Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is a "Link"?

One of the most maliciously confusing words in contemporary discourse is "link". It was used to great effect during Obama's presidential run, during which he was "linked" to his former minister, to a group who registered voters for him, and to a guy he met once at a party who blew stuff up when Obama was eight years old. One "link" that allegedly helped to justify the Iraq war was a communication in which Osama Bin Laden asked for help, and Sadam Hussain refused it. Before and after that conversation, each man offered a reward for killing the other, which apparently didn't weaken the link significantly. And then there is the Mother of all Links: George Bush's "Axis of Evil". For the historically challenged, the original Axis was an alliance between Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, who signed a treaty which outlined a detailed plan for world conquest which was financed with billions of dollars, and executed by millions of trained soldiers, weapons, and military transport. . Bush's "Axis of Evil" consisted of two countries who had been at war with each other for over a decade, and a third country that barely knew the other two existed. When I first said this, someone told me that Korea was "linked" to one of these other countries (I forget which, because I don't care) because it had allegedly sold it nuclear material. The word "link" blurs the fact that there is a tremendous difference between being a military ally and being a customer. I have frequently bought french fries at McDonalds. Does that make me and McDonalds part of the Axis of French Fries?

The men who overpowered airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center were not just "linked". They were organized and co-ordinated in essentially the same way that a football team or an army is co-ordinated. To conflate this kind of organization with a "link" that consisted of a few emails between an Imam and a single soldier is to be dangerously confused. One of the things that makes this kind of confusion even more likely is that no terrorist organization has done anything as remotely well co-ordinated since, and consequently there really isn't that much difference between terrorists and lone gunmen today. There is a difference in degree but today there is no real sharp way to draw the line. Al Qaeda once had almost completely political control of Afghanistan , which became their base of operations for something that resembled a genuine military campaign. That base was destroyed during the war with Afghanistan, and now Al Qaeda is nothing but a disorganized group of malcontents that share little more than a willingness to wear the same T-shirt.

The underlying assumption of the controversy around Fort Hood has been that if we see lots of similarities between Hasan and Al Qaeda, this must prove that Hasan is somehow part of the same Mass-movement as Al Qaeda, and therefore should be feared. What I am saying is the fact that there are so many similarities between Hasan and Al Qaeda shows that we should consider both to be ordinary criminals, not a major military threat. There is not that much difference between Hasan and the other nutcases blowing things up in the name of Islam, because all the so-called Jihadists are a rag tag bunch of losers, who had one lucky strike with the World Trade Center, and have no central organization worthy of the name. Those of us who grew up with the fear of Communism should remember (and some of us do) that in comparison to the Commies, these so-called threats to our security are a disorganized bunch of loonies, not a serious well-organized threat. They did and will continue to do some damage, but in comparison to Hurricane Katrina and Global warming they should be seen as a very low priority. These guys are about as organized as the Bloods and the Crips in LA, and probably less dangerous. They are certainly less organized than the Mafia.

Surprisingly,I have heard similar thoughts from two of NYtimes' token conservatives: John Tierney and Ross Douhat.

A year or so ago, Tierney pointed out that more people have died in bathtubs since 9/11 than have died from Terrorist attacks. Anybody want to allocate a billion dollars to keep America safe from the Axis of Bathtubs? There are probably "links" that connect all of those bathtubs to a few key manufacturers, some of whom might be Muslims. Should we throw out the constitutional right to privacy and put cameras on every bathtub in America? Call me wild and reckless, but I'm not willing to give up my constitutional rights to be that safe. For those who keep saying "Freedom doesn't come Free": You're right. The price of freedom is living with the possibility that occasionally crimes get committed, and people get hurt. A society in which everybody was constantly under surveillance might be a society with no crime, but it would also be a society with no freedom.

Ross Douhat wrote on the Anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall that " "Osama bin Laden is no Hitler, and Islamism isn’t in the same league as the last century’s totalitarianisms. Marxism and fascism seduced the West’s elite; Islamic radicalism seduces men like the Fort Hood shooter. Our enemies resort to terrorism because they’re weak, and because we’re so astonishingly strong." You never know who's going to end up agreeing with you.

We Americans got emotionally wounded by the 9/11 experience, and with good reason. That incident caught us unawares, (or with our "unawares" down, as it were), and did a spectacular amount of damage to America, both physically and emotionally. But now, several years later we need to put what happened in perspective. We need to recognize that these guys are at this point not significantly more organized than Hasan, and we should stop acting like they are the biggest threat we face. Some of them do think of themselves as striving towards world domination, but they have less chance of beating the US army than a flea has of winning a wrestling match with an elephant. They don't have the resources to conquer the world, and they don't have the mental discipline to hold on to power even if they had it. For obvious reasons, suicide bombers are not very good at focusing on long range plans.

The basic principle of mind is that everything is related to everything else, so finding links is always easy. Discussions about terrorism would produce a lot less heat, and a lot more light, if the participants spent less time looking for links and more time trying to make significant distinctions. We should stop using terms like "Islamofascism", which "links" all sorts of groups together simply because they might be dangerous to us. Instead we need to make distinctions like Sunni and Shiite, Salafi and Sufi, Farsi and Arabic, Wahhabi and Qutbist. Some people claim that the real danger is not Islam itself but Wahhabi Islam, which I think is on the right track. However, even that claim gives too much unity to this so-called "movement." Bin Laden sees himself as Wahhabi, but the head Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia have condemned him to death. Many of them have also issued detailed scholarly criticism of the idea that Islam permits violence against civilians. For more on this, see this website on The Wahhabi Myth As I understand it, the guys that are being described on this site also believe that women should not be allowed to uncover their faces, work outside the home or drive cars, which makes them bad guys in my book. But these attitudes are no threat to American security, and shouldn't be lumped together with the belief that Muslims have an obligation to violently attack non-Muslims. They both need to be dealt with, but they need to be dealt with in different ways. It's rather like seeing Iran as part of the same conspiracy as Al Qaeda, even though Al Qaeda in Iraq is blowing up Shiite Mosques. It's also rather like lumping Palestinian suicide bombers together with the suicide bombers who are seeking world Islamic domination. Palestinian suicide bombers don't want to dominate the world, they just want to acquire one particular piece of real estate they believe is rightfully theirs. This distinction doesn't justify the actions of either group, but it does show that it is dangerously confused to think of them as being "linked".

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