Tag Archives: Terrorism

A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)


Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

Finding Balance in a Dangerous, High Tech World

We begin learning about balance, if not understanding its significance, at an early age. First we grasp what it takes to sit up, then walk. Not long afterwards we forfeit training wheels without falling off two-wheel bikes. As adolescents, we start learning about the need for caution and moderation. Those hard-won lessons carry us into adulthood. Still, nothing has prepared us for the difficulty of determining where we stand, personally and nationally, on the balance required between an abundance of caution in matters of security and our fundamental right to privacy.

We fear the slippery slope of invasive practices and procedures and worry about the potential for disaster should too much power be vested in the wrong hands. At the same time, we recognize that we live in a newly dangerous world. Acts of terrorism are now part of our reality. Clearly it takes more ingenuity and watchfulness to protect people from hideous acts like that of 9/11 than it ever has. And we know it could happen again.

In an attempt to articulate my own position on the issue of surveillance I’ve been reading commentaries about the rationale for National Security Agency eavesdropping. One reasoned piece by Thomas Friedman appeared in a New York Times column. “I’m glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties,” he wrote. “What I cherish most about America is our open society.” But, he added, “I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11.”

Friedman falls on the side of government surveillance so long as it is “under constant judicial review.” His fear is that “if one more 9/11 scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be much greater” because Americans would be all too ready to forgo privacy to make sure such an attack never happens again. His argument is compelling. “We don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real threats without using big data.”

Still, living in a surveillance state gives many of us chills. As commentator Bill Keller pointed out in another New York Times op ed., “the N.S.A. data-mining is part of something much larger.” He cites the fact that some law enforcement agencies amass DNA databanks “under the radar” and asks, “Do we want police agencies to have complete license to sample our DNA surreptitiously, or to share our most private biological information?” Britain, he says, is employing “wearable, night-vision cop-cams that police use to record…every restive crowd they encounter.” New York City has introduced a Domain Awareness System that connects 3,000 cameras around the city, allowing police to cross-reference databases, a good thing, I suppose, if you’re trying to find stolen cars or suspected terrorists. But “who watches the watchers?” And who is setting the rules for the use of drones in American airspace?

“The danger,” Keller concludes, “is not surveillance per se. We have already decided that life on the grid entails a certain amount of intrusion.” Nor is the danger secrecy, which is already operational in many settings ranging from embassies to hospitals. The danger, according to Keller, “is the absence of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom,” especially in a world in which our “system of checks and balances have not kept up with technology.”

Reading opinions like these returns me to my own difficulty in deciding firmly where I stand on the surveillance issue. It’s a classic “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” dilemma. I certainly agree with those arguing that if the government is accessing data, it damn well better be for legitimate reasons of public safety. It also better be legal and well-supervised. And because abuses are hard to detect, vigilance is definitely called for. At the same time, future threats loom large and we must do what we can, within the frameworks of reason, legality, and America’s commitment to civil liberties, to assure that we remain safe from disasters small and large.

Thinking about this, I wonder what the world I inhabit will look like fifty years from now. Will terrorism have been defeated somehow, or will privacy be surrendered in an effort to combat even more unimaginable scenarios than 9/11? Will “1984” seem a ridiculous fantasy in view of what real life has become? What will technology have wrought?

That’s a question writer Jonathan Safran Foer posed at the commencement speech he gave recently at Middlebury College. “With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present,” he told the graduating class. He was speaking about the changes information technology have wrought in our daily lives. Then he said, “It’s not an either/or – being ‘anti-technology’ is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly ‘pro-technology’ – but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.”

Balance. The thing that keeps us upright so that we don’t fall over. The force that seeks caution, and fosters moderation. The one thing that may keep us all safe from excess, no matter where it originates.

The Drone Dilemma

I had to see the controversial film “Zero Dark Thirty” for myself in order to decide if, as charged, it advanced the case for “enhanced interrogation methods,” military-speak for torture. It did not, in my view. What it did was affirm the hideous and inhumane nature of torture no matter where it is carried out, and by whom. It should never be used by any country that positions itself as a moral leader.

Now I need to see the documentary “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.” It is likely to confirm my growing antipathy toward the ever-increasing use of drones, especially following the recently leaked memo that has alarmed so many in public and private quarters.

Reading a piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian in December made me think about drones. The essay, called “Bug Splats,” was written shortly after the Newtown massacre. Why, Mr. Monbiot, wondered, were the murders of children by a deranged man in Connecticut any more worthy of the world’s grief than the children killed in countries like Pakistan as a matter of American policy? If the victims of drone strikes are mentioned at all, he wrote, “they are discussed in terms which suggest they are less than human.” An article in Rolling Stone Magazine, he said, alleged that “people who operate drones describe their casualties as ‘bug splats’ since seeing bodies through a green video image gives them the sense of an insect being crushed.”

This is harsh and emotional stuff. So I went in search of fact and further opinion. Facts were hard to come by since much of what happens with drones is classified. But here are some things I learned. The Pentagon has about 7,000 drones. A decade ago it had 50 of them. In the 2012 budget the Obama administration asked Congress for almost $5 billion for more drones, now seen as crucial for fighting terrorism. A reported 1,900 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal regions have been killed by American drones since 2006 and in 2011 a drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

Here’s the problem: the United States is not at war with Pakistan or Yemen and that makes their use in these countries officially illegal. For the first time in history a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out military missions – killing people – in countries where the U.S. is not officially at war.

Proponents of drone use argue that so long as they are grounded in sound intelligence information, they enable the U.S. to attack terrorists with a fair degree of precision without risking American lives. Mistakes happen in war, they say, but not as much “collateral damage” – killing of innocents – occurs as would if bombs or troops were being used. If we didn’t use drones, they argue, what action could the U.S. take to stop Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations?

But concerns are beginning to surface as drones become more ubiquitous and more deadly. A United Nations panel led by Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, has begun to look at “drone strikes and other forms of remotely targeted killing.” Of particular concern are 25 selected drone strikes that have been conducted in recent years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Palestinian territories. Noting that it is not only the U.S. coming under scrutiny – 50 other states have the technology to develop “active drone arsenals” – Emmerson says “it is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.”

Such safeguards will not come soon enough for the 64 children killed during the first three years of Mr. Obama’s administration. (Drone attacks began during the Bush administration. One of them killed 69 children.) During those three years, a report by the Stanford and New York university law schools suggests, there were 259 drone strikes. They killed an estimated 569 civilians. Some say that is a conservative estimate.

It is worrying, then, that Mr. Obama’s choice to head the CIA is John O. Brennan, deputy national security advisor, a man who calls drone targets “cancerous tumors.” No wonder kids in places like Yemen are afraid to go to school and people think twice before attending weddings or funerals that might be mistaken for a gang of plotters.

Writing in the Guardian in January, Simon Jenkins sounded this alarm: “The greatest threat to world peace…is from drones and their certain proliferation. … Drones are now sweeping the global arms market [with] some 10,000 said to be in service…some reports say they have killed more non-combatant civilians than died in 9-11.”

The threat of serious backlash looms. A Yemeni writer told The New York Times that al Qaeda recruiters “wave pictures of drone-butchered women and children.” National membership of Al Qaeda in Yemen is now three times larger than it was in 2009.

If that doesn’t worry you consider this: last February President Obama signed a law compelling the FAA to allow drone use for commercial endeavors in this country. These uses range from selling real estate to dusting crops and monitoring wildlife. Hollywood may even use drones to film and local police will be freer to deploy flying robots. While drone manufacturers drool, safety concerns increase.

I understand that drones, used with an abundance of caution for selective anti-terrorism operations, backed by stringent legislation, may be a necessary part of our arsenal. But
I can’t get the picture of those innocent children out of my mind. And no one should have to fear going to school, attending a wedding or mourning at a funeral, especially when the one being buried is a child.