Fundamental Values: The Futility of “Extreme Vetting”

http://www.kplu.org/post/looking-back-malheur-opb-s-amanda-peacher

Malheur armed occupation

When Donald Trump presented his national security policy last week, the focus was very much on terrorism, and with great specificity, that which he must name: “Radical Islam”. His proposed solutions included the “extreme vetting” of immigrants to ensure they are all possessed of “American values”. If we were in any doubt who the nominee expects to fail such a test, Trump gave specific examples:
any hostile attitude towards our country or its principles, or who believed sharia law should supplant American law. . . . Those who did not believe in our Constitution or who support bigotry and hatred will not be admitted for immigration into our country.
Trump also vowed to protect the equal rights of women and the LGBT community from what he views as the US’ biggest threat:
We cannot let this evil continue. Nor can we let the hateful ideology of Radical Islam – its oppression of women, gays, children, and nonbelievers – be allowed to reside or spread within our own countries,… my Administration will speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different faith.

The current focus of the nominee, and the media and political field in general, is clearly on the acts of those controlled or inspired by fundamentalist Islamic groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL, and undoubtedly this is a grave problem which requires careful attention. However, such a singular view of the threat to US national security, not to mention the demonisation of a whole religion, distracts attention away from other forms of ideological extremism much closer to home.

Mike Pence

Mike Pence

Let’s first look at Trump’s claim to, “speak out against the oppression of women, gays and people of different faith”, with the specific example of his own running mate Mike Pence.  As Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, who regularly introduces himself as, “a Christian, a Conservative and a Republican, in that order”, has signed off on bills to legalise anti LGBT discrimination and to force women to have ultrasounds 18 hours prior to abortions and to bury or cremate foetal remains, even in cases of miscarriage. He has made attempts to criminalise abortion, with the women potentially bring prosecuted, supports ‘conversion therapy’ over AIDS services and was extremely resistant to implementing a needle exchange programme in the midst of an HIV crisis in his State. Not exactly the paragon of support for women and gays his boss is extolling.

Merchandise seen at RNC convention, Cleveland

Trump against the oppression of women – Merchandise seen at RNC convention, Cleveland

Trump himself has a record of making insulting comments about women and on several occasions retweeted or displayed at rallies graphics and theories found on far-right and white supremacist discussion threads. This week, in a campaign team reshuffle, he employed Stephen Bannon, chairman of news and comment site Breitbart. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, during Bannon’s tenure, “the outlet has undergone a noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas –– all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right’.”
Even Trump’s enthusiastic supporters bring into question their own ability to reach their candidate’s proposed new threshold of tolerance:

Secondly, Trump takes pains to stress that the ideological threat to American values comes from Radical Islam. However, it should not be forgotten that fundamentalism is not limited to those of one particular faith but can be found within all religions and other belief systems. In his 2003 book ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’, Jon Krakauer undertakes an examination of the bloody foundations of the Mormon Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) and more recent murderous acts committed by members of some of its fundamentalist groups. Krakauer is at pains to point out he chose to examine the Mormon faith merely because he grew up surrounded by friends who were members, and that similar examples of extreme beliefs leading to extreme actions could be found in countless other ideological systems. What makes LDS so interesting is that it is a religious movement born in the US in the fairly recent past (1830) and is quintessentially American, believing the nation to be the home of the Garden of Eden and location of Christ’s second coming. The religion had a bloody past with persecutions against it and its perpetration of the Mountain Meadow Massacre of 1857, in which 120 gentiles were murdered in a treacherous ambush on a wagon train, before the group’s exodus to their current home in Utah. Schisms quickly occurred between those who agreed to forgo polygamy in order to maintain peace with the Federal Government and those who believed plural marriage was a fundamental tenet of the religion, above man’s law. As a result, the religion fragmented with fundamentalist groups (FLDS) separating from those in power in Salt Lake City.

In 1880, an early LDS President, Prophet, Seer & Revelator (to give him his full title) John Taylor said,”God is greater than the United States and when the Government conflicts with heaven, we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the government” and such a sentiment is still to be found amongst fundamentalist LDS and other anti-government groups in the country today. The practice of polygamy has resulted in cases of abductions, rape, child marriage, domestic abuse, incest and child sexual abuse and adherents to the religion also believe that homosexuality and interracial marriage are crimes against God, punishable by death. However FLDS members defend their beliefs and actions, claiming they are Constitutionally protected under “religious freedom”.

In 1984, Dan Lafferty, a member of a FLDS group, together with his brother Ron, murdered his sister-in-law and niece in blood atonement as instructed through a revelation Ron received from God. They have both remained unrepentant for the act. Years later, still on death row, Krakauer asked Dan Lafferty how his justification for murder differed from the perpetrators of 9/11. He replied:
I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet… They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is they were following a false prophet, and I’m not.
When such acts occur, no-one suggests that all adherents to LDS are potential murderers and terrorists. And heinous acts have been carried out in the name of all religions, political movements and even nations. The one thing in common is not the belief system itself but the nature of adherence to that belief by individuals. A psychologist who interviewed Ron Lafferty explained:
A zealot is simply someone who has an extreme fervently held belief and is willing to go to great length to impose those beliefs, act on those beliefs.

While Trump is one of many right now who are happy to equate terrorism with only those violent acts carried out by Muslims, there are plenty of examples of violence being used to intimidate people in the US perpetrated by people holding different radical beliefs. Attacks on abortion clinics and the murder of doctors are regularly committed by Christian fundamentalist groups such as the Army of God and individuals like Eric Robert Rudolph, who was responsible for the bombing of 2 abortion clinics, a lesbian nightclub and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 in reaction to the government sanctioning of abortion. Rudolph was a member of fundamentalist LDS offshoot the Church of Israel. Other figures with ties to FLDS and movements such as the Sovereign Citizen Movement, which recognise no higher authority than local sherifs and are literalist Constitutionalists who challenge Federal regulations and land ownership, are the Bundy family. Patriarch Cliven is famous for his 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, while his son Ammon was behind an armed militia’s occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. Trump has praised the “spirit” of Cliven Bundy while Ted Cruz called the Malheur standoff, “the unfortunate and tragic culmination of the path that President Obama has set the federal government on”. Meanwhile, Tim Blount, who lives and works at Malheur, says he and the staff suffered, “threats and harassment from militia members”.
Throughout the occupation I became keenly aware of my surroundings and never felt safe… I now find myself looking over my shoulder, not feeling comfortable and realizing that I am a victim of domestic terrorism.
It should also be remembered that one of the deadliest acts of terrorism on US soil remains the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, claiming 168 lives; an act of domestic terrorism carried out by a man driven by white supremacist ideology and a hatred of government.

Oklahoma City bomb

Oklahoma City bomb

Trump’s efforts to tighten the borders and protect the nation from extreme fundamentalist ideas is destined to fail. Not only because the very idea of ideological vetting goes against the very foundations of freedom the nation claims to value and protect, but also because those who would use violence and intimidation to undermine the rights of women, the LGBT community, religious & ethnic minorities and the government itself are already inside the country and have been for generations.

22nd August 2016

Malheur photo : http://www.kplu.org/post/looking-back-malheur-opb-s-amanda-peacher

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The Spectre of Terrorism: Apple vs the FBI

Yet again, the spectre of terrorism is being used to advance political agendas (See Hysteria & Hypocrisy: The Post-Paris World). The FBI are currently engaged in a legal battle with Apple, attempting to compel them to produce software which would enable them to access an iPhone owned by the San Bernardino shooter. In a statement by FBI director James Comey , he stated:
“The San Bernardino litigation isn’t about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message. It is about the victims and justice. Fourteen people were slaughtered and many more had their lives and bodies ruined. We owe them a thorough and professional investigation under law. …… So I hope folks will remember what terrorists did to innocent Americans at a San Bernardino office gathering and why the FBI simply must do all we can under law to investigate that.”
Comey uses emotive language and sympathy for the victims to gain public support for the FBI’s stance in what is a very complicated matter with potentially huge ramifications for all citizens.

Much of the media has also assisted in the oversimplification of this matter, pitching it as a corporation’s callous indifference to the victims of terrorism by refusing a simple request to unlock one individual phone, by giving the impression that all that is required is the cracking of a single passcode. In the abc news interview with Tim Cook this week, the interviewer David Muir repeatedly returned to rephrased versions of the question “How can you sleep at night?” in an attempt to make Cook take responsibility for any potential future terror attacks connected to the San Bernardino shooters.

Many politicians, on both sides of the political spectrum, have also reinforced this idea of an obstructive, unpatriotic company refusing a simple request. All the current GOP candidates have called for Apple to be forced to comply with Trump calling for a boycott of the company until they do.  It is concerning how many people in positions of power either fail to understand the intricacies of this issue, or choose to oversimplify them in order to gain public support.

Amidst this terrorism-filled rhetoric and hysteria, Cook and Apple have worked hard to explain the implications of what is being asked of them and the vulnerabilities that would be created. They have described the software they would have to produce as a master key that could be used not just by the FBI, but also by hackers, calling it “a cancer”. They have also expressed concern that this could be the start of a slippery slope of tech firms being asked by government agencies to create software which could infringe on people’s civil liberties. Their stance has been publicly supported by other tech giants such as Google and Microsoft.

As for the FBI’s assertions that this is a single case which will not set precedents, since their initial statement it has become public that Apple had already provided the FBI with support in trying to access information on the San Bernardino phone, while currently fighting several requests from other law enforcement departments to create ‘backdoors’ for devices involved in 12 other cases. More recently Comey has moved away from his assertion that this case will not be precedent- setting but has stated that it may “be instructive for other courts” when interpreting how far companies can be compelled to assist the government.

The Apple case is just another in a list of many stretching over the past 15 years in which the fear of terrorism is being used to gain public support for a political agenda; in this case that of the weakening of encryption to allow intelligence agencies easier access to personal information universally. Since the Snowden revelations, the public have been made more aware of the vulnerabilities of their digital data and companies such as Apple have been developing protections against this within their systems in order to regain customers’ trust. In an attempt to weaken those systems again, the politicians and government agencies now have evoked the ugly head of terrorism again in order to employ pity for the victims to induce guilt from us all that it is our protected information that enables terrorism and encourage us to give up that security. It should not only be Apple who is fighting this battle on our behalf; we should all be standing up against the disrespectful use of terrorism’s victims in leading us passively into giving up our rights to privacy.

26th February 2016

Hysteria & Hypocrisy: The ‘Post-Paris’ World

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One thread which runs through many of the articles published here is an attempt to highlight hypocrisies and inconsistencies within society and politics. My recent silence has not been due to a lack of relevant examples but rather to being overwhelmed by possible illustrations, as well as being rendered speechless for a while by the volume of divisive rhetoric and dangerous invective in the media, social and mainstream, ‘post-Paris’.

It should go without saying that the November 13th terror attacks in Paris were an horrific event resulting in the tragic loss of many innocent lives. However, the ‘Eurocentric’ reaction to such loss of life should not be ignored. The media and individuals across Europe and the US, as well as in far-flung places like Australia and New Zealand, dedicated hours of coverage and endless threads of social media posts to reporting and commenting on the events in Paris in minute detail. Facebook enabled users to emblazon their profile picture with the tricolour in a show of solidarity with the French. After the initial uptake, some began to point out that Facebook had never offered the Nigerian, Lebanese or Malian flags in such a manner as a result of terrorist attacks there, questioning why Paris was different. And in that lies the problem, as the media and politicians actively fan the flames of fear that Europeans and Americans are the number one target and (most important) victims of terrorism. However, a look at the statistics shows a different picture. In the 6 months from July to December 2015, the Paris attacks and the shootings in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, as well as the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai, took the lives of around 370 people. During that same time, ISIL and affiliates were responsible for deaths in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and Lebanon numbering over 900. Meanwhile, Boko Haram also killed over 900 people in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon, while Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda were between them responsible for another 50 deaths in Kenya, Somalia and Mali.  In comparison to the European and US incidents, most of these received very little, or in some cases, no media attention or outpourings of collective grief. Our sympathy for victims of terrorism is selective and it is very apparent from this which lives we in the ‘West’ believe matter.
This discrepancy is in itself disturbing, but what is equally worrying is how politicians and the media use the fear of attacks on the ‘homeland’ to drive political agendas, despite ‘death by terrorism’ being far down the list of statistically likely ways to die. The post-Paris political world echoes strongly of the post-9/11 world and the attacks in France are being used to bolster and enliven the idea (fearing it may have been fading after 14 years) that the West is in a necessary war with Islam and extremism. Paris is being used to justify the continuation of the War on Terror. It’s open season again for government surveillance of their populations, sweeping aside any post-Snowden concerns over the Patriot Act and mass collection of data; the UK’s ‘snooper charter’ is back on the table and in the US the Paris attacks are being cited as a reason to challenge civilians’ right to use encryption. Meanwhile, just as governments were finally beginning to take responsibility for the growing refugee crisis, partially created by the war in Syria, the attacks in Paris are now being used as a reason to backtrack on the commitments some nations made to accept refugees from the war-torn region. And just as 9/11 was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, following Paris the UK government voted to increase its military involvement in Syria. Even that parliamentary debate had echoes of George Bush’s War on Terror declaration of, “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”, when Prime Minister David Cameron accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being a, “terrorist sympathiser” for arguing against increased military intervention.

Such oversimplified, polar views of the world are also what have led to the rise of Islamaphobic attacks in the US and Europe, with protests outside mosques, including the depositing of dead pigs and bacon, apparently under the assumption that all muslims are potential terrorists. This view is only reinforced when leading Presidential candidate Donald Trump states his aim of blocking all muslims from gaining entry visas and then sees his poll results increase as a result. Painting the picture of the threat of terrorism coming solely from Islamic extremists also allows nations in the West to continue to downplay the actions of extremists of other ilks, such as the far-right or Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. In the US there is a great deal of resistance to classifying as terrorism the threats of violence, arson attacks and shootings against women’s health clinics which perform abortions, including the killing of 3 people on Nov 27th at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. At the moment, there is much debate on social media over whether the armed militiamen holed up in a federal building in Oregon to protest government ownership of land, should be classified as terrorists but the authorities and media have so far resisted doing so. It seems that when such actions involve white Christians, the word terrorism is rarely employed. It is Islam and Islamic extremism which continues to be represented as the main source of terrorist activity. However, selective outrage and political hypocrisy exists within the UK and US’s stance against the extremes of Islam, as evidenced in their dealings with Saudi Arabia. While claiming their general criticism of Islam comes from a desire to protect human rights such as freedom of speech and gender and sexual equality, they maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia, one of the strictest adherents to Sharia law. The country’s legal system sees the death penalty applied in cases of homosexuality and protesting against the government and requires women to have permission from a man before engaging in work, study or travel. After beheading almost 50 people last week, including teenage protesters and a Shia cleric, the condemnation from their Western allies was tepid, showing that whatever ideologies fuel the ongoing War on Terror, they remain secondary to lucrative oil and arms deals.

7th January 2016

 

Losing Definition: The Language of Politics

Every week now we hear the media, politicians and ordinary people brandishing the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ in an attempt to explain the turbulent, complicated world around us. The following are some examples from last week alone:
– In response to WikiLeaks’ information dump of CIA Director John Brennan‘s personal emails, a Mediaite contributor stated “it was, at its essence, nothing less than terrorism: an illegal, politically-motivated act designed to terrorize an intelligence officer.”
– The interesting case of a man in Jerusalem shot dead by soldiers after acting erratically and trying to grab a gun from an IDF member. His behaviour was enough to see him labelled a terrorist, but only until it was discovered that he was an Israeli jew. The ZAKA (voluntary emergency response team) chairman on the scene said, ““When I arrived with the ZAKA team at the site of the supposed terrorist attack, it seemed to be a ‘standard’ current terrorist attack, a stabbing attempt, and the terrorist was apprehended. I wanted to cover the body in a black bag [reserved for terrorists]. After I was asked to take care of the body I saw that he was a Jew, and that it was a mistake to speak of a terrorist. I immediately notified the police and we switched to a white ZAKA body bag.”
– In New Zealand some controversy erupted over a TV3 journalist’s story on purchasing a gun without valid documentation. While this was intended to highlight loopholes in the system, the police are considering charging the journalist with illegal purchase of a firearm. Meanwhile, the owner of the gun shop in question criticised the journalist’s actions, saying, “This was more like a terrorist activity, frightening people above a level they should be concerned.”

The word ‘terrorism’ has its origins in Revolutionary France, where it was used to describe the action of those in power to frighten the general population into submission, defined as “government by intimidation”. More contemporary definitions of the word include: the instilling of fear or terror; the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims; such practices used by a government or ruling group in order to maintain control over a population; such practices used by a clandestine or expatriate organisation as a means of furthering its aims. (Definitions courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary)

Admittedly, these definitions cover a wide range of activities and are open to very divergent interpretations. We’ve all heard the adage, “one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist” and no doubt if the civilian population of the US, the UK or New Zealand were living in fear of becoming collateral damage due to a bomb dropped from an unseen, unheard, pilotless plane, then drone attacks would be classed as acts of terrorism. However, it seems that the very fast and loose use of the word today comes from the media’s desire to produce attention grabbing headlines, in an increasingly competitive news marketplace, combined with those in power attempting to encourage a culture of fear in which increased surveillance, government control and punitive measures are accepted as necessary. Therefore, the very use of the word ‘terrorism’, in which the media and politicians are complicit, is, by definition, an act of terrorism in itself.

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This raises the sticky and delicate issue of vocabulary choice in politics. Words such as ‘terrorism’ are used hyperbolically but when overused or regularly employed inaccurately they can become hackneyed and begin to lose their impact. Other words become common currency – extremism, radical ideology, hate speech – but these too require definitions of their own. In the UK, the government’s current anti-terror policies involve an attempt to stamp out the grooming of young people for terrorist acts through extremist ideologies. The government has settled on a definition for ‘extremism, as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, placing itself in the impossible position of having to then define ‘British values’. They gave it a shot with, “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, but how do you fully define something so utterly intangible? So it is important, when politicians and the media bandy about words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’, that we constantly question what those using them intend them to mean.

25th October 2015