Monthly Archives: January 2015

How New Digital Technology Encourages Terrorism and Threatens Democracy

digital media and securityThere was a time when surveillance and security concerns did not trample on the rights of individuals or democratic principles because the entire matter was too difficult and cumbersome. In the old days when the threat was only ideological (e.g. communism) security issues were far less immediate and gathering information was a slow and lumbering process. But now there is a marriage of violence and digital technology. It is no accident that the correlation between terrorism and media presence and sophistication is strong and positive. As digital technology has advanced, along with the ease and availability of violence, so has terrorist activity and the technology and security requirements necessary to control it.

The threat to individual rights and democratic processes is always easy to defend when faced with rank violence. Of course we cannot let extremist ideologies and easy violent behavior dictates the political environment. But digital technology allows nonstate actors as well as other participants to engage in violence with ease by historical standards. Again, during the relatively simple period of security issues during the Cold War if an individual were a potential threat to the United States he could be detained or we could even enlist the help of others and subject the individual to legal processes. In the modern digital age the means and techniques of interrogating individuals and gathering information are less compatible with legal principles and offer more options – some of them unpleasant and questionable legally and morally.

In the Cold War if we wanted to learn secrets about somebody someone could be assigned to “tail them” and see what they could learn. This was slow, unreliable, and not a very productive use of resources. It was impossible to have enough people assigned to potential sources of information. Searching your person or your property required legal permission. New digital media can gather vast amounts of information from your cell phone, websites, credit card purchases, etc. The state has the legal right to gather information from organizations and it can all be done by a few people in a single place. Moreover, all of the electronic data about you is potentially more informative and revealing than any information obtainable from a coworker or close friend. Purely human information is fallible; people are not paying attention to what you’re doing, or you forget what you did at a certain time and place. But your cell phone and computer don’t forget. It’s all there in simple searchable form.

In the Cold War there was no technology available for massive data-gathering like collecting phone messages from entire communities. Today, the technology is available along with the software sophistication for massive meta-data collection. In fact, Facebook does the equivalent every day.

The security issues in the modern era are serious because of the easy availability of violence and technology. The security sector of the state measures itself by its ability to prevent incidents and is thus motivated to do more and more, regardless of how far the edges of acceptability are pushed, to ensure that there are no more 9/11s. These conditions threaten our democracy as they push the pendulum more towards the security side of the continuum. Still, surveillance and security are part of any state and targeting an opponent of the state capable of violence is legitimate.

Practical limits and approval from proper chains of authority are the only answer to maintain the balance between security and democracy. But new challenges and interesting questions still are on the horizon. Google and Apple, for example, are planning on encryption devices in new versions of cell phones. Security forces are legitimately concerned that this will make important information even more difficult to obtain. But such devices will strike a blow for privacy and individual rights while maintaining the tension between security and democracy.


How to Create a Terrorist – Criminal Justice or War

indexThe newspapers are full of stories about how these Jihadies get created. The typical headline reads “The Journey to Extremism,” or “The Radicalization of Mohammed,” or “From Amateur to Slaughter.” The “from-to” structure is apparent as the story always tells a tale of the evolution (or should we say devolution) of the terrorist’s political consciousness and radicalization.

The fact is that we know quite a bit about this process. Terrorism has been the subject of study for some time with an accepted enough definition regarding the use of violence against noncombatants for the purpose of political goals. The problem is that the distinction between combatants and noncombatants has been getting fuzzier for some years. The US killed lots of innocent people during the bombing of Serbia and even during World War II.

The Western, and shall we say more developed world, continues to be chagrined at the creation and presence of terrorists because our first reaction is that they must be psychologically damaged or “crazy.” But we have known for some time that psychopathologies are no more likely among terrorist than non-terrorists. In fact, if terrorists were truly crazy and psychopathological it would be easier to track them and prevent their destructive ways. So, how does it happen? Does a terrorist just decide one day to be a terrorist?

First, from the work of Horowitz and McCauley we know that terrorists kill for a combination of ideology and group dynamics. They are attached to a cause that is worth dying for but more importantly the cause and the ideology are seen as greater than the individual even leading perhaps to immortality. The most normal person believes in something greater than himself (a religious group, a political party, the social ideology).

Secondly, the group dynamics become even more important as death or violence becomes nearer because the group membership gives it meaning. The group becomes the same as a family or culture allowing members to embrace its values. And any set of important values will do. The common refrain is that religion accounts for so much death but secular ideology (Maoists, Shining Path, Red Brigade, Baader Meinhof, communism, Stalinism) accounts for and justifies more death than religion. Although these secular ideologies have met their match in jihadist Islam.

Third, there are few conditions more potent than a collection of highly focused intense like-minded people who reinforce one another. We all belong to lots of groups but when one group becomes dominant and foregrounded in our consciousness with respect to identity the group becomes particularly powerful. Other members of the group become like family with intense interpersonal commitments fueled by a belief in a just cause. The psychology of extremist behavior is normal psychology but just intensified.

Criminal Justice or War

How do we handle the French terrorists or the Boston Marathon bombers? Are they criminals engaged in illegal activity in which we must provide evidence of illegal behavior, or is this a war? For starters, describing something as a war moves it away from individual responsibility toward group responsibility. But this just feeds into terrorist goals which are to convince you that their individual behavior represents the will of large groups. It is true enough that we should always examine foreign policy to see how we might be contributing to discontent, but this is certainly no excuse for the typical violence associated with terrorism. When we call for a “war” on the terrorists we are using language that justifies broader military operations and of course different legal implications.

It is time to move beyond simple questions about where these terrorists come from and how they are created. We know a lot about the development of violent behavior and under the right conditions most people are capable of it. We need, instead, a concerted effort to understand how we might defuse these conditions. This would include a more systematic defense of liberal values by Western leaders as well as efforts by group leaders (e.g. mainstream Muslims) to direct grievances away from violence.





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Communications Specialist
Schusterman Center for Israel Studies
Brandeis University
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“I Make No Effort to Indulgently Understand Tyranny. I Am Charlie”

Free speech In the wake of the attack in France on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I call on all news and publication outlets to reprint satirical articles from the magazine and publish images that Jihadis object to. This should be done in the name of freedom, symbolic expression, and solidarity with those killed in France. I consider myself a pretty decent democrat committed to liberal values that includes such qualities as tolerance, diversity, compromise, pursuit of the best argument, deliberative processes, and respect. But these Islamic extremists who kill people because of some flimsy insult push the boundaries of all of these.

They consider nothing to be outside the realm of their own decisions about what is deserving of violence, and represent the type of political sensibilities the world has been evolving away from for 200 years. They care about nothing except their own ideological purity, always a dangerous condition. And we certainly have not seen the last of these. The communities that ring the city of Paris have become infested with radicalized extremists who advocate mass murder and even genocide in certain cases. These are the kinds of extremes that call for restrictions on liberty and that’s always a dangerous moment. But what can you do? Can we make it easy to blowup soccer fields, performing arts centers, kosher grocery stores, and schools just because we object to inspections and security profiling?

And this sort of extremism in the name of religion is not the result of weak economies or abstract political theories objecting to US foreign policy. It increasingly looks like an ideological system bent on imposing its doctrines on others.

I turn at these times to the Euston manifesto with respect to democracies which advocates a muscular democracy. That is, it clearly defends the limits of tolerance and acceptability. I quote two paragraphs below but it is the very last sentence of paragraph 2 that is the most muscular. In other words, democracy is not about that spectrum of the left that knows no group that is not oppressed and gives all sorts of groups a free pass with respect to responsibility being associated with individual volition rather than abstract social forces.

1 For democracy.
We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

2 No apology for tyranny.
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Two groups of leaders need to denounce these attacks and speak up in defense of liberal values. Muslim leaders are one of these groups and they need to go beyond simply objecting to violence. They must begin a program of explanation and clarification about Islam making clear that the God of Islam does not endorse such behavior. And secondly the leaders of Western countries must systematically explain, clarify, and defend the liberal state. Many immigrants as well as citizens of a country – whether it be in the outskirts of Paris or to the United States – need to understand more clearly and sharply what it means to live in a democracy and the boundaries of diversity and tolerance. This will include proper forms of protest. I might make the argument that a news outlet should be aware of too much satire and criticism of one group and respect in a diverse society requires limiting such copy. But this sort of criticism or humor still exists in the realm of symbolic behavior and is protected speech. The only way to object to what someone writes is more writing and the power of the better argument.



Do You Want to Stop Extremist Groups? Don’t Change Messages, Change the Receivers for These Messages

terrorist and capitalistCommunication perspectives have a long history of trying to teach people which particular message produces which affects, as if the message were a bullet traveling through space that simply needed to be aimed properly. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of thinking about communication as an instrumentality that is constantly looking to push the right button to achieve a predetermined desired effect. So, for example, my own work in dialogue and deliberation still often – not always – reads as if success is simply finding the optimal input conditions that lead to some output.

But there is another way of thinking about how to achieve particular effects. Rather than thinking of the receiver of a message as a passive mechanism with an absorptive sponge for a brain, and then spending your time trying to find the right message that will be absorbed as you designate, change the receiver rather than the message. Make new receivers that will be more or less poised to receive particular messages. Let me explain.

The U. S. is currently struggling to defeat extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and a host of other radical groups. Most of the news about our efforts to degrade these extremist groups is pretty bad. Terrorist and violent groups are successfully recruiting new members, winning their share of battles, raising money, and generally prospering. Our military, mighty as it is, will not defeat the Islamic State and no informed counselor to the president believes military force is the only answer – important as it is. So what are we to do?

One answer is to change the terrorists and make them less interested in violence. A more traditional approach consistent with the silver bullet metaphor above is to “lecture” terrorists on democracy, and pluralism, and liberalism, and all those good things and assume that if we can only find the right words with the right pedagogical strategy then these ideas will “take” and we will turn them all into liberal democrats. Well as a popular quip goes, “good luck with that.”

But a second way to approach the problem is to change social structures and business arrangements such that they foster capitalist enterprises and market economies. Don’t try to change people, change social systems and the people will follow. Hernando De Soto wrote about this some months ago in the Wall Street Journal. The idea is to raise living standards and inject the cultures with some imagination and capital especially for the poor. And interestingly, turns out that the poor in many cultures, both Latin American and Middle Eastern, are not poor because of simple unemployment as conventional wisdom would hold. Rather, they are small businessmen and women operating “off the books” in an underground and informal economy.

If economic leaders and advisers in Middle Eastern states would eliminate regulation, and bureaucratic extremes including recognizing the importance of property rights, they would create customers for businesses and leave extremist groups with fewer customers. This is consistent with the goal of leaving groups like ISIS without constituencies, which is currently the goal in Iraq after the deposition of Malaki. On the political front of the strategy is to bring Sunnis into the political system including official bodies of governance on the assumption that they will not turn their attention to outside extremist groups. The same logic can work on an economic basis. The perceptions of these communities must change so they are seen as future vibrant markets rather than training grounds for violence. There is some history, according to De Soto, of these capitalist strategies working in Peru, China, Botswana, and others. And finally, it’s fairly well established that businesses rationalize human relationships. Former intergroup enemies can be interdependent on the basis of a commercial exchange. And if you change the relationship you can change attitudes and values.

I’m naïve you say? Maybe.





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