In the wake of Orlando – A time to mourn, a time to heal, a time to act

This is not the first mass casualty event connected to radical Islam that Americans have witnessed, but somehow I can’t prevent the inescapable and oppressive feeling that over the last few days I have woken up to a new America, one that is riven with a population that does not even know how to mourn properly given all of our seemingly intractable divisions. With previous acts of terrorism, such as 9-11, Boston, and San Bernardino, we could plausibly point to the external enemy born outside of our shores who were naturally and somehow expectedly inimical to American freedom and our way of life. This tribal us versus them mentality would seem to have its own galvanizing effect fostering feelings of national unity against a common foe. Contrast that to the shocking tragedy carried out by one of our own homegrown malcontents using radical Islam as an excuse for his madness, and one can’t help but feel that our steep descent into mass violence has entered a new and uncertain phase. My own reticence on the tragedy in the wake of its immediate aftermath was borne out of shock, sadness, helplessness, and a feeling that bereft of any facts, it was honorable to keep my mouth shut in an attempt to abide by the old proverb that it is best to not speak unless one can improve the silence. I readily admit to lacking the soaring rhetoric that such a situation requires – then and now.  Alas, there is such a cacophony of noise on the issue that silence itself is hard to find. Silence is currently hiding in caves of ignominy and fear that I wish the mad men that choose to make macabre public displays out of violent aggression would make proper use of.

Consider that my Facebook feed immediately became an onslaught between people on both sides of the ideological spectrum manning their respective barricades, some blaming gun control, others lamenting the lack thereof; some blaming Islam, others quick to defend it; some finding refuge in religion, others saying all religions are flawed and blaming it at large for violence and backward thinking; some offering up prayers, while yet others ridiculed and spurned those same prayers.  Given this palpable discord, one wonders if we can ever find a proper state and stage of national unity and mournful silence and healing ever again. Personally I look at this ugly world and what it is capable of at its worst and I lament what my four children, in their current merciful innocence, will have to face. What senseless acts of barbarism and evil await their paths? Not only is the world full of horror, but the aftermath of horror can be vicious and cruel in an emotional sense. Pain can be debilitating, even more so when one finds no relief and comfort from their fellow man. This war against random and massive violence and bloodshed, whether it be in the form of virulent radical Islam, or in the form of a mental case shooting at schools and churches and minority communities out of who knows what irrational grievance and loathing of his fellow-man, is one that I can’t feel will be complex, multifaceted, and necessarily generational. It is daunting and foreboding. The great paradox of humanity has always been its dual nature – its great capacity for evil has always precariously been balanced by its great capacity for good. Otherwise, what hope do we have for any humanity and goodwill going forward? It is this force for good that gives me some semblance of optimism, and our ability to support one another in times of need is the highest form of goodness and charity.

I feel compelled to break my own refuge in silence in order to do the very least good that I can – which is offer my deepest condolences and sympathies over such a historically large casualty event and for the specific targeting of the gay community. As a Christian who believes in a merciful God who can heal and bring justice, I pray for these things for all involved. Recognizing that at a time such as this, many directly impacted may not be as receptive to that message and have their own hurts and anger for which my offer to prayer will not resonate, I expand on this approach to express a deep-seated and sincere sadness for the tragedy, barbarity, and senselessness of it all. One can never fully identify with the fear and deep emotions that someone in these situation faces, but I am trying to do what I can to enter into the proper emotions and feel deep regret and sincere pain for the feelings evoked by lost loved ones and being subjected to primal fear and tragedy. To be hunted down and murdered by a cowardly loser who discovered faux and fleeting power behind a gun is tragic and worthy of national unity in mourning and caring for those and their families that this injustice was visited upon. I can only hope that these sentiments, publicly spoken, provide succor to someone hurting in this time of need.

I want to be extremely careful not to take a tragedy and move beyond the mourning phase into the action phase too quickly, which is a tendency of society that I lament in this post. However, part of the figurative rush to the barricades is completely understandable, as unfortunately we seem to have listened to this same awful tune multiple times. The collective pain and anger stems from our seeming incompetent and powerless responses, as if we are sitting in some lounge chair sipping on fruit juice while a diabolical disc jockey keeps playing the same horrific tune over and over again. We wring our hands over the song, but we fail to shut off the radio. We don’t move from our chair. We fail to take any action to forcibly remove this acrid conductor. We shout aloud to the powerless birds sitting outside of our window, “who will remove this fiend and shut off this awful song!” Angry and mystified by their lack of response, we remain motionless in the chair.

I don’t presume to have the wisdom to know how to immediately solve this most monumental of societal and moral problem of our times. As I mentioned previously, I don’t believe any quick fix is on hand for this fight against terrorism, either global or domestic, and I believe it will be multi-generational. No doubt the major news publications will be littered with observations and policy proposals from our pundits and politicians in the coming days. What could I possibly add to this onslaught of information? Humbly, I make the following quick observations of my own personal beliefs:

  • We can give up on the notion that we can safely observe and contain ISIS from afar. Their murderous ideology only takes a maladjusted and angry misanthrope with an internet connection to find fertile ground in the U.S. ISIS feeds off of momentum of a caliphate built on physical land. We have to be committed as a nation to the complete annihilation of ISIS on a short timetable. Making it a loser on the ground will make it a loser not worthy of being followed (ironically) by the social misfits that fall prey to its dystopian ideology. This will take more American resources and American forces than is currently planned for or allowed. The bulk of the forces can and should come from Sunni powers, but American commitments and strategy are essential to bringing about this coalition.
  • Counter propaganda must be funded, sustained, intense, fierce, and supported and fronted by moderate Sunni communities making a religious and ideological case for why violent jihad is for the weak, impure, and misguided.
  • The above will take time to make a marked impact. Meantime, the ISIS strategy will shift from holding territory to exporting terror to the West. This is obviously already occurring. Unfortunately, in the short-run this will spawn even more potential threats from lone wolf terrorists until the ISIS poison is eradicated at its source in the Middle East. These individuals may not even have to be in direct communication with their overseas counterparts, making actionable intelligence gathering even more difficult. Basic plans on inciting terror and the appropriate targets (schools, churches, and gay clubs) are already in abundance on ISIS websites. Intelligence tools will necessarily have to become much more robust in picking up on clues and breadcrumbs dropped along the way through web searches, websites visited, and social media posts. It is apparent that much of this and more occurred with the Orlando massacre perpetrator (my choice to not even speak his name is deliberate) including hateful and telling statements and rants made to fellow employees and FBI investigators. These warning signs went nowhere. Remarkably, this individual was still allowed to legally serve as a security guard and purchase and keep weapons, which gets me to my next point below.
  • I am a 2nd Amendment advocate and believe that individuals have a right to protect themselves from harm by owning and maintaining weapons. But surely there must be some common sense reforms that can be enacted and intelligence sharing holes that can be filled in the aftermath of this tragedy. A case in point is when a confirmed potential menace to society wants to purchase a weapon, much less a semi-automatic, he should not be allowed to until cleared through some defined  and safeguarded process of mental health evaluations. Such a model would have to be governed well so that it is not abused by government, which might be able to unilaterally slap the mental health label on anyone with whom it disagrees. Policies that foster connecting the dots between federal agencies and maintaining accurate and timely weapons “no buy” lists seems to be a right policy direction. That being said, I also believe that movements in this direction are but a small palliative and addresses a symptom and not a cause of the cultural malaise that we face. Gun control can’t be a feel good distraction from the true heavy lifting that must occur. After all, the Paris attacks happened in a country with much more restrictive gun laws than America. Perhaps more effective than hopelessly trying to prevent all guns from getting into the hands of creative and committed jihadists would be better strategies for our intelligence forces in fleshing out potential terrorists through sting and baiting operations.
  • I sincerely wish that the media could make a concerted effort to de-emphasize the individuals who enact these horrific crimes. Rather than plastering their faces all over and in effect sensationalizing their exploits, I would rather see a concerted effort to de-humanize them in the process. Infamy can be its own form of toxic draw to the maladjusted, after all. What if the headlines were always something along the lines of, “Cowardly loser who will be forgotten in a short amount of time and who by blowing themselves up achieved precisely 0% of what they were trying to achieve in the long run, unjustly murders 50, bringing eternal and lasting shame upon themselves and their families, and according to many highly renowned Imams, consigned himself to eternity in a blazing pit of fire…” I wonder if a drumbeat of such announcements regularly produced over time might begin to have a lasting impact on the would-be terrorist conscience.
  • My final point to make, at great risk of being considered alarmist, is that I at long last will personally get my concealed carry license. No, this is not to be that guy in Whataburger with a gun strapped to my holster. In the extreme outside event that someone attacks a place that I happen to be, such as a church or shopping mall, then as a relatively good shot with great familiarity with firearms from my Army days, I feel duty-bound to protect my family and serve my various communities in some way. It seems reasonable to me that a madman with a gun firing at innocents is better held down by someone who is trained in firing back. Basic army tactics indicate that covering fire, even when it does not hit the mark, can pin an enemy down, which makes them far less lethal. History favors the prepared.  I am not exactly at the point where I am stock-piling Ramen noodles quite yet, so reserve the heightened scorn for another day.

Yet another Islamic terrorist attack

Terrorism

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/23/world/europe/brussels-attacks-what-we-know-and-dont-know.html

The nature of Islamic terrorism is one of cowardly beastly animals that don’t deserve the title of humanity. How long will the world wait before crafting a legitimate strategy to destroy ISIS and Boko Haram? How long will America fail to lead and organize the nations and isolate ourselves out of a mistaken sense that the macabre descent into chaos across the Middle East that is the disease causing this symptom is out of our hands?  Collectively, civilized nations and people have the resources and manpower to destroy these forces of evil, starting with taking their territory and killing them wherever they can be found and thus removing a main source of their draw to new recruits while promoting safe havens and sources of refuge for people who just want to live peaceable lives within places such as  Iraq and Syria. Sadly, we lack the resolve until ever more of these inevitable events force us into action.

Quote of the Week – Dealing with Populism

Populism

Taken from this week’s edition of The Economist – Playing with fear. 

“Part of the answer is to draw on the power of liberal ideals. New technology, prosperity and commerce will do more than xenophobia to banish people’s insecurities. The way to overcome resentment is economic growth—not to put up walls. The way to defeat Islamist terrorism is to enlist the help of Muslims—not to treat them as hostile. The main parties need to make that case loudly and convincingly.”

“The Cost of Fighting ISIS Compared to Iraq and Afghanistan”

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This is an interesting graph from Statista just to grasp the budgetary enormity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the drastic (I would argue way too premature) of drawdown in the focus and expenditures in Iraq that began in earnest in 2008, resulting in the power vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS. This is to say nothing of the lack of wisdom involved in the original Iraq invasion, but one should not double down on foolishness and compound mistakes. The budget and focus on ISIS will necessarily grow in the near future, and the fight and focus on radical jihadist terror, be it directed against ISIS or whatever group takes their mantle, will be decades in coming.

“Breaking up to Stay Together – Iraq in Pieces”

Iraq
Courtesy of Washington Post

A recent Foreign Affairs article by  poses a tremendously thought provoking question of whether Iraq should break apart based upon sectarian lines – Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia. The article provides a great amount of helpful historical context as well as great insights into how poisoned the relationships between Shia, Sunni, Kurds, secularists, and assorted minorities (mostly decimated by this point) have become.

Mr. Khedery quotes the first monarch of Iraq, King Faisal, in what seems to be a prescient observation,

With my heart filled with sadness, I have to say that it is my belief that there is no Iraqi people inside Iraq. There are only diverse groups with no national sentiments. They are filled with superstitious and false religious traditions with no common grounds between them. They easily accept rumors and are prone to chaos, prepared always to revolt against any government.

I have to believe that such a formal partition would be quite chaotic and bloody, with renewed and fueled hatreds as the groups try to stake out new boundaries and access to oil resources. In addition, protection of the rule of law and the safety of minorities during such a chaotic transition stage would be very difficult. Still, such a partition seems inevitable in time. If Iraq is to remain a national polity, it seems it will do so under a federalist shell with tremendous political power devolved to de facto autonomous regions.

Give me your huddled masses, but…

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Fleeing Terror, Finding Refuge – National Geographic

I believe in general that America needs a more open form of immigration laws that allow for more immigrants, spanning from refugees seeking asylum and low-skilled workers through employment visa programs that allow more cross-border commerce and freedom of movement as well as more economic based paths to lawful work and citizenship granted through programs such as the H1B visa. This presents an opportunity to both tackle economic as well as moral benefits. As it relates to refugees, finding ways to alleviate suffering and finding ways to grant asylum is the moral obligation of a free and prosperous society, and if those of us on the right side of the ideological spectrum want to claim our nation is founded upon Judeo-Christian values, then we should be able to put our money where our mouths are and facilitate goodwill, charity, and the safety of persecuted populations in any form as they seek asylum on our shores.

That being said, in the face of the Paris attacks, where it is known that at least one attacker used Syrian refugee status to slip into France, it is in fact appropriate to pause and urge restraint while we collectively create sound and comprehensive strategies that allow us to vet and prioritize refugees while starting to deal with the root problems that create the mess in the first place. After all, one of the chief raison d’etre of government should be to protect and ensure the safety of its citizens. This should be one of its chief aims. The recent swath of governors rushing to close off their states may be a bit hasty and rash in my opinion, but it reflects the genuine and well-founded concerns of U.S. citizens. I believe that American citizens at large and those in the middle ranging from center-left to center-right can serve as the basis of a persuadable coalition to support refugees in this time of global crisis. However, the moralizing hectoring of President Obama to take on refugees that is completely decoupled from sound strategies to ensure America’s safety or to address the actual root of the problem and chaos in the Middle East will naturally leave much of the nation’s citizenry skeptical that this same President will implement sound strategies to vet incoming refugees and keep American citizens safe. With Obama’s moralizing, I am reminded of a quote from one of my favorite novels,  Augustus by John Williams, in which one of Augustus’s key advisors, Gaius Maecenas, admonishes one of his friends that, “It seems to me that the moralist is the most useless and contemptible of creatures. He is useless in that he would expend his energies upon making judgments rather than upon gaining knowledge, for the reason that judgment is easy and knowledge is difficult. He is contemptible in that his judgments reflect a vision of himself which in his ignorance and pride he would impose upon the world. I implore you, do not become a moralist; you will destroy your art and your mind.”

A more responsible strategy would in fact be to couple refugee resettlement plans with clarity in how we are going to join and lead a global coalition of the willing to eradicate (not contain) ISIS, promote the reform of Islam at large, and promote the peace and stability of Syria and Iraq. Plans to deal with refugees and support of refugee areas in countries closer to Iraq and Syria such as Jordan and Turkey should also be part of this strategy. We should also be willing to prioritize refugee status for communities that suffer the most at the hands of ISIS and the Assad regime, including Yazidis, Christians, moderate Sunnis that have fought on the side of moderate forces, and secularists. The ability to vet inbound refugees with whatever means we have at our disposal, admittedly a difficult task, coupled with enhanced intelligence capabilities with monitoring of metadata that Obama has done much to gut, should also be part of the mix.

So by all means, bring in the huddled masses. Accepting the battered refugee is an action that lives up to America’s finest ideals and follows a precedent of accepting refugees during the Bosnian conflict and the Iraq War, not to mention European refugees that came in large numbers during both World Wars. In times where America was at our worst were times of not accepting enough of those in need, such as Jews fleeing the depravations of the Holocaust and broad European pogroms perpetrated on them in the early 20th century. I would also argue refugees do much to add to the unique fabric and narrative of American diversity and the American story. Grateful refugees and their descendants make some of the finest citizens this country has ever known. However, given the safety imperative is the highest responsibility of any government, let’s craft the refugee plan alongside comprehensive strategy that includes in the long-run eliminating the source of the cancer itself rather than simply addressing its symptoms as well as a plan for vetting incoming refugees and ways to prioritize them. Once that plan is laid out to the American people, then fears can be allayed and the support of the majority of American citizens will follow.

 

The Problem from Hell Requires a Comprehensive and Strategic Coordinated Global Response

 

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When Dante is wavering on his commitment to descend into hell as a necessary step to reach paradise, his guide, the trapped in purgatory poet Virgil admonishes him with the statement that,

“Thy soul attainted is with cowardice,

Which many times a man encumbered so,

It turns him back from honored enterprise,

As false sight doth a beast, when he is shy.”

 

Perhaps many of our world leaders could use a similar visit and encouragement from Virgil so as to boldly descend into the veritable inferno that will be a requirement to purge the world of the stain of jihadism. The attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The ongoing charnel house in Syria and Iraq. The takedown of a Russian aircraft en-route from the Sinai to St. Petersburg.  The recent sensational and coordinated attacks in Paris that revealed the growth in ISIS capabilities in just eleven short months between the Charlie Hebdo attacks in the same city. The lesser publicized but just as horrific attacks in Beirut. The growing cancer that is ISIS has taken credit for all of these and is also metastasizing into Turkey, Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, among others. All of these factors increasingly indicate that such a crucible of descent is a requirement.

One such world leader, President Obama, has made recent statements that ISIS is being contained. This on top of a justly pilloried statement he made months ago that ISIS was the “jayvee” team. Unfortunately, ISIS is neither a jayvee team (if they ever were, they quickly graduated to varsity) and as the recent events in Paris and Beirut reveal, they are far from being contained.  Also of note is that ISIS is not our only problem, as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Boko Haram are just a few examples of equally evil groups that terrorize in the name of religion. These problems from hell are the war of our time in much the same way communism and fascism were the wars of our forbearers, and they can’t be ignored or wished away in the vain hope that the Atlantic Ocean will keep us safe from harm. In this war, there are no borders or safe havens. The horrific ISIS message no doubt reaches and resonates with thousands of Americans through savvy digital marketing and messaging. The hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants fleeing and flooding into Europe is not just their problem, but it will soon become the U.S. problem as well as migrants began to hit our shores. In a globally connected world, the U.S. does in fact have strategic interests in a relatively peaceful Middle East. The turning of Turkey to authoritarianism, the growth of Russian and Iranian influence, and the failure of Syria and Iraq as states are hardly good outcomes from the U.S. strategic perspective and for the good of global order and peace. These disruptions are all attributable to the depravations of radical jihad and as such it must not only be contained, but eradicated.

What becomes increasingly clear is that our policy of limited engagement and pullback from Iraq and our lack of ability to lead and support moderate forces in Syria is one that we should deem a failure. We should reverse course and become a forceful leader in a global effort that would have goals ranging from the immediate and tactical defeat of jihad to the long-range reform needed within Middle Eastern and North African countries. On the former, France’s President Francois Hollande is bravely paving a bold path to attacking and destroying ISIS in the places in which they find harbor. Hollande seems to have found the courage and clarity in purpose that Obama lacks when he bluntly indicated that, “It’s an act of war, committed by a terrorist army Daesh (ISIS), an army of Jihadists, against France.” Furthermore, he stated that, “We will lead the fight and we will be ruthless, and we had to be here among the people who were subject to these atrocities because when the terrorists are capable of doing such acts they must know that they will face a France very determined — a France united.”  The fact that bombing raids against ISIS began the next day seems to back Hollande’s statements as more than just bluster and is in marked contrast to Obama’s red line in Syria. However, France can’t and should not have to do this alone.  Admittedly, the United States has been conducting raids in Iraq and has been supporting Kurdish and Iraqi forces, as evidenced by the recent recapture of Sinjar, a place notable as an important supply line for ISIS between Mosul and Syria as well as for the homeland of the Yazidis, a monotheist faith that predates Islam and which was brutally persecuted by ISIS during the fifteen month occupation.

“We will lead the fight and we will be ruthless, and we had to be here among the people who were subject to these atrocities because when the terrorists are capable of doing such acts they must know that they will face a France very determined — a France united.”

But these token support measures are far from enough. The U.S. must be prepared to lead and participate in a long global war to eradicate these malign forces. We must scrap the pusillanimous notion of, “leading from behind.” This leadership does not have to be 150,000 troop deployments reminiscent of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The most effective and durable approach needs to center around Sunni ground forces. Given the Sunni nature of ISIS, relying more heavily on Shia or foreign/western ground forces will feed into the religious war against the West and martyrdom narrative that ISIS wants to proffer. Thus, Western forces on the ground should be relegated to special forces that guide and direct and help coordinate close air support and artillery for their Middle East forces in which they are embedded. The Allied forces (and I use this term to cover what should be a coalition of the willing that I suspect would include, but not be limited to: U.S., French, British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, Israeli, Jordanian, Saudi, and Egyptian forces) would have a critical role to play in providing the needed modern warfare sophistication necessary on and off the battlefield, including intelligence, command and control centers, artillery fire, close air support, bombing raids, hostage extraction, and perhaps even most importantly – waging an all-out counter-propaganda war that begins to highlight the battlefield losses of ISIS and the nihilism of their aims. Making ISIS appear to be losers and inevitably doomed will slowly start to impact their recruiting base. To quote the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, following the successful killing of ISIS terrorist Mohammed Emwazi (known as Jihadi John and infamous for his horrific staged executions), “Britain and her allies will not rest until we have defeated this evil terrorist death cult, and the poisonous ideology on which it feeds.” This should serve as the mission of the united Allied forces. It is time to start treating this as a war of eradication, not of containment. In the short-term, this also requires creating the safe-havens within Syria supported by no-fly zones that are needed with which to provide relief from Arab and Kurdish fighting forces while also promoting moderate forms of government within the zones. It also means the acceleration of the recapturing of Mosul.

This war will not be won overnight, so strategic focus on supporting moderate reformers within Islam will be key to ensuring that as ISIS and Al Qaeda are defeated that other hydra heads do not simply grow in its lost place. This will include a nuanced threading of the needle strategy of supporting allies such as Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia while advocating and supporting democratic and human rights reform within those countries. It also includes supporting and advocating reform of Islam itself, as laid out effectively by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in many of her recent writings. With a tactical approach to destroying jihadist forces on the ground coupled with a long-range strategy to reform the societies and faiths that create the conditions for the hate-filled and nihilistic societies to arise in the first place, perhaps we can look forward to the day when these jihadist rampages, much like fascism, Nazism, and communism, are a distant memory of temporary evils that were ultimately overwhelmed by forces of progress, healing, and good.