Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On "Bits of Muslims"

During my time in the American South I’ve heard a number of things come out of peoples’ mouths that shocked and disappointed me. I’ve gotten so used to the typical prejudices in Alabama, that most of the various forms of bigotry cease to surprise me anymore, but every once in awhile I will still hear something that will strike me and linger with me.

This story transpires on a Saturday, probably six months ago. I started the morning off by doing something I never do on a Saturday—waking up early. I did this so I could join two of my close friends in a morning of paintball in Wetumpka, a little town that’s best described as an offshoot of Montgomery. This was probably the second time I had ever tried to play paintball, and I spent most of my day scrambling to evade the experienced teenage players who pelted me with stinging paintballs whenever I stuck my neck out. I tried to make up for my lack of experience by running twice as hard—a strategy that didn’t get me very far, but did give me a hell of a workout. I was playing with a rented gun and each of these kids had fully-automatic paintball guns with rifled barrels and expensive accessories. I was completely outmatched, and by the end of the paintballing session I looked it. I was laying in the grass, covered in mud, paint, and sweat. As an added bonus I also had over a dozen fresh red welts all over my torso.

After conferring with my buddies we decided the next course of action should be to obtain some food. I had spent my morning trying to outrun kids with high-tech paintball gear, and I was starving. As we drove home we spent the car ride arguing over which restaurants we should be eating at. I was a pretty vocal force in this particular exchange and I advocated for a little bar/restaurant called Gino’s Ristorante (I’ve changed the name of this place, out of courtesy). We strolled up to the building, looking like some crew of misfits—all dirty, all sweaty, all of us with paint smears that we hadn’t even bother to clean. Gino’s wasn’t open, but one of the owners was just walking up to the front door.
“You boys know we just opening now right?”
We exchanged nervous glances.
“Um, didn’t know sir, but we can just continue down the road and find another place.”
“Oh don’t you worry about it boys, you can come to the bar, we’ll give you a few drinks on the house and you can relax until the food is finally ready.”

We took him up on his offer, and a few drinks on the house soon turned into many drinks on the house. Overall, since coming to Alabama this may be the only instance I’ve experienced of the much touted “Southern hospitality”. The owners, Gino and Teddy, plied us with drink after drink and hung around at the bar to offer their views on local and world affairs.

The conversation turned political, as any good conversation is wont to do. Mothers and etiquette specialists will often preach to you about avoiding sex, politics, and religion in polite conversation—ignore them. The only worthwhile conversations are those that broach on areas of controversy. Any dullard can prattle on about the weather and sports teams. If you want to make your night interesting jump into the fray and mix things up on the issues that matter—after all civilization never would have advanced if everyone had avoided arguing.

We spent some time talking about Southern race relations. I will spare you the nitty gritty, suffice it to say that at the height of our debate Teddy accused me of being an “N-word lover”. I could have (and some would say should have) met this obscenity with an immediate breaking off of communications, and left the bar. But I have a personal belief in “meeting people where they’re at”. Meaning, that I recognize that some folks may have grown up with a narrow-minded and racist upbringing, and I prefer to gently push them in the right direction, rather than slam them by calling them “racist”. Again, I won’t waste the space in this post on the details, but I like to think that I made some progress with Teddy in discussing the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I will keep my fingers crossed and hope that some of this made some kind of impression on Teddy. He did at least pretend to see my point of view.

At some point in the conversation, after we had reached a pseudo-settlement in our discussion on Southern racism, Teddy started talking about my military service. I always get a little uneasy when this topic comes up in the South. I’m not sure what to say when people “thank me”, because it doesn’t seem genuine. I’ve always had the sense that our military could literally be doing anything over there, or in any corner of the world, to any group of people, and these kinds of folks would always thank us by reflex. It’s this sort of blind and reflexive approval from a country’s civilian population that allowed the Germans and the Japanese to operate their war machines. So, as expected Teddy thanked me for protecting him, and I responded with a simple thank you as I usually do—I wasn’t in the mood to do the heavy lifting that it would take to turn over another entire set of lazy assumptions, and I was afraid of somehow looking rude by not accepting his compliment. Then Teddy, feeling like he must be in friendly company with a military man, decided to go further and tell me a story.

“Yeah so somebody sent me this video in an email, it’s awesome the stuff you guys can do! This video showed these terrorists were standing around a truck, and then a missile flies in and BOOM! Bits of Muslims everywhere! Hahaha!!”
He looked at me for approval, as if he was expecting me to laugh along with him. I didn’t laugh, but I also didn’t say anything, as I probably should have—I simply couldn’t think of an appropriate response.

Teddy’s comment isn’t the first I’ve heard like this, but for some reason it’s the one that really sticks in my brain. Despite all the complaining I hear from Fox News pundits over political correctness, anti-Muslim bigotry seems to be one of the few forms of bigotry left that’s fully acceptable in the mainstream. In the American South I constantly hear the religion of Islam attacked by casual Christians, who have never bothered to do any learning about Islam, and who have never met a Muslim person. I presume it’s no small coincidence that most of these proclaimed Christians don’t live their daily lives in an even remotely Christian manner.
Talking heads like Bill O’Reilly have an interesting way of stoking this anti-Muslim sentiment. I watched Fox News a few days after the attempted attack by Faisal Shahzad in New York City. O’Reilly opened his show by complaining that “nobody” was referring to this as Islamic terrorism, due to the endemic plague of “political correctness” that conservatives seem so concerned about (but don’t mention the word “retard” or they’ll have a conniption fit).

Now it’s worth mentioning that I had already seen a speech from NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg where he mentioned Shahzad’s Muslim and Pakistani background and urged New Yorkers not to let this affect their views of the many Muslims and Pakistanis who already live peacefully in NY City. So he did identify Shahzad as a Muslim.

No matter, O’Reilly and his panelists spent at least half the show complaining that no one is labeling this act of terror as “Muslim” and in the course of doing so they managed to repeat the words Muslim and terrorist over and over again in the same sentence. By the time this episode was done the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” must have been paired together at least a hundred times. And this, of course, is on America’s most watched cable news show. By spending so much time complaining about not labeling this a Muslim terrorist attack, they get to do the labeling themselves. And by only talking about Islam when terrorism is involved, the intention to associate the entire religion with terrorism is unmistakable( I couldn’t find the exact episode I reference here, but this clip makes my point). In the midst of all his complaining about Muslim terrorism, O’Reilly didn’t seem to find the time to mention that the first person to notice the suspicious vehicle and notify others was a Muslim immigrant. I never saw this piece of the story reported in the mainstream.

Needless to say, there was also no mainstream coverage when a terrorist firebombed a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida just ten days later (thankfully, none of the 60 worshippers inside were injured). In fact, I only learned about this today. Unfortunately for American Muslims, our righteous indignation doesn’t seem to boil up when they are the victims of terrorism.

Another recent incident of free-flowing anti-Islamic bigotry was right after a few South Park episodes were cancelled due to threats from the now infamous “Revolution Muslim” website. I’m not any more sympathetic towards the creators of this site than the next red-blooded American, but I simply don’t find it necessary to begin denigrating an entire group of people based on the threats of a few nutjobs. And that is in fact what they were—Revolution Muslim is run by a few crazy men in New York who have been kicked out of their mosques by the Muslim majority, because they are, in fact, nutjobs. There are only between 4 and 10 of them, and with no mosque that will accept them they stand on street corners shouting at people. It’s best to treat them like all fringe lunatics and just ignore them.

As such I actually reserve most of my outrage in this situation for the executives at Comedy Central who censored the episode. What kind of American business backs down off of its right to free speech based on a few implied threats from a few crazy people? Have they no sense of patriotism? So many men and women suffered so much to give Americans some of the most open free speech laws in the world. I have personally witnessed one man, Mikey Weinstein, brave death threats from Christians almost daily and he doesn’t stop what he does. My advice to the executives at Comedy Central: grow a pair.

It’s also worth mentioning that the whole Revolution Muslim website seems a little fishy. I’ve seen many claims, not yet contradicted, that report the site’s founder, Yousef al-Khattab was originally named Joseph Cohen, an Israeli Jew. It seems that shortly before moving to the US he was a right-wing Jew with his own settlement in the West Bank. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial I won’t speculate on this, but you can form your own conclusions.

In a development that should surprise no one, one of the recent idiotic and offensive statements comes from a Tea Party leader, who described the Muslim god as a “monkey god”, and then apologized to Hindus for defiling their “monkey god”. I smirked when I read what a Hindu blogger told the Tea Party official he could do with his apology.

I find it ironic that so many Christians have become prejudiced against Islam to the point that they are openly intolerant of it, and even find it appropriate to laugh when Muslims are killed violently. I could swear that Jesus was pretty clear when he preached openness, tolerance, and nonviolence.

And yet this dichotomy is nothing new. When asked what he thought about Christianity, Gandhi had this to say,

“I like Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I personally know Christians who really do make an effort to live their lives according to Jesus’ teachings, but they seem to be in such short supply these days.
The terrorists who are Muslim really aren’t so different from any other religious person who decides that killing innocent people is justified-- they are simply common hypocrites. Both the Koran and the Bible preach nonviolence and offer very clear restrictions on the killing of innocent people—yet every day we see Christians and Muslims twisting their faith to justify killing their fellow man.

There’s enough casual prejudice against Muslims in the current American psyche that I could surely say more on this subject, and probably will in the future, but I couldn't seem to find a way to dive into all of this with Teddy.

Instead, when he yelled, “BOOM! Bits of Muslims everywhere!” I sat there quietly as he cackled. Sensing the awkward pause, he continued, “so hey take another drink, on the house, I insist!” Such incredible generosity! This would have been the fifth free drink, along with a free appetizer he had given me—a pure stranger.

I’ve grown used to this phenomenon, but it still has a way of shocking me-- the human capacity for cruelty and compassion in the same breath.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Best and The Brightest: Another Adventure with Mikey Weinstein

[Update: writing this blog post drew the ire of senior officers on the Air University faculty, who were fully postured punish me under the military's disciplinary system. You can read all about these events in my follow up to this post, "Under the Guise of Academic Freedom"]

The first time I saw Mikey Weinstein speak to a military crowd I left feeling very hopeful. Several months ago, Lt General Peck of Air University invited Weinstein to speak to the combined faculty of Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and Squadron Officer’s College at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. In this small and intimate setting I witnessed officers listening intently, and afterwards asking pointed but respectful questions. There were a few tense moments, that bristled with the possibility of argument, but the students and the speaker exercised restraint over their emotions and remained cordial—as anyone who is experienced in debate knows, this restraint is essential if a group of people is going to hash through the issues and learn from each other’s perspectives. When I went to see Weinstein speak today to Air University’s current Air Command and Staff College students, I quickly figured out that we were not about to have a repeat of that initial pleasant experience.

My first sign should have been when I walked into the large auditorium, and found myself a seat near the back— trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible in a room full of senior officers. A Major with a Howdy Doody-esque comb-over plopped down in front of me, and proceeded to clumsily attempt to flirt with the female Major sitting next to him. He leaned in and remarked nonchalantly,
“Well, I had to miss Mikey Weinstein the first time because I had a dentist appointment. Now I guess I’m here because I couldn’t come up with another excuse. Wish I could go to the dentist again, I’d rather be in that chair than listen to him speak.”
I wasn’t amused, and the female Major he was trying to impress offered only a conciliatory chuckle—clearly she had become used to placating Air Force men during her career. The part of this that struck me was not the hapless efforts of Major Don Juan, but how loudly and confidently he made this sad little joke. He took it for granted that all the people sitting around would be on board with him, as if we were all a part of some good ol’ boys club that “knows better than to take this whole Constitution thing too seriously.” His classmates sitting beside him said nothing.

The thousand person auditorium quickly filled to capacity, as officers in their blues rushed in minutes before presentation time.

General Rock strolled on to the large stage and stood at the small podium perched in the center.
"I'd like to introduce our next speaker. Mikey Weinstein is someone that may make us uncomfortable, and someone we may not like, but this is part of what we do here at Air University-- we talk to people we disagree with, and our next speaker certainly falls into that category."
I could feel the negative energy setting in as he vacated the stage.

Mikey Weinstein walked out and introduced himself graciously, offering his thanks to ACSC, and going so far as to say he was honored to be speaking to a roomful of some of “the best and the brightest” the Air Force had to offer. I sat in quiet amusement, wondering if perhaps he’d been a little too generous in his assessment. I would soon find out what an incredible over-statement these initial compliments would turn out to be.

The initial speech went well enough. Weinstein explained the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, their mission, and their struggle against attempts to spread fundamentalist Christianity through the armed forces. Weinstein noted that the MRFF has had over 18,000 clients, and 96% of them are Christians (just not Christian enough). He explained that he views the attempts to intertwine religion into the military fabric of the most powerful nation in the world, vis-à-vis the National Day of Prayer Task Force, Officers Christian Fellowship, and groups like them, as a “national security threat from within.” He went on to explain that the military is ill-equipped to deal with this phenomenon, as the resident IG system in the military has failed to recognize this as a problem, while his foundation has been flooded with pleas for help since its inception. “Clearly” he said,”there’s a disconnect.”

The first few questions were run-of-the-mill, genuine inquiries from officers who wanted to know more about the foundation, or who had questions regarding the age-old Christmas Party vs Holiday Party conundrum. (The answer, by the way, is that if it’s a unit function just call it a winter holiday party, and make it an inclusive environment for all your troops like any good commander would.)On the whole, the event was shaping up to be a nice, educational, incident free discussion, where everyone could leave a little smarter on the issue of religion in the military than when they came in, even if perfect agreement hadn’t been reached.

With the next student however, my hopes were dashed, and the entire episode took a turn into the Twilight Zone. A Major positioned at the front of the auditorium bolted up from his chair and in a trembling voice declared that he “couldn’t be as glib as [Weinstein]” so he “may not be able to make [his] case as well”. I’m not sure this was proper use of the word “glib”, but it was insulting nonetheless. He went on to issue emotional claims that he was the “evangelical enemy” Mikey was fighting, and proceeded to say he didn’t see a problem “sharing his faith” with his subordinates. Weinstein carefully explained that when a commander “offers” anything, it never feels optional. Any military member should understand the special relationship between a commander and his troops—I never deemed it appropriate to “offer to share” my views on atheism with any of my subordinates.

The next few students offered their views in a similar vein, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when the transformation took place, but a room full of military professionals quickly devolved into an unruly mob. Having spent four years at the Air Force Academy before graduating, and five years on active duty, I don’t have any illusions about the open-mindedness of military officers. But I was shocked at how hostile the level of discourse became.

One tall, fresh-faced Major opened his commentary to Weinstein by charging, “you’re just paranoid!”He then went on to offer his sophomoric observation that, “pushing religion in the military doesn’t seem any different to me than pushing one football team over another.” The back of the auditorium broke into applause. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Weinstein reminded him that the US Constitution all military members swear to defend says nothing about “the separation of football and state.” But the simple logic of these statements couldn’t seem to pierce through the fog of philistinism that was taking hold in the crowd.

It seemed as if half the auditorium had become a mob of hollering and jeering morons, who would scream and clap in unison whenever any person would make any argument against Weinstein, no matter how ill-informed, no matter how intellectually devoid. Many had decided that instead of standing up to ask a question, they would simply sit in the back, cowardly yelling taunts from their safe little corner of the room. I would expect this at a Tea Party rally, not at the Air Force’s prestigious Air Command and Staff College.

The Major’s sage advice on football and church was only one of many such incidents, and I’d be doing a disservice to my readers if I didn’t highlight some of the gems of intellectual insight that earned the approbation of the assembled ACSC students.

One student, a self-proclaimed historian, pointed out that George Washington advised his troops to find solace in God. Weinstein recognized this argument before the student had even finished, and responded by reminding him that George Washington and many of the founding fathers owned slaves, and participated in other questionable practices, and that emulating them perfectly would be ill-advised. He reminded the students that whatever George Washington thought of God, the Constitution he helped bring into being is very clear on the separation of church and state. This statement from Weinstein earned no applause.

A foreign exchange officer who flies helicopters stated that he isn't a Christian, and that while he agrees with most of what the MRFF does, he flies his helicopter with a doll of Santa Clause that was given to him, so he didn’t see what the big deal was about. If he agreed with “most of what the MRFF does”, I wondered, what was his point? Weinstein simply moved to the next question.

Another exchange officer, who proudly proclaimed his Christianity, said he didn’t see why Weinstein was trying to take God out of the military. This earned rounds of applause. Weinstein responded by telling him “the constitution of our country dictates a separation of church and state in all aspects of government, which includes the military”.

Another Air Force Major spoke up, this one with a crew cut and a belly that I doubt was within Air Force standards. He said that he thought Weinstein was too abrasive, and that he hadn’t seen any problems with religion in the military. Cue the applause and hollering. Weinstein politely ignored the clamor, and reminded the student that a lot of things happen that he may not see, and most people who are in the majority don’t notice these things. As he put it, “the fish in the aquarium don’t see the water.” As a member of both majority and minority groups I can attest to this phenomenon, and would add that if all commanders’ calls ended with a prayer to Satan, that these people might not be so comfortable if they were told to “just deal with it” as non-Christians are told today.

A different officer took issue with Weinstein’s support of Sikhs seeking to wear their religious head dress. He accused the MRFF of targeting Christians, while helping religious minorities. More applause. Weinstein calmly responded with a story of a Christian soldier who was being attacked for her faith, to the point that pages of her Bible had been used as toilet paper—Weinstein’s organization fought for her case to success. Silence filled the room.

The most overt show of disrespect came from an officer who, in the middle of his exchange, said "we've had to suffer through you". Weinstein, never one to duck a fight, asked for this Major's seminar number so they could continue their debate after the formal session. The Major responded, "I'd rather not."

The rest of the exchanges in Weinstein’s Q and A session were of a similar nature, with the atmosphere of defensiveness and ignorance having firmly taken hold. Most of the comments came from stubborn officers who said they didn’t see any problems, and that Weinstein was making a big deal over nothing. This, even after he told them that 18,000 soldiers had come to him in desperation, after they were neglected by the military’s systems of justice.

The display I witnessed from the current class at ACSC had left me disoriented and angry. I walked out of the auditorium feeling outraged, yet powerless to level any real criticisms at officers who outranked me. I had felt the need to speak up while the mob of bullies attempted to turn Weinstein into a punching bag, but was too afraid of making myself a target in a military system. When I spoke to Mikey Weinstein on the phone I apologized for my cowardice, and he responded in his usual humble manner by assuring me that there’s nothing I could have done in a room full of superior officers. He also gave my ailing spirit a slight boost when he said that as he talked up front he saw a lot of heads nodding in agreement—folks who agreed with MRFF’s mission, but didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. This was confirmed later in the day when Weinstein received phone calls from eight ACSC students, and an email from another, apologizing for the rudeness of their classmates, and saying that they wished they had spoken up but felt pressure not to be singled out among their peers. (By the way, Mikey Weinstein got these calls by engaging in a task reserved solely for those with brass balls: he read his cell number aloud to an entire audience of people who had been attacking and mocking him.)

This here, is the danger of letting fundamentalist religion creep into a culture that’s as coercive, conformist, and authoritarian as the military. Even other Air Force Majors, peers to the obnoxious crowd members, felt as if they couldn’t speak out against them. As a younger officer who was outranked by all of them I felt this pressure ten-fold. How would a young enlisted troop have felt?

When I consider this issue, I often count myself lucky that I’m simply an atheist, and therefore the dominant culture in the military tends to regard me with merely suspicion and, in my worst experiences, mild disdain. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a Muslim in the military. In the past, anti-Muslim bigotry in the military was another one of those “problems I didn’t see”. Then I got involved in a relationship with a Muslim woman (who was, by the way the most open-minded and tolerant of the girlfriends I’ve had) and then I started to notice the snide comments, jokes, and all-around ignorance within the military culture in regards to Islam. Since then I’ve charged headfirst into more than one savage argument in defense of Islam—such irony for an atheist!

If we were to wonder what life for a Muslim soldier might be like, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s latest client should give us an idea. While the ACSC students broke into their seminars following the dustup with Weinstein, the fight went on for the MRFF. Weinstein headed immediately to do an interview that appeared this evening on CNN’s Campbell Brown, for his latest client, a Muslim soldier in the Army. Zachari Klawonn, a 20 year old Army Spec. at Fort Hood has come to Weinstein after the Army failed to address repeated complaints of harassment he’d been receiving from fellow soldiers. Klawonn was moved out of his barracks and off base for his safety, but was neglected the standard housing allowance the Army issues to all soldiers. He has been forced instead to resort to drastic measures, taking out two personal loans, pawning his possessions and borrowing money from the MRFF to make ends meet. As is all too typical in cases like these, Klawonn’s requests for his housing allowance didn’t receive any attention until his chain of command was contacted by reporters. Since then he has been told he will receive his stipend starting in June. Klawonn’s long history of discrimination and neglect within the Army is a real embarrassment to the service, and is unfortunately too lengthy to repeat here. Please take the time to read it at the Washington Post.

Cases like this are exactly why we need the MRFF. Young religious minorities like Klawonn are regularly treated with scorn within the military system, and then neglected or scoffed at by their superior officers— officers just like "the best and the brightest" I encountered this morning at the Air Command and Staff College. Officers who, when they were told by a knowledgeable speaker that fundamentalist Christianity is contributing to a hostile religious environment within their ranks, responded by shedding all vestiges of professionalism, hurling insults, and generally engaging in behavior that was a downright embarrassment to the Air Force. Of course they don’t see the problem. They are the problem.

Speaking with Mikey later in the day I commented that given some of the phone calls and emails he’d received, that there were probably a lot of “quiet allies” in the auditorium, and that the conversation had just been hijacked by the most combative element.

“Yeah” he agreed, “But the problem here is that these students are future commanders. MRFF is a voice for the voiceless, but these people are the command structure. They have a voice. We need them to not be shy about defending their Constitution. As Martin Luther King said, when things get critical ‘a time comes when silence is betrayal’”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Is the War on Terror Increasing Terrorism?

Much of the public rhetoric regarding the War on Terror is framed in such a way that any debate, on the rare occasion there is one, focuses on whether or not the war efforts are worth the fight against terrorism. Does it cost too much? Are too many American lives lost? A larger and more central question seems to go routinely unaddressed: is the war on terrorism even accomplishing its mission? Is it reducing the level of terrorism? Or, like the War on Drugs, is it failing in its primary mission while simultaneously dumping copious amounts of taxpayer dollars into a bottomless pit?

On one of Bill Maher’s latest shows, David Frum remarked that our war on terror must be going excellently because the latest failed attempt to set a car bomb off in New York City was such a slipshod effort. This is an interesting characterization of the latest terrorist attempt, which was made by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani American citizen who, according to US officials, was acting on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban. Maher, and the guests on his panel, for all their seeming sophistication, seemed to have no trouble equating Al Qaeda with the Taliban, and talking about the groups interchangeably. To make matters worse, no one asked the obvious question: when was the last time the Pakistani Taliban attacked the United States? The answer is never. They never had a reason to before. This is the first time this group has launched an attack on American soil. This attempt on the lives of American citizens, along with the last few attempts, are direct responses to the US’s wars in the Middle East. Major Hasan of Fort Hood, and the underpants bomber, were also motivated to attack Americans by the wars we are waging in the Middle East. Is it possible that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have just been inciting more terrorism?

We can move beyond mere speculation in this matter by referring to US government documents on global terrorism to determine if terrorism has been declining or rising since the 2001 declaration of the ‘War on Terror’. Up until 2003 the State Department released its annual report “Patterns of Global Terrorism” which tracked international terrorist attacks worldwide. The 2004 report wasn’t released, and instead was replaced with the 2004 “Country Report on Terrorism”, which listed no statistical data. There is an interesting and suspicious back-story behind the Bush administrations motivations for not releasing the statistical data from 2004. Motive aside, the end result is a virtual gap in information for 2004. Statistical data on worldwide terrorism resumes in 2005, with the National Counterterrorism Center, whose data form the basis for “Country Reports on Terrorism” to the present day. While current reports from the NCTC are comprehensive, the switch from the “Patterns of Global Terrorism” reports to the “Country Reports on Terrorism” make it impossible to form a meaningful data trend that spans across 2003 to 2005 because the methodology for tracking terrorist attacks was changed. However, even with this distortion, the conclusions from examining the reports from year to year are clear.

The data clearly indicates that worldwide terrorist incidents have risen sharply since the declaration of the War on Terror, and moreover that deaths from terrorism are the highest in the very places the US is fighting the War on Terror, with the vast majority of the victims being civilians.
In fact, for every year since the NCTC began tracking terrorism in 2005, the largest share of terror fatalities in the world has been in Iraq. From 2005 to 2007, deaths from terrorism in Iraq were more than the rest of the world combined, with a particularly high toll in 2007 of 13,606 people killed, before dropping to 5016 in 2008 (tragically, a low for Iraq since the US invasion in 2003). It would seem to follow that terrorism springs up wherever the US military plants its boot.
Across the world, terrorism has actually risen since the “War on Terror” was declared in 2001. According to the old “Patterns” methodology, 3072 deaths attributable to terrorism in 2002 climbed to 4271 in 2003. In 2004 we have the aforementioned information gap. In 2005 the broader methodology for tracking terror records 14,602 worldwide deaths, 14,618 deaths in 2006, 22,685 in ‘07, and 15,765 in ‘08.

Sadly, the criteria for terrorism used above is not the one most Americans have grown to accept. We’ve become more accustomed to the following, more provincial definition of terrorism: “violence against Americans”. And yet even according to this selfish and one-sided definition of terrorism, the current war still seems to be woefully ineffective.
Before the attacks of 9/11, the number of Americans killed by terrorists was 12 in 1998, 6 in ’99, and 23 in 2000. Since 9/11 and the declared War on Terror the number of Americans killed by terrorists has risen slightly. There were 27 Americans killed in 2002, 35 in ’03, no data for ’04, 56 in ’05, 28 in ’06, 19 in ’07, and 33 Americans killed by terrorists in 2008. Not only has the enormous and costly war on terror not made Americans any safer, it seems to be putting them in greater peril.

None of this should come as a great surprise. Asymmetrical attacks of this nature can be launched from anywhere, plotted anywhere. It doesn’t take an army to make a car bomb- that’s the point of terrorism. Timothy McVeigh didn’t need to live in Afghanistan to carry out the Oklahoma City bombing. Joe Stack didn’t need a safe haven in Yemen to crash his plane into an IRS building in Texas. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has had no discernible effect on terrorism, other than greatly increasing the level of terror in those countries, and quite likely creating more enemies for the US.
I can anticipate the criticism to this argument-- I am not so naïve as to doubt that there are people in the world who would be willing to attack America no matter what our foreign policy was. But we needn’t help them by “playing the role of the villain” and invading and occupying countries. This only serves to assist terrorist organizations in their recruitment efforts, and so long as we continue to occupy Muslim lands we can count on Al Qaeda’s continued existence.
The War on Terror, almost a decade underway, may be becoming another War on Drugs—an immensely costly, obscenely destructive, never ending government program that not only fails in its stated goals, but actually seems to be counterproductive.

(note: I intended to release this article with the release of the 2009 report from the NCTC, which was supposed to be relased on April 30. It still hasn't been released, so the article above is based on the data up through 2008. When the 2009 data becomes available I will update the article to reflect the new information)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Introducing: Visions from the Front

Almost since its inception, the country George Washington proudly referred to as the “infant empire” has been deploying military forces to the farthest reaches of the globe. From the Barbary Coast, to the Philippines, to Nicaragua, to Haiti, to Vietnam, to ongoing operations in Iraq, a thorough study of American foreign policy yields a long and unbroken record of foreign military interventions and occupations around the world. The latest pet project of the American empire is in the Middle East, where President Obama has promised to stabilize the Karzai government in order to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan.
Americans can and should speculate on the reasons for war, but such musing and debate does little to change the reality of daily life for the people involved in these conflicts. Direct accounts of life from within, that haven’t passed through the sanitizing filters of the media, provide a valuable learning opportunity for the rest of us. In that spirit, I would like to introduce a new series to American Commentary: Visions from the Front. As one of the many thousands of American troops scattered around the world, our guest columnist’s writing will allow us to see the war through the eyes of one soldier on deployment. So that his writing can provide us with a greater deal of insight, this Air Force support troop will remain anonymous, and will be referred to simply as “Kurt”.
On the way to Afghanistan Kurt was routed through Kyrgyzstan, where his writing will begin…

Kyrgyzstan, Manas Air Base
March 2010

It's an interesting sight, where I'm sitting right now. The makeshift bedding area is housed in an enormous domed tent, its vaulted ceiling reaching maybe forty feet in the air, metal spars like the ribs of the mythological Jonah’s Cetacean igloo spreading tan, intercostal canvas over a cement pad roughly the size of a soccer field. The lights are out now, and the cavernous reaches of the leviathan are just barely visible, bathed in the pulsing, shifting blue glow of the incandescence from the last of the insomniacs and their mobile electronic pacifiers. Reclining on my cot and staring upward, it brings back happier memories of scuba diving, sitting on the sandy ocean floor and watching wet globs of sunlight bubble down though the turbulent surface. It's almost enough to set the mind into a relaxing state of blissfully welcome sleep, especially after twelve fitful hours of impersonating a sardine on the flight over. Almost, if not for the frigid, prickling piranha teeth of the night’s air incessantly gnawing on whatever it can find.
The air is chill, in the low fifties and dropping rapidly, the portable heaters which pump in warm air having failed their duty early on in the evening. Instead, the ice-laced fog is being greedily inhaled from outside, amassing in a dense presence a few feet off the floor, its thermocline, unfortunately, hovering just above the height of the cot. Dozens of identical temporary beds are arranged in rough approximations of rows from front to back. Having been provided with only a sheet and thin, ashen woolen blanket, people are shrouding themselves from head to toe, hiding any exposed skin in a linen cocoon. Given the silence, light, temperature and orderly arrangement of covered bodies, it has all the appearance of a morgue. The only thing keeping the sleep-deprived mind from believing the illusion is the occasional, intermittent puff of breath that escapes from the top of these blanket burritos.
As time drips on, it pools enough to eventually drown the digital fireflies, exhausting their residual charges for the day or overwhelming their owners’ fading mental reserves. The only illumination remaining is that of the twin emergency exits. The crimson portals cast a fiery tint on the sporadic exhalations around the room, and I crack a smile, now imagining we're inside a giant ashtray, each of our smoking, rolled bodies a smoldering cigar. I turn to the cot next to me, looking to share this insight, but his pristine stogie hasn't been lit yet; his roll is superiorly airtight. I make a mental note to solicit his advice come morning, pull the last unsealed edge over my own head and surrender to the advancing numbness.