Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Boston Terrorists and Their Imaginary Kinship with Chechnya

The Tsarnaev brothers have little to do with Chechnya. They have spent most of their life in the United States and their connection to Chechnya is on the basis of an imaginary kinship with an ethnonational group. The brothers have been described as “self radicalized.” In other words, over time they developed a powerful sense of their ethnic identity and its humiliation which resulted in decisions to unleash extreme measures. How does this happen? How is it that generally average American boys, with Chechnyan heritage, all of a sudden foreground that Chechnyan heritage and behave so violently?

Well, ethnic identity is like a plot in a murder mystery; it thickens over time. But it remains true that this identity has to be activated or triggered. The more interesting question is how such an identity is triggered. What are the issues most associated with stimulating differentiated group identity? Such identity is rooted in tradition, sacred mythology of the past, and a collective consciousness. The work of Anthony Smith directs attention to the power of myths, memories, traditions, and symbols of ethnic heritage that are used by people like the Tsarnaev brothers to tap into and construct a narrative that tells the story of injustice and retribution. Under particular circumstances this can happen pretty quickly and easily. And it does not only apply to angry groups bent on violence to redress a past injustice. I have seen Jewish students with little knowledge of their Judaism and few touch points with Jewish culture and religion travel on the Birthright trip to Israel and return significantly influenced and changed if not transformed. They have experienced little more than the activation of their ethnic identity through symbols and myths that historically position them within something greater than themselves of which they assume a long kinship.

The map below is just for general information because most people (although not the readers of this blog!) think we are talking about Czechoslovakia rather than Chechnya. Some earlier research on terrorism found that terrorist groups achieved their goals one of which was gaining attention. In other words, immediately following a terrorist act the public turns its attention to the issue or cause of the terrorist. Palestinian terrorism in the 60s and 70s is generally known to have been successful at laying the foundation for future international sympathies toward Palestine. Consequently, I’m sure that Google was filled with searches about Chechnya a few days after the Boston bombings. The public simply asks “who are these people and what are they talking about.” At least that’s true of some of the public but unfortunately large segments remain oblivious and apathetic about conflicts in strange places far away.

Chechnya Map

Very briefly, the Chechens are autonomous people in the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus. They have been in conflict with the Russians for generations and this conflict has radicalized many and been violent, very violent sometimes, on the part of both sides. There has been a raging controversy between Chechens and the Russian government since the early 19th century when Persia gave the territory to the Russians. They became increasingly focused on Islam given the proximity of Chechnya to Turkey and Chechnya’s continuous desire for help from Turkey. In 1944 Stalin committed atrocities and massive human rights violations by deporting the entire population of Chechnya’s to Central Asia because Stalin claimed they were supportive of Hitler. In 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union Chechen separatists sought independence from Russia and this resulted in bloody wars. Chechnya continues terrorist activities rooted in ideological Islam and national pride.

Ethnic identity is a relational concept such that the categorization of an ethnic group is based not only on ingroup qualities but differences from outgroups. This is what Edward Said meant when he described the “Oriental” as inferior because he was relationally in opposition to Westerners. The Tsarnaev brothers somehow began to foreground their Chechnyan identity and define it in relational opposition to an American identity (as well as probably a Russian one). The added intensity of having a stigmatized Chechnyan identity (oppressed, mistreated, misunderstood) was probably sufficient to ratchet up their sense of humiliation and justification for violence. Unfortunately, the rising expectations about democratic development and the concurrent increased respect for group rights probably means that we have not seen the last of such violence.

Settlements are Clearly Illegal – Say Some

Those who argue that Israeli settlements are illegal cling to their position with considerable passion. They maintain that settlers are living in a fictional world with a tremendous commitment to Israel but not to human rights or anyone else. The arguments are typically made on the basis of international law – which is a questionable and still unclear legal domain with respect to matters of legitimacy and efficacy. But in any case, the challenge to the Geneva Accords is directly confronted. The Geneva Accords, the argument goes, is concerned with people, not land, and claiming that the Accords do not apply to the West Bank because it is not strictly the territory of a sovereign state is inconsistent with the spirit of the convention. The Accords are further interpreted as protecting any group of people who find themselves in the clutches of an occupying power. This argument than devolves into discussion of the minutia of the Geneva Accords including interpretations and intentions that are probably impossible to know with any reliability. Those who deny the legality of the settlements claim that the near universal consensus on the matter is sufficient to establish the argument.

The international standing of the United Nations does not rise to the level of commonly accepted international law, but it is a significant body that functions in a legal capacity. That said, United Nations Security Council resolutions consistently call for Israel’s withdrawal from the territories and reaffirms the conviction that Israel is occupying the land illegally. The UN regularly treats the Israeli occupation as illegal and often defines it as a simple fact which is not subject to dispute. If it is possible to establish the territories as “occupied” then settlement activity is illegal. The West Bank is consistently considered occupied by the UN and this by definition makes settlement activity illegal. Very simply, it is somebody else’s land.

Moreover, if a territory is occupied then the occupying powers cannot transfer its citizens to the conquered territory, making what Israel does illegal. As I stated in last week’s post if the legal status of the land is unclear and no one has a clear political claim then settlement in that territory is permissible and the settlements would be legal. The defenders of legality claim that the prohibition against population transfer applies in cases unrelated to Israel; that is, if the land is available for use than those who moved there to use it are not violating any laws. But, of course, if the West Bank is considered to be official Palestinian territory then Israeli settler encroachment into that territory would be illegal.

Israel insists that its presence in the West Bank is militarily justified because of the attack on Israel in 1967 and Israel’s right to establish defensible borders as a result of success in the 1967 war. But the counter to this point is that Israel’s presence is not necessary for its security and that the occupation is thus illegal because it is a ruse for rank land acquisition. There is what is called “customary” international law which argues for the legal power of such “customary international law” when it represents the accumulated weight of international opinion. Even if there is no legitimately recognized international court, when it is a matter of overwhelming international opinion that settlement activity is illegal and inappropriate then such sentiment has the weight of legality behind it.

Finally, the International Court of Justice concluded that the mandate for Palestine was about self-determination for Palestinians and never mentioned anything about Jewish rights. Accordingly, any Jewish presence in the Palestinian territories is illegal.

The arguments on both sides of the issue can carry weight and have elements of them that are defensible. For that reason, the matter will not be solved on the basis of legal issues alone. Rather, the pressing interest of peace and solutions that respond to the needs of all parties are more important than legal debates. Having said that, I do not mean to diminish the importance of legal precedents and standing except to remind people that the law is simply a form of conflict resolution and some problems are solved by methods that do not involve formal legal arguments. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be one of them.

“The Law” and the Settlements

Even the beginning student of conflict management knows that some people simply will not change their mind or be convinced by arguments, no matter how unassailable, about historical incidents and accuracy. But the law is one of the best ways to understand an issue. Everyone wonders about the legal standing of settlements eventually. The video lecture below is a well done explanation of some issues and I highly recommend it.

Click The Legal case for Israel to hear the  lecture.

But let me make a few other points. When some states don’t even recognize the legal legitimacy of the state of Israel, you know that” the law” is as easily manipulated and fungible as any other domain of knowledge. My goal here is not to explicate in detail elaborate legal arguments but to try and find some clear simplicity. In addition to the video above, a good reading pertaining to the legality of the settlements appeared a couple of years ago in the American Interest. It can be found here. Read the article in the American Interest at your leisure but we must begin with some basics.

What is now the West Bank was part of the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire that was largely ignored and lightly governed. After the Turks were defeated in World War I the current area of Palestine was assigned to the British who were given a “mandate” to administer the territory. Jews flowed into the territory of Palestine until 1947 when the British government wanted out of the mandate and the UN recommended the adoption of the partition plan creating one Jewish state and one Arab state. The Arabs rejected the partition and war ensued. It’s important to first point out that the UN resolution partitioning Palestine has no legal standing. The General Assembly has no authority of international law and the resolution was a recommendation only. As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967 Israel made further incursions into the West Bank as a security and buffer zone. This incursion resulted in increased “occupation.”

Some legal scholars argue that the West Bank and Gaza remain unassigned by the mandate. Others claim it is Palestinian territory. But one of the strongest arguments against the legality of the settlements results from the Geneva Convention in 1949. It stated that no occupying power (that would be Israel) can transfer its own citizens into occupied or newly acquired territory. Moreover, UN resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied territory. But it is also clearly recognized that Israel in the Six-Day War fought a lawful war based on its inherent right of self-defense recognized by the UN charter. Israel’s incursion into the West Bank was the result of aggression and Israel had every right to defend itself including maintaining a security presence.

Two Arguments That Support the Legal Status of Israel and the West Bank

1. Since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I no country has any firm legal standing or recognized legal rights to the occupied territories. Hence, what is termed the territories has never been part of a legally recognized sovereign and consolidated state and thus the prohibitions about population incursions from the Geneva Convention do not apply. If Spain overwhelmed Portugal and began to establish Spanish communities and populations in land acquired through violence then this would be a clear violation of the Geneva Accords. But what is termed “the territories” does not meet the definitional standards of a sovereign state.

In addition, it has been cogently argued that the Geneva Accord was designed to respond to the Nazis who transferred populations for the purpose of colonization and to obliterate the existing population. This, the argument goes, has nothing to do with Israel whose settlements are not designed for colonization.

2. A second argument is that the occupied territories were assigned to the Jews by both the mandate and the United Nations partition thus giving Jews the right to use and settle the land. This is based on the assumption that the legal status of the territories has not been established and Jews have no fewer rights or less justified legal standing than anyone else.

I will state the arguments for the illegal nature of the settlements perhaps in the next post. But it is important to underscore that legal arguments are not always the best way to solve a problem. They often enough lack clarity and specificity and do not satisfy sufficiently both sides. Making a legal claim, especially in an unclear legal environment, can fail to satisfy either party. The Israelis and Palestinians should solve their problems themselves.

Trends in Digitial Technology and Palestinian Media

The data below show interesting trends with respect to media use and news. The data were reported in the Journalist Resource ( and represent current trends in the sources of news. The conclusions from these data are not my primary concern here because they reinforce what we pretty much already know. That is, newspaper circulation is in decline, television viewership has dropped and more and more people get their news from social media – online and digital outlets in particular. These are the only two lines moving upward in the graph. But what is interesting is the theoretical possibilities of this trend for any international community. In other words, what are the potential consequences of this shift from traditional media to digital outlets. Below I speculate about a few possibilities with respect to groups in conflict and the Palestinians in particular. Again, the data in the graph do not pertain directly to any other international community, but they do represent a very common trend and one that either does or will influence allcommunities.


Historically, journalism and stories reported in media outlets provided a sense of coherence and at least a certain amount of consistency. Journalism was part of the power network in a culture with considerable respect and cultural capital. This was particularly true in less developed political systems such as many of those in the Middle East and of course the Palestinian Authority would qualify. There was typically one primary news outlet and everyone was exposed to the same information.
In the West Bank political communication was very limited by a combination of Israeli restrictions and undeveloped cultural traditions. From the 1980s into the 1990s penetration rates for news and media outlets were very low. This was because of poor communication infrastructure, economic development that was insufficient to improve access, lower literacy rates, and the general resistance of the culture to adopt new technology.

Things improved as a result of the Oslo Accords in 1993 where the Palestinians gained more control over their own technology. But the Internet became a revolutionary change. Because of the cross boundary capabilities of the Internet, and the fact that the Internet respected no borders, the Palestinians began to thrive with respect to information access and distribution. Internet penetration in the West Bank and Gaza is higher than in many other places such as Syria. New technology has energized Palestinian NGOs, human rights organizations, and made the formation of online communities possible. Also, during periods of violence and uprising when there is damage to buildings and Palestinian communication infrastructure, they are typically back on the air quickly because of availability of advanced technology.
But given that the PNA in the West Bank and Gaza has digital access and opportunity at least comparable to many political systems, it means that they also experienced the consequences of the digital age. One consequence is that Palestinians are now more involved in the media industry and thus more influential. Foreign news organizations use Palestinian talent and there are more young people involved in the news business with more ambition along with critical sensibilities.

There is still the problem of media control with no shortage of leaders who would like to use the media as a voice of propaganda. But multiple media outlets and the possibilities of user generated content make this more difficult. The ease and accessibility of digital forms of communication performs its democracy work in the West Bank and Gaza as well as any other place. Multiple voices and outlets are important and effective constraints on power. Where authoritarian media are governed by obedience and respect for political power, new digital media are more likely to broaden possibilities and make government monopolies difficult.

It is true enough that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not easily addressed, but it remains the case that the rise in digital technology can structure in certain conflict resolution features that can contribute to a deliberative space responsible for helping to prepare the discourse of problem-solving. Some of the features of new digital technology that can enable the deliberative process are accessibility or availability of use to multiple citizens, equality or fairer access to media by a wider variety of people, along with the potential for more transparency and accountability. All in all, digital technology will benefit many aspects of West Bank and Gaza media. Even organizations that are more authoritarian such as Hamas cannot control digital technology sufficiently to manage the media environment. That is one reason why Hamas will maintain its reliance on violence as a form of control. Still, digital technology will facilitate the availability of mediated information that will one day at least find its way into the qualities of interaction necessary for progress toward mending political divides.

The Power of Just Not Giving a Damn

I think we under estimate the communicative and reconciliatory value of just “not giving a damn about some things.” There was a story in the paper last week about a 26-year-old boy, Ethan Saylor, with Down syndrome who went to the movies with a caretaker. When the movie ended his caretaker asked him to wait while she went to get the car. The boy walked back into the theater and sat down when the theater personnel came in and told him to leave. The theater manager called mall security who forcibly removed the boy from the theater while he was crying and calling for his mother. Somehow, while restraining the boy and wrestling him out of the theater he went into distress and died. The theater manager and the mall security agent were more intent on upholding rules and “doing their job” then they were concerned for the safety of Mr. Saylor. Who cares if this young boy was in the theater without a ticket? It was not something worth “giving a damn about.”

Along a similar vein, I was listening to Charlie Rose interview the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Khazaee. At the end of the interview Rose asked the ambassador if he had seen the movie Argo about the escape of some Westerners from Iran during the revolution. Khazaee said that he had seen the movie and there were numerous mistakes such as Iranian linguistic conventions for “hello” and “goodbye.” He then went on to demand the movie producers (that would be George Clooney) apologize to the Iranian people for this great insult. Such heated and indignant insults simply demand retribution! Again, I thought about how these demands for an apology were more damaging than anything else and tensions would diminish if people just “didn’t give a damn.” Read the rest of this entry

%d bloggers like this: