How To Handle Terrorism: Stop Media Coverage

WASHINGTON – A 31 year old French citizen of Tunisian origin, using a truck as his weapon, run over and killed scores of people who had gathered on a sea side promenade to celebrate the French National Day in the southern city of Nice. Confronted with another episode of mass murder perpetrated by another psychopath inspired, it seems, by radical Islamist ideology, the French Government and the world react in the same way. We mourn, we cry, we express solidarity and sympathy to the French people, and we swear to continue our fight against terrorism.

A better counter terror strategy?

Is there a better strategy? When it comes to intelligence and police work, probably not. This ongoing international counter terrorism effort is enormously complicated because we are talking about finding the proverbial needles hidden in many haystacks.

Indeed, given limited resources and potentially hundreds of thousands of militants who may turn into terrorists, it is next to impossible to make sure that all credible suspects are known and tracked by various law enforcement agencies, so that they can be stopped before they act. Case in point, based on early reports, the young man who slaughtered so many people in Nice was not on any terror list.

One person can create a slaughter

Furthermore, we know very well that just one determined terrorist can inflict enormous damage when targeting large numbers of unarmed civilians who are gathered in one place. Indeed, in order to perpetrate this horrendous slaughter in Nice, the young man who planned it needed a driver license and a truck. We are not talking about expensive, sophisticated weapons that require intensive training before they can be properly used. Sadly, committing mass murder is easy.

That said, intelligence agencies and law enforcement simply must persevere in this thankless investigative effort. They must try their best, hoping to catch more bad guys before they can act.

Stop endless media coverage

But there is something else that we should do. World media should stop behaving as the unwitting propaganda arm of international terrorism. By this I mean that the biggest victory for terrorists is that we treat their acts as something that precipitates a national crisis, while scaring all of us to death.

After these events, there is non-stop coverage, laced with testimonials from eye witnesses, sad stories of orphaned children, and more. All this creates an atmosphere of helplessness, fear and confusion. “We are all targets”. “This will never end”. “I can be dead tomorrow”.

Report the facts, and then stop

Of course it is the job of all media to report facts. But, after having done so, they should stop, simply because endless 24/7 coverage proves to other would-be terrorist watching all this that terrorism scares everybody. Therefore “it works”.

If we could think of a different scenario in which terror attacks are treated just like accidents, that is unfortunate events (think two trains colliding) with no political or ideological angle, societies would register the sad news about loss of life, and then move on; without the endless and frankly counterproductive debates on how can governments provide perfect protection to all of us from this calamity.

Attackers are narcissists

The fact is that most of these attackers, and would-be attackers deep down are publicity seeking narcissists. Sure enough, in some fashion they see themselves as noble warriors engaged in jihad. But they also want to be famous, even in death. Imagine being an obscure young man of Arab origin living in France. You see yourself as a nobody. Most likely, you feel that you are treated unfairly. You believe that the French people around you harbor racist feelings against you.

Become famous

But from the vantage point of the paradise you earned after your noble deed of martyrdom (the slaughter of all those civilians) you rejoice seeing that the whole world talks about you. You are famous, and for all the right reasons. You are a hero, a martyr in the just war against the infidels.

Given all of the above, by toning down media coverage and the endless commentary and speculations, we would take much of the oxygen out of the terrorism breeding grounds.

No rational goals

From a rational perspective, it is obvious that these acts of terrorism achieve nothing. Killing 80 people here and 50 there is not a strategy that leads to anything. But these perpetrators are not thinking rationally.

That said they certainly want the world to know that they are heroes in this global battle for the establishment of the true faith. Becoming famous after having accomplished a great deed is seen as part of the just reward for martyrdom. And this by itself becomes a strong motivation for others to engage in similar acts.

Stop the coverage

However, if in the future these tragedies were not incessantly covered by the media, then there is no free publicity, and therefore no aura of fame for the actors. If nobody talks about them after their glorious martyrdom, then part of the incentive to follow on the footsteps of other famous jihadists vanishes.

So, please, report the facts, by all means. But stop “promoting” terrorism by giving so much free publicity to the perpetrators. Endless media coverage simply encourages others.




Who Believes China’s Official Economic Statistics?

WASHINGTON – We all know that China’s economy is slowing down. The Chinese government itself announced this. What we do not know, however, is how significant the slow down is, and what exactly is causing it. Is this a small issue, or is it a big, systemic problem just beginning to manifest itself? Who knows really. And much of this uncertainty is due to the fact that we cannot rely on the information released by Beijing about China’s economic performance.

A little slow down 

Chinese officials calmly admit that GDP growth at 6.9% is a little less than the 7% they expected. And they have recently hinted that probably next year growth will be a bit lower. May be 6.5%. Premier Li Keqiang said this much during a recent visit to Seoul.

What we are told is that this gentle slow down is part of a general reconfiguration of the Chinese economy. Under the expert guidance of the Communist Party, China will gradually move away from its traditional reliance on large-scale investments and exports, while more consumer spending will be encouraged. At the same time there will be more innovation, more green initiatives and improved sustainability.

The message from Beijing is simple and reassuring. All is well in China. May be a few adjustments will be needed. But all is going well, and according to plan.

Not true 

Yes, except that most likely none of this is true. According to some Western analysts, China is on the verge of a major collapse. They have created a gigantic, debt-funded bubble that is about to burst. There is monstrous over capacity in every major industrial sector linked to construction. There are tens of thousands of empty buildings. Several state-owned corporations are losing money; but they keep going thanks to easy financing coming from state-owned banks. Is this an exaggeration? May be.

Discrepancies 

Still, as a minimum, the optimistic official GDP numbers collide with other official Chinese figures related to electricity consumption, (down), cement production, (down), and steel production, (down). Hard to believe that China manages to keep the same rate of GDP growth when key indicators that should move up along with GDP are instead going in the opposite direction.

And there is more. The Singapore economy, a good proxy for what is going in China, is down, significantly. Recent export data from South Korea show a huge drop. Simply stated, China is buying a lot less from a key supplier. Not an indication of a growing Chinese economy.

Well, what is the point of all this? There are two points, actually. The first one is that the deterioration of the Chinese economy is most likely a lot more severe than anything that has been officially admitted.

False data routinely released 

But the second point is probably even more significant. China clearly releases false economic statistics, and it has been doing this routinely, for who knows how long.

Now, this is no detail. This is not akin to the White House Press Secretary trying to paint today’s events in a favorable light that will make the US President look good. We call this spin. Not laudable, perhaps unethical, but not utter fraud.

However, what China does is akin to the White House Press Secretary announcing from his podium that the US economy grew at a rate of 2.5% when it grew instead by only 1.5%. He goes out there, speaking to the nation, and he knows he is lying. There is a distinction between spin and falsehood.

And yet we accept that China does this.

Unprecedented

This situation is unprecedented. After 30 years of impressive growth, China wants to be treated as a mature world power and a major economic player, now fully integrated in the world economy. This is not a country akin to the old Soviet Union that lived in its own universe. And this is not Mao’s China either, a country run into the ground by its leader’s bizarre ideology. And yet the government of this modernized and vastly more productive China lies about fundamental economic data. And how do we react to this?

Well, we do essentially nothing.

Look, I realize that this is an awkward situation, and that there is no easy solution. How do you say this? Well, for the moment we do not say it. Indeed, as far as I know, no Western Government is on record stating that the Chinese release false or at least not fully reliable data. Ditto for the IMF or the World Bank.

Business media reporting on China

And what about Western business media? Well, they are becoming a little more assertive about producing the evidence and the work of private forecasters and analysts that contradicts official Chinese data. Almost all China watchers agree that China overstates its growth figures. The disagreement is on the degree of the lie. Some argue that real GDP growth is 6% and not 7%. Other claim that it is even lower, may be 5% or even 4%.

But the media are careful in how they phrase all this. They know that this is potentially an explosive issue. Think of the consequences. Does The Wall Street Journal want to see its Beijing bureau closed down, and its correspondents expelled from China, guilty of producing slanderous stories about China? Probably not. Hence extreme caution when reporting on any analysis of Chinese official data.

A major economic player? 

That said, all this is absurd.  The fact is that no one believes the official data. But it is not polite to say this openly. Talk about the Emperor having no clothes.

So, here is the thing. China wants to be treated with respect. And yet it behaves just like the old Soviet Union when it comes to releasing false data and distorted information. All this smells just like the old-fashioned Communist propaganda. And what do we do about this? Essentially nothing. We listen to the releases, and we politely nod.

Sure enough, in private government leaders and financial analysts make calculations based on what they believe is really going on in China, or at least I hope this is what they do.

But in the meantime most mainstream media keep publishing or airing the false data released by Beijing, in most cases without any cautionary note about the reliability of these figures.

Transparency 

As the terrible crash of 2008 revealed, here in America we got into major trouble because people chose to overlook alarming signs. And this happened in a country with a lively free press and hundreds of capable analysts, not to mention laws that require detailed disclosures and full transparency.

The idea that we can deal with China as a regular business partner when we have no clear understanding as to what is really going on in this vast economy simply because we cannot trust official data is totally preposterous.

Basic rules apply to all, China included

At some point the Chinese need to be told that rule number one for those aspiring to be at the head table in the global economy is full transparency and publishing accurate information.

Somehow the Chinese believe that they have become so big and so important that basic rules do not apply to them.

They should be told otherwise.

 

 

 




The Guardian: “America Is Still A Racist Nation” – Really?

WASHINGTON‘”Still a racist nation’: American bigotry on full display at KKK rally in South Carolina”. This is the prominently placed headline in the on-line US edition of the leftist British newspaper The Guardian reporting on a KKK demonstration in Columbia, South Carolina in defense of the Confederate Flag recently removed from public grounds by an act of the South Carolina legislature immediately signed by Republican Governor Nikki Haley.

Here we go again

Reading this title, the average progressive reader would say: “Here we go again…I knew it…These Americans, with all their pretentious talk about democracy and human rights…Deep down they are just a bunch of unreconstructed racists…Can you imagine? The Ku Klux Klan having a rally to honor the Confederate Flag?”

No doubt, any news about public demonstrations staged by the KKK looks bad. This is after all an openly white supremacist, racist organization that decades ago had a massive national following. And we know that the KKK terrorized millions of African-Americans with impunity.

More than 50 demonstrators

That said, as you click on the headline and get to the actual article,  you read that “More than 50” KKK members staged this demonstration in South Carolina aimed at defending the Confederate Flag. Got that? “More than 50”. What’s that? 55, 57?

And so, here is the real story. There is no story. 50 plus people demonstrating about anything are certainly not an indication of a nation-wide sentiment, and not even of a dangerous tendency that may turn into something bigger , and eventually may sway the country one way or the other.

Besides, everybody knows that nowadays the KKK is a spent force with negligible following. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that “today, there are between 5,000 and 8,000 Klan members, split among dozens of different – and often warring – organizations that use the Klan name.”

This is the estimated entire membership, nationwide. Please do keep in mind that the US population is close to 320 million. The activities of dozens of small KKK splinter groups fighting with one another are certainly not indicators of the feelings that the average American may or may not have about race issues.

This is agitation

To affirm that America is still a racist nation on the basis of a demonstration staged by “more than 50” KKK members or sympathizers in Columbia, South Carolina as a minimum is misleading. In fact, it is a disgraceful misrepresentation.

Is The Guardian still in the business of reporting news? This looks a lot more like openly tendentious agitation.




How Big A Threat From Jihadist Organizations?

WASHINGTON – The tricky part of any asymmetric warfare threat –now I am referring to the anti-Western Jihadist organizations spread around the Middle East and beyond– is that it is really difficult to assess its strength.

They are coming, by the thousands

For months Fox News, (a top rated US cable TV channel), has been telling  America that there are tens of thousands of would-be jihadists, (most of them “self-radicalized” young Muslims), who had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. And now, after intense training received over there, they are coming back to unleash a wave of terror in America and in Europe.

A real threat, but not so huge

Look, no doubt there is some truth in this assessment. But only some. For sure, young people went to Syria to fight. For sure, some came back with bad intentions. And the recent killings in Paris, (Charlie Hebdo, and the Jewish super market), are evidence of what armed people with bad intentions can do. For all these reasons, counter terrorism agencies have to be extra vigilant. There is a real threat out there.

We are all targets

But the point is that we were told by dozens of security experts paraded on TV to expect waves of attacks perpetrated by thousands of determined warriors-terrorists.

We were told that any soft target in America (shopping malls, schools, train stations) has become a target. And we were also told that somehow this horrible development –the metastasis of the terror cancer– is Obama’s fault because our President has (stupidly?) under estimated the terror threat.

No wave of attacks

Well, while it is unwise to make blanket statements about a developing phenomenon, so far we have seen no waves of attacks. Yes, we have seen some. And this is bad enough. But the West is not about to be destabilized by thousands of suicide terrorists. Yes, there have been some instances of violent attacks. And no doubt other plots have been uncovered before the jihadists could make a move.

But overall, this is not a New Apocalypse. This jihadist phenomenon, with large cells in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and also Nigeria, is a nasty brew animated by a millenarian ideology that surprisingly finds believers willing to fight for the violent recreation of a New Caliphate, or anything close to it. As absurd as all this sounds, it is nonetheless true.

No Clash of Civilizations

But this is not the prophesied “Clash of Civilizations”. The Islamic State, IS, in Syria and Iraq, as resilient as it is, is not going to transform all Muslim societies, from Morocco to Indonesia. IS will not turn their citizens into vast armies of pious fighters willing to die in order to destroy all the heretics and unbelievers.

Yes, we can count on more attacks, whether plotted in Yemen, or concocted by local “lone wolves”, in Paris, London or Minneapolis. This is most unpleasant. It means we are at risk. But let’s keep this in perspective. There are other risks, many of them bigger, if we measure them by the loss of life, that get almost no attention.

Only certain types of deaths matter

For instance, I just saw on TV that several hundreds Americans get killed by trains every year, because many pedestrians carelessly walk on and across railroad tracks, notwithstanding clear signs indicating that this is both very dangerous and strictly prohibited. And yet, this shocking statistic of hundreds (almost a thousand) of totally preventable deaths occurring every year gets barely a mention.

By the same token, sadly in the US there are frequent instances of deranged individuals shooting people in shopping malls, schools, or work places. But, somehow, since these are “regular killings”, we do not care that much.

However, if someone else does exactly the same thing –shooting innocent people without any rational motive– shouting “Allahu Akbar”, (“God is the Greatest”), then we are told by terror experts that the entire country is in mortal danger.

Not an existential threat

As a society, we should re-consider how we assess threats and how we talk about them. Don’t get me wrong. The jihadists are a real problem. Still, they are not an existential threat.

But somehow the media created the impression that they are a formidable force composed of determined fanatics about to destroy us. And this is simply not true.




Media Hype About ISIL Not Helpful

WASHINGTON – The international media are not helping our understanding of the actual extent of the Islamic State threat. They are now serving the function of echo chamber, amplifying ISIL’s scary propaganda messages, (beheadings, a Jordanian pilot burnt alive), spread via the internet. And this is very unhelpful, as it contributes to create the rather silly notion of this unstoppable, mighty Army of truculent “True Believers” on the march to world conquest.

Intelligence failure

It is indeed sad that Western intelligence obviously under estimated ISIL and its potential, first in Syria and then in Iraq. This was a major blunder. But now Western media want to imply that barbarians who cut the throats of a few prisoners, and then expertly package the whole thing for internet distribution, almost by definition must be capable of “anything”.

Not the Wehrmacht

This is patently absurd. ISIL is fairly strong and resilient. Its military forces are indeed capable of holding on to large pieces of weak and divided countries, such as Syria and Iraq. They are now making inroads into Libya, taking advantage of the fact that this is yet another sorry-looking and essentially failed state. ISIL’s ability to exploit the opportunities created by weak countries torn by conflicts is indeed a problem.

But this is not the German Wehrmacht smashing Poland, and then turning West to defeat a large French army in a matter of weeks. This is not the Japanese Imperial Army conquering Manchuria.

A relatively small military force

The Islamic State has financial resources and manpower. We know that. But it does not have an invincible force at its command. Most estimates talk about 30,000 to 40,000 troops. Well, Turkey, a country that could become engaged in the fight because of its proximity to Syria, has an army with 700,000 soldiers, (active and reserve forces combined). The fact that ISIL, this most improbable creature, is still operational tells us a lot about Western and Arab timidity and indecisiveness. It is not a function of the Islamic State’s  inherent strength.

Yes, we could and should do a lot more to “degrade” and eventually “defeat” ISIL. Doing just a little bit here and there with a few bombing raids is harmful to our credibility.

Not an existential threat

Nevertheless, let’s keep things in perspective. ISIL is indeed fueled by a dangerous, toxic millenarian ideology. But it is not an irresistible military tsunami.

I would love to see more cohesion and more determination in Western military responses, whatever the best tools may be, so that this menace will end soon. But this is not an existential threat.

Stop rebroadcasting propaganda

World media should stop rebroadcasting ISIL propaganda videos whose objective is to scare the general public, while creating interest among would-be jihadists.

They should instead help the public gain a realistic perspective on a threat that is serious, but not as deadly as ISIL’s leaders would like us to believe.