Friday, July 25, 2014

How to Fight Terrorism in the Information Age

If you're scared of violent Islamic jihad (and everyone should be) then you should at least entertain the idea that fighting it with conventional warfare, whether in Gaza or Afghanistan or Iraq or with drones or standing armies, will only feed it. It is an ideology that does not limit itself to political borders and it's primary tactic is fear-based propaganda and therefore it does not generally define victory in terms of conquered land or body count, rather it strives for influence. 

The past 20 years have seen a fundamental change in the way information travels which has given rise to a fundamental difference in the way humans relate to each other: we are now spectacularly interconnected, and now ideas can spread throughout populations without central control. It's more democratic and unpredictable, and there are fewer and fewer choke points where you can control it. 

Traditional warfare is designed to control the choke point of a government and it's influence on its population. When you are dealing with an adversary who's primary mode of operation is via traditional government power, then this is an effective tactic. This is why World War II was so tidy - the offending aspects of Nazi Germany and Japan were so highly concentrated in government structure that you could bomb that government structure into submission and solve your problem. Islomofascism on the other hand has concentrated all of its power in the abstract ideas such as religious interpretation, narratives about cultural identity and a claim to being a counterpoint to Western aggression, and there is no similar choke point for traditional warfare to attack. 

The modern face of terrorism is ultimately nothing more than a tactic they use to spread these abstract ideas, and it has been uniquely effective at using the new environment of global information flow to do this. Its success is completely independent of whether a particular entity named Hamas or Al Qaida or Sadam Hussein is in power, and instead it is wholly dependent on how individuals react to their environment and how their personal experiences affect the narrative that is spreading throughout the global information environment. 

This is why Governments who are fighting against terrorism need to shift away from relying on conventional warfare and instead meet the terrorists in this new battleground of ideas and narratives. Islamic Jihad has grown in leaps and bounds over the past 15 years because they have played the long game and have been able to slowly grow the idea that the West is imperial, violent, selfish, greedy, and that it will corrupt local cultures. Whether or not this is true, this is the narrative that is out there, and every time Israel invades Gaza or the US launches a drone strike it becomes a little more common or a little more engrained in Muslim or Arab culture and identity. The terrorists are only fanning this flame by launching various small scale attacks that invite a heavy military response from Western governments. 

Governments need to respond to this by figuring out ways to change how the narrative is formed in the minds of everyone who is watching (which is pretty much everyone in the internet era) so that fewer people are receptive to extremist ideologies. Bombs and invasions are counterproductive here. We have to play the long game and respond to our adversaries' needs and desires as much as reasonably possible and move to a more fair and equitable treatment of them so that their societies can develop and promote ideas that  fundamentally change the situation for the better. It's the only thing that will lead to a long term improvement in the situation, and it is the only approach that would be directly counteracting terrorist tactics. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts on Historical Arguments in the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

As is often the case, these blog posts are prompted by a reaction to something I read or some video I encounter. In this case, I wrote the following in response to someone who sent me this video: 

Here is my response:

Well it seems like the central argument here is that the idea of Palestine having its own national identity is either a fabrication by the Romans and the Brits, or it is a sort of counterweight concocted by terrorists to combat the presence of Zionism in the region. Then, this is counterbalanced by a narrative about a long suffering Jewish people who were forcibly kicked out of their homeland, forbidden to return throughout the millennia, often persecuted, yet somehow they managed to maintain cultural cohesion throughout this extended period, and finally they were able to return to their homeland only to find it relatively empty at which point they proceeded to peacefully acquire it and prosper on it. 

I think this argument is just stating the obvious that the Muslim society that had developed in pre-1930s Palestine was tribal and therefore it did not fit modern, Western definitions of nationality. I disagree because the direction they're going with this sort of thinking, implies that this is somehow less valuable than a Jewish heritage that better conforms to arbitrary Western ideals about culture and identity, ultimately contributing to the fact that the modern descendants of these peoples are denied things like security, self determination and prosperity for questionable reasons.

The Arabs living in the region didn't think of themselves as Palestinians in the same way that Native Americans didn't really think of themselves as Indians with a cohesive identity when the Europeans began to settle their lands. In the case of Native Americans, as history progressed the outside influence and common adversity they experienced due to European conquest caused them to coalesce around a sort of national identity that was actually an entirely European construct. In a similar vein, it is true that the delineation of borders that have come to define modern ideas of Palestine are ultimately traced to British, Ottoman, or even Roman political realities. These gradual geopolitical maneuvers took place over the course of millennia and they represent the result of a complex mixture of self-interest, religious fervor and pragmatism that was in constant flux depending on the empire of the moment. At times these forces were responsive to local ethnic and religious boundaries, but more often than not they weren't and therefore - much as it did with the Native Americans - these forces gave rise to new national identities of which Palestinians are only one example. The geographic and cultural boundaries that define countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and so on, are generally a result of British imperial policy and not some sort of longstanding, cohesive cultural heritage that gives a particular group of people a claim to the land. 

And this is exactly why I have very little regard for arguments that focus on the existence of a certain narrow definition of cultural identity amongst the Jews and the lack thereof amongst the Palestinians - especially when we are talking about events surrounding a specific grouping of people who lived over 100 years ago, let alone millennia. The dynamics that governed and influenced the formation of those societies and borders were always more complex than contemporary "birthright"-style arguments of any stripe permit, and furthermore these dynamics were generally unfair to significant factions of locals living on the land at the time depending on their relationship to the empire that happened to be in power. If these historical decisions were so unfair and disconnected from the local populations of the day, why in the world would we hold to their often destructive consequences with such tenacity and attempt to solve today's problems by giving them contemporary authority?

We should definitely strive to have an accurate understanding of these dynamics so that we can be better informed about how they have influenced the realities of today - I think we should even make decisions that are considerate of the modern day consequences of these influences - but we really need to stop trying to inflate simplistic understandings of these dynamics with some sort of divine or even moral authority. 

Hamas does this; Jewish settlers do this; it is a significant contributing factor to creating a citizenry that is excessively pro-Israel in the United States; it feeds anti-Semitism around the world; it helps create and bolsters the expansionist policy that Israel has been pursuing for the past sixty years or more; it helps create and bolster the extremist elements within Palestinian society; etc... etc... etc... 

Everyone needs to stop it as soon as possible, but someone - I really don't care who, but I tend to be hopeful that the Israeli side is in the best position to do this - will have to be the metaphorical adult and stop it first, because as long as all parties believe that they have moral or divine rights to a particular plot of land - people will suffer and die. 

Now I could get nitpicky about the veracity of various facts in the video and I could write volumes illuminating those that are true in a more neutral, contemplative light. I can bring up additional facts that are a testament to Jewish aggression towards a large native population, and I can come up with more comparisons with other historical events that show that humans don't generally respect historical claims to land, and so on, but ultimately I really don't care about all of these factors. 

The history is long and it is way too messy. Any honest assessment is going to find plenty of dirt on both sides so let's stop trying to selectively use it to prove one side right, and instead selectively use it to understand where the other side is coming from, what their concerns are and how they have been damaged. 

When and if that sort of thinking becomes widespread in either society, a lot of really big and daunting problems will disappear. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yes, Some Israelis Sit on a Hill and Cheer as the IDF Bombards Gaza and It's Terrible - But Stop Acting Like it Matters

Every three years or so when Israel launches a ground invasion in Gaza, we dust off the same rhetoric about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  None of it is useful because most of it is simplistic misrepresentation or hyperbole. Take for instance this type of youtube video that trends on my Facebook feed during the invasions:

There is no doubt that these people are disgusting, but thankfully they are also rare. Every society has their fringe crazies - the US has Westboro Baptist Church, for instance - and they generally get way more attention than they deserve by being controversial.

This isn't to say that there isn't a problem with Israeli society's attitude toward the Palestinians, it's just to say that I think it is a problem that is far more subtle and widespread. Focusing so much attention on a small percentage of religious fanatics can be important because it does represent a movement and ideology that is problematic, but it has very little direct relevance to the current conflict.

The real problem, in my opinion, is a unique mixture of nationalism and a lopsided insulation from the reality of the conflict that is very common in Israeli society.

Israeli society is uniquely coherent in a particular way that stems from the relatively homogenous cultural identity facilitated by Judaism, and this coherence is also strengthened by the fact that Israeli society was built in the face of and as a direct result of considerable adversity. I think that this does allow for a sort of groupthink that inhibits Israel's ability to treat the Palestinians in a humane manner, but the effect manifests itself through society as a sort of cultural blindness and it manifests through the political process as hawkish policy.

(Also, whether or not you think they had the right to build that society in the first place is beside the point right now, I'm only talking about the existence of the unifying influence of adversity, and the effect it has on policy and the national psyche)

The other component of it is the simple fact that Israelis are extremely insulated from the realities of the Palestinian sufferings.

Even in the heat of a conflict like this, Israelis can pretty much go about their lives unimpeded. It is true that the rocket attacks are disruptive and that there is on a whole an unacceptably high level of danger from external attacks, but Israelis have leveraged a security apparatus that minimizes these realities in day to day life to an astounding degree, all things considered, and this fact is a double edge sword that creates a perfect breeding ground for indifference.

One side of the sword is that these measures are extremely effective at improving the lives of Israelis in the short term. However the other side of the sword is that it obviously makes these measures popular and politically successful. Furthermore, with all the calm and prosperity, it is very easy to forget about the abysmal conditions being imposed on 1.8 million people just thirty kilometers or so from your doorstep. The only time they really have to deal with the issue is when there is an inevitable flareup of violence at which point, naturally, people tend to be less empathetic. The rest of the time, during the lulls, the prospect of empathy is just placed on the back burner.

These are the tendencies that need to be addressed.

However calling Israel the 4th Reich and placing so much focus on youtube videos that give Israel's religious fanatics undue prominence is just as useless and destructive as all the Israelis and Israel sympathizers who insist on viewing Palestinian society as an unchanging, violent monolith that is accurately represented by its extremist elements.

The fact of the matter is that there are significant movements within Israeli society that are in fact attempting to change these trends. The same is true of Palestinian society, however it is more difficult for those movements because of the repressions imposed by Hamas, culture and environment.

If there is to be any hope in this situation, Israel's role as the dominant, occupying force means that they have the first move. They will have to shift from focusing on isolation and self-preservation to one of empathy to the average Palestinian, an empathy that is so strong that they must be willing to take considerable personal risks and let up their stranglehold on Palestinian society and allow them to prosper.

Because only then will the environment be in any way conducive for Palestinians to take considerable personal risks and defy the status quo en masse. Only then will the false succor of violent religious extremism loose its appeal.

Until that happens, we'll the cycle seems to return to square one every two or three years and I expect to have this discussion again sometime around 2017.

Unfortunately, it is going to be a hard and unlikely road because it takes a lot of empathy and effort to rise up and take huge risks during the times of quiet when prosperity and security easily distract from the continuing plight of the Palestinians. These aren't common traits. Humans are a very tribal species and we're not good at this kind of stuff when it concerns someone different who you don't have to interact with. This challenge is hardly unique to the Jews.