Dumb Things Westerners Believe about Terrorism: Part Two

Myth Four: The West can defuse tension by seeking dialogue with terrorist groups and unfriendly governments.

Even Deepak knows there are some gulfs that can't be bridged
Barack Obama believed that when he was a candidate. He's wiser now. Call this myth "dreams gone wrong." Belief in reason is a foundational value in the West. It's a key component of what anthropologists call worldview. It's why the West (plus Asian democracies and secular China) pioneer in science, medical technology, electronics, consumer goods, creative culture, aeronautics, computers, and (alas!) military hardware. We believe in the power of reason so much that we have trouble understanding alternative worldviews.

Faith-based and ideological worldviews–including those of troublesome groups in the West–demote or reject the power of the reason. What person grounded in empiricism believes that 72 virgins will greet each religious martyr in the after-world? Or that prayer alone will set a broken arm? Or that it's fine to kidnap children? Or that it's logical to make threats against a military superpower when you command tin soldiers?

But you know what? It's pretty dumb to hew to the logical path when your adversary thinks reason is a bigger fairy tale than Cinderella. Diplomacy is for diplomats, not ideologues. If you're not on the same worldview page as your opponent you must either find some other sliver of common ground, or stop talking.

Myth Five: International bodies such as the United Nations and the World Court can mediate disputes.

Perhaps it's time to call many of these bodies noble experiments that have failed. Economic sanctions have a decent chance of working, but international law is an oxymoron. (See Myth Four!) It always has been. Does it matter if Al-Qaeda leaders are labeled as having committed crimes against humanity? Or that the Kymer Rouge committed war crimes? Only if you defeat them, something that blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers are forbidden by charter to attempt.

Reason can involve as much blind faith as a religious worldview. We treat international laws as if they are  objective standards of decency when they've never been more than a victor's fiction since the days of Nuremberg when they were invented. Classic example: If the Axis had won World War II, would the Holocaust or Pearl Harbor have been crimes against humanity? Nope, but the bombing of Dresden and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan would have been. Don't like hypotheticals?  Since World War II the only Westerners mentioned as possible war criminals are Americans associated with the My Lai Massacre and Serbian leaders. What do they have in common? Americans lost Vietnam and the Serbs the Yugoslav civil wars. The U.S. military prosecuted William Calley for My Lai and has since maintained the position that American combatants cannot be tried in international courts. The U.S. has also extended this principle to its Allies. Don't hold your breath waiting for Benjamin Netanyahu to be tried as a war criminal. On the other hand, I'd not get too comfortable if I were Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

At best, international bodies such as the UN, the World Court, and the Geneva Convention can restore some order after the fighting ends. At worst, they are idealistic anachronisms. In neither case can they be said to solve or prevent conflict–unless both sides are willing to submit to mediation.

Myth Six: The West wishes to bring democracy to the globe.

No, it doesn't. Nor would it if it could. There are legions of terrorist leaders in the world; often the only difference among them is that a few receive Western sanction for assumed titles such as president or king. You tell me what made El Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson, Chile's Augusto Pincohet, or Guatemala's numerous juntas valuable U.S. allies, but Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro were allegedly dangerous.

 The West has always been selective in its demonization of "tyrants," so why not just admit it's all about self-interest? In 1946, George Kennan counseled that the U.S. should identify and support "core" nations vital to U.S. interest, and mostly ignore "peripheral" lands inconsequential to those concerns. Then and now such advice smacks of cold-heartedness, but that doesn't mean he was wrong in describing what the West has done and should do. It should surprise no one that the West did little more than lament tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia, but took an active role in Iraq. It's called oil, as in the first two have none but Kuwait and Iraq do.

Part of the Western improvements in Iraq
The West gets in big trouble when it thinks it can be a nation-builder. Does anyone with an ounce of Western worldview reason think that Iraq is better off today than when Sadam Hussein was in power?  Sure; all those elections have made it a pillar of hope–for ISIS. About those peripheral nations, Afghanistan or Palestine anyone? I'm uncomfortable with the idea, but would the West be any worse off to announce that it's done with nation building and that future acts of aggression against it will be met with indiscriminate force? Elections don't deter terrorists, and smiling boots on the ground don't make populaces embrace Western values. I'd prefer we butt out and let history run its course, but wasn't it Machiavelli who said it's better to be feared than loved?


Dumb Things Westerners Believe about Terrorism: Part One


The barbaric murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine are the latest reminder that it's time for Westerners to jettison old myths, excuses, and practices concerning terrorism.

Myth One:  The label 'terrorist' is used only to describe Muslims and is a form of religious bigotry.

Believe it or not, the government calls these people terrorists as well
Nonsense! Roughly 875,000 Americans are on Homeland Security watch lists and it would be even more except that right-wing Republicans got pissed off when some of their looniest supporters appeared among then usual suspects. Even with the whittling the list of domestic terrorist organizations is large. (We presume the FBI has a long list as well, though it doesn't like to share.) If you think that only Muslims are seen as terrorists, you've been smoking too much medical marijuana.

The Black Panthers, Timothy McVeigh, the Weather Underground, the Unabomber, product tamperers (remember poisoned Tylenol), and lots of others have borne the label "terrorist." Groups currently monitored by Homeland Security include everything from anti-abortion groups and gangs to white supremacists and "paper terrorists" who use frivolous lawsuits and tax avoidance schemes to sabotage the federal bureaucracy. You'll find non-Muslim groups such as the Army of God (anti-abortion), Alpha 66 (Cuban exiles), the Animal Liberation Front, the Crips, the Earth Liberation Front, the Jewish Defense League, the Ku Klux Klan, the Phineas Priesthood (Christian terrorists), and various skinheads, hate groups, and neo-Nazi organizations on the list. And, yes, they are called "terrorists," not some euphemism.

Myth Two: Unless we respect all views, true freedom and a multicultural society are impossible.

That's what Noam Chomsky and the American Civil Liberties Union say–and it's rubbish. I stopped contributing to the ACLU back in the days when it defended Skokie, Illinois Nazis. The ACLU claimed that Nazi groups have rights too. My rejoinder is that freedom is in greater jeopardy when we give comfort to groups that, if successful, would eliminate freedom. Just look at fascism's historical record.

The principle extends to those seeking asylum or opportunity in the West. Those who  do not agree with the values or laws of the host nation, shouldn't immigrate there. Why should, for example, France, The Netherlands, or the U.K. accept an immigrant who believes in sharia law? This is a glaring inconsistency, as other nations do not reciprocate. Saudi Arabia, the Maldvies, and Yemen expressly forbid non-Muslims; numerous others persecute them. You certainly wouldn't wish to practice any non-sanctioned faiths in places such Cambodia, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Sudan, or Vietnam. I suppose one could say, "We're better than that," but this misses the point. Sovereign nation-states–as opposed to lands under the grip of neo-tribal anarchy–define their civil codes. The very act of definition places limits on the outer boundaries of freedom. A "free" society is not one without rules or constraints; such conditions are the law-of-jungle antithesis of freedom. There is no multiculturalism in such lands, just conformity enforced by militarist might.

Myth Three: Islam is a religion of peace.

Not necessarily. Most of the world's Muslims practice peace, but Islam can be interpreted as militant.  The Qur'an–which I've actually read by the way–has numerous passages that (literally) sanction the forceful conversion, discrimination against, or killing of non-Muslims. The same is true of prophetic teaching collected as hadith literature.

Millions of Muslims view these passages as symbolic (as in overcoming temptation, or symbolically "slaying" the lure of other faiths), but we must acknowledge that much of political Islam interprets the Quar'an as literally as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist. Is there a difference? Yes. There is a pervasive return-to-the-Crusades mentality loose in today's Muslim world analogous to Christian Europe during the 15th and 16th century wars of religion, or indeed the Crusades Europe launched in the 11th century.

It's true that Muslims have no monopoly on violence, but when was the last time you saw scores of Christians or Hindus applaud using a 10-year-old girl as a suicide bomber? Many of the world's recent terrorist acts have indeed been done in the name of Islam: the seizure and beheading of hostages, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the ritual killing of Daniel Pearl, 9/11, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the revival of anti-Semitism, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, bombings across the globe (Boston, Indonesia, London, Madrid, India, Kenya…) And Islam has spawned barbarous groups such as Abu Sayaff, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, the Taliban, and dozens more. There are far too many to be dismissed as "rogues." Over the weekend Boko Haram slaughtered 2,000 Nigerians.  The best way for those Muslims appalled by this to change global perceptions of their religion  is to annihilate hate groups. About which….

They must do so themselves. History reveals that not much good can come of spreading faith by the sword. It also tells us, though, that outsiders don't fix the problems of others. The West can restrict who it allows to enter its own borders, but it should give Muslims abroad wide berth rather than trying to direct internal wars. Disengagement runs counter to the paths of globalism and economic integration, but if Westerners were honest, they'd admit that Cold War politics and oil have mattered more than what happens inside Muslim lands. Memo One: The Cold War is over. Memo Two: Most Western nations don't need the oil anymore. Russia's Putin's a jerk, but Europeans would be better off buying from him than terrorism exporters such as Saudi Arabia or Nigeria.  (The U.S. is now self-sufficient.) Let authoritarians like China buy from the theocrats. Memo Three: The West needs to pay more attention to domestic terrorists and those who should be deported, not the internal affairs of others.


Strong Performances Highlight The Imitation Game

Directed by Morten Tyldum
Black Bear Pictures, PG-13, 114 minutes
* * * *

The Imitation Game tells the story of how World War Two British researchers cracked Nazi Germany's "Enigma" encryption code. As biography and history, The Imitation Game takes many liberties, but it's a very compelling screen story and is exceptionally well acted.

The film is (very) loosely based on Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an individual who many regard as an architect of both computers and artificial evidence. Although based on a highly regarded biography by Andrew Hodges, the film exaggerates many aspects of Turing's character, his isolation, his afflictions, and his unhappy schoolboy years. It is structured like numerous other films in which an unlikely team of bright young minds solidifies in the name of a greater good.  An inspiring repeated line–"Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine"–is pretty much the arc of the story. Think films and TV shows you've seen of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos, and the atomic bomb, then transpose these to Turing, Britain's Bletchley Park research center, and constructing a prototypical computer and that's the essence of The Imitation Game. This extends to the role of difficult military overseers with contempt for pinheads, Major Leslie Groves at Los Alamos, and Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) at Bletchley. Spies also plagued both projects, and both Oppenheimer and Turing had closeted skeletons–Oppenheimer's leftwing politics and Turing's homosexuality. The latter theme is woven in and out of the film in ways open to charges of being a tack-on, though we do see Turing's life unravel in 1952, when he was arrested for "indecency," Britain's code word for homosexuality.

The Bletchley team included patrician scientist Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Jack Good (James Northcote), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). (Downton Abbey viewers will recognize Leech as Tom.) The ensemble are terrific together, including Knightley who, as she often does not, turns in a very convincing performance as the cryptanalyst who was briefly Turing's fiancée. Especially riveting is Mark Strong, who plays MI6 head Stewart Menzies with an icy calculation that rivals the statistical output of the Bletchley Park scholars.  Ironically, Cumberbatch, though perfectly competent, is the least impressive member of the central cast, largely because he's essentially reprising his TV role as an autistic Sherlock Holmes. But there really aren't any weak links–the British simply don't junk up the screen with weak actors, no matter how small the role.

The Imitation Game is a taut and thrilling 114 minutes because the acting is so good and the stakes were so high. It's a very good film, though not a perfect one. Add Alexandre Desplat's score to the ever-growing list of overwrought composers. (Honestly, must soundtracks slap us in the ears to telegraph every action?) As noted earlier, the story on the screen departs from reality, including portraying Turing and Clarke as closer than they were. There are other dramatic contrivances and coincidences, some of them rather obvious. The film's title seems to have been chosen because it sounded good and then a scene was written to explain it. It references a test that helps determine if a response comes from a person or a machine–think Deckard in Blade Runner– but its applicability for this film feels forced. But there is little dispute that breaking the Enigma code was a major accomplishment that both shortened the war and saved untold numbers of Allied lives.

Spoiler Alert: Stop here until you've seen the film (which you should) as below I've listed several of the film's inaccuracies.

Rob Weir

-- Turing is not thought to have suffered from Asperger syndrome. He did, however, later suffer from gynecomastia caused by the court-ordered chemical "castration" drugs he took after his arrest.
--Turing, though an egghead, was not as socially isolated as the film suggests. He mentored several researchers before he was forced to leave Cambridge.
--The machine the team built was not named "Christopher" for Turing's unrequited schoolboy love; it was commonly called "Bombe."
--Turing did not invent the machine out of thin air; he refined models developed by Polish researchers.
--One dramatic scene shows the team making a decision that led to the death of Hilton's brother. This is a fabrication.
--Although Turing and Clare were affianced briefly, she probably knew of his homosexuality at the time. There is no evidence that she ever contacted him after the war ended and the Bletchley project shut down. 
--The film shows Turing and Cairncross working side by side and, in a key moment, Cairncross blackmails Turing to prevent him from revealing that he was a double agent. In truth, the two never worked together and there is no evidence Turing even knew Cairncross. (The latter was a thrice-confessed spy who–in one of the Cold War's many absurdities–never suffered any repercussions for being a Soviet spy.)
--The code-breaking machine (surprise!) developed slowly and incrementally, not in one big revelatory moment.
--Turing's team was not five (with Clarke an honorary member); over 1,500 people worked at Bletchley.
--The film states categorically that Turing killed himself in 1954. In fact, his suicide is conjectural. It is known that Turing was using the cyanide in his experiments and ingesting it could have been an accident. There was, however, a half-eaten apple by his nightstand that might have been the suicide delivery vehicle. It was never tested, though one theory holds that it was a macabre homage to Snow White, a film over which Turing was reportedly obsessed.