Monthly Archives: May 2013


A few weeks ago I wrote about Assata Shakur, born Joanne Chesimard, who was recently added to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of most wanted terrorists. The questions I tried to answer in that post seem especially relevant after President Obama’s speech at National Defense University this week, so let me review them briefly. I argued essentially that the fact that Shakur’s faith is the same as the professed faith of most of the terrorists whom the United States has been hunting for the past twelve years is not a coincidence, even though their motivations and their specific beliefs are probably very different. Confronted with the deadly power of al-Qaida, the Bush administration relied on a concept familiar to Americans from previous decades: terrorism. The word recalled memories of a more uncertain time when politically motivated violence, including violence committed by Muslims, was quite common in this country, and summoned once again the outrage of the silent majority that elected President Reagan in a conservative reaction that continues to the present. In other words, the global War on Terror derived its appeal from Bush’s constituents’ fear, not so much of Islamic fundamentalists deploying a weapon of mass destruction here, but of returning to the turmoil of the period of the civil rights movement. The word “terrorist” allowed Americans to understand Osama bin Laden in the context of other terrorists whom they still remembered, such as Shakur. The bureau’s decision about her is best understood as a decision to remind the public that dealing with people like her has traditionally been a matter of law enforcement. The announcement was a move toward reclaiming operational authority from the military and the Central Intelligence Agency, the bureau’s age-old nemesis.

Historical continuity initially characterized the War on Terror. It was at first only the latest manifestation of the long-standing conservative attitude toward political violence. Of course, it quickly changed into something completely new and unprecedented because of neoconservative ideas about executive authority and foreign policy. That historical departure might have been justified by the nature of the threat from al-Qaida. I doubt it, although I’m willing to accept arguments in favor from friends who know much more about that organization than I do. In any case, to draw out a paradox that I did not sufficiently emphasize in the previous post, while a historically unique danger might have justified the Bush and Obama administrations’ responses to al-Qaida, the U.S. strategy might have been possible politically only because of the similarity between al-Qaida and previous groups, such as the Black Liberation Army.

Having established the historical context for Obama’s speech this week, I’d like to write about what I see as its most important moment:

In the 1980s, we lost Americans to terrorism at our embassy in Beirut, at our Marine barracks in Lebanon, on a cruise ship at sea, at a disco in Berlin, and on a Pan Am flight, Flight 103, over Lockerbie. In the 1990s, we lost Americans to terrorism at the World Trade Center, at our military facilities in Saudi Arabia, and at our embassy in Kenya.

The president argued that the current danger from Islamic fundamentalism, while real, is not historically unique. My sense is that only those few with a detailed knowledge of al-Qaida have ever thought that it is, so I doubt that his reasoning will be persuasive to a large audience. Indeed, what has permitted Obama and his predecessor do to what they’ve done until now has been nothing other than the widespread, unarticulated feeling that al-Qaida is not historically unique, but only a recrudescence of the seemingly omnipresent political instability of the twentieth century from which Americans have so long and so desperately wished for a reprieve.

Also, if Obama is right that Islamic fundamentalism today is analogous to Islamic fundamentalism of the last century, then his argument for the continued use of drones is very difficult to accept. He seemed to justify the drone war in terms of law enforcement, comparing drones to to the Special Weapons and Tactics units of local police forces:

When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a S.W.A.T. team.

That’s who Anwar Awlaki was. He was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S.-bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and his last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil.

This defense of the killing of Awlaki is unconvincing. Awlaki was not at all comparable to an armed criminal posing an immediate danger to public safety. He might have been compared to the leader of a criminal organization who directs crimes committed by others, but of course, law enforcement in this country cannot kill such people outright for the sake of public safety.

Obama might counter that the problem confronting Detective McNulty and his fellow officers as they pursue Avon Barksdale in “The Wire” is that the police could apprehend Barksdale if necessary, but then they would not be able to indict him, while U.S. intelligence agents could have prosecuted Awlaki, but they could not have captured him. Accepting the president’s claim that apprehension was impossible in Awlaki’s case, it seems to me all the same that this counterargument would require the president to give up on any substantive due process, since it implies that Awlaki’s death was a punishment that could not otherwise be administered. “America does not take strikes to punish individuals,” he said. “We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” The Baltimore police could make a similar argument for an extrajudicial killing in Barksdale’s case, replacing “terrorists” with “drug lords.”

On the law-enforcement analysis, the only justification for the president to order a drone strike, or, for that matter, for a police officer to fire his gun, is the unmistakable and immediate danger someone poses to the lives of those around him or her. Anything less, and the government is taking life without any guarantee that doing so is justified. Obama’s internal protocols for approving the strikes may be thorough, but he is setting a precedent that will be easy for his less scrupulous successors to abuse. Any attempt to involve the judicial branch by establishing some kind of secret court, as Obama suggested in his speech, would essentially be to institute secret trials on capital charges in absentia. Without a high standard — a much higher standard than the one Obama met in his account of Awlaki’s death — the drone war will remain contrary to our most important legal principles.

The policies Obama described for using drones on Thursday cannot be justified in terms of law enforcement. They are unjustifiable for foreign citizens in foreign territory as much as for U.S. citizens in this country, since an agent of law enforcement has even less authority abroad than here. There might be a colorable justification on the grounds of military necessity, but judging by Obama’s characterization of the threat, he doesn’t really believe there is, and neither do I.

The president made an exception for Pakistan, where he does believe drones are a military necessity:

In the Afghan war theater we must, and will continue to, support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high-value al-Qaida targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.

But by the end of 2014 we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al-Qaida will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

Obama did not say that the United States can’t tell Pakistanis who “are massing to support attacks” — note the lawyerly imprecision of that phrase — from Pakistanis who are gathering for a jirga to settle a mining dispute, but he certainly knows that U.S. drones have killed both, and he deserves praise for insisting that the drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, which clearly exceeds the boundaries of ordinary law enforcement, should not become a precedent.

Why am I wasting so many paragraphs defending Awlaki, a man of such abhorrent words and ideas who is already dead anyway? For that matter, why be concerned about whether a few journalists have the freedom to maintain relationships with sources that are probably illegal to begin with? Why worry about whether the federal government is secretly reading your messages if you have nothing to hide?

Terrorism is the dominant concept of our time. It determines the attitude of the United States toward the rest of the world. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that the fact that something as patently inane as anti-Semitism could have caused the Second World War was “offensive.” She didn’t want to believe that the springs of history were so shallow, but forced herself to admit that they were. The situation is similar with terrorism. It is obviously too broad and weak a concept to be adequate to the diverse social and psychological pathologies of Islamic fundamentalism around the world. All the same, we had better be sure we understand the concept thoroughly, and that requires examining how our government uses it, even the apparently inconsequential details.

As I’ve argued, terrorism as a concept has much more to do with U.S. history than it does with the actual nature of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism. “Terrorism” is just our name for what they’re doing; they call it “jihad” or holy war, which is much more accurate. “Terrorism” is vague enough to be useless, as Glenn Greenwald demonstrated while writing about the death of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London on Wednesday. The United States has also directed violence at members of foreign militaries with the goal of delegitimizing a foreign government. That isn’t to defend the crime. It is just to point out that our categories are not rigorously defined.

After butchering Rigby, his attackers apparently stood in the street, their hands covered in blood, to talk with passerby about what they’d done and why. This was the most unnerving part of the story: the moment when reasonable people encountered two cold-blooded killers, by their own admission, and discovered that they weren’t unthinking brutes, but could give reasons for their actions. Evil isn’t a hissing, roaring monster from beneath the ocean. It speaks perfectly good English, and that is why it is so frightening. The only way to defeat it, however, is to understand its motivations, desires, and vulnerabilities, which involves listening carefully to what it has to say. That confrontation, which requires conviction and resolve, is only possible if we give up on the idea of terrorism and begin to understand Islamic fundamentalists on their own terms.

The Gnostics of Capitol Hill

There is a very provocative if ultimately somewhat incoherent piece of performance art in the most recent issue of National Affairs. It’s worth checking out if only because you don’t often see people turning essays into performance art, not these days, anyway.

George Weigel’s performance begins with a profound analysis of political liberalism’s origins in philosophical skepticism:

The drastic attenuation of these three great ideas — that there are truths built into the world, into human beings, and into human relationships; that these truths can be known by reason; and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily — has taken place over a very long period of time. A good argument can be made that one of the prime villains of the piece was the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, whose voluntarism shifted the locus of Western moral reflection from the intellect (which was to discover moral truths in reality) to the will (which could impose, or even invent, its own moral reality). The wedge that the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume tried to drive between “is” and “ought” — an effort that accelerated Western philosophy’s lurch into subjectivism — was surely part of the problem, as was the failure of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” to meet Hume’s challenge and re-ground serious thought and moral judgment in something other than the insides of our heads…

That the politics of the Western democracies are often in gridlock is not simply because there are deeply different views of personal freedom and public goods in competition in public life; that has always been the case. The difference today is that there are no agreed-upon, reality-based reference points to which the contending parties can appeal in order to settle the argument about whose concept of the public good, and how it ought to be achieved, is the course to be followed.

Liberalism is many things, but one of its first premises is the the absolute autonomy and priority of the subject. The idea of a set of universal rights, first declared in the French Revolution, was a political manifestation of Kant’s system, in which subjectivity itself is the source of obligation and value. The result has been political structures that have protected individual freedom of expression and action and each person’s authority to determine for herself what good and bad are, along with economic systems that, following Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, seek only to maximize utility without making any assumptions about what’s useful. For 200 years, franchises have been expanded and economies have been rationalized, and in becoming more liberal, society has relied more and more on naked subjectivity as its ultimate moral criterion.

This development, however, has not been without its antinomies, one of which Weigel notes in the passage quoted above. Kant’s transcendental idealism was a response to the all-encompassing skepticism of Hume and others. He wanted to lay unshakeable foundations for knowledge in consciousness itself, and not in external experience or conventional wisdom, which are so vulnerable to doubt. The problem is that while Kant’s elevation of subjectivity has endured, his efforts at defeating doubt have not. He thought that the mental equipment we share as a species, such as the fact that we perceive things in time and space, would guarantee that we would all experience the same reality in the same way. That’s not how it works. Everyone experiences the world differently, and because of Kant’s exaltation of subjectivity, everyone feels justified in espousing her view of the facts without regard for anyone else’s. In practice, skepticism and even nihilism return with liberalism’s sanction — though paradoxically, they take the form of credulity, since very few people bother to develop their own beliefs about the world or about morality and simply believe what they hear.

As a result, this premise of the liberal project frustrates its goals. Liberalism has always envisioned a society governed according to rational and scientific inquiry whose legitimacy, you might argue, is ultimately based in the free and unbiased reasoning ability and observational capacity of each autonomous citizen. Currently, however, one group of citizens has decided to reject all empirical experience of the world and assert instead that the world is otherwise than it is, and liberalism’s resources for addressing this kind of obstinacy are inadequate. This group is conservative in their agenda, but in their method, they are simply carrying liberalism to its logical conclusion in solipsism. The result, as Weigel notes, is political paralysis.

This is where Weigel’s real artistic genius comes in. Julian Sanchez and Bruce Bartlett are conservative thinkers who have observed straightforwardly that the right has a problem with its relationship to reality, but Weigel is cleverer. Just when you’re expecting a sensible critique of the Republican Party’s agenda along those lines, he begins spouting whoppers:

If people are prepared to believe (or, even worse, if people are prepared to insist as a matter of fundamental civil rights) the unreal claim that marriage can encompass two men or two women, why should those same people not believe that America can continue to run trillion-dollar deficits with impunity? Or that the centralization and vast regulatory apparatus to be created by Obamacare will not inevitably lead to the rationing of end-of-life care? Or that the federal budget deficit has primarily to do with the wealthy not paying “their fair share”?

With this shocking reversal, Weigel forces his audience to face the uncomfortable truth that you can derive just about anything from the contradiction at the origin of the liberal project. I’m assuming, of course, that Weigel knows perfectly well how ridiculous he sounds and is doing all of this ironically. I guess it is remotely possible that he believes what he is writing, but that seems highly unlikely. (In any case, what I’m arguing here is that I am free to believe what I choose, and I might as well choose to believe what is both most plausible and most charitable.)

Most of Weigel’s charade concerns gay marriage, and the gist is that social issues are of paramount importance in politics, because they are where society has its epistemological debates. Again, Weigel proves his point by aping a self-righteous religious reactionary: if the Republican Party is to remain relevant, it must abandon views that are flatly contradicted by experience. Weigel compares the conservative tendency to ignore reality to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism:

Gnosticism is a protean cultural virus that has taken many forms over time. Wherever and whenever it has appeared, however, Gnosticism has sought the good outside of reality as we perceive it through the materials of this world. In the Gnostic view, human flourishing (to reach for a contemporary term) comes from the possession of a gnosis, a knowledge, which will lift men and women out of the grubbiness of the quotidian and into the purified realm of truth. Reality, in the Gnostic view, is antithetical to “the pursuit of happiness”; reality is to be rejected, and thereby overcome.

Weigel goes on, pretending to argue that the sexual revolution, the acknowledgement that gender is a cultural artifact, and the legalization of gay marriage are all contemporary examples of Gnosticism. Of course, he has to be taken in character in this section. What he’s really doing is pointing to the obvious wrongness of this argument. The true heresy would be to reject the simple reality of people’s diverse sexual preferences or of different cultures’ varying definitions of manhood and womanhood. Likewise, medical science does indeed allow women to control their anatomy, and to argue that this state of affairs is somehow a violation of a divine decree would be a heresy in religion’s own terms, divorcing God from reality and rendering Him impotent in it.

What’s true for the right is true for the left: epistemology matters. A gay friend once told me she didn’t really care whether she had the right to marry and that gay people had much greater obstacles to overcome, as did the country at large. Perhaps, but I still think the fight over gay marriage has been worth having, because it has been a way of forcing the right to confront the limits of its worldview more broadly.

I am thinking of Niall Ferguson’s remark about John Maynard Keynes’s sexuality this week. Here is a very good summary. Keynes challenged economic convention in the same way he challenged moral convention, and the right has the same squeamishness about loose monetary policy that it has about gay marriage. Will our society continue to insist on policies that reward thrift above all else in the same way that we have so far primarily recognized heterosexual marriages, referring to received notions of ethical action without examining whether those notions are justifiable or commensurate with reality? Or will we realize that reality is much more complicated and interesting than we thought previously, and that we will have to respond to it with more imagination?

Terrorism and Apple Pie

The Federal Bureau of Investigation added Assata Shakur, born Joanne Chesimard, to its list of its most wanted terrorists on Thursday. Shakur, a citizen of this country, was convicted in 1977 of murder in the first degree in the shooting of a New Jersey state trooper named Werner Foerster. She escaped from prison in 1979 and eventually fled to Cuba, where she is apparently living now. From The New York Times:

Ms. Chesimard was named to the list because she is “a supreme terror against the government” who continues to give speeches espousing revolution and terrorism against the United States, Aaron T. Ford, agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Newark division, said at a news conference.

“She’s a danger to the American government,” he added.

Ford’s claim that a woman at least 60 years of age living in hiding in Cuba could possibly be a danger of any kind to the United States government is, on its face, absurd. Set aside for the moment the questions surrounding Shakur’s conviction, and assume that Shakur is indeed publicly advocating violence, although I have not been able to find any evidence that she is. Shakur is conceivably a danger to public safety, but in what sense could she pose a threat to the government of the United States, which is more than capable of defending itself?

This is the species of logic that has defined our foreign policy since September 11, 2001: a violent individual or group could pose an existential threat to constitutional government in this country, and capturing or killing these individuals must therefore be the government’s first priority; a terrorist is different from a criminal, and terrorism demands that we revise our view of our government’s place in society and its purpose in the world; if federal agents are in earnest about their assessment of Shakur, then the administration may legally kill her at a moment’s notice, whether she is living in Cuba or elsewhere, without further judicial procedure. Since this kind of reasoning is so persuasive to many people, I would like to examine it carefully.

Terrorism was not new to this country on September 11, 2001, and Thursday’s announcement is an opportunity to think about how the country made sense of that day’s destruction. I wonder if labeling al-Qaeda a terrorist organization helped us confront that pain by relating it to the political violence of an earlier era, that of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. That day is often seen as the boundary sharply separating the twentieth from the twenty-first centuries. Maybe the new conception of the government’s means and ends is actually a reversion to an older one, in which the state relied on extrajudicial surveillance and violence and a vague global conspiracy against the government seemed somehow omnipresent.

If so, President Bush’s global War on Terror was partly a culture war fought on behalf of public order and the American way of life. I don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t some who advocated a forceful response for more clearly articulated and more compelling reasons, such as the need to prevent jihadi organizations from acquiring fissile material and using it to make a dirty bomb, or the hope of instituting democracy abroad as a prophylactic against violence. (Whether U.S. interventions overseas have accomplished these goals is yet another question.) I do think, though, that explaining some of the excesses of the conflict may be easier when you view it in the historical context of domestic political radicalism. The country feared nothing – nothing – more than a return to the instability and pervasive fear of the years of the Vietnam War, when absolutely anything seemed possible. On this hypothesis, the conflict has been essentially reactionary, a later manifestation of the arguably racist and paranoid conservatism that animated the struggles of that earlier period.

To be clear, the injunction to wage holy war is contrary to civilization and humanity, and even if the goals of the Black Liberation Army, of which Shakur was a member, were more noble, I do not think they justified the organization’s methods. Indeed, you could argue that terrorism does require special attention from the state, even violations of otherwise inviolable rights, because terrorists place themselves outside of the social contract. In a liberal society, the freedom of expression is protected, and so is the freedom of each member to form his or her own convictions based on arguments and evidence. Terrorism replaces discourse with coercion and arguably poses a fundamental threat to society for that reason.

The problem with this analysis is that violence is not contrary to the tradition of American political discourse. Violence is central to it – and not simply because our country has a violent history. Rather, the individual’s sense of his or her right to use violence to achieve political ends derives from our society’s basic principles. Consider the following interpretation of the Second Amendment, which, if it is not the most rigorous defense of the right to bear arms, is at least representative:

The Constitution does not give us the right to bear arms. It says the right to bear arms shall not be infringed. We already have the right, because it doesn’t come from government – it comes from God.

Our founders understood this right is essential to the defense of liberty. It was a lesson they learned firsthand at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, 237 years ago this week. As David Hackett Fischer’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” recounts, in order to quench the beginnings of the American Revolution, British soldiers marched to confiscate gunpowder and other militia supplies, an act that they hoped would incapacitate the colonial rebels. Thus, it was in defense of the right to bear arms as a means of securing the other liberties that the first battle of the American Revolution was fought.

That is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, writing in Human Events. He argues that there is a universal human right to insurrection when other rights are violated by the state. James Porter, who will be the next president of the National Rifle Association, shares this view. On Friday, he said again that all citizens should learn to use firearms in case they need to protect themselves from tyranny. Some 44 percent of Republicans agree with him in principle. William Deresiewicz writes persuasively that the country’s attachment to guns comes from the memory of the Civil War and the hope of fighting it again.

In fairness, justifying the use of force this way is in one sense to follow the original principle of democratic government: that all citizens are competent to draw their own conclusions. Democracy is based on respect for those convictions and aims to allow individuals to follow the dictates of their consciences without hindrance. There will inevitably be those who feel, justifiably or not, that the current state of affairs is so reprehensible that violence is permissible.

As I pointed out above, however, the use of force outside of the constitutional process for political purposes is terrorism. Gingrich’s argument is no less than an endorsement of terrorism. You could object that the former speaker is thinking of the use of force only to protect certain cherished values, and you might even argue that these values are so important that you would use unconstitutional force to protect them. Yet in a constitutional government, all parties acknowledge that disagreement is inevitable and agree instead on single process by which disputes among people with competing values can be arbitrated to ensure peace and prosperity. The idea of a constitution is incompatible with the belief that some values ought to be defended with violence.

Porter’ exhortations are indistinguishable from those of the Black Liberation Army, whose members felt that their oppression justified violence. The only differences are that Porter lacks the courage of his convictions, and that Shakur’s confederates, whose rights were systematically violated because of their race, had a much stronger claim on violence than Porter does today or conceivably could have in the future. Nonetheless, both are claims that proponents of constitutional government must categorically reject.

If terrorism in one sense contradicts the principles of our social contract, in another sense, it is only the logical consequence of our democratic assumptions. I don’t think this contradiction between the absolute autonomy of the individual and the universality of the rule of law can be resolved easily. The state’s struggle with terrorism will continue for a long time.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s press conference this week served mainly to remind everyone that major acts of terrorism were committed – as it alleges – forty years ago. Cuba is unlikely to extradite Shakur, but as a piece of political theater, I think the bureau’s message was clear: terrorism is part of the American political experience, not a foreign import, and addressing it is not the work of the military or of intelligence agencies, but of domestic law enforcement and the agency that J. Edgar Hoover built. Terrorism, though, is much older than the bureau. If Porter can cite what he calls the War of Northern Aggression as precedent, the Black Liberation Army could refer to John Brown, that redoubtable terrorist of Harper’s Ferry. Jihad may be historically unique in other important ways, to be sure, but in thinking about how Americans understand terrorism and why the idea of it alone is so peculiarly troubling for us, the best approach may be the bureau’s: put everybody on the same list.