Tag Archives: 9/11

A Bad Moon Over Pakistan

Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Source: ACUS.org)

Things have recently gone south over the past weeks and months in an already-rocky relationship between America and Pakistan.

Truth be told, this relationship hardly goes back far. After the terrorist attacks of September 11 back in 2001 and the beginning of America’s War on Terror, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf agreed to give the US the support it needed in the Middle East, and even to help in America’s counter-terrorist aspirations in Afghanistan. Since joining the War on Terror as a US ally in 2001, Pakistan has lent its assistance to American anti-terror operations and opposed the Taliban within its own borders and across the line in Afghanistan.

Well… sort of. The young relationship between the US and Pakistan has run into tough times as of late, due to a distinct gap in trust between the two countries, and it seems that this nascent alliance is in danger of disappearing soon.

There are a few reasons for this. First, no one on either side seems to be completely sure of the other’s intentions. This has been something of a chronic problem since the beginning of the US-Pakistan alliance, but it has heated up to dangerous temperatures recently. Both sides feel as though they are being kept in the dark about the operations and intentions of the other. This is particular troubling from Pakistan’s point of view, as they are unsure of the extent to which American agents, technologies, and agendas are secretly operating in their country.

The US has been extensively using drone aircraft to strike Taliban and al Qaeda targets. These drones have not been popular with the Pakistani brass, who feel that the US should not be operating their weaponry inside of Pakistan’s borders, especially without consulting the military leadership in the very country in which they’re operating. On top of that, these drone strikes have killed a number of civilians, which the Pakistani government can hardly be blamed for objecting to. This adds yet another layer of complexity and distrust to the murky relationship between the nations.

Second is the covert nature of US operations in Pakistan. The CIA has had a shadowy involvement in Pakistan almost since the alliance began, and it’s still unclear to Pakistani officials exactly what that involvement is and how far it goes. This uncertainty surfaced violently after a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, fatally shot two Pakistanis in Lahore. A third man was killed as another vehicle rushed to assist Davis.  An unknown number (though it’s come out that the number is likely between 40 and 60) of CIA agents are operating in the country at this point, and after the Davis incident, that’s naturally unsettling to Pakistani leadership.

Finally, the US and Pakistan seem to have very different goals and visions, both for the future of the Taliban and Afghanistan as a whole, and these are coming into the light more and more as the Afghanistan endgame approaches. While the US wants to simply crush the Taliban into submission, the Pakistani government seems to have less-straightforward plans for the terrorist group. US intelligence officials have long known of Pakistan’s tactic of choosing between “good” and “bad” Taliban groups. Whether America likes it or not, Pakistan also has its own interests in Afghanistan, and is not above using certain parts of the Taliban to advance those interests. There have been reported incidents of the ISI (Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency) warning certain Taliban factions of imminent drone strikes or other attacks, as these factions hold strategic significance to the ISI or greater Pakistani command.

With all of these entanglements and trust deficits, it’s a small wonder that things are so tense between the US and Pakistan. It’s beginning to seem that what was never a committed or involved alliance is splitting at the seams. And when things finally begin to settle down in Afghanistan (pray that this comes soon), there is little way of knowing how the two nations will resolve their differences.

I used resources from the New York Times (clicking this will use a free view), Long War Journal, and the ACUS for this article. If you want to learn more about the issue, check out these links!

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Suspend Your Belief

Note: This article has been edited and republished in an updated form on Viewshound.com. You can find it here. Thanks!

September 11, 2001. The Holocaust. The 1969 moon landing. The Federal Reserve. Peak oil. Lizardmen.

You’re probably wondering by now why I could possibly be listing all of these things together, and you’d be right to do so! What do these bizarre, disparate things have in common? They’re all features of conspiracy theories.

Chances are that you’re already familiar with some of these theories, and hopefully you’re familiar with how ridiculous they are. For those not in the know, a conspiracy theory is, according to Dictionary.com‘s definition, “a theory that explains an event as being the result of a plot by a covert group or organization; a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a group.” Alternatively, it is “the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.” People also often have their own personal demons of conspiracy. The idea that “everyone’s out to get you!” is an unfortunately common one.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of all the various conspiracy theories currently floating around, nor am I going to write about the validity of such claims. I’m not even going to give reasons these theories are (almost certainly) false. What I think is most interesting about these is not the content of the theories so much as what may be the reasons for belief in such seemingly wild ideas.

So why is it that some people think that 9/11 was staged by the US government, or that the Holocaust never happened, or that a clandestine race of lizard people controls world politics? (You’ll have to ask David Icke about that one.)

The first reason that comes to mind is perhaps a rather obvious one: Paranoia. A surprisingly large number of people seem convinced that someone is out to get them. Of course, this someone usually isn’t the entire world, but is more often just one person or group. In the case of some of my relatives, “someone” is the IRS. For my (somewhat unstable) roommate, “someone” is his Ethics professor. But no matter who “someone” is, many people are paranoid for often ridiculous reasons. This sort of paranoia can lead people of all kinds to be suspicious of everything around them, just in case it might be “out to get them.”

The second reason is probably somewhat less apparent, at least at first reckoning. What is this reason? The internet, and the community it provides. Of course, conspiracy theorizing existed long before the advent of the internet. But the incredible establishment of this nearly worldwide network of connections allows people of all kinds, with the most unexpected and unpopular beliefs, to come together, even if there are oceans between them. Online networking capabilities have allowed people all over the world to connect with others who share their views, feelings, and ideas. In fact, even this blog has helped me connect with and learn from people as far away as the United Kingdom (I live in Oregon)! The internet allows the conspiracy theory diaspora to connect with each other, discuss ideas, and receive validation of their ideas, which are often rejected by those immediately around them.

Finally, and most importantly, conspiracy theories exist as a form of explanation. Great tragedies and human suffering often seem unexplainable to us, and horrifically tragic events such as the September 11 attacks and the Holocaust tend to give rise to conspiracy theories, as a way to explain the unexplainable. Anguish and misery are difficult things for us as humans to deal with and to understand, and conspiracy theories provide an explanation for these things, albeit a flimsy one. No one can claim to truly understand the thinking behind the horrible massacre of Jews in the Holocaust, but these theories allow those who believe them to convince themselves that there was some sensible reason for it.

This also permits absolution. Of course, the suffering of the Holocaust or the 9/11 attacks was the work of a (relatively) few. But it’s difficult to think that another human being could do such a thing, and it leads some to wonder if they could ever do the same. Conspiracy theories offer freedom from this collective guilt by placing blame on a very few people of almost supernatural levels of evil. They allow one to draw a thick line between the “us” of normal society and the “them” of conspirators.

I must say that I’m almost universally skeptical of conspiracy theories, of any kind. But after giving this some deeper thought, I can honestly say I’ve come to a better understanding of where these theories come from, and why they appear. I hope this can help you say the same!

My apologies for my recently sporadic posting. School, classes, and other such obligations have been cutting into my time for creative writing. I hope to post more regularly (and more coherently!) after I’ve taken care of all my academic duties. School’s out soon! For now, I’ll post as frequently as I can. Hope you enjoy!

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Dead Ends in Afghanistan

American soldiers exit a transport chopper in Ghazni, Afghanistan.

Most if not all of my information for this post was taken from this article in the New York Times –  just to let you know! I’d encourage you to read it as it provides a lot more detail than I do!

As the war in Afghanistan grinds on, many soldiers (not to mention critics) are beginning to seriously question how much is really being accomplished there.

In many ways, the war strategy has moved from one focused on the “key” areas of contention in the country: large cities, major thoroughfares, and borders with neighboring nations. But more and more, the fight is being taken to minute, previously unknown (to foreigners at least) villages and towns, with American and Afghan forces trying to clear the Taliban out of the country one building at a time.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t going all that well. This war has been a difficult one since it began way back in October of 2001, and I think it’s safe to say that it hasn’t gotten much easier.

The real problem behind this war’s difficulty has been the Taliban’s elusiveness and at-best shadowy presence in the country. Since being forced from formal power by Operation Enduring Freedom (the post-9/11 military retaliation), the Taliban has snaked into the shadows of the country, using fear to maintain small cells of power-by-terror that dot Afghanistan. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is similar to trying to wave away clouds of smoke; as soon as they’re cleared out of one village, chances are they’ll pop up in another. To add salt to the soldiers’ wounds of seemingly pointless skirmish after seemingly pointless skirmish, many civilians in these tiny townships are far from cooperative. Some will simply play dumb or mute, some may lie, and some even signal troop movements to Taliban fighters nearby.

But can these people really be blamed for this? The Taliban has a near stranglehold on many of the common people across much of Afghanistan, especially in areas out of the reach of government and police forces. They’re held under the extremists’ power by threats and violence, so it only makes sense that their loyalties are more likely to lie with the people who will kill them or their families if they defect.

All the same, this makes the job of American soldiers immensely difficult. Tracking this secondary, shadow government of religious extremism is nearly impossible to do effectively when the people in the villages they’re attempting to clear are afraid to cooperate. The idea behind this small-village strategy has been to expand American presence in Afghanistan, essentially giving Taliban fighters fewer safe zones and places to seek refuge or terrorize civilians. The problem is, as the NYT article put it, is “translating presence into lasting success.” I used the analogy of smoke before: You may be able to clear the smoke of the Taliban away temporarily, but it somehow always manages to flow back in after you go.

This war, which has already been trudging forward for more than 9 years, still seems like a dead end (and an expensive one at that). I know that the Taliban’s influence is a difficult one to root out, and that the group poses a very significant threat, both to people in the region and around the world. But how much longer can we keep trying? How much progress has really been made? The government in Afghanistan, nominally headed by Hamid Karzai, is corrupt at best, and many Afghan security forces (such as police or military) are either afraid or equally corrupt! This really makes one question how much the US has accomplished in Afghanistan. We’ve captured a few important Taliban figures, sure, but there has been little factual evidence that our efforts there are having much success.

Does this mean I know what to do? No. I won’t claim to be a five-star general! I do, however, think that the US must refocus and redouble our efforts towards the reformation of the Afghan government and local forces. There can only be stability in this country if the people who live and belong in it know how to take their security and liberty into their own hands.

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The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 2)

Perhaps this is truer than people are willing to recognize?

This post is a continuation of an earlier one, “The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 1).” Read it first!

Looking at patriotism in this way, it’s easy to see how things can get carried away. The sense that the loss of an American life is more devastating than the loss of an Iraqi’s or any other person’s life instills Americans with a dangerous sense of superiority, of an almost racist nature.

Not only can this give Americans too much of a “proud to be an American” sense, it inherently devalues any who aren’t American!

Nationalism can take many forms, but I would say that any amount of patriotic zealotry is too much. I recently saw some of this on a blog I had the misfortune of coming across, called “Patriotic Mom.” The mom, whose name is Pamela Reece, gushes in a post about her patriotism, and how central it is to “being American.” One of the comments on the post, by one Josh Ondich, reads as follows: “Patriotism can be used as good like the National Anthem or the pledge, but has been used by dictators like Adolf Hitler and Joesph Stalin to invade countries and impose mass genocide against millions of people. using patriotism for war is using it for terror. -Peace”

Now, I thought this was a perfectly valid and fairly unbiased point. The guy was simply pointing out an observation he had made. This was Pamela’s response:

Josh,
Using patriotism for war? Perhaps you have forgotten about 9/11!! Remember? When war was declared on the U.S.? We are defending America and fighting the global war on terror. Patriotism is standing by America…recite the words of the National Anthem and remember 9/11. Do this and you will understand.

United we stand!

Now, maybe I’m just blind or stupid, but it seems like this response is exactly what Josh Ondich is warning of. Besides that, Pamela Reece’s “comeback” argument illustrates perfectly the kind of fanatical, almost mindless patriotism that many Americans use to justify all kinds of evil. The line, “Patriotism is standing by America… recite the words of the National Anthem and remember 9/11. Do this and you will understand,” is particularly appalling. To me, the advice to recite our National Anthem and remember 9/11 is reminiscent of Soviet-style nationalism or the advice some Christians give: “Just pray to Jesus and you’ll understand the truth!” It shows a terrifying immaturity of thought and a dangerous unwillingness to listen to any kind of disagreement, insisting that a “good American” doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t need answers.

Perhaps more infuriating though, is a “tribute” on the left side of the page, a slideshow with images of 9/11 and the bombing of the USS Cole, which then transitions to the words “Never Forget Who Did It,” which is followed by pictures of Middle Eastern men. This victim mentality was used by George Bush to embroil the US in two devastating wars, and is still the opinion of many conservatives (particularly evangelical Christians) in the United States.

As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” I can think of few things that are more blinding than such an insistence on national superiority. Patriotism is good when it’s used to express valid pride in country and culture. But it, perhaps more than any other sentiment, can become poisonous extremely quickly. As soon as patriotism is turned into a justification or reasoning for war, torture, or other such crimes against humanity, it can become nationalist, McCarthyistic fervor, which is no better than the religious fanaticism American patriotism is so often turned against.

 

 

 

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The Unparalleled Power of Patriotism (Part 1)

How far can patriotism go before it becomes dangerous nationalism?

Ever since the idea of a nation emerged not more than a few hundred years ago, nationality has become an integral part of who we as humans consider ourselves to be. When we come across someone with an unfamiliar accent or language, our first question for them is often “Where are you from?” The first words we typically use to associate someone with a group of people are those that tell which country they come from, rather than those that reinforce their humanity. Our nationality has become one of the most prominent features of our identity.

The point I’m trying to make is that nationality has become a very important part of who people consider themselves to be. The word usually used to describe pride in one’s country, culture, or national heritage is patriotism.

Patriotism has always been popular in America, especially as the country was still nascent during the rise of nineteenth-century nationalism. Back at its founding, America was, as many like to say, a “melting pot” of a broad spectrum of people with varying beliefs and ideals. Unlike other, older nations, America was a nation that was deliberately created by its inhabitants, rather than slowly coalescing into gradually more central power, as most European nations did.

But what America, and indeed all nations, can suffer from is over-patriotism, sometimes called nationalism. When someone says “nationalist,” the image that tends to spring to most peoples’ minds is an extreme one of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, where nationalist rhetoric was used to justify horrific violence, racism, and purges. But there’s also a particular brand of home-grown nationalism, a slowly swelling sense of patriotism that subtly (or sometimes bluntly) asserts that “we’re just better than them.”

Though I was only 9 years old when they actually occurred, I’ve seen how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have had a profound impact on the way many Americans view the United States and other countries. After the horror of that day, a stunned silence fell over the United States, and a sense of unity and solidarity prevailed in the country. The thought at the time was, “You’ve tried to destroy us and failed, and instead of falling apart, America has only become stronger and more unified by the evil you brought on us.”

It was out of this sense of unity that an almost fanatical nationalism began to rise. After enduring and recovering from such a heinous attack, Americans’ sense of patriotism rose sharply, as songs like “God Bless the USA” came strongly back into vogue and politicians at all levels began employing forceful rhetoric about national unity and strength as a nation. Now, please don’t get me wrong with this; I think that the unity and solidarity that Americans felt in the aftermath of 9/11 was incredible, and helped bring hope and restoration to the loved ones of those who died. But it also conjured up a dangerous “us versus them” mindset that allowed President Bush to declare a more-or-less unilateral “War on Terror,” a war that has not only cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars, but has also tragically heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

Of course, nationalism can be seen in myriad other places and situations as well. In talking to some American friends and acquaintances, I’ve seen a tragic sense of national superiority in what they say. For example, American citizens are quick to mourn the more than 4,000 deaths incurred by US Armed Forces in Iraq. I won’t deny the tragedy of this bloodshed, but far fewer Americans show such outrage at the more than 100,000 civilian deaths that have so far come about in the conflict. Many Americans I know seem to feel that they’re simply worth more than others.

I’m going to break this article up into two parts, as I’ve realized it’s getting much longer than I had originally thought! Expect the next post soon!

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The TSA: Privacy, Pat Downs, and Power

A full body scan of an anonymous person at an airport. The TSA official here will not see the actual person scanned, but only an image like this.

In a witheringly sarcastic post that begins, “You asked for it,” the Transportation Security Administration official blog shows a set of images taken from a millimeter wave scanner, possibly the TSA’s most controversial technology in use today. The machine emits waves at an exact frequency, one at which clothing is not visible to the scanner. So, in effect, the machine performs a “virtual strip search” of the subject. Any contraband that the person is carrying is detected and rendered by the machine, allowing a TSA officer to know whether a person is carrying things they shouldn’t, without the unpleasantness of a pat down. Another technology also in use is the backscatter scanning machine, which is very similar to the millimeter wave scanner.

So, as I’m sure many of us are already aware, there is a lot of controversy about this practice. Many feel as though their privacy is being violated by this involuntary scan, which is pretty understandable. The image rendered by the scanner is a nude one (though some researchers are working on impenetrable undergarments), so whichever TSA officer is sitting in front of the computer screen is able to see any objects that shouldn’t be on the person’s body, such as a weapon, explosives, or drugs. Of course, the officer reviewing these images cannot see the actual person going into the scanner, as his or her office is far away and out of sight of people being scanned.

A little aside – If a person really strongly objects to this scan, they can choose to have a full-body pat down instead. This is much more invasive in a physical way of course, but it saves the person from a visually “invasive” scan. Just thought I’d mention that!

Down to business: Is the TSA overstepping moral boundaries? Have they been allowed to take the nation’s privacy into their own hands to an extreme degree? My answer is no. Well, mostly no at least. While the system currently in place to screen for weapons and other contraband is far from perfect, I think it’s the best that can be expected, at least for now. The images rendered by the scanners can hardly be said to be provocative, so few people should worry about any TSA officials being aroused by their “naked” bodies. Now, I’ll admit this is a pretty feeble point. But worry not! I have other reasons for my thoughts on this.

Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, the US government took on an entirely new, much more aggressive approach to national (or “homeland”) security, especially in the air. The fact that the terrorists who seized the airplanes used in the 9/11 attacks were armed with knives (which they used to kill the pilots) showed that even lethal weaponry can be well-concealed. To me, this really highlights the importance of comprehensive screening of potential airline passengers. Now, I’m not saying that every person hoping to board a plane should be rigorously checked for anything that might be possibly used as a weapon. I am saying though (perhaps in contrast to that oh-so-famous Benjamin Franklin quote about liberty) that sometimes people need to think of the world in terms larger than themselves.

This scan is hardly invasive or offensive, and gives only an vague rendering of the person’s “intimate anatomy.” These images are less revealing and personal than an illustration in an anatomy textbook, and the entire operation is performed anonymously. Now, some propose that this represents the beginning of a slippery slope toward a police state-style security apparatus in airports, and effectively say that it won’t be long before TSA officials are performing public colonoscopies in the pursuit of justice. Besides being a flimsy argument to start with, this assumes that a pattern of ever-more ridiculous security measures is in place, or that there are signs of it. What signs are there? The millimeter wave scanner was implemented a few years ago, and things haven’t changed since.

Even if they did, it would hardly be too late. If Americans are lobbying now for a loosening of airline security, then they could certainly do so again in the future, if more signs of a worsening situation arose. Frankly, there aren’t lives on the line when a person is scanned by millimeter waves. There are when someone slips a gun past security at an airport.

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