Tag Archives: Terrorism

How we are all unwitting terrorists

twitter

There’s been a lot of speculation in the past week or so about the Twitter feeds of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Here are a few representative samples from The New York Times alone. First up is columnist Charles Blow:

On Friday, BuzzFeed and CNN claimed to verify Dzhokhar’s Twitter account. The tweets posted on that account give a window into a bifurcated mind — on one level, a middle-of-the-road 19-year-old boy, but on another, a person with a mind leaning toward darkness.

He was a proud Muslim who tweeted about going to mosque and enjoying talking — and even arguing — about religion with others. But he seemed to believe that different faiths were in competition with one another. On Nov. 29, he tweeted: “I kind of like religious debates, just hearing what other people believe is interesting and then crushing their beliefs with facts is fun.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had strong views on the Middle East, tweeting on Nov. 28, “Free Palestine.” Later that day he tweeted, “I was going to make a joke about Hamas but it Israeli inappropriate.”

Toward the end of last year, the presence of dark tweets seemed to grow — tweets that in retrospect might have raised some concerns.

He tweeted about crime. On Dec. 28 he tweeted about what sounds like a hit-and-run: “Just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching my car into reverse and driving away from the accident.” And on Feb. 6 he tweeted, “Everything in life can be free if you run fast enough.”

He posted other tweets that could be taken as particularly ominous.

Oct. 22: “i won’t run i’ll just gun you all out #thugliving.”

Jan. 5: “I don’t like when people ask unnecessary questions like how are you? Why so sad? Why do you need cyanide pills?”

Jan. 16: “Breaking Bad taught me how to dispose of a corpse.”

Then yesterday, the Times‘ head book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, delved in a little further:

Given the layers of irony, sarcasm and joking often employed on Twitter, it can be difficult to parse the messages of a stranger. Yet some of them can seem menacing or portentous, given what we now suspect: “a decade in america already, I want out,” “Never underestimate the rebel with a cause” or, drawing from lyrics from a Kendrick Lamar song, “No one is really violent until they’re with the homies.” But others suggest a more Holden Caulfield-like adolescent alienation: “some people are just misunderstood by the world thus the increase of suicide rates.” Sometimes, Dzhokhar sounds downright sentimental (unless, of course, he is being ironic): “There are enough worms for all the birds stop killing each other for ‘em.”

Parts of Dzhokhar’s VKontakte page are harsher and more serious. Under personal priority, it says “Career and money.” Under worldview, it says “Islam.” There is a link to a video indicating outrage at the violence in Syria, and a link to an Islamic Web site that says “And do good, for Allah loves those who do good.” Another video features a blind boy talking to an older man, saying he believes his blindness will be absolved on Judgment Day; the man starts to cry, and wonders how many people who have their sight are as committed to the study of the Koran as the boy.

To her credit, she at least had the self-awareness to observe the obvious:

These posts instantly became dots that people began trying to connect. Some details ratified the views of those former friends and neighbors who said they were utterly shocked at the brothers’ possible involvement in such a horrifying crime. Other posts pointed to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s growing interest in Islamic radicalism and possibly a dark subtext to the friendly, boy-next-door affect of Dzhokhar.

At the same time, they were reminders of the complexities of online identity — of the ways in which people strike poses and don masks on the Web (which can sometimes turn into self-fulfilling prophecies), and the ways in which the Web can magnify or accelerate users’ interests and preoccupations.

The social media droppings the Tsarnaev brothers left behind not only attest to their own immersion in the interactive, electronic world, but they have also provided everyone else with plenty of digital data from which to try to extract patterns and possible meaning — fulfilling that very human need to try to make narrative sense of the tragic and the overwhelming.

And, unsurprisingly, BuzzFeed and New York Magazine, among others, joined in on the Twitter-parsing/stalking fun as well.

You may see where I’m going with this. Yes, it increasingly looks like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev bought into a radical fringe of Islam prior to bombing the Boston Marathon. And so it is theoretically possible that breadcrumbs from their evolving radicalization are discoverable by sifting through tweets and Russian social networking sites.

But it is much, much more likely that these tweets are simply being scrutinized with that 20/20 hindsight so familiar to tragic events: everything always looks clearer in the rear-view mirror. Even the most “menacing” of Dzhokhar’s tweets pointed out by the mainstream media reveal less “a “bifurcated mind…leaning toward darkness” and more the typical musings of a 19-year-old college student.

This voyeuristic, retrospective fine-combing of the younger Tsarnaev’s Twitter profile is not only useless. It is counterproductive and dangerous too: reading too deeply into the abbreviated, 140-character-length thoughts of a suspected bomber promotes the notion that such heinous acts could have been stopped if only we had been able to access more information earlier on — if only we had been watching earlier on.

There are signs of this mindset already. Take this article from today’s Boston Globe:

House Speaker John Boehner this morning said he was concerned that federal agencies hadn’t learned their lessons from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he vowed to hold agency heads responsible if they didn’t do enough to stop the Boston bombings.

The response in Washington is increasingly focused on potential intelligence failures, and a lack of sharing information among territorial federal agencies – a problem that was supposed to be fixed after the attacks nearly 12 years ago.

“I have concerns about what agencies knew what — and the fact that it wasn’t shared,” Boehner said at a press conference. “You know if the information is good enough for one agency of the government, why shouldn’t it be appropriate for other agencies of the government? We’re going to get to the bottom of it.”

It’s the same story in The New York Times:

Emerging from a closed two-hour hearing with three senior law enforcement and intelligence officials, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee raised new questions about how the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security apparently handled information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, the suspect who was killed in a shootout with the police on Friday.

“I’m very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, told reporters. “That is troubling to me that this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001, that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively, not only among agencies but also within the same agency, in one case.”

The problems with these interpretations are twofold. First, they assume that some form of Omniscience Lite is actually achievable. Well, it’s not. There is no such thing as perfect intelligence nor perfect crime prevention (sorry, Minority Report aficionados). Terrorism will happen from time to time. Maybe instead of freaking out, we can actually try to (gasp) get a little more used to it and, therefore, manage to return to normalcy more quickly.

Secondly, the implications of this type of thinking can be quite terrifying. If, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now perfectly see the seeds of radicalism sprouting on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Twitter feed, then it follows that we can discover — and halt — someone’s budding radicalization taking place right now, in real-time. Many are already advocating for increased surveillance, more CCTV cameras, and so on. But even beyond the installation of more virtual eyes over our urban areas, the impulse to counter terrorism with an even bigger Big Brother is just one more step in the wrong direction for a country that’s already all too willing to surrender its civil liberties in the service of an unconvincing “security.”

Which brings me to the headline of this post. Take a look at the below tweets of mine, and then try to imagine reading them after I’ve been accused of a hypothetical bombing:

Do you see the problem here? It took me all of about ten minutes to select these tweets out of nearly 5,000 I’ve written. So yes, there are plenty of dots and data points in a Twitter feed. But connecting them arbitrarily after the fact to create a portrayal of something sinister does nothing to help prevent terrorism. And it may do a lot to help push us just a little bit closer to 1984.

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Concern, misallocated

Kevin Drum examines the difference between civil liberties protection in relation to guns and terrorism:

The federal government can swoop up enormous databases, keep them for years, and data mine them to its heart’s content if it has even the slightest suspicion of terrorist activity. Objections? None to speak of, despite the fact that terrorism claims only a handful of American lives per year. But information related to guns? That couldn’t be more different. Background checks are destroyed within 24 hours, serial numbers of firearms aren’t kept in a central database at all, and gun dealers can barely even be monitored. All this despite the fact that we record more than 10,000 gun-related homicides every year.

Compare and contrast.

“Broken Hearts” on Homeland: Sam Lim and I discuss Episode 10

Episode 210Last night’s episode of Homeland was crazier than ever, in both good ways and bad. As fellow obsessives of the Showtime series, First Casualty contributor Sam Lim and I usually follow up each weekly episode with a series of frantic emails back and forth to digest what just happened in the preceding hour. This time, I decided (with Sam’s permission) to put (a slightly edited version of) them up on the blog, which we’ll be doing for the last two episodes of Season 2 as well. Without further comment…

Sam Lim: Where to start with this week’s episode…did NOT see Carrie getting abducted by Abu Nazir. Smashing a car in public and then dragging away a woman seems like it’d garner a lot more attention than it did, no? And where the heck did Abu Nazir have time to find an abandoned mill on his own?

Jay Pinho: Damn! Wow…another veryyy twisty episode. Here are a couple random thoughts:

1) Homeland keeps surprising me. Every time I think I’ve figured out where it’s going to go next, it seems to anticipate what that is and goes in another direction instead. Case in point: Carrie getting captured. Like you said, that was completely out of the blue. I expected the rest of the season to have a storyline involving Carrie finding out about the plan to assassinate Brody, and trying to warn him. Actually, that might still happen, but if so, the show is taking a really interesting/circuitous route to get there. Continue reading “Broken Hearts” on Homeland: Sam Lim and I discuss Episode 10

Netanyahu’s free ride

Gershom Gorenberg urges the United States to take a harsher stance towards Israel’s settlement expansion:

American opposition to settlement would matter only if an Israeli government felt that it was paying a direct cost in support from Washington, or an indirect cost in political support at home. Only rarely, though, has settlement caused enough tension between Washington and Jerusalem to become politically significant in Israel. The clearest example was when the first President Bush linked loan guarantees to a settlement freeze and turned relations with the U.S. into a major campaign issue in Israel’s 1992 election.

As measured by actions, American policy has otherwise been acquiescence. The lesson to Israelis—politicians and voters—is that American objections are not to be taken very seriously…

Whatever administration officials actually intend, this is the way Israeli voters are hearing them: Bibi is still king in Washington, and pays no price for intransigence. Less than two months before the Israeli election, this is indeed counterproductive.

Meanwhile, A.B. Yehoshua argues against labeling Hamas a “terrorist” group:

The time has come to stop calling Hamas a terrorist organization and define it as an enemy. The inflationary use of the term “terror,” of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is particularly fond, impedes Israel’s ability to reach a long-term agreement with this bitter enemy. Today Hamas controls the territory; it has an army, governmental institutions and broadcasting stations. It is even recognized by many states in the world. An organization that has a state is an enemy, not a terror organization.

Is this just semantics? No, because with an enemy one can talk and reach agreements, whereas with a “terror organization” talking is meaningless and there is no hope for reaching accord. It is therefore urgent to legitimize, in principle, the effort to reach some sort of direct agreement with Hamas. That’s because the Palestinians are our neighbors and will be forever. They are our close neighbors, and if we don’t reach a reasonable separation agreement with them, we will inevitably lead ourselves down the path to a bi-national state, which will be worse and more dangerous for both sides. That’s why an agreement with Hamas is important not only for the sake of bringing quiet to the border with Gaza, but also in order to create the basis for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

One small step forward

The New York Times reports that the nearly bottomless budget for counterterrorism operations at home and abroad may finally, at long last, be facing some scrutiny:

The drumbeat of terrorism news never quite stops. And as a result, for 11 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the security colossus constructed to protect the nation from Al Qaeda and its ilk has continued to grow, propelled by public anxiety, stunning advances in surveillance technology and lavish spending — about $690 billion over a decade, by one estimate, not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that may be changing. The looming federal budget crunch, a sense that major attacks on the United States are unlikely and new bipartisan criticism of the sprawling counterterrorism bureaucracy may mean that the open checkbook era is nearing an end.

While the presidential candidates have clashed over security for American diplomats in Libya, their campaigns have barely mentioned domestic security. That is for a reason: fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Americans, in a Gallup poll in September, said that terrorism was the country’s most important problem.

But the next administration may face a decision: Has the time come to scale back security spending, eliminating the least productive programs? Or, with tumult in the Arab world and America still a prime target, would that be dangerous?

Many security experts believe that a retrenchment is inevitable and justified.

“After 9/11, we had to respond with everything we had, not knowing what would work best,” said Rick Nelson, a former Navy helicopter pilot who served in several counterterrorism positions and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s a model we can no longer afford, financially or politically.”

Thank the good Lord. The fortress mindset that has descended on the country over the past decade has been colossally damaging for a variety of reasons, but the budgetary aspect of it is definitely one of its worst offenses. So it’s long past time we reexamined the efficacy and costs of our security measures. Let’s keep the momentum going.

“Assassination” is just a scary word for “due process” – links of the day

At least, that’s what Attorney General Eric Holder would have you believe, in defending the Obama administration’s policy of targeted assassination(s) of American citizens:

Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces.   This is simply not accurate.   “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security.   The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

Charles P. Pierce, responding in Esquire, was rightly outraged:

Attorney General Eric Holder’s appearance at Northwestern on Monday, during which he explained the exact circumstances under which the president can order the killing of just about anyone the president wants to kill, was not promising. The criteria for when a president can unilaterally decide to kill somebody is completely full of holes, regardless of what the government’s pet lawyers say. And this…

“This is an indicator of our times,” Holder said, “not a departure from our laws and our values.”

…is a monumental pile of crap that should embarrass every Democrat who ever said an unkind word about John Yoo. This policy is a vast departure from our laws and an interplanetary probe away from our values. The president should not have this power because the Constitution, which was written by smarter people than, say, Benjamin Wittes, knew full and goddamn well why the president shouldn’t have this power. If you give the president the power to kill without due process, or without demonstrable probable cause, he inevitably will do so. And, as a lot of us asked during the Bush years, if you give this power to President George Bush, will you also give it to President Hillary Clinton and, if you give this power to President Barack Obama, will you also give it to President Rick Santorum?

Shockingly — at least to me, since I didn’t expect to see this coming from the New York Times — Andrew Rosenthal, writing in the section titled “The Loyal Opposition,” defended Holder’s speech, utterly ignoring the most insidious part, about the assassination policy. Even stranger still, Rosenthal neglected to mention, in his praise of Holder’s insistence on terrorists being tried in civilian courts, that his own government has killed a citizen without any trial or even any charges.

That said, Attorney General Eric Holder and Jeh Charles Johnson, the general counsel of the Defense Department, both delivered strong speeches on terrorism recently. The contrast between their remarks and the bad old days of the Bush era was striking.

Some of what they said troubled me. They both seemed to reject any role for the courts in deciding when to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism. And I am not as enamored of military tribunals as Mr. Holder and Mr. Johnson are…

At Northwestern University yesterday, Mr. Holder made a powerful case for the need to prosecute terrorists in the federal courts. “Simply put, since 9/11 hundreds of individuals have been convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related offences in Article 3 courts and are now serving long sentences in federal prison,” Mr. Holder said. “Not one has ever escaped custody. No judicial district has suffered any kind of retaliatory attack.”

Glenn Greenwald, fortunately, made a persuasive case against Holder’s remarks, based on contradictory statements made by Holder and Barack Obama just a few years ago:

Throughout the Bush years, then-Sen. Obama often spoke out so very eloquently about the Vital Importance of Due Process even for accused Terrorists. As but one example, he stood up on the Senate floor and denounced Bush’s Guantanamo detentions on the ground that a “perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence.” He spoke of “the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.” He mocked the right-wing claim “that judicial inquiry is an antique, trivial and dispensable luxury.” He acknowledged that the Government will unavoidably sometimes make mistakes in accusing innocent people of being Terrorists, but then provided the obvious solution: “what is avoidable is refusing to ever allow our legal system to correct these mistakes.”How moving is all that? What a stirring tribute to the urgency of allowing accused Terrorists a day in court before punishing them.

Then we have Eric Holder, who in 2008 gave a speech to the American Constitution Society denouncing Bush’s executive power radicalism and calling for a “public reckoning.” He specifically addressed the right-wing claim that Presidents should be allowed to eavesdrop on accused Terrorists without judicial review in order to Keep Us Safe. In light of what the Attorney General said and justified yesterday, just marvel at what he said back then, a mere three years ago:

To those in the Executive branch who say “just trust us” when it comes to secret and warrantless surveillance of domestic communications I say remember your history. In my lifetime, federal government officials wiretapped, harassed and blackmailed Martin Luther King and other civil rights leader in the name of national security. One of America’s greatest heroes whom today we honor with a national holiday, countless streets, schools and soon a monument in his name, was treated like a criminal by those in our federal government possessed of too much discretion and a warped sense of patriotism. Watergate revealed similar abuses during the Nixon administration.

To recap Barack Obama’s view: it is a form of “terror” for someone to be detained “without even getting one chance to prove their innocence,” but it is good and noble for them to be executed under the same circumstances. To recap Eric Holder’s view: we must not accept when the Bush administration says “just trust us” when it comes to spying on the communications of accused Terrorists, but we must accept when the Obama administration says “just trust us” when it comes to targeting our fellow citizens for execution. As it turns out, it’s not 9/11/01 that Changed Everything. It’s 1/20/09.

Finally, as is so often the case, Stephen Colbert got it exactly right.

The Oslo tragedy and media narratives

The facts of the Oslo bombing and shootings — already being called Norway’s September 11th — are still being discovered, and yet the mass media’s narrative, much like a preemptively written obituary of a public figure, was already neatly in place. Here are a few examples:

Kristian Harpviken, interview in Foreign Policy magazine:

“The only concrete supposition [as to the identity of the attackers] that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda.”

The Wall Street Journal:

“…In jihadist eyes [Norway] will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to those ideals, Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price.” [Note: This quote appeared in the original version of the article, but the WSJ later deleted it along with other modifications, after it became apparent that a non-Muslim, non-al Qaeda-affiliated person was suspected of the crimes.]

Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post:

“This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists. I spoke to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been critical of proposed cuts in defense and of President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan. ‘There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on how we’ve got al-Qaeda on the run and, compared with what it once was, it’s become a rump organization. But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating. No doubt cutting the head off a snake is important; the problem is, we’re dealing with global nest of snakes.'”

I could continue with additional quotes, but these and other, similar proclamations have already been covered and debunked by the likes of James Fallows at The Atlantic, Benjamin Doherty at Electronic Intifada, and especially Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com.

The point is that, not only is the media’s first instinct to jump to the Islamists-as-terrorists trope, but, as Greenwald helpfully exposes, sometimes the mistaken attribution to Islamic fundamentalists is the only prerequisite for labeling an act as “terrorism” in the first place. Thus, a horrifying act can only be terrorism if it’s committed by a Muslim; conversely, no matter how gruesome the act, it is not terrorism if it’s committed by someone other than a Muslim.

As it turns out, the story is already taking shape quite differently than initially reported. The New York Times’ lead article now states:

The Norwegian police on Saturday charged a man they identified as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian in connection with the bombing of a government building in central Oslo and a shooting attack on a nearby island that together killed at least 92 people.

As stunned Norwegians grappled with the deadliest attack in the country since World War II and a shocking case of homegrown terrorism, a portrait began to emerge of the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, 32. He was described as a religious, gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration to the cultural and patriotic values of his country.

“We are not sure whether he was alone or had help,” a police official, Roger Andresen, said at a televised news conference. “What we know is that he is right wing and a Christian fundamentalist.”

The enduring tragedy of the Oslo attacks is that the laughable performance of our mainstream media will go undetected and un-criticized by most, because it is far more convenient to stick to an accepted script than to question the prefabricated story-lines we’ve come to expect. The word “terrorism,” when used to such dubious and unproductive ends, has gained precisely the opposite of its original meaning: as my friend Sam described it, “This sort of language quickly becomes bloated beyond its meaning and has the tendency to pervert anything that precedes it or follows it. It is eager and anxious to be helpful but in doing so tries to excuse itself from being complicit with the historicity of the problems it is trying to rectify.”

By jumping to call anything and everything that is perpetrated by Islamists “terrorism” — even when, as in this case, the entire conjecture as to the identity of the participants was incorrect from the start — and refusing to use the same word to describe actions taken by other disaffected groups, we’ve stripped the word of all meaning. “Terrorism,” much like “Hitler” and “Nazi,” has undergone such a grotesque transformation in usage that it’s lost any true power it once had as a descriptor. Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that anyone in a position of power is likely to notice or care.

Osama bin Laden’s death: a Pyrrhic victory?

I am very weirded out by all the sudden bursts of patriotism following Osama bin Laden’s death. Even President Obama said something to the effect of, “This goes to show that when Americans set out to do something, we can accomplish anything.” Really? An assassination (and one that took 10 years, no less) is a symbol of our can-do spirit? (There were also impromptu rallies outside the White House, Ground Zero, Times Square, etc.)

Nothing is more ironic to me than the fact that, in Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, we have achieved the ultimate Pyrrhic victory: we have finally eliminated the physical presence of the principal challenger of American values over the last decade, and yet our collective reaction to this killing demonstrates how clearly and decisively bin Laden won the war on our values. We lost sight of absolutely everything and went crazy for ten years (torture, followed by a national refusal to call it torture, not to mention the bloodlust that led us to attack an unrelated country, Iraq, and even now continues to agitate for military action against Iran, etc. etc.). Then, to cap it all off, it took less than a day following bin Laden’s killing for people to come out of the woodwork and claim torture was the reason we were able to find him.

Somehow, I think Osama bin Laden would be OK with all of this.

#42: Nomad

“Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence.”

These words were written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Ali is an ex-Muslim, a Somalian-born intellectual who has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and, lastly, the Netherlands, before emigrating to the United States. Her bellicosity with regard to Islam has made her a marked woman, a status that is less figurative (her sharp rhetoric is a rarity in Western academia) than literal (she employs round-the-clock security as a result of death threats by fundamentalist Muslims).

Unlike most of her scholarly peers on both sides of the Atlantic, Ali has experienced firsthand the consequences of draconian Islamist laws, resulting punishments for non-adherence, and stringent sexual mores. As a woman, she also possesses an acute sense of the added burden imposed on her gender by radical Islam, a condition she unequivocally deems “the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West.” The daughter of verbally and physically abusive parents, sister of a violent brother, victim of genital mutilation, and escapee from an arranged marriage with a man whom she barely knew, Ali is uniquely positioned to editorialize on Islam, both its quotidian and extraordinary features, and the challenges it poses for modernized nations.

Why, then, has her critical reception been so muted? During interviews for positions with American think tanks, Ali’s interlocutors were “effusively polite, but…their support for me and my ideas was tentative;” one interviewer “seemed overly concerned with the possibility that I might offend Arab Muslims.” Prior to this, “when [she] began speaking out in Holland against genital mutilation…[she] was constantly told that immigrants to Europe knew that this practice was against the law in Europe, so it just didn’t happen to children once they got to Holland” (emphasis hers). New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an uncharacteristically fierce tone, wrote of Nomad: “Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir,” and in a later paragraph, he followed this up with the truly appalling observation that “perhaps Hirsi Ali’s family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: ‘I love you.'” Ultimately, he patronizingly conceded that Ali would make “a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party.”

To be sure, Ali is not one to mince words. Nomad is dotted with unflattering portraits of Islam’s lesser-known practices; and her condemnations, stated without qualification, would evoke stammers and blushes among the well-bred liberal intelligentsia in her sphere. (Although she now works at the American Enterprise Institute, Ali expresses a nebulous wish “to alter [the status quo], radically” in an attempt to disabuse her detractors from branding her an American-style conservative.) “Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot?” she asks, in a chapter on American Muslims. “You can if you don’t care very much about being a Muslim.” Elsewhere, she berates the “closet Islamist” scholar Tariq Ramadan for his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, calling it “a badly written piece of proselytism” and claiming that “he doesn’t deserve the title of professor or a university chair from which to propagate his program of medieval brainwashing.”

Ali’s presence, then, in post-9/11 America comes at a uniquely discomfiting moment for political and religious scholars here. It is impossible to dismiss her outrage as right-wing demagoguery aimed at undermining the current political milieu in Washington; and yet, her no-holds-barred rhetoric on the subversive attributes of Muslim indoctrination feels wholly out of place in an arena largely populated by cautious (and occasionally self-loathing) multiculturalists. (For this last group she has no patience: “the culture of the Western Enlightenment is better,” she writes [emphasis hers].) What has emerged from the fallout, then, is a tacit buffer zone wedged by gun-shy scholars — what she terms “the emotional equivalent of patting my hand” — that leaves Ayaan Hirsi Ali out in the cold, defensive and smarting from a mild form of academic blacklisting.

Of course, Ali is not without her admirers. Paul Berman, in his indignant book The Flight of the Intellectuals, laments that “the campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented — at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press.” Christopher Hitchens, likewise, has condemned her negative treatment in the Netherlands as “a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction.”

And yet these and other endorsements of Ali serve only to complicate her stature. Anti-Muslim hysteria has swirled relentlessly in recent months. The vitriolic debate over the “Ground Zero mosque” seems to have uncovered nearly a decade’s worth of barely concealed animosity among some conservatives towards adherents of Islam. During this same period, the standard liberal stance has been to dutifully emphasize the sheer minuteness of radicalism within the enormous sphere of global Islam. American attitudes toward Muslims appear to be approaching a watershed moment as both sides have steadily entrenched their positions. Where the left perceives bigotry, the right decries political correctness, which the left maintains is simply the protection of constitutional rights, which the right then argues must be understood in the context of a war on terror. Never have the bookends of the political spectrum been more repulsed by each other.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands somewhere in the rapidly vanishing middle ground. Despite her tumultuous journey out of Islam, she does not exhibit the utter forfeiture of rationality that plagues those with far less cause. Principal among this latter group are the ubiquitous talking heads, but also some pundits from traditionally more respected media outlets. In one particularly disturbing editorial last month, New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz notably declared that “Muslim life is cheap” and added, “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

In contrast to the tactics employed by the most successful American shock jocks, Ali anchors her anti-Islamic message with the authority befitting one who speaks from experience. This does nothing to placate her leftist critics, who have all but fallen all over themselves acknowledging her personal fortitude while disavowing themselves of her conclusions. Armed with her impeccably authentic travails as an ex-Muslim woman, Ali embodies the ultimate headache for today’s Western liberal narrative, one in which cultural sensitivity is seen as an end unto itself.

However, while her presence causes complications among certain political factions, these unsympathetic commentators are not entirely self-serving either. In decrying Islamic tyranny, for example, Ali fails to acknowledge the relative successes of Turkey (99% Muslim), Indonesia (86% Muslim, and one of the world’s most populous democracies), and even Malaysia (60% Muslim). To lambaste a religion as the cause of many ills (in mostly smaller nations) while ignoring its more positive implementations (often in very large nations) is clearly not an oversight. It is a deliberate omission.

Ali’s shortsightedness compels her to ignore other encouraging signs of progress in the Muslim world as well. In a September 26 New York Times article titled “The Female Factor: A Path to Financial Equality in Malaysia,” Liz Gooch reports that “the number of female faces [in the Islamic finance sector] is multiplying.” One female Malaysian scholar noted that three-quarters of her university students are female. The author notes that “the roll call of female high achievers in this Southeast Asian nation cuts across almost all aspects of the [financial] sector.”

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Ali’s writing is her naivete in regards to both the West and the history of Christianity — which, despite her atheism, she sees as a force for good in the culture clash with Islam. In her frequent comparisons of the two faiths, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ali has sacrificed nuance for pathos. She continuously emphasizes the compatibility of Christianity with Enlightenment philosophy, and uses this marriage to illuminate the discordant relationship Islam shares with education and the sciences. Throughout her polemic, however, Ali fails to comprehend the parallels between contemporary events and religious history, and thus a possible road to a peaceful Islamic future: the ideological trajectory pioneered by Christianity centuries ago had its origins in an anti-intellectual era that very much resembles that of the Muslim world today. Just as the Christian faith has not always been as accepting as it is today (especially as depicted in Ali’s overly sympathetic portrayal), Islam has not always been, nor need always be, as insular and defensive as it is now.

In fact, Ali appears to observe this when she writes, “Christianity too once made a magical totem of female virginity. Girls were confined, deprived of education, married off as property. And yet Christian societies today are largely free of this habit of mind. Cultures shift, often very rapidly.” And yet somehow she is incapable of imagining the portability of this concept to another monotheistic religion. The result is a particularly deplorable quandary: the West has indeed found an authoritative voice that cuts between the dual extremism of the vitriolic right and the self-flagellating left. In other (perhaps less polarizing) times, this splitting of differences would be called a compromise. Here, it only adds to the confusion.

#38: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb

It wasn’t until the penultimate sentence of the final chapter that I was certain what Amitava Kumar’s latest book was trying to say. “Instead,” the author concludes, “the larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost.” Prior to this declaration, Kumar had expended 186 pages’ worth of explication, to varying degrees of success, without explicitly supporting any particular thesis.

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, whose title is a play on an earlier work with a nearly identical title (Kumar turned “book” into “bomb”), looks very much like a supplementary reader in a cultural studies class and, in fact, reads similarly to what one would expect from such a niche role. That Kumar enticed me to keep reading long after I’d given up hope on discovering the book’s raison d’être entitles the author to a small measure of genuflection, if even a bit reluctantly.

Kumar’s reflections on the American response to the September 11 attacks center around two individuals: Hemant Lakhani, “a seventy-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant;” and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who the author believes was “baited by the New York Police Department into a conspiracy to bomb a subway.” Interspersed throughout are various vignettes devoted to artists and intellectuals whose visceral repulsion with an increasingly militant national anti-terrorism campaign was duly expressed in some truly inventive works of art. Among these is Hasan Elahi’s rigorous self-surveillance routine, in which he painstakingly logs every action he undertakes, ostensibly as evidence in the event of a government investigation — but on a larger scale, as a protest against that very same state-directed intervention.

Kumar’s failings, strangely enough, can be attributed to his fascination with this and other tangential narratives. It is not that they are irrelevant to a sober discussion of anti-terror initiatives; however, at times the author becomes so enamored of his subjects that he neglects to take a larger view. He lingers for some time on the questionable role of the government informant in the Lakhani case, recounting his many failings as a businessman as if to prove his lack of credibility via low credit score. And yet Kumar recoils when such circumstantial evidence is used to convict Lakhani, a man who was caught on tape proclaiming that “it will [expletive] their mother if one or two [planes are struck by bombs]…If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time…The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened.”

The problem with focusing so heavily on character is that the same technique Kumar uses to condemn the government’s methods in pursuing suspected conspirators is doubly as effective against the perceived victims of the state’s investigations. Clearly, as evidenced by American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, serious crimes were committed in the name of justice. But Kumar’s valiant attempts to humanize the enemy notwithstanding, his defenses wither in the face of insurmountable evidence. Seemingly realizing this, Kumar mostly shies away from directly contradicting judicial verdicts; instead, he observes from his perch on the periphery, remarking on incongruity on the margins as the heavy hand of the state came crashing down with a vengeance.

Describing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Kumar notes that “what saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is the voice of the terrorist at the other end [of the phone conversation, which was recorded]…He is more interested in describing to his superior the rooms that he says are large and lavish. It’s amazing, he says, the windows are huge here…Rightly or wrongly, I’m caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth.” This all makes for a tidy little novel, but reality is rarely so neatly synopsized. By dancing along the edges of the legal process, Kumar contributes little to the discussion of where the American response went wrong. This is an unfortunate consequence caused by a writer’s compassion; the result, then, is a scattered cacophony that leaves one unsatisfied with the hurried conclusion.