Tag Archives: religious profiling

The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria

I just published an opinion piece on Muftah.org entitled “The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria” which begins:

The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned.  As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended.  Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized.  As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.

Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive.  The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.

(Read the article…)

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Lost: Moral Reasoning on Drone Attacks

Yesterday President Obama gave a speech defending drone strikes and “targeted killing” as part of a comprehensive defense strategy against terrorism (a full transcript of his speech is provided here).  Now, on political matters I’m not usually dogmatic, but here I must forcefully disagree with the President’s defense of “targeted killing” as presented in the speech.  I would not normally use this blog to advertise a disagreement over American policy, but since almost all drone strikes occur in the Middle East, policy decisions on that subject are immediately relevant to Middle East affairs and the perception of the US in the Middle East.

But let me first say that I applaud much of this speech.  President Obama rightly highlights the impact of ideas and the importance of doing what is right, both as an instrumental means of achieving national security and as a matter of consistency with the democratic and constitutional values of American governance.  Thus he said, “In an age in which ideas and images can travel the globe in an instant, our response to terrorism cannot depend on military or law enforcement alone. We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills and ideas.”  Even more directly, “Force alone cannot make us safe.”  And he highlighted the greater cost-effectiveness of foreign aid to give the lie to the notion that America is against Islam: the defense budget for foreign wars far exceeds the value of foreign aid, and yet foreign aid more effectively persuades real people that America is not evil, thus reducing the effectiveness of jihadi recruiting.  These are good things.

Nevertheless I do disagree with President Obama’s reasoning about drone strikes, even as some news sources present the President as seeming to argue with himself.  I will summarize my thoughts under three headings, moral arguments, legal arguments, and effectiveness arguments.  Although I recognize that there is widespread disagreement on the nature of moral reasoning, I do regard the moral arguments as both the most straightforward and the most important, and so today’s post will focus on the moral arguments, while the arguments from law and from effectiveness will await another day.  I also realize that in condemning all drone attacks outside of active battlefields, I am parting company with the majority of political voices in the US (whether red or blue) and the majority of legal experts.  That fact does not make me doubt the positions I argue for here.

Moral Arguments

It is conspicuous that President Obama raises the question of morality but does not adduce any moral reasoning in his speech.  He indicated that new technologies of warfare raise questions of morality, and later he said, “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”  Thereafter he avoided all reference to morality except in two instances.  He asserted the moral obligation to carry out “targeted killings” through his statement, “I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki,” referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Yemeni terrorist.  In the context he does not indicate which presidential duty he has in mind.  Finally, he asserted the dubious morality of alternatives to drone attacks: “So neither conventional military action, nor waiting for attacks to occur, offers moral safe-harbor.”  In the immediate context he was indicating that more civilians were killed by conventional military action than by drones, and that conventional military action exposes more American lives to danger.  It is conspicuous that this sentence is the only place where he alludes to “waiting for attacks to occur,” and he probably included it here only to give the illusion of considering all alternatives.  The reasoning seems to be that the alternatives to drone attacks are just as morally questionable as “targeted killing” itself, so get over the moral qualms.  This exhaustive summary of President Obama’s appeals to morality are why I must disagree with the Christian Science Monitor reporter who referred to “Obama’s moral arguments“; there were none.

Now, some people will argue that moral reasoning is impossible, either because (1) everyone knows deep down in their heart what is right and wrong, or (2) morality is merely a pious Victorian smokescreen for who you like and who you dislike (although it was that most affable and least sententious Victorian Oscar Wilde who put in the mouth of one of his villains, “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.  You dislike me.  I am quite aware of that.  And I have always detested you.” — Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband, Act 2).  Yet the branch of philosophy identified as “ethics” challenges the presumption of inability to reason about moral matters (even if the divergence of opinions expressed will not give us much confidence in sophistic arguments, so I will keep my arguments simple).

Governments very rarely seem to appeal to the nearly universally recognized moral principle that it is obligatory to treat others as you would wish to be treated.  In the Christian tradition (which of course has no monopoly on the sentiment) the “golden rule” was expressed as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Most governments seem to operate by the modification in the style of Richard Rorty, “Do unto others what you can get away with,” and some have even adopted the dangerous principle, “Do unto others before they can do unto you!”

Now I do not believe that the golden rule is absolute in every instance, so I am not arguing that we should treat criminals and terrorists as we would want them to treat us (although I do think due process is morally obligatory).  But what about the many innocent people in the countries where drone strikes take place?  Raining death from the skies with impunity necessarily creates an environment of fear under which the people have no choice but to live.  This is a form of widespread psychological harm for which they are receiving no recompense.  The argument may be that these attacks only target terrorists, and their home countries are better off without them.  That may be so, but the attacks sometimes miss (and the so-called “signature strikes” target anyone who “acts like a terrorist,” which in the minds of many Americans would include direct religious profiling to target any Muslim who prays too often in a mosque!).  President Obama’s assertion that “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces” provides scant comfort to the people of areas where drone strikes occur.

Turning the tables can reveal the moral lapse beyond all of our clever self-justifications: how many Americans would appreciate it if a Russian drone flew in and killed an American while he was at home, even if it was a widely acknowledged extremist such as David Koresh?  Can you imagine the uproar if a Cuban fighter jet, without violating US airspace, destroyed a warehouse at Houston airport while flying over Mexico?  The fact that either of these scenarios is presently unlikely does not change the sense of outrage and personal affront which the American people would feel at the violation of our national sovereignty and domestic security.  These scenarios, and the real-life scenarios on which they are modeled, reveal the emptiness of appeals to “legitimate defense of national interests” when one country’s “national interests” conflict with another country’s “national interests.”  The moral discourse of rights can sound dangerously like it is might which makes them.

Obama asserted in his speech that drone strikes “are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty” (emphasis added), yet he acknowledged that “Any U.S. military action [including drone strikes] in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas.”  Speaking of the Special Forces raid which killed Osama bin Laden, he acknowledged that “the cost to our relationship with Pakistan [of the raid that killed bin Laden] – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.”  This acknowledgment also highlights the boldest lie uttered in the same speech: “Our alliances are strong, and so is our standing in the world.”  Pakistan in particular has repeatedly and publicly objected to US drone strikes, even if the same government occasionally admits it has authorized strikes, and US-Pakistani relations have been very strained in the last few years.

The Pakistani people hear the government’s protests which seem to be ignored by the ruthless overseas aggressor, the US, and thus the drone strikes contribute, as one retired Air Force general put it, to “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.”  The point here is not about the effectiveness of the strikes (that issue will be addressed later), but that the Pakistani public clearly feels wronged by the drone campaign.  The fact that it is hard to imagine the US public not feeling even more violated and outraged if the tables were turned, including vocal demands for immediate military response against the country which sent the drone, reveals that this is a moral issue, and drones are on the wrong side of the moral calculus.  (The irony, of course, is that some of the most vocal supporters of the drone program in Washington today would be, if the tables were turned, some of the most strident voices calling for military response to a drone strike on US soil, but politicians have very rarely been noted for a strong moral compass.)

The US government, CIA, and military seem to feel that at present they can act with impunity in the drone program, because no one else has the capacity to send a drone to the US.  But this may change at any time.  The inability to be forcefully brought to account for an action does not mean it is morally legitimate, as Obama himself noted by his remark that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

A sharp distinction must of course be drawn between the use of unmanned aircraft in a battle situation and their use off the battle situation.  The use of unmanned aircraft in an active battle situation is clearly no more objectionable than the use of tanks (and although I am almost a pacifist, I am not convinced that war is the worst possible evil, and so I believe there are situations in which tanks and battles on one side can be justified).  As several commentators have remarked, the use of targeted killings in the “War on Terror” treat the entire world as a constant battlefield, and various voices have called upon the President of the United States to repudiate the “global battlefield” doctrine.

I think ridicule might be a more effective approach: everyone knows that the whole world is not a battlefield all of the time.  Although the locations of battles of the “War on Terror” are difficult to predict, they are not everywhere all the time, and it is sheer idiocy or willful neglect of reality to believe otherwise.  Any particular place may become a battlefield, but it does so precisely when some party initiates violence there, as happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon last month, and happens every time a drone strike attacks someone who is not actively committing violence.  Note that it is the drone strike which transforms a place into a battlefield which was not a battlefield before.  Plans to commit violence do not make a battlefield (as all army generals know, as they usually wish to avoid seeing direct combat), and surprise attacks as often as not will catch terrorists thinking about the weather and their worries about their social standing (provided the drone strike is actually targeting terrorists and not merely people having a social gathering).

My conclusion is therefore that drone strikes are always immoral when not used in a context of active combat between opposing armies.  This seems to be readily apparent to everyone who has been nearby a drone strike, or where a drone strike is thought a real possibility.  The obfuscation of this moral point to those who defend the “targeted killing” approach is merely a result of humans’ universal ability to fully exonerate themselves in their pursuit of their desires, whatever they happen to be.  On the moral scale, yesterday’s speech by President Obama (although admirable at many other points) was simply bankrupt.

The Terrorist Challenge to Liberal Democracy: IEDs

A USA Today article yesterday quoted Lt. General Michael Barbero, retiring head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), as saying that the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs, homemade bombs) “is here to stay.”  Perhaps even more chilling, he added, “Boston is not an anomaly.”  In order to avoid fueling any public panic, this challenge must be carefully considered and the means of defeating it rationally explored.

Since the countries that report the highest number of IED attacks are the US and various Middle Eastern/Central Asian countries, I thought it would be useful here to reflect a bit on how the means to prevent IEDs all require watering down one or another element of what the US has valued as its practice of liberal democracy.  IED attacks will never succeed in bringing down US democracy, nor will they accomplish terrorists’ plans in the US (other than making the US population angrier across the board), but they frequently sabotage Middle Eastern attempts to implement broad-based democracy on a US model, and the responses taken by Middle Eastern governments to counter terrorism are often labeled “violation of freedoms” by people in the US who do not realize the choice between curtailed freedoms and further loss of life.  Looking at the limited means available to interrupt the production of IEDs, and their attendant costs in terms of freedom, may provide a more realistic assessment of options in both American and Middle Eastern governance.

So, how can IED attacks be prevented?

Option 1: Ignorance is bliss

If people don’t know how to make homemade bombs, they cannot make them to use in attacks.  Unfortunately, the cat is out of the bag, and I’ve heard that one can find bomb plans online (I haven’t looked).  So apart from bringing down the whole internet and reverting to 1995, which almost no one would support because of the widespread benefits which also come from internet access (including my ability to write this blog, for example), this is no longer an option.

Option 2: You don’t say!

Internet reading access is nearly unrestricted, but so is internet writing access, and now with free blogs and Facebook just about anyone can write anything and put it online.  One might try targeted cyber attacks to take down any webpage that posts recipes for homemade bombs.  Call it selective censorship.  Yes, it curtails freedom of speech, although some would be willing to pay a selective topic-specific loss in freedom of speech in order to gain more safety on the streets.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to define precisely what is or is not a recipe for an IED.  Pressure cookers, for example, were a main ingredient in the recent Boston Marathon bombs, but pressure cookers are also mentioned in home canning recipes posted online.  Given that those attempting to post bomb recipes would presumably not title them “How to Make an IED” or something equally obvious, there is a real danger of more subtle detection methods making Facebook never work again because of a continuous stream of false positives, and the majority of the US population would then go into withdrawal symptoms.  But there’s also the problem of false negatives: just as the alchemists of old came up with bizarre codes to encode their recipes which might allegedly turn lead into gold, so codes could be endlessly invented to attempt to circumvent the targeted cyber attacks.

And even if the internet could be ruled out as a means of transmitting the knowledge of how to make IEDs, that does not prevent person-to-person or over-the-phone sharing.

Option 3: It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know

If it is not possible to prevent transfer of the knowledge of how to make IEDs, perhaps it is possible to trace the social networks by which this knowledge transfer happens.  In this case, new social media websites actually help by making publicly visible the otherwise invisible threads of social connections.  If person A is a suspected terrorist, then all of person A’s “friends” might be suspected terrorists too!  Of course, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s classmates have found out, it is possible to be a “friend” of someone accused of an attack without having the faintest idea.  This raises the problem of the lower and upper bounds of this kind of reasoning: the number of suspected terrorists for which a government knows the name (and social media usernames) might be very small relative to the number of people who might be getting information to plan IED attacks, while it might be very difficult to distinguish “terrorist social networks” from normal social networks on the basis of structure alone.

How to obtain better results?  Apart from putting a beacon on every search engine to inform them whenever anyone searches for “home made bomb recipes” (now admit it, how many of you found this post by just such a search?), it is very difficult, and there is great danger of racial profiling or religious profiling.  I was dismayed by the way news articles (for example, here) used reports that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had become “more religious” as synonymous with “more likely to be a terrorist.”  If a Protestant minister or an atheist blogger criticizes the US government, that is just the value of free speech in a functioning democracy, but if an imam criticizes the US government, many might take that to be a symptom of radical Islam!  Racial profiling and religious profiling will simply increase the bitterness and alienation of those in the targeted groups against the government, leading to increased violence.

(It is always worth reminding people that the terror tactics presently used by jihadis were adopted by them in imitation of secularist and right-wing Western terrorists of a previous generation.  These secularist and right-wing Western terrorists have continued to the present in figures such as Anders Behring Breivik.)

And even if social network analysis has yielded some folks who probably know how to make IEDs and know people who might want to use them, how should the government act on this information?  Should it arrest them?  On what charge?  Should it have secret police follow them around?  Wouldn’t that just make them angrier?  Should it simply tap their phones and wait for them to say something incriminating?  It is unclear how such information might be used to reduce the change of attacks rather than to increase it.

Option 4: Why do you want that pressure cooker?

A separate option would be to try to restrict the materials used in the construction of IEDs, keeping a national registry of anyone who buys pressure cookers, nails, or fertilizer.  Then if people are buying a whole lot of pressure cookers, they could be flagged for further investigation.  But given that a large proportion of the population uses nails or pressure cookers at one time or another, I doubt this approach would yield meaningful data.

Option 5: Checkpoint Charlie

The cheapest solution in many Middle Eastern countries is to install checkpoints with metal detectors.  There are two theories of this: one is to create a “safe zone” within which it is guaranteed that no one has IEDs (at least in theory), and the other is as a deterrent to try to prevent traveling bombs and catch some people in possession.  The former theory is the more difficult to implement, but is the theory of airline security.  The latter goal, more modest, may open the door for people to circumvent the checkpoints.  While these checkpoints are relatively standard in the Middle East, I doubt the US population would tolerate this curtailment of freedom of movement, even if it would create a lot of jobs.  In practice it would also give outlet to all of people’s prejudices and result in racial and religious profiling.

Option 6: Big Brother is Watching (Some of) You

I was struck how in the search for Boston Marathon bombing suspects the FBI quickly released photos taken by surveillance cameras.  This enlisted the public aid in a way that previous manhunts had not, and raised the possibility of increased permanent surveillance cameras being used to track people whom the government suspects of possible terrorist intent.  Of course, even if the whole country were blanketed in security cameras, it would be impossible to follow everyone all the time across them.  The camera-watching personnel could not in principle comprise such a large portion of the population to make that feasible.  And so inevitably, while Big Brother may be watching, it will only be watching some.  While those some may be identified through just means, they may also be identified as “persons of interest” through unjust means such as racial profiling.

There is also the danger of misconstrual: the pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers released by the FBI before they knew their names caused fear and consternation among people who physically resembled them.  Nor did the photos released by the FBI show any wrong-doing; and what if the photo released had been of someone who had not done anything wrong, but who had done something which might have looked perhaps like something wrong from the camera angle?  How confident are the people watching surveillance cameras in their understanding of the events depicted?

Option 7: Peer Pressure

Of course, the cheapest and most old-fashioned method is to ask people to report suspicious behavior to authorities.  Even this is not perfect, however, even apart from its undue burden on introverts and eccentric personalities.  People may report “suspicious behavior” of people they know and do not like (as in “witch hunts”), and people may not report known violent behavior if they suspect it will reflect negatively on them, for instance by making them a suspect of a crime or by alienating them from their current community.  When a minority identifies itself as alienated from its government, as Sunnis do in Iraq now, it is unlikely to be forthcoming with aid to the government.  All too often, this leads the government to view the group as a whole as terrorists or potential terrorists, breeding further resentment between the government and the targeted minority.


IEDs are indeed destructive, but often not in the way desired by terrorists.  While an attack may generate media attention, its ability to subvert democracy depends upon the public response to the violence.  If, as is often the case in the Middle East, the public views the attack in sectarian terms and blames everyone of a certain hated group (which group it is will depend on who was targeted), then democracy is among the first casualties.  In the US this is less common for public outcry to turn sectarian (although public suspicion of Muslims often approaches sectarianism), and such blasts tend to provoke public anger against the person(s) or group identified as responsible and a desire to thwart whatever might be identified as their goal.

But how can IED attacks be prevented?  Interrupting the transfer of knowledge over the internet involves censorship or restricting free access to information, while using social media and increased surveillance cameras or checkpoints almost universally leads to acting out prejudice and profiling.  The availability of IEDs for attacks, while they will not bring western democracy to an end, may require curtailing some of the freedoms we have enjoyed in the West.

Safety comes at a price.  In some cases, that price is worth it, and in some cases it isn’t.  But we do not know unless that price is made clear to us.  And if we decide the price is worth it, we must make sure that both the cost and the benefit are apportioned fairly, to avoid the “tyranny of the majority over the minority.”  Such democratic tyranny would only increase the bitterness and suspicion of minority groups, and result in greater violence.