Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 04 Aug 2015 17:17:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Major Indirect Benefits of Obama’s Climate Plan that could save the World Tue, 04 Aug 2015 08:30:52 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama spoke on Monday on his plan to use the Environmental Protection Agency to pressure states to close high-carbon power plants and reduce CO2 emissions by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The US Supreme Court has ruled that carbon dioxide is a form of pollution and so regulating it falls under the EPA’s purview.

This part of his plan is in my view the least interesting thing about it. Because Obama uses a 2005 benchmark, the historical height of our carbon emissions when the US put up 6 billion tons of CO2 a year, it will be fairly easy to meet his unambitious goal of reducing CO2 by a third from that high mark. Just a bad economy since 2008 has already caused US emissions to fall to 5.4 billion tons annually. And, the electricity generation sector only accounts for 32 percent of carbon produced by the US. So the reductions come in only about 2 billion a year of these emissions. The US has to get those 2 billion down to 1.267 billion. The total annual reduction by 2030 is therefore just .73 tons per annum. We’re still putting out over 5 billion tons a year and will go on doing nearly that through 2030. Obama’s plan would get us down to 4.67 billion tons a year. eh.


Let’s be clear. We need to be at net carbon zero by 2030. We don’t need to cut out less than a ton of emissions. We need to cut out almost all of our 5.4 billion tons.

So if we only focused on this relatively minor reduction in over-all CO2 emissions, which can largely be achieved by closing down some very dirty coal plants, I think we would miss the bigger picture.

Our best hope for carbon reduction is steep price drops in the cost of generating electricity by wind and solar; in the cost of installing wind turbines and solar panels; and in the cost of storing energy in batteries. If those price drops are achieved, we’ll head toward vast reductions in emissions regardless of what the EPA does. No one is going to pay 12 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity (our current national average) if it can be had for 2 cents a kilowatt hour, all other things being equal.

So here are some indirect benefits of Obama’s plan.

His mandate of a 32 percent reduction in CO2 is a concrete goal that all states and all utilities can reasonably meet. States and utilities have reason not to reduce CO2. Some states have a coal lobby or are invested in natural gas. Utilities are afraid that rooftop solar panels plus better, cheaper battery storage could make them unnecessary. There is always an expense in putting in a new energy plant– why do it if the old, black smoke-belching coal plant can still turn steam turbines and the construction costs were sunk decades ago? This plan makes them do what otherwise they would likely choose not to.

That the Federal goal exists and is mandatory will begin working into American consciousness and law that CO2 emissions are a tort, and good faith efforts must be made to ameliorate the damage being caused. American law is all about private property, and damaging property is always actionable. Well, nothing damages property like climate change.

If court judges and juries begin accepting that putting carbon into the atmosphere is injurious, the way tobacco smoking is, lawsuits in the courts could begin prevailing. The EPA won’t have to close coal plants if consumers can bankrupt them with class action lawsuits.

Swanson’s law states that with every doubling of orders for solar panels, their cost falls by 20%. Since Obama’s EPA mandate requires states to replace high-carbon energy sources like coal and natural gas with virtually no-carbon ones like wind and solar, the utilities will be ordering *a lot* of solar panels. Could orders double annually? It is already crazy not to put solar panels on your roof if you are a home owner and are going to be in your house 10 years or more. You are right now costing yourself money. But if the panels get 20% cheaper every year for five years then it will be truly insane not to put them up. And of course if this is obvious to home owners it will also be obvious to industry. Walmart and Ikea are already going in this direction, and neither could be accused of not knowing how to make and save money.

Obama’s plan has $4 billion in government and private business commitments to research and development on clean energy. That is a lot of R&D money. In addition, the requirement of a 30% reduction in carbon at electricity plants will cause energy firms and states to pitch in even more for research. We are probably on the brink of huge breakthroughs in solar panels. New materials such as graphene or perovskites would be massively cheaper than silicon. Ways of increasing efficiency will also be found.

Rapid falls in price of materials and installation because of mass production will produce a technological disruption, as Tony Seba of Stanford calls it. There are tipping points in technology adoption such that sometimes old technologies are superseded with lightning speed. Seba shows a photo of the Easter Day parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1900, and it is almost all horse and carriages with one automobile.

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He shows another slide, of the same parade in 1913 after the Model T came out. It is all automobiles.

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So the reduction by .7 tons a year of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030 is not the story here. It is the technological and marketing side effects of that mandate that matter. Government regulation, certainly on this scale, won’t solve the problem in and of itself. But government steps that encourage business and consumers to take millions of consequential decisions are essential. The CO2 reduction mandate functions as a sort of carbon tax for states and utilities.

The big story here, then, is that Obama is accelerating what could be (if it is not sabotaged) a vast technological disruption. The old horse and buggy of coal plants and fracking and natural gas could well disappear far more rapidly than most analysts now anticipate. But if the Koch brothers and Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Gas have their way, we’ll go on belching noxious gases into our fragile atmosphere and leave our grandchildren far more likely to be drowned or scorched.

Related video:

The White House: ” President Obama on America’s Clean Power Plan”

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Russia Condemns US Mission Creep, New Bombing Plans for Syria Tue, 04 Aug 2015 06:32:33 +0000 Russia Today | (Video Report) | – –

Editorial note: Russia Today is an organ of the Russian government, so this report is not independent, critical analysis. On the other hand, Russia is a player in Syria and what it thinks is important, and US media tend not to report outside-the-Beltway points of view. Just take it for what it is worth:

RT reports: ” The US president has reportedly authorized the Air Force to protect Syrian rebels trained by Washington to fight against Islamic State by bombing any force attacking them, including Syrian regular troops. Thus the US may become involved in the Syrian civil war on the rebel side. The change was first reported by US officials speaking on condition of anonymity with the Wall Street Journal Sunday. The first airstrikes to protect American trainees in Syria have already taken place on Friday, July 31, when the US Air Force bombed unidentified militants who attacked the compound of the US-trained rebels.”

RT: “Obama authorizes airstrikes ‘to defend’ Syrian rebels, target Assad troops if necessary”

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Pic of the Day: Palestinians shield Israeli policewoman from stone-throwers Tue, 04 Aug 2015 05:45:43 +0000 CLaHdkQUkAMjxOt

N.B. A reader wrote in to say that they were protecting her from Palestinian stone-throwers, not settlers.

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Rebuilding destroyed Palestinian homes: Resistance one house at a time Tue, 04 Aug 2015 05:25:03 +0000 By: Anna Kokko | (Ma’an News Agency) | – –

ANATA (Ma’an) — In the northeastern corner of the Palestinian village of Anata, between the separation wall and Israel’s illegal settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, a crowd of about a hundred people has gathered for a celebration.

On a small stage, a group of twenty foreign activists claps and sings about rebuilding and resistance. At the end of the song, a key is handed to a Palestinian man, Hajaj Fhadad.

Soon after, Fhadad’s extended family of 11 children and two other adults start carrying their furniture into a house that did not exist two weeks ago.

Outside the property, wind is humming through the newly planted orange and lemon trees, gifts from the volunteers of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), who built the home with the help of Palestinian construction workers.

Just a couple of months before, the Fhadad family did not have much to celebrate. Their previous house, under a demolition order from the Israeli authorities, was destroyed twice.

In fact, it was the father of the family, Hajaj, who took the light hammer into his own hands each time the Israeli bulldozers came. By destroying the home himself, he could avoid paying for the Israeli municipal workers who were sent to do the job.

For Hajaj, it was also an attempt to trick the authorities; by destroying only parts of the house, his family could somehow continue living in other parts of it, albeit in harsh conditions.

Fighting ethnic cleansing

The Fhadad family are not the only Palestinians who have seen their home in ruins in the seam zone northeast of Jerusalem.

According to the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem (ARIJ), at least 14 houses in the village of Anata have been demolished since 2004, including one kindergarten. As of 2007, the town had a population of close to 1,900 residents.

Jeff Halper from ICAHD estimates that about 60 of the village’s houses have been destroyed since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967.

The total number of houses destroyed in the Palestinian territories during the same period is 46,000, the organization reports.

“It is a clear policy of ethnic cleansing, and of Judaizing the country,” Halper says.

Palestinian building and planning is highly restricted in Area C, around 60 percent of the West Bank under complete Israeli security and administrative control following the Oslo Accords.

Each year, Israel only approves a handful of Palestinian building permits in Area C, while the majority of Israel’s illegal settlements are located in same area.

Palestinian houses built without permission face the immediate threat of demolition.

Having emigrated from the United States to Israel in 1973, Halper co-founded ICAHD in 1997 to protest these systematic demolitions.

While the organization has rebuilt a total of 189 houses all over the West Bank and Israel, their annual reconstruction summer camp has always been held in Anata, now for the thirteenth time.

The division of labor is clear: The local committee in Anata decides which of the villagers’ houses needs to be rebuilt, while ICAHD gathers the participants as well as the funds for the materials and salaries of Palestinian construction specialists.

A large part of the funding comes from the campers, who pay $1,700 dollars for their participation.

“It isn’t Israelis helping poor Palestinians. Instead, we’re resisting together,” Halper says.

Jeff Halper, co-founder of ICAHD, at the dedication ceremony on Sunday. (MaanImages/Anna Kokko)

Demolition of a society

In practice, however, the camp participants are mostly foreign activists. Coming from countries such as Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom, some are in their early twenties while others have already retired.

One of the elderly participants, 67-year-old Gordon Pedrow from the United States, says the camp was some of the hardest work he has ever done.

“We’re all office workers here,” he says. “The camp is real physical work in a hot environment.”

In addition to the reconstruction work, the campers made field visits to other Palestinian cities and had lectures from local human rights organizations and activists. Pedrow says that the two weeks were “a tremendous experience” but also emotionally draining.

“This opened my eyes to a systematic demolition of not only houses but of a whole society,” the former city manager says.

Fhadad family in front of their new house. (MaanImages/Anna Kokko)

Although there are newcomers as well, many of the participants have been to the camps more than once. All have a long-time interest in the Palestinian cause, but for some, the road to activism has not been smooth.

Such is the case of Miika Malinen, for example. Originally from Finland, Malinen lived in Bethlehem and West Jerusalem for 15 years of his childhood while his parents worked as Christian missionaries. At the dinner table, Israel was never criticized.

“We lived in a very nice, international bubble, not wanting to grasp what was happening around us,” he recalls.

After a long process of studying and reading reports, Malinen flew back to the occupied Palestinian territories to do field research. Participating in the rebuilding camp was a years-long dream.

“Meeting the (Palestinian) people here touches you in a different way than reading the reports,” he says.

Destruction in 15 minutes

A few kilometers away from the construction site, the campers have stayed for the two weeks at the house of one of the Palestinian organizers.

Next to the house, ICAHD has left the ruins of one demolished house on display.

“I was rebuilding this house two or three times,” says Bruno Jantti, head of the Finnish branch of ICAHD.

He thinks that facing the rubble every day is a good reminder of the reality of the occupation.

“The result of our work can be destroyed in 15 minutes,” Jantti says. “The Palestinians here are living under constant uncertainty, never knowing when a demolition can happen.”

As one of the participants puts it, the newly built house is just “one small step towards ending the occupation.” But Jeff Halper, the head of ICAHD, sees an increase rather than an end of the Israeli practice of house demolitions.

“We see demolitions almost every day now. There is a lot of pressure especially in the Jordan Valley,” he says.

The director believes that large-scale destruction is awaiting also the Palestinian village of Susiya, which has gained international attention after the Israeli authorities ordered its demolition after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

“Israel feels that it has won, while the Palestinians are too fragmented to resist. Nobody is going to stop them,” Halper says.

Whether the Fhadad family can stay in their house long enough to see the citrus trees grow remains open, too. But at least on Sunday night, they had a new roof on top of their heads.

Via Ma’an News Agency

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Grandson of Meir Kahane arrested for burning baby; part of extremist network Tue, 04 Aug 2015 05:12:23 +0000 By Celine Hagbard | (IMEMC News )

As Israeli investigators release their findings that a right-wing Jewish terrorist network is gaining power throughout Israel and illegal West Bank settlements, an arrest has been made in the arson attack Thursday night that burned a baby to death and severely wounded his mother, father and 4-year old brother.

The alleged arsonist, who smiled and joked as he was taken into custody, is 24-year old Meir Ettinger, the grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was known for his racism and incitement against Arabs, as well as direct involvement in violent racist attacks.

His arrest came five days after the attack, and is the only one so far, despite eyewitness accounts that at least four men were seen running from the village after setting the house on fire with a firebomb and spraypainting it with racist graffiti.

As Meir Ettinger was taken into custody, police investigators told reporters from Ha’aretz newspaper that they suspect the involvement of a right-wing network that is based in Yitzhar settlement, in the northern West Bank, and has planned and carried out dozens of terror attacks against Palestinians.

The group is also suspected of carrying out the arson that burned the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, a holy site for Christians, late last year.



Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT: “18-month-old Palestinian baby arson killing sparks public anger, Israeli president receives threats”

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Top 5 Ways Obama’s ‘All of the Above’ Politics led to Sanders & Trump Mon, 03 Aug 2015 07:54:08 +0000 By Juan Cole – (Informed Comment) –

It is said that one of the things President Obama wanted to talk to comedian Jon Stewart about was his occasional cynicism. “Obama scolded him for turning young Americans cynical.”

But the approach to politics taken by Obama until recently — of promising genuine change but governing as a Republican Lite — did more to spur cynicism than any of Stewart’s cartoony double-takes at Washington hypocrisy. Obama has some accomplishments, but in key areas he was so willing to compromise that he lost sight of his mandate for change.

Trump Swiftboats McCain the Way W. Swiftboated John Kerry

The feeling that Obama’s administration was in many ways a continuation of rather than a break with Bush is one of the things impelling voters on both sides of the aisle to support mavericks. I do not mean to compare Bernie Sanders in any way to Donald Trump. Sen. Sanders is a thoughtful man with real gravitas. But the discontents into which he has tapped come in part from a feeling in portions of the electorate that Establishment candidates will not serve them.

Here are what I see as turning points in Obama’s gradual betrayal of hope and change:

1. Frontline reported that the National Security Agency waited 2 years, until 2010, to read Obama into their vast spying operation on millions of innocent Americans, a clear violation of the 4th Amendment. It said that Obama just nodded. What?? How is this all right? Although most Americans are so sheepified they don’t mind being tracked this way, the Libertarian Republicans and the left of the Democratic Party are furious.

2. Obama keeps warning about global warming, and is now finally using the EPA to do at least something about it. But his energy slogan was ‘all of the above’ and he actually boasted about the US fracking to get petroleum! He just authorized arctic drilling. Off the top of my head, I figure that during the time he has been in office, the US has emitted about 5.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, or about 34 *billion* tons in six and a half years.That was 34 billion tons the world couldn’t afford. There was only a slight dip, mostly because of the bad economy. I’m just confused by Obama on this issue. And I and the majority of Democrats and a fifth of Republicans are very alarmed. I know Trump’s people don’t believe in human-made climate change, but Obama’s whole style, of which these contradictions are an example, has exasperated everyone. The Status Quo must rule or if changed must change over decades.

3. After the 2008-2009 crash, Obama let Wall Street skate. He has changed so little that exactly the same crisis could now be repeated.

4. Obama’s fascination with drone assassinations makes him judge, jury and executioner. This is Karl Rove / W.’s unitary executive, and Bush deployed drones – but Obama has way outdone him. The democratic left is uneasy with it because it doesn’t like the idea of extra-judicial executions. The Republican right is afraid Obama will use the drones on Americans he doesn’t like.

5. Although Obama decries growing wealth inequality in America and makes fun of our system whereby our 400 billionaires increasingly pick the president, he’s done nothing that I can see about it. There are anti-trust laws on the books. But Eric Holder, who would have been the one to enforce them, is a man of Wall Sreet & now has gone to a law firm that lobbies for big banks. Even Trump tweeted on Sunday:

@realDonaldTrump: I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?

Some of Trump’s popularity may come from people figuring he won’t be beholden to the Wall Street Establishment because he has his own money. Sanders’s constituency is jumping up and down furious about the wealth gap and Citizens United.

The likelihood is that we will get another Establishment all of the above president, and that more Americans will become cynical.

A democracy with a cynical and apathetic electorate is in danger of declining into dictatorship or exploding into social unrest.

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Turkey’s AKP strikes back: the Politics of attacking both KurdS & ISIL Mon, 03 Aug 2015 06:42:30 +0000 By Tristan Dunning – (The Conversation) – –

Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland

Stemming from a presumed Islamic State (IS) suicide bombing killing 32 leftist Kurdish university students in Suruc and the killing of several Turkish policeman claimed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkey has begun bombarding both IS forces in Syria and PKK bases located in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.

But what has provoked this punishing campaign? It’s a sharp reversal of policy given the considerable political capital that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has expended in: a) attempting to remain above the fray in Syria; and b) the peace process with the PKK, which angered many Turkish nationalists.

Although Turkey’s actions can be viewed on multiple levels, one could do worse than invoke Clausewitz’s maxim:

War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.

The most obvious answer is that this is a security issue. Both IS and the PKK have attacked Turkish citizens and members of the security services so it is unsurprising that the Turkish government has retaliated. Like all governments, its priority is to protect its citizens.

Strong leadership as an election pitch

However, a number of other considerations are at play. A more cynical interpretation would look to Turkey’s domestic politics. Since June’s elections, when the AKP failed to win an outright majority for the first time in 13 years, Turkish political parties have been unable to form a coalition government. This means the possibility of fresh elections in the near future is very real.

By embarking on a course of armed conflict, the AKP may be positioning itself with an eye to elections by invoking a garrison nationalism. The AKP will claim that now, more than ever, Turkey needs a strong majority government. Armed conflict is a tried and tested method to persuade nationalists and conservatives alike to “circle the wagons” and support the incumbent power.

At the last elections, the AKP also lost some of its traditional base, conservative Kurds, to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP won 80 seats, a gain of 51, as the AKP was left 18 seats short of a majority. This was largely due to anger over the government’s inaction during the siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane.

Many Kurds believe that the Turkish government is in cahoots with IS. Opposition figures have gone so far as to label government officials “accomplices” to the Suruc bombing.

The specific targeting of Kurdish university students planning a reconstruction trip to Kobane is noteworthy for several reasons.

First, this recalled both the siege of the town and the subsequent IS suicide mission there in June, which massacred more than 150.

Second, IS has denounced the PKK and its affiliates in Syria as “atheists”. This highlights the diametrically opposed visions that contending movements have for the future of the region.

Third, the bombing may have been intended to sow distrust and create a further rift between Turkish Kurds and the government. By responding strongly, the Turkish government is attempting to dispel the theory that it has been collaborating with IS, and thereby win back the conservative Kurd vote. The notionally progressive agenda of the newly elected HDP, for instance on LGBT rights, does not necessarily sit well with conservative Kurds.

The AKP similarly lost votes to the far right because Turkish nationalists were angry about the peace process with the PKK inaugurated by President Recep Erdogan in 2013. As such, the Turkish government’s attacks on the PKK can be viewed as a similar ploy to win back the nationalist vote.

The attacks will also wedge the pro-Kurdish HDP, which ran on a Turkey-wide agenda to win over the non-Kurdish progressive protest vote against Erdogan’s plans to centralise power with the presidency. In short, the HDP will be asked:

Are you pro-Turkey or pro-PKK?

As a result, the HDP could lose non-Kurdish votes in particular and fall back below the 10% threshold required for representation in parliament. Should this happen, the AKP will be the main beneficiary under Turkey’s system of proportional representation as it is still by far the highest-polling party.

Exploiting Kurdish divisions

It is also worth noting that the PKK is not all that popular with many Kurds, especially conservatives. They see the PKK as rigid doctrinaire Marxists and atheists.

Turkish actions against the PKK, in addition, afford the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq a variety of opportunities. The turmoil allows the KRG to capitalise on the situation in its ongoing turf war with the PKK.

The KRG has accused the PKK of encroaching on its territory and there has been notable tension over the city of Sinjar. KRG president Masoud Barzani has also cleverly moved to position himself as peacemaker between Turkey and the PKK to enhance his prestige within both Turkey and the wider Kurdish national movement.

Mending relations with the US and NATO

Finally, Turkey has been welcomed back into the US and NATO fold following a year of tension arising from the Turkish government’s perceived inaction on IS.

The US-Turkish deal allowing the US to use the Turkish airbase at Incirlik not only cements Washington’s support of Ankara’s security concerns, but also fulfils Turkey’s long-held desire to create a buffer, or “safe”, zone in Syria.

Extending west of the Euphrates to Aleppo province, such a zone will, in turn, prevent the cantons of Syrian Kurdistan from uniting. That is a scenario that the Turkish government views as a potential existential threat to the Turkish state.

Presumably establishing this safe zone will also help stem the flow of Syrian refugees to Turkey, which already accommodates more than 1.5 million.

Blowback from both IS and the PKK is possible, but if and when this occurs such reprisals will be used to validate the Turkish government’s nationalist/security-orientated agenda. In purely political terms (as opposed to ethical considerations and potential death tolls), the Turkish government has deftly taken the tragedy at Suruc and translated it into both domestic and international political gains.

The Conversation

Tristan Dunning is Honorary Research Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at The University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Tristan Dunning is Honorary Research Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at The University of Queensland


Related video link by Juan Cole:

Euronews: ” Turkey: two soldiers killed in suicide attack blamed on PKK”

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America’s Mass Killings and our National Security State Mon, 03 Aug 2015 06:13:15 +0000 By Karen J. Greenberg –

Imagine that you’re in the FBI and you receive a tip — or more likely, pick up information through the kind of mass surveillance in which the national security state now specializes. In a series of tweets, a young man has expressed sympathy for the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, or another terrorist group or cause. He’s 16, has no criminal record, and has shown no signs that he might be planning a criminal act. He does, however, seem angry and has demonstrated an interest in following ISIS’s social media feeds as they fan the flames of youth discontent worldwide. He’s even expressed some thoughts about how ISIS’s “caliphate,” the Islamic “homeland” being carved out in Syria and Iraq, might be a place where people like him could find meaning and purpose in an otherwise alienated life.

A quick search of his school records shows that his grades, previously stellar, are starting to fall. He’s spending more time online, increasingly clicking on jihadist websites. He has, you discover, repeatedly read news stories about mass killings in the U.S. Worse yet, his parents own legally registered guns. A search of his medical records shows that he’s been treated by a psychiatrist.

As a member of law enforcement, what exactly do you do now? You know that in recent years, mass killings have become an all-too-frequent part of American life. There were the Chattanooga military recruitment office shootings; the Charleston church killings; the abortive attack on a Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas; the Boston marathon bombing; the Sandy Hook school slaughter; and the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and most recently, in Lafayette, Louisiana. Loners, losers, jihadis, racists — label the killers as you will — as a law enforcement agent, you feel the pressure to prevent such events from happening again.

Given the staggering array of tools granted to the national security state domestically since 9/11, it’s a wonder (not to say a tragic embarrassment) that such killings occur again and again. They are clearly not being prevented and at least part of the reason may lie in the national security state’s ongoing focus on “counterterrorism,” that is, on Islamic extremism. For the most part, after all, these mass murders have not been committed by Islamic extremists. From the more than 100 deaths of this sort since the Aurora shooting three summers ago, only eight were killed by individuals inspired by Islamic radicalism.

Soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft declared an all-out, no-holds-barred policy of terrorism “prevention.” Another 9/11 was to be avoided at all costs and a “global war on terror” was quickly set in motion.

Domestically, in the name of prevention, the government launched a series of measures that transformed the American landscape when it came to both surveillance and civil rights. Yet despite the acquisition of newly aggressive powers of every sort, law enforcement has a woeful record when it comes to catching domestic mass murderers before the damage is done. In fact, a vanishingly small number of them have even shown up on the radar of the national security state.

The ability to collect all phone metadata from all Americans has not deterred these attacks, nor has the massive surveillance of Muslim communities in the U.S., nor did the use of FBI informants to encourage often disturbed, trash-talking individuals towards jihadist crimes. In short, the government’s strategy of preventing attacks by individuals we’ve now come to call “lone wolves” has failed, despite the curtailing of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association, religion, and speech and the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of freedom from warrantless surveillance.

Time for a Change

As someone who has followed the development of the national security state carefully in the post-9/11 era and spent a fair amount of time talking publicly and privately with law enforcement agents and officials, I can see that many of them are aware of such problems and frustrated with the old approach. They know something’s not working and that it’s time for a change — and a change is, in fact, coming. Whether it’s the change that’s needed is the question.

Aware of the legacy of the Bush years, the Obama White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI have spent much time and effort rethinking previous policies and have designed what they are calling a “new” approach to security. It’s meant to partner prevention — the dominant strategy of the past — with a new word that has come into favor: “intervention.” The goal is to intervene with youth attracted to extremism before violence can occur. As with so many attempts at government redesign, the new policy already has its own name and acronym. It’s labeled “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE. It’s meant to marry the post-9/11 law enforcement and intelligence-driven profiling of potential terrorists with an approach borrowed from non-law-enforcement programs like those designed to help individuals deal with and break the pattern of drug or alcohol abuse.

The new CVE program will theoretically rely on a three-pronged strategy: building awareness of the causes of radicalization, countering extremist narratives (especially online), and emphasizing community-led intervention by bringing together law enforcement, local service providers, outreach programs, local governments, and academics. It is, in other words, meant to be a kinder, gentler means of addressing potential violence before it occurs, of coming to grips with that 16-year-old who’s surfing jihadist websites and wondering about his future.

The White House recently convened a “summit” on this “new” strategy, with law enforcement officials, Muslim community leaders, and others, and Congress is now considering a bill that would create a new government agency to implement it. It sounds good. After all, who’s against keeping the country safe and reducing violent extremism? But just how new is it really? In essence, the national security state will be sending more or less the same line-up of ideas to the plate with instructions to potentially get even more invasive, taking surveillance down to the level of disturbed kids and community organizations. Why then should we expect the softer-nicer version of harder-tougher to look any better or prove any more effective? Coming up with a new name and an acronym is one thing, genuinely carrying out a different program involving a new approach is another.

With that in mind, here are five questions based on past errors that might help us all judge just how smart (or not so smart) the CVE program will turn out to be:

Will the program’s focus (rather than its rhetoric) be broader than radical Islam? As the numerous mass shootings of recent years have shown, radical Islam is only a modest slice of a much larger story of youth violence. In fact, as a recent report from Fordham’s Center on National Security makes clear, even the individuals alleged to be inspired by ISIS in the past two years defy profiling in terms of ethnicity, family, religion, or race. Yet the new strategy — not so surprising, given the cast of characters who will carry it out — looks like it’s already trapped in the Muslim-centric policies of the past. In this vein, civil libertarians worry that the new strategy continues to “threaten freedoms of speech, association, and religion,” as a recent letter signed by 49 civil liberties organizations put it. In practical terms, the odds are that the usual focus means that detecting the sort of shooters who have dominated the headlines for the past couple of years, domestically, is extremely unlikely.

Can the kinds of community outreach on which CVE interventionism is theoretically based crack the reality of lone-wolf killers? By definition, “lone wolves” are on their own. Yet the new CVE program expects to rely on what it calls “community-led intervention” to detect signs of radicalization or disturbance among the young. We know, however, that lone-wolf killers interact little with such communities or often even other individuals. They tend to be deeply alienated and startlingly unattached. Deputizing community organizations — be they mosques, churches, community centers, or schools — to interact with law enforcement agencies in developing greater awareness of individuals faltering in life and in danger of turning to violence belies the reality that such young men are generally cut off from almost everyone. (A special danger of such an approach is that its focus may, in fact, fall not on potential future criminals and killers, but on oddballs, loners, and those with ideas critical of the society in which they live. In other words, the very people who may in maturity become our innovators, inventors, and artists could soon become targets of the national security state in a desperate attempt to find future mass murderers and terrorists.)

Will CVE focus on the crucial role that youthful despair and depression play in such cases and on the absence of adequate psychological intervention for such figures? Aurora shooter James Holmes had lost his girlfriend and his job, was failing out of school, and had just received a speeding citation. Chattanooga shooter Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez had lost one job — at a nuclear facility no less — was in danger of losing another, was facing bankruptcy, and had had a recent run-in with law enforcement. Both Holmes and Abdulazeez were increasingly unstable and had a history of substance abuse that they were unable to break, despite help from family and doctors. Both were undoubtedly depressed. Even if the government could find such individuals before they lash out, what role has it imagined for counseling in any intervention process?

Will the CVE program take on America’s gun lobby? This is, of course, the elephant in the room. Any strategy that ignores the ready availability of guns, legal and otherwise, in this country and the striking absence of gun control laws is whistling in a hurricane. While deterring individuals from violence may be an essential focus for any new program, overlooking the striking lethality of what they kill with and the ready availability of weapons like assault rifles honed to mass slaughter is a strange way to go. Chillingly enough, recent shooters have tended to collect whole arsenals of weaponry. Once a top student with a 3.9 grade point average in college, the increasingly disturbed James Holmes managed to purchase two Glock 22s, one semi-automatic rifle, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, all of it legally. The Chattanooga shooter possessed four guns, three of which — a handgun and two rifles — were on him at the time of the shooting. If gun control protections had been in place in the United States, it’s possible that neither of these young men would have been able to carry out a mass killing, whatever their mental states and desires.

Will the CVE program have any regard for the bright line between law enforcement and civil society? The record of the national security state since 9/11 on this subject remains dismal indeed. Can the government’s CVE strategy, seeking public-private partnerships between law enforcement and local communities, refrain from again crossing so many lines? In reality, such a strategy of intervention would undoubtedly best be served by an independent effort on the part of organizations in civil society. Perhaps rather than creating yet another new security outfit, new civilian organizations are what’s really needed. What about a new version of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America geared to the age of terror? What about a teen-oriented version of the Head Start program that gave children the resources they needed to be more productive at school and helped redirect them when they failed? What about more support for programs that oppose bullying? What about a resource center for parents confused about what is expected of their children in today’s world?

To be fair, there are some small signs of a desire for change in the law enforcement community. In recent cases involving teenagers attracted to ISIS, the FBI has shown a less punitive approach, indicating a desire not to arrest them or at worst to charge them in ways that would avoid the outrageously long sentences that have become the new norm of the post-9/11 years. The courts, too, may be starting to show signs of a new sense of restraint. In Minneapolis, for instance, a federal judge is putting teens charged with terrorism crimes in halfway houses or letting them out on bail, highly unusual for such cases.

It’s easy enough to blame Islamic fundamentalism for luring lost American children into violent networks of jihadism by offering meaning in lives that feel meaningless and individualized attention (on the Internet) for young people who feel ignored and invisible. It’s harder to face the fact that the country is faltering when it comes to providing constructive remedies across racial and religious lines for those who retreat into violence in reaction to hopelessness and isolation.

In reality, it probably matters little how the government tries to create predictive metrics for individuals who might someday turn to mass violence, or what groups it targets, or how it deploys law enforcement to “solve” this problem. Too many youths experience periods of doubt, depression, anxiety, anger, and instability to predict which few will turn to acts of violence. What’s needed instead is a less law-enforcement-oriented style of thinking and the funding of a far less punitive style of interventionism that would actually provide young people at risk with support services, constructive outlets, and reasons to feel that a rewarding life might someday be theirs. Isn’t it time, in other words, to put as many resources and as much innovative thinking into our children as into our wars?

Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law. A TomDispatch regular, she is the editor of The Torture Debate in America, co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, and the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Karen J. Greenberg


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