Sunday, November 29, 2015

Applying Counterterrorism Consistently

Last Friday, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was attacked by a gunman who proceeded to barricade himself inside the building for a number of hours. Ultimately, the gunman surrendered to police, but three people were killed between the initial assault and the standoff that followed. Several others were also wounded. This story from CNN provides a reasonable summary of the attack and what we know about it so far:

Obviously, details from this case are still emerging, but early indications suggest that the shooter was motivated in part by the Planned Parenthood baby parts scandal* based on comments he allegedly made to police. This, combined with the fact that the target was Planned Parenthood, suggest that the shooter's motivations were pro-life beliefs. To be fair, it's entirely possible that this may have been a random attack and have nothing to do with abortion. But the popular assumption at this point is that it is related to abortion. And our focus for this story is on the popular response.

The suspect in this case is a white man, not an Arab. And there is no indication that he was influenced by Islam nor connected to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. I would like to suggest that these facts alone explain the response.

President Obama issued a statement on the attack, framing it as another instance of gun violence. Acknowledging that the motive for the attack was uncertain, Obama did not label this as terrorism. The Presidential candidates have also followed suit, with the exception of Republican Mike Huckabee who did describe it as "domestic terrorism".

By now, it is probably well-established that the term "terrorism" is not consistently applied. When Arabs or self-professed Muslims commit atrocities, it is terrorism; when individuals with other attributes do it, it usually isn't. This case appears to be another data point in support of that notion.

Another important observation here is how the proposed solutions vary depending on the demographic of the suspect.

In this case, Obama's initial remarks are essentially suggesting gun control could have helped prevent this problem. This was also his response to the Charleston church massacre that was committed by a white supremacist earlier this year. But in response to the Paris attacks, the immediate Western response was an increase in airstrikes. To his credit, Obama was less enthusiastic about increasing airstrikes, but the fact remains that our fundamental strategy for combating that form of terrorism is airstrikes and drone strikes in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, etc.

Of course, the analogy between the Paris attacks and the Charleston or Planned Parenthood shootings is an imperfect one. In the case of Paris, there are identified groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and a few others) that overtly aspire to commit more such acts. In the other cases, the individual suspects seem to be one-offs. But the analogy is still relevant because the most hawkish among us are keen to suggest that in fact it's not ISIS or Al-Qaeda that should be blamed but the general ideology of Islam.

Thus, for the sake of consistency I would like to propose a thought experiment. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the root problem is the Islamic worldview. From this, we could justify tailoring our counterterrorism efforts to focus on Muslims, and we would continue to justify preemptive drone assassinations against them. So what about the white supremacist in Charleston? He may not have been a part of an organization, but clearly he's not the only white supremacist. Should we therefore engage in a policy of drone striking anyone with a Confederate flag on their truck because they might share the same extremist white supremacist views and might be plotting to shoot up a church? What about the pro-life activists? Surely, the Colorado Springs shooter is not the only one that harbors those views. Should we have a predator drone hovering over the next Republican convention because it might have a lot of pro-life folks inside?

Unless you believe in totalitarianism, I suspect the answer to the above hypotheticals was a resounding no. And the reason we should have revulsion to these ideas is precisely because a few violent crazies on the fringe do not justify discrimination or assassination against the broader group they identify with. Terrorists identifying with Muslims is not the same as Muslims identifying with terrorists.

But if you do still want to continue the policy of preemptive assassination based on suspicion in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, please be consistent and call for drone strikes on Colorado and South Carolina as well. You never can be too careful.

*Incidentally, I personally find it rather confusing why conservatives were so up in arms about the baby parts scandal to begin with. It appears that Planned Parenthood was only ever reimbursed for minor expenses, and they weren't really selling baby parts. But what if they were? I don't think anyone is under the illusion that cost is a deciding factor when one is debating whether to have an abortion. Therefore, even if Planned Parenthood was subsidizing abortions 100% to augment their booming baby organ business (which no one alleges), it seems unlikely that it would actually increase the number of abortions. And of course, though it may be a bit crass to say, we should note that the aborted fetus doesn't have much use for the organs. But if Planned Parenthood made enough money on selling baby organs for research, then they could potentially become self-sustaining and would no longer require federal funding. And isn't that the perennial uproar that we have when it's time to pass the budget --that conservatives don't want the federal government to subsidize Planned Parenthood? Now, this shouldn't be interpreted as advocacy for the sale of baby parts, but the economic implications summarized above seem to reflect an odd contradiction in the conservative position.

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