By lex, on September 16th, 2011
This is not really my sort of thing, as most of you know. We have a pretty happy ship here, and the crew – though comprised chiefly of scurrilous free thinkers and iconoclasts – nevertheless does a very nice job of keeping up good order and discipline, at least when the captain is at home. (I have come to conclusion that locking up the medicinal alcohol locker during his periods of shore leave are a waste of both time and locks, however.)
So yesterday morning, in the wee, small hours between waking up and heading to work, I took a look at Spencer Ackerman’s recent Danger Room post. The gist of his argument, for those who weren’t bothered to click through, is that there was this one guy at the FBI who was for a brief time teaching counter-terrorist trainees that “main stream” and “pious and devout” Muslims were the place to go looking for national security threats, and that this was a Very Bad Idea. My response was essentially that to conflate mainstream American Muslims with the pious and devout was to cast a net rather too broadly, Islam having nearly as many fractious splinters and sects as does mainline Christianity, or American Jewry for that matter, with its reform, conservative, reconstructionist, orthodox and ultra-orthodox branches.
Among those Muslim sects are the Wahhabists and Salafists (the terms are often used interchangeably, and some submit that Wahhabism is a unique orientation within the broader Salafist worldview) and I argued that if you wanted to look for folks who are engaging in criminal precursors to terrorist acts on American soil, the “devout and pious” among them are not a bad place to start. Not least because, when it comes to the issue of slitting foreign necks, the Koran provides some pretty unambiguous justifications.
(Apologists will note that earlier verses in the Koran have much to do with the Ummah going along and getting along in a non-confrontational way. Those verses were written while the faithful were relatively few, and all the loose talk of “slaying the unbelievers” came later, when the new and increasingly powerful faith was under existential attack from their Qurayshi rivals. They will also say that justification for the lesser jihad is strictly constrained to self-defense and fighting against oppression. This is true, but also beside the point, since 1) the violent language has remained intact, unambiguous and inalterable for over 1400 years, nor is there any mechanism is in place to emend it, 2) on the topic of jihad, “self-defense” and “oppression” can mean very different things to different people, and 3) Sunni Islam, in particular, is a decentralized faith lacking any clerical hierarchy or centralized institutions. Anyone can form a team and play. These are indisputable facts.)
Perhaps predictably, Spencer disagreed with me:
This is wrong for many reasons, but it comes in the course of sincere, good-faith post by a smart person for whom I have respect. So I think it’s worth going through this.
Let’s say you’re a counterterrorism agent. You want to find the terrorist before he strikes and stop him. You have a few options before you. You can examine the patterns of his fellows — the hoarding of weapons, the purchasing of weapons precursor materials, the strength of connections to other known violent extremists, etc. — that strongly indicate terrorist behavior. That’s one option.
Or you can go a different route. You can examine his religious practices and conclude that those who share them also strongly indicate future terrorist activity. You can read his sacred texts and parse them for clues to nasty thinking. And then you can act accordingly.
The problem should confront you immediately: if you do that, you’ll get a massive number of false positives, and target a ton of innocent people. And because of the opportunity costs from all the resources you expend in the process, you’ll have fewer resources available to identify and interdict the actually-dangerous people* before they strike.
The gravamen of Spencer’s argument is that there is not, nor ought there be a tension between counter-terrorism and civil rights. I can’t say that I disagree with him; one of the main points of finding, deterring and/or preventing terrorist attacks – beside avoiding the instant human tragedies and ensuing economic disruptions – is to ensure that we all of us are free to live more or less normal lives without having to subject ourselves to the smothering embrace of a police state. So I reviewed my post to see if I had provided material for his rebuttal, and found this:
Mr. Ackerman clearly sees this as a civil rights issue rather than one of understanding the threat to the Republic – and you’d have to be willfully blind to think there is no threat, regardless of how dangerously you choose to characterize it. He sees the affirmative and bountiful evidence of Muslims in America who are good citizens and looks no further.
It’s a fair cop, and I can see where Spencer gets his dander up since I unintentionally set this up as an either/or argument – I was still on my first cup of coffee – when it would have been a more accurate portrayal of my true beliefs to make it a both/and statement. A more precise phrasing of the first sentence, would be to say that “Mr. Ackerman clearly sees this as solely a civil rights issue…” There are all sorts of civil rights, the right to worship freely, of course, and the right to live our lives without fear, whether of impertinent federal intrusion, or of getting blown up. As in most things, we try to strike a balance.
The second sentence, I believe, stands as written.
But let’s get back to Spencer’s preferred solution for a moment:
Let’s say you’re a counterterrorism agent. You want to find the terrorist before he strikes and stop him. You have a few options before you. You can examine the patterns of his fellows — the hoarding of weapons, the purchasing of weapons precursor materials, the strength of connections to other known violent extremists, etc. — that strongly indicate terrorist behavior.
Perhaps it’s different in the counter-terrorism world, but in strike planning we were taught to navigate to a target from big to small. Iraq from the air, for example, is a pretty huge mass of largely undifferentiated brown. One feature you really cannot miss is the Tigris River, which runs northwest/southeast through the eastern, most densely populated (and defended) part of the country. The Tigris makes a large bow west and then back to the east just south of Baghdad. If your target was on the south ramp at Baghdad International Airport, this bow points to a reservoir, which in turn points to the runways, and there you will find your south ramp. On that ramp – if you’re both lucky and good – you’ll find your target.
The weakness of the cited paragraph is that Spencer starts out with the target in view. He then examines the patterns of the target’s fellows, and his links to other known violent extremists. In my post, I said that if you’re hunting bears, the best place to start looking is in the woods, but Spencer starts with the bear in his cross hairs, and then begins to look around to see what the bear is eating and if there are other bears around him for confirmation of his bear-hood.
How does he do it?
He gets his targeting data from “inside the community.” In other words, he starts at the same place I do:
In order to do your job, you need information. And that information originates at the street level, from members of a given community, who know the deal better than any outsider. You get that information by convincing them that you’re looking out for their interests. You will never get it if that cohort believes that you are a threat to their interests — something you will most certainly be if you target someone simply because of the strength of his religious beliefs.
Presumably, “their” interests are the same as everyone else’s: Live a quiet, normal life, pay your taxes, mow your lawn, put the kids through college, dime out the radical fringe elements within your group to the feds. Some of whom believe, not without justification I would argue, that a combination of piety, devotion and personality disorder are pretty fair markers for further federal scrutiny, which might in turn lead to the discovery of weapons stockpiling and fertilizer purchases. Coming at it the other way is more problematic, what with farmers eternally needing ammonium nitrate for their farms, and the feds running guns into Mexico.
(Let us leave aside for the moment that three of the six “brains” behind the 9/11 attacks lived here in San Diego and worshiped at a local mosque, somehow without arousing the actionable suspicions of those they prayed alongside. The counter-argument, such as it is, was made by the brave soul who informed the FBI about the intentions of the Lackawanna Six, but who – fearing for his life – preferred to remain anonymous. Perhaps he too was a man who knew the deal better than any outsider?)
There is also some language in Spencer’s blog post about “Sharia bigots” and “total violation of the Constitution you claim to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic” to which I was at first inclined to take offense, before reviewing my own post and finding its tone vaguely condescending. So perhaps I had it coming. In that spirit of fraternal comity, I will not suggest that Spencer’s “realist shit I ever wrote”, widespread exposure of a one-time training session was perhaps more damaging to inter-faith relations, and more toxic to the well of domestic intelligence gathering, than was the training session itself.
Because we just don’t know that.
We bloggers have a lot of fun at this “thing of ours”, but the nature of it is that we tend to bubble ourselves off. We agree with many of the same things, find the same things repulsive and in general are far quicker to note the mote in our neighbor’s eye than the beam in our own. It becomes a self-reinforcing echo chamber, which sadly has contributed in no small way to the intractable political divisions we see today in the face of real and systemic problems that cry out for solutions. My bubble and Spencer Ackerman’s loosely overlap at the intersection of national security, about which reasonable people of good will may derive differing opinions. But mine contains more than that – I have noticed no penchant for him to wax prosaic on the virtues of taildraggers versus tricycle landing gear aircraft, for example – and his bubble contains elements that mine largely eschews.
Because of the self-isolating nature of blogging and blog reading, the complex interrelations between these bubbles and the others that they overlap with are never made so apparent as in Twitter, which many of us use to get our daily feel for the zeitgeist, put up something interesting that really doesn’t deserve its own blog post and link back to our own stuff for the extra few page views that are in it. You get to write your pithy wisdoms in 140 characters or less, you follow people, people follow you, and those people follow others in what is really quite an amazing and complex social network.
So imagine my joy and gratitude whilst driving home from Ventura yesterday, to see that Spencer’s answer to my post generated a response (if not a lot of page views, alas):
Scott Roeder, for those of you who don’t immediately recall the name, was a diagnosed schizophrenic who murdered an abortion provider, becoming – along with a bunch of Michigan rednecks who liked to tramp about in the woods carrying rifles and thinking bad thoughts – members of the explosively dangerous homegrown movement that some in the paranoid center use to frighten their children.
What do the culprits have in common? Why, they’re “Xtians” of course. Or claim to be, the New Testament being largely silent on the issue of state’s rights militias and actively hostile to murder.
“@emptywheel” is the nom de tweet of someone named Marcy, and we got into a bit of a back and forth while I was navigating through the wretched Los Angeles traffic about people who claimed to be “pious” Christians acting in decidedly impious ways (this is by no means a novel phenomenon, the fallen state of man being a usual topic among the godbothering set). I dropped out of the conversation right about here with a civil “adieu”, having become concerned that I was arguing with a fool, and that passersby might not be able to tell the difference (although the tweets keep coming):
Marcy, who has a PhD in CompLit but – having decided that academics were not her thing – is now employed as a full-time blogger on ~2300 hits per day, was sufficiently agitated by my 140 characters-or-less suggestion that “thou shalt not murder” + “turn the other cheek” = “pious” to place her own take on the very brief discussion and its underlying posts here:
Now, aside from the fact that Neptunus Lex is taking it upon himself to dictate what counts as pious or not, rather than the thousands of Christian preachers who might not see it Lex’s way (mind you, I prefer his vision of Christianity, it’s just that I’ve run into a lot of preachers who preach something other than “turn the other cheek”), his distinction between what Christian terrorists like Roeder “claim” and what they “are” is meaningless from an investigative perspective–and therefore is meaningless to the safety of our country. I mean, is Lex asking FBI counter-terrorism agents who have been trained to assume pious Christians are by definition moderates to make the effort to conduct a theological exam on Christians to determine whether they simply “claim” to be pious or are actually pious, according to Lex’s understanding of theology? And how are the faith communities that espouse or condone violence–whether it be the death penalty, America’s wars, or killing abortion doctors–going to feel when they learn that some guy named Neptunus Lex had deemed them not to be pious?
I’m not dictating piety here, but as before, citing unambiguous scripture. Nor am I aware of these legions of Christian preachers who don’t see things my way, but I have to assume they are operating from the same source documents. And the FBI is of course free to investigate whomever they please, the pious and those merely claiming to be, although as ever, resources must be carefully husbanded for best efficiency. The point I was trying to make is that there may be an important distinction between those who are authorized and indeed required by their scriptures under certain circumstances to murder, and those who are firmly abjured from doing so. The fact that great majority of the former and a tiny minority of those who claim to be the latter decline to follow that guidance is interesting, but tangential to that point.
And to settle Marcy’s apparent and gratifying concern for my well-being, I am not the least bit worried about how members of “faith communities that espouse or condone violence” might feel about my assessment of their impiety. Neither, I think, should she be.
Nor do I think she really is.
There are an astonishing (to me) 19,600,00 hits on Google citing “Christian terrorists”, as against a mere 5,260,000 of the Muslim variety. Google is perhaps a weak predictive tool to hang our hats on, but if we turn on our TV to see airliners slamming into buildings, or read the news about suicide bombers targeting schoolchildren, we are not conditioned by our experience to believe that the odds are nearly four to one that the Lutherans are involved. It beggars belief (sorry).
We have Roeder, the ridiculous Hutaree and maybe Timothy McVeigh (although raised a Catholic, he professed agnosticism). Throw in Waco and Ruby Ridge, if you’d like, but those had as much to do with the federal government spoiling for a fight than one being brought to them. That’s about it, as far as I can tell. And yet there are nearly 20 million things to learn about “Xtian” terrorism. Either these events are so microscopic as to avoid breaking the signal-to-noise ratio of the evening news, or they are conjured up in the fevered reveries of unimaginative people who can’t get their heads around the nature of the real threat, and who therefore need something closer to home to fear and hate.
I’m inclined to believe the latter. I think the whole thing is a rather desperate and pathetic attempt on the part of some people to wrong-foot, shame and silence other people whose faith and/or politics they disagree with. It doesn’t lay a mark on the person of sincere faith.
But it I bet it sounds good inside the bubble.
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