Saturday, December 09, 2006

The media and terrorism

A couple of days ago Will Femia at's Clicked observed:
While I understand the point Dave Neiwert is making about non-Muslim terrorists not getting the same media hysteria treatment, I'm glad that we didn't have to endure another round of fretting, hand wringing and empty political gestures about the threat of terrorism.

I responded:
I agree. The chief problem is all the hand-wringing and fear-mongering that erupts whenever a Muslim is involved in any act that might potentially be deemed "terrorist" but is most often simply a crime. Secondarily, of course, I also think that domestic terrorists like this deserve at least some attention, since the record demonstrates that they are more of a consistent threat than Al Qaeda. What cases like these demonstrate is the extraordinary blind spot -- induced by an absurd, and frankly racist, double standard -- that is in place in the media regarding domestic terrorism.

Yet there on the front page of's site last night was a headline reporting, "Man accused of plotting 'jihad' in Ill. mall," linking to an NBC News report on the case:
CHICAGO - A Muslim convert who talked about his desire to wage jihad against civilians was charged Friday in a plot to set off hand grenades at a shopping mall during the Christmas rush, authorities said.

Investigators said Derrick Shareef, 22, was acting alone and never actually obtained any grenades.

"He fixed on a day of December 22nd on Friday ... because it was the Friday before Christmas and thought that would be the highest concentration of shoppers that he could kill and injure," said Robert Grant, the agent in charge of the Chicago FBI office.

Shareef, of Rockford, was arrested when he met with an undercover agent in a parking lot to trade a set of stereo speakers for four hand grenades and a handgun.

Shareef had no accomplices and was not part of a terrorist cell, sources told NBC News.

Officials said Shareef had been under investigation since September, when he told an acquaintance that "he wanted to commit acts of violent jihad against targets in the United States as well as commit other crimes."

The acquaintance immediately informed the FBI, officials said.

Federal officials said Shareef planned to set off four hand grenades in garbage cans at the CherryVale Mall in Rockford, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago.

The story was featured on the NBC Nightly News broadcast with Brian Williams, complete with a report from veteran correspondent Pete Williams, who noted ominously that even though he "likely couldn't have carried out the attack," nonetheless "there's no telling what he might have done if they hadn't found him."

It was clear, as Williams reported, that Shareef had no connections to any known terrorist groups, and that his plot constituted a conspiracy of one. Indeed, it was clear that he was also incompetent to the point of harmlessness: Williams reported that he attempted to buy the grenades by trading some stereo speakers for them.

What's most likely, in fact, is that Shareef belongs with the gallery of mentally unstable "lone wolves" who have been making headlines in recent months with terrorist acts against a variety of targets.

Meanwhile, the usual suspects -- including Michelle Malkin and Little Green Footballs -- were busy holding up their end of the bargain, twisting the hand-wringing into outright hatemongering.

Compare all this coverage to that afforded the case that was the subject of my earlier post: Demetrius "Van" Crocker, whose case was thoroughly detailed last April in a John Branston piece in the Memphis Flyer.

Branston correctly describes the case as one involving
... a white supremacist dealing with a crooked security employee at a weapons arsenal to buy stolen ingredients to make deadly Sarin nerve gas; a plot to use dirty bombs, nerve gas, and conventional weapons against federal and state courthouses and the U.S. Capitol, while the House and Senate were in session; a plot that was foiled by an informant; and a dramatic takedown by FBI agents with their guns drawn seconds after the Sarin canister and package of C-4 explosives changed hands.

Like Shareef, Crocker was hardly a model of competence; like Shareef, he envisioned himself a "lone wolf" striking back at the system:
Martyrdom isn't in the cards for Crocker, who began flirting with neo-Nazi groups as a teenager. His trial attracted little media coverage, even though reports of it made The New York Times and other national papers. He had no followers or courtroom supporters other than his 16-year-old son, who briefly took the stand as an inconsequential defense witness. Crocker himself -- bald, glasses, medium build, dressed in khakis and a pressed shirt -- did not testify. He behaved himself in the courtroom, and marshals hustled him in and out of the federal courthouse through a garage where he could not be photographed.

But Crocker said plenty on the tapes, some of which were recorded while his 4-year-old daughter sat in the back seat of agent Burroughs' truck. Burroughs pretended to be a fellow white supremacist and a security employee at the weapons arsenal in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Their conversations, filled with profanity, racial slurs, and Crocker's fantastic schemes were apparently enough to convict. Jurors declined to be interviewed.

"There is no doubt he had everything he needed to cause all sorts of destruction in the United States," said assistant U.S. attorney Fred Godwin, noting that McVeigh used commonly available materials to blow up the Murrah Building.

The piece includes transcripts of the tapes the FBI made as it gathered evidence against him, which give you a pretty clear idea of the nature of Crocker's motivations:
Crocker: "I ain't wantin' it to be no ruthless murder, you know. ... Only just certain people even have an idea of anything, that I knowed, trust all my life, that's just like me. ... You see no other way out and you see an opportunity to strike a blow at 'em, then so be it. I'm not for goin' out here and just wastin' honest people."

Burroughs: "Just dumb, dumb, dumb ignorant people."

Crocker: "Yeah. Not for that. So, ah, somethin' big, if I had to, federal, federal courthouse."

When I briefly noted the Crocker case last year, I observed that it reflected "the hard reality that terrorism does not always come from abroad, from brown-skinned foreigners, but often from our own midst as well; and that at the root of all of them lies a broad disaffection with modernity; and that truly winning the fight against terrorism requires us to confront and defuse that disaffection."

If you look at the facts of the two cases, the similarities are remarkable, including the fact that both Shareef and Crocker were tripped up by informants, and that their plots were thoroughly documented by FBI agents prior to their arrests. Indeed, it's clear that, even though the FBI has decidedly skewed its domestic-terrorism priorities under the Bush administration to focus on eco-terrorists, the anti-terrorism professionals doing the daily work of law enforcement continue to work hard to defuse domestic terrorism from all stripes of would-be terrorist.

Dealing with the entire range of terrorist threats, after all, is at the heart of taking terrorism seriously, in no small part because they are deeply intertwined:
While eco-terrorists are a serious problem, and deserve certainly serious prosecution under the law, the level of threat they represent is proportionally so much less than that from the far-right "Patriot" movement and white supremacists as to raise serious questions about the priorities of both the FBI and the Justice Department. Certainly it is worth observing, as does It's a Crock, that "eco-terrorist" Jeff Luers -- who torched three SUVs and took care to do so when it was unlikely anyone would be harmed -- is serving a 22-year prison sentence, while William Krar -- who built a cyanide bomb designed to kill perhaps a hundred people or more -- is facing a mere 15 years. When left-wing terrorists begin actually killing and maiming people and blowing up federal buildings with day cares inside them, or even plotting to do so, perhaps then they will deserve the kind of focus being accorded them under the Bush and Ashcroft style of governance.

Moreover, lest anyone think that the American far right is incapable of serious damage and not really in al Qaeda's class, it's probably useful to recall that before Sept. 11, the most lethal terrorist attack on American soil was committed by American right-wing extremists, with a toll similar to Spain's recent losses.

And contrary to those who argue that an emphasis on law enforcement is inadequate, the reality is that a one-two punch of intelligence and law enforcement is extraordinarily effective in stopping terrorism, at least domestically. One of the points that emerged from my in-depth work for MSNBC on domestic terrorism was that of the 40-plus cases of serious domestic terrorism we identified as arising in the 1995-2000 period, the vast majority had in fact been nipped in the bud by law enforcement before the would-be terrorists could act, largely through effective intelligence-gathering and aggressive arrests and prosecution. There is no reason this same approach would not be effective on a global scale -- unless, of course, one was allergic to cooperating with the very concept of international law enforcement.

The key difference in the Crocker and Shareef cases lies in the media coverage. Shareef's arrest was covered by the major networks and in a variety of leading newspapers, and his trial will probably be well covered. Crocker's arrest, on the other hand, was only briefly noted at the time, and no one covered his trial. His eventual sentencing only made the interior pages of the local papers.

This reveals a fairly stark double standard at play in the media -- one that is innately racist, though probably not consciously so. Rather, this is an institutional problem. The shape of most current coverage of terrorism is focused almost solely on Al Qaeda and Middle Eastern terrorism, and has been since well before Sept. 11 -- recall, if you will, that the media initially pinned the blame for Oklahoma City on Arab terrorists -- but it became even more pronounedly so in the days, months, and years since.

One of the clearer expressions of that double standard was voiced by Howard Kurtz when discussing the abominable treatment of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla by the government in custody:
I don't know. It depends on whether you believe that someone accused of plotting a dirty-bomb attack should have to wear blacked-out goggles and have his legs shackled when he is taken outside solitary confinement for a dentist's appointment.

It seems likely that Kurtz would not be so blithe if it had been Crocker -- a white "good ol' boy" -- who had been treated this way, despite the fact that Crocker had been plotting to blow up Congress. But then, the example of Crocker would have made all too clear just how inhumanly abusive this kind of treatment really is.

The problem is that today's mainstream media have a series of prepackaged narratives regarding various issues and personalities, and anything that falls outside that narrative, or worse yet that might reveal the narrative's basic falsity, is quietly ignored. The narrative on terrorism is a comforting one that fits in with the Bush administration's "war on terror" -- essentially a political marketing campaign. It's one that assures us that terrorists are a foreign threat best confronted militarily, a line of narrative that makes invasions and fabricated wars like that in Iraq not only palatable but desirable.

It is essential, as always, to assess these threats realistically. And offhand, it's obvious that on the surface at least our homegrown fundamentalist terrorists are a lesser terrorism threat, as Jeffrey Bale explained in detail -- thought it's worth noting that cases like Shareef's suggest that would-be Islamist terrorists in the United States are developing a "lone wolf" syndrome similar that of white supremacists.

But as I later explained:
It's true that, generally speaking, domestic terrorists are neither as competent nor as likely to pose a major threat as most international terrorists, particularly Al Qaeda. And the belief systems that feed the domestic terrorists have not become pervasive in popular Western culture the way Al Qaeda and Wahhabism generally have insinuated themselves in the Islamic world (though there has been an increasing blurring of the lines between the mainstream and extremist right in recent years).

Nonetheless, given the right actors, the right weapons, and the right circumstances, they remain nearly as capable of inflicting serious harm on large numbers of citizens as their foreign counterparts. This is especially true because they are less likely to arouse suspicion and can more readily blend into the scenery.

Most of all, what they lack in smarts or skill, they make up for in numbers: Since the early 1990s, the vast majority of planned terrorist acts on American soil -- both those that were successfully perpetrated and those apprehended beforehand -- have involved white right-wing extremists. Between 1995 and 2000, over 42 such cases (some, like Eric Rudolph, involving multiple crimes) were identifiable from public records.

Some of these were potentially quite lethal, such as a planned attack on a propane facility near Sacramento that, had it been successful, would have killed several thousand people living in its vicinity. Krar's cyanide bomb could have killed hundreds. Fortunately, none of these plotters have proven to be very competent.

The rate has slowed since 2000, but the cases have continued to occur. And someday, our luck is going to run out. Certainly, if we are counting on their incompetence, the fact that the anthrax killer (whose attacks in fact were quite successful in their purpose) has not yet been caught should give us pause. Likewise, if Al Qaeda attacks again, that will likely signal a fresh round of piggybacking.

The very real and very lethal threat of domestic terrorism is underscored by the numbers that existed prior to 9/11:
Between 1980 and 2000, the FBI recorded 335 incidents or suspected incidents of terrorism in the United States, according to the Congressional testimony in February 2002 of Dale L. Watson, then the assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence for the FBI.

"Of these, 247 were attributed to domestic terrorists, and 88 were determined to be international in nature," Watson said.

Watson's prepared remarks did not provide details, but he noted that right-wing extremism in the 1990s overtook left-wing terrorism "as the most dangerous domestic threat to the country."

It's always helpful to remember that whenever American fundamentalists are arrested for terrorism plots, they almost invariably are found with substantial armaments, while would-be terrorists like Shareef have to trade in their stereo speakers.

But you'll probably never hear that point raised in the mainstream media, either.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


I don't know about you, but the symbology of the Bush White House marketing official presidential hand cleaner strikes me as a flagrant bit of unintentional self-revelation.

It's for getting out those nasty bloodstains, no doubt.

Welcome Home, for real (and, we hope, for good)

-- Sara

My youngest cousin dropped us all an e-mail this morning. Her husband is safely home from 13 months in Iraq -- just in time for Christmas.

This was his second tour; he was deployed to Afghanistan for nine months in 2003.

Welcome home, Cliff. May this be the first of 150,000 homecomings in the year to come.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The "centrist" fallacy

Atrios had a great post today (well worth reading on its own) that springboarded from this interview of ex-Washington Post political editor John Harris by journalist Jay Rosen. It included this snippet from Harris:
I am happy to report that we have some common ground. The "instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics" can indeed be a form of bias. A "fixed idea" as Joan Didion says. Extreme centrism (as I would call it) is about hogging rationality to itself. (See Atrios on it.) This is the default form politics takes in the way the mainstream press conducts its reporting and explains the world to us. It's software the system runs on. Maybe you plan to un-install it, or put it out of commission. That would be a development I would watch with great interest.

Atrios is right to observe that this is a more insightful glimmer than we might expect from Harris, given the shape of the Post's coverage during his tenure. It's the kind of insight into Beltway-style Conventional Wisdom that more members of the press need to possess.

But it needs to be pointed out that this kind of approach to journalism is not merely about "hogging rationality to itself." It is, at its core, bad logic and thus nearly certain to lead to misjudgments, miscalculations, and misconceptions.

This kind of thinking is predicated on the fallacy of the middle ground, as I've explained previously:
For the bulk of my journalistic career, I probably saw the world in terms similar to [Cathy] Young's: the left and right, both for their virtues and their flaws, tended to balance each other out. For every bit of ugliness on the right, you could often find a counterpart on the left. This leaves those of us in the middle to balance things out. I think this view dominated in most of the newsrooms where I worked as well.

But I also studied logic and ethics back in the day (philosophy was a second major) and after awhile came to see that what many of us were doing in "balancing" our stories was in fact the antithesis of seeking out the truth, which is what journalism is supposed to be about. Specifically, many of us -- not just journalists -- were indulging in a classic logical fallacy, namely, the "false middle," or the argumentum ad temperantiam: "If two groups are locked in argument, one maintaining that 2+2=4, and the other claiming that 2+2=6, sure enough, an Englishman will walk in and settle on 2+2=5, denouncing both groups as extremists."

I don't know if the balance that I used to see ever existed. But in the 1990s, when it became clear that a lot of people on the right were declaring that 2+2=6, and a lot of people in the media were reporting their claims without batting an eye, any balance I had seen before began to vanish -- and it has not returned.

As the Iraq war devolves into the mess that many of us predicted when it began, you'll continue to hear a lot of people insisting that this kind of "centrism" is the only viable course out of the mess. Rest assured, instead, that it will be a certain prescription for even further disaster.

It can't help itself; it's in its deeply illogical, shallow nature.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen writes in to note that this observation came from him, not from Harris. My many apologies for misreading the outtake. And kudos to Rosen for the keen insight -- though we've known that about him for some time anyway.

Arrrgh. Edited for earlier fuckup. Can you tell I had two teeth extracted and am on painkillers today? Sorry, Jay.

Welcome Home


Well, we chose the wrong car to get behind at the border checkpoint, as usual.

The U.S. Immigration officer is taking his time with this one. He's stepped out of the box with a heaving swagger, his barrel chest huge and heavy under his body armor and dark navy cop's shirt. Slowly, he walks around, shading his face with his hands as he peers in the back windows, then wandering to the back of the car to pop open the trunk for a leisurely poke through its contents. He opens a zippered suitcase and gropes around the sides. On the passenger side, a younger officer stands by with a beagle in a bright green jacket, who is sniffing at the wheel wells for drugs.

Finally, after a long Q-and-A with the driver and a long second look at the passports and his computer screen, he waves them on reluctantly -- as though he's sure there's something going on there, but he can't quite make a case that would stick. As the car disappears around the corner, he waves us forward. My husband gooses our ancient SUV through the yellow barriers. A flash goes off as the camera takes a picture of our license plate, and now it’s our turn.

We know the drill so well now that we can almost do it in our sleep. (Though sleeping in front of a CIS officer is a no-no: it's best to wake napping passengers up when you get near the front of the line. Other big no-nos are reading, eating, talking to other people in the car, listening to an iPod, or -- don’t even think about this -- having the radio on.) Over the last three years, we reckon we've passed through this checkpoint well over 100 times, usually on day runs down to Bellingham to pick up mail and do our US banking.

"Where do you live?" It's almost always the first question, and his eyes stay on our faces while his hands effortlessly skim the edges of our passports through an automatic scanner.

"North Vancouver." It's just like talking to any cop: you don't offer any information you're not asked for.

He scans the screen for a moment. It's full of information, evidently accessed via that photo of our license plate and the numbers in the passports. Within a second or two, it's already told him how to handle us. There are only a couple questions after that.

"What brings you to the US this morning?"

"We're just down for the day to get our mail."

"Are you bringing anything down with you -- meat, eggs, plants, gifts, anything like that?"

We know the right answer to this one, and give it without a moment's thought. "No. No food on board. And we're not bringing anything else that's going to stay in the country." Sometimes, we'll make a joke about it: "Only this box of Timbits (Timbits are an iconic Canadian snack -- assorted donut holes, bought by the box at Tim Horton's donut shops, of which there is one right before the border) -- which we guarantee you will be eaten before we leave the US." If the officer is in a smiling mood, this always gets a grin.

"OK, then," the agent says, glancing at the cars down the line as he folds up our passports and hands them back to us. "Have a nice stay." (Once in a while, one will say, "Welcome home.")

You go through this wait and this interview a hundred or so times, watching the ebb and flow of officer interest in people as the lines move around you, and you can't help but wonder. Why did they wave that huge RV through in under 30 seconds -- but pull over that pickup truck for a thorough tossing? Why does my husband attract no attention at all when he's with me -- looking like the male half of a nice middle-aged suburban white couple in family car -- and considerably more when he's by himself in his own car, a vaguely Semitic single man traveling alone in a BMW convertible that's seen better days? What information are they gleaning from questions like, "Why did you move to Canada?" (And, no, we didn't say: Dude, look in the mirror.) And, most curious of all: What on earth is on that screen that pops up when the officer runs our passports?

Well, we know the answer to that now, don't we? Michael J. Sniffen of the AP explains it all to us:
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department's computerized Automated Targeting System, or ATS.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years. Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions. Courts and even some private contractors can obtain some of the data under certain circumstances.

Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

Acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Paul Rosenzweig told reporters Friday they could call it scoring. "It can be reduced to a number," he said, but he clearly preferred the longer description about how the rules are used.

Great. I'm from San Francisco, which has got to mean my score is probably in the tank from the get-go. If they've got my air travel records, they can see I've done the occasional one-way trip (usually some sort of drive/fly vacation involving our RV) -- oops, points off for that, too. Being a lover of window seats probably calms their minds -- you can't make sudden moves when you're wedged in behind two other passengers -- but Mr. R is an aisle seat kinda guy, and a long-time martial artist to boot. He could do some damage in a hurry if he had a mind to. Big guy, big points off there.

And what about those meals? I usually order vegetarian or kosher meals on flights originating in the Midwest, where airline catering often doesn't have quite the flair one finds at coastal airports. It's one way to increase the odds of getting a decent meal. It's probably a good thing it's never occurred to me to order halal. But millions of other have made this choice, unaware that they were implicating themselves as potential terrorists.

The basic paranoia that prevails at US border crossings, both air and land, has already muted my behavior in many small ways that rub at my American sense of justice like gravel in sweaty shoes. The way I tuck away my reading material before approaching the checkpoint, for fear that seeing The Nation or Mother Jones in my lap will arouse unnecessary suspicions. The way I just never get around to putting those great bumper stickers on my car, for the same reason. Being liberal in America these days means that you're only safe as long as you don't try to wear it (literally) on your sleeve or anywhere else. Being a liberal who regularly crosses borders may be unsurprising as a metaphor; but as a literal act, it's best approached with caution, in full awareness that you are putting yourself in the direct path of all kinds of official mischief.

And now it turns out that, for the past four years, all this information, some factual, some inferred, has been compiled into a superfile that -- unlike my driving record, my medical file, or my credit rating -- is completely out of my ability to view, correct, or control. Every time I cross that border or get on an airplane, I'm adding another data point to its detailed and growing portrait of my life. If the border guard is feeling cranky, he can take the time to read the screen in greater detail, and harass me about the things he finds "of interest." And it does happen: the "Why did you move to Canada?" guy went on to ask a lot of other questions about our political beliefs, more than hinting that he found the idea of Americans choosing to live elsewhere deeply offensive and suspicious. He did not approve of our choice; and he was determined to make us answer to him for it. For about five seconds, we considered discussing his attitude with his supervisor -- and then realized that even that very reasonable step would likely get us written up in a file somewhere (and now we know exactly where) as activist malcontents, and subjected to much worse harassment in the future. But keeping silent is always a mistake, too: because we didn't do that, he's probably out there on the job today, adding who knows what to the files of those unlucky enough to end up at his booth.

The thought that would-be stormtroopers like this one, based on secret information and a whim, could detain me, restrict my access to the country of my birth, put my US assets and mail beyond reach, charge me in secret, and deport me for extrajudicial "treatment" is terrifying. And all this inferential "data" is, day by day, making its way into other databases, where it will be seen (according to the AP) by employers, lower-level governments, contracting agencies, and people who issue licenses. Lies and whispers, hints and allegations -- yet they may someday, without our even being aware of it, determine which of us gets a job, a loan, a university acceptance, a government contract, a business license.

Is it worth exposing myself to all this just to go get my damned mail? It's a question I've started asking myself every time I pull into the southbound customs line to wait for my welcome home.

Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont has promised to institute oversight on the ATS program in the new year.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Eliminationism in America: I

[Introducing a ten-part series]

Part I: The Lurker Below

Last week Jerry Klein, a D.C. area radio talk-show host, decided to scrape below the surface of the right-wing brouhaha over the so-called "flying Imams" -- six Muslim clerics asked to deplane from a U.S. Airways flight, a case touted by everyone from David Frum to Michelle Malkin to Powerline to Pajamas Media.

Klein took this kind of talk the next logical step -- that is, by calling on his radio show for requiring all Muslims wear crescent-moon armbands, or perhaps even tatooing or branding them. The response was disturbing, to say the least:
The first caller to the station in Washington said that Klein must be "off his rocker." The second congratulated him and added: "Not only do you tattoo them in the middle of their forehead but you ship them out of this country ... they are here to kill us."

Another said that tattoos, armbands and other identifying markers such as crescent marks on driver's licenses, passports and birth certificates did not go far enough. "What good is identifying them?" he asked. "You have to set up encampments like during World War Two with the Japanese and Germans."

At the end of the one-hour show, rich with arguments on why visual identification of "the threat in our midst" would alleviate the public's fears, Klein revealed that he had staged a hoax. It drew out reactions that are not uncommon in post-9/11 America.

"I can't believe any of you are sick enough to have agreed for one second with anything I said," he told his audience on the AM station 630 WMAL (, which covers Washington, Northern Virginia and Maryland

"For me to suggest to tattoo marks on people's bodies, have them wear armbands, put a crescent moon on their driver's license on their passport or birth certificate is disgusting. It's beyond disgusting.

"Because basically what you just did was show me how the German people allowed what happened to the Jews to happen ... We need to separate them, we need to tattoo their arms, we need to make them wear the yellow Star of David, we need to put them in concentration camps, we basically just need to kill them all because they are dangerous."

(Crooks and Liars has the video. at DKos has more.)

Satire done well has that ability to slice open and expose the darker aspects of our collective psyches. The film Borat is all about using similar tactics -- pretending to be a bigot as a way of getting certain segments of the American populace to drop their defenses and show their honest bigotry:
In one scene, Borat sings a song that was commonly called Throw the Jew Down the Well, which incited hatred to Jews as the cause of all of Kazakhstan's problems. The song was wildly supported and cheered when it is played in a bar. Another Borat scene involves his visiting the Serengeti Range ranch in Texas, where the owner of the ranch reveals himself to be so anti-Semitic as to believe that Hitler's 'Final Solution' was a necessity for Germany. He further implies (with the egging on of Borat) that he would have no problem running a ranch where people can hunt, in Borat's words, "deer... then Jew."

Some of the noteworthy characters to appear in the film were Justin Seay and his frat brothers, whose bigotry spewed all over the carpet:
In the movie Seay and his Chi Psi colleagues encounter Borat in the southwestern United States, where they pick up a "hitchhiking" Borat and proceed to consume what appears to be large amounts of alcohol with Borat. Borat encourages the group to discuss slavery and their desire for slavery to return to the U.S. During this discussion, Seay is quoted as saying, "In our country, the minorities actually have more power."

Well, as Logan Pearsall Smith put it: "How it infuriates a bigot when he is forced to drag out his dark convictions." Seay and his brothers have sued the makers of Borat. One of Borat's victims, James Broadwater -- a onetime Republican candidate for Congress who opined that Jews were going to hell -- responded angrily by saying his supposed victimization by the stunt "is just one more reason why I believe that the liberal, anti-God media needs to be brought under the strict control of the FCC, and that as soon as possible."

Borat also inspired a wave of less-than-persuasive defensiveness from the likes of Charles Krauthammer, whose airbrushed version of history seems to hold that Jews' relationships with America is definable solely in terms of U.S. support for Israel. This sole fact evidently obliterates a history of latent and sometimes express anti-Semitism in America, as well as the continuing existence of a substantial chunk of the populace that is either anti-Semitic or believes anti-Semitic nonsense.

This is the naked bigotry revealed by both Klein's and Borat's stunts, and it has a particular quality to it -- a theme running through it, as it were: eliminationism.

White frat boys who long to enslave blacks, Texas ranchers who think hunting and shooting a Jew sounds like fun, and radio audiences who want to tattoo Muslims and lock them up in concentration camps -- they all reflect the strands of the hard-wired right-wing desire to eliminate, by violent means if necessary, anyone deemed the Other, or the Enemy.

Certainly Muslims and Jews are among the leading targets of this kind of talk. Jews -- despite Krauthammer's historically soft-focused version of things -- were national scapegoats for many years (the grim tale of Leo Frank being the most vivid reminder) and a cause celebre for leading American figures, including Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Charles Coughlin. They remain a grim focus of the radical right's hatred even today; the world's leading exponent of anti-Semitism, David Duke, has recently made headlines by making speaking appearances in Kyiv and in Urkaine. Meanwhile, as Bernd Debusmann report for Reuters went on to explore, there is also a now thoroughly concocted fear of Muslims abroad in the American public:
Those in agreement are not a fringe minority: A Gallup poll this summer of more than 1,000 Americans showed that 39 percent were in favor of requiring Muslims in the United States, including American citizens, to carry special identification.

Roughly a quarter of those polled said they would not want to live next door to a Muslim and a third thought that Muslims in the United States sympathized with al Qaeda, the extremist group behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

It isn't only Muslims and Jews who are being included in this kind of talk. Probably the leading targets of hateful rhetoric in the past year have been illegal immigrants. But the range of targets is fairly broad, and now includes gays and lesbians; environmentalists; civil-rights advocates; journalists; and the most common target of the past decade, liberals generally.

The first real uptick in this rhetoric was associated with the initial liberal resistance to the invasion of Iraq, which produced a real flood of elimination talk from the rabid American right, including such leading pundits as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.

Today, the right's rose-petaled enterprise has turned to shit, just as the "treasonous" bastards warned them it would -- so of course, those same bastards are now to blame. This is the way it always works for the right, the people of the party of responsibility, who seem unable to accept any responsibility whatsoever for the disasters created at their own express behest, and instead blame those with the foresight to warn against them beforehand.

Confronted with their own moral vacuity, the more rabid elements are nothing short of furious in their frantic scramble to obfuscate reality. Chief among their targets as the Iraq fiasco has crumbled has been the media for its reporting on the unfolding disaster. The result has been hate talk aimed at war critics and journalists, such as this:
So, in the school of what's good for the goose is good for the gander, we are providing this link so YOU may help the blogosphere in locating the homes (perhaps with photos?) of the editors and reporters of the New York Times.

Let's start with the following New York Times reporters and editors: Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger Jr. , Bill Keller, Eric Lichtblau, and James Risen. Do you have an idea where they live?

Go hunt them down and do America a favor. Get their photo, street address, where their kids go to school, anything you can dig up, and send it to the link above. This is your chance to be famous -- grab for the golden ring.

While it may seem as though this rising drumbeat of eliminationism proceeding from the American right is something new and uniquely dangerous, a look at our history actually reveals that it is something buried deep in our national psyche. It lies dormant in our soil and comes bursting forth when bidden.

What distinguishes eliminationism -- and particularly the rhetoric that precedes it and fuels it -- is that it represents a kind of self-hatred, especially in an American culture which advertises itself as predicated on inclusiveness, egalitarianism, and equal opportunity, since it runs precisely counter to those ideals. Eliminationists, at heart, really hate the very idea of America.

It has its origins, like slavery and war, in some of man's most ancient and most savage impulses: the desire to dominate others, through violence if necessary. However, in contrast, it goes largely unnoticed and largely unexamined, perhaps because it is a side of human nature so ugly we prefer not even to recognize its existence. So much so that only recently have we even had a term like "eliminationism" with which to frame it.

As I've explained, the term's first significant use came from historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial text, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen never provides a concise definition of the word, but rather constructs a massively detailed description of the eliminationist mindset.

Goldhagen's focus, however, is almost solely the Holocaust and the virulently antisemitic form that took root in Europe prior to the Second World War. But as a principle, we can see eliminationism playing a role in human history through the ages -- including its special role in American history and the shaping of American culture, right up to the present day.

I've tried to give a more concise definition previously:
What, really, is eliminationism?

It's a fairly self-explanatory term: it describes a kind of politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas for the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through complete suppression, exile and ejection, or extermination.

... Rhetorically, it takes on some distinctive shapes. It always depicts its opposition as simply beyond the pale, and in the end the embodiment of evil itself -- unfit for participation in their vision of society, and thus in need of elimination. It often depicts its designated "enemy" as vermin (especially rats and cockroaches) or diseases, and loves to incessantly suggest that its targets are themselves disease carriers. A close corollary -- but not as nakedly eliminationist -- are claims that the opponents are traitors or criminals, or gross liabilities for our national security, and thus inherently fit for elimination or at least incarceration.

And yes, it's often voiced as crude "jokes", the humor of which, when analyzed, is inevitably predicated on a venomous hatred.

But what we also know about this rhetoric is that, as surely as night follows day, this kind of talk eventually begets action, with inevitably tragic results.

What distinguishes eliminationist rhetoric from other political hyperbole, in the end, are two key factors:
-- It is focused on an enemy within, people who constitute entire blocs of the citizen populace, and

--It advocates the excision and extermination, by violent means or civil, of those entire blocs.

As Jerry Klein found, those impulses lie not very far beneath the skin of American civil society. In fact, as we will explore here, they are deeply woven into our very makeup, and can be found as deep strands running and twining through our history: the genocide against the Indians, the "lynching era" and the Ku Klux Klan, the internment of Japanese Americans, the continuing shameful legacy of hate crimes in modern America.

Eliminationism all began, of course, long before there was even an America. But the roots of America's history are bathed in the blood of an eliminationist impulse imported from Europe -- and we have never quite outgrown that legacy.

Next: The Urge to Eliminate

Monday, December 04, 2006

The other kind of terror

Lambert at Corrente points out that the L.A. Times buried its story on Chad Castagana's indictment for sending anthrax hoax letters. Still, the report has plenty of noteworthy details:
A federal grand jury indicted a Woodland Hills man Friday on charges of sending threatening letters with white powder to half a dozen politicians and celebrities, including incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and television personalities Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann.

The 14-count indictment accuses Chad Conrad Castagana, 39, of sending the letters from Sept. 7 through Nov. 9 to those three as well as Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, comedian and late-night talk show host David Letterman and Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone. The powder turned out to be harmless.

Especially noteworthy was the motive:
... "It appears the individuals were targeted based on what he described as their liberal politics," Assistant U.S. Atty. Donald Gaffney said Friday after the indictment was returned.

"He described himself as a compulsive voter who voted conservatively or Republican and he did not like the politics of these individuals."

The powder in the envelopes, Gaffney said, turned out to be laundry detergent, household cleansers or other products commonly found in the home.

"We have had a number of cases where we have had these hoaxes, whether it was sending fake anthrax in the mail or making a fake bomb threat to a plane," Gaffney said. "These hoaxes consume an enormous amount of investigative time and energy so we take them very seriously, especially when you are talking about a [threatened] chemical or a biological weapon."

Perhaps the inclination to ignore this case, and many others like it involving non-Muslim terrorists, in the media is a product of the kind of pathetic quality of the actual threat. In this case, Castagana sent laundry detergent. Maybe they just see this as a "prank" on steroids or something.

Maybe the editors of the L.A. Times and the producers at various broadcast networks who have so far dismissed this story and relegated it to their black news holes missed the part about the extraordinary amount of law-enforcement manpower these kinds of "pranks" entail.

Maybe they missed the fact that these kinds of incidents are in fact a serious kind of domestic terrorism.

Maybe understanding that this kind of domestic terrorism is part of a piggybacked chain going back directly to Sept. 11 -- maybe that just went over their heads. We'll be generous for now.

What obviously hasn't occurred to the leaders of our national discourse ensconced in prominent newsrooms is the possibility that a half-baked understanding of terrorism in fact leaves us more vulnerable to it. That their perpetuation of the public's ignorance about the broad-ranging, asymmetrical nature of terrorism -- embodied in the blinkered coverage of terrorism that elevates Muslim clerics' removal from an airliner to headline status, while relegating an actual plot to blow up Congress to the nether world of the non-story -- creates a blind spot we cannot afford.

From what we've gathered in the news reports regarding Castagana, he is only the tip of the right-wing iceberg when it comes to these anthrax-hoax letters. As I noted previously, similar hoaxes have been sent to Air America and Bill Clinton -- the latter being especially a matter of concern, since he is a former president.

Yet neither of them has yet been linked to Castagana. Either he was a phenomenally busy terrorist, or there are more people just like him out there, mailing threats to the same new set of victims.

If so, there will be more of these cases. Perhaps then the media will start taking out those blind spots. But I'm not holding my breath.

A letter to the L.A. Times

Just sent the following letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times:
To the editors:

Michael McGough's op-ed on hate crimes ("There's little to like about hate-crimes laws," Dec. 3) is so laden with misconceptions and distortions that it really begs a response.

First, McGough seems to believe that prosecutorial misconduct is the fault of the laws that are abused. After all, it is possible to find all kinds of cases involving the kind of selective prosecution that he insists occur with hate-crimes laws (McGough notably fails to provide any statistical support for this claim). These involve all kinds of criminal laws, ranging from murder and assault to simple theft; surely McGough is not suggesting that we revoke those laws as well, simply because prosecutors abuse them? The problem he's decrying here is a systemic one, and not the product of the laws themselves -- except to the extent that people in law enforcement misunderstand them.

It seems evident that McGough misunderstands them as well; the only muddling between "bad acts and bad thoughts" that occurs in the case of bias-crime laws is that indulged by McGough. The reality is that the perpetrator's mental state -- known in the law as mens rea -- has always been a consideration of criminal law. It is the difference, for instance, between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Both intent and motive are, and always have been, considerations of the law, particularly when it comes to sentencing. And that's what bias-crime laws are: sentence-enhancement laws. They do not create new crimes; rather, they stiffen the terms for acts that are already crimes, committed in this case with a bias motive.

McGough concludes: "If their overarching purpose is to affirm the equality of all people, then the law should punish all assaults the same, regardless of the race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability or veteran status of the victim. The 'protected class' should be human beings." Well, as it happens, this latter is precisely how the laws work: they are intended to protect everyone equally from these kinds of crimes. Everyone, after all, has religious beliefs of one kind or another; we all have a race, a gender, an ethnicity, a sexual orientation. A quick look at the FBI's annual bias-crime statistics bears this out; anti-white bias crimes are the second-largest category of racial crimes, and anti-Christian crimes constitute the second-largest in the religion category. If the laws were written as McGough suggests, they couldn't possibly pass the Constitution's equal-protection muster; yet these laws have.

Bias-crime laws intend to protect us all from being subjected to criminal acts simply because of who we are as human beings, and they intend to protect our communities from threats and intimidation of the kind these crimes are about. Treating a gay-bashing as just another assault, or a swastika on a synagogue as just a vandalism, obscures this larger reality about hate crimes: they are "message" crimes, intended to threaten and intimidate whole blocs of the community, whose harm extends well beyond just the immediate victims and includes the larger community within which they occur. They are, after all, profoundly anti-democratic, their purpose being to exclude and oppress.

Mushy-headed libertarians and liberals (not to mention conservatives) who see bias-crime laws as creating "thought crimes" -- a concern for which, in over two decades of having these laws on the books, there is scant evidence -- seem to be wringing their hands over a rather abstract notion of freedom, while losing sight of the hard reality that bias-crime laws are about protecting the freedoms of millions of Americans. Maybe that's because these critics see the only threat to our freedoms as emanating from government. But over the history of our country, there have been notable examples in which people's freedoms were taken away by the acts of their fellow citizens -- the "lynching era" of 1880-1930 being the most prominent. Today's bias-crime laws are the direct descendants of the anti-lynching laws that were never passed at the height of this era, based largely on arguments similar to McGough's -- a failure for which the Senate recently apologized.

The legacy of lynching remains with us today in the form of hate crimes -- whose purpose, once again, is to oppress and eliminate targeted minorities. Hate crimes have the fully intended effect of driving away and deterring the presence of any kind of hated minority -- racial, religious, or sexual. They are essentially acts of terrorism directed at entire communities of people, and they are message crimes: "Keep out." And they damage both the fabric of our communities and the democratic underpinnings of a free society. Most of all, they create what Yale's Donald Green calls "a massive dead-weight loss of freedom" for all Americans, particularly minorities.

Bias-crime laws aren't merely about "affirming the equality of all people": they're about preserving very real, basic freedoms -- freedom of association, freedom of travel, the freedom to live where we choose, and most of all the freedom from fear -- for every American. The only "freedom" upon which they impinge is that of violent yahoos to threaten and intimidate and take away the freedom of others. Is that the kind of freedom Michael McGough wishes to protect?

David Neiwert

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Falling down on hate crimes

When the FBI released its hate-crime statistics for 2005 earlier this year, many of us who track hate crimes were a little surprised at the results: the total number of hate crimes reported to the FBI had decreased for the first time in several years.

That was anomalous with what many of us saw at least anecdotally, with an increased number of bias-motivated crimes cropping up in a number of quarters. The most notable change was the increasing violence targeting Latinos amid an acrimonious and racially charged immigration debate.

This doesn't necessarily mean the total numbers of hate crimes will be increasing; oftentimes, the people capable of committing such crimes simply shift their targets, depending largely on demographic shifts and the xenophobia du jour. In fact, as I noted earlier, we saw exactly that phenomenon in California, where the total number of hate crimes declined 4.5 percent last year but hate crimes against Hispanics increased 6.5 percent.

Yet in this year's FBI report, anti-Hispanic bias crimes were reported as having actually declined in pure numbers, and held steady as a percentage of all hate crimes.

Well, it turns out that the 2005 statistics showed a decrease in hate crimes for a much simpler reason: Fewer law enforcement officials were even bothering to report them. had the details a couple of weeks ago:
FBI Hate Crime Statistics for 2005 Called Incomplete

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) recently released "Hate Crime Statistics, 2005" shows a decrease in the total number of hate crimes in the United States.

However, those same statistics also reveal that some of the largest cities in America failed to report their hate crimes, prompting many civil rights groups to call the statistics "incomplete."

A hate crime is defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as acts of violence motivated by race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin. According to the FBI report, 7,163 incidents of hate crimes were reported in 2005, down from 7,649 in 2004.

However, with no data on hate crimes from New York City and Phoenix -- two of the Top 10 largest cities in the U.S. -- civil rights groups have said the data is incomplete. "The fact that New York City and Phoenix did not report hate crime data to the FBI ... marks a setback to the progress the Bureau has made in the program," said Deborah M. Lauter, director of civil rights at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Louisville, the 26th largest city in the United States, also failed to report any hate crimes.

There is also concern that there were no reports of hate crime in two states and fewer than 10 hate crimes reported in four others, perhaps by virtue of the voluntary nature of the reporting. Neither Mississippi or Alabama reported any hate crimes for 2005, Hawaii did not participate at all, Wyoming reported 3, Alaska reported 4, and South Dakota reported 9.

In 2004, New York City reported 97 hate crimes; Phoenix reported 100. If either city had real numbers of hate crimes similar to those in 2005, then that's nearly 200 unreported hate crimes from those two cities alone.

These problems underscore a larger and persistent problem with the FBI's hate-crime reportage system: it simply is not working well, largely because of the failure of many law-enforcement officials to participate, compounded by a disinclination to either investigate or prosecute many clear-cut hate crimes. What's particularly likely to happen is for hate crimes against Latino immigrants to go completely unreported even to police in the first place.

The cumulative effect is that the FBI's numbers probably reflect only about one-fifth of all the nation's hate crimes. And when major cities fall out of the reportage, those numbers decline even farther.

I explored this in some detail a while back, citing from my book Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America:
Initiated in 1990 with the passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, the project [for collecting hate-crime statistics] under the care of the FBI was largely understood in its early years to be nascent and problematic at the outset, for a variety of reasons: many law-enforcement agencies were slow to participate; the initial numbers of hate crimes were likely to be skewed by the sharp increase certain to result from increased awareness of the crimes; and uncertainty and confusion reigned regarding the need to report and how to do it. It was hoped that, given enough time, the reporting system's flaws would self-correct and begin providing a clearer picture of the phenomenon. That was largely what happened. As already noted, by 1996 the wild fluctuations in numbers that occurred early on had largely disappeared, and the statistics began indicating a fairly stable phenomenon indicating about 8,000 bias crimes reported annually, and largely stable percentages of the kinds of the different kinds of hate crimes.

However, what closer examination -- particularly the Department of Justice study [titled "Improving the Quality and Accuracy of Hate Crime Reporting, conducted by the Justice Research and Statistics Association released and coauthored by Northeastern University's Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research] -- revealed was a reporting system that was deeply flawed, with statistics distorted by widespread failures to report the crimes and moreover, confusion about the differences between the absence of a report and the active reporting of zero hate crimes. The DOJ study, which surveyed 2,657 law-enforcement agencies, reported a "major information gap" in the data: It estimated that some 37 percent of the agencies that did not submit reports nevertheless had at least one hate crime. Worse yet, roughly 31 percent of the agencies that reported zero hate crimes did, in fact, have at least one; about 6,000 law-enforcement agencies (or one-third of the total of participants) likely dealt with at least one unreported bias crime. All told, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that the total number of hate crimes committed annually in America is closer to 50,000 than the 8,000 found in statistics.

"The overall numbers are worthless," says hate-crime expert Donald P. Green, a Yale University professor whose work includes debunking the notion that tough economic times increase the likelihood of hate crimes. Green says that bias crimes are especially likely to arise when minorities, for a variety of economic reasons, begin moving into communities that were previously homogeneous (that is, for the most part, predominantly white, such as the Midwestern communities that are currently experiencing a large influx of Hispanics); or when previously oppressed minorities, such as homosexuals, begin asserting themselves in public fashion.

And as I described later in the book, the underreportage problem becomes acute with people who have reasons not to go to police, including gay men. This occurs on a massive scale in Latino and other immigrant communities, where even legal immigrants are reluctant to contact police out of fear of being deported:
Of all the factors that cause law-enforcement officers to fail to identify and investigate bias crimes, the most significant, the DOJ study's authors found, was the gap between the victims and the police. The less trust that exists between minorities and their local law enforcement, the greater the likelihood that hate crimes will go unresolved.

The Filipino family that encountered Chris Kinison and his friends in Ocean Shores was a textbook example of how hate crimes can go unresolved this way. Many of the victims spoke poor English and had difficulty communicating with the police officers who came to their rescue; even though some of them later reported that they had wanted to pursue harassment charges against the men, the officers either failed or refused to register this. And the officers, little trained in dealing with hate crimes, clearly did not recognize that they had come upon the scene of a felony, which in most other such cases would require a careful and serious investigation and specialized handling of the victims.

By seeming eager to simply break up the potential violence and send everyone on their respective ways -- and particularly by escorting the family to the town's borders -- the officers communicated to the victims the message that the harassment they had endured was insignificant. This in turn feeds the distrust that any outsider (particularly a minority) in a strange town is likely to feel.

Moreover, the incident vividly illustrates that the problem of letting hate crimes go unresolved extends well beyond the mere statistical issues, and that the stakes can be very high indeed, especially for small towns. The result, as it was in Ocean Shores, was that these crimes can escalate from simple harassment to outright violence. Perpetrators, as some studies have observed, see their escape from the arm of the law almost as an invitation to step things up.

Other studies have likewise observed that the most common cause of this cascade of crime is the failure of police to proactively bridge the gap between themselves and the victims. The JRSA's Joan Weiss, in earlier research, found that the reluctance of victims to report crimes was significantly higher for hate crimes than for other crimes. The DOJ study reiterates this point: "For a multitude of reasons, hate crime victims are a population that is leery of reporting crimes -- bias or otherwise -- to law enforcement agencies."

Most hate-crime victims are minorities in the communities where the crimes occur. In many cases, they have poor English skills and have difficulty asking for assistance; in others, they may simply be unaware that what has happened to them is a serious crime. This is particularly true for immigrants, who may be reluctant to even contact police because of their experience with law enforcement in their homelands, where corruption and indifference to such crimes are not uncommon. Likewise, hate-crime victims may be confused about or unaware of the bias motivation involved, interpreting a threat or assault as a random act when other evidence suggests it was not. At other times, they may be reluctant to tell police about the bias aspects of the acts against them, fearing the police won't believe them or that they simply won't do anything about it anyway. And in the case of gays and lesbians, many are reluctant to report the crimes out of fear they will be forced to reveal their own identities as homosexuals; many more fear (sometimes with good reason) that they will wind up being humiliated and victimized further by police.

Likewise, many minorities in certain communities -- blacks in the South or Hispanics in the Southwest, for example -- have long histories of built-up distrust of law enforcement in their communities, and may simply refuse to participate in an investigation without proactive efforts on the part of police to bridge that gap. Indeed, this level of involvement was almost unanimously the chief factor reported by advocacy groups when queried by the authors of the DOJ study about what most affected hate-crime victims' decision to call or cooperate with police.

The causes of the increasing failure of the FBI to obtain the necessary data, as was clearly the case this year, lie both with the FBI -- which has not prioritized improving its hate-crime reportage -- and with local law enforcement, who increasingly are either resistant to participating in the program or have become so lax about it that they don't bother.

This laxity is reflective of a larger softening of public attitudes about hate crimes, particularly among libertarians and some liberals, including on the political front. There seems to be little appreciation for the reality that hate-crimes laws are about protecting people's freedoms, not taking them away -- unless you consider depriving other people of their freedoms a form of protectable freedom itself.

This shift in attitudes is reflected at all levels of the law-enforcement system, from police investigators who dismiss them as "political correctness," to prosecutors who choose not to bring hate-crimes charges in fairly clear-cut cases for extraordinarily weak reasons, to judges who dismiss charges against perpetrators by declaring that "boys will be boys".

Bias crimes have managed to slip off the national radar. Too bad it probably will take some horrifically gruesome murder to bring them back.