In the wake of the Charleston shooting, why a holistic approach is what we need to tackle both violent crime and terrorism
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse June 19, 2015
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Out of the many past and present world conflicts that I have studied over the last decade, I have spent as much time with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as with anything else. And one thing that strikes me is how myopic and tactically oriented Israeli officials, especially Israeli political leaders, have been in terms of dealing with the issue of Palestinian and Arab terrorism. Israel wins every war, every battle. But its lack of strategic, long-term thinking has cost many lives on both sides of the conflict and has led to ineffective long-term policy that threatens to trap Israel into a quicksand of conflict and permanently alter it in very negative ways as to the nature of Israeli democracy and society. The recent Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers” (truly a must see) does perhaps the single best job of illustrating this point when all six surviving heads of Shin-Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, conclude that a lack of strategic vision from Israel’s leading politicians has put Israel in a very dangerous place with no easy way out. That such hard, practical men can all agree on this is what makes the film so compelling and disturbing at the same time.
Our own approach to terrorism here in the U.S. has been very different, and for different reasons we are also suffering from the ramifications of bad policy. For all his faults, though, George W. Bush recognized after 9/11 that simply going to kill the terrorists who plotted 9/11 would not do much to limit our long-term exposure to such attacks and threats; he knew that there was something sick in the postwar, postcolonial Middle East and its cadres of monarchs and dictators that may have kept order and oil flowing but had done little for their people, economies, or societies. And he was right about that. That he thought the best way to help kickstart transformation in the Middle East was to invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein, and set up a democracy in his place, though, was questionable at best; whatever you thought of that idea, the execution of this plan not only left much to be desired but could be called criminally negligent at worst, and more or less doomed Iraq’s American-top-down-imposed-democracy-project from almost the start.
At least, though, America saw a problem—Islamic terrorism—and attempted some sort of long-term fix (albeit one that ended in disaster in the short term and only leaves us with a giant question mark at best in the present and even medium-term future, its long-term results, then, also not looking good). This is in contrast to Israel, which (mostly) never seemed to think setting the Palestinians up with a state and a future of their own was worth exploring or planning over the course of nearly five decades of a hardly benign Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip and an even more destructive policy of transferring hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children into these Arab-dominated areas in settlements that the whole world, including the UN Security Council (and including the U.S.) has condemned as illegal and a roadblock to peace. And while in some ways the U.S., thankfully, is getting some help from Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, the internet, and Arabs themselves when they all helped to spark the Arab Spring, which has helped to bring about the ending of that sick, moribund post-colonial system of generally American-supported dictators and monarchs, accomplishing in a fraction of the time what a decade-long war in Iraq could not even for all its setbacks, Israel is still staring into an abyss, propelled by its own hubris and myopia. Thus, America is now eyeing the Middle East with a much longer view, then, while Israel still envisions little beyond tomorrow, next month, or next year.
Though America does not suffer from the same strategic blindness and inaction that Israel does regarding terrorism, sadly, it does seem to suffer from such afflictions in almost all major domestic policy issues of the day. The “War on Terror” thus joins the “War on Crime” and the “War on Drugs” as other wars against things which cannot be defeated. Terror is a tactic, and you cannot defeat a tactic, nor can you defeat terror by killing all the currently existing terrorists because that does nothing to address the issues that created terrorists in the first place; crime is not simply a matter of arresting and locking up criminals (and nobody is better at that than the U.S., as we have the highest incarceration rate in the world and have for over a decade), as arresting and even executing criminals will not change the murder rates in South Side of Chicago or the Northeast quadrant of Washington, DC.; drugs (prescription or otherwise) are something that will always be with us and abused by some to their own ruin and the ruin of those who care about them, their families, and their communities, but like crime or terror, drugs are not an enemy that can be defeated. The same childlike idealism that led George W. Bush to believe that he would become, in the words of Bill Maher, the Johnny Appleseed of democracy in the Middle East has led the American populace and many of its leading politicians to believe that crime and drugs are an enemy that can be defeated: punish criminals, punish drug users and dealers, lock them up, and the problem goes away, right?
Until 2012, which saw a slight increase in violent crime, the previous few years had seen a steady though slight decrease in violent crime. The decreases returned in 2013 and in preliminary data from 2014. However, as a Pew study shows, since the late 1980s, the U.S. prison population has almost tripled, from over half a million (almost 600,000) to over one-and-a-half million people (almost 1.6 million) in 2007; the prison population peaked at over 1.6 million in 2009 and has only decreased slightly since then; that’s over 1 of every 100 adults. Furthermore, the pew study shows the amount states are spending is steadily increasing, with 13 states spending over $1 billion each on corrections and five states spending more or the same on corrections as they do on higher education. California and Texas alone spend over $12 billion on prisons in 2007, all states together spending over $49 billion, a 315 percent increase since 1987. Corrections average out to be the fifth largest state expenditure, with one out of every fifteen dollars that states spend being spent on corrections. Furthermore, increases in this category have been higher than increases in Medicaid and in education spending. As I have pointed out before, we already spend very little on gun control or on funding the ATF. Much like healthcare, then, with their prisoners Americans seem content to take very few preventive measures—which are relatively very cost effective—and to wait for something bad to happen—a person getting sick, someone shooting another person—before taking action, action that then becomes much more costly and less effective at longer term prevention. As the Pew report notes, the corrections system seems to do very little correcting.
Again, to Bush’s credit, he saw remaking the Middle East, and Afghanistan, through military force as a preventive, long term measure. At least he attempted something long-term, whereas the Israeli leaders seem almost content to manage short-term crisis after short-term crisis through what is in many ways is the foundation of their state: the Israel Defense Forces, with very little serious effort given to a long term peace. Yitzhak Rabin tried (albeit very late in his career) and he was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist. Israel’s counterterrorism policy, then, is counterterrorism at its purest, simplest, and most ineffective: respond to each attack with overwhelming force and/or lethal precision. That seems to be all it has in its play book, as I have noted before, and this approach is eerily similar to America’s approach to healthcare, crime, and any of a number of other issues: when something breaks (e.g., a body party), fix it; when terrorists or criminals strike, kill them and their supporters. In this view, it is simply a matter of individual behavior, of individual health issues.
These approaches fail to see the big picture: how preventive, regular medicine and consultations as part of an affordable, subsidized national health care system can save the nation as a whole (and most people) a ton of money in the long run and save many lives. Addressing Palestinian aspiration for a state of their own anytime during the last several decades could have seen much of the Palestinian efforts towards terrorist actions transformed instead into the business of a people with their own sovereign state and society to run. Helping underserved communities and developing them economically and educationally would do a lot to lessen crime as young men in particular—those who are most likely to commit violent crimes—find jobs and degrees instead of guns and drugs that are easy to sell. So sickness is treated not directly, but by focusing on preventative medicine, while crime and terrorism have more or less the same solution: the same concepts of international development that can be effective in fostering long term conditions which would create societies where terrorism would find much less fertile ground to grow can be applied to areas right here in the U.S. in order to foster development in communities where crime is rampant. In other cases, such as those of the Palestinians, Chechens, Kurds, or Tamils, the iron fist of oppression lasting decades or even longer generally does not stop terrorism but only encourages it since, for the desperate, terrorism is often the cheap, cost effective way to fight more powerful enemies when all other options have been denied to a group. This explains the IRA’s decision to abandon terrorism when a framework was worked out for sharing political power in Northern Ireland.
As this striking interactive feature from the University of Maryland shows, terrorism in recent years has been remarkable concentrated: roughly two thirds of the world’s terrorist incidents in the last decade have occurred in four countries: Iraq, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, and that ratio has more or less been consistent even as the absolute amount of attacks has more than quadrupled since the beginning of our so-called “War on Terror.” This visual clarity makes it clear that so-called “Global War on Terror” has only led to a huge increase in terrorist attacks worldwide. Before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, there were well under 1,500 terrorist incidents; by 2007 that had risen to over 4,500 incidents. Iraq and Afghanistan alone had about 1,400 incidents, about one third of all terrorist incidents; another third were in Pakistan and India, the first country’s incidents very much tied to the war in Afghanistan, and many of the second country’s incidents also, though to a lesser degree, suffering from the Afghanistan/Pakistan terror nexus. Basically, the U.S.’s actions had the effect of greatly increasing incidents of terrorism. So even though Bush gets credit for trying a long term solution, the attempt was a disaster of epic proportions. International development—the work of USAID, NGOs and the UN, among others—is a much better investment value for winning friends and helping to create conditions where extremism and violence find it harder to grow. In fact, it is such good counterterrorism that both Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal made political and economic development the very point of the security operations in their counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the military in both these theatees engaged in massive development projects to the point that the military even added these types of “stability operations” to its list of core mission functions.
So it is that the best counterterrorism is international development, just as helping to revitalize devastated, poor, uneducated communities is the best way to bring down crime. We do not need people as smart and capable as Generals Petraeus and McChrystal to tell us that here, we just have to think of both our crime and terrorism problems as all-encompassing problems that transcend simple solutions like “lock ‘em up” and “kill ‘em all.” Sure, there will always be your uncommon, freak murders and freak terror attacks, like that police officer in L.A. who went on a shooting rampage or the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings. Some crazy cults like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Japanese group that released sarin gas into the Tokyo Sunway can very likely be reasonably accommodated, but the Chechen or Palestinian fighting against oppression today, like the Irishman before them, can likely be accommodated by a long term peace settlement that will not please everyone but will be good enough for most. Sometimes, you need to kill to defeat terror; but whenever possible, you should defeat terror by defusing the often legitimate grievances of its practitioners, much like helping would-be criminals escape from poverty, drugs, and failing schools, and taking preventative measures to keep weapons that enable them to more easily and effectively commit crimes out of their hands. The U.S. was faulted after the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 for not securing Iraq’s weapons depots, weapon which ended up in the hands of terrorists and insurgents; likewise, why would we want guns flowing around our more devastated urban areas like they flowed in Baghdad?
We don’t need to lock 1% of our adult population up or start massive wars to combat crime and terrorism. Rather, we must cease our myopic approaches and need to address root causes and enablers, and (international) development and limiting access to arms for both would-be-criminals and would-be terrorists are much better starting-off points for successful policy. We have begun to realize this in terms of counterterrorism, but we are woefully short of this mark when it comes to our home front. In light of this most recent racially-motivated mass shooting in Charleston, SC, which can easily be considered both a hate crime and a terrorist act, this is the least we can do in face of the obvious failure of our approaches thus far.
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