norms may seem minor but is nonetheless worth pondering.

Norms against indefinite detention have long been basic to human rights, along with prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial execution. Of course, we’ve seen those fall by the wayside too. National security, a norm backed by enormous material power, has made its dominance plain. However, in recent cases where the U.S. has engaged in torture or extrajudicial executions of American citizens, these actions have been purely executive, albeit with many a legislative, scholarly, and public cheerleader.

The NDAA, however, enshrines indefinite detention for American citizens in law passed by Congress and to be signed by the President. The magical incantation “terrorist” is all that’s been needed to throttle a core rights protection.

What has been the power of norms in this case?

It’s doubtless true that the human rights norms I’ve mentioned have more defenders than they once did. There are today many more NGOs who promote and support them than there were in the 1950s, the last time the U.S. passed similar laws (against the Communist menace, only to reverse them decades later after severe abuses). Today, there have been many voices, both domestic and international, raised against the indefinite detention provisions.

But in the end, these fell before trumped up security norms and terror fears. Many Americans appear all too willing to trade basic rights (and trillions of dollars) for an illusion of security against a minuscule threat. I am continually stunned when I hear American citizens saying we don’t need a judiciary to check the Executive in these cases because the President has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution. So much for the judicial branch, so much for checks and balances, and so much for the power of centuries old domestic norms and laws.

Particularly striking in the debate over detention and the broader one over Obama’s civil liberties record is political opportunism. Many Democratic Party leaders who screamed that George Bush was acting unconstitutionally and illegally in the early years of the GWOT, have now fallen into line behind Obama’s continuation and expansion of Bush policies, including extrajudicial executions and now summary arrests. It’s striking too that we have seen so few resignations from top posts in the Obama administration even from those regarded as staunch defenders of basic rights. So much for the independent influence of norms.

More broadly, this suggests that other human rights norms are equally fragile and contingent achievements, with little if any independent strength. Of course, anyone witnessing the erosion of these rights over the last decade already knew that. All such norms exist at sufferance of state actors. To the extent states follow them, it is because the “norms” do not run contrary to their core interests, because a sufficiently large threat has not been invented to justify their subversion, or because the states are too weak to challenge them. Any real belief in state “habitualization” and the power of norms as such must be questioned.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to promote and resurrect the crucial values and freedoms we have lost. But the only way to do so is through political organizing and activism–through material rather than normative means.

Older posts

© 2015 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑