On not getting the joke

Last week, in Paris, along with sundry other victims, 8 cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo were killed for pushing the envelope of free speech and political humour. The French authorities have been expressing their own rollicking sense of political irony by jailing dozens of people for the offense of commenting favourably on that crime against freedom of epression. (There is a spanking new law prohibiting apologie publique d’actes de terrorisme (publicly defending acts of terrorism).)
For example, a man was sentenced to 10 months in prison for saying (to officials who were arresting him for riding a tram without a ticket) “Les frères Kouachi, c’est que le début, j’aurais dû être avec eux pour tuer plus de monde.” (“The Kouachi brothers, that’s just the beginning. I should have been with them to kill even more people.”)
Sounds like the sort of thing Charlie Hebdo would attack mercilessly.

Freedom fries with milquetoast

I was amused to read that Republicans in the US were attacking President Obama for not dropping everything to fly to France and succor our friend and ally in its time of need.

“This is simply no way to treat our oldest and first ally,” [Rick] Perry told The Washington Post. “President Obama should have stood with France in person, defending Western values in the struggle against terrorism and showing support for the victims of this despicable act of terror,” Perry said.[…]

“Our president should have been there, because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies,” [wrote Ted] Cruz.

Because, we know that if there’s anything Republicans care about more than defending scatological satire targeted particularly at conservative religious figures, it’s the centuries-old alliance, built mutual respect and admiration, with the cheese-eating surrender monkeys petulant prima-donna of realpolitik French.

It’s almost as intense as their abiding love of the Ukraine, for which John McCain attacked Obama’s and Angela Merkel’s response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea last year as “playing into Putin’s hands” and “milquetoast” respectively.

The worst of it is, he can’t even get a side of freedom fries with his milquetoast anymore.

Possibly highly likely

Apparently I’m not the only one who finds the government’s vocabulary for risk of terror threat confusing. MI5 has estimated the risk of international terrorist attack in the whole UK as “severe”, which sounds pretty threatening, hardly a calming prospect. And yet, according to yesterday’s Times

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, called for calm in an interview with Sky News on Friday, saying: “I don’t think it’s likely but I think we all know it’s a possibility — the threat level is severe and so therefore that means a terrorist attack is possible.

I’d say that calling the threat level “severe” is not what you do when you want the public to be “calm”. But then, his description corresponds to the official designation “moderate”. Obviously, no one wants to be the one who lowered the threat level right ahead of an attack, whereas leaving the threat level up for a few extra months (or years) has only diffuse and impersonal costs. Except that then you have to go out telling people that they shouldn’t really panic, even though the government says a terrorist attack is highly likely.

On a somewhat related note, the MI5 website ought to win a prize for the least helpful infographic. To illustrate the different threat levels for Great Britain and Northern Ireland they give us this map:

MI5 threat level graphic
For those plotting an attack in Northern Ireland but who can’t remember where it is…

There are just two “regions” whose threat level needs to be communicated. Is it really helpful to paste them onto geographically detailed maps of the United Kingdom? I’m guessing that, while they don’t want to specify any particular regions as potential targets, they don’t specifically want to make the point that Portree is equally at risk to certain southern metropolises with names beginning with L.

Cornpone opinions and Charlie Hebdo

When people praise the good work of Jimmy Carter for world peace, I am reminded of his despicable attack on Salman Rushdie, in the pages of the NY Times, in 1989. At a time when Rushdie was threatened with death for writing a brilliant, funny, and moving novel that grapples with religious themes (which also includes a coruscating satire of self-serving theocrats, something which is rarely mentioned in this context, and which I think was at least as much the motivation for the Iranian fatwa as any portrayal of the Prophet and his family), Carter wrote:

Ayatollah Khomeini’s offer of paradise to Rushdie’s assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights.

While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.

This is the kind of intercultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie’s life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.

To sever diplomatic relations with Iran over this altercation is an overreaction that could be quite costly in future years. Tactful public statements and private discussions could still defuse this explosive situation.

[Just as an aside, on rereading this now I am struck by Carter’s strange choice to frame it as though it were a technical American legal issue, by citing the US constitution — obviously irrelevant to Rushdie, who, as a UK citizen residing in the UK has no such rights — rather than referring to international norms of liberty and civil rights.]

I was reminded of this in reading the response of the Financial Times’s Tony Barber to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices yesterday:

some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.

 

Jonathan Chait has grouped this with other examples of journalists and politicians respecting, if not quite condoning, murderous responses to wounded religious sensitivities, such as this response of Time’s bureau chief in Paris to the last terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo three years ago:

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

Yes, indeed, how could one possibly interpret a satirical cartoon about a religious figure other than that the author is “begging” to be murdered? In this view, the editors of Charlie Hebdo got discouraged by Dorothy Parker’s poem (the one ending “Guns aren’t lawful; \\Nooses give; \\Gas smells awful; \\You might as well live.”) and thought that drawing caricatures of Mohammed would be a clever alternative. They were begging for it, as the rapist said. They might as well have drawn the cartoons on the way down after leaping from the Eiffel Tower. It surprises me that I’ve yet to hear of anyone advocating banning Dante.

People have real emotions over religious symbols, and this needs to be recognised. But emotionality can also be an effective power strategy. Saying, “I (and my coreligionists) are incapable of modulating our responses. We are an uncontrollable doomsday device.” is an effective way of compelling compromise, as long as you can convince the rest of society that you are really incapable of restraining the emotional responses of the mob. (And as long as you can avoid a violent backlash against your religious group, if they happen to be in the minority; but even a violent backlash would serve the interests of those interested to radicalise their people.) It is really an expression of contempt for these others, to suppose they are incapable of rational reflection, requiring the rest of us to pre-emptively reckon with their reflexive violence.

I often think of a lesson from the Talmud, that the rabbis ruled that to save a life a Jew is permitted to violate any religious precept except three prohibitions: idolatry, murder, and incest (including adultery); and there seems to have been considerable disagreement about idolatry. But, they went on, this only applies to freak occurrences: For instance, if a bank robber takes you hostage and forces you at gunpoint to drive his getaway car on Shabbat, you are permitted to obey; but you may not save your own life by agreeing to kill another hostage. If this is a time of general persecution, on the other hand, one may make no accommodation at all, not even to change the way one ties the sandal straps.

The point is that symbolic actions depend on context. I am all in favour of avoiding unnecessarily wounding people’s sensitivities. Under normal circumstances, I would not go out of my way to shock true believers with intellectual critiques of religion or with satire. But as soon as men with guns insist, “You may not speak of (or draw) the Prophet,” they have made him a symbol of violence, and oppression, and ideological repression. And others are entitled — indeed, are obliged — to attack that symbol. This is the same problem that plagued efforts to ban burning the US flag back in the early 1990s. The US Supreme Court ruled that this was protected free speech, and the right wing went crazy, trying to amend the US constitution and turn the next election into a referendum on burning flags. The natural response of people who cared about free speech was to burn more flags. The US flag had been transformed, temporarily, from a common symbol of American love of country and shared ideals, into a partisan political symbol of oppression of minority opinion.

Everyone needs to accept, living in a pluralistic society, that there will be discussions and publications and activities going on in various corners of our society that we don’t like, and either come to terms with their contents or learn to ignore them. No one forces me to attend a mosque or a church, and no one forces muslims to read Charlie Hebdo. I would not be astonished to learn that in some mosques negative comments are made about my own religion and its symbols.

The apparent goals of those advocating violence in the name of Islam in the west are purely fantastical: The alternative to pluralism in Europe is obviously not a society devoted to Islamic values. But that merely underscores the gap between the stated and real objectives. The real target is surely not the non-muslims, but the moderate muslims. The goal, I presume, is to convince the broader society that muslims are violent, and so cut off the access of ordinary muslims to acceptance and assimilation.

This is why the appeasers’ policies of avoiding offence is doomed to failure, even on its own terms.

People like Carter and the Time journalist Hambly think that freedom of expression is such an important thing that it really should be kept safe and secure in a quiet place, not endangered by taking it out into public. This attitude (like so much else) was well satirised by Mark Twain, in a line I have quoted before:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

Towers of Power

In the week after the September 11 attacks, my Berkeley colleague George Lakoff got rounded up in a dragnet of conservative outrage for a heartfelt reckoning with the meaning of towers and the violent destruction thereof. Whether or not you agree with his points — which were mostly anodyne applications of his general theory that all abstract thought is at base metaphorical, but which seemed to offend people mainly for the brief mention of one very traditional metaphor, the tower as phallus — it was almost a prototype for what people think a public intellectual should be doing: bringing the fruits of his technical research to bear in making sense of confusing events, and public responses.

Anyway, I’ve just been visiting Washington DC for the first time since I was a young child, and I was struck by the differing levels of security at the two monuments to great American presidents that stand on opposite ends of the reflecting pool. The towering Washington monument has airport+ level security: Metal detectors, no large bags, no food or drink. The squat Lincoln memorial has no security at all — not even the health-and-safety guardians whom one would expect at any modest monument — with people walking freely in or out. It doesn’t seem wrong. Somehow it feels intuitively obvious that a tower would attract political violence in a way that a squat temple would not.

It’s similar to the issue of why terrorists always like to hijack airplanes. There are more people on a big train than on any airplane, but still terror attacks on trains are rare, despite the vastly tighter security at airports.

Muted outrage

Psychologists say that children under 4 or so are generally incapable of understanding that other people’s minds are distinct from their own, that to understand other people they need a distinct representation of the knowledge and beliefs of others. But some people take longer:

Brian Williams asked former NSA Director Michael Hayden how he would have felt had a member of his own family been tortured. Hayden’s flippant response: “I actually think that my concern or my outrage, if that were ever done to any of my family members, would be somewhat muted if my family member had just killed 3,000 of my citizens.”

What about a family member who had been piloting drones in attacks that killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen? I’m sure he believes that he can put himself in the place of a man whose entire extended family were wiped out because the CIA decided to bomb their wedding party. Simple herder that he is, he would nonetheless be aware that Americans only act with the best of intentions, and this unfortunate accident is only one more reason to support them in in their noble struggle to rid the world of those who are truly responsible for this mass slaughter, the terrorists. And anyone who does attribute evil intentions to Americans must be in the grip of a fanatical ideology, and so belongs on the target list anyway.

Wer es glaubt wird selig, is the German expression for such an exuberance of presumed naïveté. Only a saintly fool could believe that.

Pardons instead of prosecutions

Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has published in the NY Times a plea to pardon the officials who approved or conducted torture. This seemed to me ridiculous at first, but on reading his argument I find that it makes a certain kind of perverse sense. Given that the US government has shown itself incapable of prosecuting these atrocities, the only way to assert the principle that these were in fact crimes, and not simply exuberant excesses of patriotic zeal, is to issue pardons. It would also have the salutary effect of making explicit the intention of the US not to prosecute, opening the way for other governments and international courts.

But when you let that sink in, it makes clear how close the corruption of the American state has come to making the US ungovernable. A state that is incapable of punishing officials who conspire to commit some of the most heinous war crimes of recent times is either a tyranny or constitutional anarchy; and the US is definitely not a tyranny. The US constitution has had a good run, but it seems to be coming apart at the seams. Continue reading “Pardons instead of prosecutions”

“The same terrorists”

Andrew Sullivan quotes conservative journalist K. T. McFarland:

According to media reports, the report concludes that we tortured terrorists.

These are the same terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center, bombed the Pentagon, and tried to level the U.S. Capitol. These are the same terrorists that today have beheaded Christians, Westerners and, just this past weekend, another American citizen.

It’s a bizarre and revealing statement. Putting aside the fact that some of the people tortured by the CIA and its confederates were completely innocent and not any sort of terrorists, they obviously weren’t the same terrorists who did any of the things on that list. A few of them were involved in planning the World Trade Center attack, but none of them was anywhere near beheading Americans last weekend. This notion of collective guilt expresses very well the sense of indiscriminate impotent rage that led to the disasters of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s simply inconceivable that something terrible can happen to America, and that they are unable to strike back. If the perpetrators are dead — and that’s the frustration of suicide attacks — then someone else must be punished. And if it has been decided that the barbarians wouldn’t mind dying, then they’ll have to dig deeper to find a way to assert dominance.

What would they do with the data?

The Conservatives and the security services are ramping up the propaganda for the digital panopticon, now particularly pressuring US-based social network companies to give up their quaint ideas of privacy. If you’re not with the snoopers you’re with the terrorists and the paedophiles.

“Terrorists are using the internet to communicate with each other and we must not accept that these communications are beyond the reach of the authorities or the internet companies themselves,” [David Cameron] told MPs after the report was published.

“Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem. It is their social responsibility to act on this.”

This refers to the government report on the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by an Islamist extremists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, that accuses Facebook (not by name — the name of the company was only leaked to the press, for some reason) of failing to inform the security services that they had been carrying on conversations about plans to murder a soldier on Facebook.

Try this out with regard to telephone service: If criminals were found to have plotted a killing on the telephone — not that such things ever happened before there was Facebook — would that be taken to prove that the telecoms are responsible for monitoring the content of every phone call? What about the post? What if they didn’t use electronic media, but fiendishly took advantage of the fact that there is currently no electronic surveillance in everyone’s bedrooms?

Why aren’t the security services who have been downloading all of our communications, including everything on Facebook, supposedly to protect us from terrorism, responsible for detecting the terrorist chats?

Those who see no problem with the collection of vast quantities of private data by various security services, or who see it as a necessary evil, tend to assume that Western democracies can ensure through legal structures that the information is used in the public interest, in the defence of democracy. Others believe this is naïve. There is nothing about Western democracy that nullifies the basic truths of humanity, and how people respond to the temptations of power.

If you are having difficulty imagining what our wise and good protectors in the security services might get up to if they had access to a complete collection of correspondence, maps of contacts, purchasing history for everyone in the country — indeed, for most of the world — consider this historical affair that has recently been in the news: Continue reading “What would they do with the data?”

Security theatre review

The newspapers are full of the new rules, requiring that electronic devices be powered up at the security checkpoint before entering flights to the US. Apparently, this is in response to information that terrorists may be hiding explosives in smart phones.

Now, I am fully aware of the limitations of the usual common-sense criticisms of anti-terror and anti-crime measures. Most criminals are not masterminds, and the same is true of suicide bombers. But here we’re not talking about a bunch of crackpots with big ideas and a truck full of fertiliser. The whole premise is that a master bomb designer is packaging a bomb powerful enough to bring down a plane into a Samsung smartphone. Surely, with modern miniaturisation, he can also design it to include a reasonable simulacrum of an Android home screen. Maybe he just won’t think of it, but unless the intelligence agencies have some very specific design specs for this device, it seems like they’re targeting a very narrow gap of stupidity: Smart enough to design an ingeniously concealed bomb, not smart enough to make it behave, at least superficially, like a smart phone. (“Why has the email app been removed and replaced by the “Blow Up the Plane” app?”)

(And one more thought: If the phone is designed to explode immediately upon being powered up, then the effect of this measure will just be to kill a few dozen people at the security check, which is probably an improvement, but hardly counts as a solid win for our side.)

I am reminded of my favourite bit of security theatre, from about 2006. Passing through security in Montreal, the man ahead of me had a bag filled with small cans and jars of what looked like Jamaican delicacies. Solid food is permitted on the plane, but liquids are forbidden. But these were in sealed tins, and obviously you couldn’t open them all. So the security agent did what any reasonable person would do: He read the labels to determine the contents and quantity. All the cans and jars were cleared to be taken on the flight.