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Norway and terrorism as a daily event.

In the West, we seem to have at least a double standard when it comes to violence and mayhem.

When violence and mayhem involves People Who Look Like Us (“us” in this case generally translating to: ethnically European/white, not-poor, citizens of a Western-style democracy) — we experience society-wide woe. When it involves People Who Don’t Look Like Us? Often, not so much.

We see this in the semi-annual “OMG heroin has reached the suburbs” stories, we see it in the stories of missing mothers or schoolyard shootings that take place somewhere outside our inner cities or meth-riddled mountains — and I think we saw it again in the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway.

I am not, in any way, suggesting a sliding scale of pain. Pain is pain, loss is loss — if your child, partner, friend, parent, loved one was killed, in Oslo, on her way home from work, or in some random Columbine-like horror, your grief is no less because your skin is pale or your bank account full.

But as someone who follows the news out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as someone who once-upon-a-time covered terrorism’s aftermath as a reporter, as someone who has seen up close and personal the damage that bombs can do, I couldn’t help but feel the vast difference between America’s response to the terrorism in Norway, and our response that with which the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan live on a nearly daily basis.

Part of this is, of course, because in Norway, the line between good and evil was clear, shining and bright. One terrorist, 77 innocents. We know, in a heartbeat, how to direct our horror and revulsion, and to whom to offer our prayers and support.

This is not the case in the Af-Pak region. First of all, the West isn’t even sure of its own role anymore, if it ever was. Are we good guys or bad guys? When children are killed as our soldiers aim for the Taliban — who are we? Should we even be there? Are we imperialists, or did we fail to go after the Taliban hard enough in the first place?

But beyond the complexities of the war and a porous border — Western soldiers are not the ones purposely blowing people up in the middle of busy cities. Surely the people doing that are the bad guys, right? But what if their fight is just? And wait — who gets to decide what “just” means? Throw in the endlessly complex cultural and political realities of the two societies, the fact that Westerners tend to expect Muslims to be violent (though Muslims might disagree) — we throw up our hands. Another 27 dead. Another 22. An 8 year old boy. Those people.

One need only scroll through the Twitter feed of Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel to see that a good deal more than 77 Afghans and Pakistanis were killed in the month of July alone, not on a battlefield, but while trying to live their lives. Hell, nearly 100 were killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in the first week of July.

Some of these were combatants. Some were violent misogynists. Some were trying to go to the market. Some were children. Some of the “innocents” probably deserved to die, and some of the fighters had probably been involved in trying to bring peace. The lines are neither clear, nor shining, nor bright.

But I do know this: Dead is dead. The tears of a Pakistani mother are no less excruciating than those of a Norwegian father. The pain in these faces is as human and as raw as the pain in these.

I don’t have any grand conclusion to draw or act of advocacy to recommend. I know that no human being can carry all the world’s pain without buckling under the weight, and if a geek like me can’t always keep all the warring parties straight in Af-Pak, I surely don’t expect anyone else to manage it.

I just think that as we mourn the losses in Oslo, as we send our prayers and our white light and our best wishes to our Norwegian sisters and brothers, it matters that we also remember those for whom the Norway attacks look horrifyingly familiar. We need to find a way to manage to bear witness to the humanity of those living and dying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, too. As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps we owe the living and the dead at least that much.


If you want to learn more about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the violence that has marked the history of both, here are two great books to get you started: Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, and Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (both of which I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News).

The Man Who Hated Women

Shocker: Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik is a racist and a misogynist, and his shooting rampage was inspired by his hatred of women, Muslims, and brown people. He uses a lot of the same tropes as Men’s Rights activists. He was encouraged by anti-Islam bloggers in the United States who routinely warn of the “Islamicization” of the West, including Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller.

It is unfair to say that websites like Spencer’s caused the violence in Norway. But I think this quote is pretty right-on:

Marc Sageman, a former C.I.A. officer and a consultant on terrorism, said it would be unfair to attribute Mr. Breivik’s violence to the writers who helped shape his world view. But at the same time, he said the counterjihad writers do argue that the fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam “is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged. Well, they and their writings are the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.”

“This rhetoric,” he added, “is not cost-free.”

Some further reading:

Missing: The ‘Right’ Babies
Norway Killer’s Hatred of Women


The trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the man who is accused of plotting the September 11th attacks, will be held before a military commission in Guantanamo Bay instead of in federal court. Why? Because apparently the American criminal justice system is too soft to adequately try a terrorist — a view that is stunningly insulting to our legal system. The Times is right; it’s just cowardice:

The wound inflicted on New York City from Mr. Mohammed’s plot nearly a decade ago will not heal for many lifetimes, yet the city, while still grieving, has thrived. How fitting it would have been to put the plot’s architect on trial a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, to force him to submit to the justice of a dozen chosen New Yorkers, to demonstrate to the world that we will not allow fear of terrorism to alter our rule of law.

But, apparently, there are many who continue to cower, who view terrorists as much more fearsome than homegrown American mass murderers and the American civilian jury system as too “soft” to impose needed justice. The administration of George W. Bush encouraged this view for more than seven years, spreading a notion that terror suspects only could be safely held and tried far from our shores at Guantánamo and brought nowhere near an American courthouse. The federal courts have, in fact, convicted hundreds of terrorists since 9/11. And federal prisons safely hold more than 350 of them.

The pandering toward this mentality began as soon as Mr. Holder announced his plan in 2009 to try Mr. Mohammed in Lower Manhattan. A group of senators, including Joseph Lieberman, an independent of Connecticut, complained that it would give terrorists a platform to rally others to their cause. Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, said the trial should be moved elsewhere because New Yorkers didn’t want it, as if prosecutors needed opinion polls to determine where to seek justice.

New York politician opens hearing on Muslims

Well, Peter King will definitely be getting his name in the history books in the chapter on post-9/11 racism and fear-mongering. I’d like to think we learned something from McCarthyism and Japanese internment and other uglier-than-even-usual periods in our history, but I guess not. (Surprising? No. Disgusting? Yes). It’s appalling that a United States congressman can organize hearings to discuss the dangers posed by our Muslim neighbors, but point out that maybe far-right folks like Peter King and Tea Party members across America are racist and ignorant, and you get fired.

In reality, terrorist plots by far-right organizations in the United States outnumber those by Muslims. But I guess that’s different.

Rape, Trauma, and Terrorism

Jessica Stern had an incredible op-ed in the Washington Post yesterday. Stern is a noted expert on terrorism and national security, and is a lecturer at Harvard and served on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. But in her piece yesterday, she talks about the violent rape she was a victim of in 1973 – and how as a result, she has spent her whole life being fascinated with terrorism and violence, so much so that she is one of America’s preeminent experts on terrorism.

For the past 20 years, I have studied the causes of evil and violence. Until recently, I never questioned why I was drawn to this work or why I was able to do it. Now I finally have an answer to the questions: How could a “girl” like you visit terrorist training camps in Pakistan? Weren’t you afraid?

I wasn’t aware that I was afraid. After a series of traumas, one can lose the capacity to feel fear appropriately.

On Oct. 1, 1973, my sister and I biked home from ballet class. We were doing our homework in our living room in Concord, Mass., when a man entered the house. For an hour, this rapist had a gun trained on my sister and me while he attacked us. She was 14, and I was a year older.

Both my sister and I went on to lead relatively happy and productive lives. My sister is a successful marketing executive, an opera singer and an actress. She is married and has two children. She feels great joy in her family and in her music, and no one would describe her as a victim. I similarly take enormous pleasure from my family and my work.

And yet, from adolescence on, I noticed changes that grew worse over time. With each passing year, I seemed to feel less and less — less pain, but also less joy. As a child, I wanted to be a writer, but bad grades in classes that required writing persuaded me to give up. I was more comfortable studying unemotional subjects. I majored in chemistry, in part because it came more easily to me, and in part because I liked that the answers were either right or wrong, unlike in real life, where emotional valences count.

I was planning to become a chemist, but then I got seduced by curiosity about violence. I was both repulsed and fascinated. I skipped the war parts in “War and Peace” but wrote a doctoral dissertation on chemical weapons that focused mainly on the mechanics of violence, with little attention to the human toll.

Ultimately, I became an expert on terrorism. I wrote my first article on the prospects for terrorists to attack chemical plants or use toxic chemicals in 1983. At the time, working on this issue wasn’t a wise career move. Very few people took the threat seriously. Still, I believed that terrorism would become increasingly important, and I continued to focus on it. I started out doing technical work related to weapons, but eventually I gave in to an intense curiosity about terrorists themselves. In that work I made use of a personality quirk, rather than my academic training. I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I’m good at ferreting them out.

I’d highly recommend reading the full piece. Stern has a new book coming out tomorrow, Denial: A Memoir of Terror, and this op-ed is a prelude to that. In her memoir Stern explores the lasting effects of her rape at age 15 — how it shaped her, how she became obsessed with terrorism and violence as a result, and how she didn’t realize she had post-traumatic stress disorder until years later after interviewing dozens of terrorists as well as victims of terrorists. It was then that she began to piece together the connection between her own experiences and the violence she has spent every day of her career thinking about.

It’s pretty rare to see prominent women driving the conversation around terrorism and national security, typically a male-dominated field; it’s sad and unfortunate that her success in this field came out of such a traumatic, violent personal experience. But hers is a gripping story that deserves to be heard — and I for one am looking forward to reading her book as well.

Anti-Choice Dems Receive Death Threats From Pro-Lifers

Oh the irony.

This isn’t surprising, given the far-right’s habit of threatening and sometimes carrying out violence against those they disagree with; it is particularly predictable given the anti-choice movement’s reliance on violence and intimidation. This is what radicals in the anti-choice movement do — they threaten people, they scream outside of clinics, they yell “babykiller” on the House floor, and sometimes they set things on fire or shoot doctors or kill people. All of it, from the clinic harassment to the death threats directed towards these congressmen to the killings, is entirely disgusting and unjustifiable. There are obviously varying degrees of disgustingness involved, but it’s all reprehensible.

But I’m with David — will the anti-choice lawmakers who are receiving these threats put two and two together and realize that what they’re now experiencing is just a fraction of what women who terminate pregnancies and doctors who provide abortions face? That women who enter abortion clinics are faced with screaming throngs of people, with threats, and sometimes with violence? That their own congresspeople refer to them as “baby-killers”? That doctors who provide abortion services are stalked, harassed, and sometimes killed? That I’d be willing to bet if you got the bloggers from the five biggest feminist websites together, we’d outpace these guys in death threats by a mile?

It’s shameful that these congressmen are receiving death threats. It’s shameful that they’re also part of a movement that has long threatened women’s lives.

Intentionally flying planes into buildings because you don’t like a particular government: Terrorism or no? Let’s debate.

Newsweek editors and reporters discuss the use of the word “terrorist” and essentially conclude that it’s mostly applicable to foreigners with beards. The conversation is an off-shoot of the story of the IRS “protestor” (as the Wall Street Journal designated him) who flew his plane into an IRS building because he didn’t like paying taxes. That guy’s daughter got a spot on Good Morning America to laud her “hero” father — although she admitted that his decision to fly a plane into a building was “inappropriate,” but “Now maybe people will have to listen” when it comes to the whole taxes-are-bad thing. (Smirky sidenote: She lives in Norway). Newly-elected Republican goldenboy Scott Brown commented that, yeah, flying planes into buildings isn’t very nice, but “people are frustrated” and “no one likes paying taxes” — plane-man just wanted greater political accountability! He was frustrated with the U.S. government’s unjust infringement on what he believed to be rightfully his. Unlike the brown people who fly planes into buildings. They’re just mad at our freedoms.

Some folks at Newsweek point out that the Underpants Bomber is more of a terrorist because he’s affiliated with a foreign terror network; the Fort Hood shooter is a terrorist too because, although he wasn’t formally affiliated with any network, he may have talked to a guy who was affiliated with terrorists. But I find Devin Gordon’s take on the media’s hesitance to use the t-word for IRS Guy to be the most convincing:

I continue to be fascinated by the divergent reactions between Austin Wacko and Underpants Man, and I think it goes much deeper than the taxonomy of what is a “terrorist.” (One simple reason: Tiger Woods didn’t step on the Underpants saga the very next day. Sigh.)

Fundamentally, I’m with Dan: a Texan white guy named Joe Stack isn’t as interesting / enraging / anxiety-inducing as a Nigerian Muslim named Abdulmutallab. I’m also with Eve: Stack’s philosophy, unlike Abdulmutallab’s, is pretty kosher with many — maybe even most — Americans. We’re basically with him right up to the burn-down-your-house-and-fly-a-plane-into-a-building part of the story. Other than that part, right on, Joe Stack! (Heck, newly minted Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown all but said as much in a very clumsy TV appearance about this story the day after it happened.)

But I’m most intrigued by a couple of things Mike suggested. First, that Abdulmutallab’s actions fit into a much larger terrorism narrative that has stretched out for years, resulted in ongoing wars and decided presidential elections. Isolated, Underpants Man’s actions are surely milder than Stack’s — it still amazes me that a man flying a plane into a building doesn’t make us flinch much more — but Stack’s actions are just that: isolated.

Then again, what if they aren’t? That’s the other thing that intrigued me about what Mike wrote: “The FBI gets skittish when you ask what they do about domestic terrorist groups because they clearly realize that the line between domestic terrorist and political dissident can sometimes be a blurry one.” One thing that could’ve stretched out this Austin Wacko story out quite a bit longer is if the mainstream media had been bolder about connecting it to the larger anti-tax political phenomenon in this country today: the Tea Party. But most of us weren’t willing to go there. Why? Because we are perceived as being dismissive and condescending toward the movement — OK, we *are* dismissive and condescending toward the movement. In short, we tend to treat them like wackos and we are gun-shy about going the full Monty and suggesting they are this close to being *violent* wackos. The FBI is skittish about that blurry line, and so is the media. Better to leave it alone and move onto Tiger Woods. Hey, how about THAT guy, huh?

We see the same thing with anti-abortion violence. Anti-choicers bomb and set fire to clinics, harass patients, and kill doctors as part of an organized movement, but most mainstream media outlets hesitate to qualify those actions as terrorism. Because, you know, those people are just frustrated and I suppose they sometimes act inappropriately in response. Plus they don’t have beards.

To recap: Flying planes into buildings = mostly bad, but maybe a little bit ok if you hate taxes. Definitely all bad if you’re Muslim.

And here I thought “Don’t fly planes into buildings, that is really bad” could be a place where we all found common ground, like Obama has been talking about.

The Washington Post or The Onion?

Bin Laden blasts U.S. for climate change

My favorite part:

The change in rhetoric aims to give al-Qaida’s message an appeal beyond hardcore Islamic militants, said Evan Kohlmann, of, a private, U.S.-based terrorism analysis group.

“It’s a bridge issue,” Kohlmann said. “They are looking to appeal to people who don’t necessarily love al-Qaida but who are angry at the U.S. and the West, to galvanize them against the West” and make them more receptive to “alternative solutions like adopting violence for the cause.”

“If you’re looking to draw people who are disenchanted or disillusioned, what better issue to use than global warming,” he said.

I had to read the whole article a couple of times and double-and-triple-check that I was on the real Washington Post website. Amazing.

Roeder, voluntary manslaughter and the future of anti-abortion terrorism

I will write more about this later as time allows, but the judge in the Scott Roeder case — Roeder is the man who shot abortion provider George Tiller at Tiller’s church — has ruled that Roeder may present a case for voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Voluntary manslaughter is a less serious crime than murder, and subject to softer penalties. This doesn’t mean that Roeder is only being charged with voluntary manslaughter; my best guess based on the judge’s comments here is that he doesn’t want this case to be overturned on appeal, and so he’s allowing the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter as a lesser-included offense. Which makes sense.

Except that there are, of course, bigger issues at play. The judge at least rejected Roeder’s proposed “necessity” defense, but a jury will still have the option of giving Roeder a lighter sentence if the defense makes the case that Roeder had an “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” If the jury does buy that defense — and you can bet that Roeder’s team will make the trial about Dr. Tiller and abortion — it lessens the disincentives for other would-be terrorists to take out abortion providers. The promoters of anti-choice violence themselves admit as much:

A man who runs a Web site supporting violence against abortion providers said in the wake of the judge’s decision that he has changed his mind about attending Roeder’s trial.

The Rev. Don Spitz of Chesapeake, Va., said he and other activists from the Army of God plan to observe the court proceedings quietly next week.

“I am flabbergasted, but in a good way,” Spitz said of the judge’s decision.

Spitz acknowledged that the possibility of a voluntary manslaughter defense may influence some people who in the past wouldn’t kill abortion providers because of the prospect of a sentence of death or life imprisonment. “It may increase the number of people who may be willing to take that risk,” he said.

That isn’t to say that the judge’s reasoning isn’t legally sound; I haven’t read all the details, so I can’t really opine on that. But this is one of those situations where the law butts up against real-life dangers and, right or wrong, this defense may have dire consequences.

I hope the jury has the sense to convict Roeder for what he did: He killed Dr. Tiller in cold blood, after carefully planning the murder. I’m increasingly losing confidence in that outcome.

So basically we’re all going to die

Because our airports are run by dingbats.

Here’s what happened at Newark airport yesterday (thank Zeus I flew into LaGuardia):

1. Man walks through “Do Not Enter” doors, into a secure part of the airport terminal without going through security.
2. The security guard manning the doors apparently ignores him
3. A passenger sees the man walk through the “Do Not Enter” doors and alerts security
4. TSA tracks down the surveillance tapes of the terminal and sees that a man did indeed breeze into a secure zone without being checked.
5. TSA is unable to find the man in question.
6. Two and a half hours later, TSA shuts down the terminal and everyone is stranded.

I’m no expert in airport security, but could TSA not have pulled up other surveillance videos and perhaps looked at where the man went? I don’t love the idea of video surveillance in public places, but an airport is not a purely public place (especially in the post-security terminals). It would make a lot of sense for the terminals to be videotaped, and for those vides to be easily accessible. Then TSA could see where the heck the dude went instead of, say, jogging around the terminal looking for the dude in the gray shirt. Do these fools not watch CSI?

I don’t oppose closing the terminal if that’s what you have to do. But as others have pointed out:

Robert W. Mann Jr., an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, N.Y., said that evacuating the terminal was “consistent with what they’ve done in the past.” But he said he was concerned by the two and a half hours between when the man went through the do-not-enter door and when the terminal was shut down.

“Presumably,” he said, “if you’re going to do this, the time is immediately, not some lengthy period afterwards.”


Because of the terminal closure, passengers were stranded for hours and even overnight. Which is especially genius, since they can’t access their luggage, and that luggage contains all of their liquids and often medication, since our fairly arbitrary carry-on rules changed a few years ago:

She spent the next five hours in a customer service line, only to be told to return around noon Monday to be booked on a flight leaving around 4 p.m. She said she tried to explain that her mother needed pills in luggage that had been checked for their original flight. She said the Continental employee she was talking to told her, “Look at the long line I have to deal with.”

So people can’t get their medication, but look at the long line I have to deal with!

Not that I fault the poor Continental employee — she probably did have an enormous line to deal with! And she probably spent her entire day dealing with yelling, crying, threatening and generally unpleasant passengers. The point is that the airports need to do serious thinking on what the goal of airport security actually is, and then develop comprehensive security measures are actually necessary, instead of these stop-gap reactions to stupid shit that happened yesterday. Could TSA really not have predicted that someone would put explosives in their underpants? Have a solid few decades of a War on Drugs taught us nothing about how people smuggle contraband?

But, hey, we can’t pee on the last hour of international flights, so I feel safe.