Thursday, July 30, 2009

The War on Terror: Yes, Who Wins Does Matter

We don't, officially, have a "War on Terror" any more.

I think I understand some of the political reasoning behind the move. As I wrote earlier, "dropping a divisive term like 'war on terror' is certainly a change...." (March 30, 2009) I've been relieved to see that the current administration, rhetoric aside, seems to take the threat posed by Islamic terrorists seriously.

Fighting for Trousers, Beer and Beagles?

That's just as well, I think: because there's very good reason to believe that the matter of who wins this war does make a difference. That's assuming that you're a man who prefers to wear trousers; a woman who prefers to not wear a burqa; or anybody who likes beer or beagles.

I know: that sounds trivial. But odds are that you've grown up in a culture that tolerates trousers.

Western civilization, for all its faults, doesn't make a habit of killing people who don't follow an official dress code. If Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or like-minded people win, that would probably change.

It's not just beer and burqas: the cultural values of people who insist that they're defending Islam don't seem to be very close to what many Americans appear to think is right.

Emphasis on "cultural values." I'll get back to that. A cluster of news items last week, and a follow-up today, got my attention:

Rape: It's the Victim's Fault?

An eight-year-old girl in Arizona was raped last week. Then her Liberian family disowned her: because she had shamed them - according to their warped view of reality. (July 25, 2009")

I'm Biased: I Don't Approve of Rape

I went to college in America - several times, during the seventies and eighties - so I know that in some American subcultures one of the few things that are 'wrong' to do is criticizing non-Western cultures.

Even by those standards, I'm on fairly safe ground this time. The president of Liberia is a woman, and she doesn't approve of rape. She also doesn't approve of shunning women who were raped - and is one of the people who are changing Liberia's laws on the subject. (A Catholic Citizen in America (July 25, 2009)) I think she's on the right track, but I'll admit to a bias.

They're Liberians: This Proves that Muslims Rape Women and Shun Rape Victims, Right?

Ah, no.

There are Muslims in Liberia, but they're a minority. When it comes to religious beliefs, Liberia shakes out this way:
  • Indigenous beliefs
    • 40%
  • Christian
    • 40%
  • Muslim
    • 20%
Aha! We has got us a suspek!

This Proves that Christians Rape Women and Shun Rape Victims, Right?

No, but you'd probably find an audience for that notion in several of the more 'sophisticated' American subcultures. I discuss the Catholic take on the propriety of rape in another post. (A Catholic Citizen in America (July 25, 2009)) I haven't researched the subject thoroughly, but my own experience indicates that rape is not condoned in Christian teaching.

Then That Leaves Us With - - -

I'm on the same page with Liberia's President Sirleaf on this. We're looking at a cultural problem: one which at least some of Liberia's political leaders are trying to solve.
President Sirleaf, Liberia:

"...Let me say very clearly that rape is a problem in Liberia also. This is why we have made rape a non-bailable (ph) offense. It is a criminal offense. There is a strong law regarding that. You cannot even get bail.

"So, those parents should know that things have changed in Liberia. No longer do we tolerate this. And this is not a question of shame on the family, it's a question of an assault on a young child. And that cannot be tolerated...."
(CNN transcript)
Liberia's political leaders are, I think, showing guts in bucking Liberia's sincerely-held cultural values. Some of the notion that a rape victim is to blame for being raped - and so has brought shame to the family - probably comes from the recent warfare in Liberia.

Blame-the-Victim, Islam, Culture, and Assumptions

But the 'blame the victim' idea is so wide-spread, I doubt that it started during Liberia's late-20th-century troubles.

For example, I've been watching American culture for forty-plus years. The notion that 'rape isn't nice and you shouldn't do it' has been around throughout that period, and American culture seems to be swinging away from the 'she was asking for it' notion. And, happily, the American judicial system is approaching the same position by fits and starts.

I think it's a mistake to assume that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's leaders represent all of Islam. The frequent choice of mosques as targets by these lions of Islam tends, I think, to back up this assertion.

Yes, there are people who insist that they're following (the one, true version of) Islam, and make a habit of whacking off their wives' heads when they're in a snit. That doesn't make honor killings particularly "Islamic." Not when Pakistan's Islamic Party says that honor killings are against Islam. (September 7, 2008)

Fifty years ago, members of the KKK would probably have told you that killing blacks, Catholics, and Jews was a matter of defending Christianity. But, as a Catholic, I'd argue that they didn't hold a typically Christian position.

Generalizations: They're Convenient, But Not Necessarily Accurate

Take the leader of a terrorist group (okay: 'alleged' all around) in North Carolina. He was going to lead his sons and a few like-minded Muslims on a Jihad.

Daniel Patrick Boyd is a Muslim - who broke with his local mosque because they didn't live up (down?) to his standards. He's also the operator of a drywall business.

There's a lesson to be learned here, I think. And it's not that people named Daniel, Patrick or Boyd are probably terrorists; or that we should keep a close watch on drywall business operators.

Muslims, I think, aren't necessarily terrorists, either. Any more than American veterans or Ron Paul supporters are likely to form terror cells. (March 23, 2009, April 15, 2009) Yes, some Muslims are terrorists: but the idea that all Muslims are terrorists is too big a generalization for me to accept.

Related posts: In the news: Background:
  • "Liberia"
    World Factbook, CIA (last updated July 3, 2009)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Terrorists, America, and Generalizations

I've gotten the impression that, for many, a "terrorist" is someone with darkish skin, very dark hair, a prominent nose, a name that just simply isn't 'American' - like Smith or Jones - and who lives in some far-off place.

From the looks of it, federal authorities broke up a small terrorist organization here in America. Seven men have been accused so far:
"A father, his two sons and four other men living in North Carolina are accused of military-style training at home and plotting 'violent jihad' abroad, federal authorities said.

"Officials said Monday the men were led by Daniel Patrick Boyd, a married 39-year-old who lived in an unassuming lakeside home in a rural area south of Raleigh, where he and his family walked their dog and operated a drywall business...."

"...'These charges hammer home the point that terrorists and their supporters are not confined to the remote regions of some far-away land but can grow and fester right here at home,' U.S. Attorney George E.B. Holding said...."

"...Boyd's faith was so brash that, this year, he stopped attending worship services in the Raleigh area and instead began meeting for Friday prayers in his home."

" 'This is not an indictment of the entire Muslim community,' Holding said. "These people had broken away because their local mosque did not follow their vision of being a good Muslim."..."



Of course: This must be one of those radical right-wing extremist white supremacists we hear about. You know: white people, who go around killing blacks (and other people who aren't sufficiently American - remember Oklahoma City?).

Nope. Mr. Boyd is a Muslim.

Then, using an all-too-common generalization, Daniel Patrick Boyd must be like all the other Muslims: a fanatic killer, just waiting to go off. They're all Muslims" and other sweeping generalizations are not, I think, at all helpful. Not in today's world, where people you meet don't all have the same ancestors, don't all eat the same food, and don't all believe exactly the same things that you do.

Intolerance, as well as over-generalizations, go both - make that all - ways:
"...The wives of the men told The Associated Press in an interview at the time they were glad the truth about their husbands had finally become known. The wives said the couples had U.S. roots but the United States was a country of 'kafirs' — Arabic for heathens...."
I'm aware that there's some debate about what "kafirs" is supposed to mean - but remember:
  • The Associated Press was quoting someone
  • That was a select group's attitude
Just the same, I'm pretty sure that quite a few other people around the world see America as a nation of "kafirs." Although some use other terms.

Last December, I wrote about a case which involved someone with a rather familiar attitude toward America and Americans: court documents dated November 4, 2008, and provided by Wired magazine, show a fellow who seemed oddly familiar:
  1. Dedicated to a cause
    1. He meant the technical how-2 in his post " ' be used against those who fight for the United States' since he considered them and their allies fighting in Arab countries to be 'invaders'."
  2. Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed's opinion of
    1. Law enforcement officers
      1. "Dogs"
      2. "Christians"
      3. "Infidels"
      4. "Racists"
      5. "Enemies of G-D'"
    2. Americans
      1. A "stupid people"
      2. "One of the most stupid creations of G-D"
    3. America
      1. A "vile nation"
        (In a conversation with his parents on December 20, 2007)
    (December 18, 2008)
Terms like "infidel" and "dog" used as a derogatory term identify the person as a Muslim with cultural roots in the Middle East. What I found interesting about Ahmed Abdellatif Sherif Mohamed's opinion of America and Americans was the set of generalizations about this country shared by Ahmed, many Islamic terrorists, and some of America's self-described best and brightest.

I put the shared opinions in bold. I didn't include the characterization of law enforcement officers as "Christian," but there's a lively antipathy toward Christianity in America's higher echelons. (August 5, 2008)

Beware Generalizations

Generalizations are handy. They allow thoughtful consideration of events to be replaced with associations of the 'all [noun] are [adjective]' variety. Once a set of generalizations is built around personal preferences and the peer group's prejudices, a person can sail through life with many of the higher brain functions offline.

It's not a particularly good idea, in many ways, but it can be done.

Back in the fifties and sixties, the KKK did Christianity no favors by 'protecting' 'Christian' American against blacks (as well as Jews and Catholics): and making the burning cross into a sort of cultural icon.

The War on Terror is, to a great extent, a matter of fanatic Muslims who feel that they and they alone know what Islam is, and echo what much of American academia has claimed about 'racist' and 'oppressive' America.

The problem is that, where the more 'sophisticated' American academics usually stop with teaching America's youth that America is an icky place - and indulging in academic pursuits like trashing the Quran and Eucharist - The Islamic fanatics are taking active steps to set up their version of Islamic nations.

But, just as all American academics aren't like Professor Ward Churchill, and not all Ron Paul supporters are potential terrorists, not all Muslims are terrorists. And, as Timothy McVeigh and company demonstrated, not all terrorists are Muslims.

But I don't expect people who are accustomed to the luxury of generalizing their way through life to believe that.

More-or-less related posts: In the news:

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Another Week: Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan, Trouble in Pakistan's Swat Valley

The War on Terror, or whatever the conflict is supposed to be called, continues. Given the determination of outfits like Al Qaeda to make at least a large swath of the world 'sufficiently Islamic' by their standards, and the determination of a great many others to wear trousers, let women drive cars, and generally offend the Taliban's sensibilities, I'd say we're in for a long, long conflict.

Death, Destruction, and Despair - Woe is Everybody!

Well, no. I'm getting to that.

Meanwhile, here's the sort of thing that most of the news is concentrating on.

The suicide attacks in Afghanistan show 'new tactics' to the extent that they were rather more major than most. And, it looks like there's going to be more trouble in Afghanistan as Taliban and other fighters move out of Pakistan and into Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, an offensive against the Taliban was successful, or it wasn't. It seems to depend on who's doing the talking. Offhand, it looks like Pakistan's national government has successfully driven the Taliban out of much of the Swat valley.

Naturally, the place is a mess. War zones tend to be, after the fighting's over. I just hope, for the sake of people who live in the Swat valley, that their national government doesn't achieve peace in their time by handing the place over to the Taliban again.

Back in Afghanistan, it looks like a fair number of people are at least as concerned about bad roads and official corruption, as they are about the Taliban. (BBC) I just hope that Afghanistan's leaders handle the upcoming election better than Iran's. Wouldn't take much.

Without trivializing the very real human suffering, quite a lot of the news reminds me of the lyrics of a cartoon's theme song: "There is doom and gloom while things go boom...."

Yes, there is a great deal going wrong in the Middle East and elsewhere. I doubt that anyone who pays attention to what's going on is unaware of that.

What doesn't get as much attention is the everyday life and local affairs of people in that part of the world.

So, here's a look at what one village head's efforts to control wasteful spending. I trust that Westerners won't be shocked at this look at a culture where, if women have pierced navels, nobody except those very, very close to them is likely to know.
"WHEN Haji Faqirullah, the malik (head) of Korak Dana village, decided to marry off all five of his grandsons in one ceremony last year, there was an outcry in the community.

" 'People were shocked,' he laughed. 'They were all complaining: that means you feed us only once instead of five times.'

"That was exactly the point. Sitting in the shade of some mulberry trees, Faqirullah runs his fingers through his long white beard and plays with a mobile phone as he explains: 'I was fed up with seeing everyone in my village bankrupted by weddings and wanted to set an example.'

"High on the Shomali plains north of Kabul, in a landscape dominated by the snow-topped Hindu Kush mountains, Korak Dana is poor but extremely beautiful. Streams run through lush fields of green grapes, men wobble along stony lanes on donkeys and bicycles and women in blue burqas flit between the mudwalled compounds...."
(Times Online)
I suggest reading the rest of the article: it gives a pretty good look at what an out-of-the way area is doing for itself, with some help from outfits like Habitat for Humanity and Women and Children Legal Resource Foundation.

Next post, I'll probably back on more conventional 'doom and gloom and things that go boom' topics.

More-or-less related posts: In the news:

Friday, July 24, 2009

Who Needs Facts? Cultural Assumptions and Politics

This post is a bit off-topic, but not all that much.

In my view, the war on terror (or whatever we're supposed to call it) is in large part a conflict between people who desperately want to revive a culture which the world left behind centuries - or millennia - ago, and those who want the right to wear trousers or drink beer.

Dubiously-Accurate Beliefs

Dubiously-accurate points of view aren't limited to Islamic extremists, of course. Every group has its crazies, and every group has even more people who aren't all that aware of the differences between what they think is real, and the world the rest of us live in.

A case in point came up this week, when Cambridge police responded to a house break-in and put handcuffs on a friend of the American president's.
"...Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who reportedly has characterized the arrest as 'every black man's nightmare and a reality for many black men.'...

"...'I think it was a pretty straightforward commentary that you probably don't need to handcuff a guy, a middle-aged man who uses a cane, who's in his own home,' Obama told ABC's "Nightline."

"When Obama waded into the story by answering a question about it during his news conference Wednesday night, he admitted that he "may be a little biased" because Gates is a friend.

" 'I don't know all the facts,' he also conceded.

"He said he did not know what role race played, but 'the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home.'..."
Cambridge police aren't taking the right attitude, from some points of view. Instead of pleading for forgiveness and mandatory re-education, they're saying that the criticism is unjustified.

They could be right.

Handcuffs, Harvard, and Feeling Good

I'm sure that the Harvard professor doesn't feel good about being handcuffed. I'd worry about anyone who did get a thrill about that sort of thing.

I've been detained by the police a few times, though: and been very carefully searched for weapons and/or contraband. I could wrap myself in righteous indignation and play the victim - but that would be a bit silly. I hadn't been engaging in criminal activity, but it didn't look like that from the law officers' point of view: and they'd be stupid to take chances. Even if I am some guy who uses a cane.

Back to the American president, a state governor, and assumptions.

Commie Plots, Disco, and Feeling Groovy

When I was growing up, quite a lot was made of Americans who thought that commie plots were behind all the world's problems. We got characters like Frank Burns of "M*A*S*H" out of the heyday of anti-communist hysteria. I still enjoy watching re-runs of that seventies sitcom, by the way.

The seventies are as dead as Disco, the sixties are even further back on the timeline, and the McCarthy era is long gone. I've made the point before in this blog:

In a nation like America, where citizens are expected to vote intelligently, it's a good idea to keep track of what decade you're in. Or, by now, what century. That goes double for national leaders.

Unconsidered Assumptions?

I'm quite sure that President Obama's prestige won't be hurt by this little gaffe. He's charming, charismatic, and a very intelligent man.

I can't help but wonder if this little oopsie doesn't show some of the underlying, unconsidered assumptions that Barack Obama retains.

'Nuff said.

Related posts:
News and views:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Iran: Shadi Sadr, Human Rights Lawyer, Snatched

Shadi Sadr is a "human rights lawyer," or a "feminist lawyer," depending on which account you read. That important point is that she seems to have been, ah, detained by the ayatollahs' government.

Beating and kidnapping a "human rights lawyer" - no matter what order those actions came in - just isn't nice. It's not much better if it can be presented as an "arrest."

I'm not going to work on the sympathy approach. I'm not at all sure of the social status of lawyers, here in America, as more people realize how much wacky lawsuits cost them.

It does appear, though, that one more person in Iran has been - and, most likely, is being - punished for expressing ideas that the country's leaders find distasteful.

That's not right.

And, in the long run, I think it's self-destructive. The ayatollahs' methods for crushing criticism of their alleged presidential election - and what they've done to Iran - doesn't seem to be quieting down.

Related posts: In the news:

Indonesia: Still Investigating the Jakarta Bombing

It's looking more like the double bombing in Jakarta was done by Islamic terrorists. More specifically, by what Reuters calls "the militant Jemaah Islamiah group." At least, the two suicide bombers and their handlers used the methods, and the same sort of equipment, that Jemaah Islamiah has used in the past.

The death toll seems to be holding steady at nine, so far: including the two suicide bombers. Last night I read that people going through the wreckage were still finding body parts - and that others were sorting out which pieces belonged to which individuals. From the sounds of it, there's no end of a mess where the two hotel restaurants were.

Today's big deal in the news is a laptop, found by investigators, which appears to have belonged to one of the bombers. Information on that could be quite important.

One thing that's notable in this incident is how Indonesian authorities are handling the investigation - and how they're releasing reports. They're saying that there's a strong indication that Jemaah Islamiah is involved - which is not the same as saying it is the work of Jemaah Islamiah. And, there isn't the sort of denial of trouble/accusation of another usual suspect routine that we saw recently in Iran.

As I've said before, "not all countries are the same."

Related posts: In the news:

China Shot 12: Don't Worry, They're "Mobsters"

So much depends on who you listen to, or read: On CNN, it's Uyghur rioters. Reuters calls the the people in western China Uighurs. The official Chinese news says that their security people killed 12 "mobsters:" and doesn't say whether they're of the (majority) Han, or (minority in the rest of China) Uighur variety.

Not to worry, though. China Daily reports that China's leaders are handling the situation just fine:
"The Chinese government and the Communist Party of China (CPC) handled the July 5 riot in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region 'decisively and properly', said a senior CPC official on Friday in Beijing.

" 'The CPC and the government has always advocated social stability, the socialist legal system, and national unity, as well as the interests of the people,' said He Guoqiang, a member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, according to Xinhua...." (China Daily)
"Social stability." "National unity." "Interests of the people." All that sounds good. Twelve bodies on the ground, not so good.

It's not the same players on the opposition side, but this situation reminds me a little of the Tiananmen Square confrontations, back when. And that time when national unity was achieved the hard way, in the War Between the States, here in North America.

Related posts: In the news:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Marriott, Ritz-Carlton in Indonesia Bombed: It Could Have Been Worse

Indonesia is in the news again - and I'm sure the Indonesian tourist industry wishes it wasn't.

Marriott, Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta Hit: Over a Half-Dozen Dead

Bombs went off at two hotels: The JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and the Ritz-Carlton next door, hotels that were connected by a tunnel. At this point, it looks like two suicide bombers went off, first killing five people at the Marriott - plus the bomber - then a few minutes later killing one person at the Ritz-Carlton - plus the bomber. So, counting the weapon systems, a total of eight people known dead.

There's no end of a mess to clean up, too: and the possibility that the death toll may climb.

The good news yesterday was that another bomb was found before it went off.

Checking in, Checking Out

This may be a new wrinkle: it looks like the suicide bombers, and maybe more people associated with the attack, checked in before blowing up. I'm pretty sure that hoteliers in Indonesia and elsewhere are reviewing their arrangements for protecting their guests from 'outside' attacks - and from each other.

Certainty Increases With Distance

As so often happens, those least closely connected with investigating the attack seem the most certain about who is responsible. A western news service identified the attack as a "...Revival of Jihadi Terror..." (Bloomberg) The anonymous "security analysts" could be right. Suicide attacks are a trademark of those lions of Islam who convince somebody else that they'll get an all-expense-paid harem if they blow themselves up.

On the other hand, maybe this is a new, non-Islamic sort of suicide bomber.

I think it's likely enough that this is the work of some bunch who think they're making the world safe for Islam, or something of that sort. But it's early days yet.

Another Look at the Headlines

I see that the death toll is now nine, and that Indonesian police are looking at DNA left by the suicide bombers. (AFP)

Also, that it looks like Jemaah Islamiyah might be responsible. That's the outfit that killed 202 people in Bali, back in 2002. Indonesian police say the bombs used yesterday are 'identical' to the sort used by Jemaah Islamiyah. Yesterday's attacks were the worst in Indonesia since 2005. (AFP)

Here's What I Think: We Don't Know Yet

Anonymous experts notwithstanding, I think it's 'way too early to know just what went on in Jakarta yesterday. The business of checking in before blowing up seems to be something new - and that may be significant. At a minimum, that's going to have people in the hospitality industry taking another look at how they protect their guests.

Beyond that, judging from what's in the news, what we have is suspicions about who is responsible, a rising body count, and what appears to be a serious effort by law enforcement in Indonesia to find out exactly who is responsible.

I'm just glad that the death toll is so low. From the sounds of it, the bombings could have been a lot worse. Cold comfort to friends and family of the victims, of course.

Related posts: In the news:

Monday, July 13, 2009

Somali-American Jamal Bana: You are Missed

A third Minnesotan has turned up dead in Somalia.

Jamal Bana had been a top student at Washburn high School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before he began studying engineering. Then, last November, he disappeared.

His parents found a photo of his body, quite dead, online. He had been killed in Somalia.

Somali-Americans, particularly people in families of the young Minnesotans who have disappeared recently, aren't at all happy about what's happening.
"The family of a Somali-American man who died in Somalia have said they want to know who is responsible for recruiting him to join an al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency.

"Jamal Bana is the third Somali-American from the city of Minneapolis to head to Somalia and die there. He is one of more than a dozen missing Somali-American men whose families believe have gone back to fight.

" 'Someone must have put something in his mind,' Omar Jamal of Minneapolis' Somali Justice Advocacy Center said at a Sunday news conference with Bana's family.

" 'He must have been somewhat disillusioned and indoctrinated because he didn't have any clue about Somalia at all. So someone somewhere must be responsible for his disappearance.'

"The same day as the family's news conference, Somalia's president -- a former member of the Islamist movement himself -- issued a plea to Somali-Americans not to join the fight in his country...." (CNN)
I'm none too pleased with the situation, myself.

Minnesotans Recruited for Terror: Why I Take it Personally

My ancestors left the general vicinity of Somalia over 85,000 years ago, most likely (November 1, 2007, in another blog), so I don't have much of a family connection with people whose immediate ancestors lived there.
Getting Used to New Neighbors
Today, Somali-Americans (as well as other hyphenated Americans) are fellow-Minnesotans, my neighbors. It looks like many settled in Minnesota for economic reasons, not because they liked the climate: just like many of my ancestors.

They're the families who shared a waiting room with me.

They're the people who go to the Somali Cafe, and are involved in the Somali Student Association, down in St. Cloud.

I haven't checked, but if there isn't a Somali family or two living in Melrose, the next town east and south of here, there will be soon: Minnesota's poultry industry has a few employment opportunities there.

I've read, in learned writings, how racism and cultural gaps abound in "mono-ethnic" towns in this area. There's probably something to that. I've had to deal with the issue of being half-Irish: not often, but it's happened. And, on top of everything else, Somalis aren't, by and large, either Lutheran, Baptist, or Catholic. Many or most follow Islam.

That makes a difference, sort of. Being Muslims and Muslimas, they're the people who go to the Islamic Center in St. Cloud, the professor who made invited a class which included one of my daughters to come and observe Friday prayer.

Of course, there's racism in Minnesota. As I've said elsewhere, there are jerks everywhere. central Minnesota included.

The point I'm trying to make is, the Bana family are my neighbors: at least to the extent that we both live in Minnesota. What hurts them hurts me, albeit indirectly.

The Banas, the Hassans, Everyone, are People: Not a Demographic or The Masses

Despite the sad news of another Minnesota family dealing with a dead son, I was relieved to read a news article that recognized new Minnesotans as individuals: people who were members of families; sons, fathers, mothers, daughters.

After reading about ethnic refugees who came to America, were involved with a capitalistic institution, became disillusioned, and subsequently decided to return to Somalia, the CNN article's focus on one of the young Minnesotans was a relief.

It some of America's subcultures, it's too easy to forget that those who aren't members of one's own circle aren't "the masses": They're people, each with his or her own hopes, challenges, and family background.

Related posts: In the news: Background:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Somali-Americans in Minnesota: According to The New York Times

The New York Times article led with these words:
"MINNEAPOLIS — The Carlson School of Management rises from the asphalt like a monument to capitalist ambition. Stock prices race across an electronic ticker near a sleek entrance and the atrium soars skyward, as if lifting the aspirations of its students. The school’s plucky motto is 'Nowhere but here.'

"For a group of students who often met at the school, on the University of Minnesota campus, those words seemed especially fitting. They had fled Somalia as small boys, escaping a catastrophic civil war. They came of age as refugees in Minneapolis, embracing basketball and the prom, hip-hop and the Mall of America. By the time they reached college, their dreams seemed within grasp: one planned to become a doctor; another, an entrepreneur.

"But last year, in a study room on the first floor of Carlson, the men turned their energies to a different enterprise. ..." (The New York Times)
I could be wrong about this, but the first part of the article seems to reflect a perception of reality that's fairly common among the more 'sophisticated' set: that armed conflicts are either an effort by Big Oil and other nefarious elements to maintain their plundering of Mother Earth; or a People's struggle against capitalistic oppressors of the proletariat. Or both.

A deviation from that familiar approach appears in the 15th and 16th paragraphs:
"...The case has forced federal agents and terrorism analysts to rethink some of their most basic assumptions about the vulnerability of Muslim immigrants in the United States to the lure of militant Islam. For years, it seemed that 'homegrown' terrorism was largely a problem in European countries like Britain and France, where Muslim immigrants had failed to prosper economically or integrate culturally. By contrast, experts believed that the successful assimilation of foreign-born Muslims in the United States had largely immunized them from the appeal of radical ideologies

"The story of the Twin Cities men does not lend itself to facile categorizations. They make up a minuscule percentage of their Somali-American community, and it is unclear whether their transformation reflects any broader trend. Nor are they especially representative of the wider Muslim immigrant population, which has enjoyed a stable and largely middle-class existence...." (The New York Times)
The rest of the article contains quite a bit of detail on the background and activities of Minnesotans who have been recruited by terrorists. I'm not at all sure how many Somali-Americans in Minnesota actually buy into the FBI-vs.-African-minority attitude that seems to lie behind some of the narrative. On the other hand, a Senatorial staff did manage to give the impression that they saw all young Somali men as jihadists, or as terrorists-in-training. It hasn't gotten all that much press, but asking "What is radicalizing young Somali men?" was just plain dumb. (July 1, 2009, March 22, 2009)

Yesterday's article in The New York Times is an interesting look at some of the issues that Somali-Americans face. I think it is also an example of the difficulty that old-school journalists and other traditional information gatekeepers have, dealing with a post-Cold-War world.

About two years ago, I discussed how the educational and professional background of some terrorists in England didn't conform to either the traditional 'oppressed proletariat' or 'poverty causes crime' cognitive models.

The consternation of discovering well-educated medical professionals among the perpetrators of the London-Glasgow attacks seems to be dissipating. And, although incidents of knee-jerk reaction to non-WASPs in America still happen ("Muslim Family Talks Safety, Gets Booted From Flight (January 2, 2009)), I like to think that most Americans are learning not to fear the latest wave of immigrants.

As I wrote for this blog's description: "The 19th and 20th centuries' class conflicts and colonial issues are behind us." Of course, we will be dealing with some results of England's factory system for a very long time: just as a dispute over a family inheritance several thousands of years ago is behind much of the trouble in the Middle East.

But this isn't the 19th century any longer. In the West, at least, the Workers won: although even the Big Three bailouts probably won't preserve all their gains.

Elsewhere, although there's probably an economic side to the jihad against the West, I don't think it's so much a class struggle, as the efforts of people with a particular set of values to force their views on at least part of the world.

Meanwhile, I think it will take a very long time for some Western traditionalists to get used to the idea that the world has changed since Walter Durante wrote his articles.

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A tip of the hat to markstoneman, for drawing my attention to The New York Times' article.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cyber-Attacks "No More Harmful than Spam" - So Far

The three recent cyber-attacks on South Korean and American networks have been serious. The most recent, a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attack involved upwards of 20,000 infected computers in South Korea, and was aimed at seven major business and government websites in South Korea (CNN)

But, as far as we know, nobody died as a result of the DDOS attack. One news service described the attacks as "no more harmful than spam'" (CBC)

So far, we've been lucky.

Code discovered in the American power grid two years ago could have interfered with the power supply. (CNN) If there is no change in the status quo, I'd be surprised if, in the next decade, somebody doesn't manage to take down America's power grid, or another part of our infrastructure.

Sneak Peek at Power Grid Failure: 1995, Chicago

If the power grid was compromised in, say, July, we could see results similar to Chicago's 1995 heat wave, where about 600 or 700 people died. (Annals of Internal Medicine, The New England Journal of Medicine) That time, Chicago had power, but it was really hot.
"...From July 12 through July 16, 1995, in Chicago, the maximal and minimal temperatures reached unprecedented highs, and the high temperatures were accompanied by extremes of relative humidity...." (The New England Journal of Medicine)
A more conventional academic approach to the disaster says that it wasn't the heat. Someone wrote a book saying that not having enough government services, and apathy, were at least partly to blame. (University Press, Chicago)

So the Heat Index is 100 and the Power Goes Out: How Bad Could That Be?

If malicious software took down a large part of America's power grid in July or August, my household would be inconvenienced, but we'd be okay. We live in a small town in central Minnesota. Even if it was a hot, sticky week, we could move into the basement, wrap the freezer in blankets, and wait it out.

I'm pretty sure that most people living in cities wouldn't have that option. There's only so much room in the basement of high-rise apartments.

Finger-Pointing Knows No Borders

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the comparatively routine sequence of claims that the country's intelligence agency didn't see the attacks coming, that it did, but that the rest of the government didn't do something, and so on, are making their way through the press. (The Korea Times, The Korea Herald)

Cyber-Attacks: Business-as-Usual, Feel-Good Solutions, and Thinking for the Long Haul

The CNN article I'm using for an example is in their "World Business" section, so the emphasis on the criminal aspect of malicious activity on the Internet is somewhat understandable.

It's a Crime

However, it impressed me how the article stressed how events like the cyber-attacks on American and South Korean government targets were compared to identity theft and similar for-profit actions against individuals and businesses:
"The death of Michael Jackson and Internet attacks in the United States and South Korea share a cyber-crime connection...."

"...The fake Michael Jackson snares and the large-scale attack in South Korea illustrate the pipeline of cyber crime...."

"...Internet crime has evolved from the vandalism of early worms to schemes to bilk users out of personal information and cash. Now there are more incidents like the cyber attack in South Korea and Washington, which nation-states can use in military or political conflicts...." (CNN) [emphasis mine]
That third reference was in the fourth-to-last paragraph, right after a brief discussion of the hazards that a hotel's Web page might pose.

I'll heartily agree that an attempt to get someone's credit card number, and an attempt to read classified information or bring down a military information network are both activities which are both not good.

But, although the latter is, in a sense, "criminal," I think it is a mistake to treat the creation of phony Michael Jackson fan sites and assaults on a government's information system as equivalent activities.

America had a long record of treating terrorist attacks as essentially criminal matters in 1993, when Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman masterminded the first attack on New York City's World Trade Center. Arguably, it took another, more successful, attack in 2001 to jolt some of America's leaders into accepting the idea that the jihad against the West was more than an unconnected series of criminal acts.

From the looks of things, quite a few people have yet to make the connection, when it comes to attacks on our information system.

Okay, Let's Say These Attacks are Attacks, Now What?

I discussed an emotionally satisfying but debatably sensible argument for retaliation in kind yesterday. (July 10, 2009)

Briefly: An op-ed writer had, I think correctly, said that a purely defensive posture against cyber-attacks was imprudent; He then proposed retaliating with a similar attack against North Korea's information systems.

Even assuming that there's reasonable proof that North Korea is the source of the recent attacks - and I think they're the leading suspect - I am not at all convinced that a 'tit for tat' approach would work. Yesterday, I suggested blocking all information access to North Korea as a means of dealing with the immediate issue of protecting our information systems.

After that, short of a 'Nuke Pyongyang' approach, there isn't an obvious solution to the problem of what to do with North Korea's leaders. It's difficult to see what would affect the policies of a country whose leaders give every indication of being unresponsive both to the opinions of the world's nations and to the needs of their subjects.

If nothing changes, I fear that military force will be needed. On the other hand, considering the age of North Korea's leaders, we can wait for Kim Jong Il and some of the top generals to die: and hope that the dynasty's next generation is a little more interested in the welfare of North Koreans.

We Need More San Marinos and Fewer North Koreas

In the long run, I think many problems we have with criminal activity on the Internet will be more easily solved when there are more nations like Brunei, Japan, San Marino and Singapore: with healthy economies, literacy rates in the nineties, and a vested interest in protecting individuals and businesses from criminal activity as well as terrorism.

But that's getting somewhat beyond the scope of this blog.

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In the news:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cyber-Attack Started July Fourth: Common Sense, Security, and the War on Terror

A distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attack on computers in South Korea and America started July 4, and may be coming to an end.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that, as of yesterday, it looked like people in South Korea and elsewhere whose computers had been used by whoever planned the attack may be losing their data today.

An article in yesterday's PCWorld says that the bots that infected tens of thousands of computers were programmed to "encrypt user data or reformat the hard drive of the PC." (PCWorld)

What's a bit sad about this situation is that apparently the computer users could have kept the malware from getting into their machines, or fixed the problem, by installing and updating anti-virus software.

I've been "lucky" this time - my machine doesn't seem to be one of those affected. I also have anti-virus software installed that updates itself a few times a day, on average: along with a set of anti-malware packages that should pick up what the 'perimeter defenses' miss.

Independence Day 2009 Cyber-Attack: Lone Hacker? North Korea? Good Question

The attacks started July Fourth and affected prominent websites in South Korea and America, including:
  • South Korea
    • The top-ranked news website
    • A leading online auction site
    • Electronic banking portals
    • The Ministry of National Defense
    • The president's website
    • The National Assembly's
    • A site for the U.S. Forces in Korea
  • America
    • Departments of Transportation, State and Treasury
    • The White House (maybe)
    • The New York Stock Exchange
    • Yahoo
    • The Federal Trade Commission
      (ABC News)
The attack wasn't all that sophisticated.
"...In this case, the vehicle appears to have been a well-known software 'worm' that was reprogrammed -- and not particularly well, it seems -- for the task. Still, for all of its crudeness, the attack did work. In the U.S., some sites were down for as much as 24 hours. In South Korea, some remained crashed Thursday...." (ABC News)
The apparent lack of skill used in the attack could mean almost anything: that some kid with a computer decided to vandalize websites; or that a national agency somewhere wanted their attack to look like the work of a non-too-skilled loner.

An obvious culprit, from several points of view, is North Korea: but there's not much evidence to back up that assumption, it seems.

On the other hand, North Korea could be responsible for the recent attacks and the ones last year that came from servers in China.

We just don't know.

Hack Back? Maybe

An op-ed piece on the ABC News website, "Cyber-Terrorism and How We Should Respond," makes a valid point: almost all discussions of the latest cyber-attack that I saw take the same line as PCWorld's: the attack is the fault of the victims, who should have had better defenses.

There's some truth to that. Given the state of the Internet today, a robust anti-virus program, anti-malware programs, frequent updates and scans, and tight user protocols are necessary. If you don't want to have your computer in the shop at frequent intervals, at any rate.

But there's a problem with thinking strictly in terms of defense against attacks. Several, I think. The ABC News op-ed recognizes one:
"...The awful irony to all of this is that, having spent a generation now figuratively patting hackers on the heads for their crimes and telling them not to do it again, we seemed to have put ourselves into the trap of treating all such assaults as a form of victimless crime, a kind of practical joke perpetrated by people with more brains than sense...." (ABC News)
So far, so good. I don't think that a purely defensive posture is a good idea, except maybe on paper.

The author uses the homeowner comparison, pointing out that a determined thief, given time and tools, can get into any house: no mater what sort of security the owner has in place.

And, the op-ed offers a solution:
"...At what point do we decide that such assaults on our sovereignty, our institutions and our fellow citizens are unacceptable? When do we get out of our defensive crouch and actively go after governments that are attacking us through cyberspace? Will it be after a Web Pearl Harbor catches us by surprise and crashes our financial markets -- or kills thousands of people trapped in computer-controlled transportation systems run amok, or in a darkened city trapped in a blizzard or heat wave, or babies in microprocessor controlled incubators?

"And long before then, why can't we respond to such an attack by a foreign government not with bombs or missiles, but by crashing that country's digital infrastructure? The worm turns, so to speak.

"Or will we decide once again that the fault was our own, that the perpetrators can't be identified anyway, and that what we really need are more robust cyber-security systems -- and pray that the next attack doesn't kill us, too? " (ABC News)
Something along those lines might work.

But, emotionally satisfying as the idea as, I think that retaliation - even assuming that, say, North Korea's leaders are responsible for the latest attack - using the same form of attack would run the risk of killing "...thousands of people ... in a darkened city trapped in a blizzard or heat wave, or babies in microprocessor controlled incubators...." Without seriously affecting those responsible.

I rather hope that the author does not propose that the CIA hack into tens of thousands of computers across the globe for the purpose of overloading North Korea's websites.

An alternative to releasing malware and hoping for the best (I know: that's a bit unfair) would, I think, be to block servers from suspect countries from communicating with other servers in the rest of the world. With my limited understanding of the Internet, that wouldn't affect critical systems in the target country - apart from being isolated from services which provide time, weather, and other data - and would limit the effectiveness of future attacks to what they could physically move across the border.

It would be nice to have a world where most countries have stable economies and governments whose leaders have a vested interest in keeping their countries on good terms with others. That will make enforcement of reasonable legal sanctions against hackers possible.

Meanwhile, here in the real world, I think conditions even remotely resembling those are generations away. At best.

Bottom line: the ABC News op-ed has an important point. People whose computers are hacked are only a small part of the problem. Those who originate the attack need to be stopped: and a strictly defensive posture won't stop them.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.