How the GOP’s playbook for myopia, overreaction, and inaction empowers terrorism, violent criminals, and mass shooters
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse June 30, 2015
The Boston area on lockdown
Other articles in this series:
UPDATE July 1st: In response to some of the comments and messages I have received, I want to acknowledge that 1.) I am aware that not only Republicans have pushed for/embraced these policies and approaches (Boston itself being a democratic stronghold) but that 2.) these policies are, nevertheless, overall concoctions of, and are driven and mainly supported by, the Republican Party its supporters/voters. In addition, 3.) State and local counterterrorism policy is often heavily influenced by the federal government, and we have also seen a recent somewhat-federal-driven militarization of state and local police. Even with all this in mind, it needs to be remembered that it was George W. Bush’s Administration that initiated two massive, long-lasting ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is the Obama Administration that ended one of those wars (Iraq) and is setting up the end (or at least minimization) of the other (Afghanistan). Obama’s re-engagement in Iraq to deal with ISIS has been deliberately and decidedly minimal in comparison. Drone strikes and surveillance—programs that Obama increased from the Bush years—are decidedly less destructive overall that the more ground-force-utilizing Republican-backed policies. Furthermore, virtually any poll you would find would show that conservatives and Republicans are more in favor of the use of force and confrontation—even to the degree of often opposing serious diplomacy!—over liberals and Democrats, who tend to favor diplomacy and negotiation far more robustly over military options When liberals and Democrats do support the use of force, it tends to be in a more measured and limited way than conservatives and Republicans. Therefore, while there are certainly exceptions, the leaders of the Republican Party and their supporters and voters are the ones pushing these policies much more aggressively most of the time and are therefore clearly most responsible for their application and perpetuation.
I wrote, but never published, the below piece in the weeks after the Tsarnaev brothers carried out their horrific lone wolf terrorist attack on the city of Boston at the finish-line for the Boston Marathon on April 15th, 2013. The points I raised then are just as relevant now. When President Obama addressed the nation on the recent white-supremacist terrorist Charleston shooting, it was a sobering, depressing moment. His tone, his body language, screamed defeat and resignation, resignation that anything could or would be done in response to this act of terror. The contrast between this Obama and the Obama who took office—who was full of hope and enthusiasm and belief in the American people and system—was crushing to see. I have hardly seen all of Obama’s press conferences, but this was the most dejected I had ever seen him. There was an undercurrent of anger in him too, but more than anything, Obama conveyed a sense of hopeless frustration in that press conference:
Until the investigation is complete, I’m necessarily constrained in terms of talking about the details of the case. But I don’t need to be constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise. I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many time. We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. Now is the time for mourning and healing, but let’s be clear: at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.
“At some point, but not now, and not during my presidency, because I am powerless as things stand now to do anything about this,” Obama seemed to be thinking silently. Keep in mind, this was before Obama’s big week at the Supreme Court, and his singing of Amazing Grace after he delivered a eulogy in Charleston.
Comedian Jon Stewart—ironically, and, over his long career as host of The Daily Show, hardly for the first time—outdid the president in delivering an even more searing, relevant, and necessary message on the Charleston shooting. The day of the shooting, Stewart chose to forego comedy completely and to deliver an impassioned monologue about our inability to confront either racial issues or domestic gun violence, and our superability to freak out about foreign people killing Americans but to just nihilistically shrug away (especially Republicans, I would add) the far more frequent violence of Americans killing other Americans:
I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit. Yeah. That’s us. And that’s the part that blows my mind. I don’t want to get into the political argument of the guns and things. But what blows my mind is the disparity of response between when we think people that are foreign are going to kill us, and us killing ourselves. If this had been what we thought was Islamic terrorism, it would fit into our — we invaded two countries and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives and now fly unmanned death machines over five or six different countries, all to keep Americans safe. We got to do whatever we can. We’ll torture people. We gotta do whatever we can to keep Americans safe. Nine people shot in a church. What about that? “Hey, what are you gonna do? Crazy is as crazy is, right?” That’s the part that I cannot, for the life of me, wrap my head around, and you know it. You know that it’s going to go down the same path. “This is a terrible tragedy.” They’re already using the nuanced language of lack of effort for this. This is a terrorist attack. This is a violent attack on the Emanuel Church in South Carolina, which is a symbol for the black community. It has stood in that part of Charleston for 100 and some years and has been attacked viciously many times, as many black churches have.
He concludes his monologue by noting that “We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing—al Qaeda, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage we can do to ourselves on a regular basis.”
The truth of Stewart’s concluding statement is something very few major American political leaders even attempt to acknowledge, let along discuss. The Department of Homeland Security itself is equally (and in some ways more) concerned about domestic right-wing terrorist attacks than attacks by Islamic extremists. And this perspective and Stewart’s are completely in line with American history and facts because since the 9/11 attacks, 48 people were killed by non-Muslims in terrorist attacks in America, compared to only 26 people being killed by Muslim terrorists on American soil. In the era before 2001, most notably, white anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh carried out the biggest terrorist attack in American history before 9/11, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more in Oklahoma City in 1995. But domestic terrorism stretched back much earlier: between 1882 and 1968, over 4,700 Americans were killed by extremist lynch mobs, often involving the terrorist Ku Klux Klan. And especially in the years of Reconstruction (1865-1877) at the end of the Civil War in 1865, Ku Klux Klan terrorists and other terrorists murdered thousands of freed former slaves and their white allies in a terrorist guerilla insurgency against Federal troops and the new state governments they had set up that provided freedom for former slaves, an insurgency which succeeded and paved the way for the institutionalized mass oppression backed by terror that was the Jim Crow and segregation era. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a spate of anarchist terrorism, including the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.
In the wake of the Charleston shootings, I now present my thoughts from over two years ago about how the threat of Islamic terrorism needs to be put in a healthy. proportional perspective and that we need to take much (but most certainly not all!) of the energy devoted to combatting that threat and devote it to dealing with more serious, deadly, and pressing issues here at home.
How Not to Stop a Terrorist
A nineteen-year-old amateur terrorist on the run does not even come close to warranting a citywide shutdown. That it did happen should scare us all.
By Brian E. Frydenborg- May 20th 2013
Firstly, I want to begin by making clear that the Boston Police Department, the Watertown Police Department, Boston’s first responders, the National Guard, the FBI, the ATF, and other city, local, state, and federal workers did a great job helping the wounded, saving lives, keeping the Boston metro area safe, and bringing justice to one of the perpetrators of the horrific attacks in Boston and apprehending the other. The people of Boston, for responding to so well under attack and pressure, also deserve a lot of credit.
Having said that, the scene that unfolded on CNN live over the course of these events should deeply disturb all Americans for reasons that very few American commentators or pundits have even discussed. And I have to admit I am deeply disturbed that I am, apparently, one of the few people I know who feel this way.
I admit, I have hardly been able to see or read all commentary on the internet or watch every TV news program, but so far I’ve only come across three pundits who have expressed my views or views similar to them: Harvard’s Stephen Walt, writing several pieces for Foreign Policy, Michael Cohen, writing for Britain’s The Observer, and Michael Shapira, writing for the The Washington Times (and yes, I am troubled that I agree with The Washington Times). Those commentators on major TV networks or writing for most major publications, not so much. It honestly makes me feel very alone and isolated, and that, as much as I love my country, I feel at times as if I cannot identify with it or feel a part of it. This feeling has been creeping into me over the last decade, but after these recent events, it has never been more profound or more disturbing.
Before getting into what specifically I had problems with, let’s go through a few basic facts. Firstly, two brothers, who it seems acted alone, planted two pressure cooker bombs on a major street in Boston at the finish line for the Boston Marathon on the afternoon of April 15th and exploded them during said marathon. Three people were killed by the bombs and 264 wounded, some of them grievously so. Before the authorities had any real suspects, a massive security presence arrived in Boston: state and local police, National Guard troops, FBI, ATF, and others. When photos of two suspects were released on the early evening of April 18th, only a few hours later authorities were able to identify them even as they proceeded to attack and kill an MIT Police Officer, stole a car and took the owner hostage. Later, in the early hours of April 19th, a firefight ensued between authorities and the brothers in Watertown, resulting in the wounding, capture, and later the death of the older brother while the younger brother escaped. At dawn, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick then issued a call for all Boston area residents to “shelter in place,” what was essentially a non-legally-binding request to lock down the entire Boston metropolitan area. Not only Boston was shutdown but also its suburbs: people were told not to come into work and most businesses were shutdown, the subway, Amtrak, almost all taxis and public transportation were shutdown, and all this on a weekday. In effect, the Boston metropolitan area ceased to function for over a day. Ironically, only after the lockdown request was rescinded was the other brother found by a Watertown resident who was out and about on his property, out and about precisely because the order had been lifted. Soon after authorities apprehending the suspect. Overall, a good win for law enforcement and authorities, bad guys caught or dead. But the issue of the lockdown is something else entirely, and I am going to single that out from what I feel was otherwise a good job on the part of government officials.
And here is where I depart company with my fellow Americans and am part of some sort of extremely tiny minority: I think this massive lockdown was a shockingly over-the-top, ridiculously unnecessary, and disturbingly unprecedented action. And I want this in particular to be clear to my readers: never in this history of terrorist attacks has an entire city, an entire metro area, been shut down in such a near total way in response to an attack or attacks. They say never say never, well, I am saying this never, ever happened in the history of terrorism until the authorities in Boston made that call. Anyone who doubts the scale of the lockdown needs only to look at the many pictures posted by Boston-area residents and sheer number of public institutions that were closed, from colleges to taxi services. As a student of politics and public policy, of terrorism and history, of comparative policy and human behavior, I can tell you that major cities have been dealing with terrorism for over a century. There were anarchist bombings all over the country early in the twentieth century. Jewish terrorists used bombings against British forces in Mandate Palestine, and Palestinians and Lebanese have used terrorist bombings against Israeli forces and sometimes civilians. Europe has had to deal with terrorist bombings from a variety of groups, from the Red Brigades to the Irish Republican Army to Basque separatists. The Tamil Tigers regularly hit targets in Sri Lanka. In the last decade and then some, terrorist attacks hit London, Madrid, Mumbai, Jerusalem, Moscow, cities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, more recently Libya and Syria and many other places. Some of these cities routinely deal with terrorist attacks, cities like London, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Kabul. In Western/developed countries in particular, most of the counterterrorist operations are successful, the perpetrators caught or killed, further immediate attacks stopped or prevented. These countries are able to more or less tactically successfully deal with these incidents, and they all have one thing in common: they never, ever shut-down an entire city in response to a few bombings. In fact, many of these incidents were far more deadly than the bombings in Boston. So why the near-total city shutdown in Boston, when competent, successful, prudent, and experienced counterterrorist officials in places like London, Madrid, and Jerusalem never even came close to making such a call? What was so different about Boston’s incident that warranted such an unprecedented, massive shutdown compared with far deadlier attacks in Barcelona, Berlin, Baghdad, Belfast, Beirut, Bersheeva, or any of many other places?
Seen in the context of other similar—or worse—incidents and what the general (at least in developed countries quite often more or less successful) responses to them were, the shutdown of the Boston metro area makes no sense and is beyond the definition of overkill. Of course it is natural for people to overreact. And it is natural for a place like Boston which is so unused to such attacks to overreact. But public policy is not supposed to be about giving in to immediate emotion. Policymakers have a responsibility to coolly assess the situation, and make decisions based on looking at how successful responses have worked in similar situations, prudently using an appropriate level of time, effort, energy and resources. And, simply stated, there is nothing in the history of counterterrorism which even remotely suggested that the necessary response was one of such a massive proportion as Boston’s response, a response in which a major metropolitan area in the U.S. was shut down in order to track down one remaining suspect who was a nineteen-year old kid (and an amateur, at that) whose picture was already on every television screen in America. If one crazy punk can cause an entire major U.S. city to shut-down, then we are doing something wrong and the terrorists are winning. Maybe they have even already won. Osama bin Laden’s goal with the 9/11 attacks was to draw the U.S. into a long, costly, bloody war that would drain our treasure, international standing, and our will to fight overseas, make the U.S. pull back our support for the non-Islamic regimes in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, and use such a conflict to draw recruits to al-Qaeda from all over the world. While we hesitated putting a massive presence on the ground in Afghanistan, with Iraq, gave him exactly what we wanted. It took a few years, but the sickening truth is that bin Laden played us like a harp. Now, it seems, we are at an even more extreme progression of bin Laden’s trap: the point where we can let one nineteen-year-old kid shut down a whole city and paralyze the lives of millions.
Let’s go through the typical responses I hear when I raise this issue:
“But the authorities didn’t know if there were other attackers or sleeper cells.”Yeah, and neither do any authorities after any terrorist attack in any city, but they don’t shut down a whole city.
“Any cost is worth saving lives.” Really? If one American citizen was taken hostage in, say, North Korea, do we then invade that country? When shooting sprees and murders take place in the U.S., do we shut down whole towns and cities to catch the perpetrators and protect people? Or do authorities take a more limited approach, not shut down a whole city and disrupt the lives of millions, and target their efforts in a more limited but relatively reasonably cost-effective response? As Stephen Walt points out, not long before Boston, there was a heavily armed police officer with military training who was killing people in L.A., but L.A. wasn’t shut down. The DC-area sniper-team a few years back killed people over a much longer period of time, and DC was not shut down. London had a much worse attack a few years back which killed far more people, and the Brits did not shut London down. The point is, lives can still be saved, killers and terrorists still stopped, without shutting down whole cities and disrupting the lives of millions (what terrorists generally want, right?), and the estimates of the costs of shutting Boston down for a day have ranged from several hundred million to a billion dollars. And, again, I want to re-emphasize this was to chase down a single remaining suspect. It cannot cost us hundreds of millions of dollars every time a terrorist strikes, there is no way that that kind of loss and/or expenditure is necessary, let alone sustainable, and that kind of inefficiency of application of resources is—and should always be viewed as—unacceptable. If anything, it encourages would-be-terrorists who seek that kind of massive overreaction.
“Maybe he would have gotten away if the city hadn’t been shut down!”Not likely. Again, if these other cities like London and Jerusalem are good at catching these terrorists without shutting down an entire city, why can’t we be as good and as efficient as they are? And it was only after the request to stay indoors was lifted that a local resident left his house and found the suspect.
“Well, it was different in Boston.” Was it really? As I pointed out, many other attacks have been far worse, and deadlier, and involved more terrorists and multiple cells. If anything, Boston was different in that the attack was small, using low-grade explosives that only killed three people, and with just two lone-wolves involved.
“Well, Boston isn’t used to this kind of stuff, so it’s understandable.”Again, government officials are supposed to transcend visceral gut reactions and emotion. So, no, it’s not understandable form a public policy perspective.
It seems like it is asking for a lot these days, but I just want my country to be competent and measured in the way I see other modern, developed countries often conduct themselves. I want us not to be the overreacting, Incredible-Hulk-meets-Daffy-Duck of nations. And I want us to have a healthy perspective and sense of proportionality. I must be naïve, and Walt laments this, too, when he wrote that
The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka “terrorism”), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.
…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.
He points out that far more people were killed while the Boston drama was underway by a factory explosion in Texas on April 17th, and links to Michael Cohen’s article. Cohen notes that the plant which exploded had not been inspected by federal government Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors since 1985, and that the Republicans want to cut that agency’s funding even more. He notes that far more people are killed by non-terrorist gun violence in the U.S. (as I have pointed out), and that while the Boston incident and aftermath unfolded, the Republicans killed the legislation on background checks that had an overwhelming majority of Americans supporting it. As he concludes.
It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others” – jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers etc. But the lurking dangers all around us – the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day – these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will. And so the violence goes, with more Americans dying preventable deaths. But hey, look on the bright side – we got those sons of bitches who blew up the marathon.
Since 1980, there have been more than 900,000 U.S. gun deaths, but less than 3,000 terrorist-caused deaths in America since 1970. In an amazing level of hypocrisy, Republicans continually make the argument that, as far as mass shootings go and general gun violence goes, well, “stuff (sh*t, if you will) happens,” and there’s little we can do about such things, but when it comes to anything involving terrorism, or what they consider terrorism, they will move heaven and earth and spare no expense, will literally bankrupt the nation, to address this threat. Laissez-faire for any kind of a threat that is frequent and can be expected, but activist for the rare, freakishly-low probability event. Vote Republican for protection from something that almost never happens at the expense of protection from common occurrences. This is a governing philosophy which appeals to raw emotion and fear of “outsiders,” “others,” “non-Americans” and (GASP!) Muslims, and that wholly relies on a total lack of perspective and introspection. It plays to the alpha-male, jingoistic types who want to blame all of America’s ills on foreigners, immigrants, globalization, outside influence, and the “turning” of America away from its “traditional values” and its “true self.” It appeals to people who want to do anything but look at what America does wrong, what needs to be fixed at America’s core, and who refuse to learn from the rest of the world; it seeks solutions by going after external threats in order to avoid any self-reflection or national self-examination whatsoever, and claims facts that do not support its simplistic, “America: love it or leave it” worldview as concoctions of a non-existent elite liberal media/academic industrial complex. One Republican state senator from Tennessee even joked that we need to ban pressure cookers, the devices used in the bombings in Boston, to draw attention to what he thought were outrageous attempts to ban assault weapons, in what is perhaps the most obvious example of the sickness in our society that ties those two issues together and exposes our national myopia.
Let’s embrace this myopia, Republicans seem to say. Sandy Hook, a number of other recent mass shootings, thousands incidents every year that see thousands of Americans killed by gun violence, a Texas fertilizer plant that exploded and killed 14 people and had not been inspected by a (now gutted) federal agency since the 1980s, and a whole host of other problems, deserve little or no attention and cannot be solved, so, do not dare suggest any further funding or attention to these issues from government, but terrorism? Let’s spend trillions combating an issue that barely affects any Americans year in and year out, let’s invade two countries in response to 9/11, one of which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and let’s focus on the wrong country between those two at the expense of getting the guy who did attack us so that it takes ten years, millions of dead, wounded, and displaced, and trillions of dollars, but when it comes to passing universal background checks for gun purchases, let’s filibuster legislation that is filled with loopholes anyway so that not even the lowest common denominator, no-brainer safeguard can become law.
Let’s focus on the hysterical and sensational and forget about the substantive and every-day problems, spend money fighting a war(s?) against a tactic (and how do you defeat a tactic like “terror” anyway?) in far-away lands but do almost nothing in the war against poverty in our own country. Let’s watch our children sink in educational achievement, and our workers get paid less than and less as inflation lowers our salaries that have stagnated since the 1970s, let’s not pave our roads or maintain our bridges or rail networks, let’s keep putting off every big domestic issue in favor of chasing around the globe a few thousand loosely-affiliated, brainwashed, murderous fools who can never do as much damage to us as we can do to ourselves and forget that any other issues exist or are deserving of marshalling our collective national effort and will.
This myopia seems to be our current default, especially with Republicans, who also seem incapable of coming up with what I have recently noted noted we need: long-term solutions that address root-causes and drivers of these problems. And I’m with Walt in wondering if we are even capable of doing better and with Cohen in wondering why other—dare I say more important—issues don’t get the same or even more attention.
I am not saying there is never going to be a reason to shut down a whole city. WMD or a massive number or attackers would be a different story. But now, have we set a precedent where total city shutdowns are to be the expected norm for incidents like this? Will there be no end to the hysteria at the policy planning level? It’s bad enough that two wars have greatly sapped our resources with our international terrorism response, let’s try to make sure our domestic counterterrorism policies don’t do the same. The 9/11 attacks were horrible, and scarred the New York City area especially. But the response to 9/11 is not more important that education, that being safe from routine crime, than our heath, than our national infrastructure, than our future. But looking at what we’ve put our money behind for the last ten years, you would think that avenging 9/11 was practically all that mattered.
Terrorists can’t defeat us. But they can goad us into defeating ourselves. And right now, I am worried about whether or not we are losing by beating ourselves. Because that’s how the terrorists win. And that is unacceptable.
Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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