Killing In The Name Of God

All the current controversies about the religious foundations of the Islamic State, other radical and violent Muslim organizations, and the danger they represent to the West made me go back to a piece I wrote a few years ago (2010) about religion as an inspiration for violence. See below.

My point was and still is that the Christian faith for centuries was used as a moral justification for violent acts and warfare supposedly inspired and blessed by God. This practice stopped. But not that long ago.

Sadly, within the Muslim world there are significant minorities who still cling to the idea of Holy War: killing in the name of God. We can hope that they will evolve and stop using religion as a moral justification for violence. In the meantime, they are very dangerous; because they view us as enemies and therefore legitimate targets. 

WASHINGTON – A number of recent opinion polls indicate that Americans on the whole distrust Muslims and that they believe that there is a violent, intolerant ingredient that is essentially an integral component of this faith. Most recently, a majority of Americans polled indicated that Muslim organizations should not build a cultural center and mosque very close to the site where the Twin Towers stood in New York City.

While large numbers recognize the American constitutional right to worship freely and build a place for prayer where one pleases, it is considered inappropriate to have an Islamic center so close to where thousands of Americans were murdered by Islamic radicals. So, Islam, notwithstanding official efforts aimed at reaffirming American tolerance, is not particularly welcome in the land that prides itself for being the home of religious freedom for all. How so? Let’s try a bit of reconstruction.

Conciliation after 9/11

In the immediate aftermath of the al Qaeda 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush made the effort to reassure Americans of Muslim faith and Muslims in general that the US Government had no issue with them.

The problem was with the radical fringes that had hijacked Islam to justify an ideology of indiscriminate violence against us, their perceived enemies. The problem was (and ostensibly still is) with the radical groups –and not with the Muslim Faith as such.

The reality of conflict

In the intervening years, a deliberate attempt was made to uphold this distinction, for the benefit of all, Muslims and Christians. The objective was to reassure Muslims, so that they would not feel persecuted, while explaining to Americans that we were only after specific groups of dangerous extremists, and not after Muslims in general.

The trouble is that, official statements and rhetoric notwithstanding, the only thing that was and is truly visible for the public at large –Muslims and Christians alike– is America’s direct military engagement in two Muslim states: first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with thousands of soldiers killed and ten of thousands wounded and mutilated by insurgents and road side bombs.

So, here is the picture. Muslims felt under attack, with consequent negative reactions against the US; Americans saw their own people getting killed by Muslims. The fine distinctions between moderate and radical Islam were and are lost on both sides.

Barack Obama proposes more dialogue

With Barack Obama as President in 2009 there was an attempt to create a friendlier climate with the Muslim world. And so Obama floated conciliatory proposals to Muslim countries, all based on dialogue and respect, during the 2008 campaign.

At the time, the political objective was to create a contrast between himself and the more belligerent George W. Bush who, reassuring words to Muslims notwithstanding, had been the Commander in Chief who ordered Islamic countries invaded and thousands of Muslims killed.

Cairo Speech

Then we had the much publicized Cairo Speech to the Muslim world, (Cairo University, Egypt, June 4, 2009), delivered by President Obama. But all this friendly build up, delivered by a half African US President with a distinctively non-Christian name, apparently was not enough to create the hoped for turn around resulting in warmer relations between Americans and Muslims. While we are winding down the military effort in Iraq, the engagement is still there. [This was written in 2010]. In a separate theatre, Afghanistan, we are actually ramping up, with expanding engagements in Pakistan and now Yemen, not to mention the widely perceived pro-Israel bias in all matters, first and foremost the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Given all this, America’s popularity among Muslims world-wide has not risen much. Not many would say that today, because of Obama’s new tone, America is definitely a friend of Islam.

Americans consider Muslims hostile

And Americans, almost two years into Obama’s presidency, what are they thinking now about Muslims, at home and abroad? Well, it would appear that the attempts to draw a clear distinctions between the religion and most believers on the one hand (mostly good), and the fringes of fanatics (very bad), while understood and upheld by the US intellectual elites, (not by all within them), has not been grasped and embraced by public opinion at large.

As indicated above, various American opinion polls show a general distrust of Muslims, down to harboring doubts as to whether they can be loyal US citizens. In all this, Barack Obama who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year on account of his emphasis on dialogue is not helped much politically by the bizarre belief held by sizable minorities in America, (between 18 and 20 per cent in various opinion polls), whereby he himself is thought to be a Muslim. And certainly this mischaracterization, however totally unfounded, is not meant as a compliment. “Muslims bad. Obama Muslim. Obama, oh well, bad”.

The new conventional wisdom: Islam is inherently violent

But in all this, what I find fascinating is the increasingly accepted new conventional wisdom whereby Islam as such –no distinction between majorities and radical fringes– is an “inherently violent” religion bent on Holy War against people of other faiths. At the same time, it is widely believed that most, if not all, Muslims –whether they partake in violent acts or not– generally rejoice when Christians or others are targeted by radicals.

Going back to the famous Sam Huntington’s theory, according to this thinking, there is indeed a “Clash of Civilizations” that makes the Muslim world writ large into an existential threat for Western, (mostly Christian), Civilization. If this were indeed so, then conflict with Islam is inevitable. It may flare up more or less according to historic circumstances, but it is here and it is not going away.

According to this tenet, real, lasting peace with the Islamic world is as fanciful as real peace with committed Russian Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the October Revolution.

There is no peace with mortal enemies who see it as their most sacred duty to eventually destroy all of us. We are at peace with Russia now; but only in as much as Russia abolished the Soviet regime and abandoned its hostile ideology.

Exaggeration, only marginally correct

I do believe that, as in any exaggeration, there is some truth in this dire characterization. But only “some truth”, and it rests in the unassailable fact that Islam, just as other religions, has been used as a justification for violent undertakings many times in human history.

More to the point, there is something in the idea that large segments within traditional Muslim societies, seeking orientation in a modern world in which they are at a historic disadvantage in terms of technical resources, scientific knowledge, capital and management skills, sought solace in reverting to religious orthodoxy, including fanaticism. Religion, with all its clear-cut revealed truths, can become a source of strength for disoriented societies seeking a moral compass.

Religious orthodoxy is reassuring

Blind, rigid adherence to one’s own faith then becomes –at least for some– reassurance. And beyond that, a faith that could be construed to contemplate enemies, enemies that we could reasonably view as oppressors and responsible for whatever under achievement we decry, is a good tonic. It boosts morale. “We are essentially good. Our unsatisfactory present conditions are due to the nefarious behavior and sinister plots concocted by our enemies. The bad guys are outside. They want to get us. And so it is our moral imperative, our sacred duty, to destroy them first”. And so it goes.

But my point is that the surge of fanaticism, while empirically observable, has not been embraced by the majority of Muslims. The evidence that there are indeed tens of thousands of fanatics and others cheering does not demonstrate that the bulk of Islam (1.5 billion people) has become militant.

Fanaticism in Islam and in Christianity

We know about the radicalization of many Muslims in recent times. Hence al Qaeda, all its affiliates and copy cats around the world. [There was no ISIL in Syria and Iraq when I wrote this]. But I am not at all sure that a violent bent is the recognizable imprint of Islam as such. Different Islamic societies have been belligerent and have been at peace in different times. Therefore, to characterize the entire faith and all of its adherents as zealots always inclined to resort to violence is clearly an exaggeration, not validated by the historic record.

Of course, a different but quite relevant issue is whether or not –today–the so called “moderate” Muslims are truly and honestly committed to isolate and suffocate the virus of radicalism now in their midst.

And this is a real problem with no clear answer. Many assert that the reluctance displayed by mainstream Muslims in forcefully condemning violence in the name of Islam is an indication that –deep down– they are all in agreement.

Many in the West strongly believe that, while only some Muslims resort to violence, especially against all Westerners, most of the others approve of it. And so, they are essentially all biased against us.

History points to significant similarities

But, even if we could stipulate that Muslims are inherently violent, can we correctly juxtapose a peaceful Christianity forced into battle by a hostile Islam? Indeed, if we use the same yardstick that we want to use to measure religion inspired violence in Islam to the history of Christianity, are we really all that different? I’m afraid not. It is true that broadly speaking we can say that today one does not detect large segments within Christian societies mobilized to commit religiously inspired violent acts.

But this is peaceful evolution is quite recent. So, while it is true that nowadays Christian societies are in general more peaceful, it is equally true that they evolved to this stage from a very long history of violence. And this evolution occurred without modifying the old Christian dogma.

Which is to say that for many centuries violence prone Christians used to justify their actions on the basis of the same Scriptures upheld today by their mellower, peace-loving descendents. The Scriptures did not change, the state of mind of the believers did –and with that the interpretation given to Scriptures was modified to go with the new, more peaceful state of mind.

From this we get that what changes is people’s interpretation of dogma, following other social and cultural transformations. While we recognize that Muslim societies today on the whole are far less tolerant than their Christian counterparts, we can hope that the same evolutionary process that made Christianity progressively more peaceful will apply to Islam as well.

As for Christianity’s really bloody past, in case we forgot, let’s briefly summarize it.

Early Christianity, quite violent

Whatever the teachings of Christ, whatever the broad message of love within the Scriptures, the history of Christianity is largely, (albeit not exclusively), a history of violence among Christians and against non Christians that goes all the way to modernity, culminating in two world wars waged by Christians against other Christians.

After centuries of persecution and martyrdom, in the III Century the Christians were accepted and emerged as the new sustaining force of the late Roman Empire.

Legend has it that  Emperor Constantin converted after a revealing dream in which he was told that he would win a mighty battle if he adopted the Holy Cross. (“In Hoc Signo Vinces“, “In This Sign [the Cross] You Shall Win”). The story says that the Emperor ordered the Sign of the Cross to be painted or stitched everywhere and that he won the battle.

Thereafter, Christianized Roman soldiers marched into battle with the motto “Nobiscum Deus“, “God is with Us”. So, the concept of the righteous fight, the good fight blessed by God, is pretty old stuff in Christianity. Nazi soldiers had it on their belt buckles: Gott Mit Uns, “God is with us”.

And European history is mainly a history of warfare among Christians. They all went to Mass to invoke God’s blessings for soldiers who would kill and be killed by other soldiers blessed like them only by other priests in other churches. All this was done, by all parties, in the Name of God.

The Crusades, the complex expeditions aimed at regaining Christian control over the Holy Sites were essentially religious wars aimed at accomplishing what was defined as a divine imperative. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem they piously slaughtered the entire Muslim population.

Christians slaughtering other Christians

And when Western Christianity broke into opposing camps after the Protestant Reformation, violence among opposing Christian factions became blind ferocity. The 30 Years War practically destroyed Europe –and Germany most of all. Violence, savagery and persecution were routinely visited upon Christian religious sects by Catholics and vice versa by Protestants against Catholics.

The Catholic “Counter Reformation”

The Catholic Church reacted against the Protestant threat by upholding and forcing the strictest adherence to orthodoxy via the so-called “Counter Reformation”. This was a brand of uncompromising fundamentalism that would make contemporary Iranian Ayatollahs blush. In Europe, religious tribunals were routine. The charge of heresy was serious business, as it would lead to death, in most cases after the most vicious torture. The “Spanish Inquisition”, the religious courts that put countless people to death, (most victims were burnt alive), on charges of heresy is not just a matter of legend or a funny subject for Monty Python TV comedy sketches. It was an awful period in the history of civilization.

Intolerance and religious persecution

For centuries, in theoretically pious and loving Christian Europe freedom of thought and freedom of expression were unthinkable, and in fact sinful by definition. In 1559 the Catholic Church started compiling, (and updated throughout the centuries), an “Index Librorum Prohibitorum“, “Index of Forbidden Books”. To legally publish a book, an author needed to receive an “imprimatur”, “let it be printed” authorization by the local ecclesiastical authority.

Sure enough, while it built hospitals and schools and other charitable institutions, the Catholic Church became predominantly a force of genuine reaction for centuries, opposing modernity in any form, including science and technology. This long period was labeled by later critics as the era of “oscurantismo“, the age of “darkness”. And this tendency, while progressively less relevant over the centuries, given the increased secularism within many societies, lasted well into modernity.

Believe it or not, the last version of the the Vatican issued Index of Forbidden Books, incredibly, was compiled by the Roman Catholic Church in 1948, while the Index itself was abolished only in 1966, practically yesterday, by order of Pope Paul VI. (The legacy of this era is so resilient that in Italy there is still today the colloquial expression “mettere all’indice“, “to place in the index”, as a way to recommend the exclusion from society of people or subjects so totally dangerous or unpalatable that they should have no legitimate place anywhere).

Protestants also intolerant

And the Protestants, while on the whole more tolerant of other faiths, (witness the refuge offered by the Protestant Dutch to Jews escaping from persecution in Catholic Spain), killed and slaughtered Catholics and other Protestants just as cheerfully during the religious wars. Calvin’s Geneva was certainly not a care free city where people could act as they pleased. There were rigid norms of probity. Sinners were publicly shamed and punished. The brutality associated with this administration of justice was not that different from what we may witness in contemporary examples of places administered via Sharia law.

America different; but still flawed

Americans may hold a more benign vision of a tolerant Christianity because this Republic was founded on a principle of basic religious freedom by people who in some measure had come here to escape from religious persecution. Hence the principles of freedom of worship for all, of the separation between state and religion, with no religious denomination enjoying special privileges at the expense of any other. But let’s keep in mind that it was tolerance among a variety of Christian denominations. It did not deal much with other religions, as they were not there, (except for Jews who were not particularly welcome). Still the system on the whole worked well. Except, of course, for slavery.

The stain of slavery

The notion that loving Christians, as most slave owners professed to be, would see no contradiction between the principles of their faith and the practice of slavery is truly baffling. 

And to fight slavery the mighty, and incredibly bloody, American Civil War became in some measure a modern religious war. The North after all believed that it was on the side of God, as the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” attest. But ostensibly non-Christian behavior remained the norm in the very Christian South even after the defeat of their cause in the Civil War.


The whole long and unhappy “reconstruction” period, with all its segregation laws, intimidation against Black would-be voters and the subsequent surge of the KKK, lynching, violence and routine intimidation against Blacks, was another demonstration of blatant injustice visited on Black people by Southern States whose leaders in most cases professed to be very good Christians. Apparently they saw no problem reconciling the principles of their faith and their laws, policies and brutal behavior.

We had to wait until the 1960s

Needless to say, we had to wait until the end of the 1960s –not so long ago—to see at least the formal abolition of racial discrimination as a matter of legally binding principle in America. In practice, discrimination in some fashion lingers, perpetuated mostly by good Christians who still do not see any contradiction between their faith and the racial prejudice they harbor.

So plenty of violent –ostensibly non Christian– behavior in the history of this mostly Christian land of tolerance created with the primary purpose of defending the individual rights of all human beings, as these rights, according to The Declaration of Independence, are given by God.

European colonialism

Back to Europe, let us not forget the violent conquest and subjugation of most of the world by the Very Christian Monarchs, starting in the XVI Century and continuing until there was any scrap of real estate left to grab. And this included the pillaging of South America, the submission of India, the imposition of the opium trade to China, the complete take over of Africa, and so on.

World Wars and religious symbolism: “God with Us”

Regarding the modern, gigantic slaughters of WWI and WWII in which millions of Christians were killed by other Christians, German soldiers in WWI had the inscription “Gott Mit Uns“, “God with US” on their helmets. This inspiring motto stayed on, and was carried by Hitler’s armed forces in WWII. Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers had “Gott mit Uns” inscribed on their belt buckles during the conquest of Europe, thus creating the nice idea that the whole war of aggression was somehow blessed by God.

While the actual Christian faith of the Nazis leaders is debatable, they certainly did not want to remove this notion of a divine blessing for their military undertakings, something that they could have easily done, given their complete control over the entire German state and society.

The Allied Forces engaged in a “crusade”

If we look at the other side of the divide, the Allied Forces wanted to create the belief that they were fighting a “bellum justum“, a “just war”, according to recognized Christian established doctrine.

At the 1941 Placentia Bay meeting that led to the drafting of the Atlantic Charter, FDR and Churchill, while on board of the British cruiser HMS Prince of Wales, joined their British and Americans crews as they sang together “Onward Christian Soldiers“, a famous religious hymn. As Winston Churchill himself put it later on to explain why he personally chose that hymn:

“We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. [bold added]. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation”.
So, in the words of a key architect of the war, this was not just a mighty conflict; but “a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high”, in other words a war that fit very well within the long history of divinely inspired and blessed religious wars.
Today’s Holy Wars
It is regrettable that today many Muslims have yet to embrace a more peaceful and tolerant approach to relations with others, both within their societies and outside of them. Unfortunately this inability to welcome modernity, tolerance and the principle of peaceful relations among societies created a major problem for the West.
We are indeed under attack, even though the exact extent of the threat is difficult to measure, because we do not know how many enemies we face, how strong they are, and how long are they willing to keep this “Holy War” going.
Still, while we devise the best way to defend ourselves against an enemy we certainly did not provoke, let’s not forget that Christianity became peaceful only very recently. 

US Economy Up By Only 2.6% In The Fourth Quarter

WASHINGTON – The White House communications and policy teams are not in luck. Not too long ago they told the President to use Yemen as a good example of how America is successfully conducting a muscular campaign against terrorists. The trouble is that literally a few days later, out of nowhere, here comes a Shiite insurrection in Yemen led by the Houthis that swept away the (legitimate?) government, supposedly the main anchor of America’s anti al Qaeda very successful campaign.

Bragging a bit too much

What is remarkable here (and truly regrettable) is that the US Government, this time just as many other times in the past, seems completely surprised by this development. Clearly nobody saw this Houthi uprising coming (this group is also known as Ansar Allah, “Partisans of God”); otherwise the White House national security and communications staff would not have suggested that the President would use Yemen –now once again in chaos– as a good example of smart US anti-terror policies that are actually working.

More bragging on the economy

Shifting to the domestic economy scene, just days ago (January 20) the President was really bragging about the economy during his combative State of the Union Speech to Congress. Indeed, recent figures on lower unemployment (now 5.6%) and a surprisingly strong third quarter (with GDP up 5%) seemed to indicate that the US was finally out of the swamps of uncertain growth, with possible relapses into stagnation or worse.

And so Obama bragged, and took credit. “Tonight, we turn the page,” the president said to Congress. “The shadow of crisis has passed,” he added. “The state of the union is strong.” Well, hard to argue with success.

Not true

Except that it is not really so. Just released figures for the 4th quarter of 2014 indicate a rate of economic growth of 2.6%. Not bad, but hardly stellar, and half of the impressive 5% registered in the third quarter. Translation: the third quarter was a blip. We did not keep the momentum.

Besides, if we dig deeper, we see that part of the upward swing in the third quarter was due to much larger government spending (mostly military sales that will not be repeated) that came all at once due to the ending of the federal fiscal year, (September 30), and to extraordinarily large auto sales facilitated by extremely easy financing given by America’s dealers to practically all buyers.

Easy car loans

In fact, this wave of almost zero interest car loans is so large that it has prompted a debate on whether this is in effect a “sub prime auto loans crisis” in the making, since many borrowers will be unable to pay their car loans. Beyond car sales, most of the GDP growth in the third and fourth quarters was due to much higher consumer spending.

And this means credit card spending, because real incomes have not grown. Yes, once again Americans spend money they do not have. This is not the kind of “healthy growth” we really want.

So, all in all, even though these unimpressive 4th quarter numbers are still subject to upward revisions, overall the US economy is not doing great. With an average 2.4% growth for 2014, it is doing OK. However, looking ahead it is hard to keep even this modest consumer-driven rate of growth, because the average American will be unable to go much deeper into debt in order to buy “more stuff”.

The worst recovery

It has been said before, but it is worth repeating. Overall, this is the worst recovery in terms of GDP growth that we have had in decades. And this is so despite the historically unprecedented period of monetary easing, with interest rates at zero and years of QE, or “Quantitative Easing”. In other words, the “stimulus medicine” administered by the US Federal Reserve in massive amounts has not done that much to boost productive investments and new output.

Few high paying jobs

Of course, we should celebrate any new job created. But the truth is that, despite an unemployment rate now down to 5.6%, most of the new jobs created during this recovery are low paying. Far too many of the new positions are part-time.

Various surveys indicate that there are millions of Americans who would like to have a full-time job, but cannot get one. Worse yet, wages are frozen, median income has not grown. Meanwhile, the level of labor participation, that is how many adult Americans are actually employed, has gone down from almost 66% to less than 63%. And this means that millions of unemployed Americans have simply dropped out and stopped looking for jobs they could not get. The unemployment rate looks good because these people are no longer counted.

Look, if we consider the dismal conditions of other advanced economies in most of Europe and Japan, by comparison the US is doing great. But we are doing poorly in comparison to our post war performance.

This is no triumphant come back

In this context of consistent but unimpressive growth, the triumphant tone of Obama’s January 20 State of the Union Speech looks really out of place. Yes, the recession is over. And this is good. But there is nothing miraculous about it. All recessions end.

However, we did not come out of it with a roar. Obama’s point that the good numbers are a demonstration that his policies worked is yet another exaggeration.


Pakistan Points To Saudi Money Funding Militant Groups

WASHINGTON – It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been funding religious schools and militant religious groups in Pakistan. It is however unusual for Pakistani officials to make any specific references to this flow of money to armed groups that end up destabilizing this seriously challenged country and its unhappy neighbor Afghanistan. That said, the fact that this issue has been brought up in an open forum, is worth noting.

Whatever Saudi private individuals and groups are doing, it should be stopped. Financing radical groups leads only to chaos. Here is how a January 22, 2015  editorial in Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper, commented on the issue:

“Foreign Funding of Militancy”

“IN order to effectively put militant groups out of business, it is essential to dry up their finances. Religiously-motivated militants do raise funds through local sources and criminal rackets, but foreign funding — particularly from Muslim states in the Middle East — is also a major source of cash. While the Gulf states are often cited as sources of militant funding, especially from private donors, it is extremely rare for government officials in Pakistan to openly identify any one of them. Hence, when Inter-Provincial Coordination Minister Riaz Pirzada named names at an event in Islamabad on Tuesday, eyebrows were certainly raised. The minister, though he claims he was quoted out of context, told a conclave that “Saudi money” had destabilised this country.”

“In fact, it has been largely established that Pakistan has been a conduit for funds destined for religiously inspired fighters for over three decades. In 1979, two monumental events took place in this region that forever altered the geopolitical calculus: the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thereafter, funds flowed in freely from the United States, Saudi Arabia and others for the ‘mujahideen’ battling the Soviets across the border, while many Arab states — fearful of a revolutionary and explicitly Shia Iran — started to fund groups that could resist Tehran’s ideological influence in Muslim countries. Ever since, a jumble of jihadi and sectarian groups (of varying persuasions) has thrived in Pakistan, as the country became a proxy battlefield for Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as a front line of the last major battle of the Cold War. Since then, militancy has morphed out of control to such an extent that it now threatens the internal stability of this country; neutralising the myriad jihadi outfits has then become Pakistan’s number one security challenge.”

“While documentary evidence is often hard to come by, Gulf money has been linked to the promotion of militancy in many instances. There have been reports of Gulf funding for extremists in the Syrian conflict, while the WikiLeaks disclosures of 2009 also attributed comments to Hillary Clinton linking Saudi funds to militant groups. Another cable claimed donors in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were pumping millions into south Punjab, with much of these funds ending up in the hands of jihadis. Even Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan admitted recently in a written reply to a question in the Senate that madressahs were receiving funding from “Muslim countries”. In principle, there is nothing wrong with seminaries or charities receiving foreign funds. But when this cash is used to fund terrorism and extremism, things become problematic. The best way to proceed is for the intelligence apparatus to monitor the flow of funds. If the authorities have reasonable evidence that funds from the Gulf or elsewhere are being funnelled to militants, the issue needs to be taken up with the countries concerned.”

–Published in Dawn January 22nd , 2015

Declaring War Against Islamic Terrorism Is An Empty Gesture

WASHINGTON – Former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman added his voice to the chorus of those who really believe that we need a formal “declaration of war” against Islamic terrorism in order to effectively fight it. Sadly, such declarations are “feel good”, empty gestures. (A Global War on Radical Islam, WSJ, January 13, 2015).

Islamic terrorism

I said before and I repeat that we should not be afraid of calling terrorism justified by Islamic doctrine by its own name. Yes, some people believe that they are prompted by Islamic scriptures to wage their own Holy War against the West. And therefore we are right to say that they are engaged in political violence inspired by their interpretation of a major religion.

Meaningless proclamations

That said, to loudly proclaim that we are at war against Islamic radicals, and that we are going to wage this war, while the US will lead an alliance of all the wiling countries against this global threat is essentially meaningless. Of course, we need to focus on this threat. But the idea that any solemn proclamation will increase our chances of success is ludicrous.

Invisible enemy

Our problem is not the lack of will to fight the enemy. Our problem is that the enemy is mostly invisible. Indeed, in many cases we do not know who the enemy is, where he is, and where and when he may decide to strike. At the cost of being repetitious, “radical Islam” has no fixed address, and no published membership list.

US and Western intelligence know bits and pieces of a rather big puzzle. We know of some groups and some leaders. But we know almost nothing about the potential army of foot soldiers, just like the two French Algerian brothers who staged the attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

In that particular case, the French authorities knew, in a general way, that these two might at some point engage in something illegal. But they were not sure. And so the two managed to plot and execute their attack, essentially unnoticed.

How many more like them? Potentially thousands. Law enforcement agencies simply lack the resources to keep an eye on all of them; let alone keep tabs on those they do not know about.

Just a couple of bad guys

Again, please remember that these terror plots, while they may require some technical skills, are not that complicated to plan and execute. Just a couple of motivated bad guys, with a couple of machine guns, can choose among thousands of soft, unprotected targets in several countries.

In the effort to prevent future attacks, even when fully mobilized the police cannot defend every possible target. Besides, many of these militants seem to be indifferent to the risks involved in any violent action. Many of them are willing to be killed while executing their “missions”. They are willing to be martyrs, if this is what it takes to advance the cause of their jihad.

Diffuse threat

All this amounts to saying that the threat is diffuse. Its size, while significant, is impossible to quantify. There can be hundreds, may be thousands of potential would-be terrorists who may decide to act today or tomorrow, according to their whims.

Law enforcement can and will try to locate them.

But this is the proverbial needle in the haystack. There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world. Would-be Islamic terrorists are only a small fraction. Still, there are many extremists groups scattered all over. Within them there are potentially thousands of volunteers willing to risk their lives in order to hit us, the enemy.

Not Saddam’s army

The trouble is that this is not Saddam Hussein’s army, located in known places, with garrisons, and command and control centers. These people are spread all over. There are small cells or just individuals who can be in New Jersey, Hamburg, Milan, or Yemen.

What Joe Lieberman suggests in his article in the WSJ at most may be good to build morale. But it is yet another empty gesture that will not do anything to help the fight against an elusive, in fact semi-invisible enemy.

Radical Islamic Groups Cannot Be Fought With Conventional Means

WASHINGTON – The current wave of violence motivated and justified by crazy interpretations os Muslim scriptures created demands for ways to deal with this threat once and for all. The trouble is that there is no clever, precise “solution” to this problem.

Scattered groups

With the notable exception of the (self-described) Islamic State, Islamic radicals are scattered all over: from Minnesota to Western Pakistan. We are not dealing with an easily identifiable, conventional threat that resides in one place and uses conventional means.

There are almost endless varieties of radical Islamic groups. They have inspired an equally large universe of diverse people, scattered in many different countries, who decided to follow, in different ways, their calls to engage in violent jihad.

Islamic fundamentalism is not an enemy state. It is not a political party in the traditional sense of the word. While there are several organized groups, this is not the equivalent of the old Soviet Communist Party with a clear hierarchy and command structure.

It is an ideology (that claims to have its legitimacy in Islamic doctrine) that finds adherents here and there. Some of them, on the basis of what they believe to be true doctrine, are inspired to plot and execute violent attacks against Western targets, because the West is depicted by the spiritual and political leaders of these movements as the mortal enemy of the true faith.

No silver bullet

So, how do we eliminate this threat? Sorry to sound pessimistic, but we really cannot eliminate it. The problem with modern, decentralized terrorism is that you only need a couple of motivated people to carry out a mass killing against unprotected civilians, as the recent attacks in Paris amply demonstrated.

Sure enough, more sophisticated and more capillary intelligence gathering techniques will help law enforcement in identifying some of the “bad guys” before they can strike. But some will manage to slip through.

Our free societies are simply incapable of controlling everybody and everything, all the time. There are just too many potential suspects out there. Of course, we should give law enforcement all the tools they need. But we cannot expect perfect results. As long as this bizarre ideology (dressed up as religion) will have some enthusiastic followers, there will be more attacks.

No objective causes

Given all this, when is this nightmare going to end? Impossible to say, really. Fanaticism is a non rational phenomenon. it is not really related to “objective” circumstances. Of course, experts and sociologists will tell you that it is all about poverty and corrupt political regimes in the Middle East. There may be some truth there. But only a little bit.

There are millions of poor people in Muslim Bangladesh, and yet no terrorism. Indonesia is a very large Muslim country, millions of Indonesians are poor. And yet Indonesia is not the breeding ground of jihad. Likewise, if extreme poverty were indeed the root cause of radicalism, how does one explain Muslim radicals in Canada, the USA, Great Britain and France?

It is really impossible to find a clear common denominator that will allow anybody to clearly identify what motivates young Muslims to join radical groups or to create their own. There are close to two billion Muslims in the world. There are only a few radicals; but they are scattered in many, diverse countries. How can one find an “antidote” that will “cure” those who now believe in radical ideologies?

The Muslim World should produce alternative models

Ideally, the Muslim World should be able to create and promote alternative paths to the creation of modern and more equitable societies. But this is hard and truly complicated. The West should help and support any such effort. But the West cannot lead it. The West has no prepackaged, ready-made solutions for this problem.

In the long run this “radical Islam” phenomenon, along with its terror offshoots, will go away. Ideologies based on fantasies do not have an indefinite staying power. The problem is that we do not know how long it will take for this “malady” to run its course.

We have to cope with this threat

In the meantime, let’s stop talking about a “War on Terror” as if it were a conventional military campaign with clear objectives and conventional targets. Let’s give law enforcement the best tools available and let’s try to stay calm, even though we know that perfect security is unattainable.




Anti-Islam Movements Gaining Ground In Europe

WASHINGTON – As terrible as they are, the Paris terror attacks are not that surprising. There are several Islamic terror breeding networks scattered around the Middle East. Al Qaeda is still out there, probably operating from Western Pakistan. There is the (self-defined) Islamic State, (also known as ISIL, or ISIS), still very much in control of large parts of Syria and Northern Iraq. There are al Qaeda offshoots in  Yemen.

Jihad is popular

As we all know, this endless jihadi effervescence has captured the imagination of many young European, Australian and American Muslims. Feeling marginalized and disaffected in the Western countries where they were born or raised, they find the escapist millenarian ideology fostered by radical Islamic groups quite appealing. Probably many of them believe that, by joining this struggle, they will finally be able to give meaning to their lives.

Therefore, some of them travel to Syria to join what seems to them as a winning jihad. Others receive terror training elsewhere. Among all of these would be holy warriors, at least some decided to put their training into practice by killing the journalists of Charlie Hebdo and some of the customers at the Jewish market in Paris.

Sadly, while killings like these will not be that frequent, it is likely that we are going to see more of them. And this is simply because it is impossible to find a neat “solution” to this problem of young people who believe in crazy ideas (disguised as true religion) who turn into violent fanatics.

It is obvious that, in the short-term, main stream Islam is incapable of discrediting and therefore delegitimizing this violent offspring. Unfortunately, the bizarre notion that it is indeed noble and good to kill “the enemies” of the true faith “In the Name of God” has an extremely powerful appeal. Of course, as with all waves of fanaticism, at some point this one will also go away.

But, for the moment, its appeal is very strong. And it is here to stay.

Too many angry young Muslims

Indeed, there are simply too many young unhappy Muslims spread around several  countries. Obviously, only a fraction of them are up to no good, plotting their own mini-jihad. Still, this threat is spread all over; and therefore it is hard to contain it.

How can Western police and intelligence services, with limited resources, keep tabs on every possible suspect? This is impossible. By the same token, even when declaring a heightened state of alert, it is equally impossible to guard and protect every soft  target, in so many countries. There are just too many of them. As the Paris events have demonstrated, just a couple of young fanatics can kill people, while creating national chaos.

Be that as it may, these high-profile attacks perpetrated by just a few radical Muslims give strength to many growing xenophobic, anti-Islam political movements that are bubbling up all over Europe. The best known is the National Front in France. But there are many others, from the Netherlands to Sweden, Poland and Germany.

Anti-Muslim movement getting stronger in Germany

A German anti-Islam movement is becoming more organized. Here is a summary of a recent BBC report on Pegida, acronym for “Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes” , “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West”.

“A record 18,000 people turned out recently at one rally in Dresden. Thousands of people marched in Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Stuttgart. Pegida was founded in Dresden by activist Lutz Bachmann in October 2014. It is an umbrella group for the German right-wing, attracting support from mainstream conservatives to neo-Nazi factions and football hooligans. Pegida holds street protests against what it sees as a dangerous rise in the influence of Islam over European countries. In a 19 points manifesto Pegida says the movement opposes extremism and calls for protection of Germany’s Judeo-Christian culture.

A poll of just over 1,000 people carried out by Germany’s Stern magazine found one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home. Germany receives more refugees and asylum seekers than any other EU country. Many of those have come from war-torn Syria”.

Get rid of all the Muslims

So here are the ingredients for a dangerous escalation. In Europe there are now several grass-roots, anti-immigrant, and mostly anti-Islam movements whose members believe that Western societies will lose their identity, because of too many “alien elements” –mostly Muslims– immigrating there.

Now, in the aftermath of the Paris high-profile attacks, the leaders of these movements can claim that this terrorism is conclusive proof that they have been right all along: “Muslims are alien elements that as a minimum pollute Western civilization, while many of them are actively trying to destroy it”.

Hard to believe how in this poisoned climate it will be possible to welcome, let alone assimilate, the growing number of Muslims from the Middle East or North Africa who try to get to Europe, legally and illegally, every day. On the contrary, we can expect random attacks against Muslim communities in European countries, while political forces that want them expelled will gain strength.

Since this wave of (mostly Muslim) immigrants from poor countries in North Africa and from war-torn Syria is not about to end, the mix of openly unwanted newcomers and xenophobic movements who want them out is likely to become explosive.

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.

Too Much Media Coverage For Isolated Terror Attacks

WASHINGTON – In a perverse way, our hysteric fascination with each and every killing perpetrated in the West by Islamic terrorists guarantees that there will be more of them. Here is the latest story. In Sydney, Australia, a crazy man of Iranian origin kept lots of people hostage in a bar claiming that he was acting on behalf of ISIL, the self-described Islamic State now controlling parts of Syria and Iraq. Eventually the police stormed the place. The lone terrorist got killed, but a couple of hostages also lost their lives, while others were wounded.

Tragic story

No doubt, this is a tragic story. And yet the enormous amount of media coverage that this event received –with front page stories and large pictures in all major US newspapers– is truly out of proportion.

Yes, it is worrisome to realize that there are a few deranged individuals inspired by bizarre beliefs who will engage in violent acts against innocent strangers in the name of their “cause”. But this is not a global, existential threat. These events are extremely rare, hardly an everyday occurrence.

Homicides without an Islamic angle get little attention

By contrast, a man in the US just killed six people. This tragedy got media attention. But this killing spree, along with similar violent incidents that occur almost daily in America, got only a fraction of the space devoted to the Sydney terror attack.

How so? Because these cases are about “ordinary violence”. There is no religious angle. The US man did not kill in the name of jihad. Therefore, as this is just “plain”  murder, it gets just some coverage. And yet in Sydney only two innocent people got killed. In the US the killer murdered six persons.

Reasons for concern

Sure enough, there are reasons to be concerned about political violence inspired by irrational ideologies. We know that ISIL is openly advocating more acts of violence against unbelievers across the world. Therefore, it is quite possible that more “radicalized” individuals in the UK, in the US in France, or elsewhere will be persuaded to engage in similar terror acts. So, there is reason for keeping an eye on this phenomenon of internet-inspired “lone wolf” attacks. That said, excessive media coverage is counter productive.

Media attention inspires more copycats

Indeed, it is clear that the more coverage we give to this type of “retail” terrorism, the more copycats we shall have. Yes, these improvised terrorists are narcissists. They love the lime light. They want to be famous. And if killings inspired by jihad get a lot of attention, then more attention-seeking people will be tempted to try.

Treat these incidents like ordinary crime

In other words, if the media treated religion inspired killings just as they treat any other homicide, after a while the glamor surrounding them would wither. If the media would stop placing each and every act of violence supposedly inspired by Islam on the front page, while obsessively questioning scores of terrorism experts about the real motives of the perpetrators, we probably would have fewer such killings.

By all means let the police and intelligence services in the US, Australia, Canada, or Germany be on the look out. Let them pursue all suspicious characters in order to prevent more acts of violence.

Cars are more dangerous

But the general public –with the help of more sober media coverage– should realize that the chances of getting killed in a banal car accident are infinitely greater than becoming a victim of a terror act planned by a “lone wolf”, or by any group affiliated with Islamic fundamentalism.

By all means let’s keep an eye on Islamic fundamentalists. But let’s be realistic about the extent of the threat. And let us not encourage more killings by showing how scared we are of them.


The War On Terror And Its Consequences

WASHINGTON – In a thoughtful piece in the NYT, (The Gift That Keeps Giving, December 3, 2014), Tom Friedman takes us back to the beginnings of the “War on Terror”, and to how this one single issue totally dominated US foreign and security policies during the 8 years of George W. Bush, while it has also affected the Obama presidency, in as much as the new president tried to distance his administration from the Bush approach, (with mixed results). 

After 9/11

In hindsight, now we know what happened. Surprised and shocked by the 9/11 attacks, Washington engineered –from scratch– a new security policy labeled “War on Terror”. Launched in this major endeavor, America overdid almost everything, without in the end achieving its objective of destroying all terrorist organizations around the globe.

Profound disconnect

Now we know that the problem is in a profound disconnect between the nature of the “asymmetric” threat –small groups scattered in various countries that are potentially capable of spectacular acts of terror– and the means used to fight it –the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq, coupled with horrendously costly efforts aimed at totally rebuilding these societies, so that democratic institutions would inoculate them against religious fanaticism.

Of course, after having suffered the unprecedented 9/11 blows, it was perfectly alright to go after al Qaeda and its supporters, argues Friedman. But what was not alright was the disproportionate response.

Counter terror yes, invasions no

One thing is to organize counter terror missions, quite another to launch the occupation of entire countries, with all the fantastic costs associated with any attempt to modernize their institutions and their economies.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. By focusing on the “War on Terror”, the Bush administration could not deal with anything else. Indeed, by devoting most resources to this conflict, the US government did not do much to make the American economy stronger and more resilient. In the end, we over invested in “Mission Impossible” –building democracies in the Middle East– and we starved America.

We could not do anything else

The main unintended consequence of the “War on Terror ” has been far less money spent on research, on education, and infrastructure in America. If you combine this misallocation of scarce resources with the horrible impact of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end, after the long “War on Terror”, America is not that much more secure, while its economy and society are far less resilient.

More of the same in Afghanistan

And the Obama presidency, while trying to separate itself from Bush’s “all out” approach, to some extent continued along the same lines.

While Obama decided to close the Iraq chapter, (now re-opened), it continued, in fact beefed up, the old (and failed) counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan, even though counter-insurgency could not possibly succeed, unless we postulate unlimited economic resources, and large numbers of US troops stationed there in Afghanistan, literally for decades.

We need good intelligence

Of course, terrorism is still a nasty enemy. And, after 9/11 no president wants to be caught off guard by yet another major attack.

But the problem with fighting terrorism is that what we need is mostly extremely good intelligence  –and we do not have enough of it.

Gigantic and horribly expensive military expeditions, followed by lengthy and even more expensive occupations, are just the wrong tools to combat and defeat dispersed small cells that come up and disappear with relative ease.

Irrational fears

Having said all that, even a few acts of terror get an enormous echo: think about the handful of homemade American jihadists who have recently attacked and killed people. The media demand action that will keep all US citizens safe, as if it were indeed possible to monitor, (or lock-up), each and every extremist or deranged copycat who may at some point do something really nasty.

And here is the problem. In our society we readily accept the very real risk of being killed in a car accident every time we get into an automobile. But, somehow, the extremely remote risk of becoming the victim of an act of terror is considered totally unacceptable.

Therefore we demand that the government will do anything in its powers, (and more), to prevent (extremely rare) acts of terror from happening.

Policy-makers forced to do more 

This is illogical. Nonetheless, policy-makers are requested by an anxious public to shape a coherent, reassuring and bullet-proof public policy in order to face any and all possible terror attacks.

This is impossible. Still, policy-makers need to show that they are really busy working on strategies that will solve the problem. And so they tend to err on the side of overdoing, and this includes over spending.

In the meantime, we still do not take care of our schools, and of our decaying infrastructure.


Lesson From Ottawa Attack: Too Much Media Coverage For Acts Of Political Violence

WASHINGTON – What is the lesson to be drawn from the shootings in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa? Very simple. In the first place, we should accept the fact that democratic, open societies are extremely vulnerable. To be precise, our freedoms are largely the source of our basic fragility. In a democracy, people come and go as they please. Impossible to check on everybody.

Fascination with political violence

But there is more. If you add to this basic reality of “systemic vulnerability” an almost perverse mix of fear and fascination with any and all acts of political violence, we get a bad mix.

Even a relatively small incident like the Ottawa shooting creates an enormous, world-wide echo. So, we get hit because we are easy targets. And each incident gets way too much attention.

One incident gets worldwide attention

In Ottawa’s case, just one shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, managed to get international, non-stop media coverage. Sure enough, his targets were selected because they have high symbolic meaning. A soldier guarding Canada’s War Memorial, and then the Parliament, the nerve center of the state. Still, the gunman, while scaring many people, killed just one person. He himself was killed inside the Parliament.

All this is frightening and tragic. There has been loss of life, and a lot of anxiety and confusion. However, this isolated act of political violence, featuring one lone gunman, is not the end of Canada, and –most certainly– it is not the end of the world.

Too much media coverage

But instead we treat this event as an enormous crisis that could have all sorts of possible ramifications. Cable news TV outlets (CNN, FOX News, MSNBC and others) parade dozens of terrorism experts who theorize, analyze and opine. To make themselves “relevant”, they exaggerate the meaning of such attacks.

As I said, we have a mysterious attraction towards political violence. We want to know everything about killers or would-be killers motivated by religion or by crazy ideologies somehow rooted in weird interpretations of religion, Islam in most cases.

Criminal violence gets no attention

Because of this fascination, just one event, tragic as it may be, causes world-wide uproar. But the equally tragic drug related violence, all the shootings, killings and what not taking place on a daily basis in Chicago or elsewhere get some mention only in the local news. For sure, no national headlines.

And yet, at some level, it is the very same sad phenomenon: violent people killing other human beings. So, why such a different level of coverage and media attention?

May be the difference is that our culture has digested and accepted as “a fact of life” most violence related to criminal activity, even when the numbers of people getting killed are staggering.

Political violence is different

Whereas, political violence inspired by ideology or religion is rare, new and different. This is about killing in the name of a “cause”. The cause seems to be the desire to destroy our society. And therefore, because of this sharply different motivation, political violence supposedly warrants much more attention.

We want to know “why” this person engaged in this or that. Where, when and how exactly was his mind “turned”? More broadly, is there some evil ingredient within Islam that can trigger what we like to call “self-radicalizalization”? And, if this is indeed the case, are we now in a new, uncharted era in which scores, possibly hundreds of young people, just by watching some crazy jihadist videos on the internet, will decide to get machine guns and kill anybody connected with our institutions? Is this the new “enemy within”? And, if so, who’s going to protect us against this subterraneous but pervasive menace?

These are not illegitimate questions. It is totally appropriate to investigate and look for possible conspiracies, recruiting systems, and patterns of behavior.

But what is truly baffling is the non-stop coverage and the loud volume. Like it or not, by obsessing on these rare events, the news media created a panic atmosphere.

Hyperbole and exaggeration

Once again, let’s look at the facts. One person was killed in Ottawa. Two, if we add a previous incident in which another Canadian soldier was killed. This is serious business. But it is not a national, let alone global, catastrophe.

Of course, the first reaction is that we have to do more to protect obvious targets. This is probably true. The Canadian Parliament was not a “hardened” target. The gunman had no difficulty getting in.

In another, totally unrelated episode, here in Washington a deranged man, (with no particular political motives), was able to climb the fence and get into the White House without being stopped by the US Secret Service, supposedly the best security service in the world.

The day after Ottawa, a man in York City used an ax to attack a group of policemen, seriously wounding one.

You cannot protect everybody, all the time

As there is danger out there, let’s review all security procedures. Let’s have better defenses. This is good. But the harsh reality is that it is simply impossible to protect “everything”, “all the time”.

As I pointed out at the beginning, we live in open societies in which people move freely. And there are other issues. In America in particular there are literally hundreds of millions of weapons available to almost anyone. Many are legally owned. Others are not. It is practically impossible to make sure that all people with bad intentions will be unable to obtain a fire arm.

Beyond that, the notion that our domestic counter terrorism forces, plus Homeland Security and various police forces will be able to prevent any and all plots and/or spontaneous “lone wolf” attacks is preposterous.

Of course, they should be on the look out. This is their job. And they will catch some bad guys before they will act. But it is unrealistic to believe that they will be successful all the time. This is impossible.

Do not give so much publicity to isolated acts of terror 

Given all this, here is an idea. I suspect that most of these “self-radicalized” young people are in large measure unhappy, publicity-seeking narcissists. Sure they want to be jihadists. They want to be martyrs.

But they also want to be famous. They want their noble deed to be talked about. They want to be on TV. In a deranged way, through these crazy gestures they want to emerge from grey anonymity.

If this is indeed the case, then we have to understand that the more publicity we give to events such as the Ottawa shootings, the more we convince others that these otherwise sterile, isolated acts of violence actually produce the desired effects. The perpetrator, dead or alive, is a hero. He is a martyr. And, most of all, he is famous. Therefore, to follow his example is a really good idea.

We should just move on

If and when our societies will find a way to process these random acts of politically motivated violence and move on, calmly and without any hysteria, I suspect that there would be far fewer incentives for others to emulate these crackpots whom they believe to be “heroes” in an ongoing “just war”.