Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Various thoughts on the Boston Marathon week and its aftermath

Cenk Uygur finds some reason to be hopeful that the Obama Administration and the general public are becoming more attentive to the importance of normal, Constitutional justice processes in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Will Not Be Treated as Enemy Combatant The Young Turks 04/23/2013:

I'm in a "let's not go crazy over terrorism" frame of mind, so that's encouraging.

Democratic progressives often criticize Obama for what he's not doing, or not doing with enough energy and commitment. I do that regularly here myself.

But what he didn't do last week is also important. He didn't use the Boston Marathon bombing or the ricin poison incidents is to try to turn them into some new war or terrorism hysteria. I'm very confident that a Williard Romney Administration would have used it to beat the jingo drums. The Administration's decision to try the suspect in the regular court system is a good one.

But it wouldn't even have been a question if Dick Cheney and George W. Bush hadn't used the "Global War on Terror" to create a parallel justice system in Guantánamo and the "black sites." Obama did make some attempt to unroll the Guantánamo part of that alternative system. But I keep coming back to what to me is the Original Sin of this current Administration, which was its failure to prosecute the torture perpetrators. If a John Yoo or Donald Rumsfeld were in federal prison right now on torture convictions, the public and punditocracy discussion over the last week about declaring them "enemy combatants" would have been very different.

We got a hint of how a Romney Administration would have acted from Maiden Aunt Lindsay Graham and the bold Maverick McCain, who took to the fainting couch. From Robert Reich's account in The Xenophobe Party 04/22/2013:

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says treating him as an enemy combatant is appropriate "with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with Al Qaeda."

Hold it. Tsarnaev was arrested on American soil for acts occurring in the United States. No known evidence links him to Al Qaeda. He is Muslim — so is Graham really saying Muslims are presumed guilty until proven otherwise?
I'm skeptical of arguments that argue in a superficial way that we shouldn't worry about terrorism because more people are killed in car accidents or something. The saying "even a dog knows the difference between being stepped on and being kicked" applies here. As horrible as a death in a traffic accident is, a deliberate murder is a different kind of horror that is treated differently by the law, and a terrorist act with a political goal is still a different kind of act. I still think it was a huge mistake for Obama to treat the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gaby Giffords in 2010 as an opportunity to condemn political violence and the far-right hatemongering and seditious talk that has created the broader climate for most of the political violence we've seen in recent years.

But keeping things in perspective is very important. After the 9/11 attacks, a military action to target concentrations of Al Qaeda cadres in Afghanistan made complete sense. An open-ended colonial-style counterinsurgency didn't and still doesn't. And invading Iraq certainly didn't.

Über-Realist foreign policy theorist Stephen Walt address the Boston case at his Foreign Policy blog in The lockdown in Boston (updated) and America the skittish 04/22/2013. He is concerned about the Boston shutdown on Friday and the media hysteria:

It's the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America's toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.

The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that's precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today's hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America's enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.
For a truculent defense of the Boston lockdown, see William Rivers Pitt, Random Notes From the Police State Truthout 04/23/2013, whose title is meant to be an ironic jab at people who criticize the official response.

Another good example of the let-keep-this-in-perspective cautionary approach comes from Michael Lind in The world is actually more peaceful than ever Salon 04/23/2013. "It does not diminish the horror of mass casualty attacks on civilians, in this and other countries, to point out that today’s terrorist incidents provide a counterpoint to a declining arc of political violence worldwide," he writes.

That term "political violence" is one that I would like to see used more in serious discussions of these issues. Everyone has their own favorite definition of "terrorism," even though those who have a lot of experience dealing with it as officials or researchers or both famously disagree on exactly how to define it. It's become kind of an "I can't define it but I know it when I see it" thing.

For me, any act that aims at killing people with a political or religious aim of generating fear and uncertainly can reasonably be called an act of terrorism, whatever the technicalities of the legal definition is. I would include assassinations like that of Dr. George Tiller or the attempted assassination of Gaby Giffords. Unless there is some clear personal grudge involved, an attempt to assassinated a sitting Member of Congress is an instance of political violence that I would call terrorism. The media convention of not treating even clearly politically-motivated killing by rightwing groups or Christian terrorists like Tiller's assassin.

A good ole boy from Mississippi was arrested as a suspect in the ricin case. But today he's been released from custody without being charged. This is why we have a legal system. The FBI very publicly pursued the wrong suspect in the 2001 anthrax letter incidents and wound up paying out $5 million in a lawsuit for screwing up the life of someone who was innocent by the abuses of their investigation. We don't know who was behind the ricin letters last week yet. Or for that matter, the 2001 anthrax letters, though the FBI gave up the investigation after a second major suspect committed suicide. I guess if they had sent this guy to Guantánamo and tortured him, they could have gotten a confession. But the whole "rule of law" approach is more likely to turn up the actual perpetrator, however much contempt the Republican pearl-clutchers like Maiden Aunt Graham and Maverick McCain may have for it.

The standard I mentioned at the start of this post was a low bar: did the Obama Administration handle things better than a Romney Administration would have? The fact that the President comes out better in that comparison doesn't mean we've gotten out of post-9/11 inclination to overreact yet. As Stephen Walt puts it:

I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I'm as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.
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