Terrorism Is Not An Existential Threat

WASHINGTON – Sadly, there has been another terror attack. This time it took place in Munich, one of Germany’s most important cities. Here is my take on this tragedy. It is alright for the news media to report the facts. What is not alright, in fact down right insane, is for every news channel to provide endless coverage of the event that quickly turns into wild speculation in the absence of hard facts.

Obsessive coverage 

Indeed, all the networks kept the topic on the air by creating an endless loop in which there was no real news.  The same skimpy facts were repeated again and again, in an obsessive fashion. In an equally obsessive fashion, viewers were treated with endless reruns of the same footage that showed scared people in Munich running away.

Uninformed commentary now part of the news  

And it got a lot worse. In order to keep viewers interested, the news editors laced these non-reports from Munich with interviews with “experts” who knew absolutely nothing about the evolving situation in Germany. But supposedly they are “terrorism experts” who can opine on what is going on, even though they are totally in the dark regarding the key facts. As this “coverage” unfolded, nobody knew anything about the Munich shooter. Was he a German? Was he Middle Eastern? Is this about ISIL and jihad? Is this the work of extreme right militants? Or is it about a mentally disturbed person with no political agenda?

Ignorance is OK 

But none of this matters. And so you could see on various TV channels a parade of retired U.S. Generals who were asked to offer their (supposedly insightful) opinion about an ongoing police action aimed at capturing a shooter in a German shopping mall about which they knew absolutely nothing. As if their military background would allow them to know what was happening and why.

And then add to the experts mix retired CIA and FBI agents, think tank people, and assorted others. One thing is clear. None of these people knew anything whatsoever about what happened in Munich. But this does not matter. Speculation, sometimes totally irresponsible, by experts is now considered an integral part of news coverage.

And it got really crazy. “Let’s assume that these are ISIL inspired terrorists”, said one. “Well, in this case, this means that…blah, blah, blah”. This is how the news media transformed a sad event whose causes were unknown (and that is very limited in scope) into yet another chapter of an unfolding global war waged by Terror against us that does not exist.

A global war that does not exist 

Yes, the media want you to believe that this Munich attack must be part of a general war waged by Islamic fanatics against the West. Another terror attack signals that we are dealing with a ferocious enemy, determined to totally destroy us. And then the really stupid questions follow: “In your opinion, what should governments do to keep us totally safe?” As if there were an intelligent, cogent answer to such a broad question.

Terrorism is real

Terrorism is unfortunately real. Yes, innocent people across the world are being killed, and many more are potentially vulnerable. This is true. But by amplifying the news coverage of all these attacks the news media creates the false impression that there are thousands and thousands of terrorists ready to jump on us. They describe all this as an existential, truly overwhelming threat; when it is not.

A total of a few hundred people killed over a few months period across many countries is serious business. But these killings do not amount to an ongoing massive slaughter. By comparison, during WWI thousands of soldiers were killed in just a few hours in one of the many battles that were fought almost daily, over a number of years. Again, thousands of people get killed every year in America by criminals. But, somehow these deaths are not as important.

No perspective 

I am not saying that terror-related killings should be ignored because they are not large enough to deserve attention. I am saying however that they should be looked at in perspective. Unless we see a real change in the momentum of these terror operations showing us that there is both willingness and operational ability to attack all Western (and other) countries from all angles on a regular basis, these terror attacks are not about to destroy our civilization. Of course we should deploy all our intelligence and police resources to deal with this threat. This is serious business. But we should leave its handling to law enforcement agencies and not panic.

World not coming to an end

However, this is not what the media tell us. Indeed, by providing truly over the top, excessive coverage and by allowing the wildest speculations about “what other terrible things will happen next” to be mixed with incessant news coverage the media give the public the impression that, on account of “Global Terrorism”, the world may be coming to an end.

This is just not true. Allowing this perception to be created by exaggerated coverage the media are creating fear, if not panic when we need perspective and calm. This is truly irresponsible. This distortion amounts to a huge disservice to Western societies which rely on the news media for balanced accounts in order to gain a reasonably accurate understanding about what is going on in the world.

Dealing With The Terror Threat in America

WASHINGTON – As we are entering the heated phase of the US presidential campaign, the Orlando massacre perpetrated by Omar Mateen, a self-radicalized second generation US born Muslim, has immediately become a major political issue.

Terror and politics 

Both Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump felt the pressure to articulate a (supposedly) credible anti-terror strategy aimed at preventing more terror attacks in the US. But the expectation that either of them can come up with a winning strategy that will destroy terrorism while providing total protection to all Americans is patently absurd.

The terror threat

The “Terror Threat” is not a monolith led by an organized command. It is composed of multiple, mostly independent factions spread around at least a dozen countries, with support from a myriad of diverse foot soldiers. They can be citizens of Arab countries. But they can also be European or US national citizens of Arab or other Muslim descent. They can be from Bosnia, Chechnya or Kosovo. Some of them may have received training in Syria. Others may have been convinced to join the global jihad through Islamic propaganda delivered via the internet.

ISIL in Syria and Iraq 

Sure enough, America and the West have a tangible target in the self-declared Caliphate, chunks of Syria and Iraq now occupied by ISIL. It can be plausibly argued that the existence of a somewhat functioning “Islamic State” provides encouragement to assorted young dreamers around the world who now are convinced that this new religious-political entity, supposedly founded on total adherence to the True Faith, is the clear sign of an unfolding global revolution of which they are the vanguard.

People believe in crazy things

Yes, this is absolutely crazy. But, as history amply demonstrates, some people at times believe in crazy things. Therefore, redoubling our efforts to destroy the Islamic State is probably a good thing.

But let’s not harbor any illusions. The genie of Islamic Fundamentalism is out of the bottle. Even assuming ISIL’s quick defeat, (not a sure thing), this millenarian ideology now embraced by ISIL will find another vehicle. It will probably find a new home and new followers in other parts of the world.

Is there are a plan?

Given all of the above, what should a new US President do to protect all Americans? Nothing new, really. America is not confronted with a frontal assault orchestrated by Islamic radicals. ISIL and its associates did not land here as an organized army attacking us. We have a few (certainly not tens of thousands) ISIL followers, spread around, here and there, within America.

Some of them harbor jihadist beliefs and intentions. A small number of them are willing to plot and execute terror attacks –just like Omar Mateen did in Orlando. And the sad reality is that small numbers can do great damage.

Asymmetric warfare 

Omar Mateen, the young man of Afghan descent who plotted and executed the Orlando massacre was all by himself. He was not acting (as far as we know) under direct orders of some kind of ISIL supreme leader in the U.S. or the Middle East.

In other words, this horrible Orlando massacre did not require any master plan, structure or chain of command. Again, Mateen did it by all by himself. And look at what he did. Just one man –acting alone– killed 50 people and injured more than 50 others. A real carnage. This is what is known as “asymmetric warfare”. You do not need an army, or even a platoon to kill a large number of unarmed civilians gathered in one place.

Better police work

Is this is so, what is to be done? Realistically, the only thing that a responsible new US President can promise to America is to do his/her best to have and possibly beef up a robust intelligence and police apparatus that hopefully will catch the bad guys before they can act.

But nobody in his right mind can promise 100% success. The home-grown terrorists are likely to be just like the young man responsible for the Orlando massacre. Most likely they are psychopaths acting on their own who have adopted this ideological veneer –Islamic fundamentalism– in order to justify their violent intentions. Indeed, no sane individual would seriously believe that firing into a crowd of unarmed people will bring about a major, constructive political transformation.

Unrealistic expectations

In a more sober political environment in which voters would avoid harboring unrealistic expectations, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would say precisely this. “We shall do our best. But it is impossible to monitor millions of people 24/7. Some of the bad guys will slip through. More attacks are unfortunately possible.”

But saying this sounds like hopelessness. The candidates for the highest office in the land “must” offer a “perfect plan”. And so they do, even though they know (and we should know) that this is mostly hot air.

Again, better intelligence and coordinated police work can do something, probably a lot, to mitigate the risk of more attacks. But we cannot expect perfection.

Living with the threat

So, are we going to live with this latent terror threat indefinitely? The answer is yes. Until at least some individuals scattered here and there in the United States (and elsewhere) will be inspired by crazy ideologies that order violence as the best tool to bring about a new order finally based on the True Faith, we should expect more terror plots.

Even if we managed to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria very quickly, this would not kill –for good– the crazy ideology that breeds terrorists and new terror threats.

A different version of this article was published in www.globalpi.org, the website of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank.

We Have To Learn How To Live With The Terror Threat

WASHINGTON – Here we go, more home-grown terrorism in America, most likely Islam-inspired terrorism. This time it happened in San Bernardino, in Southern California. A young couple of South Asian origin decided that they needed to kill people at a holiday party for local public services employees.

Mass killing 

And so they did. They went there, heavily armed. And they started firing into the defenseless crowd, killing 14, and injuring 17. A while later they were found, and they were killed in a massive shoot out with police.

After all this, we have the usual phenomenon of over the top, 24 hour media coverage, with the usual tail of dozens of experts interviewed, so that they can opine on motives, international connections, methods, necessary counter measures, and more. Officiating over this media bazaar, stern looking news anchors ask really silly questions such as: “How are we going to prevent this from happening again?” 

This obsessive coverage at least indirectly conveys the impression that in America and throughout the world we have massive terrorist attacks everywhere, every day. But it is not so. Yes, we had the bomb on the Russian plane in Egypt, then, Paris, and Mali, and now San Bernardino. Disturbing developments. But this is hardly a wave.

ISIL and its supporters are a menace. But deaths or serious injuries due to traffic accidents are a much worse menace. It is a fact that millions of Americans will die prematurely because of the consequences of type 2 diabetes, a preventable chronic disease that most people affected by it do not take seriously.

Very, very few will be victims of terror violence. And yet the media hysteria creates the unhealthy perception that we are now a nation under siege.  

No way to completely stop religion inspired violence 

Unless they are totally dense, these savvy media people must know that a few terror attacks, however tragic, are not the equivalent of a global conflict.

Besides, they should also know that there is no clean “solution” for occasional acts of violence perpetrated by psychopaths inspired by a weird interpretation of Islam.

The media people should know that it is impossible to stop all small groups of radicalized individuals, scattered around a vast country, from scheming, plotting and occasionally executing acts of terror. And yet the relentless coverage of the events leads the general public to believe that terrorism is an everyday occurrence and that, if we only had the right leaders, we would find a way to stop it.

As we have just seen in San Bernardino, it does not take an organized expeditionary force to cause a slaughter. You need just a couple of motivated people armed with semi-automatic weapons. Sadly, plotting and executing similar acts of terror is really easy. As long as there are people willing to embrace this ideology that advocates a crazy version of jihad, there will be more acts of terror.

Mitigate the threat 

Yes, we can mitigate the threat. Law enforcement can do a better job. Intelligence services can track more bad guys. More alert citizens can raise alarms when they see something suspicious.

And, as I have argued elsewhere, destroying the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would affect the morale of militants located in many countries.

But there is no “final remedy” for a threat that stems from the power of an alluring ideology of death and redemption that resonates with some (not millions, not thousands) confused people looking for meaning in their lives.

The “cause” of terror 

Indeed, we know that the “source” of this terror threat rests in the twisted minds of some deranged individuals who have been convinced by internet-delivered slick propaganda that it is their duty to kill innocent people in order to further a plan of destruction and redemption founded on religious beliefs.

Talking over and over on TV about what may have motivated so and so to embrace radical Islam provides no remedy whatsoever. It does not create new tools that may be used to convince others to abandon similar plans. It only creates and fuels unjustified fears.

The only antidote to “radicalization” is for people to choose humane ideas instead of crazy ones. But nobody knows how to create a method that will teach misguided people how to abandon dreams of jihad and rejoin civilized discourse.

This is serious

Let me be clear, I am not trying to say that these mass killings inspired by crazy political-religious beliefs are not important. They are.

But broadcasting, in an obsessive way, all the details of a violent deed plotted and executed by psychopaths who justified it with some pseudo-religious motive does not help anybody.

If anything, it conjures up scenarios of hundreds, possibly thousands of sinister plots unfolding, every day. And this is clearly an exaggeration.

So, what we should we do about terrorism? First of all, stop this hysterical coverage! Let’s leave this matter to the professionals. If anybody can help, even a bit, it is going to be intelligence people, the FBI counter terrorism specialists, Homeland Security, and various police forces around America.

“Fix this, now” 

But no. This is portrayed as a national emergency. TV news anchors blabbering about this “Islamic Terror Threat” 24/7 seem intent on creating a state of perpetual national alert. “Oh, My God…More terrorism. Again? And what are we going to do about this? What is President Obama doing? What are the presidential candidates saying?”

This “Give us a solution, now, otherwise soon enough we shall all be dead” approach creates the stupid perception that there is an imminent threat affecting the entire country, and that we need a smart person who can figure out a good way to “fix” this menace –once and for all.

No magic remedy 

As if a leader with superior skills could dig into his tool kit and come up with the appropriate gadget that would just do it. The fact is that there is no such ready-made solution.

Consider the obvious. We do not live in a police state. We cannot have a permanent state of emergency in which the police can go anywhere, without probable cause and without any warrants, and round up everybody who may be a suspect, subjecting them to “harsh interrogations” (read torture) in order to extract information about plots and accomplices. This is America, not North Korea.

On top of that, we know that there are just too many, totally unprotected soft targets. This terrorist couple hit defenseless people assembled for a holiday party in San Bernardino.

Soft targets

Now, there are probably tens of thousands of such events every year before the Holidays in America. Are we going to dispatch squads of policemen to guard all of them, just in case?

And then there are sports events, concerts, crowded movie theaters, shopping malls, schools, universities, and museums. Same situation. Massive police protection everywhere? We just do not have the resources to police everything, everywhere.

This being the case, what do we do? Do we close “everything” down, as a security precaution? No, we shall not do that because this would be the end of commerce and of the national economy.

Well, if this is so, then we have to learn how to live with the possibility of more terror attacks, keeping in mind that, based on the existing record, there have been very few.

The plague of our time 

Sadly, religiously motivated terrorism is a disease that will be with us for a while. Of course, we have to fight it. But we should also recognize that it is difficult to do so. There are more than 300 million citizens in America, not to mention throngs of visitors arriving every day, tens of thousands of foreign students and foreign workers, and millions of illegal immigrants who reside here. Checking on everybody in order to make sure that we catch all the bad guys before they act is an impossibility. 

Low cost operations 

Remember, just a couple of motivated terrorists can cause death and major disruptions, at least in the locality where the event occurs. As the San Bernardino slaughter proves, only two people with a couple of assault rifles caused a disaster. Besides, this type of  “do-it-yourself”, small scale terrorism is very cheap.

This whole operation probably cost just a few thousand dollars to buy rifles, ammunition, bomb making material, and for renting an SUV. In other words, putting together another plot, just like this one, is really easy!

Difficult to detect

On any given day, law enforcement agencies probably do a decent job at tracking many suspects, and occasionally apprehending a few. But some will slip through.

It is just inevitable. And sometimes bad guys go on plotting undetected because ordinary citizens do not want to get involved. Indeed, most tragically, it would appear that some neighbors of the terrorist couple in San Bernardino noticed strange activities around their house. But they did not report anything to the authorities, for fear of being portrayed as anti-foreigners bigots.

What do we do? 

So, what do we do? Except for reporting suspicious activities when they see any, there is really nothing that ordinary people can do. This is a job for the professionals.

Intelligence services and law enforcement agencies may be able to get better at what they already do. But they cannot perform miracles. The tragedy of acts of terror inspired by crazy interpretations of Islam is that the bizarre ideas that inspire them can be embraced potentially by thousands and thousands of people, who may be located almost anywhere.

Easy to become a terrorist 

And, as I said before, it is easy to become an improvised would-be terrorist. You do not need advanced degrees, or heavy training.

Sure, some skills are necessary.

But it is not that difficult to learn how to pull the trigger into an unarmed crowd, this way causing mass casualties. And it does not take that much money either. In this gun saturated society, if you have no prior criminal record, buying a gun or an assault rifle is just as complicated as ordering a coffee maker through Amazon.

That said, please keep in mind that we have no evidence of waves upon waves of terror attacks about to hit America. Yes, there have been some. And probably some more will take place. But this is a problem, and not an existential threat. I wish our media would be able to explain the difference. 

Discussing all the details serves no purpose 

Is this analysis an invitation to fatalism? Not really. This is an invitation to realism. We have a problem; but it is not a crisis.

By obsessively digging into the details of the lives of psychopaths dressed up as religious fighters we accomplish nothing constructive. Doing so just creates an unhealthy climate of fear.

So, here is my simple advice. Let’s report the news, but let’s not talk about this too much. And let’s leave terrorism to the professionals.

Looking into the future, let’s hope that the ideological malady that inspires political violence will soon go away. If history is any guide, crazy ideas may linger for a while; but they do not last for ever.

The Terror Threat Will Not End

WASHINGTON – Terror attacks hatched by crazy militants underscore the deep vulnerabilities of modern, open societies. They trigger an avalanche of emotional and sometimes useless reactions. After Paris was hit hard (yet again) by another cell of Islamic radicals, French President Francois Hollande declared passionately that France is clearly under military assault, and that this is “war”.

Hit them hard? 

Well, this being war, as a response to this ISIL-led “military operation” aimed at Paris, Hollande dispatched French jet fighters to hit targets in Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the ISIL-led, “Caliphate”.

Does this response make any sense? Symbolically, may be. But as a military reaction, not a lot; unless Hollande intends to engage up to the end, namely until the complete annihilation of the Caliphate. Well, first of all, France does not have the military tools to do this. Besides, even complete success would only be a partial victory.

Destroy the Caliphate 

I have argued here, several times, that the destruction of the self-described Caliphate would help the “anti-Islamic radicalism” effort. Indeed, the very existence of this bizarre but quite real state, right in the heart of the Middle East, is a source of pride and inspiration for all Islamic militants, and a powerful tool to get more recruits willing to go there, and fight “for the cause”.

That said, I am under no illusion that even the complete and final destruction of the Caliphate will take care of the anti-Western terror problem. At least some of the more committed militants will melt away from the ISIL-controlled territories in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq and will regroup somewhere else.

A difficult agenda

Well, so what is to be done? There is no simple answer. There is no clear recipe that will quickly lead the West to “victory”. Let’s be clear, even in this strange conflict, “victory” will take place only when all the known and unknown terrorists have been caught, and I mean all of them; and –most crucial– nobody else will be willing to follow their example and engage in any fresh terror plots.

In other words, as in all conflicts, large or small, all the enemy combatants and would-be combatants have to say clearly and unequivocally: “We lost. We are done. No more fighting”.

This is the strategic objective of any conflict, and the only possible definition of “victory”. This must be the goal.

But in this conflict against a variety of terror groups it is an extremely difficult goal. And here is why.

Many foot soldiers 

Whether we like it or not, there are thousands and thousands of people across the Muslim world, and within Muslim communities in Western countries, who now see the West as their mortal enemy. They are not going to change their mind on this any time soon. And there is not much we can do to about any of this.

It is easy 

Besides, planning and executing acts of terrorism targeting civilians in Paris, New York, or Berlin is very easy. Right now, it only takes a few motivated people willing to die in a suicide mission to hatch a terror plot. And, sadly, there seem to be plenty of them.

The idea that the Paris terror attacks are the result of a highly sophisticated command and control structure is nonsense. Sure enough, it takes some planning and coordination to plot and execute, simultaneously, multiple attacks. But it is not that complicated. The terrorists identified a number of unprotected, soft targets, (a soccer stadium, a concert hall, and restaurants). Going there and opening fire, indiscriminately, against unarmed civilians is not that difficult.

It is cheap

And it gets even worse. These type of attacks against soft targets are cheap. Very cheap. A recent Reuters story quoted some experts who calculated the up front cost of the Paris terror attacks: about 7,000 Euro, approximately US $ 7,500.

Well, this is next to nothing. Even if the real amount spent is higher, say 20,000 Euro, it is still a very low bar. So, here is the thing. The barrier to entry to be a terror group is extremely low. You need a few, motivated people who know how to handle fire arms, and some cash.

How to protect ourselves 

Having said all this, how do we protect ourselves? Sadly, a perfect shield does not exist. The main line of defense has to be more and better intelligence. Admittedly, this is a never-ending, thankless job.

There are millions of young, unhappy Muslims who may fit the profile of a would-be terrorist. How do you vet all of them? Impossible. Sure, we can get better at this. But we cannot become perfect.

In the meantime, we can extend police and intelligence services powers. But this creates a conflict with the need to protect our civil liberties. Therefore, here we have an issue. How far can we go? Do we want to become a police state, so that the police can better protect us? It is obvious that this can lead us down a dangerous road.

There is no strategy 

Anyway, here is the thing. Bombing Raqqa a couple of times is not a serious strategy. A serious strategy would have to include the complete destruction of IS and the Caliphate. But even this would not be enough.

A serious strategy would have to include the creation of an alternative message that could be embraced by those who now choose militancy and terror plots. This would be the real “silver bullet” that would defeat terrorism. But I doubt that anybody can come up with a new, more appealing “peaceful package” that would actually “sell”. The end game here is to convince young militants that there are better ways to get more opportunities in the societies they live in. Unfortunately, nobody is that smart. As yet, nobody developed a new message that can gain real traction.

Silly grandstanding, empty talk 

In the meantime, though, we waste time grandstanding with unproductive talk of “war”. Here in Washington, we waste time with stupid debates about how we should vet Syrian refugees who want to come to America. The idea that several US Governors and a majority of the members of the House have really nothing better to do other than demanding more stringent vetting of poor souls from Syria, in case some of them may be terrorists in disguise, is disheartening. Yes, potentially this may be an issue. But we already have a very stringent vetting process. Refugees do not just walk in. It takes several months of checks and re-checks.

In any event, is this all we can do? How about giving more resources to the FBI, the federal agency with the people who know something about the threat?  And how about getting serious about destroying the Caliphate?

After The Paris Terror Attack: Focus On The Caliphate

WASHINGTON – Regarding the large-scale terror attack that just took place in Paris, the worst thing that we can do is to talk about it too much. Full blast 24/7 media coverage, inspired by the need to know “all the details”, laced with testimonials of scared people and clueless law enforcement agents –these are the people who are supposed to protect the citizens– fuel a climate of confusion and panic. Along the same lines, it is positively unhelpful to call terrorism an act of war, as French President Francois Hollande did, simply because the very term “war” conjures up an idea of national mobilization and total conflict. 

What should be done? 

Alright, then what should we do about this menace? Of course, all Western countries should beef up all their intelligence capabilities.

Ideally, intelligence services should be able to identify and apprehend or kill all would-be terrorists before they act. But this is probably impossible. Impossible to monitor millions of potential suspects, scattered all over Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and may be North America. Yes, you can have  success here and there. Some of the operatives may not be so clever. Some leave trails. Some are clumsy. These will be caught.

But a few will slip through. And, as the Paris tragedy shows, it is enough to have less than ten operatives to cause mass casualties and utter chaos.

Attack the Caliphate

There is however at least one thing the West should do –immediately. The Western countries and their Arab allies should destroy –and I really mean destroy– the self-proclaimed Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. This intention was declared a while ago by US President Barack Obama, (remember “degrade and destroy ISIL”?).  But nothing much has happened on the ground.

Sadly, a mighty coalition led by America produced almost no results, so far. This emboldens the ISIL radicals. They are challenged by a super power, and they are not retreating. In fact, they hold on to their conquests. In the eyes of the world, and especially in the eyes of young Muslims looking for a noble cause they could join, they are winning. And many want to join a winner.

Not the end of the story 

Let’s be clear: even assuming renewed vigor and success, eliminating the Caliphate is not the ultimate strategic objective in this long conflict. The West and several Arab nations are dealing with small organizations whose operatives can rapidly move to different countries and easily blend in.

It would hurt morale 

However, eliminating this political-religious entity would help. Right now, the very existence of the Caliphate is a symbol of victory. “The jihad has started, and we are winning, as our ability to rule over a vast territory demonstrates”. Well, eliminating this symbol of victory would hurt psychologically. It would inject doubts about the chances of eventual victory. It would diminish the ability to recruit more would-be jihadists.

A long conflict 

Again, the Caliphate now controlling vast portions of Syria and Iraq is not the ultimate objective in this conflict. Unfortunately, we are dealing with an irrational millenarian ideology embraced by people who can and will adapt to different circumstances.

The loss of this ISIL stronghold in Syria and Iraq, assuming that we get to that point, would be a major loss. But not necessarily the ultimate defeat. At least some militants will move elsewhere.

That said, it should be done. Every day that goes by and the ISIL black flags are there to show who is in charge, is a day of victory for the radicals and for their cause.

South Africa: Major Economy With A Major Crime Problem

CENTURION (PRETORIA), South Africa“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, “God Bless Africa”. This is the beautiful beginning of South Africa’s National Anthem. Well, the country is in trouble and it really needs God’s blessings.

There is some good news. BusinessReport says that South Africa improved its competitiveness ranking. According to the World Economic Forum, it is now among the 50 most competitive countries in the world, (out of a total of 140 listed).

This is definitely good news. Much of it has to do with the spreading of ICT systems, financial markets improved efficiency, and an improved transportation infrastructure.

However, in some important categories relevant to competitiveness, (the average of all of them gives the final score), South Africa has a lot of work to do. On corruption, (too much) the country is 76, (out of 140); on government regulations (too many) the country is number 117. But by far the most worrisome score is on security (too little). South Africa ranks 102nd out of 140.

The truly frightening aspect of this bad security score is that violence in South Africa is getting worse, year after year. The newspaper The Star comments on recently released national violent crime statistics with the headline: “Gangster Paradise“, followed by chilling data: “Murder, up 10%, Robberies, up 11.4%, Residential Robberies, up 9.9%, Carjacking, up 13.4%.; Truck Hijacking, up 47%. Children aged between 10 and 17 responsible for 47 murders”.

In announcing these figures, the police authorities stress that these numbers are better than what they were 10 years ago. (Murders are up, but  –do not be fooled– we are winning the War on Crime).

Small consolation for those who see homicides and robberies trending up. A Justice Department official in fact commented that: “This number of deaths is what you would expect from a country at war”.

“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”. “God Bless Africa”.  

Seeking Justice in Baltimore

WASHINGTON – Freddie Gray was a 25 year old Baltimore small time drug dealer. He was just another member of an all too familiar urban underclass of petty criminals who  had chosen drug dealing and/or other illegal activities mostly because they have preciously few options.

Crime is the only career

I say this not to justify or condone crime. This is to say that when young men grow up in a semi-lawless environment that does not provide any real opportunity, sadly for many of them crime becomes the default option.

A bad day

It so happened that on April 12 Freddie Gray had an extremely bad day. Gray saw some policemen, and then he run away. The policemen chased him, arrested him and then they threw him into a police van. Based on the results of an investigation, Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries while in the van, and then he died a few days later because of the consequences of his injuries.

In another era, a non event

In another era this might have been treated as a non-event. Freddie Gray would have been considered an unfortunate casualty that occurred on yet another busy law enforcement day. He was after all a known criminal, with a long history of arrests.

The very fact that he run away when he saw some policemen proves that he had reasons for fearing the police. In other words, most likely he was guilty of something. And therefore the police had every right to pursue him and apprehend him. The fact that he suffered injuries while in police custody is just a sad complication. Nobody meant to kill him. Case closed, let’s move on.

A higher standard?

Well, this time it is different. Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor charged all six officers involved in the incident. The driver of the police van has been charged with second degree murder. The others with manslaughter, assault and misconduct in office depending on their actions during the incident.

If Mosby’s charges will stand in court, she just created a new standard –Thank God for that! Here is the thing. Freddie Gray had indeed a criminal record. But the police had no right to pursue him and arrest him on April 12, because they had no “probable cause”. There was no evidence that Gray had committed any crime, at that moment. And the manner in which he was treated after his arrest is criminal. He was treated like an animal. He was thrown into the police van. He suffered injuries. He was not given any medical attention. And therefore he died because of his injuries.

Sure, you can say that if Mr. Gray had been a regular, law abiding citizen he would have had no reason to run away from the police. Therefore, no arrest, no injuries and no death. From this perspective, his death is ultimately his on fault.

We can and should do better

Yes, except that this is The United States of America in the 21st Century. This is not Europe in the Middle Ages. No, you cannot arrest people without probable cause. And, even assuming that the arrest was justified, the police are responsible for the well being of any prisoner in their custody. Any injury to the prisoner is their responsibility. And yes, police officers must seek medical help in case of any injuries to a prisoner in their custody.

These six officers, based on the outcome of the investigation, did none of that. And this why Freddie Gray is dead. This is not to say that they deliberately killed him. But it would appear that they treated him like an animal. They injured him, and then let him suffer, without any real concern for his well-being.

We shall see how all this ends up. An indictment does not automatically imply a conviction. Since we are in America, all citizens accused of a crime, and that includes police officers, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But at the very least Ms. Mosby, with her decision to indict, made the point that police forces have to uphold a high standard of behavior.

The problem of the urban underclass will not go away

That said, no matter how this case will be adjudicated after a trial, the underlying problem at the root of Gray’s death –poverty, ignorance, alienation and crime– will stay.

Freddie Gray was a petty criminal who had  a bad day. A horrible day that cost him his life. Sadly, thousands of young Black men will continue their lives of crime because they see on alternatives. May be they will be treated better the next time they are arrested, but their journey to nowhere good will continue.




Why Western Media Avoided Calling The Paris Mass Killing “Islamic Terrorism”?

WASHINGTON – The common feature of almost all the reporting about the Islamic terror attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, with 12 people killed and many others injured, is the deliberate omission of the adjective “Islamic”. In fact, in early reporting, some media even avoided calling this killing spree an act of “terror”, preferring the more neutral and politically unassailable expression “act of violence”, or “senseless violence”.

From “violence” to “terror”

After French President Francois Hollande called the shooting an act of terror, then most media felt on safe ground and changed from “violence” to “terror”. But hardly anyone calling this tragedy “Islamic terrorism”. This deliberate vagueness continued even after the news that the probable suspects have been identified as French citizens of Arab descent, while the police is pursuing them, (one of them surrendered).

Islamic terror?

All in all, for most media reporting on this event, the step from defining this very violent action “terror” to labeling it “Islamic terror” seems to be too long. And so, very few dared to call this mass killing by its proper name.

Among the few, Alexis Brezet of the daily French Le Figaro who wrote in an editorial: “C’est une guerre, une vraie guerre, qui nous a été déclarée: la guerre du fanatisme islamiste contre l’Occident, l’Europe et les valeurs de la démocratie”. “This is a war, a true war that has been declared against us: the war of Islamic fanaticism against the West, Europe and democratic values”. Well, let’s call a spade a spade.

But most media, especially immediately after the fact, did not feel the need to go as far as declaring the obvious: “Yes, there are some Islamic fanatics in France, and elsewhere in other Western countries, who believe it is their mission to  indiscriminately “punish” infidels through bombings, killings and other acts of terror”.

We know the facts

And therefore most media are just not going to venture as far as stating that this mass killing in Paris is the work of Islamic religious fanatics. And yet the facts we know (and this was before the identification of the possible culprits) do not allow much uncertainty.

The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been a target of previous attacks by Muslim radicals and is under police protection on account of its policy to publish satirical material on Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, an editorial position that at least some Muslims consider to be a terrible offense that must be punished.

So, we know that Charlie Hebdo magazine is viewed as an enemy by Muslim radicals in France, and possibly beyond. The shooters who killed several staff members, while injuring many others, shouted that their action is their way to avenge the Prophet. And they did so while also shouting “Allah Akbar”, “God is Great”.

So, based on all we know, it is not wild speculation to assume that the French journalists were targeted and killed by terrorists inspired by their own interpretation of Islam, because of their “sin” of publishing (offensive) satire against Islam.

But no, we are not going to say that.

Why such restraint?

The question is “Why not?” Is it because (very responsibly) we do not want to fan the flames of violence? Is it because we do not want to encourage random retribution against thousands of possible Muslim/Arab targets in France or elsewhere?

Sure enough, it is possible that, by characterizing this murders as an act of an “all-out” war by Muslims against Christians, policy-makers and the media may become responsible for inciting chaos.

Indeed, if we start shouting that “Moslems” are attacking “us”, this may appear to some (Western) crackpots as a green light to engage in their own indiscriminate private revenge by bombing mosques or buildings where Arab families live.

This is true. Therefore I do agree that, even when faced with such shocking news, one should try to stay calm. And yet, I suspect that there is a lot more behind this media “restraint”.

Let’s not provoke them

I believe that behind all this there is an unconfessed fear that, by denouncing “Islamic terrorism”, we may make the terrorists “angry”, while inciting others to join the fight. And –you see– when they get really angry then they become more vicious and more aggressive. Therefore, if somehow we tone this whole thing down, for instance by omitting the plain fact that this is religion-inspired violence –which is to say that this is not about religion but may be something else– we may be able to avoid more trouble. I have no solid evidence to back this assertion up, but I feel that this is the real reason.

Fear of the unknown enemy

And this does not surprise me. And here is why. We have reasonably peaceful Western societies under occasional attack by assorted angry Islamic radicals (many of them home grown) who really believe that we are the source of all their problems. They also claim that in order to be true believers they have an obligation to retaliate against us.

We know that there are not that many of them. But their determination and their violent methods make them lethal. To make all this a lot more complicated, we do not know how may there are, where they are, and we are not sure that we can catch them, let alone prevent them from undertaking new attacks.

Can we wish this ugly thing away?

And therefore we cling to the totally irrational hope that, if we just tone down a bit what just happened, we may be able to avoid more such attacks. Look, I do understand that gratuitous inflammatory language is not helpful.

Indeed, if we go back a few years, George W. Bush’s almost daily repetition that after 9/11 America was engaged in an existential “War on Terror” that had to be waged against enemies who wanted to destroy us did not help much. In fact, major mistakes (think about the invasion of Iraq) were justified under the catch-all label of this “fight to the end” against “mortal enemies”.

However, while we do not want to fan the flames of violence, deliberate omissions just like those I observed amount to obfuscation and/or a flight into some delusional dream world in which, if we just call this religion-inspired violence something else, this threat somehow will vanish.

We do not know how to deal with terrorism

The problem about terrorism is that it is indeed a form of “asymmetrical warfare” in which the asymmetry always benefits the attacker. Just one action always gets an oversized echo. In this case, three gunmen in Paris, by killing a few journalists, managed to create national and internationals convulsions, with reactions and repercussions half a world away. President Obama made a public statement. The Police Commissioner of New York City made a statement.

The fact is that our societies are just unable to find the appropriate response to a (self-described) mortal threat whose nature, scope, intensity and staying power we cannot gauge and simply do not understand.

I have said in earlier pieces that probably the best approach would be to deliberately down play all terror acts in order to deny the terrorists what they want the most: “Headlines, and the Fame that comes with them”.

Fear invites more attacks

Clearly we do not have the discipline to deny the terrorists the headlines they crave and get after each action. Yet, by failing to call them what they truly are, we reveal how deeply afraid we are of them. And this palpable fear is probably interpreted by them as weakness.

Unfortunately, the perception that feeble societies will easily crack under pressure will encourage more attacks.

African-Americans Feel Persecuted By White Police

WASHINGTON – Perception, as we know, is reality. And, sadly, right now the large US African-American community (more than 40 million citizens) perceives itself as the targeted victim of White police brutality. This includes the willful killing (murder?) of unarmed Black people.

No justice

Furthermore, most Blacks are convinced that the entire White-dominated and controlled justice system is fixed. And the fix is against them. If a White police officer in broad daylight kills an unarmed Black person, the police officer will go free –always.

Sure, there may be a perfunctory inquiry and/or a Grand Jury process. But, in the end, the White police officer will be exonerated, each and every time.

Therefore, it is quite clear that in America Blacks are persecuted, and that they will never get justice.


In fact, it gets even worse. An African-American lady interviewed in a New York street by a major cable TV network stated with a very calm voice that it is quite clear that Whites are out to get Blacks. In fact, it is obvious that Whites are planning to kill all Blacks, one by one. This was not said in a an emotional tone. This was a calm reflection expressed by a person who appeared to be intelligent and articulate.

Alright, you might say that there was some hyperbole involved in that statement, and that she did not literally mean that indeed “all Blacks are targeted”.

Racist America?

Still, consider this statement within the wider context of today’s America. Today in the United States we have an African-American President, Barack Obama, elected twice with the crucial support of millions of White voters. Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, and therefore the head of the entire federal justice system, is an African-American. The Homeland Security Secretary is an African-American. There are scores of African-Americans elected to Congress, not to mention Mayors, members of City Councils, members of State legislatures, admirals and generals, university professors, journalists, TV anchors, CEOs, famous artists, movie stars, athletes, senior police officers, and so on.

And yet the perception of millions of African-Americans is that we are back to the old practices prevalent during the dark days of legally sanctioned segregation, with all the lynchings, Ku Klux Klan violence, and open intimidation against Blacks.

Policemen should be held accountable

I have no doubt that in some instances the police have used excessive force, and that some killings of Black Americans by police officers are not justifiable. And just one person killed for no good reason by the police is enough to raise concerns. Any killing is a serious matter. And all police officers should be held accountable for their actions, just like everybody else.

We have a problem

But to go from here to the widely shared perception that White police brutality is systemic and that more than 40 million Black Americans are now targets of excessive use of force that includes deliberate killings is a bit much.

That said, this is clearly a major problem. America cannot pretend that this racial divide does not exist, or that it will magically go away by itself.

I am not sure what should be done to re-establish a constructive dialogue that will recreate trust between Black and Whites, but our leaders should do something.

Ferguson Killing Interpretations Expose America’s Racial Divide

WASHINGTON – Because of the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by a White policeman, in Ferguson, (Missouri), Black residents and many others coming from other localities are venting (often in a violent way) their frustration and resentment against a White establishment that they perceive as biassed and repressive. It is abundantly clear that the Black community sees  the mostly White and excessively well armed local police force as a bunch of attack dogs used by Whites to intimidate Blacks.

The killing proves the larger point

Whatever the official investigation may come up with, most Blacks immediately bought the reconstruction of the sad event that proves their point. The White policeman for no reason harassed the Black boy walking in the street. The Black boy had his hands up in the air, in a clear gesture of surrender. But the policeman shot him anyway –at least six times.

So, there we go again. This is what is to be expected from White cops whose main job is to instill fear among Blacks. A gratuitous killing here and there is simply meant to reinforce the hard reality that Blacks have no chance in a White dominated society.

Police brutality

Yes, police brutality directed at Blacks is just the most visible manifestation of a fundamentally racist America. You may tell us that segregation may be illegal now. Theoretically Blacks and Whites have equal rights. But, in practice, we know that nothing has changed. And, in case you had any illusions, just look at the Ferguson killing, and you’ll understand what is really going on.

US flag upside down

For me, the saddest manifestation of what amounts to a feeling of total Black alienation was TV footage about the daily protest showing a Black young man carrying the US flag upside down, with the stars at the bottom.

That really jolted me. The American Flag, “Old Glory”, the Stars and Stripes banner that should symbolize national unity based on our shared values and beliefs, treated instead as the symbol of a horribly unjust nation. By carrying the US Flag upside down, that young man tells us that he does not belong to this America, an America that –he firmly believes– treats him and all other Blacks as second class citizens, or worse.

Too many stereotypes

So, is this the real story? Is the Ferguson killing yet another reminder that America is still fundamentally racist?

Well, yes and no, we are told by Juan Williams. Williams is an African American, and a very thoughtful commentator capable to look at American racial and civil rights issues and dynamics with uncommon fairness and objectivity.

In an excellent WSJ piece, (Ferguson and America’s Racist Fears, August 20, 2014), Williams provides needed context. Beyond the specific facts that led to the Ferguson tragic killing, there are layers and layers of perceptions and misperceptions on both sides of what still remains a racial divide. These misperceptions prevent both Blacks and Whites to confront the real issues, while hiding behind self-serving, stereotypical interpretations.

Black criminals?

Yes, Blacks feel persecuted, and many times with cause. There are many recorded instances of White police brutality. But Whites, also with cause, in many instances feel threatened by Black crime and violence. Hence their fears, often exaggerated, that unfortunately lead to a collective indictment: “All young Black males are violent criminals. If you see a group of them approaching you in the street, run. If you have a gun, you may have to use it to protect yourself.”

And Williams argues that White fears are not unfounded. The statistics related to Black crime and Black violence, often gratuitous, are staggering. In America most homicides are carried out by young Black males. Although African Americans are only 13% of the total US population, about 50% of all people killed in America are Blacks, in most cases killed by other Blacks.

Hence the White stereotype: “Most Blacks are violent criminals. We need a well armed, tough police force to protect us against them”.

Most White policemen are racist

And you can see what effect the policies inspired by this perception produced on the other side of the racial divide. The fact that White policemen routinely treat so many Blacks as suspects, far too often using rough methods and/or unneeded violence, proves the point held almost universally by Blacks: “We are the innocent victims of White police brutality. And police brutality is just the most visible aspect of persistent White racism”.

Both sides have a point, while both sides exaggerate.

Ferguson tragedy provides ammunition to both sides 

If we go down to the known details of the Ferguson tragedy, (sadly we still do not have the whole picture), there is enough material there for both sides to prove that their stereotypes are in fact the truth.

The convenience store video of Michael Brown, (the young man later on killed by the police officer), confirms any and all White stereotypes about the average young Black criminal.

In the video we see a 6-foot-3 inch, almost 300 pounds Michael Brown entering the store and quite openly, in fact almost casually, stealing a box of cigars. When confronted by the (smallish) store clerk who demanded payment, Brown simply pushed him aside and walked out, as if nothing had happened.

Now, this is not your idea of “shoplifting”, a type of petty robbery in which the perpetrator, hoping to hide his actions, is concealing something he has taken from the store in a bag or in one of his pockets. Your typical shoplifter knows he is doing something bad and tries to hide his theft, while hoping to get away with it.

Thuggish behavior

Michael Brown did nothing of the above. In broad daylight he gets into a store, helps himself, quite openly, and then he walks out, shoving aside the protesting store clerk. Did he know that his illegal act had been caught on camera? Probably yes, but obviously he did not care.

Well, any White person watching this video will tell you that this is typical thuggish behavior, revealing a Black young man who does not care about rules, laws, potential risks, or anything else. He steals something, and that’s OK. As far as he is concerned, laws do not exist; or at least they do not apply to him.

Police brutality

But then let’s fast forward to Brown’s confrontation with the police officer that ended with the gunshots that killed him. We do not know what happened. We only know that the White policeman shot Brown, repeatedly, and killed him.

And this shooting is enough evidence to allow Black community members to conclude that this is just another instance of police brutality targeting Blacks, something believed to be absolutely true by most Blacks.

And in this death we find the reason for repeated protests: “There is no justification for gunning down an unarmed person. Whatever Michael Brown might have done, his alleged crime certainly did not mandate killing him. The fact is that Brown was killed because he was Black. We all know that”. 

Too much force

And so we get into the difficult issue of “excessive violence”, often used by police in questionable circumstances. Indeed, why is it OK for policemen to shoot and often kill any suspect not complying with their orders? We all know that there are means other than guns –I think of pepper spray or tasers– to temporarily incapacitate an unarmed suspect resisting arrest without shooting him. Why aren’t they used?

Indeed, even assuming that the White policeman was trying to arrest Brown because he knew about the convenience store robbery, certainly there is no proportion between stealing a $ 50 box of cigars and being killed because of this theft.

Misperceptions feed bias

Well, we could go and on. Beyond the specific circumstances of this sad case, the real issue is the persistent racial divide fueled on both sides by stereotypes, exaggerations and misperceptions. And it is clear that these unchallenged stereotypes create the screens through which Blacks and Whites see and then judge tragic events like the Ferguson killing. And, sadly, the same stereotypes are used to justify police aggressive law enforcement, and Black resentment against it.

As Williams pointed out in his WSJ piece, no, it is not true that all young Black males are criminals, although it is true that far too many are. No, it is not true that all policemen are racists thugs using any pretext to wound or kill Blacks. But there are many instances of excessive force used by police, for no apparent reasons.

Always blame the other side

The persistent American racial divide will continue until both Blacks and Whites will abandon their encrusted prejudices and honestly look at real and complicated facts –Why so much Black crime? Why so many trigger happy cops?– and try to find real avenues for improvement.

So far, the two communities are trapped by their own biases that can be summarized in this simple sentence: “Whatever we are doing, and some of it may be excessive, it is clearly caused by the other side. It is obvious to all that it is their horrible behavior that forces us to react”.