Tuesday, April 23, 2013

somebody call a logician

Andrew Sullivan is making one of those stands of his. He has alleged that (of course) the Boston bombing "was jihad." It remains entirely unclear to me what people mean when they allege jihad, other than as a panicky signalling mechanism. But let's take the more direct issue at hand, whether the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by extremist religion. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Sullivan has proved that a) the elder Tsarnaev brother had strong Islamic religious convictions and that b) the brothers are very likely guilty of committing violent crimes. There's a missing connection there.

Sullivan (who is, as always, being very good about highlighting and addressing criticism of his own work), has essentially doubled down. Here he responds to Kevin Drum, and again, Sully seems to believe that all that is required to prove that the impetus was Islamic radicalism is to prove that the perpetrators were Muslim and that they committed violence. There's something missing, there.

To me, though, the question isn't whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev believed he was waging jihad. The question is, what's the difference for our next step? How and why would a religious motivation matter? Where the question of Islamic extremism is made relevant is in our perception that there is a larger network of extremists who are eager and able to launch violent attacks against this country. As you know, I'm a skeptic about the size and destructive ability of that network. But it is ancillary to the conversation, because all of our current best evidence suggests that the Tsarnaev brothers worked alone, and had no connection to Al Qaeda or any other anti-American group. The analogy for the Tsarnaev brothers shouldn't be to the 9/11 hijackers but to the Fort Hood shooter or the DC snipers. Sure: individuals or small groups have the ability to be inspired (in whole or in part) by Islam, along with personal anger and feelings of inadequacy and grievance against American foreign policy and plain old sociopathy. And because of the reality of modern technology, these people have the ability to kill other people. What they do not have, and should not be mistaken for having, is the ability to represent a serious threat to the basic security and prosperity of this or any other country.

Today, Sullivan quoted Norman Geras:
The supposed ‘overreaction’ to terrorist attacks isn’t primarily about the extent of risk relative to accidental death, or about fear for one’s own safety. It’s about people taking quite proper exception when, finding it morally outrageous indeed that, individuals moved by some grievance or other and/or the tenets of a murderous ideology, freely choose to put the innocent in peril by random acts of violence.
Well, first: this attitude is perfectly indicative of the American chauvinism that so many in the rest of the world find enraging, the notion that our moral outrage is somehow more important or more acute than those of non-Americans. And I would not be myself if I didn't point out that the United States, motivated by some grievance or other and/or the tenets of our murderous ideology, has freely chosen to put the innocent in peril by random acts of violence for much of our history, and attacks like 9/11 are directly related to that. The response to commit violence against Americans is most certainly not proper; in fact it's inexcusable. But please: let's talk like adults.

Talking like adults compels me to read the opinions of Geras and people like him and say, so what? What does the reason behind the panicked, enraged reaction have to do with the best public policy moving forward? Even if hatred and panic are natural reactions, they are not a rational, self-interested response to these types of events. I simply do not understand why adults, 12 years after 9/11, can't separate the moral and emotional revulsion to acts of terrorism from a rational, pragmatic response to those acts. I'm sorry that emotions are so inflamed, but grown ups have to learn to put self-destructive emotions aside for their own good. We've responded with panic and violent overreaction for too long. Time to change.

2 comments:

BJJ said...

"And I would not be myself if I didn't point out that the United States, motivated by some grievance or other and/or the tenets of our murderous ideology, has freely chosen to put the innocent in peril by random acts of violence for much of our history, and attacks like 9/11 are directly related to that."

'collateral damage' is such a powerful euphemism in this regard. Under the collateral rubric, no one is 'freely choosing' to hurt anybody. The peril of the innocent is simply the unfortunate byproduct of "a war we didn't ask for". Collateral imputes a moral necessity, a stark inevitability, so obviously unlike Terrorism, which is morally depraved, as it freely chooses its targets.

That's the difference between "them and Us". And so it goes.

VL said...

Freddie, you might appreciate Richard Kim's piece over at The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/blog/173964/boston-west-newtown-whom-bells-toll-whom-alarms-ring

It's a wonderful analysis of the difference in our responses to the Boston bombing and the plant explosion in West, TX. Sully should read it, too, though I'm not sure he'd be willing to be so critical of capitalism...