Fifteen Years Ago We Started Looking Away and We Never Stopped

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House hunting in Duluth, Minnesota after 9/11 forced the author and his family to move (Nov 2001, photo provided by author)

By Eric Chandler
Insurgentsia guest contributor

I have an 8 mm video of my son. He’s just over eleven months old. He’s crawling around on the floor of my living room. He was kind of a fat baby. His chosen form of locomotion was to logroll around the house. We were living in South Ogden, Utah at the time. It was kind of a grayish carpet. In the background you can see the new entertainment center we bought to house our TV. Mission Style, when those kind of things mattered to me. Things like how many stars the restaurant had. What critics thought of the movie we were going to see. What kind of car we drove.

When I watch this video and see the TV on in the background, you can see one of the twin towers burning in New York City. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know why I was doing that. Why was I videotaping my son as he crawled around on the carpet during a disaster? I don’t remember doing it. Years went by and I was organizing our video tapes and looked through them to see what I had. I saw my son and there were the towers. When I looked through the lens and tried to imagine my thoughts, I drew a blank. I must’ve been in shock. Like someone who just got in a car accident and has a broken arm and doesn’t know it yet.

I don’t remember videotaping my son. I do remember that I was in the Mountain time zone when my dad in Maine called me and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was drinking coffee in my bathrobe. He said, “Turn on your television.”

I also remember my wife weeping in front of the tube. We were watching the people jump out of the World Trade Center and fall like horrifying confetti. She cursed at the screen. I was surprised at how angry she was through her tears.

They rarely, if ever, play video of the falling people on TV. In a world where nothing is forbidden, the restraint shown is remarkable. It isn’t WWII. Nobody today would hide the fact that FDR was in a wheelchair. They’ll show anything on TV.

They’ll show the money shot of the plane hitting the tower. Or a tower crumbling. But you won’t see much tape of people jumping. Somehow, we, the shameless, have arrived at a consensus. We look away.

This post originally appeared on Shmotown.

Eric Chandler has written for Flying Magazine, Silent Sports Magazine, Northern Wilds, Minnesota Flyer, and Lake Country Journal and runs the blog Shmotown. Literary journals like Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick and Sleetmagazine.com have published his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. He’s a member of Lake Superior Writers, an Active Member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild.

He’s also an Air Force veteran with twenty years of experience flying the F-16. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He enjoys cross country ski racing and marathon running. He lives with his wife and two children in Duluth, Minnesota.

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It’s Time to Start Understanding Violence As an Overwhelmingly Masculine Problem

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(Wikimedia Commons photo)

I ran across an interesting essay on “the weaponized loser” where Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, makes the argument that mass killings such as the ones perpetrated by Omar Mateen in Orlando, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine, and perhaps even the tens of thousand Islamic State (IS) fighters in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere share something in common: they are by socially alienated men who “can’t get laid”.

This argument is not new. It has been floating around the internet for a while. I still do not think the argument is a very strong one. After all, there are plenty of non-sex starved, violent men. The argument seems a little silly when Asma practically concludes that sexbots could be a solution to radicalism. But there is something to the idea that violence is an overwhelmingly male problem and might need to be addressed thusly. Asma writes:

Young men who cannot find a place in the socialisation process will often take up a disdainful hostility towards domestication itself. The terminal rebel takes shape. A mild version of this was articulated two decades ago in Chuck Palahniuk’s now classic novel Fight Club (1996) and its later movie adaptation. But far more chilling than alienated urbanites secretly fighting in basements is the rise of ISIS, Boko Haram and other violently antisocial brotherhoods.

Part of male socialization is gainful employment and there is a correlation between societies with high unemployment rates and political violence. In Iraq the unemployment rate has been over 15% for the last ten years, rocketing as high as 28% after the US invasion in 2003. In Syria, the unemployment rate has been similar since the rebellion against Assad began, but one wonders how accurate those numbers are in the first place since the governments of Iraq and Syria have controlled a fraction of their respective countries for years now.

“When comparing domestic violence and political violence, the sexual-frustration-as-a-catalyst-for-radicalism hypothesis is even weaker.”

Due to the absence of a government in Libya for some time (and even when Qaddafi was in power said government was hardly transparent) unemployment numbers are difficult to estimate, but over 20% is a safe bet. In Somalia, a country that has seen nearly constant violence for the last 25 years, the unemployment rate has been hovering around the half century mark.

It is important not to confuse correlation and causation when researching radicalism, though. After all, armed rebellions contribute to unemployment as much as they might be affected by it. One of the common myths about terrorism is that it is caused by poverty. This myth has prevailed because commonly it is politicians that spread the myth. But when looking at the empirical research, it is very difficult to link the two. In his course on terrorism and counterterrorism on Coursera, Dr. Edwin Bakker argues:

Most terrorists are not very poor, or much poorer than others. In fact, some terrorists are extremely rich. Think of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the most well-known terrorist of our age, who came from a wealthy Saudi family. And another example is the so-called Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who in 2009 tried to blow up a plane heading for Detroit. But he studied in London, and was of a well-to-do family from Nigeria. And there are many other examples of terrorists from upper or upper-middle class. Take, for instance, Anders Breivik, who killed almost 80 people in Norway. Or to take an example from the 1960s and ’70s: from left-wing terrorism, Ulrike Meinhof, one of the key persons of the Rote Armee Fraktion. She also came from a well-to-do family, was highly educated, and had lots of opportunities in life. Studying the characteristics of Jihad terrorists in Europe, I found out that they were mainly children of migrants or migrants themselves. And they were of lower parts of society. But they were not poorer than other migrants or children of migrants.

The research backs this up. James Piazza of Rutledge University studied terrorism as it relates to poverty, inequality, and poor economic opportunity and could not find a link.

But terrorism, insurgency, and political violence all have at least one thing in common: they are all forms of violence and violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) found in 2007 that 75.6% of all violent crimes were committed by men. Even more alarmingly, as Asma points out in his article, a 2011 DoJ report found that nearly 90% of homicides were perpetrated by men.

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American terrorist Jared Loughner, who shot US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 13 other people in 2011, did not come from a particularly poor background (Wikimedia Commons photo)

When comparing domestic violence and political violence, the sexual-frustration-as-a-catalyst-for-radicalism hypothesis is even weaker. After all, men who abuse their women partners could hardly be considered failures with women if they are able to enter into relationships and even marry them.

So what is going on here? Dr. Thomas Harbin, a criminal psychologist, argues that male violence stems from male anger, which is partly a socialized trait. Men learn how to deal with anger from their fathers, their peers, and their friends as adolescents. He writes, “most people convicted of domestic violence, child abuse, or other violent crimes were abused themselves.” Since men have been angry and violent for generations, they will continue to be unless this generation is socialized differently.

One of my favorite quotes about war comes from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. His character, The Judge, says about war: “It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” Men create and perpetuate violence. When looking at violence from a gendered perspective, articles with headlines like “Male violence is the worst problem in the world” no longer seem outlandish. It is both catastrophic and until recently, undiscussable. Let’s start discussing it.

 

What ISIS Really (Really) Wants

AQMI_Flag_asymmetric.svgIn light of increased Islamic State (IS, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) foreign terrorism, especially in Europe, I have seen a piece from The Atlantic titled “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood experience a resurgence in popularity. Last week it was the second most popular article on the site, despite it being a year old. In the piece, Wood made the argument that despite foolish United States government statements to the contrary, IS really was very Islamic and must be viewed with a theological lens to truly understand and counter it.

At the time, the piece filled a vacuum in long form analysis on what was a seemingly unstoppable al-Qaida separatist group. IS had captured both significant amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria and the attention of most Americans with its beheading video of American James Foley. Americans were now acutely aware of the strength of the group that President Barack Obama had attempted to downplay by calling “al-Qaida’s jayvee team.” Wood’s piece helped provide some context for the target of a new US war in the Middle East after attempting to withdraw from the region.

The piece was controversial when published, but with the benefit of a year of hindsight, I do not think that its central argument holds up well.

IS Not Very Islamic After All

It has become evident that many of the IS rank and file, especially those performing terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and Belgium, are not particularly pious. Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui, the two brothers responsible for the Brussels bombings, were not very religious. Nor was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the leader of the Paris attacks, who was known to regularly drink alcohol and use drugs — activities few if any Muslim religious leaders condone.

Mohamad Khweis, an American jihadist who was recently captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga as he attempted to desert, told reporters that IS’s religious ideology was too intense for him, complaining of how he could not smoke. And two British jihadists arrested upon returning from fighting in Syria were found to have bought Islam for Dummies — indicating their relatively new appreciation for Islam.

“Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: ‘Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.’”

But it is not just low-level fighters that might not be as Islamic as Wood claims. It has been reported that some of the IS senior leadership is made up of former Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since Ba’athism is a secular pan-Arabist ideology, either these leaders were closeted Islamists before, they are only recent converts, or they are fighting for IS for non-religious reasons (like a Shi’a-dominated, Iran-influenced, anti-Ba’athist government in Baghdad.)

Furthermore, the examples of pious Islamists that Wood interviewed, such as Anjem Choudhry, are not even proper IS members. While they may indeed be committed Islamists who openly endorse an IS caliphate, the fact remains that they are not living in IS territory or fighting for them, despite IS calls for their sympathizers unable to emigrate to launch attacks in the countries where they reside. On Twitter, many IS fighters chastise those who have not emigrated. I suspect that most actual IS fighters would deem people like Choudhry and his ilk to be pretenders in the same way that US military members have no great love for young Americans who profess to want to fight IS, but will not enlist.

The Obama Administration Is Right

A major point of contention from Wood is that the Obama Administration is purposely  calling IS un-Islamic not as a reflection of reality but for purposes of messaging. Because the administration does not correctly identify IS as very Islamic, it makes bad predictions. While I think the benefit of time has helped show that IS is not as Islamic as Wood thought it was, it is completely true that the Obama Administration made a conscious choice not to use “Islamic” when describing IS for political reasons — and they are right for doing so.

We must be realistic in acknowledging that most Americans would not understand the nuance in top government officials saying things like, “Yes, IS is Islamic but so are millions of practicing Muslims in the US who do not want to create a caliphate or cut off anyone’s head.”

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IS fighters from IS social media

Islamophobia is on the rise in the US and it is evident by recent murders of Muslim Americans and current Republican anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since it is the government’s responsibility to protect Americans, it does have to be careful with its messaging when discussing IS, lest it be used to fuel bigotry and a Trump rally turns into a Kristallnacht against Muslims.

Secularsplaining Islam

The last problem with Wood’s piece is that Islam is what Muslims do. If 99% of Muslims are not doing what IS does, then how Islamic can it be? It would be more accurate to describe the actions of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims as Islamic than the relative handful of militants in Iraq, Syria, et al. performing the atrocities that make us so fearful.

When non-Muslims start making judgements on how Islamic a certain group of Muslims are, we straddle a thin line between useful thought exercise and absurdity — this is a problem with Orientalism in general. I think it would be difficult for Wood to defend his position in a room with 100 British Muslims. So when we as non-Muslims wonder about Islam, or what religiously motivates those who kill in the name of Islam, perhaps we should ask actual Muslims instead of relying solely on non-Muslim journalists.

“IS is, among other things, a youth movement.”

In feminist discourse there is a term called “mansplaining” which is used to describe a man explaining something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing way. Wood’s piece is not mansplaining, but it comes close to something like secularsplaining: “Dear Muslims, allow me to explain to you your religion.”

What IS Really Really Wants

So then what does IS really want? This is the part where I disappoint you: IS cannot “want” anything because it is not a cognizant being. When we talk about IS as an agent instead of a group of tens of thousands with varying interests we are utilizing a form of folk psychology that simplifies group complexities to make sense of the world and predict behavior.

If a group cannot truly want anything, and IS elites — from the al-Qaida in Iraq old guard to the ex-Ba’athists — are likely are not homogenous in their goals, then this line of questioning seems futile. If many of its young members were not religious before joining, then perhaps we are not fighting Islam that has been radicalized, but radicalization that has been Islamized.

IS is, among other things, a youth movement. The average age of a European jihadist has dropped from 27.7 when al-Qaida was the dominant jihadist group from 2001-2009 to just 20 years old today. As Cormac McCarthy wrote, war “endures because young men love it and old men love it in them.” What if the question is not what IS wants, but rather what do the young men (and women) joining IS want?

Instead of wondering how we can make ourselves safe from Muslims, maybe we should figure out how to assist in providing a meaningful life to a generation of Arabs both in the Middle East and Europe who have been marginalized. Young men have always willingly given their lives to save those of their countrymen. What does it say about the societies in Europe and the Arab states that tens of thousands of young people are more eagerly self-identifying with a murderous extra-legal organization in a war zone than the countries in which they reside?

Attacks Kill 120 and Wound Over 700 This Week Yet Public Outcry Scarce

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The world’s insurgentsia have been unusually active this week with attacks in Tunisia, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, and Ivory Coast. Interestingly, there has not been much public outcry (if any) in response to any of these attacks in the Western media — certainly not to the extent that the attacks at the Bataclan and elsewhere in Paris last November received. Nor have these attacks garnered the attention of the Charlie Hebdo attacks before that, despite some being similar in nature, i.e. targeting Western civilians. So, in case you missed it:

Last Monday, Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters attacked army and police posts in the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia killing 12 soldiers and seven civilians. Ben Gardane is close to the border with Libya and known for being a hotbed of jihadist recruitment. If the town fell to IS, it could establish another transnational control area like the one they enjoy in Iraq and Syria.

On Tuesday, stabbing attacks by a Hamas member in the Israeli city of Jaffa killed one American and injured twelve others. The American was 28 year old Taylor Force, an MBA student at Vanderbilt University, former Army officer, and West Point graduate. Today, four Israeli security forces members were injured in an attack by Palestinian gunmen at a security checkpoint near the entrance of an Israeli settlement near Hebron in the West Bank. These attacks are part of a surge of violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories that have resulted in the deaths of 30 Israelis and roughly 180-200 Palestinians that some are calling the “Third Intifada”.

In Iraq, there were two attacks this week by IS using chemical weapons in the Shiite village of Taza, near Kirkuk, a region controlled by Kurdish militias. Reports suggest as many as 600 injured. According to the Department of Defense, IS is using chlorine and mustard gas in its attacks, which it is likely manufacturing itself. Last month, the head of the IS chemical weapons program was captured in a raid by US special operations forces. Additionally, 47 Iraqi soldiers were killed by IS in attacks near the recently liberated city of Ramadi.

In Ivory Coast, an attack most like the Paris attacks occurred. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters attacked a beach resort in the city of Grand Bassam yesterday, killing at least 14 civilians and two soldiers. Four of the victims were Westerners, including one French and a German national. The beach resort was likely targeted because it is popular amongst Westerners. This is not the first attack by AQIM this year: in January, AQIM-affiliated group al-Murabitun attacked a hotel popular with Westerners in Burkina Faso, killing 30 and wounding 56.

Finally, 37 were killed and dozens more injured in a suicide car bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara yesterday. The Turkish government claims a male and female member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were responsible. The target was a busy bus stop and mostly civilians were killed. In response, Turkey has begun airstrikes on Kurdish militia camps in northern Iraq.

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Protesters in Luxembourg in response the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris (Jwh/Wikimedia Commons)

The combined death toll of just these attacks this week is 57 civilians, 61 military, with over 700 wounded.  The civilian deaths are only about half that of the November 2015 Paris attacks, but almost five times as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack. Of course, only a small fraction of the attacks were on Westerners and none were in Europe. After years of violence, one might understand why Westerners would be numb to attacks in the Middle East and perhaps even in Africa, despite these victims also being human beings. But as one Ankara foreign resident pointed out, why do Westerners feel nothing for Turkey?

“It is very easy to look at terror attacks that happen in London, in New York, in Paris and feel pain and sadness for those victims, so why is it not the same for Ankara? Is it because you just don’t realise that Ankara is no different from any of these cities? Is it because you think that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country, like Syria, like Iraq, like countries that are in a state of civil war, so therefore it must be the same and because you don’t care about those ones, then why should you care about Turkey? If you don’t believe that these attacks in Ankara affect you, or you can’t feel the same pain you felt during the Paris or London attacks, then maybe you should stop to think why, why is it that you feel like that.”

Perhaps we should take a look at the numbers on the top of this page, take note of our feelings, and think, “why?”

“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” or Two Reasons We Should Reject Polarization

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(Le Huffington Post Quebec Graphic)

Today, at least two masked gunman stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 employees and two police officers in an apparently sophisticated act of terrorism performed by likely veteran fighters.

The reaction from the West has been enormous. Large protests against the brutal attack have sprung up in Paris, Berlin, New york, Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, and Moscow among others. The rallying cry at these protests and on Twitter is “Je suis Charlie” or #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie) expressing unity with the victims of this murderous attack.

I understand the sentiment and the urge to unify in the wake of tragedy. Let me make it clear that I unequivocally condemn the murders of these ten citizens and the two police officers heroically attempting to protect them. However, I find the #JeSuisCharlie reaction wrong for two reasons: Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are racist and I refuse to reflexively accept a false dichotomy fallacy.

Charlie Hebdo is purposely offensive and publishes blatantly racist, anti-religous, crudely drawn cartoons in the name of “satire”. Many of these cartoons show images of the prophet Muhammad that many Muslims find offensive because their religious beliefs prevent them from depicting people, especially the prophet. At this point I do not doubt some of my readers might be thinking to themselves, “So what? Those aren’t my beliefs. They should get over it.” Well, that’s an entirely different kind of post, but if you are okay with offending other human beings simply because they do not share your cultural values, then I think you could use some remedial training in empathy. I recommend this not to insult you but as sincere advice, because undoubtedly as globalization continues and younger generations come to age you will be left behind.

But even if you think it’s okay to purposely antagonize people on the basis of their religion, I do not think most Americans think it’s okay to promote racist stereotypes. Culturally, we have been conditioned a little better to identify these and reject them. Most Americans would not be comfortable publicly labeling themselves racist. And yet this was in a way the overwhelming reaction to today’s events. Charlie Hebdo‘s depiction of Muhammad and other Muslims (which I have decided not to republish out of principle) are very similar to Nazi Germany and modern White Nationalist depictions of Jews. They both have exaggerated noses and are illustrated as ugly by a Western cultural standpoint. These types of images promote negative visual stereotypes and are meant to dehumanize the subject being represented. Americans can easily spot and decry these types of caricatures of black people both at home and abroad, but today it seems like the racist depictions of Muslims and/or Arabs were nearly universally overlooked by the Je suis Charlie movement, including prominent, usually sensible, liberal journalists such as Vox’s Max Fisher.

“But it’s satire,” some might say. I won’t get into a definition of humor because that too is another topic entirely, but let me suggest that there’s a difference between laughing with and laughing at. Furthermore, antagonizing and dehumanizing the members of an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists, who have (needlessly) denounced those extremists—and who have been the greatest victims of those extremists—is indefensible.

So, for the simple reason that I am not a racist who makes a habit of purposely harassing, humiliating, and dehumanizing entire religions, I am not Charlie. Je ne suis pas Charlie.

That should be enough, shouldn’t it? But in times like these it never is. By saying, “I am not Charlie,” some might take that as a tacit endorsement of mass murder or censorship. And herein lies the greater problem: polarization. As simple and satisfying as it is to reduce this to an us versus them issue, the fact that the “us” in this case is a company that makes a profit promoting hate in the form of tasteless, racist cartoons should make us take pause and reassess the purported sides. We do not have to support the lesser evil. Just because a group of ignorant cartoonists who made a living promoting stereotypes were attacked by those we perceive to be our enemy doesn’t mean they are our allies. I am not “victim blaming” or an apologist simply because I refuse to glorify or honor Charlie Hebdo.

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Max Fisher, usually right, is wrong.

The reaction to today’s act of terrorism is in this way similar to the reaction to North Korea’s hack of Sony and the threats over the release of The Interview. People went out of their way to buy a movie they might not have normally been interested in because of an imagined free speech issue and/or patriotism. But if these recent attacks have made you for the first time in your life defend terrible comedy films and racist cartoons, perhaps it would be wise to step back and reassess your belief system.

The teachable moment here is that you do not have to allow cyberwar or terrorism to force you to choose a side. You can refuse to be polarized. By choosing a side you only benefit the interests of the people, groups, and corporations that side represents—not yourself. Choosing to make a statement against North Korea’s attack on the sovereignty of the United States by spending your money on a garbage film in no way benefits you. It supports a (foreign) corporation whose sole aim is to make a profit. Likewise, making a stand against terrorism on a Western country by advertising a company that makes money selling purposely inflammatory, racist cartoons aimed at inciting people against religion does not benefit you. Again, you are simply giving free advertising to a company that couldn’t care less about your well-being.

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“I am a billboard for a company that brought Syria-style warfare to my city.” (AP Photo)

What has amazed me by today’s events is how journalists have rallied around Charlie Hebdo in solidarity. The impressive thing about terrorism is how effectively it can change the behavior of people either through fear, bravado, or simple human tribalism. My Twitter feed today was filled with journalists who would never publish a Charlie Hebdo-like cartoon under their own name acting like the weekly newspaper was bravely defending freedom. Similarly, many people I have great respect for reposted the famous Voltaire quote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” What I am left wondering is who they are defending against. The French government protects the free speech of Charlie Hebdo and undoubtedly every conceivable effort is being made to bring the murderers to justice. Free speech was not under attack today. It was the rule of law and the safety and security of people that was under attack.

So again, who in this instance is being defended against? And how are they prepared to give their life in this defense? As of this moment the identities and affiliations of the murderers have not been confirmed. But when they eventually are confirmed, will these people join in battling against them—going as far as sacrificing their lives? Will they join the French military, who is simultaneously deploying soldiers both to Paris and a carrier to the Indian Ocean to potentially join operations against Islamic State? The answers here are probably, “No.” But by allowing ourselves to be polarized and using emotional, violent language as a response to violence that is being nearly universally condemned, we almost certainly improve nothing.